Authors: Diana Rowland
“Jesral sent the graa through on purpose?” I asked with a frown.
“That is my suspicion,” he said, expression dark. “I do not know how long Fekk was entrapped, but a cross-current in the node led me to believe she was destined for another valve.”
“Wonderful,” I said sourly. “Only a matter of time before we have selfies with demons going viral online.” I took a deeper breath and gave him a crooked smile. “Anyway, I’m glad you made it through in one piece. Was grove travel this messed up after the cataclysm?”
Old grief shadowed his eyes. “The groves retreated into the soil at the very start of the cataclysm,” he said. “Most returned after fifty years, though were unusable for close to a hundred. Szerain’s remained quiescent for a full century and a half.”
“Oh. Right.” Now I remembered hearing that from the reyza Safar at Szerain’s palace. Felt like a lifetime ago. “Well, I’m going to take the fact that the groves haven’t retreated as a good sign,” I said brightly. “Maybe the demon realm
going to hell in a handbasket anytime soon.”
Seretis chuckled. “You speak with good sense. I will maintain this conviction.”
I bit my lip, shifted. “I didn’t expect a house call,” I said, “but now that you’re here, what can you tell me about my condition? Is there any way it can be reversed?” A fountain of hope rose, and I made no effort to hold it back. Intervention by a demonic lord might very well be my best and last chance for a remedy.
Seretis lifted a hand toward my head then paused, waiting for my permission to fully connect telepathically. As soon as I gave him my nod he rested his hand against the side of my head while I did my best to remain still, both physically and mentally.
It was several minutes before he lowered his hand. “I do not have an answer, Kara Gillian.”
The wave of hope crashed onto the rocks of Fuck You Beach, and it was several seconds before I could speak. “Hey, it was worth a shot, right?” I said, voice quavering only a little. “And you were here to save Sammy, so it’s all good.”
“A solution may well exist,” he said. “I am not the qaztahl most versed in such matters.” But a frown lingered on his face. “I sensed an echo of Kadir.”
“Oh.” I wrinkled my nose. “I used his technique to symmetrize the valve at the pond and the nature center. Probably left some Kadiriness behind, like bad cologne.”
His frown deepened more, and his gaze went to where Pellini had created his ring of sigils. “It is more than bad cologne.”
It took me a second to make the connection. “The simulator,” I growled. “That son of a bitch used it to put his slime on me.” Idris had been right. Damn it. Despite everything, a laugh escaped me, harsh and humorless. “Well isn’t that fucking great. I lose everything arcane except
Seretis shook his head. “The resonance of Kadir is not arcane,” he told me. “It is of the essence. Integral. Yet apart from Kadir’s imprint, a seed of the arcane remains within you.”
I stared at him. “What does that
” I finally asked, afraid to draw my own conclusions.
“It means that the one who stripped you did not take it all, either by choice or because he was unable. But I know not if it has meaning with regard to potential restoration.”
McDunn’s words came back to me.
“It’s all I could do.”
That fit both possibilities. He hadn’t wanted to take my ability from me—his hesitation had made that clear. Maybe McDunn had left a seed as an act of subtle rebellion against Katashi, on the chance that more could grow from it. Like leaving one intact nerve in a spinal cord.
I restrained my hope to no more than a flicker. I didn’t know if this “seed” meant anything at all. Better to expect nothing than be crushed by the pain of disappointment.
The glimmer of true sympathy in Seretis’s eyes told me how slim my chances of recovery were. Still, I remained grateful for his sentiment, especially considering that it came from a demonic lord. Most human worries would surely seem insignificant to anyone who’d lived thousands of years and seen countless numbers of humans live and die. Seretis was a frontrunner among the lords as far as compassion and plain old empathy.
“You’re a demonic lord!” I blurted. Bryce let out a soft laugh, but Seretis merely smiled.
“To my great consternation at times, yes.”
I gave him a weak grin. “I know you jumped through the valve in search of a relaxing vacation with your best buddy here,” I punched Bryce in the shoulder, “but it so happens we could use someone with a demonic lord’s skill set. I really need the wards at my aunt’s house undone so that I can get a few things out of her library while she’s off with Katashi.”
“That, I can accomplish,” he said once he read the subtleties from me. “Though I do not have extended time here, unfortunately.” He looked around with a wistful gaze. “My world demands my presence, and your world is unkind to my kind,” he added in a light tone belied by the essence-deep weariness in his eyes.
Only Rhyzkahl, Szerain, and Mzatal had ever remained on Earth for an extended period. My gut told me it was no coincidence that they were the three who’d possessed the essence blades for millennia. “We could go to Tessa’s house right now if you think you could last a few hours,” I said with a glance to Bryce to see if he had any objections or concerns.
But Bryce appeared thrilled with the idea. “It’ll give you a chance to see a bit more of the area,” he told Seretis with undisguised eagerness. I fought down a laugh at the sudden image of those two hanging out and seeing the sights and hitting the bars. Talk about the ultimate bromance sitcom.
Seretis smiled broadly but in the next heartbeat he looked toward the front of the house. “Two have passed through your warding and approach,” he said even as the crunch of gravel in the driveway reached me.
“That’ll be Idris and Pellini,” I said. “Perfect timing since I was going to call and have them meet us over at my aunt’s house. Idris will need to deal with the valve there.” A whisper of concern passed over Bryce’s face, and I added, “I’m sure Pellini will have no problem staying here with Jill so Bryce can go with us.” No way would Bryce want to remain behind while Seretis was here for such a short visit.
Bryce let out a self-conscious chuckle. “Thanks. Should’ve known you’d understand.”
Conversation halted at the sound of running footsteps. An instant later Idris pelted around the house and toward the nexus in clear distress.
“Kara! The valve! The nexus—” His eyes widened as he registered the presence of Seretis, and he literally skidded to a halt, mouth open in an O. “Lord Seretis?! How? I don’t . . .” He trailed off, and his gaze snapped to the pond trail. “You came through the valve.” His distress deepened. “My lord, I mean no disrespect, but passing through the valve was foolish.”
“It wasn’t intentional,” I told Idris. “He was fixing an anomaly in Rhyzkahl’s realm.” I quickly explained the circumstances. Idris exhaled, nodded.
“Forgive me for the hasty judgment, my lord,” he said, though his brow remained creased with worry.
Seretis regarded Idris. “My lack of foolishness is no reassurance to you.”
“It’s not,” Idris agreed. “The cross-current flow between nodes, plus Jesral’s demon,
the relative ease of your arrival means that Katashi has succeeded in anchoring a node. It’s what he was close to doing with the plantation node.” A muscle in his jaw twitched. “He doesn’t care how much damage he causes as long as he’s one step closer to a permanent gateway between the demon realm and Earth.”
Pellini rounded the corner of the house in ground-eating strides with Sammy bouncing and barking at his side.
“What the fuck happened to my dog?”
To my undying relief, Seretis stepped forward. “Sammy sustained grievous injury while defending this property against a vicious demon,” he said smoothly. “His actions were heroic, and his selfless efforts not only protected me from harm but distracted the graa enough that I could dispatch it. I was able to heal Sammy’s wounds, but my control of the potency flows in this realm is insufficient for me to stimulate the regrowth of hair. For that I offer my deepest apology.”
Pellini stopped and looked down at his dog with an expression of heart-melting pride usually reserved for a parent whose child receives the Congressional Medal of Honor. “Nah, that’s cool. Chicks dig heroes, right boy?” He ruffled the dog’s ears while Sammy leaned against him and whacked Pellini’s leg with his tail. “Thanks for saving him,” he said, emotion thickening his voice, then he looked up at Seretis with a frown. “Who are you?”
I made quick introductions and was poised to explain how a demonic lord happened to be in my backyard when Pellini locked gazes with Seretis.
“Seretis,” he murmured. “The dreamer by the sea.”
I shot Pellini a baffled look. Where in blazes had he come up with that?
Seretis went lordly-still, and even without my arcane senses I felt his aura sweep over me like a grassfire driven by a desert wind. For a whisper of an instant I was almost grateful I wasn’t subject to the full and staggering impact of the lord’s reaction. Bryce paled, and Idris’s gaze dropped to Seretis’s clenched fist. Though I couldn’t see the potency, I knew it gathered there.
Heart slamming, I stepped in front of Pellini. “What’s going on?”
Seretis took a step closer. “What more has Kadir told you?” he demanded, gaze locked on Pellini over my head. Idris eased further away, but Bryce moved in and put a hand on Seretis’s arm. Though his face remained pale, Bryce’s eyes held equal measures of worry and support for his friend.
“We’re aware of Kadir’s influence,” I said with a lift of my chin. “Pellini used to play on a valve node when he was a kid, and Kadir found him and . . . molded him.” I planted my hands on my hips. “But he’s our ally, and I trust him.”
Pellini put his hands on my shoulders then gently but firmly shifted me aside. “Look, I am who I am,” he said to Seretis. “Kadir told me the dreamer thing and more. If that’s a problem, don’t dick around. Lay it out.”
Seretis lowered his head, eyes hard on Pellini as he no doubt read the “more” from him. “I do not trust
outside of a formal agreement,” he said. “You know why.” A whisper of a flush touched his cheeks. Embarrassment over whatever Pellini knew?
Bryce cleared his throat. Seretis turned to him, and they stood face-to-face in silent communication. After a moment, Seretis opened his hand, releasing the gathered potency—or so I hoped. Bryce smiled, clearly relieved. Seretis shifted his gaze back to Pellini. “Your intentions are benign,” he said. “But you cannot hope to know Kadir’s.”
Pellini gave a light shrug. “Yeah, and humans deal with that uncertainty every goddamn day,” he said. “We know all about caution and suspicion because we’ve never had the advantage of telepathy. As a cop I know that everyone I deal with might be ready to stab me in the back.” As if to illustrate his point he slugged me lightly in the shoulder. “But we keep our guard up,” he continued, ignoring my exasperated look, “and we try to do the right thing.”
“This time, the uncertainty lies within you, Vincent Pellini,” Seretis said. “You carry the imprint of Kadir and must watch yourself with suspicion if you hope to prevail.”
Pellini gestured to indicate Idris, Bryce, and me. “They have my back,” he said. “I trust them to take me out if I, ah, lose perspective.”
Seretis smiled, warm and genuine, and inclined his head to Pellini. “May that need never arise.”
“Right there with you,” Pellini replied.
Seretis sat in the front of Pellini’s truck for the drive to Tessa’s. Despite the scorching heat and auto fumes, he kept the window rolled down, at times leaning out with the same delight I imagined Sammy held for the activity. His demonic lord aura and Spanish-soap-opera good looks drew more than a few interested stares, but if any traffic accidents ensued because of the spectacle I was unaware of them.
Bryce drove right by the house without slowing, doubled back after another block, then once again continued past it before returning to pull into the driveway and kill the engine. Eilahn parked her motorcycle beside us, then leaped into the branches of an oak in order to act as lookout. After we exited the truck, Seretis made a slow turn to take in the neighborhood then looked over Tessa’s house to assess the warding.
“Formidable,” he said after a moment.
“Do you think you can undo it all?” I asked, fidgeting as my stomach rumbled.
One side of his mouth kicked up in a smile. “I can.”
“Good, because right now I’m craving waffles.”
He let out a low chuckle and moved closer to the house. “Here, I will unweave the aversions.” He made a few subtle gestures with one hand. “Better?”
“No more desire for waffles!” I announced with a smile. “I mean, no more than usual.” It was too bad Seretis had such a short time to spend on Earth. I very much wanted to see his reaction to the Lake O’ Butter pancake house.
Seretis continued forward while Bryce trailed him by a few steps and kept watch for potential interference from unfriendlies. I remained several feet back to be certain I wouldn’t get zapped, sort of like following someone clearing a minefield. Fortunately we had a kickass minesweeper, and it took less than a minute for us to reach the porch.
Seretis’s lips twitched in amusement at the cheery
sign on her door. “Tessa most assuredly did not want visitors.” He scrutinized the warding then made a single sweeping gesture with one hand, in a single second destroying defenses that took many hours to lay. “There are alarm sigils placed throughout the protections, but I am disabling those as we proceed.” He opened the door, stepped in and took stock. “The only way Tessa Pazhel will know the warding has been stripped is by direct observation.”
I nudged Bryce with my elbow. “Your friend comes in real handy.”
“Yeah, he’s all right,” he said then gave an exaggerated sigh. “Now if I could just get him to stop dressing like a complete dork.”
Idris shot Bryce a startled look, but Seretis laughed. “You envy my panache.”
It took no time at all for Seretis to clear the hallway and continue on to the library. The door was ajar, but I knew it bristled with wards that rendered the physical lock little more than ornamental.
I snapped my attention toward a scrape of noise from the back of the house and drew my gun as Bryce did the same. I caught his eye and angled my head toward the sound in a
We’ll check it together
motion. Yet before we were halfway down the hall, Carl stepped out of the kitchen with a wrench in his hand and a tool belt around his waist.
“Kara?” His eyes went to the people with me, especially Bryce who remained alert and ready with his gun trained on Carl.
I lowered my gun. “He’s cool, Bryce.” I leveled a wry smile at Carl. “I’ve almost shot you in this house a few too many times. What are you doing here?”
“Fixing a plumbing leak,” he said with a vague gesture toward the kitchen. “Noticed the dripping last night.”
Bryce and I holstered guns, and I made quick introductions. Bryce and Idris were easy ones, but Seretis was a different matter. “Um, this is a friend from out of town. Larry,” I said, seizing the first name that came to mind. “He’s another arcane practitioner.”
Carl wasn’t looking in Bryce’s direction, or he’d have seen the eye roll followed by the incredulous
expression Bryce gave me. Even Seretis flicked a quizzical glance my way, but fortunately Carl didn’t notice. He offered a faint smile. “Welcome to Beaulac, Larry.”
“Thanks for fixing the leak,” I hurried to say before Carl could ask any questions to which I could give more dumb answers. “We’re doing a little, um, arcane maintenance.”
“Sure thing,” he said. “Should I leave?”
I gave the others a questioning look, but everyone seemed content to follow my lead as far as whether to trust Carl. I wasn’t sure if Seretis could read the arcane-immune Carl but, either way, the demonic lord didn’t appear bothered by him.
Felt good to have another potential ally in all this shit.
“We’ll be working mainly in the library and attic,” I told Carl. “I’m sure we can stay out of each other’s way.”
“Good deal,” he said then returned to the kitchen.
Seretis made short work of shredding the wards protecting the library. We all filed in, and Idris went straight to work on the valve. Bryce let out a low whistle as he took in the horrific majesty of my aunt’s library. Shelves covered every vertical surface, all crammed with books, scrolls and papers. Books lay in tumbled disarray on the floor and in precariously balanced stacks on the heavy oak table. A crystal chandelier fit for a ballroom hung in the center of the room.
“Dear god, is Satan her librarian?” Bryce asked in amazement.
I laughed. “It’s insane, especially compared to the rest of her house which is always neat as a pin. I’ve never understood it.”
Seretis inspected the contents of the shelves, while Bryce peered at the books and papers on the table. I sent a calculating look around the library, mouth pursed.
“I’d love to relocate as much of this to my house as possible,” I said then sighed. “Except that it would piss off my aunt big-time.”
Bryce let out a rude snort and gave me a sidelong look. “You’ve pissed people off before, once or twice.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I said with an air of total innocence that earned me an even ruder snort. “That said, this
my aunt, and she’s been a major part of my life for almost twenty years. The destruction of her wards will have her furious enough as it is. I’ll restrain myself and only take a few books that might be useful.” And what would those be?
Arcane Fun Without the Arcane
Maybe I could write one.
No Skillz, No Prob: A Primer for the Arcanely Challenged.
Seretis paused in the far corner by a collection of various outdated publications with stimulating titles such as
The Chemical Rubber Company’s Handbook of Chemistry and Physics 37th edition
The Grand Tour Correspondence of Richard Pococke & Jeremiah Milles, Volume 3: Letters from the East (1737-41)
or, for extra thrills,
Ag and Food Statistics 1981: Charting the Essentials.
But instead of moving on like a sane person, he leaned closer, scrutinizing the books before glancing my way with a slight frown. “Have you ever used these volumes?”
I angled my head. “Logarithm tables, and the collected works of Leonid Brezhnev—in the original Russian? Gee, can’t say that I have. Why?”
He straightened, expression serious. “This section is warded specifically against you.”
A weird rush of cold filled my stomach. I swallowed. “I assume you can unward it?”
“Perhaps.” His fingers moved in deft execution of wards I couldn’t see. “I am not certain.”
The cold increased. “Who could ward it that you wouldn’t be certain?”
He exhaled. “Rhyzkahl.”
My blood pounded in my ears. I’d never taken any interest in the books on that shelf.
They’d been there for as long as I could remember. Boring. Unappealing. Even now the thought of reading one filled me with a sense of annoyance at myself that I’d waste my time on an activity so stupid and pointless. “Can you bring out whatever’s in there? Please?”
Seretis considered for a moment. “I can. The protections on the individual volumes are not as dire as those on this area.” He fell quiet, fingers moving in infinitesimal gestures. After several minutes, he gathered up a half dozen books and brought them to the table then made a second trip with another half dozen.
The books still had ordinary faded bindings and boring titles, but any curious kid would have pulled them out at least once. Unless, of course, powerful aversions countered that curiosity. I opened one after another, essence-deep chill increasing with each one. The faded bindings were fakes that hid other books—ones I would have pored over for hours on end. An ancient volume with hand-scribed information on the demonic lords. Histories of summoning. A ragged bestiary of non-summonable demons. A treatise on fundamental summoning, including the pygah sigil, which I’d never heard of until Mzatal taught me.
And, a journal filled with neat script on translucent vellum from the demon realm. Not Tessa’s handwriting either. The front sheet bore a beautifully rendered mark of Szerain in gold ink. On the following page was an exquisite portrait sketch of a young woman, with “Graciella Therese Pazhel” written in a bold hand below it.
I traced the curve of her cheek with shaking fingers. Gracie Pazhel. My grandmother, killed by Rhyzkahl over thirty years ago. I’d seen pictures of her, but this sketch by Szerain captured far more of
than any mere photograph. Proud and confident, with a half-smile as if she held a delicious secret. One she’d died for? Why had Tessa hidden Gracie’s legacy from me? And what else didn’t I know? The foundation I’d relied on for most of my life now felt as sturdy as tissue paper in a rainstorm.
“Were these warded against my aunt as well?” I pushed the words past the bitter taste that filled my mouth. Though I knew the answer, I had to ask. Had to cling to the hope that we’d both been duped and used.
Emotions churned as I dropped my gaze to the journal. “She lied to me,” I said, voice cracking.
“The qaztahl and their summoners are devious,” Seretis said with a heavy touch of self-loathing.
“I finally get hold of stuff I’ve needed, and now I can’t even use it.” My fingers dug into a fake binding, and I slammed the book against the table. “Ain’t that a piece of shit.”
Bryce muttered a curse. “You still balking at taking what you want?”
“Not anymore.” I lifted my chin. Hurt and anger and betrayal ricocheted within me. The last twenty years of my life—all a lie? “We’re taking it. We’ll rent a fucking moving van if we have to.”
He pulled out his phone. “I’ll get a rental. Don’t want to risk anything flying out of the bed of Vince’s truck. In fact I’ll see if he can call it in for me.” With that he stepped into the hall to make the arrangements.
Seretis gestured to an old photo of Tessa standing in front of her store for its grand opening. “This is the one you name Tessa Pazhel?”
“Yes, that’s my aunt,” I said. “After my dad died, she raised me and taught me how to be a summoner.” I scowled. “Except for the part where she left a bunch of crap out on purpose and lied to my face.”
“I remember her,” he said.
My eyes narrowed. “What do you remember?”
“She was Rhyzkahl’s shadow during the conclave twenty-two years past.” He studied the photo, stance rigid, eyes reflecting an anguish I couldn’t fathom. Because of Tessa? After a moment Seretis drew a deeper breath and turned away from the picture, face composed again. His regard settled upon me, and I knew he was reading my relationship with Tessa and anything relevant and on my mind. I shot a quick glance toward Idris, but he was so involved with the valve I could have been tangoing naked with Bryce and he wouldn’t have noticed.
“Her summoning chamber is in the attic,” I told Seretis. “Would you mind checking it as well?”
“If there are other locations such as this one, I will find them.” He rested a hand on my shoulder for a heartbeat then exited. Buoyed by the gesture, I busied myself pulling out books that I thought might be of the most use to us. I tucked my grandmother’s journal into my bag. I didn’t want to share that with anyone until I’d read it.
Bryce left and returned half an hour later with a beat up Y’all-Haul cargo van, attached trailer, and a billion boxes. By then Idris had finished with the valve, and I related a quick and dirty recap of the discovery for him. He let out a low whistle as he took stock of the hidden books.
“You learned to summon without ever mastering anchor lock sigils?” he asked, tone incredulous yet holding a dose of admiration.
“Yeah, well, I guess I’m good at bullshitting my way through life,” I said wryly.
He snorted then sobered. “Did you find any indication she knew about me?”
“Nothing yet,” I said with quiet sympathy, “but there’s a lot more to go through.”
He gave me a stiff nod then pitched in to help Bryce pack books.
“Is everything all right, Kara?” Carl said from the doorway. His mellow gaze took in the activity.
“Yeah, everything’s cool,” I said. I’d forgotten he was in the house. Not surprising considering how the discovery of Tessa’s perfidy had consumed my thoughts a teensy bit. “Need to move the contents of the library to my house.” I didn’t bother trying to blow smoke up his ass about how it would be safer there or anything like that.
“Ah,” he said. “Yes, better to spend the dragon’s hoard.” Without another word he slid into the room and joined our work. I didn’t try to make sense of his statement. This was Carl.