Authors: Kalayna Price
Tags: #Urban Life, #Contemporary, #Epic, #Fiction, #Fantasy, #General
I whirled around, groping blindly for a weapon as I turned.
My fingers landed on the hard plastic of my cel phone—
which wasn’t much of a weapon, but it was better than nothing.
Thankful y, it was also unnecessary.
Roy Pearson, a thirtysomething former programmer—
being deceased complicated the whole holding-down-a-job thing—knelt in front of my television. He was focused, his gaze locked on where he slowly depressed the channel button one click at a time. I might as wel not have been in the room for al he noticed.
“Roy, you can’t just materialize in my bedroom and turn on my TV!”
The ghost looked up, his concentration faltering, and his finger passed through the front of the TV’s control panel.
finger passed through the front of the TV’s control panel.
With a frown, he shoved his thick black-rimmed glasses higher on his nose and his perpetual y slouched shoulders sagged more than normal. “Sorry. I wanted to see if I was on again.”
I dropped the unneeded phone-turned-makeshift-weapon back onto the counter. “Shock news doesn’t age wel . I think your interview probably got trumped today,” I said as I walked across the room to change the channel for him.
A few days ago I’d helped Roy give Lusa at
an exclusive—and heavily censored—interview about his part in the Coleman case a month ago. Roy had final y been able to tel the story of how he’d died, and I’d completed my part of a bargain with Lusa that kept a damaging tape of me from being aired—win-win situation.
The interview had been broadcast several times already, and one national newspaper had run an article about it, including a half-page photo capturing Roy looking spectral and spooky, me beside him, my eyes glowing pale green and my hand locked with the ghost’s as I channeled energy into him so he would appear on camera. But despite al the press the interview had garnered, I had the feeling that the construct attack and the tear into the Aetheric would eclipse Roy’s story.
Lusa appeared on the screen as I flipped to Channel 6.
She was back in the studio, but a digital y imposed box beside her head rol ed footage of the smal hole in reality surrounded by crime tape. My picture popped up on the screen, and I groaned.
“What did you do this time?” Roy asked, staring at the screen.
“Hopeful y nothing that wil start another media circus.”
Once upon a time I’d actual y liked
—that was before I started appearing on the show semiregularly.
better find out what’s being said.
I bumped the volume up and listened to Lusa’s report as I sketched a plan for the spel I intended to cast.
sketched a plan for the spel I intended to cast.
“—are stil debating jurisdiction over the tear, but the Organization for Magical y Inclined Humans has official y confirmed that what we’re seeing is pure Aetheric energy slipping out of the hole. Rumor has it that bil ionaire Maximil ian Bel , founder of the controversial spel crafting school for norms, Spel s for the Rest of Us, made an offer for the property and has attempted to buy access to the tear. The possible implications and dangers of raw magic slipping into reality are actively being debated al over the nation, so for now, the tear is being contained within a circle and the area is off limits to civilians. In other news—”
I muted the TV again. Al things considered, if whatever she’d said about me had been short enough that I didn’t catch it before hitting the volume, it probably wasn’t devastating.
At least, I hope not.
“I’m going to cast my circle,” I told Roy as I gathered a quarter-sized wooden disk and a carving knife and headed for the smal circle cut into the floor in the corner of the room.
The ghost shrugged, not looking up from the cereal bowl he was attempting to shove from one side of the kitchen counter to the other. When I’d first met Roy, he hadn’t been able to interact with anything on the living side of the chasm between his plane and mine. He’d received a serious power boost a month ago when I’d been overflowing with energy I couldn’t control and I’d siphoned a load of it into him. Ever since, he’d become a champion poltergeist: knocking things over, pushing buttons, and even managing to hold a pen long enough to write his name in uneven, crooked letters.
“Don’t break that bowl,” I said, and then settled down inside my circle. If I was going to have any shot at casting a spel that would alert me to glamour, I’d need to be focused
—and not on the ghost haunting my apartment.
Closing my eyes, I concentrated on the raw magic stored in the obsidian ring I wore. I channeled it into the dormant in the obsidian ring I wore. I channeled it into the dormant circle, and the magical barrier sprang to life, pulsing with blue energy. Circle cast, I cleared my mind and let my consciousness sink deep inside until I reached the trancelike state I’d been taught to strive for while in academy.
I hit that place of perfect nothingness, perfect peace.
Then the world exploded in a rainbow of colors.
Aetheric energy twisted around me in writhing swirls of light, but there was no land of the dead mixed in, no mortal realm. I’d reached the Aetheric plane the way a witch was meant to: my psyche, and only my psyche, projected into the magical plane. I could stil feel my body sitting inside my circle, but it was a distant sensation—more a minor irritation, like a buzzing fly, than a solid connection.
In the Aetheric plane I wasn’t restrained by the rules of a body. I could float. I could fly. I laughed with the freedom of it, the sound turning to bright blue notes. Magic swirled around me, and I was a part of that magic. I felt invulnerable, limitless. And that was the dangerous part.
It would be so easy to forget I needed the tether to my body. To forget that I wasn’t just magic and energy like everything else in the Aetheric plane. To forget that I had a limit. So after I danced along a stream of vibrant green magic, years of training forced me to pul back and recenter myself.
I adjusted my perspective and did something that was possible only in the Aetheric plane: I moved outside myself and examined my projected self from the outside. The deep fissures where a soul-sucking spel had damaged my very being stil cut through my astral body, but the wounds were clear, showing no signs of taint or dark magic. They also showed no sign of healing.
I changed my perspective again, this time focusing on the magic around me. I drew on the bril iant strands, pul ing the magic into my body. I absorbed only the blue and green swirls, as those were the Aetheric strands that resonated swirls, as those were the Aetheric strands that resonated with me. My astral body fil ed with the magic, shining a bril iant turquoise. I stepped out of myself once again and ensured that there were no dark points and that nothing malicious had attached to my psyche. Then, fil ed with magic, I free-fel back into my physical body.
When I opened my eyes, I was back in my apartment.
Roy was gone, PC was stretched across my lap, and my back ached from too many hours sitting in one place. But though I registered the soreness, I was too giddy to care.
Magic fil ed my body, rushed through my veins. I felt like I could do anything.
But I couldn’t. That was another danger of magic, and why it needed to be stored or used immediately.
I refil ed my ring first, pushing as much raw magic into it as the obsidian could hold. Then I focused on refreshing my personal shields and charms. The maintenance took more than half of the magic I was holding—my capacity had never been great—but what was left was more than enough for the charm I intended to craft.
I’d found no reference to a successful charm letting the bearer see through glamour. But I could already see through glamour. I just needed to know when to look.
I grabbed my knife and the wooden disk. As I cut the first stroke of the glyph for awareness into the disk, I released a steady trickle of magic and focused on what I wanted the charm to do. Once I’d finished the first glyph, I started on the rune meaning truth.
As I carved, the charm began to buzz with magic, the spel taking hold. By the time I cut the last stroke of the final rune, warning, the charm al but vibrated with power. I released the rest of the raw magic I held, al owing it to dissipate harmlessly. Then I clipped the disk to my charm bracelet. The wood looked out of place with al the silver, but it felt like the strongest charm I’d ever personal y cast.
Now I just had to hope it worked.
lex,” a deep voice said.
I buried my head in my pil ow.
“Alex,” the voice said again, more insistent this time. A finger traced the ridge of my ear, the touch light enough to tickle.
I rol ed away and pried open my sleep-encrusted eyes. A confusing array of colors swirled in my vision. I squinted, trying to decipher the different layers of reality. One of the first lessons taught in academy had been how to maintain mental shields, even during sleep. But every morning for the last month I’d woken to the madness of colors and multiple planes of reality.
I concentrated on my mental shields, envisioning the vines surrounding my psyche as a solid wal with no gaps.
Slowly the world resolved itself back into my bedroom, washed in morning light. I sat up. Death stood less than a foot from the side of my bed. He smiled at me, his dark hair loose around his face and his thumbs tucked in the pockets of his jeans.
“Is this a social or a business cal ?” I asked, brushing back a tangle of curls from where they’d fal en in front of my eyes.
“I was thinking it had been a while since I had coffee.”
I col apsed back against my pil ow and PC lifted his head to grunt at me in disapproval. After voicing his general upset, the dog tucked his white-plumed tail over his nose and closed his eyes again. I seriously wished I could do the same, but Death was stil standing there, watching me with same, but Death was stil standing there, watching me with a grin on his face.
“Why am I awake?”
Death shrugged. “I could watch anyone sleep.”
But only I could see him. Wel , that wasn’t completely true.
Any grave witch could see and talk to soul col ectors if the witch straddled the chasm between the living and the dead, but I was the only grave witch I knew who could see col ectors while not in touch with the grave. And, more important, I was the only grave witch who could physical y interact with col ectors. Death had been visiting me since I was a child.
Forcing myself awake, I swung my legs over the side of the bed and fought to untangle my feet from the sheets. I frowned when I realized I was stil wearing yesterday’s jeans and tank.
Right, I spent most of the night watching
old movies with Holly.
Caleb, my landlord and third housemate, had urged me back upstairs after I’d fal en asleep on his couch. Changing had seemed overrated by the time I’d made it to my bed.
After a few fruitless kicks at the ensnaring sheets, which didn’t free me, I reached down to unwind them from my legs. Death watched, his expression losing some of its playful edge.
“Nightmares again?” he asked, his voice serious.
I shrugged off the question. I’d had nightmares every night since my final confrontation with Coleman. Facing off with a madman and final y destroying him by accelerating the decomposition of his body and cannibalizing his soul?
Yeah, that was nightmare inducing, but I real y didn’t want to think about it.
Yawning, I stretched, trying to work the kinks out of my back. The night of poor sleep—to say nothing of the nights before it—had left me sore and stil exhausted, but a glance at my clock told me it was past time I should be getting up. I couldn’t remember when I was supposed to meet today’s client, though I was pretty sure I was scheduled to raise a client, though I was pretty sure I was scheduled to raise a shade. I’d check my calendar as soon as I got some muchneeded caffeine. Snapping my jaw shut, I shuffled toward my kitchenette.
Death watched me, amusement once again lifting to his dark eyes. Unlike me with my bedraggled clothes and knotted hair, he looked good in the morning light streaming into my apartment. Okay, actual y, he looked exactly the same as when I’d first seen him when I was five years old, but recently I’d come to appreciate the way his black T-shirt pul ed tight over the expanse of his shoulders and his faded jeans hugged his ass. Not that I was looking, of course. I mean, he was Death.
Yeah, he was Death, and a month ago, when I lay dying under the Blood Moon, I was pretty sure he’d said he loved me. Neither one of us had mentioned it since. In fact, for the first week after that night, whenever I’d catch sight of him, he would vanish without saying anything. Then he’d started visiting again as if nothing had changed between us. Wel , almost nothing.
“You want coffee?” I asked, riffling through my cabinet.
“Among other things.”
And there went my pulse rate.
When I’d been in academy I’d discovered I could make the objects I interacted with tangible to Death, but the trick worked only if we both remained in contact with the object in question. As a teenager, when I’d first offered him coffee, I’d been flirting. Since I had to hold on to the mug for him to touch it, sharing a cup of coffee put us in close contact, but over the last few weeks he’d taken the flirting to a whole new level.
I focused on scooping coffee grounds into the filter.
Never in my life had I measured my grounds more meticulously, though with the way my fingers trembled, I was surprised I didn’t miss the coffeemaker.
Come on, Alex.
Get a grip.
Death was my oldest friend. The one constant in my life.
And he’d said he loved me.
I hit the BREW button on my coffeemaker harder than needed. Then, after taking a deep breath, I turned back around.
Death stood directly behind me, much closer than I’d expected. He fil ed my space, his wide shoulders blocking out everything else. Once he wouldn’t have been able to move so close without my noticing—his very presence would have chil ed the air between us. Now our temperatures were about the same. I was pretty sure he hadn’t become warmer.
“It wil take a couple of minutes to brew,” I said, because I had to say
“Mmm-hmm.” He smiled and took a step closer.
I didn’t mean to back up, but the counter was suddenly pressing against my ass, so clearly I had. Death’s hands moved to my hips. I tried to draw a breath, but couldn’t seem to catch it.
“That attack yesterday . . .” he whispered, crowding my space. “Who did you irritate recently?”
“Irritate? I—no one. Wel , a fae in the floodplain when I revealed some dismembered feet, but—” Death slid close enough that his thighs brushed the front of mine, and I lost track of what I was saying. I mental y groped for an intel igent strain of thought. “Was that a soul you col ected from that beast?”
“That’s what I do.” His breath tickled over my skin as he spoke.
“How did a magic construct gain a soul?” I asked, trying to focus on something other than how near his lips were to mine.
His smile stretched wider. “Magic,” he said, leaning closer. A loud knocking banged through my loft.
My head snapped up, my gaze jumping to the front door.
But the knocking wasn’t from someone outside. It was coming from the inner door that led down to the main coming from the inner door that led down to the main portion of the house.
Saved by a housemate.
“Come in,” I cal ed, shocked by how breathless my voice sounded.
The door opened, and Caleb bustled in. “Hey, Al, I wanted you—” He stopped. “Is this a bad time?”
“No, I, uh—” I swal owed, wondering what this must look like to Caleb. He couldn’t see Death, so from his point of view, I looked like I was alone in my apartment, backed against my counter for no particular reason. I glanced at Death, and he stepped away, giving me space.
“Later,” he whispered, smoothing a curl behind my ear.
Then he vanished.
Later . . .
I shook my head and tried to wipe away the goofy smile I felt spreading across my face.
“How is Hol y?” I asked, pushing away from the counter.
PC, who’d jumped off the bed as soon as the door opened, pawed at Caleb’s leg. My housemate smiled at the smal dog and knelt to give the top of his head a good rub.
“Sleeping,” he said as PC lathered his hand in dog kisses.
“She left very early this morning and returned a little after dawn. Did she mention anything last night about having to go somewhere?”
I shook my head. She shouldn’t have been leaving in the middle of the night.
I was halfway across the room when my throat tightened and a hiccup hit me like a punch in the chest. My voice broke with an undignified croak at the force of the hiccup.
“I—” Another hiccup hit me, cutting off my words.
“You okay, Al?” Caleb asked, his brows drawing together.
“Yeah, I’l ”—
I grabbed a glass, nearly dropping it as another hiccup shook me. Caleb took the glass from me, and two more hiccups, each worse than the last, hit back to back. A hiccups, each worse than the last, hit back to back. A burning ache spread across my chest. I covered my mouth with my fingers, as if I could stop the sound and thus the pain.
Caleb held the glass—now fil ed halfway with tap water—
out to me. When I reached for it, the charms on my bracelet clinked and twinkled.
Caleb looked like a sandy-haired col ege quarterback, but he was fae, his boy-next-door facade a glamour.
created a charm to warn me of glamour.
I snatched off the charm bracelet. As soon as it lost contact with my skin, the hiccups stopped and my chest stil ed.
I frowned at the bracelet and the little wooden charm I’d created.
I hadn’t considered instal ing an off switch in the charm, so it was either try to convince Caleb to drop his glamour or go without my charms until he left. With a sigh, I shoved the bracelet in my pocket. My house wards blocked grave essence, so it wasn’t like I needed the extra shields the charm bracelet provided.
“Better now?” Caleb asked as I took a long sip of water.
The cool liquid felt good in my aching throat and I nodded, but I didn’t thank him. You didn’t thank fae. Or apologize. Or in any way acknowledge a debt, for that matter. So I smiled and hoped he understood my appreciation.
“Okay, then,” he said. “I’d like you to meet a friend of mine.”
That was al the warning he gave before he opened the door separating my apartment from the main house. An al -
too-familiar figure marched into my room, his back curved and his knees bent.
I did a double take, and PC ducked under the bed. Just the tip of his black nose showed under the bedskirt as he growled at the fae I’d first met in the floodplain.
growled at the fae I’d first met in the floodplain.
“Caleb, what is he—”
“Alex, this is Malik, a friend of mine.”
I frowned. Caleb had always had my best interests in the past, but . . . I trusted Caleb. That didn’t mean I trusted his friends.
“You’re not welcome here,” I said, lifting my gaze to meet the large, unblinking eyes of the strange fae. He’d threatened me, and I’d seen him in the Quarter directly before the construct attack. Coincidence? I doubted it.
Malik’s thin lips tugged downward and he glanced at Caleb.
“Hear him out, Al.”
I shook my head. “You’re wanted by the police, Malik. I suggest you leave. Now.” I grabbed my phone off the counter where it was plugged in, charging. Malik was a person of interest wanted for questioning in connection with the feet found in the floodplain. John would want to know he was standing in my apartment.
I pressed the button to wake the phone, but the screen didn’t light up.
The phone was off, shut down to avoid reporters. I held the power button and headed for the main door. I jerked it open, letting the morning light stream in as I waited for the phone to power on. Either Malik would walk through that door, leaving me in peace to cal the police, or I’d flee my own room. Escape plans were a plus.
“Alex,” Caleb said, stepping between Malik and me.
“Please, listen to what he has to say.”
I gaped at Caleb. Fae don’t say please, just like they don’t thank you or apologize. Words had power and al of those words acknowledged a debt. Debts with fae were binding.
“Please,” he said again, and I felt the imbalance hanging in the air between us. If I did as he asked, he’d be indebted to me. Not that I wanted that, but in al the years I’d lived in his house, he’d never once said please. The fact that my hearing Malik out was worth Caleb’s indebting himself to hearing Malik out was worth Caleb’s indebting himself to me meant that whatever the other fae had to say was important.
The phone chirped in my hand, letting me know it had powered on. I glanced at it, then hesitated and reached out with my ability to sense magic. Neither fae carried any charms. Caleb was one of those very rare fae who could manipulate the Aetheric, and his skin tingled in my senses with residual magic from a ward he’d been crafting recently, but Malik didn’t have a trace of residual magic on him. And he certainly didn’t have a trace of the spel s I’d felt in the feet or the construct. Of course, that didn’t mean he wasn’t involved; it just meant he wasn’t carrying any charms. Stil , if Caleb was wil ing to indebt himself . . . I lowered the phone, letting the screen fal asleep again.
“I’m listening,” I said, turning to close the door. Then I stopped, my gaze stuck on the porch.
“Al?” I could hear the frown in Caleb’s voice. “Alex, what is it?”
I didn’t answer. I couldn’t. I just stood there, shock reverberating down my spine. Outside my door, in the very center of the landing, was a dagger.
Caleb sprinted across the room. When he saw the dagger he cursed in one of the fast, fluid languages of the fae. I couldn’t understand the words, but from the tone I could tel he was pissed and maybe a little freaked. Or maybe I was projecting. Caleb shoved his hand against the doorjamb to check the house wards, but I doubted he’d find anything. The dagger had been driven into the wood in the middle of the smal landing. Caleb’s wards didn’t reach that far. I swal owed, glancing at Malik—who watched with curiosity but hadn’t moved.