Authors: Diana Rowland
“I’ve heard a couple of them,” I said. “Nothing alarming, but I’ll keep them in mind.” I didn’t know what “akar” meant, but the Ekiri were an ancient race that abandoned the demon realm thousands of years past. Xharbek was Szerain’s demahnk ptarl, though he was deep in hiding for reasons unknown to me. I didn’t recognize Ashava or the longer phrase. “You have my number. Keep me posted on how Zack’s doing, please.”
“You got it, Kara.”
“You’re the best,” I said. And I meant it.
With that I headed for my car. Nearby, Eilahn leaned on the seat of her new Ducati motorcycle, her helmet under one arm, and her foot propped on the curb. With her sleek multiethnic look and hot chick body, she might as well have been posing for a motorcycle pinup calendar.
Her gaze slid to the front door of the house, and her face tightened into an expression of disdain. “I tolerate phone communications,” she said as she turned her glare on me, “but I do not approve of in-person consort with the
I matched her syraza glare—hell, I doubled it. “Get. Over. It.” In the eyes of demons, Zack was a kiraknikahl, an oathbreaker, having openly shattered the most sacred and hitherto unbreakable oath—his ptarl bond to Rhyzkahl. I, however, wasn’t blindly stuck in bullshit custom. “Let me be clear,” I said. “I get that you disapprove of him because of his actions, and that’s your prerogative. No one’s asking you to sully yourself by
with Zack. But I absolutely will
tolerate anyone disrespecting him in front of me. Everything will be cool if you keep your hostile opinions about Zack and me to yourself. He’s no threat. To anyone.”
She pursed her full lips then nodded. “Your conditions are understood and accepted,” she said with only a trace of petulance in her voice. “Agreed.”
I smiled. “Agreed.” She believed what she believed, but in the end all she wanted to do was protect me. “Out of curiosity, how old does a syraza have to be to become an Elder syraza, a demahnk?”
“Your question is nonsensical and has no answer.”
I tamped down my amused annoyance. At times my demon bodyguard seemed to enjoy being a smartass. “Then help me understand. How does a syraza become an Elder syraza?”
“That is like asking how a
.” She lifted one shoulder in a so-there shrug. “Or how a hamster becomes a crocodile.”
“No,” I said. She obviously didn’t understand what I was asking. “Those are different entirely different spe—” I stopped and did an open-mouthed gawk. “Hold on. Syraza and Elder syraza aren’t the same
Elders look like big syraza with a few extra ridges and stuff. And you call them Elder syraza!”
Her hair flowed over her shoulders as she shook her head. “No, the demon designations are syraza and demahnk,” she said. “Syraza simply translates to shapeshifter. All demahnk are syraza, but not all syraza are demahnk. The ten demahnk are ancient. The oldest living syraza has lived less than one thousand years.” She gave me a sweetly patronizing smile. “To keep it simple for humans, we designate younger and Elder syraza.”
Demon logic. “I’m human and, speaking for all humanity, that’s
“Have you had difficulties with the terms before now?”
“No, but—” I stopped myself before I plummeted further down the logic hole. I got it. Most humans wouldn’t need more of a designation than younger and Elder.
Her smile turned smug. “There. All cleared up.”
“Ten demahnk? Zack is still demahnk, even if you shun him.”
“Yes, that is immutable. But Xharbek is no more.”
“Oh. Right.” No point in telling her she was likely wrong, especially when I had no solid evidence to support my belief. The demahnk Helori had told me that most demons considered Szerain’s ptarl to be dead, yet he believed Xharbek was alive and in hiding. Moreover, Zack’s count of demahnk had been eleven, not ten. I’d side with the demahnk on this one. But why was Xharbek in hiding? Szerain could sure as hell use the added stability. And why did the demons think Xharbek was dead?
Eilahn’s smile faded and she closed her eyes. My concern rose at the stress lines on her brow and around her eyes, and the slight tremor in her hands. “We need to get you back to the house,” I said. Before Rhyzkahl had revealed himself as a lying, treacherous scumbag, he’d placed Eilahn with me, which meant her ability to remain on Earth depended on arcane support from him. With him stricken, that support was virtually nonexistent. Instead she was forced to spend time on the “mini-nexus” on my property, drawing what power she could. It seemed to be working, at least so far.
“That would be most wise,” she said and donned her helmet. In a graceful movement she mounted the Ducati and zoomed off, the throaty Italian purr of the bike fading as she receded in the distance. I wasn’t worried that she’d ditch me. She’d drop in behind my car as soon as I got on the road.
Indeed, within a tenth of a mile she and her bike slipped behind me. I cranked up the air, turned on the radio, and tried to pretend I was a normal person on a normal day.
That lasted less than five minutes. Mocking banter on the Terry & Kerry afternoon show riveted my attention, and I turned the AC down a notch in order to better hear. The traffic jam earlier had been the result of a fender bender, one caused by a black “devil dog” that had bounded over the hoods of several cars with animal control in hot pursuit. The hosts entertained themselves and listeners by baiting a caller who insisted the animal wasn’t a dog because it had double rows of teeth and spoke. Amidst gales of laughter, Kerry latched onto that one. “Speak, boy, speak!” and “Never heard a dog speak before. Woof!” That bit of fun complete, they cracked jokes about pink elephants and officers needing glasses since, not only did tranquilizers fail, but after cops shot the beast they couldn’t find a body. The consensus of the hosts and callers was that obviously the shots missed the dog and it remained at large.
I listened, palms sweating on the steering wheel. The “devil dog” nickname was very possibly closer to the truth than they knew. I was willing to bet Eilahn’s new bike that the “dog” was a
, a vicious demon species that could easily pass for a large dog at a distance. I’d had up close and personal experience with one that had been sent after either me or Ryan. Zack had brought it down with several well-placed shots, and it had discorporeated upon death, as did any demon killed on earth.
Fortunately, today’s unwelcome visitor hadn’t hurt anyone, but that didn’t put my mind at ease. It had been sent from the demon realm for a purpose, and I doubted it was to play fetch at the park. I added the incident to my long list of things to stress out over, switched the radio station to mindless music, and continued on home.
Arcane protections rippled over me as I drove up the winding driveway toward my house, and the familiar pine woods soon blocked all view of the gate, road, and outside world. A not-unpleasant background tingle touched my senses from the arcane valve by my pond like a subtle welcome home. It was one outlet of the complex relief valve system between the demon realm and earth, except instead of water or gas the system regulated arcane power.
My spirits lifted more as my lovely blue, single-story Acadian came into sight. My grandparents had built the house, situating it over a confluence of Earth potency flows and atop a low hill. The elevation made it possible to have a basement—a rarity in south Louisiana due to the high water table, yet perfect for a demon summoning chamber. My grandmother had also been a summoner, which meant it had likely been intended as such from the beginning.
To my surprise, I spotted Ryan’s Crown Victoria in its usual place in the driveway as though he hadn’t been incommunicado since my return. After parking, I hurried up the steps and into the house, more than ready for long overdue answers. No sign of him in the living room or kitchen, but as I turned to check the basement I caught sight of Jill through the kitchen window. She stood in the backyard, arms akimbo and facing away from me while several yards beyond her, Ryan paced, head lowered.
The screen door creaked as I stepped out onto the porch, and the very pregnant Jill glanced my way. “I was about to call you,” she said. “He showed up a couple of minutes ago and went straight there.”
was a circular concrete slab that I’d paid several nice rednecks to pour for me last week. More importantly, it was the mini-nexus. In the years since my grandparents built the house, the confluence had drifted from beneath the basement to my backyard—similar to the movement of tectonic plates. Several weeks ago, Mzatal and I spent the better part of a day refining and enhancing it to create an arcane focal point much like the nexus in each demonic lord’s realm. Without othersight or arcane talent, it looked like smooth concrete and nothing more. But to those who could
, it pulsed as a broad circle of pale blue luminescence and radiated potency like heat from asphalt in July. It amped up any arcane rituals, patterns, or processes conducted upon it, and Mzatal had used it as a “potency recharging station” to counter the draining effects of being on Earth. Eilahn took advantage of that feature of our nexus as well, which was how she could remain here without Rhyzkahl’s support. She’d created a nest of pine boughs and leaves on the far side of the nexus, on the grass but flush against the concrete.
At the very center of the slab, stood Ryan. No,
The demonic lord had spent over fifteen years on Earth as Ryan, during which time he’d learned how to diminish his aura of potency and hide in the guise of a human. But he wasn’t fooling me. I had no doubt it was one hundred percent demonic lord Szerain in control out there.
A quick survey of the area revealed Eilahn on the roof of the house, along with Steeev, Jill’s bodyguard. Both were syraza in human form, watching the situation unfold and ready to intervene with demon speed at the first indication of danger. Eilahn crouched atop the chimney, her gaze riveted on Szerain. Steeev stood on the crest of the roof beside her, dark skinned, beautiful, and utterly motionless.
Szerain knelt and placed his palms flat on the slab. A wave of potency rolled over me, stinging like wind driven sand and setting the grass a foot around the concrete eerily vertical and vividly chartreuse.
Jill took a step back from the unnerving display as I moved up beside her. In the next instant the grass flattened toward the center, and I felt a tugging tickle as potency flowed toward Szerain. On my torso the eleven sigil scars left by Rhyzkahl prickled and itched while the twelfth—the sigil Szerain had altered and ignited—began to pulse at the small of my back.
Holding back a shudder, I sought a clue of Szerain’s purpose as I concentrated on the feel of the potency flow and the reaction of my scars. “He say what he’s doing?”
“Not a word,” Jill said. “I might as well be a recording of ‘Where have you been?’ and ‘What are you doing?’”
I had no answer to the “where” part, but I knew the “what”—at least vaguely, which was more than I would have had a year ago. Mzatal’s training, along with all the intense practical experience of the past year, allowed me to discern that Szerain drew a delicate web of potency toward him, like a fisherman hauling in a net. But what was he trying to catch?
A pins-and-needles sensation prickled over me as I stepped to within a few inches of the outer edge of the nexus. “Ryan—
—what are you looking for?”
“Not now,” he growled.
Annoyed, I bit back a tart response. “I don’t exactly know what he’s doing,” I said to Jill, “but disrupting it might not be the best plan since possible worst case scenarios could include the end of the world as we know it.”
“Oh, is that all?” She folded her arms over her belly and narrowed her eyes at me. “How do you know he’s not
to end the world as we know it?”
Her remark hit too close to the truth for my comfort. Centuries ago, Szerain had triggered a cataclysm in the demon realm—changing that world drastically if not actually ending it. Moreover, for the past fifteen years he’d been imprisoned and exiled to Earth for an offense I had no information about. He’d only been free a short time and surely wasn’t embroiled in anything that intense. Yet. I was
I kept my expression confident. “I’m forming a judgment based on what I can sense,” I gestured toward Szerain, “along with the fact that he hasn’t screwed us over yet,”
that we know of
, I silently added, “and my hope that I’m not being an idiot.”
That final one was the kicker. My history with Szerain left me with more questions than answers. The last time I’d seen him on the nexus was shortly after the plantation conflict, when the Mraztur’s “virus” threatened to strip my identity and transform me into Rhyzkahl’s thrall, Rowan. Through drastic actions, Szerain removed the viral imprint in time to save me. However, the process not only allowed him to activate the twelfth sigil on my torso, but also let him reclaim his essence blade, Vsuhl. With the arcane support of the blade, he freed himself from his submersion and imprisonment as Ryan, rendering him fully able to speak and act as Szerain. Since then, to my enormous frustration, he’d given me no answers about the significance of the activated twelfth sigil or what he intended to do now that he was free.
The three essence blades were the wild cards in all of this. Millennia ago, Mzatal created Khatur for himself, Xhan for Rhyzkahl, and Vsuhl for Szerain. I knew they were far more than mere knives. I’d possessed Vsuhl for a short time and
its sentience, and only later realized the subtle influence it had exerted over my thoughts and feelings. Perhaps the lords weren’t as susceptible to the effect as a mere human was, but they most certainly weren’t immune.
Uneasy, I watched as Szerain wound in the last strands of the net. Potency like blood-red lightning and shadow arced from his fingertips to the slab then spread over the circle like crimson fire.
Nausea slammed through me. I clamped my forearm across my belly and fought to keep my knees from buckling. My mind swam with hideous memories of the same vile potency flickering on the blade in Rhyzkahl’s grasp. Steeev screeched and made an inhuman leap from the roof to the ground, with Eilahn hot on his heels. The sigil at the small of my back writhed like a living thing, and I pressed my free hand over it in a useless attempt to still it. “Szerain! Stop!”
Eilahn bristled beside me, teeth bared. “
,” she said. The word cut through the air like a weapon.
. Growling, Steeev pulled Jill back from the nexus. She’d gone pale and had both hands clasped on her belly. The twelfth sigil flared like branding heat, and I sucked in a hissing breath. Jill let out a sharp cry of pain, and Steeev swept her into his arms and carried her away.
“Szerain! Stop it!” I screamed, fury rising as he continued to ignore me. How dare he use
on Earth, on
right next to a pregnant woman? Screw this. Maybe his intentions were all rainbows and butterflies, but how was I to know since he refused to tell me? All I had were my instincts, which told me this was
and I needed to stop it.
With Eilahn following me like a lithe shadow, I stalked the perimeter of crimson flame in search of a weak point I could use to disrupt Szerain’s process. I stopped to assess each ripple in the pattern, frustration rising as I reviewed and discarded ideas.
Without thinking, I stepped over a small dip in the grass, then paused. I’d known the shallow depression was there because it was in
backyard. I’d lived here most of my life and remembered the tree that fell to make the dip—even knew which hurricane brought it down. And the nexus was mine as well. I’d played a major role in creating this hot spot. My confidence flowed back in, drowning the frustration. Maybe, just maybe, the nexus would listen to its mama.
Going still, I mentally extended—not to the
or Szerain, but far below, to the lightning-forged heart of the convergence. I called to it, elated as I felt a sluggish response. “That’s it,” I murmured, weirdly reminded of connecting with the groves in the demon realm. “C’mon, sweetheart. I don’t need much.”
It didn’t give me much, but it was enough. The ground shuddered, and the arcane light of Szerain’s pattern flickered and dimmed.
Szerain spun to face me, desperation radiating from him as he fought to maintain the integrity of his patterns. Locking my eyes on his, I once again called to the nexus. The air crackled with our combined intensity, but a moment later Szerain let out a strangled cry of frustration and jerked his arms down to his sides. With the abrupt motion, his arcane structures shredded, dissipating both
and normal potency with a shrieking hiss. The air around it went as well, and I staggered as the brief vacuum sucked my breath away.
An instant later the sigil at the small of my back went cold and quiet. Szerain strode away from the nexus without a glance my way. Off-balance both physically and mentally, I dragged in fresh air then scrambled to follow as he headed around the house.
“Hey!” I hurried to catch up to him, Eilahn in my wake. “Damn it, Szerain. Stop and talk to me!”
“I can’t stop.” He turned brusquely toward me, though he continued to walk backward. For the first time since arriving home I got a good look at his face. Ryan’s ruggedly handsome features, but far more intense and with dark circles under keen, haunted eyes. “Especially not here,” he went on, jaw tight. “Trashing my nexus grid was like sending up a flare.”
I bristled at his arrogance. “You come here without so much as a phone call, flaunt dangerous-as-shit potency like it’s nothing, and expect me to stand by and twiddle my thumbs?”
saved your life not so long ago.” He pivoted sharply and continued toward the driveway.
“Trust me, I remember! And you haven’t answered any of my questions about that.” I broke into a jog to keep up with his long strides. “What’s the purpose of the twelfth sigil? Why is it active?”
“Not here. Not now,” he said without slowing.
“Why not here? Who or what are you searching for?”
“It doesn’t matter now.” He glanced back, and I saw a flicker of fear in his eyes. “This is bigger than you. Bigger than me.”
Alarm shot through me. “The Mraztur?” Rhyzkahl, Amkir, Jesral, and Kadir—demonic lords who wanted unrestricted access to this world and didn’t care who got fucked over in the process. “Is one of them on Earth?”
Szerain barked out a laugh, short and humorless. “I’m not afraid of those assholes.” He reached his car and pulled the door open. “Stay low, Kara. Stay off the radar.”
“Gee, that’s so helpful,” I said with a sneer, but his alarm had me unsettled. “Give me a hint of what to watch out for?”
He dropped into the seat and shoved keys into the ignition. “I wish I could.” Before I managed to snap back at that lame response, his entire body jerked as if he’d seized a live wire. Fear spasmed across his face again. “I
go,” he gasped, then slammed the door and cranked the engine.
me?” I yelled over the revving of the motor. “Goddammit, Szerain, I need to talk to you!”
But apparently he didn’t need to talk to me. Without another glance my way, he threw the car into reverse, sending gravel flying as he backed up, and forcing me to retreat or get nailed by the rocks. I extended my thumb and pinky in a mocking
gesture as he turned and sped down the driveway, then I scooped up the biggest chunk of gravel within reach and hurled it at his cloud of dust. “You
Jill waddled out the front door and onto the porch. “You okay?”
“No!” I took a breath and mentally traced the
sigil to help me calm and center. “Yes,” I said with far less rage-face than before, “other than dealing with more demonic lord bullshit and having a billion unanswered questions.” I quickly thanked Eilahn for her help and ordered her back to her nest to recharge, then joined Jill on the porch. Her color was back, I noted with relief. “How about you? Everything all right?”