Authors: Diana Rowland
I fought down a shudder. I could barely tolerate Kadir’s presence for a few minutes. What kind of hell would it be to
with him? “Psychopath” didn’t come close to describing Kadir. Neither did “creepy, brilliant, tormented, sadistic, and unpredictable.” Not long after
Mzatal’s flare of rage accidentally burned Paul,
I’d worked side by side with Kadir to mitigate the damage. In the process, I unwittingly activated Kadir’s sigil scar on my side and merged with his consciousness. That link had lasted only seconds, but I gained uninvited and unwanted insight into the mental chaos the lord endured.
But surely Mzatal had forged an ironclad agreement that would keep Paul safe from the horrors of Kadir-style torment. Otherwise, why bother saving his life? “I’m glad he’s doing okay,” I said and tried hard not to let any of my apprehension show. “He’s a good guy.”
“Yeah.” Bryce met my eyes. He saw my worry and echoed it back tenfold, but neither of us voiced it. That would make it too real.
“What about Rhyzkahl?” I asked in a sharp change of subject. “Anything new with him?” Not that I gave two shits about the treacherous lord’s health, but curiosity drove me to compare reality to the dream visit.
Bryce seemed grateful for the shift in topic. “The demonic rumor mill says he hasn’t left his quarters since his return from the plantation and that he’s dependent on megadoses of pain concoctions.” He snorted. “I don’t know what Zack did to him, but it knocked him out of action.”
“Gee, that’s too bad,” I said with a syrupy smile. Fuck Rhyzkahl.
Bryce grinned. “I had a feeling you’d be real torn up by the news.”
The basement door opened, and Idris stepped out, messenger bag slung over one shoulder. I gave him a smile as he strode our way, but to my surprise he continued through the kitchen and toward the back door.
“Idris, wait,” I called after him. “I need to get you caught up on a few things.”
“I have to do something first,” he said tersely as he stalked out.
Bryce spread his hands and shrugged. Groaning under my breath, I moved to the sink and peered out the window. Idris crouched in the center of the nexus, then placed an oddly shaped object swathed in red cloth on the concrete and carefully unwrapped it.
I squinted to be sure I really was seeing a human forearm and hand there on the cloth. A second later, Idris dispelled my doubts by lifting the thing and holding it up like an offering to an unseen god of the sky.
“Are you shitting me?” I blurted.
“What’s wrong?” Bryce asked.
I pushed away from the sink. “Apparently I cut summoner class the day they taught Ritual Use of Body Parts for Fun and Profit,” I said, then ran out the back door and across the yard.
At the edge of the platform I paused to make certain Idris hadn’t activated the nexus. He held the severed arm aloft, his head tipped back and gaze locked onto it. Sweat glistened on his face, though I didn’t know if it was from whatever he was doing or the midday Louisiana summer sun. I eased closer then stopped a few feet away and waited. The arm had been severed below the elbow and cauterized, but more disturbing was how fresh it appeared, as though it had been attached to its rightful owner only minutes before. A thin-skinned and wrinkled owner.
A shimmer on the inner arm caught my eye.
No freaking way.
Shock and disgust roiled through me as I stared at the arcane symbol that glinted like a fine tattoo of delicate golden light. Mzatal’s mark—which meant this was
arm. A vicious smile tugged at my mouth. About six months prior, Katashi betrayed Mzatal and tried to capture me for the Mraztur. In what I considered a perfectly appropriate response, Mzatal sliced off Katashi’s arm right before his allies teleported him away. The Mraztur had since regenerated the missing limb for Katashi, but apparently this original arm—which bore Mzatal’s mark—had been arcanely preserved to keep it from rotting.
Idris remained in that position for several minutes, then lowered the arm and set it on the cloth. “Goddammit. Nothing.”
“What did you expect it to do?” I asked tartly. “Fly to Katashi like a homing appendage?”
Idris frowned at me. “I know it sounds crazy, but I’m sure I can use it to track him.” He scrubbed a hand over his face. “Obviously it’s going to take more work than I’d hoped.”
I crouched beside him. “You’re serious.”
“Dead serious,” he said. “Mzatal didn’t strip the mark which means Katashi carries the resonance.” He ran his finger over the parchment-thin skin and its intricate sigil. “Feel it.”
“Ew.” I made a face. “No thank you.”
He rolled his eyes. “Seriously?” He didn’t actually say
You’re a total weenie
but he might as well have.
“Ugh. Fine.” I brushed the mark with my fingers and caught my breath when a tingle shimmied up my arm. More Mzatal than Katashi in its feel. Emboldened, I laid my palm over it, smiling at the vivid sense of Mzatal’s presence. Yet beyond it a background vibration thrummed. Katashi. “That’s cool. And creepy.” I pulled my hand away, then wiped it on Idris’s shirt in the guise of patting him on the shoulder.
“I’ll find a way to use it.” Idris wrapped the arm in the silk and tucked the bundle into his messenger bag. “But first I need to assess the local valves.”
“Speaking of valves, there’s new info we all need to discuss.”
“I’m sorry I was so rude earlier,” he said quietly.
“It’s cool. Let’s go see if Jill left any cookies in the house.”
• • •
Jill had, indeed, left cookies in the house—white chocolate chip with macadamia nuts. The three of us sat at the kitchen table and munched cookies while I brought the guys up to speed on the latest Earthside events, including the blurry photo, Zack’s condition, Szerain’s antics, the pond valve instability, and Jill’s inexplicable actions on said valve.
Bryce’s eyes narrowed with worry as I related the last item. “She’s all right?”
I gave him a reassuring smile. “Right as rain, and the bean is still kicking up a storm.” Then I sobered. “I don’t know what happened out there, but I do know that if we hadn’t stabilized the valve, it could have been really bad. It’s why I asked Mzatal for help.” I snatched another cookie off the plate, grimaced. “The thing is, I have only a vague idea of how the valve system works. I know where a handful of valves are, and a little about stabilizing. I get that the Mraztur want to use the valve system as their personal highway to Earth, but that’s pretty much it.”
Idris jerked his shoulders up in a dismissive shrug. “All you need to know are the basics, and I can brief you on those,” he said. “You—I mean summoners in general—don’t have the skills to alter the valves.”
an insult, especially since I suspected he was correct. “But Katashi does,” I said. “And
“I don’t have a tenth of his knowledge, but I understand what he’s doing.”
“All right, I’ll leave the tricky bits to you,” I said then gave him a cheeky smile. “So, what does lowly little me need to know?”
Bryce snorted, but Idris merely frowned a
My sense of humor is temporarily out of order
frown. “The problems started when Rhyzkahl came through the plantation node before it was ready,” he said, leaning forward. “Like a man trying to cross a suspension bridge that only has five cables attached out of twenty.”
“Oh, I get it!” I said. “Those five cables aren’t enough to handle the stress, so crap starts breaking and swaying, which makes more things break, and so on.”
“Exactly. It damaged the node, and instability cascaded throughout all the valves, particularly in this area.” He snagged a cookie and began to break pieces off.
Bryce frowned. “But why have a valve system in the first place if it’s so damn touchy?”
Idris looked as shocked as if he’d suggested doing away with all the pesky wet stuff on the surface of the Earth. “Because the demon realm would destroy itself without it!”
“How?” I asked. “Why?”
“I don’t know details, but it’s as if the demon realm—the planet—has a generator at its core, and without an outlet it’ll overload and tear itself to pieces.” Idris crumbled the remaining cookie in his hand for emphasis. “The whole valve system bleeds excess potency off the demon realm and dumps it on Earth.”
“Is that what causes the valve node emissions that you and Katashi were tracking in Colorado and Texas?” I asked.
“Those are part of it, yes,” he said. “There’s a steady flow of potency to Earth along with occasional bigger bursts. Node emissions normally follow a regular pattern, whereas unpredictable emergency overloads surge through the whole system and disperse via both nodes and valves.” He scowled at the crumbs before him and swept them into a pile with sharp movements. “The problem is that instability screws up the distribution. Instead of an even spread, one valve gets an overload for the duration of the burst. Too much for too long, and it creates a situation like you had at the pond with the potential for a lot of damage.”
“How is a node different from a valve?” I asked. “Apart from size, I mean.”
“There’s not much difference on the Earth side,” he said. “Nodes are more robust than valves, like a branch compared to a twig. Functionally though, they’re the interdimensional conduits between the demon realm and Earth, which is how the potency actually gets from there to here.”
“Like an oil pipeline,” Bryce put in.
“Close,” Idris said with an approving nod. “Combine that with the bridge analogy and you have it. The nodes are big tunnel-bridges that carry the potency from the demon realm to here. When the potency gets to the end of the tunnel-bridge it empties into the pipelines—the valve network.”
“The node is in both worlds, but the valves are fully on Earth?” I asked.
He nodded. “Twelve trunks on the demon side—one in each lord’s realm and one with the Council. Each trunk splits into two valve nodes to create the bridges. The Earth end of each node branches into two valves, and each valve splits into a bunch of micro-valves.”
“To disperse the outflow,” Bryce said with a slow nod. “Without the valves and micro-valves the potency pollution could dump all in one place—”
“—and cause damage or disruptive changes,” Idris finished for him.
“Do you know the locations of all the local valves?” I asked.
From the side pouch of his messenger bag, Idris pulled a battered map that had been folded to isolate eastern Louisiana. Numbered red circles marked close to a dozen locations. “These are the sites Katashi shared when I was with him, but you might have some that I don’t.”
“Hang on.” I hurried to the computer room and returned a few seconds later with a map almost as battered as his and a single sheet of paper. “On this map are the valves I found when Tracy Gordon was trying to make a gate, along with locations that Rhyzkahl searched for on my computer.” I handed it over, then smiled and held the paper up. “But I
have Tracy’s journals—with map coordinates plus dates and times for the valve node emissions y’all were chasing. And, because I’m super awesome, I’m giving you this summary page so you don’t have to decipher the journals.” I placed it on the table with a flourish.
Idris offered a genuine smile. “Cool. That’ll be really helpful,” It took him less than a minute to compare both maps. “You have a few that I don’t,” he said as he marked them on his copy. “This area has the highest concentration of valves in the world.” He pushed his map to the center of the table so we could see. “Five nodes and ten valves within a hundred miles of here.”
“That explains why this place is so fucking weird,” I muttered.
Bryce let out a bark of laughter. “What I don’t get is, if they could build a valve system to cross dimensions, why couldn’t they make it vent to space or onto an unpopulated planet?”
“I have no freaking idea,” Idris said with a helpless shrug. “I asked Katashi the same question, but if he knew he didn’t want to tell me.”
“Speaking of that steaming piece of shit,” I said, “how do we fix what he’s screwed up?”
“I’ll know more once I check out a few valves,” Idris said. “In theory, the ones he worked with directly are most likely to destabilize, so for now the plan is to assess the valves and stabilize as needed.”
Bryce cleared his throat. “Why can’t we put an end to this shit by closing off the valves before Katashi gets to them? Like Kara did at the plantation.”
Idris gave me a startled look. “Close off valves? How?”
Oh, right. He hadn’t seen what I did to the plantation valve node because he’d already left with Mzatal by the time I sealed it. “Hate to rain on your parade,” I said, “but it’s not that simple. The barricade seal is a last resort. Think of it as a storm grate. It lets potency flow through while keeping lords out. It also does a decent job of stabilizing. The problem is that it blocks about thirty percent of the potency flow.”
Idris winced. “So it’s a good emergency measure, but too many valves and nodes blocked like that would create back pressure in the system.”
“Yep,” I said. “Kablooey.”
“All right, we’ll stick to the plan. Assess and stabilize.” His voice went hard and cold. “
we take down Katashi.”
“I know the area pretty well,” Bryce told Idris. “I can take you where you need to go.”