/ Language: English / Genre:sf_horror / Series: The Hollows

Black Magic Sanction

Kim Harrison

Rachel Morgan has fought and hunted vampires, werewolves, banshees, demons, and other supernatural dangers as both witch and bounty hunter—and lived to tell the tale. But she's never faced off against her own kind . . . until now. Denounced and shunned for dealing with demons and black magic, her best hope is life imprisonment—at worst, a forced lobotomy and genetic slavery. Only her enemies are strong enough to help her win her freedom, but trust comes hard when it hinges on the unscrupulous tycoon Trent Kalamack, the demon Algaliarept, and an ex-boyfriend turned thief.

BLACK MAGIC SANCTION

Rachel Morgan Series, Book 8

Kim Harrison

To the guy in the leather jacket

I'd like to thank Richard Curtis, my agent, and Diana Gill, my editor. The more I know, the more I appreciate them and what they do.

One

 Tucking my hair back, I squinted at the parchment, trying to form the strange angular letters as smoothly as I could. The ink glistened wetly, but it wasn't red ink, it was blood—my blood—which might account for the slight tremble as I copied the awkward-looking name scripted in characters that weren't English. Beside me was a pile of rejects. If I didn't get it perfect this time, I'd be bleeding yet again. God help me, I was doing a black curse. In a demon's kitchen. On the weekend. How in hell had I gotten here?

Algaliarept stood poised between the slate table and the smaller hearth, his white-gloved hands behind his back. He looked like a stuffy Brit in a murder mystery, and when he shifted impatiently, my tension spiked. "That isn't helping," I said dryly, and his red, goat-slitted eyes widened in mocking surprise, peering at me over his smoked spectacles. He didn't need them for reading. From his crushed green velvet frock to his lace cuffs and proper English accent, the demon was all about show.

"It has to be exact, Rachel, or it won't capture the aura," he said, his attention sliding to the small green bottle on the table. "Trust me, you don't want that floating around unbound."

I sat up and felt my back crack. As I touched the quill tip to my throbbing finger, my unease grew. I was a white witch, damn it, not black. But I wasn't going to write off demon magic just because of a label. I'd read the recipe; I'd interpreted the invocation. Nothing died to provide the ingredients, and the only person who'd suffer would be me. I'd come away from this with a new layer of demon smut on my soul, but I'd also have protection against banshees. After one had nearly killed me last New Year's Eve, I'd willingly entertain a little smut to be safe. Besides, this might lead to a way to save Ivy's soul when she died her first death. For that, I'd risk a lot.

Something, though, felt wrong. Al's squint at the aura bottle was worrisome, and his accent was too precise tonight. He was concerned and trying to hide it. It couldn't be the curse. It was just manipulating an aura, captured energy from a soul. At least... that's what he said.

Frowning, I glanced at Al's cramped handwritten instructions. I wanted to go over them again, but his peeved expression and his soft growl convinced me it could wait until the scripting was done. My "ink" was running thin, and I dabbed more blood from my finger to finish some poor slob's name, someone who trusted a demon... someone like me. Not that I really trust Al, I thought, glancing at the instructions once more.

Al's spelling kitchen was right out of a fantasy flick, one of four rooms he had recovered after selling almost everything to keep his demon ass out of demon-ass jail. The gray stone walls made a large circular space, most of which was covered in identical tall wooden cabinets with glass doors. Behind the rippled glass, Al kept his books and ley-line equipment. The biological ingredients were in a cellar to which access was through a rough hole in the floor. Smoky support beams a good forty feet up came to a point over a central fire pit. The pit itself was a round, raised affair, with vent holes to draw the cold floor air in by way of simple convection. When it got going, it made a comfortable spot for reading, and when fatigue brought me down, Al let me nap on the benches bracketing it. Mr. Fish, my beta, swam in his little bowl on the mantel of the smaller fire in the fireplace. I don't know why I'd brought him from home. It had been Ivy's idea, and when an anxious vampire tells you to take your fish, you take your fish.

Al cleared his throat, and I jumped, fortunately having pulled my quill from the parchment an instant before. Done, thank God. "Good?" I asked, holding it up for inspection, and his white-gloved, thick-fingered hand pinched it at the edge where it wouldn't smear.

He eyed it, my tension easing when he handed it back. "Passable. Now the bowl."

Passable. That was usually as good as it got, and I set the painstakingly scribed bit of paper beside the unlit candle and green bottle of aura, taking up Al's favorite scribing knife and the palm-size earthen bowl. The knife was ugly, the writhing woman on the handle looking like demon porn. Al knew I hated it, which was why he insisted I use it.

The gray bowl was rough in my hand, the inside inscribed with scratched-off words of power. Only the newly scribed name I was etching would react. The theory was to burn the paper and take in the man's name by way of air, then drink water from the bowl, taking in his name by water. This would hit all four elements, earth and water with the bowl, air and fire with the burning parchment. Heaven and earth, with me in the middle. Yippy skippy.

The foreign-looking characters were easier after having practiced with the parchment, and I had it scratched on a tiny open space before Al could sigh more than twice. He'd taken up the bottle of aura, frowning as he gazed into the swirling green.

"What?" I offered, trying to keep the annoyance from my voice. I was his student, sure, but he would still try to backhand me if I got uppity.

Al's brow furrowed, worrying me even more. "I don't like this aura's resonance," he said softly, red eyes probing the glass pinched in his white-clad fingers.

I shifted my weight on my padded chair, trying to stretch my legs. "And?"

Al's focus shifted over his glasses to me. "It's one of Newt's."

"Newt? Since when do you need to get an aura from Newt?" I asked. No one liked the insane demon, but she was the reigning queen of the lost boys, so to speak, and knew everything—when she could remember it.

"Not your concern," he said, and I winced, embarrassed. Al had lost almost everything in his effort to snag me as a familiar, ending up with something vastly more precious but broke just the same. I was a witch, but a common, usually lethal genetic fault had left me able to kindle their magic. Al's status was assured as long as I was his student, but his living was bleak.

"I'll just pop over and find out who it is before we finish this up," he said with forced lightness, setting the bottle down with a sharp tap.

I looked at the assembled pieces. "Now? Why didn't you ask her before?"

"It didn't seem important at the time," he said, looking mildly discomfited. "Pierce!" he shouted, the call for his familiar lost in the high ceilings coated in shadows and dust. Mood sour, he turned to me. "Don't touch anything while I'm gone."

"Sure," I said distantly, eying the green swirling in the bottle. He had to borrow an aura from Newt? Jeez, maybe things were worse off than I'd thought.

"The crazy bitch has a reason for everything, though she might not remember it," Al said as he tugged his sleeves over his lace cuffs. Glancing at the arranged spelling supplies, he hesitated. "Go ahead and fill the bowl. Make sure the water covers the name." He looked at the image of an angry, screaming face scribed into his black marble floor. It was his version of a door in the doorless room. "Gordian Nathaniel Pierce!"

I pushed back from the table as the witch popped into the kitchen atop the grotesque face, a dish towel over his shoulder and his sleeves rolled up. "I'd be of a mind to know what the almighty hurry is," the man from the early 1800s said as he tossed his hair from his eyes and unrolled his sleeves. "I swan, the moment I start something, you get in a pucker over nothing."

"Shut up, runt," Al muttered, knowing that to backhand him would start a contest that would end with Pierce unconscious and a big mess to clean up. It was easier to ignore him. Al had snared the clever witch within an hour of his first escape, the demon taking great pains to keep us apart during my weekly lessons until Al realized I was ticked with Pierce for having willingly gone into partnership with Al. Partnership? Hell, call it what it was. Slavery.

Oh, I was still impressed with Pierce's magic, which far outstripped mine. His quick one-liners, in his odd accent, aimed at Al when the demon wasn't listening still made me smirk. And I wasn't looking at his long, wavy hair, or his lanky build, much less his tight ass, damn it. But some time shortly after seeing him naked under Carew Tower's restaurant, I'd lost the teenage crush I'd had on him. It might have been his insufferable confidence, or the fact that he wouldn't admit how deep in the crapper he was, or that he was just a little too good at demon magic, but for whatever reason, that devilish smile that had once sparked through me now fell flat.

"I'm stepping out for a tick," Al said as he buttoned his coat. "Merely checking something. A tidy curse is a well-twisted one! Pierce, make yourself useful and help her with her Latin while I'm gone. Her syntax sucks."

"Gee, thanks." The modern phrases sounded odd with Al's accent.

"And don't let her do anything stupid," he added as he adjusted his glasses.

"Hey!" I exclaimed, but my eyes darted to the creepy tapestry whose figures seemed to move when I wasn't looking. There were things in Al's kitchen that it was best not to be alone with, and I appreciated the company. Even if it was Pierce.

"As the almighty Al wishes," Pierce said dryly, earning a raised eyebrow before Al vanished from where he stood, using a ley line to traverse the ever-after to get to Newt's rooms.

In an instant, the lights went out, but before I could move, they flashed back to life, markedly brighter as Pierce took over the charm, telling me it wasn't the demon-curse light charm I knew. Alone. How... nice. I watched him meticulously drape his damp dish towel to dry on the top of the cushioned bench that circled the central fire pit, and then, jaw clenched, I looked away. Standing, I moved to keep the slate table between us as Pierce crossed the room with the grace of another time.

"What is the invocation today?" he asked, and I pointed to it on the table, wanting to look at it again myself but willing to wait. His hair fell over his eyes as he studied it.

"Sunt qui discessum animi a corpore putent esse mortem. Sunt erras" he said softly, his blue eyes shocking against his dark hair as he looked up. "You're working with souls?"

"Auras," I corrected him, but his expression was doubtful. There are those who believe that the departure of the soul from the body is death. They are wrong, I silently translated, then took it from him to set it with the bottle of aura, bowl, and the name scribed with my blood. "Hey, if you can't trust your demon, who can you trust?" I said sarcastically, gathering up the pile of discarded signature attempts and moving them out of the way to the mantel. But I didn't trust Al, and I itched to look at the curse again. Not with Pierce, though. He'd want to help me with my Latin.

The tension rose at my continued silence, and Pierce half-sat on the slate table, one long leg hanging down. He was watching me, making me nervous as I filled the inscribed bowl from a pitcher. It was just plain water, but it smelled faintly of burnt amber. No wonder I go home with headaches, I thought, grimacing as I overfilled the bowl and water dribbled out.

"I'll get that," Pierce said, jumping from the table and reaching for his dish towel.

"Thanks, I'm good," I snapped, snatching the cloth from him and doing it myself.

He drew back, looking hurt as he stood before the fire pit. "I'll allow I've gotten myself in a powerful fix, Rachel, but what have I done to turn you so cold?"

My motion to clean the slate slowed, and I turned with a sigh. The truth of it was, I wasn't sure. I only knew that the things that had attracted me once now looked childish and inane. He'd been a ghost, more or less, and had agreed to be Al's familiar if the demon could give him a body. Al had shoved his soul into a dead witch before the body even had the chance to skip a heartbeat. It didn't help that I'd known the guy Al had put his soul into. I didn't think I could take another person's body to save myself. But then, I'd never been dead before.

I looked at Pierce now, seeing the same reckless determination, the same disregard for the future that had gotten me shunned, rightfully, and all I knew was that I didn't want anything to do with it. I took a breath and let it out, not knowing where to start. But a shiver lifted through me at the memory of his touch, ages ago but still fresh in my mind. Al was right. I was an idiot.

"It's not going to work, Pierce," I said flatly, and I turned away.

My tone had been harsh, and Pierce's voice lost its sparkle. "Rachel. Truly. What's wrong? I took this job to be closer to you."

"That's just it!" I exclaimed, and he blinked, bewildered. "This is not a job!" I said, waving the dish towel. "It's slavery. You belong to him, body and soul. And you did it intentionally! We could have found another way to give you a body. Your own, maybe! But no. You just jumped right into a demon pact instead of asking for help!"

He came around the table, close but not quite touching me. "I swan, a demon curse is the only way to become living again," he said, touching his chest. "I know what I'm doing. This isn't forever. When I can, I'll kill the demon spawn, and then I'll be free."

"Kill Al?" I breathed, not believing he still thought he could.

"I'll be free of him and have a body, both." He took my hands, and I realized how cold I was. "Trust me, Rachel. I know what I'm doing."

Oh my God. He is as bad as I am. Was. "You're crazy!" I exclaimed, pulling out of his grip. "You think you're more powerful than you are, with your black magic and whatever! Al is a demon, and I don't think you grasp what he can do. He's playing with you!"

Pierce leaned against the table, arms crossed and the light catching the colorful pattern of his vest. "Do tell? You opine I don't know what I'm doing?"

"I opine you don't!" I mocked, using his own words. His attitude was infuriating, and I looked at the bowl behind him, the remnant of others who had thought they were smarter than a demon now just names on a bowl, bottles on a shelf.

"Fair enough." Pierce scratched his chin and stood. "I expect a body needs proof."

I stiffened. Shit. Proof? "Hey, wait a minute," I said, dropping the dish towel to the table. "What are you doing? Al brought you back, but he can take you out again, too."

Pierce impishly put a finger to his nose. "Mayhap. But he has to catch me first."

My eyes darted to the band of charmed silver around his wrist. Pierce could jump ley lines where I couldn't, but charmed silver cut off his access to them. He couldn't leave.

"What, this?" he said confidently, and my lips parted when he ran his finger around the inside of the silver band and the metal seemed to stretch, allowing him to slip it off.

"H-How," I stammered as he twirled it. Crap on toast. I'd be blamed for this. I knew it!

"It's been tampered with so I can move from room to room here. I tampered with it a little more is all," Pierce said, sticking the band of silver in his back pocket, his eyes gleaming. "I've not had a bite of food free of burnt amber in a coon's age. I'll fetch you something to warm your cold heart."

I stepped forward, panicking. "Put that back on! If Al knows you can escape, he'll—"

"Kill me. Yeah, yeah, yeah," he said, hitting the modern phrase perfectly. His hand dipped into another pocket, and he studied a handful of coins. "Al will tarry with Newt for at least fifteen minutes. I'll be right back."

His accent was thinning. Clearly he could turn it off and on at will—which worried me even more. What else was he hiding? "You're going to get me in trouble!" I said, but with a sly grin, he vanished. The lights he had been minding went out, and the ring of charmed silver he had stuck in his pocket made a ting as it hit the floor. My heart thumped in the sudden darkness lit only by the hearth fire and the dull glow of the banked fire pit. He was gone, and we were both going to be in deep shit if Al found out.

Heart pounding, I watched the creepy tapestry across the room. My mouth was dry, and the shadows shifted as the figures on it seemed to move in the firelight. Son of a bitch! I thought as I went to pick up the ring of charmed silver and tuck the incriminating thing in a pocket. Al was going to blame me. He'd think I took the charmed silver off Pierce.

Edging back to the small hearth fire, I fumbled for the candle on the mantel, scraping wax under my nail as a focusing object, pinching the wick, and tapping a ley line to work the charm. "Consimilis calefacio" I said, voice quavering as a tiny slip of ley-line energy flowed through me, exciting the molecules until the wick burst into flame, but just as I did, the ley-line-powered lights flashed high, and I jumped, knocking the lit candle off the mantel.

"I can explain!" I exclaimed as I fumbled for the candle, now rolling down the mantel toward Mr. Fish. But it was Pierce, tossing his hair from his eyes and with two tall grandes in his hands. "You idiot!" I hissed as the candle hit the scraps of paper and in a flash, they went up.

"Across lots like lightning, mistress witch," Pierce said, laughing as he extended a coffee.

God, I wish he'd speak normal English. Frantic, I brushed the bits of paper off the mantel, stepping on them once they hit the black marble floor. The stink of burning plastic joined the mess, and I grabbed the bowl of water, dumping it. Black smoke wisped up, stinging my eyes. It helped mask the reek of burning shoe, so maybe it wasn't all bad.

"You ass!" I shouted. "Do you realize what would happen if Al came back and found you gone? Are you that inconsiderate, or just that stupid? Put this back on!"

Angry, I threw the ring of charmed metal at him. His hands were full, and he sidestepped it. With a thunk, the ring hit the tapestry and then the floor. Pierce's hand extending the coffee drooped, his enthusiasm fading. "I'd do naught to hurt you, mistress witch."

"I am not your mistress witch!" Ignoring the coffee, I looked at the bits of burnt paper in a soggy mess on the floor. Kneeling, I snatched the dish towel from the table to sop it up. I could smell raspberry-flavored Italian blend, and my stomach growled.

"Rachel," Pierce coaxed.

Pissed, I wouldn't look up at him as I wiped the floor. Standing, I tossed the towel to the table in disgust, then froze. The aura bottle wasn't green anymore.

"Rachel?"

It was questioning this time, and I held up a hand, tasting the air as my eyes stung. Shit, I'd burned the name and gotten the charged water all over me. "I think I'm in trouble," I whispered, then jerked, feeling as if my skin was on fire. Yelping, I slapped at my clothes. Panic rose as an alien aura slipped through mine, soaking in to find my soul—and squeezing.

Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh shit. I'd invoked the curse. I was in so-o-o-o much trouble. But this didn't feel right; the curse burned! Demons were wimps. They always made their magic painless unless you did it wrong. Oh God. I'd done it wrong!

"Rachel?" Pierce touched my shoulder. I met his eyes, and then I doubled over, gasping.

"Rachel!" he cried, but I was trying to breathe. It was the dead person, the one whose name I'd scribed in my own blood. It hadn't been his aura in the bottle, but his soul. And now his soul wanted a new body. Mine. Son of a bitch, Al had lied to me. I knew I should have trusted my gut and questioned him. He said it was an aura, but it was a soul, and the soul in the bottle was pissed!

Mine, echoed in our joined thoughts. Gritting my teeth, I bent double and tapped a ley line. Newt had once tried to possess me, and I had burned her out with a rush of energy. I gasped when a scintillating stream of it poured in with the taste of burning tinfoil, but the presence in me chortled, welcoming the flood. Mine! the soul insisted in delight, and I felt my link to the line being severed. I stumbled, falling to kneel on the cold marble. It had taken control, cutting me out!

No! I thought, scrambling for the line in my mind only to find nothing to grasp. My chest hurt when my heart started to beat to a new, faster rhythm. What in hell was this thing! What sort of mind could make a soul this determined? I couldn't... stop it!

"Rachel!"

Eyes tearing, I blinked at Pierce, struggling to focus. "Get. It. Out of me!"

He spun, motions fast as he found the unburnt signature still on the table. There was a swallow of water left in the bowl. It had to be enough.

I am Rachel Morgan, I thought, teeth gritted as the soul rifled through my memories like some people shake old books for money. I live in a church with a vampire and a family of pixies. I fight the had guys. And I will not let you have my body!

You cant stop me.

The thought was oily, hysteria set to discordant music. It hadn't been my thought, and I panicked. It was right, though. I was powerless to stop it, and as soon as it looked at everything and claimed what it wanted, I was going to be discarded.

"Get out!" I screamed, but its fingers reached into my heart and brain for more, and I groaned, feeling control over my body start to slip away. "Pierce, get it out of me!" I begged, doubled over on the cold black floor, silver etchings like threads under my cheek. Everything I didn't concentrate on was gone. The moment I lapsed, I would be too.

I smelled the scent of burnt paper, and the soft murmur of Latin. "Sunt qui discessum animi a corpore putent esse mortem,' Pierce said, his hand shaking as he brushed the hair from my face. Beside him was the empty bowl. "Sunt erras"

"This is mine!" I cried gleefully, but it wasn't me screaming. It was the soul, who had found the knowledge that my blood could invoke demon magic and held it aloft like a jewel. I got in one clean gasp of air as it was distracted, and I opened my eyes. "Pierce...," I whispered desperately, for his attention, then choked when the soul realized I still had some control.

"Mine!" the soul snarled with my lips, and I backhanded Pierce across the cheek.

Oh God, I'd lost, and I felt myself pull my legs under me to crouch before the fire like an animal. I'd lost my body to a thousand-year-old soul! My lips curled back, and I grinned at Pierce's horror, even as I tried to claw my way back into control. But even my connection to the ley line belonged to it.

"Get away from her!" I heard Al exclaim, and with the sound of smacking flesh, Pierce slid backward against the tapestry. Al.

Hissing, I spun to him, crouched and hands turned to claws. It is a demon, echoed in my thoughts, and hatred bubbled up, a thousand years of hatred demanding revenge.

I jumped at him with a howl, and Al grabbed me by the neck. I clawed at him, and he casually thunked my head into the wall. Pain reverberated between my skull and reason, and in the haze, my reactions were faster than the alien soul's. I took control, grabbed the ley line, and threw a protection bubble about the soul within me. It was still dazed from the thunk on the head, and I had the upper hand. But for how long?

Eyes struggling to focus, I latched onto Al's hands around my throat. God, I was never so happy to see him. "Rachel?" he asked, an understandable question at this point.

"For a little bit longer, yeah, you son of a bitch," I panted, terrified as I felt the soul in me start to recover. "You told me it was an aura. It's a goddamned soul! You lied to me! You lied to me, Al! And it's... taking me over, you son of a bitch!"

His eyes narrowed as he looked across the room at Pierce. "I told you to watch her!"

"Accident," Pierce said as he untangled his legs. "She dropped a candle. The early scratchings burned, and she put it out with the water. The soul wasn't harnessed by invocation before escaping. I twisted the curse to get it out of her. I don't understand why it didn't work!"

Al let go of my neck and swung me into his arms, cradling me. "You're not a demon, runt," he said distantly, talking to Pierce as he peered into my eyes. "You can't hold a soul other than your own."

But Al thought I could? I took a breath as I stared at Al's red eyes, then another, feeling the soul in me begin to push against the protection circle, probing, looking for a way to regain control. I jerked when a slow flame started in my mind, burning, expanding. It howled against the inside of my skull, and my hands twitched. "Get it... out!" I forced past my clenched teeth. I couldn't fight forever.

Al's goat-slitted eyes showed a flash of panic, and I felt him sit down before the fire, right there on the floor. "Let me in, Rachel. Into your thoughts. You've got Krathion in there. I can separate him from you, but you have to let me in. Let go and stop fighting so I can come in!"

He wanted me to stop fighting? "He'll take over!" I panted, gripping his arm when a new wave of outrage spun through me. "He'll kill me! Al, this soul is crazy!"

Al shook his head. "I won't let you die. I've got too much invested in you." The look in his eyes scared me—it wasn't love, but it wasn't just the fear of losing an investment either. "Let me in!" he demanded as I clenched in pain. Shit, I was drooling. He didn't say trust me, but it was in his eyes.

Inside me, I felt the satisfaction of a steady progression of fire. I wasn't driven enough to survive this. Maybe after being imprisoned in limbo for a thousand years, but not right now. Either let Al in or the soul won. I had to trust him. "Okay," I breathed, and as Al's eyes widened, I stopped fighting.

The soul screamed in victory, and my body shuddered. And then... I was nowhere. I wasn't in the echoing blackness of the demon collective, and I wasn't in the spinning, humming strength of a ley line. I was... nowhere, and everywhere. Centered for the first time in my life, alone and utterly understanding it all. There was no hurry, no reason, and I hung in a blissful state of no questions. Until one stirred in me. Was this where Kisten had gone?

I wondered suddenly, was Kist here? My dad? Was that his aftershave I smelled?

"Rachel?" someone called, and I gathered myself, trying to focus. "Dad?" I whispered, not believing it.

"Rachel!" The voice became louder, and I felt a sudden pain.

Coughing, I took a huge gasp of air, my hair in my mouth, my face. The world was upside down, but then I realized I was on my hands and knees, taking snatches of air between the dry heaves. The sour taste in my mouth fought with the stink of burnt amber pouring off me. My face hurt with each gut-wrenching clench, and I felt it carefully with shaky fingers. Someone had hit me. But I was here, alone in my body. The perverted soul was gone.

I looked up from Al's floor to see a pair of elegantly embroidered slippers. Sending my gaze higher, I found an androgynous robe with a martial arts look about it, and above that, Newt's mocking expression. The demon was bald again. Even her eyebrows were gone.

Her face wrinkled when she saw me looking at her. "Honestly, Al, you're going to have to do better," she said, her words long and drawn out. "You almost let her kill herself. Again."

Al? That must be whose hand is on my back.

"Rachel?" Al said again, close and intent. I recognized it from that in-between place Td been in. His hand fell away, and I sat back to bring my legs to my chest. Forehead on my knees, I hid from everyone. "What's she doing here?" I muttered, meaning Newt. Cold, I shivered.

"It's her," he said, his relief clear as I heard him stand. "Thank you."

"Don't thank me. This wasn't free." The soft shush of her slippers was loud, but I didn't look. I was alive. I was alone in my mind. Al had been in there. No telling what he'd seen.

"I ought to file charges of uncommon stupidity against you for letting her try this alone," Newt said dryly, and I took a deep breath. Not out of it yet, apparently.

"She wouldn't have been alone if, to begin with, you'd given me a suitable soul," Al said, and I jumped when a blanket smelling of burnt amber fell across my shoulders. "Krathion? Are you insane? He was a lunatic!"

"One man's opinion," Newt said smugly, and I pulled my head up. "And what a typical male response," she added, glancing at me. "Blame everyone but yourself. You left Rachel in the middle of a highly sensitive curse. You could have brought her with you. Brought the bottle with you. But you left her alone. Face it, Al. You don't have the smarts to raise a child."

"You did this on purpose!" Al raged, sounding like a little kid calling foul. Newt looked smug, and Al turned away, frustrated.

Shaking, I tugged the blanket higher. They were my hands. My hands. Tears prickled when I looked at the small bottle on the table, green and swirling again. I wanted to laugh. Cry. Puke. Scream. "What's she doing here?" I asked again, my voice stronger.

"Krathion is insane," Al said. "It took two of us to get him back in the bottle."

I fingered the wool blanket, worried. I had a bad feeling that Newt had tried to kill me. "You were in my mind?" I asked her, fearful now.

Newt made a small sound of regret, stepping silently across the room. "No," she said petulantly as she stopped beside Pierce, slumped beside the empty tapestry. Even the moving figures made of weft and weave were afraid of her and had hidden. Pierce was nursing a swollen lip, and was sullen, even scared maybe. I was surprised to see him here at all.

"Al took teacher's prerogative," she said as she ran her fingers through his hair. Pierce stiffened, the tightening of his lips giving away his anger. "I merely put the soul back in the bottle once Al got it out of you. Gaily, if you can't demonstrate the ability to keep her alive, then I will take over her care and get you a dog instead."

My eyes widened. Fear got me to my feet, and I wobbled until I reached for the table for balance. "It was my fault, not Al's. I'm fine. Really. See? All better."

Al stiffened. "I didn't leave her alone. I left her in the care of my trusted familiar. The curse was invoked by accident. One you probably planned."

Trusted familiar? I looked at Pierce, knowing laughter would sound hysterical.

"Excuses, excuses," Newt drawled, clearly seeing through it. "He tried to save her life. I see it in his thoughts." She shifted a stray hair from Pierce to set it straight. "It was his skill that failed him, not his spirit. He was here. You were not." Smiling, she turned to Al. "Think on that before you kill him."

"Kill him?" Al blurted out. "Why would I kill him?"

Yeah, seeing as he was Al's trusted familiar, but when Newt looked at the to-go cups spilled on the black floor, Al stiffened. His gaze flicked to Pierce, then me, and there it stayed, scaring me. Al thought I had freed him. The coffee had come from somewhere, and I couldn't line jump.

"No more warnings, Al," Newt said, and both Al and I jerked our attention back to her. "Your mistakes are starting to have an impact on all of us. Another error, and I take her."

"You planned this. You gave me a bad soul. That curse couldn't contain Krathion, even if she had done it properly." Al seethed, but not a whisper of power edged his hands, telling me he knew better than to threaten Newt openly.

My skin prickled as the tension rose. Newt was crazy, but Al would lose. I didn't want to belong to her. Al and I had an agreement, but Newt would see only master and slave. "I'm fine. Really!" I insisted, swaying on my feet and feeling my elbow throb. I'd hit something. Hard. Al, maybe? I didn't remember it.

Lips curled up almost in a smile, Newt sniffed as if she smelled something rank. "I don't understand this loyalty. He's wasting your time, Rachel. You'll have precious little of it if you're not careful. You could be so much more, so much faster. Best hurry, before I remember something else and decide you're a threat."

With hardly a breath of air shifting the candle flames, she was gone. Al let out a huge sigh and turned to me. "You stupid bitch."

He moved, and I darted back, slipping on the black floor and going down. His hand swung where I had been, and I skittered back until I hit the hearth.

"You freed him! For a cup of coffee!" Al raged.

"I didn't!" I protested, tensing for the coming smack as he stood over me. Fight back? Yeah, there's a good idea. I'd take my licks. Then I'd take them out on Pierce later.

"Algaliarept!" Pierce shouted, and Al hesitated, the sound of his summoning name being enough to give him pause. But it was the pure ting of metal hitting the marble floor that made me jump, not the back of Al's hand, and I watched the band of charmed silver roll toward us, spinning in ever smaller circles at Al's feet.

"I don't need her to slip your leash, demon spawn," Pierce said darkly, and something in his voice twisted in me. It was threatening, decisive, and utterly unafraid. I went cold at the sight of Pierce, his feet spread wide, a flicker of black vanishing from his spread fingers as he made them into fists. His eyes promised violence.

"I've been free since the moment you caught me," he boasted, making it into a threat. "I'm here to keep her alive among the putrid stink of you all, not wash your dishes and twist your curses. A needed post, if you're passing off soul-stealing curses as an aura supplement."

God help me, I think I'm going to be sick. "I don't need a babysitter," I said.

Pierce looked at me, deadly serious. "I swan you do, Rachel," he said, and my eyes narrowed.

Al harrumphed. His hand, once poised to smack me, had turned and was now offered to help me up instead. "How long have you known he could slip his charmed silver?" he asked.

"Not until he just did it," I said truthfully as he yanked me up. He let me go, and I flicked my eyes to Pierce. "You need to stop underestimating him, Al," I said, not wanting to be caught between them again. "You're right. He's going to get me killed." My gaze went from Al to Pierce. "Through his own arrogance."

Pierce's eyebrows rose as he felt the sting of that, but I wouldn't drop his gaze, still angry. Al, though, couldn't have been happier. "Indeed," he almost growled, clearly hearing more in my words than what I had said. "I think we've made enough progress for today, Rachel. Go home. Get some rest."

My lips parted, and my fingers fell from the blanket over my shoulders. I could not seem to stop shivering. "Now? I just got here. Uh, not that I'm complaining."

Al glanced at Pierce, looking as if he was mentally cracking his knuckles. Pierce was glaring right back, grim faced and determined. Idiot. As soon as I left, they were going to have a "demon to familiar chat." / wasn't going to be the one to clean up after it, though.

"Come along," Al said, taking my elbow and letting go when I hissed in pain.

"You're coming with me?" I questioned, and Al took my other, undamaged arm instead.

"If you're not here when I get back," the demon said to Pierce, "I will kill you. I may not be able to restrain you, but I can find you easily enough.

Yes?"

Pierce nodded, grim new lines showing on his face.

I opened my mouth to protest, but Al had reached out and tapped a line. In an instant, I dissolved to a thought and was pulled into the nearest ley line, ribbons of energy that strung like threads between reality and the ever-after. Instinctively I flung up a protective circle around my thoughts, but Al had beaten me to it.

Al? I questioned, surprised that he was with me since it more than doubled the cost.

I told you to do nothing. I come back and find you possessed? I had to ask Newt for help. Do you know how embarrassing that is? How long it will take me to pay that off?

Our minds were sharing space, and though I couldn't hear anything he didn't wanted me to, he couldn't hide his anger with me and his unexpected worry about Pierce. Al was getting a dose of my anger at the man, too. Maybe that was why Al was taking me home when he could just as easily have dumped me off in the church's graveyard. He wanted a peek at my emotions.

The memory of my lungs was aching, but I felt him twist something sideways, and I stumbled as we popped back into existence, the fog that had been here when I left even thicker now. The glow from the back porch was a hazy blob of yellow, and I pulled the damp, foggy spring night deep into me. Four hours, and I was home.

"Student?" Al questioned, somewhat softer now that he'd seen my anger at Pierce, and I turned to him, thinking he looked like he belonged in the fog, wearing his elegant coat, tidy boots, and smoked glasses. "Do you have any idea the pressure I'm under?" he added. "The accusations you never hear about, the threats? Why do you think I double-checked that bottle Newt gave me? She wants you, Rachel, and you are giving her excuses to take you in any form she can!"

"I lit the candle because I was not going to sit in the dark when your familiar left and the lights went out!" I said, not about to take this meekly. "I didn't mean to drop it. The paper caught fire, and I dumped the water on it to put it out. The soul was freed. The soul, Al, you bastard. You knew I wouldn't do it if it was a soul."

He dipped his head, the fog blurring his features. "That's why I didn't tell you."

"Don't lie to me anymore," I demanded, braver now that I was back in my own reality. "I mean it, Al. If I'm going to go bad, let me make my own grave, okay?"

I had meant it to be sarcastic, but it rang frighteningly true. Frowning, Al began to turn away, hesitated, and then... came back. "Rachel, you don't seem to understand. Newt doesn't care if it's you or someone else who is able to kindle demon magic and begin a new generation of demons. She just wants to control who can. If Krathion had gained your body, she would've taken custody of you to protect the rest of us, because I certainly can't control a lunatic with the ability to invoke demon magic and jump between the ever-after and reality at will." He hesitated, his eyes meeting mine. "She doesn't care about you, Rachel. She only cares about what your body can do, and she wants to control it. Don't let her."

Scared, I tugged the blanket tighter around me, my feet getting damp in the long grass. No wonder the coven of moral and ethical standards had shunned me and Trent had bashed my head into a tombstone. I wasn't being smart about this. A simple curse like possession could negate me completely—give someone with less moral standing everything I had the potential for. And I had been ignoring that.

I exhaled, finally getting it. Standing there in my familiar graveyard, I felt a new chill of mistrust seep into me. Son-of-a-bitch demons.

Seeing it, Al grunted, seeming pleased. "Until next week," he said, turning away.

"Al?" I called out after him, but he didn't stop. "Thank you," I blurted out, and he halted, his back to me. "For getting that thing out of me. And I'm sorry." My thoughts went to Pierce and I grimaced. "I'll be more careful."

The door to the church squeaked open, and the sound of shrill pixy children carried out into the damp air. Al turned, his gaze going past me to Ivy's black silhouette waiting in the threshold. I'd said thank you. And apologized. It was more than I thought I'd ever do. "You're welcome," he said, his expression lost in the shadows. "I'll see what I can do about the no lying... thing." And inclining his head, he vanished.

Two

"I'll be over there," Ivy said like I was a three-year-old as she looked across the produce section to the meat counter and pointed. "Oh for the love of the Turn!" I protested, exasperated. "Al let me have the day off because he wanted to beat Pierce to a pulp, not because I damaged my aura. I'm fine! Just... go pick out something for the grill, okay?"

The tall woman raised an eyebrow and cocked her hip as if she didn't believe me. I could understand why. Al rarely let me have his night off, and I think my coming back early had interrupted her plans. Though I'd seen no evidence of it, I was sure the living vampire took my weekly twenty-four-hour absence as an opportunity to slake her "other" hunger—the one that we couldn't find a bottle of in the grocery store.

"I said I'm fine," I growled, tugging the eco-friendly sack she made me shop with higher up on my shoulder. "Will you let me breathe?"

Giving me a look, she turned on a booted heel and walked through the produce section, looking like a model in jeans and a short black-and-dark-green jacket. Spiked boots made her even taller. Her lightweight cloth coat was a step away from her usual leather, but the gold trim made it scrumptiously rich. She was growing her hair out again, and the straight black was almost down to her shoulders once more. Ivy could have been a model. Hell, Ivy could be anything she wanted. Except happy. Ivy had issues.

"Good God," I muttered. "What a pain in the ass." Ivy didn't miss a step. "I heard that."

Alone for the first time in hours, my tension eased. Today had not been fun. I hadn't slept well after getting back to the church. The sliver of trust I'd put in Al was seriously in doubt. Not that I ever trusted him, but I'd thought our arrangement had bestowed a measure of honesty between us. Guess not. I wasn't happy with Pierce either. He was a teenage crush from a time when life spread long and wide, and consequences reached only to Friday, date night. I was done entertaining crushes, angry with Pierce for having risked everything to impress me. I wasn't impressed, and he could fall into a volcano for all I cared.

It had almost been a relief to be awakened from a restless sleep at an ungodly ten in the morning by the sound of Jenks's cat, Rex, crashing into walls while chasing pixy kids. Ivy had actually made me breakfast, then hung around in the kitchen messing with her computer while I'd whipped up a batch of sleepy-time charms. Then she made me lunch. I'd finally told her I was going grocery shopping just to have some time alone. I figured she'd stay home, but no-o-o-o. Jenks had all but laughed his wings off and said he'd watch the church. Smart man.

Apparently I'd told Ivy just enough about Al's trickery to worry her. She knew enough about witch magic to realize that messing with auras might give me insight into how to save her soul. Maybe that was her problem. I was sure that my "progress" would make it to Rynn Cormel's ears, her master vampire and the man we both looked to for protection from other vampires. I should be thankful, but I really detested the dead vamp.

A soft prickling of my skin came from nowhere, and I turned to find Ivy at the meat case, her back to me as she leaned on the counter flirting with the butcher. The only other person in sight was a petite woman in an uptight office dress, her head cocked as she studied the cracker labels. She looked bland enough, but something had tripped my warning flags.

Tucking my hair behind an ear, I glanced to the front of the store and into the parking lot past the big plate-glass windows. It was dusk—the time when humans started to shun mixed areas of the city and stick to their own streets as Inderlanders took over—but the sun was still up, which meant the woman wasn't a dead vamp. It was unlikely she was a living one on her own this deep into the human side of things. She probably wasn't a Were for the same reason. That left a human looking for some magical help—highly doubtful—or a witch looking for the same.

She couldn't be a witch. I was shunned, and Cincy's entire witch population knew it.

Drifting to a stand with early strawberries, I mentally went through my short list of who might have followed me this deep into traditionally human territory, then winced when I went through the even shorter list as to why.

I snuck a furtive glance at her, her sensible brown shoes, nylons, and blah brown skirt giving me the impression of sophistication coupled with an appalling lack of imagination. The woman was as thin as a mannequin, but not nearly as tall, and her blond hair was slicked back as if she thought she had to eliminate all softness to make it in a man's world.

She looked up and I froze when we accidentally made eye contact. Damriy I thought as the woman blinked, her blue eyes wide, and smiled slowly—shocking the hell out of me. Double damn. She'd seen me come in with Ivy and was checking me out!

My face warmed. Eyes averted, I angled to put the display of strawberries between us. I was straight, but after losing three boyfriends in two years—one to illegal activity; one to the grave; and a third, not really a boyfriend but gone all the same because I'd been shunned—I wasn't up to trying to explain things to a nice-looking woman who had misread the nonverbal communication between Ivy and myself.

Undeterred, the woman drifted closer. One hand was in the pocket of her skirt-length, white cashmere coat, the other was holding the latest gotta-have purse, one that probably wasn't a knockoff. She must go to a tanning salon, because her soft amber glow was impossible to get during early spring in Cincinnati. Her nails were short, professionally polished, with white tips gleaming. The woman's upscale mien was completely at odds with the instrumental eighties being piped in, the bleach-faded tile, and the occasional blaring loudspeaker.

My frown deepened when a faint whiff of redwood overtook the smell of chlorine and the tart scent of strawberries. She's a witch? Crap, if she was a witch, then she knew damn well who I was. And if she knew who I was, she wasn't trying to pick me up. At least, not for a date. It was a job—one that involved black magic.

Slow down, Rachel. Relax, I told myself, not even seeing the fruit as I picked up a carton of strawberries, fidgeting. Maybe she needs help and is scared to ask. Hell, I'd be. When I wasn't playing demon student in the ever-after, I was an odd mix of bounty hunter, escort-through-troubled-waters, and a magical jack-of-all-trades—able to rescue familiars from trees and bring in the big bad uglies that no one else wanted to touch. I'd been shunned, yes, but maybe the trouble she was in was greater than her fear of being shunned for asking for my help. But she didn't look scared; she looked confident and in control.

Setting the carton of strawberries down, I retreated, my thoughts spinning to the last time I'd been accosted by a black coven member on a recruitment drive. He'd taken offense when I'd told him to shove his dark coven somewhere even darker, and then they'd tried to kill me.

Adrenaline seeped into me, slow and sweet, making my heart pound and my senses come alive. It felt so good, it scared me. A quick look told me Ivy was gone. The butcher, too. My kick-butt boots scuffed, and I pulled out my phone as if checking the time, sending a 911 to Ivy before shoving my cell into a back pocket. Even if Ivy was checking out the meat behind the counter, she'd come.

My jaw tightened as I stood before a bank of green veggies against the wall. My back was to the woman in a show of nonchalance, but I stiffened as her sensible shoes tap-tap-tapped to a halt eight feet away. Before me was a display of carrots. Back off, babe, or Yll kill you with this carrot.

"Excuse me," the woman said, and damn it if I didn't jump. "Are you Rachel Morgan?"

Her voice was high, almost too childlike to take seriously, and I turned, my fingers sliding off the damp carrots. Her height came in a few inches shorter than mine, heels and all. That hand was still in her pocket, and her smile had a touch of mockery. I didn't want any trouble, but I'd finish it if she started some.

"I'm sorry, do I know you?" I said just as sweetly, putting a bunch of carrots in my canvas bag. Not very heavy. Need more weight.

My gaze flicked past her. Damn it, Ivy, where are you? There could be anything in that pocket of hers. The woman didn't look like much, but then I didn't either in my jeans, boots, short red leather jacket, and scarf.

"Are you Rachel Morgan of Vampiric Charms?" the woman asked again, and I shifted to a stand of organic potatoes, trying to put distance between us. "Cincinnati's famously shunned witch. Right?" she insisted, her hand still in her coat pocket as she followed me.

Famous and shunned didn't go together as much as one might think, and I sighed. My first thought that she was a black witch seemed to be correct. Hefting my bag, I dropped a potato into it and felt my arm stiffen against the extra weight. "Not interested," I said tightly, hoping she'd do the smart thing and go away.

But I was never that lucky, and she leaned over the potatoes, eyes mocking. "Black magic doesn't scare me, and neither do you. Come with me."

Like hell I will. Disgusted, I set another potato in my bag and opened my second sight to take a look at the more nebulous view of the situation, managing to keep my reaction to a mild "mmmm." The woman's aura was spotless. That didn't mean she wasn't a black witch. She could be sloughing her smut onto someone.

"According to the press," I said as I dropped my second sight, "Rachel Morgan dresses in skintight leather and has orgies with demons. Do I look to you like I'm wearing skintight leather?" A third potato went in with the rest. Almost heavy enough to knock you on your ass.

Angular face smug, the woman tucked her clutch bag under her arm. Her hands were free now, and my smile vanished. "It's the demon part I'm interested in," she said.

Damn it, she was a black witch. All I wanted to do now was leave before I got banned from another store. "Not interested," I said tersely. "I don't do black magic. I don't care what the papers print."

"Tell me your name," she insisted, fingers twitching in what I hoped wasn't a ley-line charm. "Maybe I'll go away."

She wanted a positive ID. Crap, was there a warrant out on me again? Maybe she wasn't from a black coven at all, but from the I.S., fishing for an excuse to bring me in. I took a quick breath, a new worry filling me. I didn't want to be tagged with resisting arrest. "Okay, that's me," I admitted. "Who are you? Inderland Security? Where's your ID? If you have a warrant, let me see it. Otherwise, we don't have anything to talk about."

"I.S.?" she said, the skin around her eyes tightening. "You should be so lucky."

Damn it. Ivy, get your ass out here! I backed up, and she moved with me. "I wouldn't," I threatened, stumbling to a halt when my butt hit the produce shelf. "I really wouldn't."

But she reached into her pocket, her free hand up in a laughable display of asking for trust, and came out with a zip strip. "Put this on and come with me. Everything will be fine."

Oh yeah. Like I believed that. I didn't even know who she was. Head hurting, I eyed the thin band of plastic-coated charmed silver, then flicked my attention to Ivy, who finally breezed back into the produce area, coming to a wide-footed stop beside the strawberries to take in the situation. The zip strip was basically a cheap but effective version of Pierce's leash that would prevent me from doing any ley-line magic.

My heart pounded. "Everyone see this?" I shouted, and the whispers at the front grew louder. "I don't want to go with this woman, and she's forcing me to!" It was a thin attempt at CYA for the crap that was about to hit the fan, but I had to try.

Sure enough, she smiled—and then she reached for me.

I jerked back, but her fingers brushed mine. A twinge of ley-line energy threatened to equalize between us, strong and tingly. Hand pressed to my chest, I stared, shocked. She had a whopping big chunk of ever-after energy in her chi. Tons more than the average person could hold. Who in hell is this woman?

"Ivy?" I called out. "She's hot! Watch it!"

Taking that as fear, the woman reached for me again. Bad idea. My breath came in smoothly. I jumped backward and up—which is a lot harder than it sounds—my heels landing on the low produce shelf. Lettuce squished under my boots.

Ivy grabbed the woman by the shoulder and spun her around.

"You first, vamp," the small woman snarled, her blue eyes squinting in threat.

Grunting, I swung my potato-heavy bag, aiming at the back of the woman's head. Shock reverberated up my arms when it hit and she stumbled, one hand reaching for the floor before she went down. Ivy danced back when the woman rolled, finding her feet and looking pissed as she brushed at the grime on her nice white coat. From the front a frantic high-pitched masculine voice called for security.

Damn it, I'm running out of places to shop, I thought as I dropped the bag and jumped to the floor. The woman had fallen into a defensive stance. Breathing fast, I looked at Ivy. "Mind if I finish this?" I asked.

Ivy shrugged. "Go for it."

I was sure I was already banned, so, smiling, I went for it. The woman's eyes widened, and she retreated. Crescent kick, side, side, side... I backed her up to the broccoli without ever touching her. I could use magic, sure, but this way when the I.S. showed up—and they would—I could stand under a truth amulet and say I hadn't used magic. Which was exactly why my splat gun was safely at home in my nested bowls. Prudence sucked dishwater.

Expression hard, the small woman fell back into a produce shelf, and I landed a side kick square in her middle to push the air from her and maybe bruise a rib. "I said I wasn't interested!" I shouted as she wheezed, and I grabbed her coat and hauled her up. "You shoulda just walked." I thumped her head gently into the broccoli, then let go, leaving her dazed but not incapacitated. I didn't want a lawsuit, just for her to go away.

Still muddled, the woman darted her hand out and gripped my wrist. Fearing an influx of raw power I yanked back, but the sound of plastic ratcheting closed accompanied the sudden wash of ever-after spilling out of me. Like squeezing a tube of toothpaste, I felt my untapped strength vanish as I fell back, dizzy with the sudden absence in my chi. Dazed, I looked to see a zip strip around my wrist. She'd let me hammer at her just so she could get it on me? Ah, shit. Jenks is going to laugh his wings off.

I stared at the woman as she reclined against the display, smiling grimly at me, though her chest had to hurt. "Got you, Morgan," she said breathily as she held her middle, bits of lettuce in her hair. "You're not such a badass. We got you."

And who is we? "I don't work for black-arts witches," I said, not liking the tight feel of the strip against my skin. "I don't care what you heard."

"Black witch?" she panted, shoving me back so she could get up. "That's a laugh. Let's go."

"You just don't get it," I said, disbelieving. "Zip strip or not, I'm not going!"

The woman's eyes darted behind me at Ivy's soft scuff. Fingers dipping into her pocket, she flung out her hand and threw what was probably a splat ball.

"Ivy, no!" I shouted, spinning, but I was too late. True to form, Ivy had caught it, breaking the thin skin and soaking her hand. For an instant I thought it might be okay, but then Ivy gasped. Fear slid through me on seeing her fist covered in a black goo that crawled up her arm, growing as it went. What in hell?

"Dunk it!" I shouted, pointing to the lobster tank. "Ivy, douse it in saltwater!"

The watching employees shouted their approval as the living vampire ran to the meat department. Ripping the top off the tank, she shoved her arm in up to her elbow. Water sloshed out, and the fear etched on her face eased. Turning, she looked at the small woman—and smiled to show her pointed teeth. It was about to get nasty.

Skirt swaying and hair mussed, the woman backed up, but the eager look on her face as she mumbled Latin told me she wasn't afraid. Her hands were moving in ancient ley-line gestures. I had seconds to keep her spell from completion.

"That was a mistake, bitch," I said softly. Scooping up a melon, I threw it at her, trying to break her charm before it was set. She ducked, flinging a glowing ball of reddish ever-after as she fumbled for her footing. I dove to escape her charm, spinning to see it hit the tile with a hissing sound. My eyes widened at the sight of a putrid-looking mass of seething bubbles growing larger by the second, bubbling evilly. What is she throwing? That cant he legal! But by the look of savage eagerness on her face, I didn't think she cared.

"Who the hell are you!" I shouted.

"Dilatarel" she shouted, invoking her next curse right before she slipped on the squished lettuce and went down with a pained-sounding grunt. Her magic, though, had been loosed.

"Fire in the hold, Ivy!" I shouted when the woman frantically scrabbled away from the glowing ball of unfocused magic, diving behind an apple display. Her magic drifted like a ball of lightning until it rolled under the strawberries, where it exploded.

Employees screamed. Red stuff went everywhere. I ducked as sodden splats and thumps of containers rained down.

"What is wrong with you!" I shouted as I got to my feet and flicked away the sticky goo. Not only was this woman better than me at magic, she didn't mind getting dirty. Though bruised and covered in grime and strawberries, she was still smiling. She had the look of someone who didn't care, someone who knew no one would make her accountable for what she did. The bitch was above the law, or thought she was.

I glanced at Ivy, standing nearby and casually going through the woman's bag. Finding her ID, she held it up between two fingers and nodded. Taking that as a good sign, I ran for the woman. Shunned or not, we were going to settle this now. Just because I couldn't do magic didn't mean I was helpless.

White coat furling, she ducked out of my swing and I shifted away from her kick. It was sloppy. You know just enough to get yourself in trouble, I thought, then whipped my scarf off, tangling her wrist as she punched again. She pulled away, and I yanked her forward and down into my raised knee. Her breath came out in a whoosh and she bent double.

I let go of the scarf and shifted behind her, jabbing my heel at the back of her knee. Her leg collapsed, and she went down, still trying to breathe. "Oooooh, sorry," I said, then untangled my scarf, wincing at the sticky strawberry mess it now was.

Energized, I gave the woman the once-over to see if she'd had enough. Her tailored coat was a mess, and her hair had lost its perfect symmetry, lying in lank blond strands where there had once been perfection. Seeing her stare up at me, finally able to take a breath, I fell into a ready stance with my hands in fists. "Still think you're tougher than me, Strawberry Shortcake?" I said, not moving as Ivy settled in beside me. Hands on her hips, she breathed deep—and smiled. I knew Ivy had too much control and class to go for her, but it was unnerving as she somehow grew sleeker and sexier, eyes dilating to a full, hungry black.

From nowhere, a quiver rose through me at the memory of her teeth sliding into my neck, and the exquisite feeling of rising pleasure mixed with the blood-boiling sensation of coming ecstasy. Closing my eyes briefly, I pushed the feeling away. Beside me, I felt Ivy quiver, scenting my reaction. No, Rachel. Everlastingly no.

The kneeling woman watched as Ivy flicked first her bag, then her ID at her, both sliding to a stop before her. Motions unsteady, she got to her feet. She wasn't afraid, she was angry.

"It would have been easier had you come with me," she said, and Ivy cleared her throat in challenge. Lips pressed, the woman brushed off her skirt, picked up her handbag, and, leaving her ID, walked to the door, her head high and looking tiny next to the overweight manager in a white shirt and blue tie yelling at her.

Ivy slid up to me, and I held my breath. "You want me to stop her?"

I shivered, remembering how much she had held in her chi. My gaze slid from the subsiding mass of toxic bubbles to Ivy's arm, damp from the lobster tank. "No. You okay?"

"Yeah. It went numb is all. Like zombie prickles. How about you?"

The automatic doors slid open and she was gone. "Okay," I said, then picked up her ID. Vivian Smith, from California. It had to be fake, and I shoved it in my pocket.

A nervous patter rose from the watching employees. It was all over but the lawsuits, and I edged away from Ivy, slipping on strawberries as I gave her some distance to allow her a chance to get a handle on her instincts. The manager was at the service counter, fuming. He was working up his courage, though, and it wouldn't be long before he'd bring his high-pitched voice to me, a convenient scapegoat in heels and stringy, strawberry hair. This wasn't my fault!

The goo covering the floor looked like a bloodbath. A glint of silver among the red caught my eye, and I searched the produce section until I found my bag. The manager's complaints grew louder as I dug out my lethal-spell detector and my heavy-magic ley-line charm. I wouldn't put it past Vivian to leave a booby trap, but both spells stayed a nice healthy green. The silver was just plain metal with no charms attached. At least, no lethal ones.

"What is it?" Ivy asked as I picked it up. Wiping the goo off, I felt myself go cold and my knees go wobbly.

It was an exquisitely tooled silver brooch in the shape of a Mobius strip, and I swallowed hard, my shaking fingers curving to hide it. My gaze went to the floor, seeing the tile unmarked as the bubbles subsided, then to Ivy's arm—numbed, she said—and then to the broken strawberry display, realizing that that, too, could have been white magic. Extremely strong, but technically white magic, not black. I am such an idiot.

Over the last year or so, I'd been attacked by militant Weres, run down by elves on horseback, smacked around by angry demons, bitten by political vampires, eluded assassin fairies, and fought off angry banshees, deluded humans, and black-arts witches. But never had I made an error of judgment this bad.

I'd just publicly embarrassed a member of the coven of moral and ethical standards, the same group that had legalized my shunning.

Holy freaking hallelujah.

Three

The stuffed rat was pointed at the wall, staring at nothing as it crouched atop an overfilled file on the five-foot-tall cabinet in Glenn's office. The FIB detective was currently downstairs. As I'd figured, the grocery store had called the human-run FIB, not Inderland Security. Lucky for me, the I.S. hadn't even shown up. Long story short, I'd been asked to accompany an FIB officer downtown to file a report. They'd even let me sit in the front, sticky as I was. Ivy had followed in my car and was waiting downstairs. It was good to have friends.

It had been a quiet ride through Cincy to the FIB building, my thoughts circling. Had the coven been trying to talk to me, and I'd just flushed my chance at getting my shunning removed? But why not just tell me what was going on? Those charms Vivian had been flinging around hadn't been peace offerings. Had it been a test? If so, had I failed or passed?

I'd worked myself up into a very bad mood by the time we'd gotten here, but it had eased once Glenn had pulled me aside and snipped my charmed silver off even before I'd crossed the FIB emblem downstairs. Glenn was a good guy, complex in his thoughts and smart. His office, though... I looked at the mess, trying not to grimace.

A new flat-screen monitor was perched on his desk, a stack of files piled high beside it. The in-box was full, and the out-box held a couple of books on nineteenth-century serial killers. We were too deep into the FIB building for a window, but a bulletin board across from the desk gave the illusion of one, the clippings and sticky notes so old they needed thumbtacks. A new pressboard bookcase held a few textbooks, but mostly it was stacks of files and photos. Glenn was meticulous in his dress, and that usually carried over to his car and office. This mess was scary and not like him at all.

The floor was cold tile; the walls were an ugly, scuffed white; and the keyboard was old and stained with dust and coffee. Glenn had been Cincinnati's FIB Inderland specialist for almost a year now, and I wondered if I was seeing him trying to do everything himself. Even the phone cord was still draped across the floor in what had to be an OSHA violation.

My roving gaze settled on a gleaming glass-and-gold clock serving as a bookend. It didn't match the rest of the no-frills office, and I got up to read the inscription, grimacing when my coat pulled from the metal chair with the sticky sound of strawberries. The marble was cold on my fingers as I read, MATHEW GLENN, OUTSTANDING SERVICE, 2005. The clock was stopped, stuck at three minutes to midnight.

I set it down and checked my phone. Nine thirty. The sun had been down for hours. I wanted to go home, get cleaned up, eat something. What was taking so long?

Impatient, I went to the rat and turned it to face the room. Glenn had bought it with me at a charm shop last year, and I frowned when I realized the file it was sitting on was Nick's. Nick as in my former boyfriend Nick. Ex-rat, ex-boyfriend, ex-alive if I ever got hold of him Nick.

My shoulders tensed and I forced my jaw to not clench. Nick had been a rat when I met him. A real rat, with whiskers and a tail, transformed with witch magic by a peeved vampire who'd caught Nick stealing from him. I couldn't say much about that, though, since I'd been a mink at the time, thrown into Cincinnati's illegal rat fights for having been caught trying to pilfer evidence of illegal bio-drug activity from beloved city son Trent Kalamack.

Nick and I had helped each other escape, which might sound romantic but should have been a warning. He turned out to be a real gem when all was said and done, selling information about me to demons to help his career as a thief. A not very lucrative but nevertheless busy one, according to the file Glenn had on him. The FIB detective was still trying to track him down, not believing that he'd died going off the Mackinac Bridge last summer. The case had gone cold if the dust was any indication—but the file was still out.

I took a deep breath to wash the reminder of Nick away, and the faint scent of vampire tickled my nose. "Huh," I whispered and, sniffing, I made a circuit of the cluttered office, ending at Glenn's short, fashionable coat hung up on a wooden hanger behind the door. Eyebrows raised, I fingered the supple leather. Had Glenn been investigating something that put him in contact with vampires? He knew how risky that was. Why hadn't he come to us? He knew I needed the work.

Curious, I brought the sleeve to my nose to get a better sniff. I loved leather, and it was a nice coat, cut to show off the man's small waist and wide shoulders. I pulled the air deep into me to find under the expected smell of masculine aftershave a mellow tang of honey and hot metal. Deeper was a familiar scent of vampiric incense. A very familiar scent. Ivy?

Blinking, I dropped the coat's sleeve as footsteps approached in the hall. Why does Glenn s coat smell like Ivy?

Glenn strode into his office, almost shoving me into the wall when he pushed the door open. He slowed, making a surprised sound when he found my chair empty, then started when he found me behind him, pressed into the wall. His brown eyes were wide, and I blinked at the tall, clean-shaven man. "What are you doing behind my door?" he asked, planting his feet. There was a red file under his arm and a ceramic mug with rainbows on it in his hand.

I gave myself a mental shake to get the thoughts moving. "Uh, admiring your coat," I said, giving the brown leather a last touch. I wanted to sit down, but he was standing next to my chair. "I, uh, like the no-hair thing."

"Thanks," he said suspiciously as he moved his compact frame behind his desk. When we'd first met, he had short hair and a goatee, but this smooth-shaven nothing was nice. The coffee went on the corner nearest me, and the file was dropped beside the keyboard. He saw me eye the clutter, and I think he blushed through his dark, beautifully mahogany complexion.

I went to ask him about Ivy, then reconsidered. He and Ivy? No way. Though if they were, they'd look great together. His height was just a shade more than hers, and with his trendy clothes and attention to detail, he could play the part of a living vampire's boyfriend without missing a beat. Glenn was ex-military and worked at keeping his trim look. Right now, he'd gone no hair, and it made his stud earring stand out all the more, the glint giving him a hint of bad boy. The story he gave his dad was that he'd gotten it pierced so he could blend into the darker elements of Cincinnati, but I think he liked the small bit of bling.

Glenn looked up at my silence, his eyebrows raised as he indicated the rainbow mug. "I thought you'd want some coffee. This might take a while."

"Okay... " He brought me coffee and rainbows, I thought as I reached for it and sat down, feeling the bump my phone made in my back pocket. "They're pressing charges? For what? Killing a strawberry display? That wasn't even my charm. I told you, I didn't use magic. I know better. Get an I.S. team in there. None of the magic will have my aura on it."

He chuckled, irritating me even more. The painfully slow sounds of him typing clicked key by key as he worked off the open file beside him. "The I.S. is ignoring the incident completely, so sending a team to ascertain it wasn't your magic? You're going to take the hit for this," he said, his resonant voice dark and sexy. "Nice bit of passive harassment."

My eyes flicked to my strawberry-covered bag and the little silver broach tucked inside. Passive harassment was a good story, but I think the reason the I.S. didn't show was because the coven told them to back off while they brought me in themselves. Guilt and fear kept my mouth shut. Crap on toast, what if I'd ruined my only chance to rescind my shunning?

"I got the store to agree to disorderly conduct if you pay for the damages," Glenn said, starting as he noticed the rat looking at him. "Unless you know who did it?" he added, gaze alternating between me and the critter.

I thought about the ID in my bag, and I shrugged. "Vivian Smith from California?" I volunteered. God, I'd called her Strawberry Shortcake. Could I dig my grave, or what?

Glenn made a sound of both amusement and sympathy, his eyes on the screen. "I hope you make more than I do. I had no idea strawberries were that expensive out of season."

"Swell," I said, then sipped my coffee. It wasn't bad, but nothing tasted good since having that raspberry-mocha-whatever-it-had-been Al had ordered me last winter. I set the coffee aside and leaned over to get a look at Glenn's neck. He might not know that he smelled like vampire, but any Inderlander could tell.

Glenn felt my gaze and looked up from his slow excuse for typing. "What?"

I pulled back, worried. "Nothing."

Clearly suspicious, he pulled a paper from under the stack in the red folder and handed it to me. "Damages."

Taking the paper, I sighed. How come my file is red? Everyone else had a normal-colored one. "Hey!" I exclaimed, seeing the total. "They're charging me retail. Glenn!" I complained. "They can't do that." I shook it at him. "I shouldn't have to pay retail!"

"What did you expect? You can keep that. It's your copy."

I sat back in a huff and shoved it in my bag with my sticky scarf as he typed his slow, painful way through my report. "Where's this human compassion I keep hearing about?"

"That's it, baby doll," he said, voice smoother than usual. He was laughing at me.

"Mmmm. Can I go now?" I said dryly, not liking the "baby doll" tag but letting it go.

Glenn searched out a key and hit it with a sound of finality. Leaning back, he laced his dark fingers over his middle like I'd seen his dad do. "Not until Jenks posts your bail."

I groaned. Damn it, Ivy must have stopped at home first. One more thing to owe the pixy.

"He seemed proud to do it," Glenn said. "You can wait here, or go to the basement with the rest of the felons." His smile widened. "I vouched for you," he added, then leaned forward to answer his phone, now humming on the interoffice line.

"Thanks," I said sourly, slouching down as he took the call. How was I going to pay Jenks back? My share of the sale of my mom's house had been keeping me afloat lately, but I didn't want to tap into that to post bail. Robbie's half had gone to his upcoming wedding, and I was living on mine. It was hardly the statement of independence I'd wanted, but things would pick up. They always did around spring.

"Who?" Glenn said into the phone, his voice rising in disbelief, and then both Glenn and I looked toward the attention-getting tap on his door frame.

"Trent Kalamack," the feminine voice on the phone said clearly over the faint office noise, naming the trim figure in his two-thousand-dollar suit now silhouetted in the doorway, his arm slowly slipping behind him from where he'd confidently tapped on the door. Suave and self-assured, the man smiled faintly at the woman's awe.

"Next time, call before you send someone up," Glenn said as he stood.

"But it's Trent Kalamack!" the voice said, and Glenn hung up on her.

My breath slipped from me, almost a groan. Trent Kalamack. The obscenely successful, smiling businessman, ruthless bio- and street-drug lord, elf in hiding, and pain-in-my-ass-extraordinaire Trent Kalamack. Right on schedule. "Why is it you show up only when I need money?" I sat straighter, but I wasn't going to get up unless it was to smack him.

Trent still smiled, but the faint worry pinching his eyes tickled the back of my brain. Trent wasn't especially tall, but his bearing made people take notice, as if his baby-fine, nearly white hair, devilishly confident smile, and drool-worthy, athletic physique gained from riding his prize-winning horses wouldn't. All that I could ignore—mostly—but his voice... his beautiful voice, rich in variance and resonant... That was harder—and I hated that I loved it.

Trent was Cincinnati's most eligible bachelor, still single because of me. He'd thanked me for that in a weird moment of honesty when he thought we might die in a demon's prison cell. I was still wondering why I'd bothered to save his little elf butt. Misplaced responsibility, maybe? That I'd saved his life didn't seem to mean anything to him, since he had tried to make my skull one with a tombstone not three seconds after I got us safe.

Apparently my helping him get the ancient-elf DNA sample from the demons to repair his species genome had been enough to earn my right to live, but I was sure he was still mad at me for having messed up his city council seat reelection plans by trashing his wedding. Rumors in the Were community had it that he was going to make a bid for the mayoral position instead. My gut clenched, and I winced as I flicked a gaze at him.

Where there had once been only irritation, there was now satisfaction in Trent's green eyes as he took Glenn's offered hand extended across his cluttered desk. My pulse raced—he'd called me a demon and tried to kill me. I wasn't. I was a witch. But he had a point—my children would be demons.

"Mr. Kalamack," Glenn said, hiding his fluster. "It's a pleasure."

All trace of Trent's feelings for me were hidden but for the barest tightening of his eyes. "Good to see you again, Detective," he said. "I trust Ms. Morgan is behaving herself tonight?"

Clearly uncomfortable, Glenn stopped smiling. "What can I do for you, sir?"

Trent didn't miss a beat. "I simply have something for Ms. Morgan to sign. I heard she was here, and I was nearby."

He turned expectantly to me, and my bobbing foot stopped. I don't know what disturbed me more, that Trent wanted me to sign something, or that he had known where to find me. Had my grocery trip already made the news?

Tired, I shifted my hand to cover up a particularly big splotch of strawberry on my knee. "What do you want, Trent?" I asked bluntly.

Trent's gaze noted everything before returning to Glenn. "Coffee... perhaps?"

Glenn and I exchanged a knowing look. "Why not," the detective said blandly, maneuvering gracefully out from behind his desk. "How do you take it?"

"Black, no sugar," Trent said, and I thought longingly of the time when that would have been enough for me, but no, I was turning into a coffee snob despite my best efforts.

Glenn nodded before he shifted past Trent, the rims of his ears turning red when he rotated the rat back to the wall before he left. His footsteps sounded softly, and I held my breath and counted to five. "What are you doing slumming?" I said as I swiveled the chair, trying to look casual.

"I'm here to help you."

I didn't even try to stop my laughter, and in response, Trent moved and settled himself on Glenn's desk, one foot on the floor, the other pulled up slightly like a GQ model.

"I don't need money that badly," I lied, forcing my gaze from him. "The last time I worked for you, you screwed things up so much that I got shunned. Nice of you to tell the press why I was in the ever-after, by the way," I finished sarcastically, and his brow furrowed.

Guilt? I wondered, not able to tell right now. If he had told the press I'd been there working for him, things might have gone differently. I'd have told them myself, but I doubted that Trent would've backed me up, and then I'd have looked twice the fool. The public knowing he'd been caught by demons would have seriously jeopardized his political agenda. That I couldn't make a living anymore didn't seem to matter to him.

Yet I couldn't help but wonder. First the coven trying to talk to me, and now Trent? Fishing for more, I rolled my neck against the top of the chair and looked at the ceiling. "I'm not working for you, Trent. Forget it."

The soft sound of a linen envelope against silk caught my attention, and I sat up as he extended an envelope he'd taken from an inner pocket of his suit. I looked at it like the snake it was. I'd gotten envelopes from him before. Slowly I leaned forward. My fingers didn't shake at all as I pulled the unsealed flap open and removed a heavyweight trifolded paper. Silently I scanned it, finding a casually worded, but probably more-serious-than-a-heart-attack contract that said I would work for Kalamack Industries and only Kalamack Industries. Forever. God, what was wrong with the man? Did he think everyone put money before morals like he did?

I dropped my hand to dangle the paper inches from the dirty tile. "I just said I wasn't going to work a job for you," I said softly, too tired of his games to be mad. "What makes you think I'll sign this? Be your witch? What happened to Dr. Anders? I've seen your retirement plan, Trent. Is she pushing up rare orchids in your gardens?"

Irritation furrowed his brow as he stooped to take the paper. Immediately I let go of it, and the sheet slid under my chair and out of his easy reach. Trent pulled back, peeved. "Dr. Anders is busy in the labs," he said.

"You mean she's too old to kick ass."

A smile showed, real and unexpected. "I prefer to say she is sedentary."

My focus blurred, my expression slipping into disgust and anger, not at Trent, but at myself for having mishandled the last year or so to the point where I was shunned and broke, living through the grace of my friends. "Trent..."

He leaned back against the desk, but I couldn't tell if his worry was real or contrived. "You're in trouble, and you don't even know it."

My thoughts went to the pin in my bag. Uncomfortable, I glanced out the open door, not wanting the office to hear this, but not wanting to be shut in a room with him either. If you only knew the half of it... "I'm sitting in an FIB office while my partner posts my bail," I said tightly. "I think I know I'm in trouble."

"I'm talking about the coven of moral and ethical standards," he said, and I couldn't help my start. "We had lunch. Rachel, I swear I didn't tell them what you are. They already knew."

The fear turned into a solid lump and fell to my gut. What I am? "You slimy little toad!" I whispered as I stood. Trent was on his feet in an instant, but he didn't back up. "You told them!" I exclaimed softly, hands in fists. "You told the coven I could invoke demon magic!" No wonder they were trying to snag me! Snag me, hell, they were going to freaking kill me!

The noise from the nearby offices filtered in. His eyes fixed on mine, chilling me. "I wasn't about to lie to them," he said stiffly. "They already knew. And yes, I confirmed that you were a witch-born demon and that your children will be demons able to exist on this side of the ley lines. They knew my father made you, too. I don't understand it." He frowned, clearly more worried about himself than me.

"You little bastard," I growled. "I never told anyone what you are."

"Because if you do, you die," he said, his chin raised and his color high. I could smell the scent of cinnamon and wine as his temperature rose. It wasn't as if Trent's being an elf was that great a secret anyway, but still he clung to it. Sort of like I clung to being just a witch when logic told me I wasn't.

"They're going to take you, Rachel," Trent said. "Dissect you to find out what makes you different. Unless... "

His eyes flicked to the paper under my chair. "I become your slave?" I said bitterly.

"Sign the paper, Rachel," he said dryly. "I lied for you. I told them I could control you, destroy you if necessary. It's the only reason they didn't murder you outright."

Oh. My. God. "Excuse me?" I said, furious. "You told them you can control me?"

Trent shrugged. "They're understandably uncomfortable with a demon running around this side of the ley lines."

"I am not a demon, you little cookie maker," I nearly hissed. "I'm a witch. And your dad didn't create me. He only made it possible for me to survive what I'd been born with."

His eyes narrowed. "A mistake that I'm honor bound to do my utmost to contain."

"Oh really!" My boot heels clunked as I moved until only feet separated us, my hands on my hips. "You want to contain me? Is that a threat, Kalamack?"

Trent arched his eyebrows and backed up a step. "I'm trying to help you, though now I can't see why. You have a way out of this. Sign the paper. Become my legal responsibility. The coven will stop trying to give you a lobotomy. I might even get your shunning revoked."

I was shaking, overwhelmed. I didn't believe him—I couldn't. He had turned my own people on me because he knew they were the only ones who had the finesse to bring me down.

"You planned this, didn't you?" I accused softly, very aware that a room full of FIB officers was just out of earshot. "You told them what I'm capable of so they'd come after me; then you hold out your little safety net thinking I'd fall right into it. Playing both of us against each other so you can't lose. God, Trent, Ceri was right. You are a demon."

Jaw clenched, Trent went to push the door shut. I leapt into motion and got in front of it, and Trent pulled back, stymied. "I didn't tell them," he said, so close I could smell his aftershave. "But if you own me in the ever-after, I'm going to own you here."

My mouth dropped open. "Those are words on a paper! I made you my familiar to get your ass out of there, that's it! Have I ever once even hinted at using you? Have I done the charm to forge a link between us? No! And I'm not going to!"

"But you could," he said, and for an instant, I saw fear flicker under his anger.

Disgusted, I crossed my arms over my chest. "I should have let you rot there, that's what I should have done, you ungrateful snot. Do you have any idea what I put up with from Big Al every week so you can sit at home and watch TV instead of playing blow-up doll to a demon?"

Stone faced, Trent looked at me, his tan pale and the hem of his slacks shaking. "I will not be owned, Rachel," he said softly. "Not even on paper. And never by a demon\"

I took a breath, exhaling when the sound of pixy wings broke the tense silence. Trent retreated, his head down as he calmed himself. The familiar cadence of Ivy's boots sounded over the ringing of a single phone, and I retreated deeper into Glenn's office.

"Rache!" Jenks shouted, his high voice coming clearly as he rounded the door ahead of Ivy. The pixy stopped short, hovering at head height, his wings flashing red with anger as he saw Trent tugging his cuffs down. "Holy crap, Rache," he exclaimed, coming in to buzz irritating circles around me. "What did you get greenie weenie for this time? Bowling in black socks?"

Trent gave us a dry look, eyes going to Ivy when she halted in the doorway. Glenn was behind her, and the man had to push to get past her, anxious to be back in his office and head off the coming interspecies incident. His jaw was clenched, but what had he really expected? Trent and I didn't like each other and we argued. A lot.

Even as angry as I was, I watched the swift exchange between Ivy and Glenn, wondering if the tension in the room was solely because of me, or if there was an undercurrent of a secret not shared. Ivy's irritation could easily be a cloak to hide guilt, and Glenn was equally hard to read when he was in his hard-assed FIB detective mode.

I wouldn't hold out my hand for Jenks to land, so the pixy alighted on my shoulder instead, coating my sticky jacket in a fading glitter of dust. He was dressed for the chill spring weather, his wife, Matalina, finally having perfected pixy winter wear that gave him both freedom of movement and protection against the cold that might send him into hibernation and possible death. The tight black silk, red bandanna, and wooden-handled sword about his middle made the four-inch man look like a mix of theater and inner-city gang member.

In a smooth motion, Trent swooped forward to pick up the paper from under my chair. I stepped back out of his reach, my instinct to keep space between us kicking in. Refolding the contract, he tucked it away in his jacket. "Let my office know when you change your mind," he said, then headed for the door, jerking to a stop when Ivy didn't get out of his way.

"Let us know when cherry lollypops come out your ass," Jenks said, and I leaned back against the tall file cabinet, arms crossed over my middle.

Glenn cleared his throat, and Ivy slowly moved out of Trent's way.

"Your team is as professional as always, Morgan," Trent said lightly. Nodding at Glenn, he turned and walked out. A buzz of conversation rose behind him from the open offices.

I exhaled, shaking. "I hate him," I said, moving to my chair and plopping into it, making Jenks fly up. "I really do."

A glitter of silver sparkles hit my hand an instant before Jenks did. "Did he wave money at you again?" he asked, telling me he hadn't been eavesdropping. "I told you I've got this, Rache. I don't even want you to pay me back."

I winced. If only it were that simple.

Ivy turned from watching Trent make his way to the elevators. "How much was it?" she asked, staying where she was so the accumulated emotion of the room wouldn't hit her as hard. Her eyes were dilated more than the electric lights warranted, but she looked okay, especially if I'd interrupted her plans this weekend and she was hungry. Glenn, I noticed, wasn't fazed at all by her state, almost nonchalant as he moved behind his desk. Yeah, they had definitely been spending time together. His cologne smelled kind of citrusy, too.

"He tried to buy her," Glenn said for me. "In exchange for getting the coven of moral and ethical standards off her back."

"How did he know it was the coven?" Ivy wanted to know, and I stared at Glenn.

"How do you know what Trent wanted?" I asked him, my foot twitching.

Smiling grimly, Glenn punched a button on his phone and a light went out. "How else would I win the office pool?" he said, leaning back in his chair. "Rachel, you are in deep doo-doo."

"Yeah, tell me about it."

"Doo-doo? Call it what it is," Jenks smart-mouthed. "She's so far up shit creek, she could float down with the rest of the turds." I sighed my agreement as he settled himself on the warmth of my hand. "What does the coven want?" he asked. "They already shunned you."

"Someone—Trent probably—told them what I was," I said softly, depressed. Glenn already knew. He'd been there the day I'd figured it out. "They want to put me in a cage and dissect me."

Ivy stiffened, and Jenks's tiny features bunched up. "You're a witch," he said vehemently, and I felt a sense of peace at his loyalty.

"Thanks, Jenks," I said, though I didn't know if I believed it anymore. "Trent fed them some line about how his father made me so he can control me. Destroy me, even. They'll let me roam free and in the wild if he takes legal responsibility for me."

"That's a lie," Ivy said from the doorway. "He can't control you. And he didn't make you. His father simply found a way to keep you alive."

I lifted a shoulder and let it fall. "Looks to me like he's doing a damn fine job of controlling me right now." Stupid-ass businessman. I still didn't believe him. No one else knew what I was capable of except my friends—and Newt, on a good day. Sighing, I thought back to who'd been there the evening Trent told Minias what I was: Marshal, Ceri, and Keasley—but they wouldn't say anything; neither would Quen, but if Quen knew, then so did Jonathan, the prick who organized Trent's life. Lee seemed the most likely candidate for playing let's make a deal with the coven, trading information about me to erase his own questionable dealings in black magic—if he cared to risk their finding out he was just like me. It had to be Trent.

Ivy's expression became pensive. Having born the brunt of a master vampire's attentions, she knew how easy it was to control someone through their emotions. She was still trapped in her own personal hell even though the lock had been broken and the door was wide open.

Behind his desk, Glenn looked unsure. "They can't do this. Even the coven of moral and ethical standards has to work within the law. Can't you file an appeal or something?"

At that, I smiled and Ivy slumped against the door frame. "Sure, but if I disappear, who's to say different? Ever wonder why witches generally don't make much trouble? We police ourselves, just like Weres and vamps. We have a long history of hiding, Glenn. The I.S. just picks up the ones who are stupid enough to be caught." Caught committing benign crimes like theft, larceny, murder—stuff humans were conditioned to deal with. It seemed ironic that bringing in the stupid ones was what I used to do for a living.

I was totally depressed now, and Jenks rose, his dragonflylike wings clattering for attention. "Rache, we've done kidnap prevention before. The weather is warm enough to string pixy lines in the garden, and we've got Bis now. They want you alive, right?"

"To start with, yeah," I said, not feeling any better. Ever since quitting the I.S., it seemed as if all I'd done was run. I was tired of it. But Jenks was right. We'd find a way around this. We always did.

Looking up, I met Glenn's eyes, then Ivy's. Taking a slow breath, I stood. "I'll call David when I get home," I said, dropping another bit of strawberry off me and into Glenn's trash. "He's great with paperwork. If you can't overpower them, you drown them in red tape." I managed a smile. "Thanks, guys. I don't know what I'd do without you."

"Die, probably," Jenks said with a laugh as we headed out.

But the thing was, he was right.

Four

Traffic among Cincy's tight buildings was clogged, the night gloom making the oncoming car lights all the brighter. It was going to be stop-and-go all the way to the interstate, and I almost wished I'd taken the longer way through Old Newport, but the FIB building was right in downtown Cincy, and the Hollows were just over the bridge. Once I got on the expressway, I'd be home in ten minutes.

"Accident?" I guessed, glancing across the narrow front seat of my convertible to Ivy, chilling as she watched nothing, her expression blank as she dwelled on who knew what. Her long fingers spun a world-weary, holed coin laced on a faded purple ribbon around her neck like it was a rosary. She kept it as a reminder that she couldn't love without hurt, and it worried me.

Jenks buzzed his wings to warm himself as he sat on the rearview mirror and looked backward. "You want me to go look?"

I flicked my attention to the heater controls, cranked to warm the already hot car. If he'd offered, it wasn't too cold for him outside, but for him to risk his core temp dropping to satisfy my curiosity was not what our partnership was about. "Nahh. It's probably nightwalkers."

Jenks's heels drummed against the mirror. "Sun's been down for over two hours."

I nodded, inching forward another three car lengths and just missing the light. Sighing, I cracked the window. It smelled like hot strawberries in here.

It had been forty years since the Turn and all the various Inderland species had come out of hiding to save humanity from extinction. Night and graveyard shifts had taken on entirely new meanings. What I was stuck in now was the dark-loving parts of Inderland trying to get to work and the late-working humans trying to get home. Rush hour shifted with the sun, two hours before sunrise and two hours after sunset being the worst. We were at the tail end of it.

My elbow went onto the tiny lip of the closed window and my fist propped up my head. Between Trent's offer and the coven wanting my head, I wasn't in the best of moods. A sigh slipped from me as I counted the people passing with cell phones against their ears.

"I told you not to worry about it, Rache," Jenks said, mistaking my worry. "I owe you lots more than lousy bail money."

"Thanks, Jenks," I said, accelerating when the light changed. "I appreciate it. I'll pay you back when I can." I'm so sick of not being able to make it on my own.

Ivy reached for the chicken strap when I took the corner tight, only to stop short at another light. "It's a slump," she said, her gray voice seeming to ease out of the dark corner of my car. "We all have them. It's part of being an independent."

"Yeah." Jenks dropped to the steering wheel, grapevining on it as the light changed and I turned. "Did I ever tell you about the time I was working for the I.S. to help feed my family? Matalina had just had another set of quads and things were looking ugly. I had to take a job for hazard pay to babysit this witch no one else would touch."

I couldn't stop my smile. "Best backup I ever had, or ever will have."

The pixy's wings moved faster as I accelerated. "Thanks."

A soft, happy sound came from Ivy, and he turned at the unfamiliar noise. The living vamp wasn't always gloomy, but she was never obvious about her good moods. The pixy took flight, buzzing an irritating circle around her. "I love you, too, Ivy," he said with just the right amount of sarcasm to keep things light.

Her long fingers waved him away, slowly so there was no chance of hitting him. Two years ago, if anyone had told me that I'd abandon my I.S. job to go independent with a living vampire and a pixy, I would've said they were crazy. It wasn't that we didn't do well together. We did. We did fantastically together. But my decisions, which always seemed sound at the time, had a tendency to backfire—badly. And the coven trying to kidnap me was really bad. Signing that paper of Trent's to get out of it was even worse.

I inched forward, eyes on the red taillights of the cars stopped on the interstate/parking lot. I wasn't going to let Kalamack's offer get to me. "So, Ivy," I said, trying to shift my thoughts. "What's going on with you and Glenn?"

The living vampire's eyes glinted as she flicked her attention to Jenks. "You told her!" she exclaimed, and my lips parted. Told me? Jenks knew? Knew what?

Jenks's wings clattered, and he flitted to the far side of the car, well out of her reach. "I didn't tell her nothing!" he shouted, laughing. "Tink's contractual hell, Ivy, I didn't tell her! She must have figured it out. She's not stupid!"

The car jerked as I hit the brakes before I needed to, but I wanted to look at Jenks. "Something is going on. I knew it!"

"There's no anything," Ivy protested, her face red in the light from the oncoming traffic. "Nothing is going on. Nothing!"

"Nothing?" Jenks blurted out, unable to keep quiet anymore. "You think—"

"Shut up, Jenks," Ivy snarled.

His wings humming, he hung in the middle of the car as if nailed to the air. He was holding his breath, and silver sparkles were drifting from him to make a light bright enough to read by. The pitch from his wings was starting to make my eyeballs hurt. Grinning, I looked across to Ivy. "You'd better tell me or he's going to explode."

"They've been on three dates," Jenks said, and Ivy snatched for him.

My smile widened as Jenks frantically darted about the car. "I can't!" he shouted. "Ivy, I can't! I can't not say anything!"

Sullen, Ivy slumped in her seat, giving up. "I can't believe you told her. You promised."

The pixy landed on the wheel as I put the car in motion and merged into "traffic" when a big SUV made some space. "He didn't tell me," I said as I waved thanks to the guy. "Glenn's coat smells like you." I made a face. "And honey. I don't want to know why. Really."

Jenks's wings halted. "Honey? Honey and gold?" he asked, and Ivy seemed to cringe.

"Yes," I said, able to identify the hot-metal smell now. "Sun-warmed gold. And honey."

Hands on his hips, Jenks turned to Ivy. "You told me Daryl was leaving."

Daryl? Who in hell is Daryl?

Ivy's expression became bothered. "She is. Soon as she finds a place." She?

"Like that's ever gonna happen!" Jenks exclaimed. "The woman is sex in sandals!"

"Glenn isn't going to kick her out!" Ivy said loudly. "She's not well. "

"No wonder with Glenn keeping her up all night doing the nasty! "

"Hey!" Ivy exclaimed, eyes going black. "That's uncalled for! He hasn't touched her."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" I said, sneaking glances at them both. "Who is Daryl?" And why haven't I heard about her before?

Jenks's wings stopped moving, and I thought I saw a flash of panic in him as Ivy forced her expression to neutral. Both of them seemed to pull three steps back in their thinking, and after a moment, Ivy said, "Just a woman we met on a run when you were in the ever-after. She needed some help. A place to stay. Glenn is putting her up until she finds her feet."

Jenks was silent as he looked at the car's ceiling, so I turned to Ivy—waiting.

"It's not any different from you foisting Ceri off on Keasley," she muttered. "I couldn't bring her to the church. Glenn is helping her out is all."

"Helping her right out of her clothes, I bet," Jenks said loudly, then darted to my shoulder when Ivy flicked her finger at him.

"She is not having sex with Glenn," Ivy continued. "I'd know."

"Yeah, you'd know because you're dating him," Jenks said. "Did you give him the dating guide yet?"

"Jenks!" she said, dismayed now, and he darted away from her snatch for him.

"How about kissing him? Did you at least kiss him yet?" he asked, laughing.

A low noise came from Ivy, almost a growl, and she seemed to melt into the cars darkness. My breath slipped out, and I put my blinker on to get in the lane for the bridge traffic; someone would let me in. Yeah, she'd kissed him—within an inch of his life, I bet.

I curled in my lower lip and glanced at Jenks. The pixy gestured for me to go for it, and I did. "Have you bitten him?" I asked, needing to know. He was my friend, too.

Ivy said nothing, and Jenks hummed his wings. "Did'ja?" he needled. "Did he?"

Still she said nothing, telling me she had, and I wondered if this might be a big mistake or one of the best things in Ivy's life. Glenn was nothing if not solid. "He doesn't want to go vamp, does he?" I asked, half joking but afraid of her answer. I was the last person to advocate shunning vampires as friends, but if you didn't know what you were doing, or the vampire was a real predator, you were in trouble. Glenn and Ivy were all of the above.

"No."

She was down to one-word answers, but she was still talking. Jenks's relieved expression told me it was more than she'd told him—which made me feel good. "Good," I said, careful to keep my eyes on the passing traffic to give her some privacy. "I like him the way he is."

"You'd like him more as a vampire. I can tell. I've seen it before." She sounded wistful, and I looked across the dark car at her, trying to hide my alarm.

"Ivy..."

"He doesn't want to go vamp," she said, flicking her eyes at me and then away. "That's one of the things I like about him."

Jenks winced, wings flat against his back. He knew as well as I that what you wanted didn't mean crap if the vampire you were with wanted something else. She was alive, so she couldn't turn him—only dead vampires could do that—but she could bind him, make him a shadow. Not that she would mean to, but accidents happened in the throes of passion. Hell, I roomed with her, and that was hard enough. Adding sex or blood to the mix could be deadly, which was why I'd finally made our relationship strictly platonic—that it had taken almost two years of confusing emotions and two bites between us to do it was beside the point.

I darted a nervous look at Jenks. "And he's okay with you going somewhere else for blood?" I asked hesitantly. Ivy never talked to me about her boyfriends. Her girlfriends either.

Gazing out the window at the night, Ivy said softly, "Who said I was?"

"No fairy-assed way!" Jenks exclaimed, and I gave him a look telling him to shut up.

Turning to us, she shrugged in embarrassment. "I told you I didn't need much. It's the act, not the amount. I'm not going to make him a shadow. Piscary taught me to be careful, if nothing else." Her eyebrows were raised in challenge as a flush colored her usually pale face. "Jealous?" she asked as she took in my alarmed expression.

Oh. My. God. "No, I think it's great," I finally stammered. Ivy and I had a... balanced relationship. Adding blood to it, no matter how right it felt, would destroy exactly what we admired most in each other. Her dating Glenn was a very good thing. I think.

"Urn, you won't say anything to his dad, will you?" she asked. "Glenn wants to tell him. He's not embarrassed as much as not wanting to—"

"To deal with Edden telling him it's a bad idea to date your coworkers," I finished for her before she could even think to bring up the dangers of dating a vampire, even a living one.

Ivy pointed to a break I could slip into, and I hit the gas, eager to be moving again. "I'm being smart about this," she said as the car swung and we shifted from the momentum.

"I won't say anything unless Edden asks me first." Ivy and Glenn? Am I that blind, or was I just not looking for it? The bridge was ahead, and beyond that, the lights of the Hollows.

"Thank you," she said, her entire posture easing as she settled into the seat. "Glenn... I wasn't expecting this. He's not after my blood, and we like the same stuff."

From the rearview mirror, Jenks snickered. "Guns, violence, crime scene photos, leather, sex, and women. Yeah, I can see that."

"I think it's good," I said again, hoping he'd shut up, but it was pretty nearly the same list that had brought Ivy and me together.

Jenks laughed. "Has he let you hold his gun yet?"

I smiled as Ivy stiffened.

"The man has a big gun," the pixy continued, his words innocent, but his tone full of innuendo. "It's got shiny bullets. You like shiny, don't you, Ivy? I bet Daryl has seen his gun."

"God, Jenks! Grow up!" she exclaimed, and the pixy snorted.

We inched forward another car length, and Ivy swung her hair away from her face, the oncoming traffic lighting it. "You're okay with this?" she asked, as if she needed my approval, not because we'd almost been more than roommates, but because we had both loved Kisten and he was dead. I nodded, and she relaxed. My shoulders slumped at the reminder of his bright blue eyes, his lips curving up in a smile I'd never see again.

"Nice," Jenks said from the mirror. "Now she's thinking about Kisten. Way to go, Ivy."

I shrugged, eyes on the road. "And that's okay," I said, comfortable with the ache.

Ivy was silent as we moved forward and stopped, moved forward and stopped, lost in her own thoughts, probably tinged with guilt. I'd already had my rebound relationship. Solid, dependable, fun Marshal, who could scuba dive and roller-skate. It could have been a really great friendship, seeing that he liked complex relationships and I was nothing if not that, but then I got shunned and he left. I didn't blame him. I'd actually seen him a few weeks ago at the Old Newport Theater with a woman who had red hair longer than mine. He hadn't even waved, just looked at me and walked away with his arm around her waist.

A space opened before me, and I hit the accelerator as my lane started to move. I picked up speed, turning onto the bridge and bumping over the bad pavement. As I had expected, traffic eased, and I let up on my death grip on the wheel. Ahead of us, the Hollows was beautiful with light, and I sneezed, jerking unexpectedly. "Bless you," Ivy said and Jenks chuckled.

"That's funny," he said. "A vampire blessing."

I would have agreed with him, but my gut cramped up, stopping my words. "Ow," I said, putting a hand to my middle. Ivy turned to me. "You okay? You look green."

"I feel green." Twisting, I took a quick look behind me to see if I could shift into the exit lane. "My gut cramped up is all. I'm fine." But I wasn't. I was dizzy, too. It was almost like the time—Shocked, I looked at Jenks. He was looking at me with the same horrified expression. Crap. It was after sunset. Someone was summoning Al, and since I had his summoning name, they were going to get me instead.

"Rachel?" Ivy questioned, clueless.

No! I thought, scared. I wasn't a demon. I could not be summoned like this!

But I'd been summoned before by black-arts witches trying for Al, and this was exactly what it had felt like.

My breath hissed in as another wave of pain hit me. A horn blew behind us, and I yanked the car back into my lane. "No," I panted through my teeth. "I won't go. You can't make me."

"She's being summoned!" Jenks shrilled, and Ivy's face, now close to mine, became terrified. "Ivy, she's being summoned!"

"Pull over!" Ivy exclaimed. "Rachel, stop the car!"

I couldn't think, it hurt that bad. My hands gripped the wheel and I seized, the engine racing until I jerked my foot off the gas. The car lurched, and my head hit the wheel. Tears pricked, and I held my breath, trying to make the world stop spinning. Damn it, I should have insisted that Al give me my password back. But as long as I had his, he couldn't abduct anyone.

"Ivy! Do something!" Jenks yelled as another pain ripped through me. I let go of the wheel to clutch my middle. Ivy grabbed the wheel as the car swerved. Vampiric incense rolled over me, and the car jerked as it hit the curb and swung back.

My head hit the wheel again, and a horn blew. "Ow," I moaned, trying to open my eyes. I could smell ashes. I wouldn't go. I was not a demon!

Vertigo hit, and I reached out, grasping anything as the ground was jerked from me, hands digging into the door, the seat... anything.

"Get out, Jenks!" Ivy screamed. "We're going to hit!"

There was a quick hum of wings, and then a terrifying jerk. The sound of plastic splintering and the screaming of wheels was loud. My face hit something that felt like a wall and smelled like plastic. The hold on my will cracked, and with the suddenness of a drop of water leaving a faucet, I felt my body suck inward, pulling my soul and aura with it.

And I wasn't in the car anymore.

The sudden cessation of pain was a shock. I tried to take a breath, but I didn't have lungs. I was in the ley lines, the warmth and tingling sensation familiar as I was pulled who knew where. Somewhere between my car hitting something and now, I had accepted the smut of the demon curse and the pain had vanished. It hurt only when you resisted.

Oh my God, Ivy and Jenks. They had to be okay. I think the airbag had deployed. We'd hit something, and I was okay, but Ivy and Jenks...

Anger replaced my fear. Someone had pulled me out of existence, causing an accident that I'd live through but that my friends might not. Jenks, I thought, imagining his fragile body against the glass, slowly going cold in the night air as no one looked for him. Damn it, someone was going to pay for this!

I'd traveled ley lines enough to know how to keep my soul together, and once I relaxed, it was absurdly easy. Al refused to teach me how to jump the lines by myself, but I could ride them. A tingling whispering through my thoughts gave me warning, and I stiffened as my aura rose through my mind, tapping into the demon archive to find out what I looked like, then turning the energy of the ley line into a body. At least, that's what Al said that itchy feeling was.

I shuddered, tasting the disjointedness of what felt like a broken ley line slice raw across my awareness, tasting of salt and cracked stone. The uncomfortable feeling ran through me like water in a saltshaker, and I squirmed as I felt myself take shape with an unusual slowness, as if everything was being checked twice.

My lungs were filling with air that was just a shade more substantial than I was, and I stumbled, not quite solid yet. I was standing, though, which was a lot better than showing up facedown. Not yet visible to my summoner, I sniffed deeply. There was no scent of burnt amber—I was in reality, and that was a relief. I'd be dealing with people. A demon might be a problem, but I could convince people to let me out, and then I could do some damage. I knew how to play this game. When summoned, demons couldn't lie except by omission, but I wasn't a demon.

There was a faint hum of chanting. I was in a high-ceilinged, round room, dimly lit with a white floor etched in black to make circles intersecting circles. Granite, I thought, thinking it was almost the inverse of Al's kitchen floor. I was trapped in the center of a huge six-pointed star that took up most of the room. The protection circle holding me was actually a shallow ditch made to contain salt, blood... whatever. It glowed faintly, the thick haze fading to a soft shimmer a mere three inches above the floor. The sound of gulls turned my attention upward to the open round skylight high above. No clouds, but the clear transparency of dusk told me it was sunset.

Holy crap! Was I on the West Coast? How in hell was I supposed to get home?

With a soft shiver, my aura finished rising through me, carrying the thought of my body with it and coalescing around my mind to leave a nasty taste of ash on my tongue. I had arrived.

Squinting, I brought a hand up to shade my eyes to better see the five people standing at equal intervals around the six-pointed star. I didn't look like Al, but he could appear as anything he wanted. Any demon summoner worth his salt would know that.

Abruptly I realized where the soot taste was coming from, and horror filled me. I was covered in ash. The faint white haze on my clothes was some dead person's ashes!

"Oh my God!" I shouted, smacking at myself to get it off. The chanting abruptly stopped as I danced about the interior of the circle, beating the chunky dust off me. It only made things worse, and I began coughing on someone's dead grandmother. My eyes watered, and I finally gave up, glaring at them from around my hair, now all over the place. Damn it, I was covered in strawberries and human remains. This was really gross, but the more I brushed at it, the more it stuck to my leather coat, like pixy dust on wet leaves.

Disgusted, I slowly turned in a circle to look at them. Jaw clenched, I tapped the nearest ley line, feeling that same disjointed cracked sensation again, and I wondered if this was why the U.S.-wide coven meetings were held here. If you weren't born to it, trying to use the ley lines on the West Coast would be like Russian roulette. Earth magic wouldn't work at all within a hundred miles of the ocean, a fact that led ley-line witches to think that they were superior to earth witches, but earth magic functioned on fresh water, and put a ley-line witch on a boat—any boat—and they were in trouble without a familiar. I was on the West Coast? Al would laugh his ass off.

Between us, the opalescent sheet of the ever-after showed a hint of all their collective auras, not a shade of black among them. My pulse quickened. This might be harder than I thought. These people looked professional, not like the laughable excuse for black-arts witches dressed in hokey black robes who had once summoned me into a basement. The summoning pattern was odd, too. Not that I'd been in the middle of many, but usually it was a five-pointed star, not six-. This was an old configuration. If it had been a friendly spell, I'd be at the position of power where I could draw from the other six. Here, I was their prisoner.

Two women, three men, varying ages. They were dressed professionally in pastels and dark colors—all solid, with no patterns that could disguise a written charm or symbol of power. The tallest had a laptop open on the high stool next to her. Their manner was subdued and confident, not excited, as I'd imagined, seeing as they were summoning a demon. All were looking expectantly at me. And outside the formal circle, standing submissively, like a dog, behind the woman with a laptop, was Nick.

Five

"You toad!" I shrieked, striding forward only to stop short at the shimmering wall of ever-after rising up from the protection circle. It hummed aggressively, and I pulled back, stymied. Hands on my hips, I glared at Nick, heart pounding and pissed, growing hot in my strawberry-and-ash-covered coat.

"You summoned me, didn't you!" I accused him, and Nick hunched, brown eyes avoiding mine. "I was driving, Nick. Ivy and Jenks were with me. We hit something, you little prick. If they're dead, I swear I will hunt you down. There is nowhere you can hide from me. Nowhere!"

A clatter of pixy wings turned into Jax, and Jenks's eldest son, dressed in black and looking so much like his dad it hurt, darted erratically in front of Nick. "I gotta get to a phone!" the pixy exclaimed, and he vanished through the open skylight and into the early dusk.

The sight of Jax was a shock, and realizing what I must look like—practically foaming at the mouth and raging like... a demon—I forced myself back from the barrier, the warning buzz having escalated into cramping my toes. Most circles didn't burn, but this one had been drawn to hold demons. To hold me. I am not a demon. I'm not!

The surrounding witches held to their posts to keep the circle strong, but Nick, who had apparently done the actual summoning, seeing that he knew Al's name, was picking up his stuff and jamming it in a worn, army-green satchel. "It's cold in Cincy, Nick," I said, shaking. "You son of a bitch. Even if he survived the crash, he's going to have a hard time staying alive."

The witch with the laptop shifted to draw my attention from Nick's grim expression. She was the tallest one there, wearing a black business suit and gray hose. Her legs were too muscular to be called pretty, and her sandy blond hair was in a simple cut with gray highlights. She looked familiar, like from a news article, but it wasn't until I saw her Mobius-strip pin holding a sprig of heather that I finally got it. Crap, it was the coven.

Worry colored my anger, and I moved back to the center of the circle, looking over my summoners again to see the balances in play. Vivian was still in Cincinnati, but if she had been here, there'd be three men and three women, an equal number of earth and ley-line users, all carefully selected to supplement one another's skills. Remembering Vivian's strength, I knew I was in trouble. Yes, they had been voted into the position, but they'd been trained for it from early childhood like Olympian athletes, skills and traditions embedded into them until magic was like breathing—instinctive, fast, and powerful. This was going to be... tricky.

The woman with the laptop seemed to be the high witch, since she did a quick look around at the others before asking Nick in a pleasant voice, "Is this Morgan, or the demon?"

I wrapped my arms around myself, wanting to demand that they let me out, but I knew they wouldn't. They wanted me in a hole in the ground—quick and quiet. I was in so much trouble.

Nick obviously knew it was me, but he came close, as if unsure, faded satchel in hand, shoulders at an uneven slant and a tired look in his eyes. He appeared old and weary, and the sheet of ever-after between us hummed as I moved so close that my breath came back to me. His wrist was a mass of scar tissue where his hand had almost been chewed off during his stint as a rat, and his black hair was longer than I remembered. Slowly, my hands formed fists.

I'd slept with this man, thinking he loved me. Maybe he had. But he'd betrayed me, selling secrets about me to demons and then trying to double-cross me after I'd saved his life. My fist jammed out, hitting the barrier inches from Nick's stomach. Pain cramped my hand and clawed its way up my arm. There was a collective gasp as I danced back, shaking my fist. Rubbing my knuckles, I met Nick's sad expression with a heightened feeling of bitterness.

"I thought you were smarter than this," he said, a toss of his too-long hair the only clue that I'd startled him. The demon scar on his brow that he'd gotten from Al showed for an instant, then was hidden. "Are they right?" he asked. "Did you go into partnership with Al? Is that why you showed up instead of him? God, Rachel. You were supposed to be the smart one."

"I didn't have much choice, Nicky," I said sharply.

His eyes flicked away for an instant—his only sign of guilt. "Neither do I. Remember that when this is done. I'm settling a debt you foisted on me," he said loudly. "Did you think I wouldn't have to answer for you running off with the focus?"

My chin rose. "It showed up on my doorstep with my name on it. Tell me you weren't going to sell it to the highest bidder. Tell me that, Nick."

"I was," he said belligerently, his attention shifting to the witches around us. "Them."

Them again. The same them who now had me circled like an animal. "Looks like I made the right choice in giving it back to the Weres then, huh?" I was so ticked I could scream.

Nick looked me up and down, his gaze lingering on my strawberry-covered coat before he put a hand to the back of his neck and walked away. "It's her," he said to the tall witch with the laptop, and there was a soft exhalation as they all relaxed.

My tension, though, spiked as the witches left their posts to join the tall woman at her computer. The humming of the barrier eased as they lessened their collective attention holding it, but the circle was still strong enough to stand.

The oldest man was wearing a large amulet, probably defunct this close to the coast. Earth-magic user, obviously, which made the older woman with the laptop their ley-line master. His cuff links were Mobius strips, and my face warmed when he handed Nick a stack of bills.

Nick shoved the money in his bag with unusual haste and turned to me. "We re even now," he said, his brow furrowed, and I flipped him off. His lips tightened and he looked away. "Don't call me again," he said to the man as he started for an elaborately tooled wooden door, but upon reaching it, he hesitated. "You either," he said to me, and then he... sort of... smiled?

Dont call him? I thought. Like I ever would? But I forced my breathing to remain slow as I glimpsed the hallway beyond the door, an idea trickling through me. Carpet and soft colors, pictures on the walls. I was in a private home, not an institution. As the witches watched the door shut behind him, my hand crept back to my jeans pocket to find the lump of my phone. Holy crap, Nick had reminded me of a way to get out of here. An active phone line could break a circle—if one was skilled enough in taking them down.

The door snicked shut, and I heard a sigh from one of the five witches. "I really dislike that man," one said.

"Me, too," I said loudly, then pulled my fingers back from the cramping sensation of the barrier. It was still too strong—they needed to lower their guard more.

Apparently they'd been waiting for Nick to leave, because they gathered behind the sandy-haired witch with the laptop to face me like a jury. The woman looked to be an athletic forty, but I was willing to bet that her surfer-toned body was actually closer to a hundred. You don't find that grace or confidence in a mere forty years, even if you can keep your balance in a tight curl. Her short hair was bleached by sun and salt, not chemicals in a salon, and her narrow, angular nose was peeling from sunburn.

Balancing her was the older witch with that nonfunctioning amulet. He appeared to be about forty as well, and his clothes were stodgy and expensive looking. They clung to him a little tightly, telling me he usually had a slimming charm. Settling in behind them was the middle male/female pair who both appeared to be a spelled thirty, and behind them, a young, gawky guy who was more than likely Vivian's counterpart, probably close to my age and still gaining his full, deadly potential. They all wore the coven's Mobius glyph, the chunky thirtyish woman using it to hold back her long blond hair.

"Rachel Morgan," laptop woman said, her voice taking on a formal cadence. "You have been brought here before the coven of moral and ethical standards to answer for several serious crimes."

I sighed, holding little hope of coming out ahead here. "Why didn't you come see me? We could've settled this over coffee. It would have been less dramatic than Vivian destroying some store's produce section. The FIB was there and everything." I mentioned it only because I wanted them to know there was a report filed. This wasn't going to simply go away.

Sure enough, the woman looked up, cool and unshakable, but her finger twitched.

"Brooke?" the older man said in sharp warning, eying my strawberry-tangled hair. "We agreed Vivian was there for reconnaissance only."

Oh! It really is her name then, I thought. Brooke barely shrugged, but I could tell she was pissed at me. Yeah, this is all my fault.

"The subject's pattern changed. I was afraid we'd lose her," Brooke said. "There wasn't time to ask everyone's opinion. It was a calculated risk, and Vivian was willing to take it."

The subject's pattern changed, eh? Al sending me home early, perhaps? Just how long had they been watching me? Angry, I rubbed an ash-coated chunk of strawberry off my sleeve. "I don't care what Kalamack told you, I'm not a threat," I said, and there was a nervous shifting among them. Clearly they were surprised I knew he was involved.

Brooke's lips tightened, and she glanced back at them, irate. "We think you are."

"I'm not," I shot back, glancing at the witch with the long blond hair listening to the oldest man whispering in her ear. "Trent's a big drama queen."

Damn it, I was going to smack Trent. I was going to smack him good. I was not a demon to be pulled around like a pull toy.

Peeved, Brooke turned to the whispering behind her. "Will you do that later?" she griped, and I tested the barrier to find it still strong. The line I was connected to surged, and I scrambled to handle it. Earthquake, maybe?

The oldest man, the one with the useless amulet, gestured mockingly to Brooke to get on with it, and she gave him an equally sour look. Is there a schism? Can I use that?

The sun-bleached tips of Brooke's short hair swung as she focused on me. "What an elf thinks is of no concern. Your actions are. You have undergone the sentence of shunning but have not changed your ways. You leave us little choice, Rachel Morgan, and are hereby formally charged with willfully allowing a witch to be taken by a demon."

This was so full of crap, I almost laughed. I'd been cleared of this by the I.S. months ago. "Which one?" I shot out. I was being railroaded. This was so unfair.

Brooke looked annoyed by the interruption, but it was the oldest man who said, "You call him Al, I believe."

I grimaced. "Not the demon. Which witch?"

The gawky young man with the off-the-rack suit stammered, "There's been more than one?"

There had, but if they didn't know about Tom's dying and Pierce's taking his body, then I wasn't going to tell them. I pressed into the barrier, finding it wasn't humming anymore, but I jerked back as if it was. "I don't want to be blamed for someone else's stupidity. If we're talking about Lee, then yes. He dragged me into the ever-after and tried to give me to Al. I fought Lee, and lost. Al took Lee instead."

Brooke's smile was a bare hint of one, but it was ugly and I felt a shiver. "The better witch," she said, and I nodded, realizing she was not an honest, upright woman. I didn't care if her aura was a clean, almost clear blue; her morals were gray.

"Bet that didn't end up in your report," I said bitterly. "I saved the witch who tried to give me to a demon. Is that why you're doing this without a jury?"

The witches behind Brooke looked discomfited, but she simply glanced at the screen. "You are accused of calling a demon into a court of human law," she continued.

"To put a murdering vampire behind bars, yup. I did." No jury on earth would convict me for that. "What else you got?" My foot was shaking, and I pressed down on it to get it to stop. Brooke was starting to sweat, but it wasn't fear. It was excitement. She liked something.

"You are accused of giving a rare artifact to a Were to further your position in his pack instead of turning it over to us for proper reinterment," she said.

"You never told me you wanted it," I said, hand on my hip. Hey, if I was going down, I was going down bitching. "And I was David's alpha before I had the focus, so you can cut the crap about using it to better my position in a group that no witch cares about anyway." Worry for David rose up, and I felt my back pocket, ready to change my plan. "If you touch him..."

Brooke's eyes fixed on mine. "You are in no position to make threats, Morgan."

Not yet anyway. I exhaled, pretending to be subdued. Just relax a bit more, and maybe I will be. "Look," I said, feeling sticky, "the I.S. cleared me, and you shunned me. Case closed. You can't shove me in a hole to be forgotten." I hope.

The head earth witch with his salt-stymied amulet smiled, and the lonely sound of gulls crying came faintly as they settled on cliffs for the night. "Yes, we can," he said. "All of the listed crimes could be dismissed as the youthful exuberance of a young, talented witch. With the right conditioning, you might even be a candidate for my job when I step down. But with certain incidents coming to light, it becomes increasingly clear what you are."

Damn you, Trent. If I get out of here, I'm going to smack you so hard you wont be able to find your ass using both hands. "And that is?" I asked, knowing what he was going to say.

Facing me squarely, Brooke said, "You are demon spawn, Rachel Morgan. Survivor of the Rosewood syndrome, demon in all but birth."

Shit. Hearing her say it hit me hard, and I shouted, "I am not a threat to you!" I almost followed that with "and Trent can't control me," but I was scared. I wasn't ready to burn that safety net just yet, and I hated myself for it.

Brooke snapped her laptop shut with a sound of finality. "You are a threat, Morgan," she said loudly. "Your very existence is a threat to the entire witch society, and sometimes we are constrained to act on our society's behalf without them knowing. That's why you're here and why we are going to stick you in a little... tiny... hole."

Oh, ma-a-a-an, this is so full of crap! "You're afraid of me, isn't that it? Well, you should be if this is how you treat people!" I was shaking, but they weren't impressed, chagrined, or otherwise moved. Stymied, I crossed my arms over my middle and exhaled loudly, helpless.

"So all that is left is your sentencing," Brooke said, sounding happy about it.

Sentencing? Fear slid through me, and at my alarmed expression, Brooke smiled. They were railroading me into custody because a trial would bring it out into the open that witches were an offshoot of demons. Humans would massacre us in our sleep like they once had vampires.

This was so stupid. I was a good person. Shaking, my hand went back to my phone and pulled it out. I wasn't sure what to think of Nick right now. What was going to follow next was his idea. Did he stick around to help me? "Mind if I make my call now rather than later?" I asked, and the heavy man with the amulet paled. "You get a lot of bars out here, right?"

"Sweet Jesus, she has a phone!" he shouted.

Yes, I had a phone, something demons didn't. I wasn't a demon, and to treat me as such was going to be their undoing. Pulse racing and angry with all of them, I hit Ivy's number.

"Rachel?" Ivy immediately answered, and a knot of worry eased. Finally something was going my way. She was alive and sounded fine.

"Strengthen the circle!" the older man shouted, and they all moved, scrambling to get back to their spots. But it was too late. I had a real, irrefutable connection with someone past the bubble, and the damage had been done.

"Ivy, listen," I said, pressing my hand against the bubble to feel my skin warm but not burn. It was a very good sign. "Are you okay? Is Jenks?"

"Yes." Her voice came back, tiny and small. "He's pissed. Where are you?"

"I'm on the West Coast. Keep the line open, all right?"

As Ivy exclaimed her disbelief, I shoved the open phone in my back pocket. My two palms went to the bubble, and I pushed. I'd once taken a circle. I'd thought it had been an act of serendipitous timing, but now I wondered if it had been because I could hold the stuff of demons.

This circle is mine, I thought, filling my mind with the scintillating, broken energy, filling my chi and spindling the excess in my thoughts to dilute the entirety so the weak spots would show. Before me, I fixed on Brooke's eyes, smiling when the energy spilling into me scraped along my thoughts, the shattered West Coast line filling me as it burned through existing channels to my mind. The weak spot in the bubble glowed, and with a surge of hope, I concentrated, pulling more until I could see the lines of energy I was drawing off the bubble.

I squinted at my success, and Brooke's expression became worried. I widened the imperfection. The more I took, the bigger the instability got. It was working!

My thoughts burned, and I began to sweat. The five witches tried to shore up the barrier, but with a ping, the circle became mine. I gasped as the entire line suddenly spilled into me. A lesser witch would have fried her chi, but the jangling discordance flowed to my mind where I spindled it like mad until I managed to break from the ley line. God, how could they stand manipulating this day after day?

I fell forward, landing half out of the circle on my hands and knees. "Ow," I gasped, not from the bump, but from the force in my head. The circle had fallen, and I stared at Brooke, nothing between us but air.

"She's out!" the old man shouted, and I moved.

My boots slipped, and I scrambled on all fours to plow into the weakest member, the youngest, gawky male witch. He shouted in fear and fell back, his training forgotten. His head hit the tile and his eyes rolled back. I waited an instant to be sure he was breathing.

One down, I thought, then rolled and kept rolling. A yellow ball of force hit the wall, sending goo splattering. It was the oldest man, his head high and his jaw clenched. I yelped and dove for the cover of the middle-aged woman coming for me. Her eyes widened, and together we fell.

"Sweet mother of God!" someone screamed, and I thought I saw pixy dust.

Shaking the stars from my vision, I pushed the woman away and punched to knock her out. She blocked it—badly—and I grabbed her, swinging her around to take the next yellow ball from hell that the head guy had thrown. The goo hit her full on, and I gasped when the ugly yellow splotches grew on my coat. Panicking, I let go, scrambling out of my coat and dropping it as the woman who had taken most of the spell fell to her knees and began vomiting, yellow foam coming out of her mouth and ears. It might be a white spell, but it was still nasty.

"Oliver, stop throwing that shit!" Brooke shouted, and I looked up. The thought to call Al for help pinged through me and vanished. If I did, not only would I owe Al, but they'd be right in calling me a black witch. I was on my own. And not doing too badly.

Breathless, I ran at the middle-aged man holding a ley-line charm, grabbing his wrist and spinning around to stand facing his back and jam his own charm into his side. With a groan, he went down, taken by his own spell. I eased him to the floor, narrowly escaping being hit by that foaming-ball-of-vomit spell again.

"Oliver," Brooke shouted. "Knock it off! I want her conscious, not puking on my floor!"

Ignoring Brooke, Oliver pulled his arm back. My eyes widened, and I dove for the nearest circle. "Rhombus!" I shouted in relief as I skidded into it, and a gold-and-black sheet of ever-after flowed up. I didn't expect it to last long, seeing that I was using that awful, fractured ley line, but at least I had breathing space. I was safe in my bubble.

"You're like a cockroach, you know?" came a soft voice behind me.

Or not. Still sitting on the floor, I turned to see a pair of sensible black shoes in here with me. Swallowing, I followed the gray nylons up to find Brooke with her hand on a hip and a speculative look on her face. "I'm not a black witch...," I whispered.

She reached for me, but I couldn't get my foot up in time, and instead of the expected grasping hand, she shifted at the last moment and fell right on me, her elbow hitting my middle. My head hit the floor, and I might have blacked out for an instant as I struggled to breathe. I tried to shove her away, but she'd filled my mouth with something that tasted like propellant.

"Turn over," she said, and arms made strong from battling waves manhandled me onto my stomach. There must have been something in that handkerchief, because I couldn't resist. My arms jerked up behind me, and I froze, tears starting from the pain. Please dont dislocate them, please, I thought, going passive in her grip.

With a satisfied harrumph, she slipped a ring of charmed silver around my wrist and zipped it tight. I groaned when the ever-after washed out of me. It hurt like an old ache, even if the line was nasty, and I tried to breathe through my nose. My circle fell, but I didn't think Oliver was going to hit me with his flaming ball of puking death. Not with Brooke sitting on me.

"My God," Oliver whispered over the sound of the witch retching in the corner. "Did you feel what came out of her? She could have leveled the house!"

I wheezed when Brooke got up off me, and Oliver's sensible shoes scuffed into view. "Her aura is blacker than any I've ever seen," he added scornfully, and I grunted when Brooke's foot wedged under my ribs, and she rolled me over. Three faces peered down at me, Brooke, Oliver, and he youngest, gawky guy, again conscious and holding his head. A faint sparkling sifted from the high windows, and I closed my eyes. Jax. Nick mew what had happened here and done nothing to help. Same old Nick.

"Oliver, get Amanda unspelled, will you?" Brooke said as she held her wrist. "And check on Wyatt while you're at it. I don't know why you use four ley-line skills. You're not good with them."

"Because you insisted on doing this too close to the ocean for my charms to work," he snarled.

"What does it matter? We've got her."

Interesting, I thought as I finally got that wad out of my mouth.

"Barely," Oliver said, and Brooke arched her eyebrows and nudged me in the ribs. "I didn't like this, and I still don't," he added. "We could have gotten a demon instead."

"Don't be silly, she's not a demon. She's just a witch," Brooke said. "A stupid one at that, who thinks she is in control and clearly isn't. Besides, it's not illegal to summon demons."

"It should be." Oliver was still breathing hard from the exertion, and starting to sweat.

"I think the media made her out to be more than she is." Brooke peered at me like I was a bug. "She didn't do one spell. She had the opportunity and the motive."

"It was a demon name that wizard used to summon her," Oliver protested, examining the eyes of the witch I'd knocked out before then clapping him on the back in support.

"We only have his say-so that it was a demon name," Brooke said. "He could have lied, trying to pay us off with a wooden coin painted gold."

From out of my sight, Amanda rasped between her gagging, "Oliver. Some help, please?"

Expression thoughtful, Oliver and the gawky witch went to take care of Amanda and Wyatt, leaving only Brooke. I glared at her, grunting when she nudged me with her toe.

"A witch couldn't have broken a coven circle, phone or not," she whispered, looking almost hungry. "No, you're something special, Rachel."

"I'm going to take my something special and shove it up your ass," I muttered, helpless.

Lips pressed, Brooke flipped me over. I immediately turned back, but she had taken my phone from my back pocket, and I stiffened when I heard Ivy, telling me she was going to kill me if I didn't answer her. Brooke smirked at my glare and closed the top, breaking the connection before tucking it in her pocket. The sound of chanting drifted to me, and finally Amanda stopped retching.

Brooke leaned close under the pretense of pulling me to a seated position. "Why didn't you call your demon? You know how. I can see the smut on you."

I lifted my chin. "I'm not a black witch," I said, but a sharp tug on my arm cut my argument short. "Ow! Watch it, will you?" I was sitting upright as the others came back and ringed me in a justice that went all the way back to our beginnings. No one would know. And in time, no one would care.

"Rachel Morgan," Brooke intoned, and I knew this was it. "You hereby have the choice of becoming magically neutered and rendered incapable of bearing children—or permanent imprisonment in Alcatraz."

I stared at them, appalled. "You are bullies. All of you," I said, then yelped when Wyatt shoved me over. My breath whooshed out, and I flipped the hair from my eyes, glaring at them.

"Alcatraz it is," Brooke said, pleased.

Six

The heat was on against the damp chill in the low-ceilinged room where we ate, but I still felt cold. It was noon according to the clock past the gates that separated us from the kitchen, but it was three by my internal clock, and I was hungry. The scrambled eggs in front of me were not going to pass my tongue, however. They looked good enough, but the sulfur in them would give me a migraine. It smelled funny in here, sort of a mix of dead fish and decayed redwood.

Depressed, I picked at a piece of toast, thinking the butter tasted off. Not enough salt? I wondered, dropping it. I almost wiped my hands on my spiffy-keen, orange jumpsuit, but stopped at the last moment. Not knowing when I'd get a new one, I licked my fingers instead. Across from me was my upstairs neighbor, a sallow-looking witch who had ignored me so far as he dipped his toast into his coffee before eating it. To my left was Mary. I'd met her earlier by way of conversation around the wall between us, and my first sight of her had been a shock; the woman was so thin she looked ill. To my right was a middle-aged guy who never spoke. Most everyone was talking. Alcatraz wasn't a big place, and it was kind of... homey. Maybe it was because we were on an island with no ley lines, surrounded by salt water. There simply was no escape.

Unhappy, I pushed my tray away and sat with my plastic coffee mug. I'd been here since the midnight boat brought me over with a load of canned goods, handcuffed to a pole in the middle of the boat. Since then, I'd showered in salt water in a big empty room—as if being on an island surrounded by salt water wouldn't take care of earth charms on its own—reshowered in freshwater, been poked, prodded, gossiped over, and given a new band of charmed silver with my name on it. It had been a relief to finally get to my cell, where I fell into an exhausted sleep hours before everyone else. I felt like a dog at the pound. And like a dog, I worried that my owner wouldn't come pick me up. I hoped it was Ceri who summoned me out of here, not Al. I couldn't call Al for help while I wore charmed silver, but he could summon me. I had to believe that I'd be summoned by someone, eventually.

At least I'd gotten the cremation ashes off me, I thought as Mary jostled my elbow, and I blinked when her smile showed she was missing a tooth.

"You heard about the food then?" she said, glancing at my tray, pushed to the middle.

"What do you mean?" I took a sip of coffee.

"They drug it," she said, and the guy across from us shrugged, continuing to tuck in.

I didn't swallow, my mouth full of coffee as my gaze went between them, wondering if it was truth or prison razzing. The big guy across from me seemed to be enjoying his breakfast, but Mary looked like she hadn't eaten in years.

"It is!" she said, eyes wide in her thin face. "They put in an amino acid that binds to the receptors in your brain to chemically strip you of your ability to do magic if you eat enough."

I spit the coffee out, and the guy across the table guffawed as he chewed. Feeling ill, I set the coffee aside, and Mary nodded, adding enthusiastically, "Your sentence is based on how much of your ability they want to take away. I've got thirty years left."

The witch across from me finished his eggs and eyed mine. "You'd get early parole and be out of here by spring if you'd eat," he said.

Mary cackled at that, and I glanced at the guards, busy not caring. "So how long are you in for, Rachel?" she asked, eyes on the demon scar on my wrist. She obviously knew what it was. "Life," I whispered, and Mary cringed.

"Sorry. I guess you should eat, then. I got sixty years for killing my neighbor," she said proudly. "His damned dog kept peeing on my monkshood."

"Monkshood Mary... ," I said, recollection raising my eyebrows. "You re Monkshood Mary? Hey! I read about you in school!"

She beamed, extending her hand. "Hey, Charles, see? I'm still famous. Glad to make your acquaintance," she said as if having rehearsed it a thousand times, and I took her bird-light hand, feeling like it might break in my grip.

"I'm Charles," the man across from me said, and his hand engulfed mine. "That there is Ralph," he added, nodding to the silent man on my right. "He doesn't talk much. Been kinda down since the cell next to him went empty last year."

"Oh. Sorry." I glanced at him. "Someone got out, huh?"

Mary picked at her crust, skirting where the butter was. "Tried. If they catch you alive, they neuter your magic the old-fashioned way. Ralph, show Sunshine your scar."

Sunshine? I thought, not happy about the nickname, but Ralph put down his fork and pulled the hair up from his forehead. "Oh my God," I whispered, and he let his hair fall, turning back to his meal and carefully manipulating the fork... concentrating on it. Slowly, very slowly. They had lobotomized him.

"Tha-that's inhuman," I stammered.

Charles stoically met my horrified gaze. "We're not human."

Silence fell, and I felt cold. I had to get out of here. Like now! Why hadn't anyone summoned me home yet? Ivy said she was okay, but what if Jenks really was hurt and she'd been lying so I wouldn't worry?

I was so lost in my thoughts that I jumped when I realized someone was standing behind me. I turned, coming eye to middle with one of the biggest women I'd ever seen. She wasn't fat, she was big. Big boned, big chested, big ankles, and big hands. Her pudgy face made her eyes look small, but they glinted with intelligence.

"Hey, Mary," she said with a southern accent. It wasn't the elegant sound of a southern belle, but the ugly twang of trailer trash on the edge of the woods with a trampoline out front and stacks of TV Guides by the door. Her fat-lost eyes stared at me as she casually took Mary's tray, holding it over the smaller woman's head while she shoveled her breakfast into her mouth.

"Lenore, this is Rachel," Mary said, her tone shifting to a respectful fearfulness. It pegged my bully meter, and my face warmed. "Rachel has Mark's old cell," Mary finished.

Lenore's eyes narrowed. "You don't need dis, honey," she said, setting Mary's tray down and taking up mine. "Yer figure's jest fine. Let Auntie Lenore take care of yo-o-o-ou."

Just how many syllables are in "you"? I thought dryly. I wasn't going to eat it, but I wasn't going to let Auntie Lenore think she could walk over me either. Trouble was, it was kind of tight at the table, and she held the tray right over me.

I took an angry breath. Mary shook her head, scared. The posted guards weren't watching. They were careful not to, by my estimation. Fine. "Charles, make a hole," I said, and the man casually made a little hop with his hip. Three people protested as he shoved them down, but his bulk made the move fast and easy.

I ducked under the table and slid all the way to the other side, popping up beside him and stepping up onto the bench seat. Standing taller than Lenore, I jerked my tray away. Or at least I tried. The woman had a grip on it as if it was a ticket out of here.

The surrounding conversation died, and all eyes turned to us. Lenore was staring at me as we both held my tray. "You think you can take me, skinny ass?" she said, eager for a fight, and I sighed. Why hadn't Ivy summoned me out before I had to fight someone?

"What I think is, you'd better let go of my tray before I jam it down your shirt," I said. "Anyone ever tell you that you look like an orange in that jumpsuit? Auntie Lenore? More like Auntie Clementine." Hey, if I was going to fight this woman, I was going to do it right.

"You skinny bitch!" she shouted, and people moved. Except for the guards watching us.

"Rachel, no!" Mary said as she scrambled up. "Stop or they'll gas us!"

Not as long as the guards were in here laughing. Lenore made a fist with her free hand. The fork was in it, placed to gouge. She yanked me across the table. I let go before she could pull me into her and dropped, sitting on the table. Bracing myself, I kicked out with both feet, hoping to hit her solar plexus hard enough to wind her. It could be over in ten seconds.

My feet slammed into her. Lenore didn't move, and the shock reverberated all the way back to my spine. My jaw unclenched, and I slowly sent my eyes up to see her smiling at me. My God, the woman was built like a tank. Lenore smirked, then slammed the tray onto my head.

It hit hard, and my vision spun. "You got yerself a sparkly," she said, grabbing my wrist. Suddenly I found myself careening down the table as she walked, me sliding into everyone's trays until I fell off the end in a crash of tin and plastic.

"Ow!" I yelped as I hit, sprawled on the floor.

"Pretty sparkly," she said sarcastically, and I slipped in coffee and eggs as I tried to get up, helpless in the woman's grip. "Dey only make demon summoners wear dees," she said, wedging a thick finger between me and the charmed silver. "You summon demons?"

"No," I panted. "But I'm a liar, too."

"Then you don't need it none," she said, trying to pull it off me.

"Hey! Stop!" I yelled, but the guards only laughed. I was covered in egg and coffee, and half the table was angry with me for dragging their breakfast onto the floor. "Ow!" I shrieked as real pain stabbed through my wrist. "Let go!"

"Gimme yer bracelet," Lenore said, squeezing my hand. "Give it."

She didn't want my bracelet. She wanted to freaking break my hand.

I pulled back and gave her a side kick, but it was like kicking a tree, the woman was so big. She took it, then swung a thick fist at me. I ducked and people cheered.

"I said let go!" I shouted, throwing coffee in her face.

Lenore bellowed as her grip loosened, and I pulled away. Arms outstretched, she came at me. I ducked, scampering out from under her and slipping on eggs. I couldn't let this woman get a bear hug on me—she'd snap my spine.

Still howling, she turned to follow, moving remarkably fast. I hadn't wanted to hurt her, but I didn't have much choice anymore. Jumping onto the table, I fell into a fighting stance.

Lenore hesitated, her eyes flicking behind me. Taking a step back, she passively raised her hands, but it wasn't because of me. Too late, I turned.

Pain exploded at the back of my knees, so hard and fast that I couldn't breathe. I went down face-first. Tears blurred my vision, and I curled into the fetal position, trying to hold my knees. Someone had hit me from behind. Oh God, I'd never walk again.

"I's kill her! I's fucking kill her!" Lenore was screaming, and I looked past my stringy hair to see her being led away by two guards, submission holds on her with the help of a couple of sticks. Sure, big talker now that she couldn't do anything.

"Get up, Sunshine," someone said sarcastically, and I groaned when they pulled me up and dragged me between them. I couldn't straighten my legs. They hurt like hell. Apart from our table, the rest of the room was orderly. Noisy, yes, but no one was getting off their benches.

Mary held her narrow body with her skinny arms, scared. Charles wouldn't look up. But it was Ralph's expression that scared me. Terror was in his eyes, terror he couldn't express but was reliving. Not the medical wing. God, please. Not the medical wing.

"New girl making friends?" one of the guards said, letting go and shoving me into the wall before he jerked my arms behind me. "What is it they say about redheads?"

"The medical wing?" the other said, hesitating by a stairway going down. There was a cold draft coming up, stinking of fear and infection. God, no. They could do it, and it would be over. My life done. I'd be like Ralph, and all the magic in the world wouldn't be able to fix me.

I gathered myself to fight again, my relief almost making me cry when the first replied, "No. She's got someone from the mainland coming over, and they want her to be able to talk."

My relief was short lived. They want me to be able to talk? I wasn't getting a lobotomy because it might inconvenience someone?

The sound of links of steel ratcheting closed around my wrists was loud. I wanted to fight, but I could hardly move, and fear hit anew when they dragged me past my cell to another part of the prison. My heart pounded, and I struggled to get up, to do something! Being hurt and cuffed wasn't nearly as terrifying as the realization that these people could do anything—cut me up like they had Ralph—and no one would think twice, much less care.

The noise from the dining hall grew fainter, and it was just me and my jailers, dragging me backward over the concrete floor past a series of close-set metal doors. They faced a solid stone wall, and beyond that, the unseen ocean. My heart pounded, and adrenaline got me to my feet when they stopped so one guard could open a cell door. It took two of them to do it, one at the cell with me, and one at a remote panel. The sound of the creaking door chilled me, and I gritted my teeth against the pain in my knees when they started to buckle with my own weight.

"Enjoy the hole," the guard said, and he shoved me past an outer metal door and a second, standard barred door into a lightless five-by-nine box. I fell, vision graying from the pain in my knees. The barred door shut before I could even pull my face up. The second door slammed behind it a moment later, cutting off the light after I saw the toilet, sink, and nothing else.

They didn't even laugh at me as their voices became faint, I was so beneath their consideration. Slowly I got my legs untangled, the motion difficult because my arms were still cuffed behind me. Feeling sick, I scooted back until I found the wall. It was metal, too, and cold. The soft sounds of my breathing became loud. Someone nearby was crying, but it wasn't me.

It would never be me.

Seven

The metal floor and walls were cold, but I had quit shivering hours ago, numb to it now. The backs of my knees were swollen, and I couldn't bend them. They ached, throbbing with a pain that refused to abate and that I just learned to live with. The solid outer door had remained closed, and it was close to pitch-dark. I couldn't see the walls, but I had traced their outlines to find the toilet—hard to use with my hands still cuffed—and the sink. Now I sat with my back in a corner beside the door, my legs outstretched on the cold metal floor to try to get the swelling down. Getting my cuffed hands in front of me had been torture.

I had missed lunch, by the faint scent of lasagna that had come and gone. My dinner had been salad. I hadn't eaten it, and it sat beside the interior door where the woman had left it. The vinegary dressing was probably full of magic-demoting goodness.

A scrape of nail on metal brought my heart into my throat, and I strained to see. Rat? I thought. I wasn't scared of them, much, but I couldn't see a damned thing. Wincing, I tried to bring my knees closer. The new scent of iron and stone tickled a memory, and hope brought me stiff. "Bis?" I whispered.

A soft thump shocked through me, and adrenaline pulsed when a pair of softly glowing eyes turned to me, hovering about a foot above the floor. "Ms. Rachel," the adolescent gargoyle whispered, his nails scraping as he came closer. "I knew I could find you!"

"What are you doing here?" I asked, relief spilling through me. I reached out to touch him, and the instant my cold fingertips made contact, the unfamiliar pattern of the shattered West Coast ley lines burst into my thoughts. I jerked back, shocked. Damn it, I really needed to touch someone, but Bis would send me into overload.

"Sorry," he said, his big supple ears drooping like a puppy's in the faint light from his eyes. His usually pricked ears were edged in white fur, as was the lionlike tuft on his thin, hairless tail. His leathery wings rustled as he settled them, and his craggy features looked young despite the crevices and pebbly gray appearance.

"How did you get here?" I whispered. "Is Ivy with you? Did she fly out?"

"It's just me and Pierce," he said proudly. "We jumped. All the way from your kitchen."

"Pierce!" I exclaimed, then winced. Any louder, and a guard might hear. "Did he escape from Al?" Oh God, I'd get blamed for that—even if I was in prison.

Bis's flat, black teeth glinted faintly. "No. After you almost died from that soul charm, the demons made him send someone to watch you. Pierce was willing, able, and cheap."

"You're kidding!" I almost hissed, but I wondered if part of the reason Al had gone along with it was because he was worried Pierce might find him sleeping one night and kill him. I'd thought those silver bands were impossible to thwart. If it had shocked me, it had shaken Al.

"Ivy is mad," Bis said, his words spilling out, sounding like falling scree. "She thinks you lied to her about how bad you were hurt. Pierce taught me how to jump here. I swam from the mainland, but it's too cold for Pierce. No one saw me. I didn't know I could ride the lines. It was cool, Ms. Rachel! First I'm in your kitchen, and then bam! San Francisco! Just that fast. The lines taste funny, here, though." He finally ran out of words, his red eyes glowing faintly.

"Pierce didn't know I was in trouble until you told him?" I insisted, not believing that Al had just let him go. And I really didn't like the demons sending me a babysitter. I could take care of myself. Most days. Today I could use some help though.

The small gargoyle shifted, his wings brushing my ankles to send a burst of awareness through me. "Not a clue. He's really upset. He didn't even know which line to jump to until I told him which line you came in on. That's why he showed me how to jump. Ivy said it was okay. All I had to do was listen to the ley lines. You left your aura all over the place. Following you was freakier than a boy soprano's voice changing in the middle of Ave Maria,' especially when the line we came out of was all broken and stuff, but it was easy! No one told me gargoyles could jump the lines. Even my dad doesn't know, and he's old!"

Gargoyles can jump the lines? Well, they could slide right through a protection circle, and it made Al's comment last winter about my "having my gargoyle" all the more intriguing. But why didn't gargoyles know they could? Demon censorship? Sounded about right.

"Pierce knew exactly where they had taken you when we popped out of that line," Bis said, inching closer, his glowing eyes pinched in worry. "Are you okay?"

I wasn't, but I forced a smile. "I'm much better now," I whispered. "You did good. I'm really happy to see you. Can you get back on your own?

He shook his head, his thick canines making him look terribly fierce as he frowned. "I promised Pierce I wouldn't jump without him. He says I'm not good enough."

I smiled, thoroughly understanding how it rankled to be told you weren't good enough. In this case, though, I was all for a little adult supervision. How Pierce knew the coven would put me here sort of bothered me. True, he'd been a member of the coven of moral and ethical standards himself—before they bricked him into the ground, alive—but Alcatraz hadn't been a prison when he'd been living.

"Bis," I said, wincing when my knees bent. "Can you show me what Pierce showed you? Maybe we can get home together."

The pair of glowing eyes slowly shifted. "Not really. I don't have the words, Ms. Rachel. Pierce said people have to learn from an experienced gargoyle, not a, uh, novice. He can't jump you either. But it's okay," he rushed on when my brow furrowed. "Ivy has someone to bring you home right before the lines close to summoning in Cincinnati."

My knees throbbed, and his eyes shifted from orange to their usual dull red. Even the hard metal floor didn't feel so cold. I was going home. Before they lobotomized me.

Mistaking my relief for despair, Bis edged closer, almost putting a claw on my leg. "Pierce would come rescue you himself, Ms. Rachel, but the water is too cold. No one saw me swim over. It used to be an old fort, and I only needed a little crack to get in."

He was trying to cheer me up, and I nodded, not knowing what to do with my hands and aware of the cuffs for the first time in hours. Bis could slip through the smallest opening, like an octopus. It had driven Jenks crazy until one night the fun-loving teen showed him how he did it.

"I didn't know you could swim," I said softly, running a finger between me and the steel around my wrist. "The ward around the island didn't stop you?"

"It's just a modified ley line," the young gargoyle said loftily. "It can't keep me out."

"Is Ivy okay? And Jenks?" I hung on his words, starved for the memory of comfort and companionship, and I watched his eyes shift when he nodded.

"Jenks's wing is bent, but he's okay. He can still fly and stuff. They want to wait to summon you home until the sun almost rises in Cincy so the council can't summon you back again. That's what I came to tell you. Pierce is worried. He says not to eat the food."

He knew about the food? I mused, disturbed. "Nick summoned me here," I said bitterly.

"Nick?" The young gargoyle rocked back. "You're sure?"

"Yes," I answered sourly. "He walked right after, but if they throw enough money at him, he'll probably do it again." Bis had heard of Nick by way of Jenks bad-mouthing him, but obviously had never met him. "I have to talk to Al when I get home," I said, probing my knees to see how bad they were, and the dull throb turned into a stabbing pain. "I don't need Pierce babysitting me. That's what Jenks and Ivy are for."

"That's what Ivy thinks, too," Bis said softly, his eyes darting, making me think she'd said so in no uncertain words. Loud ones, probably.

I'd tried to make Al take his summoning name back before, but part of the deal was that he'd remove one of my demon marks, something he didn't want to do. I hadn't pressed the issue since Al couldn't abduct anyone if he couldn't be summoned. That the situation could be used against me had never crossed my mind. I shivered, the backs of my swollen knees pressed against the icy floor. I'd been pulled around like a toy. No wonder demons showed up pissed.

"You're cold," Bis said, as if only now realizing it. The kid could, and did, sleep in the snow.

"Mmmm-hmm." My misery was temporary. I could endure it.

"I can help," he said, and a dull red warmth blossomed in the dark, lighting my cell with a weird shadow glow as his skin turned pink. He was glowing like an overheated rock, his gray, pebbly skin taking on a luminescent sheen. Bis's big tufted ears were back like a scolded puppy's, and his pushed-in, ugly face was pinched in worry. His tail, too, was wrapped around his oversize feet to make himself as small as he could. "Bis, you are a wonder!" I said, holding my hands out until I pulled them back from the sudden heat. My shins, too, were getting warm.

The teenage gargoyle blushed, sending out a wash of heat, but then his big ears pricked and swiveled, his eyes following a second later. The sound of a buzzing alarm came faintly, followed by a key in my outer door's lock. Shit. Was it time for my interrogation already?

"Hide," I said, and he immediately dampened the heat and the light with it. "Don't do anything unless they try to take me to the hospital wing. They might give me a lobotomy."

"I won't let them" came his voice from the dark ceiling, and the faintest scratch of nail on metal sounded. The memory of him was a glow on the back of my eyelids, fading when the first door creaked open and harsh electric light made a long rectangle, shining on my untouched salad and my swollen knees.

I blinked, trying to move as a guard opened the inner door and stepped back. I couldn't get up the normal way because of my knees. Above me, Bis clung to the ceiling like a cat-size bat, my protector in case things went from bad to worse. My pulse hammered, and using my hands and the corner, I managed to wedge myself to my feet with my shaking arms. I would not go to the prison hospital. I'd die fighting first.

A shadow eclipsed the electric lights. The scent of roast pork slipped in, and my stomach growled. "I'm not going in there," came Brooke's voice, sour and slightly supercilious, and the light returned to the floor. Brooke? Brooke wanted to talk to me?

My chest hurt. It wasn't the medical people, at least. Maybe the dissension I'd seen in the coven chamber was deeper than I thought. A three a.m. meeting couldn't be sanctioned. She was here on her own.

"I'm not going in there," Brooke said, louder this time when a guard protested. "Bring her out. I'll talk to her in that excuse of a library you have."

There was a moment of muted conversation, then a masculine, "She is your boss's boss, you cretin! Get her out!" echoed dully.

A flashlight panned over me. "Out," someone ordered, and I shuffled into the light, feeling very... orange. The dried coffee on my jumpsuit looked like old blood, and I lifted my chin when Brooke looked me up and down, lingering on my swollen, cuffed wrists. The sprig of heather in her Mobius-strip pin had wilted, and I felt a pinch of worry when I noticed the same shape embroidered on all the guards' collars. Jeez, they had their own prison?

"Can you walk, Rachel?" she asked.

"It's Ms. Morgan, if you don't mind," I said, leaning against the wall. My stomach hurt and I was almost dizzy from the pain in my knees.

"The inmates aren't allowed in the library, Madam Coven Leader," one of the guards protested weakly, and she spun, giving him a nasty look.

Tm not going to sit on your ugly little chairs and talk to her through plastic. The woman is cuffed. She is wearing charmed silver. She isn't going to hit me or take me hostage. She can hardly stand up, thanks to you. Rachel, this way."

"I told you, it's Ms. Morgan." Head down and my lank hair falling into my eyes, I shuffled after her. Crap, I could hardly move, and a sudden nausea made me glad I hadn't eaten. It would have been nice if someone had offered me a pain amulet, but we were surrounded by salt water. Besides, it would ruin the beating they'd given me.

The guards were not happy, but one jumped to open doors and clear the way. I looked back at my cell to see if Bis was still in there. Someone had tacked sunshine over the door. Ha, ha. "What time is it?" I asked Brooke as she waited for me to catch up. I felt as if I was a hundred and sixty years old, but the hope that I'd shortly be in Ivy's black tub full of hot water kept me moving.

The woman's low heels clicked as I followed her into the main building. "A little after three," she said, sniffing. "God, it stinks like bad sushi in here."

Most of the inmates we passed were either in bed or sitting on top of their covers waiting for lights out. A whisper went out like a wave among them as they saw us. If it was after three here, then it was after six at home. Take into account the difference in latitude, and the sun was indeed about to rise in Cincy. A quiver of anticipation shot through me, and I walked a little straighter. The lines in Cincy were about to close to summoning, though if you knew how, you could still jump them no matter what time of day it was.

A quick look up assured me Bis was still with me. He was crawling on the ceiling, and I could see him only when he went over a metal bar, his skin not adapting quite fast enough. When he was older, even that wouldn't show. He was a good kid.

The whispers grew to soft voices as word traveled from block to block. Alcatraz was kind of like a one-room schoolhouse. If something happened, everyone knew it in three minutes. I walked slowly to hide my pain, forcing my shoulders back and my head high as we entered the library, enclosed with a ceiling-to-floor fence. There was an oblong coffee table with several cast-off chairs around it in a cruel mimicry of a bookstore lounge. As luck would have it, I could see my empty cell, Mary, Charles, and Ralph. Mary looked shocked, her soulful eyes wide as she sat on her bed with her blanket pulled to her chin.

"This looks... comfortable," Brooke said dryly as she took off her coat, hesitating briefly before gingerly draping it over the grimy chair and sitting on it.

I looked at my equally dirty chair, knowing I wouldn't be able to get out of it once I was down. The promise of a soft cushion was irresistible, though, and I almost fell trying to sit without bending my knees. The jolt was enough to bring my eyes shut for an instant, and I gasped, taking in the scent of musty fabric and discarded books left to the elements.

"How pleasant," I said so she wouldn't see Bis crawl past the windows. "What do you want, Brooke?" I said, tired. If it was three here, it was six at home, and way past my bedtime.

She shifted, steepling her fingers and eying me from behind them. "They told me you didn't eat. Good. Don't eat anything unless it comes from me."

I uncrossed my arms from around my middle. "You know about the food?"

The woman smiled, showing me perfect teeth. "Isolating that amino acid is expensive, but we've been using it for centuries. It has an excellent success rate."

I thought of Mary starving herself for another thirty years, and I unclenched my jaw.

"Not everyone thinks you should be castrated," she said as she adjusted her skirt over her ugly knees. "Magically or otherwise. I'm your friend, Rachel. You should trust me."

Oh. Yeah. That's a good idea. I looked at the ceiling, not seeing Bis, then back to her. Damn Trent back to the Turn. This was his fault. Didn't tell them, my ass.

"I alone believe that you don't need such harsh treatment," she continued. "If you can invoke demon magic, you are—"

"A tool?" I interrupted. "A weapon? Have you ever fought a demon, Brooke? You were stupid to have risked it trying to catch me. The only reason I keep surviving demons is because they want me for other things."

I shut up, not wanting to hurt my case any more than I probably just had, but Brooke was smiling her West Coast smile. "I'm trying to help you, Rachel."

"Ms. Morgan, please." I flicked a bit of dried egg off myself, almost hitting her.

"Mor-r-r-rgan," Brooke drawled, bringing my attention back. "I don't want you to become the property of a fucking elf in your efforts to survive."

Ohhh, potty mouth! I thought, smirking. "No, you'd rather see me become your property. The coven's secret weapon. No thanks."

The woman's tan darkened as she flushed in anger. "He can't protect you from us. Never. You think you're something special for surviving an I.S. death threat? Where do you think they get their charms from? The ones we don't keep for ourselves? We get what we want, Rachel. Always"

I stifled a shiver as I recalled Vivian's charms, technically white but with devastating results, all invoked without fear of repercussion, and then Pierce, one of their own buried alive because he'd stood up to them and said that even white charms weren't enough. A fear born out of self-preservation slipped through my anger.

"Sign this," Brooke said, confident as she brought an envelope from her purse and set it on the table between us. "It gives us permission to remove your ability to reproduce and chemically take away your ability to do ley-line magic."

Somehow I managed a snort of amusement I didn't feel. "As opposed to you doing so behind prison doors and with saturated fats?"

She hesitated, and then as if having made a decision, she leaned close enough for me to smell the linen her suit was cut from, clean and light. Her eyes were bright, almost feverish, and a chill spilled through me. This didn't look good.

"I don't mind your being able to invoke demon magic," she whispered, scaring me. "I don't care that you are the beginning of demons on earth. I do have a problem with most of the coven unable to see past their shortsighted noses, so entrenched in old fear that they can't see what you are. They would vote against me, and the majority rules, even if the majority is blind."

My mouth went dry. "And what am I?"

"You are what we all should be!" she exclaimed, then lowered her voice as she leaned back. "The power you have? We're stunted. Half of what we could be. We can be whole, and you're the way. You are the future. I can protect you. Sign that paper, and I promise you'll come out of the anesthesia completely yourself, with your magic intact. This is a sham to get you off the coven's radar and away from Trent Kalamack."

Whoa. Schism? Try the freaking Grand Canyon. "So I'd be your personal monster, not the coven's?" I said, more than a little afraid. "I don't deal with demons."

"You do," Brooke insisted, and the soft murmur from the cells ceased. "It's on the record. You survive every time. The power you can give back to us—"

"I meant," I said, disgusted, "I won't deal with you, and I'm not signing that paper."

Brooke's expression soured. "You're being foolish. If you can't see the future, then at least look at your present. You want to go back to that hole? Fine. Or you can be moved into the warden's apartments. Low security, real food. A view." Her gaze went to the inmates watching. "Privacy. Sign the paper. You have my word you will remain as you are now."

I looked at the paper on the table between us. Remain as I was? Cold, miserable, and a continent away from home? "Let's just say I took a stupid pill this morning, and I sign your paper. What will I be? Soldier? Brood-mare?

The woman smiled. "Motherhood is a noble profession."

My chin went up, and I nodded. "I never said it wasn't, but anything that comes from me will be baby-snatched by demons, Brooke sweetie."

"Way ahead of you," she said, the pen she took from her purse clicking onto the table. "You will become an egg donor," the woman said, unable to hide her eager look. "The demons would never know. You could even adopt one of your own kids. I'm going to."

She wanted one of my unborn children? Parcel my progeny out to the highest bidder? "You are disgusting," I said, but all I got from her was a bemused expression. She took a breath, and I raised my cuffed hands to stop her next words. "What time is it?" I asked, and her expression became annoyed.

"Three fifteen," she said, wiry arm shifting so she could glance at her watch.

Sighing, I sank back into the rank cushions. Almost time. "Brooke, I'm already gone. The only reason I tried to get away from you boneheads earlier was because I wanted a couple of hours to see the sights before I headed home. Crooked Street maybe. Or Treasure Island. That sweet little bridge you're all so fond of. I can't say I like the Alcatraz tour, though. It's a little too realistic."

Brooke snorted to show her disbelief. "We are surrounded by salt water. There are no ley lines on the island. A very expensive ward keeps witches from jumping in for a rescue. Even if you could tap a line through a familiar, which I know you don't have, you wear charmed silver."

"This?" I held up my hands to show the link on my pulped wrist. It had my name on it, and a freaking serial number. "This is really pretty," I said, dropping my arm. "But, Brooke, sweetheart, you can't hold me." Any time, Ivy.

"I think we can." Confidence showed as she leaned back in the tatty chair.

I shook my head, smiling. "No, you can't. It's almost sunrise in Cincinnati. You know what happens when the sun rises? The lines close to summoning traffic. Oh, you can still get around with them, but a summons won't work. And you know what's going to happen just before then?" Brooke's expression was empty, but then she got it.

"You can't jump by line," she said, voice loud. "You're cut off."

I leaned forward, the beating, the humiliation, and the indignity of being locked in a metal closet all day falling from me to leave only a bitter satisfaction. "I'm not a demon," I said softly. "But I'm in their system."

A sneeze shook me, and a quiver grew in my middle. I was going home. "You should have come to talk to me," I said, wishing I could cross my knees and look smug. "I really am a nice person most times, but you just pissed me off."

I sneezed again, and a gut-cramping feeling rose, threatening worse. "I'm going home to take a hot bath and get some sleep. Tell you what," I said, gripping the arms of the chair—as if it could keep me here a moment longer—"I understand how easy it is to underestimate me. Let's start fresh. You can either instigate a war with me or come and talk. Your choice."

Eyes wide, Brooke stood, reaching across the table to grab me. A gray blur dropped between us, hissing.

My heart beat once, hard, and I forced myself to remain seated when Bis spread his wings, tufts of fur puffed and tail switching like a cat's. One clawed foot gripped her unsigned contract, and his head was lowered, red eyes promising violence.

"Shit, it's a gargoyle!" Mary shouted, her words taken up and passed along. "Rachel has a gargoyle!"

"Security!" Brooke shouted as she stood. She was going to lose me, and she knew it.

My head spun when Bis spread his wings and hopped to my shoulder. The unfamiliar pattern of West Coast ley lines exploded in my thoughts, harsh and jagged, tasting of broken rock. Bis could feel them all the time, and when we touched, I felt them too. The young gargoyle wrapped his tail around my neck, and tears threatened. I was going home.

I wanted to stand, but I couldn't. The pull of the summons had become painful, so I made the vampire kiss-kiss gesture to Brooke as I relaxed my grip on reality and felt the lines pull me in. The smut for this, I would willingly take.

Damn, I had good friends.

Eight

There was no pain as my body dissolved into a thought and that thought was yanked across the continent. I wanted to go, and I'd already accepted the smut on my soul for the imbalance I was causing. Actually, by taking the smut on freely, the feeling of disconnection seemed to be muffled. Or perhaps if you break the rules too many times, you start to build up scar tissue. Or maybe it was because I'd slipped from the fractured West Coast lines to the solid, warm ley lines of my birthplace. It could have been simply that the memory of Bis and his tail wrapped around my neck helped to create a feeling of comfort. But whatever it was, the usual tearing apart of soul and mind almost felt good. Like stretching. Which kind of worried me.

The faint outlines of my kitchen echoed in my memory before they became real, and the woody scent of herbs and copper cleaner tickled my nose. It was more than a little relief—it would be just my luck that a third party summoned me and I ended up in someone else's circle dressed in this hideous orange outfit with fashionable white canvas pull-on shoes.

My will seemed to stretch forward and yank me into existence. With a jolt, everything happened at once, and my aura—which had been holding me together while I existed only as a thought in the ley lines—rose through the memory of myself to build a body. My clothes, bruises, cuffs, everything, down to the egg in my hair, would come through intact. You couldn't fool the demon archive and show up clean, rested, and in a pair of designer boots. I'd tried. The charmed silver, though, would be gone. Small favors.

I took a breath, and I suddenly had lungs. Stumbling, I stayed upright as I popped into existence between the center counter and the sink. The kitchen was dim with early sunlight, shocking since it was dark where I'd been seconds ago. Ivy and Jenks were waiting, worried and tense. Jenks was flying, and all I could see wrong with Ivy was a welt on her forehead.

Immediately the shimmer of smut-covered ever-after around me dropped. It was Ceri, then, who had summoned me. "Thank God," I said, leaning back against the center counter, my head bowed as I mumbled, "Thank you, Ceri. I owe you big." Bis wasn't here, swimming back to Pierce for the jump home, I guess.

Ivy's face was pale as she came close, taking in my tired, filthy state. "What did they do to you?" she said as she fumbled at her key chain for one of her handcuff keys. The steel rings came off, hitting the counter with a loud clatter, and I felt loved.

"Tink's little red panties, Rache," Jenks swore, pinching his nose shut as he hovered over them. "You reek like a fairy's outhouse! Ivy, get her a pain amulet, will you? And maybe one to make her not stink? Good God, how did you get so stinky? You were only gone a day!"

I smiled, glad to be home. But my expression froze when I turned to thank Ceri again. Ceri hadn't summoned me home. It was Nick.

"You putrid pile of troll crap!" I jumped for him, hands grasping. My knees gave way and I slipped, catching myself on the edge of the counter and gasping at the sudden pain. Jenks darted into the air, and Ivy reached for me, concerned.

Nick jumped to his feet. His face was tight and angry, but that was nothing next to my outrage, and I grunted when Ivy pulled me upright and I pushed her away.

"Rache, wait!" Jenks exclaimed, silver sparkles falling from him. "He's here so Jax can make peace with Matalina. He summoned you back. We couldn't find Keasley, and Trent won't let anything get through to Ceri!"

"Bull!" I pointed at Nick, standing sullenly beside the archway to the hall with his too-long hair and faded jeans. "He summoned me, then left me to fight my way out alone!"

Ivy's eyes flashed a full, dangerous black, and Jenks's wings hit an unusually high pitch.

"He did what?"

Nick backed into the hall, hands raised. A streak of pixy dust darting in turned into Jax. The renegade pixy had drawn the entire pixy clan with him, and I froze, stunned by the flitting silk and high-pitched voices as Matalina hovered over it all like a distressed angel.

"I didn't have a choice," Nick was saying over their noise. "Rachel, I owed them, thanks to you running off with the focus. I told you how to get out. And I flew back here to get you home! Will you listen to me? I'm trying to help!"

"Trying to help?" Ivy strode across the kitchen, pixies darting out of her way in swirls of color. Nick made a dash for the sanctuary, but she was faster. Like a cat after a bat, she snagged him, her hand gripping him under his throat as she threw him across the kitchen to slam into my mom's old fridge. He started to slip down, and she had him again, lifting him up and holding him there while he tried to make his lungs work. Atop the fridge, the Brimstone cookie jar wobbled and would have fallen off if not for the pixies working as a team to balance it.

"You summoned Rachel to San Francisco?" she said, showing her sharp canines. "She was driving. You could have killed us all!"

Jenks hovered beside his face, his son between his sword and the man's eye. "You were trying to help? Help yourself, maybe!"

God, I have good friends. Hurting, I staggered around the counter to the big farm table shoved against the interior wall, all but falling into my hard-backed chair and nearly knocking an express mail box onto the floor. It was from my mom, her scrawl unmistakable. I was too tired to guess what she'd sent me this time, and I gingerly felt the backs of my knees.

Nick's face was going red from a lack of circulation, and the notches in his ears gained in the rat fights stood out like bright flags. "Ivy, let him go before he files a lawsuit," I said casually. That she was slowly choking the life from him was only mildly worrisome. I'd seen her vamp out before, and this was nothing, even if she had missed slaking her hunger this weekend. If she started looking sexy and dropping innuendos, I'd be worried. This was simply anger, and she likely wouldn't tear his throat out for that.

"Why? He can't go to the I.S." Ivy leaned her face next to his, tilting her head and inhaling a line along his neck. A tingling rose through me, and Nick closed his eyes, shuddering. "He's taken himself off the grid," she whispered. "Made himself into a cookie by the side of the road. He can't complain or be jailed for his own crimes. And he wouldn't want that," she crooned. "Would you, little Nicky? Being a blood toy would be better than jail."

Okay, maybe I was wrong. Concerned, I levered myself to a stand. "Ivy—"

"Let her kill him," Jenks was saying over the sound of his kids. "We've got the graveyard right out back. Humans are like Jell-O. There's always room for one more."

"I didn't have to come here," Nick gasped, and Ivy tightened her grip until he gagged. "The coven didn't give me a choice! They yanked me across state lines and threatened to give me to the FIB. I had to tell them something. They were going to put me away!"

"Better me than you, huh?" I leaned heavily on the table, tired.

"I knew you'd escape," Nick said, spittle at the corners of his mouth. "You've got a foolproof get-out-of-jail-free card. Rachel, you took a demon's name? Why?"

My breath caught at the accusation in his rasping voice, and my anger dulled to shame. I had a demon's name. He'd used it twice to summon me. "Let him go."

Jenks spun in the air to me. "Rache..."

"Let him go!" I exclaimed, and Ivy took her fingers from around Nick's throat. The man fell into a tangle against the fridge, hand over his neck and coughing. Head down, he mumbled to Jax, hovering by his face, his words indistinct. The imprint of Ivy's fingers showed red and clear. Ivy turned away, shaking as she worked to bring herself down. Great. This was exactly what I needed. A jacked-up, hungry vampire and a traitorous ex-boyfriend in the same room.

Jenks wasn't happy, and with an earsplitting whistle, he chased his family out—all but a defiant Jax and a heartbroken Matalina, now perched on the fridge. Her face was riven with tears. Jax s homecoming had turned ugly.

Moving with that vampiric smoothness that gave me the willies, Ivy yanked my charm cupboard open and plucked an invoked amulet from my cache. Her eyes were still dangerously black as she strode across the kitchen and extended it. My shoulders eased as the smooth disk of redwood met my fingers. It was one of my own, and the relief from the pain was a blessing.

I'd been an earth witch long before I started dabbling in ley-line magic, and though the amulet didn't completely block the pain, it helped. Dropping the cord around my neck, I snugged the disk under the orange jumpsuit where it could touch my skin. A puff of nasty air came up and I winced. Jenks wasn't kidding. I needed a shower. "Thanks," I said, and Ivy nodded, still trying to gain control over her instincts. Me being stinky probably helped.

"I had to give them something," Nick said loudly as he pulled himself off the floor, his long pianist's—no, thief's—hands on his throat and his voice rough. "I'm sorry for summoning you to San Francisco, and I left so they wouldn't force me to do it again. I risked airport security to get here in time to summon you home, if that means anything to you."

"Yeah? You kept their money, I bet," I said bitingly, and his eyes narrowed.

"I have to eat." Shame, perhaps, made his voice harsh, but I doubted it. "Besides, I didn't think it would be you who showed up that first time. I thought it would be Al and that he would tear them and me apart. End everything."

His words hit me hard, and I looked away, sinking back down into my chair.

"You took Al's name? Rachel, why?" he asked, his voice holding an unexpected hurt. "I thought you were smarter than that. I thought you were the good one."

I couldn't look up, unable to speak. I was the good one. Wasn't I?

"Get him out of here," Jenks said loudly. "Both of them."

Jax's wings clattered, and Matalina protested, but a pop of displaced air in the hallway struck me like a slap. Al? I thought with a pulse of fear-based adrenaline as I looked. But it wasn't Al. It was Pierce and Bis. Duh. The sun was up.

The witch caught his balance, lurching to snag his hat as it fell off. "We're back!" Bis shouted, whirling, eyes wide as he landed beside Matalina on the fridge, making her crouch at the sudden wind. He was too big to fly in the house, and as soon as his feet touched the appliance, his wings folded and his eyes blinked shut, the teenage gargoyle going somnolent in the sudden light. As an adult, he'd be able to stay awake during the daylight hours, but as it was, he fell asleep in an instant. Probably just as well. The next few minutes were going to be ugly.

"Who the hell are you?" Nick rasped, ignored.

Sometime between my truncated lesson and now, Pierce had found a trendy pair of black pants and a maroon shirt. His new, colorfully patterned vest looked like it could be the upholstery of an antique chair, but somehow it worked. Everything fit him perfectly, right down to the gold fob running to a hidden pocket watch, and I wondered if the appearance-conscious demon had sent him like this or if Pierce had learned to dress himself.

Pierce watched me from under his wavy black bangs, trying to guess my mood as his shoes scuffed on a stray bit of salt. His eyes were fixed on mine, and I felt a ping of something, which I quickly squashed. I didn't have time for a relationship, and not with a self-oriented, black-magic-using, intelligent... demon killer wannabe who thought I needed babysitting.

"Rachel," Pierce said, shoes grinding on the salt as he came forward after a nod to Ivy and Jenks, and a flash of anger at Nick. His smoothly shaven face was creased with worry, and when he took my hands, I pulled away. Had they really made Al send him to watch me?

"Is she all together? Is she all right?" he asked Ivy, unsure at my reaction.

Ivy nodded, her eyes edging toward normal, standing with her arms across her middle as if holding back her instincts. "As much as she ever is," she said sourly.

Tm of the mind that she's not." Pierce tried again for my hands, keeping them this time. "I've a powerful notion to fix their flint. Did they... Rachel, your wrists," he said, aghast as he turned them over. "They shackled you?" he asked, voice shaking in outrage.

I took a breath, but my harsh words hesitated. He'd crossed a continent to find me. Resolute, I shoved the feeling away. "Al sent you?" I asked, and he knelt to put us on eye level. "Pierce, tell me this is a joke and that Al is going to show up come sundown and drag you back."

Pierce smiled, gaze flicking to Ivy and Jenks. "Newt told the collective that Al nearly let you kill yourself, and that I kept you alive until she could save you."

"Newt?" Jenks shrilled, coming close. "You didn't say anything about Newt!"

"Yow?" I echoed, and Nick scowled. "You're the one who got me in trouble!"

Pierce, though, was still grinning. "The way she remembers it, I saved you. She made an almighty wrath, convincing them that you're too accident-prone to survive without supervision."

"I could have told them that," Jenks smart-mouthed, and Ivy waved at him to be quiet.

"Since Al can't abide here come sunup," Pierce continued, "it was either send me or give you to Newt."

"I thought you said you were the only familiar cheap enough that Al could afford," Jenks chimed in, and Pierce's lips twitched in the beginnings of a frown. Ivy, too, didn't look pleased.

"Nice," I said, yanking my hands from his. "You get yourself out of the ever-after, but I'm the one who looks like an idiot. Thanks a hell of a lot."

But instead of reacting in kind, Pierce's entire demeanor shifted to one of concern. "You're shivering," he said, glancing at Nick as if it was his fault. "A body would suspect someone would have drawn you a warm bath by now."

Suddenly I felt a hundred times filthier, but then my eyes widened at my sudden urge to sneeze. Shit, not again, I thought when it ripped through me to clear out my lungs and send a stab of pain through my knees. But it was different. There was no accompanying pull. It was just Al trying to contact me, and I looked at Pierce sourly. Al had sent Pierce to watch me, eh? Yeah. We'd just see about that.

"Tink's a Disney whore!" Jenks swore, darting down to the center counter and the open bookshelf under it. "Ivy, quick! Get her calling mirror out. It's Al."

"Rachel, no!" Nick exclaimed, eyes wide as he realized what was going on.

Jenks flew up, his sword bared to make Jax dart back. "Shut the hell up!" he shouted in frustration. "Open your mouth again, and I'll jam a spider's nest in your ear so they can eat that crap you have for brains! You don't know shit. You dont know shit!"

"Al will kill you, Rachel!" Nick insisted as Ivy silently moved to get the mirror.

"It's a little late to be afraid of Al, Nick," I muttered when Ivy slid the smooth, plate-size scrying mirror onto my lap and backed up, wiping her fingers nervously on her pants. She didn't like my magic—didn't understand it—even as she respected it. My knees hurt under the mirror's weight, even with the pain amulet. "What they didn't say was that I am his student," I said bitterly as I put my hand on the mirror in the cave of the pentagram. "I'm not saying I know what I'm doing, but I know who I can trust. And you're not on the list, so shut up I want to talk to Al. See what's going on." Get my summoning name back. I am not going to do this again.

I glanced at Pierce as I said the last, seeing no fear, just a confident satisfaction. I knew I should be glad he was free of Al, but it hinged on my not being able to take care of myself. Sighing, I looked at my swollen knees and my orange jumpsuit. Maybe they were right.

"I'd be of a mind not to tell Al you were in prison," Pierce said as he leaned into the wall and crossed his arms. He was smug, and I didn't like it.

"Why?" I said, immediately wanting to do the exact opposite. "You afraid it might make you look bad?"

Pierce shifted his weight to one foot and balanced his free foot on a toe. "If you get into too much trouble, Newt might revoke your reality privileges, me here or not."

"Oh, and you'd love that, wouldn't you," Jenks exclaimed, wings humming.

I sneezed again as the cool weight of the scrying mirror sank into me. Tell Al about Alcatraz to get my name back and risk being yanked to the ever-after forever, or stay silent and risk the coven summoning me again and giving me a lobotomy. No contest. Pierce might know his magic, but I knew Al, and Al wouldn't tell Newt anything.

The onetime ghost sent his eyebrows high when I simpered at him, clearly not knowing where my thoughts lay. Feeling better, I looked at the elaborate glyph reflecting the world back to me with the rich hue of wine. The symbols I'd etched on it glittered like blood diamonds. Much as I hated to admit it, the thing was beautiful. It let me talk to demons, and I thought it was beautiful. I am so screwed.

Resigned, I reached out a thought and touched it to the small ley line that ran through the churchyard. I kept my attention narrow, allowing only the barest slip of energy into me, not wanting Al to get more than a hint of my emotions. The connection completed, I focused on Al, shivering when his domineering, alien presence seemed to melt into me, expanding both our awarenesses in a curious feeling of lofty enlightenment. I couldn't read his mind, and he couldn't see into mine, but focused thoughts could be exchanged. That, and emotion.

"Why is Pierce here?" I said aloud so that Ivy could hear at least half the conversation.

Not my idea, Al started, and I could almost see his white-gloved hands clench into fists. That's why I called. That little runt of a witch is dangerous. He manipulated Newt like a damned demon suitor. It was either send him or give you to her. Which would you prefer?

It had been mocking, and taken aback, I glanced at the ring of faces watching me. That Al wasn't happy either somehow made me feel better. "So take him back. I won't tell," I said, and Al snorted even as Pierce huffed indignantly.

Maybe if you could go one week without becoming shunned or put under a death threat you might be considered smart enough to be on your own, the demon muttered. But no-o-o-o-o, you had to try it on your own. I told you to wait.

"Hey! I'm not the one trying to put Krakatoa into my soul!" I said loudly, face warm.

Not Krakatoa, Krathion. And I wont take the blame for you prematurely invoking a curse when I told you to wait for me! he said, and I was silent, fuming. I'm trying to downplay the situation, Al thought, his emotions slowing. In the meantime, if he teaches you one thing, one thing, Rachel, you'll be wearing his guts as hair bands. Got it?

I glanced at Pierce, and he blinked at my sudden interest. Pierce could teach me something? "Sure... ," I said, starting to see the possibilities. If I could learn how to jump the lines, no one would have to watch me at all.

Rachel? Al growled, not detecting any sincerity in my thoughts.

"Got it," I reaffirmed, then took a deep breath. "Hey, along those lines, I need my original summoning name back. Like now."

From my peripheral sight, Nick blinked, almost mirroring the shocked emotion I felt from Al. Now? Al thought, and I felt him start to sever the connection. You want to play in the collective when everyone is watching? Damn my dame, you do need a babysitter, Rachel. No.

"Al, wait!" I shouted, pressing my hand harder into the glass until it felt like I'd made a soft indent in the mirror. "I just spent a day in Alcatraz after being summoned into a closed trial called by the coven of moral and ethical standards." I didn't look up, but I heard Pierce sigh because I hadn't listened to his advice. "They weren't after you, they were after me," I added.

Al laughed, and I looked past my stringy hair to Nick. He was staring at me, long face aghast. Across the kitchen, Pierce held himself still, eyes dark from behind his mop of loose curls and his hat back on his head. Jenks faced me from the counter, spilling a red dust that puddled on the floor, and Ivy stood almost in the hallway, her black eyes fully dilated.

Nice try. But no one in that pantywaist coven knows my name, Al was thinking. And if they did, they wouldn't summon me, holier-than-thou chicken squirts. Stay out of trouble, Rachel, and this will all blow over. Two decades at the most.

Two decades! I thought, then said, "That's what I'm saying. They didn't summon you, they summoned me! They used your name, knowing J would be the one to show up! They paid someone to summon me into a six-pointed star. I barely got out because they thought I was bound to demon law, but that's not going to work a second time. They know I can invoke demon magic, and they're going to give me a lobotomy and take my ovaries as soon as they find the next chump who knows your name!"

Who summoned you? Al said suddenly, icy calm pouring from him, and I looked at Nick, my mouth shutting. Tell me who summoned you with my name. Tell me, itchy witch, and Til not only see that you learn how to jump the lines, but how to survive that runt of yours.

I closed my mind to Al and pulled my hand from the glass. The sudden disconnection jolted through me, and I started. Feeling haunted, I first looked at Ivy, then Pierce, then Jenks, who was white faced and spilling a sickly green dust. Last, I looked at Nick, standing behind that chair both angry and frightened. Jax was on his shoulder with his wings folded submissively. If Al knew Nick had summoned me, the demon would actively work to take him out—close the hole of information rather than trade our names back as we had agreed.

Ivy uncrossed her arms, glancing at Nick and then back to me. "What did he want?"

I held Nick's attention, shivering as the adrenaline washed out and the last twenty hours fell heavy on me. "Just Nick."

Nine

 Water cascaded off me as I stood up in Ivy's tub, my knees throbbing from the moist heat. It was steamy in here, with the mirror fogged, and Matalina sifting yellow dust to keep her wings dry as she sat on the towel rack and knitted. Ivy's fluffy black towel was soft against my red, scraped skin, and I awkwardly tried to get the stopper undone with my toes, finally giving up and reaching for it and feeling everything protest. I'd soaked long enough to wash between my toes once and my hair twice. I'd be in there still, but I was starving.

Nick's voice was faint through the walls. Matalina's lips pressed together as she listened to the conversation, but it was too indistinct for me. I wasn't ready to deal with him or Pierce, and I was hoping to make the dash to my room unnoticed.

Nick was our unwilling guest since he could summon me at will after dark, an intolerable situation to Ivy. Jenks wanted me to give Nick to Al on the principle that he was a douche bag. I doubted Ivy would say anything if I went along with it, but I wasn't going to give Nick to Al. I wouldn't be able to live with myself. Besides, my safety would last only until the coven found someone else who knew Al's summoning name. What I needed was my own name back.

I sighed as the towel found every scrape and abrasion, my eyes falling on the ugly canvas slip-on shoes beside the toilet. I couldn't help but wonder who had my kick-butt boots, my jeans, my underwear... my red leather coat sticky with strawberries. Gone.

From atop the towel rack, Matalina smiled. "Oh, Rachel, you look fine," she said, and I met her gaze, thinking that I must look ghastly if that's what she thought I was sighing about. The woman appeared to be eighteen, but she and Jenks had forty-some kids, and she was nearing the end of her life span. Or so Jenks said. She looked awfully chipper for someone supposedly on her deathbed. Jax being here might have something to do with it. And I was worrying about who had my underwear?

"I'm out of the tub," I said, listening to my pulse and feeling tired as she knitted from a ball of what was probably dyed spider silk. "Why don't you go visit with Jax?"

"Because I'm angry with him for running off half trained, with a thief," she said primly.

Her expression was fierce, and I wondered if it was the thief or the half-trained part that bothered her. Guilt hit me, and I gingerly rubbed the welts on my wrists. Matalina would never forgive herself if her eldest son left again before she could find it in her heart to talk to him.

I glanced at Matalina watching but not watching me as I sat on the edge of the tub and tried to dry my feet, reminded of my first few nights in the church. It was Matalina who had kept an eye on me the night Al had almost torn my throat out. A lot had happened since then, stuff that turned enemies to allies, and allies to enemies. But Matalina was unchanged, she and her family a point of normalcy in my chaotic life. I was glad she was looking so well.

"Go talk to Jax," I said softly, and the woman sighed so loudly I could hear it.

"I will," she said. "Life is too short to carry a grudge. Especially when it's with family you thought you'd never see again." She continued to knit, smiling. "He likes you, you know."

"Jax?" I said, surprised.

"Gordian Pierce!" she exclaimed, looking up. "You can see it in his eyes."

Funny. The only thing I ever see in his eyes is trouble. Taking the towel from my hair, I went to the mirror and wiped it, wincing. I'd never get through the tangles. Never. "Pierce is a teenage crush from when I was young and stupid, and thought impulsive, dangerous men were the catch of the day, not the death traps they are."

Matalina huffed. Pixies were terribly straightforward when it came to relationships. Jih, her eldest daughter, had courted and married in less than a summer—and seemed all the happier for it. "With Jenks, I just knew," she said, a fond smile erasing her fatigue lines. "You re making this harder than it should be." I gave her a wry look as I sprayed detangler in my hair, and she added, "Does Pierce make your heart beat faster? Did Marshal? Did Nick? Did Kisten, bless his undead soul? I mean, really?"

I didn't have to think about it, and I felt like a tramp. "Yes. They all do. Did, I mean."

The pixy woman frowned. "Then you are in trouble, Rachel."

Don't I know it.

Shifting my towel higher, I minced to the door, listening for a moment before cracking it. The cooler, dry air slipped in, and I gazed first longingly at the kitchen across from the back living room, then closer, to the open door to my room. From the back of the church, I could hear Pierce and Nick "discussing" things.

Knees hurting, I made the dash, Matalina zipping ahead of me to shoo her kids out of the way. Breath held, I closed the door without a sound and leaned back against it. "Thanks," I whispered to the matronly pixy. "But I'm okay. Really. Go talk to Jax." But she only flitted to the thick cement sill of the stained-glass window and settled herself as if to watch for danger.

My shoulders slumped and I glanced at Vivian's pin, now sitting on my dresser. I'd forgotten about the coven. It would be just my luck for Vivian to take a potshot at me. I was sure she was still here, "willing to take a calculated risk."

The box from my mom was sitting on my dresser, the bottles of perfume it had displaced carefully arranged on the top of my music box to make me wonder if Ivy had moved it. My mother had been sending me things for the last couple of months as she continued to find them. Last week it had been my entire collection of Nancy Drew. Ivy had taken them off my hands, presumably to give them to the brat pack at the hospital. The way I figured it, if I had gotten along without it the last five years, I really didn't need it. Everything was precious to my mom, though, and I wasn't too keen on seeing what oddity she thought I couldn't live without.

Ignoring the shoe-box-size package, I shuffled through my top drawer for a pair of socks and the black lacy underwear that I hadn't worn since Marshal and I had broken up. I'd spent yesterday in prison and wanted to feel pretty, damn it. Slipping them on, I wiggled out of the towel and dropped a camisole over my damp head. Jeans next, the tight pair I hadn't been able to wear comfortably since the solstice. I hadn't eaten in twenty-four hours, and they might fit. The zipper went up with satisfying ease, and I smiled. I wouldn't recommend prison food as a way to lose weight, but if it was gone, I wasn't going to complain.

Socks in hand, I sat on my bed and slowly exhaled. Getting them on was going to be a pain. Repainting my toenails was going to be even harder. Maybe Ivy would do it for me.

Matalina's wings hummed in warning. Adrenaline surged, but she was looking at my door, not out the window. "Rachel?" Ivy called. "I made you a sandwich. Are you decent?"

There is a God, and hes good to me. My stomach rumbled, and I was suddenly ten times hungrier. I couldn't hear Nick's voice anymore, but I hadn't heard anyone leave either. Still sitting on the bed with my socks, I shouted, "Come in!"

Ivy entered with her head down and balancing a plate with two sandwiches and a bowl of cheese crackers in her hands. "I made you two," she said, her gray-silk voice carrying soft compassion as she looked up from shutting the door with a foot. "You look hungry."

I eyed the tuna sandwiches warily. "No Brimstone?"

Her placid brown eyes met mine, the barest hint of dry amusement in them. "No. But I can make you some cookies if you want."

Shaking my head, I dropped the socks and reached for the plate. I'd eaten Ivy's cookies before. Laced with medicinal-grade Brimstone, they simultaneously made me hungry and boosted my metabolism. Just what you need when recovering from blood loss, but I was bruised, not anemic. "No thanks," I said wryly. "I want to sleep tonight."

But when she sat on the end of my bed, I blinked. She's staying?

Matalina rose up, her dragonflylike wings unusually loud. "Ivy, if you're going to talk to Rachel for a while, I'll just pop out and see if Jenks needs anything."

Oh. I get it.

Ivy smiled a closed-lipped smile and slid the crackers onto my dresser beside the box from my mom. "He's in the kitchen with Jax."

"Thank you." Matalina left her knitting behind as she darted under the door.

I wasn't keen on everyone thinking I needed watching, but if it gave Matalina a chance to talk to Jax, then I'd deal with it. Scooting back to the headboard, I stretched my legs out and balanced the plate on my lap. "Nick still here?" I asked as I took a bite out of the first sandwich. The tang of the mayonnaise hit the sides of my tongue, and I suddenly couldn't shovel in food fast enough. "Oh, this is good," I mumbled around my full mouth. "Thank you."

"Pierce is talking to him." Her gaze was on my perfumes. She'd given most of them to me in our chemical warfare against her instincts. "He told me to leave. Said they had a gentleman matter to discuss."

"Oh really?" The sandwich was fabulous, and I forced myself to slow down.

"I think Pierce is trying to find out if you two are really over or not," Ivy said.

My eyes rolled and I swallowed. "Over? Does he need it in neon?" I said, but inside, I was cringing. Being over with Nick did not translate into being available for Pierce.

"You're sure you're okay?" Ivy asked, and I nodded, mouth full again.

"Until they find someone else who knows Al's summoning name," I amended, wiggling my fingers for the bowl of crackers. My thoughts shifted to Al telling me he'd finish the deal—even teach me how to jump the lines—if I told him who sold me out to the coven. Funny how things had changed when I'd brought up my ovaries. Lots of people knew Al's summoning name, and what demon summoner wouldn't trade an hour's work for amnesty? But if I gave Nick to Al, then the council was right and I was a demon, trafficking in human flesh.

Ivy passed the bowl, and grabbing a handful of crackers, I tilted my head back and dropped them in, sneaking a glance at her and wondering if she was in here trying to convince me to give Nick to the demon and be done with it. "I've always wanted to get to the West Coast," I said around my chewing, not wanting her to bring it up. "Hey, did I tell you I got a ride on a boat? I saw the bridge and everything. It's way smaller than the one in Mackinaw. There's a big chocolate factory right across from Alcatraz. Talk about cruel and unusual punishment."

Ivy wasn't listening, her eyes on that box my mother had sent. "When did that get here?" I asked as I worked a bit of cracker out from between my teeth.

Shifting position on my bed, she flushed, putting her eyes everywhere but on it. "When you were gone."

Gone, not prison. I appreciated that. Brushing crumbs from myself, I reached for the last half of my sandwich. Ivy was silent, then, "Are you going to open it?"

I smiled, my mouth full as I wiggled my fingers. She was worse than Jenks.

Ivy got to her feet with unusual quickness, and I set the last half of my sandwich back down to pull my knee up as tight as I could comfortably get it. A muffled masculine argument filtered through the wall, and we ignored it as Ivy sat close, like it was Christmas.

The box was light and kind of dusty, as if it had gone from my mom's attic, to the moving van going out west, and then right back in a mail truck to me. The last two boxes had been the same way. "I really doubt it's more Nancy Drew," I told her as I took the knife she handed me. Good grief, she'd brought a knife in for the tape.

"It might be," Ivy said. "Volume fifty-two is missing."

Oh, my God. Ivy is a closet Nancy Drew fan! Those books hadn't gone to the brat pack—they were probably under her bed! Amused, I set the knife on the dresser table and smiled at her eager expression. Her hands were carefully in her lap, anxious. I could have teased her about it, but seeing any happy emotion on her was precious. She actually sighed when I opened up the box and leaned to look in.

"It's my camp stuff!" I exclaimed, taking out my mom's handwritten note to see the accumulated bric-a-brac underneath.

"Oh look!" Ivy said brightly. "There is a book!"

My gaze lifted from my mom's letter, and I smirked at her as she reached for Nancy Drew, volume 52. "You opened it up already, didn't you!

Ivy wouldn't look at me. "Don't be ridiculous. Why would I open your mail?"

"Mmmm-hmmm." HI, RACHEL, I read as she flipped through the dog-eared pages as if it were a lost book from the Bible. I FOUND THIS WHILE MOVING IN WITH DONALD. IT WAS EITHER THROW IT AWAY OR SEND IT TO YOU. MISS YOU, MOM.

Setting the letter aside, I smiled. Most of what she'd been sending me had been junk, but this... I gazed into the box. Okay, this was junk, too, but it was my junk.

"Look at this," I said, bringing out a lopsided clay bowl painted in garish colors. "I made this for my dad. It's a pipe holder."

Ivy looked up from the book. "If you say so."

My fingers pressed into the dents that I'd made when I was twelve. They were really small. "I think it was the only reason he had a pipe," I said, setting it back in the box. The pressed-flower album I didn't even remember, but it was my scrawl on the pages. There was a badge from the cabin I was in, dated and covered in rainbow stickers. The pair of dusty sandals on top of it were so small it was scary.

"How old were you?" Ivy asked when I held them up.

"They kicked me out when I was twelve," I said, flushing. It hadn't been fun. I'd thrown Trent into a tree with a blast of ley-line energy because he'd been teasing Jasmine. I guess they figured if I was well enough to do that, then I wasn't dying anymore and should make room for someone who was. Trent had deserved it. I think. They had long-term memory blockers in the water and nothing was certain.

I smiled at the pair of freshwater clam shells Jasmine and I were going to make into earrings. A blue jay feather. Things that meant nothing to anyone but me.

"What is this?"

She was holding an antique-looking curved metal hook, and I reached for it as I warmed. "Uh, a hoof pick," I said, feeling the weight of it in my palm, heavy with the sensation of anxious excitement and guilt. Ivy's eyebrows rose, and I added, "They had horses, and you had to clean their hooves before you took them out. That's a hoof pick." A really fancy hoof pick, with an inlaid wooden handle and a silver hook, of all things.

Head cocked, Ivy leaned back and eyed me. "And your pulse just skyrocketed why?"

Grimacing, I set the pick back in the box. "It's Trent's. At least I think it is.

"And your pulse just skyrocketed why?" she asked again.

"I stole it!" I said, feeling myself become breathless. "At least I think I did. I'm pretty sure I meant to give it back..." I hesitated, confused. "Crap, I don't even remember why I have it."

Ivy had a weird smile on her face. I think Nancy Drew had reminded her of her own innocence. "You stole Trent's hoof pick? What is that, some witch-camp tradition?"

"Maybe I just borrowed it and forgot to give it back," I said, guilt coming from nowhere. I remember shoving it in my pocket with a feeling of vindication. Trent had been there... and I hadn't liked him. He was snotty.

Ivy picked up the book again. "No wonder he doesn't like you. You stole his hoof pick."

Exasperated, and trying to ignore the guilt coming from a memory I didn't entirely have, I closed the box and pushed it away. "The feeling is mutual," I said, tugging on my socks. "Trent is a lying, manipulative brat, and always has been."

She handed me the Nancy Drew, exhaling slowly. "So... you think this entire situation with the coven is one of his scams? That Trent told them about you?"

I looked at the cover and the furtive posture of Nancy as she held a tablet engraved with ley-line glyphs, treasure hunting. Oh, when it had looked that easy. "I don't know," I said, miserable with confusion as I handed the book back to her to keep.

Ivy held it possessively as I looked at the closed box of memories. I wanted to be pissed at Trent about the coven, but something in my gut said no. Seeing the stuff from camp... things had happened there that I couldn't remember. Memory blockers were like that, clouding events but leaving emotions intact, and as the collective mementos touched on half memories, I couldn't tell if my anger at Trent was because he was a camp brat or if he was truly bad.

"I just don't know anymore," I finally said. "He is in jeopardy, too, now, and there are easier ways for him to make my life miserable."

Ivy made a soft sound and set the dog-eared Nancy Drew carefully beside her. Much as I'd like to believe he hadn't told the coven I could invoke demon magic, I was done with being stupid. It was far easier to believe this was one of his elaborate schemes. Easier, yes, but smart? Because if Trent hadn't told them, then someone else had, and I didn't have a clue as to who. Logic said he had done it, but if I was logical, I'd have made the familiar bond active between us and forced him to be nice to me. Instead I had rescued him at great cost to myself because of a freaking gut feeling. And I still didn't know why. My eyes strayed to the box, feeling as if the answer was in there somewhere.

"Why don't you use the Pandora charm and find out?"

I stared at Ivy—I'd forgotten that I even had it. "You think it's something from the camp?"

"He did say he might make you one if the memory you wanted was of camp or your dad. Well, he made you one."

"You're nuts!" I exclaimed, but she was shaking her head, smiling.

Her eyes touched on the closed box. "Whether you remember it or not, you and Trent go back a long way. I'd think it worth finding out if your gut feelings about him are based on something real or a childhood argument over a hoof pick. Don't you?"

Well, when she put it like that... From the back living room came a masculine voice raised in anger. My gaze went to my top drawer, where I had stashed Trent's charm, and I stifled a shiver. I needed to know if I could trust him, and not just with surface stuff, but really trust him. I needed to know why I disliked him yet would risk my life to save his worthless skin. I needed to use his Pandora charm.

My pulse quickened, and I swung my feet to the floor, wincing when my knees protested. If I was going to do this, I'd rather do it when all the pixies were spying on Nick and Pierce, arguing. "Okay, but if it kills me, it's your fault." Shuffling to my top dresser drawer, I yanked it open. Maybe it was a memory of my dad.

"Uh... ," Ivy stammered, and I glanced up to see her eyes wide in consideration.

"I'm kidding," I said. "It passed the lethal-amulet test, remember?"

"Not that. You keep it in your underwear drawer?"

I hesitated, wondering why I was embarrassed. "Well, where do you put your elven magic?" I asked, and then my fingers touched the smooth, knotty bump of the bracelet-size length of knotted horsehair. A surge of excitement went through me, and I brought the charm out.

Together Ivy and I looked at the innocuous-seeming thing. The knots were hard under my fingertips, the hair they were made from silver and black. It tingled as if the power was leaking out. Elven magic. Wild. Unpredictable. God, I hoped I wasn't making a mistake. Trent had made it, and I didn't know how good—or evil—he was. Knowledge is power. Frowning, I fingered the first knot. Ignorance is bliss.

But curiosity—even if it had killed the cat—was king, and heart pounding, I moved the box from the bed and sat down. "You won't leave?" I asked, feeling like a chicken, and Ivy shook her head. And with that reassurance, I worked the first of the three knots free.

My damp hair seemed to crinkle, and my face warmed as the elven magic rose through me, tasting of oak leaves and chill autumn air.

"You okay?"

I nodded. "The magic feels funny. Like tinfoil."

She exhaled, and the bed shifted as she stood, arms crossed over her middle. It was an unusual show of worry I totally understood. Steeling myself, I undid the second knot. My thoughts seemed to jump, and my breath quickened. To stop now would ruin the charm, and I undid the third knot, an unusual fatigue making my fingers fumble. I hope this isn't a mistake.

My breath came in as I looked at Ivy, and it was as if I fell into myself, like Alice down the rabbit hole. I knew I was sitting on my bed, but there were birds and the soft snuffling of horses. The twin sensations of reality and memory were eerie, but the charmed ones were becoming dominant.

"My God, Ivy. It's warm," I whispered, eyes closing as I gave myself to the dream that wasn't a dream, but a memory. I felt small, the softness of my bed becoming a hard wood floor. Fatigue crept up, familiar and hated, stealing into my bones like poison. My memories were halved, and seemingly forgetting everything I knew, I... remembered.

My pulse quickened to the pace of childhood, racing, and I opened my eyes to the dim light of the camp's stables.

Sniffing, I curled up tighter, bringing the cloying scent of damp straw, horse dung, and sweaty leather deep into me, trying not to cry. This sucked. This sucked big-time. Here I thought that Jasmine hated Trent, and it turned out she liked him. Liked him! How was I to know? She complained about him enough.

The horse stomped, and I burrowed deeper into the corner, pulling the blue blanket up and around me, hiding. I'd never seen anyone ride this monster of a horse, and he hadn't minded me slipping in. I was so mad. Jasmine and I never fought, but when I found out she'd lied to me about where she'd been, I lost it. She'd gone for a moonlight walk with little richy rich boy, leaving me alone in the bottom half of our bunk bed to listen to everyone else tell stories of their first kiss when she knew I didn't have one. She was supposed to be my friend!

I held my breath to keep from crying, my arms clasped around my knees. It was all Trent's fault, the snot. Miserable, I picked at my shoelaces, cringing when a set of boots echoed at the wide stable doors. I froze as two people went by, talking in low voices, their identities hidden by the tall walls of the box stall I was in, but I could tell it was kids, not lab techs disguised as counselors or stable hands looking for me.

The horse above me nickered. Ears pricked, he shifted to hang his head over the gate.

Crapy I thought, recognizing a voice. Stanley had been here for three days, hanging with Trent as usual. The guy had been here last year, too, managing to twist Trent's ankle in a footrace his second day. This year he'd broken Trent's hand in a canoe race. Stanley's paddle had come down right on the back of it, and snap, no more contest. Stanley didn't like to lose. And if Stanley was in the stables, then that was Trent with him.

His voice going faint, Stanley started singing "Love Song for a Vampire," changing the lyrics to something suitably rude, and my breath eased out as they went into the other wing of the stables—but the horse above me still had his ears pricked.

"Hoy, hoy, Mr. T.," came a soft voice, and the jingling of a bridle, and I froze. Trent? Trent was here? Panicking, I put a hand to my hot face and stared, seeing nothing but the top of his head. The horse blew his breath out, and Trent's voice shifted, the words slurring into a hummed pattern of crooning. It was beautiful, and I strained for more, trying to understand. It sounded like another language, and though I hated him because Jasmine liked him, I couldn't help but think it beautiful.

His tawny head flashed over the walls of the stall, giving me a glimpse of his fair skin and green eyes. He hadn't seen me, and I watched his face, empty of the scorn he usually heaped on me. Trent's eyes were full and shining, and he was smiling. His white hair was messy, and his ears showed. Trent never let his ears show, always combing his fine hair over them. He was skinny, lanky, and almost singing to the horse as he fondled his ears and fed him a treat.

Feeling my eyes on him, his gaze flicked to me.

Immediately his wonderful voice ceased. His lips pressed together, and his eyes took on a hard slant. Snorting, the horse drew back from him. "What are you doing in there?" he said, voice cracking and face going red. "Get out. You're not even supposed to be here when the stable hands are gone."

"Neither are you," I said, scrambling up and clutching the horse blanket to me as I backed to the wall. My heart pounded when he opened the gate, sliding in and latching it behind him, fumbling the first time because of his cast. I'd be willing to bet Stanley had broken Trent's hand to put him at a disadvantage for the rest of the summer. What a goober.

Trent was in new jeans and brand-new riding boots. I thought of my own nasty sneakers, and I flushed. Trent was rich. His dad owned the camp. Everyone knew it.

"They're looking for you," he said, mocking me. "You are in so much trouble."

The horse tossed his head, feet moving restlessly between us, and I put a hand on him to remind him not to step on me. "I can be in here if I want," I said, chin high.

Trent's white eyebrows drew together, but when the horse snorted and laid his ears back, he looked away, quieting the animal. "This is my horse," he said cockily. The cast on his hand made it hard for him to close his fingers on the horse's halter, but the animal was docile enough.

"I don't see your name on it," I said, then flushed when Trent pointed at the plaque behind me. "Oh," I said, edging away. Okay. It was his horse. Must be nice, not only having your own horse, but being rich enough to truck him up to summer camp for you.

The horse's ears flicked, and from the other wing of the stables, Stanley's voice echoed. "You need some help getting the bit in, lazy ass? Tighten that girth? Give you a leg up? Or does boy wonder think he can do it one-handed?"

Scared, I backed up. Trent was a brat, but Stanley was a bully with a mean streak.

Trent's expression soured. Glancing at me, he shouted, "I can saddle a horse with my teeth faster than you with both hands. I'll see you out there."

I swallowed hard, not caring if Trent knew I was afraid of Stanley. A feeling of gratitude pulled me from the wall. My eyes dropped to his broken hand. "Are you okay?"

Reaching up to a high shelf, Trent brought down a wood-handled hoof pick and stuck it in a back pocket. "What do you care?"

"I never said I did," I said, arms over my middle. I wanted out, but he was in the way.

Trent looked at me. "You're a crybaby. You've been crying. Your eyes are red."

I wiped the back of my hand on my face. He knew why I was crying, too, the brat. "So? I'm twelve. What's your excuse?"

He shifted from the gate and I bolted for it, leaving it open because he was coming out, too, his horse clopping loudly. "I thought you were in eighth grade," he said, his voice confused.

The bright square of sunlight beckoned, thirty feet away, but I lingered in the cool shadow. "I am," I said, holding my elbow and shifting awkwardly. "I skipped a couple of grades. Homeschooled. You know... sick and everything. I'll be thirteen next month."

Thirteen, and dumber than a stone. I could see why Jasmine liked him. He was rich, nice looking, and he had his own horse. But if you were so unsure of yourself that you let your friends hurt you, then you were stupid.

Trent didn't bother to tie his horse's halter rope to the post like we'd been told to do, and I watched him check the gelding's hooves, tucking the pick in his pocket instead of putting it away. Letting the last foot drop, Trent looked at the bridle rack, then shoved the rope dangling from his horse's halter at me.

"Hold him," he said curtly, and I dropped back a step.

"I am not your servant," I said hotly. "Tie him off yourself."

Trent's fingers twitched. "I'm not going to tie him off if you're just standing there," he said, voice soft but determined. "Hold the rope while I bridle him."

"No!" I exclaimed, arms wrapped around my middle, refusing to take the rope.

He clenched his jaw, angry I wouldn't do as he said. "I told you to hold the rope!"

Trent reached out, grabbing my wrist with his good hand and yanking it from where I'd tucked it behind my other arm. His grip was tight, and I yelped, gasping when a tingling surge of ley-line energy darted between us.

"Hey!" I shouted, jerking away, and his fingers let go.

"I wanted to know how much you could hold," he said smugly. "My dad says you're dangerous, but I've seen cats that can hold more than you."

"You little turd! You did that on purpose!" Then my eyes widened. "Holy cow! You are a witch!"

"No I'm not," he said quickly, as if he'd made a mistake. "I'm better than a crappy little witch like you."

My mouth dropped open, and I got mad. "What do you mean, crappy little witch! You think you're so hot? If you're not a witch, then you're nothing but a stinking little human!"

He glanced at me, almost in relief. "I'm still better than you," he said, his cheeks flushed. "Faster."

"I'm sick, you moron!"

"I bet you can't even hear that bell ringing from camp," he added. My anger hesitated and I listened, wondering if he was just making it up.

"I bet you can't smell the bread baking either," Trent said, trusting his horse to stand there beside me as he went to get a bridle. "You are so blind that I bet I could sneak right into your cabin and take the ring off your finger and you'd never know."

"I don't wear a ring, Einstein," I said snottily. "And I bet I could take the pick right out of your pocket and you'd never feel it. And I bet I can hold more ever-after than you!" My pulse had gotten fast, and I felt out of breath. "And I'm not holding your stinking horse!" I added, going dizzy. "I wouldn't ride that nag of yours if he was the last animal on earth!"

My vision wavered, and I quit talking, content to just stand there with my knees unlocked and careful to just breathe for a moment. Crap, I did not want to pass out in front of Trent.

"Yeah?" Trent said, his back to me as he brushed his horse out and put a bareback pad on him. "Well, he wouldn't let you. He doesn't like witches."

"I bet he would," I muttered, feeling my heart start to slow. "He let me in his box, okay. He's not so tough, and neither are you. You're a wimp," I said, wanting to hurt him. "Why do you let Stanley beat up on you like that? All you have to do is stand up to him once and he wouldn't hurt you every year."

Trent flushed bright red, which made his hair stand out even more. Eyes fixed on his horse, he ignored me, and I knew I'd hit a sore spot. Served him right, spoiled brat. As I watched, arrogant, my hip cocked, he fumbled with the bit, needing to hold it with his other hand because of the cast. It was awkward, and the horse didn't like it, tossing his head and shifting.

Trent still hadn't said anything, and feeling bad now for the Stanley comment, I edged closer. There was no way he was going to get that bit in. "I'll get it," I offered softly, and his jaw clenched.

"I don't need your help," he said, then swore when his horse backed up, tossing his head and threatening to bolt. The bit dropped, and Trent scrambled to keep his horse from running back to his stall.

I swooped forward to pick up the bit before his horse stepped on it. "What is your problem?" I crabbed. "I know you can set a bit. Let me do it this time. Unless you want Sta-a-a-an-le-e-e-ey to help you?" I drawled his name, making it girly.

Trent had his hand on his horse's neck, and the animal calmed, standing with a pleasant posture and ears nicely pricked—looking at me and the bit. "You think you can do it?" he said caustically. "Go ahead and try. Don't come crying to me if he bites your fingers off."

I eyed Trent, half expecting him to pinch his own horse to prove I couldn't do it. I'd bridled my horse every time I went riding. This was my third year here, and though I wasn't an expert, a good horse would take a bit with no problem.

Cooing and talking to the horse to distract it, I wrangled the bit of metal between his big chomping teeth, quickly sliding the rest up and in place, but it was Trent who dipped under his horse's head to fasten the strap. He was taller than me, and I dropped back, reins dangling until Trent took them. He was fussing, making sure the mane was untangled and that the straps weren't twisted. Jeez, I did know how to bridle a horse.

I stood for a moment, not surprised he hadn't said thank you. Giving up, I took a step back. At least I wasn't dizzy anymore. "Jasmine is so mad at me," I said. "I didn't know she liked you. I'm sorry."

Trent turned to me, clearly surprised. My eyes warmed with threatening tears, and I turned away. Someone was calling my name, counselor by the sound of it. Great. They were going to write me up. Sighing, I started for the bright square of light.

"Do you want a ride?" Trent asked.

Wiping my eyes, I turned, shocked. My gaze went from him to the horse. There wasn't a saddle, just that bareback pad. "On him?"

His attention went out of the stables as another voice called my name, loudly, with some anger. Nodding, he grabbed a handful of mane and swung himself up like he was born to it. "If you can get up here."

There was more than a hint of challenge, and I took a step forward, looking up at him and thinking it was a long way from the ground. "You just want to knock me off," I said, mistrusting him. "Or take me out into the woods and leave me to walk in."

Not a hint of his intent was in his placid face as he leaned down and held out his hand. "You'll have to trust me."

The voices were getting louder. Maybe if Jasmine found out I'd been with him, she'd know how it felt to be ditched. It was petty, but taking a breath, I fit my hand in his. I reached up with the other, and with a lean and a tug, I found myself swung up behind him.

The horse shifted, snorting, and as Trent soothed him, I clutched Trent's waist, feeling really weird. My gasp for air brought the scent of cinnamon and green things into me, and my alarm paused at a unique sensation, a twinge of something going through me. Pride, maybe, that I was on a tall horse? The hoof pick was almost falling out of his pocket, and thinking he deserved it, I yanked it free when the horse shifted, tucking it in my own pocket instead. I'd give it back once I knew he wasn't going to dump me off on the trail. It wasn't really stealing if the only reason I took it was to prove I could, right? Better than a crappy little witch, huh?

"Please don't make me regret this," I whispered. Jasmine would never speak to me again if she found out, but I didn't care. His horse was fabulous!

"I won't if you don't," he said, and my grip tightened as the horse started into motion.

Whoever was shouting my name was getting closer, and the horse eagerly headed for the door. "What's his name?" I asked as we emerged blinking into the sun.

"Tulpa, but I call him Mr. T."

I looked over the empty paddock and the fenced field beyond. Two figures were coming up the dirt road, their pace quickening when they saw us. A horse and rider stood waiting where field turned into woods. Stanley. "You named your horse after a flower?" I questioned.

"Tulpa, not Tulip," Trent said. "Hold on. We have to get out of here."

"Hey!" I shouted, grip tightening when he nudged his horse into a smooth canter. But the faster we went, the easier it was, and I found myself leaning forward into Trent. My hair was pushed behind me, and I could hardly breathe. One problem. We were heading for the fence.

"Trent?" I shouted, and he kicked his horse into a faster gait. I reached behind me, making sure the pick wasn't falling out.

"I'm taking it!" he shouted. "Hold on!"

He was going to jump it? Heart pounding, I screwed my eyes shut and put my arms back around Trent. He wanted me to fall. I knew it! Vertigo swam up, and I felt my muscles go weak. It was too much. I knew the signs, but I held on all the tighter. Not this time. I wasn't going to pass out. Adrenaline poured into me, and the tingle of magic. Breath held, I felt a thrill down to my toes as the horse bunched beneath me. My eyes opened, and I looked.

Tulpa's feet left the earth, and he stretched forward. One with him, we leaned as well, instinct older than magic taking hold. The beating of his hooves was silenced, and the thumping of my heart was all that there was. For an instant, we flew.

Tulpa's front feet touched, and the world rushed back. The cadence of his hooves beat into me, and I shouted, letting go of Trent. It had been marvelous. Wonderful beyond belief. Exuberant, I smiled, feeling breathless and powerful all at the same time.

Trent turned, wonder in his eyes, shock almost. "You held on."

"Of course I did!" I said, grinning. "Let's go!"

He took a breath to answer me, but I never found out what he was going to say. Someone was shouting our names in fear.

Trent's horse shied, spooking. My hands clutched at Trent as the horse spun. My heels went up, and I fell backward. Trent had one hand on the reins, trying to regain control and keep his horse's head up, reaching back to me with his injured hand. His fingers couldn't grip, and I screamed, feeling myself go.

I fell as the horse leapt forward. The ground slammed into me, shocking, and I stared up at the bright blue sky, now turning a beautiful, beautiful velvet black with no stars.

"Rachel!" I heard, and someone lifted my head. My eyes wouldn't work. I knew I was seeing, but I couldn't figure out what it was.

"Rachel, breathe. Oh God. I'm sorry," Trent said. "Just breathe. Please breathe!"

And then even my ears quit working. Starved for air, I passed out.

Ten

I couldn't breathe. My lungs were starving for air, burning, but I couldn't make them expand. Stuck halfway between the memory and now, I hung, able to think, but not to do.

"Rachel!" Ivy shouted, and I felt a stinging smack across my cheek. "Wake up!"

Jenks's pixy wings clattered close, and his draft cooled my burning cheek. "Knock it off!" he exclaimed. "Hitting her isn't doing any good!"

Panic iced through me, but I couldn't move, paralyzed and running out of air.

"You let her invoke a deadly charm?" I heard Pierce say, his voice close.

"It wasn't supposed to be deadly!" Ivy snarled back. "It had already passed the lethal-amulet test. Something went wrong!"

"Kalamack crafted it? I opine that's what's wrong. He's just like his father. Sloppy."

"Look!" Jenks said. "It's still in her hands. Right there!"

My heart thudded, hurting for air; I felt shaking hands turn me over. Fingers wedged among mine, and pain shot through me. A moan I couldn't afford slipped past me.

"You're hurting her!" Nick exclaimed, completing the travesty.

"Better that than she suffocates," Ivy said. Then softer, she said, "I'm sorry, Rachel."

I clenched into myself, my head bursting in pain. Oh God. I was dying. I was going to die from a frigging elf charm. Break my fingers. Anything! The sharp tug on my fingers was a stab of agony, but I didn't think she broke anything as the smooth horsehair slipped from me.

Nick's voice was close and worried. "She's still not breathing."

"Tell us something we don't know, crap-for-brains!" Jenks exclaimed.

"Smack her again!" the thief said.

My hearing was going fuzzy, and the pain of the curse's imbalance was lost in the agony of suffocation. I couldn't think, but I felt the bed dip, and arms smelling of coal dust wrapped around me as my head thumped into a masculine chest. "Forgive me, mistress witch," I heard, and then a line burned through me.

I gasped, the involuntary reaction bringing a slip of air into me. It smelled like a meadow in the sun. Nausea rose and my heart gave a weak pound, but I still couldn't breathe. Somehow I managed to open my eyes. Pierce was holding me, Ivy standing helplessly, her eyes black and beautiful. "Do something!" Jenks shouted as he hovered close, and my eyes slipped shut.

"I am doing something," Pierce panted. "She took a breath." Smooth fingers turned my chin, and I heard Ivy say, "Trent cursed her?"

"I'm going to kill him. I'm gonna kill the son of a fairy's slug," Jenks vowed.

"It's not a curse. It's a misaligned spell. I'm going to try to burn it out," Pierce said.

I jerked again as a stronger pulse of line energy lighted through me. Almost, I got a second breath, but it wasn't enough, and my heart pounded, starved for air. I wasn't going to make it. Trent had won. Son of a bitch.

"She's turning blue," Nick said, whispering. "Do something. "

"Rachel!" Jenks shouted. "You stupid witch! What have you done!"

Pierce was shaking. "My God, how much line can you hold, mistress witch?"

"She can spindle it," Ivy said. "Give her everything you can handle, and then some."

It was as if light sparked through me. Pierce dove through my soul, reaching for a line through me and pulling it into himself. Gasping, my back arched and my eyes opened wide.

"You're killing her!" Jenks shouted, and I fell back into Pierce.

My arms moved, and my lungs expanded. Gulping the air so hard it hurt, I coughed.

"Catch them!" Jenks exclaimed, and my eyes flashed open as Ivy darted forward to catch Pierce and hold us both upright. His arms were still wrapped around me, and his head was beside mine. He was panting, lips parted and brow furrowed in pain. His breath came fast, and I could feel it on me, coming and going.

"I swan," he breathed. "You can hold a considerable amount of line, Rachel."

I shifted, and his eyes opened, finding mine. Something pinged through me again, painful in its exquisiteness. I recognized it, even as I tried to deny its existence. And I smiled, weak as a kitten as I rested in his arms. "Hi," I whispered so I wouldn't start coughing, concentrating on small, even breaths.

"Hi back at you," he said, the modern phrase sounding funny with his accent, and then Jenks was there, spilling a green dust and looking panicked.

"Rache, are you okay?" the pixy demanded. "Was it a curse? Trent tried to kill you?"

"Looks like it," I said, vowing to jam a curry brush down his throat the next time I saw him.

Jenks started swearing in one-word syllables. My thankful gaze went to Pierce. Damn, the man could hold a lot of energy. Maybe as much as me with a little stretching. And he was holding me. On my bed.

My expression became empty. I didn't have time for this, and it hurt too much when it was over. "Phone," I rasped, trying to untangle myself. The bed shifted as Ivy got off it, and the cooler air hit me when Pierce let go and moved to stand awkwardly beside me. "Where's my phone?" I asked, then remembered it was in San Francisco.

Nick's eyes were wide, and Jenks was spilling a red dust, but Ivy seemed to be thinking the same thing I was, and she handed me her cell. "Use mine."

"Tink's titties!" Jenks was saying, darting up and down, making me nauseous. "Rache, you're not calling him, are you?"

"Watch me." My fingers trembled as I punched in the numbers. I was so pissed. How dare he. How dare he give me a charm and try to kill me with it. Was this his backhanded way of threatening me? Do what he wanted or else? He hadn't changed at all from the brat of a boy demanding I hold his horse's head when there was a post only two feet away.

"Don't call him! He'll know it didn't work!" Jenks shouted, and I waved him back. The pixy's wings clattered noisily, but then went quiet. "You know his number by heart?"

Yes, I had Trent Kalamack's number memorized. Sort of like when you remember the name of the kid who beat you up in the third grade. Some things you don't forget.

"Quiet. I want to hear," Ivy demanded as the phone rang, and my anger tightened when Jenks landed on my shoulder. Together we listened to the line click open.

"Kalamack Industries," the woman said, but I couldn't tell if it was Sara Jane or if she'd gotten smart and run away. "How may I help you?"

A thousand smart-ass answers went through my head, but my eyes on Ivy's, I managed, "This is Rachel Morgan—"

"Yes, Ms. Morgan," she interrupted. "Mr. Kalamack has been waiting for your call."

"I'll bet," I said, but she'd already put me on hold. If there was elevator music, I was going to scream.

"Rachel!" Trent's voice came clear and clean, a hint of warmth to it that slid out of the professional into genuine pleasure.

"You son of a bastard!" I exclaimed, and Jenks snorted.

There was a slight hesitation, then, "I take it this isn't a social call?" Trent said dryly, his entire mood shifting.

How could he sit there like nothing had happened? "It didn't work, you bastard. I'm still alive, and you'd better start watching your back. I should have let you rot in the ever-after, you son of a bitch!"

"Still alive?"

I'd give him one thing. He hid his smugness well. "The Pandora charm?" I supplied to jiggle his conveniently faulty memory. "It was us riding your horse at camp. You're scum, Trent!"

"I didn't try to kill you. You fell off!" he said indignantly.

He thought I was talking about the memory? "Not the horse!" I said, suddenly unsure. "Your spell! It almost killed me. The memory ended with me lying on the ground with the breath knocked out of me, and it froze everything. I couldn't breathe when the charm ended. I could have died! If you can't have me, no one will, huh? What in hell is wrong with you!"

"Be reasonable, Rachel," Trent said coldly. "If I wanted you dead, I wouldn't do it with a charm I helped craft that could be traced back to me."

"I think you would!" I exclaimed. "You want me dead!"

"There are at least five people I can think of off the top of my head who want you dead."

"Wanting me dead is not the same as having the resources to do it" I reminded him.

I heard him take a breath to say something, then pause as if in sudden thought. "I have to go," he said abruptly. "You're okay? Right?" he asked, and I looked at Ivy, knowing she could hear both ends of the conversation as well as Jenks, on my shoulder.

He cared if I was all right? And he hadnt called Lee hack either when he knew I was afraid of him. "Don't you hang up on me, Trent," I said. "Don't you do it!"

"Good, you're okay. I'll talk to you later. I have to check on something. Ah, sorry about the charm."

My breath came in fast, and I sat up. "Trent!" I shouted, but the phone went dead. "He hung up on me," I said sourly, then flipped the phone closed and handed it to Ivy.

Jenks took off from my shoulder, and a shiver coursed through me. "That sounded like real surprise to me," he said, hovering before the tight-lipped vampire.

"Me, too," she said, looking worried as she leaned back against the dresser.

"Even so, I wouldn't trust him," Pierce said. "His father was a devious sort, and I've seen nothing to convince me he's any different."

"Yeah. I know." Exhaling, I pressed my knees together so no one would see them shake. Do I believe him, or not? God! Why can't it be simple just once? I had invoked the charm to figure out why my gut kept telling me there was something good about this guy, and I was more confused than before. I'd give anything to know Trent's thoughts just before he'd hung up. "That was a complete waste of time," I said softly.

"I don't care if Rynn complains," Ivy said dryly. "I'm going to kill Trent. Slowly."

Pierce was nodding his agreement, but my damned intuition had me clenching my jaw in doubt. Trent had killed people before, one right in front of me. And once he had pulled out a gun and shot me with a subjugation spell, the decision made and acted on in a second. It wasn't that Trent couldn't kill me, but if he was going to do it, it would be over and done within an hour of his decision. Not like this. This smacked of cowardice. It wasn't his style.

I rubbed my wrist where he had grabbed me, feeling it as if it had just been today. He'd violated my person to see if I was as dangerous as his father had warned him—and I had thrown him into a tree the next day, proving it. He was good and bad all at the same time. God, I hated Trent. Or maybe I just hated that I didn't know if I could trust him or not.

"I opine it wasn't a curse," Pierce said as I fingered the smooth rope. "It was a spell crafted to not cleanly break. Death by something designed as innocent so as not to invoke your lethal-charm amulet. Powerful tricky. But you didn't make a die of it, and that's what matters."

My eyes went to his, and Pierce dropped his attention to the hat in his hands, his ears going a faint red. "Thanks, Pierce," I said softly. "I owe you. Big."

Jenks snorted and Ivy sighed, making motions to try to leave. Sheesh, Pierce had pulled a line through me to burn the malfunctioning charm to nothing. No wonder he was embarrassed.

His eyes met mine. "It was what any decent man would do. You owe me nothing," he said, and Jenks groaned from the overdone drama. But Pierce had probably saved my life.

Orange dust falling from him, Jenks dropped to my knee. "Well, what did you remember?" he asked, wings going full tilt. "Hope it was worth dying for."

Ivy crossed her arms over her middle to look both aggressive and pensive. "This was my fault. I convinced her to try the charm, thinking it might tell her if she didn't trust Trent because of a grade-school tiff or because he's a bastard."

"I think we can safely answer that now," Pierce muttered, but I wasn't sure, and it made me angry.

"It was just something from the Make-a-Wish Camp," I said, and Jenks buzzed his wings for more, but I wasn't talking. I was remembering all sorts of things now. Stuff like Lee being trapped in the cistern for three days shortly afterward. He was half dead when they found him, suffering badly—apparently Trent had taken my advice with an overly aggressive vengeance. And Jasmine finding flowers on her pillow every morning in contrast to the fox scat I kept finding in my shoes. I'd thought it was cabin razzing, but now I wondered if it had been Trent trying to get his hoof pick back. My stuff kept going missing that year, invariably showing up a few days later in the cabin toilet. Uncomfortable, I swung my feet to the floor, and Jenks took off. "Yes, he's a bastard all right," I said softly, not meeting anyone's eyes.

"Tink's contractual hell, you still think he's telling the truth about the coven?" Jenks exclaimed at the whisper of doubt in my voice. "He just tried to kill you!"

"I know!" I shouted, and Jenks flew backward in surprise to Ivy. "Don't you think I know that? But I can't figure him out!"

"What's to figure out?" Nick said dryly. "He's a liar. He's always been a liar, and he will always be a liar."

Frustrated, I opened up the box and took out the hoof pick, looking at it like it was a puzzle box. "Trent was that same mix of ruthless bastard and sympathetic best friend at camp that he is now. And I think I helped make him that way. Apparently I won the bet, though."

I lifted the exquisite hoof pick and handed it to Pierce, figuring he'd be interested in it. I wondered if Trent sneaking in to take my ring last year was because I had stolen his pick. Maybe he wanted it back? He had given me my ring back—and not in my toilet.

Nick shook his head in warning and I gave him a mirthless smile as I rubbed my aching arms. It was as if my childhood fatigue had soaked back in and wasn't leaving. I was so messed up. And what was it with Trent's pattern of taking my stuff only to give it back?

Ivy picked up the empty plate and moved to the door. "Are you sure you're okay?"

"Yeah, you were blue, Rache," Jenks chimed in.

Flexing my fingers, I felt the lack of strength. Cripes, she'd almost broken them.

Without warning, a high-pitched barrage of near-ultrasonic pixy voices rose, shrill at the front of the church. In a flash of silver dust, Jenks darted out. My eyes touched on Pierce's, and he was gone as well, his feet thumping on the oak flooring to the front of the church. Ivy was a step behind, almost shoving Nick out of the way.

Eyes wide, I stared at Nick, jumping when I felt two people tap into the ley line out back. This wasn't pixy mischief. We were being attacked!

Pierce's voice rang out from the front of the church, and then a crash of glass. Shit. He was yelling in Latin.

In a spurt of motion, I got to my feet, pushing past Nick to reach the hallway. It was empty, but a heavy thump from the sanctuary filled me with dread. "Ivy?" My knees gave a hard twinge, and my run turned into a shuffle. Breathless, I came to a halt at the end of the hall, leaning on the open frame. The bright glare of late-morning sun spilled into the empty sanctuary, stripped ages ago to walls and a wooden floor. The light over the pool table was swinging, and my heart seemed to stop when I saw Ivy flat out beside her grand piano, face turned away and hair spread.

Pixies were a dangerous cloud surrounding Vivian and Pierce, both of them standing on broken colored glass. Vivian's produce-stained coat gave her some protection from pixy steel, but blood was about her face and neck where she'd been nicked. She didn't look too happy about it. A red haze glowed around her hands, growing darker as her fingers manipulated magic and her lips moved to give it strength. I had no doubt that it would be both white—and deadly.

Pierce was grappling with her, holding her wrists with a black-and-green glow hazing out from his entire body. I had no idea what he was doing, but his face was creased with strain. The scent of ozone was heavy, and the morning air drifted in, almost too cool for the pixies.

With a cry, Vivian kicked out to shove Pierce off her. Pierce hit the floor, seizing when his magic backlashed into him. Angry, Pierce tossed his hair from his eyes and looked up at the ugly smile of anticipation coming over Vivian, widening as she finished her charm and held it, a glowing ball of who knew what.

"Hey, Strawberry Shortcake!" I shouted, pushing myself upright.

Vivian's pretty lips parted, and swearing, she shifted her aim to me.

Crap. When would I ever learn?

"No!" Pierce shouted from the floor, and I dove for the pool table, hitting the floor hard as I skidded under it. Pixies scattered as the glowing ball skipped across the felt and exploded within the arrangement of TV and chairs for interviewing potential clients. The leather couch started to melt, sending the reek of burnt flesh into the air.

"Set a circle!" Pierce shouted again. "Get yourself safe!"

Does he think I'm stupid!. "Rhombus!" I exclaimed from under the table, my view of feet and legs useless. My protective circle sprang up through the slate over me, the smut-covered gold taking the hit as a second spell exploded against it and dripped evilly down the sides to pool on the floor like blood marking the rim of my circle.

And outside it, Ivy.

Fear galvanized me. I wasn't that good at ley-line magic, and all my earth charms were in the kitchen. Irate, I inched my way out from under the table, drawing heavily on the ley line when I passed through my circle and broke it. Ticked, I staggered to my feet. The line vibrated through me, and I let the energy gather in my hand. "Rachel, stay out of this!" Pierce cried.

"Clear!" I shouted, and the pixies harrying her scattered. "You come into my house?" I yelled. "You set my pool table on fire! What in hell is wrong with you?" I threw the unfocused energy at Vivian. The woman ducked, then dove out of the way when Pierce sent a black-colored spell after at her in a one-two punch.

"Break my window and hurt my friend!." I shouted, shambling forward like a zombie.

My second ball hit her protective circle, and she went down, her fashionable high heels costing her her balance. Pierce's second spell sailed over her with a shouted "Interrumpere," slamming into the front door of the church to make it crash open. The pixies dusting the fire on the pool table shrieked, and from the floor Vivian gazed at Pierce in fear.

"You go tell the coven they just made mistake number two!" I shouted at Vivian, and the woman scrabbled to reach the door, breaking her own circle and tripping over Ivy. "There'd better not be a mistake number three!" I added. "Get out of my church!"

"Animam, agere, efflare." Pierce spoke in slow, deliberate syllables, chilling me. He was wreathed in a sheet of ever-after, his entire body glowing as he summoned his magic, the black words spilling from him. He was powerful and determined, his stance firm and his hands moving confidently. The hair on my neck prickled, and a shudder rose through me. My lips parted, and even the pixies fell back. Oh my God. What was he doing?

From the floor, Vivian stared, transfixed. "Who the Turn are you?" she breathed.

Pierce smiled, his fingers stilling as a ball of black death waited in his hand. "Tell the coven that Gordian Pierce demands a powerful reckoning of their betrayal of one of their own. And if a body was smart, she'd leave while she still could."

"Get out of here!" I shouted, this time worried for Vivian's life, and she fled, clawing her way to her feet at the threshold.

"Pierce, stop! She's gone!" I shouted, seeing his blazing ball of blackness hiss through the air after her. It hit Vivian's back the instant she left the church. She shrieked as she fell down the stairs, but I didn't care what Pierce's magic had done. I was running to Ivy, hobbling to an awkward stop and falling to kneel beside her. Pain shot up my knees.

"Ivy? Ivy!" I called, picking her head up only to ease it back down. It hurt just to kneel. Pulling her head up onto my lap wasn't going to happen, and I brushed the hair from her face.

"She took a spell for me," Pierce said from the front of the church. He was poised at the door, pixies flowing in and out around him, standing with a ball of black magic in his hand and the wind shifting his dark hair as he looked out. His face was calm, and his eyes were hard.

"She stepped right in front of it and took it for me," he explained as he turned to me. "Even then, she kept coming like a caution until the harlot was obliged to use a ley-line sleep charm to down her."

"Is she okay?" I looked at Ivy, seeing her hardly breathing. "Can you break them?" I asked, scared, and he nodded.

"If I work directly upon it. The first was to slow her heart."

"That doesn't sound bad," I said, and Pierce looked up, his gaze worried under his bangs.

"Singly it isn't, but together? If I can't break them, she'll die," he said bluntly.

I felt myself go ashen. In the street, a car accelerated away. Vivian was gone.

"But they're white spells," I said, then thought about it. Alone, the charms were white, but together, the combination of low blood pressure and sleep could put her in a coma. "Pierce?" I warbled. Ivy couldn't die. I couldn't live with her if she was undead.

"Let me work," he said tightly, and I took a deep breath, feeling helpless. There was a red haze in the air that reminded me of the ever-after, and the shadow of the church's cross that once hung over the absent altar seemed to glow.

"Jenks!" I shouted, heart pounding as Pierce knelt with Ivy between us. The pixies were loud, and I wished they'd shut up. "Jenks!" I shouted again. "Get in here!" I knew I should be worried about his kids and Bis, but I couldn't leave Ivy.

Pierces expression was empty, and I felt him draw heavily on the ley line. His hands moved in a start-and-stop motion over Ivy, as if he was unsure. There was a flash of dragonfly wings, and Jenks was back, spilling dust on Ivy in his agitation. "Sorry, Rache," he said, his sword red with blood. "I was making sure it was just the one. She waited until it was only my kids, then came in the front, bold as brass. Tink's a Disney whore, she broke the window. We'll never find a replacement for it." Excited, he looked down. "How's Ivy?"

"She took two spells. Pierce is breaking them."

"Spells? She's okay, isn't she?"

I could hardly say the words. "It's white magic, Jenks, but she might not wake up if we can't break them in time."

"Holy shit!" The pixy dropped down to dust her with the red of worry. "Pierce, I take everything back. Just make Ivy okay again. Okay? Okay!"

My gaze alternated between Ivy and Pierce, my tension growing as Pierce mumbled and a haze enveloped his hands.

"Rache!" Jenks shrilled as he dropped to her face. "Can't you just douse her in salt water? Do something!"

"It's ley-line magic, Jenks," I said, frantic as I looked at Pierce, helpless.

"The devil woman layered it," he muttered. "It's powerful tricky. Just shut-pan and let me work. She'll be fine. You're making an all-fired to-do over nothing."

Easy for him to say. My heart pounded, and Jenks and I watched Ivy breathe, each one softer than the last. The haze enveloping Pierce's hands took on a decidedly black glow, and power prickled through me. "Hurry," I whispered as his hands moved with an unconscious grace over her. I didn't care if he was a black witch if he saved Ivy.

Finally Pierce exhaled, the glow fading from his hands as the last of it fell into Ivy and he leaned back on his heels. "Is she okay?" I blurted out, and he nodded, looking haggard.

"It will take a moment to work itself through, but yes, she should wake now."

Tears warmed my eyes, and I suddenly remembered I was kneeling on the cold wooden floor, my knees the size of grapefruit and aching. Ivy was going to be okay.

"Ivy!" Jenks exclaimed, hovering by her nose and jabbing it with his foot. "Wake up!"

Ivy gasped, and I jumped as Jenks darted up, wings clattering. My hand went out, and I reached for her, jerking back when she yelped as I touched her shoulder.

"You said she was all right!" I exclaimed, horrified, and Pierce looked mystified.

"Broken," Ivy said, breath hissing when she tried to sit up. "I broke my arm when I fell."

"Ivy! You almost died!" Jenks said cheerfully. "Pierce saved you!"

Ivy glanced at him, holding her arm and pain etching her features. "Thanks, Pierce," she said dully. "Did she get away?" she asked as she took in the broken glass, smoldering couch, and burnt pool table.

Thank you, God, I thought, trying to calm myself so Ivy wouldn't know how close it had been. "Of course she did." I awkwardly took my pain amulet off and looped it over her head.

"Ow," Ivy hissed through clenched teeth as she looked at her arm and turned gray.

"Yup, that's broken," Jenks said, hovering over it and dusting heavily. "Just like the window. She broke my window, Ivy!"

"The woman didn't break the window, I did," Pierce said, looking embarrassed.

"You!" I exclaimed, and his eyes flicked to the ruination. But the glass had fallen inward. How could he have done it? Unless it had been a curse...

"I didn't do it a'purpose," he said, affronted. "I was aiming at the coven woman." Turning from me, Pierce leaned close to Ivy, not afraid that she was a vampire and that her eyes were going black in pain. "Ms. Tamwood," he said. "Thank you for taking the spells for me. I'm obliged to you."

"Well, if you saved my life, I'd say we're even," she said sourly. "I have to get my arm looked at," she said, her voice thready and her face pale.

I sat and twisted my knees to a more comfortable position, feeling the cool breeze coming in the shattered window and gaping door and wondering how I was going to get up. My knees were doubly in pain now that Ivy had my amulet, but I wasn't going to ask for it back. It was so unfair. The coven could kill people using white magic with no reprisal, but I use a black curse to save someone and I get shunned.

Jenks hovered between us, flying in a slow arch and spilling blue sparkles. "Ivy, I'm sorry. Crap-for-brains is gone. Jax, too."

I exhaled heavily and looked to the back of the church. Why am I not surprised?

"It means naught." Pierce's expression was grim. "He's a no-account scoundrel, and we're better off without. Mistress Ivy, can you stand?"

No-account scoundrel? Nick wasn't the one who'd been buried alive, I thought, disgusted with myself while eying Pierce as he helped Ivy up. God, he looked good—capable and sure of himself even as my life twisted into a more complicated knot. A pang of fear hit me, unexpected and shocking as I remembered crying for Kisten. I can't do this.

"Pierce, do you think you could drive if I coached you?" Ivy asked, long fingers gripping his shoulder with a white-knuckled strength.

Swallowing hard, I forced my thoughts from Kisten. Heartache echoed in me as I lurched upright, my knees protesting. "I can take you to the hospital. Where are my keys?" She needed to be checked out. Get a CT scan or something.

"Not your car," she said breathily as she gazed at the floor. "It's totaled."

"Totaled!" I cried. "When were you going to tell me?"

Jenks sifted gold dust to make a temporary sunbeam on the old oak floor. "Some time between telling you David had to drop you from his insurance and that the state is taking your driver's license. Something about a condition that causes you to vanish suddenly."

I put a hand to my middle. I couldn't take the bus for the rest of my life. This was so unfair.

"Ow, ow! Don't touch it, Pierce! You idiot!" Ivy shouted as he probed her arm. "I told you it was broken!"

Pierce pulled his hand away, glaring right back at her black-eyed stare, and I jerked when there was a scuffing of shoes on the stairs outside.

"It's Glenn," Jenks said, head cocked as he listened to his kids. "I think he just noticed the broken window and the open door cause he just un-snapped his pistol."

"Glenn?" I questioned, my gaze going to Ivy. "Did someone call 911?"

Ivy held her arm to her middle, looking up past her hair to the open door, shrugging.

"Hello?" the big man's voice boomed out, cautiously. "Rachel? Ivy? Everyone okay?"

Pixies flew over us in a wave, going to meet the FIB detective. I swear, the man had to have some elven blood in him the way Jenks's kids took to him. Either that, or they liked the smell of gun oil.

"Come on in, Glenn!" I called, and the light in the foyer was eclipsed.

"Ivy?" Glenn said, his gaze going first to her, standing with Pierce's support. He started for her, but his eyes were taking everything in, lingering on the smoldering couch and the burn ring on the pool table. I had no doubt that it had been a white spell designed to toast marshmallows, but Vivian could have set the church on fire with it.

"Rachel, what do you do? Put an ad in the paper for trouble?" Glenn asked, snapping the flap over his weapon back down as he crossed the room.

"Ha, ha. Very funny." I shifted my weight to my other foot, knees aching. "Glenn, this is Pierce. Pierce, this is Glenn, my friend from the FIB."

I watched Pierce closely as Glenn came forward with his usual grace and spare motion, his right hand extended even as he slipped a supporting arm under Ivy.

"It's my arm that's broken. I can walk," she said irately, pulling away from both men.

Pierce shook Glenn's hand with a firm formality, not a hint of reservation in him, even if his gaze did hesitate on his shaved head and one earring. "I'm powerfully pleased to meet you, Detective Glenn," he said, glancing at Ivy as she sat on the couch and halfheartedly hit the smoldering leather with a magazine. "YouVe been a friend to Rachel for a good span."

Glenn's eyebrows rose at Pierce's speech, but his smile was genuine. "Not for as long as I hope to," he said. I tried to imagine his grin with sharp canines, and couldn't.

I started hobbling to the kitchen to get another pain amulet, my grip tight on the smooth wood of the pool table. The pixies were hovering over it, heads down as they poked the burnt felt with their swords. It was totally ruined. I'd have to get it refelted. Sorry, Kisten.

"Ah, I came over to tell you I have an ID on the woman who attacked you," Glenn said from behind me.

"Let me guess," I said, inching along. "Vivian Smith is a member of the coven of moral and ethical standards."

"The witch broke into my church." Jenks darted about the sanctuary, counting his kids.

"Really." Glenn didn't sound surprised, and I nodded. "Didn't they already shun you?"

"Yeah. And now they want my ovaries," I said dryly. Step-ow. Step-ow.

Glenn looked appalled when I glanced up, and Pierce was wincing, embarrassed as he gazed at the broken glass. Pixies were darting in and out, giving Jenks fits. Matalina had the youngest, but she could do only so much.

Ivy looked ill on the pixy-dusted, smoldering couch, her arm cradled against her. "Glenn, can you take me to the emergency room? Rachel can't drive with her knees like that."

"I can so," I complained, but he was watching me inch along, shaking his head.

"Looks like you need to be admitted, too," he said. "You want to file a report?"

I grimaced. "Against the coven? Ri-i-i-ight." Accepting Glenn's help, I hobbled to the hallway. He smelled like honey and hot metal. Daryl, apparently. "I can take Ivy to the hospital," I said slowly. "My mom's Buick is an automatic. You look like you're on duty."

Jenks laughed as he got all but three of his kids out in the yard. "There's a good idea," he said as he sent the last of them to the rafters to keep watch. "The coven is trying to kill you, and you want to drive Ivy to the hospital where there are syringes and big knives."

I changed my aim from the hallway to the couch, slipping from Glenn's grip to sit beside Ivy. "I can drive," I said sourly. "I just need a new pain amulet."

"I'll get it, mistress witch," Pierce said, his feet soundless as he vanished into the hall.

"Mistress witch?" Glenn muttered, standing over Ivy as if not knowing what to do.

"He's not from around here," I said, tired. Ivy got to her feet, and I stared up at her.

"Stay here, Rachel," Ivy said as she headed for the foyer, coming out with her purse in her good hand. "Glenn can take me. I'll be gone a few hours. Can you sit tight for that long?"

She was getting bitchy. That was a good sign. "What am I supposed to do till you get back?" I said, patting the smoldering leather. "Hide in my closet? I'd rather be with you."

Jenks made a gagging sound. "This is so sweet, I think I'm going to barf fairy farts."

Glenn rocked back out of Pierce's way as he edged past him to hand me an amulet. The witch had his hat in his hand, and I wondered if he was leaving, too. My fingers touched the amulet, and a wave of relief flowed into me.

"I'll take Ivy to the emergency room," the FIB detective said as he jiggled his key. "And I don't want you to be here, Rachel, when I get back. "

"Excuse me?" I stared at him from the couch.

Glenn smiled at my affronted expression. "You need to leave town," he said. "Take a vacation. Visit your mom." He hesitated, then added, "Find a hiding spot for a few days?"

My eyes opened wide as I got it, but Jenks took to the air, a vivid silver falling from him. "No fairy-ass way!" he exclaimed, his kids in the rafters going silent. "She's not leaving here."

Ivy took a defensive stance, holding her arm tight against herself. "The church is safe."

Pierce, though, was nodding, glancing at the broken shards in the sun before saying, "I'm of a mind you don't understand the danger. Glenn is right. You need to leave."

My mouth dropped open. "We don't understand the danger?" I said loudly. "Are you serious? Pierce, we can handle this. We have before." But my thoughts were on Ivy, languishing under twin white spells. Twice today a benign charm had been turned to one capable of doling out death. It was so hypocritical it made me sick.

"I'll admit your diggings are a fine defense," Pierce added when Jenks's wings clattered. "And your skills, Jenks, are a caution, but that was the coven's plumber. The best action is not to be where she expects you to be."

Confused, I asked, "The coven's what?"

"Plumber," Ivy said, looking pale as she leaned on Glenn. "You know. Stops leaks?"

Oh goodie. I'm a leak. "Look, the church has kept me safe for over a year. Jenks is here, and I'm not leaving."

Jenks landed on my shoulder, his relief obvious. Pierce, though, was scowling. "How can I keep you safe if you don't do what I say? Get your things."

Do what he says? Jenks's dust was starting to feel warm on my shoulder, and I put up a hand to keep him from flying at Pierce. "I'm not leaving," I said softly from the couch, but I was pissed. "And no one asked for your opinion. You were wrong about not telling Al about the coven, and you're wrong about this."

Pierce frowned, but my attention jerked to Glenn, who had also taken a defensive stance. "What can it hurt?" he said, and Ivy gave him a dark look. "Really, what's the big deal?"

They didn't understand. This was my place. My security. I'd made it, and to leave it felt wrong. "It doesn't feel right," I said, thinking it sounded lame, yet my gut said stay. But what the hell did my gut know? It told me there was just as much good in Trent as bad.

"Your 'doesn't feel right' will get you killed," Pierce said.

Jenks darted from me. "We can keep her safe," he said, inches from Pierce's face.

"But not from witches, and especially not from the coven." Frowning, Pierce backed up, touching everyone's gaze before returning to Jenks's. "I've been betrayed by them before. Witch magic is Rachel's greatest liability, and until she sets herself beyond it, she won't have a chance. She's not good enough."

"But you are, huh?" Jenks said snidely, hand on the hilt of his sword.

"I'm better than you, pixy."

This was getting out of hand, and I glanced at Ivy, who was watching it all with growing agitation. And what had Pierce meant by "set myself beyond it"? Did he mean until I started doing deadly black magic, like him? "Jenks, relax," I said, and he drifted back, hands on his hips and his wings clattering harshly.

"One spell, and poof," Pierce said casually, and Ivy's face creased.

"I can take a coven of witches, you fairy fart!" Jenks exclaimed. "And lean take you!"

Concerned, I looked at the broken glass on the floor, remembering Ivy lying on it. I couldn't have saved her, white magic or not. Jenks was clueless as to how close it had been. "Maybe I should go," I said softly, and Jenks spun in the air, dropping three inches.

"Tink's titties. Rache, we have this!"

I took a deep breath, my stomach knotting as I exhaled. This felt wrong.

Ivy, too, looked uneasy. "I don't think this is beyond us," she said, "but Pierce is right. A moving target is harder to hit. Rachel should go."

Jenks flipped her off, and my stomach hurt even more.

"I'll talk to Rynn Cormel," Ivy said, adjusting her purse and clearly ready to leave. "He can put us up for a few days. Sound good?"

No, it didn't sound good, but even the coven would think twice about taking on the master vampire who had run the free world during the Turn. "Okay," I said softly, and Jenks flew an erratic path to come between Pierce and me.

"Rache, no," he pleaded. "This is wrong!"

I glanced at Ivy and Glenn, neither one looking happy. "I don't like it either."

Pierce cleared his throat, and Jenks glared at him, a burst of light seeming to push him into the air. "I'm going, too," he said. "I don't want you alone. And not with him). His aura is freakier than shadows during an eclipse."

"You can't," I said, remembering Pierce standing at the door watching Vivian flee, and the last parting shot that hadn't been necessary. Animam, agerey efflare... Didn't that have something to do with breathing? No wonder his aura was as dark as mine.

Jenks's dust shifted to an ugly, burnt gold. "Why the hell not?"

I looked at him, seeing the distress on his face, wishing I could do this differently. "Someone needs to stay and make sure the coven doesn't come in and grab a focusing object."

"They could hit her from a distance," Pierce said, his face so grim I wondered if he had been taken that way. "It wouldn't be legal," he said as his eyes met mine.

"But they'd do it," Ivy said softly, and Glenn frowned. I nodded, thinking of the leather jacket I'd left at the coven's circle, glad now that Oliver's charm had tainted it.

"Tink's dildo," Jenks said softly, falling until he stood on the coffee table. "Rache?"

"Glenn's right," I said, remembering that it was his idea first. "If they sent Vivian after me again, then they don't have anyone who can summon me—yet." And if Nick goes back to them, Yll give him to Al and worry about my guilt later. "Until then, they're reduced to snag-and-drag. If they can't find me, they can't snatch me. I'm leaving, but you're staying. I'm sorry. I need you here, Jenks." This felt wrong, but the logic was sound.

Jenks's wings hummed loudly as I stood, wavering until Pierce's fingers cupped my elbow. The Turn take it, my knees still hurt, but I could walk with the pain amulet. Maybe I could make this work for me? I had an old-lady disguise charm in the back of my cupboard.

"Ivy, call me when you know how bad it is?" I asked, and she nodded. Her hand was starting to swell, and it looked awful. Ivy's purse was in Glenn's grip, and it looked funny there. I thought of them together on a date—then squelched it.

"Soon as I clear it with Rynn, I'll let you know," she said. "Stay in a public place?"

"Not a problem." I came forward to give her a careful hug.

"This is fairy crap!" Jenks exclaimed, looking miserable as he hovered beside Glenn. "It doesn't feel right, Rache!"

"I'm right with you, Jenks," I said, then to Ivy, "You be careful." I breathed deep as I let her go, pulling the scent of vampire incense deep into me, mixing with my raspberry smell of the detangling spray and the cloying stench of the smoldering couch. I prayed that it wouldn't be the last time I saw her. This really felt wrong. "Don't tell Glenn that Nick was here," I whispered, and she sighed.

"Here, you'll need this," Ivy said, shoving a wad of cash at me, pulled from her purse, still in Glenn's possession.

I took it so she wouldn't get pissy. And then it was just Jenks and me, watching Glenn help Ivy to the door, looking right next to each other. Seeing them make their hesitant way, my heavy feeling of foreboding grew worse. The door shut behind Ivy, and the church became silent. Through the broken window came the melancholy hooting of a mourning dove.

Hand full of cash, I turned to Pierce, feeling the wrongness seep deeper into me. We were all going different ways. Not good. Forcing a smile, I started to shuffle to the kitchen. "So, Pierce. How would you like to learn how to drive?"

Twelve

My lungs seemed reluctant to rebound after I exhaled, and my breath came slowly as I sat at the small round coffeehouse table and waited for Pierce to return with a caffeine-and-sugar buzz. Jenks' tiny phone, on loan, was small in my fingers, and after making sure I hadn't missed Ivy's call, I tucked it in my bag, hesitated, then moved it to a back pocket. It was almost noon, and still no Ivy. I was worried. Jenks hadn't been happy about me leaving. Neither was I. Pierce accompanying me didn't make me feel better, especially since he was turning heads.

I was so tired. Even the picture of babies dressed up as fruit salad couldn't make me smile. Somehow we'd landed at Junior's place. Or Mark's, if I remembered properly. I'd been banned because of my shunning, but no one had given me a second look when I'd shuffled in, the heavy-magic detection amulet above the door buzzing a warning at my old-lady disguise. Mark knew me by sight, and without the charm, we would've been chased out.

Why a fruit salad? I mused, tilting my head to get my hair out of my eyes. I hadn't time to put it back in a bun, which sort of diluted the old-lady thing. But it was gray now, and I certainly acted old, walking slowly from my bruised knees. Rummaging in my bag, I took the lethal-spell and heavy-magic detection amulets from my key ring and moved them to my pocket instead in case I got summoned out at sundown.

My back was to the wall as I sat at the same table where I'd once had a conversation with a spoiled brat of a banshee and her husband the serial killer. Outside, my mom's big blue Buick shone in the bright spring sun. Yes, we should have parked it somewhere else, but to be honest, when I spotted Junior's I had all but screamed for Pierce to stop the car. He wasn't a good driver, unable to get his feet to work the brake and gas with any precision. I think I'd bruised his ego. He'd been somewhat cold since. Sor-r-r-r-r-ry.

I rubbed at my aching neck and smiled as I recalled his red-faced, benign cussing about jo-fired fife curs and strumpets. Gaze rising, I looked at the register where he was counting out exact change for our drinks, looking appalled by the cost. Mark was waiting impatiently, and our coffee was done and sitting at the pickup counter before the till was shut.

A sigh sifted through me, not all of it from my fatigue. Pierce looked charming in his vest, long duster, and hat, his softly waving hair almost to his shoulders. It made him look like a young Were as yet free of responsibilities. Tucking the folded receipt away, he went to get our drinks with the smooth grace of a vampire. Drinks in hand, he moved slowly, not trusting the plastic tops to keep them from spilling as he wove between the tables busy with noon customers—both breakfasting Inderlanders and lunching humans—avoiding all with the awareness of self that most witches have. It was strange watching Pierce. He was a quick study and had been among the living again long enough to pick up most things, but it was obvious he had trouble with some of the smaller stuff, like how to open a package of gum.

"Rachel," he said softly, eyes darting to mine before he placed a tall cup before me and sat at my elbow so that he could see the door as well. He looked confident but wary of the surrounding people. Furtive, maybe, as he tossed his hair from his eyes. He smelled good, too, a mix of redwood and clean hair. And he used black magic as if it were a breath mint.

"Thanks, Pierce." Gaze dropping, I took the lid off so I wouldn't have to taste plastic with my coffee. My eyes closed in bliss when the shot of caffeine laced with raspberry slipped down. "Oh, that's good," I breathed, eyes opening to see him smiling. "You remembered."

"Grande latte, double espresso, Italian blend, light on the froth, heavy on the cinnamon, with a shot of raspberry in it." Tilting his head, he added, Tm not accustomed to seeing you graced with wrinkles. It takes a body a moment."

Graced with wrinkles? Cant he just say old? I shrugged, embarrassed. "If I'd been thinking, I would have grabbed a disguise for you, too."

"You'd rather I be disguised?" he asked, and when I nodded, there was a soft pressure against me, as if something was rubbing my aura. My eyes widened when a sheet of ever-after flowed over Pierce, ebbing to nothing to show Tom Bansen. Same curling brown hair, same blue eyes, same slight build, same... everything.

"Uh, good," I said, uneasy at the reminder that Pierce was living his life out in another man's body, dead just long enough for his soul to depart. His posture, though, was Pierce's upright stance, and the slacks and vest, which were charming on Pierce, looked really odd on Tom. "You're a dead ringer for Tom."

Pierce flushed. "I am Tom Bansen, mistress witch. The trick is to look like myself."

That gave me the willies even more, and I hid my unease behind another sip. "Call me Rachel. We belong to the same demon, I think that entitles us to some informality."

He made a noise as he found a new way to sit. "To call a woman by her given name—"

"It makes you stick out," I said, starting to get peeved.

"It's powerfully disrespectful," he muttered, shaking his hand when his coffee spilled, squeezed from the cup when he took the lid off.

My eyes were on the bright sun on the street. "It's a rougher time, Pierce." Which I thought was weird. With all the conveniences and clean simplicity we lived in, people had lost a lot of polish. Sighing, I gazed up at the ceiling, glad no one had noticed Pierce changing. Few knew that the witch named Tom Bansen had been killed by a banshee and reanimated by Al to hold Pierce's soul only moments after Tom's last heartbeat. It was black magic in the extreme, and probably why Pierce's aura was now blacker than mine—among other things.

"Has Ms. Tamwood sent word?" Pierce asked intently, a weird mix of Tom and Pierce.

Another swallow of coffee, and the caffeine started to take hold. The cup warmed my hands, and I set it down. "No. I hope everything's okay. I'm about ready to leave her a voice message. Something doesn't feel right." Something more than you next to me instead ofjenks.

Pierce ran a hand under his hat to get his hair out of his eyes. "I'm sorry for you having to leave your diggings, but it's not safe, Rachel. The coven—"

"Yes, I know," I said angrily. The church had always been my safe haven, and it bothered me that it was now a place of danger. It bothered me a lot.

Leaning back, Pierce crossed his arms over his chest. "A body might begin to suspect that you don't like me. I'm only trying to see you safe."

His eyes were narrowed, and I sighed. "Pierce... ," I started, and he looked away. Save me from the tender male ego. "Can you put yourself in my shoes for a minute?" I asked, unable to keep the bitterness from my voice. "Wouldn't you be the smallest bit upset if an entire society told you that you weren't able to take care of yourself? And then your babysitter told you to leave the security that you spent a year making? That it wasn't adequate?"

"You think I'm a babysitter?" he said, clearly annoyed.

"And then you realize he's right?" I continued. "And if he's right about that, then maybe the rest of them are right, too, and you aren't able to take care of yourself at all?"

His eyes flicked back to mine, and his expression eased. "I'm not your babysitter."

My shoulders slumped, and I pushed my coffee away. "I don't know if I could have handled Vivian today," I said, depressed. "She's using white magic, and she's making it deadly and totally legal. Ivy and I managed at the grocery store, but some of that was luck." I flicked my gaze up, my heart clenching at the sorrow in his eyes. "You saved my butt. Saved Ivy." Taking a deep breath, I looked at him. "I can't thank you enough for that. I appreciate everything you did, but I don't want to be someone who needs help all the time."

I couldn't stand to look at him anymore, and my thoughts returned to the black Latin falling from him. Black magic had driven Vivian away, not me. Maybe I did need a babysitter.

Pierce resettled himself. "Al sent me to protect you," he said gruffly.

My head came up. His blue eyes were vivid as he looked at me as if he was trying to decide to say more. Past Tom's narrow face, I could see Pierce's determination, his soft confusion as he tried to fit in a world that had raced past him, and his frustration that he wasn't enough. "Is that why you stayed?" I asked. "You could have left."

"No."

My head hurt, and I looked away, but something inside me had felt the weight behind that one word. He had stayed, yes, but he used black magic with no shame, no reluctance. What was I doing here with him? This was a mistake, but what else could I do?

Chest tight, I looked over the coffeehouse noisy with conversation, only to jump when Jenks's phone rang. Ivy, I thought, then realized it was playing "Ave Maria." Maybe it was Matalina? When I flipped the lid, the name WARM FUZZY came up. Unsure, I tossed my hair from my face and thumbed the connection open. "Hello?"

"Hi, Rachel." Ivy's voice came clearly. "Don't tell me where you are. Are you okay?"

I blinked in surprise at Jenks's nickname for the vampire, then felt a ping of worry as I got her message that the phone might be compromised. "So far," I said, looking past Pierce to scan the tables to see ordinary people doing ordinary things. My hair started to prickle, as if we were being watched. "How's the arm?"

"Broken," she said simply. "By tomorrow, the cast will be hard enough to break heads." I went to say something, and she blurted out, "Rachel, I'm sorry. You can't go to Rynn's. I'm so angry I could rip someone's throat open."

Pierce frowned, and the feeling of a storm gathering tightened. "Why not?" I asked.

"He got a call from Brooke," she said sourly.

Slowly my shoulders fell. Crap on toast.

"The coven knows you have connections to him, and they asked him to turn you in."

"Nice," I whispered, and Pierce leaned closer, though I knew he had a spell to hear at any distance.

"Rynn isn't happy either," she finished tersely. "He's not going to turn you in, but if you show up on his doorstep, he can't fall back on plausible deniability. I'm sorry. They've got him by the short hairs. He can't risk the coven turning against him. He uses witch magic as much as any dead vampire. If you can take care of this without him, he'll back you, but if you show up, he has to hand you over. You want to meet somewhere?"

My hand went to my head, and I stared at the table. "No. I'm okay," I said softly. "Do you have David's number?"

"Uh," she said, hesitating.

I exhaled softly. "I'm not'calling David, am I."

"He's in Wyoming," Ivy said, apologetic. "The Were muckety-mucks pulled your alpha position into doubt, and he had to go and file the paperwork in person."

I glanced at Pierce, startled to see Tom. Never mess with a witch. Never. They fight with magic and red tape. David was probably upset, seeing as it was the new moon and he'd be at his personal ebb. The coven played hardball, chipping away at my support so I had nowhere to go. "So what do I have?" I asked, my caffeine rush not enough to keep me feeling good.

"lust whoever's with you. Meet me at Sharp's digs?"

She hadn't said Pierce, which meant she didn't like him or she really thought our conversation wasn't private. Sharp's digs had to be Eden Park's Twin Lakes Bridge, and I shook my head even though she couldn't see me. "No," I said, glancing at Pierce. "I'm fine, and I need you where I can fall back on you. Okay? And tell Jenks I'm sorry."

She was silent, and my eyes fell from Pierce. I could do worse than be on the run with a black-magic practitioner on loan from a demon. Rachel, you really can pick them. "Urn, if I don't call about three hours after sunset, will you call me?" I meant summon, and she knew it.

"How?" Ivy said, worry thick in her gray-silk voice. "I don't know how to do a summons. You want me to storm Trent's compound for Ceri or search the city for Keasley?"

"Don't do that," I said quickly. Keasley had vanished shortly after I'd found out who he was, and I didn't want to blow his cover. Going to Ceri would only give Trent the chance to wave his offer at me again, and I might be desperate enough to take it. Son-of-a-bitch elf. I didn't know any black witches who were still alive and out of jail. Except Lee, currently running Cincy's gambling cartel. I'd bet Pierce knew how to summon a demon, though.

My eyes shifted to his, and he reached for my free hand, cradling my bruised skin as if afraid to hurt me. "I won't allow them to take you again, but if they do, I'll follow you through hell. And if you should slip my grasp, I will summon you home."

Depressed, I pulled my hand from Pierce. A faint tingling seemed to slide from me, stretching between us until it broke with a snap that back-lashed to warm me. I shivered even as I stared at him. It hadn't been our chis naturally balancing out. It had been something else.

"Rachel, what do you want me to do?" Ivy asked, interrupting my thoughts.

Uneasy, my thoughts went to Ralph, sitting in the Alcatraz dining hall, showing me his lobotomy scar. From there, they went to my mom, two thousand miles away, but a mere jump from San Francisco. "If I'm in trouble, call my mom, okay?" I said, jaw clenching. "Tell her Al's summoning name. Tell her to be careful because it might be Al who shows up, not me."

"Rachel."

Her voice was worried, and the coffee churned in my gut. "I know," I whispered. "This feels wrong."

Her sigh was soft. "Take it slow. Be smart."

"You, too." Unable to bring myself to say good-bye, I hung up. Five minutes, eighteen seconds, I thought as I looked at the tiny screen. How could my life shift so much so fast?

"It will be okay," Pierce said, and I eyed him sourly, not sharing his enthusiasm.

"I feel weird," I said as I looked at the ceiling and the turning fan. "Empty, like I'm under a spotlight. I need to get some sleep."

"It's because you've been dislodged from your diggings, your friends cut out," Pierce said. "I meant it when I said I will follow you if you're summoned. I'll follow at full chisel, should even hell's dogs be at my heels."

He wasn't helping, but when I met his gaze, my words faltered. His eyes were the same, once I got past Tom's shorter lashes. My heart pounded, and I felt a quiver in me. I went to speak, and his smooth fingers touched mine, silencing me. I remembered him silhouetted in my front door, black magic still flickering at his fingertips, and then the miserable nights I'd fallen asleep clutching my pillow, aching for Kisten. Shit. I didn't want to do this again: I wouldn't.

"We need to talk, Pierce," I said, and his fingers slipped away.

The chimes above the door jingled. Pierce looked toward them, and my gaze followed his when his expression went to one of surprise. My heart pounded, and I stifled the urge to run. The heavy-magic detection amulet was glaring a bright red, and a tingle came from my pocket where I'd stashed my own version. It was Vivian, pushing ahead of her a small but perfectly proportioned woman with a bright green spring hat and six-inch boots, looking eighteen fresh with snappy green eyes and a saucy step.

"Crap," I whispered, and Pierce shifted to hide behind his paper cup.

"The strumpet has a new accomplice," Pierce whispered, eyes alight with the need to act. "We should've abandoned your mother's, uh, car elsewhere."

"I don't think the car gave us away," I said, hiding behind the advertisement for ordering bunny cakes for Easter. There were too many people in here. "We need to leave."

"She won't recognize us under our charms. Maybe it's of no circumstance."

I glanced over the innocent, unaware people as Vivian limped forward, my muscles slowly tightening. "All the charms in the world won't hide us if she's got a leprechaun."

Pierce choked, and adrenaline surged as I worried that his coughing would attract their attention. "A leprechaun?" he finally managed, hat down over his face. "One of the wee folk? Walking the streets? There with her?"

I nodded, my heart sinking. Damn, the coven had deep pockets, because Td bet every last one of Ivy's dollars sitting at the bottom of my bag that buying a wish was how Vivian found us. Even worse, I think I recognized the small woman.

Licking my lips, I grabbed my bag. "We're leaving through the kitchen," I said softly, but the soft snick of a safety going off made me freeze. Halfway to a stand, I looked up to find a dirty white cashmere coat between us and the door and Vivian smiling wickedly, one hand in her softly bulging pocket. Her hair was no longer slicked back but plain and straight, and her forehead had a new bruise. There was a rash on her neck that looked itchy. She'd been pixed.

Behind her, the leprechaun made a bunny-eared kiss-kiss at me. "There you be," she said, popping her green gum.

"Give me the bag," Vivian said tightly, her hand open but not extended for me to grab and do some damage. "Slowly."

Grimacing, I handed it to her and sank back down at the table.

"Good decision, Morgan." Vivian passed it to the leprechaun, then tossed two plastic-coated bands of charmed silver onto the table. "Make another one."

Pierce was still standing, his jaw clenched and a dangerous look in his eyes. Fear hit me—fear not for me, but for everyone else. He was way too free with the black magic. Damn it, couldn't we have had a standoff somewhere other than Junior's for once?

"Sit," Vivian said lightly, looking at Pierce. "Or I shoot her. With a bullet. Right in her gut. She'll be dead in twenty minutes. Understand?"

A faint sound of pixy wings rasped against my ear, the very familiarity of it catching my attention over the loud conversation. Jenks? My attention darted past Vivian to the front, and my breath caught. Nick was in the corner behind a New York Times. Our eyes met, and he winked. Jax was with him, waving enthusiastically and dusting an excited silver. Eyes wide, I pulled Pierce down into his chair. What is Nick doing here?

"Put them on," Vivian said as she stood over us, and I fingered the zip strip. I was really tired of these things. I could do something stupid and try to get it on Vivian instead of me, but I threaded my hand through the circle and ratcheted it closed. Ley lines weren't my forte, anyway. Lucky for me, my amulets still worked, and I retained the old lady look and the pain relief.

Pierce glared up at Vivian. I could feel him tensing, feel his chi beside mine glowing with ley-line power. If he put the strip on, he would be magically helpless. If he didn't, Vivian would shoot me. "Put it on," I said softly, and Pierce's eyes pinched at the corners.

"Rachel—," he almost growled.

"Listen to her, Tom," Vivian said, and my breath caught. She thought Pierce was Tom?

Pierce, too, realized the power behind the understandable mistake. His motions rough, he put the loop over his wrist and tightened it.

The tension visibly left Vivian. "Better," she said. "I'll get a bonus for bringing you in, Bansen. Where have you been the last couple of months?"

Dead, I thought, eyes on my bag as my mind went first to the money, then my splat gun, and finally the scrying mirror I'd brought so I could talk Al into giving me my summoning name back. Might be hard to explain that last one.

"I'm surprised to see you with her," she continued, almost cocky now that she was the only one who could tap a ley line. "Politics makes strange bedfellows, huh?"

Pierce stayed silent, knowing his speech would give him away, but the leprechaun was eying him as if she knew. Vivian assessed Pierce's silence, then glanced around the coffeehouse before pulling out the last chair and sitting down.

Behind her, the leprechaun huffed for being ignored. "How about a wee coffee?" she said, standing with my bag tantalizingly close. The charms in my splat gun's hopper wouldn't care if I couldn't tap a line or not.

"I'm not your date," Vivian said, noting where my eyes were. "Get your own coffee."

"I dunna carry cash," she said, her small features bunched up, and she gracefully clambered up onto the nearest chair with a little hop, setting my bag well out of my reach.

"You just love digging holes, don't you," Vivian said to me as she leaned back, her hand finally coming out of her pocket to scratch at the welts on her neck. "The first sign of trouble, and you go to another shunned demon summoner. Smart, Rachel. Really smart. You're lucky he didn't turn you in himself. Word is, Tom knows your summoning name, too."

Pierce's expression didn't shift as he sat like a stone across from Vivian. "It would be wise for you to walk away, witch," he said, his words slow as he chose them carefully to try to sound like everyone else. "You will be beaten soundly."

Vivian looked at him curiously, but seemed utterly unworried. "Not even a circle stops a bullet at this range," she said confidently as she tugged a slim phone from an inner pocket and flipped it open. God, the thing was as thin as a credit card. "Come quietly, or you'll be in Alcatraz for so long that you won't be able to craft a love charm by the time you get out."

My face burned at what they were doing. They had no right.

Nick was at the counter ordering and flirting with one of the clerks. He was here to help, wasn't he? The leprechaun was watching me when my eyes came back, and I dropped my gaze, resolving to not look at Nick again.

"Give me my coin," she said to Vivian, still eying me. "I need it to get paid."

I made a sour face and said, "You bought a wish to find me? I'm flattered."

"I'll give you the coin when I'm done," Vivian said, rubbing her welts.

"I want a coffee, then," she demanded.

Vivian's face darkened. "Can it wait a moment?" she snapped. "I'm on the phone."

The leprechaun sneered at her, then turned to smile at me. "I be liking your hair the other way," she said, clearly recognizing me. "Hey, isn't this the same place—"

"Yeah," I interrupted her, then shouted, "Mark, when you have a chance, can we have a tall latte over here?" Mark raised his hand in acknowledgment, and I smiled. "There's some money in the bottom of the bag. Help yourself. My treat."

Vivian stretched between the tables to snatch the bag from the leprechaun even as she continued to talk to someone in soft tones. Her eyes widened at the stash, and I wasn't surprised when both the cash and my splat gun went into her pocket. Son of a bitch.

The leprechaun frowned as she fingered the five Vivian had left her. "So how did the wishes go?" she asked me as we waited.

I lifted a shoulder and let it fall. "I gave two away. I'm still digging myself out of the one I used."

She snorted. "Aye, it's a good thing you didn't spend them all. People have been known to die from too many wishes."

"You know one of the wee folk?" Pierce said, the awe in his voice making her beam.

"I let her go for the wish I used to get out of my I.S. contract," I admitted.

Pierce stared at me, aghast. "You accepted a wish from a felon leprechaun?" he asked, making my face warm and the leprechaun frown.

"It isn't like she's an ax murderer," I said. "Besides, the I.S. wanted me to leave." Jeez, look who was talking, Mr. Black Magic.

Pierce lapsed into a pensive silence, and Mark came forward, handing the leprechaun her coffee and looking at me as if trying to figure out how I knew his name. She needed to use two hands to manage it, but her smile was honest enough as she took it, giving him the five and telling him to keep the change.

"Did she really use a wish to find me?" I asked her, thinking how I could use a wish right about now.

"Aye." She took a large draft of her drink as if it were cold milk, not steaming coffee. "The wish is from the West Coast, but we'll honor it. Bitch of a loss on the exchange, though." She glanced at Pierce. "Do I know you?"

His eyes wide, Pierce shook his head violently. "No."

Vivian straightened, smiling as she confidently said, "I'll see you at baggage claim," and snapped her phone closed.

"You're not getting me through security," I said. "Shunned witches can't fly."

"Then it's a good thing it's a private jet."

I sighed, and the leprechaun put her cup down with a tap. "Me coin? I do have a life. I found Rachel Morgan for you. That's all you be wishing for. You want me to help you get her to the airport, that be another wish. And you don't have one."

Eyes fixed on me and Pierce, Vivian stood, drew a coin with a hole in it from her pocket, and handed it to the leprechaun. It looked exactly like Ivy's. The small woman slid from the oversize chair and took it. "You're welcome, chump," she said loudly, then walked to the front with her coffee, smiling beautifully up at the man who held the door for her as he came in.

Nick was sitting at his table. My heart beat faster. Adrenaline washed into me like a drug, and I felt the tingle of anticipation. Pierce eyed me, waiting for direction.

"Go," Vivian said as she gestured to the door, my bag tight in her grip and faded strawberry smears marring the once-perfection of her coat. Her neck was swollen and red, and there were circles under her eyes, making her a far cry from the self-assured, posh, professional coven member I'd first seen in the grocery store. Now she was dirty, tired, and determined. Nice to know I wasn't the only one having a bad week.

"You can't hold me, Vivian," I said with deceptive calm as my foot jiggled out of sight under the table. "You just can't. Soon as I get a good nap in, I'm gone. I don't care what you do to Tom here. He's not my favorite person."

A sifting of pixy dust landed on the table, and I wiped it away. Pierce noticed, and his expression changed as his eyes slowly went from the ceiling to the front of the shop. His breathing became paced and regular. Lovely, lovely adrenaline poured into me. When it wore off, I was going to hurt, but if I was lucky, Vivian would be hurting more.

"I said, get up," Vivian repeated, her hand again in the front pocket of her coat, and together Pierce and I stood. "There's a white van in the lot. Get into it. Leave your coffee here," she added, and Pierce bumped me as he set his down.

"Do you trust him?" Pierce whispered, his breath soft against my ear.

Nick? "No. But look at my choices." I swallowed hard. "Be prepared. He's inventive."

"He is a thief," Pierce said indignantly.

"Yep. He's a slimy little thief who knows how to survive."

I stumbled when Vivian gave me a shove. "Stop talking," she muttered. "Tom, you first through the door. Then her." But true to his nature, Pierce held the door for me when we reached it, glaring stiffly at Vivian from under the brim of his hat, daring her to protest.

"Bug! In my coffee!" exploded a high-pitched, disgusted voice.

I smiled, stopping in the threshold and turning in time to see Nick trip on nothing in his rush to show the clerk his coffee. The cup went flying, hitting Vivian's face in a black wash.

"Out," Pierce hissed, pushing me, but I half-turned, wanting to stay and see the show.

People had looked up, and everyone watched in noisy, shocked concern as Vivian pawed at her face. Nick was there, patting it as he apologized, but things got worse when a shimmer of pixy dust sifted down and Vivian suddenly couldn't open her eyes.

"Ooooh, that's going to hurt," I said, stumbling as Pierce snatched my bag from where Vivian had dropped it and pushed me out the door.

I jerked to a halt at the harsh-winged clatter of an excited pixy. "There's a bus leaving," Jax said breathlessly, inches from my nose. "Don't get on it."

"Get off me!" Vivian shouted, shoving Nick. Nick flew backward into the cold shelves with their cakes and imported waters, but his foot hooked Vivian's, and they both went down.

Pierce pulled me the rest of the way out the door. The cold sunshine hit me. There was the bus, and Pierce ran for it. "Stop the carriage!" he shouted as he waved my bag and ran. "Stop the bus!" he amended, and the bus's brakes hissed as the sliding door opened. They never stopped for me. How come they stopped for him?

I looked behind me at the uproar, then to my mom's car. There was a white van across the lot, and a beat-up Impala that I'd be willing to bet was Nick's. God, my knees hurt.

"Rachel!" Pierce demanded, one foot on the bus's stairs. "On the bus!"

His eyes were wild and beautiful, and though he looked like Tom, he was Pierce. "No," I said as I stumbled to him. "We're going with Nick."

In a flash, Pierce's brow furrowed, and his eyes narrowed. "I say we're getting on the bus. Don't be difficult. Get on the bus."

I jerked out of his grip, pissed. "Don't tell me what to do!" I shouted, pulling a strand of hair out of my mouth. "I'm going with Nick!"

The driver sighed heavily. "On or off, lady."

I gave him a nasty look. "Off," I said. "Get the hell out of here."

That did it. Pierce barely got out before the man slammed the door in our faces and gunned the big engine. "This is a mistake," Pierce groused loudly as I dragged him to the nearby Dumpster. "No wonder Al agreed to send me to watch you."

"Hey," I said hotly, "I got through my first twenty-six years without you. My life may be messed up, but I am alive. You died, remember?" But I jerked to a stop when we nearly ran into the leprechaun, a long-stemmed pipe in her teeth as she leaned against a pollution-stunted maple and waited for her ride.

Shit. Pleading for mercy with my eyes, I shoved a self-congratulatory Pierce in front of me to slip in the small space between the Dumpster and the privacy wall. Please, please, please.

"Shut up," I whispered as I snatched my bag back. Crap. Could I look any more stupid?

"She's going to tell her where we are," he whispered back, his breath on my neck warm. "Damn fool woman. I told you to get on the bus."

"And I told you to shut up!" Damn fool woman, indeed. But I hadn't seen the leprechaun there when I'd pulled Pierce off the bus.

The door to the coffee shop jingled, and I heard Vivian's heels clack on the pavement. Peeved, I pushed Pierce's cautioning hand off me and went on tiptoe to peek over the top, hiding behind an empty box smelling of coffee beans. Looking haggard, Vivian ran to my car, peeked in at the empty seats, then turned to the bus just now turning the corner.

"Is she on the bus?" she shouted at the leprechaun, and I pulled my head down, pressing my forehead against the cold metal. Not like this.

We were so close, I could hear the leprechaun suck on the wooden stem. "I saw her friend get on the bus," she said casually, and my eyes closed in relief.

Vivian swore, and I heard her run to her van. There was a harsh revving of the engine, a short squeak of tires, and she was gone. From the coffee shop, the door jingled, and two people came out, laughing at the excitement.

Pierce and I slowly edged out from around the Dumpster. Exhaling, I took my disguise amulet off, fluffing my hair as I tucked the amulet away. I looked at the small woman, now smiling at me as she smoked. "Thank you," I said earnestly, reaching forward and shaking her hand. It felt really small in mine, but strong. "If you ever need anything. Anything at all."

"Ah, it wasn't nothing," she said, nodding to Pierce's wonder. "You look like you need a break is all." She wedged open a pocket to show a handful of bills. "You dunna owe me anything. Once a leprechaun is given money, it's hers. All she got was some dried oak leaves." She laughed then, sounding like a delighted child. I found myself smiling, not begrudging her all three thousand. Ivy had deep pockets.

My head came up fast when the door to the coffeehouse jingled and Nick stumbled out. He had a wad of environmentally conscious brown napkins against his nose and Mark at his side. The kid was apologizing profusely, shoving a bag of something at him as Nick tried to get away. He never even looked at us as he wedged Mark's hand off him and staggered to his car.

Mark gave up, standing forlornly in his apron as Nick started his car and tilted his head back against the headrest to wait. Mark went back inside, his steps slow.

"I be thinking that's your ride," the leprechaun said, indicating Nick's rusty car with her pipe.

"Only because the fool woman wouldn't get on the bus," Pierce grumbled, and I gave him a dark look. Seeing it, Pierce took a loud, slow breath, then started across the lot to Nick, his head down and his hands in the pockets of his long wool duster.

It worked, I thought, but it could easily have gone another way. Knees shaky, I started to follow Pierce, hesitating when the leprechaun tapped her pipe against the Dumpster and said, "I'm not an oracle... "

"But," I prompted.

She looked up at me, fingering the money I'd told her to keep. "Trust your judgment, baby witch. No one else's. You've got good instincts for someone flakier than my mum's pie crust."

Pierce waited impatiently by the open door, Nick behind the wheel. "Rachel... "

My judgment sucks, I thought. She's got to be kidding.

The leprechaun's smile faded and her fingers left the money. "I never did say thank you for letting me go. I would have lost my accreditation. I don't do that stuff anymore. Illegal, I mean." Pierce made a pained noise, and she added, "Hey, you want a wish?"

My heart seemed to stop. A dozen thoughts flashed through my mind. Jenks and Matalina living forever. Me not on the run. Ivy's soul. "No. No, thank you." I looked at Pierce beside the open door, frantically motioning for me to get in. "Thanks. But I've got to go."

"No, really. Take it!" she said, holding out a coin with a hole in it. "You could use it."

I held my breath, staring at it. Slowly I smiled. "No thank you," I said softly. "Give it to someone who needs to learn a freaking life lesson. I'm done."

The woman's red hair glinted in the sun as she laughed. "Okay," she said, tucking it away. "Watch them," she warned. "Both of them. Neither one is thinking of anyone but himself... yet."

I kind of figured that, and I nodded. Feeling like I was in control for the first time in years, I walked slowly to Nick's car. My knees protested as I got in and slid to the middle of the long bench seat. Pierce got in after me and shut the door. It felt too close, but I didn't care.

"Hi," I said, looking at Nick smiling at me with his bloody nose, success making his eyes almost glint. "Does this thing move?"

"YouVe no idea, Rachel," he said, putting an arm behind my shoulder for the moment it took to back up. Nodding, I eyed the extra levers on the dash, imagining the canisters of NOS that would fit in the huge trunk this thing had.

Pierce leaned close to my ear as we found the exit. "You should have gotten on the bus."

"Why?" I said. Maybe it was the lack of sleep, or turning the leprechaun down, or just that I loved seeing a plan fall together even if it wasn't mine, but I was in a wonderful mood, sitting between two clever, dangerous men. "I don't trust him if that's what you're worried about," I said as we pulled out into traffic. "But you have to admit this is better than being on a plane to Alcatraz. Vivian wouldn't be after me if they had someone ready to summon me back. I'm good for a while."

Pierce made a low noise of disapproval deep in his chest, settling back into the seat and adjusting his hat low over his face as we drove deeper into the Hollows. "If you say so, mistress witch."

Thirteen

I jerked awake when Nick's car jiggled over some railroad tracks, snorting and wiping the corner of my mouth as I sat up. My eyes went to Jax thumping his feet against the rearview mirror, looking like his dad, and shifted back to the middle of the car. Crap, I'd fallen asleep against Pierce, but when I looked at him, I shocked myself when I saw Tom smiling at me from under his hat, eyebrows high and gaze questioning. Embarrassed, I turned my attention to the passing buildings. They were low and squat, dirty with neglect and apathy. Something told me we were still on the Cincinnati side of the river, and by the look of things, deep into human territory. It wasn't the nicest part of town, and I eyed the idle people sitting outside nasty storefronts in the thin sun.

Nick 's gaze slid to me and back to the street. "Welcome back, sleeping beauty."

My pulse was slow, and I felt thickheaded. "Please tell me I wasn't snoring," I said as I pulled my old-lady coat higher around my shoulders. It was warm in here, but I felt vulnerable.

Pierce made a calculating noise, accidentally brushing my knee as he shifted. "As Jenks would say, you snore nice."

I smiled back unconvincingly. I snore nice. Not 'I opine that your auditory nasal exhalations are most pleasing.' He was already losing his unique speech patterns, not that I cared. I vaguely remembered hearing two male voices intertwined among my dreams in a soft, intent battle. Clearly I'd missed something. "Where are we going?" I asked, still not able to place where I was. No doubt, since I didn't get into the poorer parts of human Cincinnati much.

Nick kept his eyes firmly on the potholed streets, a soft tightness to his scarred jaw. "My place. Well, one of my places." His gaze went to his savagely marred wrist, and he looked at his small but probably expensive watch. "You'll be safe enough." Cracking a window, he murmured to Jax, "You want to get the door for us?" and the pixy flew out in a clatter of dragonfly wings. I couldn't help but notice that Jax's black shirt had a tear in it, and his shoes were scuffed. Clearly he didn't have a wife. If he wanted any kids to survive him, he'd have to start a family in the next year or so, or risk them being slaughtered by the first fairy clan to find them without a patriarch when he was gone.

Both men were silent and, uncomfortable, I scanned the shop fronts. Nick probably didn't have a problem here, but even I would think twice before walking these streets after dark. The leprechaun's words echoed in my thoughts, and I asked, "Nick, don't take this the wrong way, but why are you helping me?"

Nick's eyes searched mine before returning to the road. "It's not obvious?"

My head went back and forth. "We are done. Through. I thought I'd made that clear."

Nick stopped at a red light and rolled up his window when the car ahead of us began spewing blue smoke. "I could have let the coven take you," he said tightly.

My face burned. "Who says you didn't just save me from Vivian so you could turn me in yourself and get all the bounty?" I accused. "Don't give me any I-could-have-turned-you-in-so-trust-me-now crap. I could have told Glenn you were in my living room three minutes after you ran away. I don't owe you anything."

Nick's face went red, making Al's mark on his forehead stand out. "I can't fight witch spells. Besides, Pierce seems to have everything under control with his black magic."

Pierce stiffened. My pulse hammered, and I looked at my hands, in my lap. Nick had hung around long enough to see the curses flowing out of the church. Damn it, why was it he could make me feel ashamed for something I hadn't even done?

"So," Nick said tightly as we went through the intersection, "you know where we stand?"

Stand? We dont stand anywhere. "I don't trust you, and you don't trust me?" I guessed.

Nick's long expression was hurt. "I told you we were even."

A sarcastic noise slipped from me. "So that makes it all better?" He wanted a clean slate. Right. After selling secrets about me to demons? Not likely.

Scowling, Nick made a sharp left into a closed gas station that looked like a chop shop, pulling directly into one of the open bays. Seeing people inside, I looked in my bag for my disguise amulet.

"You won't need that here," Nick said, sounding insulted. "No one will squeal on you."

I hesitated before I let it drop back in my bag, not because I trusted Nick, but because I might need it later to slip out. Nick seemed mollified, but Pierce cleared his throat in an understandable warning—which ticked Nick off all the more.

Jax was hovering outside the closed window, and when Nick put his car in park, someone pulled the garage door down, cutting off the light and making me feel trapped. "Wait here," Nick said stiffly, taking the bag from the coffeehouse with him as he got out. His door slamming shut was loud, and he went to greet the man who had closed us in, doing a complicated handshake thingy. I could see Pierce memorizing it. As a ley-line witch, he probably had it down with one look.

Nick laughed, fitting in perfectly with the rough men around us, thin from Brimstone and too hard a life. Jax was on his shoulder, clearly familiar by their casual acceptance. I sat nervously and watched as Nick and the guy talked, both of them looking at the car. At us.

"I'd allow that Nick's car has a lot more levers than yours," Pierce said, eying the dash.

"Nick's car goes faster than my mother's," I said, sitting sideways so I didn't have to take my eyes off Nick. "Don't touch anything. It might go boom."

It wouldn't, but Pierce drew his hand away. "I don't trust him."

"Neither do I." Nick took a metal cutter from a nearby bench, and I fingered my zip strip, eager to get it off.

"If you're not of a mind to trust him, then why are we still here? This is vexing, sitting like a fence post."

I had to think about that for a moment, first to piece together what he was saying, and then to figure out why we hadn't left. I had nothing for Nick but bad feelings, yet here I was. "I need to sleep," I finally said, "and I don't want to do it on a bus touring Cincinnati." My gaze returned to Pierce, finding a surprising amount of tension in him. "Relax. I've known Nick for a couple of years. We did okay until it fell apart. I don't trust him, but I think he loved me in his own way once. Even if he did sell information to Al about me."

That last had been barely muttered, but Pierce had shifted to look at Nick. "The lickfinger," he said. "You're a powerful more forgiving person than me, Rachel. I would have—"

His words cut off, and I looked at him sharply. "What?" I asked, remembering his black magic—magic not only black in name but deed, too. "What would you have done, Pierce?"

He dropped his eyes at my pointed look, silent, and I turned back to Nick in a huff. The more I knew about Pierce, the more I worried. And I didn't need a babysitter.

Out the back window, I watched Nick hand the garage guy the bag from the coffeehouse and shuffle our way. Pierce squinted at Nick when he opened the door and leaned to look in. "You want those bands off?" Nick asked, holding the clippers up.

Immediately I shoved Pierce to get out, grabbing my bag in passing as I slid across and found my feet beside him. It smelled like acetylene torch and oil, and three ragged guys were watching us as I held out my wrist. The metal was cold against my skin, and I shivered when the zip strip was clipped through. The strand parted with a little thump, and I rubbed my wrist.

"God, that feels good," I said as I reached for a ley line, realizing where we were in the process. Not far from the university. Cool. "Thanks, Nick." My chi filled, and my shoulders eased when I spindled a little bit extra in my head. It was easier now to stand confidently under the eyes of men talking in low tones and accents hard for me to follow. My knees felt better, too.

"Thank you," Pierce said stiffly, and Jax zipped down in a bow of silver dust, catching Pierce's zip strip before it hit the stained concrete, taking both of them to a high shelf. I wasn't surprised that Pierce remained looking like Tom when his band fell away. He'd probably keep his true appearance to himself for the same reason I was holding my old-lady disguise back.

Nick glanced at where Jax had left the zip strips, then turned back to us. "No problem," he said, looking skinny as he tossed the clippers to the closest bench, where they slid to a noisy stop. "You want to crash for a few hours? I've got a room across the street."

I shifted nervously, feeling cold in a garage that had never seen the sun, surrounded by concrete, tools to strip a car to nothing, and the men messing around with them—and watching me. "Sure. Thanks, Nick."

My fingers slipped into Pierce's hand as we headed for the man door, shocking the hell out of him, but I wanted Nick to know that I didn't consider his helping us as anything other than a temporary encounter. The guys watching laughed at both men's reactions, but I didn't care. If they thought I was an insecure airheaded fluff, then all the better.

Pierce's brow furrowed, and suddenly the ley-line pressure between us eased as he drew on the same line and brought himself, holding an amount of energy, nearer mine.

Nick saw Pierce's fingers intertwined with mine. Expression unchanging, he pulled open the man door fixed in the garage door. "Jax!" he shouted, and the pixy zipped back, tucking himself into the outside pocket of Nick's faded cloth coat just as the sun spilled in across our feet. "Just across the street," he said again, squinting at the bright spring sun.

Pierce and I followed. His fingers moved against mine, taking my grip more firmly, and I stifled a start when a budding sensation of warmth grew in the cup of my hand. What in hell is he doing? I thought, then yanked free. Pierce smiled, and I glared at him. It hadn't been a power pull, but it had been something. And I didn't like his jaunty new step either.

The building Nick was heading toward looked bigger than most. I was guessing it had once been a theater, with SALTY CHOCOLATE in faded letters where the movie titles would have been. Dinner theater? I wondered, changing my mind when we entered the barred door to find a wide foyer with an unlit neon sign proclaiming it was the Salty Chocolate Bar. There was another set of barred gates; beyond them were a quiet space full of tables, a dance floor with three poles, the smell of Brimstone, and a long bar. The bar had a stripper pole, too. No one was in there, but the dark light display made me remember Kisten.

"You live above a strip bar?" I said, and Nick gave me a sidelong glance, pulling a single key out from a pocket and unlocking a side door covered in thick paint the same color as the walls. It opened to a narrow stairway with faded carpet and bare walls going up what must have been three stories. I sent my gaze all the way up and winced. This was going to kill my knees.

"Upstairs, last door at the end of the hall," Nick said, gesturing for me to go, and Jax flew up first, vaulting from Nick's pocket to make a steep, glittery ascent. It looked like the two of them had been working together since Mackinaw, and I wondered if it was only the fact that Nick was a thief that made Jenks and me that much different.

The stairs creaked, and it smelled old, like coal-stoves-and-pigs-roaming-the-streets old. The occasional window through the brick wall lit the way. Pierce was behind me, and I glanced up when footsteps started down. It was a very tall woman, and I stood aside when we met somewhere in the middle. She was wearing black lace and fur, both fake. Too much blush.

"Hi, hon, love your hair," she said to me, her voice decidedly husky, then to Nick, "Hey, lovey. Where's Jax?"

"Upstairs," Nick said shortly, clearly not liking the woman, or man, I was beginning to suspect. I smiled noncommittally as she passed with her boots clunking, but before I could take another step, she made a sound of recognition.

"Tom!" she exclaimed, and Pierce threw himself against the wall when she reached for him. His expression was scared, and he grabbed his hat from his head when it started to fall.

"Hey, man!" the woman said, punching him on the shoulder to make Pierce's eyes go even wider. "Tom, Tom, the magic man. That was some serious shit you did last time you were here. Where you been? Word was you got cacked by some broad under the city. Shoulda known it was nothing but salty water under the bridge. I didn't know you knew Nicky. You going to be here tonight? I got a table for you. You just say the word, and I'll have a couple of my best girls for you, too. No charge, no cleanup fee."

No cleanup fee?

Nick watched Pierce's frightened expression. I, too, was surprised. Tom was a known face down here? Great. Just freaking great.

"You mistake me for someone else... ma'am," Pierce managed.

The woman looked at me and laughed. "Oh, right. Yeah. My mistake," she said. "See you around. Bye, Nicky," she said, her voice shifting higher. "You working tonight?"

Nick shook his head. "Not tonight, Annie. I'll be showing my friends the sights."

"Plenty of sights in the club," she said deviously. With a little wave, she continued down. Her shoulders were wider than Glenn's and she carried herself with much the same easy grace.

"Annie owns the building," Nick offered. "Owns the club. Takes good care of her girls."

"Takes your rent?" I guessed, and Nick nodded.

"Doesn't ask questions," he added, passing me when I didn't move fast enough for him.

fit bet, I thought, sliding over when Pierce came up beside me.

"Law sakes' alive," the shaken man whispered as he snuck glances down at the woman, still making her boot-clunking way downstairs. "I suspicion wearing Tom's appearance isn't a powerful-good idea anymore."

His accent had gone full into the early 1800s, proof that he was shaken, and I gave him a sour look. "You got that right," I said, following his gaze to the bottom of the stairwell where the woman blew kisses to us before slipping out the side door and locking it firmly. "Why don't you put yourself back together? I like you looking like you."

Pierce glanced at the stairway. "I didn't want to be spied with two faces in the car barn."

"Garage," I corrected him, and he softly repeated the word, brow furrowed.

Nick's steps were soundless as he reached the top. A building-long hallway stretched with doors on one side, windows on the other. It looked like it had once been an open balcony looking out onto the side street, long since bricked up to give some protection from the elements.

"It's the one at the end," Nick said, seeming as eager as us to avoid any more encounters.

Someone was yelling at someone about their choice of TV and eating all the yogurt as Nick hustled down the hall, me trailing behind with my sore knees, looking out to the blah brown building across the street in the cold spring sun. I felt a tweak on my awareness, and I wasn't surprised when Pierce shuddered, and I looked to see him like himself again. Even his fingers were different. Not so thick, smaller, more dexterous.

Nick stopped at the last door, doing a double take as he saw Pierce. "That's a good one," he said as he fished out a second key. "I'd never have known it was you if you hadn't been sitting next to Rachel. Demon magic? Must have cost a lot."

Pierce shrugged, eyes on the brown building across the street. "Someone died for it. And this is the disguise, sir."

Nick hesitated with the key in the door, clearly having second thoughts.

"Thanks for letting us crash at your place," I said, not wanting to have to go back downstairs and grab a bus. "I'm amazed you found us, with me looking like an old lady."

His expression softening, Nick twisted the key and unlocked the door. "Remember the library? When we broke in to see the restricted section? You were wearing the same thing."

I laughed, but Pierce was appalled. "You are a hoister, Rachel? Lifting books from a... public institution?"

My smile grew fond. "I just wanted to see them. I didn't walk off with anything." Nick had, though. Slowly my smile faded. That had been the night I'd met Al. He'd torn my throat out at the request of Ivy's old master vampire. I'd survived, obviously, but that was the beginning of everything that put me here, shunned and beholden to the very demon who'd tried to kill me. "I needed a look at the spell books," I finished softly.

"Then why didn't you simply ask?" Pierce asked. "Surely if you had impressed upon the librarian your plight, he would have allowed you access."

"They wouldn't have made an exception," I said sadly, knowing I was right. "People just aren't that way anymore."

Good mood thoroughly gone, I entered Nick's apartment. As I crossed the threshold into the one large room, I rubbed at the demon mark I'd gotten that night, wondering if that one decision could be responsible for the entire rest of my life. Why Pierce was scowling, I hadn't a clue. It couldn't be Nick's place. It was nice. Really nice. In-any-neighborhood nice.

It was a corner apartment with windows on two sides and a rack of plants under a skylight in the kitchen. Jax was dusting heavily among the greenery already, and the place smelled like a conservatory: green and growing. The kitchen was faded, small, and clean.

"Make yourself at home," Nick said as he dropped the single key conspicuously on the Formica kitchen table and sat down to take off his tatty sneakers.

I came farther in as Pierce shut the door, his flat black shoes making a slow turn on the low carpet. It was all one big room, with trifold screens to loosely define areas. Shelves lined the walls between the windows, each holding stuff that I'd classify as knickknacks if I hadn't known they were probably priceless. Some had spotlights. It reminded me of a museum, and I couldn't help but wonder if Nick had had this place before we broke up.

The living room was a couch before a wide-screen TV bolted to the wall, out of view from the windows thanks to the screens. Beside it in the corner—also out of sight—was a stack of expensive equipment, everything black and silver and piled as if they were worth nothing, but nothing was likely what he'd paid for them. The last corner between two windows had a gray slab of slate propped two feet up on cinderblocks, probably to get the underside of a circle free of pipes or lines. Beside the raised stone was a locked box. It had demon summoning all over it, and I think Pierce had come to the same conclusion, since his lips were pressed tight in disapproval.

But it's okay for you to do black magic, eh?

"This is nice," I said as I dropped my bag on the couch. The fabric was faded, and I sat gingerly on the edge and wiggled out of my coat, leaving it to slump behind me. It was warm in here, for Jax, and the windows dripped condensation.

Nick looked satisfied as he came out from the fridge with a bottled water. "Pierce, you want a beer?" he said as he threw it to me.

The water thunked into my raised hand, and I set it on the coffee table unopened, thoughts of Alcatraz's spice drifting through my head.

Pierce didn't look away from a rack of leather books, his hands behind his back as he squinted at the titles. They were regular spell books, then. Demon texts had no names. "No. I'm of the mind to remain clearheaded," he said, his voice flat.

Deciding that Nick wouldn't magic my drink, I cracked the lid and took a sip. My gaze landed on a statue of an Incan god, and I moseyed over to the ugly thing. "Is this real?"

Nick leaned against the counter with his ankles crossed. "Depends on who you ask."

Depends on who you ask, I mocked in my thoughts. Stupid ass.

Pierce's hands came out from behind him to touch a long, curved knife resting on a wooden stand before the leather-bound books. It was almost a dagger, really. "This is real," he said, turning it over and examining the detail on the engraving.

"Is it?" Carefully casual, Nick pushed himself into motion, beating me to Pierce and taking the knife from him. "I found it at an estate sale," he said as we peered at it, the lie coming so easily it was disgusting. "The woman said it belonged to a sea captain who refused to sail back to England. I thought it was pretty. Someday, I'll find out what the words on the handle mean." Setting it on a higher shelf over our heads, he put his beer on the coffee table and moved to the bedroom, defined by a large folding screen.

The words on the handle were in Latin, and though I hadn't been able to read them, I think Pierce had by his grim expression.

Tired, I turned to the big TV affixed to the wall. "I'd think you'd be worried about thieves," I said, looking at the equipment piled under it. I didn't see any security system, and though Jax was better than any detection setup known to man or witch, he wasn't here 24/7.

"Not since the first one had a heart attack in the hall, no," Nick said, and I turned to see him bring a shirt out of his dresser and drop it on the bed.

From the far corner by the kitchen, Jax piped up, "He walked right into the ward, bam! It took three days for the stink of burnt hair to go away. Annie was pissed."

Feeling ill, I sat on the couch with my back to him. That's why Jax had gone ahead of us. Bringing my focus back, I casually brought out my big-mojo amulet, glowing a very faint, almost-not-there red. Whatever safeguards Nick had, they were nasty even when uninvoked. "Got yourself a rep, eh?" I needled Nick, watching his reflection in the blank TV as Pierce tried to figure out the blinds.

Nick took his shirt off in one easy move. "Not as bad as yours."

Pierce's eyes snapped in ire, but the words never made it past his lips when he saw Nick's battered and scarred body. I'd forgotten, but Nick was covered in scars; the deep gouges never properly taken care of had mellowed to lumpy white scar tissue, crisscrossing his chest and shoulders in a bizarre pattern. Most had probably come from the rat fights where we'd met. Even more disturbing was the new demon scar with two slashes on his shoulder. Nick's gaze flicked away when he realized I'd seen it. Motions fast, he put on a lightweight T-shirt.

Peeved, I crossed my arms and sank back into the cushions to stare at the black TV. An uncomfortable silence grew, broken only by Jax's wings. In the almost-mirror of the TV, I watched Nick sit on the edge of the bed to pull a pair of stained blue overalls over his pants. I wondered if it was the same pair he'd used when he had helped me break into Trent's grounds. Maybe I was as bad as he was.

"Bathroom is behind the kitchen," Nick said as he stood and adjusted the straps about his shoulders. "I've got extra blankets under the bed if you're cold or on the off chance you're not sleeping together and one of you wants the couch."

Lips parting, I turned to give him an ugly look. Pierce's attention lifted from a rack of preindustrial buttons, his stance stiffening as he eyed Nick from under his loose black curls. "Rachel is a lady, sir, not an adventuress. If I was not obliged to abide by good manners for the turn you gave us, I'd be of a mind to settle this off the reel directly."

Nick said nothing, no emotion at all. Not watching his hands, he opened his top drawer and raked his arm across his dresser to dump everything in. Turning, he pulled something from his coat, on the bed, and dropped it in there, too, hiding what it was with his body. "Rachel isn't a lady," he said as he shut the drawer with a bang. "She's a witch, rhymes with bitch, randy and ready. Rachel, how many men have you slept with? A dozen? Two?"

"Nick!" I protested as I stood, first flustered, then alarmed when Pierce headed for him. "Pierce, don't!" I shouted as I got between them, my splayed fingers on his chest and stiff arm stopping him dead in his tracks. I felt a jump in energy between us, and he reddened, backing out of my reach with his eyes down and his jaw clenched.

"This coming from a man who lives in a house of assignation?" Pierce muttered.

Stiff, Nick crossed to the kitchen to put his shoes on again. I was about ready to smack Nick myself, but it wouldn't do anyone any good.

"What Rachel does is no one's funeral," Pierce said. "I'll allow it takes a coward to invite a woman to his diggings only to cast doubt upon her standing. Apologize at once."

Nick's foot thumped down as he slipped his second sneaker on. "I'll apologize if it's not true. Rachel? How about it?"

I couldn't say anything, staring at him with my arms over my middle. Why is he doing this? To hurt me? It was working, and finally Nick turned away.

"I have to go to work," he said, grabbing a torn coat from the hook beside the door. "There are eggs in the fridge, and some apples. Help yourself. I'll bring something back about six. If you leave and arent coming back, lock the door. Jax can get me in."

My jaw clenched. He was goading me into leaving, hoping pride would rob me of a good day's sleep and a chance to shower. "Thanks, Nick," I said dryly. "I appreciate this." Bastard.

Pierce was stiff, and Nick's eyes flicked to him before he opened the door. A faint argument filtered in, and Jax flew out, green sparkles of discontent slipping from him. "I'm not a monster, Rachel," Nick said, hand on the door and feet in the threshold. "You loved me once."

The door shut, and I found myself shaking. "Yeah, well, we all make mistakes," I whispered. I wouldn't feel guilty. Nick had lied to me. Kept secrets from me. Still did.

Pierce cleared his throat, and I went warm, probably as red as my hair. Taking a deep breath, I turned. "Pierce," I said, wanting to explain, but he held up a hand.

"What a spit-licked son of a bitch," he said, shocking the hell out of me. Steps slow, he went to the couch and sat, his long coat falling open and his elbows on his knees. His hat he dropped on the table. For a moment, he was silent, then, "You sparked with him when you were younger?"

I didn't know if sparking meant dating or sex, but it didn't matter. Uneasy, I sat on the other end of the couch with lots of space between us. I felt like a whore, and mirroring him with my elbows on my knees, I took a drink of water and swung the bottle between my knees. I wasn't trying to impress Pierce, but who wants to be thought of as a whore?

"Yes," I said, not looking up. "A couple of years ago. I got my first demon mark because of him. I didn't know he was a thief at the time." I looked at Pierce, seeing his gaze lost in thought. "Or maybe I did and I was ignoring it. I've got a problem with bad men."

Pierce's focus sharpened, and when our eyes met, he looked away. He may as well have it all. "Nick's right, though," I admitted, watching the water swinging in my grip. "I'm not a particularly chaste woman. Compared to the women of your time, I'm probably a whore."

"You're not," Pierce protested a little too stridently, and I set the bottle down beside Nick's beer, wanting that instead. God, I was tired. And my knees were throbbing.

"I swear, and cuss," I said, giving in and taking a swig of the beer. The bitter taste tightened the back of my mouth but it was marvelously cold. "I don't take slights politely but tell people to kiss off." Ticked, I set the bottle down hard. "And I like beer."

"I opine—I think you're a woman of your world," he said from the far end of the couch. "I would have a hard time seeing you pressed and powdered, dreading a life of servitude under the name of marriage. You'd die in that mold. I like you as you are, fiery and ill tempered."

Silent, I looked at him, not knowing if he really believed it or was being polite.

My face must have given me away, because Pierce reached for me. Moving fast, I stood up, out of his reach. I went to the window to close the floor-to-ceiling blinds with fast, abrupt motions, careful to never get directly in an outsider's view. The room darkened but for the light from the skylights. Pierce never said a word.

The last blind shut, I turned, freezing when I found him right behind me. "Ah, you want the bed or the couch?" I asked, even more uncomfortable. I mean, I'd seen him look at me with abhorrence for breaking into the library. His disgust that I'd slept with Nick, slimeball and thief, had been obvious. Sure, he had started this grand adventure as a way to get out from under Al's thumb, but he knew that I was shunned, tied to demons more than my own kind. He was a demon killer—or wanted to be—and I was the student of one.

Then again, we were both dirty. His very existence hinged on Tom's untimely death and a black curse. And when the memory of him standing at my door with his hands dripping black power sifted through my mind—I shivered.

"Bed or couch?" I repeated, frightened by mistakes that I wasn't going to make this time, and when he shifted forward, I lurched out of his path, grabbing the afghan from the back of the couch. It was the same one I'd slept under in Nick's other apartment.

He exhaled, head bowed as he dropped back a step. "I'm of a mind to sit at the table," he said softly. "I don't set store by Nick's words, Rachel. A body would wonder why people think a younger time means a less randy state of mind." His lips curved up into a faint smile as he hesitated, then added, "Circumspect does not mean celibate."

My fingers gripped the afghan tighter. The scent of redwood came from him, strong and heady. I swallowed hard as he hesitated a moment longer, blue eyes nothing like Kisten's holding a hint of a question; then he moved past me, his steps silent on the carpet.

J think he just made a pass at me, I thought when he settled himself at the table. Numb, I sank back down on the couch. No way was I going to take the bed.

"I'm not happy with you making me look like a fool just so you can get away from Al for a week or two," I said, reclining with my head on the arm of the couch where I could see him. My knees protested, but it was warm under me where he had been sitting, and I could smell him there. I was so tired. I hadn't slept properly in over twenty-four hours.

"It worked, didn't it?" he grumbled, almost unheard.

"Then you don't think I need watching?" I asked, and he gave me a sideways glance.

Clearly he did, but I was too tired to be mad at him right now. His scent lingered in the cushions, the redwood blending with the whiff of electronics and burnt amber from the corner of the room. My pulse was slowing, and the ticking of four clocks became obvious. There was one on each of the four walls, and I wondered if it was part of a protection charm.

My thoughts were swirling as I tried to relax, the day's events coming back to the forefront of my mind as I finally had a chance to think about them. Until I got my summoning name back, I was vulnerable, whether I liked it or not. Uncomfortable, I wedged off my boots and tucked my feet under the afghan. Much as I wanted it otherwise, having Pierce here was a comfort. Nick might have left us only to betray us, but I doubted it. He had too much to lose by inviting Vivian or anyone else from the coven into his place. They'd clear his apartment out, then give him my old cell in Alcatraz.

"You were a member of the coven?" I asked, my thoughts jumping as sleep demanded its fair share of my day.

"Still am," he said, and I opened my eyes to see him staring at nothing as he slumped. "Once a member, always a member, until death. And I'm not dead anymore."

"They're the ones who blew your cover, aren't they," I said, thinking back to his words—no, his threat—to Vivian. "They gave you to that vampire. Why?"

He turned, straightening when he realized I was watching him. "We disagreed."

Because you do black magic? I'm so surprised. "Disagreed? They bricked you in the ground," I said, but instead of becoming angry, he chuckled, stretching his legs out under the table, looking nothing like himself as he unbuttoned his vest and relaxed.

"Yes, they did, but here I am. Go to sleep, Rachel."

I slumped farther into the couch to breathe in his scent, lingering in the cushions. "Do you think you can get them to leave me alone?" I asked, eyes closing.

"Not likely," he said, his soft voice clear over the sounds of someone's music coming through the walls. "As you say, they did brick me in the ground."

Snuggling deeper under the afghan, I yawned as I listened to a car beep in the street below. "You're just like me. Nothing but trouble," I murmured, slurring.

"My apologies?" he said, making me smile at the simple sound of it.

I wasn't thinking anymore, and I had to shut my mouth. "Good night, Pierce," I said around another yawn, unable to stop myself.

"Good night, mistress witch." But as I drifted off, I could have sworn I heard him add softly, "We should have taken the bus."

Fourteen

 The scent of brewing coffee stirred me into a half-awake, half-asleep haze. I hung there, warm and content, feeling yarn under my chin. I liked warm and content, but it had been so long since I'd been such that its very presence was a warning.

Taking a deep breath, I shrugged out of my sleep, sitting up in a smooth motion and holding Nick's afghan to me. Nick's place, I thought as my pulse slowed and I listened to the ticking of the four clocks. The blinds were night gloomed, and the plants in the corner of the kitchen were bright under hot spotlights. I'd slept for hours. My attention went to the kitchen table, finding Pierce's coat and vest draped over the chair—but no Pierce.

Instinct turned me to find him standing before the shelf of old books in a spotlight in the otherwise dim room. Faint rhythmic thumps told me the strip club was in full swing, but it was pleasant, sort of like a giant heartbeat. The dagger that Nick had placed on the high shelf was balanced across Pierce's palms, and the greenish-black haze covering it extended up almost to his elbows. It was his aura, and he must be doing something very powerful to make it visible like that. Even so, he probably wasn't seeing it. Auras were like that. I couldn't see mine either, apart from a reflection when I made a circle or threw a chunk of ley-line energy at someone. I had no idea what he was doing, but it looked like he was using a ley line.

"I listened to you wake," Pierce said to the books, not turning. "Hearing that makes a body feel powerfully content. I mean... it was nice?"

The glow about his hands flickered, then renewed itself. Smiling, I put my sock-footed feet on the floor and stretched before I wedged my boots back on. The thought to phone Ivy and Jenks rose and fell. If there was a change, they'd call.

"Nice," I affirmed around a yawn. It seemed odd that here, in Nick's place, I'd be able to find the rest that comes only from feeling safe, but I did. Or had, maybe. The thief had more safeguards than a paranoid psychic with delusions of grandeur. I couldn't help but wonder what Pierce thought of me after seeing my ex. Not that I cared, but Nick was slime. Embarrassed, I eyed Pierce for any signs of distance.

Pierce looked absorbed as he stood before the books with that knife balanced across his hands and his brown shoes edging the spotlight. He had pulled his shirttails from his trousers, and a faint stubble was starting to show. It was the first time I'd ever seen him disheveled. "You look comfortable," I said, and he sighed.

"No one slicks up anymore," he breathed. "Why should I?"

It didn't sound like him at all, and rising, I went to the window, shifting the blinds to see that some of the cars had their lights on. "Trent dresses up," I said, letting the blind's slat click shut and turning. "Did you sleep at all?"

Still facing the books, Pierce rubbed his bristly chin. "Are you going to call Al?"

I nodded. I had a couple of hours before the sun would set in San Francisco. Time enough to call Al and try to convince him to make good on our deal. But what I really was, was hungry. "How come you look so rested?" I asked as I came alongside him, and the green glow about his hands went out. "You couldn't have had much sleep."

"Perhaps because I made a die of it for so many years I don't need as much."

Eying him, I carefully took the knife off his hands. The tarnished metal was warm, feeling almost like putty, but the sensation quickly faded until it was just cold silver. "This is nasty," I said as I tried to piece together the words engraved around the handle. "What does it say?" Pierce hesitated, and my eyes narrowed. "Don't expect me to believe you can't read it."

With an odd expression, the man shifted uncomfortably as I caught him thinking about lying to me. "It's a delicate matter," he finally said, and I put one hand on my hip, the other carelessly holding the knife askew. "I won't say the words," he said, gaze following the knife as I shifted it about. "I'm not skeerylike, but it's arcane, black magic. I'm not of a mind to... know for sure what it does. The charm is long spent."

I squinted at him, weighing his words against his body language. I mean, he knew I knew he worked black magic. Did he think I couldn't take it? Whatever it was? "What were you doing with it, then," I asked, waving the knife around just to irritate him, "if the spell is gone?"

Frowning, he gently grasped my wrist and took the knife. "Ley-line magic in good silver will leave a whisper of the spell after it is spent," he said, eyes on the dagger, not me. "If one is powerful delicate, applying a breath of ley-line potency into the charm can sometimes fill the channels again and bring it back to full stamina. Too much will destroy it, but if enough fills the spell before it overflows, one can make a fist of it. I've a fine enough touch, but I'm not eager to try lest I leave Nick with such an ugly thing."

Curious, I took the knife back, holding it with the right amount of respect. "You just direct a trickle of energy into it? You don't even need to know how to do the original charm?"

"That's the whole pie of it, yes." Pierce took the knife from me again and set it where Nick had left it, out of my easy reach. "It's enough to worry a man that Nick, a mere wizard, has it."

I frowned. If I wanted to look at the knife, I would. "Yeah, well, Nick has a lot of stuff he shouldn't, doesn't he?" I said, and Pierce glanced at the broken trunk. "My dad never told me that," I said to distract him. "About the imprint left on an object."

Pierce nodded. "It's not known to many, and your father was human."

I started, not having told him about that chunk of drama in my life, but then I remembered he'd been there in spirit. There probably wasn't much that had happened in the church in the past year that he didn't know about. And yet... he was here, standing in front of me, his shirt open to show pale skin, stubble on his face, and hair all over and tousled.

Damn it.

"Are you hungry?" Pierce asked, and I turned to the dimly lit kitchen. "Nick won't be back until long after candle lighting."

Candle lighting. I remembered that one. He meant dusk. "Famished." I flicked on the kitchen light and looked for the bathroom. "Can you hold that thought?"

Leaving Pierce to figure out what I meant, I shut the bathroom door behind me and hoped he couldn't hear as I took care of business. God, why did I even care if he might know I'd flushed the toilet, but I slumped when I caught sight of myself in the age-spotted mirror above the tiny white sink.

There were circles under my eyes, and I looked tired despite the sleep. My hair was a mess, and when I used Nick's brush, it only made it frizz out all the more. I contemplated taking my pain amulet off but decided I might need it if I was summoned out and had to fight, so I let it stay tucked under my shirt. The black camisole had been fresh this morning, and the jeans were probably good for another day. Eventually, though, I'd have to risk going home for a change of clothes and a toothbrush or spend a couple of hours at the mall.

How had I gotten here? Shunned and on the run from the coven, unable to go home for a change of undies. What scared me the most was that the coven didn't have to work within the law, or at least they felt they didn't. Maybe I should call Glenn and see if there was a warrant out for my arrest? That would be good news, because if there was, then they couldn't just pack me quietly away in a closet. Okay, so my kids being demons was a problem, but shouldn't the entire witch community have a say in whether I should be shoved in a hole or just castrated?

"Thanks, Trent," I whispered as I cleaned Nick's brush. Dropping the fistful of his and my hair into the sink, I set it alight with a word of Latin. None of this would have happened if Trent hadn't told the council what his dad's tinkering with my mitochondria had done.

I'd been born with a common genetic "defect" that should've killed me before I was two. Thousands of witches were. The truth was that Rosewood syndrome was really an ancient elven biological-warfare device that kicked in when a witch able to invoke demon magic was born.

Turns out the elves had cursed the demons first, causing their children to be born stunted in their ability to do magic. Abandoned by demons as inferior, ancient elves called us witches and told us lies, recruiting us for what magic we retained to help them in their war. They couldn't get rid of the gene that enabled us to invoke demon magic without removing all our ability to do magic, and occasionally it recombined to full strength; hence the little genetic bomb they hooked into our DNA to kill us when the demon enzyme showed.

When Trent's dad tinkered enough, such that I could survive having the demon enzyme, he'd unknowingly fixed what his species had broken. Trent's claim that he hadn't told the coven was crap, especially when the lie that he could control and destroy me followed it.

"Rachel?" came a worried call from the door, and I looked up from the bit of ash that was left of my hair. That and a really nasty stench.

"I'm fine!" I called back. "Just getting rid of potential focusing objects."

I heard his pleased mmmm, then his steps retreated. I ran the water a long time, cleaning the basin until there was not even a hint of ash. Forcing a smile, I came out to find Pierce at the stove. "Nick said there were eggs," he said, making an odd picture of domesticity as he turned with a spatula in his hand, "but I was of the mind you'd prefer hotcakes."

A splatter of batter marked his shirt, and my smile became real. Eggs gave me migraines, but there wasn't enough of them in pancakes to matter. "Fabulous," I said as I took one of the cups of coffee waiting on the faded table. "Is this mine?" I asked, and he nodded, expertly flipping the pancake to land back in the pan.

Three pancakes were already waiting in the oven, their scent covering up the reek of burning hair. "I've never made coffee before," he said, repositioning the pancake in the pan. "Not in that fashion. But I've seen you do it enough. Is it... okay?"

I took a sip, grinning as I remembered his drinking my mom's too-strong coffee in an effort to impress me the night we'd met. "It's good. Thanks. You've got batter on your shirt."

Pierce looked down, dropping everything with a mild oath and dabbing at it with the damp corner of a dish towel. There was no maple syrup in the microwave, but a bottle of corn syrup was warming in a pan on the stove. The table, too, was set, so as Pierce fussed over his shirt, I went to Nick's dresser, wondering what he'd shoved in it before he left.

Another mild cuss word drifted through the apartment, and Pierce gave up on the spot. "Do you trust him?" he asked, knowing what I was thinking as I stood before Nick's dresser.

My jaw clenched, and my head started to pound. "Not where it counts."

"Then look."

Why not? I set my mug down and opened the drawer. Lying atop Nick's socks and tighty whities was my splat gun. "Hey!" I exclaimed, reaching for it only to curl my fingers under before they could touch it. "It's my splat gun," I said, face burning. He must have lifted it from Vivian in Junior's coffeehouse, but why hadn't he returned it to me?

Pierce leaned from the stove to see me. "Testing you? To see if you're trustworthy?"

Either that, or he wanted it for himself. "I guess I just got an F, then," I said, hefting my splat gun before I jammed it at the small of my back where it made an uncomfortable bump. Under the gun was a handful of ticket stubs, receipts, and handwritten notes on napkins. I peered closer, spotting a day pass to the zoo's off-hours runners' program. With a finger, I shifted a few things, not seeing a pattern to it—apart from everything being from places I frequented. "He's been watching me," I said, figuring it out. "Not lately," I added, seeing the dates, "but he has."

The oven opened, and I heard a plate scrape on the faded table. "Come and eat while it's warm," he called, sounding angry but willing to let me handle it.

Jaw clenched, I picked the bits of my life out from between his socks and dropped them on the dresser. I was taking the gun. I may as well let him know I looked at everything. Slamming the drawer shut, I stomped to the table and sat down, exhaling to get rid of my tension. The gun was uncomfortable, and I put it on the table, not caring if it looked funny next to the domesticity of plates and pancakes.

"Don't worry about it," I said as I put my napkin on my lap. I couldn't meet his eyes as I poured the corn syrup over the very brown, almost burnt, pancakes. They were kind of tough to cut with my fork, but when I took a bite... "Hey, these are good," I said, feeling the different texture on my tongue. "This isn't from a box."

Pierce smiled as he sat across from me. "No. The fixings were here. Nick has more than eggs and beer, though he might know naught about what to do with them. I've made a feast on less than he has in his icebox. Uh, fridge," he amended, frowning.

He saw me look at the patch of skin at his neckline, and his smile deepened, becoming almost devilish, which for some reason made me flush. I'd seen him naked in the snow at Fountain Square; why this little bit of skin was so eye catching was beyond me. God! I was not going to do this. Pierce was off-limits. End of story. Not going to happen. Blow the ship up and maroon the crew on Celibate Island.

Pulling the plate closer, I started shoveling it in, the clicks of my fork mixing with the ticking of the four clocks. I glanced at one like Cinderella, wondering if I was going to be jerked across the continent when the sun fell below the West Coast horizon. True, Nick was here—unless he'd hopped a plane back to San Francisco—but lots of people knew Al's summoning name. The council had deep pockets. Not to mention an island full of demon summoners. Dangle a get-out-of-jail-free card in Alcatraz, and I bet someone would jump at it.

My chewing slowed, and elbow on the table, I eyed Pierce past my hanging fork, worried. This wouldn't be a problem if I could line jump. "How hard is it to travel the lines?" I asked him, and he sighed. "Give me a break, okay? I'm tired of being dragged around."

"I like coming to your rescue," he said. "You're such an independent filly. It does a man good to know he's needed—upon occasion. No. Al said not to teach you."

"Oh, I thought you did what you wanted?" I said, and he chuckled, knowing I was trying to goad him into it.

Head cocked, I put down my fork and leaned back with my coffee, a silent statement that I'd not eat any more of his pancakes until he talked to me. My eyes went to the clock on the stove, and back to him. Newt had said it took a long time to learn, and apparently a gargoyle was involved. "Bis said you used him to hear the lines," I prompted.

Pierce's smile faded, and he eyed me from around the loose curls hanging in his eyes. "You're going to get me in trouble with Al," he muttered, gaze dropping.

"So? You got me in trouble with him. Teach me," I dared him.

"I can't," he said as he hid behind a sip of coffee. "Only a gargoyle can teach you how to listen to the lines, and none has the learning anymore."

Listen? That was curious. "You taught Bis in a day," I prompted.

He didn't even look up from shoving food in his mouth. "Bis is a gargoyle. If you could see ley lines in your mind, you could master it in a day as well."

Stymied, I fiddled with my fork. "Fine. I'll ask Bis the next time I see him."

Alarm made Pierce tense. "He's not skilled enough to teach you. He's a baby."

"Nice of you to notice. That didn't seem to bother you when you used him to find me."

Grimacing, Pierce set his fork down. "I know how to jump, Rachel," he said, a touch of irritation in his voice. "Bis was safe with me. A very old gargoyle taught me before she made a die of it. I think she only taught me because she knew she wouldn't last the winter. And before you go climbing any steeples, demons killed every last free gargoyle who retained the knowledge of line jumping when the elves migrated to reality."

"That's convenient," I said, and his brow furrowed.

"No, that's a fact. The only reason the gargoyle who taught me survived was because they thought she was too young to know."

He was starting to look angry, and I wedged a triangle of pancake free. They were too good to boycott. "You could try to teach me," I said, pitching my voice high.

Pierce glanced up and down, making a little huff of amusement. "I'll allow you're smart as a steel trap, but it's not book learning, it's learning on one's own hook that gets you there and back. And for that, you need a gargoyle. An experienced one."

Peeved, I stared at him, waiting. Pierce ate three forkfuls, each one getting a harder stab than the one before. My foot began to bob.

Making a rude noise, Pierce pushed his plate aside. "It takes a body a year of line theory to even hope—"

"So give me the basics," I interrupted. "Something to chew on. Al won't object to that. I mean, you're not teaching me anything. Just talking shop."

Taking a slow breath, Pierce brought his coffee into his hands, holding it to warm his fingers as he gathered his thoughts. "I've heard it said that a body would do well to think of time much like a stream, and we are flotsam, buoyed along," he finally said, and a surge of anticipation brought me straight up in my chair.

"Got it," I said as I stuffed another triangle in my mouth. "Next big idea," I mumbled.

Pierce's eyebrows rose. "Now you're being evil," he accused, and when I smiled and shrugged, he took a last bite from his plate. "The ever-after is said to have found its beginning when a considerable calamity struck across time, splashing a chance amount over the banks, as it were." He hesitated; then as if I wouldn't believe him, he added, "It's not really a bank, more like a straw, the insides held within it by the same fixative that holds the stars to the heavens."

I scrunched my face up, trying to put that into modern terms. "Uh, gravity?" I guessed, then added, "What makes things fall down but keeps the moon up?"

His eyes going wide, Pierce blinked at me. "To put it in a pie, yes. It's gravity, and a potency I'm constrained to call... sound?"

I licked corn syrup off my finger, wondering how sound had anything to do with gravity, space, or anything.

"Old sound?" Pierce tried again. "The word of God, some say."

Word of God. Old sound. I'm not getting this. "Oh!" I exclaimed, brightening. "Sound! Like the big bang that started the universe!"

"Explosions have naught to do with it," he said quizzically, but I waved my fork at him.

"Some people think the universe started with a big explosion," I said. "And everything is still moving away from it. They say space is still ringing from the bang like a big bell, but we re so small we can't hear it. Like us not being able to hear all the sounds elephants make."

He didn't look convinced. "Do tell. Students of the arcane, ah, some people believe that such drops of time that are flung near enough slip back like water drops, leaving a body with the sensation of deja vu, but if they are large enough and are flung far enough apace, they're constrained to dry up and vanish, leaving unexplained lost civilizations."

His eyes were alight. I'd seen that look on college students debating such ridiculous stuff as how the world would be today if Napoleon hadn't stirred that misaligned spell and won Waterloo, or if the Turn had never happened and we'd gone to the moon instead. "Okay, I got that," I said, and Pierce pushed from the table to take his plate to the sink.

"Are you sure?" he asked as he worked the taps and squirted soap into the empty batter bowl. He must have seen Ivy and me do it a hundred times.

"I saw a movie about it once," I said, and he turned to me, eyebrows high.

"You are a clever woman, Rachel, but I'm not sure you comprehend the complexity," he offered over the sound of running water. But at my frown, he cautiously took my empty plate as I extended it and continued. "The ever-after is believed to have its origins in such a calamity," he said as he rolled up his sleeves to show nicely muscled arms, darker than that spot of skin at his throat. "It was orchestrated by the demons to kill the majority of the elven population during their yearly gathering. An almighty span of time was spelled from its course, landing it too far to rejoin yet being so considerable that it didn't vanish straight on, lingering enough such that the no-account makers of the curse could return full chisel to reality, leaving the elves to make a most horrible die of it."

"Demons," I said, and Pierce nodded. Demons and elves. Why did it always come back to them fighting their stupid war?

"Demons," Pierce agreed. "Upon banishing the elves, they flung themselves back to reality, their tracks scarring time and making ley lines."

"Demons made the ley lines?" I interrupted, surprised, and he nodded.

"And such was their downfall, for not only did the lines continue to funnel potency, ah, energy, into the ever-after and keep it from vanishing, as they had schemed, but it also fixed the demons to the very place they sought to escape. I'll allow the elves must have rejoiced for their continuing lives, even banished as they were, until the sun rose and the same demons who'd cursed them were flung back, trapping all together in an almighty wrathy state."

"Until the elves learned how to travel the lines and come home," I said, my eyes rising to his. "Witches learned to do it first, though." And then demons killed all the gargoyles who knew so no one could travel the lines hut them.

Pierce turned from me to wash the plates with careful attention. "A reasonable truth when a body knows the secret of our origin," he said, reminding me that he was one of the few people to know. "Demons created the ever-after and are slung back to it when the sun rises."

"Jenks can't stay in the ever-after after sunup," I said, taking up my cup and warming my hands around it. "He popped right out. And when I was in the ever-after, it felt like the lines were running from the ever-after to reality."

Pierce set the rinsed plates in the dry sink. "Perhaps because pixies are of such a small stature. I've not the learning, uh, I don't know. The lines flow like tides. When the sun is down, ever-after flows into reality, allowing demons to visit. When the sun is up, reality flows into the ever-after, pulling them back. It's the tides that make a caution of their realm."

I thought about that, remembering the broken buildings. Standing, I started pulling drawers open to hunt for a drying towel. "So ley lines are the paths the demons took to return to reality that first time, and they flow back and forth like tides, trashing the place."

"You have it like a book!" Pierce said, clearly pleased. "The entirety of the ever-after is pulled behind us like a man hanging behind a runaway horse, fixed fast by the ley lines."

"So how do you travel them?" I asked as I dried a plate, remembering what all this history was supposed to lead up to. He hesitated, and I added, "I want to know, even if it's just theory. I won't tell Al you told me. Give me some credit, will you?"

Hands dripping suds, he squinted as if in pain, and I added, "I'm going to need something to think about in Alcatraz besides your stunning Latin syntax, okay?"

Emotion drained from his face. "You won't get there. I'll not allow it," he said, his soapy hands suddenly on my shoulders. "With Bis's help, I can find you, follow you anywhere."

My impulse to pull away vanished. As I stood there, my shoulders became damp. I searched his expression, too jaded to believe in white knights. Happy endings were never handed out. You had to fight for them, earn them with bruised hearts and sacrifices. And I just couldn't do it right now. It hurt too much when it fell apart. "Don't make me promises," I whispered, and the earnest glow in his eyes tarnished.

Head down, I ducked out from his hands, going to the table and recapping the corn syrup as if nothing had happened, but my shoulders were cold, making it feel as if he was touching me still. I couldn't let myself like him. It was too stupid to think about.

"Look, I've traveled by ley lines a lot," I persisted, wanting to change the subject. "I can even hold myself together without help. Al hasn't had to keep my soul from going all over the continent for weeks. Can you at least tell me how gargoyles fit into it?"

His head down, Pierce returned to the sink and dumped the pan of sudsy water.

"Oh, come on!" I cajoled as I slid the corn syrup in next to the cornflakes and shut the door hard. Why does Nick have six bottles of corn syrup? "I won't tell Al!"

Still Pierce said nothing as he rinsed the dishpan and put it away damp. He was frowning when he turned back, and upon seeing my arms over my chest, he held up his hands in surrender. "Holding your soul together is but a small part," he said, and I made a satisfied huff, turning to dry the silverware. "To put it all on one stick, you need to shift your aura to match a ley line."

I pulled three drawers open looking for the silverware, dropping it in when I found it. There was no order, just everything all jumbled together in an otherwise empty drawer. Ivy would have an OCD moment. "I didn't know you could do that," I said. "Shift your aura. What, like make it a different color?"

"No. Color shifts slowly with our experiences, but the sound it makes is... flexible."

I bumped the drawer shut with my hip, turning. "Auras make sounds?" I questioned.

"Apparently," he said sourly. "Mine never says anything that I can hear."

I smiled, relaxing at the drop in tension. "How can you change something you can't even hear?" I complained. "It's like teaching a deaf woman how to speak immaculately."

"That," Pierce said as he put the plates away, "is an almighty fine comparison. And why it takes a gargoyle to teach you. You need to know what sound your aura needs to be, and gargoyles are the only creatures that can hear auras and ley lines both."

I leaned back against the kitchen counter, wondering if this was as close to a normal life as I'd ever get: a few hours in someone else's apartment, cleaning up after breakfast and talking shop with a man who had been dead for a hundred and fifty years. But dead no longer.

"Bis can hear auras," I stated, and Pierce took the dishcloth from me, drawing it through my fingers. "So if I want to use the ley lines like a demon and go back and forth, all I have to do is learn how to make my aura sound right?"

He nodded. "Death on," he said, his eyes fixed to mine. "When Al totes you in a line, he first changes the sound of your aura until it's consistent with that of the nearest ley line. That draws you into it. You settle somewhere else by making your aura sound like the line you wish to be in. A body's soul will find itself there most quick, and from there, you allow your aura to return to its normal sound to push you from the line back into reality. Demons can't hear the lines, nor can witches or elves or pixies, but with practice they can learn to shift their auras. "

"And you."

He inclined his head. "And me. Because I studied on it. Most diligently. It is one of the reasons the coven branded me black, saying it's a demon art because it makes your aura smutty. But, Rachel, it's not evil. Bis is neither cursed nor smut-ridden because he can travel the lines."

"You're preaching to the choir here, Pierce," I said, watching him dry his fingers. "So, assuming I go along with this and Bis can tell me how to shift my aura, how do you do it?"

Dropping the dish towel, Pierce sat down at the table, looking excited for the first time. "Think on it like this," he said as he folded a napkin into an informal cup shape. I stayed where I was, and he looked up with an innocent expression. "Come along, Ms. Schoolmarm," he said, and I tugged out the chair opposite him and sat down.

Pierce eyed the space between us, then shook a bunch of salt into the napkin. "Be of the mind that the salt is like your aura," he said, "and the napkin is the barrier the ley line makes with all creation. The salt can't get through, agreed?" he asked, and I nodded. "But if you make the space that abides within the salt bigger, spread it out... "

I gasped when he dumped his cold coffee into the paper-napkin cup and coffee predictably went through the napkin and all over the table. "What are you doing?" I protested, my motion to stand halting when he reached across the table and grasped my wrist. Smiling, Pierce squished the napkin in one hand to get the last of the coffee out. Taking my finger, he traced it through the puddle and touched it to my lips, bringing the nasty taste of salty coffee to me. That's not why I shivered, though. Stop it. Just stop it now, Rachel

"Just like the salt, your aura can be tuned so the gaps within it are bigger. It is still your aura, unchanged, but when the holes match up with the holes of the line, you can slip through right smart. Like magic. Each line is different. Know the line, and you can travel to it."

My lips were salty, and I felt another quiver as he held my wrist with the width of the table between us. "YouVe made a mess," I said, not looking from his eyes. They were blue, but not like Kisten's. Not like Kisten's at all.

"Do tell?" Pierce leaned across the table until he was inches away. His eyes were glinting. I didn't care if it was him or what he had told me that got my pulse racing. He was holding my wrist, almost pulling me closer. "Are you of a mind to try to shift your aura?" he offered. "Without Bis, you won't know what to match it to, but if I should make a die of it, my wicked witch tucked away in Alcatraz will have something to ponder."

The memory of Alcatraz was like a slap, and I jerked from him. "God, yes," I said as my hand slipped from his. "What do we do first?"

He smiled, taking a moment to swipe the coffee up with the dish towel before he held his hands out over the table, palms up. "We bring our souls to perfect balance."

My eyebrows rose. Tap a line and bring the energy in our chi to an equal state?

"My intentions are honorable," Pierce protested, but his lips twitched in amusement.

Eyes narrowing, I crossed my arms and looked at him. Balancing two people's chis was innocent enough. Sort of. It was a common event between teachers and students of the higher ley-line courses, sort of finding ground zero when learning a new charm, but it was also the same thing as a power pull, which was basically sex with your clothes on if you did it right. And I'd be willing to bet that Pierce knew how to do it right.

"If you're skeery... ," he taunted, leaning back and letting his hands fall below the table.

My eyes scrunched up. "This is something I really want to know," I said softly. "Please?"

His smile softened. "You are indeed a chaste woman," he said. I snorted, eying his hands, again held out, palms up. "Are you communing with the nearest ley line?" he asked.

Excitement zinged through me. Scooting the chair closer, I reached out with my thoughts and tapped the university's line, wide and slow. "Got it," I said, putting my hands atop his, palms down but space still between us.

"If you're sure," he said slowly. "I'll not have it said that I took advantage of you."

"God, Pierce!" I griped. "We're just balancing our chis. It's not like we're doing a power pull." Not yet, anyway. A shiver took me, and our eyes met when he noticed.

"Let's try then," he said as I stifled my smile, lifting his palms to touch mine.

My focus tightened for an instant at the connection, a knee-jerk reaction to keep my energy levels to myself, a necessity among polite society. He was still looking at me, and something in me twisted. I was in so much trouble. He was dangerous. He was quick, clever, powerful. I'd learned more from him in one night than I had with Al the past two months. But what really had me worried was that he didn't judge me by what others said, but by what he saw. And what he saw was me, not the smut or the demon pact or the shunning.

There was nothing but the soft warmth of skin between us, both of us holding tight to ourselves as if afraid. I swallowed, and on my exhale, I loosened my hold. A trickle, a whisper, a breath of power ebbed between us with the slow pace of molasses. Energy slipped coolly from me to him, equalizing. It hadn't happened in a jolting flash, telling me Pierce had an amazing amount of control. There was no titillation, or at least not much. But there could have been. There were ways, and slow was often more excruciatingly pleasurable than fast.

I stared at him, pulse hammering as our palms touched and the energy hummed between us. "I have no idea what I'm doing," I whispered, not knowing if I was talking about how to travel the lines or my life in general.

Pierce's lips twitched. "Then let me show you, mistress witch." Palms never leaving mine, he leaned forward across the table. My pulse hammered, and I thought he was going to kiss me, when he suddenly pulled back, his eyes wide and his gaze unfocused.

"What did I do?" I asked, alarmed, and then the air pressure shifted.

"Stu-u-u-udent!"

Shit. Algaliarept.

Fifteen

"What, by the two worlds colliding, are you doing!" Al shouted, ruddy face ugly. Pierce flung himself back. A sheet of green-tinted ever-after rose between us, and I stood, my chair crashing to the floor.

"Al, wait!" I shouted, lurching clear when Al dove across the kitchen for Pierce, shoving the table aside. My splat gun and Pierce's hat hit the floor, victims of inertia. Al's white-gloved hand smacked into Pierces hastily raised protection circle with an audible crunch.

"Bloody hell!" the elegantly dressed demon howled in his proper English accent and crushed green velvet as he shook his fist and danced back. "You bloody hell sewer rat. I told you no teaching her!" Looking from his hand, his anger shifted to me. "Hello, Rachel."

Pierce's face was white as he stood ramrod straight behind a shimmering sheet of green-tinted ever-after. A flair of red washed through it, and was gone. His expression was both determined and frustrated. Clearly he wasn't happy about being caught teaching me lines.

Al backed up, his head bowed over his gloved hand until a shimmer of ever-after coated it. "Maybe I should blame you," the demon muttered, goat-slitted red eyes making me shiver. "Using your feminine wiles to lead my familiar astray. If all you want is dangerous sex, I can give that to you better than he can, and I won't break your heart afterward."

Insulted, I glared, ready to argue with a demon who could snuff me as fast as I could flip a switch—but wouldn't. "He was just teaching me the theory on line jumping. More than you ever did! And I'm not too happy about you sending him to watch me. All he does is order me around, and it's not even good advice. He's part of the problem!"

Al's eyes narrowed. I had taken three steps back before I even realized it, the small of my back hitting the counter. Sure, as his student—the only one worth teaching in the last five thousand years—keeping me in good health and not bent into a pretzel was a plus, but if I went too far he might not be opposed to being known as the one who killed their chance at a rebirth of demons. Trent could make more of me, and Al knew it. Bastard.

"Pierce watching you wasn't my idea," he said smoothly, his anger an icy thread in his voice. "You'll learn line jumping when I say so." He looked at Pierce over his glasses, and I shivered. "And not from some runt with delusions of grandeur. You need a gargoyle."

My anger hesitated, thoughts spinning back to last winter when he congratulated me on "having my own gargoyle" and asking him to come share mortar cakes with Treble... "Treble knows how to line jump?" I asked, and Al chuckled, the noise low and satisfied.

"Of course she does. She won't be teaching you, though." Spinning on a heel he turned to give Pierce a derisive look. "You're a mess. Get out of that circle. I won't kill you today. Brew me a coffee while Rachel and I talk."

His face white, Pierce let his circle drop. Al saw the direction of my gaze, and he shook his head at me. "You look even worse, itchy witch. You simply must take more care in your personal hygiene. I'll not have it said that I'm bringing you up poorly."

"I've been a little too preoccupied to worry about what I look like," I said.

"Pish posh. Appearance is all we have sometimes. Make it a priority." I stiffened when he stooped to pick up first my splat gun, then Pierce's hat, but he only handed me my weapon. "I smell pancakes," Al said as he jauntily smacked Pierce's hat back on the witch's head. "Did the runt make you breakfast?" Al said, leaning over the stove. "Quickest way to a woman's crotch is through her gullet, eh?" he said, leering at Pierce, who was now rinsing out the percolator. "Is it working? I'd be curious to know. I'd buy her a cake or something."

Pierce was silent, his lips pressed tight as he washed the coffeepot. I didn't know what to do with my splat gun, so I tucked it in the back of my waistband. "Al, I spent yesterday in Alcatraz," I said, trying to sound reasonable. "I want my name back. We had a deal."

Ignoring me, Al turned to the rest of the apartment, the tails of his frock coat furling. "Where are we?" he asked, flicking on lights as he passed into the living room. "Cincinnati," he said dryly, peeking through the blinds and gazing out the black windows, hands on his hips as he surveyed the street below as if he owned it. "It stinks of trains and that chili with the chocolate in it. Ooooh, books!" he exclaimed suddenly, making a beeline for the small library.

I shoved the table back where it belonged and Pierce picked up my chair, draping his coat and vest over it and taking off his hat. The man was subdued, his anger simmering. He wouldn't look at me, ticked perhaps that we'd attracted Al's attention. Watching Al coo over the books like they were puppies, I realized he'd never been here before, which begged the question of whom Nick was summoning. The raised circle in the corner wasn't for playing marbles.

"This isn't your home," Al said, pulling out a volume and laying it open across one thick hand. "Nothing smells like you." He gave me a questioning look over his round smoked glasses and snapped the book closed. Sliding it away, he reached over his head, not even looking where his hands were going as he found that ley-line knife resting out of his eyesight.

"Shiny!" the demon said, his lips parting to show his blocky teeth. "I haven't seen this since I stuck it in Amenhotep." The demon's eyes flicked to mine, his smile widening. "This is Nicholas Gregory Sparagmos's room," he said, and my breath caught. "Delightful, just delightfull What are you doing in Nicky's room, Rachel? Ooooh, he summoned you to the West Coast, didn't he? Did you kill him? Good for you for taking care of that little problem}. I should give you a bunny. Where is he? Stuffed in a closet?"

Pierce shut the cupboard door hard, and I jumped. "She should have killed him, but she doesn't listen to me," he muttered, and I gave him a dark look.

"Al, why are you here if it's not to give my name back?" I asked, and the demon sighed, breathing deeply of the knife's blade.

"It's after sundown. I'm assessing whether your worry is valid." Eyes closing in bliss, Al ran his tongue up the length of the blade, a soft sound escaping him as he licked the knife clean of nothing I could see. "I'm going to rub the little wizard's head from his skinny shoulders for summoning you. I'm the only one allowed to pull you about." He put the knife away, fingers reluctantly slipping from it. "Not that I ever have... "

"No, you just keep crashing my life. Look—" I said, and Al grunted.

"Here it comes," the demon muttered. "Listen. Listen to this, runt. She's going to have a list." And Pierce shrugged, carefully filling the pot with fresh water.

"Hey!" I snapped, not liking either of their attitudes. "If you're not going to make good on our deal, then you need to leave. And if you leave, you might better spend some time finding a good lawyer for breach of contract! I know people, you know."

"No need to get nasty," Al said, pouting. "With this nonsense about being summoned, I felt you slipping into a line and came to check. Apparently you've exaggerated your trouble."

"Excuse me?" I stood where I was, hands on my hips. "I'm not exaggerating anything. I was in Alcatraz. I want my name back. No one knows mine but my mom, Ivy, and Jenks!"

"And me." Al ran his finger across the front of the big-screen TV, har-rumphing at the dust. "You should just scare the hell out of them. Consider this your chance to practice."

"I don't need practice," I said through gritted teeth. "I need my name back. They're talking lobotomy. Sure would be a shame for your investment to end up dumber than a rock."

Coattails furling, Al strode to the pile of electronics, picking up a camera and opening the back to take the memory card and slip it into a pocket. "You are so cute when you squirm," he murmured, looking at me over his glasses and dropping the camera so it hit with a crack.

"Al—"

"I'm giving you the chance to grow," Al said as he sat on the couch, spreading his arms across the top. "I'd be a poor guardian if I fought all your battles for you. They're paltry witches. You're demon kin. What can they do to you?"

Frustrated, I held my arms out, hands in fists and palms up. "My knees are the size of grapefruits from dancing, maybe? And these shackle marks are from what?"

Al's red eyes slid past me to Pierce. "Play?" he said, his voice dripping interest. "Gordian Nathaniel Pierce's quirks are legendary. Why do you think I want the runt so badly? Size truly doesn't matter if you can do what he can."

I looked at Pierce—his softly curling hair hid his face, but his jaw was tight and his hands shook as he measured out the grounds and plugged in the percolator. Male witches' anatomy generally didn't measure up to a human's, but witch women always came back.

" 'Course it might all be propaganda," Al said as he pulled a watch from his fob pocket. His eyes met mine, and I shivered when he rose. "Let me guess...," he said as he started walking to me, each foot placed precisely. "The little wizard summoned you to the West Coast with my name knowing he would get you, then fled here to summon you out of their grasp, probably whining some poppycock bull about how he lo-o-o-oves you."

I retreated as Al advanced until my back hit the counter. "Nick is slime," I said, scared.

Al pressed close, far too close, and I held my breath, cringing. Not quite touching me, but almost, the lace at his throat shifted. "The question is," Al whispered, eying Pierce, "Nicky wouldn't know you had my name unless someone told him. Who told him, Rachel?"

"The coven." Al stank of burnt amber, and seeing me wince, he drew back, frowning. Knees shaking, I pushed from the counter.

"The coven," Al echoed, mocking me. "Yes. But who told them?"

I thought about Trent and dropped my eyes. "The problem isn't who told the coven your name," I said. "The problem is someone told them I can invoke demon magic. Maybe it was you trying to force me into the ever-after."

Al huffed, turning away. "Rachel, Rachel, Rachel... Such thoughts of paranoia. And you say you don't need a babysitter."

"I don't!"

He stood at the table, both elegant and derisive. "Then start acting like a demon, itchy witch."

"I'm not a demon," I said, glancing at the clock. Crap, it was after six. Nick

"You could have fooled me." Al's white glove vanished, and he examined his hand, the thick knuckles going white as he flexed his fingers. "This entire situation is so... banal" The glove misted back into existence, and his attention landed on me. "You must do better, love, if you expect anyone to take you seriously."

"Is there a point to this?" My arms were over my chest again, and I forced them down.

"I bloody well hope so," Pierce grumbled as he set a cup beside the chugging pot.

"The point is, you could excel if you would simply exert yourself!" Al complained.

My head shifted back and forth. "I don't want to be a demon. I just want my name back so my life can go back to chaotic and weird instead of chaotic and desperate."

Al took a breath to say something, and when he held it, head cocked, my face went cold. Dragonfly wings. A slow smile spread across Al's face as he locked gazes with me.

"Jax?" I called, not seeing him but knowing the pixy was here. "I didn't call him. I didn't call him, Jax! You've got to believe me!"

In a sprinkling of falling green dust, a pixy darted into the kitchen. Jax stared at us with his mouth hanging open. His hand was over his bi-cep, almost hiding a new tear in his shirt.

"I didn't call him," I pleaded, and the young pixy's wings hit a new high, his mouth moving, but nothing coming out. "Jax, tell Nick not to come in!"

Jax darted to whatever pixy hole he'd come through. But it was too late, and I heard the knob turn. "Nick! No!" I shouted, running for the door.

I gasped as I ran right into Al, suddenly before me. It was like running into a tree. "Nick!" I shouted. "Don't come in! Nick! Get out!"

But with a thump of furious music from downstairs and the smell of Chinese takeout, Nick came into the shadowy apartment. Jax was a streak of silver, his voice high and unrecognizable as he panicked. "Get out!" I shouted, stumbling when Al vanished, reappearing behind Nick in the open doorway. Oh God. Can this get any worse?

Al shoved the door shut with one foot. "Hi, Nicky."

Yup, it can.

Nick spun, eyes wide. Dropping the takeout boxes, he scrabbled frantically for the slab circle in the corner. He didn't have a chance.

Al reached a white-gloved hand out and snagged him like an errant kitten, holding him up by the scruff of his neck and giving him a shake. "Got you, you little wizard."

Nick choked, spinning slightly with his toes just touching the floor. "Little... bitch," he gagged, face red and long hair brushing Al's fingers. "You little bitch. I trusted you... "

"Jax! No!" I exclaimed, hands high as I got between Al and the pixy. He'd get himself killed. "Take the high ground and look for an opening. You can't take a demon by the front!"

Al looked at me in question from over his glasses, but the small pixy had withdrawn in frustration, and that's all I was after.

"It's not what it looks like," I babbled to Nick. "Al, let him go. You can't snag him. He's with me." I looked at Pierce, but the man was standing in the kitchen beside the coffeepot with his arms crossed, an annoyed expression on his face.

It smelled like the demons' mall that Al had taken me to once, the burnt amber mixing with the smell of green things, takeout, and brewing coffee. Al grinned to show his thick, flat, blocky teeth, clearly pleased as he held Nick up off the floor with one white-gloved hand. "No," he said. "He owes me. Got a mark and everything. I need some help in the kitchen, and since the runt over there is babysitting you, this will have to do."

I looked at Pierce standing in the kitchen beside the gurgling coffeepot. He wasn't doing anything! But then... what did I expect him to do? It was Al.

Nick's choking started to sound serious and his face went red. "Al, you're hurting him!" I exclaimed. "One mark doesn't give you the right to take him, and you know it. Let him go!"

"Make me," the demon said with a snicker, and Nick's legs started to twitch. "Let me jump you to a line, worm. It will be easier that way."

Was I going to have to force Al to hold to his agreement every bloody time? "Don't push me on this, Al," I said, pulse fast as I rocked on the balls of my feet. I could hear Jax's wings, and prayed he'd stay out of the way. "You agreed. No snagging people with me unless you have a prior claim, and you don't have one on Nick! Let him go!"

"I was a fool to have... trusted you," Nick said, gagging, hatred in his bloodshot eyes as spittle formed between his lips.

"This wasn't my idea," I barked at him. "I didn't summon him, he just showed up! Al, let him go!" I tugged the demon's arm, but nothing moved.

"Wah, wah, wahh," Al said sarcastically. "You knew what you were getting into, little Nicky. When you invite a demon into your home, you get what you get."

My face went cold. I let go of Al's arm and dropped back. Nick, clawing at Al's grip on his throat, sent his eyes to mine. "I'm not a demon," I said, knees wobbling.

Al pulled out a pocket watch and looked at it. "Technically, perhaps, but one can't help one's birth, can one? Ta. Must dash. Lots to do tonight."

"Rachel—" Nick choked out, fear thick on him as he struggled to find his feet and get out of Al's grip. "I'll get you for this. I promise."

"Don't be gauche," Al said before my mouth opened, all playfulness gone from his cultured voice. "You did this to yourself—summoning Rachel to the West Coast with my name? Don't deny it. I can still smell the stink of broken dreams on you." Nick's eyes squinted shut when Al pulled him close and breathed deeply of his hair. "No need to change names, now, love," the demon said. "I'd think you'd be glad to be rid of him, seeing as he put you in Alcatraz."

"We had a deal," I tried again, hearing the soft sound of Pierce pouring a cup of coffee. "If you don't let him go, I swear... "

Al arched his eyebrows at me, waiting. At my shoulder, Jax started humming nervously.

"You're not teaching me crap," I said, voice shaking. "And you're all but ignoring not one, but two agreements we have. What by God's little green apples are you doing for me?"

He hesitated, and I exhaled, pushing out all the tension. "Newt would love me to be her student," I said, and Al squinted at me from over his glasses. "Either you start making good or I have no reason not to accept. Hell, I'd get rid of Pierce that way. Maybe I should."

"You wouldn't," Al intoned, and Nick took a gasping breath as Al's fingers loosened.

"Why not?" I was shaking, and I crossed my arms over my chest to try to hide it. "Who's watching her?" I asked. "Anyone? She killed Minias, didn't she?"

"Rumor has it." Al loosened his fingers a touch more, and Nick's feet touched the carpet.

I felt a surge of strength. "How would all you good old boys like it if us girls got together? Huh? Wouldn't that be great? I'm sure she'll remember everything, eventually."

Al's eyes narrowed. I arched my eyebrows, wishing I could do the one-eyebrow trick, and he frowned. "You're not worth it," he muttered, and shoved Nick away.

The human went flying, hitting the door and sliding to the floor beside the spilled Chinese food. His hand was around his neck, and he was gagging, trying to get more air into himself than was possible. Jax flew to him and I slumped, feeling sick. I couldn't stomach going to Newt. But Al knew better than to call me on this bluff. If I got mad enough, I would.

"I'll see you both on Saturday," the demon said to me, gesturing for Pierce to hand him the cup of coffee. "No more parties, itchy witch."

"Looking forward to it," I said, glowering back at him. Saturday wasn't going to be fun, but at least stupid-ass Nick would be safe and sound in reality where he belonged.

Jax's wings were loud as he hovered over Nick, and the human was stumbling to his feet, using the wall for balance as he glared at me like he wanted to kill me. Al, though, was taking a sip of coffee, his eyes momentarily closing in bliss. Opening, they fixed on Nick. "Hard to imagine, my itchy witch speaking out for you. What twisted way will you find to thank her?" he mocked. "If I find you alone, I will take you." He shifted his gaze to Pierce, unrepentant as always. "We're going to talk, runt," he said, voice hard.

"Get out of here," Nick rasped, and in a soft haze of ever-after, Al was gone.

I took a slow breath, my knees starting to shake. "Damn it!" I shouted, startling myself as I realized what had happened. I'd saved Nick, but what about me? "Damn it to the Turn. Damn it all to hell and back!" I made a fist, but there was nothing to hit. I hadn't gotten my name back. I was just as screwed as I was when I'd been sitting in Alcatraz. "Just one break," I shouted at the ceiling. "Why can't I have just one lousy break?" Depressed, I slumped at the kitchen table. "Just one?" I asked, voice high and squeaky.

"Rachel!" Pierce shouted, and my head came up. Eyes widening, I looked up to see Nick coming at me with that knife. Gasping, I slid from the chair to under the table. Hand reaching behind me, I found my splat gun and pointed it at him.

Nick slid to a stop, holding the knife pointed backward and looking like he knew how to use it. "I trusted you," he rasped, his free hand on his throat, his blue eyes almost black in the dim light. Al's handprint was clear on his neck, and his eyes were wild.

"I just saved your ass!" I shouted from under the table, shaking. My aim, though, never shifted.

"I trusted you!" he shouted again. "I brought you into my homel And you summoned him into it. I should have let you bleed out in that library. I should have walked away and let you die! My life has been one shit fest after another since I met you!"

Pierce was moving cautiously forward to get between us, his eyes on Nick, not the knife. His hands were utterly devoid of magic, which made me feel better. The gun I had pointed at Nick was starting to shake, but I wouldn't drop it.

"Your life has been a shit fest?" I shouted, and Pierce halted. "Don't talk to me about a shit fest! I just bluffed my way out of you becoming Al's latest blow-up doll!"

Someone pounded on the wall, a muffled voice demanding we shut up.

"You can get Turned for all I care!" I continued. "And for your information, I didn't summon Al! He just showed up! He does that! My life has been hell since I met you, Nick. You saddled me with a demon mark and got this started. I don't owe you anything! Anything!"

The last was a veritable shriek, and Nick lowered the knife. He glanced at Pierce, then me. Backing up, he set the dagger on the top shelf. Head down, he strode to the bathroom and slammed the door behind him roughly, not acknowledging what I had said. My eyes met Pierce's, and I swallowed hard when I heard Nick retching. Yeah, my stomach didn't feel all that good, either. Damn it, I was crying, too.

Jax hovered for a moment in indecision, then dropped to the floor and slid under the door.

The soft touch on my shoulder jerked me straight. Bringing the gun around, I gasped, trying to see through the tears. It was Pierce crouching beside me. "I-I... ," I babbled, but I couldn't let go of the gun. Nick... He'd wanted to kill me.

"Go away," I managed. I was crying, and I wiped the back of my hand under an eye.

"No," Pierce said gently, one knee on the faded linoleum. "I may have used your mistake to twist Newt into forcing Al to grant me leave, but I'm here, and I'm not leaving."

I looked up, numb as I wiped my eyes again. "I don't feel so good."

Pierce encircled me with his arms, and before I could protest, he pulled me out from under the table and carried me to the couch. I was trembling, and he draped the afghan over me. My blood was being drawn inward, leaving me cold. I couldn't let go of the gun. I wanted to, but I couldn't.

"I never should have come here," I said as Pierce tucked the scratchy yarn under my chin. "This was a mistake. You were right. I should have gotten on the bus."

"Just because you give a man the mitten doesn't mean you don't care for him," Pierce said, and I looked up, seeing Nick's and my words through Pierce's eyes. A lovers spat?

"I don't love Nick," I breathed, numb. "He's a thief, and I'm attracted to danger. That's all. The thief part I might have been able to overlook, but the lies I couldn't."

Pierce had knelt beside me to put his eyes even with mine. Damn me if his stubble didn't make him look even more appealing. His concern was almost palpable, and my heart ached for having seen that same emotion in Kisten. But he wasn't Kisten. He was different.

"You risked everything to keep him from Al," Pierce said, his strong hands adjusting the afghan, always moving, adjusting, shifting. "If that's not love, what is?"

When Pierce got it wrong, he really got it wrong. "Pierce. Listen to me," I said, feeling the gun under the afghan. "I do not love Nick. But I could not stand there and let Al take him. Not for Nick's sake, but for mine. If Al got away with snatching people once, then his word to me wouldn't mean fairy farts."

His eyebrows went up, and his hands wiped my tears away. "You have grit, Rachel Morgan."

"You shouldn't have told me anything," I said, throat tight as I felt the gun shake in my hand. "I'm sorry I ever asked. He's going to give you hell on Saturday. I'm sorry."

Pierce shook his head, his lips pressed tight. "I suspicion... I think Al didn't mind me telling you about the lines, or he would have broken my circle and rowed me up salt river directly. It's not worth shucks."

"He might," I said, not wanting to see Al torment him. "He knows you were teaching me. He came because... " I hesitated, my tears stopping. "Al said he came because he felt me start to slip into a line." My eyes rose to his. "I was doing it?" I asked. "I was tuning my aura?"

Slowly Pierce's expression went from questioning to what might have been excitement. But then I sneezed. It was followed immediately by another.

"God bless," Pierce said, but I turned back with my hand over my face, my brief joy shifting to fear. My gut twisted, and that hollow ache I had thought was from despair worsened. I reached out in panic when it felt like the world dropped out from under me, my hand gripping Pierces shoulder. It was too soon for the sun to be down in San Francisco. Is itAl?

"Pierce?" I whispered, scared to death. Someone had me. "Someone has me, Pierce!" I warbled, panic icing me. "I can't stop this!"

I heard the bathroom door open, and the hum of pixy wings.

Pierce's arms went around me, and yet, I felt them become thin. "Rachel, I swan you'll be okay!" he said, struggling to make me look at him, but I was panicking. "I'll find Bis, and then I'll follow you. I promise. No one will hurt you!"

"She's being summoned?" Nick asked from the other side of the room, ignored.

To resist was stupid. The tears came down for real this time, big and heavy. "Thank you," I whispered as I held Pierce, and then my gut twisted and I had to let go as I bent double. Pierce pulled me back to him, and I breathed in his warmth. "I take it," I moaned, forehead pressed into Pierce's shoulder, my voice harsh as I tried to breathe through the pain. The imbalance demanded to be paid, or it would kill me.

As soon as I uttered the words, the pain vanished. Breath catching, I looked up to Pierce, his stubbled face inches from mine, reassurance struggling to make it past the worry in his eyes. "I'll find you," he whispered.

"Okay," I breathed, trusting him.

And then his hands slipped through me. I was gone.

Sixteen

Like water down a drain, I felt my aura collapse, pulling through me and dissolving my body as it went, shrinking everything down to the mere thought of myself. Though I didn't have a heart, I listened for it, my nonexistent breath held as I felt myself slip into the lines, trying to find something different, a new sensation, a feeling that might help me figure this out. Someone was tuning my aura—or paying someone to do it for them.

Listen like Bis, I thought, allowing a sliver of awareness to slip from the shell I had made about myself. That was a mistake.

Cold stabbed my mind, and I screamed. The agony was so intense, I missed falling into reality, my shriek exploding into existence before I did, echoing back from white walls and tile floors to sound inhuman. I took a breath to scream again, catching it back in a harsh gurgle. The gun in my hand dropped, clattering onto the white tile as I clutched at the floor. Where am I?

The cold in my skull dulled to an ice-cream headache the size of Alaska. "That hurt... ," I panted. My fingers were cramping from having tried to gouge the tile while I was on my hands and knees. I was afraid to move; it had hurt that bad. My gun. Where's my gun?

Panting, I looked past my hair to find a purple-and-black-tinted bubble of ever-after holding me. Purple? I'd not seen an aura that purple in ages. Someone has an ego.

"Is it her?" said a voice behind me, and I managed to sit, grasping my arms to get them to stop shaking. My gun was right next to me. Thank you, God. Brooke, in her nice business dress all starched and pressed, and her shiny red heels. Why wasn't I surprised? No Vivian, though. Maybe she got smart.

"Hi, Brooke," I said dully as I sat cross-legged and put my splat gun in my lap. I hurt too much to be scared of the two big guys in lab coats with her. Where in hell was I? The sun was still up in the West Coast. With a thought, I reached for the nearest line through the purple bubble, finding I was still in Cincinnati and at the university. My eyebrows rose. Whatcha doing, Brooke? Working outside the covens mandates? You had girl, you.

There were syringes on the cart beside the door. Looked like they were going to use human drugs instead of witch magic, understandable since earth magic wouldn't work after the salt dip I was sure was coming. Crap, there was a rolling bed with straps in here.

Yve seen this aura before, I thought as I tested the bubble, curling my fingers under when they cramped and the biting tang of iron hit me. Jeez, I think the circle was made with blood.

"Drop your circle," Brooke demanded, and I followed her gaze to a corner, not recognizing the thin man pointing a shaking pistol at me. A security guard masquerading as a nurse was next to him, three muscle guys total. He was grim faced and watching the pistol, but clearly not minding it being pointed at me. My summoner was wearing a suit that looked a half size too big for him, tie askew, disheveled and scuffed, as if he'd been in a fight. Short black hair framed his small-featured face, and a new scrape on his cheekbone marred his honey-colored skin. Frightened expression. Actually, now that I was paying attention...

"Lee?" I blurted out, taking up my splat gun but not pointing it anywhere. He looked awful. When we'd first met, he'd been in a tux and I'd been in a borrowed dress that cost more than my car. He'd been dashing, charming, confident—and vying for the gambling cartel in Cincy. It had been a bid he'd been on his way to winning until he made the mistake of betting everything on a trip to the ever-after and pitting himself against me in a ley-line magic contest. I'd lost, and Al had taken him, the better ley-line witch, as his familiar.

The last time I'd seen Stanley Saladan, he'd been all but dead, having endured hosting Al in his head and body so the demon could run around this side of the lines for the better part of a month. Lee didn't look much better now.

Lee's eyes narrowed as I spoke, his slight Asian features angry as he held the pistol with both hands. Bullets couldn't get through the bubble—unless he dropped it. Clearly he thought I might be Al. Or not.

"No," he said in a clear Midwestern accent. "He can make himself look like her. I'm not letting him out until I hear him talk. I want to hear him talk!"

Knowing what would happen next, I checked the hopper of my splat gun and sighed.

"You are such an ignoramus," Brooke said impatiently, and gestured.

The big man in the lab coat reached for Lee, deftly smacking his arm away when Lee pointed the gun at him. Almost picking Lee up, the security guard shoved Lee into the bubble.

"Bitch!" Lee shouted, arms flailing as he hit the floor beside me, sliding clear through the bubble to collapse it. The pistol went off and ceiling tile pattered down as I scrambled to put my back to a wall, heart pounding and my gun moving. Three quick puffs, and two docs-in-a-box went down. I missed the one who had thrown Lee. He was good.

"Get her!" Brooke screamed, safe inside her little blue-tinted bubble.

Adrenaline surged, and I rolled. A sharp prick in my thigh iced through me, and I pulled a dart from it, tossing it aside. "I am not an animal!" I shouted, and plugged the last man right in the face with a sleepy-time potion. His eyes rolled up and he went down, but the damage had been done. What in hell? They didn't even use dart guns on Weres! I took a breath, holding it when the room spun. Oh God. They'd drugged me.

And suddenly, nothing much seemed to matter anymore. Damn, it was fast-working stuff.

My pulse slowed, and I blinked when the room tilted. "Good thing I'm on the floor," I breathed, seeing Lee across the room with his back to the wall and his gun still aimed at me. The kind with real bullets. Crap, who would he rather see dead? Al, who had enslaved him, or the person who'd tricked him into it? "I'd give anything for a dead man's float," I said, and his dark eyebrows rose. "You want a martini when we're done here?" I added, and his gun drooped.

"Rachel. Damn, girl. It is you. I thought they were lying. No hard feelings?" he said, glancing at Brooke screaming at the people on the floor to get up. "What the devil are you doing with Al's summoning name?"

His gun wasn't pointing at me, and I tried not to giggle in my relief. "Surviving," I said, rubbing my thigh to make it tingle where the dart had hit me, right through my jeans. "Or maybe, trying to survive. This isn't looking good right now."

He nodded, scuffing the bits of ceiling tile between us. The door was still closed. No one had come in, but they might if Brooke wouldn't shut up. "It was never anything personal, you know, between us," he said again.

Nothing personal? A spark of anger burst and fizzled as I remembered Kisten getting shot at Lee's house, and then Lee trying to sell me to Al. My leg quivered. The drug was shifting, becoming more potent. My hands opened, and my gun slid to the tile. I tried to grasp it, failing. If I hadn't been on the floor, I would have fallen. Blinking, I looked at Brooke, still fuming behind her bubble. If she stepped out, Lee might shoot her, and she knew it. But if she stayed in there, we'd simply walk out. Neener, neener, neener...

"I need... to know," I said, slurring. I tried to pick up my gun, but my fingers only pushed it around, and it scraped the tile sadly. "Does Al have anything on you at all? Do you owe him a cup of coffee? A stick of gum? Anything?"

Lee lifted his chin, hiding his panic at the memory of being Al's familiar. "Not anymore. The second he let go of my body, it was over. I'm no one's slave."

I managed a smile. "That's good. Good for you, Lee. You shouldn't let Trent push you around anymore either. You want to get out of here?" Crap. My ears were humming, and I couldn't pick up my damn gun. I didn't have the luxury of holding a grudge. "I need some help, Lee. Please. I got you away from Al. Sort of."

Glancing at Brooke, Lee shook his head. "Sorry, Rachel," he stated again. "You're too dangerous. Al follows you like a puppy."

I nodded, feeling the world list. "He can't touch you when you're with me. Pr-r-romise."

He thought about that for an unreal three seconds, his attention sliding to the door and back. "I've never heard of you lying to anyone," he finally said, a glimmer of his old confidence showing. "You've got a deal."

Oh, good. I didn't think I could stay awake much longer.

"You son of a bitch!" Brooke shouted, infuriated, but Lee was crossing the room to me. "She gave you to a demon! And you're going to risk your life for her? Are you insane?"

Lee scuffed his five-hundred-dollar shoe to a halt before me. "Trent seems to think you're hard to deal with. I've never seemed to have that problem."

"Well, Trent's just a big b-badass, isn't he," I slurred. "You leave, and you're a dead witch!" Brooke threatened from her bubble. "Dead!"

"She's stronger than you," Lee said to her, his fingers moving in a subtle ley-line charm to make my skin prickle. "And she asked for my help. She didn't dart me like an animal and drag me from my business meeting. Bitch." He knelt beside me, and the scent of redwood grew stronger. "Upsy daisy, Rachel. We need to find a phone. They took mine."

"She took mine, too," I whispered as he put an arm under my shoulder and lifted. Lee smelled good as I slid into him. Really good, like redwood and the sea, and I shoved my face into his chest. "You smell nice," I said, giggling, then whooped when he stood and my feet scrabbled for purchase. He'd picked up my gun, and I reached for it even as my knees wobbled.

"And you weigh more than you look," he grumbled, staggering as my balance shifted.

I could feel the energy in him tingle between us where we touched. His hands were like sparks of sensation, the curse he had prepped but not invoked hovering an inch off his skin, rubbing my aura like a power pull. Or maybe it was just the drugs.

Brooke fumed. "Don't be stupid, Saladan," she threatened, pulling out a phone and hitting a button. Though I was half out of my mind, I thought it telling that she was afraid to face him alone. She was afraid he might know black magic. How smart was it that our highest-ranking affiliation of witches intentionally kept themselves so clean that they couldn't stand up to one black-arts spell unless they were in a group?

Lee wasn't fazed by her threats, and he took on more of my weight as he edged us around one of the downed men. "You don't get it, do you?" he said as I got my arms around his neck and lost control of my legs. Not missing a beat, Lee hoisted me up and dropped my gun into my lap. "There is nothing you can do that could be worse than what happened to me in the ever-after," he said, me in his arms. "So what if she might be a demon? She was born on our side of the lines. I'd like to have her as a friend. Go ahead and put me in Alcatraz. At least I'd be safe there from what's coming."

"Oh good, Lee is my friend," I slurred, then tried to swallow my spit, having to really concentrate on it. We were moving. Isnt Pierce supposed to he here? He said he'd follow me. The world was spinning. I couldn't focus on the door, inches from my face as Lee fumbled for the lever and used his hip to trigger it. The door cracked open, and I breathed in the scent of books and coffee-stained carpet that said university. There was no noise, and it felt damp, as if we were underground. No wonder no one had come at the gunshot. I thought we were in the basement.

Brooke confidently snapped her phone shut. "You won't get three steps out that door," she said from behind the sheet of clear-blue-tinted ever-after, afraid to come out with Lee's hands hazed by black magic even as they held me like a lover. "Filthy, dirty black-magic witch."

Lee halted in the threshold, a faint smile quirking his lips. He had a tiny scar on his eyelid, and I tried to touch it. "There's no proof that I use black magic, and my lawyers get paid more than yours," he said, then glanced at me. "What are you doing?"

"You got a cute scar," I said, and he sighed.

"You are so stoned," he said as he strode into the hallway. Lee was saving me. How screwed up was that?

A tingling went through my aura, and my eyes widened. "She's outta her circle," I said, and he turned so fast my stomach lurched. Then I shrieked when Lee let go of me. My gun hit the floor with my feet, and I leaned into him, almost falling but for the arm he kept around me.

"There," he said, lips inches from my ear as three big guys in gray literally rolled into the hallway, weapons pointed. One had a wand, the other two conventional weapons. Lee shifted his arm around my throat as if holding me captive. "I want out!" he yelled as if crazed. "My name is Stanley Saladan, and I want a car at the front with the keys in the ignition and running. Clear the halls. Or I'll fuckin' kill her!"

Brooke laughed from the doorway. "Shoot them both," she said as she filled a syringe.

I whimpered, unable to feel my feet. If it wasn't for Lee, I'd be on the floor.

"Sorry, Rachel," Lee said as he dropped me. "Cover your eyes."

Shrieking, I hit the floor. I was looking at the ugly carpet squares when a bright flash made everything white-light hot. Cries rang out, and guns popped. Nothing hit me, and I got my elbows under me and looked up. Lee was standing over me like an avenging angel in a baggy suit, hands moving as he spoke a ley-line charm. My hair began to float and I shivered. The black curse slithered over me, rubbing my aura like black silk, whispering of power. I'd felt Lee's strength before, and it had crushed me. He really was the better witch.

Brooke was down, one of her legs and a red shoe showing through the open door. The three men in the hall were blinking, clustered together at the center of a charred circle that ran up the walls and touched the ceiling. Doors were opening, and heads were poking out. "Leave, or you will die," Lee said, and the one with the wand bolted back the way he had come.

"No!" I shouted, but Lee threw the spell hazing his hand with dripping blackness. His magic hit the two remaining men, and they screamed, the sound clawing out of their throats as if being pulled by twisted razor wire as they collapsed into a convulsing pile. The doors down the hall shut. Someone had pulled the fire alarm, and I covered my ears.

The two men were silent, no longer moving as blood spilled from their eyes and ears. Shit. Shit. Shit. I was going to get blamed for this.

"You got a way out of here, right?" he asked, my hands falling as he pulled me up.

"I wish you hadn't done that," I whispered. I was going to throw up. I knew it.

"I said, do you have a way out!" Lee exclaimed, hoisting me higher and tucking his shoulder under mine. "Can you jump us out or something? You're the demon here."

"I'm not a demon," I slurred. "And I can't jump a line. Where are we?"

"University," he said shortly, lifting me back up again. "Philosophy building."

Oh, that's nice. "Gun," I reminded him, but he was irate, clearly wanting to leave it behind. That was when the pop of displaced air shocked through us.

Al, I thought in panic, but the sudden beating of wings told me it was Bis. And if Bis were here, then Pierce wasn't far behind. "Hey!" I yelped when Lee dropped me again and I fell at his feet in a pile. "Damn it, will you stop doing that!"

"Step away from the lady!" Pierce said as I pushed myself upright against the wall.

"Ow, ow, ow," I hissed, holding my elbow as it vibrated all the way to my skull. My hair flew wildly as Bis's leathery wings shifted the air. "Rachel!" Bis shouted. "Are you okay?"

Lee looked shocked by the sight of a cat-size gargoyle coming at us. I got one good breath, and then my head hit the cinder-block wall when Bis landed on my shoulder and shock echoed through me. Stars shimmered at the edge of my sight, and suddenly every line in Cincinnati was singing in my head. Oh God, I'm going to spew. "Off," I whimpered, trying to get my fingers between my neck and his tail wrapped around me. "Bis, get off. Please."

Babbling apologies, the young gargoyle jumped to the carpet. I took a clean breath, but then my eyes widened. "Lee, no!" I shouted, seeing him standing between Pierce and me. His hands were dripping black, and with a shout, he flung the curse at him.

Shirttails swinging, Pierce drew a line in the air, and a sheet of green fell before him to block the blast. The forces hit in a silent, colorful concussion, and then the film was gone, having absorbed the energy and run back to the ever-after where it had come from.

"Lee, he's with me. He's with me!" I shouted, but no one was listening. "Stop fighting. Both of you!" But it was too late. His expression dark, Pierce spoke three words of Latin, shaking the air and making Lee's jaw drop.

"Sweet Jesus!" Brooke shouted from the doorway, and I saw her dart back inside.

Gun. Where's my gun? I need to shoot someone. I looked, then started crawling for it, glad my hands were working again. Lee and Pierce were going to kill each other!

There was a boom of sound, and Lee fell to one knee. He looked up, smiling, his hair falling into his eyes. I think he was enjoying this. A bubble had enveloped both of us, and under its protection, a shimmering sparkle of purple and black cascaded around us. Then the bubble was gone, and Lee was standing again. An admiring whistle came from him. "Not bad," he said, grinning. "Can you do it twice?"

"I'll allow that I'd not be wanting to make a fist with you," Pierce said. "Step from Ms. Morgan, or I'll be obliged to beat you soundly, sir."

"Stop. Stop!" I shouted from the floor, waving my gun as I found it. "Pierce, Lee's helping me. It's Brooke you need to worry about! Brooke, not Lee!"

Pierce hesitated, his fist glowing black. "The mongrel dog summoned you," he stated, blue eyes unsure.

"Brooke made him do it!" I said, and Pierce turned to Lee. Lee had his own dripping ball, and at his grin, the glow went out of Pierce's hand. "You're of a mind to help Rachel?"

"Got you, you bitch," Brooke whispered.

"Hey!" I jerked my foot as a sharp pain stabbed through my lower leg. Bis flew up in a flurry of wings. Damn it, she'd gotten me again!

Lee's face became grim. Making a decision, he flung the black goo he'd made for Pierce at Brooke. My focus blurred, but I heard her scream. It ceased with a frightening suddenness as a purple-tinged sheet covered her. She convulsed, then was still.

I didn't feel so good. Eyes crossing, I started to collapse. A warm hand caught me, and everything shifted as I slumped into Pierce. I couldn't open my eyes, but I knew it was him because I could smell coal dust and shoe polish. "I thought you were a ruffian," I heard him say, then I groaned as he stood and the world spun.

"I am," Lee said, amused, "but Rachel is the better bet this spin of the wheel. Do you have a car?"

"There are cars at the curb," he said guardedly. "Can you drive? Rachel is of a mind that I'm no good at it."

"Like a pixy drunk on h-honey," I stammered.

There was a whimper from the huddled pile by the cart, and Lee's eyes narrowed. "Next time, ask for my help!" he said loudly. "You won't get it, but at least you won't piss me off!"

Oh good. Brooke was still alive. My fingers searched blindly, finding Pierce's neck. " 'Bout time you got here," I slurred, lost again in the haze of whatever drug I was on. My eyes opened, and I tried to slap his face, but it barely touched him, and I giggled. "Gun. Where's my gun? We have to take Lee with us."

"You have my apology, sir," Pierce said, his voice stiff as he hoisted me higher.

"Gun," I murmured. "I want my gun, damn it!" There was a soft breath of air, and it dropped in my lap. "Thanks, Bis," I slurred. "Toot, toot! Train leaving!"

The arms around me stiffened. "Rachel?"

"Brooke drugged her," Lee said. "I suggest the stairs." There was a slight hesitation, and then we started to move. The smell of burnt carpet intruded, then vanished.

"That was a devilishly fine ward," Pierce said, and I looked up at the ceiling as the lights passed over me, seeing Bis in flashes as he crawled along the ceiling as fast as we could walk. Smiling, I patted Pierce's stub-bled cheek, amazed by how I couldn't feel his face no matter how hard I smacked it.

"I like your hat, Pierce," I said, trying to focus.

The sound of people in the hallway started to become obvious the higher we went. The fire alarm was still hooting, and the building was clearing out. I giggled as I jostled in Pierce's arms. Damn it, there was nothing funny, but I couldn't stop.

Above me, Pierce looked worriedly at Lee. "Are you sure she's all right?"

"She's absolutely fine," Lee said, and I snorted as we followed the excited students up the last stairway.

I perked up when we spilled out the small side door and into the dark. Noise hit me, and flashing lights. Three firefighters lumbered to us, faceless behind air packs and face shields.

"Downstairs!" Lee shouted. "They're four people downstairs, unconscious! Some witch knocked them all out! She's crazy!"

"Ambulance is over there," one said, pointing, and he was gone, darting through the door as another student came out. Four more guys in orange lumbered past, their breath hissing through air hoses and looking like monsters in the night. A crowd had gathered, and fending off their help, Pierce made for the lamplit street, still carrying me.

"There," he said, looking at the unattended fire marshal's car, running at the curb.

"You've got to be kidding," Lee said, looking unsure.

Pierce fumbled for the back door, and I shrieked as we fell in, me somehow ending up on Pierce's lap. His hat fell, and I managed to pick it up off the floor, putting it on my head. "You said you could drive. Let's pull foot!" Pierce said, fending me off as my mouth kept going, unable to stop singing, "Lookie, I'm Pierce," over and over again.

"Can we please go!" Pierce said, panic edging into his voice. "Rachel is not well."

"You got that right." Lee looked at the distant lights flashing blue and red in the dark, and the marshal standing with his back to us, trying to calm down some guy wearing tweed and having too many lattes in him.

"Steal the fire marshal's car," he said, yanking up the handle and getting in behind the wheel. "Why the hell not? Can't you shut her up!"

"No," Pierce said, voice mournful as we jerked into motion and I squealed in delight. "More is the pity. Drive fast."

Seventeen

"Ivy!" Pierce shouted, and I made pftttt noises at the pixies as they darted in and out of my focus as I reclined in Pierce's arms. "Some help! "

"Pierce?" I heard faintly, and then the sudden scent of vampiric incense and coffee pulled through me like a ribbon. "Oh my God, what happened?"

I couldn't keep my eyes open, and they shut when we rocked to a halt in the dim hallway. My last sight was Bis clinging to the ceiling, his eyes red and frightened. The noise grew fuzzy, but I felt myself moving until the wonderful mix of kitchen scents hit me. Pierce's voice was soothing, rumbling into me. I caught the words "Brooke" and "university" and Ivy's hiss of anger—and then I drifted off...

"Rachel?"

It was worried and close, and my entire side tingled from the intoxicating scent of hyped-up vampire. Poor girl probably hadn't sated her hunger since last week. My head lolled as Pierce shifted, and the hum of the fridge fought with the sound of pixy wings. There were lots of them. But no Jenks.

"I'm fine," I slurred, then giggled when my voice didn't finish the last part of it and all that came out was a messed-up, "I'm-m-m f-f-f-f."

"You're fed, all right," Ivy said, and my eyes opened when her cool fingers touched me.

"The coven woman dosed her with something," Pierce said, his hat gone and his hair disheveled. "And then Lee knocked her out."

"Lee?" Ivy yelled, and I remembered why my hip was sore. He'd dropped me, twice. And then hit me with a ley-line sleep charm!

"In the fireman's car!" I said, indignant, then hesitated, realizing I was still wearing Pierce's hat. "Lee spelled me to shut me up. The b-b-bastard."

Pierce winced. "A body would think it was the only way to get here without, ah, wrapping our asses around a light pole," he said, clearly repeating something Lee had said.

"Great." Ivy's voice was dry. "Remind me to drill him a new one next time I see him."

"Ah," Pierce said, and I sighed when he shifted my weight. "He's, uh, ditching the car. We couldn't have escaped without him."

"Escaped, hell," Ivy muttered. "It was probably his idea to summon you, then cozy up to Rachel with some fake story."

My breath was coming back to me, warm as it bounced off Pierce's shirt. Turning my head, I looked up at them. "Lee's okay," I said. He was terrified when he thought I was Al.

Ivy's worried face was framed against the blah white of the kitchen ceiling, bright with the fluorescent light. Frowning, I stared at the hanging rack behind her. Why is there a dent in my little spell pot? "I think I can sit," I said, beginning to feel better. Or at least not so stoned.

Immediately Ivy pulled out a chair. With a marked gentleness, Pierce eased me into it. Ivy was so concerned she looked like she wanted to strangle someone, and Pierce was sweet with his stubble and shirt untucked. My bruises throbbed, but with the help of the table and Pierce's support, I sat and blinked at the ceiling, waiting for everything to stop moving. I was home. Oh, crap. I think I'm going to cry, I thought as my vision swam.

"Rachel? Rachel!" Ivy said loudly, bringing my attention back from the pixy kids whispering up in the pot rack. Crouched before me, she made me look at her. "You said Lee. You mean Stanley Saladan? He summoned you for Brooke? Why is he helping you now?"

"You got a cast," I slurred, seeing it stark white against her black T-shirt. "Where's Jenks?" I looked at the ceiling for him, and Ivy turned my chin back to her.

"He had a bad feeling, so he went looking for you," she said. "Why did Lee help you?"

I blinked. "Because Pierce can't drive for crap." I started to list, and Ivy sat me back upright. "You have beautiful eyes, Ivy," I said, my words spilling out without thought.

She stared, a surge of vampire incense wafting through me as her eyes dilated to a sudden full black. Swallowing, she took her hands off me. "What did they hit you with?" she asked as she stood and backed away. "Will coffee help or make it worse?"

"I don't know." A soft, contented hmmm slipped from me. She looked so sweet standing there with six pixy girls in their pastel silk dresses hovering around her head. Pixy princess. Pixy Princess Ivy with a pretty, pretty cast.

Jaw clenched, Ivy turned to a thumping in the hall. Pixies rose up, scattering. It was Lee, looking as if he had a right to be here, but unsure as to how Ivy might feel about it. Smart man.

"You've got three seconds to explain," Ivy said, spots of red appearing on her cheeks. Not bad, considering what she'd done to Nick.

The black-haired man gave her a toothy smile and ducked his head. "Hey, hi, Ivy. No hard feelings, huh?"

"Oooh, pretty, pretty shiny eyes," I said, finding Pierce pushing me back down when I tried to get up. A tingle spread from his hand on my shoulder—the man just leaked power. His coat was on the table along with his vest and my stuff. He must have brought everything from Nick's when he came looking for Bis. What a great guy. Even my bag was there.

Ivy was wire tight. "Time's up," she intoned, starting for Lee.

Lee stepped back, hand raised. "You try getting through Hollows traffic with a stoned redhead hanging out the window shouting, 'I'm king of the world!'"

I didn't remember that, but a glance at Pierce told me it was true.

"You summoned her! Like a demon!" Ivy accused.

"She is a demon," he said, and Ivy's face went hard. But if I was one, then Lee was one, too. "I had to," Lee added, his voice softer. "I had a gun at my head. How many things have you done when someone held a gun to your head or said the word 'duty'? Give me a break, will you? I helped her escape."

"You locked her in a boat primed to explode!" Ivy shouted.

Lee's expression lit up in understanding. "That was over a year ago!" he complained as I gave Bis a bunny-eared kiss-kiss. He was atop the fridge doing his lurking gargoyle thing with the pixies. Some of them were getting pretty good at mimicking him, and I smiled.

"Besides, I wasn't the one who planted the bomb," Lee said. "It was Kisten." Lee's face was serious in the sudden silence. "I'm sorry about his passing. He was a good man. Come on, Ivy," he coaxed, like the successful, suave bachelor from a wealthy West Coast witch family that he was. "The boat was business. This is survival. Rachel forgave me."

I was starting to see why Trent liked this guy, even while they were business rivals. I hadn't forgiven him, but I wasn't so far out of it to make the mistake of saying so. Ivy pressed her lips together, tension dropping as she turned away. Hand reaching for the center island counter, I stood. I had to find my calling circle. I wasn't going to wait another moment to get this damned mark off my foot and my name back—my beautiful, anonymous demon name that no one but Ivy, Jenks, Al, and my mother knew. God help me.

Someone took my elbow, and I blinked at Pierce, keeping me upright as I stumbled the two steps from the table to the center counter. His hat was falling off my head, and I fixed it, almost falling over. "You're nigh asleep on your feet," he said. "Sit."

"Al," I said, breathing heavily when my hands smacked the top of the island counter. I'd made it. "You'd better get in a circle. I have to call Al."

Lee jerked. "This is a setup? You're giving me to Al?" he exclaimed, and I started when I felt him tap the line out back.

Ivy ducked and I yelped when Pierce flung out a hand and the ball of purple aimed at us ricocheted into the sink. The pixies scattered, shrieking. "Mr. Saladan!" Pierce shouted as I coughed at the smoke drifting out the open window. "Dash it all, calm yourself!"

"I'm not going back to that!" Lee exclaimed, determined from fear.

Ivy rose from behind the counter, her eyes black and, as Pierce would say, all wrathy. "Rachel doesn't give people to Al, you ass\ You may deserve to be tossed into the ever-after, but that's not what she's doing! As long as you don't owe Al anything, you're safe." She hesitated, then added, "It wouldn't hurt to get in a circle, though."

Lee squinted at her, another ball of black stuff in his hand. Seeing them occupied, I dropped below the level of the counter, swearing as I slipped and fell on my butt. Moving carefully, I got to my knees and looked for my calling mirror. Al was going to pay up. I was going to make him. I was going to have one less tie to demons. It was going to be a good night.

"I've no fist with you," Pierce said, "but threaten Rachel again, and I'll give you thrice the pain you promise her."

Blinking, I stared at my spell books. My mirror wasn't there. "It's gone!" I exclaimed, then remembered it was still in my bag.

"You don't scare me," Lee said to Pierce, oblivious to my disappointment.

"Then I'm of the mind you've not been paying attention," Pierce said, making it a threat.

Above me, Bis crawled along the ceiling, almost matching the color perfectly. His ears were pinned to his head as Pierce and Lee argued. Ignored, I lurched back to the table, falling when I misjudged it, and pulling not only my bag, but all the coats down on me. I sat for a moment, figuring things out, then decided to stay there. If I was on the floor, I couldn't fall down. Slipping my mirror out, I struggled with the heavy glass. "Al?" I shouted, my mirror finally on my lap. "Get your butt over here!" I added, my hand splayed over the middle of it.

The argument suddenly stopped, and Lee edged into my sight from around the center counter. "Should she be doing this right now?" he asked, looking worried.

Ivy was suddenly beside me. "No," she said dryly, lips tight and brow furrowed as she leaned under the table and tried to take the mirror.

"Mine!" I said, yanking it back. "Let go!" I threatened, and she stood, hands on her hips and looking at me in disgust. "I want my name back. Too many people know Al's." I turned back to the mirror, seeing that there were no lines on it. It was empty. "What happened to my mirror?" I said, bewildered. Then realizing that I was looking at the back of the dumb thing, I swore and turned it over. The crystalline beauty of the contrasting wine-colored depths and the sharp diamond lines sparkled in the artificial light, and I lovingly ran my fingers over the glass. It was beautiful. Too bad it took a curse to run it.

The three of them stood over me, all watching with concern. "You're going to let her do this?" Lee asked, his brow furrowed.

"You're the one who drugged her," Ivy said. "Maybe one of you boys can make a circle in case she figures out which hole in her head the words come out of."

"I'm fine!" I said, squinting up at them. "I want my... name back," I said breathlessly, putting my back against a heavy table leg so I wouldn't fall over. "Get in a circle. All of you."

Hot damn, I felt good. That last shot Lee had given me had been the icing. "Al!" I shouted, hand splayed on the mirror, crossing lines and totally in the wrong place. "Talk to me!"

"Mayhap we should tend to our own funeral," Pierce said, opening the drawer where I keep my magnetic chalk and sketching a large circle around Ivy and Lee. "The drug will be spent soon. It's like watching a corned pixy." Finished, he stood, examined the size of the circle, then picked up my splat gun from the floor, forgotten till now.

Lee stood indignantly in the uninvoked circle. "What do you want a gun for?"

"It's a dash-it-all fine weapon," Pierce said, looking at his pants pocket and frowning. "The demon set me to watch her, so I'll be fine outside the circle, but I don't set much store on a demon's word." Pierce snatched up his coat, shrugged it on, and dropped the splat gun into one of the large front pockets.

Looking doubtful, Lee invoked his circle, and a wash of purple-tinted ever-after rose up.

"Al-1-1-1-1-1-1," I called, using my free hand to position my pinkie properly, squinting when I accidentally shifted my thumb off the right glyph. Damn it, this was hard, and I exhaled when I finally got everything in place. "Al!" I shouted, touching my awareness to the ley line out back. Power flooded into me, and I gasped. "Ooooh, that feels good!" I said, and Pierce flushed.

"Al!" I called again, glad the others were safe in a circle. "Get over here or I'm going to come over there and kick. Your. Ass." Stupid, dumb demon, I thought, pressing my hand into the mirror. Trying to weasel out of our deal. "Talk to me, Al!" I demanded. "You slimy little no-good son-of-a-bastard demon!"

My eyes widened, and my pulse jerked faster as I felt my mind expand when Al picked up. A shot of clarity struck through, showing me with a frightening sureness how stupid I was being. Shit. What in hell am I doing?

Good God, Rachel, cant you go five minutes... sweet sticky hell on a stick! the demon exclaimed, his thoughts reeling from anger to concern as he realized I was hopped up on something. Where... Your church? What are you on, itchy witch?

"I want my name back, and I want it now," I said aloud. "And take your damned mark off!

"Hey!" I yelped as Al suddenly vanished and I was thrown back into the muzzy slop of my drugged haze. Putting a hand to my stomach, I set the mirror aside and used the table to pull myself upright. I didn't feel so good anymore. "He's coming," I said. Whoo-hoo! Here we go!

Al popped in as if he belonged, used to my kitchen almost as much as I was to his. He frowned at Pierce, then did a double take at Ivy and Lee, safe in the protection circle. "Stanley Saladan?" the demon purred, smiling evilly, and the man's face went ashen.

"Still think I'm skeerylike?" Pierce muttered as he tucked his shirt-tails in and tried to look more presentable.

"Lee doesn't owe you anything!" I said. "Off-limits."

A trace of irritation crossed the demon's face; then he smiled as if it didn't bother him. "Rachel, my itchy witch," Al said as he tugged the lace at his cuffs. "We've talked about this. You simply must stop collecting nasty little men. How many do you really need, love?"

My knees were sore, and they were shaking. "Brooke summoned me again!" I exclaimed, pointing, then shifted my arm when I remembered where the university was. "I told you she would. She had a rolling bed with straps. I want my name back now\"

Al made a puff of air, but he was coming at me, and I backed up.

"They drugged me," I said, trying to smack his reaching arm away only to find myself picked up and plopped on the table, sitting on some of Ivy's papers. "In my leg," I continued as he smelled my breath and peered over his smoked glasses at me. "Shot me twice. I want my name, or I'm going to start charging you a fee every time I field something for you. And it's going to be expensive. I'm Park Place. Bud-dy."

His red, goat-slitted eyes squinted at me from over his smoked glasses. "You're more like Oriental Avenue right now, dove. What are you on?"

I pushed him away, catching Lee's awe that I was not only standing with a demon outside a circle, but that Al was treating me like an equal. Or maybe a favorite pet, I amended as Al caught me when I started to tilt. "I want... "—I panted as he held my shoulder with his white-gloved hand and kept me upright—" ...my name. Right now. This is crap! I mean it!"

Al glanced at the two people behind him, safe in a circle, then at Pierce. I wrinkled my nose at the burnt amber flowing off him, and he let me go. With a yelp, I slid from the table to land in a crumpled pile at his feet. "Ow," I muttered, seeing his cute little buckled boots. No one wears buckles anymore, and I decided to get him some real boots next winter solstice. Some sexy guy boots. Yeah. Fumbling, I reached to find the top of the table, and I pulled myself up.

His goat-slitted eyes narrowed and he turned to Pierce. "You're supposed to watch her."

"I am!" Pierce said, his own anger showing. "In all my born days, I've not seen a woman more prone to trouble, and your almighty refusal to settle your hash is making things plumb impossible. Give Rachel her name or I'll tell Newt I can't do this."

"Yeah," I said as I wove on my feet, trying to focus.

Al was silent, his jaw clenched as Pierce arched his eyebrows in challenge. "Come along, let's go," the demon abruptly said. "Pierce, stay here. I'll send her back before sunup."

Blinking, I stared at him. "Go? Go where?"

Al looked back to Ivy, Lee, and Pierce and sniffed. "I'm not going to twist curses in front of an audience." Al grimaced, looking pissed.

I suddenly realized that Pierce had done it. Al was going to live up to our deal. It had taken me being dragged around, drugged, and headed for a lobotomy, but I was going to get my name back. Teeth gritted in a weird smile, I looked at Ivy. It was going to be a good day.

"Hey!" I exclaimed, stumbling when Al pulled me to him and a puff of burnt amber rose. "Why can't we do it here?" I asked, but with a gasp, I found the air crushed from my lungs. We were gone.

Eighteen

My lungs rebounded, and I felt myself slip; then I jerked upright even before flesh had reformed to separate Al from me again. Pulse hammering, I staggered when Al let me go, narrowly avoiding a fall to the slick black stone engraved with that same pattern of intertwined icy-white-edged circles that the coven had. Wincing, I tucked my fading pain amulet back under my shirt. I leaned to snatch Pierce's hat off the floor, and my hip protested. It was probably black and blue by now.

Al had his back to me as he poked about in one of the tall cupboards, the old glass in the wooden frames making his face a blur. "Make up the fire if you're cold," he said, tossing a palm-size bag at me.

I scrambled to catch it, knowing he'd smack me if it touched the floor. The bag was squishy, probably holding coarse salt. Feeling achy, I crossed the room to set the black silk bag on the corner of the slate table standing between the smaller hearth fire cheerfully glowing and the huge—but dark—circular fire pit in the middle of the room. With a sigh, I dropped Pierce's hat on the bench surrounding the central fire. The drugs were wearing off, and, arms around myself, I weighed the trouble of starting a fire in the main pit with simply being cold for the time it would take to do the curse. My God, he was finally going to do it.

A soft glow blossomed in the six fixed globes when Al pulled a book from an unlocked cabinet to check on something, barely illuminating the slate table before the smaller hearth. There were two chairs at it, one at either end—the first with padded cushions and arms, the second a simple stool. It had shocked the hell out of me the first time I'd tried to sit on the stool and found myself smacked halfway across the room. I was supposed to use Ceri's comfortable chair, apparently.

My thoughts drifted back to my own kitchen and I sighed, not for missing the gleaming counters and bright lights, but for the people I'd left behind. "You know I can't start a fire to save my life," I complained as I gingerly picked out some thin sticks from the basket of kindling. It wasn't that cold, but if I was trying to light a fire, he'd stop throwing spelling equipment at me. "Don't you have some Logs-o-Fire or something?"

Al didn't even look up from his collection of knives in a locked case. "Then we'll be cold until you learn. Try not to use all the kindling. It's expensive." Seeing me stirring the ash at the center of the pit for signs of life, he crossed the room to set that ugly ceremonial knife with the writhing woman on it beside the bag.

"Can't you just turn up the heat?" I complained. His receiving room looked like a mansion, the mundane kitchen where Pierce slept was modern, and I'd never seen Al's bedroom, thank God, but here, he went rustic.

"No pipes here," he said, voice faint as he thoughtfully fingered his stash of candles.

My head bobbed. Duh. Even a hastily set circle would be secure. I glanced at the mantel where Krathion still sat next to Mr. Fish, and I shivered. How often was I going to need protection from a banshee, anyway?

Al shut a drawer hard, then set a small, thin plank of what was probably redwood out with the salt and candles. "Feeling more yourself?" he asked slyly.

Again my head nodded, and I dropped a chunk of wood in the pit to serve as a heat trap, snuggling it into the ash. "Yes," I said shortly, thinking the ash on my hands smelled better than the burnt amber that permeated the place. I was going to have to shower when I got home.

"Pity." Al turned away, scanning a shelf of metal objects and plucking one at seeming random. "I liked you drunk. You're more fun. Can I make you a cake, love?"

He was grinning evilly, and I grimaced at his ruddy face and his goat-slitted eyes. They looked almost normal in the dim light. I took a breath to tell him where he could shove his cake, but he jerked, his eyes going to the hearth and an eager light coming into them. "I knew it. Little runt!" he whispered, bolting across the room.

I stood as Pierce popped into existence before the small hearth, right into Al's grip. "Got you!" Al snarled, a white-gloved hand around his throat. Pierce's eyes widened, then he screwed them shut—right before Al shoved his head into the stone mantel. Mr. Fish splashed at the ugly thump, and Pierce grunted in pain. Pierce's hand flung into the air, and the coffee mug from Nick's apartment rolled off to shatter on the hard floor.

"Watch out for Krathion!" I shouted, seeing the bottle tip, but it rocked back, safe.

"That's for threatening me with Newt," Al said. "I own you. Don't forget it."

"Al! Stop!" I cried as Al shoved Pierce's head into the mantel a second time. "You're going to knock Krathion off!"

"And that's for not staying put when I told you to," the demon snarled, but Pierce couldn't possibly hear him. His eyes had rolled back and he had gone limp.

"Al!" I shouted, and he opened his hand to let Pierce slump to the hearth, out cold.

The demon turned to me, and I skidded to a halt beside the table, frightened by his seething anger. Behind him, the low fire burned. At his feet, Pierce lay, unmoving.

"What is your problem!" I asked, wanting to see if Pierce was okay, but Al's eyes were evaluating me from over his smoked glasses, and his white-gloved hands were in fists.

"The only reason you're still standing," Al said, his voice whispering an echo in the dark, high ceiling, "is because you didn't put him up to it. I will not be threatened by a familiar."

My mouth was dry, and I dropped my attention to Pierce for an instant before returning it to Al. "He keeps trying to protect me. Damn it, Al, I didn't ask for this."

His posture easing, Al dropped his gaze to look at Pierce. Using the toe of his shiny buckled shoe, he edged Pierce's coat away from the fire. I took a slow breath, thinking the worst might be over, but still my heart was pounding. "Maybe Newt was right," Al said blandly.

"About what?" God, he'd just knocked him out. Pierce could be bleeding inside his skull and we'd never know.

But Al didn't answer me, instead going to a cupboard and leaving Pierce crumpled where he lay. "Move him," he said, his back to me as he rummaged. "Unless you want me to do it?"

No, I didn't want Al to do it. He'd likely pick him up and throw him across the room. Knees protesting, I knelt on the hard marble floor. My jaw clenched as I turned Pierce's head to me and lifted his eyelids to make sure his pupils were dilating the way they should. He looked like he was sleeping, but there were twin lumps under his hair when I felt for them. The softly curling black was like silk on my fingertips, and I sat back on my heels and exhaled. He was probably going to be okay.

"Now, Rachel."

Giving Al a nasty look, I stood and grabbed Pierce under his shoulders. Straining, I shuffled backward, dragging him past the table and across the expanse to the fire pit. There was no way I could get him off the floor and onto the bench, so I left him there, taking a moment to arrange his arms and legs. Where did Pierce get silk socks?

"I can't believe you knocked him out," I said, then ducked when Al threw something at me. I spun to see a heavy copper pyramid thunk into the wall, leaving a dent.

"I told him not to come," Al said with an empty, vaguely jealous slant to his eyes. "I don't want him seeing this. Forget the fire. You won't be here long enough to get cold."

I glanced at Pierce, seeing his slow, even breaths. Mood sour, I picked up the heavy pyramid and set it on the table with an attention-getting thump. "I hate you, Al," I said, but he only started to hum as he sat on his stool with a flourish and began arranging things. "I really do," I offered again. "What if he's seriously hurt?"

Al calmly looked at me over his glasses. "Then I'll fix him after our chat and before I send him back to you. We don't want Newt saying I left you with an inferior chaperone. He'll be fine. Sit. Unless you want to keep my name?"

My heart gave a thump, and I eased into Ceri's chair, wondering if I was following in her footsteps and would spend the next millennia thinking this thing before me in lace and velvet was my world.

Seeing him busy with the bag of salt, I reached for a gold candle. Al slapped my hand, and I scowled at him.

"You watch," he said as I shoved my stinging hand under my arm. "I'll tell you when I need you, not before."

"Fine with me," I said tightly. I glanced at Pierce, but his eyes were still shut.

Still humming, Al opened the small black bag. White glove gone, he reached in and removed a handful of gray grit, tracing a foot-long Mobius strip on the slate between us. The greasy dust sifted from him as his humming took on the sound of a chant. Low and tonal, the sound struck deep in my primitive brain and made me sit straighter. It was like the chant of Asian monks, the foreign power of something else, mysterious and alien. Though nothing changed, Al looked utterly different, sitting before me with words I'd never understand coming from him.

"That's not salt," I said as the last spilled from his hand and he wiped it on a white cloth that he pulled from an inside pocket.

"I'm not going to use salt," he said, and tossed the soiled towel at me. "What do you take me for? It's cremation dust." Al's gaze went distant. "She died screaming. I was inside her at the time. God, I could feel everything. It was like I was dying with her."

What am I doing here?

Repulsed, I leaned away, my breath hissing in when Al reached over his glyph and put his hand atop mine. I pulled back, but he gripped me harder, forcing my hand to the table. His gloves were still missing, and his skin was darker than I would Ve thought. A tingle was spilling from him to me, and I yanked out from under him, thinking it shouldn't feel that good.

"It's power, Rachel," Al said softly, gaze fixed to mine. "Thinking that it's evil is only because of your bad upbringing. You should go with your instincts and enjoy it. Gordian Nathaniel Pierce does." His hand returned to his side of the table, and I remembered to breathe. "Give me the pyramid."

I couldn't get the frown off my face, and I stared at Al. He was waiting, confident that I'd reach across the table and hand it to him—when he was closer to it than me. The drug was completely out of my system and I felt drained. Al's gaze slid to Pierce in a silent threat, and I reached for the pyramid. To show defiance now would only hurt Pierce more.

Al's thick lips parted in a smile as my fingers pressed into the warm metal, finding purchase on the engraved figures. It was heavier than it looked, and I could feel my arm take the weight, but I hesitated as I looked at the odd writing on it that my ley-line pyramid lacked. The metal, too, wasn't friendly copper like I'd originally thought, but something denser, darker, feeling like salted iron to my fingers.

It was hard to explain, and I reluctantly set it on Al's waiting hand. His palm was crisscrossed with heavy, distinct lines where most people had only a few. I'd never seen his palm before, and he frowned when he saw me scrutinize it.

Al curled his fingers around the pyramid and placed it in the middle of the figure eight where the dust lines crossed. His chanting started up again, and I stifled a shiver. Naked fingers reaching, Al set the gray candle in the cave of the figure eight nearest me, and the gold one before him. I caught the placing words ipse and alius among his monotone mumbling.

"You're doing it wrong," I said, and Al's chanting ceased.

"I'm doing it properly—student," he said as he took up another handful of dust.

"But my aura is gold," I protested. "Why do I have the gray candle? "

"Because I say so. You're gray, Rachel. Grayer than fog, and just as dense. Besides, I'm always the gold candle."

It wasn't a reason, and I wasn't going to let him screw this up on purpose.

"Light your candle," Al said. "There are tapers in the can."

I glanced at the jar of thin strips of wood beside his hearth fire, then jerked when he snatched my wrist, forcing my palm up and dropping a handful of dust into it. It felt alive, greasy and staticky. If only to get rid of it, I sifted it around the base of the unlit gray candle saying the setting word, ipse, then grumbling that I should be the gold, not him.

"Ipse" Al echoed, mocking me as I set my candle with the same word he used. His fingers pinched the cold wick, and when they parted, the candle was lit. Smirking, I did the same, whispering ipse again. The candle might be gray—which was not a good choice—but I'd set it twice with the proper word. If the spell failed to work, it wouldn't be my fault.

"Who taught you how to light candles from your thoughts?" Al said, his goat-slitted eyes on Pierce.

The man was still out cold, and I shrugged. "Ceri," I said, but my gut was tightening. This had to work. I wanted it done, and done now.

Grunting in acceptance, Al balanced a narrow shaving of redwood atop the pyramid. It was a small relief that this, at least, was unchanged. Al took off his glasses. Arms on the slate table, he leaned over the spell, now ready for the focusing objects. Expression eager, he handed me his ceremonial knife.

"Can I use the other one?" I asked, looking in distaste at the curved blade and the image of a tormented, naked woman writhing about the handle, hands and feet bound and mouth open in a scream.

"No."

I took a slow breath. Just do it, I thought, touching the blade to my finger.

"There is no almost when it comes to magic," Al said, and adrenaline surged when his hand clamped down over the knife and pressed it against me. I jerked, my hand suddenly warm and slick as I pulled away. Pain was a pulse behind it.

"Damn it, Al!" I shouted, staring in horror at my bloody palm, then the knife in my other hand, slick and gleaming. My grip tightened on the handle. Frightened and angry, I looked at Al, but his hand was even worse. When Td pulled away, I'd cut him deep. Most of the blood on me was his. I think.

"I thought your blood wasn't an accurate focusing object anymore," I said, and the demon met my gaze, having been eying his palm with interest as to which lines I'd cut across.

"It wasn't—until you set it back to zero with that little stunt of yours," he said, holding his hand over his end of the balanced stick. "All together now... "

My heart was pounding, and my hand shook as I set the knife down. Black magic. Just do it. Finish it. Shivering inside, I held my bleeding hand over the stick, and with a few rubs at my finger, the blood started to drip. Al squeezed his hand until a red rivulet started down the inside of his fist. Three drops to mirror mine hit the stick, and his bloodied hand opened.

He made a pleased sound, and the scent of burnt amber rose to mix with the scent of redwood and wood smoke. Almost done. "Finish it," I said, then jerked when he leaned over the table and grabbed my wrist with his bloody, sticky fingers, yanking me half out of my chair. "What are you doing?" I demanded, scared.

"Relax," Al said, smearing our blood together on the last candle. "Count yourself lucky I don't want to share the twisting another way."

He meant sex, and I tugged my hand from Al's, only to find it recaptured and pressed against the candle again. "Try it and you'll be walking funny for a week," I said, glaring.

"One night, itchy witch, you'll come to me," was all he said. Still holding me halfway across the table with my arm outstretched, he smiled and whispered, "Evulago"

My hand in his grip, I stared. My heart hammered, and the wax beneath our fingers became warm. That was the word that would start it all, the one that registered the curse and made it stick. And through my hand touching his, I felt a sensation of disconnection, as if the floor wasn't quite under me. If I closed my eyes, I wasn't sure if I would be here when I opened them, or if I'd be lost in an open, whispering space of the collective where everyone was talking and no one listened. But this time, when Al's word echoed in my head, it was as if someone paused.

Al glowered. "You've been recognized. This is exactly why I didn't want to do this."

His hand let go, and I eased away. Immediately the feeling of the open room and vertigo faded. Nervous, I picked up the white cloth he had thrown at me earlier and wiped my hand as clean as I could get it before tossing it into his hearth fire to burn. I'd not leave it around with the blood of both of us on it.

As the cloth caught, I could feel the curse winding its way through me, settling into my bones, becoming a part of me. My vision was blurry, and I realized I was seeing Al's aura, untainted and unsullied by his millennium of ever-after imbalance. Lips parted, I shifted my eyes from his to mine, also visible as we did the curse. Al's aura was a freaking gold. It was shot through with red and purple, but it was gold, same as mine. Same as Trent's.

The demon saw my shock, and he smiled. "Surprised?" he said softly, voice low and seductive. "Funny how these things work out. Doesn't mean anything though. Not really."

"Ye-e-e-eah," I drawled, gaze flicking behind him to Pierce. Either he was still out, or he was faking. Al's eyes were on mine when I turned back, and I felt cold as I recalled him tasting my aura after I did a spell to see the dead. "Can we finish this?" I said, uneasy.

Head bobbing once, Al reached out and simply spun the stick a hundred and eighty degrees. "Omnia mutantur," he said firmly.

All things change, I thought, then blinked when Al shuddered. His eyes closed, and he breathed deeply, as if tasting something on the air. I'd never seen him with his eyes closed like that, and I noticed the faint lines at the corners. "I take this," he mouthed, not a sound coming from him. I remembered the imbalance hitting me when I did the curse. It had hurt like hell until I accepted it. For Al, there had been no pain—but he hadn't tried to avoid it either.

My head was hurting, and after glancing at Pierce, I breathed, "My mark?"

Al's eyes opened, landing immediately on mine. There was nothing in his expression. "It's gone," he said simply, and a thrill spun from my head to my toes.

I scooted my chair back and fumbled at my boot. "I said it was gone," Al said indignantly.

"I believe you." Heart pounding, I wedged my boot off, and it hit the floor with a thump. Fumbling with the sock, I peeled it off like a snake-skin and twisted my foot up and around. Tears filled my eyes, spilling out and down in a warm trickle. The underside of my foot was smooth and unbroken. The raised circle with a slash through it was gone. It was gone!

Blinking furiously, I smiled. "It's gone," I said, letting my foot go. "I did it!"

"Yada yada yada," Al said sourly. "You tricked the big bad demon. Congratulations. The only way I'm going to save face is by snagging some excellent ley-line witches. Coven quality, you say?"

My exuberance died. "Al, wait," I said as I set my foot on the icy floor, feeling the cold soak up all the way to my spine. "Do you know what they will do to me if you show up and try to snag them?" I'd known this was a possibility, but at the time, it had been me or them, and me always wins when the them is a bully.

Al stood, strutting over to Pierce and looking down at him, nudging him with a toe. "Do you know how rare it is for a coven-quality witch to summon me? Raw and untutored in the art of containing a demon? They kill their own if they become skilled in the dark arts, don't they, Gordian Nathaniel Pierce?" he said to the unconscious witch. "If you can get out of their circle, Rachel, I can, too."

My face skewed up in worry as a sheet of ever-after coated him, and suddenly it looked as if I was standing above Pierce, far too sexy and slim in my working leathers, my hair wild and my lips parted. Oh. Shit.

"My name is Rachel Morgan," Al said, mimicking my voice perfectly. "I like black panties, action movies, and being on top."

My jaw clenched, and I wondered how much I was going to pay for getting my name back. "I'm never going to get my shunning removed if you do that," I said as I shook my sock right side out again.

"I don't give a flying damn." Looking like himself again, Al shifted his shoulders as if trying to fit back in his skin. "I don't know why you even care about your shunning," he said as he returned to the table and began gathering things. "I've told you you'd be welcome here. Have a name that is respected. Have I not proved we can work together? That I can honor my word?"

"Only when I force you to."

"That you're safe, protected?" he continued as if I hadn't said anything as he slid his pyramid away and shut the cupboard. "Why do you fight this, itchy witch?"

I tugged my sock back on, eyes downcast. "I'm not a demon. You said it yourself." Lee thought I was, though.

His lips curved up in a nasty smile, and he tossed the used candles into a bin. "Perception is everything, determining how others treat us. If enough people think you're a demon, you are."

Snatching up my boot, I glanced at Pierce and away. I was eager to get home, even if I was loath to leave Pierce. He wasn't my responsibility, but that didn't mean I didn't care. I was going to have to make a call. The coven still had my old cell phone. Maybe if I warned them, I wouldn't get blamed when someone ended up dead or snagged. Maybe. Maybe not.

"You really should stay," Al said mildly as he put the ashes back in the box he kept them locked in. "Your friends are all going to die."

"Not today they're not," I said, feeling my anger rise

Al turned to look at me. "No," he agreed. "But they will. Eventually. You won't. Not anymore. Unless you're stupid about it."

My pulse hammered, and I stared at Ah Was he kidding?

"He's going to hurt you," Al said, looking at Pierce. "I can take care of you, teach you to survive. Be there for you, even if you do hate me."

I shivered. "I don't want him," I said, and Al turned away, seeming smaller somehow.

"Mmmm." Al stood before me, running his gaze up and down and lingering on the mess my hair had become. "Do you think the coven might summon me tonight?" he asked as he took my arm and escorted me past Pierce to the elaborate glyph of the screaming face. His smile deepened, becoming pure evil. "I do."

"Al, wait," I said as I hobbled with him, one foot in a boot, one in a sock. But I knew my protests would be futile. If I warned them, I wasn't helping my case of being a white witch, seeing that I'd have to explain why Al had his name back. If I didn't warn them and Al took someone... Well, if he took them all, I might stay out of jail, but how could I live with myself?

"If they don't summon me," Al continued, "I suspect that they'll likely spend their resources sending assassins after you. It's a tricky moral problem, isn't it? Warn them, and they survive to kill you. Remain silent, and they die and you live. My little gray witch."

He reached to touch my face, and I swung my boot at him. Al only laughed. "Get yourself cleaned up, will you? You're a mess," he said, then gave me a shove.

I fell backward onto the screaming face etched into the marble floor, feeling my body dissolve into thought as my boot skidded across the stone floor. Before I could feel the cold of nothing, the black stone shifted to the familiar salt-laced linoleum of my kitchen. I was home.

Looking up, I found Ivy, Jenks, and Lee waiting for me. Silently they took in my blood-smeared hand and the lack of Pierce. Ivy sighed and Jenks's wings slowed and stopped. My jaw clenched, and I forced it to relax.

I was home. I'd gotten a demon mark removed. I couldn't be summoned by anyone but Al and my friends. And I didn't have the slightest idea what I was going to do.

Eighteen

Jenks dropped down on a column of glittering sparkles before I could get up from my hands and knees. My pain amulet was useless, the linoleum hurt my knees, and my tangled hair made a curtain between md the world. "Rache!" he called, a gleaming sparkle darting erratically as he tried to get past my hair. "Are you okay? Where's Pierce?"

Much as I hurt, I couldn't help my smile. Melancholy and elation were a weird mix as I sat back on my heels and got my hair out of my face. I'd lost a demon mark, but Pierce was still with Al. He was being beaten because he'd helped me, and it didn't sit well.

"I'm fine," I said on an exhale, taking Ivy's hand as she extended it so she could pull me to my feet. Muscles sore and knees complaining, I got up, tossed my useless pain amulet into the sink, and looked at Lee sitting at my spot at the table with a chipped coffee cup in his short, laced fingers. Over the sink, the dark window was shining with streaks of moisture. It was raining.

Ivy let go of my hand and dropped back to put the usual space between us. "What happened to your other boot?" she asked, and a slow smile grew despite my worry for Pierce. Leaning against the sink, I painfully twisted my foot up and around to pull the sock off again.

"It's gone," I said, meaning the demon mark. "I've gotten rid of two, now. Just the one left." The one I got thanks to Nick.

Ivy leaned over to see, holding her hair back as she peered at my foot. Jenks flew closer, the draft from his wings a breath of chill. From the corner, Lee jerked upright in his chair. "You got a mark off?" he questioned, almost spilling his coffee. "You gave him Pierce?"

My foot hit the floor, and both Ivy and Jenks backed up. "I didn't give him Pierce. Did it look like I gave him Pierce? Huh? Did it look like I told Pierce to follow me? Did you hear words come out of my mouth saying, fierce, save me!' No. He already belongs to Al. Got himself demon snagged last winter. He's on loan right now, babysitting me. He'll be back." I looked at Ivy and Jenks, frowning. "Count on it."

Lee raised a hand in protest. "Sor-r-r-ry," he said dryly. "What did you give him, then?"

Brow furrowed, I brought my other foot up and undid my remaining boot and kicked it off. Rex, Jenks's cat, went to investigate, and I crossed my arms over my middle. "I gave him his summoning name back, if you have to know. The mark I got rid of tonight was the one I originally took from Newt the day you tried to give me to Al and I had to buy my way home."

Jenks landed on Ivy's shoulder with his hands on his hips. Ivy, too, looked severe as they stared at him. Lee, though, looked just as peeved. "Who gave whom to Al?" he said darkly. "I was the one who took the long tour of hell."

"You bought your own ticket," I shot back. "Next time listen when I warn you, okay? I'm not as stupid as you'd like me to be."

Lee frowned, but then his face eased and he chuckled. "I think you're just lucky. I'm listening now, if that means anything."

Immediately, I lost my ire. Belonging to Al must have been hell. That Pierce was there now really bothered me. It would bother me more if I didn't know he'd be back babysitting me before too much longer. Unless Al accidentally killed him and I became Newt's ward. Shit.

"Tell you what, Lee," I said as the tension in the room eased. "How about we simply agree that you be nice to me and I be nice to you? It seemed to work today."

"He locked you in a boat and blew it up," Ivy said darkly.

"Kist planted the bomb," I said, wishing she'd quit bringing it up. My attention returning to Lee, I said, "How about it? I'm not talking about a partnership. More like a truce. You don't have to trust me, just stop pissing me off. And don't spell me again. Ever. Even if I am going to cause us to drive into a bus."

"You remember that?" Lee asked, and I nodded.

"Most of it." I'd be mad at Lee for knocking me out, but it was probably the only reason we made it home. King of the world... jeez, how embarrassing.

Lee's dark eyes became thoughtful. Jenks's wings slowed, and even Ivy seemed to relax. My eyes fixed on Lee's disheveled but staunchly upright posture, I crossed the room and held out my hand. It hung there all by itself, and I tilted my head, wondering if he was going to be stupid about this and let his pride put him in the crapper again. But then Lee's thin lips quirked, and finally a smile showed. With the sliding sound of his dirt-marked suit, Lee stood and we shook hands. There wasn't a whisper of power threatening to spill between us. His hand felt small in mine after Al's, and firm. "This is going to rot Trent's bridle," the man said as he let go.

Chuckling, I nodded. Poor Trent. Hope he choked on it. Eying Lee's coffee on the table, I turned to the coffeemaker. Jenks went to "chat" with Lee about the dangers of going back on even our informal truce, and I fumbled in the cupboard for a mug. Ivy was suddenly at my elbow, and I gave her a quick look to make sure she wasn't vamping out, then relaxed.

"Pierce?" she whispered, and my elation at getting rid of a mark and mending a fence with a city power evaporated.

"Al's beating him up for threatening him with Newt," I said, and she winced. "I'm sure he'll show up before long." But in what state, was the question. He should have kept his mouth shut. I was handling it. Interesting, though, that I was allowed to threaten Al and Pierce wasn't.

I bowed my head, and my hair made a curtain between me and the rest of the world as my grip tightened on the cold porcelain. This wasn't right.

Ivy's hand touched my shoulder, and she gave me a quick sideways hug. "I'm sure he'll be fine," she said, her lips inches from my ear.

I pulled out of her hold to see her smirking good-naturedly. "You're something else, vampire," I said sourly even as my neck started to tingle and she moved away, but I couldn't contain my growing feeling of excitement. My foot was clean. I had one less tie to demons. One less reason to be shunned. One more mark to go, I thought, looking at my wrist.

Jenks darted from Lee, satisfaction on his small features as the much larger man nodded, clearly understanding the threat that Jenks could be, even as small as he was. "Rachel," the witch asked as he set his mug down on the table, "would you mind if I used your phone? Brooke took my cell, my wallet." His face shifted, eyebrows rising. "Damn, she mugged me! I need to call my wife and tell her I'm okay. Have her send a car."

Surprised, I leaned back against the sink with my coffee mug warming my fingers. Ivy's and Jenks's expressions were as confused as mine. "You're married?" I asked for all three of us.

Lee grinned, looking like another person—a happy one. "Six weeks. Nice woman. Met her on one of my boats. She's got her own money, so I know she's not a gold digger." His head dropped, and a shocking amount of honesty shone from him when he looked up again. "I asked her to marry me for the selfish reason of making my nights easier, but I love her." He chuckled. "It's... weird. I never thought... you know."

A small sound of understanding slipped from me as I thought of Kisten. It must have been hell to be trapped in one's own skull while a demon used your body for whatever it wanted. "I'm happy for you. Congratulations."

Jenks flew to Ivy, who had slipped in behind her computer to distance herself from the touchy-feely emotional crap. Pushing myself into motion, I grabbed the cordless phone from the cradle and handed it to him. Lee took it, hesitating. "You did good, Rachel," he said, surprising me and making Ivy stop her irritating tapping. "You got rid of a demon mark without hurting anyone. The coven should leave you alone. I'd speak for you if it would help, but I'm going to be scrambling for enough favors to keep from being shunned myself."

Warmth touched my face, cooling when Jenks landed on my shoulder. "They will," he said staunchly. "Leave her alone, I mean. They can't shun you. You own too much."

"Must be nice," I said, looking at my shoulder bag on the table and remembering that Brooke had my phone, too. "Ivy, can I use your phone? I need to call Brooke so she doesn't try to summon me again."

Not missing a beat, Ivy pulled her slim phone from her back pocket and tossed it.

Lee gave me a nod in understanding, then went into the back living room with the landline for some privacy. Jenks, though, was not happy.

"You're warning her?" he said, wings clattering at my ear. "What the fairy fart for?"

I scrolled through Ivy's phone, noticing she'd been talking to Daryl a lot lately. "I don't know," I said as I found my phone number and hit dial. "It just seems fair."

"Why do you care?" Jenks needled from my shoulder. "Let Al have them. No council equals no more worries!"

He was too close to look at on my shoulder, and I grimaced. Just what I need. My own personal shoulder devil, wearing black and smelling like the Garden of Eden. "What if they survive?" I asked. "Who do you think is going to get blamed for the attack?"

A faint smile quirked Ivy's lips. "You sure know how to make friends, Rachel. Al is going to be ticked that you warned them."

"Al isn't trying to give me a lobotomy," I said, then turned away as the line clicked open.

"Rachel Morgan's phone," came a polite voice. "Can I take a mes-sage?

It was Vivian, and Jenks flew backward as he laughed with the sound of tinkling bells. Both he and Ivy would be able to hear both ends of the conversation with their better hearing, and I crossed my ankles, feeling only a twinge from my knees. "Well, well, well. A coven member is playing secretary for me? I kind of like that." Vivian had to have seen that it was a known number, but "Ice" probably hadn't meant anything to her.

"Morgan!" the woman barked, followed by a muffled exclamation and a demand to pass the phone. I took a breath to say something, waiting at the distant yelp of pain.

"You're dead, demon witch. Dead!" Brooke shouted, probably having wrestled the phone from Vivian. "You signed your death warrant when you spilled coven blood. You, Saladan, and whoever that was in the hall with you—all of you are dead\"

"Sure. Okay," I said with more confidence than I felt. "You go ahead and bring charges against Lee. I'm sure his lawyers would love that. What was it, Brooke? Kidnapping? Forcing him to summon a demon? You might be able to hide me in a hole, but Lee will be missed. You want to speak with him? He's in my living room."

I could almost see her jaw clench as she said with clipped words, "I can make people disappear, Morgan. I don't care if you're God\ You don't scare me."

Jenks was hovering a foot in front of me, and he made a motion to get on with it.

"Look, I'm not going to use up my roommate's minutes arguing with you," I said. "I only wanted to let you know that Al took his name back. If you summon me, you'll get him instead, so I'd advise against it." And I got rid of a demon mark, la, la, la-a, la, la-a-a, la.

"Demon scum whore. I'll give you a lobotomy myself, with a fucking ice pick!"

Ivy's eyebrows rose, and Jenks grinned. "Oooh, nice manners, babe!" he said loudly.

I sighed, wishing I'd just kept my mouth shut and let them figure it out for themselves. Lee came back in, quiet as he set the phone in the cradle and stood listening. It was embarrassing to have my baggage displayed like this, but he knew it all already.

"You're dead, Morgan!" Brooke shouted. "Dead/"

Faint in the background, I heard Vivian. "I'm not going after her alone again. I almost killed six people, Brooke. Innocents. You want her? You catch her."

"You had justifiable cause. There won't be any charges," Brooke said. "Relax."

"Justifiable cause?" Vivian's voice was barely audible as she shouted. "I'm not worried about charges. I'm worried about the people I hurt on that bus! She wasn't even on it!"

"Shit happens, Vivian. Grow up. You're playing with the big boys!"

I felt sick, glad now we hadn't gotten on the bus, but if we had, maybe they would have been all right. "Brooke, this has gotten out of control. How about you leave me alone and I'll leave you alone? Huh? If it doesn't work, you can kill me then."

There was silence on the other end of the line, and I shifted my weight to the other foot. Maybe that had been too much, but then she came back after a short, private conversation. "You there, demon whore?" Brooke snarled.

"Yeah, we're listening," Jenks said from my shoulder. "What do you want, flabby butt?"

Brooke made a bitter bark of laughter. "Vivian thinks you still retain your ability to be reasoned with, so here it is. You've got one chance to turn yourself in. Be at Fountain Square tomorrow at sunup, or I'm going to burn your church to the ground. Got it? And I hope you hide, because I want you dead!" she shrieked.

I went to answer, but the line was muffled as Vivian and Brooke fought for the phone. "So it's Alcatraz or be made infertile and stupid?" I said sourly, glancing at Ivy. "Nice choice." Why am I trying so hard to stay here? In the archway, Lee shrugged. In a burst of motion, Jenks darted out of the kitchen, leaving a sifting beam of burnt gold sparkles. From outside came a gathering whistle followed by a burst of pixy light. Looked like he was telling Matalina the news. They'd likely have pixy lines strung in five minutes flat, rain or no.

The sound of someone at the receiver pulled my attention back to the phone. "Just leave me alone, Brooke," I said. "I'm not hurting anyone." Except myself.

"You are a threat, and those are our terms," Vivian said, sounding irritated. "I suggest you take them. At least you'll be alive." There was a click, and she was gone.

Lips pressed tight, I closed the phone, unable to meet anyone's eyes. Maybe warning them hadn't been such a good idea, but at least my conscience was clear. Crossing the room, I handed Ivy her phone, and she tucked it away. "Sorry, Rachel," she said, sounding resigned.

Forcing a smile, I turned to Lee. "How's your wife?"

"Scared," he said. "I'm going to talk to Trent. I need to be sure my kids won't be—"

His words cut off, and I finished it for him. "Demons?" I said, wincing in sympathy. "The coven doesn't know Trent's dad fixed you, do they?" I asked, realizing why Lee looked so tense in his rumpled suit. Lee shook his head, and I touched his shoulder in support. "Lee, even if they find out, you can't pass on the cure. Your kids are going to be okay. They will be carriers, but that's it. Besides, Trent won't tell the coven about you. The only reason he told them about me was to force me to come to the elf side."

"The what?" Lee asked, looking confused as well as relieved.

Ivy clicked her pen in quick succession. "Trent told the coven she could invoke demon magic to convince her to sign a lifetime contract with him."

Squinting, Lee said, "I'm not following you."

Huffing, I rolled my eyes. "Trent told the coven that he can control me since his dad helped make me, and that there's no reason to kill me if he has legal responsibility for me."

"He can't control you," Lee scoffed, and I bobbed my head.

"I know! He's doing it because he's ticked about the familiar bond we have. He says if I own him in the ever-after, then he's going to own me here." I was starting to get mad just thinking about it, and I crossed my arms over my middle and fumed.

"Sounds like Trent," Lee said, shaking his head in amusement. "You going to sign it?"

"No, she's not going to sign it," Ivy said. "We're going to get the coven to back off."

How, I didn't know right now. I was just trying to survive.

Ivy, though, was eying Lee in suspicion. "Maybe you were the one who told the coven Rachel could invoke demon magic," she said tightly. "To buy your own freedom."

"What, and have them target me next?" he said, and I nodded my agreement. Lee wouldn't tell. Not in a hundred years. Not newly married as he was. Jeez.

"You need a ride?" I asked, knowing better than to confront Trent in my current state, but hey, if there was an excuse...

"I've got a driver coming," he said, his hands unclenching. "You got this okay?"

I nodded. "How good are your lawyers?"

"Better than Trent's," he said, smiling. I thought it weird that Lee and Trent were still friends, even after Lee had tried to blow up Trent. But after Trent left him for three days in the camp cistern, I guess all bets were off. I guess it was no weirder than my having saved Trent when I hated him.

Jenks buzzed back in, his wings sparkling with rain. "There's a black car out front," he said, and Lee adjusted his coat as if getting ready to leave.

"That's mine," he said needlessly, his expression heavy. "Are you sure you don't want to come with me? I've got resources for this kind of thing. I can make you disappear, too, but with sunny beaches and little umbrellas in your drinks."

I considered it and dismissed it in the next heartbeat. I didn't want to hide, I just needed a place to catch my balance.

"No way!" Jenks shouted. "Rachel is not going anywhere! She left once, and see what happened? That was a bad idea. Pierce doesn't have a brain in his head. Don't listen to him, Rache. We got this."

Ivy raised her hand. "I hate the beach," she said mildly, and Lee smiled.

"Fair enough," he said, standing in the middle of our kitchen and meeting everyone's eyes with his own. "I'm out of here. Good luck."

"Same to you, Lee." I impulsively gave him a hug, whispering, "Tell Trent he can suck my toes and die, okay?"

He chuckled, rubbing my head for luck before turning and walking away. I let him get away with it, then carefully fixed my hair. There was a brief pixy hail in the sanctuary as he passed through it, then silence. The church felt almost empty. Sighing, I turned to my library under the center counter. If the coven was coming for me, it was going to be a busy night.

"You spelling tonight?" Jenks asked as I pulled a mundane spell book out and thumped it on the counter.

"You know it." Now that Lee was gone, I could get serious. My thoughts strayed to the demon texts, inches from my knees. There were things in there that would stop intruders dead in their tracks. It would be so easy. And wrong. No, not an option.

"I can't believe you were considering leaving again, Rache," Jenks said, indignant, his wings stilling to nothing as he landed on the rim of the spell pot I'd just gotten down. "You leave and you're dead. I don't care how far Lee's money can take you. We've been in the garden long enough to shore up the defenses, and they'll have to get through that to reach the church. How long can you stay in a bubble?"

"A bubble won't help her if they set the church on fire," Ivy said dryly.

"Maybe I could put the church in a bubble," I mused as I turned pages, thinking there had to be a way out of this. Besides going to Trent and signing his lousy paper, that is.

"Gas and electrical lines," Ivy said, always the doomsayer. "No good if it's witches coming for you. Besides, you want to hide here for how long?"

I winced while Jenks vigorously bobbed his head. "Point taken," I said. "What do you think it will be? Witches?" I forced myself to not fidget, though Ivy could probably tell I was upset just by sniffing the air.

Ivy stretched until the red stone in her belly-button ring showed from under her black T-shirt. "Well, it won't be the Weres," she said as she reached one hand for the ceiling, the one in the cast bent over her head. "And no local vamps. Rynn would bury them alive."

"Brooke said we had until sunup," Jenks said grimly, wings going full tilt and sending a silver light to fill the empty sink. "That means out-of-state assassins. That's where my pollen is. Tink's a Disney whore, Rache. Can't you go even one year without a price on your head?"

Tired, I skated my sock-footed toe around on the linoleum, staring at my book. I had until sunup to prep for who knew what. "I don't mind leaving. I'm the one they want."

Ivy smiled, a faint, amused expression, as she came closer. The width of the counter between us, she pulled out a second book and set it gently on the counter, her long fingers pale on the faded rough leather. "Leave? Just when it's getting interesting?"

My eyebrows rose when she actually opened it. Seeing her brow furrowed and her lower lip between her teeth, I wondered if she knew how provocative she looked as she tried to understand a part of me that was as foreign to her as vampire lust was to me. Probably.

Jenks landed on the open pages, hands on his hips as he looked down. "David needs a couple more days to get your paperwork," he said, eyes down. "We can keep you alive that long half asleep."

"Besides," Ivy said, looking up at me with calm brown eyes, "we don't have anything better to do tomorrow. Wednesdays are always slow."

I smiled, glad I had such good friends.

Nineteen

The wind was warm, and I could hear insect wings clattering in the tall grass as I sat beside Pierce in the vast golden field, content. Above my head, the amber seed heads of ripe wheat waved, and as I reached to tickle Pierce with a broken stalk, his eyes opened, shocking me with their deep blue depths. For an instant, Kisten gazed hotly at me, then his features melted and Pierce again took his place. The witch's loose waves were in disarray, and his hat shadowed his face. "It's almost sunrise," he said, his accent making me smile. "Time to wake."

Then his eyes shifted, going red and slitted like a goat's. His features became harder, taking on a ruddy complexion until it was Al lying before me in his crushed green velvet, one knee casually drawn up. The skies turned bloodred, and he reached out a white-gloved hand, grasping my wrist but not pulling me closer. "Come home, itchy witch."

I snorted, jerking awake.

Bolting upright, I stared at my closed window to see the fading light of sunrise against the colorful reds and blues of the stained glass. Heart pounding, I realized the clattering of insect wings in my dream had been Jenks hovering before my closed door, listening at the crack.

He had a finger to his lips, and after seeing my wide-eyed stare, he went back to the door.

Slowly my pulse eased, and I looked at my clock. Quarter after six. I'd worked most of the night, finally lying down about three hours ago to get some sleep. Throwing off the afghan, I carefully pulled my knees up to tighten the laces of my sneakers. I didn't feel so good.

"Why are you in my room?" I whispered, not knowing why I was being quiet except that Jenks had told me to be.

"It's after sunup," he said, ear to the door. "You think I'm going to leave you alone? Open season on redheads started fifteen minutes ago."

Fingers fumbling and knees protesting, I tied my shoes. Three hours of sleep wasn't nearly enough. "Where is everyone?" I asked as I rose to peek out the small stained-glass window.

"Bis is asleep, the cat's inside, Jax is on the steeple, and my kids are strategically placed in the garden with Matalina," he said shortly. "We're just waiting for God to say go. Either that, or your killers are waiting for you to walk in front of a fairy-farted window."

I backed from the window, arms around myself. Jax is here? "What about Nick?"

Jenks turned, hovering beside the door. "What about him?

You said Jax is here...," I questioned.

Frowning, he muttered, "The kid either got really smart or really stupid. He came in right after you went to bed. Said he left Nick because he didn't like the way the lunker went after you with a knife. Tink's little red thong, Rachel. If I'd been there, I would've killed Nick's ratty ass. Now I don't know if I should take Jax back or send Jrixibell to see if he's spying on us."

My eyebrows rose. From the sanctuary came a loud "I don't trust you, that's why!"

It was Ivy, and she was ticked. "Who's here? Edden?"

Jenks dropped an inch in height, his wings slowing. "Pierce."

"Is he okay?" I stiffened. "How come no one woke me up?"

"Because he was fine and you were sleeping." Jenks gave up on listening and faced me with his hands on his hips in his best Peter Pan pose. "He's only been here five minutes, and already he's causing trouble. Cool your hormones, Rache."

"Your opinion of me is supposed to change my emotions for her?" Pierce's voice came, hushed but intense. "You can't assist her, vampire. Your love can only save her by limiting her. It's what you are. There's no shame but that you're using her to try to rise beyond your scope."

Great. Just freaking great. Snatching up a brush, I ran it over my hair three times before I gave up. God help him. He was stripping Ivy of the lies that kept her sane.

"Don't go out!" Jenks exclaimed as I reached for the doorknob. "They'll quit talking!"

"That's the idea," I said, jerking the door open. "Pierce?" I called, hearing Ivy hiss something. A quiver pulled through me as I felt him tap the line in the backyard. Shit.

"Don't do it, Ivy!" I shouted, running painfully to the sanctuary. Damn it, if she pinned him to the wall, I was going to be pissed.

Remembering what Jenks had said about windows, I skidded to a halt at the end of the hall, heart pounding. Pierce wasn't pinned to a wall, but standing beside the burnt pool table in the dusky morning light, dimmer than usual because of the boarded-up window. He still had his full-length wool duster on, and my dream rushed back. Facing Ivy, he looked wary and dangerous as he frowned, his hands in the pockets of his long coat and his hat on his head. I could almost smell the power spilling off him, rising above his pockets to spill over and eddy about his feet. He didn't look hurt at all. In fact, he looked great.

The scent of redwood battled with vamp incense to fill the church with the hint of power and sex. Breathing deeply, I took a step in. Ivy had changed into her working leathers in preparation for today's festivities, and her arm cast looked very white and new in its black sling. Her eyes were a full, intoxicating black, and she moved with a sultry pace as she circled him, eight feet back. Yup, she'd lost it. Her blood fasting was not a good idea.

She paused when she got between Pierce and me, coyly turning to me. Her expression was a sultry mix of lust and domination. "Ivy, stop it," I said when my neck started to tingle.

"He wants to take you to the ever-after," she said, fear dulling her sexual air. "Ask him."

Pierce pulled his left hand from his pocket in a gesture for me to listen, and a knot of tension eased when I saw its smooth length instead of Al's white gloves. "You must agree that though smelling almighty putrid it's safe. You'd be safe there."

I'd seen the ever-after in the daylight, and it was nasty. "Is that why you're not hurt?" I said hotly. "You got a deal going with Al? You convince me to bag reality and go hide in the ever-after, and he doesn't beat you to a pulp? I'm not a demon, and I don't belong there!"

"No." Pierce glanced at Ivy, then Jenks, before taking a step closer. "I don't think you're a demon." His left hand went back into a deep pocket, and my face got cold when he brought out the blackened, paint-peeling remains of my cherry-red splat gun. "My apologies," he said as he crossed the room and placed it in my grip. "He plum destroyed your spell pistol."

"H-how?" I stammered, then remembered that Pierce had had it when I left. Jenks whistled long and slow, and on impulse, I pulled Pierce's right hand out. The witch hissed in pain, and I turned it over to see the imprint of the splat gun's handle.

"Oh my God. Pierce. What did he do to you?" I tossed the melted gun to the burnt couch, and Pierce stiffened when Ivy approached. "Jenks, get a pain amulet," I said, and the pixy darted off. "You shot at him?" I demanded, my worry coming out as anger. "Are you crazy? I'm surprised he didn't kill you!"

Standing resolutely before me, Pierce hid his burnt hand behind his back. "I'm sure he'd rather. I didn't remain to give him the chance. My aim was poor, and he melted your spell caster after my second volley. You'd rather I remained for a beating?"

And now that the sun was up, Al couldn't follow him. Ohhh, I bet he's pissed.

Jenks dripped gold sparkles as he came back, and I took the amulet from him, draping it over Pierce's head and catching it briefly on the brim of his hat. Immediately Pierce's pinched expression eased, but Jenks was buzzing in alarm. "Al is going to be ma-a-a-ad," he drawled in warning. "He's gonna think Rachel gave you her gun."

Making a sound of disapproval, Ivy pushed herself into motion, her grace giving me the willies as she peeked out the front door. I glanced at the melted gun on the charred cushions and silently agreed. "I can't believe you shot at him. Come on," I said as I took Pierce's upper arm. "I've got a burn charm. It's only for stove burns, but it will help."

Pierce didn't move, and my grip slipped off him. "You're under a coven death sentence," he said, warily glancing at Ivy. "I know you're not cotton to the ever-after, but Al will take you in. The coven can't reach you there."

His language was slipping, telling me he was really upset, and I eyed him in disbelief. "I am not going to go crying to Al for help. I might have to put up with you, but I don't have to take your advice. You were wrong about not telling Al about the coven in the first place. You were wrong about leaving the church. And you were wrong about getting on that bus. Did you know Vivian almost killed everyone on it? I'm not leaving to hide in the ever-after!"

Pierce's brow furrowed. "Mayhap they wouldn't have died had we been there."

I frowned, having thought the same thing. Is that his backhanded way of blaming me?

Ivy came back in from the foyer, standing with her feet spread and senses alert, listening. Her eyes were still dark, but at least she wasn't looking like she was ready to jump anyone. Jenks joined her, the noisy clatter of his wings loud in the silence of an otherwise pixy-empty church. "We can keep Rachel alive," he said almost snottily. "We don't need your help."

Pierce crossed his arms over his chest, but I wasn't leaving, and that was it. I didn't care how much he frowned and cleared his throat. Running a hand over my sleep-snarled hair, I tried to remember how long ago it had been when I'd made a burn charm. Less than a year, certainly. But I needed a way to talk to Pierce alone. I did not want them hearing what was going to come out of my mouth next. "Jenks, how much feverfew do we have?"

He flew backward from me, expression cross as he saw I was clearly trying to get rid of him. "I'll go check—Rachel," he said caustically, then darted out the back.

I turned to Ivy next, waiting.

"I'll do a perimeter," she muttered. "Stay away from the windows."

Boot heels clunking in noisy protest, she left out the front, careful to make sure Rex didn't slip out with her. I caught a glimpse of the morning as the door opened to show bright sun glinting on the pavement, still wet from last night's rain. Cool and peaceful. Well, lean change that, I thought, turning back to Pierce.

His shoulders were stiff, his jaw clenched and his cheeks faintly red without a hint of stubble. When had he had time to shave? "Pierce," I said, knowing Jenks was eavesdropping. "Thank you for getting Al to... I mean, you didn't have to... I was handling it," I said plaintively, then gave up, slumping. "Thank you," I said earnestly. "Are you sure you're okay?"

Pierce's posture eased, and he lost his hard expression. "You're welcome."

"But I'm not leaving the church," I said, and his frown returned. "I tried that, and it went wrong. These are my friends, and I'm sticking with them."

My fingers lightly ran down his injured hand's arm, tugging it out to see the damage, but he wouldn't let me see. "Just how mad is Al?" I asked. Rex was rubbing against my leg asking to go out, and I picked her up. "That's why you want me to go back, isn't it? You figure if I go back looking for protection, he won't be so mad about you shooting him."

"Perish the thought," Pierce said, his eyes glinting. "It's your safety I'm thinking of."

Like I believed that. "And you think I make bad decisions," I said, carrying Rex to the kitchen as I went to get a burn charm. I knew he'd follow.

"He was savage as a meat ax," he said from behind me. "I might be beaten come sundown, but it was worth it," he muttered. "I opine that we both like what scares us most."

The kitchen was blue from the pulled curtains, peaceful. "Excuse me?"

He shrugged, his shoulders looking hunched under the duster. "I like trying to kill demons, and I think you fancy Ivy."

My fingers fondling Rex's ears hesitated. "Excuse me?" I said again, more stridently.

Pierce leaned in, surprising me when his forehead almost touched mine. "She can save you, you know," he whispered, his own fingers going out to touch Rex, between us, and I froze. "If you abandon yourself and cleave to her, fully accepting her sovereignty over you, you will be protected by the vampires to the death. They see you as their next leap."

Oh. That. I couldn't look up, and I focused on our fingers, touching among the purring cat's fur. "I wouldn't be myself," I said, wondering why he was bringing this up.

"True, you would be different. But you'd be strong. And remembered forever." He took a breath, and as his fingers left mine, I looked up. "Do you love her?"

His question shocked the hell out of me. "You are full of questions, aren't you?"

There was that same worried wrinkle above his eyes. I'd seen it before when he'd talked to me about Nick, and my pulse quickened. He wanted me to say no. "Do you?" he asked earnestly. "Don't mistake my apparent simple nature for stupidity. Vampires have existed nearly as long as we have. We aren't immune to their charms. And Ivy is charming." His jaw tightened, and I flushed. "She'd treat you well until she died, and likely thereafter as well."

I held Rex close, feeling her warmth. "Ivy and I... ," I started, then mentally backed up. "It's complicated," I came out with instead. "But there's nothing between us but space, now."

His eyes never left mine as he evaluated my words with what he had seen the past year. "Do you love her?" he insisted. "More than a sister's love?"

My thoughts went back to the kiss she'd given me. And the moment in the kitchen when we had tried to share something without her losing control and failed. The sensations she pulled from me were forever entwined with the vampire who had tried to bind me to him and blood-rape me. More than a sisters love. I knew what he was asking, and though I knew the answer was yes, I shook my head, thinking that what I felt meant nothing if I wasn't going to pursue it.

"I don't swing that way, Pierce," I said, voice quavering as a sudden anger took me—anger for my not being smart enough to find a way to be the person I wanted to be as well as the person Ivy needed me to be. "Thanks for the reminder."

Ticked, I turned to open my charm cupboard, the cat squirming. "I've got a burn charm in here somewhere," I said tightly as I let Rex go. "I probably have a few minutes before my assassins show."

A wave of sound shook the pots hanging over the counter, and I heard the discordant jangle of a hundred wind chimes.

Or not, I thought, eyes going to the garden window.

"Jenks?" I shouted, darting for the back door.

The bright glow of a pixy pulled me to a skidding stop in the back living room. It was Jax, and his blade was bared, already sporting a red sheen.

"Fairies," he all but spat, face twisted. "The coven sent fairies. They're attacking the garden. An entire spawn of them!"

Fairies. The word slid through my mind, chilling me. Matalina and the kids. Damn it, I was going to get everyone killed. I grasped the knob to the back door and pulled. It slipped from my grasp as Pierce pushed it shut, it having only opened inches.

"It's a lure to draw you out," he said, gaze fierce as he stood with his hand on the door.

"Then it worked." Shoving him aside, I tapped the line out back and flung the door open. Lunging, I swore as a handful of needles went thunk-ing into the couch behind me. I dove for the bottom of the step, turning it into a roll. The soft, rain-wet earth cushioned me as I somersaulted behind the picnic table, propped up on end against the big tree for winter. I took a breath, and Pierce was suddenly crouching beside me.

"I swan, Rachel," he muttered, peeved. "You're going to be the death of me again."

Immediately I set a circle around both of us. "I thought you said you liked what scared you." There was a surge of noise from the pixies, and I peeked to see them beating the butterfly-winged fairies back, the fight rising higher as they both struggled for supremacy. The bobbing color of the fairies' wings was encroaching from over the graveyard in a highly structured pattern that went up as well as from side to side. Surrounding the stump between us were darting shapes shedding sparkles to confuse and misdirect. If one didn't know that a battle for survival was going on, it'd be breathtaking.

"Ivy?" I shouted while rubbing the dirt from my palms. Pierce took my arm and I jerked from him, only to find him take a stronger grip. "What are you doing?" I snapped.

"Hold still." His lips pressed together, and I gasped when a surge of ley-line energy spilled into me. I pulled back at the invasion, shoving him when I felt a hot pulse of pain from my arm where he was gripping me. We fell over together, but he wouldn't let go and we broke my circle. Only now did he let go, and I jerked when a new, green-tinted circle enclosed us.

"What is your problem!" I exclaimed. Great, now my knees were hurt and wet.

"Poison," he said as he huddled close to the old wood. "I burned it up within you."

Embarrassed, I looked down. There was a tiny hole in my shirt, the edges charred. The skin under was pink with the hint of a sunburn surrounding a nasty bruise I didn't remember getting. Oh. "Urn, thanks," I stammered. "Sorry."

"Do tell," he said, his jaw tight and not meeting my eyes.

Peeking around the barrier, I saw a cluster of brightly colored wings rising over the protection of the shed. "Jenks! Behind you!" I exclaimed, then jerked behind the wood as three spears bounced off Pierce's bubble. Cripes, I had nothing for fairies. Nothing!

There was a high, tinkling shout, and I carefully peered around the table to see Jax's wings turn a shocking shade of yellow. As if it was a signal, a slew of pixy arrows rained down. The encroaching vanguard of purple-winged fairies went down with tattered wings. With a bloodthirsty yell, six of Jenks's younger kids dove out of my old teakettle, hidden under the shrubs, and attacked them with cold steel and vicious shouts. Three seconds later, the fairies lay dead and his children were giving one another high fives. Holy shit. Jenks's kids were savages!

"Rache!" Jenks barked above me, and I looked up, my expression still holding the horror. "What are you doing out here?" he asked, rising up and then down to avoid a spear.

"Taking notes," I said, nudging Pierce to take his bubble down long enough to give Jenks a place to rest. "Have you seen Ivy?" God, if she was injured somewhere...

The haze of green-tinted ever-after blinked out of existence, then returned. Jenks hovered before me with the scent of crushed dandelions, bringing my senses awake and filling me with the need to move. "She's practicing her moves up front," he said cryptically. Worried, I started to rise, only to be jerked back down. "She's fine!" Jenks said, laughing at my fear. "Don't go looking for her. She's vamped out." He smiled, looking devilish. "Kinda scary.

"Pierce," Jenks said, surprising me. "Rache can't do anything here. Jump her out."

"I can't jump anyone but myself," Pierce said. "Only a demon or a skilled gargoyle, which Bis is not, can carry another."

A familiar scream ripped through the air, lifting over the fairy battle cries and the breathy sounds of tattered wings struggling for lift. Jenks lifted up to the limits of Pierce's bubble, and both Pierce and I looked around the edge of the table.

"Sweet mother of Mary," Pierce whispered as Ivy vaulted over the wall between the street and the church, her curved sword in her good hand. Dodging tiny spears, she took out two fairies with ugly splats of sound. Shaking them off, she rolled to the shed, eyes wild and hair settling to hang perfectly as her back slammed up against the old wood. Holy crap, she was like Mary Lou Retton on Brimstone!

"Let me out, Rache!" Jenks shouted, but I wasn't the one holding the circle.

Ivy jumped into motion an instant before a barrage of arrows thunked into the shed where her middle would have been. A smattering of tiny arrows was embedded in her new cast, and she wiped them off using the sword blade. With vampiric speed and grace, she bounded back to the stump and the protection of Jenks's kids.

"Ivy!" I called, wanting her to join us—even if she was vamped out.

Across the backyard, the gate to the street was flung open, crashing into the wall with a sodden thump. Ceri was standing in the opening, the unpainted wood framing her small stature. Her hair was unbound, and the fair strands almost floated as she strode forward, anger and determination in every tiny-footed step. The woman was seven months pregnant. What in God's name was she doing here?

"Celero dilatare!" she shouted gleefully, and a black ball of force formed in her hands. Pink lips pulled back in a grimace, she threw it.

"Fire in the hold!" I yelled. Inking, pixies darted up, Ivy lunged to the shelter of the shed, and with a twist of her hand in a ley-line gesture, Ceri exploded her curse right within the greatest gathering of butterfly wings.

Crap on toast! I jerked behind the table with Pierce as a black-rimmed wash tinted with blue highlights colored the garden. It pulsed over Pierce's protective bubble... and was gone. When I looked, Ceri was standing beside the stump while the fairies struggled to regroup, scattered by what I was guessing was just a huge displacement of air. Ceri was calm and satisfied in her white dress trimmed in gold and purple. A bulge showed at her middle as she proudly showed off the life growing within her to Jenks's daughters, who took time out to feel the soft swelling through her linen dress before going down to slaughter the dazed fairies.

Lee, I thought, giving the man a silent thank-you as I rose to my feet. He must have told her what was going on and she'd left Trent's compound. She was beautiful in her anger, but I wasn't sure if it had been a curse or just a strong spell.

"Let me out, Pierce!" Jenks insisted. "Or I'm going to use your nuts for a beanbag chair!"

The bubble vanished, and Jenks darted away shedding hot sparkles.

Ivy's howl of pain iced through me. Pierce grabbed my arm, and I shoved him off and followed Jenks. The fairies were still trying to regroup. We had taken back a space, slowly widening as Jenks's kids pressed their advantage and drove them to the graveyard.

Ivy was down on one knee, holding her bicep as she leaned against the shed. I ran to her, hearing Pierce follow as he swore in words that a ten-year-old might use. We both skidded to a stop before her, Ceri right behind us. A green-tinted circle rose up and we were safe again.

"I'm fine. I'm fine!" she almost snarled, her hand coming off her bicep to show a small scratch, the edges red rimmed already and starting to go purple.

"Fine, hell, it's poison! Pierce, burn it out," I demanded, and he nodded. Eyes avoiding mine, he dropped to his knees to make his coat furl open. His hand went over the scratch, and he whispered the charm. Spell. Curse. I didn't care. Ivy jerked, her nostrils widening as a glow enveloped his hand.

"He's burning it out," I said, gripping her shoulders and forcing her to be still. "Try to relax."

"It hurts," she grunted. Her breath came with a gasp, and she held it for the count of three before it hissed out between her teeth. "Are you done yet?" she almost snarled.

Damn it, this isnt her battle, it's mine.

"You could have left," Pierce muttered as if having heard my thoughts. But if I'd left, they would have attacked anyway.

"A controlled burn?" Ceri said, voice high and interested. "You can do that?"

Pierce looked up, standing to tug his coat straight and touch his hat. "Mistress elf," he said formally, but I noticed he didn't offer his hand.

Her eyes darted behind him to the re-forming ranks of fairies. "You must be Pierce."

"I am."

My gaze jerked down when Ivy moved. "Are you okay?" I asked as she pulled herself up, sitting against the shed. Sweat ran down her brow in a rivulet to vanish under her clothes.

"That hurt," she said simply.

"You'd likely be dead if you were a witch," Pierce said grimly. "I opine being a vampire accounts for one good thing."

Ivy's eyes widened as she looked past me, and I stood and turned in one smooth motion. "Oh, crap," I said aloud as I saw the flash of flame. "Jenks!" I shouted. "TheyVe got fire!"

The hose was less than twenty feet away, but it might as well have been across the street, trapped in this bubble like we were. Jenks rose in a burst of motion above his younger kids gathered at the teapot. He whistled, and pixies came from everywhere, standing for a final assault on their stump. After that, it would be the church. They wanted me dead, and if I continued to hide in a bubble, they'd burn everything and everyone I loved.

Ceri's eyes were positively scary with determination. Ivy slowly got to her feet, and I supported her until she found her balance. "They're swarming," Pierce said. "I've heard of this. They're like locusts. This isn't merely an assassination attempt, it's an invasion."

Jenks dropped back down before the entrance of the stump. Beside him was Matalina, her arrows slung over her back and a sword I'd never seen in her grip. To her left was her eldest daughter, Jih. To Jenks's right was Jax. Behind them gathered the rest of the children, even the youngest. Across the graveyard, the fairies grew bold, flame dancing in their hands as their wings lifted them on the morning breeze. Their pace was slow even as they shouted insults. The bows in Jenks's children's hands had taught them caution. Last night's rain would keep the graveyard and the longer grass from burning, but not Jenks's stump. I couldn't let this happen. I'd rather rot in jail.

"Let me out of the bubble," I said softly, but only Ivy heard. "I will not be responsible for Jenks and his family dying. Ceri, let me out."

"Rachel, no," Ivy said as I stepped to the edge of Ceri's bubble. "There's got to be another way!" she said loudly. "Pierce, be of some use and think of something! Don't let her give herself up. Not to those butchers. The coven will kill her! You know it!"

Desperate, I stood, helpless. Pierce searched my face, seeing my fear, my loyalty, and my decision to not risk those I loved any longer. His hand found mine and I held it. I wasn't going to let them burn Jenks's house and slaughter his children. I'd do anything. And Pierce knew it.

Giving my fingers a tight squeeze, he turned away. "Mistress elf," he said to Ceri, his voice calm and determined. "Are you skilled in casting?"

Ceri's breath came in fast. Her wild look grew more fierce. "I am," she said, standing proudly. Casting was like a net in that it took more than one person to create, but whereas a net simply contained people, a casting generally contained a havoc-producing spell. It was tricky, seldom done as it was too easy for the spell to escape.

"Do you know the spell to burn even that which has an aura?" he asked, and the muscles in my knees went slack. God, no.

"That's black magic," I said, pushing Pierce's hand off me. "That kills people!"

Ceri gave me a long look, her eyes still on mine when she spoke. "I do."

Frantic, I turned to Pierce, then Jenks readying his family for a final assault. "You can't burn them alive!" I shouted.

Ceri's frowned. "We have two. To cast safely from here it will take three."

"We have three," Pierce said. "One to create, one to protect, and one to define." This last was directed at me, and Pierce's eyes held the memory of a difficult decision made long ago.

"I'm not going to burn my garden and everyone in it!" I shouted. "Jenks is out there!"

"Anything underground will be safe," Ceri said.

"I said no!" I protested, but Ivy's eyes begged me to say yes.

"Then Jenks and his family will die," Ceri said cruelly.

I stood before her, ill with frustration. Right then, I hated her although she didn't deserve it.

Pierce drew me to him. The difference between Ceri's proud disdain and his brow furrowed in pained empathy was striking. "You are the definition," he said softly. "You can hold the strongest, widest circle. Make one to encompass the garden. I will be the safety, and I will keep the magic from acting upon us. Everything between my circle and your larger one will be subjected to a quick flash of heat."

I looked over my church, seeing it smoking and ruined in my mind's eye. Burned at my own hands? "The trees, my garden," I whispered.

Ceri turned from watching the approaching fairies, her impatience obvious and making me feel like I was stupid. "The leaves will be singed. The garden will sprout from roots. The heat won't do anything to your church but clear the spiderwebs from it. Even Bis will be untouched. Rachel, Jenks cannot last against such numbers! He and his family will be slaughtered! Why are you hesitating?"

Because it was black magic. Anything able to pass through an aura and burn a living thing was black. I'd be a black witch. I'd be everything they said I was. But to stand here in a bubble while Jenks's children were cut down and slaughtered...

"There is no other option, Rachel," Pierce said, and I grew frantic. From beyond the safety of Pierce's circle, I could hear Jenks shouting final instructions to his children. They wouldn't scatter but would stay to the last. Ivy begged me with her fearful eyes. I had to do it.

Without a word, I closed my eyes and set an undrawn circle wider than the one at Fountain Square. I felt it go up, encircling the church, the grounds, and a slice of the graveyard. How many were inside it? How many would die? I thought, pulling my hand from Pierce.

"Jenks!" I shouted, blood humming from the strength of the line. "Go to ground!"

A sharp whistle pulled my eyes open to see a flowing of pixy wings into the stump. The fairies broke ranks, chasing them faster than would seem possible. Torches made tiny flames surrounding Jenks's home. Three fairies darted through the abandoned door. Trusting me, Jenks had let them in to do battle in his own home.

"I will lead," Ceri said, taking one of my hands. Pierce took the other, gingerly since it was his burnt hand. Safe within Pierce's sheltering bubble, Ceri bound our wills together, her aura swirling, pressing against mine with the feeling of silk and the scent of sun.

A shudder rippled through me when Pierce sent his aura wider, strengthening his circle, protecting us and melting it with Ceri's aura so her magic could pass through. I couldn't have shifted my aura like that. It was beyond my skill, sophisticated magic, and Ceri smiled in devilish delight, thrilled to find another matching her ability. She looked like a fertility goddess with her bulging middle and the power leaking from her. Beside her, Pierce was dark, masculine, strong, his thoughts here and in his past simultaneously. And I was between them, frantic. I was going to twist a black curse to save Jenks's life.

Ceri paused in her chanting, and upon feeling the weight of her stare, I swallowed hard and released the tight grip on my energies, letting them flow between us, balancing.

Pierce's breath hissed in, his fingers in mine clenching for a moment. Neither I nor Ceri said anything, but we waited until he nodded, accepting the level of power. It was a joined spell, and I could taste the three of us mixing, the bite of metal and ash, the powdery residue of sun and pollen, and the cold edge of wild, windswept water in winter. That was me—windswept water in winter. I was going to kill someone with magic. There had to be another choice!

"Stop," I whispered, and Pierce's thoughts wound into my own, holding me to the task.

"Stay the course," he said, eyes fixed on mine with an eerie intensity. "Hold."

"Everyone kills to live," Ivy whispered, vampire incense pulling through me to then vanish.

Not me, I thought, my fingers hurting where Ceri gripped them, refusing to let me go.

"Accendere!" she shouted victoriously, finishing the curse.

I stumbled as I jerked from them, but it was too late. Stunned, I felt the black curse tear through my brain like a heated knife, searing the knowledge into my memory. Ceri gasped, her head thrown back as the curse escaped Pierce's bubble. As if in slow motion, I followed it with a ribbon of thought, the first tendrils of silver heat darting to find the edges of the confines of my circle, widening to fill the space, crawling over the inside of the dome, snaking up the tree to crisp the leaves. The ground smoked, the wet earth steamed to show the expanding curse.

I was going to burn everything aboveground. Everyone kills to live, echoed in my mind.

Not me. Panicked, I threw myself from Pierce and Ceri, hitting the interior shell of Pierce's bubble and staring at them in horror. Not me!

"No!" I shouted, reaching out for the curse. I had seen its creation. I could call it back.

"Rachel?" Ceri called, eyes wide as she felt something shift.

Pierce stared at me. "Rachel, no!" he cried as if knowing what I was going to do.

Eyes wide, I reached for the curse, wrapped my will around it—and pulled it back.

Crap. This was really going to hurt.

With the sensation of fire, the curse rebounded into me, backlashing in my mind as if it were alive, angry to be jerked home. Not me! I thought as bursts of green flame lit and died outside Pierce's circle, showing where fragile wings shivered into flame. A terrible cry went up as the fairies dropped to the burning earth, and still I pulled, taking it into myself. They were dying. My head flung back and I screamed so I wouldn't go mad with the pain.

And when I had it all, when I had everything that I could bear, I pushed the curse back into the ley line. I emptied everything into it, letting go of the line with a quickness that curled me into myself, hurt. My outer circle dropped, and I took a sobbing breath in the sudden quiet.

The pain vanished from my mind, and I shook as I fell to the wet ground. What have I become in the name of love? Of friendship?

"Rachel!" Ivy exclaimed, but it was Pierce's arms that slipped around me, smelling of witch and power.

The imbalance hit, and I clenched anew, teeth gritting as I took it all. This was mine. The filth, the scum. All of it. And I heard Pierce sigh as I shuddered and accepted the entirety of the smut. I deserved it.

"What did you do!" Ceri shouted, angry. I could see her tiny feet as I lay in Pierce's arms, the pain now only a memory but my panic and fear growing. What have I become?

"Rachel! What did you do!" the elf said again, demanding my attention.

I looked up, wiping my eyes. "Is Jenks okay?" I whispered.

From the edge of the circle, Ivy said, "He's still underground. Are you okay?"

"She misaligned it!" Ceri shouted, furious as she stomped her foot. "And she did it intentionally! They're still alive! Never has anyone misaligned my work, never!"

They were alive? I looked up, not believing. My throat was raw and my muscles felt like rubber bands. The fairies were alive!

"It wasn't misaligned," Pierce said as he eased me to the ground and stood. Hands at his side, he looked irate. "She drew it back."

"Why!" Ceri shouted. "I told her Jenks would survive!"

"I have no idea," Pierce said, standing beside me as my butt got wet from the grass.

"Jenks," I whispered, and I felt Pierce let go of the line and his circle drop. The breath of a new day stained with the stink of burning shifted my hair, and I looked for the bright glitter of pixy wings. Outside Pierce's circle, paths of ash showed where the spell had started to take hold, but the garden was green. Small voices rose in pain, and my heart clenched.

Where is Jenks? My breath came in a sob when Pierce crouched before me, his unburnt hand reaching to wipe my tears away. "Rachel," he said, his hand damp when he took mine to help me rise. "We're in deeper trouble now. Best face it on your feet."

Numb, I let him draw me to a shaky stand. "Jenks!" I shouted. God, had I killed them?

Pixy wings exploded from the stump. I dropped back, relief almost making me pass out. They were okay. All of them. But as they darted over the garden, shrieks of fear rang out. My face went cold. Shit, they were killing the grounded fairies.

"Jenks! No!" I shouted. "It's done! Stop! Damn it, Jenks, stop it! Don't kill them!"

Jenks was atop his stump, having dragged a sallow-faced fairy with him. He turned to me in disgust, his sword at the helpless warrior's neck. The fairy's eyes were wide and a nasty ooze was puddling at his feet—the remains of his wings.

"Jenks...," I pleaded, and with a sour look, the pixy threw his blade in the air to shift his grip. With no fanfare, he gave the leader of the swarm a vicious thunk on the head. The fairy's eyes rolled up and a ribbon of red blood leaked out.

"Damn it, Rache," Jenks said as he let the fairy drop at his feet. "Why do you make things so difficult?"

"Thank you," I whispered, kneeling to put our eyes on the same level.

"Round them up. Tie them down!" Jenks shouted, and his kids complained as he took to the air, seeming to pull me to my feet as well. Blood smeared him, and wiping his sword he said, "TJiis is going to be trouble, Rache. You should have let me kill them."

I started backing away, my gaze darting over the garden. He was angry, motions quick as he flitted away, savage and stinking of death. His kids were cruelly driving the flightless fairies together with torments and cuts. It was survival, but it was scaring me.

My gaze touched on Ceri, the hem of her dress shaking. I'd ruined her curse—a black curse as foul as a hanging corpse. Ivy's eyes were black as she tried to regain control of her emotions, driven to the brink by the aggression around her, her grimed sword on the grass beside her. And Pierce stood watching me, a sad, tired expression in his eyes.

What am I doing? Who are these people I thought I knew, crying for death, lusting for it?

"I have to go," I whispered, backing up farther yet.

Ivy's eyes flashed even blacker, and Ceri turned, her expression hot with anger.

"Inside," I added so they wouldn't think I was leaving. "I need some water."

I headed for the porch, snatching up Rex so she wouldn't eat any of the grounded fairies.

Maybe I should have gone into the ever-after. Even Al is better than this.

Twenty

 The slamming of the screen door behind me jumped through me like a spark. I had to get away. I had to go somewhere to regroup, figure out what had just happened. But as I stood in the silence, there was no peace in the living room. Ivy's couch was heady with vampire incense and memories. Leaving wet footprints, I paced into the kitchen.

My sneakers squeaked to a halt, and my heart pounded as I listened to the calls of the pixies through the window. The blue lights on the fridge's ice maker glowed, and I looked at the picture of me and Jenks standing before the bridge at Mackinaw. But the kitchen held no comfort even though my glinting spell pots and herbs made it mine. It was Ivy's, too, and the thought of her black eyes savage with the need to survive was too fresh.

Spinning, I walked past my room to the sanctuary. The hint of burnt amber coming from my bathroom and the blanket Al had given me—still waiting to be washed—seemed like a veil I had to push through, and I held my breath until I got to the wide space. As I stood at the end of the hall, the whispers of pixies at play seemed to echo from my past, the bright room a pleasant mix of all three of us and the memory of Kisten. There was no comfort here.

I was trapped by everything I cared about. I wanted to be cocooned, safe, but my security had always been the church and those in it. Right now, they were what was knotting my gut.

At a loss, I collapsed on the couch, pulling my knees to my chest and trying to find something to ease the ache. Sniffing back a tear of frustration, I thought of Al's kitchen and the hours I'd spent there in front of the smaller hearth, in the quiet with Mr. Fish and my own thoughts to keep me company. There was a peaceful security there, with the world pushed to the edges as I learned something new, gaining satisfaction and a grudging "passable" from the very demon I'd once been terrified of. I still was, but it was an old terror now, like growing up thinking you weren't going to see the next spring.

There was a scuffing at the top of the hall. Forehead on my drawn-up knees, I didn't look.

"Rachel?"

It was Pierce, and my head started to hurt. "Go away," I said. It had been his idea.

"I'm sorry," he said softly, and I lifted my head when he started to walk away.

"Wait," I blurted out, remembering the sorrow in his eyes when he had suggested the curse. He'd used it before. Maybe he knew how to justify it. "Don't go," I whispered.

Slowly he turned. Heartache showed on his pinched brow. For me? I wondered. For his part in helping me lose my innocence? The question of whether I'd use black magic to save those I loved had been answered, and I didn't know how to feel about it.

I watched Pierce's grace as he came back and sat across from me, perched on the edge of the chair with the coffee table between us. Exhaling, he put his elbows on his knees and looked at his hand, burnt and sore. I could smell the garden on him. It mixed with his redwood-witch smell, strong for just having done high magic—black magic.

"Is everyone okay?" I asked, guilty for thinking only of myself. "Bis? Jenks's kids?"

Pierce tossed the hair from his eyes. "Three of Jenks's kids were savaged but will mend. Jenks is death on as a strategist."

I put my feet on the floor and heaved to a stand, tired. "I should see if I can help," I said, even as I dreaded going back out there.

Pierce rose with me. "They're fine," he said, taking my fingers with his unburnt hand to give his words more strength. "It's you I'm powerful worried about."

The concern in his eyes caused my eyes to well. Damn it, I wasn't going to cry—even if I'd almost wiped out an entire clan of people. Pierce reached out, and I drew back. I needed something, but not that. I didn't deserve the comfort of another person. And not him. It would be too easy, and it might not be real.

Pierce's hand dropped, his expression becoming even more concerned as he saw my fear. "Talk to me," he said simply.

That... I could do, and I looked at him miserably as the band around my chest tightened. He was probably the only person who might understand. "I don't know anything anymore," I whispered. "I almost killed them. Pierce, what am I doing7. I am exactly what they call me. A black witch. Maybe I should just go with it. Go hide in the ever-after with Al. Leave my friends... " The tears started to well again. Leaving was not what I wanted.

Smiling faintly, he sat down, pulling me down with his mere presence. He didn't say a thing as I sat across from him and pulled my knees to my chin, but just that he was listening without judgment was enough to make me cry. I knew Jenks had killed before to protect his family. Ceri was a bloodthirsty savage despite her elegant charm and beauty—and always had been. Ivy was Ivy. I wasn't going to pretend that Pierce wasn't capable of killing someone. It was the thought of me killing someone I couldn't handle.

"I didn't want to be like this," I said softly.

"It was a decision," he said, safe and nonconfrontational.

"A decision to kill someone," I said bitterly. "With magic." That's all the curse did. There was no pretending that it was to heat bathwater or start the grill. It was able to break through an aura to burn someone alive—black magic no matter how you looked at it.

"You saved Jenks and his family," he offered. "Would you rather they be dead?"

I pulled back, not liking what I was feeling. "There had to have been a better way," I said dryly, my gaze going past him to the burnt pool table.

"Perhaps," he said slowly. "I swan I wouldVe killed them straight out to keep Jenks from making a die of it and you safe. I still think allowing them to live is a mistake. It remains to see if you are strong enough to see it through. And how."

"It wasn't a mistake," I said, affronted, and he sighed, burnt hand held loosely in the other as he looked down at them. Okay, maybe it was a mistake, but f d make it again in a heartbeat. Or maybe find another way to begin with. There just wasn't an answer that I liked, and exhausted in mind and body, I said, "They're right." Pierce's eyes met mine, and I added, "Vivian. Brooke. Everyone. I'm a demon. I deserve what they're trying to do to me." I raised a hand and let it fall, staring at it on my lap and wondering if I could smell burnt amber on it. "I'm filthy."

Pierce only smiled as if I was endearing, making me want to smack him. "You're not," he said, softening my anger. "Surviving the decision of letting such ornery people live will be its own punishment. Don't look to add to it."

"I don't want to be this person," I said, frowning when I heard Ivy come in and go to her bathroom. Getting something for the scratch on her bicep, probably.

"But this is who you are."

"Only because people keep throwing this crap at me!" I said loudly. "If everyone would leave me alone, I wouldn't have to do this stuff!" Ivy's bathroom door creaked again and she moved to her room. Cant I have one conversation without everyone listening in?

"The council will come after you now," I said, feeling better for some reason. "They know you've been helping me."

His gaze was in the rafters. "They'd do that anyway. I was never officially shunned because I was coven and it would've been embarrassing. Shortsighted pig farmers. That I dealt with demons in order to kill them meant nothing. What they think isn't worth a picayune."

Focus blurring, I thought about the very powerful charms, no, curses, that I'd seen him twist, and then the conversation we'd had at Nick's place. How come I couldn't not care about what the coven thought?

"Just exactly why were they so hot to kill you, anyway?" I asked. I had to know. I'd seen what he was capable of, and I had to know what he'd done.

Head bowed, Pierce looked at his hands. "My situation wasn't much of a circumstance," he said sourly. "I held trust with demons to kill them, but you can imagine that didn't mean a hooter to the coven. They were a sight more skerry of demons than they are today."

The coffee table was between us, but my skin was tingling. "That's why Al thought you'd kill me," I said. "Because you kill demons, and I'm a student of one?"

Pierce shook his head. "I wouldn't hurt you, even if you were a demon yourself."

The back door slammed behind Ivy, and I jumped, having forgotten she was in here. "Good," I said, a tad more bitter than I had intended, "because I probably am one."

But Pierce only touched his nose and smiled. "You're feeling better," he asserted.

Yeah, I was. Suddenly nervous, I stood.

"It's not what you are, but who you are," Pierce said, and when he stood as well, I started edging into the hall. "I saw you when you had just tipped the scales to womanhood, and I can tell you that you're much the same in your mind now as you were then."

"And what is that?" I asked from within the dark hallway.

Pierce was silent until he stopped right before me, his face showing an unreadable emotion. "You're firm in will, pure in intent, strong in magic. But now it's tempered with wisdom, and you're more beautiful and brilliant yet." I went to turn away, and he pulled me back. "You are shades of gray swirling, balancing needs and desires," he added, watching me. "You are good, Rachel. No matter what your choices lead you to, you will remain such."

My eyes warmed as my emotions tipped back the other way. Damn it, this was exactly what I needed, but I knew better than to trust fairy tales. "Is it harder to be good when you know too much, or is it that your mistakes make bigger messes?" I asked, miserable.

His hand fell from me. "You're moved by love. That means everything. Take it from one who's lost all and then gained more."

I dropped my head, feeling the weight in my chest start to lift. Exhaling long and slow, I realized I'd found my comfort in his words. Calm took me. Ivy and Jenks. His family. My church. Even Nick. Maybe Trent. They were all important to me. So I lived among savage people with a thin veneer of civility. Who didn't? I knew them. I loved them. I'd fight for their survival, and worry about the rest later.

"You're back," Pierce said softly. "You find your feet so fast, mistress witch. What are you going to do about the fairies?"

A faint embarrassment warmed my cheeks. "I thought we'd just let them go if they promised to leave us alone," I said as I started for the back of the church. I felt different, and I didn't know why. Maybe it was because I hadn't cried on his shoulder, but stood fast to my decisions. Accepted them. If it had been a mistake, then I'd fix it.

Pierce shook his head as he followed almost at my shoulder, and realizing I was proposing we trust a fairy to keep its word, I grimaced. "You're right. Stupid idea. Maybe I could put them in a box and ship them to Borneo."

"You can't send them anywhere," Pierce said. "They're a paltry seven-by-nine warrior without their wings. I opine, I mean, I think it's a slow, starving death they face. Living on one's own hook the way they do."

"I can't do anything right, can I?" We had reached the back living room, and I glanced at the new clock Ivy had put on the mantel, wondering if it had come from Piscary's. An hour after sunrise, and I'm still alive. How about that?

"It's not an issue of right or wrong," Pierce said as he reached to open the door. "I like that you create choices where none exist. I'm anxious to see how you make a fist of this, though."

"You're not going to help me, are you?" I asked, and he grinned.

"Sakes' alive, Rachel. Asking me to think is a powerful task."

My eyebrows rose, but I was in a much better mood when the sounds of the garden slipped around me. Taking a deep breath, I stepped out onto the small back porch.

The garden and graveyard beyond it weren't bad. From the vantage point atop the stairs, I could see a wide ring of burnt earth where the curse had begun to take hold at the edges, ribbons of wilting vegetation making random paths, like lightning, to it from where we had sheltered under Pierce's bubble. Imagining everything burnt made me sick. One of my neighbors was outside looking at the damage to his lawn, but he went in when he saw me. Wise choice.

Someone—Ivy, presumably—had turned the picnic table upright, and the fairies had been moved to it. They were in a circle, probably for their protection. A stash of cotton, medical tape, and antiseptic were in there with them. Two of the most able fairies were using their sharp teeth to cut the medical tape since their swords were currently being sported by Jenks's children. I'd always wondered where his kids got fairy steel. Now I knew.

The pixies hovering above them were not being nice. Pierce was right. This was bad. I couldn't ask Jenks to let them stay in the garden under his protection. He'd never forgive me, and it would probably kill the fairies. Death by pride.

Ivy looked up from dabbing an antibiotic cream on her arm as I schlumped down the stairs. Rising, she came over with a bandage, glancing back once at the fairies when Jenks's kids started shouting a vulgar song at them. "You okay?" she asked as she handed me the bandage and I pulled the tape off, fixing it in place over the tiny scratch and surrounding bruise.

"Not really." I crumpled up the tape and shoved it in a pocket. Behind me, Pierce eased over to the table, sitting down and forcing the pixies back with his presence. "How about you?"

She shrugged, and our attention went to Ceri, her back to us and her dress charmingly tied up around her knees as she knelt in the grass and helped three of Jenks's youngest kids prop up a bush that had gotten caught in the vanguard heat trails.

"Sorry for running off like that," I said. "Is Ceri still mad at me?"

Her eyes came back to me, a wide rim of brown around them in the sun. Nodding, she said, "Jenks caught a scout on his way to send word to the coven that the attack failed. Chased him down the block. We've got a small space before they send something else, I imagine, unless they're watching us."

I hope not, I thought, wondering if Vivian had seen it all. "Where's the scout?"

"Funny you should ask." She started back to the table, not answering my question.

Pierce looked up from a conversation with the fairy that Jenks had almost killed in front of me. I wondered what the fairy was saying—his thoughts I'd almost permanently silenced. Not ready to talk to him, I looked to Ceri. Pulling my shoulders up, I reluctantly went to her. The pixies with her scattered at her soft word, and I sighed.

"Don't talk to me," she said curtly as she tended the shrub. "I'm angry with you."

Her hands were busy with the plant, and I knelt beside her, my knees getting damp again. "I'm sorry," I said, thinking it was weird to apologize for not killing someone. "I couldn't do it."

Ceri pressed new dirt around the shrub. Her fair hair swung, but her motions were losing their sharpness. I handed her a twig to prop up a stem, and she snatched it. "Lee told me what the coven was doing," she said unexpectedly. "He said you'd be under siege, so I came to help. I left Trent to do it. Left Quen." She looked up, and I blinked to see tears in her eyes.

"Trent won't let you come back," I said, surprised. Damn it, she had left her secure home and excellent care for her unborn baby to help me, and I'd thrown her help in the dirt.

"I can," she said, her gaze on the dirt under her nails. "But I won't. I failed."

Huh?

Ceri took a deep breath and stood, still graceful despite her pregnancy. "Why do you think I was staying at Trent's estates?" she asked as I stood.

"To be closer to Quen?" I guessed. "Trent's gardens? His hot tub?"

Making a rude noise, she undid the ties, dropping the hem of her dress. "I was spying," she said wryly. "I was trying to keep you safe. It was what I was trained for." Her voice grew airy, almost sarcastic. "Educated by my mother to be married off to a rival family to spy on them and make sure treachery wasn't planned against us. Al used me as such, letting others borrow me on occasion. I was good at it." Her eyes flicked to mine. "At least I thought I was. When I finally find something worth spying for, I fail. I had no idea Trent was tangling you up. Not a hint beforehand, and none even after it happened."

"I'm sorry. I should have tried harder to reach you," I said, and she shook her head.

"You can't get through. Security has been tight since he decided to announce his candidacy for mayor this Friday, but it makes no difference. I failed."

Her head dropped, and I gave her shoulder a squeeze. "Don't worry about it. Trent's a tricky bastard. I'd be willing to bet he didn't tell Quen, even. How were you to know?"

"Oh, they all knew," she said bitterly. "Anything Trent knows, both Quen and Jonathan know. It's like a bloody men's club. Worse than the demons. Rachel, I can't go back."

Was it fear or shame? I couldn't tell. "Trent wouldn't hurt you," I said quickly. "Quen wouldn't let him."

"No," she agreed so confidently that I believed her. "Trent wouldn't hurt me, even if Quen wasn't there." Her gaze went to her swelling middle, and she made a rude face. "But I should have known that you were in trouble. If Trent would let pixies in his gardens, I'd have a hundred eyes and maybe be of some help, but I've nothing. I'm useless."

She sounded forlorn. Reaching out, I gave her a hug. The hint of ozone clinging to her mixed with something wild that might be her child growing within her. "You aren't useless. Ceri, don't be so hard on yourself. Trent is good at this."

The clatter of pixy wings pushed us apart, and Jax darted between us, Jenks's oldest son shedding orange sparkles of discontent. "Ms. Morgan, what do you want to do with the wingless wonders? They're starting to stink."

My brow furrowed as I turned to the picnic table. Giving Ceri a touch on her shoulder, I followed Jax back to Ivy and Pierce... and the fairies. Tired from a lack of sleep and the spent adrenaline, I sat beside Pierce. Before us on the old wood under a green-tinted sheet of ever-after were the survivors. Sixteen. That was it. The rest had "accidentally" died at some point between me destroying their wings and now. The scent of hot chitin and burning hair smelled faintly like a lobster boil, and it made me ill.

I could tell the leader from the rest by the bandage around his head where Jenks had struck him. He looked proud, his long pale face stiff with anger. All his teeth were sharp, more savage than a vampire's, and they showed when he talked. His eyes were black and too big for his face. Fairies were a savage race, and without the softening of the wings, they looked like pale grim reapers in their flowing white, almost ragged clothes made from spider silk. All of them without exception had white hair, the men keeping it as long as the few women I could see. The women had smaller teeth and were somewhat shorter, but otherwise, they looked the same.

The leader was staring at us, standing proudly even though he was clearly unbalanced by his missing wings. None of them had shoes, and the belts hanging tight around their waists were empty of their swords and bows. The last of the burnable weapons was going on the fire now, and I watched a young fairy snarl and throw an ichor-soaked wad of cotton at the barrier as presumably her weapons went on the blaze.

Jax hovered beside me, his hands on his hips, looking a lot like his father. "You should have let us kill them," he said, worrying me.

The leader lifted his chin. "You did that when you gave my sword to a pixy brat," he said, his words having a soft lisp and almost lyrical pacing.

Jax rose up, shouting, "You're an animal! Destroying everything in a garden when a little care and precision enriches it. We have to fight you or you'd destroy everything! You leave barren lots and weeds! Locusts. That's what you are. Bugs!"

The fairy looked up, hatred in his black eyes. "I'm not talking to you, maggot."

Pierce waved his hand to get rid of Jax's heavy dusting, and the pixy darted up and down, wings clattering. "Are you the leader?" I asked, not surprised when the fairy nodded.

"I'm not above anyone," he said, "but I made the decision to be here, and others followed. I'm Sidereal."

"Sidereal," I echoed. "I'm Rachel," I said, "but you probably already knew that."

"The name of a lesser soon fades." Sidereal corrected his slow tilt forward, a blush of anger coming over him at his own ineptness in maintaining his balance without his wings.

"I wish you hadn't attacked us," I muttered.

Sidereal began walking in a careful, slow circle. His balance was better when he was moving. "It was a good gamble. If we won, we would survive until the fall migration. If we failed, we wouldn't care." He stopped his pacing, hand against the barrier between us. "Keeping us alive won't give you a bargaining chip with the coven. We're tools to be discarded."

My eyes widened. It had never occurred to me to use them as hostages. "You aren't tools," I said, nervously picking at the table. "And you're not hostages either. I broke the spell because there has to be another way. You're still alive. When there is life, there are choices."

Sidereal turned, almost falling as he overcorrected his balance. "We are the walking dead," he said, huge eyes dark with anger. "Our wings won't grow back. My people are flightless. We can't migrate, and we can't fight. We were going to gain the land we needed or die in glory. Now we have nothing. Less than if we'd kept to our faded land and died as paupers. You've given us a very hard death, demon spawn."

Pierce smacked the table to make everyone jump. "Don't call her that," he threatened, and Sidereal gave him a sour look.

"I was the walking dead once," I said, and Ivy snorted. "I am right now, actually. But I try."

Sidereal turned away. The stumps of his wings were covered, but pale ichor had discolored the gauze. My gut twisted. Pierce was right. Without their wings, they couldn't compete. Death, though hard, would have been a blessing. A blessing I took from them. Think, Rachel. "Maybe there's a charm to mend your wings?" I offered.

Head tilted, Sidereal turned. "We still have no land."

"Then maybe you can stay here."

"Filth!" Jax shouted, wings a harsh clatter and sword pointing. "Never. Never!"

Ivy frowned, and Pierce looked worried. "There's got to be a way to fix this," I said.

Sidereal strode forward, having to catch his balance with a hand against the inside of the bubble. "You'd make us live under the protection of pixies?" he snarled, showing his fangs. "You'd make slaves of us?"

"They are backstabbing sneaks!" Jax exclaimed, drawing the attention of the pixies at the fire. "We'll kill them before letting them into our garden!"

"What's the big deal?" I said tightly. "You don't even eat the same things. It's just a matter of agreeing to abide by the rules of courtesy. And it's not your decision, it's your dad's." Sitting straighter, I looked for Jenks. "Jenks?" I called, tired of Jax's adolescent intolerance. It wouldn't be easy to get pixies and fairies to coexist, but they were going to try.

"They will destroy everything!" Jax exclaimed, red faced as hot glitter sifted from him. "You're an ignorant lunker!"

Ceri was smiling with an I-told-you-so expression, her arms crossed to show off her middle, and I frowned. "Jenks!" I shouted, listening for his wings and hearing nothing. My gaze slid to Ivy, alarm trickling through me. "When was the last time you saw Jenks?"

"When he told me of the scout," she said, rising fast.

"Jenks!" I shouted, and even Ceri dropped her arms and looked into the trees.

For five long seconds, we listened for his wings while fear wound tighter through me. Motions rough, I got up from the picnic table, hitting it hard enough to make my leg hurt. Ceri's hushed "Go find your father" to Jenks's kids made my chest tighten.

"If you killed him, I will squish you myself," I threatened Sidereal, and he bared his teeth and hissed at me like a cat.

"Looking forward to it."

Jax was a flash of pixy dust, and he was gone, having flung himself forty feet straight up to do a rough visual.

"Where are you, Jenks?" I muttered, seeing the darting sparkles of his kids making patterns in the bright sun as they searched. There'd be no reason for him to leave unless...

My face went cold, and I looked at Ivy. "Matalina," I said breathlessly, and Ivy's face paled. I hadn't seen her since their last stand.

Shit.

Twenty-one

"I'll check the church," Ivy said, then took the steps two at a time. She was gone even before the door slammed shut. The fairies watched in satisfaction as the entire feeling in the garden turned to fear. But it wasn't until I saw Rex that my panic almost swallowed me.

The small orange cat was oblivious to the darting shapes, her ears pricked and her movements sure as she paced across the mown grass, let out when Ivy went in. With a little jump, she gained the small stone wall that separated the garden from the graveyard. Focus intent, she vanished into the taller grass.

"Pierce?" I said, glancing from where she'd disappeared. "Watch the fairies, will you?"

Nodding, he stood, face sad and head bowed.

I followed Rex through the wet grass, moving as if in a dream. My tension eased when we passed the ring of burnt ground, and I felt even better when I found Rex sitting at the edge of a small, familiar plot, her tail curled around her feet as she sat in the sun and cleaned a paw.

I knew this grave. The pixies frequently played around it despite—or maybe because—the site being snarled with the thorns of a rose gone wild. The marker itself was decorated with the statue of a childlike angel not much bigger than Rex, the chubby features somehow not destroyed by time. It was a child's grave, and innocence seemed to linger yet.

Creeping forward, I exhaled in relief when I heard Jenks. Until I realized he was singing. Tears filled my eyes and I swallowed a lump when from behind the tombstone came a mournful, stop-and-go duet with heartrending gaps. Only one voice was raised.

Dreading what I might find, I moved forward until I could see the base of the tombstone. Jenks was on the ground, his wings still and drooping as he held Matalina, cradling her, keeping her from touching the earth. Ringing them in the pressed grass were four dead fairies, their wings tattered but unburnt. Jenks's sword was in the nearest, the fairy still holding the blade as it punctured his middle. Arrows littered the ground, and the scent of broken green was strong.

He looked up at me, his voice cracking and his wings lifting slightly. Moisture shined his cheeks, turning to dust as it dried. "Rachel is here, Mattie," he said, turning back to her, and hope jumped. She was alive?

Jenks brushed her hair from her eyes, and the pixy woman took a pain-racked breath. "She can take you back to the stump in three seconds flat. And she can turn you big. Just for an hour. You can do that. Please, Mattie. No more arguments. You'll live then. The spell takes all the pain away. Makes you brand new. Please don't leave me." He was begging now, and I felt tears prick. "I can't be alone for the next twenty years."

It confirmed something I'd been suspecting for the last few months as Jenks grew faster, while Matalina declined. The curse he'd taken last summer had reset his biological clock. Excited, I dropped to my knees beside them. I'd gotten my twenty years back that my childhood illness had stolen, but what caught my breath was that Jenks wasn't going to die. Matalina either.

"Matalina," I said, bending close and making my words soft. "Ceri is here. She can make you well." They'd live forever, both of them. It was going to he okay. It was going to he okay! Finally something was going to be okay!

I held out my hand to take her, but Matalina's soft "no" iced through me. No? What did she mean, no?

"Rachel, do this for me," Matalina said as Jenks tried to hush her, but a sharp gleam came into her eyes and she put a small, beautiful, and deathly white hand to his mouth. Jenks kissed it, going silent as tears fell on it and he wiped his dust from her. "This is my decision," the woman said, her fervent gaze fixed to mine. "I only ask that you keep Jenks alive through it."

My tears started, and I swallowed hard, grief rising from hope, seeming all the harder for the brief respite. No? Why?

"Mattie," Jenks protested, and her bird-bright eyes fixed on his. She was seeing around corners. Damn it. Not again!

"I don't want to start over, Jenks. I'm tired. But I'm proud of you, my visionary." Her hand shook as she touched his cheek, leaving a smear of blood. "For you to see the endings of what you've started is right, but I don't want to live beyond my children. I'm a mother first. You're a force, Jenks, and I thank my luck for having bound myself to you."

"You can be a force, too, Mattie," he began, his voice breaking when she shushed him. There was an ugly stain of red seeping from under her, and I knew she had only moments. Still, she smiled, giving him her love to the end.

"No," she said firmly. "I want you to stay when I go. Break tradition again, my love, and burn me alone in the home we built. I don't want you with me. You aren't done. You see too far ahead. You need to make the world in your thoughts a real one that our children can fly in."

"Take the charm, Mattie," Jenks said roughly, "and we'll see the future together."

"I'd rather hear it from you," she whispered, and my throat tightened as the tears slipped down. "I want to watch your eyes light up when you tell me. I'll wait for you under the bluebells. I'll be there always."

"Mattie?" Jenks cried, pulling her closer as he sensed her slipping away. "I don't want to be without you. I need you!"

Matalina's eyes opened wide, but I wasn't sure she was seeing him anymore. "Not as much as you... think," she said carefully. "Look what you've done. I'm going to die happy. All my children will survive. What mother can say that on her last breath? Thank you, Jenks. Sing to me? I'm so tired." Her eyes closed as she struggled to take a last breath, not to continue her life, but to breathe her last words. "I love you."

"Please, Mattie!" Jenks cried, desperate. "We can do this together. We can do anything together! Please..."

But she was gone, and he was alone though he held his wife, rocking her as he cried.

Twenty-two

I could do nothing, helpless as I looked down on them. Jenks... My tears hit the ground beside him, and I struggled to do something—anything—but I was useless. I was too damn big. "Jenks?" I whispered, my hands corralling him.

He blinked, the green of his eyes going deep into me. "She's not here...," he warbled, as if in shock.

I was too big. I couldn't hug him. I couldn't tell him it was okay by holding him until he found himself. "Ivy!" I shouted, then dropped to my elbows, trying to get closer. Matalina's face was streaked with blood and a silver dust, making her look like a weary angel. "Jenks, I'm sorry," I whispered, my throat too tight for more. God, I'm so sorry.

His eyes were wide, and the tears still spilled from him, turning to glittering sparkles as they dried. A smear of blood was on his cheek where Matalina had touched him last. "She went to guard the back door," he said as if dazed. "They must have been holding back," he said, and my chest clenched. "I should have sung her to sleep. She was so tired, and she wanted me to sing." Bewildered, he looked at me, his wings unmoving. "I'm alone," he said as if in wonder. "I promised to stay with her forever. And here I am. Alone. And she's gone."

"You're not alone. Jenks, please," I said, unable to stop the tears from slipping down. Somewhere I'd heard pixies died of heartache when their spouses died. "It's going to be okay. You've got Ivy and me. We're here. We need you. Matalina told you to stay with us."

The clatter of pixy wings came just before Ivy's footfalls. Rex hunched furtively. In a swirl of blood-stained silk, the entire clan dropped to the ground as a great keening rose. Unable to take it, the cat ran away. Ivy stood above us, and as I looked up, her eyes spilled over with tears. I could say nothing, my heart aching for his pain. Matalina.

"Oh, Jenks," Ivy breathed as she dropped to kneel. "I'm sorry."

He had turned back to his wife, trying to smile as he brushed her face and arranged her hair. "She's here, but I'm alone," he said as if trying to figure it out. "I don't understand."

The keening lifted and rose, and Ivy's jaw tightened. "You're not alone, pixy. Don't you dare go somewhere to die!"

Face riven, he stared blankly at her. "I am alone," he said simply. Getting up, he found Jax standing miserably, holding Jih as she cried into his shoulder. "Jax, the garden is yours," he said, and the younger pixy jerked. "Keep Rachel alive if you have an ounce of respect for your mother," he finished bitterly. And as Ivy and I stared, Jenks took Matalina and walked into a shadow that hid the back tunnel to their home.

A wailing grew, turning into harmony with no words, heartrending in its beauty. The pixies joined together, rising up with wings turned blue from sadness, the tears sifting from them to make them glow. All but Jax, his feet riveted to the wet earth.

"No! I don't want the garden!" he shouted at the small opening. "I don't want your dreams, old man! I have my own!"

I turned to Ivy, scared. "What does he mean, the garden is Jax's?"

Jax rose up, and I sat back on my heels to keep him in sight. "I'm to find a wife and keep the land," he said.