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Bloodshade of the Goddess

 

BLOODSHADE
OF THE
GODDESS

A Novel

Melissa Stacy

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © January 2017 by Melissa Stacy

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, copied, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

Published in the United States by Melissa Stacy.

Cover design by Beth McMacken, Athena Communications.

Ebook design by 52 Novels.

Shakespir Edition

To my friend,
April Duclos

Book Goddess, Reading Angel

Lover of lilacs, and hope in the darkness
Keeper of all the beautiful things

This book is for you.

CONTENTS

Title Page
Copyright
Dedication

BLOODSHADE OF THE GODDESS

Acknowledgments
About the Author

1

The mountain wind cut through my jacket, my flimsy dress, even my strong leather boots, a bitter gale that burned my face and tortured my bare hands as I followed the piercing scream of the warlock. Like diamond claws tearing steel, a screech high and explosive, the noise warned me back, threatened me with agony and death. But I climbed the frozen rock with new speed, closing in. Clouds whipped across the night sky, high and thin as the air.

In a perfect world, my long raven hair would be bound in a braid, not blowing around in loose mayhem, and I’d be dressed for a mission.

The Ephraim wore sleek tunics and pants, low-slung belts for their weapons, heavy coats and matching gloves for cold weather. A beautiful uniform of rich sable, the same color those magicians had worn for hundreds of years. Associates of the Ephraim—like me—were issued similar clothing, with our names printed inside the tunics, golden thread sewn into black alpaca wool. Eloise Fatimah Assad. The name woven in mine.

In Arabic, the name Asʻad meant happiest, luckiest. Which seemed to be one of the great cosmic jokes of my life. No one would ever make the mistake of calling me lucky. Happy people had souls. Lucky people had families. I had a uniform, and worked for my sworn enemies: the magicians who staked the undead. Irony was the name of this game.

I was supposed to be meeting with a climate change refugee agent right now. In town. Not tracking a warlock of the True God through the mountains. The rest of my team had been waylaid in the canyon, fighting the warlock’s ghouls: monsters the size of Kodiak bears that resembled hyenas, swarmed in packs, crushed human femurs like glass in their powerful jaws. Even armed with gold-infused blades, and bullets laced with gold filament, ghouls were difficult to kill. Facing twenty at once was a nightmare.

The warlock hadn’t been in southwest Colorado that long, not even a year, but he’d built a fortress of steel ten miles south of town, a network of tunnels in a dry mesa top. He had all the equipment a terrorist needed to recruit people online, rapidly increase the size and strength of his cult, and he’d prepared for a fight. Even though the Ephraim had routed him here, away from his base in the desert and into the high peaks north of town, he’d escaped with contingency plans. Rituals could be performed on a mountainside as easily as a plain full of sagebrush, and the warlock was ready to kill. I didn’t even have stealth on my side, since he knew I was there, somewhere in the shadows beneath him.

He didn’t know what I was though. Strong as he was, I had the power to block him, and he couldn’t sense me correctly. With seventy feet left between us, he still assumed I was human. My single advantage.

“The True God sees all!” the warlock bellowed, surrounded by his coven of witches. “You have lost the path of the righteous! I offer salvation, and the light!”

As if screaming would ward me away. I had no problem with warlocks who followed the laws of element magic, or with anyone who worshipped the True God. But when worship or magic involved torture and murder, I found myself tracking killers, people using magic to harm. This man deserved to have his neck snapped, the gift of unlife he’d already shared with so many others, innocent women and children whose blood fed the power he used. He’d sacrificed doubters from within his own cult, and tonight he’d kidnapped a refugee boy. That was how I had found him, in pursuit of the child he had taken, and why I’d left my team in order to hunt him. Julian and his soldiers could slaughter the ghouls. I had a warlock to kill.

Sixty feet, fifty, forty feet left between us. I climbed with precision, sighting my target. He wore blue and gold robes, and a sapphire cloak lined with white rabbit fur. The hood framed the emerald glow of his eyes.

An electric blue pulse lit the canyon, illuminating the cliff sides around us, and the forest of pine heaped with snow. Three hundred feet straight below, in the black center of Ice Lake, wraiths surged to life. The phantoms twined and flashed in streaks from the water, toward the warlock’s sharp wails. Shapeshifting demons called by the power he cast from his hands. These wraiths looked like silver eels, with the heads of barracudas, though they had far more teeth than any natural fish. The warlock had finished his spell, and his demons were hungry, ready for their master to feed them.

The small child at his feet no longer moved, no longer cried for his mother. Shock had set in, a numb horror at the sight of the wraiths. The warlock picked up the boy, dangled him over the cliff, and the twelve witches flanking him shrieked. The women were all dressed the same, in dark cloaks lined with fur, velvet gowns and black boots, with an assortment of necklaces, bracelets, and rings decorating their pale skin. Twelve mavens of the True God, skilled in the Arts of Divine Light, their caterwauls increased the magician’s fierce power, so much that white sparks overtook the pulse he had summoned, crackling and hissing with a force close to thunder.

“The earth cries for justice!” the warlock howled. “The world must vanquish the damned!”

Only thirty feet left between us, but I didn’t clear the distance in time. The magician hurled the boy off the mountain, and the child screamed as he fell.

I hadn’t expected the warlock to summon a lake full of wraiths, or fling his prize to them without taking some of the boy’s blood for himself. Warlocks normally drew a mouthful of blood before a ritual sacrifice, but this one had skipped that crucial step, and now I was in trouble.

Flight wasn’t one of my gifts. Summoning air was a struggle, even close to the ground. I could barely manage a hover. A rescue mission like this wasn’t part of my skill set, was well beyond anything I could accomplish. But I had other instincts, a heart that couldn’t be overrun by my logic, and in the instant I had to choose between the warlock and the boy, I leapt.

I jumped into the path of his fall, locked my arms round the boy’s waist with an ungraceful collision, and we plummeted toward the lake.

Panic lit through my blood as I summoned the wind, pulled the element toward me with terror, but the air wouldn’t conjure and hold me. The warlock gave a death screech, shooting bolts of green fire as I spun and careened with the child, desperate to avoid hitting the lake.

The wraiths vaulted for the boy, smooth as dragons, slicing and snapping with their long bladed teeth. One caught the child’s pant leg, almost ripped him from my arms.

Then the rushing air shuddered, took hold of me and the child, and we veered far off course, away from the lake, spiraling in violent disorder. The child remained in my grasp, but still our fall didn’t slow. As the jagged rocks of the canyon sped toward me, an image of the boy’s shattered skull made me scream.

I pushed him away, sent him skyward, so the element could lift his small body. If I couldn’t summon enough wind to catch both of us, then I had to hope I might survive a fall from that height.

Hovering power streamed in a burst toward the child, a warm zephyr, a butterscotch breeze sweet as spring sunshine.

The wind caught the boy, drew him into the fold, like catching a tiny bird in the palm of a hand. Then I hit ground and shattered, smashed over the rocks.

Awareness flickered through in a haze. My head had split open, my spine had fractured like crushed pearl, my bones broken in more places than I wanted to think about.

The warlock could smite me as I lay there, unable to move. Or he could power the wraiths to slither out of the lake, flash along the ground like white vipers, and devour me.

My vision went dark, a tunnel of pain. I tried chanting, tried asking the earth to open and swallow me, but my tongue flopped and gushed blood, the muscle half bitten off, and what remained scraped against slivers of bone. I’d broken my teeth in the fall. My summoning couldn’t be voiced.

So I recited the call in my mind.

Mother of death, spirit of night,

Open a grave, save me to fight.

The Dark Goddess heard. The rocks parted beneath me, a gaping tear like a wound, and my body rolled into the mountain with the soft snick of blades.

The boy floated away through the trees, borne along by the wind I had called, while the earth stitched above me, closed me in darkness.

Cold reached into my heart, the caress of the Goddess, and I whimpered and cried, frightened as always by her grip. She pulled me into her silence, toward the cavern of sleep. Embraced in a landscape of terror and ice, fire and dread, her arctic breath filled my lungs, flared through my limbs with the lightning heat of core stone. I lost hold of my fear, closed my eyes, and nestled into her grace, bound in the safety of her black, frigid womb.

My blood sang as she clutched me with the bite of her talons, a mother’s kiss for her soulless undead.

2

Humans speculated at length about what happened inside a summoning grave. Mystical travels through time and space. Transformation, human possession, star journeys. There were libraries of tomes on the subject. None written by monsters.

Whether the undead transformed, possessed humans, or completed fantastical journeys after they entered a grave, I couldn’t say. Those things had never happened to me. Inside the earth, I slept. My heart stopped, my lungs stilled. My body became a true corpse, held in death. Sometimes, I dreamed. But rare were the moments when I resumed breathing to dream.

When I escaped to the earth, hoping to heal from my injuries, the Dark Goddess could hold me as long as she chose. Like any force of nature, she was gracious and cruel, malicious and loving, capable of great acts of compassion, and equally fierce acts of destruction. Humans called her evil.

I’d felt that way once. Before I was born to her.

The Dark Goddess made monsters, vicious beasts. That was true.

And her children didn’t have souls. Also true.

But she did gift her creations with divinity, a dark spirit imbued with her power. Not a soul bound for Heaven, but still an immortal energy. A shining piece of the Dark Mother herself. She was an earth goddess, but also part of the universe, the stars and quiet space that surrounded all life.

Tonight, the Goddess chose not to keep me too long. Nor did she heal me as I slept. The Mother of Night simply loosened her grip and allowed me to wake, still buried in rock.

I opened my eyes to the sound of pixie feet stomping over my grave, a tiny patter like I’d pissed off a mole. Vix was no cuddly little creature, though she did have a high, soft voice like a toddler’s, and as she slammed her bare feet on my grave, she yelled at me. Her shouts were as threatening as a hummingbird warble, given the wee size of her lungs.

“I know you can hear me! Get up, Eloise! Or I will pick up a dagger and poke you twenty times, hard enough to feel like a bee sting! No, worse than that—like a wasp!

Vix was too tiny to wield a dagger. She was only five inches tall, about the same height as a pack of playing cards, and she never touched blades. Pixie skin burned against iron, and they lost control of their magic if they used human weapons. Most pixies avoided conflict as much as they could, and preferred to curl up in flowers and trees, pleasuring themselves, sleeping with mates, or having orgies. Humans, of course, called pixies depraved.

In an ideal world, Vix would have been in the forest, sleepy with lust and the cold spell of winter. But she was determined to spend her life harassing me instead.

Her real name was Vivienne Xavier Alexia Thistlewine. But to me, she was Vix, and she acted like a witch’s familiar, a demonic one, with a mind of her own.

“It’s only two in the morning!” Vix cried. “You need to cast over the portal, before the power goes cold! Eloise, wake up or I will stab you!”

Regardless of her threats, I lay still, aware of how much movement would hurt, and preparing myself for the pain.

“I fell,” I said, the words muffled, since my teeth were still broken, my tongue severed. But Vix didn’t need perfect pronunciation to hear me.

“What do I care that you fell? That warlock is getting away! So you haul up right now, or I’ll pull off your eyelashes and feed them to slugs!”

Which was better than being stabbed. The refugee boy I’d tried to save from the wraiths must be okay for Vix to be saying such ridiculous things. And if the warlock had fled, his wraiths had returned to the lake, and were insensate element once again. No longer a threat.

“Where’s the team?” I asked.

“Chasing those witches!” Vix screeched. “The warlock sent them off to keep everyone away from his portal, and now you’re taking a nap while all hell breaks loose!”

I spilled out of my grave, and as soon as the air touched my skin, I felt all my broken bones and ripped muscles, torn tendons and ligaments, smashed organs and bruises.

My heart raced with agony, left me panting, gasping and feverish with the force of my misery. Then I started to heal. Jagged bones twisted into their proper position, ruptures and gashes pulled into place and began to knit back together, my pulverized teeth and sliced tongue reshaped and regrew in the bloody gore of my gums. Ten minutes of excruciating torment, while I lay there and rasped with each breath.

Vix waited until it was over, her face turned away, no longer glowing. Restorations frightened Vix, made her see me as mortal and weak. Capable of being destroyed.

When I had the strength to sit up, I straightened my jacket and sighed with relief. Minus the damage done to my clothes, I didn’t need a mirror to know my body was perfect again—clean brown skin, black hair combed, not even a chip in one of my nails—and the blood and dirt on my clothing had come from my fall, not the grave.

On TV, the undead were portrayed as hideous people, pale-skinned and cadaverous, walking corpses forced to use glamour to blend in with society. But there was money to be made in such lies, and that dark spirit myth was a lucrative one. The truth was, except for the ice blue color of my eyes, I had the same features I’d possessed as a human, from the slender curve of my cheekbones to the full shape of my lips. I would look nineteen forever, the age I had been when I died.

Less than two years had passed since I was born to the Goddess and joined the Ephraim, but sometimes I barely remembered I’d once been as distant from magic as most humans. Taking my associate’s oath had been like signing up as a police officer, with all the possible trauma that came along with the job.

As I refastened a boot buckle, Vix hurried toward me, and a soft golden glow returned to her skin and butterfly wings. She had white and emerald wings, colored like the scales of a dragon, a pattern unique among pixies. Her wings chimed like glass as she pulled herself onto my knee, then scampered up my arm to my shoulder. Though Vix sometimes behaved like a child, like right now, climbing on me like a goon, Vix was no child. She had a voluptuous body clad in a jungle bikini, a tattered-looking outfit made with glittering fae cloth, like Tarzan in drag. With long seafoam green hair, and deep blue eyes with pale lashes, Vix looked part angel, part mermaid, as she tilted her head and studied my face.

“Ready?” she asked.

I rose, unsteady, and hobbled toward the base of the cliff. The same mountainside I’d scaled before, only I was further down the canyon this time, about a hundred feet from the lake. The icy wind made my teeth chatter as I limped along. Rather than climb straight up the rock, I found an old burro path, a steep set of switchbacks lining the mountain, and pushed my feet through the snow.

Vix remained on my shoulder, and sometimes she jingled her wings, upset we weren’t moving faster. She didn’t criticize me aloud, but her chimes held disappointment.

The fact she didn’t offer to teleport us meant she was too exhausted for such a difficult spell. I could’ve complained about that, but I gave a light hiss instead, and Vix left off making noise.

“You checked on the boy?” I asked.

“Yes, he’s fine. Fast asleep. Your zephyr held remarkably well.”

“I’m amazed.”

“For the worst summoner ever born to the Goddess, you do manage nice power sometimes.”

“He was still floating, when you found him?”

Vix clapped her wings brightly, in a way that meant she was pleased. “Caught in the branches of a tall Douglas fir. I tethered him with a vanishing, and made sure he’d stay warm.”

“Did you help with the ghouls?”

Vix huffed. “Until the witches arrived. Then I came to find you.”

“How far did the warlock run before he summoned a portal?”

Vix gestured with her chin. “Top of the mountain. There’s an alcove not far from a mine.”

“You’re sure that he’s gone? Not still lurking somewhere?”

“No. I thought I’d lure you into a trap. You’ll see his bright beady eyes right before he spells you to death.”

She didn’t share any details about the fight with the ghouls, or where the witches had gone, which meant someone on the team might have died.

Not Julian though. Vix would’ve told me right away, if he’d been injured or killed.

“You should help with the witches,” I said. “I can manage a cast on my own.”

“No,” she said quickly, and shivered. “I’m staying with you.”

“It’s a portal, Vix, not a—”

She cut me off, her voice low and anxious. “There’s something evil out here. Something a lot worse than a warlock.”

“Like what?”

“One of you.”

Which made my heart skip a beat with alarm, though I didn’t stop moving.

Vix stood on tiptoe, peering up at the mountain. “Don’t you feel him?”

“Too weak.” My senses wouldn’t return to full force until I fed. I needed blood, at least a gallon of blood, before I had anywhere near my regular strength.

Vix jingled her wings in dismay. “Well, someone is here. Watching us, maybe. I don’t know.”

“Damn it.” I stuffed my fists in my pockets, made an effort to pick up the pace. The wind snapped my dress like a flag. My tights were ripped, as well as my jacket, and my skin felt sliced raw by the cold. Fifteen minutes passed as I ascended the mountain, rising hundreds of feet along a barren rock face.

Then Vix jumped in fright, clutching my collar as she whispered, “Eloise! He’s coming!

I broke into a run, left the switchbacks, and aimed for a thick copse of aspen, the last grove of trees before timberline. My boots dug into the scree, sent rocks raining into the canyon, and the clattering noise ricocheted through the chasm.

Faster!” Vix screeched. “Run faster!

I sprinted, lost my footing, almost fell off the cliff, before I reached the trees, raced past the aspen, and plunged into a deeper cover of pine. Vix drew strength from trees, and now that we stood beneath her source energy, she could vanish us both, drawing on the life force of evergreens to make us disappear. She cast an invisible shield, a pixie barrier that screened us from the senses of monsters. We had a measure of safety now, but I didn’t relax.

I circled the narrow outcropping, returned to the edge of the pine, and knelt, hoping whoever was tracking me might give up and turn back. Decide I wasn’t worth the trouble of hunting.

And if I’d been lucky, maybe that would have happened.

The air charged with power, and energy thrummed deep inside me, reacting to the force of another vampire’s current. My dry well of fortune wasn’t about to fill now.

3

The vampire moved without noise, so fast I didn’t see him enter the trees, didn’t realize how close he stood until he was almost upon me. A tall, cloaked shadow with the speed of a quicksilver: the strongest and fastest of vampires. A monster far more frightening than a wraith or a ghoul. His power curled through the night, thicker than smoke, searching for me. Tendrils of energy slid along the edge of the vanishing, pulsing with strength, with the force of his age. The barrier held, a perfect blend in the darkness, though Vix grabbed my neck with her arms, trembling, pixie wings silent.

The vampire spoke with a voice low and deep, a smooth poison. “Little girl.” He glided beneath the trees, slipping between branches with casual motion, a lazy shark scenting prey. “You know you can’t hide from me, child.”

I couldn’t run from him, either. While I could certainly move inhumanly fast, my talent didn’t give me a quicksilver’s superspeed, especially not the swiftness of a vampire this old. Centuries coursed through his body, years that had strengthened his dark spirit to an astonishing level. This quicksilver had abilities beyond anything I’d ever encountered.

Even so. My twenty-first birthday was next week, and though my hands felt frozen and clumsy, I still removed the knife from my left boot, gripped the handle and took a deep breath, determined to live long enough to make a wish.

The ancient quicksilver chuckled, a rich sound of mirth. He sensed the drawn weapon, even if he hadn’t found me. “You have a bit of gold in that blade?” His head turned a fraction, shifting the heavy folds of the hood of his cloak. “Think you can stop me with a fire knife?”

A sneer tinged his voice as he said the word fire. In the language of the Ephraim, fire weapons were those blessed by Source energy, which some people called God.

This God had nothing to do with the twisted beliefs of the warlock, who worshipped the True God, and practiced the Arts of Divine Light.

The Ephraim weren’t a cult, and they didn’t use their power to summon creatures to hurt people. Ritual sacrifice, torture, and blood rites had nothing to do with their strength. The Ephraim were Source mages, Protectors of Peace, human warriors who fought anyone who used magic for destruction and murder.

The mages employed other kinds of magicians, male and female witches who didn’t use Source energy to power their spells. Those assistants were given the title of associate witch, and associates helped the Ephraim save lives and fight monsters. While any associate witch could choose to advance to the level of mage, the training was tremendously difficult, and most people never attempted to learn how to conjure with Source power.

Regardless of whether a witch advanced to the level of mage or not, anyone who worked for the Ephraim wore a uniform while on duty, and Source mages hardly ever dressed in anything else.

As a vampire, I belonged to the monsters. But as an associate witch, I belonged to the Ephraim. Either way, a dark spirit like this quicksilver made the most formidable enemy. Even a Source mage could be killed by a vampire this strong.

A cut from a gold-infused fire weapon would be fatal to me, but not to a dark spirit this old. My dagger would make him sick. Slow him down. Take some of the force from his strength, until his wound healed.

But if I wanted to kill him, I needed a fire sword to cut off his head, and a gilded ash stake to plunge through his heart. Then I’d have to dismember him, and leave him out in the sun. Make sure he couldn’t enter a grave and survive.

None of which was likely to happen.

Humans hunted me for my blood, for the power a dark spirit’s life force gave to their bodies, and another vampire could drain me for the same reason. This quicksilver wouldn’t have tracked me for anything else, and he was strong enough to feed until I was dead.

His head swiveled toward me, he stopped hovering and settled onto the ground, and the vanishing barrier faltered, cracked and splintered apart by his might. Vix’s magic disappeared, left us exposed, and I felt the quicksilver’s gaze like hot oil on my skin.

Vix fluttered her wings without making a sound, her fingers digging into my skin with terror.

Go, I wanted to say. Fly.

But telling Vix to leave wasn’t necessary—she could dart away when the vampire charged—and I needed all my concentration on the pending attack.

I waited for him to rush me. Planned to sink my dagger in his face when he did. Into one of his eyes.

But he remained as he was, a shadow before me. His power surged through the air, and made it harder to breathe.

“Such a baby you are,” he said softly, with that deep silky voice. “Huddled on the ground with your knife.”

I bared my fangs and hissed, prepared to roll when he hit me, dig my teeth in his neck. Buy myself time. Live another few minutes. Figure out a new plan.

The vampire reached up to his hood, drew the fabric away, and let the material fall down his back. His olive skin appeared deep grey in the darkness, though I saw him clearly enough in the night. All vampires could see in the dark, and sense magic with our skin as well as our sight. The ancient stood without speaking, like he enjoyed being seen, studied by the prey he planned to devour.

His face held perfect symmetry, a composition that invited my awe. From the artful sweep of his brows and the strong shape of his nose, to the light shade of his eyes and the fine cut of his cheeks. He wore his black hair short, combed and smoothed into place, glossy and thick enough to gleam in the starlight. A dusting of dark hair lined the edge of his jaw, his top lip, and he’d shaped a delicate flare at the top of his chin, which faded to a soft line of down.

He wore tiny silver hoop earrings that gave a faint twinkle, and he seemed too ethereal for a monster, too pretty to ever be real.

The vampire smiled with a handsome man’s crafted grin, and swept the front of his cloak to the side.

I tensed, ready to fight when he lunged, but the quicksilver only widened his smile. “Look what I found in the woods,” he said with delight, and I let my gaze fall, to see what he held.

The little refugee boy I had saved. Lifeless and still.

4

I screamed and attacked, slashed the vampire with my knife and tore open his neck. An injury that meant nothing to him, but I still grabbed for the boy.

The quicksilver knocked me onto my knees, while Vix dove for the wound I’d inflicted, screeching a spell. A bolt of white-gold shot from her hands, a curse bright as lightning, and ripped the gash in his throat three times wider. The vampire flicked his wrist in a wave, as if batting away a mosquito, and sent Vix spinning into the darkness, blown aside with the force of a gale.

I leapt to my feet and drove my knife into the vampire’s chest, aiming for his heart. The blade sank to the hilt, and as he lashed out to strike, I kicked in his knee and bit into his arm. He wrenched free, punched my sternum, and my ribcage splintered, pulped like a sapling beaten in a storm. Blood spattered my face and soaked my dress, like all the strength I had left in my body poured out in a gush.

I collapsed. My vision went black, my ears took in no sound. Too weak and too stunned to feel anything.

By the time my senses returned, I lay on my back, staring up at the stars through a gap in the trees. The quicksilver loomed into view, healed of his wounds. Maybe a minute had passed. Maybe as many as ten. When I tried to take a full breath, he knelt beside me. No sign of Vix. Or the boy.

The vampire smiled, and his poisonous voice thickened with pleasure. “Were you saving him for dessert? After you fed on the warlock?”

Of course not. I never drank children’s blood. I attempted an answer, but my mouth was a cavern of sand, too dry to speak. A snarl rose in my throat, before I shut my eyes and felt dizzy, like I’d been spinning in circles and had to throw up.

That sensation of nausea was the unmistakable sign I couldn’t heal. I was in bad need of blood, or a grave, or some form of power.

The vampire petted my face, and stroked my cheek with his thumb. Letting me know he was some kind of sadist. A monster who enjoyed playing with his food.

His pale eyes glittered with starlight. “Did you tell your friends why you went after the warlock?” He stilled his thumb on my cheek. “Is that why they gave you one of their knives?”

I bared my teeth and hissed. Vampires didn’t befriend the Ephraim. Everyone knew that.

All dark spirits maintained their distance from anyone with the power to kill, whether monster or mage, and if that wasn’t possible, then any child of the Goddess took proper precaution, and hid their true nature from sight. Blended in as human. And that was my gift: obscuring my power. All vampires could glamour themselves, but my talent was special, as enhanced as the superspeed of this quicksilver.

Any vampire could bespell a mundane, an unmagical human. And I had no problem masking myself around common magicians, a more difficult level of glamour.

Only a bloodshade like me could hide from a vampire this old, or anyone who advanced to the highest strata of sorcery. And sometimes, I even screened myself from Source mages, visitors who came to see Julian and his team. Anyone I wasn’t sure I could trust. That was the true extent of my skill.

Except I must’ve made a mistake. Let down my guard and allowed this ancient to find me. An error that would cost me my life.

The quicksilver leaned closer. “I know you didn’t kill a mage for that dagger. A baby like you, against the Ephraim? Stealing a fire weapon?” The vampire tapped my nose with a fingertip. “Oh no, little girl. Someone gave you that knife. And a uniform.” Which I wasn’t even wearing right now, since I hadn’t had time to change before I’d gone after the boy.

I hissed again, trying once more to dismiss what he’d said, but there was no denying the truth. He knew I was an associate, a monster who worked for my enemies, and I’d never even seen him before. Had Julian? Or anyone else? Did the Ephraim know there was an ancient in town, a quicksilver who was most likely stalking their headquarters?

If this vampire had a reason to kill me for more than my blood—if he’d targeted me for the sole reason I was an associate—then what did he want with the Source mages here? Did he plan to wipe out the local base, create chaos—and then what? This quicksilver was far, far too old for any kind of trivial games. Whatever he was doing, tracking the Ephraim, couldn’t mean anything good.

My heart raced as I struggled to heal my smashed ribcage, conjure the energy to repair, but I lacked the power needed to mend. Slivers of bone wedged deeper into my heart muscle, my chest spasmed with pain, my lungs burned with each breath.

The vampire licked his teeth, sliding the tip of his tongue from one side of his mouth to the other. “I’ve never encountered a Source mage like yours… a magus who dresses a vampire in associate clothes. The Ephraim must be desperate if they need children to help them.” The quicksilver paused. “Or maybe you’re the one who was desperate.” He placed a hand on my knee. “Is that right, little girl? Did you beg him to spare you? The noble team leader of the magical saints… did he take pity on you? Stop himself from driving a stake through your heart? Is that why you put on the costume he gave you?” The vampire tugged at one of the holes in my tights, ripping the tear even larger. “But you left his little outfit back in your room tonight, didn’t you? Tucked away by your coffin. That’s all right. I prefer my meals wearing dresses.”

I tried rolling away from him, tried to summon a grave, but the vampire disconnected me from the earth with a swell of his power, so that I hovered out of reach from the ground. The violent pain in my chest, which grew so much worse when I moved, made me black out for a moment, and when I came to, the quicksilver chuckled.

“You can’t leave the party so soon,” and he traced a cold thumbnail along my bottom lip. “We haven’t started the game yet.”

The quicksilver extended his canines to their full wolfish length. While in the canyon, far away, I heard Julian’s voice. Yelling my name. Trying to find me.

The vampire turned his head toward the chasm, with the leonine grace only an ancient possessed. “Your white knight is calling for you. Eloise. Such a sweet name.” The quicksilver’s gaze returned to mine, and he trailed his fingertips down my throat. “The French form of Louise. Famous warrior. And here you are all alone in the woods, armed with one golden knife.” The vampire held up the dagger I’d put in his chest. The metal glistened, damp with snow, though his blood still coated the handle. “So tell me, little warrior. Are you praying for your knight to avenge you? After I feed on your corpse, are you hoping he’ll kill me? He’s been fighting witches and ghouls, his teammates have gone, one of them almost died… and now your knight’s all alone, just like you.”

The words froze my heart. Was Julian really searching for me by himself? About to fall prey to an ancient?

I tried to scream to warn Julian back, but blood foamed in my mouth. Some of my broken ribs must have punctured my lungs, and twisting around hadn’t helped. I coughed, took another breath, and prepared once more to scream, but the vampire grabbed my neck with one hand, squeezing so hard I felt my vertebrae popping under the strain. I latched onto his wrist with both hands, but couldn’t loosen his hold. With a slow, easy movement, the monster plucked my hands from his grip, almost crushing my fingers. His eyes lit with pleasure as he leaned over and licked the red froth from my lips.

The more I struggled, the more lightheaded and nauseous I felt, like I might faint again. So I closed my eyes and lay still, desperate for my head to clear. The vampire finished lapping the blood from my skin.

Had he already fed on the boy? Or was the child still alive, a waiting pawn for the game the ancient had planned? Had the boy been the lure to bring us all here?—or was he some kind of blood sacrifice, like the warlock had intended?

Somewhere in the gorge, Julian called, “Eloise!

The quicksilver’s eyes remained bright as he grinned with my blood on his teeth. “You’ve made a pact with the Devil, haven’t you? Your angel of God with his sword and his prayers. But he can’t make you a saint, Eloise. You’ll always be a monster to him.”

Of course I knew the Ephraim weren’t saints, or angels of God. Real angels were creatures of flame, a type of shapeshifter, able to manipulate their appearance to suit their own purposes.

Julian wasn’t flame. He was powerful, but a human body could never be as strong as an angel. The Ephraim channeled Source energy, power they learned to wield within the beyond, but the spells they cast were weapons of battle, not religion. I didn’t work for Julian because I had some foolish idea about becoming a saint, or finding my way into Heaven. I belonged to the Dark Goddess, the Mother of Night. There was no going back.

I tried to spit at the quicksilver, tried to wrench myself free, and the vampire stopped choking me. He pressed his palm to the blood-soaked front of my dress, into my smashed ribcage, and pushed down. Squished his hand into ruined muscle and bone.

I shrieked in agony, a sound that blasted out of my throat despite the damage to my lungs. I began screaming to Julian, It’s a trap! But the vampire clamped his other hand to my mouth.

“Now, now,” he said with a smile. “You’ll spoil the surprise.”

I gnashed my teeth, trying to bite him, then started to gag, heaving with the force of my injuries. I thought I was going to die, thought I’d either black out or watch the quicksilver rip me apart—but then I remembered, thought to check for the weapon I’d forgotten, in my haste to attack him with my knife—

I had an awl stashed in one of my boots. A slender tool lined with gold, pointed at one end and lacking a handle. An elegant fire needle marked with the eye of the Goddess. Hidden with Source energy by Julian, who’d used a conjuring spell much stronger than pixie magic, a vanishing that disguised the metal as leather. Something a monster would need to cast for to find, the same way the vampire had thrown out his power to break Vix’s shield.

A dagger in my boot, the quicksilver would’ve taken by now. And he’d certainly cast for my weapons while I’d been unconscious, but the awl had been too insignificant to locate. He’d searched me for blades, for weaponry he recognized as a threat. But my awl was still there. The metal spine lay firm against my ankle, hidden from him.

Eloise!” Julian cried, much closer now. At the edge of the wood. “Where are you?”

The vampire pushed on my chest again, but this time, instead of screaming, or attempting to twist free, I forced myself still. As death closed in around me, despair settled in like a blanket. Turned off my senses. My nerves. Stopped the trauma. I lay without breathing. An unfeeling corpse.

Play dead or die. My last hope.

The quicksilver pulled out one of my rib bones, to force me to shriek again, but I didn’t. If I screamed, I had no chance. And this vampire had no idea how much I wanted to live, or he’d have picked someone else for this torture.

“Eloise,” he sighed, then dropped his voice close to a whisper. “Did you really faint again? I thought you were stronger than that.”

He pushed the loose rib back into my chest, grinding bone against bone, and when I failed to scream, the vampire placed his hand on my chin, and shook my jaw as if to wake me up.

“I know you’re still in there,” he purred.

His fingertips rested on my chin, and as he jostled me again, I snapped to life and bit him.

The movement was small, a motion he hadn’t expected, and almost made me pass out. But I sank my teeth in his flesh. Held on with all the strength I had left. His fingers were warm, and full of his energy.

The monster tore his hand free, but not before I had what I needed. Some of his precious, powerful blood. Not enough to feed, but even a few drops were enough.

A burst of power coursed through me, while the ancient clamped a hand to my neck, and grabbed my wrist in the other, ready to keep me in place. But I had the energy I needed to bend my knee enough to put my awl within reach. Had the power to slide a hand in my boot and take hold of my weapon.

He should’ve caught both my hands.

But we all made mistakes. Even monsters.

5

In an instant, I plunged the shaft of my awl through the vampire’s eye, deep into his brain, until the tip of the needle scraped the back of his skull.

With a hot rush of wind, the quicksilver released my neck and struck my chest so hard I hit the ground as he fled. His speed as he vanished looked like teleportation, which wasn’t a power any vampire had. Not without a summoning ritual, like the one the warlock had performed.

A balancing light filled the wood, an amber pulse sent from Julian. The glow fizzled around me, sparkling red to proclaim me a vampire, and gleamed blue and purple around the spilled blood in the snow. My blood shone blue, but the quicksilver’s spatters were indigo. The mark of a master, a vampire armed with abilities distinct from his age. Nothing else remained of him, proof he was gone. No injured vampire wanted to be anywhere close to a Source mage. That ancient would heal first, then attack.

Julian sprinted toward me as I rolled on my side to vomit black bile.

“The boy!” I said between heaves. “Where’s the boy?”

Julian ran through the trees, out of sight. I heard rustling sounds, and when Julian reappeared, he held the child in his arms, swaddled in his black Ephraim coat. “He’s all right! Just unconscious. He’ll revive—” and I didn’t hear the rest because I was shaking too hard, throwing up.

We had to get out of here, before that monster came back.

“Can you stand?” Julian asked, kneeling beside me.

No. Though I did manage to crawl, gagging the whole time.

If I grounded here, the quicksilver would find me. A grave wouldn’t protect me from him.

But sinking into the earth might be the only option I had.

Julian couldn’t teleport with more than one extra person in tow. No one could, not even a priestess of night. Passenger portals required a tremendous level of power and skill, and within the metīrī—the principles of the universe that structured all magic—teleporting more than two souls or dark spirits at a time was impossible.

If Julian returned to headquarters with the boy, his body would need time to recover. And given the fact that his team had been so badly injured that he was here by himself, there wasn’t anyone else who could fetch me.

How long before the monster’s brain healed? Minutes? Seconds? That quicksilver would want his revenge, and he knew I wasn’t in any shape to stand up and run.

If Julian left with the boy, he’d be gone for ten minutes. That was his typical recovery time from a transport. Surely I could survive on my own for ten minutes? Right?

No. I knew the answer was no. That thing would come back for me. Collect me before Julian had time to return.

But what other choice did I have? Leave the boy to that monster instead? Never.

I scrabbled over the snow, desperate to force my body to move. “I don’t know where Vix is! I don’t see her!

Julian’s voice remained calm, his battlefield tone. “She’ll turn up.”

“Summon a portal! Take the boy and get out of here!”

“No. I’m not leaving you.”

“Julian, he had me! You saw the color of his blood, you know what he is—”

“I’m not leaving you.”

“Please listen to me!”

“I am. There’s a seep spring ahead, it’s not far. Big enough to frame a severance shield. I can warm the boy there, you can ground. We’ll be fine.”

“But he’ll be back any second!”

Julian placed the child in the snow, still bundled in his thick coat, and I started to yell again that he needed to leave—but Julian put one of his hands on my shoulder and the other on my waist, and rolled me into his arms, nestling my body against him like rocking a baby.

“Just let me ground!” and I reached for the earth, chanting the words to call the Dark Goddess and summon a grave. “Mother of death, spirit of night—”

But Julian would not set me down. He rested a hand on my brow, pressed his palm flat to my skin, and as he whispered the words of a spell I couldn’t translate, everything suddenly stopped. Panic, despair, all my pain.

Disappeared.

I felt numb for a moment, and then warm and safe, wrapped in profound comfort. Like being in the womb of the Goddess, when she drew me close for a kiss. The boundless love of my Dark Mother. That was what I felt now.

Except this was Julian’s power, his channeled Source energy that swelled through my body, which he sent into my skin through his palm. Not a healing spell, since Julian didn’t have the ability to mend damage.

He was sharing his magic with me. Giving me the strength to straighten my smashed ribcage, slide the snapped bones into place, knit the tears in my lungs and heart muscle.

Source mages weren’t supposed to share power. According to the vows they were sworn to uphold, channeling energy into another was a form of corruption, a way of cheating the rules on the limits of Source magic.

There were rare times, during battle, when the Ephraim committed this act to save life, and the danger of corruption was forgiven in moments of dire need.

But I was a dark spirit, and mages were forbidden to share power with monsters. The laws of the beyond were very specific on that.

Julian must’ve decided he didn’t care, not for the rules or the consequences for breaking them, because he took away all my pain, and gave me his strength. The force of the energy stunned me, left me immobile, while my body healed the worst of my damage. Repairing that level of injury should have been agonizing, worse than what I’d felt after my fall, but with Julian’s magic, my bones were made whole in seconds, and no part of me hurt.

When he removed his hand from my brow, I felt my exhaustion return, a bone-weary fatigue that meant I still needed to ground, and still needed blood. But I trembled with weakness, not pain. A miracle that left me as amazed as the healing.

Julian helped me onto my feet, then he knelt and picked up the boy. I said nothing as he did this, made no comment about the laws of Source magic he’d broken, just stood there in shock. Julian shifted the child into one arm so he could place the other round my waist, and we walked to the seep spring. I stumbled along, tripping over my feet, and Julian made sure I didn’t fall.

The seep spring was housed in an alcove eight feet wide and less than fifteen feet deep. The water was frozen, but Julian didn’t need liquid; ice and rock were enough. For Julian, the granite in the mountain was a more precious summoning element than water.

Inside the lee, Julian helped me to sit, placed the child at my side, and then he straightened, lifted his hands overhead, and faced the canyon.

Julian’s lips moved, though he didn’t give voice to the incantation. White light burst from his palms, skeins of power that looped like ribbon, swirling around him in a vortex of wind. The glittering beams moved like water, flowing and twisting, merging his energy with the walls, and sealing us into the mountain. A transparent barrier, as solid and thick as a three-foot steel wall, enclosed the entire alcove in a shell.

The rock surrounding us warmed and the air became balmy, a tropical paradise in the middle of winter. Meltwater slivered into cracks in the granite, rippling over the invisible shield in delicate spirals before sinking into the earth. In less than ten seconds, the currents of energy grounded, the breeze stilled, and the light faded to a soft golden glow, perfumed with the scents of myrrh and sage. The smell of Julian’s power. A comforting odor, sweet and familiar.

Julian finished his spell and lowered his arms, breathing hard. He wiped the sweat from his face with the sleeve of his uniform, and pushed back his damp hair. Julian had loose ebony curls that almost reached his shoulders, and his hair always looked a bit messy and tangled. His skin was deep brown, a rich shade of copper that gleamed like wild honey after a spell.

At six-five, Julian wasn’t the tallest man on his team, but he still towered almost a foot above me. Like all the Ephraim, his body was muscled and lean, a vessel for magic. Energy ran fastest through muscle tissue, which also provided a storage location for power, a requirement for battles against monsters. Spells drew strength from the body the same way physical exertion did, especially difficult ones like a shield conjuring. Julian took a seat at the mouth of the cave, and rested his head on his knee.

To anyone tracking us, we had vanished. Not only our bodies, but the trail we’d left behind. Trampled snow, spell residue, even our scent was now gone. The energy he’d poured into the rock vibrated through my body like music, and made my bones hum.

Regardless of the strength of the barrier, that quicksilver was also a master vampire, and given enough time, he still might be able to find us. If the ancient located the shield, and snapped through this barrier the same way he’d broken the one Vix had made, there was no way for Julian to escape. Not from inside this alcove, through a portal. The remnant energy from his own shield would stop him. Nature needed time to recover from magic, the same way fallow soil regained nutrients before the next planting.

The earth replaced all types of summoning element within a few hours after a spell, as long as the area was released first, freed from the hold of a conjuring. Otherwise, the available element remained trapped, unable to renew itself inside the force of a spell, which made casting impossible.

Even if Julian managed to return outside, to a place where he could teleport, he also needed time to rejuvenate. For him to be sitting right now, catching his breath, did not bode well for completing a portal summoning in the near future.

He should have left with the boy when he had the chance. But now he was trapped here with me.

6

With Julian still turned away, I checked over the boy, confirmed for myself that the child was uninjured and sleeping off the last of my zephyr spell. Vix was right—I’d actually done a nice job with that bit of magic. Maybe I should jump off more cliffs before I practiced summoning air. Suicide falls obviously worked wonders for my conjuring.

A thin bracelet of cerulean thread decorated the boy’s slender wrist, which meant he lived in one of the greenhouses built to shelter refugees inside town. He was four, maybe five, an adorable moppet with red hair and freckles. He wore Spider-Man snow boots, blue jeans, and a Sesame Street t-shirt with the words Save the Earth in neon green letters. He still smelled like butterscotch from my spell.

In the books I’d read about vampire magic, the undead weren’t known for conjuring odors. That was an odd trait I had, probably because Julian had taught me to cast. Ideally, I’d have learned how to conjure from another dark spirit, since vampire magic was a type of element power, with a distinct incantation style and summoning force. Regardless of who my teacher had been, or the fact that I had to make up my own spells, I managed okay. Even if my hovering skills were abysmal.

Now that the alcove was so warm, I adjusted Julian’s coat around the boy, to make sure he wouldn’t overheat, then used the hem of my dress to wipe my face. The fabric was tattered and wet from the snow, but still removed some of the blood and black bile from my skin.

“How old?” Julian asked of the quicksilver, without lifting his head.

“Millennia, at least. Maybe more.”

Julian groaned, an exaggerated noise, and my lips twitched with a smile. I smoothed down my dress as Julian straightened, changed his position, and met my gaze. “Think he’s in league with the warlock?”

“Could be. But the warlock’s power is nothing compared to what this ancient can do.” I rubbed my brow with a knuckle, wishing the vampire’s age and abilities were the worst of it. “The quicksilver knew what I was. Before he attacked. Either he’s been stalking headquarters, or he’s had help. This boy and I, Julian—” I clenched my jaw, shook my head. “We were bait. You were the target. You and everyone else at the base.”

Julian listened with a solemn expression. He glanced over the child, then back to me. “I’m glad you’re okay.”

I lowered my head, so grateful to still be alive, I couldn’t speak. My skin had lost its normal shade of brown and faded to a pale tan, a stark contrast to the dark blood on my clothes. An odor of fatigue rose from my body, the distinct reptile smell of a vampire, a musty scent of venom and scales. And I realized my teeth were still out, another sign of how dazed and tired I was.

Under normal conditions, my canines looked human, the same teeth I’d possessed when I’d been alive. But I’d let them extend before my fight with the vampire, and they rested against my bottom lip now, inch-long razors that could make a rattlesnake jealous. I took a deep breath and retracted my fangs, then touched the tip of my tongue to the points when I finished, making sure they were human length once again.

Julian rose and walked to the boy, knelt beside him and ran a hand through the child’s hair. “Tough kid.”

“I’ll say. The warlock threw him off a cliff to his wraiths.” He’d probably have nightmares of being flung to those creatures for the rest of his life.

Then I thought about all the children we hadn’t rescued in time—the ones born in the cult, given to the warlock by their own mothers, killed in his fortress—and I clenched my hands into fists. Sometimes the world was a far uglier place than I ever wanted to know.

“Threw him off a cliff?” Julian asked. “How’d you catch him?”

I tucked my chin and looked away, before I could force the words out. “With a modified zephyr. Once I was close to the ground, I had enough force to hover him.”

Julian’s voice rose in shock. “What do you mean, once you were close to the ground? Were you falling with him?”

Never admit to jumping off cliffs. A good rule of life I liked to follow.

Julian furrowed his brows. “How far did you fall?”

“I don’t know,” and I shrugged, unwilling to think about my crash anymore. “Far enough I wouldn’t want to do it again.”

Julian rose, stepped around the boy to my other side, and took a seat next to me. The residue of his magic shimmered the air as he moved, a faint sparkle that clung to his skin. An effect I liked noticing, even as tired as I was. Julian put his arm around me, drew me toward him, close enough I could rest my head on his shoulder.

“We left Vix,” I said, trying to tell myself she’d only been knocked unconscious, that she wasn’t lying in the snow all alone, no longer breathing.

Julian’s response was swift. “Full light, I’ll take the boy in, then come back to look. As long as he just hit her with a gale—”

“Yes.”

“Then she should be all right. Sleeping it off until dawn. Come day, she’ll be flying again, demanding to know where you are.”

Which I wanted to believe. Because I couldn’t imagine my life without Vix. Even if she did sometimes threaten to stab me.

“What happened with the ghouls?” I asked.

“Killed all but one. Then the coven arrived. Ravi took a bad fall at the end, hit his head. Chelsea’s with him. Jordan almost lost an arm. Finn broke an ankle, and caught a hex in his leg. I killed two, maybe three of the witches. The others escaped. Chelsea teleported with Ravi, and I took back Jordan and Finn. Then I came to find you.”

“Is Ravi okay?”

“Too soon to tell.”

We sat in silence a while. Five minutes, ten. Twenty minutes scratched by as we waited.

I described the size and appearance of the ancient for Julian. He listened with a pensive expression, then said, “I haven’t noticed anyone like that in town. He’s old enough to glamour any mage though, even Tenzin.” Tenzin Shilog was the magus Julian had trained beneath in Nepal, a soldier who’d faced many ancients during the course of her life. Definitely not someone a vampire would trifle with.

Still no sign of the quicksilver outside.

“You should ground,” Julian said. “He’s not coming.”

But I refused to summon a grave and leave him alone. Especially after what he had done, breaking a law of Source energy to save me tonight.

“Julian.” I hesitated, staring down at my knees, and had to screw up my courage to ask. “Why?”

He pretended like we were still discussing the vampire. “He’s toying with us. I’ve seen masters do this before—”

“You know that’s not what I meant.”

But Julian didn’t answer the question, and by the resolute set of his jaw, it was clear he wasn’t in the mood to joke about it, either.

Even if Julian was forgiven, we both knew he should’ve teleported the child to safety first and returned for me later. Team leaders didn’t disregard the laws they were supposed to uphold. For a powerful magus, Julian made the most bizarre choices sometimes. Which frustrated people, and made life harder for the soldiers who fought with him, but also explained why I liked him so much. Liked him a lot more than I should. An embarrassing fact I kept to myself.

But honestly. What else would have put me in this position? Working for my sworn enemies. Associate of the Ephraim.

My heart no longer had slivers of bone lanced through the muscle, but that organ had always been mushy, pathetically so.

On the outside, I sure looked like a monster. And smelled like one, too.

But I was a bloodshade, able to hide what I was, and I hid from Julian most of all. My feelings for him were ridiculous, and my entire situation could be categorized as a death wish. An intelligent vampire would’ve joined a coven by now, bonded with another monster inside a nest—an alliance of power with other undead. Only master vampires could survive on their own, and I had nowhere near master strength.

Yet here I was. With Julian. Who was now breaking magical laws to keep me alive.

In the wake of Julian’s silence, I thought of my encounter with the ancient again. What he had said to me, and how I’d responded. “When the ancient mocked my uniform, and my weapons, he asked me if I’d begged you to spare me.”

Julian pressed his cheek to the top of my head, and I heard a smile in his voice. “So it’s obvious telepathy isn’t one of his gifts.”

“Lucky us.” Of all the abilities a dark spirit could have, vampire telepaths were the rarest. “He must be a rogue, showing up like that all alone.” Only master vampires produced Goddess venom, the substance that transformed living bodies into the undead, and masters never interacted directly with enemies unless they were rogues: lone vampires without nests.

But sometimes rogue vampires started new nests, either after they killed off their original nestmates or if they wanted to increase their power, usually so they could wipe out an enemy coven. The ancient might be on a search for new humans to join his bloodline, a ritual that involved infecting them with his venom.

Julian lifted his head, considering the idea that this master might be a rogue. “We haven’t found any sign of a vampire coven. If the warlock was hiding them, we’ll have to scour what’s left of his base to be sure. Several of those tunnels burst into flame right after the battle began. I had to send in a team to put out the inferno.”

“Mundane fire, or magic?”

“Both,” he said.

“Anyone caught in the blaze?”

“Cult followers, maybe. Whoever they left behind when they fled.”

I shut my eyes for a moment, trying not to picture the blackened bodies of women and children. The warlock’s screams echoed in my mind. “He was ready for this fight. Leading us out here to his ghouls, and the lake full of wraiths. I was on my way to cast on his portal when the vampire caught me.”

“Did he try to bespell you?” Julian asked of the ancient.

All vampires could hypnotize human mundanes. The enchantment trapped unwilling victims in a state of euphoria, which kept them still for a bite—but only a master could bespell other undead.

“He’s a sadist,” I said. “Just like the rogue who made me.” They’d rather eat a truckload of garlic than give someone bliss. “So don’t you dare try to fight him alone. He wanted you away from the team. If he breaks through this shield, you have to run, just grab the boy and get to a place you can portal—”

Julian rubbed his chin on my temple, grazing my skin with his stubble. “Isa. He wants us to sit here and panic. That’s part of his game.” Isa had been Julian’s childhood pronunciation of Isis, the famous Egyptian goddess, a deity still worshipped and honored by Pagans like Julian. After I became a dark spirit, Julian gave the nickname Isa to me, and there was always great tenderness in his voice when he used it. “Trust the shield will hold up. It’ll piss him off more.”

I held my breath for a minute, and tried to think about something pleasant.

Julian still had his arm around me.

That was lovely.

And his shoulder made a nice pillow.

“Well?” he asked.

“I found two happy thoughts.”

“I bet I can guess—”

“No. Don’t even try.”

“But what if I’m right?”

“You won’t be.”

Julian made a soft tsk. “Fine. Keep your secrets.”

“I will.”

Julian tweaked my nose, and I hissed.

We sat in companionable silence, and I struggled not to dwell on my terror, or fixate on what would happen if the ancient snapped through the barrier.

So I thought about Julian instead. And the laws he had broken.

This wasn’t the first time he’d saved me. That had happened two years ago, the first night I awoke as a monster. By the time Julian arrived, my face was still smeared with the blood of my killer, and I was clutching a broken saw in one hand, the rusty teeth of the blade coated with viscera.

The master who turned me had been sure I was trapped. Certain I’d spend an eternity in the prison he’d made me.

But life was often full of surprises. Attacks no one ever saw coming. Like a mutilated girl restored by the Goddess, who discovered she was capable of the most terrible things.

Julian should’ve staked me that night. I’d expected him to destroy me.

But he asked me to go on living instead.

7

I first met Julian when he was thirteen, right after his family moved to Peatlyn, Colorado, another town tucked away in the mountains, four hours north of where we lived now.

Julian’s parents had emigrated to the U.S. from Spain, and he’d been born in Denver. Julian Miguel Córdova.

Julian’s little brother, Marco, had been in fifth grade with me.

As a nine-year-old girl crushing on a thirteen-year-old boy, I might as well have been Julian’s little sister. And since I became Marco’s best friend, that was exactly how Julian saw me, as just another kid in the house, building forts in the yard, drinking juice in the kitchen, biking across town in neighborhood groups with our dogs. The Córdova boys weren’t much for video games or indoor activities. They had a big garden to care for, and sword fighting practice with their mother, and their father was always ordering science and engineering kits for them to work on in the garage. Every day at their house was some kind of adventure.

Since my own mother died when I was two, and my father was an overworked ER surgeon who spent little time at home, I was always with Marco, my non-biological twin, homework buddy and aspiring botanist. We had a natural yin and yang to our geek, a way of talking to each other no one else followed. I loved Marco dearly, so much that my father once used the word fanatically, and within the intimacy of our friendship, I learned many secret things about Marco, pieces of his identity he was only just discovering himself. He worried so much about the true extent of his strangeness, how different he was from other people, that he even grew terrified sometimes just talking to me, that I’d decide he was too bizarre and flee.

But Marco never scared me away. When we were alone together, he let himself be “his other self,” as he called her: a fun, witty girl named Harper. Harper fascinated me; she was so different from Marco, but just as engaging to be with. Since Marco had come across terms like split personality and schizophrenia, but hadn’t yet heard of transgender, Harper’s presence meant he could be labeled with a disorder, and the idea frightened him. Sometimes he was female, and sometimes he was male, but Marco was always adamant that Harper did not make him schizophrenic, nor was she the result of any kind of mental disorder, and I believed him. Being with Marco was like having two best friends inside the same person. Both were Marco, but Harper was still her own person.

As a boy, Marco was attracted to other boys, never girls. Harper also liked boys, but not the same ones Marco found crush-worthy. The differences between them were quite funny sometimes.

Later, in high school, I discovered the term gender-fluid, when a person’s gender identity could move between genders, and their identity could fluctuate a lot over time. Then I found the label bi-gender, when people moved between one masculine gender expression—a male identity—and one feminine expression—a female identity—with little to no middle ground. Which explained Harper’s presence in Marco pretty well, and Marco agreed.

As a child, I didn’t know Marco was transgender, and neither did he. I only knew that Marco was so deeply afraid of being mocked or misunderstood that he chose not to let anyone else meet Harper but me, not until after we graduated.

Regardless of who Marco was, in public or private, we always looked like twins, with black hair, dark eyes, and deep brown skin. People had often assumed we were Mexican, which had made life easier for me. With a last name like Assad, and the anti-Islamic sentiment that pervaded my school, blending in as a Mexican had been a good thing.

The Córdova family spoke Castilian Spanish at home, which I learned well enough from playing with Marco and Julian to converse in, and that meant I could talk to the students who spoke Mexican Spanish at school. I loved speaking Spanish, and I loved being treated like I was Marco’s twin sister. The only drawback was that Julian always treated me like I was his sister, too.

If anyone asked about my parents, I never hesitated to say they’d both grown up in Lebanon, that my mother’s family had long ties to Beirut and my father’s family was Iranian. Even if it meant people assumed my father was secretly in league with Hamas, or that I sympathized with terrorists, I never lied about my heritage. But I still always felt glad to fit in with the Córdova brothers, and grateful that there were enough Hispanic students in our school that I could blend in with the crowd.

Even once I had friends, and a group I felt I belonged to, high school was still far from perfect, and the worst part had nothing to do with being in class: it was losing my father. He suffered a heart attack the week after I turned sixteen. One night, we were having dinner together, and his chest started to hurt. Two hours later, he was gone.

Three years after his funeral, a vampire cut me apart, and as I died, I kept hoping I would see my father again.

I still didn’t know whose death had been harder to grieve and accept, and probably never would. My father’s death shattered my innocence. Mine took my soul. Both almost ruined me. Yet here I was, like everyone else, fighting on.

After I awoke as a monster, my dark brown eyes changed to ice blue. A whim of the Goddess, a physical mark of the Mother’s dark spirit. All her vampire children were transformed in some way, a visual reminder that we belonged to her now.

I also had scars, large swaths of scar tissue on both my upper arms and my thighs. But those wounds didn’t come from the Goddess. Those injuries were inflicted by my vampire creator, before he had killed me.

Marco knew what had happened to me. The torture I’d suffered. The details of how I’d escaped from that monster. Things I worked hard not to think about, memories I kept sealed away.

Marco held all my secrets. Including the one I’d never chosen to share with him. And that was Julian.

My childhood obsession began on the first day we’d met, an unrequited love that never diminished, even after Julian graduated from high school and left Peatlyn.

Julian could have gone anywhere, but he chose to begin his Ephraim training abroad, in the Himalayas, where he remained for two years. The Ephraim had several ancient outposts in Tibet and Nepal, and Julian fell in love with the mountains and the people who lived there. He spent another year traveling through Europe, before he returned to the States and undertook an apprenticeship, the final year of his schooling before taking his vows.

A few weeks after Julian swore his oath as a mage, Marco and I graduated from high school. Marco left for college in California, and I moved to Boulder, Colorado, for my bachelor’s degree. I did pretty well my first year, and made the dean’s list each semester. Driving home for the summer after my final exams, my old car blew a tire. Late at night.

The man who pulled up in the tow truck was my killer.

A year after Julian took his oath and joined the Ephraim, he received a phone call from me, traumatized and newly undead, asking him to come stake me. Like most people born to the Goddess against their will, I’d been prepared to end my life within seven days of losing my soul. According to the Catholic Church, most Protestant branches of Christianity, and the Islamic principles I’d been raised with, vampires were given a period of one week to destroy their dark spirit and reclaim their soul. After that, if they chose to remain alive as a vampire, they were damned.

But Julian refused to destroy me. Over the course of two days, while I sobbed and pleaded with him to end my life, Julian convinced me I needed to live. He said I couldn’t be sure about Heaven or Hell, that no one could ever be certain what happened when a dark spirit’s body was killed. Julian claimed he’d met other monsters who aided humans sometimes, and he asked me to join his team to help fight the bad ones.

So I did.

I surrendered the hopes and dreams I’d embraced as a human, and gave myself a new purpose: to use my vampire power to protect and save lives. To do everything I could to spare other people the fate I had suffered. No one should have to face an eternity trapped in a corpse, turned against their will the way I had been. And no one should ever use magic to torture and kill, harming innocent people for personal gain.

For the past two years, I’d lived a shadow life as a monster, posing as human to hunt predators far stronger than me. Fighting beside Julian as an associate witch.

And Julian was team leader now. Another step closer to being one of the magi, the most powerful Source mages within the Ephraim. Which had been his unwavering dream in all the time I had known him: to earn a place on the Council of Mages.

I hoped he was appointed one day. I wanted that for him, and always had.

I’d also hoped Julian and I could be together one day.

But he had a fiancée now. A young woman named Lilith.

Lilith Williams.

He’d actually met Lilith during my last year in high school. In Paris. Before he started his final year of apprenticeship.

As a senior in high school, I’d assumed they wouldn’t last.

I’d been certain they couldn’t last.

Because how could Julian stay with Lilith, when one day, I’d turn eighteen, and he’d open his eyes and love me?

But right after Julian took his vows as a mage, he bought Lilith a ring and proposed.

Lilith came to Peatlyn with Julian when Marco and I graduated from high school. They attended the ceremony.

That was the day I had to accept Lilith wasn’t going away. That Julian would never see me the way I saw him.

Even though I’d been out of high school for almost three years, and Marco was in his third year of college in California, Julian and Lilith still weren’t married. They’d finally set a date for their wedding, next June, and I’d long since resigned myself to this fate.

Besides… my unrequited feelings could never be returned. The Ephraim had rules against monsters and marriage, and there were excellent reasons for those laws to exist. But no amount of logic could change the fact that I was still smitten with a man who was forbidden to love me.

He was my brother, my teammate, my friend. My secret sweetheart forever.

Despite the emotions I screened from him, I never had trouble talking to Julian, even when we were in danger.

“Remember the time you dug that huge pit, and me and Marco climbed in, and you slapped down sheet metal and sat on it so we couldn’t get out?”

Julian laughed. “I never did that!”

I lifted my head with a grin. “We beat on the metal for hours—”

“I did not pin you in the dirt for hours!”

“Until your mom came outside and called you some kind of demon spawn—”

“What!?”

“And your dad made you go clean Mrs. Devon’s garage as a punishment—”

“Lies! The lies you tell, Isa. My mother did not call me demon spawn. You act like all I did was torture you guys!”

“Ask Marco then, if you think that’s a lie—”

“No, I’m sure he’ll say it’s all true. I know how this game goes.”

“You were horrible to us!”

Julian cocked a brow, pretending to be irritated even though he was smiling, and I dissolved into giggles.

But tonight, the laughter robbed me of what little strength I had left, and I had to close my eyes and lie down.

We didn’t speak for a while, not until I looked up at Julian’s face again.

He opened his mouth to tell me to summon a grave, but I cut him off.

“No. If that thing gets inside, I want to do what I can.”

Julian sighed. “You’re too weak to help me right now.”

I bared my teeth and hissed, then went still, conserving my strength.

Outside, dawn approached, a change in the light I felt in my blood.

As a dark spirit less than two years old, I wasn’t strong enough to stay awake unless the sky held true night. No matter what state I was in, at dusk or at dawn, my power ran down with first twilight, what scientists called astronomical twilight. The time when the sky was no longer black, but the deepest shade of night-blue. At home, that was when I lay down in my coffin. Outside, I summoned a grave. Or the Dark Goddess would open one for me, draw me into the earth if I didn’t ground.

Older vampires could remain awake longer. Second and third twilight were much brighter, and required more stamina. Master vampires could even be awake in the day, as long as the sun’s rays didn’t touch them.

If the quicksilver waited until second or third twilight to attack, I wouldn’t know. I’d be a true corpse, and Julian would be on his own.

As the sky began to leave true night behind, I cracked open an eye.

Julian sat with his hands in his lap, and a wry smile on his face, as if nothing were wrong.

I wanted to tell him I loved him. I always wanted to speak those words. But all I said was, “She did call you demon spawn.”

Julian laughed. A warm, husky sound, rich and textured as the baritone of his voice. His eyes were bright with mirth, and he tipped his head to the side, held me in the light of his gaze.

More than anything in the world, I wanted to stay here with him. Keep breathing until I knew he was safe.

But the earth opened beneath me, the Dark Goddess swallowed me whole, and I died.

8

Civilian twilight began the moment after sunset, and lasted until the sun was six degrees below the horizon. A time of beautiful color, when crimson and gold filled the sky, hues of coral, silvery blues, hazy indigo. The pageantry of the heavens as day faded.

I remained an unfeeling corpse in my grave.

The sun had to drop down, down, down—more than eighteen degrees below the horizon, until the sky held true night—before I opened my eyes.

And what I heard tonight as I woke was music playing above me, somewhere in the alcove where I’d grounded. I recognized the theme song to Slayers of Doom, the most popular TV show in America.

A program dedicated to spreading the worst lies about vampires, and glorifying their demise. Waking up to that theme music was absurd. Definitely not a good thing.

Slayers of Doom featured two bounty hunters, a pair of middle-age human men named Horace and Nips, who raided crypts by day. Armed with gold crosses, holy water, and handguns, the slayers crept through the long halls and dark rooms of catacombs, searching for evil to vanquish. Tucked within crevices lay bodies in shrouds, but the slayers spent their time seeking out white marble coffins. Inside these elaborate graves—according to the show’s slick producers—master vampires slept.

Whenever Horace and Nips opened one of these coffins, an actor wearing fake teeth and a lot of stage makeup—a vampire!—shot out and attacked.

One of the most frightening moments of any episode was the first glimpse of the undead, pale and cadaverous, mouth open wide with those huge gleaming fangs. A hideous battle ensued, complete with hisses and shrieks, melting skin, the blare of guns going off, and the pulpy gore of a staking. The show spared no expense on the special effects. Horace and Nips, of course, survived to the end of each episode. The monsters did not.

While viewers were permitted to watch Horace and Nips stake the undead, the audience never saw them collect any vampire blood, even though capturing that liquid was the goal of a staking. The big happy ending everyone craved. Except blood collections were ugly, an image right out of a slaughterhouse. No one minded skipping that step.

Though the show portrayed scripted fights as reality, to make such a statement in public was politically dangerous, since the marketing tag line of Slayers of Doom had become synonymous with patriotism: Saving Lives, Protecting Communities, Keeping America Strong. A potent combination of altruistic jingoism and graphic violence, with a heady dose of self-righteousness that kept viewers hooked.

Two minutes before the end credits rolled, Horace and Nips posed with a handful of sick children, to deliver the slain vampire’s blood to the needy free of charge. The show most often featured kids with metastasized cancers and birth defects, but whatever the disease or condition, these were children close to death’s door, youngsters who were no longer in treatment, but hospice care.

And someone was saving them. Somewhere in the world, a vampire had been staked by an actual hunter, and drained of their dark spirit blood. The elixir of life. Divine gift of the Mother of Night. A miracle cure for any human disease or disorder, packaged in a predator’s body.

To anyone who was sick, there was nothing so precious as vampire blood. Scientists had spent centuries studying the curative powers of the liquid that brought monsters to life, but no one understood what made the mixture so potent.

Everyone knew the result though: perfect health. Vampire blood couldn’t regrow missing limbs, and the tonic did nothing for a person’s appearance. Plastic surgeons weren’t facing supernatural competition.

But for everything at work inside a human body, concerning hormones and chemicals, genetics and neurotransmitters—vampire blood brought the entire human system into harmony. Sickness vanished. Migraines, organ failure, bone cysts, even sensory processing disorders and depression—disappeared. After a quaff of vampire blood, the afflicted retained their personalities, their quirks and unique attributes, but the aches, pains, and terrors they’d suffered from never returned.

With so much to gain from a cupful of blood, vampires had to be exceptionally good at keeping themselves alive. Because if anyone with a gun and gold-infused bullets could take down a monster, vampires would have gone the way of the passenger pigeon, the great auk, and the moa.

In reality, the challenge of killing a vampire was much more difficult than anything that could be filmed on TV, which only seemed to increase the appeal of Slayers of Doom. American viewers adored Horace and Nips, and each new episode boasted audience numbers that rivaled the Super Bowl.

Not all the show’s details were wrong. Silver did slow vampires down, whether in a blade or a bullet. Gold was often fatal, especially if the vampire was young. Holy water, wielded by someone of faith, could burn monster skin. The same held true for ritual objects, like prayer beads and crosses: faith combined with a desire to ward off a dark spirit could charge a holy item with the power to inflict harm. The smell of garlic was repulsive to the undead, an odor similar to standing inside an overflowing latrine on a hot summer day. A stake through the heart often brought death, though some monsters survived. All vampires cooked to ash in direct sunlight.

But real hunters used magic, not guns. Slayers could be someone born with a specific type of magic innate to their blood, like clairvoyants touched by the Goddess, necromancers, or night sirens. More often the hunter was someone who practiced nefsin witchcraft—which could be anyone with the talent to conjure and the will to shed blood. Nefsin magic was powerful, and named for the nefarious sin that created those spells.

The very best hunters were dark spirits themselves. Like the ancient quicksilver who’d tried to kill me last night. Vampire magic didn’t require torture or blood sacrifice to power a spell, and all Dark Goddess children were born with superhuman abilities: enhanced senses, strength, and speed, as well as unique talents with varying levels of skill.

True shapeshifters, lycanthropes, banshees, and fae could also be forced to hunt vampires, if someone put a gun to their heads, or offered them enough money to make possible death worth their while. But that sort of violence and greed was unfit for TV. Viewers liked to see vampires destroyed in gruesome detail, but balked at watching innocent people being corrupted, tortured, and killed. Slayers of Doom would never portray the ugly reality behind the hunt for vampire blood. But people sure liked the fantasy of Horace and Nips, average Joe heroes supporting their families, protecting America, and saving the lives of young children.

As for the Ephraim, Horace and Nips brushed off the Protectors of Peace as charlatans, voodoo priests from the Stone Age, mystics eating peyote… whatever new insult might make their audience laugh. To many human mundanes, the level of witchcraft that created a mage was so esoteric and arcane, so far outside normal life, that the Order was often held in suspicion, or even reviled.

Until a nefsin magician started to kill people. Or two vampire covens began fighting a turf war, slaughtering each other and innocent bystanders. Or a team of shapeshifters hijacked an airplane.

Then everyone seemed really grateful the Ephraim could be called upon to stop the bad guys and save human lives.

For a little while, anyway. A day or two.

Then a new episode of Slayers of Doom would arrive, and Horace and Nips would crack jokes about the mages being Druid wannabes, pot-smoking witches, and high school dropouts with swords.

So when I awoke in my grave, and heard the theme music of Slayers of Doom playing above me, I assumed the worst must have happened—

Julian’s shield had failed. The quicksilver had entered the alcove, killed Julian, killed the boy, then spent the day looking forward to ripping me out of my grave.

Or Julian had taken the boy safely to headquarters after sunrise, and had gone to find Vix and check on his team, but the vanishing shield he’d left for me had been broken, and now that the sun had set, the vampire was sitting above me, waiting for me to wake up. Playing the theme music to the worst show in America, right before he tore off my head.

Of course I would die like this. Facing a bombastic refrain with Horace and Nips calling, “Doom! Doom! Doom!”

I bet the vampire had my awl in one hand, spinning the pointed end with his fingertips, preparing to carve out my eyes.

Then the slayer melody stopped, and the air above me fell silent.

I extended my fangs, ready to fight.

9

“Isa?” Julian asked. He patted the rock above me. “You up yet? I found Vix, she’s okay—”

I spilled from the earth, gasping with relief as I scrambled onto my knees. Having spent a full day as a corpse, I’d healed any lingering injuries, and my body was clean again, though my clothes were still as filthy and tattered as they’d been last night.

“Julian! Why were you—?” I started to ask why he’d been playing that awful music, but as I saw for myself that there was no immediate danger around me, no vampire waiting to kill me, my mind switched to what he had said—

“Vix!” I called, hoping to see her, and hear her wings jingle. But other than Julian sitting beside me, the alcove was empty. Outside, the stars shone again in a freezing clear night, and the only light in the alcove came from a small tablet Julian held in his lap, which must have been the source of the music.

“She’s all right,” Julian said. “She stayed with Daniel, the little boy you saved. He’s still at the base, with his mother. Chelsea kept them both in recovery, even though they weren’t injured. Jordan cleared them this morning, but we wanted to be positive there wasn’t a hex before we released them.”

“Vix wasn’t hurt?”

Julian gave an ironic grin. “Nothing a mug of hot cider couldn’t cure.”

Vix swore by hot apple cider. It was her pixie equivalent of vampire blood.

I felt hazy with gratitude, knowing she’d survived without permanent damage, as I rubbed my face with my hands and retracted my teeth.

The quicksilver had fled the area, or Julian wouldn’t be sitting here with me right now, all alone. Which also meant he must’ve been forgiven for sharing his power with me, or he’d be in the beyond, paying penance. Source mages were required to account for their magic, to submit themselves for trial when they broke their vows, and Julian had completed that procedure while I’d been asleep.

Even if he’d chosen to lie about what he’d done, to hide the fact he’d corrupted his magic to save a vampire’s life, the beyond had a ruthless form of accounting, and Julian wouldn’t have been able to keep his secret for long. Self-confession was a primary law within the Ephraim, and since the guardians of the beyond had the power to read minds, lies were short-term solutions with severe long-term punishments. Since Julian was neither foolish nor spineless, he’d submitted himself to a trial.

“You’re all right?” I asked, even though I could see for myself he was fine. “Did they do anything to you?”

Julian turned his gaze to the stars, and shook his head. “It’s only corruption if the intent is self-gain. Solely self-gain, I should say,” and he sent me another smile. “You’re on my team, after all. Even if you spend half the day without a pulse. I still have plenty to gain helping to keep you alive.”

I felt myself blush, not only because of his lighthearted attitude, but for the way that he looked at me. Confident, fearless. The same boy I had fallen in love with, grown into this beautiful man.

But my face also warmed with embarrassment, because I was hungry, and he smelled so damn good. Like waking up to the scent of breakfast in the air, but this odor was far more enticing than grilled steak and eggs, spiced potatoes, buttermilk biscuits or hot blueberry muffins.

Mother of Night, I needed blood. I hated being around Julian when I felt starved.

The Ephraim channeled magic through their palms when they conjured their spells, a force that was harnessed and then quickly released. But some of that energy always remained in their bodies, like grease in the gears of machinery. During their four years of training, Source mages transformed—internally—into physical instruments suited to magic, and some of that residual power always coursed through their blood.

Which made Ephraim blood some of the richest any vampire could drink. Compared to a mundane, or even a practitioner of nefsin magic, Protectors of Peace were so thick with energy, so vibrant with power, vampires often risked their lives for a sip. Ephraim blood was so strong that taking too much could be toxic. But a small dose brought euphoria, and a permanent surge of new strength.

Centuries ago, vampires had captured Source mages in the hope of turning them into blood slaves. That plan had not ended well for the monsters, though there were always vampires who didn’t bother reading history books. The undead weren’t any smarter than the humans they’d been, not unless they made the effort to learn, like anyone else.

But the power to be gained in Ephraim blood held endless seduction for monsters, and was the reason why Source mages were forbidden to willingly share their blood with the undead. Of the rules that carried the most severe punishments for the Ephraim, voluntarily allowing a vampire to feed on them—whether through sexual activity, or by drinking their blood—was an unbreakable law, and could result in a life sentence inside the beyond.

So of course I’d never tasted Julian’s blood. But my desire to drink from him sometimes felt stronger than my lust for his body, and I’d wanted to be intimate with Julian ever since my hormones kicked into overdrive as a teen. My passion for him was no trivial force.

The human girl I had been would never have wanted Julian’s blood. She’d have found that repulsive.

My vampire body longed to feed on him to no end.

I struggled to take my mind off Julian’s lovely throat, and caught sight of the tablet again. But rather than ask why he’d been watching Slayers of Doom, I said, “How’s Ravi?”

The only mage on the team who’d still been in critical condition last night, Ravi Wahpekeche had never suffered an injury that severe in all the time I had known him. A Kickapoo Native American from a tribe in Oklahoma, Ravi had moved to southwest Colorado twenty years ago, when he’d been twenty-five, and he was the reason Julian had posted to Senna: Ravi had convinced him to come. Ravi had visited our public school in Peatlyn several times, on outreach visits conducted by the Ephraim, and Julian had admired him since the first day they’d met. Ravi and Julian weren’t only teammates, but close friends.

“Still in a coma,” Julian said, “but the swelling’s come down.”

“Were you able to see him?”

“Right after breakfast.” Which could mean a normal breakfast time, or three in the afternoon—Julian’s schedule always varied. “His color looked good, and his vitals were all a lot stronger. Minnie thinks he might wake soon. Not tonight, but tomorrow morning, perhaps.”

Minnie was Minerva Grisham, the lead healer who worked at the base. She often asked Vix to spell her blonde hair into dreadlocks, which Minnie rocked with Day-Glo jewelry and glitter mascara. With her creamy porcelain skin and pretty blue eyes, and the sort of looks that graced magazine covers, Minnie’s parents had encouraged her to go into modeling. Though Minnie adored makeup and fashion, she’d been far more attracted to witchcraft. So she’d dropped out of high school to focus on learning element magic, and within a few years, she became a powerful witch.

We had a secret connection, Minnie and I, since she had a crush on Julian, too.

Well, I knew we had this in common—but not because vampire telepathy was one of my gifts. My senses had no problem picking up increased heart rates, flushed skin, and quickened breaths. The fact that Minnie whispered things like, “Oh my God, he’s so cute!” when Julian wasn’t in earshot also helped.

As a human and an associate witch, Minnie flirted with Julian in that light, friendly way a lot of women adopted around him. Heck, even Vix turned on the charm around Julian, and pixies didn’t normally like humans at all. The wee folk of the forest called humans stink-nasties, especially humans who carried guns. Mechanized weapons terrified pixies. The explosive noise scared them witless, and carried its own form of harm, a sound created by elements that damaged their bodies. Clashing swords didn’t hit loud enough to hurt pixies, but firing a .45 at close range sure could. Vix appreciated that Julian didn’t carry a gun.

After he gave me the news about Ravi, Julian glanced at the device in his lap and switched off the screen. “I have to check on some weres. You want to come with, or should I take you back?”

Given how hungry I was, there was only one answer to that. “If you need me to fight, I should feed.” Which meant a return into town. Not to kill, since vampires didn’t need to murder to live. But unless the blood I consumed was warm and fresh, I couldn’t drink it.

Julian shook his head at the possibility of a battle. “No, nothing like that. Just a prowl of leopards having a clash with the fae over property lines. I have to look at some paperwork, sit through a meeting, adjudicate. Then I’m heading back to the office.”

The Ephraim often served as judges in the world of magic, settling squabbles like this one. The sort of work I usually didn’t participate in.

Though that had started to change. Over the past several months, I’d spent more and more time with Julian, and fewer of my waking hours on my personal projects. There were plenty of missions I made for myself, like my rounds through the tent cities and hogan neighborhoods of the refugees, on the lookout for monsters.

But whenever Julian asked me to join him, I did. And lately, he’d been seeking my company for less crucial missions.

Tonight’s situation was different. Not really a request, since nothing about this meeting seemed dangerous. But I could tell, somehow… hidden in the tone of his words… that he hoped I’d say yes.

Or maybe I imagined all that.

The moony teenage girl I had been—she would have done cartwheels every time Julian asked her along on a mission. And sometimes I still felt that way, all giddy and dopey. I thought my crush would’ve died along with my human body, or at least lessened somewhat. But I seemed to be cursed from the beyond.

Julian picked up a small stack of clothes, which had been on the ground by his knee. “I brought a uniform, if that helps.”

I reached out and took the pile. “All right then. Turn around, and I’ll change and go with you.”

Julian rose and walked to the mouth of the alcove, keeping his back to me. Quick as I could, I stripped out of my dress and put on my tunic, pants, and winter coat, relieved to have weapons again. Julian had brought me a new dagger and awl to replace the ones I had lost.

I folded my ruined clothes in two bundles, stuffed them into my coat pockets, and stood beside Julian. “No trace of the vampire?”

“None.”

“And the warlock?”

“Burned all his portals before he fled the desert. Everything he left here last night went cold. So we have to start over.”

I shook my head with regret. If only that vampire hadn’t attacked, I’d have made it to the warlock’s portal in time to figure out where he went.

“You couldn’t cast on the witches?” I asked.

“They shifted.”

Shifted?” A trill of fear cut my voice. “Into what?”

“Panthers. And one boar. Their trails went cold in the river.”

I sucked in my breath. Mavens with the power to shift? In the service of a murdering warlock? Damn it. The town of Senna had been so overrun with monsters lately, preying on the tides of refugees sweeping in, and now we had a coven of shapeshifting killers. Who might or might not be working with a master vampire who’d been stalking headquarters. “This is getting out of control.”

Julian laughed. “Tell me about it.”

I lowered my head, still worried about the coven and the ancient, but soothed by the sound of Julian’s laughter. I fell silent a moment, content to observe him with what remained of my senses. Under normal conditions, my perceptions were almost as strong as a master vampire’s, one of the few talents I possessed. But right now, without feeding, I felt almost human-weak.

Even so, standing this close to Julian, I could sense him just fine. I felt the pull of his magic and the warmth of his blood. Listened to the thump of his heartbeat, and the soft sound of his breath. Smelled the familiar oils in his skin, the scents of myrrh and sage that lingered in his clothes from his power, and the animal odor unique to his body—the pheromones that marked him as human, a Source mage, an Ephraim.

How I ached to put my mouth on his skin. A yearning that made my teeth slide out a fraction. The thought of kissing him, and nicking his lower lip just enough for a taste, sent a shiver through me, warm and melting.

What I couldn’t do in real life, I reserved for my fantasies. Drinking his blood. Taking his clothes off. Rolling around with him naked. My erotic idylls fed into my power, the strength inside my dark spirit. Physical bliss gave me energy, even when I was alone.

Maybe I was wrong to fantasize about Julian as much as I did. Even if I never planned to act on my passion, there was probably a good case to be made that enjoying a rich fantasy life with a man who belonged to another was a sin.

But in my imagination, there was no Lilith Williams, and no rules against monsters and mages being in love with each other. In the confines of my head, I ravished Julian time and again, and the intense pleasure of daydreaming about him could sometimes feed me more than blood.

According to most people, I was already damned. So what could my fantasies hurt, if I didn’t even have a soul?

As long as I never tried to initiate anything with the real Julian, was there any harm in my thoughts? Was my lust really so wrong?

Maybe. Probably. Part of me knew I ought to give Julian up. Find someone else to daydream about.

But here I was. With Julian. Who strolled out of the alcove to follow a starlit path down the mountain, and I walked at his side.

“Why were you watching Slayers of—?” I started to ask, but then froze, sensing a witch’s attack at the same moment Julian did. A sudden snap in the air, a crackling prickle like static, but larger, more threatening. Like the granite in the mountain had charged, and the iron in the rock had attracted a current. A bolt of lightning shot toward us, a midnight blue hex, a curse strong enough to kill.

The air lit with witch magic, and in the instant I looked up, I saw her pale face bathed in light, her mouth stretched wide in a grimace. She stood on the path ahead of us, wearing an emerald robe decorated with bright silver runes. The rings on her fingers gleamed gold, helping her cast, and a vicious pleasure radiated in her glowing green eyes. As her power raced toward me, I tried to leap out of the way. But I was too slow.

10

I stumbled, desperate to will myself into vampire speed, the same instant Julian threw his arms around me, knocked us both off the path, and sent us rolling down a cascade of rock.

Julian cushioned the fall, summoned enough air to keep us from slamming against the boulders and scree, but we still tumbled in chaos and dropped, hurtling into a dive off the mountain.

Above us, in the place where we’d stood, the witch’s hex hit the rock. Lightning bolts surged into the cliff and vaporized three boulders, showering pebbles into the canyon.

I felt the unmistakable tremor of Julian’s fear coursing into his power. Not only had the witch tracked him here without his awareness, but the strength of her hexes would terrify any mage. Annihilation spells, called torrals, were the most powerful level of nefsin magic. This woman had the strength of a sorceress, with skills more advanced than the warlock we’d fought.

Julian stopped our descent in a handful of seconds, and as we halted, I felt dizzy and faint. My hands clutched at the mountainside with blind instinct. My body lay on the narrow lip of a cliff, my legs dangled out into space, and Julian didn’t even have room to stand. He’d grasped an overhang with one hand, making sure I didn’t roll off with the other.

As the witch sighted us, moved into position to power a new spell, I yelled, “Go!” to Julian, so he’d know I wasn’t about to plunge to my death. Julian leaped up the rock face, bounded quick as a lynx onto a wider stone ledge. A hundred feet above us, the witch shot a curse at him, a red jinx like a round of artillery fire, but Julian planted his feet, stood tall and teleported. The curse streaked through the canyon, rather than hitting his chest, and he reappeared at her side, drew his sword, and attacked.

Without another person in tow, Julian didn’t need to expend much effort teleporting himself. He did need to have both feet touching earth, and be in possession of his balance, or the energy required to summon a portal reached an astronomical level. I’d seen Julian teleport when he didn’t have full control of his body, or when he was hanging on something, supporting his weight with his hands, and the results could be catastrophic. Like my haphazard rescue of the refugee boy, summoning an ungrounded portal wasn’t much good if you ended up lying unconscious somewhere.

My breath high and wheezy, and making sure not to look down, I moved into a standing position and started climbing the rock. I chose a route up the boulders and shale that let me keep the battle in sight.

The witch threw hexes and jinxes, which Julian defended with vectors, invisible shields cast by the Ephraim. Julian conjured shields about three feet tall and two feet wide, and they remained in the air for several minutes. Some absorbed curses and others deflected them, creating a ricochet pattern of damage.

Vampires could sense vectors well enough to “see” them just fine, but human magicians like this witch had to either watch them be cast and remember their placement, or use power to mark them.

Julian always knew where his power remained. A mage’s body-sight for his own spells was stronger than any other sensation, and Julian could detect each of his vectors better than any enemy could.

Nefsin magic didn’t cast vectors like Julian’s. The witch could conjure a much simpler shield called an aegis, but her barriers took far more power to cast, and vanished within seconds. Offensive and defensive magic each had their drawbacks and strengths, based upon the goals of the power being summoned. Julian’s magic didn’t seek the witch’s destruction, but her capture. When he attacked with deadly intent, he used a sword, not a spell. Mages killed enemies when their lives were at stake, but they couldn’t cast death spells with Source power. The witch, with her torrals, had different intentions in mind, and her curses drew strength from that focus. Protective shields weren’t as easy for her as a hex.

As they fought, Julian and the witch both teleported every few seconds, disappearing and reappearing to strike or defend, leaving faint trails of power as they moved. Like the contrails from a jet, except magic looked more like glow sticks swirling in the night, far more colorful than white vapor.

To my vampire sight, the witch’s portal trails gleamed a bright jade, and Julian’s were a much fainter gold, a soft glimmer that disappeared within seconds. The witch added white bindings and shredder-spells to the blue bolts of her hexes, which began to collide back and forth against Julian’s vectors. The rebounding energy splintered and scattered in gyres and helices, spinning into the night. Julian swerved and maneuvered through the spiraling magic, an obstacle course of spells like cannon fire.

After four solid minutes of battle, with less than twenty feet left to climb to reach them, I had to stop, out of breath. This was the third damn time I’d climbed this mountain, and if I’d only had a meal before scaling the cliff side, I’d have made it to the top by now. I wished Vix were here to fly up and blind that witch with pink slime. Vix conjured really nice slime.

But Julian was all on his own.

I started climbing again, moving with renewed haste, when one of the shredder-spells hit Julian’s sword arm. As the force of the spell knocked him sideways, his weapon fell to the ground and he staggered, caught himself on a boulder, and barely stayed on his feet.

The energy of the jinx writhed around his forearm like layers of centipedes, a frothing mass of legs made with volcanic light. The air filled with a loud clicking noise, like hundreds of scorpions snapping their claws, as the curse settled into his arm and disappeared.

Julian didn’t scream as the shredder buried itself in his body, but he clenched his teeth as he straightened, while I launched myself up the rocks, trying to climb even faster.

The witch must have assumed Julian would drop like a stone, because she teleported and closed in. Her eyes glowed brighter, like the warlock’s last night, as she channeled a new current into her hands, pointed her thick fingers at Julian, and cast three torrals at once.

Julian didn’t leap away. Or teleport. He didn’t even pick up his head as the hexes shot toward him, and the witch wailed in triumph. The sound of her glee cracked my heart, and no matter how much I wanted to, I couldn’t move any faster.

The bolts of her hexes rushed forward, came within inches of striking Julian, who gripped his injured arm to slow the spread of the jinx. He didn’t seem aware of the torrals, didn’t seem to notice he was about to be killed—and then I realized he stood behind one of his vectors, which gleamed like a piece of dark crystal, a shield the witch had forgotten about in the commotion of battle. She was so sure she had him, the ricochet came as a shock. The instant her hexes bounded back, she was too close to the energy to sidestep her own power. Two of the torrals struck her chest.

The witch shrieked in agony, flames licked over her skin, and smoke billowed from her robes as she cooked. Her hexes didn’t vaporize her, since spells reacted differently to their source of power, but they certainly weren’t benign to her either.

Julian conjured a binding ring with his uninjured arm, a lacework of gold filaments that spooled from his palm, large enough to throw over her. The magical equivalent of handcuffs.

The witch screamed even louder at the sight of the ring, and her skin flashed white in a death spell. Her eyes rolled like a demon’s, wild and unseeing, bulging out of her head. Her robes lit with fire and rippled around her, the fabric alive with her power, no longer deep green but the color of magma. As she transformed her body into a suicide bomb, with a charge powerful enough to kill Julian and blast me off the cliff, Julian no longer had time to disable her. Throwing a ring over her now would be useless. She’d already summoned enough force to explode.

If I were a banshee, I’d have screamed a shock wave to hit her.

But my scream didn’t carry power like that.

The witch’s tongue lolled out of her mouth, long and thick as a snake, the back of her throat shone with a fiery white light, and Julian dropped to his knees.

11

The witch held out her arms, taking the shape of a cross as electric swirls of heat energy blazed down her arms, her final motion to prepare for the blast. Her tongue swiveled and twisted, and the piercing sound of her shriek was a knife in my skull, savage and cutting.

As the witch raised her arms, Julian grabbed up his sword with his left hand, jumped to his feet, and the instant before the witch could explode, he threw the blade like a javelin, straight at her neck. Julian moved so fast, with such power in his arm and the arc of his torso, that the blade cleaved her throat as well as any spear could, and severed her spine with a loud, snapping crunch. The cross-guard above the grip smashed into her jaw, hard enough to break her front teeth.

The witch stopped glowing white, flailed her burning arms as her oversized tongue whipped around senseless, flicking broken bits of teeth around the hilt. Though she tried to suck in breath, tried summoning a power that might keep her alive, blood erupted from her neck, and poured in a torrent.

Her bright green eyes dimmed to pinpoints, then went black, before she fell over. The sword tore free of her neck as she landed, almost taking her head off.

Julian cradled his arm, hurried toward the edge of the cliff and called, “Eloise! You all right?”

No, I wasn’t all right. I’d almost watched a witch blow us up. Mother of Night.

My heart was racing so hard I barely managed to speak. “I’m okay.”

I felt tired and shaky. And hungrier than ever. Julian had taken a shredder, he needed a healer to stop the spreading curse in his arm, and as the breeze filled with the odor of death, all I could think about was how much I wanted to feed.

Except I didn’t want that dead hag. The scent of her blood was the trigger, and she was definitely food. But my craving for Julian would always be stronger. The scent of him overpowered me, and he was only more enticing when he was hurt. Like dangling an especially sweet-smelling piece of string in front of a housecat, and calling, Here, kitty, kitty. My vision narrowed to one central focus, my canines extended, and as I hauled myself up beside Julian, my muscles were all smooth precision, driven by a ravenous force. The promise of food gave me power, a surge of life in my body to make sure I fed.

Monster, monster, in the night, with your teeth so sharp and bright… I was the embodiment of that nursery rhyme now, the hideous corpse of nightmare and terror.

I lacked the energy for a block, and my bloodlust surged around me like a hot wind. As soon as Julian felt the crackling wave of my hunger, he should’ve teleported away. Or threatened to stake me if I took a step closer. If this were an episode of Slayers of Doom, Horace and Nips would be yelling, Back to Hell, demon! Burn with Satan! while they shot my brain full of gold-infused bullets.

But Julian just cocked a brow and glanced toward the witch, adjusted the hold on his injured arm and remained where he was.

For Goddess sake! Julian!

I rumbled, a sound some described as a lion’s threatening growl, and others compared to revving up an old motorcycle. But the deep grating noise that erupted from my throat was distinctly reptilian, an alligator bellow, a thundering rasp full of menace.

Julian just stood there to taunt me with the scent of his body. Couldn’t he at least pretend I was dangerous, and acknowledge the fact that I wanted to eat him? Here I was at my scariest, swarming with bloodlust, and Julian had as much fear of me as a kitten. Was I not a vampire? The most terrifying child of the Goddess?

I got no damn respect sometimes. None.

I forced myself past Julian and ran for the witch, dropped to my knees, and buried my teeth in the gash on her neck. Like a wolf with a deer, I sank my canines in with a groan.

Julian didn’t watch. As soon as I hit the ground, he turned his back to me, let me be.

I closed my eyes as I fed, gulping mouthfuls, lost in bliss. The witch’s nefsin magic still laced her blood, hot and rolling with power, and the flavor was rich. Bitter and strong.

I remembered how good devouring food had felt as a human, when a heightened appetite had given any meal intense pleasure. Hearty stews on a cold winter night. Pastries fresh from the oven, glistening with butter. Chicken pot pies steaming with a heady aroma. Grilled sandwiches dripping with melted cheese.

Nothing matched the delicious joy of fresh blood. My skin flared with heat, coursed with life, and my heart pounded so hard, my bones throbbed with each pulse. Bloodlust was lust, overwhelming desire, and feeding that hunger brought an ecstasy human food never had.

But even as I slaked my great thirst and recharged my power, there was still a part of me aware of Julian’s presence. His heartbeat, his blood. I was always going to want to put my teeth in his skin, even while I drank from another.

I gorged myself on the witch. Drained everything she had left in her body, fast as I could. Took me less than a minute. A sign of how starved for strength I had been.

Finished, I settled back on my heels, and then lay on the ground, so buzzed I felt sick. Heart racing, short of breath, dizzy and weak with euphoria. A rushing sound filled my ears, like I was caught in a cyclone, spinning in whorls of hot color. My body felt lit up with power, and a force tore through me like music, thrumming my muscles and bones, caressing my skin. Strong as a beating, almost painful. But oh Goddess, I didn’t want it to stop.

After a feeding like that, I struggled to bring the world back to order. Everything around me gleamed with wild beauty, the stars and the snow so impossibly bright. An otherworldly spirit-fire ran through my muscles, and angel-song swirled through my head. I felt perfect, so perfect, as my veins sang with contentment.

By the time I came to my senses enough to sit up, I felt that other craving stir to life. The other hunger in my body that longed to be fed.

Carnal desire.

Strong as a curse.

But I was much, much better at controlling this hunger, because the torment was always greatest right after I fed, when I had the power to hide it. Julian never felt waves of sexual lust surging around me. The fact that he felt my bloodlust sometimes, to the point when I rumbled at him from the strain, was mortifying enough. I’d die of shame if he knew I suffered erotic lust for him too.

Carnal desire still embarrassed me, rising like an unstoppable force right after a feeding. I scooped up handfuls of snow and rubbed them over my face, grateful for a chance to cool off my skin, clear my head, and push my thoughts to something else.

Julian stood a short distance away. He’d taken his coat off, rolled up the right sleeve of his tunic, and was smearing balm on his skin. He still had his back to me, but I could smell the lavender in the salve, and hear the way his breath hitched with pain as he touched the site of the curse. It was an ugly fact to accept that while I’d been lying on the ground in a haze of lust and blood-bliss, the object of my carnal desire had been struggling with a wound. Way to go me.

I hung my head for a moment, ashamed, and scented the ointment again, a lavender paste mixed with snowdrop and citrus, which slowed jinxes from spreading. All Ephraim carried a tin of that lotion in their belts.

I took a deep breath, so my voice wouldn’t waver. “Julian?”

“Mm.”

“How bad is it?”

His voice held a rough timbre, evidence of the agony in his arm. “About what I’d expect. From someone that strong.”

I swayed on my feet as I stood, but regained full control of my balance as I walked toward him. The shredder-spell had turned Julian’s right forearm bright pink and red, and his skin was pulsing and moving, like hundreds of baby tarantulas had been hatched in his muscles, scurrying about in his body.

“Already spreading,” he said, since the rippling movement had expanded up past his elbow. Shredder energy fed on blood and heart tissue. Untreated, the jinx would reach into his torso in less than an hour. He wouldn’t live long after that.

A healer could help him, another mage or associate gifted in stopping nefsin magic. Now that Julian had applied balm, he should teleport to headquarters, to Minnie, who would like nothing better than to treat Julian’s arm. I could envision her smile as she told him to take off his tunic while she fluttered about with her potions and charms. Given two or three hours, Minnie would have this shredder-spell gone.

But vampire blood worked just as well. I was fed, powered to my maximum strength, and letting Julian drink two swallows of blood wouldn’t do any harm.

Since my canines were human length now, I extended the tips a small fraction, used one to cut open the inside of my wrist, and lifted the cut toward Julian’s mouth.

“Eloise,” and he snatched up my hand. “I don’t need your blood.”

Of course he needed my blood. As long as he still planned on making his meeting tonight, and taking care of whatever else he needed to do. But I waited while he stood there and winced, so out of breath with pain that he hung his head.

His fingers were strong, his grip warm on my hand. His touch made me giddy, but Julian couldn’t sense that emotion. Outwardly, I was still as the dead.

“How long do these weres plan to wait?”

“Long enough I can portal to Devon, have him deal with this, and then—”

“Julian.” Devon was another associate, a male witch and a healer like Minnie, and he was all the way back at headquarters too. Devon couldn’t eliminate this curse any faster than Minnie. I pressed my bloody wrist toward Julian again. “Just take it.”

Drinking blood from a gash, even for a human, was as easy as drawing water out of a sponge. Julian’s mouth felt hot on my skin, and though I could have focused on the pain of my cut, or reminded myself that humans didn’t feel any euphoria while consuming fresh blood, I closed my eyes and bowed my head with a smile.

Julian’s lips were so soft on my sensitive wrist. And how grateful I was that of all my paltry vampire talents, hiding my emotions and power was my primary skill.

So I composed my face to appear drawn and resigned, while Julian swallowed three mouthfuls of blood.

Three. That curse had been worse than I thought.

Julian was in pain right now, but I wasn’t. One cut through an artery couldn’t override the pleasure of his touch, or the fact that I was able to help him.

I stifled a giggle, though I imagined Julian probably felt gross. If I’d been in Julian’s place, a human drinking recycled witch blood from a vampire corpse, I’d have puked. But Julian swallowed three times and let me go without gagging.

In two years of fighting together, this was only the fourth time I’d ever fed Julian some of my blood. After the second time, he’d said I always had the flavor of black licorice, no matter what blood I fed on beforehand. Double gross.

As a human, I’d hated eating black licorice, loathed even the smell of that candy, and if I ever came across a human whose blood tasted like licorice, I’d be repulsed. So far, the most disgusting odor on a fresh corpse I’d ever encountered was from a necklace of garlic. An unbearable stink.

But Julian didn’t share my revulsion, not for garlic or black licorice, and he didn’t look disgusted right now. The procedure of drinking my blood took only seconds, and within a minute, my blood killed his jinx, his arm returned to normal, and he rolled his sleeve down to cover his skin.

“Sorry,” he said, eyeing my wrist, though my skin had already healed. “She came in under my charm. Or I’d have known she was there.” Charms came in all different types, but in this instance, Julian meant a protective spell that would alert him to danger.

“At least she didn’t shift. Or summon a snow wraith.”

Julian gave a faint smile. “Small mercies.” He fetched his sword, cleaned the blood from the blade with handfuls of snow, dried the metal on his pant leg, and returned the sword to the plain black scabbard he wore on his belt. Then he held out his hands over the witch, and murmured the smooth, flowing words of an ancient spell. Sumerian words I couldn’t translate.

The syllables had a rich, rolling sound, an incantation made even more beautiful by the sound of Julian’s voice, but the words sent a shiver of dread through my skin.

Primordial energy curled through the night, an immense, timeless power from the beyond. A force only a Source mage could summon. A thick, heavy mist flowed from Julian’s palms, clouding his body and the witch’s corpse in a haze.

My heartbeat sped up, and I fought the urge to run.

Julian had conjured a gate and knocked at the door with the words of that spell. Which meant a guardian of Xekkra would answer, a spirit creature from the beyond.

Xekkra was the abode of Source energy, a place all Ephraim visited during their training. Some humans called Source energy God, and some people, such as Pagans like Julian, called Source the Goddess. Humans who didn’t use magic often said Xekkra didn’t exist, and some magicians called Xekkra an empty dimension, a void.

Julian didn’t mind people calling Xekkra a void, but he did have a problem when people referred to the beyond as “mage Heaven.” No Source mage ever called Xekkra Heaven. To Julian and all the Ephraim, Xekkra was justice and peace, and a place to pay penance, not a paradise of the afterlife.

To any dark spirit like me, the mists of Xekkra weren’t a shroud of enlightenment, but a symbol of entrapment and death.

Julian had to report that he’d taken a life, and allow himself to be judged for his actions. Knowledge I clung to right now, rather than fleeing in terror.

Because if anyone sent me through the mist, I’d never come back. And that wasn’t a future I ever wanted to face.

12

A race of godlike beings called the Velci ruled the beyond, and the gates to their realm were guarded by angels and jinn. As Julian’s spell parted the veil between worlds—the invisible divide between Xekkra and Earth—a jinn answered his summons and appeared in the mist.

Humans called her a jinni, or genie, a term I shunned. Mundanes portrayed genies as pathetic creatures trapped in lamps, granting wishes, and the guardian who answered Julian’s knock was nothing like that. No one could place this mighty being inside a cage, and there was no spell in the universe strong enough to force her to grant human wishes. She was a raven-flamed shapeshifter, a sorceress with a body of midnight fire, smokeless flame darker than shadow.

She stood more than eight feet in height, and possessed the slender body of Diana, goddess of the hunt. She wore a black carapace, shiny as a scorpion’s shell, and a full set of armor that covered her completely, even her eyes. Her elaborate helmet rose a foot above the top of her head, an intricate headdress in a swirling design. She carried a black scepter carved with an ankh, and when the tip of her magician’s rod touched the earth, the ankh drawn in her carapace flashed gold, a fleeting brilliance that made my heart skip.

Julian knelt before her, bowed low with his palms on the ground, and the jinn tipped her head to acknowledge his presence. She didn’t speak, but I felt her studying him, felt her gaze like silver water poured in the night. A wave of ancient power flowed from her body as she reached out with her mind, down to Julian, and entered him.

I shuddered, clenched my teeth, and wished I could stop her. A mental invasion was a frightening force, a violation I reacted to with horror and sadness. No matter how many times I’d seen Julian do this, and regardless of his assurance that he felt no pain, the effect on me was the same: an unconscious pull of despair, a bond of empathy, as he submitted himself to the jinn. Allowed her mind into his. Julian remained as still as the mountain while the jinn probed and searched, collected his secrets, his nightmares and dreams. Like a caress from the Dark Goddess, only this was no mother’s touch. Angels and jinn weren’t tender or loving. The guardians of Xekkra were soldiers, more powerful than any creature on Earth.

If Julian had captured the witch in his binding ring, he would have still summoned a guardian to take her to Xekkra. But jinn didn’t transport the dead to their realm. The Velci had no use for corpses, only spirits and souls.

Julian had ended a life to continue his own, and even though he’d thrown a sword at the woman’s neck, not a spell, all Source mages were forbidden to murder. By baring his soul to the jinn, Julian had placed himself on trial, in the court inside Xekkra. The jinn carried his deeds to the Velci, so they would know why the witch had been killed and how she had died. Source mages who became corrupted by power, or turned to nefsin magic for personal gain, didn’t remain on Earth long. Xekkra wasn’t a place of execution, but it was often a place of no return. Misbehaving mages, like dark spirits and nefsin magicians, usually didn’t come back.

When the jinn finished her search of Julian’s mind, her face turned toward me, and I strengthened my screen as she studied me. Her power drifted over my magic like razors of ice. She was not an evil creature, not a person of death, but she possessed the power to kill. Swift as a ray of sunlight, a guardian of the gate could eliminate me.

I wasn’t a threat though. Not to Julian, or the jinn, and certainly no danger to Xekkra.

Which the jinn must have understood from testing Julian’s mind, because she disappeared in an instant, along with the fog. One moment, she was there, standing over Julian and the witch with all her power and might; then she was gone.

Julian straightened and rose, and as the scents of myrrh and sage drifted toward me, my heart calmed. I relaxed the hold on my block to a more typical level of power.

I glanced down at the witch, her face unfamiliar to me, but I wondered if Julian recognized her. “Was she with the coven last night?”

“No. But she’s a maven of the True God. Those torrals were cast with Divine Light.” The style of nefsin magic the warlock and the coven had used when they’d summoned the wraiths. “The warlock might’ve been her apprentice.”

I nodded, since her spells had definitely been more powerful than the warlock’s.

Of his fight with the coven, Julian said, “I recovered only one body last night. Other than learning a name and where she was born, I found nothing. She didn’t carry anything that tied her to the base in the desert.”

The Ephraim operated as magical law enforcement, bound to legal code and connected to the local police. Source mages handled corpses as part of their own investigations, and then turned over any dead humans to the morgue. The same procedure would be followed with this sorceress. She was most likely a U.S. citizen, and her death had to be treated as any other. Her family contacted, if she had any, some kind of burial or cremation arranged, and a formal report on her death filed with the police.

Julian held his open palm over the dead maven’s body, and her corpse disappeared in a vanishing, similar to the one Vix had used. A spell strong enough to make the witch invisible and clear her scent from the air, so Julian could return for her later, and take her body to headquarters. “I doubt I’ll find anything on this woman either, but at least I can check. Chelsea does the best job with these castings. We’ll identify her together when I get back.”

After his meeting with the wereleopards and fae. Nothing like a fight to the death to make normal life seem bizarre.

Julian walked over to me. “Still want to go with?” and he gave me a curious look, like he worried I’d say no.

I waved a hand toward the canyon. “I think I’d rather stay here all night, hang out, enjoy the view. I’m sure another homicidal monster will be along shortly, to throw me off a cliff or blast me to pieces or tear out my throat. Why would I give all that up for some boring meeting?”

Julian smiled as he closed the distance between us, so that we stood facing each other before he wrapped me in his arms. “Ready?”

“Ready,” and I squeezed my eyes shut.

13

The ground fell away, and we soared through a portal. I felt like a stone being sucked through a vacuum, flung through a tornado of wind, and though I’d never been harmed in a portal, I couldn’t banish my aversion to the white light racing past. Too much like sunshine, like death. My eyes remained shut, as if I had to protect them from burning to ash. The thrill of being pressed up against Julian was negated when I thought my eyeballs might roast in my skull.

Three seconds later, we finished the journey, left the portal and hit ground. The shock of the landing kept me sealed against Julian another instant, then I recovered and stepped away.

We stood in a small clearing ringed by dark pine, several miles from where the warlock had been. Out of the mountains, at the elevation of town, but still surrounded by jagged rock teeth on three sides. A sliver of moon peeked from behind one of the cliffs crowning the valley, and illuminated the snow with a pale milky shine.

This was a much broader canyon than the one surrounding Ice Lake, a tract of forest and ranchland on the farthest outskirts of town. Senna had possessed a population of less than 37,000 people only ten years ago, but with the massive influx of refugees sweeping in, regions like this valley would soon fill with hogans and tent dwellings, like so many other wilderness areas left around town. A possibility that was causing friction between different magical groups, like this prowl of wereleopards and wild tribe of fae, who were worried and stressed about the incoming humans. Their clash over property lines had been repeated all around Senna, as different magical groups tried to claim extra territory before a new wave of people moved in.

The fae hadn’t arrived for the meeting yet, but the wereleopards waited in the darkness under the trees. Invisible to mundane human eyesight, but I could see them clearly enough, and Julian could sense them with his magic.

Ten, fifteen, twenty, I counted them in an instant. Five had changed into cat form, four hadn’t shifted yet, and the rest were in their bipedal aspect: muscular leopard-human hybrids with feline heads, tails, huge hands tipped with claws, and elongated paws for their feet. Standing there naked in their beautiful pelts. Most of the hybrids had spots, but two had black coats, liquid shadow in the moonlight.

The lycanthrope virus came in three different strains, and determined which forms a wereperson could take. Some weres could only transform into their animal, which was no bigger or smaller than that animal would be in the wild. Other weres possessed only the hybrid aspect when they shifted, which was roughly the same size as their human body, though they often seemed bigger with tails and animal heads. A rare few lycanthropes could change into either form—their animal as well as their hybrid aspect.

In the world of the monsters, a dark spirit possessed far more power than a lycanthrope, and vampires often preyed upon weres, since their blood contained the rich force of their strength, energy they used for healing and shifting. Following the hierarchy of monsters, I outranked a lycanthrope by a considerable margin, even as young as I was.

But in my role as an associate, I posed as an element rook—someone who practiced witchcraft, but lacked the stamina to consistently cast or even conjure difficult spells. In magical terms, I was the lowest level of witch on the sorcery totem pole. Outranked by everyone, even lycanthropes.

So I bowed my head to the wereleopards, acknowledged them as my equals, not my prey.

Julian bowed, too.

The prowl leader growled, a sound as menacing as my vampire rumble. She was in hybrid form, and her coat had a rich hue in the starlight, her golden fur a bright silver against her dark spots.

“Tianna,” Julian said, addressing the leader. “You remember Eloise,” and he made a formal gesture to me.

Silence. A quiet on the edge of hostility. Not toward us, but the problem that had brought us together.

“I apologize for our delay,” Julian said. “We had a skirmish with a witch, and the fight ended poorly.”

Tianna spoke with a sharp voice, textured with the rasping undertones of her cat. “You carry the mist in your clothes.” Her leopard nose smelled the fog of the gate on Julian’s uniform.

I gave the were-community huge props for sharing my fear of the beyond. Tianna knew Xekkra was nothing she wanted to mess with. We had that in common, which made me like her a lot.

“The jinn is gone now,” Julian said. “You have nothing to fear.”

Tianna lifted her chin toward me, her voice sharper. “She smells of nefsin blood.”

Julian tipped his head once in a nod. “Yes, from the witch.”

Then he cupped his hands together, and twisted them back and forth, as if he were shaping a snowball of air. Summoning element for a musical cast. I loved these, and couldn’t help but smile as I watched him. A moment later, Julian tossed the invisible shape up over our heads, which flared to life and hovered above us like a small and glittering sun. A faint amber light spread through the clearing, illuminating our faces and the wereleopards around us, while a cheerful melody spread through the night.

An ancient fae song of greeting and welcome swirled around us. Part bird call, part squirrel chirp, part warbling tune like a violin solo, the lyrics filled the air with sweet joy.

Julian dropped his hands and turned his gaze to the opposite side of the clearing, where the trees stood apart like an opening to a hall. The music soon drifted away into silence, the light remained overhead, and two fae walked out from under the trees to stroll into the clearing. A mated pair of men, holding hands.

Four feet tall, with long raven hair left loose like mine, one man had pale blue skin, the other pale green, and they were both dressed for winter, wearing flowing black robes with indigo sashes. Silver rings glimmered with casual grace on their fingers, and dozens of tiny hoops of jeweled earrings decorated the full length of their ears. They were beautiful men, with smooth, hairless faces and curious dark eyes.

Julian and I bowed our heads to the fae, and they smiled. While there were many different kinds of fae—including sylphs, elves, dryads, and pixies—the word was usually only used for the various species that looked the most human, such as these grinning men. A fae smile was an expression of mischief, the gleam of a trickster capable of powerful magic. And unlike the pixies, fae didn’t forgive insults by curling up in a tree and having an orgy. Grudges and vengeance were much more their style.

“Donovan, Rian,” Julian addressed the two men. Donovan was the man with green skin, along with a jeweled teardrop at the top of one cheek. Rian—a fae title pronounced Ree-an—had braided a white lily over one ear, and the petals shimmered with magic, enchanted. Julian gestured toward me. “I believe you’ve met Eloise. She attended Samhain this year.”

Samhain was the harvest festival of the Seelie Court, which the wild tribes participated in every fall. To many American mundanes, this Gaelic celebration had been modified and transformed into the modern Halloween. But to many witches like Julian, Samhain was a festival that had begun with the fae, and was later adopted by ancient Celts, long before Jesus was born and Christian teachings intertwined with old magic. The Seelie Court also invited human Pagans to Samhain every year, a huge feast with drinking, dancing, and music.

Senna was surrounded by several fae tribes, which operated much the same way humans did, with a great variety between different groups. Most mundanes were only interested in one fae attribute though: whether the tribe interacted with humans or not. If the answer was yes, those fae were called Seelie. Any tribe that kept its distance from humans—like the wild tribe Donovan and Rian belonged to—was given the label Unseelie.

On Slayers of Doom, Horace and Nips called Unseelie fae “deviant fairies in league with the devil.” A statement as truthful as the show’s depictions of killing master vampires with guns. The Unseelie fae were dangerous, and could inflict mortal harm if they felt threatened or slighted, but they shunned devils, demons, and anything else born of blood magic.

As Julian introduced me to the two men, I caught a glimmer of recognition in both of them. Rian gazed at me with a puzzled expression, no doubt wondering why Julian had brought me along, while Donovan spoke in a warm, happy voice, glancing over me and then Julian with a satisfied smile. “You’ve been out killing witches tonight.”

Julian tipped his head to agree. “A maven of the True God.”

Rian grinned. “I do hope she died painfully. Was she one of the hellspawn who attacked you last night?”

Donovan released Rian’s hand as he spoke, then took a step closer to Julian. “And the warlock? Did you catch him?”

“You should ask us for help,” Rian said, a subtle menace in his words and expression.

“Yes, do,” Donovan said. “We’ve been waiting to help.”

They were casting now, a questing spell of enchantment, a rose-scented breeze in the night. Invisible to my eyes, but as clear to my body-sight as the witch’s hexes had been.

They were checking over Julian’s power, sensing how strong he was, but they were also trying to trap him, the same way they would a mundane. Seize hold of his mind like children grasping a toy.

Julian lowered his head, glancing from Rian to Donovan, quirking a brow in amusement. “I’ve visited your palace at least twenty times, and you still try to bespell me?”

“Hush,” Rian said. “We don’t break procedure for you. Or anyone else who enters our land.”

“Especially since you brought someone with you,” and Donovan squinted at me. His fae magic twined around me, trying to sense my true nature, but my block was in no danger of breaking. “How does a rook cast such a powerful screen? What are you hiding from us?”

“She might be a spy,” Rian said.

“Or a skinwalker,” Donovan said. “We might need to hex her.”

Julian laughed. “I’d like to see you try.”

“Yes, but the leopards are here,” and Donovan gave an elaborate gesture toward Tianna and her prowl, before his eyes flicked back to me. “You’ll shield her, mage, and our magic will hit someone else.”

“Then maybe we ought to start the meeting,” Julian said. “The Queen didn’t ask me here for a duel.”

The fae both lowered their chins with careful smiles, and their feral nature began to shine through, enough that even a mundane could sense peril in the savage gleam of their teeth.

“You might fight warlocks and ancients,” Rian told Julian. “But the Ephraim do not rule our court, and we will not give ground to the weres, now or ever. The fae don’t negotiate with humans or beasts.”

Tianna stepped beside Julian and snarled to Rian, “You little bastard—how dare you!

Rian tilted his head as he glanced toward Tianna, and the air charged with fae power, an energy I felt beneath my skin, brushing through my muscles like the curl of a storm.

“Careful, kitty cat,” Rian said. “I’m running out of patience with you.”

“Go to hell!” Tianna snapped. “We own the deed to this land! This is our property! Your palace isn’t recognized by human law—no government recognizes the Unseelie Court, and never will! But my prowl has always respected your domain, and left you alone—and now you have the gall to stand there and insult me?”

A hybrid male beside Tianna growled, “Hateful demons! It’s no wonder the humans despise you!”

Tianna placed a hand on the man’s shoulder, to make sure he didn’t advance, before she said to the fae, “The Ephraim keep you here, but the mages don’t allow you to harass us. Either you leave us alone, and stop the spread of your court, or we’ll drive your queen out—send you into the mountains to find a new place to live.” Which was why she’d brought her prowl with her tonight: to prove to the fae this was no idle threat. If this tribe of Unseelie wanted to lose their ancestral home, Tianna and her prowl could kill enough of them to force them to flee.

But the fae didn’t intend to back down, because Rian and Donovan lifted their hands, palms aimed at the weres, the two of them united to cast. The amethyst charms on their wrists flashed in the light, and the power charging the air thickened and surged, so much that pulling in a breath became difficult.

At the sight of those upraised hands, Tianna crouched and bared her teeth—very large, very sharp feline teeth—and she roared loud enough to lift every hair on my body. Her leopard cry sent more adrenaline shooting through me than even the fae’s power did. Her entire prowl copied her threatening pose, and the humans who hadn’t shifted yet took their animal or hybrid forms, which sent waves of lycanthrope energy into the night, a shivering force quite different than the surge of fae magic coating the air.

My feet moved without thinking, one stride and I was by Tianna, ready to tackle her if she leapt for the fae. She might have the superstrength of a lycanthrope, but I had the strength of a vampire, and if she jumped for anyone’s throat, I’d take her to the ground. Even an element rook could be a badass sometimes, if the emotion needed to conjure ran high enough. As an associate witch, I was well known at headquarters for my heat-of-the-moment fighting spells. With my dark spirit blood worth millions on the black market, since there was no shortage of people who’d pay any price to escape a terminal illness—or even just cure their erectile dysfunction—making excuses for my vampire talent was a paramount skill.

I also had the charged blood of a sorceress filling my veins, and enough pent-up aggression to enjoy a good brawl. Tackling a leopard would be fun.

The instant everyone prepared for a fight, Julian scowled toward the fae and cast a gleam shield, a thin barrier ten feet tall and forty feet wide. Gleam shields were weak pieces of magic, just a transparent wall like dark crystal, traced with small silver snowflakes so even a mundane could see it was there. Magicians cast them as warnings—diplomatic warnings—when the danger of someone throwing around curses was high. A gleam shield could only stop the weakest of spells, but the sight of one was the magical equivalent of telling people to calm their shit down.

“Donovan, Rian,” Julian said. “I’m in no mood for this. If you want to stand here and duel, then you can fight me.”

The fae dropped their hands, eyes narrowed and wary. “But we’re sick of the cats,” Rian said. “They’re bringing the humans here, tainting the land.”

“Filthy humans,” Donovan said.

Since the wereleopards were human lycanthropes, Tianna hissed, a powerful leopard hiss, and I had an urge to hiss with her. The Unseelie fae weren’t all-powerful, but they had a terrible superiority complex during any interaction with humans, similar to the way most vampires viewed mundanes.

“The refugees are coming for water,” Julian said to the fae. “No one can live without clean water to drink. The ocean level is rising, cities are flooding. Aquifers are running empty, crops are dying. The droughts are increasing in length and severity. People are starving and hopeless, in need of water and food. That’s what is driving the refugees here. Not Tianna. Not her prowl.”

“She is human!” Rian shouted. “Filthy human with a virus! She is nothing to us! We don’t want her here! We don’t want anyone here!”

Julian continued to scowl, and raised his voice. “This is her home. The prowl owns this land, and has for the last hundred years. The weres tithe your court, grant your rights and your solitude. They’ve done nothing to warrant your ill treatment.”

“But the refugees will come now!” Rian yelled. “The prowl will let those filthy people take haven here—let them set up their tents on our land! Their dirty human tents! And the magic will die!”

“It will be all your fault, mage!” Donovan shouted at Julian. “You’ll kill our whole tribe for those humans! You’ll kill us all!”

Annihilated like the hundreds of species of wild animals going extinct. Dolphins, fish, birds, rhinos, frogs, butterflies, honeybees. Casualties of global warming, of the same problems that were forcing humans to move by the hundreds of thousands.

Modern civilization had turned Mother Earth into a war zone, and everyone on the planet was starting to feel the effects. The carbon emissions clogging the atmosphere couldn’t be sucked from the air with the flip of a switch, and there was no quick solution for fixing the mess. As forests and crops withered in drought, people were terrified in a way they’d never been when climate scientists first started raising the alarm about diminishing rainfalls, increasing storms with horrific levels of damage, weather patterns changing so dramatically that growing food was becoming impossible.

The fae could survive rising sea levels, severe droughts, and storms that destroyed millions of acres of cropland. But they couldn’t survive without magic. To the Unseelie Court, the shifting tides of humanity meant only one thing: the death of the magic that kept them alive. The wild fae had linked all human beings with pollution, with huge swaths of territory too toxic for magic. Vast acres of tar sands, mountains leveled for coal, contaminated extraction sites for minerals and petroleum, landfills the size of Everest, spilled nuclear waste. No fae could survive in that level of ruin. Human poison killed magic, the same way it scrambled DNA, caused diseases, and made any living system sicken and die.

“The refugees need homes,” Julian said. “Beds for their children, places to cook food, safe areas to raise their families. They’re not turning this valley into an industrial site.”

“Not at first,” Donovan said. “But they will. Humans pollute everything. They’re depraved!”

Julian strode through his gleam shield, which broke the spell and made the snowflake wall vanish. He stopped before the fae, close enough to touch them.

“Yes, humans can be quite depraved,” Julian said softly. “I’m not here to argue about that. I don’t disagree with you, or your queen. We cannot allow this valley to be filled with industrial garbage. But you’re as misguided as the CEOs of the companies you hate if you think your lack of compassion is going to save you. Tianna and her prowl are your neighbors. Your friends. And these human refugees are just people with families. Not oil executives. Not nuclear power factories. Not mine owners looking for a new place to drill.”

Donovan and Rian glowered at Julian. “They stink though,” Rian said, his voice still defensive and hard. “Such a horrible stink.”

Julian placed a hand on Rian’s shoulder. “I’m human, and I stink.”

“No, mage,” Rian sighed, and he reached up and caught Julian’s hand, covering Julian’s fingers with his own. “You don’t understand.”

“But I do understand,” Julian said. “I know I can’t protect the peace without your help. I know you have news of the warlock for me. I’m aligned with your court, and you are my friends. It is not my intention to harm you, or your land. Tianna and her prowl have nothing to gain from hurting you, either. This is their home. No one wants to see it destroyed.”

Julian drew his hand from beneath Rian’s and took a step back, while Donovan and Rian bowed their heads.

Tianna glanced at me as she straightened, much calmer now, and I tipped my head toward Julian and the fae, to let her know she could approach them and I wouldn’t stop her.

As she went to stand beside Julian, Tianna told Rian and Donovan, “If you were worried about a tent city here, you should have said so. The Ephraim can reinforce your enchantments, if you think your palace is at risk. I wouldn’t mind if you blocked the valley from strangers, as long as my prowl can pass through.”

Rian considered this for a moment, then pointed to me. “Have her cast the spell,” he said to Julian. “That rook has the blocking power of a sorceress. Her enchantment would do.”

As if they had any intention of allowing an element rook to glamour their precious palace. They just wanted to know what I was, and hoped that my screen might slip if I was distracted enough with a spell. Mother of Night.

So I said to Rian, “I wouldn’t presume to enchant a fae palace. I don’t have the training for that level of power.”

Rian’s questing magic slipped around my screen again, a soft breeze on my skin, and his lips curled in a smile. “You should at least visit first, before you decide what you can spell.”

Donovan gave a sly grin. “Yes, you should visit. Attend one of our balls—”

“At the Solstice,” Rian said, his voice rich with delight. “We could even make you a dress. A gown of moon-pearl, and thread your long hair with diamonds—” and he shared a significant glance with Donovan. Since today was December 8, the Winter Solstice was less than two weeks away. Which was plenty of time for a pair of fae men to plot who-knew-what.

“Yes, the Solstice Ball,” Donovan said, eyeing me with a careful expression. “That would be perfect. Come dancing with us, pretty witch. Let us show you our home full of secrets.”

“Maybe some other time,” I said lightly. “When you decide I don’t stink.”

Rian and Donovan laughed. Tianna cleared her throat in annoyance, the rest of her prowl fidgeted in agitation, and Julian said, “Eloise didn’t come here to dance, and neither did anyone else. But we do need to visit the Queen tonight, if we’re going to finish this meeting.”

Julian continued to make preparations to follow the fae to their palace, but I turned my face toward the trees, distracted by a whispery flutter of wings high above. Not a magical sound, nothing perilous or destructive. But the quiet chuff of those feathers still put me on edge.

The bird swooped through the black winter sky, locating a perch. He stayed beyond the reach of the light Julian had cast overhead, and a moment later, his talons caught against bark with a soft clip, and his wings settled in silence.

Rafna, the raven.

Come to see me.

He knew I’d heard him arrive. Rafna’s wingbeats were as distinct and familiar to me as Vix’s jingles and chimes. Though Rafna rarely sought out my company like this.

I felt his presence like a weight in my heart as he perched there in silence, still as a gravestone, waiting for me.

Trouble, I thought. My luck running bad again.

14

When I glanced over at Julian, the fae were both studying me with their glittering dark eyes.

“What an interesting witch,” Donovan said.

Rian grinned. “We’ve never met a rook with a wild raven before.”

“How very curious,” Donovan purred.

I flicked my eyes once toward the woods, to let Julian know I planned to see why Rafna had come. Then I bowed to the fae, to Tianna and her prowl, parted company, and walked toward the tree where Rafna had landed.

I loved ravens. Ever since I was a child, and befriended a raven in my backyard. Marco helped me name that bird Moonpie, and when Moonpie arrived one day with his mate, I named her Khadija, after the first wife of Muhammad.

As a vampire, I had no animal to call—to summon with my power and use at my bidding—because I hadn’t been blessed with that gift. But if the Dark Goddess had given me any animal as my own, I’d have chosen the raven to call.

Rafna was an especially beautiful raven, a full-sized adult. He weighed almost three pounds, with a wingspan over four feet. His feathers were a perfect jet black in the night, including his rich plumage of throat hackles, the feather-beard all ravens possessed. He had a distinct curve in his beak, and I thought he was at least thirty years old, with the quiet mind of a wolf soaring on those black wings.

I called him Rafna after Rafnagud, the raven god—one of the titles for Odin, the great god of Viking mythology, who had been the master of two ravens in his celestial realm of Asgard.

I stopped at the base of a tall Ponderosa and gazed up. Rafna remained still as he studied me from his branch, and cocked his head when I smiled.

“Hello, Rafna,” I said.

“Hello,” he responded. Ravens were brilliant at mimicking speech, and Rafna had a special gift for human words.

I cooed and burbled to him, which he also echoed. Then I held my hands out, palms up: the sign for no food. I never fed Rafna human food, but sometimes I saved road kill for him. Which was a disgusting and smelly endeavor, but Rafna’s visits to see me made the hassle worth the effort. I might be a monster who slept in a grave, but I still needed friends, no matter where that companionship came from—whether a savage pixie, the vampire-slaying Ephraim, or a wild raven who fed on road kill.

“How are you?” I asked.

“Hi.” Rafna lifted his shoulders, and settled them again, like a shrug.

“Did you want to meet the fae? Or the wereleopards?”

He tipped his head in what I thought of as Rafna’s don’t-be-foolish look. “Come on.”

“Were you worried they’d fight?”

Another careful shrug of his shoulders. “Hello. Hi. Love ya.”

I smiled at his love ya, wishing I could figure out what he wanted. Angels and jinn could read animal minds, and some nefsin magicians claimed that ability. Vix sometimes communicated with Rafna, but not with pixie speech. She was simply much better at body language and bird-think than me.

Rian and Donovan might be able to read Rafna’s mind, but I didn’t trust them to tell me what he was thinking.

“Eloise?” Julian called a few moments later, leaving the clearing to join me. He acknowledged Rafna with a tip of his head and a quick, “Hi, Raf,” as he arrived at my side.

“Hello, mage,” Rafna said. Julian was the only person Rafna addressed with a title. An astonishing trait for a wild raven. And I loved Rafna even more for singling Julian out with a name.

Julian lowered his voice and spoke close to my ear. “I’m going to stay with the prowl and take them to the Queen’s palace. Oversee the discussion. After the weres finish, I can ask what she knows of the warlock.” Julian glanced up again. “What’s Raf want?”

“I don’t know.” I peered at Rafna, who continued to watch me intently.

“I should go,” Julian said. “If I make them wait any longer, they might start a new fight.”

“All right, I’ll come with.” But when I told Rafna, “Good night—I’m going to the palace now,” and started walking away beside Julian, Rafna called loudly, terribly, and flew off his branch to place himself at my feet. My avian version of Lassie, except I didn’t speak bird.

I halted with a frown. “I don’t know what you need,” and I held out my hands again.

Rafna rocked as he called, a deep raw raw raw of distress. Then he flew off, away from the clearing. He looped straight back through the darkness, and returned to my feet, rocked and rawed three more times. Launched once more and flew off, looped back and returned, called three more times, then repeated the entire process again. He flew in the same direction each time.

I glanced at Julian and stated the obvious. “He wants me to go with him somewhere.” I’d never known Rafna to collect me unless it was something important. Between visiting the fae palace and investigating what Rafna needed, I felt far more compelled to follow the raven. Julian could handle a meeting without me. But I had no one else to send to help Rafna.

Julian set his jaw, eyeing the woods with a wary expression. Then he lifted his hands toward the darkness and sent a charm through the air. Not a balancing light, but an invisible pulse that would locate any remnants of spells. Checking for danger.

“I don’t sense anything here,” I said softly, and gestured to Rafna. “He leads me to children sometimes. Never monsters. I’m sure it’s all right.” I paused for a moment. “Though I did want to go with you.”

Julian glanced over my face, deep in thought, before he reached into his tunic and untied his necklace. A wizard’s talisman; his mage necklace. A length of braided black thread with an ankh woven in the place of a pendant. A holy item Julian sometimes used as a focus of power. I’d never seen him take off that necklace before.

“Julian, please—” and I pushed back his hands. “I’m not taking that.”

“Yes, you are,” and he pulled free of my hold.

I knew why he wanted to give me his necklace—the ancient was out there somewhere, and we’d already survived a witch attack tonight. Goddess knew what else we might face.

But to see Julian take off his talisman was unnerving. Wizards didn’t part with those lightly, and Julian had worn this one since he was nineteen. I doubted anyone else had ever put on his necklace, and the thought unsettled me enough that I looked away.

Julian positioned the ankh at the base of my throat. The Egyptian symbol of life brushed my skin and dropped under my collar, while he tied the ends behind my neck. Despite the cold winter air, the black thread still held the heat of his body, and a powerful centering warmth. My skin tingled, and Source energy twined with my pulse, as my body recognized that I wore an emblem of magic.

Julian said, “Take the ankh in your hand and call my name if you need me. I’ll know where you are, wherever you are, and I’ll be there.” He didn’t meet my eyes as he spoke, just stared at the ground with a hard expression, but he gripped my shoulder before stepping away. He tipped his head to Rafna in farewell, and walked back to the clearing without me.

I remained where I was for a moment, watching Julian leave. He didn’t look back. Which was typical Julian.

But giving me a holy object to wear? One of his most important focusing charms?

Not typical. Not at all.

I felt like my life had become something I could no longer make sense of. Something much more irrational than being a monster who worked for the Ephraim.

I’d fought warlocks before, and mavens. And I’d survived an awful number of vampire attacks, though none had ever been as strong as the quicksilver.

But Julian’s behavior… sharing his power last night, and now leaving me with his ankh?

Either that quicksilver had scared Julian more than I’d realized, or there was something else going on with him that I couldn’t follow.

Then I remembered he’d been watching Slayers of Doom before I woke up. Which was as bizarre as leaving me with his necklace.

Yes, something was definitely off with Julian. Maybe that fight with the ghouls had affected him more than I could guess.

Rafna flew up and perched on my shoulder, the same shoulder Julian had touched before leaving.

“Hello,” I said.

“Hello,” Rafna said.

“Please don’t give me bird lice.”

Rafna fixed me with one steady eye and said, “Love ya.”

Which made me smile. “Love ya back.”

I turned and set off in the direction Rafna had shown me, and he nodded his head several times as I broke a path through the snow.

“If there’s an ancient waiting to kill me out here, I’ll never forgive you.”

Rafna cooed and nipped my ear, but not hard.

“I’m serious,” I said.

“Love ya.”

I quirked a brow with a sigh. “Love ya back.”

15

With the powerful blood of the nefsin witch in my veins, I moved with an efficient vampire speed through the valley. Rafna led me out of the canyon, to the edge of a ritzy neighborhood with a golf course, which we skirted, and then we climbed a steep ridge, to the top of a hogback, passed over the spine of the mountain, and dropped down the other side. Five miles in twenty minutes, through rough terrain and deep drifts, until I arrived at a small stream, and discovered Baruch sitting next to the water.

Senna’s resident troll, deep in thought.

I slowed to a human pace as Rafna soared overhead, turned in a wide arc toward home, and I waved goodbye. Rafna didn’t caw a farewell, but he dipped once, then flew off.

“Baruch?” I called.

Baruch’s deep rumbling voice rolled through the night. “Hello, Eloise.”

“Hello,” I said, still weaving my way toward him. “Are you divining river stones, or watching for nymphs?”

Baruch turned and sent me a sad smile. “I am thinking of death.”

My heart skipped with worry. “Did you run into trouble somewhere, or are you remembering Hilde?”

“Both,” he said heavily.

Baruch was three hundred years old, and he’d lived with his daughter for seventy years, the entire course of her life. She’d been killed by a sorcerer last winter. I’d helped the Ephraim catch that man, and he was in Xekkra now, no longer a threat to anyone. But nothing could return Hilde to life, and Baruch mourned her loss as acutely as the day she had died.

Baruch was a jötunn, a lord of nature, and he became stone in the sun. The change happened only after the sun crossed the horizon, during the hours of true day. Though on really dark days, when cloud cover was almost opaque, Baruch was known to wake up and wander. He lived like an ape, feeding on vegetation, grooming himself, always on the lookout for curious things. He collected tiny items like acorns and seeds for his treasure, which he stored in secret caches. Baruch took enormous pleasure in watching the natural world, and he was especially fond of discovering new patches of wild raspberries and juniper trees.

Right now he sat with his legs crossed, hunched over the stream. Upright, he stood eleven feet tall. Trolls never wore shoes, hats, or gloves, and some went without any clothing, but Baruch currently wore a bear hide in the style of Fred Flintstone. On hot summer days, the scent of bear fur was the most pungent odor around Baruch, but in the winter he smelled like granite and cave mineral: iron and manganese and oxidized copper.

He had a face similar to the way many people pictured Neanderthals, with massive noses and lips, brows and cheeks deeply lined by sun damage and weather. His pronounced features complemented the scraggly mane of brown hair that reached to his waist. He was broad-shouldered and beefy, his entire body thick and corded with muscle, though Baruch was a gentle giant, not aggressive at all, and nothing frightened him more than modern civilization. Like the pixies, the blare of guns hurt Baruch a great deal, damaged the ancient troll magic that kept him alive, and the sight of any mechanical object could seize him with terror. Cars, helicopters, golf carts—even toy drones—sent him running.

The sorcerer who’d killed Baruch’s daughter had kidnapped her after shooting them both with a gun, wounds that were meant to be fatal to Baruch, but he’d survived. If I’d carried a pistol on my belt, I’d have taken it off before I approached him, since the sight of any mechanized weapon triggered his worst memories of that horrible day.

Once I reached him, Baruch swept me up like a child, lifted me beneath my shoulders and propped me on his knee. I realized he’d been crying, so I placed my bare hands on his cheeks and smoothed away his tears. Troll tears had an earthy smell, like birch bark, and some magicians used them in potions, a base element in nature spells. The sorcerer who’d shot Hilde had been after her blood though, not her tears.

Once Baruch’s face was dry, I rested my head on his neck. I liked his granite and mineral smell, odors that reminded me of Julian’s power, since he conjured Source energy faster through stone.

“What trouble did you run into?” I asked.

“I found a dead snake.”

Odd. Snakes wouldn’t be out in winter. “Did you keep it?”

Baruch felt around in his pockets until he located the snake, and handed the carcass to me. I reached up and took hold of a baby rattlesnake, slit open from mouth to tail. The incision radiated a faint trace of power, the ghost remains of a spell, old enough for me to know that the animal had been dead for more than twenty-four hours. The sight of the snake’s flopping head made Baruch’s eyes swim with tears, so I tucked the rattlesnake back into his pocket. He’d bury the snake later, after singing a dirge.

“Nefsin magic,” Baruch said, and I nodded.

“We fought another warlock last night. Could have been one of his.”

The Ephraim shared daily news reports with all magical beings within the district territory of their base, but Baruch never paid much attention to the morning dispatch. Living wild in the mountains, he preferred his wandering, solitary existence, free of human interaction.

Baruch scowled at the ground. “Why must some warlocks kill? Why must anyone kill?”

“We don’t know what this man wants, or the coven of mavens who’ve joined him. But you know why some magicians turn to blood sacrifice.” Compared to summoning element, or channeling Source energy, shedding blood to cast spells was simple. “All you need is a weapon and the desire for power.”

I fell quiet a moment, as my thoughts roamed from the warlock to the ancient and vampires. Some humans longed to be envenomed with Goddess poison for the same reason people embraced nefsin magic, and masters usually put a great deal of thought into deciding who was worthy to share their bloodline. Rogues like the one who made me were the exception, not the rule.

For anyone who craved immortality, super power, and magic, convincing a master to turn them would make their dreams come true.

The price of a dark spirit was to spend an eternity as a corpse with a coven of bloodsuckers. Pursuing the constant directive to feed and gain power. Maintaining status in the hierarchy under a master. Hiding from bounty hunters, thrill seekers, religious fanatics, and the frightening network of other undead who constantly preyed on the weak. To a vampire coven, no target brought a greater reward than attacking another coven.

What a life.

Baruch sniffled as he patted my back. “I miss Hilde.”

“I know, Baruch,” and I reached my arms around his shoulders to hug him. “I miss her, too.” He drew in several shuddering breaths, and I waited a minute, until I was sure his sorrow had calmed, before I asked, “Where did you find the snake?”

“In Alpenglow Canyon. Not far from Hilde’s circle.” When Hilde died, her body had returned to rock form. Not a lumpy boulder in daylight, like when she’d been alive, but fractured stone pieces, called remainders. Julian and I had helped Baruch carry Hilde’s remainders to Alpenglow Canyon, where Baruch arranged them in a circle, a sacred space he could visit and commune with her spirit.

“Could you show me the place where you picked this up?” I asked. “I’d like to see if the magician left anything else.” If the warlock had killed the baby rattlesnake, there was a slim possibility I might find cast-offs of other spells, maybe even something that might be useful in catching him. Alpenglow Canyon wasn’t far, and I could talk to Baruch about the quicksilver. Ask if he’d seen any sign of vampire in the area, or sensed any power that felt out of place.

“Of course, Eloise. I will show you.”

So I hopped off Baruch, and he rose to his full troll height, and we started the hike.

Thirty minutes later, we’d almost reached Hilde’s circle, and Baruch told me he’d sensed nothing unusual in the mountains, and hadn’t seen any indication of vampires lurking in the wild. We also discussed the warlock, and the battle last night. When Julian and his team had fought the ghouls, Baruch had heard their savage howls of attack, and he’d turned into stone to protect himself.

“I’m glad you went to stone,” and I squeezed Baruch’s hand. “Those ghouls did a lot of damage last night. So did the shapeshifting witches who followed up the attack.”

At the word witches, Baruch stopped. “I found a witch bracelet last night.”

He rooted through his pockets a moment, then handed me a small piece of jewelry. A beautiful black band of dark crystal beads interspersed with triquetra charms made of pure gold.

An ancient Celtic symbol, the triquetra was also known as a trinity knot, used in some Pagan and Wiccan teachings to represent the threefold nature of the Goddess: as maiden, mother, and crone. To the ancient Celts, the symbol represented the power of three, or the idea that many powerful things in the world came in threes.

The symbol featured a shape called a vesica piscis, which looked like an oval with two pointed corners. A triquetra was formed when three of these cornered ovals interlocked with each other.

I liked to think of the vesica piscis the way Julian’s mother did, the way she’d explained the shape to me years ago: as the sign of the yoni, a Sanskrit word that literally meant womb and vagina, but was also used as the symbol of the Goddess Divine. To Julian’s mother, the vesica piscis was a literal drawing of a woman’s outer anatomy, and that was why she labeled the shape a yoni.

Julian possessed a focusing charm with a triquetra, a bracelet like the one I held now. Many Pagans revered this symbol, honoring and interpreting the design in a variety of ways. Whether the triquetra was called a Celtic knot, a trinity knot, or three interlocked yonis, whether it was used in traditional Celtic beliefs, or Christian teachings to represent the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, or interpreted as aspects of the Goddess, Julian had great reverence for the symbol.

This particular piece of jewelry, however, wasn’t his.

“This is Teagan’s bracelet,” I said, recognizing the charms and the beads. My senses also felt her energy in the charms, the same way I could sense Julian’s power in the necklace I wore. The golden triquetras didn’t burn my skin, but the metal caused an uncomfortable tingle, and I shifted the jewelry to hold the bracelet on my coat sleeve.

“Is Teagan a mage?” Baruch asked.

“One of the associate witches at the base.” Teagan Carlisle. She’d relocated to Senna a year ago, after transferring from a base in Miami. With the rise in the ocean, Miami was flooding so badly now, it was being abandoned, though there were still thousands of people who refused to give up on the ramparts to keep out the sea. The Ephraim had allowed many of their soldiers and associates to leave the area when the flooding began, following the waves of desperate people fleeing the city, and Teagan had been grateful to find a new home.

“Teagan is a thaumaturge.” The next step up from an element rook. “She’s also a banshee.”

“Can she fly?”

“Somewhat. She moves pretty fast close to the ground. Loses a lot of control the higher she goes.”

“I do not like banshees.” Baruch harrumphed to emphasize his disdain.

I smiled and patted his arm. “Most people don’t. They’re kind of like mages. So strong they all just seem dangerous.”

“You are not dangerous.”

“No magician in their right mind would be scared of me. I can’t even bespell a mundane.”

Baruch laughed, a grumbling chuckle that made me grin. “You are young though. Still in training. One day, you will be strong.”

I shook my head. “Not every witch can advance. Some of us stay rooks all our lives.”

Baruch rested a fingertip on my brow. “I have a feeling that will not be your fate.”

He meant his words as a compliment, but a public advancement like that was never going to happen. There were so many things Baruch didn’t know. Such as the fact that after he was shot, and I found him unconscious, my vampire blood saved his life. I hadn’t known if my blood would work on a troll, and I’d been so distraught when I found him without a heartbeat, I’d taken a wild guess that his body was caught in a dying phase between creature and stone.

I kept all this from Baruch because trolls were notorious for being unable to keep secrets, and my identity required constant guard.

Though I’d done a poor job of keeping my own secret, since that quicksilver had found me. The thought made me drop my gaze to the ground, angry I’d failed a task so important. Then I turned my attention to the jewelry once again.

“Where did you find this bracelet?” I asked.

“In the snow. After the ghouls were all gone, and the witches had fled, I went to feel the magic left in the air.”

“You went to the battle site? Last night?”

“Yes.”

“And this was just lying out in the snow?”

“No, under some trees in the snow. In a shadowy place of strong power.”

Which could refer to the portal the warlock had used to summon his ghouls. The nefsin magic of the passage would certainly linger long after the fight.

I studied the clasp of the bracelet, a sturdy lock designed to withstand the abuse of a battle, but the metal wasn’t broken.

Why would Teagan have removed her charm during a fight?

And why had she even been at this battle?

Associates didn’t fight ghouls, and Julian hadn’t mentioned her name when he’d summarized the aftermath, reciting who had been injured. Minnie could teleport, so it was possible Minnie might’ve brought Teagan to help—

Though I doubted that was the case. A battle against twenty ghouls was no place for Minnie, or Teagan, or any associate. When the danger was that high, the Source mages faced the threat on their own, not the other magicians on their team. Julian might play hard and fast with the rules, but he never risked the lives of his associates in open battle.

“Baruch, I know we’re almost to the circle, but could you show me where you found this bracelet instead? I’d like to cast there.” Highly unlikely that any energy remained in the air, but I still wanted to check.

Julian and his uninjured teammate, Chelsea, had doubtless returned to the site during the day, and had completed their own thorough survey. But sometimes vampire power detected dark spirit energy a Source mage couldn’t find, and this bracelet puzzled me too much to shrug off.

I waved a hand toward Hilde’s circle, still a short distance away. “We can return here when we’re done.” To examine the place where Baruch found the snake, since the urgency I felt toward the bracelet overwhelmed everything I thought I might glean from the cast-off of an animal sacrifice.

“This way,” Baruch said, and we set off at a very brisk pace, veering away from Alpenglow Canyon to hike one of Baruch’s narrow troll paths into Columbine Gulch. He moved so much faster now, I had to run to keep up, relying on my vampire sprinting speed to match his long strides. I was glad I’d fed on such powerful blood tonight. This journey would have been agony otherwise, given how weak I had been.

Baruch assumed I was using some kind of special witch power to keep at his heels up the mountain, though only a human gifted with true flight, like a banshee, could’ve kept up with a troll in a hurry. Baruch had plenty of hustle when he was eager to get somewhere, and he wore a determined expression, keen to help me solve the puzzle of a curious thing he had found. Trolls and their curious things. I never ceased being surprised by the items Baruch found in the wild.

When we arrived at the site of the battle in Columbine Gulch, Baruch slowed to an amble, and I scanned the area quickly, took in the trampled snow and the patches of blood still staining the ground, the dozens of broken trees and the scorch marks of hexes.

I also unfurled my power, let my energy spread out around me, and then I could sense which bloodstains belonged to the ghouls, or one of the shapeshifting mavens, or a mage, trying to locate the shadowy place where the bracelet had been.

Baruch knelt beside a scrub oak, and crawled under the branches so he could put his hand on the trunk. I quirked a brow as he did this, since the little tree didn’t fit his description of where the bracelet had been.

“She is not here,” Baruch said, and he shifted to stand at my side again while he glanced over the canyon.

“There’s a dryad who lives in that tree?”

“Chuppi,” he said, which was a curious name for a tree nymph. “She is not far. By the river, I think.” Powerful dryads could travel through root systems, moving from tree to tree with their magic.

“Did she help you find the bracelet?”

“No. She told me of the shadow, and I went to look for myself.” Baruch walked toward a dense wood of pine, and I followed beside him.

Entering a pine forest at night was like stepping into the blackest heart of a cave deep in the earth, though my vampire sight had no problem taking in my surroundings. I ducked low-lying branches, and evaded rocks that could trip me.

Baruch halted and said, “Here,” but I sensed nothing different. “Can you feel it, Eloise?” He swept his hand in front of him and outlined a door with his fingers. “I think it might be a portal.” A permanent doorway into another location, whether on earth or a separate dimension.

Portals were exceptionally difficult spells, and required even more stamina and skill than teleportation. The sorceress Julian had killed might’ve possessed such a skill, and the warlock could’ve created one with the help of the mavens. As to the quicksilver, master vampires couldn’t always conjure portals, but an ancient certainly could.

I held up my palms, and cast with all of my strength, sent an invisible net of my energy over the darkness, but my magic found nothing. Whatever Baruch and the dryad could sense, they detected with their own powers, which were as unique to their bodies as banshee flight.

“Perhaps the gate was sealed off,” I said. “Right after the ghouls were brought through.” Which meant the power Baruch and Chuppi felt was only a fading, remnant magic. Not enough power here left to trace. “The warlock’s base in the desert went up in flames—a fire set by the witches to cover their tracks. If there was a door here, they’ve removed it by now.”

“Maybe if you moved closer, you could tell,” Baruch said, and he took my hand before I could stop him, tugged me forward to walk to the door.

If only I thought more like a monster, I’d have realized my senses felt nothing because I’d been warded away. My magic was a threat to my enemies.

Dryad and troll power were not.

No self-respecting monster would ever fear a troll like Baruch, or a dryad.

But the truth came a moment too late.

Because there was a door in the air—a gateway to another dimension—and as soon as I entered the ward, the energy of the passageway washed over me like a hex, like the shredder jinx Julian had been hit with. The sensation felt like millions of centipedes scurrying over my skin, each of their legs burning into my muscle like fire.

I stumbled and collapsed as the gateway flared to life, triggered by the presence of my dark spirit.

A vampire portal. Large as the door to a house, elliptical and opaque, like a cloud of thick smoke.

Hidden so well in a sorcerer’s ward that only a dryad and a troll had been able to sense it was there.

Though they hadn’t known what it was. Hadn’t guessed it was anything so awful as the passageway of an ancient.

In the blaze of panic that hit me when I fell, I grabbed the ankh at my throat, and began to call Julian’s name, but the quicksilver rushed through his portal, a silent and terrible shadow of speed, and tore the necklace out of my grip.

16

Baruch bellowed in terror, a trumpeting wail that made me want to scream with him, but I yelled, “Run, Baruch!

I grappled with the ancient, tried to smash his pretty face with my elbow, and regain possession of Julian’s necklace, but the vampire knocked my head against a rock in the snow, hard enough I blacked out.

When I opened my eyes, the quicksilver was holding me up off my feet, his wide fanged smile filling my vision, one hand held fast to my throat. His other hand held my fire knife, and he pressed the point beneath my jaw. I didn’t move once I registered the ting of the gold against my skin, savagely aware I didn’t want that blade plunging into my neck.

Had Baruch run away? Cleared some distance and turned to stone? Or was he lying behind me somewhere, bleeding to death? I couldn’t free myself to look.

The vampire had extended his fangs, silver eyes gleaming with a bestial expression, though his voice was sweet silk. “I don’t see your pixie, Eloise. Did I scare her away?”

He scratched my skin with the tip of the knife, light as a fingernail, but the gold would leave an angry welt that I’d need days to heal.

If I lived through this, of course.

A big if.

What were the chances I’d survive a second attack by an ancient?

With no one to help me this time?

The honest answer: I had no chance at all. But maybe I’d come up with something. Keep my life long enough to see another night.

Or maybe not.

The quicksilver traced my ear with the blade, pressing hard enough my skin burned. “Don’t tell me you came here all alone. With nothing but a worthless troll and one silly necklace. I thought you were smarter than that.”

I tried to hiss and spit in his face. But all I could manage was a pathetic choking sound.

The ancient chuckled and glanced around, his eyes shining with mirth. “Maybe you have an army of butterflies to pelt me with, or a bevy of sylphs to quote poetry at me.” His fingers dug deeper into my neck, and my eyes watered with pain. “I do hope your white knight arrives soon. I would very much like to see him again.” The vampire placed my feet on the ground, and when he released his hold on my neck, I staggered back, coughing so hard my chest heaved. The quicksilver nestled Julian’s ankh back into my palm.

“Call him now, little girl. Let’s show him my portal.” The vampire waved his hand toward the passage beside him, which vibrated and glowed a murky jade, shimmering with a color like demon flame—and in an instant, ghouls spilled from the door. Nimble and quick, despite their huge size. Snapping their teeth, snarling and rumbling. Their streaked fur smelled like rancid meat in a cellar. An even worse stench filled the air with their breath, like garbage and dead fish and feces boiled in a dumpster. Their massive claws were sharp blades, long enough to slice through my body like butter.

My heart raced as they circled us, their flashing emerald eyes flicking from their master to me. Waiting for his command. Like the wraiths the warlock had summoned, these ghouls were hungry, ready for blood.

Ten, twelve, fifteen ghouls leapt out of the portal. With the power to heal, I could fight one ghoul, maybe two, and survive. But if all fifteen attacked at once from this range, I’d be devoured in seconds. Anyone would. Even Julian.

And if I called Julian’s name, the vampire would tear his throat out faster than fifteen leaping ghouls.

The quicksilver smiled at his creatures as they crouched in a circle around me, waiting for the order to feed.

“We had such a nice time last night, didn’t we?” the vampire asked, and he lifted his hand. He no longer held my fire knife, but my golden awl. The ancient gave me a charming smile, then pretended to pick his teeth with the tip of the awl as he studied me. “I smashed in your chest, and you gave me such a nice present.” He considered my awl another moment before tucking the weapon away. “You should have summoned a grave once I left. A baby like you needed her mother to heal. But you didn’t ground, did you, child? And you took my snack with you, too.”

A ghoul crept close and nipped at my calf, giant teeth clapping together on air with a sound like a steel trap slamming shut. I jumped forward, and the vampire waved the animal back, laughing under his breath.

“Your little mage saved you, didn’t he? Your white knight. Breaking his rules for a monster.” The quicksilver’s gaze roamed over my body, down to my feet and up to my face once again, lingering in places that made my skin crawl. “Small wonder though, as you do look so—” The ancient paused to snicker—“ravishing in this outfit he’s given you. I’m amazed you can keep from staring at yourself in the mirror, Eloise. I’m sure every mage at the headquarters must be quite smitten with you.”

I bared my teeth and hissed, which only made the vampire chortle.

“I’ve always preferred more feminine attire myself,” he said, shifting closer to reach into my coat pocket. He plucked up my bloody dress from last night, and let the torn, wrinkled fabric unroll between us. The shredded tights unraveled from the bundle and landed on the ground.

The vampire ran the tip of his tongue over his teeth. “I think you should slip this back on before we start all the fun. Because as delightful as you are in this… uniform—” and he gestured with another snicker toward my legs—“I do like a bit of skin on display.” The vampire glanced down at the necklace he’d placed in my palm. “Why don’t you call your saint now? Before I let loose my ghouls. I’d like to watch him try to save you. See your noble mage fight my creatures.”

Which was never going to happen. I’d let this asshole rip me apart before I ever handed him Julian. For an ancient dark spirit, he lacked common sense.

This vampire wanted some fun? Well, I knew a great game we could play.

While the quicksilver spoke, I closed my eyes and chanted a spell through my mind, holding the energy I summoned under my skin, undetectable in the strength of my screen—

Mother of death, Goddess of power,

Take this gift that I offer,

Help me this hour

I lifted my hand with the necklace, pressed the ankh to my heart, and the vampire mistook my behavior for what he expected me to do with the charm: he thought I was calling for Julian.

But I’d spent two years fighting with the Ephraim, and I knew spells that he didn’t.

Julian’s focusing charm could do more than summon him to me.

The ancient knew I couldn’t channel Source energy with this necklace. As a means of powering a spell to use against him, the ankh was beyond useless, like he’d said.

But I could barter the necklace.

Let the Goddess swallow the power Julian had placed in his charm. Residual Source energy that had accumulated in this necklace for years.

I give life in trade,

For the force of your curse,

A hex for my enemies,

Drawn from your stars, your majesty,

Your boundless universe.

The necklace disintegrated into my palm, roasted in ebony flame, and black light shot from my hand as I opened my fist. The shadow burst forward, as alive as a demon. A death curse from the Goddess. The most powerful vampire magic.

Night sorcery. Made mine.

The quicksilver bolted, fled so fast that he vanished.

His ghouls weren’t so fortunate.

I swept my arm in an arc as the hex shot from my palm and coated their bodies with fire, flames that burned from the inside out. Their bones melted first as they dropped to the ground, shrieking in agony, writhing and twisting as smoke curled from their fur, small tendrils at first, then clouding the air in billows and waves. Their screams pierced the breeze like banshee wails.

I held my fist shut, to keep the rest of the power at bay, as I stalked around the burning ghouls, scanning the darkness.

The vampire didn’t return. Didn’t dare show his face. I had enough magic to kill a hundred ancients right now. The Dark Goddess had been so pleased with my gift.

The force of the hex rode through me with violence, so much power I thought the energy might kill me. My body had changed, had turned into black lava, burned away all my clothes and left me pure fire, the same smokeless midnight flame as a jinn.

I called for the ancient to face me. He thought I was such a weak child, why not fight me now?

Except the sound that poured from my throat was a scream of the Goddess, inhuman and terrifying.

Something rustled behind me, footsteps running, and I whirled.

“Eloise!” Julian cried, skidding to a halt when he saw me, hands ready to shield, and then he disappeared, teleported away. I didn’t try casting to find him, didn’t know what would happen with the force of the curse in my body if I searched for him.

I just knew I had to expend the rest of this hex, before the spell cooked me entirely, and I needed a target.

“Stay back!” I yelled to Julian, but only that Goddess scream tore out of my throat. Incomprehensible. But Julian would recognize the sound as a warning.

If the vampire wouldn’t return, then I’d destroy his portal instead.

So I faced the gateway he’d made, which still shimmered like an unvarnished jewel in the night, raised my arm, opened my palm, and unleashed the rest of the curse.

My hex struck the passage with the strength of a bomb, and exploded with enough power to shatter the trees for sixty feet all around, and eliminate what was left of the ghouls, roast their bodies to ash. Whatever the quicksilver had hidden away through that door became fuel for a thundering fireball, quaking and rushing into that other dimension like a volcanic eruption.

I dropped to my knees and huddled when the explosion rocked through the air, but I wasn’t hit with the blast. The energy of the curse parted around me like wind.

When I opened my eyes, the forest was a ring of orange fire—real fire, not magic—and the snow had melted away. The ash from the ghouls fluttered through the air like flocks of ghost doves, thick grey fluff swirling in gyres.

My legs squished in thick mud, and I struggled to free myself. When I blinked down at my knees, I discovered my entire body was charred black, and flecked with damage, like pieces of muscle and skin had been chipped away. I looked like a battered briquette of charcoal.

When I tried to stand, I had no control of my limbs, and fell over, then lay with my eyes closed, waiting for my senses to return. I felt like my mind was still safe in my skull, but the rest of my body seemed hollow. Not even smoke.

Footsteps approached.

“Eloise?” Julian spoke in a soft tone of voice. “You going to hex me?”

Mother of Night.

I wanted to hiss at him, but I couldn’t move, couldn’t even open my eyes. Other than the thoughts in my mind, and my ability to hear Julian’s voice, the rest of me felt dead. Not undead, but dead. Completely unfeeling.

What had I done to myself? Would I die now? Was my body a true corpse, burned beyond repair?

What about my mind though? Would my brain continue to function, trapped in a roasted skull?

Or would the Dark Goddess leave me above ground at dawn, and let the sun finish me off?

Another set of footsteps squelched through the mud, and my mind began to dim.

“That’s the last time I let you go off with Rafna,” Julian said. He sounded much closer, like he was kneeling beside me.

“But I brought her here,” Baruch said. “Not the raven.” He sounded cowed and afraid, still in shock, and I wished I could jump up and hug him. Express my relief to know he was safe.

I felt no surge of elation through my body though, no pounding heart, no feeling at all.

“Is she dead?” Baruch asked.

“No,” Julian said. “Not quite.”

“Did her magic hurt her?” Baruch asked.

“It wasn’t her magic,” Julian said. “She channeled a Goddess hex.”

“She made the vampire leave.”

“Yes. For now.”

Maybe their conversation continued. Maybe not. I stopped hearing their voices, then lost track of my thoughts.

I didn’t feel the earth close around me in a grave.

I’d have been terrified of the rising sun touching me, if I could still feel. But I was dead and undead, swallowed into a void.

17

Inside a coffin or grave, on the rare occasion I dreamed, I saw my killer again—the vampire who had destroyed my human body, and taken my soul.

I could always tell when I was caught in a dream because the only objects I could identify clearly were directly in front of me. Everything else was a haze. Blurry shadows of terror, memories steeped in my horror.

Except I knew right away, by the colors and quiet, that this was not my recurring nightmare.

In this dream, I was alone, waiting for someone inside a dense forest. Not a high-altitude wood of aspen and pine, but a place of rich greenery, humid and lush. A sweet odor of gardenia curled through the air, along with the strong odor of soil, the kind of dirt that abounds with microbes and nutrients, roiling with life.

I sat in this unfamiliar place for some time. The sun shone in the sky, but the leafy canopy kept the rays from touching me, left me in a shadowy half-light of dusk. There was a sense that someone was coming, that I had a meeting scheduled to take place here, but no one arrived.

So I lay down on the soft forest floor, which felt as plush as a bed, and the dream ended.

I woke up to Vix calling my name. Slapping the lid of a coffin. She sounded pissed.

18

Vix shouted so loud her wings jingled, and her hand made a pat pat pat on the coffin.

“I cannot believe you, Eloise! Why did you do that? Why?

My eyes fluttered open, found only darkness around me, and I closed them again.

I didn’t feel well at all.

Burned. I felt burned. My skin ached with a raw and fiery pain, like I was one giant blister, bloody and peeled.

“You cooked yourself with that spell! You hear me, Eloise? You are roasted!”

The torture in my body grew worse, and I moaned.

Vix heard the noise and yelled even louder. “Maybe next time you’ll use your brain before you go off with that raven! And that clobberhead troll! Walking through gateways! Julian gave you his necklace, and you go off on a stroll through a vampire portal? Why, Eloise? Why must you do these ridiculous things?”

My body felt hot with fever, and I started to pant from the strength of my wounds. “Are we home?”

“No, we’re not at home! We’re at headquarters! In the basement! And I saw you before Julian put the lid down and it’s awful! You look like raw meat and char ground up in a blender! And you smell like road kill! And this is all your fault, Eloise! I leave you for one minute—one minute—thinking you’re with Julian—and then you go off and try to kill yourself!”

I moaned again, wincing with each breath. “Vix, please—please get Kai.”

Kai Mahiʻai was a native Hawaiian, and a combat veteran of three tours in Iraq. He’d been an associate of the Ephraim for five years, and he often let me drink his blood when I needed help healing.

“No, I cannot get Kai! He’s out with Chelsea dealing with some nefsin wizard threatening to blow up a building!”

“Call Tomi then—”

Tomisina Jubilee, my friend. She shared a bedroom with me in the tiny two-room house where I lived. Surely she could come to headquarters and—

“Her phone went straight to voicemail!” Vix said. “And Brooklyn’s off being a bobcat somewhere! This is what you get for rooming with lycanthropes! They’re never around when you need them!”

“Maybe Julian can find someone then—”

“Julian is in Xekkra! And he’s been there all day! He put you in this coffin and then they took him!”

“Damn it,” and I gritted my teeth, shocked and furious with myself. Julian must have had to pay penance because I’d given his necklace away, had used his weapon of justice to channel a hex—and I hadn’t considered what my spell would do to him. I’d failed to view my action through the eyes of the Velci, and now Julian was on trial. “That vampire had fifteen more ghouls, Vix, and who knows what else through that portal. Julian would have died if he’d shown up before I summoned that hex.”

“It’s amazing you’re not dead, Eloise! You ought to be dead!”

“I thought I was dead!”

Vix beat the coffin lid with her fist. “Open this thing before I have a heart attack!”

The effort of placing my hands flat on the coffin lid, and sliding the panel to one side, caused so much pain that I rumbled louder than I ever did in the throes of bloodlust. Finished, my arms flopped over my chest like black taffy, and I kept my eyes shut, though I knew from the chiming sounds Vix made that she was casting a painkilling spell over me.

She dropped her voice to a murmur. “Eloise, is this helping? Do you feel better yet? Can you tell me?”

The answer was no. The magic in the burn was beyond her ability to soothe.

Rather than have to admit that, I asked, “Where’s Teagan?”

Vix stopped casting, and kept her voice calm. “Teagan can’t give you blood.”

“No, that’s not what I meant. Her bracelet was there at the portal.”

“She’s upstairs with Ravi. He woke today around noon.”

Minnie had expected him to wake up today, and it was a relief to hear Ravi had come out of his coma. Julian would have been so happy to hear the news, if he were here. Head trauma was no less dangerous for a Source mage than a mundane, since not even the expert ministrations of a healer could repair severe physical damage with magical speed. Only vampire blood or a strain of lycanthropy virus could manage that feat.

But I was in no shape to be donating blood at the moment, not to Ravi or the other Source mages who’d been wounded fighting the coven and ghouls. My mind remained focused on one person right now: the banshee who worked for the Ephraim, and why Baruch had found her focusing charm near a vampire portal, when Teagan hadn’t even been at the battle.

“Would she have given Ravi her bracelet?” I asked. “Before the fight?”

“Why? Because she likes him?” Vix clapped her wings in annoyance. “What kind of thaumaturge would treat a focusing charm like a token?”

“Julian gave me his necklace.”

“I already know that,” Vix snapped. “He also gave you his blood—”

What?” I opened my eyes and sat up, lurching like a drunk mummy, and clutched at the walls of the coffin to keep from collapsing. Vix and I were in the sub-basement, which had an unfinished rock floor and jagged stone walls. The room was lit with a few beeswax candles in metal holders, propped in lumpy alcoves in the walls.

My simple white coffin lay on the ground, and sometimes I summoned a grave in this room, but I preferred the soft cushions inside the coffin.

As a vampire, I could sleep anywhere that was safe from sunlight—but a coffin held a seal of protection, like a grave. The only thing that could break me out of that seal was powerful magic, and since my body was immobile during daylight, vulnerable and defenseless if I were attacked, a seal was essential.

My gaze swept over the room and settled on Vix, who flew near my face, arms crossed and scowling. “Julian gave me his blood?

“That’s right, Sleeping Beauty. And the jinn took him to Xekkra. Maybe forever.”

I scrambled out of my coffin and shuffled into a walk toward the door. My exterior body might be damaged, and oozing yellow pus like ghoul slime, but my organs and bones were all right, even if I was a bit shaky.

Vix flew beside me, close to my shoulder. “Where are you going?”

“Akiko. She’ll give me some blood.” My friend Akiko had been born in Japan, but she’d spent most of her life in Los Angeles, where she’d been a surgeon. She’d moved to Senna two years ago to work in the hospital here, assisting with the refugee crisis.

Vix liked Akiko, but she hated hospitals. The stink-nasty smell of humans made hospital visits unbearable to her, and she never went with me when I made my rounds there.

“You can’t go to the hospital like this!”

I left the gritty sub-basement and started climbing the stairs. “I’ll glamour myself.” Make my body appear normal—and clothed—to anyone I passed by. Surely I could manage the enchantment for that. I had the strength to walk, didn’t I? “I’ll be fine.”

But when I reached the top step, I felt so winded with fatigue that I had to sit down. My body quivered with spasms, shaking with an agony beyond my control to suppress, and tears threatened to pour down my face.

“Eloise,” Vix whispered, flying close to my ear. She circled my head several times, erratic and buzzing, completely distraught. “How about I’ll go, okay?” Her voice remained a faint rasp, high and panicky. Vix at her most frantic. “You wait here, and I’ll get her. You’re too sick for this trip—and you shouldn’t leave the basement right now. So stay put, and I’ll be right back—”

Vix made to leave just as the door behind us swung open, throwing the bright light of the Ephraim’s finished basement onto the lower stairs where I sat.

“Hey! You should still be asleep!” a man said.

I recognized Kai’s voice, and turned to look up at him. Kai was six-two, and he still had the hardened physique of a soldier, though he’d lost his entire left leg and the lower half of his right arm to a roadside bomb in Iraq. He wore a prosthetic metal leg every day, but usually never wore anything on his arm, preferring to avoid the straps and contraption of wearing a hook.

Kai held the rank of a warlock, and he wore a golden pentacle necklace as his primary focusing charm, as well as a matching bracelet on his left wrist. He was one of the most cheerful people I’d ever met, and right now he was beaming at me with an expression of shock.

“It’s not even full dark yet—the sun’s still going down!” He waved his hand toward the basement ceiling, as if we’d glance up and see the horizon.

But my pain had grown so overwhelming that I couldn’t respond. No Hello, Kai, or What do you mean, the sun hasn’t gone down? I held my breath, clenched my jaw, and tried to force myself to stop trembling.

Without another word, Kai angled himself through the doorway to sit down beside me. He held his left arm out to Vix, who unclasped the lock on Kai’s bracelet and removed his focusing charm, before he offered me his wrist.

I clutched Kai’s arm to my mouth, sank my teeth in, and drank.

The pain didn’t disappear. But after I’d consumed a pint of Kai’s blood, and released him, the deepest gashes on my skin healed, some of the char on my skin flaked away, and I oozed far less puss. My body still hurt, I still looked like seared raw meat, but the torture was bearable now, enough I could speak again.

“Thank you,” I said, and Kai sent me a smile.

“You can pay me back with a kiss when you feel better.” He tapped his lower lip and quirked a brow. “A real one, yeah? I’m still holding out for some romance—” which made me laugh softly and shake my head. Kai had always liked me, and I liked Kai, too, but he was also a shameless flirt. Toward women and men, since Kai ran both ways. As a teammate and friend, Kai was wonderful, and if I’d been different—if I hadn’t always loved Julian—then Kai would have been the perfect partner for me. A wizard who let me drink his blood, made me laugh, and accepted me as a monster.

Kai held out his wrist to Vix, his skin no longer bleeding, and she refastened his bracelet. “Did you know the sun is still shining?” Kai asked Vix.

Vix chuffed her wings with irritation, flew away from Kai and circled around my shoulders. Vix often hid in my hair, but I had a feeling I didn’t have any hair left. Maybe a few melted tufts on my scalp.

So Vix landed on the step beside me, where Kai couldn’t see her. Vix liked Kai just fine, but pixies weren’t very social, especially when they were stressed out.

“I feel a lot better now,” I said to her. “Thank you, Vix.”

She crossed her arms and squinted up at me. Her wings jingled in aggravation, and then chimed again in a way that meant yes, she knew the sun was still up.

Kai cleared his throat. “So. You’re still looking a bit on the crispy side.” He tipped his head toward me without glancing down at my body. “You want me to bring you a robe or something? Or would wearing anything hurt you too much?”

“Hurt too much,” I said.

“I should rustle up some more blood then,” and Kai stood. He moved with an incredible grace for someone missing an arm and a leg, with a nimble speed grown from practice. “Don’t run off and join the zombie circus while I’m gone,” he joked, “the pay’s not as good,” and he winked before he left.

He didn’t close the door to the stairs, just crossed the basement to the hall that led to the first floor. I listened to him depart, but didn’t turn around to watch. Vix waited until his footsteps were gone before she said, “Is there really such a thing as a zombie circus?”

“Maybe.” Raising the dead was classified as a felony, like selling drugs in a school zone, but that certainly didn’t stop people from doing it.

Vix widened her eyes in alarm. “But zombies are scary. They’re like vampires. Only grosser.”

“Vix, look at me! How could a zombie be worse than this?”

“You hardly act like a vampire, Eloise. So you don’t even count.”

I lifted my right hand and studied the mulched flesh under my melted fingernails. Given the fact my dark spirit was less than two years old, I should definitely not have lived through damage this severe.

Was blood laced with Source energy truly that powerful?

Or had Julian done something else when he’d saved me? Something even worse for a mage than giving a monster his blood?

My body felt… different, somehow. Apart from my wounds. I was strong enough to walk around with this level of injury—

And the sun was still setting.

No two-year-old vampire woke during daylight. Even the most powerful dark spirit needed decades for that.

I glanced down at Vix. “How many mages do you think that ancient has fed on?”

Vix frowned. “A bunch.”

I rested my bloody hands in my lap and lowered my voice. “The warlock and those shapeshifting mavens are working for him. Those ghouls the warlock unleashed—they all belonged to the ancient. Made in another dimension.”

“I was afraid you’d say that.”

“Did Julian mention Teagan’s bracelet at all?”

Vix shook her head no.

“I was holding it in my hand—in my sleeve—when I hit the portal. I don’t know if the ancient found it or not.” He could’ve picked the bracelet up while I’d been unconscious, or it may have dropped in the snow without further notice.

Vix fluttered her wings in apprehension. “Baruch found the bracelet at the portal?”

“Yes.”

“And you think Teagan gave it to Ravi? Before the fight?”

“That would be a convenient excuse,” I said, “since he suffered a concussion during the battle.”

Which was an awful thing for me to say, to direct so much suspicion at one of my teammates, since Teagan was a sweet person, bubbling with curiosity and charisma, a woman of such vitality that she looked my age, not forty-two. With her blonde ringlets and dimples, her infectious giggles and enthusiasm for anything flavored with chocolate, Teagan had never done anything to deserve my distrust.

But I’d just roasted myself trying to kill an ancient, and I resorted to the harshest pragmatism when things were this dire.

“I felt her energy in the charms,” I said. “But none of Ravi’s. So if she did give him her bracelet, he never wore it.”

Vix was contrite. “She has always liked him.”

“Who knows if that’s true, or just some kind of act.” Another ugly statement to make. The thought of betrayal was as repulsive to examine as my physical body right now, but I’d rather be careful than sorry. No matter how nice a person Teagan was. “Baruch finding her charm could be nothing. Or something much worse than I even want to deal with right now.”

Vix chimed her wings softly. “You do have some terrible luck, Eloise.”

I nodded, holding my hands in loose fists, aware that my pain was increasing again. The soothing force of Kai’s blood was wearing off, and I still couldn’t heal.

“Go spy on Teagan, Vix. Be my eyes and ears.”

Vix crawled under my knee for a minute, hiding and refusing to move.

“I’m too tired for a glamour,” I said. “Even after Kai’s blood. I’m going to have to summon a grave.”

Vix tinkled her wings in dismay. “You know I never liked Teagan.”

“Vix, you hardly like anyone.”

“I like you.”

Then she flew off, slipped away with a buzzing whirr of her wings, and used the same exit Kai had taken.

I opened my fists, stared at my hands like I could will them to heal, and realized there was something much more disconcerting than a burn in my skin.

I lifted my right hand and gazed at my palm. Maybe Vix had already noticed the mark, but I hadn’t. The pain had been too overwhelming.

Where the hex had shot out of my skin, I now had a triskelion: a triple spiral. Two inches tall and two inches wide. Each emblem in the design possessed its own distinct shape, but the ends interlocked, so the spirals were linked.

The triskelion in my palm wasn’t made with scar tissue, but heavy black lines, like I’d received a tattoo.

My left palm held an identical shape drawn in black ink.

Except these triple spirals hadn’t been inked.

They were lines of power that ran through my body now, from my hands, through my arms, and into my chest, to my heart. A permanent mark of the Goddess. Like the ice blue shade of my eyes. A mother’s gift to her child.

I stared at my skin in the silence.

Monster, monster, in the night, with your teeth so sharp and bright,

Take my blood but not my soul, I’ll stake your heart and break your hold.

I had the hands of a monster now, to go along with the teeth. And as battered as my physical body was, some part of my magic had never felt stronger.

19

Senna lay in southwest Colorado, on the southern edge of the San Juan Mountain Range of the Rockies. Even though Albuquerque, New Mexico, was the closest city—only a six-hour drive—the Ephraim district of Senna was overseen by the magi in Denver. Nine hours away.

Two years ago, when Julian asked me to work with him, his superiors approved his request to move us from Denver to Senna, and we were both given offices in the head district building. Julian’s was on the second floor, and mine on the third. A few months later, when Julian was appointed team leader, he’d changed the layout of the headquarter offices, and he’d also reorganized the building’s basement from one large, cluttered storage space into separate rooms—and the one that led down to my coffin was remodeled into a lounge.

The cinder block walls had been painted taupe, decorated with canvas paintings of mountains and seascapes. An open-concept kitchen and entertainment area held a large TV and plush couches, as well as a long rosewood dining table and elegant lamps.

Beyond the lounge, in the next room down the hall, was the potions room, where an associate witch named Allyson worked. Outfitted with an elaborate ventilation system, and magical safety equipment, the potions room occupied a large section of the basement, but wasn’t a place I visited much.

Like most associates at the base, Allyson didn’t know I was a vampire, and had no idea the building possessed a sub-basement or an adjoining lounge at the top of the sub-basement stairs. My entire area—the lounge and my coffin room—had been soundproofed and vanished with enchantments, the doors bespelled to such a degree that not even Julian’s superiors in Denver could locate the entrance. The only people who knew I had a coffin under headquarters were the other Source mages of Senna—Ravi, Chelsea, Jordan, and Finn—and the only associate witch who was aware of my vampire grotto was Kai.

Or so I’d believed.

Now I wasn’t sure.

Because there were other associates who knew I was a vampire. People I’d helped over the years, who’d discovered the truth through misfortune.

Teagan was one of those witches. She’d been attacked by a demon last summer, fatally injured, beyond the reach of a healer, and I’d saved her life with my blood. She’d joked afterward that Julian must’ve kept me alive so he could use me for blood, and I’d pretended to laugh at the comment, ignoring how much her words stung. Teagan had lost one of her sisters to a vampire, and I knew it was hard to appreciate being saved when one of the monsters you most hated had been doing the saving.

Vampire blood couldn’t be stored in vials, to give anonymous injections after a tragedy. Once drawn from a dark spirit’s body, the curative power of the liquid vanished after twelve hours, or as little as fifteen minutes if the blood chilled below fifty degrees.

While professional vampire slayers carried special equipment to keep gallons of blood warm, and made sure to deliver their cargo right after a staking, either through teleportation or aboard private jet—none of that made sense in my situation. For me to remove vials of blood before every fight was not only impractical, but dangerous. Blood was no less precious to me just because I could heal. Blood was food, power, life itself. And whenever I lost it, I couldn’t just bespell anyone I encountered and feed at will. I didn’t steal blood from strangers or friends; I drank from willing donors. Which meant I couldn’t afford sharing my power unless I had reason.

I also couldn’t stand there and do nothing if it meant people would die. Teagan had been writhing in pain, spending her last moments screaming. The demon had torn her gut open, and spit acid all over her torso and face, and her skin had been slowly disintegrating.

When I’d had to choose between keeping my secret or saving her life—that moment was like jumping for the refugee boy after he was flung to the wraiths. An action I took without thinking. I’d killed the demon, then gave Teagan my blood.

So whatever the reason behind Teagan’s charm at the quicksilver’s portal, and regardless of the pain of my hex burns returning, my anxiety was too high for a grave. I wanted answers more than I craved pain relief.

After Vix left, I rose from my perch on the stairs and walked into the lounge, rather than return to my coffin. The room was empty right now, though someone had left the TV on, playing a news program.

I walked into the kitchen, removed a white trash bag from under the sink, then crossed the lounge again, to my desk in the corner. After I’d spread the trash bag over the chair, I took a seat at the computer, and started going through the Ephraim’s database of known vampires. Julian hadn’t found anyone who fit the quicksilver’s description, but maybe I could.

Within a few minutes of starting my work, the news program ended, and the theme music to Slayers of Doom filled the lounge, with Horace and Nips chanting their patriotic slogans and shooting their golden guns. During the show’s opening jingle, the vampire slayers introduced their newest episode.

Horace shouted into the camera with a voice that was cheerful, excited, and ready for action. “This week, we take on the most dangerous vampire in the world—an incubus!

Mother of Night, this show. There was no “most dangerous” type of vampire. Any child of the Dark Goddess could kill with malevolent force, no matter what talents they had.

But that was the appeal of Slayers of Doom. Who wouldn’t be eager to watch these men kill a super-fiend, a ruthless murderer who deserved every bit of their vengeance?

The scene cut away to some shady catacomb, and then Nips filled the screen, his voice even louder than Horace’s. “An incubus is a male demon that uses sexual activity with women to gain power. These vampires wait until their victims have fallen asleep, then the monsters enter their dreams to have sex with them. An incubus can feed on erotic activity in dreams like drinking blood.”

Horace took over the view and the narration again. “The ability to feed on sexual dream energy is a rare vampire trait, and these monsters become the strongest of all the bloodsuckers. They’re also the hardest to kill.”

Nips stepped beside Horace and racked the slide of a gold-plated handgun with an impressively snappy shick-shick. “We’ve received numerous reports from more than thirty women in this area that they’ve been seduced and drained by an incubus—so we’ve come here today to take care of business—and send this evil bloodsucking demon straight to Hell!

Horace cocked his own golden gun, matching the machismo and testosterone level of his partner, as the pair shouted in unison, “We are the Slayers of Doom! Saving Lives, Protecting Communities, Keeping America Strong!

The theme music rose to full blast, over a montage of Horace and Nips staking vampires. As the opening sequence rolled, full of Hollywood monsters composed of makeup and graphics, dying staged deaths with torrents of fake blood, I clicked through images of real vampires, and wondered at the absurdity of Horace and Nips.

These men weren’t slaying demons—vampires weren’t demons. A monster born of the Goddess was not a creature of hellspawn.

And why did Horace and Nips think an incubus victim could only be female? The sexual energy of any person would do. That incubus could seduce and drain Horace and Nips if they fell asleep unprotected. No one could shoot a vampire to death in a dream.

And no incubus should have been able to attack so many people in one neighborhood. Not unless every one of those victims had refused the basic enchantments humans could place on their homes. Was the audience meant to assume all those people reviled witchcraft so much that they’d rather let vampires feed on them in their beds? Because if an incubus could enter a dream, he could just as easily walk through the front door.

Enchanting a private dwelling with a ward against monsters took far less power than protecting a large public space, like a hospital or library. While any witch stronger than an element rook could cast protective enchantments, and would do so without charging a fee, Source mages usually conjured the spells for government buildings and community areas, and their associate witches managed the enchantments for private homes and businesses.

The lack of any such vampire ward was what made the climate change refugees so vulnerable. The Source mages and associates of Senna had been working overtime, spelling the transient shelters of each new wave of migrants—but there were still people who slept in unprotected homes every night, without the enchantments that would stop an attack.

Which wasn’t the case on this TV show. These incubus victims lived in an upper-middle class neighborhood, with swimming pools and solar cars on display. Citizens who should’ve had wards.

As I opened a new file of pictures, I thought of the quicksilver feeding on sexual energy, on erotic desire, and the level of sorcery he was capable of. An incubus dream might be one of his skills.

A memory of my own strange vision of the forest snagged in my mind.

I stopped my work for a moment. Focused on what I’d seen, and the ancient.

The quicksilver had fled from my hex, and then I’d been with Julian, who’d teleported me back to base. No enemy monster could penetrate headquarters, and Julian had kept me safe from the vampire while I’d been asleep, so whatever had inspired my dream couldn’t have come from the ancient.

Except.

I’d been unconscious—twice—in his presence. The quicksilver had knocked me out both times we had fought.

Could the vampire have shredded my block, and entered my mind without any sign he had been there?

The idea seemed as absurd as Horace and Nips claiming they could kill master vampires with guns. Too impossible to be plausible. But my anxiety twisted along a wild path, wondering if this new horror might be true.

I gazed down at the spirals drawn across my burned skin, wishing more than anything that Julian were here to talk to right now.

Only… what if Julian had caused that strange dream? What if he’d changed something in my mind when he’d saved me? Because surely he’d channeled something more than Source energy or mage blood into my body—

And whatever he’d done hadn’t just helped me heal.

He’d made me stronger. A far more powerful monster than I had been.

The Velci might never forgive him for that. Probably couldn’t forgive him. The Ephraim were supposed to slaughter monsters, not empower them. Julian had forsaken his vows, saving my life. A violation of law that might have not only cost him his own future on earth, but had left his whole team at risk at a time when they needed their leader.

I curled my hands into fists, to hide my triskelions, and blocked all further thought of never seeing Julian again from my mind. Like turning a switch on my panic. I returned to my computer search to locate the ancient.

I had the urge to call Marco, to let the sound of his voice soothe my nerves. But talking to Marco meant I’d have to tell him about Julian, and I couldn’t bear that right now.

A half hour later, I still hadn’t spotted anything promising, so I switched to researching news of the warlock, and read the Ephraim’s official report about Julian’s visit with the Unseelie Court. Chelsea had typed a brief statement about the meeting last night, noting that the territorial dispute between the Unseelie fae and the wereleopard prowl had been resolved, and that Julian had left the fae queen’s company early to help an associate.

My name was listed in the document, along with the sentence: Ms. Assad was teleported back to headquarters alive.

In a private attachment to the file, Chelsea had recorded two names: Munroe Starwulf and Thiesson Bloodfire. No note as to who those people were, but I bet the names had been gleaned from the fae queen. Aliases of the warlock, no doubt.

Then there was a date stamp for Julian’s gate summoning to Xekkra this morning: December 9, 7:30 a.m. Which meant he’d waited until dawn before leaving. The sun rose a little later in Senna, on account of the east mesa… which reminded me that there were several steep mountain canyons north of town that received hardly any direct sunlight at all.

The vampire’s portal had been inside a shadowy canyon, sheltered in a pine forest. How long had his gateway been there, undetectable to anyone but dryads and trolls?

And why had he built it? I still didn’t know what the quicksilver wanted. Whether he aimed to destroy the Source mages in town, or if he was after something else.

On the whole, vampires were more concerned with fighting each other than anything involving mundanes. Humans were nothing to them but food, and living among them was like keeping a garden, a host for a coven of parasites. Vampires liked living in cities with slums because poor, desperate people made the easiest prey.

Which was no doubt why monsters kept coming to Senna. The climate change refugees—in search of water, food, shelter, and jobs—were bringing them here. Like that warlock building his cult in the desert. Promise a hungry person a full belly, promise a terrified person safety—and people would flock to that hope, happy to follow any orders to live. Despots gained armies that way. Lies worked on the foolish and the weak-willed, but most especially, lies performed their ugliest work on the desperate, manipulating the most fundamental needs of survival.

Except that refugee boy hadn’t been the child of some willing victim, harvested from inside the warlock’s desert base. He’d been kidnapped.

The warlock hadn’t needed to kidnap a child. But maybe the quicksilver told him to steal someone in town, to lure the Ephraim into a trap.

Which meant I’d played right into their hands. I’d gone after the boy, located the base in the desert, then followed the warlock into the mountains. I’d led the Source mages of Senna right into a nest of those vampire’s ghouls, right where the quicksilver wanted them.

If I were a Source mage, I might wonder if my vampire associate had teamed up with this monster.

But the ancient sure didn’t treat me like we were buddies, and I’d roasted myself trying to kill him. If any of the Ephraim thought I’d set out to betray them, I wasn’t doing a great job making the event worth my while.

And I still couldn’t understand why a warlock this powerful had joined sides with an ancient. Was the wizard motivated by terror, or did he truly hope to gain something in the alliance?

And what about the coven of mavens? Were they aligned with the warlock—or the vampire?

The TV screen flashed through scenes of a battle, as Horace and Nips started fighting the incubus they’d been hunting. They took turns shooting the vampire with their guns, and the incubus twisted and writhed in pain. No expense spared on the gallons of fake blood and computerized special effects.

Then the action paused—while the vampire hid somewhere to heal—and Horace said, “This monster is so powerful, it’s already healing the bullet wounds—almost as fast as we shoot!

“That’s what makes an incubus so terrifying!” Nips said. “This demon has fed on hundreds of women to gain this kind of strength—maybe thousands! It will take much more than guns to destroy this thing! Only our faith in God can stand up to the might of this demon!

As Horace and Nips whipped out their holy water and crosses, I stood, pulled the trash bag off my butt, walked across the room and switched off the TV.

Then I stared at my palms again in the silence.

What was happening to Julian right now, as he paid penance in Xekkra?

Did he regret what he’d done? Corrupting himself for a monster?

Would I ever see him again?

I left the room and returned to the sub-basement. Snuffed out the candles, but didn’t climb into my coffin. I lay on the ground.

I wanted the arms of my mother. Needed the fierce grip of her love.

Hold me, I prayed, and the earth opened and pulled me into a grave.

20

I dreamed of the forest again.

Shadowed daylight around me. The scents of gardenia and soil.

“Hello?” I called, sitting up to look around through the underbrush, at the dense blankets of moss, and the intricate canopy overhead. I could see a lot farther now before my vision turned hazy.

No one but me in this wood.

An arboretum, perhaps? A memory? Had I ever been here as a child?

My vampire body was unclothed but healed. No abrasions or burns on my skin. The heavy whorls of scar tissue on my upper arms and thighs were distinct once again. My long raven hair hung down my back, combed and gleaming. I wore the marks of the Goddess hex in my palms.

I rose and searched for my uniform. Surely my clothes were around here somewhere.

Distant images shifted into clear focus. My thoughts grew less hazy too.

Maybe this was a dream. Maybe not. The clarity in my vision unnerved me.

After a minute, I felt someone approaching behind me, moving fast, and I froze.

Maybe the nightmare would start. My vampire killer reborn in this forest. Come to hurt me again.

I steeled myself to face him. Turned around.

The man running toward me was Julian.

“Eloise!” he cried as he slid to a halt, clumsy with shock, like he hadn’t seen me at all. Like he’d been sprinting toward something else. “You’re here! What are you doing here?”

“Julian—?” My voice rippled with current, like a water nymph in a stream. The sweet sound of energy flowing through the natural world. I turned to glance behind me, but there was no one else there. “What were you chasing?”

He looked up at the trees overhead, and around at the woods, but didn’t answer my question. “I thought the enchantments would hold you.” His shoulders rose and fell with each breath, and his black curls were all tousled and windblown, like he’d been casting, but there was no trace of power around him, no hint of magic. “How did you break through the barrier? Was there a crack in the shield?”

I blinked at him, dumbfounded, as he closed the last few feet between us. “No, I didn’t break through any barrier—”

My peripheral vision remained clear. So did my thoughts. And my vampire killer had yet to appear. Was I dreaming or not?

Julian didn’t reply to my comment, only glanced over my body with a worried expression. He gestured to the spirals in my palms. “Do they hurt you at all?”

I shook my head no, and Julian nodded, his face softening with relief. He held up his right palm, and for a moment, a dark blue pentacle gleamed in his skin, about the same size as my triskelions, then disappeared. “Mine faded with time. I bet yours will, too.”

Except his marks hadn’t been formed by a death hex, and our powers were nothing alike. Even if my body had changed, had become more like his. Vampire magic was nothing like Source energy.

“Julian.” I shifted my gaze from his hand to his face, to the familiar dark light of his eyes. He had a different smell here, a scent like cedar and wild fern, delicate and enticing, distinct from the perfume of his power. Comforting though, like the sight of him standing before me. “I thought you—aren’t you in Xekkra?”

He tipped his head with a puzzled expression, studying me like I’d said something odd. “Xekkra?” He paused, scanned the woods again. “Eloise, this isn’t Xekkra. We’re in—” He stopped, furrowed his brow, and searched my face as if something were wrong. “What exactly do you see here?”

“A forest.” Right? Weren’t we standing beneath ancient trees?

Julian glanced around at the woods, anxious and tense. Was something coming for us? Would we have to fight?

A tremor ran through my shoulders. “I need to find clothes.” And our weapons. We ought to have weapons.

Julian quirked a brow, astonished. “Clothes?” He waved a hand toward his body, and I realized his uniform had disappeared, had been replaced by a pair of red swim trunks. “No, we’re both dressed.”

It was true. When I glanced at myself, I wore a turquoise bikini I’d owned in ninth grade, one I’d kept until the seams fell apart. There was nothing wrong with it now though; the suit looked brand new.

Which was exactly the sort of nonsense I expected in a dream, but finding myself in a bikini still irritated me. “Are we going swimming?”

“How would I know? You crashed this party, not me.”

“I didn’t crash anything—I summoned a grave. I’m having a nightmare, and you’re in Xekkra. On trial for corruption. For this—” and I held up my palms, in case dream-Julian wasn’t aware of the past twenty-four hours. “You did something to me. You gave me some kind of power to keep me alive. Blood and… something else. And now you’re paying penance.”

Julian shook his head. “I’m not on trial. I’m right here. With you.”

A hideous bruise bloomed across his bare chest, shades of navy and indigo in a frightening shadow. An injury unlike anything I’d seen on his body before. The damage made my heart race, made me yell, “What happened to you?

Julian’s voice remained calm. “You came through the barrier, Eloise.”

What barrier?”

“Mine.”

He placed a hand on his bruised chest, palm over his heart, and light began to spill from beneath his fingers. His brown skin began tearing away, vanishing into white brilliance, like the light was consuming him, while the air filled with an eternal vibration, low and resonant, the sacred om casting its power in an unmistakable swell. Radiance spread over Julian until his torso cracked open, exposing the lines of Source energy running through him; nothing but light.

“Do you see?” he asked through that deep well of sound, no longer touching his chest. He remained standing before me, hands loose at his sides, his expression serene, unafraid. The magic coursed so fast through his chest that his power took a three-dimensional shape, and I only knew what to call it because Julian had told me before, had given a label to the structure of energy that hummed with life through his body.

That flowering brilliance, that beautiful phantasm of light, was the pentagram of Venus circling Julian’s heart: the path that the planet Venus made, as observed from the earth. Taken physical shape inside Julian’s body. Which was why his palms were each marked with a pentacle—a circumscribed pentagram—as a sign of the Source magic he channeled. His pentagrams glowed electric blue now, and so did the lines that ran through his arms, as visible as the orbital blossom of rays.

Would I have a spiral inside me? If the Goddess tore my chest open, would shadows swirl round my heart?

Julian took a step toward me, and I knew he was about to embrace me—that he planned to press my body against that humming light in his chest—

And I fled.

Turned and ran like a pack of demons were chasing me.

The forest blurred, the sky blackened with sunset, and I burst out of my grave, rolling across the floor in the sub-basement until I hit the wall.

I lay there, wide awake in the darkness, panting and dizzy. A long minute passed before I felt myself calm.

Kai’s footsteps sounded on the stairs. I recognized the alternating thunk between his boot and the metal curve of his prosthetic leg. He opened the door and cast a soft light through the room, saw me lying against the wall and started.

“Eloise! I thought you were—” He waved toward the ground where I always summoned a grave. “What happened?”

I shook my head as I came to my senses and stood. “Bad dream.”

Kai nodded. “You’re not burned anymore.”

And I wasn’t. The Goddess had healed me in the earth. I looked the same way I had in my nightmare, minus the tacky bikini. “What time is it?”

“Almost seven.”

“December tenth?” I asked. Or had I been in a grave longer than a day?

“No, still the ninth.”

“The ninth?” I’d only been in a grave for an hour? And I’d healed? “Is Julian back? Did the Velci release him?”

“No, he’s still in the beyond. Chelsea said the magi are pissed. Or whatever passes for pissed on the Council.” He meant they were angry with Julian for breaking the law. “They’re still trying to bring him home though. All attempts to petition the guardians to release him have failed, so no one expects Julian back anytime soon. But Brooklyn’s here. Want me to bring her down?”

“Um—” I stood there dazed for a moment, trying to think. “I’ll dress and come up.” I was healed now, and while some lycanthrope blood would be welcome, I didn’t need Kai to fetch my roommate to see me.

Kai brought me a robe to slip on, and as I tied the sash, he smiled as he caught sight of my palms.

“Shit, Eloise—you have Goddess marks!” I held up my hands, and at the full sight of my triskelions, Kai laughed in astonishment. “No wonder Julian’s gone! Chelsea told us he gave you his blood—but mage blood would not give you those.”

Even though I’d determined as much for myself, Kai’s words still made my heart skip. “I thought they were from the hex, but—I don’t know what he did. Just that I healed in only an hour. I woke up before sunset. And that dream I had… I don’t know if what I saw was a nightmare, or some kind of vision, or one of those monster journeys the legend books talk about. Julian gave me his power, then his talisman, then his blood, and whatever made these marks—”

Kai grinned and met my eyes. “Our fearless team leader seems to have forgotten his oath to the Velci.”

“I don’t disagree.”

“Though you did single-handedly wipe out a whole pack of ghouls. And a vampire portal. If I were team leader, I’d break the rules to keep you alive, too.”

“Sure, maybe.” My voice sounded hollow.

Kai put his arm around me, and drew me into a hug. “Whatever he did, I’m glad. So what you’re a dark spirit—Julian doesn’t care. The Velci shouldn’t care, either.”

I wrapped my arms round Kai’s waist and hugged him back.

He kept his voice soft. “You know that this ancient has us all freaked. And at least you know how to fight him. If that quicksilver had come after me, my ass would be dead. Julian knew what he was doing, keeping you safe.”

“Yeah.” Though I still didn’t feel any better about Julian being trapped in the beyond.

“We’re lucky you’re on our side. That’s what matters.”

A few moments later, as I walked up the stairs with Kai, he said, “The Church of Christ is holding a vigil tonight. The city closed Second Avenue for the march, and then the candlelight ceremony will be at Evers Park. Chelsea’s going with Finn. I’m on base duty tonight, or I’d be there, too. They’re expecting at least six thousand people.”

Like the Ephraim, the Church of Christ had been aiding the Refugee Agency in town, providing assistance to those in need. As the largest congregation in Senna, this church had been an important voice of compassion and reason in the midst of the climate change crisis.

“You’re worried about protestors?” I asked. “Or you think the ancient and the warlock might try something? Use the coven to cast a spell through the crowd?”

Kai’s solemn expression told me he’d discussed that possibility with Chelsea and Finn. “We’re hoping the portal you destroyed did enough damage to stop that plan, if that’s what they intended to do. But there’s no shortage of assholes running around. Enough that Chelsea wanted the whole team out tonight, in light of the kidnapping and the fact the coven is still on the loose. She’s got no choice on that now though, with Julian gone, and Ravi and Jordan too injured to fight. The police will be out in force. They’re expecting looters to show up and cause mayhem, same way they did last time.” At the Thanksgiving vigil, none of the looters in town had been refugees, but Senna residents inspiring ill will and terror.

I considered my options a moment, and where I might do the most good. “I’m strong enough to go out. Especially if Brooklyn can give me some blood.”

“That wizard we caught—” Kai paused to shove open the door to the lounge, and I moved toward the closet where I kept extra clothes.

“The one who was threatening to blow up a building?”

“Yeah. He kept saying the storm was still coming. Eternal hell would reign over earth. You think he might be in league with this vampire? Has the ancient made mention of bringing a storm or eternal hell onto earth?”

“No. But that doesn’t rule anything out.”

“The city should’ve cancelled this vigil tonight. Chelsea told them we’re too understaffed to protect this many people. And that was before the fight with the coven.”

“Did you call in the fae?” The Seelie Court often helped the Ephraim with troubles like this, and there were ninety-three Seelie fae who lived within Senna.

“Oh yeah. But even with the fae, and all the associates, and all the police—” He shrugged. “That coven was almost too much for the mages. So I don’t know what chance civilian fae and associate witches would have.”

I searched his face for a moment, sensing his worry and dread, before I finished putting on a clean uniform, pushed my feet into a pair of boots, and told Kai, “I need some new weapons.” A fire knife. An awl. And a long drink of lycanthrope blood.

If anyone came to this vigil to hurt people, I’d be ready.

21

To leave the basement lounge and move upstairs, I followed Kai into a short hall, to a blue door inscribed with glittering silver runes. The door opened to one of Julian’s portals, which deposited anyone who entered into a room on the second floor of the building. As soon as I walked through the gateway with Kai, a portal wind swirled around us.

To my vampire eyes, the glittering haze around the doorway was obvious, and bore the distinct mark of Julian’s power. As a human, Kai could sense the magic in the door, and he felt the wind of the portal, but the transition looked ordinary—the blue door opened, there was a brief flurry of air, and we walked into a room roughly the size of a closet, one with five different exits.

Each door was enchanted to look like glass from our side, to allow us to see who was inside the room we might enter. The Ephraim headquarters was an old building, the original courthouse of Senna, a massive complex full of dark walnut floors and beautiful crown molding, wide halls and doorways laced with magic—elf runes and ancient glyphs—layers of enchantments as elaborate as the ones hiding my coffin.

Source mages preferred antique buildings for their bases and homes because older materials held stronger magic, just like vampire bodies and the mages themselves. Age brought power to objects, and the energy that ran through an Ephraim base grounded into the earth, vibrant and powerful, but too subtle to see with my eyes. My senses felt the Source magic everywhere though, like pressure and heat twisting in rivulets all around me.

My office was a small room with a cherry wood desk and a few matching chairs. Several lamps, and two bookshelves, but no window, and no overhead light.

As Kai and I arrived in the second floor portal room, and I glanced toward the door to my office, Brooklyn had turned on a lamp and sat waiting for us, texting someone on her phone, tapping her feet on the floor. She wore tight black pants and a thin black sweater, along with knee-high suede boots she’d once complained cost a fortune. Brooklyn’s hair and makeup were always dramatic, like a Hollywood screen actress posing for glamour shots: extra long lashes, smoky eyeshadow, lip gloss, and expert styling technique on her long chestnut hair. With a smattering of fine necklaces and several large bejeweled bracelets, she looked far too stunning to be hanging out in my office.

Kai swung the door open, and as soon as Brooklyn saw me, she beamed with delight.

“Eloise!” she cried, tossing her phone down as she leapt up and threw her arms around me. Her skin smelled like jasmine and sunshine, sweet as candy, and underneath that was the scent of her power, the lycanthrope heat of her cat. “Vix said you were dying!

I hugged Brooklyn tenderly. Lycanthropes might be inhumanly strong and able to heal with magical speed, but I could still crack Brooklyn’s ribs if I squeezed too hard. “I was burned pretty bad.”

“Kai said an ancient attacked you.”

I nodded. “He’s still out there.”

“And Julian isn’t back yet?”

I shook my head and released her.

Brooklyn glanced over at Kai. “Are you going to this?” she asked of the vigil.

“I’m on central tonight,” Kai said, referring to the main hall of the building open to the public. The Ephraim headquarters functioned as a sanctuary as well as a base, and there was always a Source mage or an associate present. “But Eloise plans to go.”

“Where’s Vix?” Brooklyn asked me.

Spying on Teagan. But I said, “She’s meeting me later. After the service.”

“You don’t think you’ll need her?” Brooklyn asked. “What if the warlock shows up with more ghouls?”

“Then I’ll kill some ghouls.”

Kai sent me a grin, while Brooklyn nodded and pushed up her bracelets to expose her pale wrist. “Then take what you need, and I’ll come with you.”

Kai crossed his arms and cocked a brow, an expression of concern on his face as he looked at Brooklyn. “Thought you had some kind of party tonight.”

A date with her new girlfriend, Courtney, he meant. Brooklyn had started seeing someone every bit as polished and beautiful as she was, and she’d even brought Courtney to the base once. Brooklyn wasn’t an associate, but not everyone could stroll around Ephraim headquarters like an insider, and Brooklyn held the Ephraim in the highest regard. As a human mundane, however, Courtney hadn’t been impressed with the base. She couldn’t sense the Source magic channeled into the building, and everything had seemed dull and ordinary to her, like any old remodeled courthouse with high ceilings and antique hardwood floors.

As I noticed the light fade from Brooklyn’s pretty green eyes, my heart sank to know Courtney had decided she wasn’t impressed with Brooklyn, either. Finding love as a lycanthrope was as difficult as looking for romance with any other kind of disease. Sometimes, a person thought they could accept having a lover infected with a shapeshifting virus, only to find out later they couldn’t. Brooklyn went through a lot of girlfriends this way.

Brooklyn gave a slight shrug and kept her voice light. “Cancelled. About an hour ago.” She sent Kai a brief smile, a silent pleading not to say any more, and switched her gaze back to mine. “So I’ll go to this vigil with you?”

I smiled with a bit of fang. “That sounds perfect.”

Kai dropped his arms and said, “I’ll fetch some daggers then,” as he walked to the door.

“And an awl,” I said, and Kai nodded before he left, closing the hall door behind him.

Brooklyn whispered, “That wizard sure is cute.”

I laughed. She knew my office was soundproofed, and there was no need to whisper.

“Sometimes I really wish I liked boys,” Brooklyn sighed.

I leaned over and kissed her brow. “Well, if you ever want to give Kai a night in your bed, he’d be more than happy to join you.”

Brooklyn giggled for a moment with genuine mirth, quick to wipe away several tears that had suddenly sprung to her eyes. “I really thought she was the one. She told me she’d dated a werewolf once, and I really believed… I wanted everything to be different this time. God, I’m so hopeless.”

“No—you’re the opposite. You’re full of hope, Brooklyn. It’s why I like you so much.”

Brooklyn nodded and dried her eyes again, struggling to keep her composure, and then she held out her wrist to me and put on a brave smile. “Bite me and let’s get out of here. I don’t care what trouble we run into tonight. I need the distraction.”

So I bowed my head over her wrist, and sank my teeth in.

Lycanthrope blood had a unique flavor and texture. Brooklyn’s reminded me of fizzy cream soda, unlike the nefsin maven’s blood I’d fed on last night. That woman’s power had been bitter and strong, like espresso, whereas Brooklyn’s blood tasted airy and light, coursing with a far different kind of energy.

Healthy lycanthropes healed so quickly from damage, Brooklyn started replacing her lost blood as fast as I swallowed it, and I devoured three pints.

I licked her skin once, so the wound would heal cleanly, and she waited until the puncture marks knit together before letting her bracelets fall back into place. In a soft voice, Brooklyn said, “I saw Lilith downstairs. Talking to Finn. She was crying.”

My heart twisted with pain, thinking of the stress I’d caused Lilith. Finn couldn’t tell her how long her fiancé might be in Xekkra. Or whether he’d even return. “Julian saved me, and now he’s—”

“I know. Kai told me.” Brooklyn picked up her coat and silk scarf from the chair she’d been sitting in, and tucked her phone in the pocket. “I see you got some tattoos.”

I shook my head and walked to the door. “Goddess marks.”

“Damn, Eloise! No wonder Julian’s still with the Velci! That is some serious sorcery—”

She stopped when I opened the door with a swift intake of breath, and threw up my hand. Not to show her my spirals, but in shock and alarm.

The hall lights had been dimmed, since no one was usually here this late. Office hours ended at five, and anyone on duty tonight was out watching the march.

But as Brooklyn peered past the door, she caught sight of the reason I’d frozen.

Ben.

Benjamin Rothschild. With Lilith.

Ben wasn’t a Source mage, or an associate. Ben was a lawyer, a mundane, with an office just down the hall from my own.

He had the muscled body of a mage, tanned and toned with the precision of someone who worshipped the gym, but Ben dressed in fine suits and ties, tailored clothing as refined and exquisite as the beautiful dresses and suits Lilith wore.

And when I saw them together, there was no doubt as to how much they complemented each other. Ben with his handsome dark suit and lavender tie, Lilith with her crushed velvet skirt and sweeping jacket, buckled boots and trailing scarf, all soft swirling color and shining blonde hair. The gems in her earrings sparkled against her flawless skin, a warm shade of peaches and cream as appealing as her pretty brown eyes.

She had her arms around Ben—up round his neck—and they were kissing as lovers do, with a heat and intensity that was smooth and familiar, intimate and knowing.

Ben had one arm wrapped tight around Lilith’s waist, and as I caught sight of them, he was sweeping her up, turning Lilith into his office, while he shut the door, fingers switching the lock into place with a click. Gone in an instant. Like a strange hallucination, a fever dream that couldn’t be real.

Brooklyn said—“Oh. My. God.”—and I knew I hadn’t imagined that kiss.

22

Brooklyn stayed in my office when I crossed the hall to Ben’s door, took a deep breath, and knocked. Loud enough they couldn’t pretend not to hear, no matter what they were doing in there.

Ben opened the door, tie straightened, all manners.

He might’ve voiced a greeting, said hello and addressed me by name, but I didn’t hear. I stepped through the door so I could see Lilith.

She sat on one of the big leather chairs, hands in her lap. Facing me. Shoulders back, jaw set for battle, her stare dropping the temperature of the room below freezing.

My voice sounded as cold as her gaze. “What are you doing?”

Ben cleared his throat, shut the door, and started to answer.

But I didn’t look at him.

“Lilith. What. Are you doing.”

She rose and stepped closer to me. “I could ask you the same thing.”

I narrowed my eyes. “What same thing? Cheating on my fiancé? There is no same thing.”

Lilith’s voice remained sharp, bladed wrath. “Then why do the Velci still have him? You think I don’t know what corruption is? You think I don’t know what he’s done? How does a mage keep his favorite monster alive, when not even a pint of his blood is enough to save her? Or do you still want to assume I’m too clueless to know? Maybe you should throw out your magic and glamour me now. Roll my mind so I forget what the truth is.”

“Roll your mind?” My voice rose in outrage. “I’ve never controlled anyone’s mind.”

“No? Well, maybe you ought to start. Because I’m sure you’re not the only one he’s been having fun with. And you might want to know who your competition is.”

“Having fun with? Julian and I work together—”

“No, you don’t work together. You are together. And he has plenty of others, Eloise. No one is special to him.”

“Julian loves you. He’s planning to marry you.”

Lilith held up her hands, her face savage and hateful. “He’s paying penance for saving you from a death hex—and you don’t think I understand why? I’ve lived with that man for three years, and you think I haven’t learned anything about witchcraft?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Then answer the question. What did he do to keep you alive? My innocent mage with his vampire lover.”

Her words made me sick. Vampire lover? How could she believe this of her own fiancé? Think so little of the man who had asked her to marry him?

I was certainly guilty of wanting him. But I’d never thrown my arms around Julian and kissed him, or even flirted with him. Julian loved me, there was no denying his feelings, but he’d never looked at me the way he looked at Lilith. I was the bad one who took his behavior with Lilith, the sexy grins and playful kisses he gave her, and made them all mine. Recast a forbidden man into my fantasies, where Julian had nothing to lose from having sex with a monster. I was the one who was wrong, not Julian.

He was one of the youngest team leaders the Ephraim had ever had, a man of integrity and honor, a man who wanted a place on the Council one day. Lilith’s explanation for how he’d saved my life was ridiculous. Julian hadn’t rescued me with some kind of love spell. Cheating on the woman he planned to marry wasn’t his style.

I thought of Julian placing his hand on my brow, channeling Source energy into my body to heal.

Thought of him tying his necklace around me, and kneeling beside my burned body later, while the ashes of ghouls still clouded the air.

And then the image of Julian returned from my dream. The light spilling out of his chest, the way his torso cracked open, and the sound—

The sound

Deep and resonant, unending, a tone of the sacred eternal. Vibrating with such power and force. As consuming and frightening as that beautiful, terrible light.

The sound of his energy. Julian’s energy. As distinct to his body as the shape of his light.

And then I knew what he’d done.

Knew what he’d given me to keep me alive.

“He shared his frequency.” My voice sounded drained. Certain this behavior was worse than anything else he could have done. “The generative sound in his body. The current at the source of his life.” I held up my palms so Lilith could see the triskelions. “That’s why I’m alive. With these marks. That’s why he’s on trial in Xekkra.”

“Because he loves you,” Lilith said, her tone bitter.

Heat surged back into my voice. “He does love me, Lilith. He corrupted his magic to save me. But that doesn’t make him my lover.”

Lilith shook her head, a subtle sneer in her lips, her words like a hiss. “Your vampire glamour doesn’t work on me, Eloise. And never has.”

“I’m not using glamour!” I stepped past Ben to open the door, suddenly needing out of this room. Away from them both, or I was going to snap. “Julian is a good man. He’s always been a good man.” I paused with my hand on the knob, and met Lilith’s gaze. “You can call me a monster. I deserve that. But I’m not the kind of monster you want me to be. And neither is Julian. You’re still the woman he plans to marry. Julian isn’t perfect—but he’s not a liar, or a cheat. He’s just engaged to one now.”

I left the room and slammed the door. Hard enough to sound like a bomb going off. Which was really unnecessary. But preferable to fanging someone.

Brooklyn stood in the hall, watching me with a careful expression. Power crackled through my skin, evidence that my emotions were so strong I was having trouble keeping a screen. I stormed down the hall, and Brooklyn fell into step beside me as I stalked back to my office.

“Man, your power is—” She made a light choking sound and fluttered her hands, to indicate how much of my magic was flowing around me right now. “I hope you didn’t just kill anyone.”

My heart was pounding too hard to respond. I struggled to rein in my energy, calm my rage and return my screen to full strength, as I swept through my office door and said, “Let’s go through the supply room.”

Brooklyn nodded and followed me into the portal. We didn’t take the door to the lounge, since we were headed outside, so we walked through the passage to the first floor supply room, which was empty right now.

Then we went through the main office and walked into central, the main hall of the building, which looked like the lounge of a five-star hotel, with couches and coffee tables, a big stone fireplace, a table laden with hot drinks in silver tureens plugged into the wall. Since this was December, a decorated Christmas tree cast its light through the room, a lighted menorah perched on one of the tables, and there were candles and festive arrangements marking other religious events. Source mages came from all different cultures, faiths and belief systems, and so did their associates. Their main hall was a testament to that fact.

A family of two adults with four children sat on one of the couches, huddled together, while Kai stood at the welcome desk, speaking to a pair of police officers. When Brooklyn and I entered the room, he excused himself and walked toward us, removing two daggers and an awl from his uniform pockets.

“Be careful out there,” he said quietly, handing over the weapons, and cast a glance toward the police. “They say it’s been peaceful so far. Just a lot of singing and praying. The leaders have reached the park now.” Kai was about to turn away, but he paused and studied my face. “What is it?”

I shook my head, unwilling to discuss my conversation with Lilith in public, with police and strangers around. I strengthened my screen to obscure the last of my emotions, and started for the door, Brooklyn beside me. Soon we were outside, descending the wide marble stairs onto Second Avenue, and then turning north, toward Evers Park.

People were everywhere: crossing the streets, passing down sidewalks, moving under trees lit with strings of white holiday lights. Shops were still open, selling books, tea, fine clothing, instruments, jewelry, music, wine, and tobacco—each store window decorated with snowflakes and baubles. Children with jinglebells raced around street signs and trees, playing tag, while three blocks away, the marchers had gathered to begin their vigil.

As Brooklyn and I moved along the crowded sidewalk, making our way toward the park, Brooklyn’s phone rang, and she hurried to answer while I scanned the faces around us, watching for threat.

But what I really kept seeing was Lilith, sneering at me.

Lilith, who I’d always been kind to. Had only ever treated with respect. Looking at me with such absolute hate, I wished I had another five hundred doors I could slam.

So as the park came into view, filled with thousands of people holding lit candles, listening to someone on the small concrete stage intoning a prayer, I didn’t pay close attention to my surroundings.

I thought about Julian. All the extra missions he’s asked me to join him on lately. Like that meeting with the wereleopards and fae. Activities that didn’t need my assistance.

That had to be what Lilith had noticed. The extra time we’d been spending together.

Lilith was cheating on Julian, and claiming her affair was my fault—and a part of me hated her with every bit of rage I could feel, for blaming her behavior on me.

But another part of me was too overwhelmed with the familiar devastation of heartbreak. Because deep down, I was still that same pathetic little kid watching Julian date girls his own age, with me nowhere on his radar, and it was like Lilith had pushed a knife right into that old, sore wound that I should’ve had the good sense to get rid of by now. Let him go. Move on. Find someone to love who would love me back.

In college, I’d made attempts to embrace a new romance. Give my heart to another.

I’d kept wanting Julian though. My desire failed when confronted with anyone else.

Maybe that meant I was flawed. Trapped in some juvenile stage of development, with an intense and passionate craving for a childhood friend I considered safe and secure.

I didn’t give a damn though. Human beings weren’t rational creatures, and neither were vampires. My emotions might run amok, but at least I owned them. And I didn’t betray people for sex. Unlike a certain woman who wore expensive perfume, diamond earrings, and had graduated from the Sorbonne.

As I stood in the park, studying the people around me, and Brooklyn continued to chat on her phone, I remembered the time Julian had caught me making a love potion. An activity I’d learned how to do from a book in the Córdova house. My curiosity about mundane Pagan witchcraft had found me reading a manual for witches who didn’t use element magic, but cast spells and made potions as Pagans, like Julian’s parents. I cooked up my one and only love potion when I’d been ten years old, and he’d been fourteen.

That had been really awkward.

So of course my mind tormented me with the memory now.

23

The fiasco happened during Imbolc, the Gaelic festival to mark the beginning of spring, an annual celebration held two weeks before Valentine’s Day. Which meant I had a supply of conversation hearts for my potion, the little chalky ones.

I’d always hated the flavor of pink pastel hearts, even worse than the taste of black licorice, so for my potion, I selected only the yellow and white hearts that said I love you and Mine 4ever to use. Fourteen candies in all. I also had three tiny white daisies, a sprig of mint, a juniper berry, five lemon drops, and a mason jar of mountain spring water.

The Imbolc celebration went late into the night. Marco and Julian and I fell asleep in the sunroom together, where we’d piled blankets and pillows and had a juice bar set up on a coffee table. Julian had invited four other friends over, guy-friends in ninth grade, but Marco had only asked me to attend—a request he worded like this: “We’re having a party on Saturday, so tell your dad.” Which I did.

Pagan parties always featured music, massive amounts of food, and staying up way past bedtime. The adults drank wine and danced. As kids, we played games and told secrets and ate pizza. Julian even let Marco and I hang out with his high school friends, which I saw as more proof of how deserving he was of my crush.

I didn’t sleep long that night, awoke before sunrise, and went into the kitchen to brew my love potion. With everyone asleep in the house, I had complete privacy to work up a spell, and I was determined to gain my true heart’s desire from Julian—which, at age ten, meant I wanted him to come to the community swimming pool with me and Marco, and play Mermaid Princess with us.

Mermaid Princess was my favorite game ever. It involved swimming around underwater, wearing plastic leis, and trying to escape a pack of crazed orcas that were trying to devour mermaid princesses. The orcas were invisible, which made them more scary. The only way to escape them was to swim from the water slide splash zone to the bottom of the diving area really fast, and without the lifeguards blowing their whistles, because no one was supposed to be in the diving area unless they were diving.

I was always Princess Khadija. Marco was Princess Jasmine. And Julian—if he ever played with us—would be Princess Ariel.

I just knew Julian would love this game if he gave it a try. But I was too scared to ask him to play, so I decided to spell him instead. Since witchcraft should never be used for harm or control, I had to check whether my intentions toward Julian were bad. In my analysis, I wasn’t trying to hurt Julian, or control him, but simply open him up to the joy of playing my favorite game, so I thought a love potion was the perfect solution. Julian could fall in love with the game first, and then race to the pool to play with Marco and me—because how could he not love Mermaid Princess once he experienced the thrill of escaping those orcas?

So I tiptoed into the kitchen, set up my supplies while everyone slept, and boiled my spring water on the stove with utmost care.

After the water bubbled for fifteen minutes, I crushed the lemon drops with a mortar and pestle, and whispered the words of my true heart’s desire: Julian Córdova will play Mermaid Princess with me.

I added the ground lemon drops to the water, and repeated the procedure with the sprig of mint. Julian Córdova will play Mermaid Princess with me.

I was about to add the candy hearts to the mortar when footsteps sounded in the hall. Someone entered the kitchen, and I glanced up to find Julian crossing the room, rubbing his sleepy face as he blinked in the light. “Eloise?” He came to the stove and looked around. “What is all this—?” and then he glanced from the bubbling pot to my face. “Are you making a potion? With candy??

I put down the mortar and pestle. Turned off the burner. Said what anyone would say in my situation. “No.”

Julian eyed the candy hearts lined up on the counter. I love you. Mine 4ever. “Eloise—are you making a love potion? Seriously? You’re like, eight years old.”

I crossed my arms and glowered at him, because he knew damn well I was ten.

“Is this for Marco?”

I gave Julian the evil eye.

“Some boy at school?”

I sent him more shade.

Julian considered the hearts again. “Or maybe a girl?”

I showed him my ugly teeth, which was what Marco and I called snarling like a bear.

Julian grinned. “It’s for Marco, isn’t it?” Then he laughed. “When is he supposed to drink this? At breakfast?”

I’d been hoping to pour some into Julian’s orange juice. Now I realized Julian would know I was slipping him a love potion if he caught me dumping anything into his drink. The full extent of the crisis dawned on me, how Julian had just strolled into the kitchen and destroyed all my plans, and I felt intense wrath.

He walked to the fridge and said, “I’m making an omelet.” Which I knew was just a flimsy excuse to spy on me. I hurried to throw away my ingredients. And dump my water down the drain. Julian didn’t even pretend to care. He said, “You want an omelet?”

No.”

He cooked me an omelet.

Normally, I didn’t like omelets, but Julian made them fluffy and light, so his were okay.

We ate together at the table, and I didn’t say anything to him because I hated him for ruining everything. Now I’d never convince him to go to the pool instead of hanging out with his friends.

“You shouldn’t make love potions,” Julian said. “Those things are dangerous.”

I responded with ugly teeth.

Julian stepped on my foot. “You don’t need a love potion for Marco.”

I made the alligator-snapping sign with my hand, to let him know he was talking but I wasn’t listening.

On Valentine’s Day, Julian gave a classmate named Gabriella some strawberry cupcakes with real strawberries on them. Gabriella thought he was so sweet that she kissed Julian all over his face, so much he had to wash off her lipstick marks before his parents could see, or else his mom would tease him and his dad would say, “Son, do we need to have another chat?” and Julian would say, “No!” and get all flustered.

He never did play Mermaid Princess with me. But I stopped playing that game in sixth grade, and started wanting more grownup things. Like strawberry cupcakes with real strawberries on them. Whatever Julian did for a girl, I wanted for myself. And when he left for Nepal, I knew that when he came back, I’d be an adult, and then all those wonderful things would be mine.

When Julian did finish his training, and brought Lilith home for the first time, the two of them newly engaged, his family had a big house party to celebrate Marco and I graduating from high school. A few hours after dinner, Lilith joked that Julian had only proposed because she’d made him a love potion. Everyone laughed, since Julian had recently taken his vows, and Source mages couldn’t fall prey to potions. I smiled at Lilith’s joke, but didn’t laugh, since unlike Lilith, I really had once tried to spell him.

Not that I would ever admit that. I sat on the couch with Marco, curled up against him with my head on his shoulder, and thought about us leaving for college in three months—Marco to California, and me to the eastern slope of Colorado, to Boulder—and how excited and frightened I was. And whenever I looked at Julian, who oozed tall, dark, and handsome like an overfull creampuff, my heart jacked up my system so bad, I had to keep glancing at Lilith to remind myself he had a fiancée now, he was going to marry someone who wasn’t me.

A bunch of Julian’s high school friends had come to the party, and one of them teased me and Marco, “When are you two gonna get married?” and someone else said, “They already are!” while Marco made the alligator-snapping sign with his hand and we giggled.

Julian said, “Eloise made Marco a love potion a long time ago.”

I picked up a couch pillow and threw it at him. “I did not!

Julian caught the pillow without spilling his drink. “Yeah you did, you had all these candy hearts in the kitchen, you were cooking them up in a pot—”

Lilith had the nerve to say to Marco and me, “You are pretty cute together,” which made me want to strangle her.

Marco said, “Eloise doesn’t want to get married.”

Lilith furrowed her brows in puzzlement. “Why not? Because there isn’t a mosque here? Would Marco have to convert?”

“Eloise wouldn’t make me convert,” Marco laughed. “It’s not that.”

“Do you want to get married?” Lilith asked Marco.

“Sure, one day,” Marco said. “But not to her—” and he pushed my arm.

“Well, so much for the love potion,” Lilith snickered.

I smiled, left the room, and took a break from the party. I went outside to the garden, past the oak with the tire swing, and climbed into Marco’s old fort.

As I stared up at the stars, thinking about Julian and his engagement to Lilith, I told myself the whole situation was just like Mermaid Princess, and all the other things I’d hoped to do with him that had never happened. Kissing Julian. Holding hands. Twirling my fingers through the curls of his hair.

Not even dying had changed that. I’d been reborn as a living corpse, and I was still obsessed with a boy who viewed me as his kid brother’s girlfriend, a little sister-in-law in the making.

Brooklyn ended her call, drifted back over to me and announced, “Tomi sent a text.” Our other roommate, a werepanther who let me drink her blood as often as Brooklyn did.

“She okay?”

“Yeah, said she’ll be back in town late tonight. She has to drive home from Salt Lake.”

I nodded. A large pride of werepanthers lived in Salt Lake City, and sometimes they called Tomi to help them with emergencies. Brooklyn and Tomi were both solitaires, werecats who chose not to live in a lycanthrope group of any kind, but Tomi maintained ties with the pride that had taken her in as a child.

“See anything?” Brooklyn asked, glancing around at the people.

“No.” Though I hadn’t been as focused as I should.

On stage, a man dressed in jeans took the microphone, introduced himself, and gave a speech about the power of reincarnation. I scanned the crowd as he spoke, listening to his voice tremble and crack with emotion.

“When a human being is killed, their soul can transmigrate, can leave the body that is no longer needed, and be reborn into a new one. And with each life earned and lived, with compassion and love, the closer enlightenment is! Vampires cannot transmigrate—they are trapped in their corpse, cursed and damned to this world! When a monster dies, they die forever!

The audience cheered, and the man waited for the noise to diminish. “Monsters are the mortal ones, not people! Life is stronger than death! And these bloodsucking murderers, with their evil magic from Satan—they’re the ones who will die—not us! Not us!

The crowd cheered even louder, and Brooklyn caught my eyes, her expression dark. I shrugged, since I wasn’t about to let this man’s speech stress me out. He deserved to hate and fear the undead. All these people did.

And as to the ideas he expressed about reincarnation, the truth was, no one had all the answers. Did souls reincarnate? Or simply migrate to Heaven? Did vampires end up in oblivion, or burn forever in Hell? Or did the Dark Goddess maintain her own paradise for her children? Ask a hundred different people, receive a hundred different answers.

Then I spotted someone I recognized. A face I’d seen in the electric blue light of a summoning spell.

One of the mavens of the True God, who’d been helping the warlock summon his wraiths. She wore a sable cloak lined in fur, a silver nose ring studded with jewels, and her painted red lips glimmered dark as obsidian in the candlelight.

A familiar white light shone deep in her eyes, glowing with the power of a suicide bomb. Like she planned to detonate during the vigil.

She stood in the thick of the crowd, surrounded by people, but she must’ve felt my gaze on her face, because she turned and sent me a grin.

24

I bolted toward her, while Brooklyn yelled, “Eloise!”

The witch’s eyes lost their pupils, became pale silver orbs like the skin of a corpse, before she turned away, shoving against the people around her, running from me. I wanted to tackle her before she exploded, but having to dart and weave through the crowd slowed me down.

She left the park, crossed the street, and raced into a narrow gap between buildings, flying into the darkness with vampire speed.

Vampire speed.

I halted at the edge of the shadows, heart racing, aware of some terrible danger that filled the night like these thousands of people, an energy that pulsed through the cold air, seemed to radiate against all the holiday lights and candles.

“We pray for peace!” said a woman on the park’s stage, her voice amplified by the speakers stacked beside her, and mounted on tripods at each corner of the park. “We pray for an end to all violence! For compassion and love. And we pray to be saved from the monsters! From the demons and hellspawn that spread only death. We pray for salvation. We pray for the earth. We pray for a brighter future ahead. And may God smite the vampires and witches who long to devour us! May all monsters tonight see our light, and know that we are unafraid of the dark!”

The quicksilver’s voice drifted out of the shadows before me, sliding over my skin like a snake.

“I brought you a present, Eloise.” His voice curled with a smile. “For Christmas.” He glided into my view between the buildings, into the thick of the darkness behind the two stores, hovering a few inches over the ground. One building held an appliance repair shop. The other rented tuxedoes. Both were closed at this hour. Whatever the vampire had been doing back there, in the yard between the buildings and a tall privacy wall, there hadn’t been an audience watching him.

He was thirty feet away from me. Maybe less.

He slid toward me another few feet, and the smell of fresh blood swamped the night, steamy and thick, so pungent that I extended my fangs for a fight.

The ancient broadened his smile. “Come, child. Take a look at your gift.”

He held up his present with a gentleman’s flourish, clutching a severed hand in his grip, and part of a thin, severed arm. Slender, tapered fingers curved into a loose fist, with the lump of a wedding ring coated in blood.

“The rest of her is waiting for you,” he said. “Just inside. You can watch me cut open her neck.”

25

Brooklyn took only one form when she shifted: pure feline. Less than two feet tall at her shoulders, and roughly twice the size of a house cat, Brooklyn’s bobcat was not the most fearsome predator in the wild. With her soft tawny fur, bobbed fluffy tail, and black-tufted ears, she certainly looked more like a domestic kitty than an object of terror, though her teeth and claws were still capable of lethal force.

Some lycanthropes shifted with pain, aware of snapping bones, pulling muscles, yanked ligaments and rent tendons. Many weres shed a colorless goo as their skin turned inside out, a gloppy gunk known as ichor.

Brooklyn screamed—a bobcat shriek—when she shifted, but not from pain, and not because she was momentarily drenched in streams of hot ichor. Her cat cried out with glee, an ecstatic gratitude to no longer be trapped in a human body. A noise that could sound like a bellow or the wail of a small child. Tonight, her shapeshifting scream resembled a mix of the two as she arrived at the buildings to join me.

As the vampire glided toward us, Brooklyn’s paws bounded once through the snow, a soft scraping noise as she leapt, a frenzy of energy as propulsive as a blast of heat in the air, and I knew she was jumping for him, aiming straight for his throat—

And the ancient would be only too happy to snap her neck—

Which would kill Brooklyn. Magical healing or not, she wasn’t a dark spirit, didn’t live in an undead body. She couldn’t heal if her windpipe had been broken.

So I spun around and caught her.

Brooklyn shrieked as she slammed into my chest, and she thrashed against me but I held her.

“Get Chelsea!” I yelled, and threw her back toward the street, away from the monster behind me. “Get everyone!

Brooklyn scrambled and rolled over the snow-packed asphalt, illuminated by the bright glow of lamplights and holiday twinkles, looking like an overlarge housecat that had taken a spill off a counter. The people who saw her tumble thought she was a dog at first, because a couple of adults ran toward her, crying out that someone had just thrown a puppy—then they shouted in surprise when Brooklyn popped up on all fours and sprinted away.

The ancient tossed away the severed hand he’d been holding, rubbing his bloody fingers together with a glimmer of magic. So as soon as I let Brooklyn go, I summoned a hex. “Winter ice, draw the wind!” and power coursed from my palms, my spell channeling so much faster than I’d ever conjured before, shaped by the triskelions with an astonishing speed.

I aimed the curse at the ancient—a hex that should’ve split his face open—but my spell struck a sorcerer’s guard, protective armor like an invisible barrier surrounding him. The curse dissipated into pathetic bolts of purple lightning, flashing harmlessly over the quicksilver before dropping into the ground.

“So predictable,” he laughed, and then he rushed me, moving so fast that he vanished.

He hit me with something. Hard enough I didn’t even feel myself fall.

26

My head throbbed with pain. A violent and pulsing fire, like my brain had melted.

I opened my eyes. Didn’t know where I was. Couldn’t remember why I was hurt.

For a moment, I might have been anything, any dying animal lying somewhere, waiting for something hungry to swallow me.

As awareness and memory slowly returned, I realized I lay on my side gazing at a brick wall, dirty windows, and exposed rusty pipes. I was in some kind of warehouse. Lying on a dirt floor.

I remembered the ancient, and yelling for Brooklyn to fetch help. Recalled my failed hex. He must’ve taken me somewhere. Teleported with me to this place.

My weapons were gone. Including my awl.

I blinked several times, and my vision was so blurry I prayed I was dreaming.

But when I rolled onto my back, panting from the inferno of pain in my skull, I found a human woman lying beside me, a stranger dressed in nothing but underwear—and as my vision cleared in a sudden burst of adrenaline, hell became far too real for a nightmare.

The woman’s left arm had been cut off below her shoulder, and a puddle of her blood soaked the ground. She’d been nailed to the dirt with a long metal spike driven into her collarbone, and her other arm was so bloodied and misshapen, I guessed the bones had been broken in at least ten different places. Both her ankles had been smashed, and as I sat up and moved into her view, her eyes widened in terror and she started to weep.

“Please, please!” she sobbed, her voice a high, mangled scream. “Help me! You have to help me!

Her voice pierced my ears like a fire knife. Stars speckled my eyes as I lurched onto my knees and reached for the spike in her chest, thinking I’d ease the metal out of the ground, leave the nail in place in her body so she wouldn’t bleed out, then pick her up in my arms and run—

My damaged brain told me this was the plan.

Which was an unfortunate way to wake up, so muddled with injury that I succumbed to this fantasy—

After two years with the Ephraim, I should’ve been better than that.

But even if I’d called forth a spell, the ancient was too fast for me to attack. The quicksilver ran toward me the instant the woman screamed, and arrived like an arctic wind at my back. He clutched a hand round my throat, kneeling behind me, and stopped me from leaping away. The pain in my head reached an unbearable level, and my legs crumpled like paper as my knees struck the ground. The ancient’s fingers were crushing and bruising, and I grabbed at his hand, but there was no way to loosen his grip.

He spoke to the woman with a coddling, sweet tone, like a coo for a baby. His words were more terrifying than the violent, pulsing fire in my skull, or the way he was threatening to snap my neck with one hand. I couldn’t see the vampire’s face, but I knew he wore a placid expression, a sadistic joy in his eyes.

“Help you, my dear? But Eloise is here to help you. That’s why I invited her to this party. Eloise loves to help humans. Pathetic little people just like you. There’s no need to cry.” The woman shrieked again, continued to sob, and the vampire’s lips caressed my ear before he addressed his next words to me. “Oh, the poor thing. I know what would make her feel better—why don’t you show her your teeth, Eloise? Let her know what a good little monster you are. All dressed up in your uniform. Playing with hexes.”

I felt his fury with me for destroying his ghouls and burning his portal. For having the power to kill him last night, even if I had failed. For leaving him with no choice but to run away from a child. Wielding a curse from the Goddess that should’ve taken my life.

Before, I’d been nothing to him. Bait in his game to kill Julian and the other Source mages.

Now I angered him. Had irritated him so completely that I’d inspired his wrath.

And the more he mocked my associate uniform, emphasizing the fact that I worked for the Ephraim, the more it dawned on me how much I disgusted him: a vampire who worked for the enemy. A traitor down to my core.

No, I was worse than that. He said I loved to save humans, the pathetic little people who were nothing but food. In the eyes of this ancient, I was an abomination, as well as a threat. Someone capable of powerful magic.

Master vampires had very few fears. But even this ancient had to fear other masters, vampires powerful enough to destroy him—and I’d done something last night that had scared him. Me… a baby… an abomination who worked for the mages. Had threatened a master vampire with death.

Except I was strong enough now to wake before sunset. Strong enough to wear Goddess marks in my palms. Strong enough to heal in a grave in less than an hour.

The ancient had sensed the new power I had, or he wouldn’t have put up a sorcerer’s guard to stop my hex. And he’d definitely done something to me while I’d been unconscious. Something to make my brain feel like it had melted.

I’d become someone worthy of caution. Which probably pissed him off most of all: that he had to be wary of me, regardless of all his strength and his skills.

As to the sadistic pleasure he took in torturing the woman he’d nailed to the ground, I didn’t extend my fangs because my teeth were still out—I hadn’t retracted them—and the quicksilver said to the woman, “The mages sent a vampire to save you. Wasn’t that kind of them? Don’t you feel so much safer, seeing a bloodsucker dressed up as a witch? Eloise likes pretending she’s human. But her fangs are out now, aren’t they? And you know what vampires do with those teeth—”

The woman screamed and screamed, while the quicksilver licked my ear. Then he choked me so hard my vision blurred and went grey. I was still conscious though, and he continued to shake me by the neck, making sure I knew he was going to kill me.

I might’ve wielded a death hex of the Goddess last night, but that power was nowhere within my means now. And he wanted me to know how helpless I was, as unable to save myself as this human.

As he eased his hold, and my sight returned, he tipped my face up, and said, “Look, Eloise. Look who’s here.”

I rolled my gaze past the woman and saw the warlock who’d kidnapped the boy. Dressed in a rich saffron robe with crimson runes, fur dyed to match. The colors accentuated his tan skin, and the subtle curl of a smile twisted his lips. Golden rings lined his fingers, and he wore an elaborate golden necklace holding a circumscribed checkerboard pendant: the squared, perfect lines of a nefsin focusing charm.

He stood gazing down at me, his eyes glowing faint emerald, lit by a circle of magic he’d cast to surround us. A circle he must’ve made for the quicksilver, maybe fifteen feet in diameter. Drawn in the dirt with the human woman’s blood. My senses were so weak, almost unable to detect anything beyond my own pain, but as I stared at the warlock, I felt a perfect ring of his energy around us. A ritual circle with that long metal spike nailed through the woman in the center.

A Goddess ring for a spell. The power resonated through the ground with a solemn vibration, a hum full of death.

The woman thrashed with clumsy, desperate movements, like a fatally wounded deer that still hoped to flee, and though I couldn’t turn my head, I knew the ancient must be doing something beside me, bearing his fangs at her or licking his lips. His voice remained gentle and cloying as he said to me, “Pity your white knight didn’t even give you a necklace this time. Maybe he thinks you’re so powerful now that the Goddess has marked you, you don’t need any help from a saint.”

The ancient’s fingers dug even deeper into my neck, and the pain in my skull reached volcanic force, like my head was about to rupture. Then he relaxed his hold, let the pressure calm so I could hear his next words. “Don’t you know what I am, little girl? Haven’t you guessed?”

He turned me so I could see his face. Beautiful, blood-spattered skin. Fangs fully extended and dripping with blood. Silver eyes inhuman and gleaming with power.

His voice was a silky caress. “Tell me… tell me what I want.”

My voice was an almost inaudible rasp, but I managed to answer. “Kill the mages.”

The quicksilver tossed his head back to laugh, those inhuman eyes twinkling with a frightening joy. Then he straightened and fell quiet. “Such a fool.” He stroked my cheek with his thumb. “Almost ruins the pleasure of watching you die.”

The ancient kept his hand round my neck, and lifted a hatchet in front of me with the other. The metal was smeared in blood, but I could still tell the blade was pure gold. A ritual tool.

“We’re going to conjure a gate into the beyond. I thought I needed a mage to open a door into Xekkra, and your white knight would have been perfect to use. Such a young, silly mage with all that Source power. Spilling his blood would have summoned my gate—” The ancient nestled the blade of the hatchet over my heart, and sliced part of my tunic apart, drawing the gold close enough to my body that my skin flared with danger and heat. “But he gave me everything I need, right here inside you. So considerate of him. I’m sure he’ll be happy to see you again, when we knock. You won’t have your heart anymore, or your head, but the Velci can have your dark spirit. There’s always room for one more inside the beyond.”

Conjure a gate into Xekkra? Why would any vampire do that? Did this ancient really think he could take on the Velci?

“The guardians will kill you,” I said, wishing my voice sounded louder than choking, fragile breath. “You’ll never escape the angels and jinn.” Source mages parted the veil between worlds, not dark spirits. Never dark spirits. That was forbidden.

The ancient smiled and leaned closer, like he was going to kiss me. “The guardians aren’t going to kill me. Because I’m giving them you, Eloise. You’re the one who’s corrupted. An evil dark spirit with their precious Source power inside you.” The ancient put down the hatchet to pluck up my hand, and rubbed his thumb along the triskelion in my palm. “You think I can’t feel what he’s done? Your noble white knight. Giving the power of the Velci to you. Forsaking his vows to keep you alive. The Velci certainly know what he’s done—and they don’t want you alive anymore—”

“Then I’d already be dead!”

“But you are dead, Eloise. I’m going to let them destroy you. And they will, little girl. They’ll have their angels and jinn annihilate you. And as you’re rendered to ash, I’ll cast a hex of my own.” He released my hand and tapped my nose, a playful smile on his lips. “Don’t you understand what will happen if I ruin a gate? The Velci will punish them all—every mage in the Order—and your white knight most of all. Take away the beyond, and the Ephraim will collapse. The mages are nothing without the power of the Velci. Do you understand me?” The ancient picked up his hatchet again, grinning as he rested the side of the blade on my cheek. “Or did you think you were the only one who could destroy a portal? Little Eloise with her death hex. A child playing with matches, burning her own house to the ground.”

“I’m going to kill you!” I yelled. Tried to yell. The words came out in a whispery hiss.

But my words weren’t any less true. Because now that I knew what he wanted—to conjure a gate he could burn—he’d made a crucial mistake when this circle was cast. He was the fool with the matches, not me.

The ancient laughed again, a rich and guttural chuckle. “Burn in Hell, Eloise,” he said pleasantly, and then he turned to the woman staked to the ground.

The quicksilver had told me I could watch him cut open her neck, and as he lifted the hatchet over her and brought down his arm, I couldn’t halt his momentum, or change his aim.

But if the ancient needed my body to conjure a gate, then he needed me whole. Because if some part of my magic could manipulate Source energy now—using some frequency Julian had given me to keep me alive—spilling my vampire blood in this circle would break the spell.

Dark spirits couldn’t part the veil between worlds. Not unless they wanted to die.

That was why the ancient had done something to me before the circle was cast. He’d wedged something awful into my brain, something to weaken me, and then sealed the wound shut, so he wouldn’t shed my blood in this ritual.

I didn’t have enough strength to free myself from his grip, and I couldn’t stand up, or kick him hard enough to hurt him.

But I could still ruin his spell.

And maybe that meant we would all die—the quicksilver, the woman, the warlock, and me—but better that than let the ancient burn a gate into Xekkra. The Ephraim might be the enemy of all the dark spirits, but the monsters would take over the earth if there was no one left who could fight them, and I wasn’t a fan of that future.

The woman saw the blade raised above her, and she screamed with a sound that resonated through the circle, building the power of the spell like a sharp wave of pressure.

The ancient didn’t give voice to the words of the chant. The intention in his mind was enough. The strength of his sorcery rolled through me like being hit with a curse—and something inside me responded, writhing and lashing—the energy Julian had placed there, coursing through me like heat. The power that would conjure the gate.

Mist rose in the air, a door into the beyond, summoned with the Source magic inside me. Energy now woven into the vampire’s spell, wrenched from my body with his Dark Goddess power.

But when the quicksilver brought down his hatchet, the golden blade didn’t land in the woman’s neck. As the force of his spell crackled through me, I twisted sideways, digging one knee deep into the dirt, and kicked out my leg.

I threw a sidekick into the air right over the woman’s head, and the hatchet sank into my knee. Cleaved through the bone, cut me so deep that as the vampire jerked the blade free and lifted his weapon, my blood welled and spattered onto the woman, the ancient, and all over the dirt.

Blood magic, night sorcery, and Source energy converged, striking the air in an unholy union of power.

The ground shuddered like an earthquake had hit, and the vampire screamed—screamed in agony, screamed like something had been ripped open inside him—and the earth tore apart beneath us. We dropped into a chasm, a churning whirlpool of dirt, rock, and bones. The circle cracked like thunder, splitting the warlock’s ring of power, while the warehouse went up in green flame: the windows shattered and the brick melted down like cooked butter. The stars were out overhead, the winter air dropped below freezing, and the blood circle around us became a wall of green fire, burning and twisting with a roar.

As the earth roiled and spun, I scrambled toward the woman in the chaos, like swimming through a spinning grave, and the ancient latched onto me as he dropped. He snatched hold of my damaged leg, yanking the cut knee and snapping the rest of the bone, as he pulled me down with him into the ground.

I grabbed the quicksilver’s face as I collapsed, frantic to power a hex before the swirling dirt filled my mouth. Before we were all buried together.

“Mother, my mother! Kiss me with night!”

My palms warmed, my arms coursed with power, but I conjured no spell. The earth was too consumed with magic to allow me to cast.

The ancient bit my arm while I spoke, sank his fangs in deep enough to envenom me with his poison. I grasped a rock and smashed his mouth in, shattered his teeth. Struck him again and again as a mound of debris pounded his chest, and he ripped out a hunk of my hair, then another, trying to stop me from pulverizing his bones.

A piece of my scalp tore away in his grip, and before he found a new hold, I twisted free of his hands, and threw myself at the shuddering dirt to scramble up to the surface.

He slashed my uninjured leg with his repaired fangs, slicing my calf muscle, rupturing tendons and ligaments, then snatched hold of my ankle and jerked me back down.

My hands scrabbled through the dirt, desperate to keep purchase and climb, but I slipped and started to fall—

I spotted the hatchet. The quicksilver’s ritual tool. Churning loose in the dirt by my hand. My fingers clasped the handle before I toppled over, and I swung the blade into his neck.

The ancient screamed, clawed at the weapon, which cleaved deep through his neck and into his chest. Blood poured from his body, a crimson fount of his power, while I launched myself free, into another fierce climb.

I’d almost reached the top when the dirt and rock beneath me gave way, calved apart from the earth like a slab of ice in a glacier. The violent split wrecked my balance, made my hands slip, and no matter how hard I scrambled, the dirt began to wash over me, push me back down toward the ancient—

When someone snatched me up, pulled me from the earth by my waist easy as lifting a doll.

“Isa, hang on!” and I threw my arms around Julian as he leapt with us both, catching a boulder at the mouth of the grave, and vaulting us over the side.

I slammed against rock and bone, too injured to stop myself hitting so hard, as we landed free of the chasm. Julian pushed his arms into the churning dirt, closed his eyes and intoned a long and continuous sound. A terrible noise that made the spinning grave close. The ground smoothed into a flat surface again, absent of any magical crater. The world went silent.

The blood circle still burned with an eerie green flame, but the quicksilver was gone—buried somewhere in the rock underneath us—and the warlock must have fled. We were on the outskirts of town, at the old mill site. The ground within the circle looked like a zombie garden, with upturned soil and stone, blood and bones everywhere. Whatever dead organic material trapped underground had been thrust to the surface, and the woman who’d been staked to the dirt lay in the midst of all the debris, crying and watching us.

“Did you kill him?” she sobbed. “Is he dead?”

“No,” Julian said. “He’s in a grave. No telling how long it will hold him.”

I hobbled onto my good leg, the broken one swinging wildly as I struggled to stand, while Julian moved to pick up the woman. His body glowed faintly, incandescent with magic, and I didn’t care how he’d escaped the beyond, or how he had found us, or where we were going. I only wanted to get the hell out of here, before that ancient lurched from the ground.

I held onto Julian, hopping beside him while he carried the woman. We left the blood circle, passed through the green fire that was only a lingering phantasm, absent of power, and cleared the area exhausted by magic, to a place where Julian could teleport. Unlike our escape with the refugee boy, the woman needed immediate help, the kind of healing assistance Julian couldn’t provide.

“Send someone back for me,” I said, and released him to take a seat on the ground. My head felt like a bomb that had gone off. My body started to tremble, weakened and sickened with whatever had been wedged in my skull, and I bit back a scream. “My head—” and I rested the heel of my hand on my temple. “I’d give her my blood, but I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

“I’ll send Chelsea,” Julian said.

Then he was gone, teleporting the woman to base. To the infirmary, where Minnie’s healing powers could help her.

I blinked around at the darkness. Alone.

27

Chelsea Davron was the daughter of a U.S. Navy officer and a Hong Kong factory worker. Chelsea’s mother had been born a necromancer, but she’d been so frightened of her affinity for the dead, and her innate powers, that she’d fled her natal village as a teen for life in the city. In the urban streets of Hong Kong, Chelsea’s mother could hide what she was, as well as avoid cemeteries, shades, and any interaction with the dead. She worked a number of jobs, went to parties with friends, met a handsome American, and fell in love.

Chelsea had been born in San Francisco, a perfect replica of her Chinese mother with her father’s black skin. But unlike her mother, Chelsea embraced the necromancer blood she inherited, and the unique powers death brought. She was thirty-five years old, had lived in Senna for the past six years, and as I sat in the snow, willing her to appear and teleport me back to base—

One of the Ponderosa pines close to me started to glimmer. An eerie sable glow in the trunk, which took the shape of two ebony eyes. Small and delicate eyes, like those of a child.

I felt the pulse of old magic. Shadow art.

Earth music drifted through the night air. Hollow tones of wind gusts, brittle leaves, and shivering pine needles shaped into melody. A noise so soft and faint, I might not have heard the song beneath the rush of blood in my ears and my own hammering heart.

The voice that accompanied the music was gentle and quiet, but thrummed with the might of great age, of many years spent on earth inside trees. “Vampire.” The tone held a feminine sound, a soft soprano. She was a spirit of the forest, one I’d never encountered before. “Why did your friend leave you here?”

I took a deep breath before I could answer. “To send help.”

“The help of the mages? But you are a corpse. Don’t you worry they’ll stake you?”

I shuddered and said, “No,” though Julian and the other Ephraim always had the power to kill me. Wearing their uniform was like dancing at dawn before sunlight arrived. Of course the trust I placed in the Source mages would confuse any ancient tree spirit, since my survival depended upon Chelsea arriving and teleporting me out of here. That quicksilver would take me again if she didn’t make it in time.

The spirit in the tree shimmered in a swirl of rich shadow, and a woman’s face took shape in the trunk. The small, lovely face of a tree nymph, a dryad, with flowing hair made of bark. “I didn’t know you were a vampire,” she said. “Not until you summoned a Goddess hex.” She pursed her lips in a pretty pout. “Baruch thought you were human. So did I.”

Her tone was curious, almost playful. Like she found me quite puzzling, and had forgotten how it felt to be mystified.

This had to be Chuppi. Baruch’s dryad friend.

“You tricked us, vampire. But we know the truth now. Only a bloodshade could hide from a troll. Or me.” Her magic softened the air around my skin, testing and probing what remained of my screen. Which wasn’t much. My head throbbed with such pain, it was all I could do not to lie down in the snow and summon a grave. Waiting for Chelsea took all my strength.

Chuppi’s magic drew back, satisfied with whatever she’d found. “Baruch said you are kind. You tried to help save his daughter. He called you his friend.” Chuppi tilted her face as she studied me. “I’ve never heard of a vampire who would commune with a troll.”

I shrugged, since my friendship with Baruch fell into the same category as my work with the mages. Odd and nonsensical, especially to a spirit as old as this dryad.

“Baruch said he gave you the bracelet he found. Before you burned down my trees.”

I cleared my throat, and put a conciliatory tone in my voice. “I didn’t mean to burn your trees. I’m sorry. I was aiming for the ghouls and the portal, nothing else. But you’re right that Baruch gave me a bracelet. Teagan’s focusing charm.”

“No,” Chuppi said. “Not a focusing charm. Something else. Night sorcery in that gold. Not witch magic.”

“But I felt Teagan’s power in the moons. There was no trace of night sorcery. That bracelet was hers.”

“He fooled you,” Chuppi said. “Fooled us both. The ancient master trapped in the ground. He made the charms.” She turned her face toward the blood circle, where the green fire had almost gone out. The old mill had melted away, but the aspen and pine around the building were still standing, untouched by the fire. “I asked the trees to hold him for you. Bind him tight with their roots. Or he would have risen by now.” She sent me a smile, and though her face was quite lovely, there was something equally frightening about her, a sense of nightmare and death in the deep pools of her eyes. “Return and give thanks for their kindness, vampire. When you wake again next. Those trees gave their lives to save yours.”

Her face vanished, the soft music fell silent, and the glimmering in the trunk disappeared.

The cold winter night stretched around me. Quiet and still. Somewhere in the rock and ice underneath me, the ancient clawed his way toward the surface. Fighting the roots of those trees, wrestling his way to the air. Coming for me.

And then Chelsea arrived, sword drawn and ready to fight. A long gash on her cheek spilled blood down her skin, and one side of her tunic was torn, the fabric shredded and frayed beneath her belt. As soon as she landed, she cast a balancing light with one hand, and sprinted toward me. “Eloise!”

“I’m alone!” I said. “The trees are still holding him!”

Chelsea knelt at my side and lifted me into her arms without letting go of her sword. Her Source magic rippled against my skin like a stream of warm water, the necromancy power in her blood channeling through me.

“I’m sorry, Eloise,” she said, carrying me to a place she could teleport. “I cast on his portal in town, right after he took you, but he’d laid a trap, and we ended up in Pikes Field, fighting the mavens. By the time we routed the witches and went to track you again, Julian showed up with that bloody girl in his arms, and told me you were here.”

“They want to summon a gate into Xekkra. Then they’re going to burn it. So the Velci will cut off the Ephraim from their power. Tell Julian—”

“I will,” and she halted, preparing to teleport.

“Wait! The bracelet—tell Vix I was wrong—the dryad said it belongs to the vampire—”

“I’ll tell her,” and then Chelsea summoned the portal, unwilling to remain there any longer. The pressure and light of the passage, combined with whatever was wrong with my head, felt like being thrown into a grave. A death kind of sleep. Full of nightmares.

28

When I awoke in the infirmary, I wore nothing but a simple white shift. I lay on a bed in a small recovery room, the pale cream walls bathed in soft amber light. Little tables and shelves held potted orchids, tropical hibiscus, flowering jasmine, and stargazer lilies. When Minnie wasn’t healing the injured, she nursed her plant babies, as she called her darlings with chlorophyll.

As I blinked at the profusion of flowers, a familiar chime of pixie wings made me smile. The sound emanated from a large pot of flowering jasmine—which meant Vix was hiding, unwilling to show herself. Someone else must be in the room.

The bed had been adjusted to allow me to wake sitting up, and I turned my head and found Brooklyn, still in cat form, curled up asleep by my feet.

Feet, plural. I still had my left leg. A misshapen lump beneath a white blanket, my knee probably bandaged and splinted—but definitely there. The ancient had weakened my body, and then sliced through my leg with pure gold—an injury that would have killed me a few days ago.

Was the Source energy inside me responsible for surviving that wound? Or Julian’s frequency? Or some strength from the new lines of power I had?

Or maybe all of those things had helped stopped the bleeding from the cut in my leg, and knit the wound back together enough that my limb was still there.

My headache was gone. My body felt heavy and sore, tired and worn, but my skull wasn’t throbbing with pain. Thank the Goddess.

I needed blood though. And a grave. Odd no one had put me in the earth. Maybe Minnie wanted to make sure I fed before I went in the ground.

Vampire doctoring. Strange stuff.

With Brooklyn fast asleep, I didn’t know why Vix would hide. Her pixie threshold for socializing was higher around my roommates.

So I turned my face toward the far wall, and discovered I had one other person here with me—

The woman who’d had her arm cut off. Healed and well, restored to full health, and scrubbed clean of the grime and blood she’d been covered in. She sat on a chair by my bed, watching the screen of a tablet she held with both hands.

Tear tracks lined her cheeks, though she wasn’t crying right now. She wore a lavender infirmary robe over a pink tank top and shorts, and when she touched the screen with a fingertip, the volume switched on. After a brief burst of screaming and gunfire, the familiar voices of Horace and Nips filled the air.

“Not even gold bullets are stopping them!” Nips yelled.

“These bloodsucking monsters are just too strong!” Horace shouted.

“Time to burn them with holy water, and shove a cross in their faces! Then we’ll drive golden stakes through their hearts!

Blam, blam, blam, went their guns.

No wonder Vix refused to come out of the jasmine. She hated Slayers of Doom more than I did.

I ran the tip of my tongue over my teeth, made sure my canines were fully retracted, and then said to the woman, “Hello.”

Brooklyn picked up her head, blinking her sleepy cat eyes, and the woman watching TV turned to beam at me, suddenly so happy and excited that she almost dropped the tablet, and had to struggle several moments in an awkward juggling act to keep from flinging the machine on the floor.

“Hey! Hey there!” she cried. “You’re awake! She said you’d wake up soon! The witch healer—Minnie! She came to check on your leg! I’ve been waiting hours for you to wake up! How do you feel??”

Her voice sounded a lot different than when she’d been screaming and crying. A tone that was peppy and light, like a perky young cheerleader, but also a bit ravaged and hoarse from the strain she’d endured. Now that I could see her face clearly, I realized she was a lot younger than I’d originally thought—not in her twenties or thirties, but a teen. Fourteen or fifteen, if that. She still wore a ring on her third finger, but she had a matching ring on her right hand, so maybe the jewelry meant something other than engagement or marriage.

She had shoulder-length reddish-brown hair, so dark it almost looked black, and a brown hue in her skin that made her seem like a surfer who ought to be out riding waves. She could be Hispanic, or perhaps Native American. There were a number of reservations around Senna and southwest Colorado. She might have been raised on one.

Old scars marred the skin of her lower legs and feet, pale stippled slash-marks from some other tragedy. Faded lines on her wrists looked like old suicide cuts, the telltale sign of someone who’d tried more than once to kill herself. With the robe draped over her, I couldn’t see her tattoos, only part of one on her shoulder and what looked like a lizard drawn on one ankle. She had light marks on her ears and face from piercings that had been allowed to close over.

Her smile was vivacious and genuine, but also slightly unhinged, and put me in mind of a very small child in a desperate situation, one who would do anything to placate and please the adults who held power over her. Her dark eyes seemed haunted by much more than that vampire’s attack, abuse she tried hard to conceal with a peppy voice and cheerful smile, but this newest trauma had shattered her. She looked at me now with a raw, silent pleading, like her last piece of hope. As if I wasn’t a vampire at all, like the monster that had just tried to kill her, but some fairy godmother with a magic wand full of gifts.

I didn’t like knowing there were worse things in life than physical mutilation and death. Worse sources of pain than even that ancient could inflict.

This girl was awfully young to have suicide scar lines that faded, and sometimes I was glad I didn’t have the ability to read minds, or feel the terror of memories people carried inside. I had enough of my own, and I sure didn’t need any more.

The girl didn’t wait for me to answer her question about how I was feeling; she rushed through the conversation the same way a frightened child would, eager to convince me she was harmless and helpful, worthy of my attention, silently begging me not to force her away.

“Minnie said you’ve been fighting that vampire for days! And you killed a bunch of his ghouls! I had no idea a vampire could work for the mages! Saving people! And while you were asleep, I kept hearing this jingling noise, and there’s a fairy hiding in here—in that big pot of flowers! I saw her! She has little butterfly wings—she’s so tiny! Like, only this tall!” The girl held up her hands to indicate Vix’s five inches of height.

While the girl spoke, Brooklyn yawned, rose with a stretch, then padded over to snuggle against me with her head on my chest. She purred loudly, an intense wildcat purr that vibrated my ribcage like a machine. She wore a contented smile on her face, eyes partly closed like a Buddha.

The fact she was still in cat form meant less than six hours had passed since she’d shifted, or Brooklyn would be human again. Her virus kept her a bobcat for at least six-hour stretches; longer on nights when there was a full moon.

I petted her head while she purred, trailing my hand down her neck and back, while the girl said, “I’ve never seen a real fairy before! I didn’t even know they came that small! But that mage who saved you—the one who pulled you out of the grave? Julian?”

I nodded to let her know I knew who Julian was, and the girl hurried to say, “He was here earlier, with Minnie, and he said the fairy is a special kind of fae called a pixie, and that normally pixies hate humans a lot and will never go near them, except I guess this one is really weird and doesn’t do that, but she still likes to hide in the flowers!”

Vix jingled her wings in irritation, and the girl waved an enthusiastic hand toward the jasmine. “That’s the pixie making that sound! Julian said tiny fairies can talk with their wings, but if this pixie decides she likes someone, she can use human words! I saw her land on his shoulder, and then she whispered something in his ear, and she’s got a little bikini on, and pearly green hair, she’s so cute!”

Vix buzzed her wings like a wasp at being called cute, but the girl didn’t understand what the noise meant, and she didn’t stop talking. “Minnie doesn’t know if you’ll keep your leg yet—you want me to get her?” The girl paused to hold up the tablet. “Minnie said I could use this, so I was doing some research on vampires, and the slayers on this show said an incubus is the most dangerous kind of vampire, so I thought maybe the vampire who almost killed me was an incubus, but Julian said what makes him so powerful is that he’s really, really old, like, more than a thousand years old, and he’s fed on vampire blood and mage blood and other witch blood, so much he’s become a master, and Julian called him a quicksilver, which means that he’s stronger and faster than normal. And he said you’re not a quicksilver or a master, you were attacked just like me when you were human—and that’s why you fight for the mages.”

The girl put down the tablet and stood, her bare feet padding the tile floor as she came to my side. “You know what that old vampire put in your head? Three huge silver nails—pure silver—that’s what Julian said. Because silver makes vampires sick, and your brain wouldn’t be able to heal. I watched that ancient hammer all three of those nails into the back of your skull, when you were asleep! I thought he was murdering you—and then you woke up! I thought you were some kind of healing mage, come to save me with magic!”

As she said the words come to save me, the girl’s face crumpled, tears sprang to her eyes and ran down the salty tracks on her face, and she sobbed for a moment. She muffled the noise in her lavender sleeve, and her shoulders trembled as she cried.

“You did save me though—” and she hurried to dry her tears, then slid partway out of her robe. She held up her repaired arm, which was absent of scar tissue or marks of any kind from the damage she’d suffered tonight. Her wound had healed seamlessly. “Julian brought back my arm. He said the vampire had just thrown it on the ground. Like garbage. But Julian found it for me, and when Minnie opened the back of your head to pull out those nails, a bunch of your blood ran into this big metal basin.”

The girl gestured with her hands, making the shape of a large bowl, before she went on. “Minnie picked off the bits of brain from the nails, and stuffed those back in your skull before the holes sealed over, but there was still blood in the basin, and she said she couldn’t put it back in your body, because vampires have to swallow fresh blood straight from an artery or a vein, not have it pumped into them. So she strained everything in the bowl through some kind of cloth, and then asked me to drink it. When I looked at that cup of your blood, I thought I’d throw up, but it wasn’t too bad, and there was this weird aftertaste to it, kind of like black licorice and chicory, not really sweet but not gross either, not gross enough to make me puke. But that’s why my body grew back together like this—” and she mustered a smile as she patted her arm. “And it was just like those slayer guys say about vampire blood on TV—your blood really is magic—because I watched myself heal!”

As the girl shared all of this, tears slipped down her face again—assisted, no doubt, by a memory that now included bits of my brain and drinking my blood—and as soon as she finished, she broke off into sobs. I wasn’t sure what to do, whether I should hug her or not, or yell for someone to help. Although I doubted what kind of help anyone could give her, since Minnie had allowed her to watch an operation involving cracking open my skull. Shouldn’t she have moved the girl to another room before removing those nails, or at least put up a curtain? It was amazing this girl hadn’t suffered a complete mental breakdown tonight.

She struggled once more to wipe her face dry, waved her hands a few times like she could cast off her trauma like brushing off a bad dream, and made an effort to brighten. Smiling through her tear tracks and soaked lashes like she needed to apologize for being so sad. Like she had to assure me she was still that sweet, harmless child who was entertaining and fun, not a pathetic weeper who deserved instant dismissal.

“Want to hear something funny? About the magicians who work here? The mages? I was looking for a book to read earlier while I was waiting, before Minnie told me I could borrow her tablet, and Brooklyn showed me this big shelf down the hall, full of all kinds of stuff, so I was digging around—”

The girl knelt and reached for something under the bed, and straightened again as she said, “—and I found these stashed behind some file folders! I couldn’t believe it!” She placed her haul beside my uninjured leg, and I saw she’d picked up a pile of romance novels. Magical bodice-rippers starring witches and wizards.

Minnie’s books, I was sure of it. I’d bet every paltry cent in my bank account these romance novels were hers. Minnie might spend countless hours nursing her plant babies, but I’d seen enough of her behavior around Julian to be able to guess how much she’d enjoy reading stories like this.

The covers were traditional eye-candy fare, featuring muscular men with glistening chests and dramatically windblown hair, groping young, busty women in passionate poses.

Vix fluttered around in the jasmine, snapping her wings with severe agitation, while I cocked an eyebrow at Brooklyn, whose deadpan feline expression suggested bobcat disdain.

The girl read several titles with glee. “Carnal Coven, The Paladin’s Touch, A Mage in Her Garden, The Sorcerer’s Staff—can you believe it? I had no idea people wrote books like this! I read a sex part in this one—” and she waved a paperback called Caught in the Spell of Her Thighs—“and the wizard was doing all kinds of weird stuff the whole time, muttering love chants and drawing runes on this girl’s skin with his tongue. Pretty hot stuff—just so weird!” She dissolved into giggles and tossed the book down. The paperbacks lay scattered over my pristine white blanket, a mosaic of sexy mage passion.

She pointed at one of the covers and started to tell me about Carnal Coven, but I interrupted to say, “You never told me your name.”

“Oh—right! Yeah, I’m so sorry! I’m Nalin. I moved here last month, looking for work. You know how the Ephraim have been building those greenhouses here? With the family rooms and those kitchen-things? Well this guy I met in Arizona, he told me about them, said I might get help here like the refugees, so I hitchhiked to Senna and now I’m on the wait list for one of those greenhouse rooms and a job. Like, farming and stuff, with the vegetables. So hopefully that will work out. It would be cool to know how to make my own food.”

“Are you in high school?”

“No. I dropped out in eighth grade, right before I had a baby, a really nice baby, the nurses all said she looked just like me, but she died. One of my foster homes buried her. So I’ve just been moving around since then, taking care of myself. I was at the vigil in the park last night when that vampire’s wizard guy—the warlock—when he came up and started talking to me.”

Nalin furrowed her brow, deep in thought for a moment. “Julian said the word is bespelled. When you’re hypnotized. He said that’s what happened to me. The warlock bespelled me and told me to follow him, and I did.” Nalin burst into tears again, a furious sobbing she fought against, shaking her head as she rubbed her cheeks with her sleeve. “But I didn’t want to go with that guy! I wanted to be at the vigil! That’s why I was there in the park!” As if she thought I might believe she’d brought the horror of what those men had done to her all on herself.

“Nalin, it’s not your fault. I know what that wizard can do. It’s why some people hate witchcraft so much. People have power like that, strong enough to control you. Don’t feel bad, Nalin. Please don’t. Even I can be bespelled by a sorcerer, and I have vampire magic to help me.”

Nalin shut her eyes a long moment, fighting her shame, before she could face me again. “Lots of bad things have happened to you, huh? Before you died. I asked Minnie why you have so many scars, if you could heal something so bad as that big hole in your head, and she said the scars were there on your human body, otherwise you wouldn’t have them.”

“Minnie’s right.” I studied Nalin’s sad, hopeful eyes, still brimming with pain, and considered my next words with great care. “The vampire who turned me made sure I’d never forget what he did—” and I paused to glance down at my bare upper arms. “But there are a lot worse things to have than scars. Like believing you deserved them somehow. I think that’s a lot worse than the marks.”

Nalin searched my face with her haunted dark eyes, while an unspoken awareness dawned in her gaze, a light of understanding between us.

Someone knocked at the door, a loud bark of sound in the quiet, and Nalin jumped.

29

“Yeah?” I called.

Kai opened the door, popped his head in and met my eyes with a smile. “Hey.”

I smiled in return. “Hey.”

“Everything okay?”

Before I could answer, Nalin pointed at Kai and said to me, “That guy is a warlock. Just like the one who kidnapped me. But he can’t bespell me. Julian said it’s against the law.”

“Kai,” I said to her.

“Yeah, Kai. He told me that, but I almost forgot!” Nalin sent Kai an apologetic smile, and Kai grinned the way he always did when he was amused, with his eyebrows lifted so high, they were hidden in his hair. Nalin added to me, “If warlocks hypnotize people, they go to jail. Witch jail. That’s what Julian said.”

Since Julian had just been released from witch jail himself, I couldn’t help but cast a wry glance at Kai, whose bemused expression made it clear he’d noted the irony as well.

Kai said to Nalin, “Julian’s right. Only nefsin magicians force their will upon others. Element magic like mine forbids that.”

“Element magic,” Nalin repeated, then pointed at me. “Is that what you use?”

I nodded. “I do summon element to cast. But vampire power is different than Kai’s. There are spells he can cast that I can’t, and vice versa.”

While we spoke, Brooklyn hopped up, leapt off the bed, rubbed her shoulder against Nalin’s leg, and slipped out the door with a flick of her tail. Nalin smiled with a sudden joy in her features, and then darted after her, throwing back to me, “She leads me on all these adventures! We found the best hot chocolate last time! And those sex books!”

Nalin skidded to a halt, glanced at Kai and asked, “Hey, um—Kai—want me to bring you some hot chocolate?”

“Sure, that’d be great,” Kai said, restraining his laughter over the comment about sex books as he stepped aside to let Nalin by. The moment he shut the door, Vix shot out of the jasmine, flew to the bed, and hugged my neck, not even bothering to hide in my hair.

I didn’t touch her, because Vix only liked to be touched if she asked first. But I did say, “Please don’t break my windpipe,” and she loosened her hold a bit.

I said to Kai, “I had nails in my head?”

“Yeah.” Kai walked over and palmed the back of my head, touching the places where the holes had been. “Soon as they came out, you started to heal. So we just left you alone, instead of trying to move you again.”

“I haven’t looked at my leg yet.”

“Minnie’s got it wrapped pretty tight.”

“What time is it?”

“Two A.M.”

“Where’s Julian?”

“Dealing with the police. They want a statement from Nalin, but since she’s in no position to keep you a secret—”

Vix interrupted to yell, “That girl is a flake! She never shuts up!”

Kai said, “She is fond of talking.”

Vix buzzed her wings. “More like spewing.”

Kai nodded. “Yeah, that too. But she’s only fifteen, Vix. That’s still a child, in human years.”

“Well maybe if she hadn’t dropped out of school—”

“Vix,” I said. “Please cut her some slack. Please? For me? She’s been through a lot.”

Vix responded by climbing into my hair with a huff, and hugging the back of my neck.

Kai said, “So given Nalin’s communication style, and the fact that we can’t wipe out her memories to make her forget she knows what you are, Julian’s invoking a Class 18 Ruling, to categorize her rescue as a private base matter, screened from all public record.”

“And the police are fighting that?”

Kai shook his head. “No, they accepted the request. Just a lot of paperwork to fill out. And Julian’s really tired.”

“Did he explain how he found me? Or what happened in Xekkra?”

“He said they released him when you stopped the quicksilver’s ritual, and the circle broke. He thinks the energy of the ruined spell shattered the gate the ancient had started to summon, and there was some kind of backlash through the veil. Strong enough the Velci felt the effects. When the guardians found out what had happened, the Velci had them release Julian, and they sent him through the portal, back to you.”

“As it was being destroyed? That could have killed him!” Entering a broken gate was more dangerous than an unstable teleport—like being sucked through a tunnel lined with blades, one that could erupt into blistering flame any moment. Unhinged Source magic was as explosive and fatal as uncontrolled night sorcery, and part of the reason why angels and jinn always guarded the gates into Xekkra. Any place where magic combined and people moved between worlds held a tremendous amount of energy, which the guardians maintained and kept stable. “The Velci don’t execute mages—why would they send Julian through a shattered gate?”

Kai held up his hands. “He says they gave him a choice whether to go through or not. But there’s no question it was meant as a punishment.”

“For corrupting their magic.”

Kai nodded. “I’m more amazed they let him out to begin with. And that he lived through the return. Though they must’ve known he’d survive the transition. But if I were a mage and pulled something like that, my ass would be gone.”

“Only if your intention was the corruption itself.” Which hadn’t been Julian’s aim when he’d shared his frequency with me. “Saving my life was the goal, the life of a teammate, and the Velci consider that noble.”

Kai looked incredulous. “You might be his teammate, but you’re still the undead. The Velci created the Order to kill you.”

“Yet I’m still alive, and so is he. Being his teammate must matter more in the end than being a monster.” Because the Velci were like the Dark Goddess. Terrifying, but merciful. “What happened with the vigil? Was anyone else hurt?”

“They finished their prayers in the park, blew out their candles, and went home. Only the police know about Nalin.”

I reflected a moment, picturing the warlock as he’d summoned his wraiths from Ice Lake. “The warlock was killing women and children at his base, without anyone knowing—have any other refugees or Senna residents gone missing?”

“None that we know of,” Kai said. “But with people on the move every day… there’s just no way for us to track everyone. There could be plenty of victims out there we don’t know about. Cast-offs for his spells lying in shallow graves.” Like the little dead rattlesnake Baruch had found in the mountains. The thought of discovering human cast-offs made me shudder.

I took a deep breath and gazed at the wall, struggling with the familiar and horrifying knowledge of how easy it was to kill innocent people, even when the monsters didn’t use magic.

Kai said, “After Chelsea brought you back, Julian took the whole team out again to hunt the ancient, but he was already gone, and they had no luck tracking him. So they went to Pikes Field, where Chelsea and Finn had a fight with the coven, and searched for portals there. They found three to cast on, but every one of them was a dead end.”

“The ancient’s always ahead of us. Even when I found his portal. He knew exactly whose necklace I had. Knew I’d shown up with Baruch. Even asked me where Vix was. He’s been collecting information for a long time. I bet he has a dossier on everyone at this base.”

“But he can’t enter the building, or our homes, so there has to be a limit to how much he can know.”

“What if there isn’t?” My voice was low as a whisper. “What if we’re still playing right into his hands?”

“No ancient is that powerful,” Kai said. “Maybe he toyed with you that first night. But he wasn’t expecting you to channel a Goddess hex. No way could he have predicted that, or he wouldn’t have run. And for Julian to be thrown into a burning gate to get to you—and then that ancient gets trapped in the ground, and a dryad holds him there with tree roots? I don’t care how smart that bastard is. No one could plan all of that. There was no plan to that.”

Which was true. There’d been no plan to any of those events. But my mind couldn’t let go of my fear. I started to ask Kai about Teagan and Ravi, when the door opened, and Nalin returned with two steaming mugs. “Hey, wizard!” she cried.

“Kai,” I said.

“Kai!” Nalin said. “I found something you should come see! Seriously, this is cool!”

Nalin handed Kai one of the mugs, which he thanked her for, before he turned back to me, holding his wrist up to let me know I could have some of his blood. Since I’d fed on him earlier, Kai must’ve replaced what he’d lost, received a transfusion from Minnie’s infirmary stock.

I didn’t want Nalin to watch me feed on him though—even if she’d witnessed much more frightening things than a vampire bite, drinking blood was not an activity I cared to have an audience for. So I tipped my head to let Kai know he could leave with her and return in a few minutes.

Kai followed her out, shutting the door behind them.

Vix continued hugging my neck, squeezing me hard with her arms. “You scared me to death, Eloise. To death.”

“Funny, you don’t look like a shade.”

“Ha ha.”

“Did Chelsea give you my message?”

“Yes.”

“And—?”

“And I don’t know. I followed Teagan around all night, but she didn’t do anything strange. She’s at home now, asleep.”

“You watched her go inside her house, and she didn’t leave again?”

Vix lifted her brows and pointed a no-nonsense finger at me. “Eloise, I tracked her all the way home, waited until she went into her bedroom, and shut off the light. No funny business. No weird behavior. No meetings or creepy vampires hovering around.”

“Okay,” and I sighed. “But I have a really bad feeling about this. She shouldn’t be able to cast with a night sorcery charm. And I don’t think the quicksilver left that bracelet in the snow as a clue, or the Ephraim would’ve found it, not Baruch.” Like Kai had pointed out a moment ago, no monster could plan on trolls and dryads playing a vital role in events. No mastermind counted on pure serendipity when he set out to kill.

“Maybe Julian can go to her house,” Vix said. “Make sure nothing’s wrong.”

“Yeah. I’ll talk to him about it, next time he’s here. What about Ravi? Is he still doing all right?”

“Ravi’s healed,” Vix said. “You lost so much blood when Minnie pulled those nails out, she had enough to give Ravi, Jordan, and Finn. A few sips each, and Ravi’s brain is okay, Jordan’s arm was repaired, and Finn’s broken ankle is fine.”

I sighed with relief. “Well thank the Goddess for that. I led them into that trap with the mavens and ghouls in the mountains. And I still haven’t even told anyone I’m sorry about that.”

“Oh, like they don’t already know,” Vix huffed. “You fight enough battles together, that goes without saying.” She flew a circle and lingered near the tip of my nose. “Besides, Ravi and Finn have already gone home, and I think Jordan’s leaving at three.” All the mages lived close to the base, in a small row of homes provided by the Ephraim—houses as heavily enchanted as their headquarters.

Which left Julian and Chelsea on duty tonight, along with associates like Kai who were on night shift.

Vix stared into my eyes for a minute, and I gazed back at her. I could tell she had something important to say, so I waited for her to speak.

“If either one of us dies,” Vix finally said, “let’s promise we’ll come back and haunt each other. Okay?”

I quirked a brow. “Dark spirits return to the Goddess. You know that.” Only people with souls became ghosts. Not the undead.

Vix frowned. “You don’t know that for sure, Eloise. The Goddess might let you shade if you ask her.”

Normally, I’d have joked about this, and suggested we ought to have Chelsea raise us so we could be zombies together instead. But I could tell by the intent expression Vix wore that she’d put a lot of thought into this plan. The attacks from this ancient had her stress level completely maxed out.

So I said, “Okay, Vix. I promise I’ll ask permission to shade if I die, and I’ll come back to haunt you.”

Vix looked immensely relieved, and held up her hands, which was her signal that she would like us to have contact. So I held up a fingertip, and Vix touched her hands to my skin. Then she fluttered around in a loop, a happy chime in her wings.

I sat up, drew the blanket away from my left knee, and examined the massive gauze bandage wrapped round my skin.

“You’re not supposed to move till after you feed,” Vix said. “Julian or Kai can take you down later to grave. Minnie said you might lose your leg if you’re not careful.”

“I’m amazed it’s still there.”

Someone knocked on the door again, and I said, “Yeah?” expecting Minnie or Kai, or maybe Julian, if he was done with the police.

As I glanced up from my bandage, Lilith entered the room.

Lilith. Wearing an elegant silver dress, an expensive black scarf, pearl earrings that matched the comb in her shiny blonde hair.

She locked the door behind her and walked to the bed.

30

“Hello, Vix,” Lilith said. Her tone brisk, but not unpleasant. Polite armor.

Vix responded with an uncertain flutter of her wings, and whispered to me, “Why is she here?” before clambering behind my neck to hide in my hair.

“Eloise,” Lilith said. All business.

“Yes?” Had the quicksilver returned to wreak havoc? Had the coven of mavens attacked a tent camp? Had some malevolent wizard blown up a building?

Lilith opened her mouth to speak, caught sight of what still lay all over my bed—the romance novels Nalin had found—and as Lilith scanned the titles, she frowned. She picked up one of the books, studied the cover a long moment—Wild Nights of Sorcery, printed in swirling hot pink letters—then tossed the book down.

“Well,” she said coldly, with a judgmental twist of her brow. “I see you’re keeping yourself entertained.”

I set my jaw with a scowl. “Has something happened? Is someone in danger?”

“No, I’d say we’re all much safer now that Julian’s back.”

“Then why are you here?”

Lilith crossed her arms, her body rigid, and stared at the far wall. “I came to tell you. What you saw in the hall. Julian already knows. About me and Ben. I thought you knew months ago.”

I balled my hands into fists. “I don’t know anything about you and Ben.”

“I realize that.”

“Then why are you here? I’m not the one you need to be talking to. He’s upstairs—”

“And he’s busy. He’s always busy.”

Beneath the anger, there was obvious pain in her voice, and the hollow sound of neglect. Lilith dropped her chin and gazed down at the floor. Her face softened, her shoulders slumped, and sadness crept into her eyes.

“Look at you, Eloise. How many times have you almost died this week? A vampire. One of the hardest creatures to kill.” She gestured toward me without meeting my eyes. “You don’t age. You’re inhumanly strong. You use powerful magic. And Julian… Julian’s just a man. He still has a soul, and the fragile body it lives in. He isn’t immortal.”

“I’m aware of that fact.”

Lilith lifted her face, and gave a tired smirk. “Well, he’s not.”

“The hell he isn’t. You know where his power comes from. The source of his strength.”

Nefsin witches feared and dreaded death. Or outright denied their mortality. That was why they shed blood for their magic.

Source energy couldn’t be channeled through a single emotion like fear or denial. And unlike the element magic of most witchcraft, positive emotions like love and acceptance weren’t the base of Source spells.

To the Velci, light and shadow weren’t opposites, but melded together, forever. One and the same. To embrace fear and love as equally sacred and holy—that was the path of a Source mage.

Julian conjured powerful spells with that knowledge, with a degree of strength in his magic that had earned him his appointment as team leader.

But Lilith knew that. She was Julian’s love, one of his greatest sources of joy. Which meant that her loss was also one of his greatest fears.

So I tempered some of my anger before speaking again. “Julian could never conjure his spells without facing death. He couldn’t be a mage if he didn’t.”

“You’re not understanding me,” Lilith said. “I’m not talking about magic. I’m talking about life. My life. And his. I want to have a family with Julian. I want him to be a father. To be alive for his children. At some point, he can walk away from this job. Decide he’s ready to have children, and be a father to them.”

Vix jingled her wings and whispered, “She’s having an affair because she wants Julian to stop being a mage? What in the hell?” Vix rattled her wings again and burrowed down between my shoulder blades, her tiny body vibrating with outrage and shock.

Lilith’s tirade picked up steam. “Being a father isn’t starting a fetus. It’s all the work involved once the babies arrive—changing diapers, cooking meals, hours of driving lessons, attending college graduation ceremonies—that’s being a father. Julian can’t support a family if he’s dead. And I’m not having babies so I can raise them alone. If he wants to have children, he can make a commitment to me and our family, not a bunch of strangers he risks his life for. He didn’t pledge his entire life to the Velci when he took this job. There’s no term of service. Mages can quit anytime.”

I shook my head at her view of Julian’s work. “This isn’t a job to him. He doesn’t think of being a mage as something he chose. It’s what he feels born to do.” What he’d always felt born to do, ever since I had known him.

“No, Eloise. It is a choice. He decided he wanted this. And he’s choosing right now. The pay is atrocious, he could die any minute, my father has a company he could give Julian to run, and get us out of this awful place—but he stays here for you. Because you were attacked and reborn a vampire, and he convinced you not to kill yourself. And now he feels bad. Like he needs to stay here to protect you, instead of walking away and starting a family.”

I felt like she’d smashed in my chest the same way that quicksilver had. One big ugly blow, right into my heart.

Even Vix went still, waiting for me to react.

31

My voice sounded uneven, too choked, as I said to Lilith, “You think Julian is the team leader in Senna—because he has to protect me?”

Then I stared at her a long moment, this woman Julian loved. Turning over and over what she had said. Not just about me, but everything else.

Did Julian know what Lilith expected of him? Was he aware that his fiancée wanted him to renounce his Source magic and be a mundane? Trade in his Ephraim uniform and his warrior’s oath for a sharp business suit and corporate pay?

Had Julian ever told Lilith he would do such a thing? I couldn’t imagine him proposing to her if that was in the arrangement—that he leave what he’d worked all his life to achieve in order to have children and be a father. Not because he couldn’t do those things as a Source mage, but because Lilith wanted some guarantee that Julian would still be alive by the time their kids graduated from college. I just couldn’t see Julian making that promise. Not ever.

The drive inside Julian to be a Protector of Peace… it had been his dream his whole life. Not everyone felt such focused, obsessive passion for a single activity when they were small, or had a specific goal they pursued for two decades without wavering. But Julian had. Telling him to give that up… how could Lilith demand such a thing as the price for her love? To force Julian to choose between his dreams and his heart?

Didn’t Lilith understand what an ultimatum like that would do to a person?

And why did she feel like she had to blame this on me? Julian took his warrior’s oath before I was born to the Goddess. And if someone put a stake through my heart, or burned me to ash in the sun, Julian would go on being a mage. Without me.

Remembering that helped ease my shock, like an ebbing tide hauling away my frustration, and I focused, not on Julian, but myself. The assumptions Lilith had made that weren’t true.

My heart calmed, and strength returned to my voice. “I’m a child of the Dark Goddess. A bloodshade of shadows and sorcery. And I don’t need anyone’s protection. No matter what you think, Lilith. I can take care of myself. And when I die, my dark spirit will return to the Mother of Night. No one can change that.”

At the mention of my death and my return to the Goddess, Vix buzzed her wings in agitation, and whispered, “But you promised!

So I added, “Unless I come back to haunt Vix,” and I gestured toward her hiding place with my thumb. “Because she wants me to shade her.”

Vix chimed her wings with relief, and Lilith narrowed her eyes with a glare. “That pixie is making plans for your afterlife now? And you call that a friend?”

I shrugged. “She’s just being practical.”

“Well, here’s me being practical,” Lilith said, her voice jagged ice. “About my life and my future, and what I deserve. Julian won’t walk away from this job to have a family with me. But he was willing to throw it all away—and spend the rest of his life in the beyond paying penance—to keep you alive. What’s the difference, Eloise? Between my life and yours? He made a choice when he saved you—and he chose you over everything else. Over me. Over his precious teammates. Over his vows to the Order and being a mage. You claim you’re just friends, that his feelings for you are so innocent and pure. But he couldn’t let you die. He gave you his necklace last night, his most sacred possession, and how did you thank him? By handing his magic over to that demonic mother of yours, and her evil hex lit you up like a firework—and Julian still couldn’t let you go. You did yourself in—and Julian decided he’d rather end up in Xekkra forever than go on living without you. So he corrupted himself and broke all his vows. And when he came back from Xekkra tonight, he jumped through a burning gate—to save you.”

I slammed my fist in a pillow and yelled, “You’re the one spinning the story this way! People sacrifice their lives for each other in war—it doesn’t mean they love someone else more! You’re the one with Julian’s ring, you’re the one making rules about single motherhood and choices! If you want to have children with Julian, then start a family!

“But he’s in love with you, Eloise, and you can’t even deny the fact that you’re sitting here reading erotica and fantasizing about him—”

I knocked several romance novels off the bed as I shouted, “He’s not in love with me! He’s never been in love with me, Lilith! Were you lying when you said Julian already knows about your affair? Don’t you think he must still want to marry you, if he hasn’t called off the engagement?”

“Because he’s a coward! Of course he wants to call off the engagement! But that would mean he has to admit he’s the bad guy. The asshole who lied to his girlfriend and broke his promise. He hasn’t forgotten what he said to me when he proposed. How being my husband would make him the happiest man in the world. That he would love me forever. He can’t be with you unless he goes back on his word, and Julian can’t stand the thought. Because good men don’t lie to their girlfriends and run off with vampires.”

In a flat, level tone, I said, “For Goddess sake, Lilith. If you really believe all these things, then we have nothing more to say to each other.” She sounded like Julian’s mortal enemy, not his fiancée. “And if you really think Julian doesn’t love you anymore, you need to tell him that, not me.”

Lilith lowered her voice, crossed her arms again and went still. “I’ve got news for you, Eloise. You might be a talented bloodshade, screening yourself with your glamour. But Julian hides his emotions a lot better than you. And for all your powers, your extra-sensory energy and your vampire sight, you’re a blind fool. It’s no wonder that ancient has almost killed you three times. You’ve bumbled through your whole life, and never once opened your eyes.”

32

I dropped my head and didn’t respond, too numb to argue with her anymore. Too appalled to even listen to anything else she might say.

Vix flew by my face, glancing from Lilith to me, a whirring sound in her wings like a dragonfly. “Eloise?” she asked gently. “You want me to slime her?” Vix tipped her head and patted my nose, and I smiled with my teeth out, which made Vix grin.

Lilith wanted me to believe Julian had been hiding his emotions all these years, and I was too blind to see his true feelings—

But her logic had already defeated itself.

If Julian knew his fiancée had been cheating on him, then his extra time spent with me made perfect sense. His relationship was falling apart, so he needed his work, and his friends, to buoy him up while his engagement crashed. If the woman he loved was throwing an ultimatum at him, and demanding he give up his position, then of course he’d want to spend time with people who respected him, and appreciated his efforts, people who didn’t just run him down.

All this crap Lilith wanted to heap on Julian—that he was an asshole and a coward—Lilith ought to try her own words on for size. Because they fit her even better than her pretty dress.

And besides. Even if Julian had ever thought about me in a sexual way—even if Lilith were right, and Julian harbored some secret passion for me—he wasn’t acting on those feelings. Whatever his fantasies were, those thoughts weren’t real life.

Lilith had Julian’s ring. She was the one he went home to, curled up into bed with, and held in the night.

Though I really hoped he dumped Lilith. As the future wife of the man I loved, this woman was lacking. But that was his choice, not mine.

So I took a deep breath as I smiled down at Vix, pulled myself back together—at the same moment a loud rattling noise filled the room. Someone attempted to open the locked door, and then knocked on the panel with loud, frantic beats.

“Hey, Eloise!” Nalin cried. “The door’s locked!”

Vix chimed her wings and muttered, “Oh my Goddess, this girl—”

33

“Hang on!” I called to Nalin. “Lilith will open it—”

“Okay!” Nalin yelled with excitement. “Wait till you see this!”

As Lilith composed herself and opened the door, Vix dove into my hair, right before Nalin burst in like a puppy, all smiles and joy. “Eloise! Look! Look!” and she pulled at the fabric of her new shirt and pants.

She wore a long-sleeve black shirt and matching slacks, sleek and beautiful, with an elegant cut to the material that made the overall style sophisticated and lush. These were Ephraim clothes, sewn by hand with the magic of witches and fae. Clothing the mages kept available for anyone who came to their base in need.

Kai walked into my room behind Nalin, bowed his head toward Lilith pleasantly, while Nalin added, “I even got boots!” and she held up a foot.

Kai said, “She wanted a scabbard and sword. But I told her we had to wait yet on that.”

I thought of the hours Julian and Marco had spent training with swords with their mother, and nodded my agreement with Kai.

Nalin gestured toward Kai with her thumb. “He said there’s a swordfighting club here at the base though, and I could go to class and learn how to fight. Then I could have one.” Nalin glanced at Lilith and said, “Hi. Who are you?”

Lilith had been trying to slip out the door unnoticed, and as she paused at the threshold, I said, “Nalin, this is Lilith Williams. She works at the Refugee Agency.”

“Oh, cool,” Nalin said, smiling at Lilith. “So you help out the Ephraim?”

Kai said with great kindness and friendship, “Yeah, Lilith helps us a lot. We have to host quarterly fundraisers to keep building greenhouses, and Lilith does so much of the organizing and planning to make sure the money is there—and then she oversees the construction projects through her office.”

“Wow,” Nalin said with genuine awe. “I came here to live in a greenhouse. My name’s on the wait list for a single.” The living quarters in those facilities had family rooms as well as singles, for individuals like Nalin who lived alone.

Lilith gave up on trying to leave, stepped away from the door, and maintained a polite, frozen smile on her face. “I’m so glad to hear you’ve already signed up for a space.”

Kai placed a warm hand on Lilith’s shoulder, trying to put her at ease, but he obviously had no idea why she’d been in my room, and that he was probably making her more uncomfortable, not less. “Lilith puts in so many extra hours here at the base. We’d be lost without her.”

“Are you an associate witch, like Kai?” Nalin asked.

“No,” Lilith said. “I don’t practice witchcraft.”

“Oh.” Nalin wore a puzzled expression. “Do you need someone to teach you?” Nalin glanced at Kai, as if she thought Kai should hurry up and offer to apprentice Lilith, and start teaching her spells, given how much Lilith helped out at headquarters. Nalin’s sudden gushing enthusiasm for all things Ephraim, sparked by her dramatic rescue tonight, probably made it harder to keep in mind that not everyone had been attacked by a vampire, or saved by a mage, and many people had no desire to be a witch.

“It’s not for lack of a teacher,” Lilith said. “I knew a mage as a child, growing up, and he gave me lessons. Being a witch just wasn’t for me.”

“But that didn’t stop her from wanting to marry one,” Kai said with a spirited smile, and it was obvious he had no idea about Lilith’s opinions of Julian, or the fact that she wanted him to stop being a mage. Kai was too nice a man to make a comment like that, if he knew the truth about Lilith’s feelings.

Nalin asked Lilith, “You’re married to a witch?”

“Engaged,” Lilith said. “To Julian.”

Nalin hopped with delight. “He’s the one who saved us! Me and Eloise!” Nalin slid even closer to me, waving her arms as if Lilith might’ve forgotten my name. “There was this big spinning hole in the ground, like a giant grave, and Julian jumped right into it and he grabbed Eloise and he saved her—” Nalin made a hugging gesture to bring the story to life—“and then he brought me here and he even found my arm!” Nalin held up her reattached left arm as proof. “Brooklyn said he’s the team leader here! You must be so proud of him!”

Lilith placed her hands on her hips, a restrained smile on her lips. “Yes. I am very proud of him.”

I wondered what it cost Lilith to speak those words now, since she’d done such a good job of convincing herself Julian had to leave his position to prove that he loved her.

“Hey, Kai?” I said, changing the subject. “Could I talk to you in private a minute? My leg really hurts, and I thought you could help me loosen the bandage?” Which I knew he would understand as code for, I need to drink your blood, and I’d rather not have an audience.

“Sure,” and Kai turned to Lilith and Nalin, to gracefully usher them out. “There’s pizza in the lounge, if you guys are hungry. And I think Pepper made some calzones.”

Pepper was one of the Seelie fae who worked at the base. As a human, she posed as a kitchen witch, someone who channeled her magic into herbal remedies, potions, and food. She was an excellent chef.

“I’d love a calzone!” Nalin said, and she hurried off to the lounge.

Lilith glanced at me once. A sharp, pointed look.

I shook my head and turned away, angry she thought I’d asked for a private moment with Kai in order to gossip. As if Julian and his personal life mattered so little to me, I’d treat the woman he loved like entertainment.

Kai closed the door behind Lilith and came to the bed, holding his wrist out. I bit him quickly, and stopped drinking after a pint. The moment I finished, my body started healing again. Like pouring gas in an empty tank and turning on the ignition, I had the strength I needed for repair.

Except the damage in my knee was so terrible—the muscle and bone still so mangled—that having the power to heal brought a sudden, excruciating torture, so much pain that I screamed.

A thick, oozing blood spilled from my knee, soaked through the many layers of bandage, and poured onto the bed. Dark, evil blood, more like tar than anything made in a body. Corpse blood. A sign that the tissue in my knee had been so severely damaged, the skin and bone might be dead beyond vampire life.

Like having frostbite, when living tissue lacked heat, and then blackened and died, a similar condition happened to the undead. When the animating power of a dark spirit was cut off from a body part for too long, the tissue suffered a magic version of freezing, and could die—a process as painful as any frostbite victim with blackened skin.

The blood pouring out of me made the room smell like rot, like dead bloated bodies cooked in the sun.

Kai held me as I shut my eyes and screamed. When I halted the noise, and drew in a ragged breath, I heard Vix casting a healing charm, trying to help me, but I was far, far beyond any painkilling spells.

“Tell Minnie to cut it off!” I yelled. “Tell Minnie to cut my leg off!”

Minnie must have come into the room, because I heard her say, “Removing the limb might make it worse! The rot has already spread through your system—your magic is just exposing it now, so you can see the extent of the damage!”

I kept telling her to cut the leg off, to stop the black blood spilling out of me, so the dead tissue wouldn’t reach all the way up my thigh and into my torso, killing me like a shredder jinx—

But the pain didn’t stop. Minnie didn’t cut off my leg.

“Put me in the ground! Let me grave!”

“A Goddess grave won’t heal this, Eloise! It’s a night sorcery curse! You’ll die in the earth! This spell will kill you if you ground!”

I was out of my mind with agony though, desperate for any relief. So I grabbed the knife in Kai’s belt, reached for my leg with the dagger, and focused on the drenched bandage. Aimed and struck with one quick, decisive blow.

34

Someone caught up my arm, stopped the blade from making contact, and then pressed a hand to my brow, holding their palm flat to my skin. I felt Julian’s power surge through me, a force that cracked like thunder, charging through muscle and bone as if my body were hollow, nothing but raw coursing energy that scraped through me like blades.

Pain ripped through my nerves as if my magic were acid, scorching my blood. My body jerked and thrashed, I toppled onto the floor, landed hard on my side and smacked my head on the tile—

Or maybe I didn’t.

Maybe I had no idea what happened after Julian’s energy hit me.

Because as I sat up, and then stood, the pain in my leg was gone, the recovery room had disappeared, and I was alone.

I recognized where I was. Not in the infirmary, but a nightmare. The only dream I’d ever had as a monster, other than my strange hallucination of that forest with Julian.

This wasn’t a wood though. I wasn’t outside. I was locked inside the cage where my human body had died. In a building that had once been a metallizing factory in Denver, a weapons plant that had been closed for decades.

My vision remained clear. Nothing blurred to tell me this was a dream. Every detail looked as vivid and vibrant as the day I’d been killed.

Water stains marked the bare, ugly walls. Warped boards of plywood covered the large industrial windows. Broken concrete lay beneath me.

The buzzing sound of electric drills and the high scream of a table saw filled the air. Tools I couldn’t see from my place on the floor.

I was trapped in a large metal cage, one that had been built for a circus show, for transporting lions and bears. Garbage and clutter had been piled up outside the thick metal bars, leaving only the locked door exposed, and part of the factory’s ceiling. The building’s grimy roof stretched high above me, blackened in sections with mold.

My body was uninjured, my left knee was fine, and I wore my associate uniform. No weapons.

A snake slithered out of the garbage surrounding the cage, crossed the cracked, filthy floor, and disappeared once again. Rats scurried over rusty pipes, their tiny claws scratching faintly beneath the noise of the table saw and the whirr of the drills.

Teagan’s focusing charm lay in the debris by my feet. The golden moons glimmered absurdly in the dim and frightening light, like someone had cast them to gleam.

I knelt and picked up the charm, felt my skin tingle and react to the gold—and then the bracelet transformed. The dark crystal beads and the charms became woven black thread. Simple and plain.

This was Julian’s bracelet. His triquetra focusing charm, the one he’d woven himself, just like he’d made his own ankh. I felt his energy in the thread, the same way I had in his necklace.

“Eloise,” Julian said, his voice quiet and worried, and I turned to find him beside me, kneeling in the broken concrete.

I was so relieved he was here, I cried, “Julian!” and threw my arms around him.

Julian hugged me back. “What are we doing here?”

“Maybe I’m dying.” Because I remembered the way I’d been screaming, and the black blood pouring out of my knee. Perhaps my mind had chosen this recurring nightmare to play before my dark spirit died. Maybe I needed to return to the place where my vampire life had begun, before my undead corpse met its end.

“You’re not dying.”

“Then why was this here?” and I showed him the bracelet. But he glanced at the triquetras made of black thread, and pushed up the sleeve of his uniform, so I could see he was already wearing his focusing charm.

I dropped my gaze back to my palm, and the charm I held in my hand was Teagan’s again, made of crystal and gold.

“I can feel Teagan’s power in this bracelet, but Chuppi said—”

The shriek of the table saw suddenly increased in pitch, so high and loud I felt panic burst through me.

A dream, a dream, I promised myself. This is only a dream. He can’t hurt you now, he’s dead, he’s gone, you saw him die

But the human memories I carried threatened to overwhelm me, listening to the sound of that table saw, and remembering what the spinning blade had done to me.

“Eloise—” Julian pulled me toward him as a hand broke through the splintered concrete, and a vampire crawled out of a grave.

Not the one who had killed me, but the ancient quicksilver. He emerged from the hole in the ground to hover in front of me. Shadows pooled from his cloak and swelled over his body, merging with the garbage and the iron bars of the cage. His smooth, silky voice held all the mockery of his grin, and he repeated the words he’d spoken inside the blood circle. “Don’t you know what I am, little girl? Haven’t you guessed?

I extended my fangs. “You’re an asshole. And I’m going to kill you.”

Except Julian and I were both weaponless, and we couldn’t conjure any spells in this dream. We rose and put our backs against the bars, but the ancient didn’t attack. He just hovered there, smiling, waiting for us to rush him.

“So what is he?” I muttered, still facing the vampire. “What the hell is he?”

“A super-rodent,” Julian said. “Able to tunnel through concrete to climb into this cage.”

He spoke in an unserious way, more focused on leaping into a fight than identifying the vampire’s true nature, but his words struck me as a revelation.

“He’s inside,” I said to myself, stunned by the symbolism of the dream, and struck with a horrible shock. “He’s inside the cage!”

I held up Teagan’s bracelet again, and glanced at the ancient. This was his focusing charm, distinctly imbued with Teagan’s energy—a charm Teagan had cast with—which had to mean only one thing—

“Julian, it’s Teagan! Teagan’s the vampire! She’s the ancient, or something else, maybe something much worse! That monster hasn’t been stalking headquarters—he’s been inside the base the whole time!”

That was how the ancient knew so much about me. Knew I was undead, knew I worked for the Ephraim because of my ties to Julian, knew how to trap us and treat us like pawns.

I hadn’t let down my guard as a bloodshade. The quicksilver had been inside the building the whole time.

Julian kept his palms open and facing the vampire. “But the enchantments—an enemy could never get past them, not without every mage in the building granting them entry, not even a doppelganger could walk through those spells—”

“It’s her—I know it’s her! He’s coming into the base as Teagan. That’s why the wards let him through. He asked me why I haven’t guessed what he is—because he’s not just a master, or an ancient, or a quicksilver. He’s something else. Something worse than all of those things.”

I gripped Julian’s arm, desperate for him to believe me. “He has the warlock, and the coven, and we know they want to burn the gates and destroy the Ephraim—but if we know Teagan is the ancient, we can go to Teagan’s house, maybe we can track him from there. Before he regroups, and plans another attack—or finds a way to send the coven into headquarters—”

The extent of the danger hit like a blow. All the people inside the base who had no protection right now, no way to keep the monsters from getting inside. The wards had failed to keep out the quicksilver, and no one at headquarters could fight that monster alone. Even a Source mage, taken by surprise by a vampire that strong, could die.

“Wake me up, Julian! Wake me up right now!”

“But you’re in a grave—”

“Pull me out of it! Julian, get us out of here! Get us out of here now!

35

Julian vanished, and his body was replaced with a demon, a shadow creature from Hell with rolling black eyes.

The quicksilver tipped his head back to laugh while the demon spit acid at me.

I launched myself away from the hellspawn, and slammed against the door of the cage, hard as I could to try to force the lock open.

But the door remained shut, the demon leapt for my throat, and I dropped into a roll, scrabbling back into the center of the cage toward the quicksilver—

And then my body careened through the earth, through cold rock and dirt, a noise in my head loud as a hurricane gale as I spun up and out of my grave.

Not released by the Goddess, but wrenched out by Julian’s arms, dragging me from the earth and placing me on the ground beside him.

The charge of his magic ricocheted through my coffin room, buffeting the walls and buckling the air, surging and pulsing in radiant spirals. His body gleamed with Source energy, swirling around him in a storm.

Panting from the force of his spell, Julian sat back on his heels and opened his palm toward the candles. The wicks had blown out in the rebounding currents, and since tearing me from the earth had exhausted the available element, Julian used the spent power still rolling loose through the air. Like taking millions of tiny sparks and combining them into a bonfire, Julian cast a blitz with his body—a spell of his own energy that rushed from his palm like a powerful wind—and the wicks of the candles burst into flame. The coffin room bloomed with amber firelight, illuminating us so he could see me with more than the body-sight of his magic.

I’d never seen Julian cast a blitz of his own power before. Only once had I ever witnessed someone do that—one of the magi in Denver, a woman over seventy years old. As I moved to sit up, I felt disoriented, caught in a moment of lingering terror and uncertain relief.

I still wore my flimsy infirmary shift, smeared and filthy with handprints of black blood. My left knee was whole again, unbroken and undamaged, and the rotten blood inside my body was gone. The necrotic tissue had healed. I looked as I usually did when I emerged from a grave: clean-skinned, hair combed, repaired of injury. Thirsty for blood.

In my recovery room, Julian had stopped me from cutting my leg off, then shared his power to let my body reverse the spread of the damage, and eliminate the vampire’s curse. When I’d hallucinated my fall to the floor, that must’ve been when Julian had brought me into to my coffin room, and I’d entered a grave.

“How long was I in the ground?” The vigil and the failed gate conjuring had taken place on the evening of December 9. And when I woke up in the infirmary room, Kai said it had been two A.M.

“Less than an hour,” Julian said. “I brought you down here at three. It’s almost four A.M. now.”

Four A.M.

First twilight began at 5:40. When the sky would begin changing with dawn, the black universe overhead shifting to a deep blue.

We had less than two hours left of true night. With an ancient who could enter the building. Posing as an associate witch.

I glanced at Julian again, still catching his breath. Shattering the seal around a Goddess grave was no easy spell. Only master vampires and sorcerers could break that enchantment, and Julian had never ripped me out of the ground before.

Were we communicating in dreams now? Or in some kind of psychic dimension I accessed in a summoning grave? The revelation was almost as frightening as my nightmare had been.

“Julian… did you hear what I said? About Teagan?”

He pushed his damp bangs from his eyes, and avoided meeting my gaze. “Yes.”

“You saw the charm in my hand, and—”

“I was there.”

An unwelcome shiver made me tremble.

He glanced at me once, then away. “I secured the base after Vix told me you had her trail Teagan all night. Chelsea and Finn are watching the front door. If that ancient is Teagan, there’s only one way inside, and he won’t survive a forced entry like that.”

So no one in the building was in immediate danger. Not unless the ancient attacked, and brought the warlock and the coven in with him.

This information brought a measure of comfort. But the knowledge that Julian had been inside a nightmare with me was disturbing.

He was unsettled, too. His anxiety felt like sharp pinpoints against the brush of my senses.

“What about in the forest?” I asked. “Did you see me before? When you were in Xekkra?”

I wanted him to say no. Wanted him to look me in the eye and tell me showing up in my nightmare was the extent of our trouble. The most startling event that had happened since the corruption of magic between us.

But when Julian faced me, his emotions calmed as he said, “I did see you before.”

My heart pounded harder in confusion. “How? How could I talk to you—in a dream—if you were in Xekkra?

“Because you didn’t travel to Xekkra. You came into my energy force. My interior.”

“While your body was in Xekkra—”

Julian softened his voice, his expression pleading and tender, and I knew he was about to tell me something I would understand if I were a Source mage, not a vampire. “Only my physical body was in the beyond. Space-time isn’t fixed, Isa. Especially not within the metīrī.”

The metīrī was the measure of all, the term Source mages used for the entire system of magic that powered the universe. Whether innate to a body, or gained through training and ritual, whether cast by a dark spirit or someone possessing a soul, all magic belonged to the metīrī, which included the universal principles and laws that governed its use.

“Energy isn’t always linked to our bodies,” Julian said. “Physically, yes, I was in the beyond. But my orenda was elsewhere—with you.”

I’d never heard the word orenda before, and with Julian throwing out terms like space-time and energy force, I really wasn’t in the mood for metaphysical wizard talk.

I was hungry, craving blood, and my voice snapped with the strain. “I don’t understand how you can leave the beyond and not be in your body.”

“When you came through my enchantments, you entered my interior. That was why you heard my energy, Isa. You felt the frequency of my power. The Velci call the sheltering source of that sound the orenda, the force of all life. The current from the darkness that gives birth to light. Some magi call the orenda the shadowland, the house of the soul. That was the space you journeyed into, not Xekkra.”

“I went into your soul? The source of your energy? Like I violated you?”

Julian’s tone remained calm. “Mages often describe the shadowland in terms of violation. When an incubus chooses a victim to feed on, the orenda is the most reclusive space he can enter—and most vampires could never penetrate that far. There are natural barriers to cross, strong as any sorcerer’s spell, but mages are required to build extra screens of protection. To guard the Source energy that runs through our bodies. It’s part of our training inside the beyond.”

“But if I entered you—are you trying to say I’m a succubus?” Just speaking the word made my voice crack. Did Julian really think I could do something so vile? Enter someone’s most protected space in order to rape them? Feed off the energy of their life force, their frequency, their soul?

Julian rushed to say, “No, I didn’t mean to imply that, I was just trying to explain. The shadowland is a spirit realm, a part of the soul that can be accessed through the unconscious—and my enchantments didn’t fail to keep you out. They just didn’t matter.”

“Because I have your energy now? Your orenda recognized the frequency you put inside me, and let me in?”

Julian turned his face to the wall with a shake of his head. “You were there because I called you. I didn’t realize at the time, what had happened. But I know now, when I felt it on this side, what I must’ve done to pull you into my shadowland. I wanted you there, and you answered a summoning.”

“Julian, when I woke up in that forest, I did not hear you call me.”

“Not with words,” he said. “A summoning within the orenda doesn’t need focused intent—at least, not as we usually understand it. Conjuring is mostly a rational force, and the reasoning here is no less profound, but it’s not what anyone would call logic. You summoned me the same way into your nightmare tonight. Your fear pulled me into your dream, the strength of the emotion you felt. That was the spell.”

“But why would I call you into an old nightmare? You’ve never been in that dream before. Maybe the frequency you shared with me joined us together? Some kind of fusion inside the source of our power? Because I didn’t scream your name out in terror to make you show up.”

“And neither did I,” he said. “But I wanted to be with you. The emotion was as strong as your fear must’ve been in your nightmare. Because that was the force that pulled me into your nightmare. And that was how I summoned you into my orenda.”

I rubbed my face with a hand, certain I hadn’t seen anything in that shadowy forest that would’ve terrified Julian. “Then what was going on that would scare you so bad?”

“Not fear, Eloise. I wasn’t afraid.”

“Then why would you want to be with me? Because you thought I was dead? Didn’t you know you had healed me?”

Julian’s voice became solemn. “I knew you were alive.”

I nodded, sure I understood now. “You wanted to show me what you’d done. How you’d saved me. So I could figure out why you were on trial.”

Julian gave a faint smile. “But that would’ve been logical, Isa. And it wasn’t reasonable thought that pulled you into my shadowland.”

The air became tense, so taut with anxiety that I sat up straighter and crossed my arms. Deeply uncomfortable with this whole conversation.

Julian and I didn’t sit around with each other discussing emotions. We went out on rounds together, we helped each other in fights, we discussed missions and battle plans. Julian’s behavior with me had a script, our roles as teammates and pseudo-siblings were familiar and known, prescribed how we interacted, and gave me a source of comfort I always knew I could trust.

But Julian was taking us off script right now, and I didn’t like it.

I understood Julian had emotions like worry and dread. My senses knew the shape of his terror. Like when we were tumbling off a mountainside together, about to fall to our deaths.

I felt his fear now, but also… something else. Something I didn’t have any name for. Anguish, perhaps. Heartbreak.

“When you were in Xekkra. Right after I came out of—” I waved a hand toward his chest, stopping myself from saying the word dream—“your orenda. I caught Lilith kissing Ben in his office. We had words.” I gazed at the wall for a moment, trying to communicate this information as quickly as I could. “She’s had a lot to say about… her affair. She even claimed you already knew.”

Julian tipped his head. “I do.”

The simple way that he spoke, and his unruffled demeanor, made me stare at him in shock. “Julian—if you knew Lilith was cheating on you, why would you—”

“Stay with her?” He gave another faint smile. “Because I’m just barely holding on, Eloise. To everything. I didn’t think I could let go. But then I did.”

“Let go of Lilith?” That was a relief. Goddess, did I want him to dump her.

“Of being a mage,” he said.

“But the Velci forgave you. You’re still a mage, Julian. The beyond won’t reverse that decision.”

His smile deepened, but his eyes dimmed with sadness, and he looked away.

Then I remembered. The ultimatum.

Damn it.

He was going to go through with it. Give up the Ephraim for her. “You mean when you marry her. To start a family.”

Julian grinned with genuine amusement, and the light returned to his eyes. “No. I’m leaving the Ephraim when I die. Or when the Velci banish me to a life of penance. Which might be quite soon.” Julian adjusted the way he was sitting, so that he could face me directly, our shoulders squared up with each other. “Eloise, I’m never having a family. Lilith and I called off our engagement a long time ago—”

“You what?

“When she changed her mind about wanting to marry me—”

“Changed her mind? She’s still wearing your ring!

Julian ran both his hands through his hair, then gripped the back of his neck like he’d taken a beating. “We still care about each other. A great deal. It’s a kind of love. Not passionate, romantic love. But friendship love.”

I scowled. “She did not come into my room tonight to bitch about you as a friend. Lilith had a lot of garbage to say. All of it motivated by the fact that she still wants to marry you.”

“Because she’s trying to save me.”

“Save you? By having an affair and stabbing you in the back? Julian, she’s selfish, possessive, vindictive—she said things about you—you don’t even know what she’s saying, if you think she’s trying to save you.”

Julian’s expression looked pained. “Because she thought she was the better choice. That if I was going to renounce all my vows, then it ought to be for her.”

“Renounce your vows? Anyone who wants you to give up being a mage—they’re the wrong choice. Goddess, Julian. You deserve so much better than that.”

He sent me a weary smile, sincere mirth shining once again in his eyes. “But the choice was never between being a mage or having a family.”

“If no one is forcing you to give up your work—then why—?” But he’d just told me why, hadn’t he? I’d entered his interior while he’d been in the beyond. I’d journeyed into the house of his soul. “Is it something I did when I came into your shadowland? Did I steal something from you? Feed on your energy like a succubus? Do the Velci expect you to execute me?”

Julian was quiet a moment, searching my face, and then he reached a hand toward my arm. I thought maybe a spider had crawled onto me, and I brushed at my elbow so he wouldn’t have to knock a daddy longlegs away.

But Julian hadn’t aimed for a spider. Some of my hair hung over my shoulders, draping over my arms, and he looped a finger around a thick lock of it, curling the shiny ends around his skin for a second, and then he let go and drew his hand back.

I’d never seen Julian twirl anyone’s hair in his fingers before. Not even Lilith’s.

His dark eyes shone with such torment, it was hard to look at him now. But he kept his gaze on mine, his heartbeat steady and strong against the edge of my senses, a tender agony running through him.

“They’ll condemn me because I love you, Eloise. I love you and I can’t make myself stop.”

36

My heart froze. Blood paused in my veins. My lungs wouldn’t draw breath.

A scream of panic rippled through me, just under my skin. I wanted to stand and run. Flee from Julian the same way I had in the forest, when the sound and light in his chest had been reaching for me, about to embrace me.

I struggled to find my voice. Scratchy and faint, not even a whisper. “Take it back.” I fought through my panic, took a deep breath, and strengthened my words. “I want you here. Not in the beyond.”

“I’m not taking it back. I love you, Isa. I’ve loved you for years. And I can’t live with the lie anymore. I’d rather be sentenced than go on like this.”

“People are counting on us.” Tears threatened to slip down my cheeks, and I furiously wiped them away. “You can’t be banished right now. Not over me. I don’t want you imprisoned. Take it back.”

“I can’t. I’ve already tried to change how I feel. Years ago, when you were still just a kid. It was even worse then, because I thought you had your heart set on Marco. You two were so squirrelly together, I thought for sure you’d be together one day.”

Squirrelly?” I wrinkled my nose with a hiss.

Julian shrugged, a glimmer of relief passing over his face when I hissed, returning us to our roles with each other. The teasing and joking that marked our interactions, even if his confession had just made everything deadly serious. “You had your own sign language, and he would wear wigs and call himself your twin sister, and you made him that jewelry with those glittery beads.”

“Julian, that was a craft kit! That I got for Solstice—from you!

Julian shrugged. “Well, he was pretty enamored with that bracelet and necklace. He still has them both in his dorm, on a peg with a picture of you. And I know he still wears them.”

“I made gifts for you too. A lot nicer ones than some glittery jewelry.”

“I know. I haven’t forgotten.” His heart was thundering now, and he reached for my hand. Magic rolled from his skin as he moved, like a cast gone awry, clouding the air in a shimmery mist. His fingers were warm against mine, and he ran his thumb along the triskelion marked in my palm.

His touch made me unable to think straight. I wanted to yank away.

But I didn’t.

Oh Goddess, I didn’t.

As Julian caressed my palm with his thumb, heat lit through my skin and spread an ache through my body. My desire for him was such a powerful wanting, my muscles felt fevered, and my triskelions flared a bright violet.

“You’re my best friend, Eloise. I love being with you. I always have. That’s why I’ve made such a mess of things. Trying not to love you as much as I do. I asked Lilith to marry me when you were in high school, when loving you felt all wrong. I thought if I married Lilith, she could help me move on. Stop me from trying to steal my brother’s girlfriend away. But it didn’t work.”

His thumb stilled in my hand, and his next words required more effort.

“When I couldn’t promise Lilith I’d ever stop being a mage, we both knew it was over. But in the time we were still calling it quits on each other, we found out she was pregnant.”

My mouth fell open in shock, but Julian didn’t see. He drew his hand free from mine and lowered his head, like he could keep me from knowing his grief. But I felt the pain in him. The loss that would always be there. Shredded and exposed like an open wound.

“We were going to move up the wedding, and started changing our plans. She decided she wanted to stay with me for the sake of the baby, and let me keep supporting her with my work as a mage.”

Julian paused without looking up, then nodded his head a few times, as if reassuring himself he could keep telling this story.

“Lilith miscarried. In the last week of—” Julian broke off, shook his head, held his breath several seconds. He rubbed his face with his arm, pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes for a moment, then dropped his hands to his knees, and stared down at the floor with a ravaged expression. “We were never the same after that. On the outside, we seemed fine. But Lilith clung to me after we miscarried, needed me in a way she’d never needed anyone before. And I couldn’t bring myself to leave her. Not when we were both at our lowest. We struggled through those months in a way I’ve never struggled before.”

Julian lifted his head, and his dark eyes held all the heartbreak I heard in his voice. “That was when you were attacked and reborn to the Goddess.”

I understood then why he’d felt he needed to tell me about the baby. So I could put my own situation into Julian’s life.

Because that was when I’d called Julian to ask him to stake me—while he and Lilith were still reeling from their own loss. Recommitting to each other when they’d been on the verge of breaking up.

Then Julian spared my life. Convinced me to work with him, and moved us all to Senna.

That had to have been when the truth dawned on Lilith. After Julian went to such lengths to save me, and we started working together—when his feelings for me must’ve become apparent to Lilith, even if I hadn’t seen them.

She’s trying to save me, Julian had said. In the context of their suffering, and everything Julian had to lose, Lilith’s bitter logic made a terrible sense, even if it had also twisted her heart.

“You should have destroyed me,” I said.

Julian gripped my hand, and pressed my palm flat to his chest, right over his thundering heart, his voice as ferocious as his expression. “I could never hurt you, Eloise. No matter how many mistakes I’ve made. I would never harm you. That’s why I begged you to keep your dark spirit. And it’s the reason I summoned you when I was in the beyond. When you answered my call and appeared inside my orenda. My love brought you there.”

He lifted my hand to his mouth and kissed my palm. His lips were as warm as his fingers, so smooth and so soft, my heart jackhammered like I’d been flung off a mountain again.

Julian’s skin smelled the same as he had in the forest—like cedar and wild fern—as distinct from the scent of his power as the new emotions I felt running through him. Desire and longing. A craving for me that was fierce, like obsession. His dark copper skin gleamed in the candlelight.

He clasped my hand with the urgency of a dying man. A Source mage who knew he was lost, and accepted his fate.

Julian had revealed himself as a stranger to me. Someone who’d lost a baby. Who’d remained engaged to a woman he no longer loved. Because he loved me instead.

He wasn’t trying to claim he’d made the right choices. Only that the lies wouldn’t work anymore. He’d rather wreck himself than bury his feelings, and no matter how hard it was to see him like this, my love for him was the firmament, the bedrock I knew wouldn’t crack.

If there were ever a time to tell him I felt the same way, that I had always loved him, I needed my courage right now. But when I opened my mouth, I made a weird little sound, like a cry of pain, and covered my eyes with my other hand. A rushing noise filled my ears like I was falling.

Julian plucked my hand from my face, planted a kiss on my knuckles, and my breath hitched. When he rubbed his thumb along my triskelion, I made that weird noise again.

He nestled his cheek against my temple, like we were two lion cubs saying hello on the veldt. His magic folded around me, until the candles guttered and flamed back to life.

I gave up on the words, wrapped my arms round his shoulders and hugged him. My power wasn’t anywhere near my full strength, but the force of my energy circled him, twined with his, and most of the candles blew out.

Julian embraced me as well, drew me so close I had to sit on his knees.

I hid my face in his shoulder, and murmured his name over and over again. The scent of his skin and the warmth of his power flooded my senses, added to the heat in my body, while Julian ran a hand through my hair, trailing his fingertips down my back.

Images of fiery angels and jinn arriving in clouds of mist drifted into my mind, but I didn’t let go.

“I’m sorry I never told you before. I always wanted to protect you, Eloise. Keep you from harm. And then you were kidnapped and murdered—”

“You did protect me.”

“That vampire took you, and I didn’t even know until the police found your car—”

“No one could’ve saved me from that.”

“If I’d been with you, I would have.”

I pulled away from him enough to meet his gaze. “You were already grown, and doing your job. And I was a freshman in college. Even if we’d been living together, my car would’ve still broken down, and that vampire would’ve found me. It wasn’t your fault.”

There was nothing else I needed to say, so I rubbed my cheek against his, then closed my eyes and rested my face on his chest.

“I recognized your nightmare,” Julian said. “I know where we were.”

I pictured the factory where I’d been killed, and recalled the sight of the quicksilver bursting out of the ground. His sudden presence in my old nightmare made me shiver, and I remembered my thoughts about the ancient possibly being an incubus. “I’ve been unconscious twice with the ancient. Do you think he could’ve planted that dream? Put me inside the factory? To feed on me when I’m asleep?”

“Whatever he is, he isn’t an incubus. Your mind placed him there in the cage.”

I blinked in surprise. “How do you know he’s not an incubus?”

“The energy I felt when I buried him. His power lashed out at me.”

I drew back from Julian again to stare at him, and fully comprehend what he’d just said. “You could sense his abilities?”

“Yes.”

“Goddess.” That wasn’t something most mages could do. I reached a hand to his face and cupped his jaw. Such a bold and intimate gesture, but he welcomed the touch with a dark light in his eyes. “You cast a blitz for the candles, you’re sensing vampire talents. I have Goddess marks now, I woke before sunset. Something happened to us when you corrupted your magic. To you and me both.”

“I know, Isa. I’m sorry.”

“Sorry—? No matter what happens now, I’m not sorry. You saved my life.”

“I didn’t consider the consequences though. For either of us. And this isn’t something I can reverse.”

I shook my head, then made him shake his, using the grip I still had on his jaw. “No. We don’t need to reverse this. Whatever’s been done by your magic, we have to use it to help us. As long as we’re not trapped in the beyond, we’ll be okay.” As I spoke, my triskelions shone brighter, a brilliant lilac, and my thirst picked up strength. My emotions felt all out of sorts, my block felt close to collapse, and hunger rolled from my skin in a wave, hot and crackling. My teeth extended a fraction, and I moved away from Julian, dropping my gaze from the sight of his throat. “I need blood.”

“Tomi called earlier, she should be here by now. Waiting upstairs in your office.”

Hearing the name of my werepanther roommate made me nod with relief. Thank the Goddess for my friends.

Julian and I stood, keeping a healthy distance between us, and I glanced up at his face. “We have to plan an attack. If we don’t strike first this time, he will. And we never do well when that happens.”

“Agreed.”

“Vix said Teagan went home tonight. No suspicious activity, no vampires around. But either Teagan’s the quicksilver, or she’s something under his control—and whatever she is, she’s either still at her house, or somewhere with the others preparing for battle.”

“So the house might be an enemy base,” Julian said. “Or linked to their base.”

“Right.” I strode to the door, and headed upstairs, Julian a few steps behind.

“I’ll call a meeting. Gather the team, and head out.”

At the prospect of battle, I felt a rush of relief. I’d promised that monster I was going to kill him. Now I’d have a chance to keep my word.

37

We entered the lounge, and Julian went to one of his portal doors, placed his hands flat on a large rune carved in the wood, and warm golden light poured from his palms, washing over the room in a bright swirling haze.

Julian could read the building by touching that rune, channeling Source energy through every wall and entryway that held a matching glyph—and that particular rune marked every space inside headquarters. There was even one hidden in the rock in my coffin room.

“Anyone here who shouldn’t be?”

Julian’s voice was low, his words quick. “Some refugees fast asleep inside central. People in the infirmary. Every one of them human, or working for us. No one suspicious. No trace of night sorcery either.”

“What about Ravi? Vix said he went home—”

“He did.” After a moment, Julian’s expression twisted with dread. “But he’s not at his house.” Each Ephraim home was directly linked to base with those runes, so the mages could be called in at a moment’s notice to fight, and my heart sank as I realized why Ravi must’ve disappeared.

“Vix told me he opened his eyes around noon—and she said Teagan was in the room with him right after he woke. If Teagan is the ancient, the quicksilver could have rolled his mind then. Or earlier—right after he was brought in with his concussion. Ravi might be possessed now, or dead, or with Teagan, wherever the real Teagan is.” But I doubted she was alive. I doubted Ravi was still alive. Night sorcery was like nefsin magic and Source energy rolled into one: powerful, often diabolical, capable of immense cruelty and evil.

“I’m calling them in,” Julian said of his team, still with his hands on the rune in the door. “Chelsea’s here. The others will be right behind her. We’ll meet in the conference room. You can see Tomi, and then meet up with us there.”

I should’ve rushed off. But I stayed rooted in place for a moment.

Julian had told me he loved me, and I wanted to tell him I felt the same way. Before the meeting convened. Before we were around other people again.

My energy twined toward him like tendrils of smoke, wreathing his body in helices, enough that he dropped his hands from the rune, and faced me.

I opened my mouth, thinking the words would be easy to say. How many times had I fantasized about telling him?

But my voice made no sound. I couldn’t understand why. Did I think the guardians would appear in the room, to strike me dead with a blast of Source light, if I told Julian I loved him?

No. Yes. Maybe.

“Julian, I—I wanted to tell you, that I—”

My voice failed again. I suddenly couldn’t breathe for embarrassment.

Julian gave me a curious smile, and the words were right on the tip of my tongue—

Then Vix came through the portal, one of the special doors that led into my lounge. She shot across the room clapping her wings, frantic with shock.

Eloise! You’re awake!”

Vix halted when she caught sight of Julian, who tore his gaze from my face a moment too late. I hadn’t realized how much of his magic had been entwined in the air, until he closed off his power, and his energy vanished.

Vix stared at him, and Julian made his tone formal and curt, addressing her in his team leader voice, trying to cover up that mistake.

“We’re going to track the ancient tonight. At Teagan’s house. We think she’s the ancient, or under the control of the ancient. We’ll meet in the conference room, ten minutes from now, to make a plan.”

As Julian left the lounge, disappearing into one of the portal doors, Vix twitched her wings and said, “What was that?

“That was nothing.”

“My left wing, it was nothing! Why was Julian looking at you like that? Using magic?” Vix darted around my shoulders in severe agitation.

“Not now.”

“Not now? We’re walking into some Evil Vampire Grotto and you want to get all secretive and weird?

“I’ll make you stay here with Nalin, if you don’t knock it off.”

Vix made a low growling sound, but it was as threatening as a puppy snarl. A tiny puppy. A newborn pug.

Ignoring her, I crossed the room, opened the door of my closet, and started to search for a tunic in the messy chaos within. I’d destroyed so many uniforms in the past few days, I’d be amazed if I had any left. After a minute, Vix checked behind a box of books, helped me find what I needed, and I sighed in relief.

As I fumbled to put on a pair of pants and shove my feet into boots, I thought of my roommate waiting upstairs, and my teeth flashed out their full length at the prospect of blood. Thirst crackled around me again, hot and sharp.

Vix fluttered her wings in dismay. “This is the worst I’ve ever seen you before. Even when you were burned, you weren’t this bad.”

I pushed my arms into a tunic, and fastened the clasps. “I did almost rot to death.”

“Yeah, I was there,” Vix said, with a scowl in her voice. “I’m going to end up with nightmares over that, I just know it. That was absolutely disgusting.”

I gave a faint smile. “Serves you right for hanging out with a vampire.”

Vix growled again. “Baby vampire. That’s your whole problem, Eloise. You’re just not scary enough. Not even ladybugs fear you. Not even trolls.”

I hissed, loud and menacing.

Vix rolled her eyes. “You once saved a chipmunk. A chipmunk! It’s a good thing you never tried joining a coven. Because last I checked, vampires don’t rescue rodents.”

“Or pixies.”

Vix threw up her hands with an infuriated squeak, and shimmered a pyrotechnic gold. “I was just pretending to be caught by that witch! How many times do I have to say that?”

Which was pure braggadocio, since Vix certainly had been caught by that man. But I just grinned at her with the full length of my teeth. “Well, I didn’t just pretend to kill him, did I.”

Vix crossed her arms and hardened her gaze. “You know I don’t like when you smile like that.”

“Then stop saying I can’t scare a ladybug. That’s insulting.”

But Vix only erupted again, sparking silver this time. “You’re the one jumping off cliffs for people you don’t even know! You better not do that again, Eloise! Vampire nests are no place for heroics!”

I sighed in annoyance, but didn’t interrupt her tirade.

I was the only vampire in the world who took screeds from a pixie.

Talk about luck.

38

Dressed in a clean uniform, I left the lounge with Vix perched on my shoulder. As soon as we portalled to the second floor, I glanced toward the door to my office to see Tomisina Jubilee asleep in a chair.

I’d met Tomi in Boulder, during our freshman year of college, but she’d dropped out of school over winter break. After I joined the Ephraim, Tomi moved to Senna with me. A few weeks later, I met Brooklyn, and soon the three of us were a trio, scraping out a living together to afford the skyrocketing rent. Much easier to split the monthly bill three ways, since I also had Vix with me, and Vix needed me to pay for luxuries like hot apple cider and fresh honey buns at the bakery. The drawback of life with a pixie.

As a vampire, having two lycanthrope roommates made life a lot easier for me—except Tomi and Brooklyn had never gotten along, and they only stayed in the house because neither one could afford to live anywhere else.

Vix hadn’t been happy when I let Brooklyn move in with us. But Vix was a wee grouch, and Brooklyn had been sobbing and homeless following one of her awful breakups, and that was life.

As I opened the portal door that led into my office, Tomi lay with her head on my desk, her face pillowed in her arms. Her steel-blue trench coat had been draped over an arm of the chair, and flashes of light from a phone gleamed through a pocket. Tomi’s long hair spiraled in corkscrews and reached past her shoulders, unadorned by any clips or barrettes. Her skin was as black as Finn’s, a rich sable that paired beautifully with her grey suit.

I stepped into my office and shut the door behind me. “Tomi? You okay?”

Tomi picked up her head, blinking sleepily, and sent me a smile. “Hey. You look pretty good for a dead girl.”

I crossed the room and threw my arms around her, dropping into her lap to embrace her, while Vix circled around, chiming her wings.

Tomi said nothing, just hugged me. She was Kai’s height, six-two, and I liked how tall and strong she was, as muscled and fit as a mage. Tomi could shift into hybrid form as well as pure animal, and she was a huge black panther when she changed, with the scariest cat scream I’d ever heard.

“So what’s up?”

“Julian called a meeting,” I said. “Then we’re going to Teagan’s house.”

“For a fight?”

I nodded. “The ancient might be there with the warlock, and the coven. Or maybe we’ll find a portal we can cast on and track.”

Tomi’s expression became heavy with dread. “Damn.”

Vix rasped her wings to agree, then burrowed into my collar and hid.

I said, “Brooklyn shifted tonight, sometime before the end of the vigil, and she’s human by now—”

Vix piped in, “Julian carried her to Minnie’s office!”

Minnie had a big puffy couch by her desk, a piece of furniture Brooklyn had slept on before. Lycanthropes needed recovery time after returning to human form, when their healing abilities were almost human-weak. Brooklyn slept for five hours after, though Tomi only needed three.

I never fed on my roommates while they were in recovery. Fanging the unconscious was definitely on my list of forbidden vampire behaviors.

“Please keep an eye on her,” I said to Tomi, “and give Kai a hand with anything he might need. With Julian taking the team out, Kai will be left in charge of the base.”

“Sure,” Tomi said.

I straightened, picked up Tomi’s hand, turned her wrist to my mouth, and met her gaze to make sure I could feed.

“Go for it,” Tomi said.

I bit her and drank. Pint after pint. I stopped after three, waited until she said, “I’m okay,” and then fed again.

I swallowed blood until my vampire power warped the air in the room, rippling against the walls in a hot wave of magic. The triskelions in my palms blazed a pearled lavender, a brilliant and shimmering color, diamond lilac.

“Nice Goddess marks,” Tomi said.

I smiled and licked blood off my teeth. “Night sorcery.”

“You’ll need it.” Tomi pushed me off her lap, and as I stood, she rose beside me, adding, “Try not to die.”

I hissed and strode to the door, moving with vampire speed. Too fast for a mundane to see, but slow enough to register as a blur to a lycanthrope. Before I slipped into the hall, I halted and looked back. “Thanks, Tomi. For everything.”

Vix popped her head from my collar and whistled, a bright sound like a songbird.

Tomi smiled and waved us off. “Just make sure you come back.”

I hurried away, with Vix gripping my neck, down the hall to the stairs.

“Will you tell me now?” Vix whispered, still waiting to hear about Julian’s odd behavior.

I tried to think of the words I needed to say, but my heart raced, my magic flared all around me, and Vix yelled, “Damn it, Eloise! What in goddess’ name is going on?

I paused at the base of the stairs, but before I could make a confession, someone stepped into the hall behind me.

Vampire sight told me who had arrived, without needing to turn round to look at her.

Julian wasn’t with her.

But it was clear she’d been waiting for him. She stood tapping her foot near the door of his office. I turned my head to glance over her face, cold and beautiful as a queen’s.

Vix huddled deeper into my collar, and I looked away.

“You were right,” I told Lilith. “He told me the truth.”

I could feel the weight of her glare pressed against me, all the scorn rolling off her.

“Sun’s coming up soon,” Lilith said, as if I hadn’t spoken. “Better be quick, Eloise. Wouldn’t want you to burn.” The icy chill in her tone made it clear she hoped I was ashed.

I stalked away from her down a side hall, toward the conference room.

“Eloise, no!” Vix whispered, snapping her wings. “Julian can’t love you! He’ll end up in the beyond!”

“I know,” I said. “But he isn’t there now.” Which was all my narrowing attention span cared about at the moment.

Power coursed through me, I had an ancient to kill, and I was ready to fight.

39

Jordan Sāstri met me in the hall, at the same time Finn Diakité rounded a corner to join us. They beamed when they saw me, and I smiled in return.

Jordan wore her black hair in a ponytail, her golden earrings and nose ring glinting against her caramel skin. Jordan was Hindu, but her focusing charm was the four-headed snake spiral associated with Romuva, the ancient polytheistic Pagan faith of the Baltic. The religion of Romuva asserted the sanctity of nature, advocated protecting the sacred spaces of earth, and had a close relationship with Jordan’s Hindu community. Her snake charms were dark topaz and gold, and the symbol decorated her scabbard as well as the hilt of her sword.

“You look a helluva lot better than the last time we saw you,” Jordan said.

Finn gestured toward the back of his head, to indicate the nails Minnie had removed from my skull. “I think that was worse than seeing you all burned up. You’ve sure been through some shit lately.”

Vix chimed her wings to agree.

“That little kid you tracked down—” Finn said.

“Daniel,” Jordan supplied.

“Yeah. He asked us where the flying girl was. After Julian brought him back, he told everyone you flew through the mountains with him.” Finn waved his hand to indicate flight, like someone soaring around obstacles.

Jordan sent me another smile. “We told him you were still out hunting bad guys.”

Finn threw an arm around me and gave me a rough embrace. “Glad you’re okay.”

Jordan put her hand on my shoulder. “Me too.”

“Back off, Sāstri,” Finn said to her. “No hugs for you.” But he stepped aside and let Jordan hug me.

Finn wore his hair in thick dreadlocks, his skin tone a rich shade of onyx. He’d been raised by one Christian parent and one Pagan, and he wore focusing charms that featured crosses, triquetras, goddess moons, and a symbol he’d crafted himself from an image he saw in his dreams: a circle filled with stars in a particular pattern.

Finn wore his starwheel tattooed on his chest, over his heart, and I’d seen him cast once without his shirt on, when his ink lines lit up bright blue. He carried a sword in a plain black scabbard, but Finn’s blade featured the design of his starwheel etched in the metal.

Kai arrived in the hall, saw me and yelled, “Eloise!” like I was back from the dead, and he rushed over and embraced me so fervently that my feet left the floor. I hadn’t expected him to grab me, and had to throw my arms around his neck to keep from losing my balance.

“You look so much better!” Kai finally put me back down, then glanced over my belt and added, “Just out of weapons again. You’re going through daggers and awls right and left.”

“And uniforms!” Vix said from her hiding place.

“Yeah, that too,” Kai agreed. “The burned-to-a-crisp look sure was great,” and he wriggled his eyebrows with a wink.

Chelsea Davron and Julian rounded a different bend in the hall, and joined us outside the door.

I tipped my head toward Chelsea, and she smiled in return. “Hey, Eloise.”

“Thanks for coming to get me,” I said with an easy tone in my voice, since that wasn’t the first time she’d saved my ass.

Chelsea shook her head in a way that meant no thanks was needed, and embraced me in a brief, crushing hug. “Shut up,” she muttered, with her arm round my neck, and then she released me.

I glanced only briefly at Julian, so hyper-aware of him that his presence flooded through me in a rush. Our eyes met for an instant, and I tried to act like my usual self. But my heart skipped and raced, my magic reached toward him, and I had to temper my power and strengthen my screen.

I couldn’t manage to voice a hello, and neither did Julian, but Chelsea saved us from a moment of awkwardness. As soon as she let me go, she pretended to grouse, “Well, we’re not going to meet in the hall,” as she ushered us toward the door. “Move, people.”

I walked into the conference room beside Kai, and Julian came to stand beside me as everyone circled around. While Chelsea shut the door, Finn asked, “Where’s Ravi?”

Like flipping a switch, the energy in the room changed from loose camaraderie into focus and tension.

Julian’s answer was brisk. “I don’t know. You’re all aware we lost track of the ancient and mavens tonight. But Eloise is certain they’ve infiltrated the base.”

Julian turned to me to confirm, and I said, “Either the ancient, or another vampire with night sorcery, has been using Teagan’s body to get past the wards—”

Jordan interrupted, incredulous. “But we’ve increased security here—at every site in our district! We’ve spelled against all forms of night sorcery! No vampire could ever—”

I cut her off. “It’s something more than a vampire—doppleganger, poltergeist, night zombie—” which were zombies raised to function as vampires, and could be ordered around like ghouls or demon spawn. “Whatever it is, it passed the enchantments as Teagan.”

Finn asked, “And this thing’s with the ancient?”

“It might be the ancient,” I said. “Or something else. A creature he’s made, or someone working for him. That master might be in charge of a nest—not a coven of mavens but a coven of vampires—”

“You think the warlock’s a vampire?” Finn asked.

“I don’t know. The witch I chased from the park tonight—she moved with vampire speed. I thought at the time she was using magic to run, but the warlock and those mavens might be bloodshades, posing as human—”

“Oh, fuck,” Kai said. “Can this even get any worse?”

“They’re trying to wipe out the Ephraim,” Jordan muttered. “There is nothing worse.”

“Nah,” Finn said. “I’m sure Eloise has something better.” Finn caught my gaze and lifted his brows, expecting me to share my next horrible thought, while Kai swore again under his breath.

“We know the warlock and the mavens are under the ancient,” I said. “But that quicksilver might be teamed up with something much stronger. Just because he’s the most powerful thing we’ve encountered so far, doesn’t mean he’s in charge.”

Vix was so frightened by my announcement, she vibrated like a locust pressed tight to my skin.

“So what do they want?” Jordan asked. “It—them—whoever’s trying to kill us. Do they want to conjure another gate, and set it on fire?”

I nodded. “It’s possible that could still be their plan. They’ve got Ravi now. His body could fuel another summoning ritual.”

“Why haven’t they killed us all yet?” Chelsea asked. “If this ancient is so powerful, what are we still doing alive?”

I held out my palms so they could see the triskelions marked in my skin. “My corruption ruined the ritual once. Unexpectedly. When I spilled my blood in the circle. And last night, the vampire’s portal was burned, definitely something they hadn’t planned on. Same thing with the backlash through the veil, when they tried to conjure the gate, and Julian returned—those events weren’t anticipated by anyone. The plan was for the ancient to target Julian first. Then he decided he could use the Source energy in me. Now maybe Ravi’s enough. Or maybe the target changed to something else.”

“Or maybe we’re running into another trap,” Chelsea said. “Which is about all we seem to be doing lately. Playing right into their hands, every damn time.”

Finn asked me, “Do they know you’ve figured this out? About Teagan?”

I lowered my face for a moment. “Maybe. If they assumed I survived. The ancient meant for me to rot to death, he wanted my death to be slow. But if he thinks Julian was able to save me, by sharing his power again, then he might guess we’ll attack.”

“Shit,” Chelsea said, and as I raised my head, she glanced at Julian. “You think we should evacuate? At least clear out the base while we’re gone?”

“No,” Julian said. “Any place we move to now would be worse. They know exactly where we’d evacuate to. This is still the most enchanted building we have. Even if they’re expecting us, our best option is to fight. We’re not running away.”

“Well we’re sure as hell in a sorry state for a death match,” Chelsea said. “Ravi’s gone, it’s already half past four in the morning, and Eloise—” Chelsea waved a hand toward me.

“First twilight begins at 5:40,” I said. “That’s over an hour away.”

“And you woke before sunset tonight,” Kai said. “There’s a chance you might stay awake past sunrise.” Which wasn’t until 7:35 A.M. in the valley.

The mages glanced over at Julian, who said, “Teagan went home tonight. The thing using her body is either set up in her house, or it has a portal there.” He cast a swift look at me, his dark eyes bright with thought. “Or had a portal there. The one Eloise burned in the woods might’ve damaged the others, depending on how they connected.” Julian placed his hands on his hips as he considered his team, wearing the pensive expression that meant he was weighing his options. “We know there’s at least one enemy in Teagan’s house. And maybe a link to the others.”

Chelsea said, “You want us to teleport to Teagan’s, and blaze the whole house?”

A blaze was a powerful spell unique to Source mages—to call forth a light strong enough to burn like the sun. While any individual mage could damage a vampire with a radiance spell, a blaze was a much more powerful blast, and required at least three people to conjure. Summoned Source light was harmless to all living creatures, but fatal to the undead. A blaze could take out a whole nest, leaving nothing but ash.

Including me. If I were ever caught in the light of a blaze, I wouldn’t survive.

Which was certainly not how I wanted to die. Ashed with my enemies.

Mother of Night.

40

Chelsea’s suggestion to blaze Teagan’s house was the Source mage equivalent of dropping a firebomb—which was sound practice in some situations. But night sorcery meant this was no typical coven, and magical firebombs could have dangerous chain reactions and devastating blowback, including the possible destruction of innocent life.

Julian glanced over the team before he responded. “Teagan and Ravi might be somewhere inside. Alive. And other people who might’ve been kidnapped we know nothing about. If we damage the spells holding them, we could destroy their lives along with the coven. If anyone is trapped in that house, I want to know they’re safe before we summon a blaze.”

Jordan said, “Which means one of us has to go in.”

Chelsea’s voice rose in outrage. “We can’t go in that house! If they suspect we know they have Ravi and Teagan, that’s exactly what they’ll expect us to do!”

Finn said, “Or we can sit here and wait for them to kill us, after they get past the enchantments—”

I said, “I can go in the house. If it’s built for a coven, I’ll be able to enter. Then we’ll know what’s inside.”

Kai said, “You know it might not be as simple as that. You cast on that vampire portal, and your magic found nothing. How would Teagan’s house be any different? You might not see anything, even if the coven is there—”

I lowered my voice. “I’ll know if I walk through a spell.”

“And so will the ancient!” Chelsea said. “And whatever else might be waiting inside!”

Julian held up his hand, a gesture asking for calm. “I’ll go with Eloise. A jinn charm can locate vampire doors glamoured with night sorcery, and I can make sure she gets in and out undetected.”

“Jinn charm?” Chelsea asked. “Since when can you wield a jinn charm?”

Julian opened his mouth, and then dropped his head without answering. There was a tense moment of silence before he finally said, “Since now.”

Chelsea scowled. “I didn’t even know this base had a jinn charm.”

“A relic,” Julian said. “But it’s in good condition. I saw it once in the weapons room. I think I can still make it work.”

“You think?” Chelsea’s tone held every bit of her doubt.

Julian gave a faint smile. “Pretty sure. But if I fail, we’ll regroup and make a new plan.” Chelsea tipped her head, to make it clear she’d hold Julian to that, and he glanced around at the rest of his team. “Jordan, Finn, Chelsea—the three of you are strong enough to summon a blaze, and can wait for my signal. If the mavens or the warlock show up ready for battle, a severance shield will keep you safe from torrals and wraiths. Even if the mavens shapeshift, vampire or not, none of those witches are powerful enough to smash through a shield. And if we can’t use a blaze, or the shield breaks, we’ll have to fight.”

The mages nodded their agreement, and Julian turned to address Kai. “You’ll need to move everyone in the building into the potions room. We’ll seal the front door before we leave, but if anything does manage to get in, there are extra wards around the potions room, and enough space for everyone here tonight. I want you to keep everyone there until we return.”

Kai bowed his head to follow that request, and Julian said to the team, “I’ll report to the magi right now, and then we’ll need to leave. Jordan, you take care of the front door. Finn, retrieve some weapons for Eloise and anyone else who might need them. The jinn charm is in a box of seer crystal, in the closet with the scepters. Chelsea, you ready a van, and say the prayers of thanksgiving before we depart. Vix—” Vix jingled her wings fiercely, ready for orders. “When we get there, you be our messenger, in case we’re trapped in an olla.”

In the enemy encounters the team often faced, an olla was an impenetrable container that trapped every kind of person and creature—except pixies. Ollas were relatively simple to cast, and common among nefsin magicians. Since only a nefsin witch could control others with magic, and pixies hardly ever interacted with humans, ollas were effective and dangerous weapons. The invisible traps took a lot of magic to break, and in a fight to the death, spending a full twenty seconds to shatter an olla could be fatal.

As to Julian’s need for a messenger, Vix chimed a ready agreement to enter the house with us, and then the meeting was over, and we all left the room.

I walked outside to the courtyard with Chelsea. She stood on the cobblestone drive, tipped her face toward the clear night sky, and spoke the powerful, ancient words of a prayer. Chelsea thanked the Velci for sharing their power with the Ephraim, and expressed gratitude for the fear of death, the hope of life, and the energy that powered all Source.

As I listened, I gave my own silent thanks to the Mother of Night, Dark Goddess and Creator of Life.

When Chelsea left the drive to bring out a van, Vix squirmed around in my collar. Her tone sounded annoyed. “You don’t smell the same way. The scent in your skin is all different.”

“So is Julian’s,” I said. The change had taken place in our blood. In our magic. An aspect of the corruption.

“You made him a little bit like a vampire, and he made you a little bit like a mage.”

“Yes.”

“And now he’s in love with you.”

Which made my heart race, to hear her say it like that. My voice dropped, and my words sounded brittle and rough. “He said he’s felt that way a long time.”

“Figures,” Vix huffed. “I start hanging out with you, make you so much more fun and interesting, everyone else realizes what a neat person you are, and then bam! Now he wants to steal you away. I hate human men. They’re so obnoxious.”

“He’s not going to steal me away.”

“Yeah, you say that now.”

“Vix. Could you please get a grip.”

She squeezed my neck.

Chelsea pulled up in a van, and I stepped over to open the back doors.

Vix clambered up to my ear, and spoke softly enough that Chelsea couldn’t hear. “I know you love him back. Cause you always smile whenever Rafna tells Julian, Hello, mage. That means you love him. I know these things, Eloise.”

I smiled at her mention of Rafna, and her reasoning, but didn’t respond.

Vix fluttered her wings, a conciliatory tone in the chime. “I don’t really hate Julian. Not too much. But if he steals you away, then I will. I’ll spell him into a toad.”

“You can’t spell a Source mage into a toad.”

Chelsea came round the back of the van. “What’s this about a toad?”

Vix hid in my collar again. Coward.

I smiled at Chelsea. “Just Vix being Vix.”

Finn walked outside to the van, and handed me two fire knives and two awls. I placed the awls in my boots, and Finn vanished them for me, a complicated spell that took several seconds. The two knives, I threaded onto my belt.

The building door opened again, and Jordan arrived.

“I think Teagan’s alive,” Finn said, climbing into the van. He took a seat on one of the benches in back, where a stretcher and medical supplies covered the floor at his feet. Ephraim vans were part mini-bus, part ambulance. This one had four-wheel drive, snow tires, black paint and cushioned seats.

I clambered onto the bench opposite Finn, and Jordan followed me in.

“They might’ve skinned her,” Jordan said. “A walker’s pelt could get her past the enchantments.” Skinwalkers were a type of nefsin magician, a witch who used bloodshed and pain to shapeshift into an animal form. Most skinwalkers didn’t skin humans though. The idea made my breath hitch with horror.

“No,” Finn told Jordan, his voice hard, determined, as he shook his head. “I told Julian. She’s alive. I know she’s alive.”

“Sometimes your instincts are wrong,” Jordan said.

Finn blew out his breath. “Not this time. She’s in there somewhere. Ravi, too. We don’t blaze till they’re out.”

From inside my collar, Vix clapped her wings to agree with that plan.

“You find the charm?” Jordan asked.

“Yeah,” and Finn waved a hand toward the building, where the door had just swung open again. Julian appeared, talking to Minnie as they walked toward the van. Then Minnie spun around, returned inside, and Julian reached the van on his own. Before he climbed in, he placed the jinn charm on the floor, and by the low clunk the tool made, I bet it weighed at least five pounds. Probably closer to ten.

I’d never seen a jinn charm before, but this one was quite short, not a wand but a stick, maybe ten inches long. Six inches of that length was the handle, which was topped with a large metal disk, one with a diameter about five inches wide, carved on both sides with a circumscribed Star of David. The charm appeared dirty, covered in rust, with Hebrew script filigreed in the handle and the circle enclosing the Star.

Julian sat down on the bench across from me, pulled the door shut behind him, and Chelsea took the wheel.

“Good?” she called back, as Julian glanced over us, checking our weaponry.

“Good,” he said, and Chelsea drove us out of the courtyard, through the old building’s carriage access. She pulled onto Twelfth Street, and hung a right on Third Avenue. The roads were snowpacked, but properly plowed. Third Avenue was a wide double boulevard lined with old trees, the graceful homes of this neighborhood built closely together. There were few other vehicles out at this hour. A pickup, a sedan, a police cruiser. Teagan lived ten minutes away, in a far bigger home than the tiny place I rented.

As I scanned the area we passed through, Julian removed a small bundle from his pocket. He opened a satin pouch, and took out a long length of woven silk thread, marked with bead-sized lumps every few inches, like a necklace.

This was no piece of jewelry though. The black thread in his fingers glimmered with fae magic, which meant the lumps held tiny black diamonds.

“From Mira,” Julian said, catching my eye. Mira was one of the Seelie fae who worked at the base, an associate with an office not far from mine.

Julian didn’t say anything more about Mira, simply leaned forward and pointed to my right hand. So I held out my wrist, and Julian wrapped the thread around my forearm several times, over the sleeve of my uniform.

Fae charms needed music to activate, and Julian sang with a soft, deep voice, a melody I’d never heard before. But Jordan knew this song, and so did Vix, because they joined their voices with Julian’s after the first line.

Inside the forest,

Beneath the skin of the earth,

A cache full of secrets,

With a powerful curse.

As they sang the word curse—an obvious reference to vampires hiding in graves—Julian reached for my other arm, and I lifted my hand to his grip. He placed my wrists together, then wrapped the thread around both my forearms as he and Jordan and Vix kept singing.

Hide me from evil,

Let me walk, let me fight,

Release me from shadow,

Save me from night.

As they finished the song, the thread flashed with viridian light, the fae magic reacting to my vampire body to make that smoky green color, before the silk became ebony again.

Julian tipped his head for me to sit beside him, so I stepped over the stretcher, took a seat, and allowed him to remove the string from my wrists. Then I followed his gestures to drop the thread under my tunic, so it would rest against my bare skin.

Well, the silk was partially against my bare skin. I had on a jet tank top, made of a heavy material that clung to my body, but the string only needed to be placed under my tunic, where it would be safe from being torn off in a fight. Vix crawled into the sleeve of my tunic to keep out of the way as I did this, her wings tickling my arm as she moved. Then she popped out of my cuff and took a seat on my leg, like a curious chipmunk who’d vacated a burrow.

The fae thread was long enough to loop round my torso, crossing over my heart and beneath my right arm, and then Julian fastened a small knot above my left collarbone. Not exactly a necklace, but similar to the sacred thread worn by many Hindus during a rite of passage, marking the moment when a child became a student.

I wasn’t a student of fae magic, nor was I undergoing an initiation right now, but the lyrics of the song told me all I needed to know. Hide me from evil. The children of the Dark Goddess. Save me from night. Death by vampire.

This was an invisibility charm. A very powerful one.

“Tell Mira thank you,” I said.

Julian nodded. “I did.”

Finn asked, “How long will it last?”

“As long as she has the power to run it,” Julian said. Since my triskelions were still glowing faint violet, Julian nudged my palm with a fingertip.

Even though I was sated, and Julian had touched me for only an instant, my gaze still dropped to his throat. His warm and beautiful dark copper throat.

He wasn’t paying attention though, had already turned away and picked up the jinn charm from the floor. As Chelsea navigated the van over patches of ice, Julian unbuttoned the top of his tunic, and placed the weapon against his heart. As soon as the metal pressed to his skin, he hummed a low Om, a sound that all three of the other mages copied.

Source energy vibrated the air, swirling in waves, illuminating a delicate matrix of power filling the space all around us, made visible by the Om of the mages. The light shimmered like pearl—pale pink, silver-blue, white-hyacinth—opalescent lacing as complex as infinity. Like a dense web of furred color that bound us together, flexing and sinuous, humming in perfect pitch.

While Vix twirled and grinned with delight, Source magic was frightening to vampire eyes. Change the sound slightly, chant a new spell, and this energy would turn into a blaze. Dazzling, exquisite. The sight of the power in the air left me breathless, awed with a terrified wonder, to the point I felt boneless, immaterial next to the force of Source magic.

Only the Om of the mages could electrify energy like that, until the world gleamed with sonance, corded with the electromagnetic lines of pure light. Gravity, time, energy, love. Whether it was called the holy divine, subatomic particle light, or the chaos at the root of all order—the united conjuring force of the mages gave Source magic a physical presence, an energy that caressed my skin. The light thrummed and twined round me soft as a kiss, thrilling and fearsome as the promise of death.

After a minute, I closed my eyes, bowed my head, prayed without voice to the Goddess, until the Om stopped, and so did the van. Vix flew to my shoulder as Chelsea parked, set the brake, and switched off the engine.

41

Teagan lived in house with a pretty stone fence surrounding the property, a home that resembled a gingerbread cottage in the moonlight and snow. Crafted shutters, rounded shingles, a front door with a heart carved in the wood. The last place on earth anyone would expect to find an Evil Vampire Grotto.

Chelsea hadn’t parked in front of the house though. We were two blocks away, at the dark edge of an alley.

We left the van, closed the doors without speaking, and I followed the team through the small unpaved alley.

Julian still carried the jinn charm, but the metal glittered platinum now, a soft shine in the darkness, the Hebrew script glinting like gemstones.

When we came in sight of Teagan’s stone fence, Julian held up his hand, and everyone stopped. He gestured to Jordan, Finn, and Chelsea, who remained as they were, and when he started moving again, I stayed at his side, Vix on my shoulder.

No lights on at Teagan’s. Not inside the house, or anywhere else.

My magic washed over the snow, spilled across Teagan’s backyard, and brushed against the walls of the house. With increasing force, I cast with my senses, but found nothing. No vampire portals. No suspicious energy lurking about in the shadows.

Something moved though. A beating of wings overhead. Feathers of ink that blotted the stars, and settled on top of the house.

A raven cawed. Once, twice. Then he rocked and cawed again.

Rafna perched at the highest point on the roof, and I didn’t need to read his mind to know what he was trying to say.

Julian lifted the jinn charm over his head, and though his hair ruffled in a wind from the force of his spell, I felt nothing more than a tremor deep in my chest, the ancient jinn magic reacting to Julian’s frequency, the part of himself he’d shared to keep me alive.

Which meant only a person gifted with Source energy could feel the force of that spell, the thick roll of power Julian had just sent through the night with that charm.

Nothing illuminated in the darkness. No glow of dark crystal. No sign of night sorcery.

But we had the right place. Or Rafna wouldn’t be on the roof, crying for me to turn back. He opened his great raven wings, then rocked and cawed again and again.

Vix hid away in my collar without making a sound.

I walked to the back door of Teagan’s house. Unlocked the knob with a spell, and glamored the metal to open in silence.

Julian entered behind me, and we stood in the thick shadow inside.

The faint smell of old blood wreathed the air. The scent of rot and decay.

Too subtle for Julian to detect. Or Vix.

But unmistakable to the nose of a monster.

The odor led me through the kitchen. Down the main hall. Into the master bedroom.

No one stood in the darkness. No one lay on the bed.

Julian lifted the jinn charm and cast for the portal.

I gripped the heavy metal bed frame, and moved the bed to the wall.

The portal lay on the floor, a purple gloss in the shape of an oval. Not a hole in the wood, but a faint varnish of color. An evil radiance leaking the stench of rotting flesh through the house.

This was something much worse than a vampire portal. Something I’d only ever seen before in one of Julian’s books.

That shade of violet was the mark of a priestess of night, a vampire sorceress of incredible power. A dark spirit who belonged in the realm of rumor and myth.

No one with a soul could enter this door. Not unless the priestess who’d conjured the portal granted safe passage.

I knew what was coming for us now. And so did Julian. His terror lit through the room like he’d cast a balancing light.

“Eloise, no!” Julian cried, reaching for me, at the same time Vix grabbed my neck, both of them trying to stop me.

But I evaded Julian’s touch, pried off Vix and tossed her aside with a breeze, while I triggered the fae charm I wore, erasing my body from sight. Invisible to all forms of magic, even the senses of monsters.

Then I stepped into the oval, and fell through the floor.

42

Obsidian wind crushed my body, a smashing force meant to kill.

This teleportation tunnel was nothing like traveling with Julian. As an unwelcome intruder, the night sorcery of the priestess tried forcing me back, pushing me into Teagan’s bedroom again.

But there was no other way to track down the enemy, no other option than to return to headquarters and wait for an attack, so I didn’t reverse course.

Seconds passed, the pressure around me grew worse, and I struggled not to scream. By the time I reached the other end of the portal, and my feet hit ground again, blood streamed from my nose, eyes, and ears, like I’d dived deep in the ocean without the help of a submarine. All my soft tissue had ruptured, leaving me bloody and bruised, and my body immediately began to repair.

But before my eyesight returned, the smell surrounding me registered. A reek so overwhelming and vile that I collapsed to my knees and started to heave, coughing and gagging from the stench.

Vinegar scorched the air, boiled into plumes, an acidic stink layered with the odor of rotting flesh: intestines left to spoil in the sun, moldering bones in a trash can, corpses bloated and swollen, then punctured to release noxious gas. The smell coated my throat, thick and hot, as if I were swallowing the rot with each breath.

I clapped a hand to my mouth and stopped breathing. Remained on my knees for a minute, taking small sips of air, adjusting to the stench while I forced myself not to gag.

Once my eyes finished healing, and the danger of retching passed, I lifted my head and rose to my feet. The smell was still revolting, and made my eyes run with tears, but I’d regained control of my body.

I stood near the back of a stone temple, about forty feet wide and sixty feet long. Magnificent columns flanked the walls, which were lit with torches in elaborate sconces. The ceiling stretched high above, arching into the shadows, witness to the horror below.

Less than twenty feet from the place where I’d landed, dead bodies lay piled on the floor. Men, women, children. Some burned. Some beheaded. Some with their entrails hanging out like grey ribbon.

Ten, twenty, thirty people. At least. I threw out my magic and checked the bodies for life.

But they were all human corpses, dead more than a day, none familiar to me. Cult followers of the warlock? Refugees that had been caught outside Senna? People who’d been promised immortal life, lured here by the ancient, and slain by the coven?

As I tore my gaze from the heap, another shape caught my eye, and I glanced at a large metal cage by the dead.

Inside was a small man, curled on his side, facing me. Eyes closed. But when I rolled my power around him, I felt his heart beating.

He wore an ebony robe over his pale green skin, a jeweled teardrop at the top of one cheek, and his long raven hair glistened with blood. I recognized Donovan, the Unseelie fae from the tribe in the valley.

If he still had his amethyst bracelets, or rings on his fingers, they were covered in blood. Someone had smashed his hands and wrists with a mallet, until his limbs resembled frothy pink pudding, a boneless meat goo.

My body moved without thinking, drawn to help him like a clear, shining thought bursting its way through my shock.

Cast! Cast! a voice screamed in my mind. A voice that sounded alarmingly just like Vix. You can’t save that man! Run outside and cast, figure out where this temple is, then return through the portal! Julian, Julian, you have to get Julian! He can teleport here if you just figure out where you are—

I jerked to a halt with the urgency of finding an exit, gazing over the walls to search for a door—

But then something popped with a thunderous sound, and I turned to the center of the room. Three huge iron cauldrons had been left unattended, each one cooking over the searing white flame of a nefsin fire. I stepped to the pot closest to me and peered over the brim.

Inside the bubbling vat full of vinegar, the corpse of a young boy stared up at the ceiling, his skin trembling, flesh splitting away from the bone in the roil of the liquid.

The vat beside him held a young man about Julian’s age. In the third cauldron: two small babies. Chunks of their flesh had already broken away, and drifted in ragged grey blobs atop the boiled vinegar.

The history books called this excarnation. Removing the flesh from human skeletons. When vampires did this, they planned to use the cleaned bones in a spell.

What would a priestess of night do with so many bones?

Had the quicksilver’s ghouls all been brought to life in this temple? Or the warlock’s lake wraiths?

A noise rose in my throat, thick and bitter as bile, as I realized I knew why the priestess of night needed so many skeletons—

The ancient had told me. Before I’d ruined his spell.

The quicksilver and the warlock had conjured a gate into Xekkra. And as you’re rendered to ash, the ancient had said with a smile, I’ll cast a hex of my own. A curse into the beyond. Into the network of magic that marked the veil between worlds.

A passageway that was inherently dangerous. Full of Source energy, which the guardians maintained and kept stable.

But if a priestess of night could summon a hex strong enough to unhinge the Source energy that filled the veil—

The burning gates would obliterate the angels and jinn as well as the portals they guarded, seal off the Ephraim from the Velci, and split the Source mages from their power.

As I stared at the cooking flesh in the vats, at the young boy before me with his shivering face and unseeing eyes, I knew his bones would be part of a spell unlike anything I’d ever imagined. A hex strong enough to make a world ruled by monsters. By vampires like this priestess of night.

Another terrible pop from a cauldron made me turn, and I happened to look at the far wall, catching sight of an area that had been screened from view by a column—

—and then I screamed.

Loud, piercing. A vampire scream. The sound ricocheted off the arched ceiling, echoed through the shadows and over the dead.

If my enemies didn’t know I was here yet, they certainly did now.

Hanging before me in chains, with her back to the wall, her feet not quite touching the floor, was Teagan.

My magic identified her, not my eyes. There was nothing recognizable of her left. She was muscle and bone, blood and meat.

Teagan’s body had been skinned, her eyes gouged out with hot metal, and a network of thin wires had been tied round her teeth, to keep her mouth stretched open. Her heart was still beating. Her chest rose and fell with slow breaths.

The priestess of night was powerful enough to skin one of my teammates and keep her chained alive to a wall—

And I stood in her temple, all alone—

So where were the vampires?

Why wasn’t anyone tending the fires?

Hadn’t anyone heard me scream? Felt me enter the portal?

Didn’t they know I was here?

The fae charm I wore might keep me invisible, but throwing out magic and screaming were beyond its enchantment.

Shouldn’t someone have shown up by now, to stop me or kill me? Shove my corpse into one of these pots?

Were the vampires all at the Ephraim headquarters, about to begin an attack? Was that where everyone was?

Was the priestess of night dressed in Teagan’s still-living skin, smuggling a coven of vampires into the Ephraim base at this moment?

“Oh Goddess, oh Goddess,” I whispered. “Mother of Night, help me now—”

A dim, subtle sound drew my attention: the slide of snake scales against stone. As I turned my head to locate the source of the noise, I saw the dark tip of a cobra tail wriggle into a hole in the corner. In an instant, the snake was gone. The hole in the wall shimmered, then disappeared.

An animal guard? A vampire’s creature to call?

Did the departure of that snake mean the vampires would come for me now?

Panic racked through my body as I stared at Teagan again.

Finn had been right. She was still alive.

And Donovan was here. Also alive.

But what about Ravi? I threw out my magic again, sweeping around all the columns, but there was no one else but the dead in the temple.

There were also no doors in the stone walls I had the power to find. Julian would’ve been able to illuminate them with the jinn charm. My vampire magic could not.

The only way out of this nightmare was back through the same portal I’d used. An exit that would kill Teagan and Donovan if I took them with me.

And if I fled now, I left with nothing. No way to help anyone here. No way to send Julian back.

I’d be safe though. I could flee the way I’d come in, suffer the damaging pressure of that awful portal, and tell Julian all hope was lost, the best we could do was return to headquarters and prepare for a battle we would probably lose.

Or I could figure out another way to get Julian here.

Teagan held the rank of a thaumaturge. A witch who wasn’t powerful enough to teleport.

But Donovan was an Unseelie fae. And when I’d met him at the Samhain festival in the fall, Julian had introduced him as one of the queen’s guard. A position given only to those with a high level of skill.

Which meant Donovan, given enough magical strength, could teleport himself out of this temple.

Donovan could summon a fae portal, return to Teagan’s house, and tell Julian how to get here. Or Julian could simply follow the trail of Donovan’s portal, which would deposit him here in seconds.

A teleportation required power though. Donovan needed to be able to summon enough element in here to break through the wards surrounding this temple—

And as I glanced over the vats again, at the white fires burning beneath those huge cauldrons, I realized I’d found the solution.

43

I removed my fae charm and ran to Donovan. The steel locks on his cage took four different spells before I snapped the enchantments, swept through the door and crouched beside him.

Donovan’s body was half the size of my own, with the height of an average human six-year-old, and I lifted him into my arms as delicately as I’d handle a child. He didn’t moan or change his breathing when I moved him. His eyes didn’t flutter, and no muscles twitched. My magic streaked over him, probing into his body, and my senses understood he wasn’t in a coma from head trauma, given all the blood in his hair. Donovan was simply dying, his entire body beginning to shut down and turn off, as his lungs drew in less and less air with each breath.

He could still drink my blood though. Humans and fae had an unconscious swallowing reflex, triggered when small amounts of liquid were placed in the back of the mouth, where the droplets could slide off the tongue and into the throat.

“Mother, Great Mother,” I said. “Help me save him.”

I made the tiniest gash on my wrist with one of my teeth, and as Donovan lay in my arms, I eased his mouth open, and let the trickle of blood land on the back of his tongue.

One drop. Then two.

I removed my wrist from his mouth. Waited a moment before adding a third drop.

Begged the Goddess again—

Then Donovan swallowed.

I repeated the steps, waited until he’d swallowed three times, before I began to deliver slightly larger amounts, teaspoons of blood that disappeared down his throat—

Until Donovan’s body jerked violently, awash in vampire energy, and he cried out in pain.

He opened his eyes, his vision fixed upon me, and a flash of recognition lit through his features. Donovan grabbed my arm fiercely as he gasped, “Julian’s witch!”

“Eloise,” I said as I helped him sit up and examined his hands, sensing them with my magic to make sure they were healed. Then I let the cut on my wrist repair and seal over, while Donovan blinked around dazedly, trying to regain his bearings.

“Do you know where we are?” I asked. “Were you awake when they brought you here?”

As Donovan’s memories flooded over him, taking in the sight of the cage, he gaped at his hands and shuddered. “How did you heal me? I felt myself dying. I heard the voice of my goddess, singing to me—” He glanced outside the cage, as if he might find his fae goddess standing there. “What are you doing alone in a vampire temple? Where’s Julian?”

“At Teagan’s house. You have to teleport to him, tell him where we are—”

Donovan shook his head. “I cannot summon a portal in here. There isn’t enough element to conjure, and the enchantments here are too strong to break through.”

“You can use the nefsin magic to conjure,” I said. I left the cage and waved a hand at the white fires. “When the spells of each cauldron combine with the fire—”

“Combine with the fire?” Donovan scrambled out of the cage to stand at my side. “You can’t touch those pots! They are evil! They are cursed! And you are only a rook—and a human! You will die!”

“I promise I won’t die. But you have to portal to Julian, and tell him where we are—”

Donovan grasped my sleeve, trying to maneuver me away from the fire. “You don’t understand! No human magic may touch those cauldrons and live! The spell in the iron will kill you! The vampire priestess used night sorcery on that metal!”

I shifted away from him and lowered my voice. “I’m not human, Donovan. Wards against the living won’t kill me.”

“But you are an associate witch—”

And then I showed him my teeth.

He leapt and drew back, threw up his hands with the instinct of survival, prepared for a fight to the death. “Vampire! You’re a vampire!” The icy horror in his voice chilled my blood.

Quick as I could, I retracted my teeth, and glided away from him another five feet, anxious he might spell me anyway. “Yes, I’m a vampire. I healed your wounds with my blood. And I’m going to knock over these cauldrons so you can teleport out of here.” I didn’t dare look at Donovan now, not directly into his eyes, but I turned my face so he understood I could still see him, watching him with my peripheral vision. “Julian knows what I am. Donovan, please—go to Teagan’s house. Find Julian and the other Ephraim. Tell them Teagan is here.” I lifted my chin toward the place where Teagan hung on the wall.

Donovan glanced at Teagan, gazing over the situation confronting him, taking in the revelation that I was undead along with the gruesome image of a skinned human being decorating the wall. Then Donovan faced me and said, “Your banshee is lost to you! She is gone! The vampire priestess has been wearing her skin, the living pelt of a skinwalker. Her night sorcery has made her a true doppelganger, an evil twin of your banshee—and she has one of your mages now, Ravi—the priestess of night rolled his mind!”

I’d suspected as much, when I found myself in my nightmare with the quicksilver, when the hideous truth began dawning on me—and yet to hear Donovan’s words broke my heart.

“She is a succubus!” Donovan said. “She used Teagan’s body to make love to the mage. He had no idea what she was, and he is hers now! Ravi is gone, and so is Teagan! The priestess will not let them go!”

“You don’t understand. It’s not hopeless yet. It can’t be.” My voice rose with the strength of my magic, refusing to accept his conclusion.

But Donovan understood all too well what was happening, and what this priestess of night had planned. “Ravi will conjure the gates into Xekkra for them! He will part the veil between worlds for their curse!” Donovan stalked toward me, his expression full of agony. “If you are Julian’s friend, then come with me! He would not want you to die here! If you are too weak to teleport, then you cannot remain in this temple! They will kill you! Dark spirit witch, these vampires will return soon, and they will destroy you!”

I knew he was right. And I did want to leave. Return to Julian, and the safety I’d find at his side.

But I couldn’t leave Teagan. No matter how badly I wanted to flee, escape from this coven and all of this horror, Teagan’s heart was still beating, and my blood might be able to save her. Only the spell of the priestess of night kept her heart beating now, an enchantment I might be able to break.

Julian would have to stop Ravi. The mages would have to summon a blaze to wipe out the priestess before she conjured the gates.

Maybe that meant I would die in this temple, burned along with the enemy. At least I would know I hadn’t left my teammate behind. I’d saved her life once from a demon. I wasn’t about to just leave her to die in a vampire nest.

So I ended my conversation with Donovan by turning away and creating the energy that would allow him to escape: I began kicking over each cauldron. Hundreds of gallons of boiled vinegar washed over the floor, spilling chunks of loose flesh and white bones.

The vinegar extinguished the fires, and the temple darkened with shadows, lit now only by the torches mounted up on the walls.

As the firelight vanished, thunder blasted the air, an almost deafening frenzy of wind, slamming against the walls and the ceiling, as vampire magic blistered the currents. The unspent energy of night sorcery raced from the iron, released from the hold of the spell, a wild storm of black helices that shot through the room.

The unleashed power smashed against me, savage and violent, like the mighty wrath of the priestess sweeping into the room, punishing me for throwing those bones on the floor and breaking the spell of her fire.

Donovan couldn’t see the vampire magic, but I knew he could sense the ravaging currents filling the air, feel their energy with the powerful fae magic that ran through his blood.

“Donovan, now!” I screamed, terrified he would wait, that the magic would dissipate, and leave him trapped here with me.

Donovan lifted his hands, glowed vibrant green for an instant—a beautiful sprite of the forest in a vampire temple—before he disappeared.

I cried with relief, staring after him for a moment, ecstatic my risky idea had actually worked.

Then I skittered through the boiled vinegar, sidestepping the bodies, the bones, the loose pieces of flesh, and ran to Teagan.

How long did I have before the vampires arrived?

Seconds?

Minutes?

But I had to try, didn’t I? To save Teagan before Julian and the other mages teleported into the temple. If they summoned a blaze the instant they arrived, and began to burn through the enchantments protecting this temple, the priestess of night would either roast in the light, or she would flee, and Teagan’s body would die.

Unless I could regrow her skin, and break her out of those chains and the spells of the priestess. If I could make sure Teagan was safe before the mages started the battle, she might live.

She’d need more than my blood though. Repairing her injuries wasn’t as simple as healing Donovan had been. Only a possession spell powerful enough to break the hold of the priestess could restore Teagan to life.

Master vampires often claimed human slaves, and that was what Teagan had become to the priestess: a slave bonded in magic. The only way to free Teagan was to steal her and claim her myself, and then shatter my own bonds as soon as I could.

Three feet from her body, I entered a sorcery shield: the energy of the priestess that kept Teagan’s heart beating. Like puncturing an icy layer of slime hovering in the air, the invisible shield wriggled against me like eels as I forced myself through.

“Spirit of night, Mother of death,” I opened my spell, my voice gaining strength as I summoned my power. “I honor you, call to you. Bless this blood that I give, bless this magic—”

I placed a hand against Teagan’s flayed brow, pushed her head toward the wall, to tilt back her mouth and straighten her throat. I didn’t dare pull off the wires tied round her teeth. I’d need to spell those away, or risk shattering bone and ripping out part of her throat.

I lifted my wrist to my mouth, and opened a gash in my skin. Blood welled, rich and crimson, as I pressed the wound against Teagan’s mouth. “Great Mother,” I called. “Dark Goddess of All. Heal this witch! Help her drink!”

My triskelions surged with power, reacting to the summoning spell, while vampire magic streamed from my body.

As my blood coated Teagan’s gums, splashed over her tongue, and pooled in the back of her mouth, she swallowed, and swallowed again. Goddess energy flowed over her body in a glittering blue, part healing spell, part possession, and a sudden odor of frankincense saturated the air.

“Sweet Mother,” I called to the Goddess. “Return this woman her strength, repair her terrible wounds, let her breathe on her own!”

Teagan twisted and writhed, until the wires holding open her mouth gleamed with white radiance, like a spider web brilliant with sunlight. I flinched, unsure if I’d be burned, but the metal filaments bent and melted like ice, a dribbling ichor that ran down her raw body and left nothing behind.

The more of my blood Teagan drank, the faster she healed. Flesh regrew where bleeding red muscle had been, skin bloomed like a carpet of moss spreading over her face. Hair sprouted into blonde ringlets from the top of her head. The black holes in her skull flashed with navy light, tiny sparks that widened and grew like grapes on a vine, swelling into two perfect eyes that filled her sockets again.

Then the pale, lifeless gaze in those eyes disappeared, replaced by the warm spirit of the teammate I knew. A banshee and witch who blinked at me as if she’d been asleep for a year, and didn’t know where she was, or why I was standing before her, covering her with vampire magic that smelled like perfume.

Teagan’s body seemed whole, but the priestess might still have an enchantment in her. A sorceress that powerful wouldn’t just give up her prize.

So I didn’t let go of my spell, and the force of the conjuring thrashed around me in battering waves. My Goddess marks vibrated and pulsed with a terrible force, scorching my skin.

“I claim this witch for myself!” I yelled, gripping Teagan’s healed face tight in my hands, searching for any trace of night sorcery left in her veins. “Her blood is mine now! Her body is mine! Mother, Great Mother, I honor you, worship you, hear my prayer!”

Dark Goddess energy careened through me, strong enough I almost burned Teagan—but I let her go before the searing heat in my hands could erupt. I grabbed her shackles instead, and ripped them out of the wall. As the entire contraption holding her broke, Teagan fell, and I caught her, leaping away from the crumbling stone as the bolts, screws and chains smashed over the floor.

I felt like a thousand millennia had passed as I stood gripping Teagan’s face in my hands, crying the words of my spell, but inside the stone walls of the temple, less than a minute ticked by.

As I put Teagan down, settling her onto her feet, I felt ill. Despite the heat in my palms, I was frigid, chilled as if I had frostbite, shivering with power, struggling to catch my breath.

Teagan pressed a hand to the wall, catching herself to keep from losing her balance. “Eloise! Where are we?”

Teagan turned to glance over the room, and as she caught sight of the bodies and bones on the floor, she screamed with the full force of a banshee, with a bloodcurdling shriek. The instant the sound hit me, I stumbled and tripped in a last gyre of energy, clawed at the wall to hold myself up, but then fell, smashing my face hard on the floor when I struck.

Thick purple smoke billowed up from my uniform, like I’d been lit on fire, and I tore off my tunic. I shook like someone electrocuted with high voltage shocks, while my temperature plummeted, leaving me ice. Lilac flames caught at my clothes, though my skin appeared fine—no burns, no damage, just the scars on my upper arms that were always there.

But that was a night sorcery fire cooking my clothes, the evil flames of a curse for breaking through that possession spell.

Teagan knelt and slapped at the flames in my clothing, putting the fires out.

“Oh God, oh God,” Teagan cried softly. “Please tell me we’re not here by ourselves!”

I was panting too hard to answer, just snatched up the fae charm and draped the thread over her, then shut my eyes and rested my head on the wall. Teagan wasn’t invisible yet, but I could trigger the charm in a minute, as soon as I had my strength back.

“Eloise, where’s Julian? Why are you all alone?”

“Coming,” I rasped. I sounded like I had ice crystals stuck in my throat. “I sent… someone.” I was too drained to say more. Exhausted and fighting a curse.

Teagan must’ve eyed all the corpses again, the large pile on the floor and the remains scattered around us, because she gripped my arms in a panic, and struggled to pull me onto my feet. “We have to get out of here! We’re inside a coven! Eloise, we’re in a vampire coven! Get up! Eloise, you have to get up!”

I whimpered like a dog when she jerked on my arms.

“Please, please!” she yelled. “We need to find the way out!”

Teagan was still trying to haul me onto my feet when something exploded behind her, a blast that rocked through the room.

I opened my eyes and clutched the fae charm again, chanted the words that would power the spell, and make Teagan invisible to the monsters—

But I was too sick. My hand dropped from the black thread in despair.

Teagan’s attention was elsewhere, directed toward the source of the noise.

“That’s not Julian!” she screamed. “Eloise!”

The temple turned black, vanished into an ether of empty space, complete shadow.

The vampires were here.

44

A frightening silence swept through the room with the darkness. The terrifying stillness of a nest of undead.

Followed by the soft rustle of footfalls like whispers, the patter of feet through the spilled vinegar. Squishing and splattering when the vampires walked over lumps of cooked flesh.

The quicksilver led them, and I turned in the darkness to see him grinning at me. Other vampires stood close, studying me with disdain. They wore heavy dark clothes and fur-lined cloaks, similar to the way the ancient dressed. Their magic brushed up against me like cold, probing fingers, sensing how weak I was. Easy prey.

I couldn’t tell how old or how powerful these vampires were, or even whether they were all aligned with the same coven. None looked familiar. I counted seven dark spirits, plus the ancient. They’d entered the temple through a door they’d exposed in the stone wall, a massive arched entryway that glowed with midnight blue flame.

Teagan had fallen silent, and when I glanced toward her again, she was gone. Invisible to my sight as well as my feeble magic.

She must’ve spelled the fae charm, summoned the enchantment with her own magic, which meant she might stay alive long enough for the mages to save her.

The quicksilver flashed his teeth at me, his savage face lit with an exquisite smile. “Little rat in a very small cage. And you think we’d let you run off with the cake.”

I straightened, jerked my smoking tunic back on, and lurched to my feet. My shoulder scraped the wall, holding me up, while I fumbled at my belt for a knife.

Behind the quicksilver, the giant head of a cobra pushed through the door. Her delicate snout was so large that her enormous round pupils were bigger than basketballs. The opened hood of her neck spanned over twelve feet. As she slid through the entryway and reared up behind him, her copper-red and black scales glimmered like jewels, vibrant and gleaming. Her body had the girth of a semi tire, a long looping length of muscular coil, covered in those shimmering scales. As the serpent streaked through the door, more than a hundred feet from her head to her tail, her tongue flickered, scenting me as she fixed me in her gaze.

The priestess of night.

Vampire sorceress.

Master to the quicksilver.

She opened her mouth a small fraction, enough to expose her long teeth, and I removed a fire knife from the sheath on my belt, squeezing the handle ferociously as I watched that flickering tongue.

The priestess of night was a shapeshifter. A true shifter. Either born that way as a human, or granted that gift by the Goddess, the priestess didn’t need a summoning spell to transform into a serpent at will. Her power right now radiated pure snake.

My debilitated magic told me she was far older than the quicksilver beside her—but I didn’t have the ability to date her age, other than a vague understanding that she possessed at least two millennia in her strength, and probably more than three.

The quicksilver continued to smile at me, and when he glanced up at the priestess, there was great love and tenderness in his gaze.

Her huge reptile face couldn’t smile, but her dark eyes shone with bright satisfaction—

And then she transformed.

Her mighty cobra body pulled in on itself, shrinking smaller and smaller, until the scales flashed inside out. No ichor, no surge of vampire magic; just the serpent morphing shape, twisting in a rich spasm of color, into the slender body of a woman standing tall, facing me—

As I blinked in astonishment, staring at her, I felt like I’d gazed into a mirror. We were so very similar. Same dark brown skin, same cheekbones and nose, same black brows.

If I’d had a sister, this priestess could be her.

She wore her ebony hair in thick braids. Her large, expressive eyes were lined in kohl, the heavy fringe of her lashes a perfect complement to her dark eyes. A glittering gold headdress framed her beautiful face, matching the warm yellow shade of her long gown. Her shoulders were bare, but the dress covered her legs, her feet clad in gold sandals.

She moved toward me with a vampire’s glide, with the smooth grace of an ancient dark spirit.

Long before she reached me, I felt her sorcerer’s guard, the invisible armor she wore against an attack.

No spell would touch her. I could cast twenty hexes, they’d do nothing. And if I lunged at her with my knife, she’d smash me into the floor.

So I remained as I was, though I didn’t lower my blade.

The priestess halted before me and glanced over my body, quirked a brow with a twitch of amusement, and then turned to the quicksilver. In a voice rich as fine wine, she spoke to him in a language I couldn’t name, other than to say I could tell what it wasn’t: not Arabic, not Hebrew, not Greek.

I’d never heard anything like the cadence of words shaped by her glossy lips. But the sounds reminded me of the Sumerian spells Julian used to conjure a gate.

Sanskrit, perhaps. By the style of dress the vampire wore, the shimmering fabric reminiscent of a Hindu goddess from the Rigveda, the priestess could have been born to an empire that once ruled the subcontinent.

The quicksilver responded to her in the same language she used, and then the priestess waved her hand once, casting green light, and relit the torches.

She lowered her arm, met my eyes, and said in perfect American English, “Sava tells me you’re waiting for the mages to save you.”

I tightened my grip on the knife. Told myself not to panic.

The priestess smiled, an expression so ethereal and lovely, she seemed more like the living divine than a dark spirit. Her voice remained gentle and soft. “Don’t you remember me? I’ve killed you so many times. Even Sava was alive the last time we fought.” The priestess shared a brief grin with Sava—the name she used for the quicksilver, which might or might not have been his real name—before she met my gaze again. “I’ve never watched you die as a vampire though. The Goddess amuses me with her antics. Putting you in that body. Giving you magic.”

The priestess wrinkled her nose in a friendly way, as if I had any clue what she was talking about. “You’re still a Saracen though. And a penniless orphan. As worthless as ever.”

Saracen was the medieval term for a Muslim.

And since I’d never seen this woman before, not even a picture of her in an Ephraim database or a history book, the priestess of night sounded like she was on drugs. She’d killed me before, and Sava had watched? Being undead for over three thousand years must have loosened her grip on reality.

But she continued to smile at me as if she made perfect sense. “What do you call yourself now? You chose another Arabic name? Assad, is it? You were a Khadija the last time I killed you. Little slave girl in Byzantium, working in the home of a priest. You tried to burn me with holy water.” The priestess gestured toward her face, and then blinked her eyes slowly, as if relishing an old memory. “I tore your heart out for that. Sava remembers,” and she placed a hand on his shoulder. “He fed on your corpse.” The priestess stroked her fingertips against Sava’s cheek, and he leaned into her touch like a kitten.

“Funny he never mentioned we were so well-acquainted before,” I said lightly, realizing I’d pegged Sava all wrong. He was still just a baby mess, not quite ready for the full-on trainwreck of his master.

As soon as I spoke, the priestess released him and slid closer to me. I didn’t dare meet her gaze, or she’d enchant me as fast as a mundane. I stared at her teeth.

“The magicians won’t be coming to save you,” she said. “I thought you would’ve learned that by now.”

The priestess raised a hand, flicked her fingers, and with a burst of silver in her palm, snakes poured from the walls.

Not giant cobras, but little ones, juveniles. Then the adults. Natural animals, not creations of magic. They slithered out of holes that appeared in the stone, and dropped to the floor in writhing heaps. Their scales were a wild mix of colors: grey, brown, black, creamy white, crimson, gold. All were asps. They twined along the floor round the priestess and her coven like eager children, streaming over each other, dark eyes flashing.

“You cut me once,” the priestess said to me. Her voice sounded harder now, the earlier gentleness stripped away. “You. A worthless beggar girl. That’s why I never grow tired of watching you die.”

With a strength and speed borne of age I’d never match, the priestess snatched the fire knife from my hand and plunged the blade through my palm. The excruciating pain of being stabbed with an Ephraim weapon almost made me fall, but if I collapsed onto a floor full of cobras, the vampire would have her animals eat me, tearing off tiny bites with their fangs until they’d shredded me into nothing.

I stayed on my feet, and clenched my bleeding hand in a fist. The wound burned with ferocity, damage I couldn’t heal without a significant increase in strength, but the gash wasn’t fatal.

The priestess hurled the knife into the writhing mass of snakes circling us, and my weapon disappeared into the twisting scales.

The tone of her words remained sharp. “No one ever grieves when you die. Your life has as much meaning as one of these useless snakes. Yet you keep trying to kill me. You even gave up your soul this time to destroy me.”

“Well, we all need a goal,” I said, going along with her story as I stared after my knife. I’d teleported into this temple with two knives on my belt, but Teagan must’ve taken the other one, because both sheaths on my belt were empty now. Mother of Night with me and my luck.

The priestess lifted a palm toward the door and cast a midnight blue hex through the opening.

After several long seconds, the warlock appeared.

Not the human I’d tracked to his base in the desert, and then hunted into the mountains.

This monster no longer screened his true nature from me. I could see him for what he was now: a master vampire, a bloodshade, a nestmate of this coven. A member of the bloodline of the priestess, dressed in a rich sable cloak. He walked into the temple dragging someone by the arm, the weight of an adult body as light as a twig in his vampire strength.

I stifled a scream when I saw Julian.

Unconscious.

His heart still beat faintly. He was breathing. But his weapons were gone, and he wasn’t about to wake up and fight.

Thirteen mavens entered the temple behind him, some vampire, some human. They wore heavy cloaks decorated with glittering runes, and their necklaces, rings, and bracelets were all carved obsidian, sacred color of the Dark Goddess.

I recognized eight of these women, remembering their faces from the summoning ritual at Ice Lake. No wonder I’d been so caught off guard, so unprepared when the warlock hadn’t taken a mouthful of blood before flinging the boy to the wraiths. A master vampire didn’t need nefsin magic to power that spell.

The bloodshade wasn’t as old as Sava though. The quicksilver outranked everyone but the priestess in strength and ability, though the bloodshade was certainly a terrifying specimen of monster.

After the briefest scan of my enemies entering the room, my focus returned to Julian, and his face smeared with blood.

The priestess tracked my gaze with a smile. “You were waiting for him to blaze us?” she asked, stepping away from me. “Or hoping he’d stab us with his sword? Even after we melted his weapon, and smashed both his wrists?” She studied my face with a giggle, as her bloodshade dumped Julian at her feet. “Maybe you left him a bagful of pixie dust? Or expected another army of tree roots to stop us?” The priestess shared a knowing smile with Sava, and the rest of her grinning coven, before she addressed me again. “For thousands of years, I have killed the Ephraim. No human mage has ever come close to my power. Yet you continue to crawl to them as if they could save you. Even as a vampire, you put your faith in these fools. Ignorant soldiers who call themselves sorcerers.”

The snakes remained circling the coven, though a few of the serpents cut through the center, and flashed over Julian’s legs. Urged to do so, no doubt, by their mistress, who nudged Julian’s neck with the toes of her sandal. “This one has the blood of the Jews in his veins. Even if he calls himself Pagan now.”

The priestess lifted her face and glanced around at her coven again, including the humans who were obviously hoping to become part of her bloodline. “In all my long life, and every place I have traveled, nothing has ever irritated me more than the Israelites.” The priestess returned her attention to me with a wide, gracious smile. “Well, except you, of course. A Saracen is certainly a lower form of vermin than a Jew.”

“Nice to know where I rate,” I said, wondering what she’d do to me if I hissed.

Snap her fingers at her snakes, and direct them to bite me? Tell Sava to pulverize me into the floor? Hit me with a death hex?

Whatever would happen, hissing wouldn’t help Julian. If I wanted to save him, antagonizing the priestess was too much of a risk.

As to the racist bigotry coming out of her mouth, and her personal animosity toward Julian, I had to admit I didn’t know whether Julian’s ancestors were Jewish or not. I did know he had an affinity for ancient Egyptian, Sumerian, and Hebrew symbols when he used magic. From the ankh necklace he’d woven as a young mage in training, to the incantations he chose to part the veil between worlds, to the jinn charm he’d used inside Teagan’s house, there was a strong possibility that the priestess understood Julian’s heritage in a way I did not.

There was also the fact that the Ephraim took their name from a son of Joseph, the Biblical patriarch who became an Egyptian vizier. One of the Tribes of Israel had even been named after this son. But the Source mages claimed they were also the children of jinn—that a sorceress of the beyond had brought the power of the Velci to them.

The loathing against Muslims and Jews expressed by this vampire definitely sounded like a hatred brewing over millennia, since no organization had ever been so successful fighting monsters as the Ephraim, an Order rooted somewhere in time with the Abrahamic religions.

She could say what she wanted about Julian, slaves, Muslims, and Jews. Before she cast her hex at the gates, I was going to kill her. I stared at her pretty face with the knowledge that she wouldn’t have it much longer.

She thought she was a bigger monster than me.

So did the quicksilver. And every other vampire in this room.

How wrong they all were.

The priestess kicked Julian’s arm, hard enough to shatter his elbow. I stifled another scream, but Julian didn’t move.

“Do you remember him, Sava?” the priestess asked. “We watched the Catholics kill him in Spain. When they drove the Sephardim out.”

Sephardim. The Jews of Spain. Julian had taught me that word. A group that had been one of the primary targets of the Spanish Inquisition.

So the priestess not only wanted to refer to me as a former slave girl in Byzantium, but view Julian as a persecuted Spanish Jew.

“This one burned alive as a witch,” she said sweetly, with her gaze still on Julian. Her next question was directed at me. “Would you like me to share the memory with you? You can watch him burn with me. I can even remember the sound of his screams—”

I shielded myself with a block with more concentration than I ever had in my life. No way was this monster pushing that kind of horror into my mind.

But she made no effort to follow through on her taunt. The priestess turned her attention to her coven, and with some unspoken signal, the vampires and humans lifted their hands and began casting a spell.

Only the priestess remained as she was, with Julian at her feet, arms at her sides, her face peering up at the ceiling with a beautiful smile.

A sudden flash like red lightning appeared in the arched dome overhead, eliminating the shadows, and consuming the stonework like flame burning paper. The roof of the temple melted away, scorched and seared by the energy of the coven’s terrible spell.

The fire spread down the walls, and as the temple was destroyed, the night sky appeared overhead, black and timeless, full of stars.

We stood on a field made of bones, a meadow of human skeletons cleaned of their flesh. The remains of the bodies the priestess had boiled in her cauldrons. Victims of the cult her bloodshade had overseen in the desert, people lured to their deaths by the promise of power. And surely some of the skeletons had been refugees on the move, people the priestess and her coven had murdered as they made their way into Senna. Her snakes slithered over the bones in a wide, teeming shadow, knocking the pieces together with a rumbling sound like a rockslide.

Ringing the field, their bodies twining and writhing in shadow and light, I counted ten giant wraiths. Serpentine creatures covered in poisonous spines, leaping and flashing over the ground. Luminous as moonstone in their slick silver skin. Their jaws snapped open and close, teeth long as javelins, shining like steel. I felt the wave of their hunger against me, as they waited for their mistress to release them, eager to race into the night.

Between the surging bodies of wraiths, ghouls darted and swerved, appearing small as coyotes beside the massive bodies of the wraiths. The bulging black eyes of the ghouls watched the coven, as enthralled by the priestess as the wraiths. They were all her creations, waiting to obey her command.

Only inches from the hungry roil of these creatures, Ravi stood at the edge of the field, dressed and ready for battle, staring toward the priestess.

She no longer looked like a vampire. She’d transformed herself into Teagan. Banshee and associate witch of the Ephraim. She wore an exquisite black gown with Teagan’s gold and crystal focusing charms, her curly blonde hair brushing the tops of her shoulders.

“Come, my love!” the priestess called out to Ravi, in Teagan’s voice. “We’ve caught a vampire for you to send into Xekkra.” The priestess turned, in Teagan’s body, to send me a charming smile, before she called to Ravi again. “Hurry, my love! She almost destroyed me! I’m afraid I can’t hold her much longer!”

Ravi strode toward us, his eyes as unseeing as Julian’s. At this moment, Ravi was as lost to conscious thought as a person could be.

He will part the veil between worlds for their curse, Donovan had said.

But there was one significant problem with this elaborate plan. One the priestess had failed to consider.

I bowed my head, closed my eyes, and willed myself into the shadowy forest, the place inside Julian he called his orenda.

Like placing a hand on the ground and sinking into a grave.

Julian let me in.

45

He stood waiting for me beneath the trees, in what I recognized now as a forest older than time. A place so rich with element my body thrummed with the power rising out of the earth.

Both of us barefoot, wearing our ridiculous swimsuits again, I cleared the distance between us in seconds. Julian embraced me and pressed his cheek to my brow, his warm body a shelter, his rich blood and his pulse a sweet song in my skin.

He knew why I had come.

Knew what I planned to do.

Whether the Velci forgave him or not, Julian’s body would survive. Nothing I took from him now would destroy him.

Julian the man would live through this.

Julian the mage though… might never return.

That was what I wanted to believe. The truth I chose for myself, inside his orenda: that the only thing I might take from Julian was his magic, and maybe not even that. Maybe he would heal, and be forgiven, and continue on as before.

The other possibility was that I’d kill us both. Destroy myself, and ruin him too.

But we had run out of options, and if I did nothing, then we were both dead.

My voice hitched, though I spoke clearly enough. “The priestess won’t burn. She’ll save herself from the flames.” I hugged Julian closer with a violent despair, hard enough I probably hurt him. “Drink her blood, after. Drink it all.”

He didn’t respond. Didn’t promise me he would do this.

Julian kissed the top of my brow. Tender and soft. Then he reached for my hand, his expression calm, unafraid, as he nestled my palm on his chest, right over his heart.

I needed no words for my spell. The intention to seize hold of him was enough.

This time, when Julian’s torso cracked and ripped open, exposing the radiance of his power, the surging rays of his frequency, his life energy—it was my hand that broke him apart. My vampire grip reached into his soul to take what I needed.

The Goddess mark in my palm came alive. Energy spiraled from my skin in a magnificent rush, electric and screaming, a wind of coursing power from the Mother of Night.

I pushed my hand deeper into Julian’s chest, until the energy in my palm latched onto what I had come for, like the savage jaws of a dragon latching onto a star. A nebula of plasma and heat, white energy, pure sound, and the dark fragile terror riven into the center.

I drew this power from Julian: his energy. His soul. A vibrant brilliance from the source of his life, wreathed in magic, in the ancient frequency that rose and fell with his breath, pulsed in the current that made his heart beat.

Shaped like a pentagram, a spiraling blossom of light—

Which I turned in my hand. A flower of heaven. A young star.

Held now in the teeth of my hex.

Julian fell to his knees, collapsed to the ground like a husk, as I smashed his radiant power against my own chest. Taking his energy into myself. Devouring a piece of his soul as my own.

Power like a supernova slammed through me.

Power so strong, I should have exploded.

But I stood on the field of bones once again, no longer in Julian’s shadowland. I’d left his orenda, and was once again in the midst of the coven, beneath a black sky full of stars. Watching as Ravi came to stand by the priestess.

He held up his hands over Julian’s body, and began chanting the words to summon a gate.

The priestess believed she’d left nothing to chance. Her coven stood ready to help her conjure the hex. The bones to power the curse were all ready. The guardians at the gate would find a healthy mage at the door with an injured teammate and a captured vampire. A dark spirit ready to be sentenced to a life in the beyond.

She’d ruined one of my palms with a fire knife, but the wound healed the instant I absorbed Julian’s power.

I opened my hands, aimed the spirals of my Goddess marks toward the bones at my feet.

And gave voice to my spell.

The priestess and her coven paid no attention. To them, I was nothing. I was dead. About to be slain with the angels and jinn.

The mist rose around Ravi as he summoned the guardians.

But my magic was faster. I wasn’t bespelled, fighting through a haze of confusion. I knew exactly what I was doing, and my gaze remained fixed on the priestess with each word.

Mother of death,

Goddess of power,

I bring you the soul of a mage

Taken this hour.

Claim this gift with your might,

Trade his life for your fire.

Bring me ruin,

Seed my hate,

With the blaze of your ire.

The ground rippled.

The air split.

And then white Goddess flame shot from the earth.

Like the unholy union of power that had destroyed the quicksilver’s conjuring, this fire was unhinged night magic, Source energy fused with vampire sorcery, channeled through the force of my will.

The priestess had intended the meadow of bones to be used for her spell.

I burned them as fuel for my hex.

The flames rose like geysers, with the pressure and speed of erupting volcanoes. The fire lashed toward the stars, so high the night sky disappeared, blotted out by the holocaust I’d unleashed.

Deep purples and blues tinged the flames. Searing pinks, streaks of yellow. The fire roared like a bomb blast, the world torn asunder.

The vampires screamed as they burned. Their pain fed my power, my flames.

The Goddess fire had been made with Source energy, so the flames could only burn the dark spirits.

Though the priestess was in no danger of roasting. Her sorcerer’s guard had been incinerated in the fire, but she’d managed to cast another. Her quicksilver had not been so lucky. Sava lay burning, screaming, his vampire body slowly turning to ash. The priestess was desperate to save him. She knelt beside Sava, cradling him in her arms, trying to spell back my flames with her powerful magic.

The humans in the coven all ran. They sprinted over the meadow as the wraiths and ghouls exploded with fire, splintering the air with hot wind. Beneath those huge burning bodies, the snakes tried to scatter, and some slithered away, but many of them cooked in the fire, writhing in heaps as they melted. The mavens avoided that fate, but still shrieked as their skin blistered with heat, trying to run past the bonfire and escape with their lives.

My focus remained on the priestess, and my teammates.

Teagan must’ve stayed close to me the whole time, probably hovering in the air with her banshee strength. She no longer wore the fae charm, nor was she flying. She sat on the ground next to Ravi, who’d collapsed beside Julian. As Teagan clutched Ravi in her arms, she added her bloodcurdling banshee wails to the noise all around us. Maybe Teagan didn’t fully comprehend that the flames couldn’t hurt her, or maybe those screams were for Ravi, who might never wake up from the sorcerer’s kiss. No one would know until the priestess was dead, whether his mind had been destroyed when she rolled him.

Vix had also appeared. She must’ve been hiding in Julian’s tunic, huddled against him when he was dragged into the temple. She stood on his shoulder now, watching me with an expression that was worried and drawn, resigned to what I had done. What I was still doing.

The earth shuddered, quaked with power and heat, as I bolted to Teagan and snatched up the knife she’d removed from my belt. My muscles flexed with incredible power and speed, my strength in a supercharged state from the Source energy coursing through me. I wouldn’t retain that level of power forever, but I could use it right now to hold my own in a fight.

I turned to Vix, who still stood atop Julian.

“Make him drink the blood,” I said. “You have to save him for me.”

She nodded once, solemnly, before I dove for the priestess. Leapt for her with my knife.

The priestess began to transform: her skin flashed with the power she needed to change into the giant snake body that could easily kill me.

But I was too fast.

I slammed against her, knocked her onto the ground before she could shapeshift, and slashed at her with the knife. Her sorcerer’s guard meant I couldn’t damage her with my magic, but I cut her again and again, trying to wedge the blade in her throat so I could tear off her head. She was stronger and faster, but I was far more used to hardscrabble battles, accustomed to being outclassed, and each time I threw off her aim, I kept her from killing me with a hex. The priestess might be an ancient, but the fire knife still hurt with raw torture when the blade sliced her open: her hands, her right arm, her left leg, and her gut. No magical guard could stop an Ephraim weapon, and my focus to kill her was a terrible power, compensating for everything else that I lacked.

The priestess screeched, chanted spells that I ruined, bit at me with her teeth. Each time she sank her fangs in, I stabbed her again. Over and over, I jammed the blade through her ribs. I wanted her heart, wanted the muscle to burn with her quicksilver, heaped on his pyre.

She envenomed me with her poison, but the toxin didn’t damage my body. Whether it was Julian’s soul or his frequency, or the residual effect of the Goddess fire I’d cast, no matter how many times the priestess scratched me and bit me, infecting me with her venom, I didn’t collapse, didn’t even pause in the fight.

Vix flew around us, snapping her wings and yelling my name, and I managed to pin down the priestess long enough for Vix to slime her.

Bright pink slime that melted corpse skin like acid. Not a fatal injury, and certainly repairable. Pixie slime on a vampire couldn’t do permanent damage.

But Vix slimed the priestess right in her eyes, right where the burn would hurt her the worst.

How long had it been since anyone had hurt this vampire so much? Long enough she’d forgotten how to recover from the agony of having her eyeballs cooked out. The priestess reacted to the slime with a shriek, and lifted her arm to smear the pixie acid away.

That was when I jammed my knife in her neck, and cut off her head.

She died clawing my face. Shredding my skin with her nails.

Vix brought me Ravi’s gilded ash stake from his belt, and I placed the sharp tip on the chest of the priestess. Using the hilt of my fire knife, I hammered the stake through her heart.

I threw the severed head from her body, as far as I could, and by the time I started to drag her corpse toward Julian, the jinn had arrived. Three jinn and two angels. Armored and silent, holding scepters, watching me. A phalanx of sorcery backlit by white flame.

I didn’t get to say goodbye.

One moment, I stood on the havoc I’d wreaked, amidst the smoking bodies and bones.

Then I was no more. Gone from earth.

Inside the beyond.

What was the sentence for taking a soul? For using Source energy to summon a Goddess inferno?

A lifetime of penance.

And I was immortal.

46

I expected a prison cell.

Or at least a tribunal.

A formal court of the angels and jinn in the mists of Source energy. Or perhaps the terror and might of the Velci themselves. Goddess knew how much the rulers of the beyond scared me, with their power to eliminate the undead.

But if they held a trial, I wasn’t aware of being in court.

I had a vague sense of travel, a feeling of wind and current and the passage of time, a long journey through darkness broken by moments of light.

The beyond felt like a place where the mind rolled in an endless abyss, a tiny wave in a sea, joined but distinct, energy that moved with inanimate form.

An eternity seemed to pass. Then another.

I had no direct sense of my physical body. I was a formless piece of a whole, roving through power and time. And if I paused long enough to merge with my body, I had no recollection afterward.

A land of unremembered dreams. That was how I experienced the beyond.

Space-time isn’t fixed, Julian had said. Especially not within the metīrī. Energy isn’t always linked to our bodies.

When I found myself in my body again, and opened my eyes, that memory was the first to return to me. Julian trying to explain the world of the Velci. It felt like remembering another lifetime I had lived, on some distant planet in an unidentified galaxy. My conscious mind was an alien landscape, and I struggled to readjust to a familiar pattern of thought as well as my physical body.

I sat up slowly. My skin felt tender, my senses acute.

My mind felt quiet and still. Like a deep meditation I struggled to leave.

I rubbed my eyes as I took in my surroundings, and discovered I was in a stone room. About ten feet square, with a high ceiling and no windows or doors, lit with dozens of candles perched on slender rock shelves. Ancient runes had been carved in the walls. Spirals and moons, triquetras, ankhs, stars and triskelions, pentacles, symbols interwoven with beautiful fae calligraphy, a script that reminded me of Arabic. Someone had painted a huge dragon over one of the walls. Black-scaled, breathing fire, the paint enchanted to shimmer like something alive.

I stared at the dragon a long time, as entranced by the artwork as if I’d been bespelled.

Only the wild elven tribes ever rode dragons, and the majority of dragons and their riders had been slaughtered during the Crusades. So I was sure the calligraphy must belong to an ancient elf language, older than the ankhs etched into the stone.

Then I spotted an ancient fae symbol I recognized: the pictograph ward for a vampire. I’d seen this emblem on the cover of several books about monsters over the years. A frightening devil eye with slash marks, symbolizing the night vision of vampires, fang wounds, and death.

I counted ten of those pictographs on the wall with the dragon, and the sight of them gave me pause. Vampires liked to feed on the fae, and the tribes of warrior elves were their favorite.

So why had I awoken in an ancient elf temple full of wards?

Was I even in the beyond, or had the guardians thrown me into some other dimension? Some place where I’d face death by dragon?

Or was this my prison cell? A doorless, windowless room carved with the symbols of blood magic?

I stood and cast a questing spell toward the walls, trying to sense an exit hidden in the stone. But my magic felt weakened, either hindered by the wards or some other enchantment.

“Hello?” I cried, staring up at the runes on the ceiling. “Can anyone hear me?”

My voice reverberated through the room. The wards trapped the sound.

I yelled, “Where am I? Is this my prison? Are you feeding me to a dragon?

I did not want to be flame-roasted and swallowed. Mother of Night.

But no one answered my questions, and nothing changed. The eyes of the wards seemed to stare at me in silent accusation.

Then a door appeared in the far wall, a dark opening with rounded corners—

And Julian ran into the room.

As he halted before me, grinning with an expression of relief, my heart seized.

He wore his Ephraim uniform, and so did I, though neither of us had any weapons. Julian’s body was clean, uninjured, faintly gleaming with magic. His dark eyes were bright and inquisitive, a smile warm as the summer sun on his face.

I didn’t cry out his name, but I threw myself at him, wrapped my arms around his shoulders and pressed my brow to his neck, grabbing him like a lion attacking a gazelle, though I wasn’t trying to fang him.

Julian hugged me close, his voice soft. “Hi.”

“Hi.” Relief stormed through my body, overwhelming.

“It took me so long to find you,” he said. “I was starting to worry.”

“Please be real, please be real,” I whispered, terrified I was trapped in a dream, or a void, or some useless hallucination. “Julian, are you real?” I felt his steady pulse, his warm blood, his Source energy, familiar and strong. I drew away from him to look up at his face, remembering the last time I’d seen him, lying unconscious and broken.

“I’m real,” he said. “And so are you. We’re inside the beyond—”

As he spoke, I ran my hands over his arms, checking to make sure his shattered elbow had healed, that his wrists were whole and perfect again. Everything felt okay, all his fractures were gone. And his body possessed the vibrancy and life energy of a real living person, not my imagination in overdrive. He felt healthy and powerful, restored to full strength. “You don’t feel like a dream. I can even follow the lines of your energy, deep in your blood. That only happens when I’m awake.” He had to be real. There was no other way to explain what I felt. “Are we trapped here? Do I have to stand trial?”

Julian laughed and gripped my hands. “You did, Isa. It’s finished.”

I shook my head. “I wasn’t on trial—I don’t even know where I was. Outer space. For millions of years. There was no court of the Velci—not even guardians. I just floated around in the dark.”

Julian smiled so wide, his eyes crinkled at the corners. “That was the tribunal. A jinn read your mind, made a report to the court, and the Velci chose to release you.”

I shook my head again, horrified. “Julian—no! A jinn read my mind? That means they saw everything—they saw terrible things! Julian, this is—” I winced, grappling with the bitter truth. “They could never release me if they read my mind!”

I’d entered Julian’s shadowland like a succubus. I’d torn his chest open, seized part of his soul, and then summoned a Goddess fire tendered with human bones.

How could the Velci have witnessed all this—and then chosen not to imprison me?

The answer hit me with a new wave of terror.

“Julian—did they blame you instead? Are you trapped here forever?” I embraced him with desperation. “I’ll stay here, if you are—I won’t leave you in the beyond—”

“But they didn’t take me this time,” and he hugged me again. “I conjured a gate to come find you. Eloise, you’ve only been in Xekkra three days.”

“What?” I eased my hold on him, and pressed a hand to my face to cover my eyes, aware my skin suddenly felt too hot with nerves, with anxiety, with shock. “Is everyone all right? Did Ravi wake up? Did Donovan make it out?”

“Right after the guardians took you, Ravi did open his eyes, but he’s still very sick. I think Vix saved his life. She took some of the blood from the priestess, and filled the droplets with pixie dust before she fed them to him. Like watching her spoon opals down his throat. He’s still so weak, he’s been bedridden, but each day that goes by, he stays awake longer. I’ve kept him in a room at the base. Teagan is almost always with him.”

“And Donovan?” I asked.

“He was captured outside Teagan’s house. But the rest of the team killed the vampires who caught him, hit them with a blaze, and kept him from ending up back in the temple. After your fire burned out, we tracked down the mavens who fled, turned them over to the Velci. Finn and Chelsea removed the last of the enchantments left on the field, and all the wards inside Teagan’s house. We gave our reports to the magi, filed the paperwork on the battle, started identifying the remains of the bodies left behind in the temple. Everything’s almost back to normal, except for Ravi still being so ill, and you being here, and the fact that Donovan is refusing to leave headquarters until you return. He and Rian and a dozen other wild fae are camped out in my office, conjuring gates so they can complain to the guardians.”

I gave a weak, breathy laugh. “Complain to the guardians? Why?

“For taking you to stand trial. They didn’t want you to face a tribunal at all.”

I scoffed. “Well, they obviously have no idea what I’ve done—”

“Killed a very old vampire,” Julian said. “As well as every undead in her coven. Not to mention a bunch of wraiths and ghouls. You saved the base. Saved everyone else inside Senna, who probably would have been slaughtered. You kept a death hex from hitting the gates into the beyond. Kept the veil between worlds from being destroyed. I’d say the fae understand very well what you’ve done.”

Julian placed his hands on my shoulders, his grip full of warm reassurance. “The Velci don’t repay saviors by trapping them in their world. You’re free to leave, Isa. I just had to find you, so you can teleport home. The guardians don’t want me to take you through a gate. They’re concerned about the two of us crossing the veil together now, given what’s happened, and the blending of magic between us. So Vix said once I found you, she wanted to teleport you home. Then she threw a coffee bean at my head and threatened to spell my hair pink if I asked anyone else. She actually traveled here twice, trying to find you herself, but it’s easy to get lost in the mist, or lose yourself in a dream, and Vix decided to wait until she had a location before she came back.”

As relieved as I was to know I was free, and despite how much I wanted to grin picturing Vix throwing coffee beans, as soon as Julian said the word home, I envisioned returning to my normal life, and my face fell as a different thought struck me. “Donovan knows what I am now. I showed him my teeth. What if he told the other fae, and then—”

My cover as an associate witch had been blown.

No more fighting with Julian on his team. I’d have to hide as a true monster now, trying to survive as a rogue.

“He did tell his partner, Rian,” Julian said. “But then they gave me their word in their blood, in the name of their queen as well as their goddess, that they wouldn’t tell anyone else.”

Which was an incredibly powerful oath for the Unseelie to take. Breaking a promise sworn in blood magic would do irreparable damage to their casting abilities, eliminating their conjuring power in one severe blow, much like felling a tall tree. New shoots might burst from the stump, but the process of regrowing a tree took decades, and might not resume the same level of strength. Fae only swore oaths in blood magic for matters of life and death.

Julian gave a mischievous smile. “Besides, Vix made it clear she’d spell them both into humans if they open their mouths.”

“Vix can’t spell fae into humans. She’s not old enough.”

Julian shrugged. “Donovan and Rian don’t know that. As far as they’re concerned, Vix represents a fate worse than death.”

“Goddess. If they think her threats are that bad, they should try living with her.”

Julian laughed. “Poor Vix. She’s been miserable without you. We have a new witch in training, that young woman, Nalin. I told her she could stay at the base until we have a greenhouse room for her, and she keeps asking when you’re coming back. About once an hour, she brings up your name. But she also keeps asking questions about vampires in general, how often they feed and where they sleep, whatever pops into her head. And she keeps bringing up that TV show Slayers of Doom. Which makes Vix apoplectic—I’ve never seen her this bad. Every time Nalin asks a new question, Vix screeches like a barn owl and tears around all berserk. Though anytime I ask her to calm down, she just tells me to shut it or she’ll force-feed me more blood.”

I lowered my head, remembering how I’d dragged the corpse of the priestess over to Julian. “That’s actually my fault. I told her to give you all that vampire blood.”

Julian grinned. “Oh, I know. She gave me a complete play-by-play of your fight. And she told me you wanted me healed. Though I wouldn’t have survived long enough to drink anything without your energy. The part of your magic that’s inside my own now.”

The part of his soul that held the Dark Goddess, the magic of the undead that tinged his Source energy. He had greater power to conjure, and to heal, or he wouldn’t have survived losing so much of his essential life force.

I’d told myself Julian had enough of my regenerative strength to survive what I took from him.

But the truth was, I could have been wrong. I might’ve destroyed him in order to summon that fire, and the thought enveloped me in sadness.

I turned to hide my face from him, but Julian leaned forward to stop me, and kissed my cheek. “I’m grateful, Isa. That you knew what to do. There’s no flinching in you when you fight. That coven would’ve wiped us all out if you hadn’t taken my power. I’d never regret ending my life to save you, or the Order. I hope you know that.” Julian placed a second kiss on my brow, and with his body so close, I inhaled the sweet smell of his skin. The delicate aroma of cedar and wild fern. A forest scent from a daydream, a fae song, a hymn for the Goddess.

The brush of Julian’s lips sent a bloom of heat through my body, and the fierce pull of yearning that tore through my skin was far too strong a reaction to such a chaste touch. My heart raced like he’d planted that kiss on my mouth. Like we were standing in a bedroom rather than some elven temple.

Julian tipped his head with a solemn expression, and dropped his gaze to the floor. “Lilith and I had a talk. About you and me. Her and Ben. Then I packed up my things and moved out.”

Julian lifted his face to stare at the wall, pulling in a deep breath before he continued. “She’ll probably always feel like I betrayed her. Because I did love you, Eloise, while Lilith and I were engaged, and I did break my promises.” Julian ran a hand through his hair. “I don’t know if she’s really happy with Ben. She seems to be. She seems to love him.” Julian nodded to himself, his face pensive. “He can give her everything that I can’t.”

I stared at Julian’s hands, at the shape of his knuckles, the pretty brown of his skin, the square corners of his nails.

I tried to comprehend what he’d said, but all I seemed able to understand at the moment was how much I wanted his hands on my body.

If I tried to kiss him, would the Velci punish us? Trap us here forever, apart? My desire for Julian was no less than it ever was, but I didn’t want to stay in the beyond. I certainly didn’t want to be separated from him.

Except I responded to what he’d said by stepping closer. My body felt radiant with desire, my emotions almost too difficult to screen with a block.

Julian smiled again, still gazing at the wall with the dragon, and I realized the room had grown dimmer. Candles were blowing out one by one.

The air shimmered with magic, with primordial energy, the Source power of Xekkra.

“Are you going back now?” I asked. “To get Vix?” Perhaps the vanishing light meant he was conjuring a gate.

“No, I was…” Julian’s heartbeat strengthened and pounded faster, sending a hot swirl of magic like a warm breeze through the room. Five more candles blew out. “I was thinking about how much I want to kiss you.”

A smile lit my face, and my teeth extended a bit. Not because I wanted to bite him, but my screen was starting to slip, letting my emotions break through. I wasn’t being a very good bloodshade right now.

Candle flames kept winking out.

Julian’s fault. Somehow, I understood those candles shouldn’t be snuffed, and he knew that too. But he was being reckless. We both were. But only his magic was strong enough in this room to extinguish those lights.

The two pentacles in his palms flared, glowed brilliant blue, and as I studied the hungry light in his eyes, I realized Julian’s conjuring energy and his desire must be intertwined, braided together within his life force, the same way my blood cravings and lust ran in tandem with my vampire magic.

To hell with the rules. And the Velci. I’d taken part of Julian’s soul. I could damn well steal a kiss.

I gripped the front of his tunic, and pulled him toward me.

Julian seized me up in his arms, and the instant his lips touched mine, the room vanished. Not only the light, but the stone walls, the ceiling. Disappeared.

We didn’t let go, didn’t care about anything else but each other.

Julian’s body remained pressed against mine, and we kissed with intensity, the pleasure so violent and strong, I almost bit him in frenzy. My desire transformed into need.

The taste of Julian’s mouth consumed me with hunger, and the ferocity of his own wanting mirrored mine. He might not suffer an urge to fang me, but his mouth was no less intent to devour me. I felt each place where my body touched his, felt the hot friction of my skin in my clothes, my nerves coursing with heat in the melting force of our kiss.

His magic rippled and flowed into mine, our combined energy warping the air like water, casting deep blues and purples, silvery greens and white pearls. Magnificent colors that shivered around us in sinuous streams, buckling and twining in elaborate patterns, an aurora of power.

Our clothing changed, too. Both uniforms transformed into fabric made with gossamer light, Source energy spun into physical shapes, iridescent and radiant. Julian now wore an elegant tunic and pants, like something a fae prince would wear, and I had on an elaborate gown, one that left my shoulders bare and exposed the scars on my arms.

Julian cupped my face in his hands and paused to smile, his gaze never shifting from my mouth or my eyes, but I could tell he wanted to make sure I noticed the light in the darkness around us.

I grinned with a happy sigh, and then kissed him again, too thrilled by the caress of his mouth to give a damn about whatever we had done to the temple, our clothes, or the light show we’d made.

I pushed against Julian with the length of my body, wanting so much more than a kiss, aching for him with all the years of my longing. He made a low, raspy growl as his arms came around me again. When he ran his tongue beneath the tips of my teeth, as if daring me to kiss him with my fangs, my excitement made me frantic, and sent a wind through the room in a cyclone, spinning through shadows and twisting the energy flaring around us.

He responded by wrapping one of his hands in my hair, twisting a heavy lock around his palm like a thick piece of rope, pressing my body even harder against him. I slid a hand across his shoulder and caught a fistful of his curls, tugging the silky loops with my fingers as he moved his mouth from my lips to my neck. Our magic bent the aurora with a spiraling quake, a pulse that would’ve cracked open the stone walls, had they not disappeared. We remained bound up together, with his mouth on my skin—

Then a flash of brilliant light struck like a blow. I lifted my hands to protect myself with a shield, and turned from Julian the instant an armored jinn arrived, scepter in hand. The same fearsome jinn I’d seen before, after Julian killed the witch in the mountains. Maybe this sorceress had also helped to collect me from the meadow of bones.

She’d come to take Julian this time. To keep him forever.

I stepped in front of him, ready to block her if she tried grabbing him, and bared my teeth with a hiss. A sound that came with a rumble, savage and monstrous, as I glared up at her mask, where her eyes would have been if she weren’t made of fire.

47

“Eloise—no!” and Julian seized my wrists, ruining my aim. Even though he stopped me from casting a spell, my magic still splintered the jinn’s light, like turning a dimmer switch to a much lower setting. Julian let me go.

I stopped hissing, but my voice rose with fury, addressing Julian without taking my eyes from the jinn. “Why is she here? To take you to prison? For a kiss? She wants to throw you in jail for a kiss?”

“No, this isn’t a punishment—”

The jinn tipped her head toward me, and I raised my hands to conjure again, but Julian placed his body in front of my palms. He spoke to the jinn in Sumerian, his words calm and firm. She reacted to whatever he said by picking up her scepter, lowering the casting end toward the ground, and taking a step back.

I hissed at her again, before I retracted my fangs and glowered at Julian.

“Eloise.” He nudged his brow against mine. “She’s here because we’re warping her energy fields. In the district of Xekkra she watches over. And the Velci still don’t know what to do about us. Whether they’re going to permit this or not. Me and you. You’re making them nervous.”

“Good.”

Julian laughed, and I noticed the elf temple had been completely transformed. Instead of walls made of stone, the structure surrounding us was now built with lavender crystal, etched with geometric designs, and the room had grown ten times larger. No more runes, no more wards. The remaining light made the translucent barrier sparkle and shimmer like mica, and we stood on thick green grass.

Trippy.

Julian smiled. “You see what we did?”

I shrugged.

“Guardians wield that power. Not mages—”

I understood now what was at stake for the Velci. The consequences of breaking the law, and corrupting Source power with vampire magic. “We’re as dangerous as the jinn here. And the angels. If we can warp fields of Source energy, what else can we do?”

Julian glanced at my mouth as he grinned, and I could tell he wanted to kiss me again. “No one knows.”

“Which is why we can’t teleport out of here together.”

Julian quirked a brow and tipped his head, to let me know I’d summed up the problem just fine.

I nodded toward the jinn. “She understands English, right?”

“Yes. She couldn’t read my mind otherwise. Her favorite tongue is Sumerian though. She’s fond of that epoch.”

“How do you know that?”

Julian smiled again. “Maybe she just finds me charming.”

“Maybe she has a prison cell with your name on it.”

Julian laughed again. “She came to escort me back to earth. To make sure I return to headquarters without causing any more problems. As soon as I’m at the base, I’ll tell Vix where to find you, and she’ll come to portal you home.”

Because Vix had thrown a coffee bean at his head, and threatened him with pink hair if he sent anyone else.

Mother of Night. I should’ve realized why Vix had made that demand. If Julian had to abandon me in the beyond, and only Vix could teleport me home, she could hold me hostage until I paid whatever ransom she wanted.

Freaking pixies. Worse than living with a damn demon.

Julian turned to the jinn, said something in Sumerian, and she lifted her scepter, raised the casting end toward the ceiling, and a spell shuddered through the room like an incoming tide. The crystal walls bubbled and writhed, the grass folded and browned, the entire structure surrounding us seemed to turn inside out, and an instant later, we were in the elf temple again, dragon painting and all.

Though Julian and I remained in our strange energy clothes, my magic withered and weakened in the strength of the vampire wards. I glanced from the stone walls to the jinn. “You want me to trust her, and she’s trapped me again.”

Julian kissed my brow, which made the air glimmer. “She’s just repairing the temple. Fixing what our magic transformed.”

“And what happens on earth? Are we going to be forbidden to have any contact?”

“The Velci said I can kiss you on earth without breaking the law. But there’s too much Source energy here for us to control if we’re… distracting each other. Like wiping out this old temple, and turning it into a sylph atrium. The Velci don’t think we’ll be capable of magic like that outside Xekkra.”

“And what if they’re wrong?” I gave another cutting look to the jinn. “What if we kiss on earth, and transform a building again? Will they haul you to jail?”

“No. They’ll expect us to exercise more control, and clean up our mess.”

I shook my head. “Who needs control when I can bespell you, make you my blood slave, and feed on you every night? That jinn is staring at me like she’s already figured out my whole master plan.”

“You’re so romantic, Eloise.”

I smiled with my fangs.

Julian returned my grin, except his was genuine, and he dared to hug me again. “I promise I’m not going to jail.”

“And I have some Dark Goddess holy water I think you should buy, one sip and you’ll live forever—”

Julian placed his hand on my neck, a teasing expression dancing over his features. He ran his thumb along my skin, a touch that was rough and erotic, pressing into the muscle, and then grazing my jaw. I liked it so much that I shivered.

Iridescent spirals of magic rose into the air, made his curls flutter softly, and his palms were still gleaming. My gaze drifted from his mouth to his throat, and back to his lips.

I pulled away, and crossed my arms as Julian walked to the jinn. A door appeared in the wall behind her, an open passageway to exit the room, and Julian followed her out. He paused at the threshold and blew me a kiss, with a devilish glint in his eyes, like he ought to have horns and a tail to go with those pentacles in his hands. Then the doorway sealed over, returned to solid stone in a flash, and they were gone.

After several minutes of pacing, Vix arrived, spotted me and burst into laughter. She flew several erratic loops above my head, and coated me with pixie dust. Glittering pink and gold. I looked like a Barbie doll.

“Why are you laughing?”

Vix made a high-pitched zinging noise without words.

“Did Julian get back to base?”

More laughter. Bubbling, giddy, unhinged giggles. Vix circled faster and faster, spraying more glitter.

“Vix. Seriously. I’m gonna fang you if you don’t knock it off.”

Vix sobered, hovered near my nose, and shook a no-nonsense finger at me. “You can’t threaten to fang me! I refuse to put up with that kind of abuse!”

“Then stop acting like you’re drunk and answer my question.”

Vix tossed her head like a valley girl. “How would I even be here right now, if Julian hadn’t made it back to base?”

“Then can we hurry up and get out of here, please? Because this is some kind of vampire prison, in case you hadn’t noticed, and I’d like to return to my life.”

Vix poofed another cloud of her dust, which rained onto the top of my head in bright sparkles. “If you want my help, you’ll have to pay up. I’m not busting you out of here for free.”

I groaned and held my breath, waiting for her to name the amount.

“I want ten honey buns. And fifteen chocolate strawberries.”

Which was going to bankrupt me. Between an Ephraim salary and the cost of rent in Senna, I lived on the edge of insolvency, and Vix’s insatiable appetite for honey buns didn’t help.

“Goddess,” I muttered. “What do you want me to do, turn to a life of crime? How am I supposed to pay for all that?”

Vix threw up her hands. “Like you can’t bespell everyone in the bakery!”

“I’m not stealing honey buns!”

“It’s like layaway,” Vix said. “You fetch me the yummies, and then pay when you can. I don’t see the problem here.”

“Uh, the problem is no one puts chocolate strawberries on layaway. Or honey buns. The human world does not work like that.”

Vix huffed, placed her hands on her hips, and squinted at me. “Well how many honey buns can you buy?”

“Depends if you want those strawberries or not.”

Vix rubbed her chin as she pondered. “I’d rather just have the honey buns.”

“Then I have enough for seven. And you’re tanking my bank account. I hope you understand that.”

Vix gave a loud tsk. “Whine, whine, whine. I saved you from an ancient—I fought a priestess for you! But now you don’t even want to put food in my belly!”

“Because I have rent to pay!” And it wasn’t like I made Vix starve. She always had cornbread and bananas and hot apple cider.

“Maybe you should reconsider maintaining a home. Or stop giving your blood away to people for free. Just think how much money you’d have, if you started acting more like a vampire. We could live in a mansion! I could eat honey buns every day!”

I leveled my gaze at her. “Vix. You get me out of here now.” She huffed and waggled her head with attitude, so I added, “And I want clothes when we land. I’m not buying you honey buns if I show up somewhere naked.”

The space around me exploded in a blast of pixie dust, then a cascade of pearled light drew us into a teleport. A portal made with fae magic, as Vix’s pixie power transported us through the mist.

She landed us in front of her favorite bakery, on a busy stretch of sidewalk downtown. In an instant, the glamour faded around us, an enchantment that made the passing mundanes think we’d walked down the street to the bakery, a hazement spell Vix was quite good at casting.

The large store windows were decorated with holiday lights and a Christmas tree, and a heartwarming display of ceramic elves loading up Santa’s sleigh. Shoppers bustled around us, sipping paper cups of hot chocolate and swinging their packages, children hopping around their parents and pleading for various toys and treats.

Across the street, a group of people beneath a Church of Christ banner collected packages and boxes from passersby, calling out in cheerful, boisterous voices that all donated holiday gifts would be given to the Refugee Agency for distribution. A group of teenagers raced beneath the trees by the movie theater, having a snowball fight. Two men ambled by pushing strollers.

Just a typical December night on Main Street in Senna, except for the vampire and pixie who’d popped up in a glamour.

Not that I looked like a vampire right now. My teeth had retracted, and I wore an elaborate assortment of reindeer furs: tall boots, pants, coat, and mittens, with a hood that hung loose at my back.

“Nice, Vix. I look like Attila the Hun.”

She snickered. “I was going for Sami tribesman. Circa tenth century.”

“Awesome,” I sighed. “Because this won’t attract attention at all.”

“You’re dressed, aren’t you? I put your bank card in your right pocket.”

I removed a mitten and checked for the card.

Vix chimed her wings and hid in my collar. “Get your butt moving, Eloise. I’m hungry.”

I felt silly strolling into the bakery dressed like a tenth century Sami tribesman. But I bought seven honey buns, carried them out in a white cardboard box, and Vix hugged my neck.

“I love you, vampire,” she said.

I bared my teeth with a hiss. Vix just giggled again.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

This book was a lot of fun to write. The edits, however, were far more brutal, and the following people helped me tremendously, either in maintaining my enthusiasm for this project or simply in making sure I could build a better book, whether they personally enjoyed urban fantasy or not.

The biggest fan of this story has been my Reading Angel and Book Goddess, April Duclos. I am soooooooo grateful April loves this genre, because I hit a number of writer-walls she had to knock down on my behalf to make sure I finished. April, thank you for your wisdom, your counsel, your hilarious emails, your enthusiasm, and your shimmy dance magic, always. Thank you for helping me invent mage romance titles to put in this book, which caused me to laugh so hard I had to lie down. Thank you for mailing me cookies, and all the ways, big and small, you believe in my dreams. You shower me with such sparkly joy, I could dedicate every book I write to you and it would never feel like enough. I am so grateful for everything you bring to my life, as an author and as a friend.

April’s husband, Adam Duclos, also gave me an enormous amount of feedback on this novel, in the form of comments, questions, and discussions over various plot and character elements. Adam, thank you so much for your help, and especially for your love of wee Vix. This book benefited in all ways from your assistance. Your advice made me smile, laugh, and led to a lot of interesting revisions.

Adriana Arbogast, my Crazy Babe, once again provided crucial assistance shaping this novel into something I can be proud of. Poor Eloise had a number of flaws in her original creation, and without Adriana’s feedback, I’d never have figured out what was wrong. Crazy Babe, thank you for putting up with all the WTF moments I bring to your life, and then volunteering for more. Thank you for spotting the big problems, the little problems, and everything in between. Thank you for making me a better writer. I do not have enough Dr. Pepper and cheeseburgers to share with you in gratitude.

My critique group partners were essential in helping this book grow and get better. Adriana Arbogast, Michael Carson, Ronni Souers, Daniel Todd, Blair Runion, Elizabeth Silverstein, Janice Archuleta, J.D. Hanning, Evanthia Bromiley, and Jane Maxey. Thank you for all of your questions, opinions, edits, and advice. Your efforts are enormously appreciated.

Hannah, an extra thanks to you for our conversations about witchcraft, warlocks, and magic. You helped me understand so many Pagan terms and ideas, and I feel extremely fortunate we are friends.

My friends Jennifer Gotham and Ronni Souers beta-read drafts of this novel and gave me terrific feedback and encouragement that I sorely needed. As an author, it’s hard to change genres and ask your readers to stay along for the ride. Jen and Ronni were both willing to roll with this one, and I’m really thankful they did. They made the characters better, made the story more streamlined, and helped me clarify scenes throughout the whole book. Jen, thank you so much for being a rock of support, no matter what I send you to read. Thank you for all the times you’ve said yes. Thank you for making me laugh, and always serving up a big dish of win. Ronni, I’m so grateful to you for devouring this novel and answering every one of my follow-up questions. Thank you for being so thorough and meticulous, and giving my work so much care. Thank you for cracking jokes with me over coffee. You cheered for this book, and I’m so glad you did. Eloise is really glad, too.

Nicolas Lagrand was also willing to beta-read this novel for me. Nicolas, I greatly appreciate all of your reading time, your feedback, and your careful suggestions. Your insights and questions concerning the plot and the bond between the main characters helped the final revision so much. Your grasp of story structure, as well as minute plot details, astounds and delights me, and I’m so grateful you shared your thoughts with me. Thank you.

My friend Linda Gumper, Gentle Star Woman, read the beginning of an early draft of this novel, and offered her support and encouragement for a story about witches. Linda, thank you so much for your advice, your enthusiasm, and your kindness. You helped make the opening pages stronger and smoother, and gave me a huge boost of motivation to finish. The wereleopards and fae in this story send their thanks, too.

My friends Leslie McCabe-Holm, Amanda Morrison, Bethany Bachmann, and Bonnie Jacobs all read the almost-final draft of this book, and offered their thoughts. My brother, Dale Gillon, and my sister, Laura Gillon, were also willing to read this novel and comment on the story. Thank you all for your reading time, your feedback, your advice, and your help with revisions. Amanda, I share an extra thanks to you for being my little orange monster, for completely changing how I see the world, and then helping me clarify my word choices throughout this book. Eloise benefited so much from the teethsnaps. Please continue the rawrs, always and forever, and thank you times infinity.

My mother, Melissa Gillon, read several early chapters of this novel, one snowy day in January of 2016, after we’d been up all night together hauling boxes and supplies for her store, while the temperature kept dropping and the weather went from bad to miserable. Mom, that was a really stressful night, not one I’d ever want to repeat—but the fact that you looked at my writing afterward meant a lot. Thank you.

A huge squee of gratitude to Beth McMacken for creating another spectacular cover for my fourth novel. I absolutely love this one!

And the most GINORMOUS thank you to my husband, Greg Stacy. My Patron Saint of All Books. The man who allows me to work hard every day as a Full Time Weirdo. My little honey, I cannot do this without you. Thank you for taking care of me. Thank you for everything you do for my stories. Thank you for loving my weird.

ABOUT
THE
AUTHOR

Melissa Stacy lives in Durango, Colorado. She is the author of The Etiquette of Wolves, a mystery novel, Love and Students Loans and Other Big Problems, a love story about college debt and baseball, Mark of the Pterren, a science fiction novel, and Bloodshade of the Goddess, an urban fantasy.

You may contact the author at: [email protected] or visit her webpage at www.melissastacy.com.


Bloodshade of the Goddess

Eloise Assad never wanted to spend eternity as a corpse. But two years after waking up as a vampire, Eloise wields powerful magic, sleeps in graves, and lives with a tiny pixie determined to annoy her forever. Turned against her will, Eloise has dedicated her undead life to helping innocent people avoid the same fate. Instead of joining a coven of vampires, Eloise has sided with their sworn enemies. She slays monsters and stakes her own kind alongside the human magicians who’ve done so for centuries. To keep safe from the bounty hunters who profit from the sale of vampire blood—a curative liquid worth millions to the right buyer—Eloise poses as a human witch in society, her true identity known to only a handful of close friends. In the modern world, protecting innocent life has never been harder. Ocean levels are rising, coastal cities are flooding, and the United States is dealing with climate change refugees, homeless citizens on the move. These people make easy targets for monsters, and as many of them seek shelter in Senna, Colorado, the monsters keep arriving in town along with them. As Eloise and her teammates fight for their lives, Eloise must confront nightmares and secrets, terror and lies, forbidden love and a fate worse than death, as she struggles to outwit an enemy who is always three steps ahead—only to find herself caught in one final trap. Outnumbered, weaponless, and stripped of the use of her magic, Eloise has to face the hard truth that she will never save the people she loves unless she becomes a true monster, and the most ruthless vampire in the room is herself.

  • Author: Melissa Stacy
  • Published: 2017-01-26 21:05:22
  • Words: 92933
Bloodshade of the Goddess Bloodshade of the Goddess