Authors: Diana Rowland
Heat shimmered off the hood of my car as I crawled through downtown Beaulac at approximately three miles an hour. I cranked the air conditioner up as high as it would go, then glanced in the rearview mirror to see my demon bodyguard Eilahn a few cars back, astride her sleek new motorcycle. She didn’t appear to mind the oppressive Louisiana summer heat and sported a vivid green tank top that accentuated the rich olive tone of her skin. I thought I heard a distant wail of sirens over the blasting AC but had no desire to turn down the air to find out.
The line of cars moved forward a few more feet before stopping again. This was more than the usual post-lunch traffic jam, but whether the cause was an accident or the ubiquitous road construction, I wasn’t going to let it stress me out. I had nowhere I had to be anytime soon. Besides, it gave me a chance to ponder the weirdness of my lunch with Pellini.
What the hell was up with him? For years he and Boudreaux had been nothing but pricks. Annoying, but generally harmless. Then, gradually, Pellini had begun to show traces of humanity, from warning me about Knight, to asking me to grab a beer with him, to this invitation for lunch—which I’d only agreed to because he’d mentioned the strange happenings at the plantation.
As soon as traffic moved again I capitulated and turned down a side street to find a detour around the jam. Three blocks away the congestion eased, and I proceeded to mull over the photos Pellini had shown me. If the blurry one was the only piece of evidence that tied me to the plantation and the murder, I had no reason to worry. There was no way to make a positive identification from that even if someone suspected it was me.
So why am I worried?
My grip tightened on the steering wheel. Because I was guilty in the eyes of the law, and any physical evidence I’d inadvertently left at the plantation had the potential to implicate me. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t pulled the trigger on James Macklin Farouche. One of his former hit men, Bryce Thatcher, had taken care of that detail. But Bryce had been part of our team—all of us acting as judge, jury, and executioner. Believing there was no other acceptable option, I’d stood by when Bryce put two bullets in Farouche’s head.
What does that make me?
Things had been a lot simpler when I was a street cop. Ignorance was underappreciated bliss, and my work ended along with my shift. A twinge of loss went through me, though I knew it hadn’t been all sunshine and roses. Besides, I was a demon summoner with talents, knowledge, and experience I never could have imagined back then. With both Earth and the demon realm at risk from demonic lords with dangerous agendas, I had a responsibility to use my rare expertise to do everything possible to assure the safety and stability of—
I snorted. What a crock of shit.
Sure, those noble goals and ideals were there, but only because the alternative was catastrophe. I had no real choice in the matter. But it
my choice to act as responsibly as possible given the circumstances. Earth laws didn’t take into account otherworldly schemes that put humans at risk. J.M. Farouche had committed unforgivable crimes against humanity, but we hadn’t executed him as punishment. We’d executed him because, with his ability to influence others, human laws weren’t enough to stop him. One hell of a responsibility.
That said, I had to admit it felt good to make a difference. Didn’t matter that most of humanity remained clueless that a ragtag band of demons and humans fought tooth and nail for their right to remain blissfully ignorant. My posse had kicked ass at the plantation and prevented the Mraztur—the demonic lords Rhyzkahl, Jesral, Amkir, and Kadir—from establishing a permanent gate between the worlds.
Though not without cost. Another member of our team, Paul Ortiz, had suffered horrific arcane burns and now clung to life in the demon realm. Idris Palatino was there as well, recovering from the backblast of an arcane explosion.
Thoughts somber, I pulled into the driveway of a dusky blue, skinny two-story house owned by my best friend, Jill Faciane. She was currently almost nine months pregnant and living in a mobile home on my property until this whole demonic conflict settled down. Her boyfriend and father of her child lived here now: Zack, my favorite demon FBI agent.
Yet another casualty of the plantation battle.
As I walked up to the porch, I checked out the condition of the place. Though the lawn needed mowing, the potted plants looked perky enough to indicate they’d recently been watered. However, the blinds of the living room and the upstairs bedroom were closed tight, and a hand written
Do Not Disturb
sign hung on the porch rail. My worry rose in an aching wave. Zack had turned the tide of the battle at the plantation when he broke ancient oaths and severed his
bond with Rhyzkahl. The act had shattered both of them, but Zack suffered an added blow by being ostracized, locked in human form, and cut off from the beyond-telepathy connection with the others of his kind, the demahnk.
I’d put off pestering Zack with questions so he could rest and recuperate. I truly hoped to find him strong enough to interact again, if only through insights and advice. But even beyond my need for him, he
The door swung open a few seconds after I ignored the sign and knocked. Sonny Hernandez offered me a fleeting smile. “Hey, Kara. I didn’t know you were coming over.”
Sonny was a former Farouche henchman, one who had a talent for keeping people tranquil in highly stressful situations—such as being kidnapped. That same talent turned out to be equally useful for easing Zack’s trauma, and Sonny had been grateful for the chance to use his ability in a positive way.
“Surprise inspection,” I said congenially as I peered into the gloom beyond him. “How’s everything going?”
Sonny stepped back and looked away. “Everything’s good.”
He was full of crap, but I didn’t challenge him on it. I moved past him and into the semi-dark living room. A lump shifted on the sofa.
“Sonny is overly optimistic,” the lump said—Zack, his voice thin and frail, as if each word lost its strength in the effort to come out. “Somehow I manage to put up with him.”
“Too soft for you, huh?” I said. “I’ll see if Moonlight Temp Agency can find an angry, bitchy nurse to babysit you. Whatcha think?”
Zack let out a breathless laugh and struggled to sit up even as Sonny swept in to assist. “I think I’d be an idiot to agree,” he said then murmured thanks to Sonny. My worry kicked up another notch. I’d spoken to Zack on the phone a few times since my return to Earth but hadn’t seen him before now. He’d managed to keep much of the weakness out of his voice when we spoke. Or maybe I hadn’t wanted to hear it.
“Damn straight.” I rested a gentle kiss on Zack’s cheek then sank to sit beside him. “You ever let any light in?”
“Not lately. It hurts too much.”
A lighter rasped, and Sonny lit a fat jar candle on the coffee table. “This is all he can tolerate. Sorry, Kara.”
“I don’t mind,” I said. “Candlelight’s fine.” Usually that was true, but in this case it only emphasized Zack’s pale, gaunt face—so unlike the robust surfer dude I’d known. My hope that he’d soon be ready to rejoin the posse dribbled away. I felt as if I was visiting a hospice patient rather than someone in recovery. “I won’t stay long, but I wanted to see you.”
“I’m not ready,” he said with such sorrow and understatement it tore my heart out.
“It’s okay,” I murmured, throat tight as I took his hand. It was so cold it seemed to pull the heat from mine. “You take all the time you need. Everything’s okay.” I abandoned all thought of updating him on the overall situation. His universe had collapsed to near nothing, and I felt as though I could scatter him to oblivion with a puff of breath.
He dropped his head back against the sofa and closed his eyes. “I’m sorry.”
I squeezed his hand, willed him to take my warmth if it would ease him. “What about Jill? Maybe she could help you to—”
“No!” His eyes flew open, wild and desperate. “Kara, I cannot.
“But she loves you—” I intended to add
and needs you as much as you need her
, but the panic that flashed across his face stopped me.
“No. Please, Kara,” Zack said, breathing unsteadily. Desperation bled through the words. “Trust me. It’s not her. But I can’t. Please don’t bring her here. I
see her as I am now.”
Was it because of the baby? I didn’t dare ask him, though. He looked as if any more stress would shatter him. Damn good thing I
brought Jill over—as I’d seriously considered doing. “Zack,” I said gently. “It’s okay. I trust you.” A tiny amount of the tension eased from his grasp. “What about the Demahnk Council? Can’t they help?”
“They won’t.” He paused and flipped me the bird with an unsteady hand. “They can’t.”
The middle finger was his signal that we’d ventured into territory he couldn’t talk about. He was bound by agreement and mandate to both the Council and unnamed ones he obliquely referred to as “the others.” Apparently, breaking his bond with Rhyzkahl hadn’t negated his other contracts. “What about the demahnk who aren’t on the Council? Surely I can rally at least a—”
“Kara. The demahnk
I shook my head, confused. “Wait. Are you saying that every demahnk is a Council member?”
“All but one, now,” he murmured. “The other ten remain united.”
I sat in stunned silence. Only eleven Elder syraza in the whole of the demon realm and Earth? I fished through my memory for anything that contradicted his information and came up with nothing. I’d assumed the Council was comprised of a handful of the eldest demahnk, never guessing that there were less than a dozen demahnk in total. Questions rose, but as I opened my mouth to ask, Zack flipped me the bird again. I swallowed my questions back. Obviously that tidbit of information was all he could give me, and I wasn’t going to push the issue while he was so weak. “Rest, Zack.”
He focused on me with effort, pain he couldn’t hide reflected in his eyes. “What of . . . Rhyzkahl?”
In those three words, Zack managed to express profound grief and frustration. Considering Rhyzkahl’s betrayal and torture of me, I was inclined to do a happy dance to celebrate the lord’s downfall. But Zack had been ptarl bound to Rhyzkahl, as his chief advisor and advocate, for
. His concern outweighed my anger.
“I haven’t heard anything new,” I said gently. “When I left the demon realm he was cloistered within his palace. According to Mzatal, he’s debilitated to the point where he can’t take care of his plexus, so the other lords are pitching in to cover it, like they do for Szerain.” Each of the eleven lords had a plexus, a chamber dedicated to monitoring and adjusting the arcane potency flows of their planet. Without constant attention, the flows would tear the world apart. Preventing that end was the one thing the lords agreed on unanimously. “I promise I’ll let you know as soon as I have any new info.”
Zack slumped into the cushions with a long sigh as though he’d never draw another breath. Candlelight glimmered in a tear on his face. Though I couldn’t hear the words, I read them on his lips. “Thank you.” His hand went slack in mine, and my heart thudded in dread until I spotted the shallow rise and fall of his chest.
I untwined my hand from his and kissed his cheek again. “No,” I whispered as I stood. “Thank
, Zakaar.” I looked down at him, struck by the eerie sense that I might never see him again. Aching, I finally turned away, caught Sonny’s eye and nudged my head toward the door. With a last glance at Zack, I exited to the heat and blinding light of the afternoon sun. I wiped away tears and cleared my throat as Sonny followed me out and closed the door behind him.
“He’s fading,” I said hoarsely. “And I have no idea what to do for him.” I wanted to thrash the rest of the demahnk and all the demons who’d turned their backs on him. Stripping his innate connections to the others was like pulling a fish out of water and leaving it to die slowly, gasping for breath.
“Every day it’s as though less of him is here,” Sonny said, grim. “I can barely get him to eat or drink anything, and he only moves when he has to. It’s not good.”
“Keep doing what you’re doing,” I said. “Let me know if there’s anything,
, that you need and I’ll take care of it.” My brow furrowed. “Has he had any contact with Ryan . . . Szerain?” The cagey demonic lord Szerain had recently freed himself from his horrific imprisonment as Ryan Kristoff. He continued to maintain the persona of Ryan, but I didn’t know where he was or what he was doing.
Sonny shook his head. “Zack’s had me call him a few times, but it always goes to voicemail.”
“I know Ryan’s working, but he’s not answering my calls either.” It was one thing for Szerain to snub me, but blacklisting Zack was beyond the pale. Szerain wouldn’t even be here if Zack hadn’t kept him sane in his hellish prison for over fifteen years. “Let me know if he calls. Anything else I should know?”
“He talks in his sleep at times,” Sonny said with a small frown. “Not a lot, but there are a few words and phrases he repeats. Jill, Rhyzkahl, and Szerain I recognize, but the others must be a different language.” He paused, clearly trying to recall the sounds. “Ekeeree akar is the most frequent,” he finally said. “Sovilas mir nah shey. Zarbeck. Ashava.”