Authors: Diana Rowland
Unsettling enough on its own and, paired with Knight’s ominous words and Szerain’s unknown motivations, enough to give a girl nightmares. I tucked the journal back under the papers, returned my notebook to my purse, then toddled my ass off to bed. Nightmares or not, I intended to sleep like the dead.
No nightmares, eight hours of sleep, and a fresh pot of coffee had me feeling like a new woman. Voices in conversation reached me as I poured a cup. Coffee in hand, I stepped out onto the front porch and waved to Jill and Steeev
as they crossed the yard
. “Are you sure you feel okay to go to work?” I asked her after I descended the steps.
Steeev opened the passenger door of her car, then stepped aside and waited. Jill frowned up at me with one of her
Of course I’m fine
looks. “Steeev told me what happened, but I don’t remember any of it,” she said with a shrug. “Then again, I got fourteen hours of sleep last night, so I can’t complain too much.” She grinned at my discomfiture. “Don’t worry, I won’t make that my routine sleep aid.”
“Damn right you won’t,” I said as I approached and looked her over. She seemed fine, but it bugged me that we still had no clue how she’d gone from the house to the pond in a split second. “Anything funky with the bean after all that?”
“Nothing other than being quiet and letting me sleep all night. I’m usually up a dozen times to go pee.”
“Almost forgot to tell you, there’s been a change of plans,” I said. “I summoned Mzatal last night, and he’s sending Bryce and hopefully Idris through this morning. We’ll have a full house again.”
She eased herself into the passenger seat. “
have a full house. I have my mobile home to add one layer of separation from the chaos.”
I waited for her to lower the window after Steeev closed her door. “Speaking of chaos, do you mind if they borrow your other car?”
“That old thing needs a
of love,” she replied with a snort, “but they’re free to use it if they’re mechanically inclined. It’s parked by the crime lab because that’s where it last broke down. Keys are in it.”
“Guess we’ll see if Bryce knows engines,” I said, grinning. “If he can’t get it working, I’ll rent something.”
“You might want to get your credit card ready.”
“Call me if anything weird happens, okay?”
She rolled her eyes. “Yes, mom.”
I forced a smile. She hadn’t seen herself all lit up with power on the valve. Yeah, I was going to worry a teensy bit. Fortunately for my peace of mind, she had a demon bodyguard watching her every move. “See you tonight,” I said, then climbed back up the steps and watched them drive off. Weird life.
After finishing my coffee, I headed out to the nexus. I wouldn’t be
humans from the demon realm this morning. Instead, with Mzatal and another qaztahl “pushing” from the other side, my role would be more like catching a ball than reeling in a fish. Though I knew the theory, confidence warred with nerves. I enjoyed the challenge of new undertakings, and I had faith in my skills and training but, on the flip side, it
new. If I fucked up, the ones to pay the price would be the guys being sent to Earth.
No pressure, right?
Eilahn lay curled in her makeshift nest, and had probably been there all night absorbing energy. She lifted her head as I approached, then stood in a single fluid motion, bounded to the tree by the porch, and was up and onto the roof in a heartbeat.
Slowly pacing around the perimeter of the nexus, I searched for any residuals from Szerain’s escapade yesterday, relieved when all appeared normal. I moved to the center of the platform and reviewed my plan. Under ordinary circumstances, I wouldn’t need to do a thing to help bring the guys to Earth. After all, only a few weeks earlier Mzatal and Kadir had pushed me through without any help from this end. But with the arcane flows so discombobulated now, it would be harder for the lords to judge the trajectory and force of their push—like not knowing if a slide was greased.
In other words, I needed to make a big ol’ pillow—or a catcher’s mitt—with the shikvihr as the stuffing. The shikvihr was the advanced ritual foundation for arcane work, and thus far I’d mastered seven rings. Though its floating sigils wouldn’t coalesce for me on Earth until I acquired the eleventh ring, it still boosted my capabilities overall—like having an extra battery. I didn’t have to use a separate storage diagram anymore to stockpile potency for rituals.
I set the knife by my feet and chalked Mzatal’s sigil eleven times in a circle around me, then twice I mentally traced the simple flowing lines of the pygah sigil. Calm settled in, and I felt a click of connection with the nexus. I stood and began to dance the circles of the shikvihr, visualizing each sigil as I traced it in the air. Seven rings of eleven sigils each. As I completed and sealed the last circle, a tingle began in my feet and inched upwards. Laughing, I pumped my fist in triumph then hurriedly checked my watch. Five minutes until go time.
The potency flowed like wispy streams beyond the nexus. I extended my arcane senses into it, gathered strands to me then waited. A few minutes later the strands vibrated, signaling the beginning of the push. Focusing down into the nexus, I channeled potency and wound the strands through and around the shikvihr. The vibration increased, and without warning an arcane gale-force wind rose vertically from the ground, nearly ripping apart my magic catcher’s-mitt-pillow-thing. Heart hammering, I pulled more strands from beneath the nexus, reinforcing the entire structure. Seconds later a vortex, twenty feet across, opened below me, and I balanced on a tiny island above a roaring, lightning-shot chaos maelstrom.
Holy fucking shit!
Gulping down panic, I regrouped and struggled to keep my mitt-pillow as stable and secure as possible. The resonance in the strands fluctuated, and the roar of the vortex refined to a low pure tone. An instant later, specks from far below grew and resolved into Idris and Bryce hurtling upward.
I was above them. How the hell was I supposed to catch them without my mitt-pillow blocking their ascent?
Thinking quickly, I choked off the potency, like crimping a water hose, enough to alter the consistency of my mitt-pillow into a squishy-cloud. Bryce and Idris rose on the wind, tumbling and flailing to ground level and past. They slowed as they hit the squishy-cloud, yet the propelling force from the demon realm drove them through it and upward.
Grabbing strands, I slammed the vortex shut, but to my horror the two men were already at least fifteen feet above the ground. The arcane wind dropped to nothing, and they let out shouts of alarm as they stopped rising and tumbled down. I released the crimp in the potency hose and shoved power into the squishy-cloud-mitt-pillow even as both hit it. They slowed abruptly, then landed with a
on the concrete.
“Are you guys okay?” I called out as I anchored the wild flows.
Idris lay with his arms and legs splayed, staring up at the sky, his chest heaving. Bryce sat up and rubbed his shoulder. “Jesus fucking Christ!”
“I’m so sorry!” With sharp movements, I dispelled the shikvihr. “That didn’t exactly go as I’d expected.”
Idris rolled to his side, spat out blood, then shifted to sit crosslegged. “What a ride! I’ve never seen a portal like
before. And cool work with the impact cushion.”
I let out a weak laugh and plopped to sit. If it was new and different, Idris was all over it. At only twenty years old, he possessed an insanely keen knack for the arcane. He’d cropped his halo of blond curls down to a short and tidy style since I’d last seen him, and a selfish, wistful pang went through me at the sight. Not the sweet, innocent boy anymore. He looked years older now, features stronger. Coupled with his tall muscular build, he gave off a distinct “man to be taken seriously” vibe. Which he was, especially with Rhyzkahl for a daddy. Not that either of them knew.
I turned to Bryce. “You okay?”
Bryce stretched his arms out, nodded. “I’m good. The rough landing was more of a surprise than anything.” He stood up then grinned as I gaped in shock. “You think it’ll do?”
“Uh, yeah,” I said, still staring. Idris had cut his hair, but Bryce . . . I knew it was Bryce only because he’d come through the vortex. His previously brown hair was now jet black, and there were subtle changes to his facial structure as well. Higher, broader cheekbones. A cleft in his chin. An aquiline nose. Even his overall skin tone was somewhat darker.
” I said in astonishment. “And, hot damn, this sure solves a problem that’s been bouncing around in my brain.”
Bryce chuckled. Voice was slightly different too, I noted. “You mean that whole ‘wanted by the law’ detail?”
“That’s the one,” I replied with a smile. Though Paul had stripped electronic records of himself, Bryce, and Sonny from Farouche’s files before he sent them to the Feds, there were plenty of incriminating paper records remaining. “Who did the work?”
“Elofir and Seretis,” he said as he gave Idris a hand up. “Neither had ever done anything like this before, so I’m glad I ended up with something resembling a face.”
His smile widened and his voice held a fascinating warmth when he spoke Seretis’s name. Interesting. According to Mzatal, Bryce had spent the last week in Seretis’s realm. Great friends, or more? Though Seretis was bisexual, I’d been under the distinct impression Bryce was as heterosexual as they came. Whatever the situation, Bryce looked more relaxed than I’d ever seen him, despite having been shoved through a wormhole between universes . . . and despite being separated from Paul.
“Do you have a new name to go with your new face?” I asked.
“New last name only. Taggart.”
I gave him a teasing smile. “Afraid you’d forget to answer to Ignatius or Wally?”
“I’d refuse, not forget,” he shot back.
“What about fingerprints?” I said more seriously. “All it would take is an overachieving Fed to hear the name and wonder about a Bryce hanging out with me.”
He waggled his fingers. “The lords took care of that too.” Then he laughed. “As long as the lords didn’t accidentally match them to a suspect on the most wanted list, I’m good.”
“You sure seem to be,” I said. “The only way to nail you would be with a DNA comparison, and if you’re not already in a database that’s even better.” I gave him a questioning look, relieved when he shook his head. “No scars either,” I noted as I peered more closely. “Zero evidence of plastic surgery. You’re golden.”
I looked over at Idris and found that he’d efficiently tidied up the residual potency while I admired Bryce’s new look. “Thanks, dude,” I said with a smile, then picked up his duffel and slung the strap over my shoulder. “Least I can do is be your pack mule after dropping you like that. Let’s get y’all settled, and then we’ll catch up on news.
“I figured I’d let you have the basement,” I continued. “My summoning chamber takes up half of it, and Ryan turned the rest into a little man cave.”
Idris nodded, expression stony, then surprised me by taking his duffel back. “Katashi. Jerry Steiner. Aaron Asher.” His grey eyes darkened as he named the three men who had ritually raped, tortured, and murdered his sister Amber. Anger radiated from him like heat from a furnace, reminding me unpleasantly of a demonic lord’s aura though nowhere near as strong. “Do you know where any of them are?”
Yes, he was definitely one to take seriously. “The Feds and local authorities are looking for Jerry,” I told him, calm and clinical. “Last sighting was at a local hospital the day after the plantation raid, and then he dropped out of sight. I’ve heard nothing on Katashi, but I’m narrowing down possibilities for where he might be based in this area. No news on Asher either, and I suspect he might yet be in the demon realm.”
He closed his eyes and went still for several seconds. When he opened them again I saw cold focus in place of the anger. “Basement?” he asked.
“Middle doorway on the right side of the hall,” I said with a gesture toward the back door. “Let me know if you need anything.” I watched him stride off, then turned to Bryce. “Intense much?”
“You should’ve seen him a week ago,” he said grimly. “He’s out for blood. I understand why, but I hope it doesn’t get in the way of what needs to be done here.”
“You and me both,” I said with a sigh. “C’mon, you can take the guest room, and once y’all settle in we can sit down and make a plan.”
We headed inside, and Bryce detoured to the guest room to drop his satchel. He and Paul had stayed at the house before, which meant I didn’t have to show him around. After a few minutes he returned to the kitchen.
“Coffee?” I asked him as I shoveled cream and sugar into my own cup.
He dropped into a chair. “Actually, I’d love juice, if you have any.”
“Sure do. You have a choice between orange and orange.”
He chuckled. “I’ll take the orange, please.”
Smiling, I poured a glass and passed it to him. “How’s Paul?” I asked as I settled in the chair across from him. “Mzatal said Kadir took him.”
Bryce hesitated only an instant before replying. “He’s doing okay now,” he said, all humor gone. “Seretis, Elofir, and Mzatal did everything they could, but . . .” He took a sip of juice as if needing the strength to get through the painful memory. “Paul wasn’t getting better,” he went on. “He kept fading away, and finally Mzatal called for Kadir’s help.”
In other words, Mzatal had exhausted all other options. “Why did Kadir take Paul away? He wouldn’t agree to help him in Mzatal’s realm?”
,” Bryce said. “From what I understand, Kadir and his realm are ‘out of phase’ with the rest of the world, like a piano key out of tune.” Grief shadowed his face. “And, ever since the plantation, apparently so is Paul.”