Authors: Diana Rowland
“I think so.” She rested one hand on her belly. “The bean went crazy when the grass went flat, then crazier after you yelled at Ryan to stop. Hurt like hell.”
When he ignited the
. It wasn’t easy, but I managed to keep the frown off my face. “Different than normal?” I asked with polite interest and nothing more.
“More kicking and squirming than ever before, that’s for sure,” she said, nose wrinkling. “But since Zack’s been away recovering from the plantation stuff, there’ve been times when it’s felt as if she’s nothing but bony elbows and heels.”
“No need to worry,” I said with as straight a face as possible. “It’s just the wings and claws.”
“Don’t you dare tease me like that! I have ultrasounds that prove she’s free of wings or any other weird appendages.” Her smile eased into a frown. “Ryan was a dick, huh?”
“A-number-one,” I said with a scowl. “I got nothing from him except attitude and a vague generic warning to stay low. Whatever that means.”
“Maybe you need to stake out his office.”
“It might come to that if this crap goes on much longer.” I blew out a gusty breath. “I’m summoning Mzatal in a few days. If nothing shakes loose by then, I’ll see if he has any bright ideas.”
“If you two even bother with talking,” she said with a mischievous grin.
I forced a laugh. “We’ll manage to get a few words of conversation in between episodes of wild monkey sex.” Except that there probably wouldn’t be any wild monkey sex, not given his calculated emotional withdrawal. But no point in being mopey or making Jill feel bad for bringing it up.
Jill hooked her arm through mine. “If you’re really nice I’ll let you go to birthing class with me day after tomorrow.”
me, huh?” I smiled. “I’m not so sure about this deal.” I’d go with her, of course. Though she hadn’t said so, I knew she was asking me because Zack wasn’t around.
“You’ll love it!” she said as we headed inside. “Multimedia and everything.”
“I don’t want to see
.” Eilahn’s cat Fuzzykins curled around her litter of kittens at one end of the sofa, but I managed to get Jill settled on the other end with only a single warning hiss from the aggravating feline. “I want to see the bean when she arrives.
she’s all cleaned up and free of weird baby goo.”
“Pretty sure babies are never free of weird goo,” she said then sighed. “I wish we’d moved beyond ‘the bean’ as a name before Zack . . .” Her shoulders slumped.
Damn it, this was a sucky time for him to be an absentee dad. Despite Jill’s prodding, Zack had flat out refused to even toy with names, saying only that it was too soon to name her. We knew it was a “her” at least, but neither of us could get more than that out of Zack.
“We’ll show him,” I said. “By the time he gets home, we’ll have her name picked out. Juliana Sidney Faciane.”
Jill quirked a smile. “Yeah. Hannah Nicole Faciane.”
I held up my hand. “We’d better stop before we end up scarring Parsley Green Faciane for life,” I said, grinning. “How much longer until we have a baby?”
Jill chucked a sofa pillow at me. “Three weeks. I’m ready for her to be
“When do you plan to stop working?” Jill was a crime scene tech for the Beaulac Police Department, though she was currently relegated to non-field duties until after she had the baby.
“I’m not planning on it,” she said with a firm lift of her chin. “I’ll take time after she’s born.”
“I knew you’d be stubborn like that,” I said with a smile. “What does Steeev think about that?”
“He’s overprotective and proud of it.” Jill laughed. “I’m sure he’d prefer I hang out here all day and knit. Zack would too for that matter.”
“You’ve talked to him recently?”
Her face fell, and I immediately regretted asking. “Early this morning. He sounded better though. Told me not to worry.” She snorted. “Like that’s going to happen.”
“I can take pictures of you at the birthing class,” I said in a valiant effort to deflect the conversation away from Zack’s true state. “He’d love to see those.” My phone rang with Pellini’s name on the caller ID. “Sorry, I need to take this call. I won’t be long.”
Jill pushed awkwardly up from the sofa. “It’s cool. I need to be going anyway. Steeev’s mixing up an herbal concoction he says will be good for you-know-who.” She pointed at her belly. “Better not be vile or he’ll be wearing it. I’ll catch you later.”
I gave her a thumbs up and answered the phone. “Hey, Pellini.”
“Thought you weren’t going to answer,” he said in an oh-so-Pellini abrasive tone. “Wouldn’t be the first fucking time.”
“I almost didn’t,” I said, “but then I realized I’d miss your friendly banter.” I added “asshole” under my breath and didn’t really give a crap whether or not he heard it. Obviously a full day of Pellini being civil was too much for the universe to handle.
A sensation like static electricity on steroids crackled from my feet through my head followed an instant later by a wave of dizziness.
“Shit. Gotta go. I’ll talk to you later.” I dropped the phone onto the coffee table and ran for the back door.
Heart pounding, I burst out the back door and leaped off the porch. The valve’s normal tingly feel spiked to a nasty visceral buzz, signaling destabilization as clearly as a smoke alarm signaled my bad cooking. I pelted toward the woods and barely avoided an ugly sprawl when another wave of dizziness washed over me. Through bouts of vertigo, I staggered forward, hit the trail that led to the pond and wove through the trees as fast as I dared. A destabilized valve meant a potential overload of potency. Though my understanding of the valve system was superficial, I knew I had to repair that valve or risk an explosion.
A sudden eerie silence engulfed the woods as though the birds, insects, squirrels, and the trees themselves felt a premonition of doom. Sick uncertainty gripped me as I raced down the trail. My only experience with valve repair came from when I’d barricaded the valve node at the plantation—and I only knew how to do that because Kadir implanted knowledge of the required methods. But I needed to repair, not secure, this valve. My only hope was that I’d figure out a way to adapt Kadir’s info. Terrific. Our salvation depended on one of the Mraztur. My day was getting better and better.
I bolted into the clearing, then stumbled to an awkward stop and gaped in utter disbelief at the scene before me. The valve was on the far side of the pond, a rough circle of arcane energy approximately three feet in diameter. Jill stood in the center of it, surrounded by a twenty-foot high column of rippling arcane fire.
No. This couldn’t be real. Even with a thirty-second head start, no way could Jill have waddled out here faster than I’d run. I took a step forward, and another, but the scene stubbornly remained the same.
It was real. Sheer terror for my friend slammed in and spurred me into motion. “Jill!” I screamed as I raced around the pond toward her. “What are you doing? Get off the valve!”
Ignoring me, Jill spread her arms wide, opened her hands and tilted her head back. Around her feet the normal blue-green shimmer of the valve undulated in fiery orange like molten steel. None of this made any sense, yet I knew I had to get her off the valve. I charged her with the intent of doing a flying tackle but two strides from the valve, vertigo struck like a fist. Reeling, I dropped to my knees and clutched at the grass as the world tipped. Within a few seconds the vertigo passed only to be replaced by a crushing sensation as though gravity had increased tenfold. The power coursed around Jill, and the ground trembled as the valve emitted a whine like a cloud of pissed-off mosquitoes. Potency crackled over me like static electricity.
Hands gripped my shoulders and yanked me free of the valve. I landed in an unceremonious sprawl several feet away and immediately, Eilahn straddled me, intense and ferocious. “You must retreat.”
“No! I won’t leave Jill!” Agonized, I scrutinized the valve for a miracle that could save Jill. The constraining energy strands that should have been tightly twisted around its edge pulsed outward, frayed and perilously close to giving way. My gut turned to ice. If they failed, the valve would release the back pressure in an explosive burst—taking Jill with it.
Seemingly oblivious to her peril, she had yet to shift from her pose of head tipped back and arms outstretched. I struggled upright, but Eilahn seized my arm in an iron grip.
Jill gasped and stiffened. An instant later dozens of luminescent blue-green potency strands snaked from her waist to her feet and then outward to the edge of the valve. While I stared in astonishment, they moved like living things and interwove with the failing border to reinforce it. Within seconds the fiery orange around the valve changed to a less-ominous yellow-green, and the column of energy dissipated in a shimmer of purple.
Jill took two steps forward and off the valve, then swayed. Eilahn released me, and I sprang up to wrap my arm around Jill’s middle “You okay?” I asked, heart pounding as I anxiously searched her face.
She leaned against me and extended her hand toward the valve. “Made Zakaar’s valve better,” she said in a strangely lilting voice. “Not finished. You’ll have to do it.” She dropped her hand and lifted her face to mine, smiled. “Rhyzkahl cries for you, but don’t worry, I didn’t say hello.”
The fuck? “Um. Yeah, that’s good,” I said, totally weirded out. This particular valve was one Zack had created off the arcane trunk that originated in Rhyzkahl’s realm—which I knew only because Zack told me so. Maybe standing on the valve had allowed Jill to pick up impressions of that information? But that still didn’t explain why or how she was out here in the first place. “Jill, what did you do?”
She sagged against me, eyes fluttering. “Kara?”
“The one and only.” I carefully eased her to the ground then glanced toward Eilahn. “Where the hell is Steeev?” I hissed.
“Here,” he said, standing demon-still only a few paces behind me. Had he been there the whole time? If so, why hadn’t he intervened?
Jill sat up straighter. “How did I get out here?”
“That’s what inquiring minds want to know,” I said. “I was hoping you could tell me.”
The whine of the valve deepened to a thrum, and the ground shuddered—a not-so-subtle reminder that there was work yet to be done. Steeev crouched beside us, scooped Jill into his arms and stood smoothly. “I will care for her,” he said.
My questions clamored for answers, but this wasn’t the time. Jill’s eyes drifted closed, and her head lolled against Steeev’s shoulder as he turned and strode toward the path. I watched until they disappeared between the trees, then dropped to my knees beside the unstable valve and got to work.
• • •
Even with Eilahn’s help, it took over an hour to get the damaged border back to smooth coils and a blue-green glow. Mostly. An occasional flicker of orange remained, but I’d exceeded the limits of my knowledge, skills, and stamina. It didn’t help that odd percussion waves distracted me while I worked, as someone else tampered with the valve system either on Earth or in the demon realm. I had no way to tell if they were stabilizing a valve or cocking it up. One thing was clear: I was out of my depth when it came to valve repair.
Weary beyond measure, I dissipated my support sigils then went stock still. Rhyzkahl. His aura swept over me—so eerily strong that I had to look around, pulse hammering even as my eyes confirmed he wasn’t there with me. In the next breath the feel of his aura faded, leaving me wondering if I’d imagined it. Still, another dozen seconds passed before my heartbeat returned to normal.
Jill’s words whispered back to me.
Rhyzkahl cries for you
. Had she felt the same thing?
Pushing the weirdness from my mind, I closed down my work then collapsed, sweaty and exhausted, beside the valve. Sometime later Eilahn prodded me up, and as we walked back to the house she gave me a status update on the now-sleeping Jill. The last thing Jill remembered before she “woke up” at the pond was walking out the front door after my phone rang. Moreover, Steeev reported that he’d sensed nothing of Jill leaving the porch and going to the woods—which was, according to Eilahn, impossible. Wonderful.
Eilahn saw me to the back porch then headed to her nest. I flopped on the chaise lounge and considered the incident with the valve. As with any complex network, screwing around with one part affected everything else as well. When the four Mraztur came through the valve node at the Farouche Plantation, it fucked everything up. No way was mine the only valve at risk of destabilization. Clearly, I needed to check the known valves and add preemptive reinforcement. The gigantic hitch in that plan was the pesky fact that working on one little valve had kicked my ass—and at least half of what I’d done was guesswork. Not to mention, I doubted I’d be efficient since didn’t know enough about valves and how they worked.
But I knew someone who did.
Idris Palatino. An undeniably brilliant summoner, a friend, and—unbeknownst to him—my cousin. He’d spent the last several months as a captive of the Mraztur, forced to work closely with my nemesis, Isumo Katashi, toward the Mraztur’s ultimate goal of establishing a permanent gateway between Earth and the demon realm. Our rescue of Idris had set our opponents back, but I wasn’t foolish enough to believe they’d given up. Maybe Idris had recovered enough for Mzatal to send him here? That would be ideal.
I closed my eyes and listened to the familiar sound of the breeze through the pine needles, the croak of frogs, and the chirp of sparrows. Mzatal. He had his hands full in the demon realm with the disastrous arcane disruptions triggered by the plantation explosion, and I’d planned to delay summoning him for a few more days in the hopes that he’d be less slammed. Unfortunately, the valve issue and Jill’s escapade required immediate attention.
I mentally reached for Mzatal. We shared a profound etheric connection beyond anything comparable on Earth—like a merging of essence beyond time, thought, and space. We still had plenty of disagreements, but we were good for each other.
Were. A familiar blanket of sadness settled over me as I reached for him and sensed only a wispy touch. He’d withdrawn mentally and emotionally in order to forestall another catastrophic flare of fury like the one that had occurred during the plantation raid. Only a tiny chink remained in his self-made walls, enough for a precious thread of lifeline between us. As I touched it, I sent the impression that I was ever here for him followed by the more practical message that I intended to summon him tonight. I doubted anything beyond a faint sense of my presence got through, but I tossed in,
We need Idris on Earth
, just in case. Couldn’t hurt to try.
An angry hiss beside my head startled me out of my relaxed state, and it took a second for my brain to catch up with the fight-or-flight pounding of my heart. Fuzzykins. She stood on the porch railing by my head with her back arched and fur on end and gave me another heartfelt hiss.
“Really?” I said after a quick scan to see if there was anything wrong besides my presence. “You came out here just to hiss at me?”
The stupid cat sat and groomed her tail as though I didn’t exist.
Muttering something about worthless, ungrateful beasts, I stood and stretched until my joints popped. Unless I wanted to trash the summoning of Mzatal tonight, I needed a nap.
I stumbled into the house but paused by the open door of the laundry room. A nest of soft blankets held a pile of sleeping kittens—and Mama Fuzzykins was still on the back porch. Smiling, I gently extracted Fillion from his siblings and snuggled him to my cheek. The kitten wasn’t old enough to know it was supposed to hate all summoners.
Fillion and I snuggled into my bed, and the next thing I knew the dubious harmony of ringing phone and mewing kitten hauled me out of a deep sleep. I fumbled for the phone, squinted at the too bright screen before hitting the answer button. “Hey, Pellini.” I croaked.
“It’s only seven thirty,” he said gruffly. “I didn’t think you’d be asleep yet.”
“Life of leisure and all that.” I sat up and put the kitten on my lap.
“How about one p.m. for the plantation?”
“How about you tell me why you need me to go out there with you?”
“I don’t need you,” he said, “but with the kidnapping, murder, and rape charges on Farouche’s people, I think there might be a connection to the Palatino-Gavin murder case.”
Idris’s sister. The body in the semi-trailer. Damn. Pellini was actually sniffing down the right trail—one that led straight to my doorstep. I needed to keep a sharp eye on that. “And since my task force is attached to both cases, you want my input.”
“I figure it’s worth checking out.”
“I can rearrange my schedule to make that work.” Might as well let him think I was doing him a big favor. The truth was, after the near-disaster with my valve, I needed to get out to the plantation ASAP to make sure the valve node there remained secured and relatively stable.
“Meet me at the police station,” he said. “I’ll drive.”
“Works for me. See you then.” I started to disconnect, but hesitated when I didn’t hear the expected “bye” or “see ya” from Pellini. “Is there something else?”
“Uh,” he said then cleared his throat awkwardly.
, I thought in sudden desperation.
Please don’t let him ask me out for a beer again!
“Did you, uh, hear about the dog?” he said instead, as if we were making small talk over coffee at Grounds for Arrest. “The one animal control shot today?”
The kitten crawled off my lap to investigate a cozy spot beside my leg. “I heard a little on the radio,” I said, doing my best to keep my voice casual. “What about it?” And why on earth was Pellini bringing it up to me?
“The, uh, dog showed up outside the station and scared the shit out of a clerk, then ran when a couple of officers came out,” Pellini said. “I couldn’t get outside quick enough to do anything. Animal control tracked him all the way to Leelan Park and tried to tranq him, but it didn’t work.” His voice carried a definite edge of distress and none of the confrontational air of the beginning of the conversation. “They shot him.”
Him, I noted. Not it. Pellini sounded as if the incident affected him on a personal level. Was he a total softy when it came to animals?
“I know they wouldn’t have killed it if there’d been any other way to stop it,” I said as I filtered everything he’d told me. Given that the kzak first showed up at the police station, I had a sneaking suspicion it had arrived through the valve in the parking lot there. I stuck the PD at the top of my mental list of valves to check. It wasn’t a long list, but it was a start.