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

Ever After

Kim Harrison

 Witch-turned-daywalking-demon Rachel Morgan needs to save the demonic realm of the Ever After in the eleventh entry in the New York Times bestselling Hollows series from supernatural adventure master Kim Harrison.  When Rachel sets off a chain of events that could lead to the end of the world — demonic and human — she must use her gifts to save those closest to her while preventing an apocalypse.  Satisfying and sexy, a visit to the Hollows will take readers on a wild journey that will capture their imagination. Fans of Charlaine Harris and Stephenie Meyer won't be able to resist Kim Harrison's alternative universe — urban fantasy Cincinnati complete with vampires, witches, and other enchanting creatures — where spine-tingling adventures and fast-paced action are the norm.

Ever After

(Book 11 in the Rachel Morgan series)

A novel by Kim Harrison

Dedication

To the only man I’d make

butterscotch pudding for

Acknowledgments

I’d like to thank my editor, Diana Gill, and my agent, Richard Curtis, who have each helped shape the Hollows in uncountable ways.

Chapter One

This is close enough. Thanks,” I said to the cabdriver, and he swerved to park a block from Carew Tower’s drop-off zone. It was Sunday night, and the trendy restaurants in the lower levels of the Cincinnati high-rise were busy with the March Madness food fest—the revolving door never stopped as laughing couples and groups went in and out. The kids-on-art exhibit had probably brought in a few, but I’d be willing to bet that the stoic pair in the suit and sequined dress getting out of the black car ahead of me were going up to the revolving restaurant as I was.

I fumbled for a twenty in my ridiculously small clutch purse, then handed it over the front seat. “Keep the change,” I said, distracted as I tugged my shawl closer, breathing in a faint lilac scent. “And I’m going to need a receipt, please.”

The cabbie shot me a thankful glance at the tip, high maybe, but he’d come all the way out to the Hollows to pick me up. Nervous, I readjusted my shawl again and slid to the door. I could have taken my car, but parking was a hassle downtown for festivals, and tawny silk and lace lost a lot of sparkle while getting out of a MINI Cooper. Not to mention the stiff wind off the river might pull apart my carefully braided hair if I had to walk more than a block.

I doubted that tonight’s meeting with Quen would lead to a job, but I needed all the tax deductions I could get right now, even if it was just cab fare. Skipping filing for a year while they decided if I was a citizen or not hadn’t turned out to be the boon I originally thought it was.

“Thanks,” I said as I tucked the receipt away. Taking a steadying breath, I sat with my hands in my lap. Maybe I should go home instead. I liked Quen, but he was Trent’s number one security guy. I was sure it was a job offer, but probably not one I wanted to take.

My curiosity had always been stronger than common sense, though, and when the cabbie’s eyes met mine through his rearview mirror, I reached for the handle. “Whatever it is, I’m saying no,” I muttered as I got out, and the Were chuckled. The thump of the door barely beat the three loud Goth teenagers descending upon him.

My low heels clicked on the sidewalk and I held my tiny clutch bag under my arm, the other hand on my hair. The bag was small, yes, but it was big enough to hold my street-legal splat gun stocked with sleepy-time charms. If Quen didn’t take no for an answer, I could leave him facedown in his twelve-dollar-a-bowl soup.

Squinting through the wind, I dodged the people loitering for their rides. Quen had asked me to dinner, not Trent. I didn’t like that he felt the need to talk to me at a five-star restaurant instead of a coffee shop, but maybe the man liked his whiskey old.

One last gust pushed me into the revolving door, and a whisper of impending danger tightened my gut as the scent of old brass and dog urine rose in the sudden dead air. It expanded into the echoing noise of a wide lobby done in marble, and I shivered as I made for the elevators. It was more than the March chill.

The couple I’d seen at the curb were long gone by the time I got there, and I had to wait for the dedicated restaurant lift. Hands making a fig leaf with my purse, I watched the foot traffic, feeling out of place in my long sheath dress. It had looked so fabulous on me in the store that I’d bought it even though I couldn’t run in it. Wearing it tonight was half the reason I had said yes to Quen. I often dressed up for work, but always with the assumption that I’d probably end the evening having to run from banshees or after vampires. Maybe Quen just wanted to catch up? But I doubted it.

The elevator dinged, and I forced a smile for whoever might be in it. It faded fast when the doors opened to show only more brass, velvet, and mahogany. I stepped inside and hit the R button at the top of the panel. Maybe my unease was simply because I was alone. I’d been alone a lot this week while Jenks tried to do the work of five pixies in the garden and Ivy was in Flagstaff helping Glenn and Daryl move.

The lobby noise vanished as the doors closed, and I looked in the mirrors, tucking away a strand that had escaped the loose braid Jenks’s youngest kids had put it in tonight. If Jenks were here, he’d tell me to snap out of it, and I pulled myself straighter when my ears popped. There were ley line symbols carved into the railing like a pattern, but they were really a mild euphoric charm, and I leaned backward into them. I could use all the euphoria I could get tonight.

My shoulders had relaxed by the time the doors opened and the light strains of live chamber music filtered in. It was just dinner, for God’s sake, and I smiled at the young host at the reception desk. His hair slicked back, he was wearing his uniform well. Behind him, Cincinnati spread out in the dark, the lights glinting like souls in the night. The stink and noise of the city were far away, and only the beauty showed. Maybe that’s why Quen chose here.

“I’m meeting Quen Hanson,” I said, forcing my attention back to the host. The tables I could see were full of people taking advantage of the festival’s specials.

“Your booth isn’t ready yet, but he’s waiting for you at the bar,” the man said, and my eyes flicked up at the unexpected sound of respect in his voice. “May I take your shawl?”

Better and better, I thought as I turned to let him slip the thin silk from my shoulders. I felt him hesitate at my pack tattoo, and I straightened to my full height, proud of it.

“This way, please?” he said as he handed it to a woman and took the little paper tag, handing it to me in turn.

I let my hips sway a little as I fell into step behind him, making the shift to the revolving circle without pause. I’d been up here a couple of times, and the bar was on the far side of the entry. We strode through tables of upscale wining-and-dining people. The couple who had come up ahead of me were already seated, wine being poured as they sat close together and enjoyed each other more than the view. It had been a while since I’d felt that, and a pang went through me. Shoving it down, I stepped to the still center portion of the restaurant with the brass and mahogany bar.

Quen was the only one there apart from the bartender, his stance hinting at unease as he stood, not sat, with a ramrod straightness in his suit coat and tie. He had the build to wear it well, but it probably hampered his movement more than he liked, and I smiled as he frowned and tugged at his sleeve, clearly not seeing me yet. The reflection in the glass behind the mirror showed the lights on the river. He looked tired—alert but tired.

His eyes were everywhere, and his head cocked as he listened to the muted TV in the upper corner behind him. Catching the movement of our approach, he turned, smiling. Last year I might have felt out of place and uncomfortable, but now I smiled back, genuinely glad to see him. Somehow, he’d taken on the shades of a father figure in my mind. That we kept butting heads the first year we’d known each other might have something to do with it. That he could still lay me flat out on the floor with his magic was another. Saving his life once when I had failed to save my dad probably also figured into it.

“Quen,” I said as he needlessly tugged his dress slacks and suit coat straight. “I have to say this is better than meeting you on the roof.”

The hint of weariness in his eyes shifted to warmth as he took my offered hand in a firm grip to help me onto the perch of the bar stool. Tired or not, he looked good in a mature, trim, security sort of way. He was a little short for an elf, dark where most were light, but it worked well for him, and I wondered if that was gray about his temples or a trick of the light. A new sensation of contentment and peace flowed from him—family life was agreeing with him, even if it was probably also why he was tired. Lucy and Ray were thirteen months and ten months, respectively. As Trent’s security adviser, Quen was powerful in his magic, strong in his convictions . . . and he loved Ceri with all his soul.

Quen made a sour, amused face at the reminder of our first meeting at Carew Tower. “Rachel, thank you for agreeing to see me,” he said, his low, melodious voice reminding me of Trent’s. It wasn’t an accent as much as his controlled grace extending even to his speech. He looked up as the bartender approached and topped off his glass of white wine. “What would you like while we wait?”

The TV was just over his head behind him, and I looked away from the stock prices scrolling under the latest national scandal. My back was to the city, and I could see a hint of the Hollows beyond the river through the bar’s mirror. “Anything with bubbles in it,” I said, and Quen’s eyes widened. “It doesn’t have to be champagne,” I said, warming. “A sparkling wine won’t have sulfates.”

The bartender nodded knowingly, and I smiled. It was nice when I didn’t have to explain.

Quen leaned in close, and I caught my breath at the scent of cinnamon, dark and laced with moss. “I thought you were going to order a soft drink,” he said, and I set my purse on the bar beside me.

“Pop? No way. You dragged me all the way into Cincy for a meeting at a five-star restaurant; I’m getting the quail.” He chuckled, but it faded too fast for my liking. “Usually,” I said slowly, fishing for why I was here, “when a man invites me somewhere nice, it’s because he wants to break up with me and doesn’t want me to make a scene. I know that’s not the case here.”

Silent, he tightened his jaw. My pulse quickened. The bartender came back with my drink, and I pushed it around in a little circle, waiting. Quen just sat there. “What does Trent want me to do that I’m not going to like?” I finally prompted, and he actually winced.

“He doesn’t know I’m here,” Quen said, and his slight unease took on an entirely new meaning.

The last time I’d met Quen without Trent knowing about it . . . Dude! “Holy crap, did you get Ceri pregnant again? Congratulations! You old dog! But what do you need me for? Babies are good things!” Unless you happen to be a demon, that is.

He frowned, hunching over the bar to sip his drink and shooting me a look to lower my voice. “Ceri is not pregnant, but the children do touch on what I wanted to talk to you about.”

Suddenly concerned, I leaned closer. “What is it?” I said, a flicker of anger passing through me. Trent could be a dick sometimes, taking his “saving his race” quest to unfair extremes. “Is it about the girls? Is he pressuring you about something? Ray is your daughter!” I said hotly. “She and Lucy being raised together as sisters is a great idea, but if he thinks I’m going to sit here while he shoves you out of their life—”

“No, that’s far from the truth of it.” Quen set his drink aside to put his hand on mine. My words cut off as he gave my hand a warning squeeze, and when I grimaced, he pulled away. I could knock him flat on his ass with a curse, but I wouldn’t. It had nothing to do with the fancy restaurant and everything to do with respect. Besides, if I knocked him down, he’d knock me down, and Quen had a spell lexicon that put mine to shame.

“Ray and Lucy are being raised with two fathers and one mother. It’s working beautifully, but that’s what I wanted to discuss,” he said, confusing me even more.

I drew my hands back to my lap, slightly huffy. So I had jumped to conclusions. I knew Trent too well, and pushing Quen out of the picture to further the professional image of a happy, traditional family wasn’t beyond him. “I’m listening.”

Avoiding me, Quen downed a swallow of wine. “Trent is a fine young man,” he said, watching the remaining wine swirl.

“Yes . . .” I drawled, cautiously. “If you can call a drug lord and outlawed-medicine manufacturer a fine young man.” Both were true, but I’d lost any fire behind the accusations a while ago. I think it was when Trent slugged the man trying to abduct me into a lifetime of degradation.

Quen’s flash of irritation vanished when he realized I was joking—sort of. “I have no issue in having a secondary public role in the girls’ lives,” he said defensively. “Trent takes great pains to see that I have sufficient time with them.”

Midnight rides on horseback and reading before bed, I imagined, but not a public show of parenthood. Still, I managed not to say anything but a tart “He gives you time to be a dad. Bully for Trent.” I took a sip of bubbly wine, blinking the fizz away before it made me sneeze.

“You are the devil to talk to, Rachel,” he said curtly. “Will you shut up and listen?”

The sharp rebuke brought me up short. Yes, I was being rude, but Trent irritated me. “Sorry,” I said as I focused on him. The TV behind him was distracting, and I wished they’d turn it down even more.

Seeing my attention, he dropped his head. “Trent is conscientiously making sure I have time to be with both Ray and Lucy, but it’s becoming increasingly evident that it’s caused an unwise reduction to his own personal safety.”

Reduction to his own personal safety? I snorted and reached for my wine. “He’s not getting his fair share of daddy time?”

“No, he’s scheduling things when I’m not available and using the excuse to go out alone. It has to stop.”

“Ohhhh!” I said in understanding. Quen had been keeping Trent safe since his father had died, leaving him alone in the world. Quen practically raised him, and letting the billionaire idiot savant out of his sight to chat with businessmen on the golf course probably didn’t sit well. Especially with Trent’s new mind-set that he could do magic, too.

Then I followed that thought as to why I might be sitting here, and my eyes got even wider. “Oh, hell no!” I said, grabbing my purse and shifting forward to get off the stool. “I am not going to do your job again, Quen. There isn’t enough money in the world. Not in two worlds.”

Well, maybe in two worlds, but that wasn’t the point.

“Rachel, please,” he pleaded, taking my shoulder before I could find the floor. It wasn’t the strength of his grip that stopped me cold, but the worry in his voice. “I’m not asking you to do my job.”

“Good, because I won’t!” I said, my voice hushed but intense. “I will not work for Trent. He’s a . . . a . . .” I hesitated, finding all my usual insults no longer holding force. “He never listens to me,” I said instead, and Quen’s hand fell from my shoulder, a faint smile on his face. “And gets himself in trouble because of it. I got him to the West Coast for you, and look what happened!”

Quen turned to the bar, his voice flat. “His actions resulted in a bar burning down and the collapse of a US monument.”

“It wasn’t just a bar, it was Margaritaville, and I’m still getting hate mail. It was his fault, and I got blamed for it. And let’s not forget San Francisco getting toasted. Oh! And how about my ending up in a baby bottle waiting for my aura to solidify enough so that I could survive? You think I enjoyed that?”

Granted, the kiss to break the spell had been nice, but the last time I worked for Trent, the assassins had been aimed at me.

Upset, I turned back to the bar’s mirror. My face was red, and I forced myself to relax. Maybe Quen was right to bring me here. If we had been at Junior’s, I probably would be halfway out the door looking for my car. Even angry as I was, I looked like I belonged here with my hair up and my elegant dress that made me look svelte, not skinny. But it was all show. I didn’t belong here. I was not wealthy, especially smart, or talented. I was good at staying alive—that’s it—and every last person up here save Quen would be the first to go if there was trouble. Except maybe the cook. Cooks were good with knives.

Quen lifted his head, the wrinkle line in his forehead deeper. “That’s exactly what I’m saying,” he said softly. “The man needs someone to watch him. Someone who can survive what he gets himself into and is sensitive to his . . . quirks.”

“Quirks?” Frustrated, I let go of my clutch purse and downed another swallow of wine. “Dude, I hear you. I understand,” I said, and Quen blinked at my word choice. “I even sympathize, but I can’t do it. I’d end up killing him. He’s too pigheaded and unwilling to consider anyone else’s opinion, especially in a tight situation.”

Quen chuckled, relaxing his tight grip on his emotions. “Sounds familiar.”

“We are talking about Trent, not me. And besides, the man does not need a babysitter. He’s all grown up, and you”—I pointed at Quen—“don’t give him enough credit. He stole Lucy okay, and they were waiting for him.” I turned back to the bar and the reflection of the Hollows. “He can handle whatever Cincinnati can dish out,” I said softly, going over my short list of trouble. “It’s been quiet lately.”

Quen sighed, slumping beside me with both hands around his drink, but I wasn’t going to fall for it. “I will admit that Trent has a knack for devising a plan and following through with it. But he falters at improvisation, and that’s where you excel. I wish you would reconsider.”

Hearing the truth of it, I looked up and Quen lifted his drink in salute. Trent could plan his way out of a demon’s contract, but that wouldn’t keep him alive against a sniper spell, and that’s where the real danger was. My jaw clenched and I shoved the thought away. What did I care?

“I left the I.S. because I couldn’t stomach working for anyone. That hasn’t changed.”

“That’s not entirely true,” he said, and I frowned. “You work with Ivy and Jenks all the time.”

My eyebrows rose. “Yes. I work with Jenks and Ivy, not for them. They don’t always do what I think is best, but they always at least listen to me.” I didn’t do what they thought was best, either, so we got along tolerably well. Trent, though, he needed to listen. The businessman made more mistakes than . . . me.

“He’s doing much better,” Quen said, and I couldn’t stop my chuckle.

“Yeah?”

“He worked with Jenks,” Quen offered, but I could hear the doubt in his voice.

“Yes, he worked with Jenks,” I said, the wine bitter as it slipped down. “And Jenks said it was like pulling the wings off a fairy to get Trent to include him on even the smallest details. No.”

Quen’s worry line in his brow was deepening. “Quen, I understand your concern,” I said, reaching out to put a hand on his arm. It was tense, and I pulled back, feeling like I shouldn’t have touched him. “I’m sorry, but I just can’t do it.”

“Could you maybe just try?” he said, shocking me. “There’s an elven heritage exhibit at the museum next Friday. Trent has a few items on display and will be putting in an appearance. You’ll love it.”

“No.” I faced the mirror and watched myself take a drink.

“Free food,” he said, and I eyed him in disbelief through the reflection. I wasn’t that desperate. “Lots of contacts with people with too much money,” he added. “You need to get out and network. Let Cincy know you’re the same Rachel Morgan who captured a banshee and saved San Francisco, and not just the witch who’s really a demon.”

I flushed, setting the glass down and looking around for a clock. Jeez, had I only been here ten minutes?

“I expect you would pick up a few legit jobs,” he said, and I stiffened. I wasn’t out of money, but the only people who wanted to hire me wanted me because I could twist demon curses. I wasn’t that kind of a girl, even if I had the potential to be, and it bothered me that Quen knew who had been knocking on my door. Working a couple of easy chaperoning jobs for Cincinnati’s elite would do wonders for my esteem.

Isn’t that what Quen is offering me?

“There would be a clothing allowance,” Quen wheedled. My pulse quickened, not at the thought of a new pair of boots but at being dumb enough to consider this. “Rachel, I’m asking this as a personal favor,” he added, sensing me waver. “For me, and Ceri.”

Groaning, I dropped my head into my hand, and my dress pinched as I shifted to turn away from him. Ceri. Though she had agreed to maintaining a public image with Trent, she loved Quen. Quen loved her back with all the fierceness of someone who never expected to find anything beautiful in the world. Hell, if it was nothing more than being a security escort, I could stomach Trent for a few hours. How much trouble could the man get into out at the museum, anyway?

“You fight dirty,” I said sourly to his reflection, and he toasted me, smiling wickedly.

“It’s my nature. So will you do it?”

I rubbed the back of my neck as I turned to him, guilt and duty pulling at me. Avoiding him, I sent my eyes to the TV. It was showing the Cincy skyline, which was odd since it was a national station. The banner THIRD INFANT ABDUCTED flashed up, then vanished behind an insurance commercial. Act as Trent’s security? I thought, remembering Trent’s savage, protective expression under the city when he downed that man trying to abduct me. And then how he looked on my front steps when he found Wayde carting me out of the church over his shoulder. Trent had spun a charm to knock the Were out cold with the ease of picking a flower. True, it hadn’t been needed, but Trent hadn’t known that.

My fingers spinning the footing of my glass slowed as I recalled Trent opening up to me and telling me about the person he wanted to be. It was as if I was the only person who might really understand. And Quen wanted me to be the one to deny him that?

“No,” I whispered, knowing that Trent would count my presence as his failure. He didn’t deserve that. “I’m not going to be his babysitter.”

“Rachel, you need to put your petty grudge aside and—”

“No!” I said louder, angry now, and his words cut off. “This isn’t about me. Trent can stand on his own. He’s better than you give him credit for. You asked me, I said no. Find someone else to spit in his eye.”

Quen pulled back from me, his face creased in anger. “That’s not what I’m doing,” he said, but there was a whisper of concern in his denial. “I simply don’t want him out there alone. There’s nothing wrong with someone having your back. He can stand on his own without having to be alone.”

Behind him, the TV was showing the front of Cincy’s hospital, lit up with lights and security vehicles. Have his back?

“I won’t bring it up again,” he said, shifting away from me, suddenly closed off. “I think our table is ready.”

Confused, I slid from the stool, shimmying until my dress fell right. If I was there, Trent wouldn’t see it as me watching his back. He’d say I was babysitting him. Quen had it wrong.

Didn’t he?

“After you,” Quen said sourly, gesturing for me to follow the man standing before us with two huge menus in his hand.

God save me from myself, maybe Quen was right. “Quen . . .”

But then my gaze jerked up to the TV over the bar as I caught a familiar phrase, and my thoughts of Trent vanished. With a sudden flash, I recognized the new Rosewood wing behind the newscaster on the scene. The Rosewood wing was simply a fancy name for the three comfortable houselike facilities they’d built for the terminally ill babies suffering from Rosewood syndrome. The cul-de-sac was damp from the earlier rain, and lights from the I.S. cruisers and news vans made everything shiny. The thought of THIRD ABDUCTION echoed through me, and I jerked to a halt. Behind me, Quen grunted in surprise.

“Turn it up!” I exclaimed, turning back to the bar and shoving past Quen to get closer.

“. . . apparently abducted by a kidnapper posing as a night nurse,” the woman was saying, and I felt myself pale. “I.S. officials are investigating, but so far they have no leads as to who is taking the failing infants, and why.”

“Turn it up!” I said again, and this time, the bartender heard me, aiming a remote and upping the volume. I felt myself pale as Quen rocked to a halt beside me, both of us looking up. A phone buzzed, and Quen jumped, his hand fumbling to a back pocket.

“Because of baby Benjamin’s miraculous progress in fighting the lethal disease, officials are not hopeful for a ransom demand—they fear that he was taken by unscrupulous biogenetic engineers trying to find and sell a cure.”

“Oh my God,” I whispered, fumbling in my clutch bag for my phone. They’d killed all the bioengineers during the Turn. It was a tradition both humans and Inderlanders alike gleefully continued to this day. That I was alive because of illegal tinkering didn’t make me feel any better.

“Let’s hope they find them soon,” the woman was saying, and then the headlines shifted to the latest Washington scandal.

Head down over my phone, I punched in Trent’s number. It would go right to his private quarters, bypassing the switchboard. I felt hot, then cold, my grip on my phone shaking. He wouldn’t have abducted the baby, but he’d have a short list of who might have. The Humans Against Paranormals Association, HAPA, maybe, now that they couldn’t have me. Trent had once promised that he’d give the demons the cure to their infertility, but after suffering through the chaos wrought by his father’s saving me, I couldn’t believe that Trent was looking to increase the number of survivors just yet.

The busy signal shocked through me, and I glanced up at the shadow of a man standing too close: Quen, his brow furrowed as he looked at his phone’s screen. Blinking, I remembered where I was. Quen’s lips twitched, and he held out his phone. It was smaller and shinier than mine. “He’s on my line,” he said with a thin, distant voice. “You talk to him.”

Fingers shaking, I took the phone. “He’ll know we’re together, that we talked.” Oh God, I didn’t want Trent to know that Quen doubted him. He looked to him as his father despite the monthly stipend.

Quen shrugged. “He’ll find out anyway.”

Mouth suddenly dry, I answered the phone and put it to my ear. “Trent?”

The hesitation was telling, but he caught his balance quickly. “Rachel?” Trent said, clearly surprised. “I’m sorry. I must have hit the wrong button. I was trying to reach Quen.”

I held the phone tighter, my pulse pounding. His voice was beautiful, and I felt glad for turning Quen down. “Ahh,” I said, glancing up at a stoic Quen. “You hit the right number.”

Again Trent hesitated. “Okay?”

“We were having dinner.” I explained nothing, and Quen’s face became even more bland. “Quen and I. You saw the news? Do you know who did it?”

My worry came rushing back, crowding out my brief flash of pleasure for having caught Trent off guard. It happened so seldom. The host was still waiting, and when Quen shook his head, he smiled ingratiatingly and walked away, dropping the menus on the bar.

“No, but I’m going out there right now.” Trent’s tone was tight, and my idea that he was fixing Rosewood babies died. “Since you’re with Quen, would you both meet me there?”

My lips parted, even as I heard the accusation in his tone. He wanted me there? With him?

“Rachel, are you there?” Trent asked, and I flushed, glancing at Quen before pushing the phone tighter to my ear.

“Yes. The hospital, right?” Where all the news vans were? Swell. I couldn’t help but wonder if his invitation was because he wanted my professional opinion or simply to find out what Quen and I were doing.

“Rosewood wing,” he said, his tone grim. “I doubt there will be any indication as to who took the infant, but I don’t want evidence to be buried if the I.S. doesn’t like what they find. If one of us is there, we will at least have the truth.”

I nodded as Quen exchanged a few words with the bartender and slipped him a bill. The I.S. was an offshoot of the original FBI and local police forces before the Turn, responsible for hiding Inderland crimes before humans could find evidence that witches, werewolves, and vampires existed. Covering up the uncomfortable or unprofitable was in their blood.

“Rachel, may I talk to Quen?” Trent asked, shaking me out of my thoughts.

“Um, sure. I’ll see you there.” My stomach was in knots, and I held the phone out. “He wants to talk to you.”

Quen looked at the phone, his expression never shifting as he reluctantly reached out. Turning sideways to me, he drew himself up. “Sa’han?” He hesitated. “Having dinner.” Another pause. “Of course Ceri knows. It was her idea.”

Ceri was in on this, too? Frowning, I forced my arms from my middle. Trent would be pissed. I knew I’d been when my mom and dad rented me a live-in personal security guy for a few months.

“No,” Quen said firmly, and then again, “No. I’ll see you there.”

I could hear Trent complaining as Quen closed the phone, cutting him off midprotest. That wasn’t going to go over very well, I decided, and when Quen gestured for me to head out before him, I meekly fell into place, my thoughts turning to the hospital.

Behind us people laughed and clinked glasses. Below, Cincinnati moved with her people, uncaring and unaware. It felt wrong now. Someone was stealing Rosewood babies. The “why” was ugly.

Quen was silent all the way to the elevator. He avoided my eyes as I handed him my ticket to give to the coat-check woman. I could have given it to her myself, but high society came with weird rules, and it was no skin off my nose. “You’re not going to tell him?” I said, hoping he wanted to use the time it would take to get to the hospital to come up with some story other than Quen’s asking me to babysit Trent.

Gaze distant in thought, Quen shook out my shawl and I turned around, my head lowered. “You might be right,” he said, and I shivered as the silk settled over my bare skin. “I may have acted without thought.”

It was an honest answer, but Quen might be right as well. Trent didn’t need a babysitter, but everyone needed someone to watch their back.

Chapter Two

Quen’s car was warm, the seats heated and my vents aimed at me, making the escaping strands of my braid tickle my neck as we slowly wove through the twisty hospital campus. Feeling ill, I leaned toward the dash and peered through the curved glass, both anxious to get there and uncertain as to what I was going to tell Trent. It was starting to mist, and everything had a surreal glow. The tall main building looked foreboding in the rain, lights gleaming on its slick walls. That was not our destination. People got better—mostly—at the hospital. Where we were headed, the only healing was emotional.

The tires hissed on the wet pavement as we took a tight corner into a cul-de-sac. Three modest structures, identical apart from their color, were before us, I.S. cruisers and black Crown Vics parked in the drives and at the curbs. My lips curled in disgust at the news vans, bright lights spilling out along with heavy wires like grotesque umbilical cords running into one of the houses. It must have made their night to have their local story picked up nationwide.

The three two-story homes looked out of place in the otherwise institutional hospital setting. They were relatively new, the landscaping bushes still small and inadequate. It was Cincinnati’s Rosewood wing where Rosewood babies were moved to, sometimes born here, but always dying here, never surviving. A lot of parents elected to take their baby home for his or her last days, but not all, and the homey atmosphere was a boon. Counselors were more prevalent than nursing staff. They hadn’t had such a place when I’d been born, and as Quen parked his two-seater into a space too small for the official cars, I felt odd and melancholy.

Quen put the car in park, making no move to get out. I, too, leaned back into the plush seat, afraid almost. Blowing his breath out noisily, Quen turned to me. “I’m going to tell him we had dinner and talked about his security,” he finally said, his eyes holding a hint of pleading. “I’m also going to tell him that I was asking your opinion if he was secure on his own merits, and that you said he was, but that if the situation changed that you would . . .”

My heart thumped as he let his words trail off into expectation, waiting for me to finish his sentence and tell him I’d watch Trent when he couldn’t. That wasn’t even mentioning the little white lie. I didn’t know how I felt about that, and I searched Quen’s expression. The shadow-light coming from the lit-up building made him look older, his worry clear. Damn it all to hell. “That if the situation changed that I’d be able to assist in keeping the girls safe,” I said firmly, and Quen’s expression became stoic.

“Very well, Tal Sa’han,” he grumbled, and my eyebrows rose. Tal Sa’han? That was a new one. I would have asked him what it meant, but his voice had been mocking.

“Then let’s go,” I said, reaching for my bag. The little clutch bag felt too small as I got out, and my clothes were totally inappropriate for a crime scene. The cool mist touched my face, and the thump of Quen’s door surprised me. Dropping my eyes to the damp pavement, I shut my door as well.

I took a deep breath and lifted my chin, starting for the door, already propped open for the sporadic flow of people in and out. I couldn’t help but notice the opening was almost twice as wide as usual. I hated oversize doors—or rather, I hated the wheelchairs they alluded to. A sudden wish to be anywhere but here struck me. I had escaped dying from Rosewood syndrome. It had taken almost all my early life to do it and it shaped me in ways I was only now figuring out, but the reminder was bittersweet.

Quen met me stride for stride. “Are you okay?”

We had gained the paved walk, which artistically meandered to give the appearance of distance and interest. It just looked fake to me. “Fine,” I said, my mood growing worse. I didn’t want to be here—didn’t like the memories being stirred up. Someone was stealing Rosewood babies, and what followed from there was enough to make my nights sleepless.

Head down, I stepped over the news van’s cords, walking sideways to get through the door and flashing my ID to the I.S. guy. I think it was more Quen’s and my fancy dress that got us in than my ID. The officer clearly didn’t recognize me, but only someone who needed to be here would come dressed in formalwear. I’d have to remember that.

The cool night mist vanished, and I hesitated just inside the wide entryway, feeling Quen’s silent, solid presence behind me. A set of stairs led up, probably to the nurses’ quarters; the kitchen was behind the stairway, down a short hallway. There were two living rooms, one to either side of the door. Both of them were full of people standing around talking, but only one had the lights of the news crews. It was warm, even for me, and I didn’t like the excited tone of the newswoman asking the distraught mother how she felt now that her baby—thriving against all odds—had been stolen.

“What a slime,” I whispered with a surge of anger, and Quen cleared his throat. Someone had pieced together that the Rosewood syndrome was actually an expression of too much demon enzyme and was “harvesting” demon blood while the babies still lived. I’d be dead, too, if Trent’s father hadn’t modified my mitochondria to supply the enzyme that blocked the lethal action of the first enzyme that actually invoked demon magic. It was a mouthful that basically meant he’d enabled me to survive being born a demon.

Quen’s hand cupped my elbow, and he gently pulled me out of someone’s way. Numb, I looked for a familiar face—somewhere to start. My evening dress was garnering odd looks, but it also kept people away. That stupid newscaster was still interviewing the parents, and I.S. agents stood at the outskirts hoping to get some airtime. No one recognized me, thank God, and I felt guilty for being surrounded by so much grief—grief that my parents had endured and triumphed over. Damn it, I would not feel guilty for having survived.

“There he is,” Quen breathed in relief, and I followed his gaze to the back of the living room to the hallway running from the nurseries to the kitchen.

“And Felix,” I said, surprised to find Trent talking to the undead vampire. Or rather, he was talking to Nina, the young vampire that Felix currently liked doing his aboveground talking through. The young woman was looking thinner than the last time I’d seen her, better dressed and confident, but decidedly peaked, as if she’d been on too many amphetamines for the last four months. It was hard to see her behind the suave, collected undead vamp controlling her body, living through her for a few hours at a time.

It was about what I had expected. Serving as an undead master’s mouthpiece wasn’t safe for either party—the old vampire was reminded too strongly of what it was like to be alive and began to pine for it, and the young was given more power running through his or her mind and body to handle alone. It was a knife’s edge that only the most experienced attempted at this level, and I was starting to think that the relationship had passed the point where it could be ended safely.

Concerned, I bit my lip, wondering if the I.S. was questioning Trent about the abductions. But as I watched, I decided that though Trent had proved he could be calm even while being arrested for murder at his own wedding, he didn’t have the guarded air of someone being grilled for kidnapping. He was probably getting the real story, not the canned tripe they were feeding the reporters.

Trent’s short, translucently blond hair next to Nina’s thick shoulder-length wash of Hispanic elegance was striking. The woman herself had no political sway, but Felix was shining through, making the woman unusually sophisticated and in control—and slightly masculine in her mannerisms as she stood with her knees too far apart for her professional skirt and suit coat.

“Running into Trent and Felix at a crime scene is starting to become a habit,” I said as I rocked into motion, moving slowly to avoid the reporters as we crossed the room. Seeing Trent, I felt my entire perception of Quen shift. Oh, both men had grace, but Quen’s was born in the confidence that he could handle any situation. Trent’s was from a lifetime of being listened to and taken more than seriously. They were both dressed well, but Trent’s suit was tailored to every inch of his trim, sexy self, and it was growing obvious that Quen would rather be in his usual loose-fitting security uniform. Though I’d seen both men take down an attacker, Quen would always use the minimal amount of force, whereas Trent would be a conflict of visions—elegance coupled with savagery and a frightening grace, magic sung into existence.

Trent felt my gaze on him, his expression startled until he hid the emotion. Only after running his gaze up and down—appreciatively taking in my evening gown—did he touch Felix’s shoulder to point me out. The young/old I.S. operative turned, beaming, the young woman’s normal mannerisms gone as Felix took complete control.

“Rachel!” Nina said a shade too loudly and with an exaggerated slowness as Quen and I tucked into the marginally quieter hallway where we could still watch what happened. “I’m surprised to see you here. Is Ivy back yet?”

With a guarded air, I shook both my head and her hand. “Not until next Saturday,” I said, pulling my hand from hers, not liking Felix’s interest in my roommate. “I was at dinner when I heard the news and came over because . . .” I hesitated, my grip tightening on my clutch bag. Because I wanted to know who was kidnapping babies who could invoke demon magic? Sure, that sounded good.

Trent cleared his throat as the silence became awkward. “Because I asked her to,” he said, reaching to shake my hand. It was missing the last two digits, but he hid their absence well until our fingers met. The glint of a ring twin to my own was still on his index finger, and I hid my hand behind my back, not wanting Felix to notice and ask. “Hello, Rachel. I appreciate you . . . changing your plans.” The hesitation had been slight, but it was there. Beside me, Quen cleared his throat, clearly not wanting to explain in front of Felix.

I don’t know if I want to lie to you anymore, I thought, warming at his touch and wondering if I had felt a faint tingle of spilling energy before our fingers had parted. “Who did this?” I said, trying to block out the woman sobbing on the couch. My God, didn’t newspeople have any soul at all?

Nina laughed lightly, Felix apparently immune to the human tragedy. “Let me consult my magic ball,” she said, then sobered when both Trent and I stared at her. We weren’t the only ones. That laugh had traveled.

“Quen, thank you for bringing Ms. Morgan out,” Trent said as he inclined his head.

“It wasn’t a problem. Sa’han . . .” Quen paused. “If I can have a second of your time?”

“In a moment.” Trent beamed one of his professional smiles, and I slumped ever so slightly. As long as Felix was here, Trent would be the epitome of Teflon—knowing nothing, seeing nothing, accomplishing nothing—boring, boring, boring. He was also ticked. I could tell by the faint rim of red on his ears. He wouldn’t talk to Quen until they were alone, and until then, he was going to believe the worst. Three days in a car was having unforeseen benefits. “I hope you and Rachel had a pleasant dinner.”

That was catty for him, and I slipped my arm into Quen’s, startling both men for different reasons. “He bought me sparkling wine. It doesn’t give me a headache like most wines do.”

Trent’s attention lingered on my arm in Quen’s, then rose to Quen’s eyes. Slowly Quen pulled away, stiff and uncomfortable.

“Quen,” Nina said as she looked at the reporters now asking the staff for their views. “Since you’re here, could you give me your professional opinion on something?”

Quen blinked in surprise, his hands behind his back. “Me?”

Nina was bobbing her head. “Yes. That is, if Trent will let me steal you away for a few moments. You’re well versed in a variety of security techniques both mundane and magic,” she said, one hand reaching out to touch his shoulder, the other extended to escort him deeper into the building to the bedrooms.

“Personal security, yes. I don’t see how I can help.”

Drawn by the living/dead vampire, Quen brushed by me, leaving the scent of wool and cinnamon. “I’d be most appreciative if you would look at the security system here and tell me what would be needed to circumvent it,” Nina said.

The man glanced back at Trent, and when Trent shrugged, Quen said, “It would be my pleasure. Ah, I don’t want to give testimony in court.” He continued, “This is strictly my casual opinion,” his voice going faint behind the noise in the front room as they walked away.

I couldn’t help but smile. It was quickly followed by the sour emotion of envy. “Always a bridesmaid,” I muttered as I shifted to stand shoulder to shoulder with Trent. No one ever asked my opinion of a crime scene. Reconsidering, I glanced at Trent. At least not before the vacuuming guys were done.

If I didn’t know better, Felix had taken Quen away intentionally so Trent and I could talk. The feeling strengthened when Trent glanced at me and turned away, making me feel as if we were two wallflowers at a dance, left by our respective dates so we could “get to know each other,” Trent in his three-piece suit that cost more than my car, and me in a slinky tawny number I’d probably never wear again ever.

Then the woman on the couch began sobbing again, and the feeling died.

“This is ugly,” Trent said. The mask was gone.

He hadn’t asked what Quen and I had been doing, and my shoulders eased. “How serious is the I.S. treating this?”

Trent’s breath came out a shade too forceful, the small tell ringing through me. He was worried—a lot. “Not seriously enough.”

That I could tell already, but Trent wouldn’t be out here for just this. “How many babies are missing?” I said, wincing as the mother balled up her tissue in a tight, white-knuckled grip, her eyes red-rimmed and drained. “Other than this one, I mean. The press said three.”

His gaze somewhere across the room, Trent whispered, “Eight total across the United States, but the I.S. is only admitting to those that get leaked to the press. The one just before this was a set of twins from a prominent political figure. They were over a month old. The parents are devastated. They don’t know why their babies were surviving. Most of the infants abducted are male, which is odd since the female gender has a naturally higher resistance.”

That was why he was here, and my eyebrows rose as he faced me, whispering, “It’s not me. Someone has been giving them the enzyme that blocks the destructive actions of the Rosewood genes or they would never have lived even this long. Now that whoever is doing this knows that it works, he or she is coming back and stealing the infants who have been treated.”

A sick feeling stole over me as I looked into the living room with its pain and guilt. “HAPA?”

He shook his head. “Felix says no.”

That info was questionable at best, but I’d go with it until I heard otherwise. “Well, who else knows what these babies are capable of invoking?”

Trent gracefully turned to look down the hall as if wanting to leave. He was tired, but it was only because he was letting his guard down that I could tell. “Anyone can piece it together—now that it’s common knowledge what you are.” His gaze came back to me, an empty regret in them. “The sole survivor of Rosewood syndrome happens to be a demon? Perhaps we were lucky it took this long. That an enzyme can keep them alive, though?” His lips pressed together. “A handful know that, and most of them work for me.”

Silent, I forced my arms to relax at my sides, the silk of my dress whispering.

“This isn’t good,” Trent said so softly I barely heard him.

“You think?”

A silence grew, not companionable, but not uncomfortable, either. The news teams seemed to be packing it up, and the I.S. operatives were getting noisy, a last-ditch effort to get the cameras on them before they left. I looked at Trent’s jiggling foot and raised my eyebrows.

Grimacing, Trent stopped fidgeting. “You look nice tonight,” he said, surprising me. “I can’t decide if I like your hair more up or down.”

Flushing, I touched the loose braid Jenks’s kids had put my hair in, still damp from the mist. “Thanks.”

“So did you and Quen have a nice dinner?” he asked, pushing me even more mentally off balance. “Carew Tower, yes?”

“As a matter of fact, it was drinks at the bar, but yes, it was Carew Tower.” Flustered, I gripped my clutch bag tighter. “How did you guess?”

His feet scuffed, the small move telling me he was satisfied—and yet still ticked. “You smell like damaged brass. It was either Carew Tower or the deli down on Vine. The one with the old bar footrest?”

I blinked, lips parting. Wow. “Oh,” I said, trying to decide what I could say. “Yes. We were at Carew Tower.” I looked down at my dress, clearly not suitable for a deli.

Trent moved to stand next to me, so near I could smell his aftershave under the broken-green smell of him. Together we watched the newscaster finish her interview with a nurse, and him being that close was almost worse than his accusing stare. “You were discussing me,” he said, his voice a shade high, his attention fixed determinedly across the room. The scent of spoiled wine and cinnamon joined the mix.

“Quen asked me to fill in for him when your schedules don’t mesh,” I said. “He knows you’re planning the conflicts—did you think he would do nothing?”

His eye twitched, that’s it, but I could see right through it. “Give the man a break,” I said, and he finally gave up his false indifference to glare at me. “Quen cross-checked your prom date and took you to the DMV office for your license. He worries about you, okay?”

Unwilling to believe, Trent frowned. I could feel the reporters watching. His eyes flicked to them and slowly his hands unclenched. Exhaling, he forced a fake smile, but I didn’t think he was fooling anyone now. He was ready to walk, and I took his elbow.

“Trent, I told him no,” I said softly, and his gaze shot from my grip to my eyes. “I told him you don’t need a babysitter. I told him he was selling you short and that you had the skill and dexterity to take care of yourself. He’s trying to wrap his mind around it, but after a decade of keeping you safe, it’s hard. You might want to ease up on the rebelliousness for a while.”

Trent’s anger vanished. “Rebelliousness?” he said, and we both moved sideways as the vacuum guys trundled out past us. “Is that his word or yours?”

“Mine,” I said, relieved that I hadn’t tried to lie to him. “I know rebelling when I see it. Come on,” I cajoled, my hand slipping from him. “Let the poor guy come to grips with your independence before you go forcing it on him. That’s kind of cool, you know? That he loves you so much.”

Again he started, clearly at a loss. “Thank you,” he said as his gaze canvassed the room behind me, but his smile was honest when it returned to me. “I never saw it like that.”

My heart thumped when Trent ducked his head to rub his chin ruefully, and a funny feeling went to my middle. Behind me, the bright lights of the news crews pinned down the human tragedy like the African sun, exposing it in a distasteful savagery akin to lions ripping the underbelly of a gazelle. It was just as hard to look away.

I took a breath to tell him if he ever wanted someone to watch his back to give me a call, but I chickened out. Instead, I nervously shifted to stand beside him again. A wisp of separation drifted between us. “You’re leaving.”

“Ah, yes,” he said, clearly surprised. “That newswoman has been eyeing me, and I don’t want to give an interview.”

I nodded in understanding. As soon as he left, I was going to beat a hasty retreat in the other direction in search of Nina. Maybe they’d let me into the crime scene if Felix asked them to.

“Rachel,” Trent said suddenly, and I brought my attention back from the empty hallway between the kitchen and the bedrooms. “Be careful. It might be HAPA even if Felix says it isn’t.”

Angry, I nodded. Whoever was doing this knew I was a hard target, so they’d abducted babies instead. Cowards.

Trent was rocking forward to leave, and I stuck out my hand. “You be careful, too. If whoever this is knows about the enzyme, they’ll know that you’re the only one who can make the cure permanent.” Could I ever work for him? I wondered as he looked at my hand and I recalled the satisfaction of bringing in Cincinnati’s HAPA faction with him and the two-hour-long conversation with him over pie and coffee afterward. It had been wonderful, but I didn’t think I could stomach taking direction from him, and I doubted he would ever learn to be anything other than what he was. I didn’t know if I’d like him if he changed. Damn, I liked him, and it kind of hurt admitting it.

Trent eyed my hand for a half second, taking it only to pull me toward him. Surprised, I almost fell, my breath held as he gave me a quick, professional hug, our shoulders touching. My free hand went around him for balance, and the memory of kissing him flashed through my mind as my hand slid from his waist. “Thank you, I’ll be careful,” he said as my heart pounded and I stared at him. Then he let go and I stepped back, my face warming.

“Are you available tomorrow morning?” he asked, as if unaware I was now bright red. Jeez Louise, what was with the hug? And in front of the reporters? Everyone can see me blushing. “I’d like to talk to you about what this might mean,” he said, his gaze rising to take in the entire ugly scene. “And I know Ceri and the girls would like to see you.”

I hesitated. I hadn’t seen Lucy and Ray for a few weeks. I was their godmother. Of course I wanted to come over, regardless of the reason. “Make it . . . ten?” I said, remembering that elves, like pixies, usually slept the four hours when the sun was the highest. “I’m, ah, usually not up before eleven, but I can swing ten . . . occasionally.”

Oh God, I was blushing even more now, but Trent only bobbed his head, smiling at my red face. “We can make it eleven if you like,” he said. “That’s their usual riding time. Wear boots. We can talk on the trail. I’ll see you then.”

Calm and relaxed, Trent headed for the door, his steps confident as he timed his retreat perfectly to avoid the rising newscaster reaching for him. And then he was gone.

Crap on toast, I was gripping my clutch purse like a fig leaf, and disgusted that I’d handled that with the grace of a troll, I fidgeted where I was, feeling out of place in my tawny dress now that I wasn’t standing next to a man in a suit. My heart was still pounding, and through the window, I saw a flash of light as Trent got into his car.

Hands swinging, I edged backward down the hall where Quen and Felix had gone. Quen would want to know Trent had ditched him again. I expected that the hallway led to the nurseries, and indeed, behind the first door I hesitantly peeped in was the expected double bed, two soft chairs, a rocker, TV, dresser, mirror, and a crib. There was a bank of white cupboards. I was sure they held lifesaving equipment, hidden like an ugly secret.

“Not here,” I said to myself, starting to relax the farther I got from the noise and warmth of the living room. I pulled the door shut, then hesitated, looking at my fingers. They felt slippery, and I brought them to my nose, breathing in the smell of crushed leaves.

Pixy dust?

Pulse quickening, I went down the hallway, following voices. “Felix?” I called out, hiking my dress up so I could move better.

“In here, Rachel,” Nina called back, and I froze at the tiny ultrasonic wing chirp of surprise that followed. I never would have heard it over the noise, except that I lived with pixies.

I spun back to the kitchen, my eyes widening. “Jax?” I blurted, seeing the little pixy looking at me from over the rim of the light fixture. “Jax!” I shouted as he darted down the hall and into the kitchen.

I moved. Dress hiked up, I stormed down the hall, blowing into the kitchen and scaring the two I.S. guys standing at the open fridge. The sparkling of pixy dust hung in the air.

“Pixy!” I shouted, and the two men stared at me. “Where did he go?”

Wide-eyed, they said nothing, the pie between them like guilt given substance.

“Where did the damn pixy go!” I repeated, my heart thudding.

“Pixy?” one of them asked, as if I were asking about a unicorn.

The sound of a vehicle starting came in through the open window, and I ran to the back door. Adrenaline surging, I shoved the door open. Cool night air hit me, misty with no moon—and the sifting silver dust of a pixy trailed like a moonbeam. It drifted to the sidewalk running past the Dumpster and vanishing around the corner.

Breathless, I followed the tracing of dust, my heels sending shocks up my spine as I clip-tapped around the corner. A squeal of tires brought me to a halt, and I put a hand on the Dumpster and watched as a blue Ford truck drove away, tires smoking. Anger sparked, but it wasn’t until it hit a speed bump and the passenger door flew open that I was sure.

N-n-n-n-nick.

Chapter Three

The kitchen was bright with electric light, loud with the shrieks of pixies, and with a snap, I flicked the coffeemaker on before turning back to my sandwich. It was a rather large room, newly remodeled with stainless-steel counters, two stoves, and my mom’s old fridge with the automatic ice dispenser right in the door. My spelling equipment hung over the center island counter, copper pots and ceramic spelling spoons making it look less like the industrial kitchen at the back of a church that it had started out as. Ivy’s thick country-kitchen table where she did most of her research was depressingly empty. She’d been gone this whole week, out in Flagstaff helping Glenn and Daryl get settled in their new digs.

Standing at the counter in my evening gown, surrounded by cold cuts, condiments, and a half-empty two-liter bottle of pop, I clenched my teeth and wished the pixies would go away. They were playing war among the hanging copper pots, giving me a headache. Copper was one of the few metals that wouldn’t burn them, and they loved banging into it. Telling Jenks about the abducted Rosewood babies had been bad enough, but bringing Nick into it had left us both in a bad mood that his kids weren’t helping get rid of. Nick. If there was anyone who could irritate me by simply breathing, it was Nick.

The self-proclaimed thief once professed that he’d loved me, and I think he had, inasmuch as he could love another person. He loved money and the security he thought that it represented more. I honestly believed that he felt justified for all the trouble he’d heaped upon me. I hadn’t trusted him for a long time, but when he had betrayed not just me but Trent in the same breath, I’d written him off. That he lured Jenks’s eldest son, Jax, into a life of crime and hardship just pissed me off.

I’d not heard from Nick since he had spirited himself—and presumably Jax—out of Trent’s high-security lockup. Only a demon could have done it. I frankly didn’t give a damn if Nick had gotten himself indebted to a demon, but I did care about who might be holding his leash—and why he was again on this side of the ley lines stealing Rosewood infants.

The big knife Ivy left out to scare magazine salesmen was too big to comfortably cut my sandwich, but I used it anyway, setting it down on the counter with a thud when an unpopped kernel of popcorn zinged over my head and clattered against the wall.

“Jenks!” My shout sent a strand of hair drifting. “Your kids are driving me nuts!”

From the sanctuary-turned-living-room I heard him yell, “Get the hell out of the kitchen!”

Sure. That ought to do it. Frowning, I set the sandwich on a napkin, little drops of water from the lettuce making spots on it.

I reached for a paper towel as Belle edged into the kitchen, riding Rex like an elephant. The fairy had her feet snuggled in behind Rex’s ears and she gave the cat a tap with the end of her bow when Rex threatened to sit down and spill her backward. Changing her mind, the orange cat twined about my ankles instead. Belle was an odd contrast of a pixy silk’s bright colors and a fairy’s naturally gaunt paleness. Never would I have imagined that Jenks would suffer to let a fairy live in his garden, but the small warrior woman had somehow become a part of the church—even if it had been her clan who had killed Jenks’s wife. That the fairy was now wingless might have something to do with it, but I think he admired her grit.

“Your dad s-s-says to get outs-s-side,” she lisped around her long teeth, her face turned upright at the noisy battle. “You shame your-s-s-selves!” With a disgusted snarl, she smacked Rex’s flank as she purred and rubbed against me, hoping for a fallen morsel. “Get out!” she yelled at them. “Now!”

My head was exploding from their noise, but about half of them started for the hallway, flying backward and still shooting popcorn kernels at each other with slingshots. Someone shrieked when a seed punched through her wing, and the shouted threats got serious as the girls sided against the boys. There was a sharp ping when a seed hit my biggest spell pot and ricocheted into me, making my eyes narrow. Jenks was giving them a lot of latitude, knowing that as soon as it warmed up, half of them were going to leave to make homes for themselves.

“All right, you lot!” Jenks shouted as he flew into the kitchen, a faint red dust of annoyance spilling from him. “You heard Belle. Get out before I bend your wings backward! If you’re cold, put on the long johns Belle made you, but I want you outside clearing the lines! Jumoke, get your sister a patch. You made it, you fix it. Do it nicely or you’re going to do midnight sentry with Bis no matter how cold it is!”

I tossed my paper towel, exchanging a weary look with Belle as they flowed out of the kitchen with a chorus of complaints, going across the hall and up the flue in the back living room by the sound of it. Jumoke, Jenks’s only dark-haired son, helped the pixy with the hole in her wing, stoically taking the verbal abuse the eight-year-old pixy was heaping on him. She’d probably be on her own next year, fully grown and ready to start a family. Why Jumoke hadn’t left yet was obvious. Black-haired pixies were often killed on sight by their own kind. He, at least, would be staying.

Belle nudged Rex into motion, and she followed them out. It was too cold for fairies, but if she was sitting on Rex, she’d be okay. The cat door squeaked, and Jenks flew a red-dusted path to the kitchen spigot, where he could watch the garden and his kids dispersing into the damp spring night. His hands were on his hips and his feet were spread wide, but he seemed more worried about Jax than the noise.

Belle’s touch was showing in surprising places, and Jenks wasn’t looking so much like Peter Pan these days. He still had the tights and garden sword at his hip that he used to chase off birds, but his usual green gardening coat had been replaced by a flashy multicolored jacket with tails and a dark orange vest. Belle’s work. With the hunter-green shirt, it made a striking statement with his curly blond hair, trim physique, skintight boots and tights, and that narrow waist and wide shoulders. His dragonfly-like wings blurred to nothing as he watched the dusty glows from his grown children in the garden. Though his feet never lifted off, the noise of his wings increased when the cat-size shadow of Bis joined them; then he relaxed.

“Thanks,” I said in relief as I took my sandwich to the table. “They don’t listen to me.”

Jenks frowned as he flew over the center counter, spilling a sour green dust on the cheese and making it glow briefly. “They don’t listen to me, either.”

It was a not-so-subtle reminder of Jax. Nick’s sudden appearance had us both in a stellar mood. Uptight, I shifted to try to make the dress feel more comfortable, finally sitting sideways to the table in the hard-backed chair. My clutch purse and shawl were at Ivy’s empty spot, trying to make it look less . . . empty.

Suddenly Nick didn’t seem so important, and depressed, I leaned sideways over the table as I took a bite of my sandwich, trying not to get any of it on my dress. The coffeemaker on the counter gurgled its last, but I didn’t bother to get up. Jenks descended from the utensil rack, using his sword to cut a pixy-size chunk of cheese. Spearing it on the tip, he angled the short sword up to eat it right from the blade.

“So-o-o-o,” he drawled, his dust shifting to a more normal gold. “You never did tell me what Quen wanted.”

I froze, then took another bite to give myself time to think. Nick had been on my mind when Quen dropped me off: Nick, demons, Rosewood babies. Quen’s request hadn’t even been in the theoretical kitchen, much less on a back burner. “Ah, he wanted to know if I’d take over some of his security duties.”

“Tink loves a duck, really?” It wasn’t the reaction that I had expected, and my chewing slowed when Jenks flew to sit on the back of Ivy’s monitor where he could see me better. “You told him no, right?”

I made a little huff, trying to forget that surprising hug. “Trent doesn’t need my help. You’ve worked with him. Tell me I’m wrong. Quen is a nervous worrywart. Trent can handle anything Cincinnati can dish out.”

His eyes fixed on mine, Jenks tilted his head and bit off a chunk of cheese. “Sure, like his best friend locking him on a boat and blowing it up. Demons possessing said best friend. Said demon’s ex-familiar living in his home, mothering the child he had with the woman who tried to kill him last summer.”

I sighed. “You think I should have said yes?”

Jenks shrugged. “Trent always pays his bills.”

I stared at him. “Who are you and how did you kill my partner?” I asked, and a faint red dust of embarrassment slipped from him. Last year, he would have been insulting Tink with a brandished sword for my even considering the idea, but then again, he had worked with Trent to rescue his daughter.

Head tilting the other way, he plucked the last chunk of cheese from the tip and ate it, licking the crumbs from his fingers. “Cincy is a fickle woman. One day you’re leading her in a waltz, and the next she’s smacked you and is walking on your face. Round the clock would be an insult, but someone to watch his back, someone in a dress who looks like a pushover and isn’t always telling him what to do? Yeah, he’d go for that.” His eyes met mine. “Especially if it was you.”

The sandwich went tasteless, and I set it down, two bites in. I’d worked with Trent three times: the first to steal a thousand-year-old elven DNA sample from the ever-after—which ended badly; the second to apprehend HAPA—which turned out okay; and the last at a museum fund-raiser—where the assassins were aiming at me, not him. And yet . . . “I can’t do it, Jenks. I can’t work for him.”

“So work with him, not for him,” Jenks said, as if that distinction was the easiest thing in the world. “Hell, if I can work with him, you can.”

“Sure, because you’re great at backup,” I protested. “But I’m not a backup kind of girl.” Jenks nodded solemnly and I slumped, shoving the tomato back into my sandwich. “Trent isn’t either,” I muttered. “I’m not going to change, and I’m not going to delude myself that I can change him. I don’t know if I would if I could.” Focus blurring, I gazed past the kitchen’s blue curtains to the foggy night beyond.

“Good, because you can’t.” Jenks dropped down, his wings rustling as they lay flat on his back. “No one can change anyone but themselves.”

My thoughts drifted again to the unusual hug Trent had given me, and then his request that I come out to talk about the abducted infants. I knew the subject of security would come up again. I could see it already, Quen forcing the issue and both Trent and I staunchly against it. I wasn’t averse to spending time with Trent, and I liked kicking ass that needed kicking, but either I was in charge of his security and he took direction from me, or I wasn’t. “People don’t change,” I whispered, silk sliding as I stood to get a cup of coffee.

“You did.” I turned from the open cupboard to see Jenks smirking at me. “You’re a hell of a lot easier to work with than you were a few years ago.” He paused. “Tink’s little pink rosebuds, has it only been a few years? It seems like three times that.”

The sound of coffee chattering into the porcelain was comforting, and I smiled faintly. “He invited me out tomorrow to go over the abductions. If it’s warm enough, do you want to come? I could use your take on things.”

Jenks struck a pose as if shooting from the hip. “Pow! See? You never would have asked me that two years ago. Hell, yes, I’ll come. Elf babies are almost as cute as pixy newlings. What time, so I can get Belle to watch my kids?”

Cup cradled in my hands, I leaned back against the counter and winced. “Eleven.”

He snickered. “I’ll wake you up at nine,” he said, then flew to the counter, dust sifting silver and gold from him. “Felix knows about Nick, right? The I.S. probably has an APB out on him already. I bet that put slugs in Trent’s roses.”

“I didn’t tell Felix,” I said, eyes flicking to Jenks, and the pixy’s eyes widened. “Quen didn’t tell him, either.”

“Why the hell not? He was right there!”

“What would be the point?” Avoiding his eyes, I came back to the table. “I can’t prove anything. All I’ve got is a hunch.” Admittedly, a pretty good hunch, but still just a hunch.

Jenks hovered at the coffeemaker to catch a drop in a pixy-size cup. “Like needing proof ever stopped you before.”

Blowing over the top, I took a sip. “You’re the one who said I was capable of change. Besides, if there’s one thing Nick can do, it’s disappear. He’s long gone.”

Sitting cross-legged on the coffeemaker with his cup, Jenks frowned. “And lie. He’s really good at that.” Wings slipping silver dust, he eyed me. “You should call him.”

“Felix?”

“No, Nick!” Jenks looked at my clutch purse. “You’ve still got his number, don’t you? It might still work. Ask him if he’s involved. Even if he lies, you’ll be able to tell. At the very least, you’ll know if he’s here or in the ever-after.”

I sat for a moment and thought about it. I’d never bothered to take Nick’s number out of my phone. I didn’t know why. Maybe because I had so few friends whose number ever made it that far. Jenks made a get-on-with-it gesture, and I half stood, my dress pinching as I stretched across the table to reach my clutch bag. “Okay, I’m game.”

Jenks flew over to eavesdrop, and I wondered if he’d suggested it in the hopes of finding out about Jax. I heard a stitch give when I fell back into my chair with my purse. Wings clattering, Jenks hovered over my open phone as I scrolled, his dust making the screen blank out until he moved away.

“Tink’s panties, why do you still have Denon’s number in your address book?” Jenks said, and I made a face at him. Not only was Denon no longer my boss, but the man was dead, entombed and burned to ash in one of Cincy’s tunnels. I helped with the last part, but he got dead all on his own.

“You got a problem with that?” I asked him, and he held his hands up in surrender. Embarrassed, I punched Nick’s number and put the phone to my ear. The hum of Jenks’s wings was loud as he came to sit on my shoulder so he could hear.

“I don’t think it’s good anymore,” I said, but then my bobbing foot stilled when the phone machine clicked on and an automated voice told me to leave a message. It was generic but familiar. The number was good. I finally got a beep, and I filled the silence with my attitude.

“Hello-o-o-o, Nic-k,” I said, hitting the K hard. “You might want to consider getting a new number if you’re going to be doing bad-guy stuff.” Jenks flew backward off my shoulder, giving me a thumbs-up with both hands. “I saw you tonight—running away as usual. If I catch you, you will be in the I.S. lockup with a zip strip bolted to your forehead. That’s a promise from me to you, you hear me, crap for brains? These are babies, not a piece of antiquated piece of history no one cares about. You are stealing someone’s child, and I’m going to—”

The phone clicked. “Rachel.”

The flat sound of my name cracked through me, and my eyes darted to Jenks, now standing on my plate. It was Nick all right, his tone dry and accusing. The image of his narrow face, scruffy stubble, and casual, unkempt clothes flashed through my mind, and my gut tightened. What had I ever seen in him? But behind his rough exterior was a wickedly clever mind, one that was going to get him in a hole in the ground.

“Oh,” I said lightly. “So you have a pair after all, huh?”

“You left me with no recourse but to sell my soul,” Nick said.

“Oh please.” I stood, pacing to the other side of the kitchen with Jenks hovering by my ear. “You sold your soul all on your own. I never made you summon a demon. I asked you once, but you were summoning him already, so I’m not taking the blame for that. Besides, you don’t belong to Al. Who owns you, Nickie? Is it Newt? You almost deserve her.”

“There you go again,” he said, his bitter laugh clear through the phone. “Jumping to the wrong conclusion. Listen to me this time. You left me with no recourse but to sell my soul. Thank you.” My lips parted. “I never would have met Ku’Sox any other way.”

Oh. Shit. My gut tightened even more, and Jenks dropped to the counter before me, pale and his wings unmoving. Ku’Sox was totally deranged and psychotic—along with coddled, endured, and hated by his entire race as their beloved and mentally unstable attempt to circumvent the elven curse that had made them basically barren. The lab-created demon had a tendency to eat people alive because he thought his soul was missing something. Maybe he was right. Nick stealing surviving Rosewood babies for him wasn’t for the good of his species. He was up to something, something really bad. I had to call Algaliarept. My teacher had to know of this like yesterday.

“Son of a Disney whore,” Jenks whispered.

I spun, hearing the silence of the church. “Listen to me,” I said, and Nick snorted. “Ku’Sox is psychotic. He’ll kill you as soon as he has everything he needs.”

“Which is why I haven’t told him how to make the enzyme that keeps his babies alive,” Nick said, his voice distant. “God, you think I’m stupid?” He wasn’t really paying attention, and that made me even angrier.

“You think you have something on him?” I exclaimed, and I heard pixy kids whisper from the hallway. “Nick, you almost deserve what’s coming. Just stop. Okay? Stop. If you stop and go away, I won’t have to hurt you. Better yet, put the babies back, and maybe I can get the rest of the demons to not kill you, too. You’re not going to come out of this alive.”

“You’re not the only one who wants to cheat death,” he said bitterly. “I’m hanging up now. Don’t bother calling back. This number isn’t going to work anymore.”

I stared at the phone as he clicked off. “Son of a bastard,” I whispered, knowing now why he’d gone to Ku’Sox. He wanted power and was hoping Ku’Sox would give it to him. “Sweet loving son of a bastard.” More tired than angry, I leaned against the counter, my dress pulling tight against me. Head bowed, I set the phone down with an exaggerated softness. Nick was going to get himself killed, but not before he hurt a lot of people and broke the balance of power that kept Inderland and humans from open conflict. Ku’Sox was halfway to making his own army of day-walking demons—unless I did something about it.

My dinner sat on the table across the kitchen, the two bites out of it looking odd and disconnected—coffee and a sandwich when I’d been expecting to end my day with grilled salmon and tiramisu. “Where’s my scrying mirror?” I said softly, and Jenks lit into motion, darting to the open shelving under the counter.

Lungs full of stale air, I leaned to get it. My dress tightened again, and with a smooth motion, I pulled the scrying mirror from between the demon textbooks and my favorite cookie book. Holding it tight to my chest, I sat back down in my chair and rested it on my knees. It was wrong side up, the flat silver back dull and mundane. “I’m calling Al,” I said, though that was obvious. “He needs to know what’s going on.”

The red-wine-tinted glass sent sparkles through my fingertips and the tops of my legs as I arranged it right side up, the silver-edged etchings that I’d put in it catching the light and gleaming. The round, plate-size glass holding the demon curse had been scribed with the figures to make it into sort of an interdimensional cell phone. It was really beautiful, and the fact that I had made it was a source of guilty pride.

“Keep your kids out in case he comes over,” I warned Jenks, but he had already chased them back into the garden, and I set my right hand in the center glyph. Tapping a line, I felt my mind expand as my awareness was dumped into the demon collective. I could still see the kitchen, hear the pixies playing outside, but I could also hear the faint whispers of a handful of conversations—demons in their chat room, I guess. It was uncomfortable, but it would ease if I could get Al to pick up.

Rachel calling Al, come in, Al, I thought sourly. It wasn’t even midnight yet. He should still be up. Most demons kept to a witch’s sleep schedule, and they did sleep. Al had given me his bedroom after examining the closet-size room I’d purchased from another demon. His old room had safeguards built into the walls, and he didn’t trust I could take care of myself—yet.

Yo! Are you there, Your Immenseness? Come in, Al. I need to talk to you!

Jenks’s wings were humming, and my move to look up at him was cut short when Al’s thoughts slid into my mind, somehow maintaining the slightly dry, lordly tone of a British aristocrat that his verbal speech invariably had. What do you want? We’re busy.

“We?” I said aloud, knowing that my verbal speech would carry through the mirror, reflected perfectly in my thoughts. Jenks wouldn’t be able to hear Al’s responses, but it was polite to include him as much as I could.

Ah, me, Al amended, his embarrassment making it through the attempted barrier that he tried unsuccessfully to erect between us. What do you want? I’m busy. If it’s about canceling your next lesson, forget it. Wednesday midnight, or I’ll find you.

I hesitated, getting the faintest impression of books and candles, but his thoughts weren’t tinged with thoughts of the library. He was in his closet of a room, etching the walls with curses to make a new safe room. Paranoid, are we? “Ah, we might have a problem,” I said, meeting Jenks’s eyes and seeing his encouragement. “It’s Nick.”

How many nasty little men do you need, love? Isn’t Trenton enough? Al thought, clearly distracted. You can’t have him. Ku’Sox would put too high a price just because it’s you. Cut him loose. He’s toad shit.

My jaw dropped. Hovering across from me, Jenks’s wings dropped in pitch as he reflected my shock, not knowing why. “You know Ku’Sox has Nick?” I said, warming. “And you don’t care? You didn’t tell me?”

Of course I know. And no, I don’t care. His thought was distant, as if I was only getting half his attention, and I wondered what he was doing. Why do you? If all you’re after is abuse, I can give it to you far more deliciously than a human.

I frowned at the wave of titillation he’d put in his words. “Do you have any idea what he’s capable of?”

Ku’Sox?

“No, Nick!” I pressed my fingers more firmly into the glass. He was losing interest.

Oh, for the two worlds colliding, Al thought, clearly bothered. Can this wait?

“No!” I said, and Jenks crossed his arms over his chest to mirror my distress. “How did Ku’Sox get Nick? The two of them couldn’t have met before.”

That I knew for a fact. The timing was off. I waited, shoving needlelike thoughts of impatience at Al’s mind, threatening him until he found out for me. Sure enough, he made a huge mental sigh, thinking, Hold on a sec.

I took a breath to complain, but he was gone. I shuddered—it felt as if I suddenly lost half my mind when the thousand half-realized musings that go on in the back of our awareness abruptly vanished. I hadn’t lost my mind, of course, but Al and I had been sharing mental space by way of the scrying mirror, and I felt the loss of his background noise when he left.

“He’s checking,” I said, then jumped as my focus blurred briefly as Al came drifting back into my head.

Ah. Here it is, the demon muttered, and I pressed my fingers against the scrying mirror to improve the connection. Ku’Sox won him in a bet. One concerning you, actually.

I put my free hand to my forehead and massaged it. Jenks landed on the table beside me, his tiny features drawn up in concern. It was as I’d feared. Ku’Sox on his own was bad enough, but add in a thieving, magic-using human who didn’t mind getting dirty, and we were in trouble. Won him, eh? I thought derisively. This omnipotent crap you guys think of yourself is going to get you all killed. Nick is devious. Ku’Sox is worse. Together, they’re really bad.

Al’s spark of amusement darted through me, alien and at odds with myself. He belongs to Ku’Sox. That should be some consolation. Abject humiliation . . . blah, blah, blah. He somehow gave the impression of leafing through papers. It’s all perfectly legal.

“I doubt abject humiliation is what’s going on. Nick is over here in reality,” I said, and Jenks smirked. Frowning, I turned back to the mirror, seeing a very faint reflection of him in its reddish depths. I thought it interesting that the pixy showed up better than me. “Did you know Nick is stealing Rosewood babies?” I said shortly, and Jenks’s dust pooling on the mirror shifted to a sick-looking blue. “Thriving Rosewood babies? Nick knows the enzyme to keep them alive. Stole it from Trent. He’s injecting it into them, prolonging their lives, then stealing them. Eight so far.”

Al’s amusement only ticked me off. Ah. You think Ku’Sox is making little yous? I don’t blame him, seeing as you don’t like him. Long-term planning. Good for him. It will keep the freak busy for a few decades. First thing the brat has done right since he got out of a test tube. I’m proud.

Al’s thoughts were going distant, and I pressed my hand harder into the glass until it ached with the thrum of energy running through it. “He’s not doing this for the greater demon good,” I said sharply. “In ten years, he’s going to have a bunch of preadolescent, very powerful day-walking demons who look to him for everything right down to their continued existence. Nick knows the enzyme, not the cure. The moment they don’t get the enzyme, they die. You think that little fact is going to escape Ku’Sox?”

Breath held, I felt Al consider that. A hint of worry colored his usual confidence. If he were actually next to me, I probably wouldn’t have been able to detect it, but here, with our consciousness twined together, it was harder to hide. And just as I knew he was concerned, he knew I was deadly serious. Mmmm, he finally thought. Is that coffee I smell in your thoughts? With an abruptness that told me he was taking me seriously, he snapped our connection.

I sucked in my breath and jerked my head up, shocked. “Damn,” I whispered, curling my shaking fingers under into a fist. The lingering energy swirled, hurting until it was reabsorbed. “I hate it when he leaves that fast. He’s coming over.” Fingers aching, I slid the mirror onto the table and stood, rubbing my hands together to try to rid myself of the lingering prickles of magic. “Scrying mirrors are like party lines. This is a good thing.” I think. “You staying?”

Jenks casually cleaned his sword on a torn corner of napkin and nodded.

I smiled, carefully setting my scrying mirror beside my cooling coffee. “Thanks. He’s easier to deal with when he thinks people trust him.”

“Trust?” The pixy held the blade up to the light and squinted at its shine. “I trust him all right. Trust him to get away with whatever he can.”

As if on cue, there was the barest tug on my awareness as Al gently misted into existence without even the hint of a shift in the air. Appearing in the threshold, he sniffed, his eyes going to the steaming pot of coffee. The demon was taller than me, his overdone buckled boots giving him an advantage. He was wearing his usual crushed green velvet frock coat with the lace at his throat and cuffs, having gone on to add a matching top hat, a scarf to protect against the night’s mist, a cane he didn’t need, and his usual round blue-tinted glasses. They did little to hide his red goat-slitted eyes, and I knew he didn’t need them to see with. Al was all about show, and he liked the image of a bygone British nobleman.

“Rache-e-el,” he drawled, eyeing me over his glasses as he loosened his scarf and came in, boots grinding leftover circle-salt into the linoleum. “Sweats at your trial, gowns in your kitchen. You simply must learn how to dress yourself properly. Or did you go all out for me?” His expression souring, he gave Jenks a disparaging glance.

Jenks wrinkled his nose in disgust at the rank smell of burnt amber now permeating the air. “Sweet ever-loving Tink,” he said, rising up and holding his nose dramatically. “Haven’t you learned how to take a shower yet? You smell like a burning tire.”

“Stop it,” I said, knowing Al couldn’t help it. The ever-after stank like burnt amber, and it rubbed off on you. I still noticed it, but it didn’t seem to have the same impact anymore, which bothered me for some reason.

“I didn’t get dressed up for you,” I said, hoping the pixies stayed out. “I haven’t had time to change from my, ah, date is all.”

Al pulled his bared-teeth smile from Jenks, mellowing as he turned to me. “Is that so?”

Wanting to improve his mood, I went to get him a coffee. Al propped his cane in the corner and sat in Ivy’s chair by the door, knowing it was the throne of the room. Settling himself with a pompous air, he shook out his sleeves and took a deep breath to speak.

I spun when six pixies came burst in, shouting about something or other. Jenks rose up, but as soon as they saw Al, they flew out screaming. Jenks shrugged, and Al grinned to show me his flat, blocky teeth. “You do have an interesting life,” he said, fluffing the lace at his cuffs. “Now, about Nicholas Gregory Sparagmos. Stealing Rosewood babies? How sure are you that he’s not collaborating with Trent?”

Shocked, I almost sloshed his cup over. “Pretty sure. Trent seemed as angry as I was when we met at the crime scene.”

“You wore that to a crime scene? No wonder they don’t take you seriously.” Al rolled his eyes dramatically, and frowning, I extended his coffee to him. His eyebrows rose at the rainbow mug, and in a huff, I sat down beside my uneaten sandwich and pushed it away. He was eyeing the cold cuts still out, and I gestured for him to help himself. Coffee I’d get him, but if he wanted a sandwich, he was going to have to make it himself.

Pinkie extended, he sipped from his rainbow mug, his eyes closing in what had to be bliss. “Oh, this is marvelous! Rachel, you have made a capital cup.”

“Al, about Nick,” I said impatiently, and Al set his coffee aside, rubbing his hands in anticipation as he went to the center counter. “Trent wouldn’t help him. He doesn’t want to see more Rosewood babies turning into demons any more than I do.”

Standing behind the counter, Al shook water off the lettuce, looking odd in his silk and velvet. “Trent has been known to work with Nicholas Gregory Sparagmos before,” he said, using his full name to denote his familiar status. “The tricky elf freed Ku’Sox from the prison we put him in. He allowed Nicholas Gregory Sparagmos to escape from his lockdown.” Al put a gloved finger to his nose. “Sounds suspicious.”

I frowned, chin lifted as I refused to let his doubt poison me. “Trent didn’t let Nick go. He was abducted by a demon, probably one that Nick called for that very reason, and probably the same one Ku’Sox got him from.”

“You sound proud of the little man,” Al drawled, and my lips parted when, with a tug on my awareness and a cascading sheet of ever-after, the vision of a British nobleman vanished, replaced with a heart-stoppingly familiar vision of Nick.

“Son of a Disney whore,” Jenks whispered, but I’d gone cold, seeing Nick with his thin build, shaggy mop of dark hair, and sparse stubble. Al even had the faded jeans, tatty sneakers, black T-shirt with the lumberjack-style shirt open and hanging loosely over his narrow shoulders. A chill went through me as he layered cold cuts on white bread, looking like Nick until he blew me a kiss and winked at me with his goat-slitted eyes with a confidence only Al could command.

“That’s not funny,” I said.

“Ahh, you do hate him.” His voice was his own, and I shivered as Al put a last slice of bread atop his pile. Seeing me turn away, he sent a second shiver of ever-after over himself and was back to his usual appearance. “Good for you, Rachel,” he said as he brought his sandwich to the table. “Hate is all that keeps us alive when love is gone. You’re almost there. Not quite ready to let it go yet.” Sitting, he took a large bite. “God slay me, this is good.”

Shaken from the reminder of Nick, I crossed my knees. “So you believe we’ve got a problem?”

He bobbed his head, not letting go of his sandwich to take a sip of his coffee. “We might,” he said, downing half of it in one go. “But you understand I simply cannot go to Dali with your scary bedtime story of killer demon babies.”

Jenks’s wings clattered in disgust. I, too, wasn’t happy, my foot starting to bob.

“Ku’Sox hasn’t done anything against the law. That is, our law,” Al said, one hand holding his sandwich, the other his coffee. “Especially if these children are potentially demons. It’s the first time he’s ever shown a hint of an interest in seeing our species regain its health and should be applauded. As for Nick? He’s just a human. Mostly harmless.”

Outraged, I stood. “Al, you are underestimating the danger here. Yes, Nick is just a human, but he’s not afraid to do things that might kill him if he thinks the risk is good. You can’t fight something like that. Will you just listen to me? How come no one listens to me! Is it the dress?” I snapped, my anger misplaced but real. “Maybe the curves? If I shaved my head and dressed like Newt, would you take me seriously then?”

The demon’s chewing paused as he sent his eyes over my shape, silent as he took a sip of coffee. “Now, now, no need to go to extremes,” he said softly. “Where is the proof that he’s planning mischief, itchy witch?”

My shoulders slumped. If he was calling me itchy witch, he believed me, believed the danger, and that was all I wanted. “I talked to him. He as much as admitted so.”

Red goat-slitted eyes showing over his glasses, Al made a bland face. “You talked to Ku’Sox?”

I blinked. “God, no. Nick.”

“Ahh.” Clearly relieved, he took a bite of sandwich. “Then you have nothing,” he mumbled around his full mouth.

Frustrated, I slumped back into my chair, my elbow just missing my scrying mirror. Jenks’s dust sifting down seemed to fall through the glass, but I was too frustrated to care.

“Oh, very well,” Al grumped with bad grace. “I suppose you’ll be bad-tempered until I talk to Dali. I’ll do it in the morning—he’s crankier than you if he doesn’t get his beauty sleep.”

My head came up, and I smiled, glad I had him to go to. Then I wondered how I’d gotten to the point where going to a demon was a good thing. “Thanks,” I said, meaning it.

Al stood, coffee in one hand, half-eaten sandwich in the other. “Indeed,” he said, then vanished in a wash of ever-after. His cane in the corner went with him, and then my eyes darted to the counter when the coffeepot popped out.

“Hey!” I shouted, but it was too late. My fingers drummed once in discontent, but I could sympathize. You couldn’t get a cup of decent coffee in the ever-after for any amount of money. I’d pick the coffeepot up Wednesday, but experience told me that a rank burnt-amber smell would taint the coffee for weeks.

“What an ass,” Jenks scoffed. “He took our coffeemaker!”

Shrugging, I went to open the window. “I’ll get a new one tomorrow on the way out to Trent’s.” The slider moved up with its accustomed ease, and I stood a moment, listening to the pixies playing in the night as the stink of demons filtered out. My thoughts went to Nick, and my heart hardened. He had lied to me, misled me, and betrayed me time and again. I’d warned him, and I wouldn’t feel guilty for whatever happened.

“You going to call Ivy?” Jenks asked, and I turned, my arms around my middle as I looked at her empty chair and her shut-down computer. Anything left open was going to smell like ever-after, and I bent to get the trash can out from under the sink. My first impulse was yes, seeing as she would like a piece of Nick’s ass in a glass as much as me, but she’d tell Glenn, and Glenn didn’t work for the FIB anymore. He had retired after finding out that HAPA had infiltrated the FIB, refusing to work for a company he couldn’t trust implicitly and moving to Flagstaff with Daryl in the hopes that the higher elevation and cleaner air would help the nymph. Calling Ivy would only get them all in a turmoil.

Pinning the trash bin against the center counter, I ran my arm over the counter, throwing away the food that was open. “No,” I said, and I met Jenks’s eyes when he clattered his wings in disapproval. “It’s the first time she’s ever done anything healthy in her relationships,” I said, not sure it was the right thing to do. “I’m not going to screw it up. She’ll be back in a week.”

Jenks’s dust shifted from an uneasy green to a more neutral silver. “Yeah, maybe you’re right,” he said as he flew to sit on the windowsill to watch his kids.

But it didn’t feel right.

Chapter Four

If I were to die and come back as a horse, I’d want to be a horse in Trent’s stables. The stalls were large, the hay sweet smelling, and the layout set to funnel the wind from the pasture right through it all to create the sensation of an open pavilion. Tucking a strand of hair back under my hat, I gave Molly a pat, running my hand down her side to feel the swallow of air she’d taken in to inflate herself so the saddle wouldn’t be so binding. I’d have to walk her until she released it before I tightened the cinch a final time.

“Molly, you’re a sweet horse, but predictable,” I said as I turned her around in the expansive box stall and walked her into the corridor. Around me were contented snuffs, grindings, and flicking of ears and tails. We weren’t in the wing where Trent kept his racehorses. No, these were the animals he kept for the Hunt, and they were far more intelligent and levelheaded.

My boots were silent on the sawdust as I headed for the north paddock. In the background was Ceri’s high, serious voice going over our route with the stable manager. As soon as Jenks got back with Trent and Ray, we’d be taking the river path where we could stay in the shelter of the old-growth forest.

The late-morning sun was high and it was unusually hot outside, but the upper housing units caught most of the rays to leave the open stables cool. I couldn’t help but be reminded of camp—though I didn’t recall a lot of it, I did remember the stables. My endurance had been nil then, and the horses had made me feel strong. Though seemingly sure of himself, Trent had been anything but—until I told him to stop letting Lee bully him and stand up for himself. They found Lee in the camp well three days later. Maybe Trent listened to me more than I thought.

My faint caffeine headache was finally easing, and I grabbed my to-go cup for the last swallows. It had gone cold, and tossing the empty cup in the trash barrel, I came out blinking into the sun, Molly clopping behind me. Seeing Quen already there with Lucy waiting for us, I smiled.

Quen was standing sideways with Lucy on his hip, making a striking statement in his black-and-green riding clothes. A big gray horse hung his huge head over Quen’s shoulder, snuffing at Lucy’s bonnet. The little girl was sweet in her white riding outfit, the picture of privilege as her chubby hands reached up to the unfamiliar brim. Her expression was pinched in annoyance as she tried to pull it off so as to see it. The little girl had Trent’s looks and Ellasbeth’s attitude, and when the curious horse blew out his breath, the little girl squealed, reaching for his floppy lips.

“You need your hat today, Lucy,” Quen said, moving before Lucy could get a grip on the horse. “We don’t want to have to ask Aunt Rachel to spell your sunburn away.”

Aunt Rachel. I liked that, and squinting despite my hat, I ambled forward with Molly. “I would, you know,” I said, touching Lucy’s soft-soled shoe and beaming at the little girl now shouting out nonsense, just to hear herself talk. “Even if it took a curse to do it.” My gaze lifted to Quen’s. “Shouldn’t they be back by now?”

Quen peered at the height of the sun. “Give or take a few. Here,” he said, holding Lucy out to me. “Your cinch is loose.”

“I know,” I said, then dropped Molly’s reins as I found myself suddenly holding a squishy, surprisingly heavy small person. She smelled like snickerdoodles, and I laughed when she wiggled, almost jumping in my arms. “I was going to walk her to get her to exhale first,” I said, scrambling to get my hat’s strap out of Lucy’s mouth.

“She let go already.” Head lowered, Quen eased the cinch up a notch. Molly flicked an ear, sighing. He gave her a pat and reached for Lucy, now patting my neck where my tattoo was. Realizing she was trying to say flower, I grinned. She was only a year old, but elves grew up fast. Not like witches, who Jenks swore were not able to be on their own until they were thirty. Ahem.

“They’re just over the hill,” Quen said as he took her back, his smile making his few wrinkles fold in and hide his pox scars. “Evaluating the three-year-olds practicing the gate.”

“Oh.” I didn’t really know exactly what he meant, but I could guess.

“He’s quite good at reading them,” Quen was saying as I gazed over the nearby hill. “He’s like his father there.” Quen turned to the hill expectantly at the soft rumble of hooves. “Kal was extraordinary on a horse. He had a knack for knowing what it was thinking and countering it with just the right amount of force.”

I looked up from playing peekaboo with Lucy, and Quen seemed to straighten. “That’s him now,” he said softly, then turned to the stables. “Ceri? He’s back!”

My eyebrows rose at the informal hail, but being around horses tended to do that to a person. Big horses with jockeys looking like children on their backs were coming over the hill in pairs, high-stepping and sending up puffs of dust from the soft path. I didn’t see Trent yet, but clearly practice was done.

The clop of hooves turned me around. Ceri was beaming as she looked up from adjusting her boot, the sun glowing in her hair caught back in a veil/hat kind of thing. She was utterly beautiful in her proper English riding outfit, sitting atop her horse with a happy air about her. Green eyes squinting, she was both breathless in anticipation and relaxed in the saddle. The voices of the jockeys became louder, and her mount backed up, nervous as the adjacent paddock filled with an aggressive energy.

“Do you have Lucy, love?” she asked Quen as she calmed her horse, and the older, pox-scarred man looked down at the little girl. His own mount didn’t care about the spirited stallions and feisty mares, calmly twitching an ear at them.

“Down,” Lucy whined, twisting until she could reach her hat. “Down. Down!”

“I’ll take her,” Ceri demanded, but Quen only smiled a private smile and handed her to me instead. It was then that Jenks showed up, and I almost dropped the little girl when Lucy squealed, reaching for the little funny man with wings who managed to stay just out of her reach.

“Jeez, Jenks!” I exclaimed, scrambling for a hold as the little girl wiggled. “If she ever gets a hold on you, I’m going to sell tickets. Back up, will you?”

“Awww, she won’t hurt me,” he said, but he hovered unmoving until I could hand the slightly squishy Lucy up to her mom. Or Ceri. Or whatever. Technically speaking, Lucy and Ray didn’t share a drop of common blood, and the only thing that linked them were their perfect, uncropped, and somewhat pointy ears. But still.

Ceri was cooing over Lucy, adjusting her bonnet as I checked the cinch again and swung myself up. Immediately I felt taller as Molly took three steps to the gate before I pulled her back. Last-minute details were being sorted out as Ceri settled Lucy before her and talked to the stable manager—diaper bag, water, sunscreen, phones checked for a proper charge—but it was Trent my attention was on.

He had come in last with Ray sitting in front of him, and he was accompanied by a heavy, small man on a sedate quarter horse. Quite simply, Trent looked amazing on Tulpa, the same horse I remembered from camp. The tall black would be ancient by now, but being Trent’s familiar had extended his life span, sort of a capacitor for high-voltage magic as well as allowing Trent to reach a ley line when surrounded by water.

His back to me, Trent discussed something with his manager. Seeing him there, Ray sitting before him, the picture of wealth and privilege, I felt something catch in me. It wasn’t just that he looked good but that he was comfortable, at peace without the mask of perfection that he felt he needed everywhere else.

Molly flicked an ear at Jenks, and the pixy landed right between them. “Yeah, the elf looks good on a horse,” he said dryly. “But he’s mean to them.”

My gaze jerked from Trent to Jenks. “Mean?”

Jenks nodded, using his heel to scratch Molly between her ears. “Mind games. Remind me not to piss him off. He’s good at them. Little cookie maker.”

I took a breath to ask him to explain, but he darted off to Lucy. The little girl was calling to him, shrieking at the top of her lungs for “Inks! Inks!” Ceri was looking harried, and I wondered how long it would be until she gave her back to Quen.

“Mind games?” I breathed, and Trent looked up as if hearing me across the distance.

His eyes met mine briefly in acknowledgment, then went back to the manager. “No, I want her across from Managed Detail, not out of his sight,” he was saying, gesturing to a stable hand. “Where he goes, she goes three steps behind. We made progress, but it will mean nothing if she thinks the rules apply only on the track.”

The stable hand lugged a bucket of water out, and Tulpa nosed him before dropping his head and sucking it in.

“I want Red right across from Managed Detail in a box stall,” Trent said, his eyes again flicking to me. “He is to be lavished with attention for at least an hour starting now, and then special treats on the hour until sunset. I want her so frustrated and jealous that she does exactly what Ben tells her next time.”

Mind games . . .

“Yes, sir,” the manager said, squinting up at him, and we all looked at a fiery-tempered horse only now coming into the paddock. She was high stepping and beautiful, her jockey needing every ounce of his attention to keep her in bounds. Frustrated? I’d say she was that already. It was obvious to me she was pissed she’d been held back when everyone else got to go back to the stables.

The wailing of an ambulance drew my attention to the nearby service road, and everything became more serious. Seeing it, the manager sighed. “She’s not a bad horse, sir.”

“She’s magnificent.” Trent frowned as Red squealed and snapped at the horse next to her. “But if she doesn’t learn that playing with others is more fun than playing alone, we will be the only two to know it.”

“Trenton . . .” Ceri cajoled, a hand to her eyes. “The sun is getting hot, and the girls will be napping before we get to the woods.”

Trent raised his hand acknowledging her, then turned back to his manager. “We’re done with practice. Tomorrow take her and Managed Detail on a ride and let them go. He has more endurance and can bring her to exhaustion. She’ll gate next time.” Pulling Tulpa together, he angled to the gate between the two paddocks. A stable hand ran to open it. Turning, Trent looked over his shoulder. “Treats every hour!” he reminded him. “Don’t forget. And I want a call as soon as you know how Ben’s collarbone is.”

The manager jotted a note on his clipboard. “Yes, sir.”

“And keep her away from everyone else. I want Managed Detail her best frenemy.”

The older man smiled. “Yes, sir. Enjoy your ride.”

Molly barely moved an ear as Trent rode up, but my heart gave a thump. Blinking, I looked away, pretending to fix my boot but taking sideways glances at him. Damn, he looked good, his trim physique—usually only hinted at underneath a suit—defined and definite in the jeans and button shirt he had on. I think normally he would be in full English garb but he had dressed down either for gate practice or me. I didn’t mind. I rather liked seeing that wisp of chest hair and his muscles moving behind his shirtsleeves. Ray looked sweet beyond description in her sturdy pale green riding dress complete with white leggings, soft boots, and matching hat, happily playing with the bells woven into Tulpa’s mane. Seeing her there only layered “paternal” over everything and hit just about every button I had. No. Working for Trent would be a mistake. A big mistake.

“Ready?” he said, the sun and wind in his hair, and Jenks snorted, rising up from Lucy and making the little girl whine.

“Rather,” Ceri said as she nudged her horse into motion toward the far gate. A hand waited to open it for us. “Red is not suited for the track, dear. Why do you insist on tormenting that animal?”

Waiting for Quen to go first, Trent smiled. “You have to admit my methods have good results.”

“Yes, but why?” Ceri insisted, her hand gentle on the reins as she angled her horse closer to me. “Let Red be who she is. She’s better tempered to the Hunt and will make a magnificent courser.”

Trent turned in the saddle to look behind him at the stables. “That mare is going to break women’s hearts and men’s fortunes, Ceri. I want the world to know her name. She will never be forgotten.”

Confused, I turned to Quen. “Red?”

The man brought his eyes back from the edge of the woods where he’d been scanning, always on alert. “Her papered name is Kalamack’s Sunrise Surprise. But we call her Red.”

Really. I looked at Trent, his horse predictably out front. “Because of her color? That’s original.”

Quen leaned closer with a creak of leather. “No, her attitude. Red zone? Danger? We’d put a red collar on her if everyone didn’t know to look out for her already. She bit Trent three hours after she was foaled.”

Passing through the gate to open field, Trent looked at his hand ruefully, clearly having heard us. “Oh,” I said softly, and Jenks snickered, coming to a landing on my saddle horn. Dropping down, he sat cross-legged, his wings glinting and his head drooping in the hot sun.

With a soft clicking, Ceri encouraged her horse to come even with Trent’s and we went two by two. We were almost to the woods, and I was eager for the shade. “There’s nothing wrong with anonymity if one is the best at their art,” Ceri insisted. “The horse is a born hunter. Let her be.”

They rode side by side, the girls they shared between them reaching out to touch each other. “If she doesn’t gate tomorrow, I will let her be,” Trent said, reaching across the space to kiss the top of Ceri’s hand in a formal acquiescence.

Seeing them there, I glanced at Quen. His eyes were tired, but the only other emotion I saw was a fond pleasure that both Ceri and Trent were happy in their familiar but platonic relationship. He was secure in his love for Ceri, and it was obvious that though Ceri liked Trent, her heart belonged to the older man. Somehow it all worked. But even though the girls and their past bound them all together, I was dogged by the feeling that though Trent was a part of this, he would forever be somewhat . . . sidelined. His future demanded so much of him that love was a luxury his fortune couldn’t buy.

And it bothered me, because I thought he not only knew it but accepted it as normal.

Smiling with the surety of the devil, Ceri drew her hand from Trent. “I would have a private world with Rachel, Trenton.”

Jenks opened an eye, and I felt a sliver of concern at her soft confidence. Private word? About what? What had I done now?

“Just girl talk,” she added, but her tone concerned me. She had something on her mind.

“Of course.” Trent nudged Tulpa into a faster pace as Ceri drew her mount in.

I glanced at Quen, worried when his brow pinched. Refusing to look at me, he nudged his horse ahead. Jenks flew up, saying, “You’re on your own,” before he darted off to join the elves.

“I haven’t done anything,” I muttered, grimacing at his chiming laughter floating back.

Sighing, I looked over at Ceri, seeing the faint blush of anger on her as we slipped under the welcoming shade of the woods. The path was steep, and we said nothing as the horses scrambled up. Lucy was still in Ceri’s lap, and the little girl was struggling to stay awake. Ahead of us, Trent and Quen rode with soft masculine murmurs drifting between them. Maybe her flush had only been from the sun.

“Lucy looks sweet today,” I said, and her grip on the reins tightened. Nope. Guess not.

“Quen told me you refused to help keep Trenton safe,” she said, coming right out with it.

My breath caught, and then I exhaled. Yeah, I probably owed her an explanation. “Trent doesn’t need me to babysit him,” I said, voice low. “And I won’t insult him by doing so.”

Her eyes widened. “Insult him? Rachel, we are teetering on the brink of extinction and you’re worried that extra security will insult him?”

Lucy shouted, her voice echoing against the underside of the canopy as she mirrored Ceri’s outburst. Wincing, I begged her with my eyes to lower her voice.

“His actions impact our entire species,” Ceri said.

“Yes, but—”

“They’re all looking to him now. Reclaiming Lucy solidified his standing. If he dies, it will be the Withons who chart the next fifty years, and they’d have us hiding in closets and cropping our ears again!”

I couldn’t even catch her eye. I think Quen was laughing, the bastard.

“We can’t survive another five decades hiding. We must come out, and Trenton needs protection. You think the vampires are happy about this?”

“No,” I managed to get in.

“You think anyone is? You are a demon!” she shouted, and I flinched, looking up the path where Trent and Quen plodded along. Jenks rose up amid a sparking of gold dust and darted off at surveillance height, but thankfully no one turned around. “You are a day-walking demon, and as such you are the best person possible, save Quen, for keeping him alive! We all have our tasks, and what we want needs to be set aside to meet them. Why are you being so selfish?”

Selfish? I grimaced when Trent glanced back to make sure we were okay. I knew her anger was a mix of worry for Trent and her ironclad upbringing that personal desire was a distant second to political need, but seeing her spouting off when she had her happy ending, and Trent was being asked to sacrifice what he wanted for everyone else, rankled. “You just got done telling Trent to let Red be who she is,” I said, allowing a hint of my own anger to show. “And now you’re saying everyone should be what some big plan dictates?”

She was flushed, but I knew she enjoyed our shouting matches since I was the only one who would yell back at her. And if I was honest, I’d admit I enjoyed them, too. “Red is a horse, Rachel,” she said pointedly. “Trent is poised to lead an entire society. He has healthy children, political and monetary advantage. Everyone from the vampires to the humans would like to see the elves die out. He needs protection. I don’t care if he’s insulted. A martyr won’t save our species.”

“I understand that,” I said, knowing she wasn’t angry at me, but that outside forces were threatening the one spot of peace in her long, heartbreaking life.

“Then why won’t you do it?” she asked, her horse prancing because of her tension.

“I don’t know what I want, Ceri!”

Ceri hesitated, and then her eyes widened. Sitting atop my horse, I went hot. I don’t know what I want? Had I really just shouted that?

“What you want . . .” Ceri echoed, the clops of the horses silent beneath us. “By the Goddess, you like him! Mother pus bucket, when did that happen!”

Hearing Al’s cuss phrase come out of her was a shock, and flustered, I scrambled for something to say. “Uh . . .” I hedged, praying that neither Quen nor Trent turned around. “I think somewhere between him slugging Eloy and pie. But it doesn’t change anything.”

“It changes everything,” she said, her upright stance returning as she thought the possibilities over. All for the state, yes, but she was a romantic at heart, and I could see where she was going. Damn it, she was thinking again. I had to stop this, and stop it now.

“Ceri, look at me,” I pleaded. “I’ve had four relationships in two years. One was a thief, one died as a political gift, one walked away because I was shunned, and the last is a slave in the ever-after. I know you think this is perfect, but I come with a lot of baggage, and it would be a mistake to work for him.” I looked up, seeing the concern on her face as deep as her excitement had been. “He’d end up dead because of me, and you know it.”

A wisp of pity showed in her eyes as she set Lucy’s bonnet straight. “Maybe you’re right.”

It was what I wanted to hear, but it kind of hurt.

“It’s simply that Trent is so important,” she said, voice wistful as she stared into space. “I know he feels he can ward off any attack, but he needs to set his pride aside. He’s more than he ever was, more than just himself.”

There was a lump in my throat, and I wasn’t sure why. Yes, Trent had always been more than just himself. But that wasn’t what he wanted to be. I knew how that felt.

The flash of Jenks’s dust over Quen and Trent caught my attention, and I wasn’t surprised when both of them pulled their mounts up short. Concern pushed out everything else when Quen’s horse nickered, feeling the tension of his rider. Trent was gazing into the canopy, and both Ceri and I urged our horses into a faster pace to catch up.

“There’s something in the woods,” the pixy said as we joined them, and a chill dropped down my spine. “The birds are agitated, and the small mammals are hiding.”

Ceri held Lucy closer. “Quen?” she questioned, and he shook his head, clearly at a loss as he scanned the trees. I shivered, and the sun-dappled shadows became fraught with doubt. Reaching out, I tapped a line, filling my chi and then spindling enough energy in my head to make a circle around all of us.

“It’s probably just Nick,” I said, but Molly had felt my tension and was now stomping.

Immediately Ceri seemed to lose her concern. “The slimy little worm,” she said sourly. “Quen, call security to dispatch him immediately. The thought of him here makes me ill.”

“Ah . . . I talked to Al last night about Nick,” I started.

Trent bobbed his head as if not surprised, but Quen turned in the saddle to face me straight on, an accusing look in his eyes. “And?”

“See, I was going to tell you all at once,” I said, fidgeting with Molly’s reins. Jenks had darted away, and both girls were wiggling to find him. “Ku’Sox owns him. Won him in a bet.”

Tulpa pranced in place, giving away Trent’s tension. “I wondered,” he said softly, eyes on the canopy. “Nick gained the labs once. He could do it again. I know for a fact it isn’t HAPA. Damn. He’s making demons.”

I didn’t often hear Trent swear, and I nodded uneasily. “That’s what I think, too,” I said quietly. “In twenty years Ku’Sox will have at least eight day-walking demons who look to him for their very survival.”

Quen glanced at Trent, and Trent nodded. “It’s up to twelve now,” Trent said, and Quen took Ray from him, the little girl settling in before her birth father with a serious air about her. “This is what I was afraid of. Ceri, I’m sorry but we are cutting our ride short.”

“Trenton,” she protested.

“You and Quen head back to the stables with the girls. If Nick is here, Rachel and I will draw him out. I’m the one he’s after. I’m the only one who can make the cure permanent.”

Ceri began turning her horse around, but Quen was unmoving, his horse blocking the path ahead of us. “It’s not your place to draw out danger, Sa’han.”

I, too, wasn’t keen on this plan, but for another reason. “Ah, I don’t think the cure is what Ku’Sox wants.”

Trent pulled Tulpa up short, the black snorting at the rough motion. “If Ku’Sox didn’t want the cure, Nick wouldn’t be in the woods,” he said, words clipped. “And yes, it’s my place to draw out danger, just as it’s Rachel’s expertise to crush it.” He looked at me. “We will continue on.”

Oh, I was all for crushing danger, but this was moving too fast. Maybe I’d picked up more of Ivy’s cautious planning than I’d thought. “Jenks!” I shouted, and got a wing chirp back.

“Quen, it’s only Nick,” Ceri said, clearly wanting to get the girls out of the woods and possible danger.

But still Quen stood there. “This is an ill-conceived plan. We don’t know if it’s Nick. What if it’s someone else?”

The corner of Trent’s eye twitched, and he looked irate as Tulpa trotted in place under him. “You don’t trust Rachel’s skills?” he said, and I winced. “You went behind my back to buy them, Quen.” Clearly angry, he added in a softer voice, “I can’t risk any of you. Go. Let me do my job. Rachel?”

Easing up on his hold on Tulpa, he let the horse bolt. Quen jerked his horse back from following, his expression as angry and dark as I’d ever seen it. Before him, Ray was silent, but Lucy was wailing her distress. Shrugging, I gave Molly a nudge.

I glanced behind us to see Quen turning his horse back to the stables, Ceri sitting tall in her saddle with Lucy, waiting for her love to join her. I agreed with Trent. They had a perfect life, a perfect love when they’d both resigned themselves to having neither. It needed to be protected.

Trent was silent when I joined him, and we continued on. My shoulders were tense, and I listened to the wind in the tops of the trees, their new leaves pale green and rustling. Jenks was up there somewhere. He had my back. The silence stretched, and I glanced at Trent. His jaw was tight, and the sun caught his hair in a come-and-go fashion. Something other than Nick was on his mind, his fierce determination reminding me of his satisfaction when he turned that HAPA member into a deformed, twisted mockery of a demon. Here, Nicky, Nicky, Nicky . . .

Tulpa was a larger horse, and he was stepping out farther than Molly could comfortably walk. Trent was too distracted to notice. Jenks dropped down, and Trent absently corrected the uptight stallion when he shied. Used to it, Molly contented herself with flicking an ear.

“Something is in the woods, huh?” I said as Jenks landed on the saddle pommel. “Do you know how creepy that is?”

His sword was loosened in its scabbard, but he hadn’t pulled it. “I don’t know how else to say it, Rache. I’m going to do a Z axis until I see Quen and Ceri make it out of the woods. There’s nothing ahead of you for another quarter mile.”

Trent shook himself out of his funk. “You couldn’t have scouted a quarter mile that fast.”

“That’s right,” Jenks said, grinning. “You just keep thinking that.” He turned to me as he took wing. “I’ll stay within earshot. Something isn’t right.”

“Thanks, Jenks.” He zipped straight up to rise high enough to see when Quen and Ceri broke free of the trees, and I nudged Molly into a short canter to catch up with Tulpa.

Sighing, Trent drew Tulpa into a slower pace, the black horse snorting in impatience. “Thank you. I appreciate you doing this with me,” he said, his low voice blending perfectly with the leaves, stirring in me like the wind in my hair.

And here I had just gotten done telling Ceri I wouldn’t work with him. “You’re welcome. If I hadn’t, then Ceri would have refused to leave.”

His profile showing his concern, he tucked a wayward lock of his hair away.

“You really should think about including a pixy clan in your security,” I added.

Trent looked up into the canopy. “That’s what you keep saying.”

“Then maybe you should listen,” I shot back. Tulpa had already resumed his faster pace, and it irritated me. “Or at least do a cost analysis or something.”

Pulling Tulpa up short, Trent smiled with half his mouth. Molly stopped as well, and a sudden memory exploded in me, brought forth by the tension, the dappled sun, even the shadowed air drawing goose bumps. He had been lanky and insecure with youth, and I had been awkward and overly confident with the first hints of health, but Tulpa had been the same, and I had been irate that he’d gotten a larger horse than me and I couldn’t keep up.

“What?” he asked, and I put a hand to my cold face.

“Um,” I said, scrambling. “Ceri might be right.”

Molly shifted under me, and Trent reached out. I froze as he tucked a stray strand of hair behind my ear, his fingers brushing the rim of my hat. “About what?”

My heart was pounding. “That you’d be good at being king of the elves.”

His hand dropped, and I breathed again. Head bowing, he looked at his fingers laced among the reins. “I can be both what I need to be and what I want to be.” But it was soft, and I wasn’t sure he believed it.

“I tried that, and it didn’t work,” I said, the reins slipping through my fingers as Molly stretched to crop at the spindly grass surviving under the shade. “It didn’t work for Batman, either.” Trent didn’t look up, and I blurted, “At least you have something worth fighting for. Trent—”

“I’ve been meaning to ask if you would like to choose a horse from my herd,” he interrupted me. “One who would be designated as yours for when you ride with us. I still owe you a proper Hunt.”

My eyebrows rose, more because of the change of subject than the offer. “We are sitting here in the middle of nowhere waiting to be attacked, and you offer me a horse?”

Tulpa sighed, making Trent shift his seat. “We can talk more about your conversation with Ceri if you like.”

Oh God. No. “Sure. I’d love a horse,” I said, feeling the need to give Molly a pat. “I’m not really into the Hunt, though.” I remembered the sound of the hounds, the heart-stopping fear that they might catch me. Is he nuts?

He nudged Tulpa into motion, and Molly followed. “If you change your mind, let me know. Ceri would love another feminine presence on the field. She says we men lack style in running down prey.”

I’ll bet. “I might just do that,” I said. “If only to get you to stop giving me Molly all the time.”

Trent’s smile warmed me all the way to my center. It was true and honest, and he was smiling at me. Stop it, Rachel. “What’s wrong with Molly?”

“Nothing, but you keep giving me a horse I can’t possibly win with.”

His face lost all expression as he thought that over. Then his eyes narrowed. “You can’t have Red. She’s not in the herd you may choose from.”

It sounded like a rather formal statement. The fiery horse was way out of my league, and I hadn’t even been thinking about her. “Why not?” I teased. “She’s sweet.”

Trent stiffened, but he wasn’t looking at me. Under him, Tulpa snorted, and with a sudden shock, I felt a huge drop in the nearest ley line.

Jenks pattered through the leaves, wreathed in a haze of silver sparkles. “Hey! Someone just made a huge bubble between here and the stables! It poked above the Turn-blasted trees.”

I stared at Trent. “Nick can’t make a bubble bigger than three feet.”

“Ceri . . .” Trent whispered. “The girls . . .”

“Trent!” I exclaimed, my hand outstretched, but he’d already wheeled Tulpa around. With a word I didn’t recognize, he urged him into a full gallop. In an instant, he was gone, the thudding of his hooves fading.

Molly snorted as I jerked her to follow, head tossing when I kicked her into a gallop. Hanging on low to her back and knees flexing, I pushed her down the trail.

I needed a faster horse.

Chapter Five

Cer-r-r-ri!”

Trent’s voice raised in summons jerked my attention, and I yanked Molly to a halt. Just off the path was a clearing, the winding, shaded stream we’d been paralleling beyond it. The fresher wind shifted my hair, bringing the scent of burned grass and decaying vegetation—and spent magic, tingling like ozone before a lightning strike.

There were two ugly burn marks and a large circle pressed into the tall grass, and the line I was connected to seemed to hum with the reminder of an energy draw. The fast-moving stream chattered among the rocks and tree roots, and I stifled a flash of fear when I saw Trent crouched over Quen, Tulpa standing a watchful guard. It was probably the same stream that I’d stumbled through once to lose the hounds chasing me.

“Hie!” I shouted, giving Molly my heels, and she jumped forward, neck arching and hooves stepping high when her footing unexpectedly turned spongy. The low-lying area surrounded by craggy trees looked as if it flooded often; the grass that wasn’t burned was tall. Three trees managed to survive the wet ground, but they were spindly and let a lot of light through, especially this early in the spring.

Jenks hovered over Quen, his dust seeming to melt into him as I came to a fast stop beside them. Ray sat in the crook of Quen’s twisted body, her little hands clutching her father’s jacket; she was too scared to cry. Quen was unconscious, no signs of attack but for a slight burn on his hands.

“His aura is intact,” Jenks said as he darted to me, “but it’s doing something really weird, shifting outside its normal color spectrum like it doesn’t have a clear connection to his soul anymore.”

Worried, I unfocused my attention to bring my second sight into play. Molly quivered as if feeling it, and I looked down. Trent’s aura was its usual gold with sparkles around his hands and head, a deeper slash of red running in the thin spots and a new shiny white at the center I’d not seen before. Quen’s was a dull green that mutated to red, then an orange as I watched. Whoa. Still holding my second sight, I looked away, shivering.

The sunbaked surface of the ever-after overlaid itself atop reality, a dry streambed and sparse grass running to the distant profiles of broken buildings where Cincinnati would be. There were no demons, no eyes watching, and I let go of my second sight, trembling as I maintained my hold on the ley line. “That’s not right,” I said, and Trent stood.

His eyes were haunted, and his hands cupped about his mouth. “Ceri!” he shouted again, but the silence was broken only by the sound of the water and wind. Ceri wasn’t here, nor were the horses.

Jenks rose up on a column of purple dust as I slid down, my knees protesting. “How bad is he hurt? Is he okay?” I said as I crouched beside them. Ray made a sob that was too old for her, and I reached out as she leaned toward me, falling into my arms.

“No.”

I froze where I crouched. Ray’s grip tightened, and she twisted on my hip to see her dads. Still she didn’t cry, red, wet cheeks under deep green eyes. What had she seen? Turning, Trent squinted into the surrounding woods. “Ceri!” he called again, his voice holding fear now.

I held my breath, listening. There was a burn mark on the closest tree, the part that hadn’t hit it spreading out behind in a long trail. There’d been a fight—short but powerful. Demons . . .

“She’s not answering,” Trent muttered. His hair fell into his eyes as he looked down, cell phone in hand, and I stumbled to my feet when he shoved it at me. “Call the gatehouse. The number is there. Have them send the med copter. Stay with Quen. I have to find Ceri and Lucy. They could be hurt and unable to respond.”

His leaving wasn’t a good idea, and I resettled Ray on my hip when she reached for him, small sounds of distress coming from her. “Trent . . .”

Jenks’s wings clattered. “Stay here,” he said, hovering between both of us, Quen silent at our feet. “I can cover more ground faster than you can.”

Trent looked awful, his grace mutated by fear. “No.” Turning, he broke into a jog for the nearby trees. I took a hesitant step, but Jenks was faster, and before Trent could even get past the horses, the pixy was in his face, dripping a silver-tinted red dust.

“Hey!” the pixy shouted, and Ray’s whimpering cut off. “I said stay put! Whoever did this might still be out there, Mr. King-of-the-World, and I can cover ten times more ground than you. You got me?” Wings clattering, he stared Trent down. “Stay here and call your ambulance. Quen’s aura is freaking out. He needs help!”

My heart thudded, but Trent hesitated, and finally with a groan of frustration, he spun back to Quen, his head down to hide his eyes as he returned. He held his hand out for his phone, and I swear I felt a tingle of magic as he took it in his cold fingers.

“Do you know a healing charm?” I asked, not knowing one myself. I’d been afraid to learn, and Al wouldn’t teach me lest I do something worse to myself than the burn or cut I would use it to fix.

“I did it already,” he said, flipping his phone open as he dropped down to kneel beside Quen. “That’s when his aura started cycling, but it did get his pulse to even out.”

Not even a bird disturbed the silence, and, awkward with Ray on my hip, I knelt as well, reaching for Quen’s wrist. “His pulse is thready,” I said, and I shifted Ray’s weight when I leaned to pull Quen’s lids back. “Dilation is normal,” I said, at a loss. My hand was tingling, and disconcerted, I pulled back. Ray began to protest, and I stood.

“It’s Trent,” Trent said into his phone, his voice iron hard, all hint of his fear hidden. “We’ve had an accident. I need the med copter out at the stables. Now.”

“You have a medical copter?”

He didn’t even look at me, his eyes scanning the nearby trees as if wanting to be among them searching. “Inform the university hospital we might be bringing Quen in. I suspect a demon attack. Yes, in the daylight. Ceri and Lucy are missing. I want the dogs in the woods running a rescue pattern as soon as possible. Focus on the river path.” He hesitated, and I saw him struggle to keep his face steady. “I will be out of contact for several hours. Questions?”

He closed the phone, breathing raggedly. “Hurry up, Jenks . . .”

I stood, my shadow covering Quen’s pale face. It made his pox scars stand out. I couldn’t do anything. If he was bleeding, I could stop the blood. If he had a concussion, I could treat him for shock. If he was delusional, I could sit on him until help arrived—but this? I didn’t know what to do, and I found I was rocking back and forth with Ray. She was silent, her beautiful dark green eyes scared.

“Maybe Ceri made it back to the stables,” I said, turning to the burn marks. “The horses are gone.”

Trent was taking Quen’s pulse again. “I called before you got here.” His voice was even, distracted. “The horses came in riderless. Ceri never would have left Quen.”

And yet, she was gone. Damn it, Quen had tried to stop them. I should have been here. I could have helped. “It doesn’t mean that demons took them,” I said, flushing when Trent looked up, his anger obvious.

Ray turned, her eyes tracking Jenks as he darted back from under the trees. His dust was almost nonexistent. “I did a circle two hundred yards out,” he said. “No sign of them.”

“Then do a wider one!” I said, and he frowned.

“I didn’t go out any farther because there’s a circle burn. We’re in the center.”

Shit. Quen couldn’t make a circle that big, even under stress. Neither could Ceri. It was demon made.

“If there’s a demon circle, then they’ve been taken,” he finished, and Trent’s hands clenched.

Ku’Sox. I needed to talk to Al, and I turned to the horses, thinking of my scrying mirror, hours away. I’d been promising myself I’d make a compact version, and I cursed myself for having put it off. I was completely out of contact with the ever-after. “It couldn’t be Ku’Sox,” I whispered, just wanting it to be anyone else. “It’s daylight, and he’s cursed to stay in the ever-after.”

“He’s working through Nick.” Trent stood up. “This is my fault.”

Fault? It was no one’s fault. “Don’t start,” I said harshly, and Jenks hummed his wings nervously. My tone brought Trent up short, and his eyes narrowed as he focused on me. “No, I mean it,” I said, jiggling Ray on my hip. “Ku’Sox could have as easily been going for you. Maybe he didn’t because I was with you, in which case it would be my fault they were taken.” Oh God, Ceri and Lucy with Ku’Sox was too terrifying to think about.

“You don’t understand. This is my fault,” Trent said, his voice angry. “I never should have left them. I thought I was his target. I sent them into danger, not away from it.” He looked at me, anguish in his green eyes. “He took them. Why? I was right there!”

“Because you’re an emancipated familiar,” I said, numb and almost sick to my stomach. “Ceri was freed, but you were emancipated. The papers had been filed and there was no way he could get away with it like he can with Ceri. Trent, give me a chance to look into it and get Ceri’s papers signed and filed. Lucy is my godchild. I think that comes under the leaving-me-and-mine-alone deal we have.” I hope. “We can get them back.”

Teeth clenched, he turned away. Another look of guilt slithered over his face. “I’m the only person who can make the Rosewood cure permanent,” he said, head down so the sun couldn’t reach his eyes. “It should’ve been me. I was ready if it had been me.”

His voice cracked and he stared at the river. It flowed uncaring before us, like the chaos that was running through his mind, always moving, never silent. I hovered over Quen as I remembered that hug last night. It had been unusual, especially in front of the newspeople. Had Trent known this might happen and had been trying to keep me from being a suspect? Up until recently, I would have loved to see him in jail.

“He took her to make me comply,” he said flatly. “Rachel, I can’t do that. I vowed to see to the survival of the elves. A resurgence of demons might be our end.”

“Maybe not. There’s the—”

“I can’t!” he shouted, and I became silent. “I was ready to give my life to keep the secret of the demons’ survival out of their hands. I was not ready to give theirs.”

“We’ll get them back,” I said as I shifted Ray’s weight, but even I knew it was only something to say. The doing would be harder. A faint thumping of a helicopter’s blades sounded in the late morning air, and Trent looked at his watch, then the woods. I touched his shoulder, finding it rock hard. “It’s going to be okay.” He jerked from me, and my resolve strengthened. “I’m telling you, if Ku’Sox has them, they will be okay!” God, please let them be okay.

He spun, the sound of the chopper blades growing. “How?” he barked. “The demon is sadistic and psychotic! He does things because he enjoys it, not for power or money, but because he enjoys it!”

Then maybe you shouldn’t have let him go from under the St. Louis arch, I thought, but to say it wouldn’t do any good; he’d freed Ku’Sox to save me. “Trent, I’ve been where you are now. It’s going to be okay. Give me a chance to talk to Al. We’ll get the papers filed and get them back. In the meantime, they will be safe. Will you look at me?”

He finally looked up, the anguish he was trying to hide stopping me cold. I held Ray tighter, and the little girl began to fuss. “Pardon me if I don’t share your trust of demons.”

“Trust has nothing to do with it!” I shouted, and Tulpa flattened his ears. “I know he’s psychotic, but he is not stupid, and he’s not going to eat his bargaining chip!”

Trent glared up at the circling copter, ignoring me. How would they even know where to land? “Ceri knows demons,” I said. “She will keep Lucy safe. She has her soul, and that makes all the difference. I promise I’ll find out what happened. We have a space. We need to think. Please give me a chance to do something.”

He wasn’t looking at me, his jaw set and his manner closed. I didn’t know if I’d made things better or worse. “Jenks,” he said suddenly. “They will have to land in the pasture and walk in. You’re the fastest person here. Will you tell them where we are?”

Frowning, I shifted Ray higher. We didn’t have time for this. I didn’t know what Quen’s aura was doing, but it wasn’t normal. “Are those trees important to you?” I asked Trent suddenly, and he looked at me blankly. Even Jenks hesitated. “Your dad didn’t kiss your mom under them or anything?”

Trent shook his head. “No.”

Jaw clenched, I pulled heavily on the ley line. Ray jumped as if smacked, but she wasn’t crying so I narrowed my focus and pushed it into my hand. “Adsimulo calefacio!” I shouted, throwing the curse at the nearest tree, superheating the sap in an instant. The tree exploded, and I spun, shielding Ray with my body. Bits of bark and sharp splinters struck my back.

The horses scattered with the muted sound of hooves. “Hey! Give me some warning!” Jenks shrilled as the last of the branches fell back to earth, and Trent looked up from where he had hastily covered Quen. The tree was scattered over a twenty-foot circle, the last pieces still falling. It had only been Molly that had run away, and Tulpa stood at a four-posted stiffness, his neck arched and his eyes wild. He snorted at me, shifting his skin to shake off the bits of bark and leaves.

“Consider yourself warned,” I said grimly, and after seeing Ray wide-eyed and quiet, I shifted her to sit more firmly on my hip and blew up two more trees. It was an ungodly mess, but there was room now, and better yet, the ambulance would know exactly where to land. Growing more angry, Tulpa withstood it all, held to the spot by Trent’s will alone.

Trent was silent as he joined me in the new sun, squinting up as the sound of the copter blades grew closer. I felt ill as the imbalance for the curse rose up, lapping about me. I could feel it cresting, and with no regret, I lifted my chin. I pay the cost for this, I thought, feeling the smut slither across my soul. The sun didn’t seem any dimmer, the sky was just as blue, but looking at the shattered stumps and splintered branches and wilting leaves, I knew my soul was a little bit darker.

But what was the point of a clean soul if Quen died and I could have helped?

“Thank you,” Trent said, and then he darted back to Quen as the long medical helicopter began to land. What wasn’t nailed down blew to the edges—and there was a lot. Ray began to wail, and I held her face to me, covering her head as I turned my back on the copter. Swearing, Jenks tucked in at my collar, and I stood there hunched and shaking, feeling as if I were at the center of a tornado.

Finally it was only bits of grass striking me, and I turned to see three men in scrubs jump out of the side, a stretcher between them. The blades slowed but didn’t stop, and Trent stood over Quen, his worry coming back threefold.

“No spinal damage,” one said, squinting at an amulet held against Quen’s temple. “We can move him,” and the other two manhandled him onto the stretcher, starting an IV and taking vital signs.

“Sir?” the one with the amulet asked, and Trent pulled his attention from Quen’s face. His eyes looked better.

“Treat it as a demon attack,” he said, voice raised against the wind. “Yes, it’s daylight,” he added when the man looked doubtfully at the sun. “He was possessing someone.”

Jenks left me, Ray starting as the silver sparkles sifted down. “His aura is wonky,” the pixy said, standing on Quen’s chest to garner everyone’s attention for a brief instant. “It’s cycling through shades like it’s ringing. It’s getting worse, though. Five minutes ago, it was taking thirty seconds to cycle and now it’s down to twenty.”

Brow furrowed, the man put on a pair of glasses another handed him. His eyes widened, and his motions took on a new urgency. “Get him in the chopper. Now!”

“I didn’t see it happen,” Trent said as they counted to three and lifted the stretcher, the first man holding the IV bag high. “Morgan and I were out on another trail and felt the disturbance. I think they took Ceri and Lucy,” he said, fear crossing his face before he tried to hide it. I could see it shimmering behind his every move.

With an efficiency of motion, they loaded Quen, the sound of the blades drowning out the new conversation between the two techs. Jenks had darted in with them and out of the wind, and Ray was watching for him to come back out—silent, so silent. Still beside us, the head guy looked at the pilot, motioning for a moment of time. Concern showed in his eyes as he leaned in to be heard. “Sir, I don’t know what this is. We have to take him to the university hospital.”

Trent looked up at the whirling blades, and I held Ray tighter to me. “Are you sure? I don’t want a media circus.”

But the man was shaking his head. “We’re running out of time. He needs to be in a desensitization tank, and you don’t have one. We can try a quiet room—”

“No.” Trent looked inside, fear flickering over him like a second aura. “Go. Take him.”

The man made a motion to the pilot, and through the glass, I saw him grab a radio. “We’ll call ahead,” the tech shouted. “They’ll be ready for him. I think we’re in time, but we have to move fast to stop the damage. I have room for one more.”

Trent spun to me. His face was riven with a worry he was trying to hide with a cool efficiency. It all fell apart when he looked at Ray, then me and whispered, “Rachel . . .”

I couldn’t hear him, but I could read his lips. Something in me twisted, and I shoved it aside. “Go!” I said, propelling him toward the door as the wind whipped my hair around. “I’ve got this! Call me when you know something!”

He kissed Ray’s fingers, looking her firmly in her eyes. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.” His eyes rose to mine as the blades shrieked in the air. “Thank you.”

I held Ray closer, letting her see as we backed away. Trent effortlessly got into the medical copter. Jenks darted out just before the door closed, whipped downward and out as if he were on a roller coaster. He streaked past me, swearing at Tink, but I figured he was okay.

One hand supporting Ray, the other holding my hair, I watched the pilot do a check before lifting up. Squinting, I held my ground as more sticks and leaves blew. Blades thumping, the copter gained altitude and vanished beyond the trees, heading for Cincinnati.

Slowly the leaves settled. Shaking, I looked to where we had found Quen. The grass was flattened. Ray’s grip on my hair tugged, and I disentangled her, letting her soft, damp hand hold my fingers as I listened to the quiet, my ears ringing.

Jenks’s wings sounded muffled as he started to land on my shoulder, then thought better of it and hung where he was, dust sifting from him in the leftover breeze. “He’ll be okay. We got to him in time.”

I didn’t know. But I had an unusually quiet toddler on my hip and no horse. Tulpa had vanished. I didn’t blame the animal, but I needed to get back to the stables. I heard the hounds bay in the distance and shivered.

“Quen is strong,” Jenks said, his words fast as he fell into place beside me as I picked my way through the shattered vegetation. One of the trees I’d taken out had been damaged by magic, all evidence of it destroyed. The I.S. would have a cow. Either that, or blame me for the attack.

“He’s going to be okay,” Jenks said again, and I walked into the shade on the path. Hoofprints were a sad reminder of how fast life could change, the marks going both ways and crisscrossing in a chaotic mishmash.

“He’ll be okay,” I agreed just to get him to stop talking, but I didn’t know if I believed it.

Ray was still silent, leaning away from me to try to see Jenks flying over my head. I hadn’t spent a lot of time with her, but enough that I was familiar. She was so different from her sister, quiet and reserved where Lucy was outgoing and demanding. My face twisted and my gut clenched at the thought of Lucy with Ku’Sox. I had told Trent everything was going to be okay, but the uncertainty as we waited for what Ku’Sox wanted was heartbreaking.

From above my ear, Jenks made an ultrasonic chirp. “Holy toad spit!” the pixy squeaked, and I stiffened, feeling as if something was crawling through me by way of the ley line. Ray, too, stiffened, her hand in my fingers clenching harder.

Then I sucked in my breath as I felt a huge tug from the nearest ley line. It felt like a sudden drop in the road you weren’t expecting—a quick jolt and then back to normal. “What was that?” I said. The back of my head was hot, and I made a face as if trying to pop my ears.

“How should I know?” Jenks shrilled. “Listen, it’s going to do it again. Oh God, here it comes!”

I froze, my feet planted on the path as the line hiccuped and became nauseatingly erratic. Hissing, I dropped the line from my thoughts as it raked through me. Silver-edged dust fell from Jenks so thickly that Ray reached for it. The memory of that itchy feeling scraped up my spine and lodged itself in my brain. Glancing at Jenks, I tentatively tapped a ley line, squinting as I let it flow through me, tasting it. It felt okay now, but something had happened. I’d have to ask Bis when he woke up tonight. He was more in tune with the lines than any person I knew. If I got home, that is. I didn’t know if Trent would approve of me taking Ray home with me.

Jenks hovered before us, a weird, lost look on his face. “What happened?” the pixy asked, and I pushed into motion, wanting to get to a TV.

“I’ve no idea, but it can’t be good.”

Chapter Six

Ray fussed, threatening to cry as I inexpertly fumbled at the straps to buckle her into the car seat the nice-looking guy in Trent’s garage helped me move into my little Cooper. “Don’t start with me,” I warned her, my unfamiliar tone catching her attention and distracting her. It might have been Jenks making faces at her from the rearview mirror, though, and I backed out of the car, blowing a strand of hair out of my eyes.

It was nearing three, I smelled like horse, and I had a cranky toddler who refused to go down for her nap. And it wasn’t as if I hadn’t tried. Trent’s secretary had gotten me back to Trent’s apartments to wait for him, but that had been four books, two songs, and three hours ago. Watching TV with Jenks had only made being stuck at Trent’s big empty apartments worse. That line hiccup I’d felt wasn’t just out at Trent’s place, but everywhere, the entire United States and off continent, too. The lines were fine now, but the media was scrambling, interviewing specialists and wackos with little signs saying the end was near.

Jenks gave me a thumbs-up from inside the car, and I sighed. Diaper bag, extra food, change of clothes, blanket from her crib, and three stuffed animals she had pointed to when I asked her which ones she wanted. Yep, I had it all. It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate camping out at Trent’s apartments, watching his big-screen TV and raiding his fridge for fresh fruit and pudding, but I had stuff to do, stuff that I could get done while Ray napped. And boy, did she need to nap.

A sneeze shook me as I shut the door. My brow furrowed. If it followed the emerging pattern, I’d sneeze again in about ten minutes. Al was trying to get a hold of me, and my scrying mirror was across town in the Hollows. I’d tried stepping into the line that bisected Trent’s estate and contacting him that way, but Al hadn’t showed and I hadn’t lingered since the lines felt sour somehow. I hoped it was only the uncomfortable state of the lines that he wanted to discuss, but I had a bad feeling it was more, and my eyes flicked to Ray in her car seat as I got in.

Jenks eyed me suspiciously as I settled myself, wiping my nose with a tissue I took out of my shoulder bag. “Bless you,” he said sourly. “That’s like, what, the twentieth one?”

“I lost count.” Smiling at Ray, who was making s-s-s-s-s noises to get Jenks’s attention, I headed for the bright square of light and out of Trent’s underground garage. Worry flitted through me that I was taking Ray off the grounds, but Trent hadn’t told me I couldn’t.

Jenks went drowsy in the new sun, and I slowly wove my way past the employee parking lots and low buildings to the gatehouse. It was up about half a mile, and Ray was well on her way to snoozeville, too, when I came around a bend and slowed.

Trent had modified his gatehouse twice since I’d known him, once when I had blown through the simple metal bar on my way out, and again when Ivy had tossed me over his new wall when I was in a hurry to leave and he had wanted me to stay. The modest, one-story building was now a two-story edifice that straddled the road, officers on both sides to monitor traffic leaving as well as coming in. Parking lots were available on either side of the highly landscaped wall, the bushes trying to hide how tall and thick it was. It wasn’t the five I.S. vehicles parked just this side of the bar that made me take my foot off the gas and coast in—it was the three news vans just past the gate.

Crap on toast, that hadn’t taken long.

My sigh roused Jenks, and he whistled, bringing Ray’s eyes open for a brief moment. I’d known the I.S. was out here, having seen the fax of the warrant sent to Trent’s living room when they’d arrived. The I.S. I could handle. The news vans were another story.

“You think they saw you?” Jenks asked as I pulled into the parking lot.

“Probably. But I’m leaving with Trent’s kid. I probably have to sign something,” I said as I leaned to undo her buckle and pull the whining, tired girl to me. Leaving her in the car was not an option.

Both Ray and I sneezed on Jenks’s dust as he shot out before us, and I took a clean breath as I stood beside the car, baby on my hip and blinking in the wind and sun. An anxious, nervous man in Trent’s security uniform was gesturing for me at a glass door, and I headed for him, my bag over one shoulder, Ray gripping the other. Sure enough, a reporter on the other side of the gate shouted my name. I’d been spotted. Swell.

“Ms. Morgan, I’m glad you stopped,” the man said as I came in and set Ray on the counter. Three walls were entirely glass, and it was like being in a fish tank. There was new activity among the press gathered, waiting for any tidbit the I.S. might let fall. Vultures, they were vultures. “We weren’t aware you were going to take Ray off the grounds.”

“Why?” Jenks asked snidely, giving the three other guards fits as he flew behind the counter and inspected the views from the security cameras. “You think you can stop her?”

“Well, actually . . .” the man hedged, and I took a pen away from Ray before she stuck it in her mouth and gave her from my purse a harmless charm that would straighten hair.

“Look, you,” I said, a finger pointed, and I swear, Ray tried to mimic me, charm between her swollen gums like a teething ring. “Trent asked me to watch her, and I need to get home.”

From behind the counter, a big fat guy in a uniform turned, his chair on casters. “Frank, she’s on the list. Quit razzing her.”

My eyebrows rose, my good mood returning. I was on the list. How about that? And then I sneezed, feeling a faint itch of a ley line pull attached to it.

“Bless you,” Jenks said, and I swear, Ray echoed him, way off on the actual word but spot on as far as rhythm. Her little-girl voice was sweet, and charmed, I tickled her under her chin to make her squirm.

“Ma’am . . .” My smile vanished, and the man’s became nervous. “Uh, you’re on the list, but I need to see a photo ID and get a phone number we can reach you at, and we need to know where you’re going, and when you expect to be back.”

Oh. That was all right then, and I swung my bag up beside Ray, pawing through it with one hand as the other hovered over Ray’s back in case she decided to move. The clatter drew Ray’s attention, and she watched with a serious expression, not reaching for anything as I sifted past the splat gun, lethal charm detector, two sets of cuffs, handful of zip strips, breath mints, phone, and whatnot for my wallet.

“Thank you,” he said as he took it to run it through their machine. It apparently liked what it found since he gave it back. Behind him, the news crew was setting up tripods and long-range cameras.

“I’m taking her to my church,” I said as wrote down my cell number and I shoved everything away, Jenks laughing at the expression on the other officers’ faces at the cuffs and charms. “I’ll have her there until Trent picks her up or we run out of diapers.”

“Thank you,” the anxious guy said, and I swung my bag up onto my shoulder. Jenks hovered beside me, and together we looked at the newspeople, hanging around in the hopes of a scrap of anything. I slid Ray onto my hip, motions slow.

“Think if I give them something they won’t follow me?” I muttered, and Jenks snorted.

“Doubt it.”

I doubted it too, but I headed for the door. If I kept my windows up, I could at least ignore them. Trent wouldn’t be pleased about any photos they took of Ray, but it couldn’t be helped.

The sun and wind hit me anew as I went outside. Jenks was close, and my steps were fast as I headed for the car. Shouts and calls for my attention got loud as I opened the door. If you follow me home, I swear I’ll let the pixies play in your electronic equipment!

“Ms. Morgan! Is it true that Mr. Kalamack has been flown to the hospital and is in intensive care! Ms. Morgan!”

My back was to them, and Jenks, currently perched on the roof, winced. “It’s not going to look good if you don’t answer,” he said, his eyes going to Ray and back to me.

“Ms. Morgan! Have you taken custody of his children because he’s unconscious? Where is Ms. Dulciate? Has she been injured as well?”

I sighed, then shifted Ray higher. She wasn’t fussy, happily gumming the charm. It wouldn’t hurt to quash a few rumors before they got started.

The security people on both sides of the road were standing at their big plate-glass windows, watching. I’d get no help from them, and although Trent probably wouldn’t thank me for putting Ray in front of the cameras, I’d found out the hard way if you didn’t give the press something to chew on, they invented things that sold more papers than the truth.

“Ms. Morgan!” a woman shouted, and I turned, holding my hair to my head so the wind wouldn’t catch it. I must look a sight, but at least I wasn’t limping, beaten up, or bandaged.

The news crews had a spasm of delight as I let the car door shut and paced across the road to the gate they were clustered behind. Jenks hung back as the still photographers snapped their pictures and big guys with video cameras on their shoulders shoved for the best angle. They were all shouting for my attention. Jenks took refuge on my shoulder, and Ray hid her face, scared. My protective nature rose up from a tiny seed of maternal instinct I didn’t even know I had, and I shushed her, rocking as I stood in the road, three feet back from the gate.

“You,” I said to a woman in a white dress suit, her short hair hardly moving in the stiff wind. “Didn’t I knock you down once outside of the mall?”

The woman grinned as her peers chuckled at her expense. “That was me, Ms. Morgan. Trent Kalamack was seen being transported to the hospital by helicopter, and unless I’m mistaken, that is his daughter. Something happened to the ley lines this afternoon, and the I.S. is on-site. Can you comment?”

From my shoulder, Jenks sighed. “You sure you want to do this?”

No, I didn’t want to do this, but I wanted them following me home even less. “Trent Kalamack escorted one of his employees to the hospital after an accident that occurred while riding this morning,” I said, smug when the woman shifted her gaze to her truth amulet ring, a nice steady green. They weren’t legal in this situation, but hard to prove. “Mr. Kalamack didn’t sustain any injuries, and I’m waiting for news just as you are.”

“But the I.S.—” the woman blurted as a follow-up, and the rising questions subsided. “Were the ley lines damaged in the accident?”

“No,” I said shortly. “I felt the lines sour well after the incident. The I.S. is here because the wounds his employee sustained are similar to those a demon might inflict.” The noise rose, and I put up a hand, guessing their next question and wanting to answer it my way instead of needing to work around that truth amulet. “As you can tell, the sun is up, so logic says the I.S. is taking the opportunity to be nosy while Trent is away.”

They liked that, scribbling on tablets or talking into their recorders.

“Ms. Morgan!” a man from the back shouted, his hand raised. “As Cincinnati’s only day-walking demon, have you been questioned in the incident?”

“Told you this was a bad idea . . .” Jenks muttered, and I forced my smile to widen. A sneeze shook me, and Ray patted my shoulder.

“I wasn’t an eyewitness to the incident,” I said truthfully, “but I did blow up a couple of trees so the medical copter could land.” I looked at the I.S. vehicles dramatically. “I’m sure they will blame me for something,” I added, getting the expected laughs. This wasn’t so bad. Making deals with demons had given me practice.

“Do you have an explanation as to what happened to the ley line?” a man in a sports coat asked, holding his mic out over the gate.

“No. I’m on my way home to talk to Al, actually, and find out if the demons know what happened,” I said, then sneezed again. They were coming faster, and nervously I patted Ray on her back as she said “bless you” in a garbled baby talk. “So if there are no more questions?” I said into the suddenly awkward silence.

I took a step backward, and like lions on prey, they pounced. “Is that Ray? Can we have a picture? Are you taking her home? Where is Lucy? What has the I.S. learned so far?”

Jenks was laughing, and I reluctantly turned back around. I scanned the yammering reporters, finding one I recognized. “Mark,” I said, and they all shut up. “You know I can’t divulge what the I.S. finds, and besides, I’ve only seen the search warrant.”

“Why are you taking Ray? Can we have a picture? Was Ms. Dulciate injured in the accident as well?”

I had three to choose from, and I took a step back. “Ms. Dulciate is currently occupied with Lucy. You can understand taking care of two little girls, twins, almost, is enough to drive anyone to distraction. I need to go. It’s nap time.”

“Ms. Morgan. A photo, please. Ms. Morgan!”

Ray was clutching my neck, scared. They’d already snapped pictures of Ray, so that boat had sailed, spent a week at the island, and returned to port for more tourists, but I didn’t want Ray’s fear to be what they walked away from here with. “A picture?” I taunted, and they clamored for one. “Maybe if you would all shut up for a moment!” I exclaimed. “You’re yammering so loud that you would scare a third-grade teacher. Okay?”

They didn’t know what to think about that, but they did quiet down, and sure enough, drawn by the sudden silence, Ray pushed herself from my front and turned, her big green eyes wide and looking sweet in the little pink-and-white dress I’d put her in to nap in.

I smiled at the adoring faces of the women as the cameras clicked. I’d give Ceri and Quen one thing—they could make very pretty babies.

But then my smile faded as I noticed a big black car that screamed money driving slowly up to the gate. It was Trent. I knew it. And here I was, showing off Ray like a prize.

“Now you’re in for it,” Jenks said, darting off my shoulder and making Ray jerk as she watched his angling flight to the black car.

“Okay, that’s enough,” I said, hoping that Jenks would put in a good word in for me. I waved cheerfully at the last shouted question as I added, “I gotta go. And if anyone shows up on my doorstep, I will file harassment charges . . . after I let the pixies into your vans. You got it?”

But they weren’t listening, having figured out Trent was in the car as well. Head down, I hustled back to my car as they fell on his like zombies. If I could give him Ray right now, I could be home in thirty minutes and the press probably wouldn’t follow.

Sneezing, I wondered if I could make it in twenty if someone from the I.S. ran vanguard.

A man from the gatehouse came out, waving everyone back, shouting that Mr. Kalamack would make a statement in an hour, and that they were welcome to wait at the gatehouse pressroom if they liked. In pairs and groups, they parted, and the black car moved slowly through the gate and turned into the parking lot where I waited.

Nervous, I leaned against my car, pointing Trent’s car out to Ray and telling her that one of her daddies was in it. She was still gumming that charm when the car pulled to a halt two spots down. Immediately a back door opened, Trent not waiting for the driver to get it for him. Jenks darted out, shedding encouraging silver sparkles, but Trent was a great deal slower, moving as if he was in pain. Upon closer inspection, I decided he was just tired, his jeans creased and the sleeves of his riding shirt rolled up. There was a tuft of cotton and a Band-Aid inside his elbow, and I wondered if he’d given blood.

Squinting at the sun, he crossed the warm pavement, his hands outstretched for Ray. The little girl had begun to wiggle when she’d caught sight of him, and the smile that came over Trent caught in my heart. It didn’t matter if this child was not his blood—she was his child. And Quen’s, and Ceri’s.

My smile faded. I had to fix this.

“Ray,” he breathed, and suddenly I felt her absence keenly as he took her. “Your daddy is going to be okay, I think.” His eyes rose to mine. “We got him there in time. Ten more minutes and they might not have been able to stop the cascading reaction.” He blinked fast, then looked away. “That’s twice you’ve saved Quen’s life. Thank you.”

I shifted from foot to foot, uncomfortable. “I’m sorry this happened.”

“Me too.”

Our eyes met for a long, silent moment. Ray jumped and wiggled as Jenks’s dust sifted over her, and I flushed when Trent noticed what she was gumming, her little fingers gripping the charm so hard they were white. I sneezed, and I shook my head at Trent’s unspoken question.

“Ah, I’m sorry about this,” I said as the driver of his car began to move the car seat to the black Jag. “I hate coming home to find reporters in my driveway. I hadn’t heard from you and I need to talk to Al. That’s why I’m sneezing. Ray wouldn’t go down for her nap, and I figured she’d fall asleep in the car.” I hesitated. “You look tired.”

“I napped during some of the tests,” he said, and I wondered at the incongruity of us standing in the sun and talking as other people moved Ray’s things to his car. “I didn’t want to leave until he was stable. They got his aura to stop cycling, but they don’t know why he won’t regain consciousness. Thank you for handling the press. One of the guards relayed what you said. You did pretty well.”

My eyes dropped at his wry smile. “I’ve been dodging them the last couple of years. I know how much you have to give them for them to leave you alone.”

Ray had fallen against him, her head tucked under his chin as she started to drift asleep, her eyes never leaving me. “Oh God,” Jenks said from my shoulder, and her eyelids flickered. “Here come the vampires.”

Sure enough, coming up the road on a golf cart were four I.S. officers. The grit ground under Trent’s heel as he spun slowly to watch as they parked beside their cars and the one in the dress suit angled toward us.

It was Nina, or Felix, maybe. I could tell by the grace and slightly pained motion of the living vampire as she crossed the lot. The sun normally didn’t bother living vampires, but Nina was channeling Felix by the looks of it.

Trent seemed to shed his fatigue like an old shirt, but I could see it in the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. “They had a warrant,” I explained, and he bobbed his head in acceptance. “The I.S. in your backyard is another thing I don’t like coming home to. They’ve been on the grounds for the last couple of hours, but your security tells me they’ve been escorting them the entire time so they wouldn’t wander. The hospital called them, probably.”

“Thank you,” he murmured, gently patting Ray as the tallish Hispanic woman in the black dress suit put a hand up to ask us to wait. “You did exactly what Qu— What should have been done.”

I quashed the feeling of hurt. “I used to work for them. I know your rights.”

“Trenton!” the woman boomed out, her voice too expansive and masculine for her slight frame. Clearly Felix was in her again, and I worried about her. It wasn’t uncommon for the undead to use their “children” as moving walkie-talkies, but it was unusual that Felix kept doing it. But who tells an undead no?

“Good to see you again,” Trent said, shaking the woman’s hand with an expansive motion that he usually only used with men. “How much longer until you are off my property?”

The vampire smiled, setting a finger aside her nose in a gesture I hadn’t seen anyone under the age of fifty use. “Rachel, is Ivy back from Arizona yet?”

“No.” I shook Nina’s hand, struggling with my desire to wipe it off. Her fingers had been cool and dry, but the man animating her bothered me. “Was it a demon attack?”

“It would be a lot easier to tell if you hadn’t exploded three trees over the entire crime site.” Nina squinted uncomfortably. “Can we move this inside?”

“No,” I said again, shifting my bag up higher on my shoulder. “Can I leave, or do you want something?”

Jenks’s wings shifted against my neck in warning. Okay, it wasn’t smart to antagonize a vampire, especially a dead one, but Ray wasn’t the only one tired here.

“I need a statement, if you would please. Before you leave.”

I sneezed, my entire body contracting and the noise making Ray crack her eyes. Al was getting impatient. “I’m kind of busy right now.”

“Then you shouldn’t have obliterated the evidence,” Felix said, Nina’s beautiful white teeth bared at me in a threat thinly disguised as a smile.

“Oh. My. God,” Jenks said, safely parked on my shoulder but his dust shifting a bright red. “Rache, they think you did it. Do you really believe the crap that is coming out of your mouth,” the pixy added as Nina reflectively steepled her fingers as I’d seen older men do, “or do you just make shit up to see how stupid people might think you are?”

I knew I was filling the air with my anger, a close second to a vampire’s favorite smell after fear. The wind helped, but by Nina’s smirk I knew that she was picking up on some of it.

“You are a demon,” Nina said, making Jenks’s wings seem to hum in anger. “And yes, this has all the markings of a demon attack. It occurred in the daylight, meaning you are the only one who could accomplish it.”

“That’s dumber than Tink’s dildo!” Jenks exclaimed, and I raised a hand to keep him from flying at her; the vampire might be quick enough to catch him. I doubted Felix truly believed I’d done this, or he would’ve had a dozen other magic users out here to bring me in. Unless he knew even that wouldn’t be enough, and I’d been moved to the level of a banshee where they’d just kill me outright with a sniper’s spell. Grea-a-a-at.

“Then there is option number two,” Nina said brightly as I fumed, and she turned to include Trent. “Do you wish to start an investigation on the Withons?”

“Ellasbeth didn’t do this.” Trent’s voice was soft because of Ray, but it had the sureness of wind and water. Slumped against him, Ray slept, at peace at last. Nina tilted her head as if unsure, and I agreed with Felix. Ellasbeth’s family was one of the wealthiest on the West Coast. She had motive, opportunity, and the clout to buy a demon attack. I wished it was her. It would make my life easier. But with Nick involved . . .

Nina eyed Trent, a cruel twist to her lips. “Isn’t that what you did to her? Steal her child?” she said as she held her hair against a gust of wind. “What’s good for the goose, eh?”

Jenks’s wings clattered, tickling my neck, and Trent frowned, letting a hint of his anger show. Beyond the gates, the press teams were coiling cords and packing away lights, but their long-range cameras were reading lips. “Ellasbeth did not arrange this,” Trent said shortly, his back to them. “I stole Lucy with my own efforts under an arranged tradition older than your species, vampire. If Ellasbeth had come here and taken Lucy by herself, then I’d be angry for having allowed it. I wouldn’t deserve her. But this wasn’t Ellasbeth.”

Nina swung back to me. “Which brings us back to you, Rachel.”

Exasperated, I dropped back to my car, sneezing and trying not to look pensive. “Just because a demon can’t come to reality doesn’t mean that his influence ends at the ley lines. I saw Nick Sparagmos leaving the hospital in a hurry yesterday amid that media circus you instigated. I did some asking around and found out he belongs to Ku’Sox Sha-Ku’ru. Ku’Sox could have done this through Nick.”

Not easily, but he could have.

“And why didn’t you say anything earlier?” Nina almost purred, making me think Felix had known about it all along. Damn it, I hated when I fell into their mind games.

“Because up until today, Nick was stealing thriving Rosewood syndrome babies, not Trent’s family.”

Nina squinted, her guile replaced with a frown. “You think the two crimes are linked?”

I nodded, pulling my jacket tighter around my shoulders to make Jenks take to the air. Just as well since I sneezed again. Both the pixy and Trent eyed me in concern. “There’s no way in the two worlds that you’ll find him. You want his phone number? That’s all I got, and it’s probably not going to work anymore.” I dug in my bag for a tissue. If I didn’t get to my scrying mirror soon, Al was going to be pissed.

Nina’s eyes narrowed. “I do not like you withholding information, Rachel Morgan.”

I leaned forward to get into her face, emboldened by the news crews watching. “Then maybe you should stop accusing me of everything. I didn’t have any evidence, and one thing I’ve learned is no one acts on what I believe, only what I can prove.”

“I would,” Trent said, and I smiled at him with a wash of gratitude. Jenks had moved himself to his shoulder, and he looked different with a baby on one side, a pixy on the other.

“I’m going to hold you to that,” I said softly, and Nina’s stance became antagonistic.

“I want a statement,” she insisted.

“Am I a suspect?”

Nina sighed dramatically. “No-o-o-o.”

“A person of interest?” I pushed, and she rolled her head on her shoulders as if stretching into a new skin and finding it unpleasant.

“No, not really,” she said flatly.

“Then you can wait until I can come in tomorrow and give you a statement. Right now I have to talk to Al and find out what happened to the ley lines this afternoon. Okay? I’ll even tell you what he said. Deal?”

Nina glared, brown eyes becoming black. I held her gaze, my heart hammering as I saw past the woman to the ugly old vampire speaking through her. Frightening ideas churned in him, whispers showing and vanishing like bursting bubbles of oil. He was old, maybe too old to adapt to the reality of demons among us and to make decisions to ease the coming chaos. His attention bore into me, and I took it without flinching. Would he accept me and the possible demon baggage I might bring to reality, or forever keep me in the “them” category? The second choice was familiar, comfortable, but it would lead to their damnation. I thought he was smart enough to see it. The question was, could he sell it to those who looked to him?

“Very well. Tomorrow,” the vampire finally said, and I exhaled as our eye contact broke, trying to make it inaudible but knowing that Nina could sense my relief easier than she could feel the wind in her hair. I hadn’t gotten the full acceptance that I wanted, but rather a cautious maybe. It was enough for now. “Still, it would be easier if you hadn’t obliterated evidence of the attack,” she grumped.

“I was trying to save Quen’s life,” I said darkly. The news crews were finally going into the gatehouse pressroom. Soon as they left, I’d head home. “You did a moulage, right?” I couldn’t see the imprint left by strong emotions, but vampires, whether they be living or dead, could. If Ivy was here, she could tell me, but she wasn’t. I had an uncomfortable thought that she’d much rather be helping Glenn than our investigative firm.

Nina sniffed, clearly uncomfortable in the sun, but I leaned back against my car, enjoying the stored heat it was giving off. “Most has already evaporated with the sun,” Nina said. “The evaluation is still being scored, but even though neither I nor Nina is rated for the courts it’s obvious that there was violence, determination, frustration, and panic in large amounts. Mostly violence between two people.”

“Gee, you think?” Jenks smart-mouthed. “You come up with that all on your own?”

Quen and Ku’Sox, I thought, seeing frustration cross Trent’s face.

“It seems,” Nina said, idly looking at her perfect nails, “as if Ceri did nothing. Perhaps she was knocked out or protecting the baby.”

Trent turned away, the rims of his ears red in the sun. Jenks had taken wing, hovering protectively. Seeing it, Nina smiled like a cat who’d cornered a mouse. “I sensed three, maybe four auras present, but only Quen and one other were active. I’d be comfortable guessing that there was one person who abducted Ceri and Lucy, someone proficient in magic. Quen fought him or her, realized he couldn’t overcome them, and the two females were taken.”

How can she just stand there and say it? I thought, my frustration bubbling up. Lucy and Ceri were gone! Quen was possibly dying, having tried to save them. Trent . . .

I glanced at him, wishing he didn’t have to deal with this. Demons sucked.

Nina was silent, reading the emotions as neither one of us said anything. Ray was slumped against Trent’s shoulder, Jenks a silent presence of support I didn’t understand. It was obvious that Trent had never admitted to himself how much Ceri and Lucy had come to mean to him. He might not even know it now, so wrought with the pressure of dealing with the present that he couldn’t see clearly. He was suffering, though. He had no one. I didn’t think he realized it yet—he wasn’t angry enough. I could feel his realization coming. Maybe in a day. Maybe two.

Trent had always seemed to be alone, but he’d always had his assistant, Jonathan, as well as Quen. Then Ceri. Even Ellasbeth, though that hadn’t turned out very well apart from Lucy. And now even Lucy was gone. Soon he would understand that the demons had taken everything but a child who would remind him of what he lost. Things would get ugly then as the worst parts of Trent warred with the best.

A chill went through me, and Nina looked at me in question, her eyes dilating in the strong sun as I shivered. Trent had power on multiple levels and he wasn’t averse to using it. I didn’t know which side of him would win. I’d seen both. There was little I could do. Except perhaps be there so he didn’t feel so alone.

“Then you have nothing more to add?” Nina asked, her voice oily as she soaked in my sudden fear.

“No.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow, Rachel,” she said, and I looked at her outstretched hand, refusing to take it. She might kiss it or something. “Trenton.” Nina hesitated, inclined her head, and then spun slowly. Trent shifted to me slightly, and we watched her walk to the cars. You could tell when Felix left her: her head came up and she breathed as if coming out from a hole. As she paced faster, her heels clicked on the pavement until she got in a car.

Arms still over my chest, I watched her slowly pivot the big car back onto the road, headed for the gatehouse. I’d stopped sneezing. That was good, right? “She thinks I’m not telling her everything,” I said, and Trent’s shoulders slumped.

“Are you?”

I touched Ray’s hair, smiling faintly. She hadn’t let go of that amulet, and it was still in her tight little grip even as she slept. “I don’t know. It’s ingrained not to tell the I.S. squat.”

I opened my car door to leave, and Trent lingered, Ray in his arms and the sun glowing on him. “Felix is teetering on insanity,” he said, eyes concerned as he watched Nina’s car go through the gate. “You’ll be okay tonight?”

“Sure, unless they decide to blame it on me.” I got in, finding my keys in my bag. Sitting there, I looked up at him. “It would be easier if Ellasbeth planned it,” I said, wanting to believe that. I didn’t like the woman, and by Jenks’s scoff as he darted in to sit on the rearview mirror, I knew he didn’t hold any love for her, either.

“I called her from the hospital,” Trent said, a surprising tone of compassion in his voice. “She seemed shocked, and she doesn’t lie that well. Even if it were ten against one, Quen wouldn’t have—” His voice broke, and I felt a surge of pity when his jaw clenched and released. “He would have prevailed.”

“I’m sorry.”

His breath coming in was shaky, but it smoothed out when he exhaled. “Me too.”

My chest hurt, and I watched him hold Ray. I knew he loved her, but the feeling that he had failed Lucy must be overwhelming. He had risked his life to find Lucy and bring her home, promised that she would be safe with him. “You’re a good father,” I said suddenly, and his lips parted. “No one can stop a demon when they make half an effort.”

“You can,” he said quickly, and Jenks made a pained sound from the rearview mirror.

The self-recrimination in Trent’s voice made me feel worse. “True, but I’m a demon.”

Trent blinked with a sudden thought. His shoulders eased, and the horrid tightness to his jaw let up. “You are, aren’t you?” he said, as if I’d given him something new to consider, a fragment of knowledge that he could use as he began scheming, looking for a way to fix this.

“What?” I said, hoping he’d tell me what my words had sparked, but he shook his head.

“Nothing. Ellasbeth has promised to take Lucy from me, even if I can get her back. She’s already filing papers.”

I wondered why he was telling me this, even as my heart went out to him. “You will get her back. Ceri too.” But I didn’t promise it.

Still between me and my car door, he swallowed hard. I wanted to reach out to touch him, but didn’t know how he’d take it. Putting the key in the ignition, I sneezed. Then I sneezed again, jerking so hard my forehead almost hit the dash. Scared, I looked at Jenks. His eyes were wide. Shit. I’d waited too long to get to my scrying mirror.

“Bless you,” Trent said dully, not paying attention. My eyes widened, and I sneezed again. Mouth dry, I grasped his free wrist.

“Trent. I’m sorry,” I said, knowing I couldn’t stop this. He was going to lose me, too.

He stared at my hand, and then his eyes widened as I sneezed again. “No . . .”

I let go of him, sitting in my car afraid to move. I wanted to run, but I couldn’t outdistance the summons. “I’m being summoned,” I said, turning away to sneeze again. A nauseating, pulling sensation had started. It was soft right now, but if I didn’t submit, it would grow until I had no choice. For a second, I panicked, thinking it might be Ku’Sox, but Al was the only one in the ever-after who knew my summoning name. And Nick.

The panic returned.

“Nick knows your summoning name!” Jenks shouted as he figured it out, too. “Rachel, fight it!”

But there was nothing I could do, and I shook my head, trying not to show my fear. I didn’t have a choice. I had to go. At least the news crew couldn’t see me. “I’m sorry,” I said again, wincing. “This might be okay. I’ll do what I can.” I looked at Jenks. His face was white. “Give me an hour, then summon me back.”

“No.” The snarl of denial had come from Trent, and I gasped as he knelt and grasped my wrist. My head snapped up as the interdimensional pulling sensation vanished. Sitting in my car, I stared at Trent, shocked as the world seemed to revolve and settle. The tips of his hair were floating. As time seemed to stand still, Jenks began to softly swear.

Trent had stopped the summons? I hadn’t known he could do that. I mean, I knew he could channel a crapload of ever-after, but this? This was incredible!

“Not you too,” he said fiercely, and I smiled, grateful even as a sudden pain lanced through my head.

Trent cried out, and his hold on me vanished. Like the shocking snap of a rubber band breaking, the parking lot and my car vanished; Trent’s aghast face was the last thing that I saw, Ray’s startled cry the last thing I heard.

Chapter Seven

The scent of burnt amber pulled through my awareness first, dragging the rest of the ever-after behind it. I left the ley line gratefully, the harsh taste/sound of it making me shudder. Ku’Sox hadn’t summoned me, or I’d be fighting for my life by now, and I sighed in relief as I decided that I was in the ever-after, blue sky, white sun, and salty-tasting wind notwithstanding. Nowhere in reality stank so bad. My nose had adjusted to the smell even before I finished coalescing to find myself standing on a round dais of white rock, two toga-clad demons before me like judges, a crowd of them behind me muttering like the mob they were.

I shivered, trying to throw off the wrong feeling of the line. I seemed to be in a Greek auditorium with rising benches of stone and stately pillars with white cloth strung between them to shade the demons from the fake sun. The horizon was lost in a stark white line, and I looked for the jukebox when I realized I was in Dalliance. It might look as if we were outside, but we were deep underground in the ever-after. The restaurant was a convenient meeting place, and I wondered why the demons were adhering to the dress rules since it was clearly not being used as an eatery, but rather . . . a courtroom? Irate demons filtered in, their varied clothing shifting to togas as they passed the threshold.

Al was beside me on the dais, and finding the collected, slightly bitter demon there was a relief. He was in a toga as well instead of his usual crushed green velvet frock coat, the fine cloth tied with a crimson sash so bright that it made me squint. His hair was in oiled ringlets, making his somewhat blocky face look even more so. Sandals peeped from under his hem, and I stared at his black toenails. That was new.

His manner was off as well, his red, goat-slitted eyes holding a sheen of nervousness as he gave me a quick once-over and frowned. This didn’t bode well. He was always confident, even when he shouldn’t be, and I followed his gaze to the long bench before us just on the other side of the shallow moat, making a pained smile at Newt and Dali. Not my favorite denizens of the ever-after.

“So you always talk to Dali in front of an audience?” I quipped, and Al grimaced.

“Stand up. Fix your hair,” Al said as he smacked me into a stiffer position, keeping to his usual British nobleman accent though he now looked like a Greek councilman. “My God, what is that you’re wearing? Jeans? You smell like horse.”

“That’s because I was on one,” I said, becoming angry. “Someone from the ever-after stole Ceri and Trent’s daughter. Three guesses as to who. And why.”

My tone was sarcastic, but Al made a noise as if he didn’t care, and I shivered as a cascade of ever-after fell over me, tainted with his aura. For a moment, the rising noise of the demons behind me muted, and then it returned as his aura fell away and I found myself in sandals and a homespun robe with purple silk lining. The moist wind tugged unfamiliarly at my hair, and I reached up to find a ring of wilting flowers. The entire outfit smacked of something that Ceri, Al’s ex-familiar, might have looked good in. Me, not so much.

“There. Now you fit in.” Al stiffened as he returned his attention to the two demons reclining on a long bench before us. There was an ominous wide ring of sunken ground between us like a barrier.

“You promised you’d never summon me,” I said, nervous as Newt gave me a bright, evil-looking smile and toasted me with something red in a wineglass that didn’t fit the time period. “We had a deal. I don’t yank you across the lines, and you don’t yank me.” I tried not to complain, but I was still shaking off the adrenaline, and it was my God-given right to be bitchy. “I was trying to get to my scrying mirror, but I was across Cincy at Trent’s.” I hesitated. “Sorry,” I added. “I really was trying.”

Al didn’t meet my eyes, instead gazing forward into nothing as he squared his shoulders. “They asked me to summon you, and since you failed to contact me, I complied.”

They? He meant Newt and Dali, and I shifted uneasily, my sandals scraping. Better and better. Al took pride in refusing to work in the system—compliance meant we were up shit creek. Again. Nervous, I followed his gaze to the dais and tried to smile at the big bad demons smiling back at me.

Newt was the only other female demon in existence, possibly driven nuts because the elves killed her “sisters,” but more likely because Ku’Sox had tricked her into killing the ones they’d missed. Slim and gender neutral, she was sporting a bald head again. Heavy black eyeliner edging her eyes was the only feminine touch beyond the spare curves showing past her toga. Her entirely black eyes traveled over me, and a turbanlike hat misted into existence atop her head, sliding her from androgynous to feminine. The demon had trouble remembering what she was doing, but she was powerful, sort of the crazy Wendy of the lost lord-of-the-flies boys. She seemed to do better when I was around, which made everyone nervous.

A good six feet away from her on the same bench, Dali reclined in apparent idleness. He was squinting at me in irritation, his decidedly round form half a civil servant, half a hanging judge. His toga didn’t do a thing for him.

I glanced at the demons behind us, assembled either to watch or take part. I didn’t know which, and the distinction seemed important. Some of the faces were familiar, demons who’d asked me to make everything from backyard pools to cars to chandeliers for them. I stiffened as I spotted Ku’Sox weaving his way to the front, earning disdainful looks from those he passed.

He has Ceri and Lucy, I thought, my hands becoming fists as I fought the urge to launch myself at him. I’d saved the tall, psychotic demon’s life in the effort to save my own, and I trusted him about as far as I could throw a mountain. The admittedly attractive demon was the engineered child of the demons around me, created with both science and magic in an attempt to circumvent the elf curse that kept them tied to the ever-after and basically sterile. Except now he was chained here even more than they were—since I’d cursed him to be fixed to the ever-after day or night.

The more I got to know him and his kin, the more I wondered if most of the ugliness attributed to demonkind over the centuries could be lain at his feet. The wacko habitually ate people alive, believing that by doing so, he would absorb their souls; apparently he harbored doubts he had one. Even better, the demons had designed him with the ability to manipulate as much ley line energy as a female demon. That hadn’t turned out very well, seeing as that was probably why Ku’Sox had tricked Newt into killing everyone who might have a hope of controlling him.

And now he was using Nick to drop into reality whenever he felt like it. It had to have been Ku’Sox who took Ceri and Lucy. He had enough reason. It was obvious, and I snarled at the demon working his way to the bottom of the arena.

Al was trying to turn me back around, and I tugged out of his grasp. “I know what you’re doing, Ku’Sox!” I shouted as my face warmed, and several nearby demons elbowed each other to get their neighbors to shut up, hoping for some gossip.

The slightly gaunt, youngish demon in gray smiled at me, his charisma falling flat. “I doubt that,” he said, his smooth, melodious voice not at all like Trent’s. “You’re not nearly scared enough,” he added, shoving several demons out of his way with his foot so he could take a front seat.

“If you hurt one hair on Lucy’s head, I’ll throw you back into the ley lines from where I pulled your sorry ass!” I shouted, and Al tugged at me to be quiet. “You think I cursed you now, wait until I put your ugly face in a jar!”

Al smacked my gut, and gagging, I turned back around. “Al,” I hissed as the arena began to quiet. “Ku’Sox is up to something.”

“Ku’Sox is always up to something,” Al muttered.

“He stole Ceri and Lucy!” Oh God. That murdering bastard had Lucy. Ceri could probably take care of herself, but if he hurt one chubby finger on the girl, I would tear both realities apart to make him pay.

Al sniffed as if he didn’t care. “How? As you say, you cursed him to the ever-after, and even if he found a way past that, why would he?”

“Because he can’t snag Trent, and if he has Ceri and Lucy, Ku’Sox has Trent’s nuts in a vise.”

“So-o-o-o?” he drawled, gazing up to the sky that had never seen a contrail.

“My God, Al, are you being intentionally blind? I told you Nick was stealing surviving Rosewood babies. Trent can make the cure permanent. If he gives it to Ku’Sox, he won’t need you anymore. Any of you!”

Al’s expression suddenly became worried. “You have more important things to think about than what Ku’Sox is going to do over the next hundred years,” he said, a thick, heavy hand falling on my shoulder and turning me around. “We’re on trial.”

“Again?” I asked, shaking as I leaned past Al to eye Ku’Sox. “What, are we broke?”

“No.” Al’s voice was sour. “It’s your damned ley line. It went wonky. Leaking like the bloody Titanic.

Remembering the increasingly caustic sound of the lines, I turned to face him fully. My line? Had it really gone that badly unbalanced?

Al’s eye twitched. A spot of ice slid down my spine, making me stiffen. We’d been trying for weeks to get the line I’d scraped between reality and the ever-after to close or at least balance, but until I knew how to jump the lines by myself, it wasn’t happening. The imbalance was slowly siphoning off the ever-after into reality, and the only reason that no one had said anything before was because it was only a trickle—plenty of time to fix it. That, and because I was the only female demon they might get some baby demons out of after they tired of the trinkets I could solidify into reality for them. They’d been losing maybe a cubic foot of their dimension a year, not much at all. “How bad is it?” I whispered, trying to smile as I looked at Dali, Al’s parole officer.

“Bad.” Al’s voice was faint but resolute. “Stand up. Try to look sexy.”

“In a bedsheet?” I complained, running my hands down it. “How can I look sexy in a bedsheet?” He cleared his throat, and I grimaced. “Never mind.”

Frowning, I leaned past Al to glare at Ku’Sox again, certain that he was the reason my line had gone wonky. The demon’s smile confirmed it, and suddenly I realized just how deep in the crapper we were. Ku’Sox had thriving Rosewood babies. He had the leverage to make Trent give him the permanent cure. He had a line—my line—leaking ever-after enough to be a real problem. He was going to kill the ever-after and blame me for it.

“Oh shit,” I whispered, and Ku’Sox inclined his head as he realized I’d figured it out. I took a breath to shout out the truth, hesitating only because Ku’Sox seemed to want me to. There was more to this; I could see it in his face, feel it in the air, moist and heavy.

Frantic, I turned back to Al. “Al,” I hissed. “Tell them he broke my line!”

“Right . . .” Al muttered. “We don’t know that, and saying so will only get us in jail where you can’t do anything.”

“But he did it!” Crap on toast, this had gone from bad to worse, and Al didn’t care.

“Don’t say anything to get me in jail, love,” Al breathed, hardly audible over the noise. “You don’t have enough to get both of us out. We’ll find out how bad the damage is and fix it.”

I wasn’t sure if Al meant damage to my line or damage to my credibility. Frustrated, I cocked my hip and fumed.

Dali, who’d been counting heads by the look of it, stood up, his hands raised to quiet the rabble behind us. “Quiet! Quiet!” he shouted, his resonant voice booming. The demon was used to being listened to, and the last of the demons hustled to find their places. Every demon was equal in the ever-after, but some had more power than others, and some had more money. Dali had both.

Beside me, Al jammed a finger into my ribs to make me jerk straight. “I’ll do the talking,” he said.

“If you can’t shut your mouths and your minds in that order, I’m going to clear the room!” Dali bellowed. “None of you will have a chance to vent!”

Newt sniffed, curving her legs up beside her on the bench to look oddly sexy. “And by the Turn, you need to vent,” she said, her soft voice carrying to the back of the stands. “It smells like goats in a locker room.”

There was a smattering of masculine guffaws, and finally they all shut up. It was like living with perpetual sixth graders. Dali lowered his hands, moving his middle-aged spread gracefully as he walked to the center of the narrow stage. Demons could appear as whatever they wanted. I still didn’t know what Dali found appealing in being a fortysomething, slightly overweight, graying civil servant.

“As Al’s parole officer, I am responsible for keeping Algaliarept’s behavior within acceptable parameters,” he said, and Al cleared his throat and made an elegant bow. “And you,” Dali added, pointing at Al, “are responsible for your student’s.”

That would be me, and I turned a smidge to show off my curves. So I wanted to appear attractive. So sue me. I was surrounded by perfection.

Al visibly swallowed back his ire. With a small breath, he seemed to gain two inches, again bowing with an overdone flourish and sending a foot to smack me to try to get me to do the same. “Assembled countrymen,” he said as he gracefully straightened. “May I say—”

“No, Gally,” Newt interrupted as she took up her wineglass again. “You’ve talked enough. Your student’s ley line has degraded to the point where we’re losing enough ever-after to give me a splitting headache.”

It might be the wine she was drinking, but I, too, had a soft throbbing at the base of my skull where there’d been none this morning. I had blamed it on whatever had been in Trent’s fridge, but maybe it was more. Behind us, the demons muttered agreement.

“Why,” Newt said as she fixed her eerie black orbs on Al, “haven’t you taught her how to line jump so she can fix it?”

“You think I don’t want to?” Al took a step to distance himself from me, and I felt alone. “Her gargoyle is a baby of fifty years, but he’s bound to her already so we simply have to wait. And before you mention it, the scar tissue my student received from that cretin in the front row trapping her in a ley line prevents any other gargoyle from breaking through her aura to teach her instead.”

It was true, and I winced when Ku’Sox rose up, looking lean and elegant. “Blaming this on me? How gauche.” His expression turned mocking. “And typical, I’m afraid.”

“Why not?” I barked out, unable to help myself. “You’re behind this.

The demons around him eased back to give him more room, and an uneasy murmur rose. “Careful, Rachel,” Al said as he leaned forward, blocking my view of them.

Jittery, I pushed his hand off me. “Ku’Sox kidnapped Kalamack’s daughter and his, ah, common-law wife,” I said, exaggerating. “And then the lines go sour? All of them? Doesn’t that seem a little odd to any of you?”

Again, the demons whispered among themselves, very aware of, and not liking, Ku’Sox’s genocidal tendencies. Al was a lot more direct, and I pulled away when he pinched my elbow. “Stop trying to distract them. It’s transparent and obvious.”

“Is it?” I said loudly to Al but talking to all of them. “Distraction seems to be working for him! Have any of you given any thought to why he might have kidnapped my former familiar’s child and wife? My elfin familiar?”

The mention of their age-old enemies got the expected snarls, but Newt and Dali were listening. Their war had nearly killed all of them.

“I say we kill her and be done with it!” Ku’Sox said loudly.

Taken aback, I spun, the ring of flowers falling from me to land in the dry moat between us. “Kill me?” I said, unheard over the rising complaints. “Are you nuts?”

“I can’t think straight, my head is ringing so badly from the lines!” one demon shouted as he stood, getting a round of agreements before he sat down in vindication.

“I was in the middle of some work, and I lost it all!” a second exclaimed. “You owe me restitution for a week’s work down the crapper!”

Al’s brow was furrowed. “My student is not responsible for your failure to record your curses in the collective,” he said, and Dali nodded his agreement.

“We have a problem,” a third said, a band of blue fabric draped over his shoulders. His voice was firm, and I wondered who he was. “The imbalance is impacting everything. It took two of you to summon her through the lines. Two! That’s not normal. And it’s getting worse!”

I took a step forward. “Well, that was because of Trent,” I said, and Al jabbed me with his elbow to shut up.

Newt and Dali pulled their attention from the rising noise behind me. “Trent tried to block our summons?” Newt asked, her long legs showing from under her toga before she tugged it to cover them.

“It’s never taken a collective to summon anyone!” the demon with the blue sash said loudly, enjoying the attention his claim had brought him. “The ever-after is falling apart!”

The sky is falling, the sky is falling, I thought derisively, and Newt shifted her feet to the floor, her expression seeming to mirror my thoughts.

“This is pointless,” Newt said as she poised almost coyly. “Stay on track, gentlemen. Rachel, love, can you fix the line?”

I didn’t like being called “love,” especially not by her, but I let it pass. “No,” I said sullenly.

“Of course she can!” Al shouted to drown out the immediate complaints, his hands raised pleadingly as he shot me a glare. “We need more time, is all.”

“We have no time!” Ku’Sox asserted, aggressively riling them up. “She broke the balance. Killing her will fix it.”

“It will not!” I exclaimed, but Al’s wince and Dali’s sudden deflation as he sat down made me wonder. “It won’t, will it?” I asked Al softly, and the demon made a long, drawn-out, regretful noise of possibility.

Dali leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, ignoring the rising noise behind us for a moment. “Unfortunately it might,” he said to me, giving the demons time to argue. “Lines created from a jump between reality and the ever-after are permanent, for the most part, but lines made from a reality-to-reality jump are not, and killing you might erase it.”

“Might?” Panicking, I looked at Ku’Sox, hating his smug smile. “This is a setup,” I said, wanting to retreat but there was nowhere to go. “The line was stable. Well, not stable, but it wasn’t unzipping like this! Someone’s tampered with it!” It was as close as I dared go without actually blaming him, and even so, Al lightly smacked me on the shoulder to shut up.

“We have nowhere to go if the ever-after collapses,” Ku’Sox said, voice loud over the rising noise. “Kill her before it’s too late!”

“Wrong!” I shouted, and Al sighed heavily. “They have nowhere to go. You do.”

Ku’Sox beamed at me as if I’d played right into his hands. “Not anymore, but you do, Rachel. Perhaps you are trying to kill us.

“Me?” I stammered, mentally backpedaling as I realized why he was so smug. He was going to kill the ever-after and everyone in it—blaming it on me. He had a way around the curse. Had to. Or he knew a way to force me to remove it. Maybe Lucy and Ceri had been kidnapped to force my hand, not Trent’s. Damn it all to the Turn and back.

“I didn’t do this!” I spun to face the crowd behind me, then back to Dali. “I was on a horse in reality when the line started leaking this bad!”

Ku’Sox stood. “Then you admit it was leaking? And you never told anyone?”

Al was holding his head in his hand, and I wished I’d kept my mouth shut. “Just a little,” I said, then had to raise my voice when they all began talking. “I was trying to fix it before anyone noticed!”

Al stood stiffly beside me as he fidgeted in subtle ways that only I could possibly see. “Will you shut up now?” he breathed, roughly turning me to face Newt and Dali.

“But he did it!”

“But you can’t prove it!” Al mocked my whiny tone.

“There are thriving Rosewood babies being stolen, and he kidnapped hostages to force my freed familiar to make the cure permanent!” I shouted. “Doesn’t that sound a bit odd to you?” But no one cared.

“Are you done?” Al muttered, his back stiff as he faced Newt and Dali.

Looking uneasy, Dali rose to his feet, hands raised to quiet them. “Rachel, as it is your line and you’re the only demon who can survive free of the ever-after, we are understandably concerned that your intent is to destroy us and the ever-after.”

My hasty breath to protest whooshed out as Al poked me in the ribs to be quiet.

“Much as I regret my decision,” Dali said, moving to the front of the drop-off between us, “it’s my recommendation that if Rachel admits that she can’t balance her line, then perhaps her death is the best way to ensure our continued existence.”

I couldn’t speak. They weren’t serious, were they? Ku’Sox had done something. I knew it by his smug expression as he listened to the demons call for my blood. Standing there, my heart hammered, and I backed up into Al. They couldn’t. I hadn’t done anything!

Dali looked at me, and I quailed. “If it’s a choice between your life and all of ours, then you will die.” He hesitated, then added quietly, “Even if you’re not actually the one who should be blamed for it.”

His eyes slid behind me to Ku’Sox, and my hope leaped. He believed me. I glanced at Al to see he realized it, too. And Newt, now toasting me with her wine. Proof. We needed proof. I could do that. I could get the damned proof. I just needed a few days.

“Gentle associates, gentle associates!” Al said, his voice rumbling through me from where I was pressed against him. “Of course she can balance her line.” His breath was like brimstone against me, sharp and jolting. “Tell them, Rachel,” he prompted, his voice low with threat.

“S-sure,” I stammered, scared to death.

Al’s eyes closed in relief. “We can fix it,” he said as they opened.

“Then why haven’t you?” Ku’Sox said softly, mocking us.

“My rooms are shrinking!” another called.

“We have nowhere to go. Kill her now before it’s too late!” a third shouted, and it all started up again. I began to panic. Only Al’s firm hold on my arms kept me from moving. He was not my jailer, he was my rock. Whatever happened to me would happen to him. I didn’t altogether trust Al, but I trusted that.

“No.” It was a soft utterance, and my eyes went to Newt, still sitting calmly on her bench, legs curled back up under her again. “I said no!” she said louder, and the noise behind Al and me abated. “I told you months ago that Rachel’s line was unbalanced, and you all said I was crazy.”

“You are crazy!” someone shouted from the back, and she smiled as if in benediction.

“Tru-u-u-ue,” she drawled when they quieted again. “But no one listened. You will listen to me now. Call it your collective penance.”

My heart gave a pound, and I tensed against Al. Was it a chance or a sentence?

Knowing all eyes were on her, Newt stood gracefully. “I will give you space from my own rooms to compensate your loss, Cyclarenadamackitn. I will compensate all your one-inch, two-inch losses because I know how important every inch is to you aged, decrepit men. But in return, I want to see if she can do it. It would be a skill worth having—don’t you think? Being able to balance lines scraped from a reality-to-reality jump? In case we someday can return to reality and abandon the ever-after completely?” I swallowed hard as Newt turned her black, featureless eyes on me. “If she can’t, then you may kill her.”

There was a breath of silence, in which I could almost hear the demons thinking that over. Behind me, Al sighed, his hands gripping my upper arms easing. It was a chance.

I looked at Ku’Sox and his evident anger, but he stayed silent as the demons came to a consensus. I couldn’t tell if Dali was pleased or irritated as he stood, frowning once at Newt’s pleased smile as she beamed over all of them.

“So!” Dali said, bringing everyone’s attention back to the stage. “Are we agreed? Rachel and Al have time to balance the line if Newt compensates everyone?”

Al held his breath as no one spoke, each waiting for the other to say something first.

“Ku’Sox?” Dali prompted. It was clear that the bastard child wasn’t pleased, but if he continued to push for my death, it would be obvious that he wanted it.

His face empty of emotion, Ku’Sox turned on a heel. Pushing past the surrounding demons, he distanced himself, and then, with a soft breath of air replacing his mass, he vanished.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Dali said as the rest of the demons began popping out in turn, a soft muttering of conversations rising and falling like surf.

I finally began to relax, turning to look up at Al as he let go of my shoulders. “Now what?” There was no way in hell I could balance that line.

Al wouldn’t look at me, and I again wondered how I could have gone from fear to mistrust to understanding to reliance in so short of time. “We find a way to fix this,” he said. “Or a way to blame it on someone else,” he added, stiffening as Newt rose and made her way to us. Dali was busy with a few lingering demons, and I watched as Al seemed to shift and change, the mask he always wore sliding over him again as she came forward.

“That’s it then!” he said cheerfully as he clapped his thick hands again. “I guess we’ll be off to look at the line. See what we can do.”

“Yes,” Newt said, her smile chilling me as she took my hand and looked at it, noticing perhaps that I now had a metal pinkie ring instead of a wooden one. “You go balance that line. And in the meantime, Rachel’s debt to me grows with each passing second.”

I winced as I pulled my hand from hers, but what could I say? I did have some income here from the use of the tulpa I’d made for Dalliance.

Al was huffing and puffing, but I knew there was no deal we could get that was better than our continued survival.

“Al,” Newt said sharply before he could protest. “If your student dies, that debt reverts to you.”

Al glanced at Dali, and then back to her. “Looking forward to it,” he grumbled, his hand on my shoulder tightening.

Newt’s black gaze was on the wisp of my tattoo that showed, and I managed a nervous smile. “Thank you,” I said as she turned to leave, and she spun slowly back to us.

“Don’t thank me now, love. Save it till the morning after.”

In a hush of inrushing air, Newt vanished like a Cheshire cat. Feeling ill and scared, I turned to Al. “Can we go home?”

“No,” he said, simultaneously leading me down off the dais and waving to Dali as if everything was A-Okay, not Oh Shit. “But I agree we need to leave.”

I hopped from the raised stage, and Al’s hands left my wrist. I felt small as I looked at the stone bench Ku’Sox had been sitting on. “It’s him,” I said, and Al growled. “Ku’Sox has done something to the line. You know it, too. He’s got those kids, and this is all an elaborate con to destroy the ever-after and blame me for it.”

“If you can’t prove it, it doesn’t mean shit,” Al said, but as I balked, he sighed and rubbed his head. “Fine,” he grumbled as he took my arm as if to escort me. “The sun is still up, but let’s go look at your line.”

“How?” I said, knowing he couldn’t be in reality when the sun was above the horizon, but it was too late and the soft ache of the ley line had taken me.

Chapter Eight

The red sun of the ever-after hurt my eyes, and I squinted, holding up a hand as I stood on dusty red soil made of pulverized rock and felt the gritty wind push at me. Al and I had come in on a slightly raised plateau. Before us snaked a dry riverbed. To our left was a slump of broken rock where Loveland Castle was in reality. Sprigs of waist-high yellow grass were scattered about, and a few stunted trees were all that was left of the woods that surrounded the castle in reality. Here in the ever-after, it was desolate.

Between us and the pile of rock, a ley line shimmered, more of a heat image than anything else in the sunbaked wind. The line was making me feel slightly nauseated, almost seasick. The leak? I wondered. As a gargoyle, Bis would know, but he’d be hard to wake until the sun went down.

Beside me, Al was again dressed in his familiar crushed green velvet coat, lace and all. Black boots with buckles scuffed the dirt, and he jauntily sported an obsidian walking cane and a matching tall hat. Dark round glasses protected his eyes, but I could tell it wasn’t enough, as his expression was pained and the sun seemed to be picking away at our auras as we stood. The sun was one of the reasons the demons hid underground in vast caverns overlain with the illusion of the outside. The fact that structures tended to fall apart on the surface was another.

It was odd seeing Al, with his top hat and elegant grace, poking about with the tip of his cane as he found evidence of other demons. “No surface demons,” I said. The hot air hurt my chest.

“The sun feels worse today.” Al crouched to turn over a rock that someone had shifted.

I winced as the wind whipped my toga and tiny pinpricks of rock hit my bare legs. All around me were the telltale signs of other demons: a footprint here, a scuff there—an oval impression in the dust that looked like the bottom of Newt’s staff. They’d been here, seen the damage, incidentally obliterating the evidence that Ku’Sox might have been here earlier to make the leak in my line worse. I sort of knew how the I.S. felt.

Al slowly exhaled as he stood, his expression blank as he looked out over the dry riverbed to the scrub and trees. His fingers fumbled in a tiny pocket, and he sniffed a pinch of brimstone. “It’s a damn ugly place for a ley line.”

“I wasn’t planning on making one to begin with,” I said, then shivered when a wave of ever-after coated me, falling away to show he’d changed me out my toga for head-to-toe black leather. No bra or panties, but at least the gritty wind wasn’t scouring me like the sun was stripping my aura, and this outfit, unlike most, fitted me, not Ceri.

Oh God, Ceri. I was no closer to getting them back than when I’d got here.

Unaware of my thoughts, Al shoved a prissy pink-and-white lace parasol at me. “Here.”

The frail thing clashed with the leather, but immediately I felt a sense of relief in its shadow. I’d seen Ku’Sox. He knew I was aware of what he’d done. He’d make his demands soon enough, and until then, I had to believe that Ceri and Lucy were okay. “Thanks,” I said as I looked at the stack of rubble. “Shouldn’t the line be over the rocks? That’s where I came in.”

Al began picking his way to my ley line, his cane knocking jagged chunks of rock from his path. “Lines drift,” he said, his head down. “Move. They’re like magnets repelling each other. They will shift across continents given enough time and impetus. They only appear to be stationary because they’ve balanced with each other ages ago. Yours here . . .” Al sniffed in consideration. “It likely won’t move much anymore. Has it always been this size?”

I nodded as I came even with him and faced the barely visible shimmer in the air. The ley line the university was built on was wide enough that you could drive a team of horses down it for a quarter mile. The one in my graveyard was about four feet wide and twenty feet long, an admittedly small line. Mine here was about the same, maybe a little longer.

Al pressed his lips together, puffing his air out as he gazed at seemingly nothing, but he was probably looking at my line with his second sight. “You got out fast. The longer it takes, the wider the wound.”

“Really?” So a small line was a good thing, which made me wonder who made the line in my graveyard. Then I wondered who had taken forever to get out of the one at the university. Al maybe?

Walking the length of the shimmer in the air, Al turned and strolled back, the line a haze between us. “A line this size can’t be leaking this much on its own.”

“It wasn’t when I left it.” I cocked my hip, feeling naked without my usual shoulder bag.

Al’s focus landed on me. “Can you hear it?” he asked, and my lips puckered in distaste. “You’re not using your second sight,” he added, and I shook my head, tucking a gritty strand of hair behind an ear. But at his dramatic prompting, I exhaled and opened my second sight.

The ringing worsened, scraping across my awareness in a discordant jangle the way the red sun seemed to rub my skin raw. But as bad as it sounded, it looked even uglier. The line was the usual red shimmer at chest height, but there was a sharply defined line of purple at its center running the entire length, thickest at the center and thinning to nothing at the ends. It was almost black at its core, and streamers of fading red were funneling into it like bands of energy slipping into a black hole. I could actually see the leak as it sucked in everything around it, and it made my stomach twist.

“Is it safe to use like that?” I said to Al, looking distorted and red through the line’s energy. Behind him, the rubble loomed ominously.

He shrugged. “We used it to get here.”

Distressed, I put a hand to my middle and dropped my second sight. “Al,” I said. “That purple core wasn’t there the last time we were here.”

“I know.”

“What did Ku’Sox do to it?” I said, frustrated.

Hands on his hips, Al searched the line with his eyes. He reminded me of Jenks, somehow, even though he didn’t look anything like him. “I don’t know.”

He believed me. Relieved, I eased my shoulders down. I debated walking through the line to stand beside him, then edged around it as he had done, my boots kicking rocks and pebbles out of my way. “So-o-o,” I drawled, feeling small beside him. “How do you unbalance a ley line?”

Shifting his arms at his side, he glanced at me and then away. “No idea,” he said, looking as if it had physically hurt him to admit it. “Tell you what. Toddle through it to the other side to reality and see what it looks like from there.”

I backed up a step. “Seriously?”

Frowning, he gave me a once-over, the wind blowing his hair about his glasses. “Get in the line, will yourself through, and see what the line looks like from reality. If we’re lucky, it won’t be like this. Maybe it’s merely a curse we can break.”

I hesitated, then jumped when he swooped forward and took my arm, stepping us into the line together. “Hey!” I yelped as my stomach dropped and the sensation of an unending chalkboard scrape serrated over my nerves. Stiffening, I yanked out of his grip, but I didn’t leave the line since he was still standing in it. If he could take it, I could, too.

Nauseated, I brought up my second sight. The purple line was so close I could touch it. My heart pounded, and little pinpricks of energy seemed to hit me. By all appearances, the line was sucking in energy, but the discordant jangle clearly showed it was giving something off as well.

“I’ll stay here in the line,” Al said, and I swallowed hard. “That way you can tell me what you can see. Do you think you are capable of that?”

“Sure.” I licked my lips, then wished I hadn’t as my tongue came away gritty.

“Now, maybe?” Al prompted as he tugged his sleeves down. “It’s going to take me hours to get the sand out of my hair. And stay out of that purple shit.”

I looked at the evil purple line, swirls of red vanishing at its black core. “Not a problem.” Taking a slow breath, I closed my eyes and willed myself across the realities. It was different from using a line to jump, and demons seldom did it unless they were dragging an unwilling slave across realities—it was akin to taking a horse downtown when everyone else had a hovercar.

The whine from the line shifted, and I opened my eyes, seeing a ghostlike Al still standing beside me with a shimmer of red between us. The air lacked the bite of burnt amber, and the damned wind that always seemed to be blowing in the ever-after was gone. I could hear birds, and under my feet were weeds and grass. The sound of running water was faint, and tall trees leafed out for spring stood around me. Exhaling, I turned. Behind me Loveland Castle was whole again, albeit a dumpy little building falling apart—one man’s dream of nobility crumbling from neglect. Noble ideas tended to do that when left alone.

“Well?” Al prompted, and I turned to him, catching my balance in surprise. The weirdness of the line was impacting everything. The vision of the dusty, sunbaked surface of the ever-after was superimposed over the lush greenery of the raised garden area of the castle, but the purple-and-black line looked about the same from this side as the other. Ugly.

I lowered the parasol and squinted up at the yellow sun. “It’s hard to tell. Mind if I step away and see what it looks like from outside the line?”

“Hurry up about it,” he grumped, and I took several hasty steps backward until the unsettling scrape across my nerves vanished. My soft headache went with it, and I took a breath of clean air. I was completely in reality, and I brought out the phone from my back pocket, checking the time. I had about fifteen minutes until Jenks summoned me, and knowing Al was becoming impatient, I texted Trent I was okay and to have Jenks give me another hour.

Unfortunately, the line looked about the same from this reality, though the grating whine that remained was a slightly higher pitch. Snapping my phone closed, I looked over the area to try to determine if anyone had been here. The weeds right under the line were all ramrod straight, as if they were being tugged upward. It was weird, and crouching just outside the line, I ran a hand under it, watching the grass spring back. The ground between the clumps of weeds looked as if it had been vacuumed.

I stifled a shiver and rose. Thinking my parasol must look silly, I closed it. They did have tours at the castle, occasionally. I could see no evidence that anyone had been here in weeks, and I stepped back into the line. Al seemed to relax as I became slightly more real to him, slightly closer to his reality. “Well?” he prompted.

I shrugged, scuffing my boots in the grass. “It looks the same, but the pitch of the whine is higher. The grass, though . . .” I kicked at a tuft. “It’s growing funny. Straight up, like it’s being pulled. Even the ground looks like anything not nailed down got sucked up into it.”

“Maybe it did.” Al ducked under the purple line, shuddering as he came up on the other side, closer to me. “The purple seems to be a physical manifestation of a heavy leak of energy.”

“Where’s it going?” I asked. “The energy, I mean?”

Al held his arms behind his back, adopting a posture of lecture that I recognized from our days and nights in his kitchen/lab. “When the sun is up, energy flows from reality into the ever-after; when the sun goes down, the flow reverses.” His voice echoed, ghostlike. “The problem is that less is flowing into the ever-after than is going out. That purple line? I don’t know what in the two worlds that is. It appears to disrupt the natural ebb and flow, sucking in energy like an event horizon. Making it worse than it should be.”

Event horizon? I wish I’d paid more attention in advanced ley line physics.

Al sighed, and I willed myself back to the ever-after. The wind hit me like a slap, and I popped my parasol back open. “I’m sorry,” I said as I walked around the line to join him.

“For what?” he said sarcastically. “You’ve done so much.”

I fidgeted. “For making the line to begin with, I suppose. How did you balance yours?”

Al gave me an askance look before rocking into motion, distancing himself. “I tweaked it until it was within proper parameters, but we can’t do that with yours because it is a reality-to-reality-based line. Besides, you need to know how to jump a line first.”

My jaw clenched, then relaxed. Bis had to teach me, and he was too young.

“Even so,” Al said as he waved a dry stalk of ever-after grass through the purple line, then inspected it for damage, grunting as if something pleased him. “I don’t think knowing how to jump a line will help. No, this purple shit is different.” He straightened and dropped the stalk. “We should be able to do something about it. Buy us some time. Put us back where we were yesterday.”

The first faint stirrings of hope began in me. “What do you have in mind?”

He flashed me a quick grin, and I felt as if I’d done something right. “Stay here,” he said, waving his white-gloved hands dramatically. “I’ll be right back.”

“Al?” I called out, but he’d vanished. Nervous, I gazed across the bleak, sunbaked earth and the dry riverbed, feeling the bits of windblown earth hit me. I didn’t like being alone on the surface, and I twirled my parasol. My hair was going to be impossible to get through tonight.

Almost immediately he stumbled back in, his head down and back hunched. “Ah, here,” he said, his goat-slitted eyes meeting mine from over his dark-tinted glasses. “Put this on.”

It was a small black ring, and I looked at it in my palm, seeing there was a new lump of a circlet under his glove. Uneasy, I eyed him.

“I’m not giving it to you,” he huffed. “It’s a loan. For a few minutes. I want it back.”

“It’s a ring,” I said flatly, not able to tell if it was black gold or simply tarnished.

“Sharp as a tack, that one,” Al grumped. “You want to put it on, now? Pick a finger.”

I spread the fingers of my left hand, and I swear, he made a small noise of dismay. I looked up to see his jaw clenched. “What does it do?”

Al grimaced, shifting from foot to foot. “I, ah, it’s a life rope of sorts. That is, me in the ever-after to pull your ass out of the fire if I’m wrong, and you in reality, fixing it.”

Fixing the line was the entire point, and I didn’t mind having a safety rope. If it was a ring, then that was cool. Still I hesitated; the ring seemed to soak in the harsh light. It was heavy on my palm, and I had the insane desire to drop it into a fire and see if an inscription appeared. I set the open parasol down, and it rolled in the wind until catching against a large rock.

“The rings will allow us to function as a single energy entity across the realities,” Al said, standing almost sideways to me as he looked out over nothing. “I think.”

“You think?” I said, starting to understand. “Is that like a power pull?”

Al leered, the wind shifting the gritty lank curls of his hair. “If you want.”

Head shaking, I extended the ring back to him. “No.”

He rolled his eyes, looking at the washed-out sky and refusing to take it. “You are utterly without a sense of humor today,” he said, and my hand dropped. “We will simply be able to borrow upon and find each other’s chi with minimal disruption.”

These were more than just rings, and I wanted the truth of it. “Al,” I said forcefully. “What are these? You have one, too. I can see it under your glove.”

Shoulders slumping, he showed me his back. “Nothing,” he said, the wind almost obliterating his voice. “They’re nothing now but a way to yank your butt out of the fire.” He turned around, and his lost look surprised me. “Go through the line to reality,” he said, gesturing. “You should be able to hear me whether you’re in the line or not if you have the ring on. You’ll have a better chance fixing it if you work from the reality you made it from.” I hesitated, and he added, “Think of them as a scrying mirror, without the eavesdropping.”

Unsure, I looked at the simple band of tarnished metal. A private line to each other’s thoughts was a rather questionable connection—not a violation as such, but very . . . personal. It didn’t help that they looked like wedding bands.

Against my better judgment, I slipped the ring on my index finger. Wavering on my feet, I felt my consciousness expand. It was exactly like a scrying mirror, but the connection was tighter, far more intimate. I could feel not just Al’s presence, but sense his masculinity, his worry, his concern. I could sense the limits of his chi, and I knew to the last iota how much it could hold, the power he could wield. It wasn’t as much as I could. It wasn’t that he lacked. Female demons had a naturally elevated ability to harbor two souls behind one aura, as in having a baby.

“Mother pus bucket,” Al said breathily. “You’ve expanded your reach, Rachel.”

Apparently he could see my abilities as well. “Is it supposed to feel like this?” I asked, heart pounding as I flicked a quick look at him.

“This isn’t a good idea,” Al said, seeming as uncomfortable as I was. “We might be able to do this with scrying mirrors.”

I jumped when he took my hand to slip the ring from me. There was a pain in the back of his eyes that had nothing to do with me. My heart pounded, and not knowing why, I curved my fingers to make a fist. Al’s attention jerked up, and I knew I must’ve looked panicked as he froze. “Ah, I’m good,” I said, tense. “That is, if you’re okay.”

His lips twitched. “I didn’t expect it to be . . .”

“What?” I prompted when he faltered.

“Exactly the way I remembered it,” he said sourly, and he dropped my hand. “Go. Let me know when you’re in reality standing outside the line. As I said, they function much as a scrying mirror.”

He turned away, waiting, and I hesitated. He was staring out at the broken landscape of the ever-after, thinking of someone. I could feel it in his thoughts, the longing for something he’d lost so long ago that he’d forgotten even that he missed it.

My feet scuffed, and he tensed. Spinning the ring on my finger, I stepped into the line, being careful to stay clear of the purple center. Immediately the harsh discord renewed my headache, but almost before I recognized it, the pain seemed to halve. Al had taken some of it.

“Sorry,” I said, and he spun, coattails furling and heartache carefully hidden.

“That’s what the rings do,” he said, urging me away with his gloved hands. “It’s not anything I wasn’t expecting. Go.”

Nodding, I took a breath and moved myself into reality. Again I breathed the fresh air, relishing the warmth of the yellow sun and the soft hush of the wind in the trees. It was no wonder demons were bad-tempered. They lived in a virtual hell.

Remembering Al, I toned down my thoughts of relief.

Good, they work, he thought, and I squirmed as his masculine, domineering presence solidified in mine. I wasn’t sure if they would between realities.

“Good Lord, can you ease up?” I asked, feeling as if he was breathing down my neck, and I felt him chuckle.

Uncomfortable?

I looked over the fallow, weed-choked garden, seeing the outlines of a man’s dream of a perfect spot of truth. “A little, yes,” I said, then sighed in relief when the spun-adrenaline feeling he was instilling in me seemed to fade. He was everything masculine, and having it so close was unnerving. “Thanks,” I said, backing out of the line and looking at it with my second sight. I could see Al watching me like a foppish ghost from a romance novel. “So, how do I fix it?”

I changed my mind. You watch. I’ll investigate. I’m going to follow the purple line inward, see if there’s an aura signature on it. Maybe I can plug it. It’s clearly a manufactured flaw, and as such, it will have a beginning and an end with which to unravel it.

I smiled. “And with proof, they will go after Ku’Sox!”

I’d rather fix it, he thought at me wryly. If we can’t do that, we will all still die. That is, everyone but you and Ku’Sox.

My attention came up from where I’d been scuffing the grass. “Then you think he has a way around that curse?”

He nodded, and my heart pounded. “But you said not to step into the purple line.”

That was before the rings.

Distrusting this, I stared at him, the red sheen of a dimensional barrier between us.

There’s nothing in either reality that will sever our connection through the rings, he thought, glaring at me. If I get stuck, pull me out. Ah, without physically going into the purple shit, that is. If both of us are in there, what’s the point of a lifeline?

Still I looked at him, weighing his body language against the emotions I was sensing through the rings. He was better than me at blocking them, and I wasn’t sure why he was nervous. Al, I thought at him, hands on my hips. I don’t like this plan.

We don’t have time to find a plan you like. His thoughts slipped into mine, oily with deceit. Newt is paying for the volume lost with her own space. The sooner we get this hole plugged, the better. I just got my atrium back, and I don’t want to lose it.

He was moving toward the purple line, and fear slid down my spine, magnified by Al’s own worry. “Al!” I cried out, hand outstretched.

Al stopped, turned, and gave me a last look. Hold on to me, I saw him say, hearing it echo in my thoughts as well. Don’t let go.

And then, he stepped into the purple line.

I gasped—it felt as if an ice pick was hammered into my skull from the top right to the bottom left. I screamed, falling to my knees. Al’s pain. It was Al’s pain, and I floundered, forcing my eyes open. I couldn’t see him, and I panted, almost losing him in my thoughts. Forcing the bile down, I closed my eyes and searched for him with my mind. I was swimming in a black cloud of acid, unable to open my eyes, arms outstretched and burning as I followed down a rising trace of agony like bubbles to find him.

“Got you!” I gasped, and I wrapped my soul around his.

I flung myself backward with him, crying out because it felt as if my thoughts had been ripped apart. My back hit the scattered tufts of grass, and I stared up at a perfect blue sky. The pain was gone. Al wasn’t with me.

“Al!” I scrambled to my feet, realizing what happened. I’d tried to pull him into reality when the sun was up. It wasn’t happening. I couldn’t feel him anymore, and in a panic, I rushed back into the line, willing myself into the ever-after with wild abandonment.

The line burned, scraping across me like sandpaper. Even with my second sight, I couldn’t see Al, and I wondered if he had been sucked into that purple line. If I physically went in after him, we’d both be lost. I had to stay where I was. But perhaps with the rings . . . Maybe I could find him with my mind and bring both his body and soul back?

I gave one last look at the broken, red-sheened world the demons were consigned to—a hell of their own making designed to entrap and kill the elves but that had only damned themselves. And then, falling to my knees, I closed my eyes and sent my mind into the line, letting it be pulled into the purple-black nothing.

My breath came out in a pained whimper, and I fell against the dry earth, my hands spasmodically clenching on the broken rock, my cheek pressed into the dirt. My mind was squished to a thin line, my thoughts reduced to a colorless state. My heart beat, and that hurt even more.

Al! I thought, and the pain redoubled as I found him, struggling to think, starved for thought under the crushing pressure. There were sparkles in my distant fingertips and toes. I was suffocating. If I didn’t get us out of here soon, I was going to forget how to breathe and we’d both die.

My skin and thoughts on fire, I wrapped what I could of myself around the echo of emotion that was left of Al. With one last agonizing push of will, I sent us home, back to where my body jerked in convulsions in the red dust.

The harsh wind of the ever-after hit me like a slap. The heavy weight of Al slammed into me, and we both cried out as he slid to the earth. Sharp fragments of stone bit into my side, and I heard him take a sobbing breath of air. I tried to move, my scream of pain coming out as a whimper. My thoughts still burned, and I finally got my eyes open.

We were in the ever-after, the humming ley line still unchanged above us, still holding that core of purple nothing. Beside me, Al lay askew, his green velvet coat charred, mimicking the state of his mind, his aura. Pain-racked, I managed to sit up, tears running down my face as my eyes tried to clear. My clothes were untouched, and I wondered how much of this pain was mine and how much was Al’s.

Al’s body shifted as he took a ragged breath, and I touched him, my hand shaking and the ring glinting a bright silver white in the red air. It was black no longer, the tarnish burned away.

“Al?” I croaked. The sun hurt, but I couldn’t reach the parasol, shifting back and forth in the wind that scoured me to my bones.

“I thought you’d . . . left . . . me.”

I could barely hear him, and I leaned on his shoulder as I scooted closer. He gasped at the added weight, and the pain in my head doubled. “I couldn’t pull you out into reality,” I explained. “I had to move to the ever-after to do it.”

“I’m out?” he said, and his jaw clenched as he opened his eyes. He’d lost his glasses somewhere, and his eyes were black—like Newt’s. He closed his eyes at my fear.

“We’re out,” I said, still panting at the pain. We were out, but I didn’t think it mattered.

“I’ll get us home,” he said, and then we both screamed as he tried to jump to a line. Fire burned down both our synaptic lines, and I fell back, groaning as I forced my lungs to keep working. If I was breathing, I was alive, right? How could it hurt so much? I was on fire. We were burning to death from the inside out.

“Oh God. Oh God,” I moaned, looking in my hand in wonder. It looked the same, but it felt like it was burning, charring. “Don’t. Don’t do that again. Please.”

“I can’t jump us, Celfnnah. I’m sorry. Save yourself.”

The heartache in Al’s voice cut through the agony, and I focused on him, seeing him curled up against the pain. Celfnnah? “You want me to leave?” I said in disbelief as my tears started again, but whether they were to clear my eyes of the grit or because of Al, I couldn’t tell.

Al groaned, and with a sudden jerk, he finally got the ring off his finger. My breath sucked in as the pain vanished. He took one last shuddering breath, and then he passed out, his entire body going limp. My hand flashed out as Al’s ring pinged against the rock and I caught it.

Silence filled me, the cessation of pain almost unreal as the wind shifted a lank curl into my line of vision. There was only a fading ache, deep in my tissues as if I had been in a fever. “Al?”

I touched his shoulder, my hand coming away with a sheen of sweat bleeding all the way through his clothes. He still breathed, but he was out cold. “Don’t you go to sleep, Al!” I shouted, shifting to kneel before him. “Stay with me!” I might as well be talking to the dead, and I put his ring on my thumb so I wouldn’t lose it. Stretching, I reached for my parasol, holding it over both our heads. Damn it, we were in big trouble now.

My head jerked up at a clink of rock, and my heart seemed to clench at the skinny, raw figure silhouetted against the red sky, his tattered clothes drifting in the never-stopping wind, looking like the remnants of an aura as it fluttered. I tensed. Where there was one surface demon, there were many, and they only attacked the weak.

Yeah, we fit that category now.

“Al!” I hissed, shaking his shoulder, but he only groaned. “Wake up! I can’t jump us. Damn it, I knew this was a bad idea!”

A huge shadow covered us and was gone. Looking up, I tapped my broken line, crying out and shoving it away as the discordant jangle cut through me. Either I’d damaged my aura, or the line was truly poison. Eyes on the empty sky, I scrambled up, not knowing if I could reach another line from here, but willing to try. But I froze when I saw what had made the shadow. It was a huge gargoyle—his skin gray and pebbly, and his leathery wings bigger than a bus is long. Slowly my panic ebbed to a cautious alarm, leaving me shaking and standing askew.

The surface demon had vanished, and I stared as the huge gargoyle made one last circle and landed where it had been, as if daring it to return. My gaze flicked to the sun. Either this gargoyle was very old or they went by different rules here in the ever-after.

My attention dropped to the heavy, notched sword he had in his clawlike hand, and I edged back to Al, feeling scared for an entirely new reason.

“Who are you?” the gargoyle said, his vowels sounding like rocks grinding, his consonants like iron shavings stuck to a magnet, sharp and pointy. “What are you doing to the new rift?”

His sword had drooped slightly, and I took a slow breath. Gargoyles were protectors. Either I was in big trouble or I finally caught a break. “We were trying to balance it. Please, can you help us? He’s burned. We need to get out of the sun.”

The gargoyle dropped the sword as if it were a worthless stick, and it pinged against the rock until it wedged itself. His craggy hind feet cracked the stone as he shifted his grip. “Balance the line?” he said, his voice rising and falling. “That’s short term, but possibly the only answer that I will allow. For now. I know you. Your gargoyle is too young to facilitate fixing the new. This is your line. It rings with your aura. You let him break it. Why?”

Him? I thought, trying to shade Al with my body. He must be talking of Ku’Sox, and I wished a gargoyle’s testimony would hold up in a demon court. “I didn’t let him break it. He did it to blame me for destroying the ever-after. Do you know how I can fix what he did?”

The gargoyle yawned and looked at the sun. “Change damaged it. Change will fix it. In time it will fix itself, destroying everything here along with it.”

From my feet, Al moved, whispering, “Newt. Call Newt.”

My gaze jerked to him, glad he was conscious. “Newt?”

His eyes opened, and I started at his black eyes. “She can jump us,” he breathed, clearly not seeing anything. “She’ll be listening for you. She’s worried about you, the insane bat.” Wincing, he tried to move, then thought better of it. “Do hurry. I feel less up to par than usual.”

Nauseated, I loosened my hold on my thoughts, searching for the demon collective. I’d never tried to contact anyone without a scrying mirror, but as he said, she was listening. “Newt!” I shouted, and the gargoyle lifted his wings in alarm. “Newt, I need you. We need you!”

The gargoyle made one leathery down pulse of air, then hesitated, his feet still gripping the ruins of the castle. “You won’t find enough time to fix it before it fixes itself. The lines are failing. The world breaker wakes. We need to leave. Save who you can.”

He jumped into the air, the wind from his departure making me squint and sending my lank hair blowing back. He circled once before becoming lost in the red sun. Desperately worried, I looked at Al, out cold again. The sweat had dried on him, and he was shaking.

“Maybe I should’ve asked him for help,” I whispered, then spun at the clink of stone on wood. It was Newt, and I was struck dumb for a moment, reminded of the first time we’d met. She’d been a referee to see how long I’d last after the sun went down, marooned in the ever-after by Trent’s “best friend.” She was wearing a long, flowing robe like a desert sheik, her black staff in one hand, the other holding her robe closed against the wind. Her awareness, though, was clear this time, her step sure as she made her way to us with a new urgency.

“Help me get him home,” I said before she had closed the gap, and I shocked myself with the knowledge that I’d pay just about anything for it.

Her long, somewhat bony hands were gentle as she crouched beside him, holding a hand over him as if testing his aura. “What did he do?” she asked tersely, then paused as her glance fell on the sword the gargoyle had left behind.

I sniffed, backing up a step with my arms wrapped around my middle. “He tried to find out if Ku’Sox made that purple line and fell to the bottom of it.”

Newt spun, finding her feet in an instant. “And you let him?”

“He didn’t say it was going to scrape his aura off!” I yelled back. “I got him out, but . . .” My words faltered, and I felt the prick of tears, hating them. It was Al, for God’s sake.

“You got him out?” Newt blinked her black eyes at me, drawing herself up when she saw the ring on my hand. “Oh.” She hesitated. “He gave you . . . Where is the other one?”

Nervous, I held up my other hand to show her my thumb. “He took it off. He took all the pain so I could call you.”

Newt made a harrumph of disagreement. “He took all the pain so it wouldn’t kill you.”

Fidgeting, I came closer. Was she going to help or not? “Newt. Please. The sun.”

Her androgynous face twisting to look more feminine somehow, she squinted up at it. “Indeed,” she said sourly, twitching the hem of her robe off Al. “It’s like breathing in acid.”

The gritty wind gusted against me with a sudden force, and I closed my eyes, feeling the dust suddenly halt and drop away before it could hit me. It was Newt yanking me into a ley line, and with a nauseating twist, the horrid red sky winked out of existence.

My heart thudded once, twice, and still we hadn’t reemerged anywhere. My lungs started to ache, and at the last moment, when I thought she might have forgotten me and I was going to have to scrape another line into existence trying to get out, she yanked me into reality.

Stumbling, I caught myself against the bedpost in Al’s room. The oil lamp beside the bed was lit, making shadows at the edges of the smallish chamber. Browns, golds, and greens mimicked a primeval forest, and plush, sinking textures made it a close, secure space.

“Sorry about that,” Newt murmured, looking matronly as she tucked the cover over Al, already resting in my, or rather, his bed. “It took me a moment to get around the room’s safeguards. I thought one jump right to his bed would be better than sliding into the library and having to drag him.”

“Yes,” I whispered, suitably cowed. Al had told me his old bedchamber was absolutely foolproof, but apparently it wasn’t crazy-proof. I let go of the bedpost, and Newt sat on the bed beside Al, looking like a bedside nurse. I couldn’t see anything but his face, the rest of him lost in the voluptuous coverings.

Giving Al’s cheek a little pat, Newt looked up, her black eyes taking in everything in a single sweep. “This is not Al’s bedroom. It’s far too . . . plush.”

“It’s mine,” I rushed. “He gave it to me. Made me take it. He sleeps in the closet.”

“You make him sleep in a closet? Very good. You might survive him after all.”

I edged closer to look down at Al, the bed between Newt and me. “It’s not really a closet. I just call it that. It’s a tiny nine by twelve I got for making Tron that car.”

“Oh.” Her hand touched Al’s, turning it over as if looking for the ring on my thumb.

“Is he going to be okay?”

Again, Newt blinked at me, her eyes looking almost normal in the dim light. “You care?” Her gaze was on the ring he had given me, and I hid it behind my other hand. My thoughts went to Celfnnah, but I wasn’t going to ask Newt.

From the bed, Al’s voice rasped out, “Of course she cares. I’m a god to her.”

“Al!” I leaned forward over him, and he squirmed as if hurt.

“Mother pus bucket,” he swore, running a sweat-stained, dirt-caked hand over his forehead. “I feel like I’ve been across a cheese grater several times in quick succession.” His gaze sharpened, and he tried to sit up, panic edging him. “Where are my rings? My rings!”

“Here,” I said as Newt forced him to lie back down, and I wedged both rings off my finger and thumb, dropping them into his waiting palm. He slumped, eyes closing as his thick fingers wrapped around them. His hand was shaking, and I remembered the pain we’d shared. Taking that doubled would have killed me.

“I let go of him,” I said, backing up from the bed and feeling as if this was my fault. “I had to. I couldn’t pull him through to reality while the sun was up. I had to let go so I could move to the ever-after to get him!”

“Stop babbling,” Al grumped, trying to smack Newt’s hand away as she tried to see his eyes. “It wasn’t your fault. Let me sleep.” He opened an eye to glare at Newt. “What is your problem, bitch?”

Newt stopped trying to lift his eyelids, and I shut my mouth.

“I’m not babbling,” I said, sounding sullen even to myself.

Still sitting on the edge of the bed, Newt tucked the covers to his chin. “Good thought, bad implementation.”

It looked as if he was going to be okay, and I wondered if Newt had seen the bottom of a purple line once and survived. “Can I do anything?” I asked.

“You? No,” Newt said. “But I have an aura that I can give Al if—”

“No!” both Al and I exclaimed, and she looked insulted, standing up to smooth her robe.

“No need to shout. You’ll just have to wait until you heal, then. Here, in Rachel’s bedroom.” Her eyes went over the ceiling. “Where all your safeguards are.”

I started to relax. It lasted all of three seconds until Al pushed Newt’s hands off him again, muttering, “Ku’Sox did it.” I stiffened, and he added, “The entire leaking line is a ruse to get us to kill Rachel for him. A very expensive, chancy ruse.” He made a wry face at me. “Maybe you shouldn’t have cursed him.”

“It was him or me, and I like where I live,” I said loudly, and Al winced.

Newt gave up on Al and stood with her arms crossed before herself. “I saw to the bottom of that purple line,” Al said. “His aura signature is down there. He caused it, whatever it is.”

I lifted the mass of my tangled hair and let it drop, wanting nothing more than a hot shower and a carton of ice cream. “So we can go to the collective and make him fix it, right?” I said, feeling good for the first time in . . . hours? Had it only been that long?

Newt had drifted from the bed, tidying little things here and there, snooping, and my hackles began to rise. “If he caused it, he can fix it,” she said. “But he’ll wait until after you’re dead, then ‘save’ us so we are more indebted to him.”

Al snorted. “A brat after my own heart. Minus the killing Rachel part, of course.”

“But you know he did it!” I said. “We found the proof!”

Al said nothing, and my smile faded. “Al?” I questioned, and he sighed. Even Newt was avoiding me, and a spark of anger grew. “We can make him fix it, right? Al, you saw his signature in the leak.”

“Unfortunately—” Al started, and I got in his face, waving my hand under his nose.

“No, no, no!” I exclaimed. “There is no unfortunately in your next sentence. We make him fix it! I’m not going down as the one who broke the ever-after!”

Al heaved a sigh, then shivered when a black-smeared coating of ever-after slithered over him. It fell away to leave him clean, the soft shape of an old-fashioned nightdress showing between his skin and the coverlet. Newt, obviously. “Rachel,” he said as he studied his bare hands. “My aura is burned down to my soul. Will you wait a few days? Then we can go in, accusations and hidden barbs flying, okay?”

I scrunched my nose up, hating Newt when she laughed at me. “Ah, the vigor of the young,” she said, making things worse. “If it were me, I wouldn’t go even then.”

“Why not?” I said, feeling another unfortunately coming on.

Newt touched a hand mirror that looked identical to the one I’d seen Ceri use. “Al’s testimony will be suspect, even if he did nearly kill himself. No one will risk verifying the truth of it after seeing what it did to him. Al would be dead now if not for . . . you pulling him out.”

She had been going to say “those rings,” but I kept silent. Her word choice was telling. Frustrated, I loomed over Al, and he closed his eyes, ignoring me. “Al,” I said forcefully, and he opened them. I hesitated at his black orbs, then rushed ahead. “I am not going to take the curse off Ku’Sox. It’s the only reason I can sleep at night. Besides, I don’t think he simply wants me dead, he wants all of you dead, too, or why bother with the Rosewood babies?”

Newt looked at Al, an unusual trace of fear in the back of her eyes. “I believe you,” she said, her fingers tracing over the few things on the dresser. “But no one is going to help you.”

“Why not?” I said in frustration.

“Because we know we can’t control him, and we are cowards,” she said. “It was your familiar who freed him, and thus it is your responsibility to control him. If you can’t, we will give him you to placate him and save ourselves.”

This sucked. “I got him back in the ever-after,” I said, and she took up the hand mirror.

“Where we didn’t want him,” she said, and I slumped. “Best him, or we will kill you so he will save us. I’m surprised the collective gave you any time at all. They must like you.”

I couldn’t get the frown off my face if I tried. Like me, huh? Funny way to show it.

Al reached out to take the mirror Newt had brought to the bed. “Send her home,” he said, sounding tired, and then he started at his reflection. “What the devil happened to my eyes?”

Newt took the mirror back despite Al’s protests, oddly sexy as she sashayed across the bedroom to put it back on the dresser. “Will they return to normal?” he asked, and she shrugged.

“No!” I said loudly, and Al looked at me. “This is bull crap!” I added so he’d know I wasn’t talking about his stupid eyes. “Ku’Sox is going to own up to this!”

“He’ll say you went in on it together and are now backing out, love,” Newt said.

My zeal evaporated at the moniker, and cold, I slowed my anger. I didn’t like being “love” to a demon. It meant I was being stupid and foolish.

“Newt, send her home, please,” Al said, his voice low in fatigue.

The demon inclined her head, and I waved my hands in protest. “Hey! Wait! Who’s going to watch you?”

“I don’t need watching,” Al mumbled, burrowing deeper into the folds of goose down and silk. “Go home. Call me in three days.”

Three days?

Al smiled, his eyes closed. “Newt?”

“Damn it, no!” I shouted, but my words caught in my throat as I was suddenly wrapped in Newt’s awareness. I snapped a bubble of protection around myself before she could. Send me home like a little girl, eh? I thought, steaming in anger.

But, as reality swirled around me and I found myself standing in my sunlit graveyard, my church before me in the late afternoon light, I sobered. Ku’Sox could show up in my church day or night thanks to Nick. And there were Ceri and Lucy to think about, hostages in the extreme. I couldn’t risk Ku’Sox taking revenge out on them, turning my potential win to a personal loss. Getting him to admit that I had nothing to do with that ugly purple line sucking in ever-after without compromising Ceri’s and Lucy’s safety wasn’t going to be easy.

Immediately I found my phone, scrolling until I got to Trent’s number. I ought to put him on speed-dial or something. Pixies were coming from everywhere, and I waved them off as I began walking to the church’s back door, my head bowed as I waited for someone to pick up. “Your dad is fine,” I said, glad when Jumoke chased most of them back to their sentry duty.

Three rings and a click, and my feet stopped when I heard Ray crying through my phone. It was a soft, heart-wrenching sob of loss that no ten-month-old should even be aware enough to make. Jenks was singing to her about blood-red daisies. “I’m back,” I said even before I knew if it really was Trent. “Don’t summon me.”

“Did you see them?” Trent asked, his voice shockingly stark. I took a breath to tell him, my throat closing when I couldn’t get the words out. My eyes welled up. For three heartbeats, neither of us said anything, and then softly, Trent added, “No, I guess you didn’t.”

“I think they’re okay,” I said, but it sounded like a thin hope even to me. My chest hurt, and I began to weave through the grave markers, one hand wrapped around my middle so it wouldn’t cave in. In a soft sound of wings and dust, Jumoke sat on my shoulder. “Ku’Sox has them. He’s going to use them to force you and me to do what he wants. Trent, give me some time to find a way to get them back. Ku’Sox can’t do this. Ceri is a freed familiar. All I have to do is file the right paperwork.”

“I don’t have time for paperwork,” he said bitterly, and then I heard him sigh as Ray finally stopped crying. I could hear her little-girl snuffles, and I figured he’d picked her up.

“Give me some time to talk to Dali then,” I said. “I need a chance to explain what’s going on to him, and then maybe he’ll help.”

“Why would a demon help me?” Trent said, and I looked up at the church, squinting to try to find Bis. There was another huge gargoyle up there, and I frowned.

“He’d be helping me, not you. And I’m not going to ask him to do it for free,” I said, then softened. “Give me a few hours. Can you bring Jenks home for me? And maybe my car? Say after midnight? I should be done by then and will have more information for you.”

“Midnight!” I heard Jenks shrill, then I frowned when Trent covered the phone. “Fine, midnight,” the pixy said sourly when I could hear again.

“Trent?” I said cautiously.

“I’ll see you at midnight,” Trent said, and then the phone went dead.

Startled but not surprised, I closed the phone and tucked it away. Arms wrapped around myself and my head down, I stomped up the back porch and wrestled the screen door open. This was going to take a lot of planning.

I should have called Ivy.

Chapter Nine

Nervous, I wiped my fingertips off on a towel and tossed it on the counter. Almost before it hit, I was reaching for it again, carefully folding it to drape over the oven handle, right in the middle. Exhaling, I turned to look over my kitchen, dim with only the light from the living room across the hall and the small bulb over the sink. Demons and shadows seemed to go together, but they craved the sun like an undead vampire.

Ceri’s teapot sat between two chairs at Ivy’s farm table. The antique porcelain was warm with Earl Grey tea, two of Ceri’s best teacups beside it. A candle on the stove made it smell like a pine forest. If I was lucky, it might even overpower the burnt amber stench. Maybe. I had an hour before Trent brought Jenks home. I couldn’t wait any longer. I’d promised Trent results, and it was time to call the demon.

I turned to Bis atop the fridge. “Well?” I asked him. “Look okay to you?”

The cat-size teenager brought his wingtips up to touch over his head, his version of a shrug. “I guess,” he said, his pebbly skin flashing the entire range from gray, to white, to black, and back to gray again. He was anxious. So was I.

I spun to the sink and closed the blue curtains, not wanting Dali to see anything more than he absolutely had to. For starters, the leather outfit that I’d come home in was on a hanger, hanging from a limb and airing out. “Thanks for being here, Bis.”

“I’m not afraid of demons,” he said, his high but gravelly voice giving him away.

Smiling, I leaned my back against the sink. I didn’t like anyone with me when I contacted Al, much less an unknown like Dali, but Bis was involved up to his pointy ears, and when he’d refused to leave the kitchen upon hearing my plans, I’d let him stay.

“Demons aren’t that bad when you get to know them,” I said as I got a plate from the cupboard and arranged the store-bought petits fours around the pile of homemade gingersnaps in the shape of little stars. I didn’t know what Dali liked, and variety was nice.

The church felt empty with Ivy still gone and the pixies asleep or out in the garden. I’d been dogged by a growing feeling of unease since I’d gotten back from the ever-after, and not all of it could be lain at the feet of my current problems. Something was brewing with the vampires. Felix had asked after Ivy twice. And I knew Rynn Cormel, Ivy’s master vampire, did not like that Ivy had left the state, even temporarily. At least he wasn’t sending assassins this time.

“You sure you don’t want to wait until Jenks and Trent get here?” Bis said. “What’s to stop Dali from just snatching you?”

“Nothing. That’s why he won’t try. Besides, he knows I’m Al’s student. What would be the point? You sure you don’t want to wait in the garden? It’s okay.”

Bis shook his head, trying to hide his slight shiver.

If it had been Ku’Sox I was calling, I’d have used circles, traps, maybe waited for Trent. Dali, though, was like Al in that he got a kick out of those weaker than him trusting him to behave—as risky as it was.

“I hope he knows how to help you,” Bis almost whispered. “I don’t like demons.” His red eyes darted to mine. “I like you, just not them. I mean, if Dali knew how to get Ceri and Lucy back, wouldn’t he have done it already?”

I smiled faintly and nudged the teacups back from the edge. “No.” A sliver of unease slid into me. The demons couldn’t control Ku’Sox. If I couldn’t, then they’d give me to him as a bribe to save them. Yay, me.

Bis looked toward the curtained window, then me. Turning slightly lighter, he nodded, his clawed feet shifting. “Okay. I’m ready.”

“Me too.” Nervous, I pulled out a chair and sat in it, reaching across the narrow space to where I kept my scrying mirror under the center counter. It felt cool on my knees, the glass seeming to sink into me. The ache at the back of my neck became more pronounced as I rested my fingers on the wine-stained glass. I really needed to make a smaller one I could carry in my shoulder bag, and I vowed if I ever got a weekend where I wasn’t saving the world, I would.

There was a faint, unusual tingling from my wrist, and I turned my hand over. The raised circle of scar tissue there tied me to Al, a visible mark that I owed him a favor for bringing me home the night we’d met. I’d never gotten around to settling it, and that it was tingling now was curious. Maybe it was responding to his ailment. Slowly my frown deepened. “Tell Ivy I’m sorry if this doesn’t go well,” I said as I placed my fingers on the proper glyphs.

“Roses on your grave. Right.” Bis dropped to the chair nearest me, his craggy feet denting the back as he caught his balance. He really was a good kid.

The coolness of the mirror ached into me, and a new, slight discord blossomed into an irritating whine at the back of my ears. Dallkarackint? I thought in my mind, avoiding saying the demon’s true calling name aloud. It wasn’t that I had a problem saying it, but Dali wouldn’t appreciate my speaking his name on this side of the lines, seeing as anyone who heard it would be able to summon him. Dali had taken great pains to keep his name secret.

Almost immediately the cloud of buzzing seemed to hesitate, part, and with a surprising suddenness, I had a second presence beside mine.

Rachel?

It was Dali, and I warmed in embarrassment. I didn’t often talk to demons through my scrying mirror apart from Al, and having Dali in my thoughts was unnerving. Whereas Al used bluster and show to hide his true self, Dali was like a steel pillar, everything seeming to slide off him. “Um, I’m sorry to bother you,” I said, my thoughts carrying through the mirror to him.

Irritation predictably joined my embarrassment in our shared thoughts. I’m busy. Make an appointment with my secretary.

He was about to break the connection. I was kind of surprised I’d gotten him at all and not one of his subordinates. “Dali, wait. I have to talk to you, and Al is . . .”

I stopped, not knowing who might be listening in.

Al is what? Dali asked, interest coloring his thought.

I hesitated, looking up at Bis’s drooping wings. “I’ve made some tea,” I started.

Outrage flooded me, and I almost yanked my hand from the mirror. You’re summoning me! Dali exploded, and I scrambled to assert myself before he drowned me.

“I made some tea!” I said, trying to match his anger, and Bis’s eyes grew round. “You want to come over here and drink it or not? It’s Earl Grey. I don’t particularly like it, but most men I know like bergamot. I don’t give a flying flip if we do this here or your office, but if I have to bring the cookies over, they’ll taste like burnt amber and I spent two hours on them!” I took a breath, feeling his anger subside. “I need to talk to you,” I said softly, my thought mirroring the pleading sound I had. “My kitchen isn’t much, but—”

My words cut off as I felt our connection shift, turning from the light, uppermost thoughts to a more enveloping, place-finding sensation. He was coming over, using the mirror to locate me. My eyes widened at the feeling, and a small noise of I-don’t-know-what slipped from me, part alarm, part surprise, part sexual titillation as he drew a small trace of ley line through me so he’d show up next to me and not in the garden’s ley line.

“He’s coming,” I said as I lifted my head, flushing because of that weird noise I’d made.

“Holy sweet seraph,” Bis swore as a swirl of red ever-after coalesced in the corner of the room beside the fridge. I didn’t have a formal circle to mark a spot to jump in at. Maybe I should remedy that if I survived the next couple of days.

“Earl Grey?” Dali’s Americana businessman accent drawled as he shook off the last of the black-tainted swirls, showing up in a gray suit and a red power tie instead of a toga—thank God. He looked like a slightly overweight mob boss with his expensive dress shoes, tailored pants, and graying, styled hair.

Uneasy, I stood. Bis shrank back, his red eyes going wide. He held his ground, though, trusting my judgment. “Thank you,” I said, wiping my palms on my jeans. Crap, I should have put on a dress, but it was my kitchen, and I’d have felt stupid wearing a gown—again.

Dali’s attention had been running over my kitchen, but at my whisper, it returned to me. “You are far too quick in assuming this is a good thing.” He glanced at his watch; then his red, goat-slitted eyes returned to the spell pots and the tea steaming on the table. “You don’t have any wards protecting your spelling area?”

“I don’t need it.” I looked away, used to dealing with egotistical, powerful people who got a kick out of my apparent total disregard for the danger they represented. “You want to sit down?” I said, looking at the chair kitty-corner to mine.

My brow furrowed as he stepped forward and eyed the hard-backed chair. “It’s probably more comfortable than it looks,” he said as he gingerly sat, crossing his knees and trying to appear dignified, but he looked even more out of place than Trent usually did in my kitchen.

A memory of Trent standing at my counter making cookies with me flashed through my thoughts. That hadn’t really happened. I’d been in a coma of sorts, and his mind had been trying to reach mine, but it had been real enough. So had the kiss that had followed.

Bis’s nervous giggle made Dali frown. This wasn’t going as well as I had hoped, but with the determination I might use on a badly begun blind date, I sat down and began pouring out the tea. “I’m only twenty-seven,” I said dryly. “I’ve not had the time to gather much in the way of luxury possessions.” It was starting to smell like burnt amber, and I wondered if I should’ve cracked the window and risked attracting the pixies on sentry detail.

Dali’s wandering attention came back to me. “Speaking of time . . .” he said sourly. “You’re rapidly running out of it. Or should I say, Newt is running out of room.” His expression became wicked as he took a gingersnap. “You’re going to make a pauper out of the ever-after’s wealthiest demon. Congratulations. You should rent yourself out by the hour.”

Not a good start. “I’ve been out to the line,” I said, pouring out my tea now. “I have some ideas.” Seeing as he wasn’t taking his cup, I handed it to him. “This is Bis, my gargoyle.”

Dali took a sip, his eyes almost closing in apparent bliss he tried to hide. “Bis,” he said, nodding to him, and the gargoyle flashed an embarrassed black. “You’re younger than I thought. Your lack of skill is excused.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir,” Bis said, and I was proud of him.

“I’m sure it is,” Dali said lightly, his attention on the cookies. “Are those petits fours?”

Silent, I pushed the plate toward him, and he took another gingersnap.

“Mmmm,” he said, eating the star in one bite. “Where is Al? He has put a do-not-disturb note on his mirror. Are you thinking of changing teachers . . . Rachel?” His voice was sly, cruel almost. “Think I can save your life? Think again. You’re not going to bankrupt me as well.”

“Good,” I said, trying to shift the conversation to where I wanted it. “You can go to your grave a rich demon. Al is busy renewing his aura,” I said, and Dali’s eyes widened in interest. “He burned it off while finding Ku’Sox’s signature on that purple sludge currently taking residence in my slightly imbalanced line.”

Dali took a third gingersnap, his stubby fingers sure and slow. “Al’s findings cannot be used in court,” he said, then bit the cookie in half. “He has too much to lose and isn’t a reliable witness. I doubt you can convince anyone else to confirm it if in the doing he burns his aura off.”

“I know that,” I said, letting my irritation show. “That’s why you’re here. I want to talk to you about the legality of Ku’Sox abducting Ceri. The paperwork hasn’t been filed, but she’s a freed familiar. Ku’Sox is using her as leverage, and I want her and Lucy back.”

His expression dry, Dali took another gingersnap. “Ku’Sox didn’t abduct Ceri. He abducted Lucy. Ceri volunteered to come with her. When the cookies are gone, so am I.”

“What!” I exclaimed, falling back in my chair in shock. I glanced at Bis, then back to Dali. My chest seemed to cave in as hope left me. It sounded exactly like something she’d do. Ceri wasn’t afraid of demons. She was afraid of being helpless before them, and with her soul back, she was not. “But Lucy is my godchild!” I said, scrambling. “Ku’Sox and I have an agreement that he leave me and mine alone. Lucy is mine.”

“File the paperwork for breach of contract, and I’ll see what I can do,” Dali said. It was like that, then.

“Ku’Sox is a touch . . . erratic. Newt and I are watching him.” Dali’s eyes rose from the plate of cookies. “We’ve known for some time that he was up to something. Hiding his plans from everyone else is the only thing postponing your death.”

I thought about Newt’s carefully worded question, becoming more frustrated. “Then why are you letting him get away with it?” I said, aghast. “You know I didn’t cause that line to start sucking away ever-after that fast. Why are you picking on me? Ku’Sox did it!”

Dali wouldn’t meet my eyes. “True,” he said, “but he used your unbalanced line to do so. It’s your responsibility. I’m confident that Ku’Sox knows how to control the leak. He’s trying to eliminate you, making us miserable and reminding us of his power all at the same time, the little prick.”

There were two gingersnaps left. I leaned forward, a ribbon of anxiety running through me. “Is that what you think?” I said, shoving my cup of tea away from me so hard that it sloshed. I hated bergamot. “You think he’s going to save you after you kill me?”

Silent, Dali took a cookie. “Ku’Sox has threatened us before, but he’s never gone through with it. He’s young and angry. You cursed his freedom from him.” Dali smiled, showing me his flat, blocky teeth. “Sibling rivalry. Maybe you should uncurse him.”

“Don’t think so,” I said quickly, wondering how I was going to convince Dali the threat was more than he thought. “Look, letting me die would be a mistake. I’m not trying to kill you. He is, and I don’t think that line can be shut down with that purple sludge in it, even if I am dead. And in case you haven’t noticed, he doesn’t need you anymore. He has Nick, who stole the enzyme that keeps the Rosewood syndrome suppressed enough to survive it, and then you stood by and hid the fact that he circumvented my protection of Trent—the only one who can make the cure permanent and able to pass to the next generation. Ku’Sox doesn’t need you anymore. In ten years, he’s going to have a bunch of demon-magic-using kids to play with.”

“The Rosewood babies are not for him, they are for us.” Dali washed down his cookie with a sip of tea, and I gaped.

“Y-you?” I stammered, and he nodded. One gingersnap left. Thirty seconds.

“They’re life rafts, demon-magic-capable bodies that those loyal to him can slip into and escape a failing ever-after,” Dali said, and I stared, not having considered that.

“And you believe him?” I said. “Seriously?”

Dali’s eye twitched, telling me he didn’t, but it did make it easier to understand why no one would help me. “Has it ever occurred to you that without a permanent cure, everyone who escapes on Ku’Sox’s coattails will be completely dependent on him to stay alive?”

Dali’s thick fingers were on that last cookie. Hesitating, he tapped it on the plate. “Which is why we’re not forcing him to give Ceri back,” he said softly. “We want the permanent cure.”

I leaned back in the chair, hard-pressed to not pound my head on the table. “He’s lying to you, Dali, to all of you. He’s never going to allow any of you access to those children, and he’s going to let the ever-after collapse whether you kill me for him or not. Now quit blocking me and give me Ceri and Lucy back so I can figure this out!”

Dali set the last cookie down and wiped his fingers. With a new stiffness in his manner, he shifted his weight. “You think his intent is annihilation?”

I nodded, and my shoulders eased. “Before Newt got us back underground, a gargoyle came to see who had been messing around in my ley line.”

His carefully trimmed eyebrows high, Dali eyed me, but if it was because Newt helped us or that a gargoyle was involved, I didn’t know. “In the daylight?”

“He had a huge sword that looked like it had been propping up a laundry line for the last fifty years,” I said, angry. “He said the line would fix itself in time, but destroy the ever-after in the doing of it, and that they were going to leave and to save who they could.”

“The gargoyles are leaving?” It was a soft but alarmed utterance.

“He also said I wouldn’t find enough time to fix it before it fixes itself. If you can’t give me Ceri, at least give me some time,” I demanded. “Four days,” I added, thinking of Al’s burn.

Dali’s intent gaze focused on me, considering it. Sighing, he crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back in the chair. “Do you have any idea what you’re asking?”

Adrenaline jerked through me as I realized he’d probably come here with the intent to kill me and be done with it before he left. “I think I can fix the line,” I said, scrambling to find something positive to take away from this. “I just need to borrow . . .” My words trailed off reluctantly, as if not wanting to divulge just what it was, not that I had no clue what I needed. “Something from Al,” I finished, trying to appear cagey, not confused.

Dali peered at me, his mouth a thin line. “You don’t trust me.”

“Sure I do,” I said, and Bis snickered, making a weird snuffing sound.

The older-looking demon frowned. “You don’t have a clue how to fix that line,” he said, but inside, I felt a tiny spot of hope. He was thinking about it.

Beside him, Bis cleared his throat. “I can see the lines,” he said, flushing a heavy black. “I know I can help. I’m good at auras.”

Dali ignored him, which made me mad, and I said, “Ku’Sox cursed my line. That purple sludge is demon made. I have yet to find the curse I can’t untwist.”

His face scrunched up, making him look like the benevolent uncle who wanted to give you the quarter of a million dollars to start your chinchilla farm, but those darn investors just didn’t see the potential. “It’s not that I don’t want to believe you,” he said, and I let out a loud, exasperated sigh as he continued. “But belief will be a thin comfort if we get sucked into oblivion waiting for you to figure it out. It’s not like you have much to lose.”

“If you don’t trust me, we both die, Dali,” I said, not dropping his eyes. “Even if the ever-after vanishes, do you think the coven is going to let me live after the lines disappear and there’s no more magic? I don’t.”

Goat-slitted eyes unfocused, he nodded.

“Can’t you choose what gets sucked into oblivion?” I said. “Try bubbling your rooms. Let it pull on the empty spaces for a while.”

“Perhaps.” Dali’s knees uncrossed as he set his feet on the floor. He was ready to go, and he eyed the last cookie. “No one will want to if they’re being reimbursed by Newt. We’d all like to see her brought down a decimal place or two.”

“See if you can get them to think about it,” I said, standing up and going to the counter where I had a bag of cookies for Ray. Dali might be a better choice. “I have an idea, but I need four days and your silence that we even had this conversation.”

Dali’s attention jerked to me. Bright eyed, he stood and took the cookies like the bribe they were. “Really?” he said, the plastic rustling softly. “Secrets, Rachel?”

I met his gaze squarely. “The fewer who know, the better.”

Dali’s head cocked suspiciously. “You trust me?”

My heart gave a thump. I didn’t have a problem asking for things, according to Al, but in this case, I was asking for a lot. “You’re a member of the courts,” I said. “If I fail, go ahead and kill me,” I continued, making Bis rustle his wings. “I don’t want to be around to see the fallout when magic fails on this side of the lines. But if I succeed, I want all my debts slid to Ku’Sox.” Dali began to smile. “Everything to date and any I acquire while resolving the mess he started,” I said, feeling nervous. It was quite a lot. “Newt’s debts accrued because of his tampering, too,” I added. “I want that demon so far in the hole that if we survive, he will be spending the next thousand years as a busboy at your restaurant.”

Dali chuckled, and I felt out of breath. “We,” he said, and I blinked, not knowing why he’d said it until realizing I’d said it first. I had said we. I had lumped myself in with them, and it had come out as natural as if it had been we for a long time. “I like the way you think, Morgan. No wonder Al has risked so much on you.”

“Well?” I asked, since it was obvious Dali was leaving.

His fingers tightened on the bag of cookies. “You have four days. More than that, and the ever-after will be too damaged.”

Bis’s ears pricked, and the sound of the front door opening echoed through the church. My gaze darted to the clock on the stove. They were early. “Four days,” I said. Al would be able to tap a line in three. It would be close, but maybe by then I’d have this figured out.

“If it’s not fixed by midnight, you die.” Dali looked at his watch. “That’s Friday,” he said sourly as he squinted at Bis as if he had failed in something—and then . . . he vanished.

I exhaled, shaking as I went to prop the window open to let out the stink of demons. Dali had taken the cookies but left the petits fours. “Thank you,” I whispered into the night, though he couldn’t possibly hear me. Never underestimate the power of home-baked cookies. Bis’s chair creaked as he eased his grip. Looking out at the dark graveyard, empty of even the glow of sleeping pixies, I felt my gut clench at the sound of Trent’s steps in the hall. I had no idea what I was going to do next, but Trent wouldn’t be happy with what I’d found.

“Pepper piss! It stinks in here!” Jenks swore as he darted in, fingers pinching his nose shut as he swooped a large circle through the kitchen and landed atop Bis’s head. The gargoyle twitched his big fringed ears, and Jenks shifted to the top of the roll of paper towels we kept on the table. “He left? Just now? I wanted to talk to him.”

I leaned back against the counter, glad the kitchen was clean. I think it was the first time Trent had seen it when it wasn’t covered in spelling supplies. “Which is why I asked Trent not to bring you home until now,” I said, smiling thinly.

Trent’s nose was wrinkled at the stench, and worry warred with hope, showing in the way his brow was pinched. A long lightweight coat hid his suit. He looked wary as he held a hat to hide his missing fingers. The light caught his eyes as they traveled over the kitchen as if looking for a visible sign of Dali, but all that was left was the smell.

“Jenks said I could come in,” he said, and my mouth went dry. I had no comfort to give him, and I stayed where I was with my arms over my middle. I didn’t care if I looked pensive.

“Hi,” I said. Jenks’s wings clattered in surprise, but I didn’t know what more I could say.

Looking polished and together, Trent came in another step. He nodded to Bis, and the gargoyle touched his wingtips over his head. Eyeing me up and down, Trent’s hope slowly dulled and vanished. “That good, eh?”

I took a deep breath. Unable to meet his eyes, I pushed off the sink, my middle coming to rest against the center counter. The petits fours were sitting there, and the plate scraped as I pushed it away. “Dali’s hands are tied,” I said softly. “Ceri went willingly with Ku’Sox.”

“What!” Jenks rose up on a column of dust, and Bis turned an apologetic shade of black.

Trent’s face became ashen. “Ku’Sox took Lucy,” he breathed, and I nodded.

“And Ceri went willingly to keep her safe,” Jenks finished, now darting between Trent and me in agitation.

My head hurt, and I rubbed it. It was so simple, so devious. Trent’s feet scuffed, and I pulled my head up.

“That’s it, then,” Trent said, every vestige of softness gone in the hard clench of his jaw. “If there’s no chance at a political resolution, then I will use more drastic means.”

I froze. A creak came from Bis’s chair as he tightened his grip. Drastic measures? The last time Trent had instigated drastic measures, San Francisco was trashed and I ended up in a spell-induced coma for three days. “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I said, hand in the air. “You’re not going to give yourself up in exchange. It’s exactly what he wants.” What all the demons wanted.

“Which is exactly why it will work.”

I shook my head, but he wasn’t listening, wasn’t even looking at me as he stared at the wall two feet to my right. Cool and distant, he ignored even Jenks hovering inches before his face. “No fairy fart way, elf-man,” the pixy said, a bright red dust spilling from him. “We talked about this, remember? You give yourself up, and then Rachel’s just going to have to bail your ass out again, which means I’m stuck saving hers. I can’t take it anymore. I’m not a young pixy. She’s a demon, let her do her Tink-blasted job!”

Trent’s iron-hard hold on his emotions cracked. Turning, he tossed his hat on the table. “If I call his bluff, he’ll kill them,” he said. “You know he will. Then he will steal someone else for leverage and it starts again. I do have feelings, Rachel. I do love people. I’m not going to let them die for me!”

“That’s not what I meant,” I said softly, and his glare fell from me. “We can’t get them back through the courts, but in the meantime, I’ve got four days to balance the line.”

Clearly frustrated, he spun away, his coat furling. “How does that help Lucy and Ceri?” he said, his back to me as Jenks shot me a look and landed on his shoulder.

Curious, I thought as Trent’s shoulders relaxed at something Jenks said. Bis noticed as well. Clearly the two men had come to some kind of understanding. “If I can fix the line or prove that Ku’Sox made the hole, the demons will turn against him,” I said, but it was really more of a hope. “Ceri and Lucy will be returned.” I looked at the counter as if I could see the books on the shelf below. There was nothing in them about ley lines. Nothing in them, nothing in the library, nothing in Al’s library. If there had been, we would have found it by now.

Exhaling loudly, Trent slowly sank down in a chair. The last of his mask fell away and he slumped, elbow on the table as he sat sideways to it. “I can’t risk him killing Lucy and Ceri,” he said, and a lump filled my throat. He was hurting. It wasn’t my fault. He was the one who had let Ku’Sox out, but he’d done it to save my life, or rather, my freedom.

Jenks was making motions for me to do something, and I grimaced, finally moving around the center counter to stand there, feeling self-conscious. I wondered how long it had been since he’d eaten. “Al and I went out to look at the line,” I said hesitantly. “He got burned pretty bad, but it did give us a better idea of what Ku’Sox did.”

Trent didn’t acknowledge me, making me feel more awkward as I edged back to sit in Ivy’s chair. My eyes went to Trent’s ring, and I remembered how it had felt to wear Al’s. “I think I saved his life. Again.”

“I bet that was a surprise,” he said dryly.

Chuckling, I dropped my eyes. “It was. He won’t be able to tap a line until Thursday. And since I don’t trust anyone else over there, I’m stuck here until he heals. I know I can fix the leak in the line with Bis’s help,” I added, and the gargoyle bobbed his head, his tail whipping about to wrap around his feet. “If I can fix it, I can prove Ku’Sox is trying to destroy the ever-after. Ceri and Lucy will be the last thing on his mind if the entire collective is after him. None of them like him, anyway.”

Trent said nothing, staring at the table. I wasn’t even sure he had heard me.

My thoughts went to the demons and what Dali had said about them fearing Ku’Sox. Together, they could overpower Ku’Sox, but fear had made slaves of them. They were expecting me to take care of him, hiding behind semantics that it was a personal vendetta between us. Were they really afraid, or was apathy easier than survival? Maybe they just didn’t care if they lived or died.

Trent still hadn’t moved, and at Jenks’s exasperated motions, I reached out across the table, putting my hand atop his. “We’ll get them back.”

Trent blinked as our hands met, not in shock, but as if bringing himself back from a deep thought. His expression was empty when his eyes touched my hand, and I gave him a smile and a slight squeeze before I pulled away. I could smell hospital on him, and I realized that’s probably why my head hurt. I hated hospitals.

“How’s Quen?” I said.

Trent eased back into the chair, his hand sliding from the table to fall into his lap. “He’s not conscious yet, but his brain activity is good.”

His relief made me smile again. “Good.” I stood up, but I didn’t know why other than I felt uncomfortable sitting across from Trent. “If there is anything I can do . . .”

He looked up as he reached for his hat on the table. “They tell me there’s nothing anyone can do but wait. He’s strong, and his chances are good.”

I wanted to touch his shoulder in support, but I hesitated at the last moment, going to throw the petits fours away instead. “You believe he’s going to make it,” I said. Trent, too, had learned to believe in the eleven percent.

“Yes, I do.” His voice was soft but determined.

“Give me a day or two before you start being noble, okay?”

He chuckled, and I hesitated, my thoughts spinning. I needed more stuff. He who has the most stuff in his toolbox wins. “Hey, you have a library, right?” I said as I turned back around. I’d moved too fast, and Jenks darted forward to catch one of the cakes as it slid off the plate. “Do you have any books about line energy?” I asked as I set the dish on the center counter, ignoring Jenks swearing at me as he brushed the frosting off his clothes.

Trent pushed forward, his hand reaching to touch a pocket. “I don’t have anything in my library about the lines, no, but I know someone who does,” he said, his hand reluctantly falling from his jacket. “Rachel, would you like to come to tea tomorrow?”

Jenks looked up from his soiled silk jacket, surprise in his angular face. Trent had stood, and I started at how fast it had been. He had a direction, and it changed everything. It was back, the power and certainty was back, and something in me shivered.

“Tea?” Jenks was standing next to the plate of petits fours. “You want to have tea? Are you nerking futs?”

The light caught the tips of his hair as Trent came up to the center counter, the fair strands beginning to float in his excitement. “I know of something you might want to read.”

My pulse leaped. “Why not now?” I said, and Bis sniffed his agreement. If it was about the lines, he’d want to see, too.

But Trent was shaking his head. “Ellasbeth has it,” he said, and I remember his aborted reach for a phone. “It was my mother’s book, but I know she’ll let us look at it. If she doesn’t bring it, I won’t let her on the grounds, and she’s dying to yell at me in person.”

We had a chance, and it was frustrating that we had to wait. “Okay,” I said, hands behind my back so Trent couldn’t see them tremble. “Tomorrow, then. Trent, when was the last time you ate?”

He was sideways to me, putting his hat on. His confidence was clear, his motions sharp. “I think something from the hospital vending machine.” He looked up and smiled. Something in me fluttered again, and again I shoved it down deep. I knew what was going on, and I wasn’t going to let it happen. It was a fantasy, and I was through with them.

“You’re not going to do anything stupid without me, right?”

“I’m going back to the hospital for a couple of hours. Get another bag of salty snack food for dinner. Do you want me to tell Quen anything?”

My smile faltered. I wasn’t invited, but I didn’t like hospitals, anyway. “No,” I said as I leaned to pull open a drawer and find a plastic bag for the petits fours. “But here. Run these under his nose. They smell like demons. They might snap him out of it.”

Trent fidgeted, impatient to be away as I shook the cakes into a bag and tied it with a yellow twisty. Jenks landed on my shoulder, and I frowned when he whispered, “Go with him!”

“Here,” I said, holding them out and flushing as Trent took them, the plastic bag looking both the same and different from when I’d given cookies to a demon named Dali. For some reason, giving Trent petits fours felt a lot more dangerous.

“Thank you. I’ll let you know if they do the trick.” He turned on a heel, then hesitated in the threshold. “You made the six o’clock news,” he said, and my smile froze. “You did okay. Really good for what you had to work with. Thank you again for handling that.”

I hid behind the center counter, more relieved than I wanted to be. “I’m sorry about putting Ray in front of the camera.”

He shook his head, looking down at the bag of cakes. “No, it was worth giving them something positive to take away.”

“Thanks.”

He nodded sharply to Bis, and without another word, he headed down the hall, his thoughts already far away. Jenks hovered in my line of sight, hands on his hips and frowning. He gestured that I should escort him to the door, and I squinted, crossing my arms over my chest. “He shouldn’t be alone,” the pixy grumped, darting out after his fading footsteps.

I leaned forward as he left, the new quiet seeping in. “Maybe, but he shouldn’t be with me, either,” I whispered.

Even alone as he was, Trent didn’t need me at all.

Chapter Ten

I’ll be sure Belle gets it,” I said, smiling at the wingless fairy standing on the wrought-iron garden table, her long white braid almost to her waist and her pale, angular features in a tight knot. Still the mistrustful, scary-looking fairy waited until I put the little packet of stitching into my shoulder bag beside her on the table. Jenks sighed, and she hissed at him, making me shiver.

Sure, she was only six inches high, but she looked like a tiny, silver-cloaked grim reaper with her raggedy clothes made from spider silk, her long fangs used to crack the shells of the insects she ate, and the bow and toxic arrows she carried to shoot me or Jenks if we did anything she didn’t like. Her butterfly-like wings were gone, burned off when she and her clan had tried to kill me and Jenks last summer, and their lack made her far more mobile even if she was stuck on the ground.

Mostly, I thought as she shot a corded arrow into the canopy and climbed the string into the surrounding greenery, taking the packet of cloth that Belle had asked me to bring to her. It had that stitching that Matalina’s daughters had taught her, the one that gave beautifully around the wings. True, the fairies in Trent’s gardens were wingless, but their children wouldn’t be. It was odd, seeing the first steps of understanding between two longtime enemy races. Jenks had come a long way.

Knowing we were being watched by a handful of lethal assassins, I leaned back into my chair and tried to look relaxed instead of uptight. Trent’s glassed-in garden felt stuffy; the propped-open door leading to the exterior gardens let in very little air. Outside, the early afternoon sun shone thinly on the largely empty spring gardens, but it was here that Trent had brought me for tea—which I thought totally weird. I’d thought that “tea” had been an excuse, something he could tell people instead of the ugly reality that he wanted me to come out so he could show me some illegal black-magic books—and maybe that’s all it was. But tea and cookies were on the table, and I was hungry . . . Besides, Ellasbeth had arrived late, and I had bowed out of going to meet her. Ellasbeth had thought I was a hooker the night we had met. Arresting Trent at their wedding probably hadn’t helped.

The cord Belle’s sister had climbed snaked upward out of sight, and Jenks sniffed, nervously adjusting his garden sword on his hip.

“I thought you were beyond that,” I said, fingering my cup of cooling tea. It smelled like Earl Grey, but I could take a few sips to be social. Jenks’s comment that Trent shouldn’t be alone drifted through me.

Jenks edged to the silver tray, his steps hesitant and his unmoving wings catching the light. “I don’t know her,” he said as he glanced up into the potted fig trees.

“Well, knock it off,” I grumbled. “You’re making me nervous.”

“I don’t know any of them,” he said again. “It’s not like I trust her with my kids.”

But he trusted Belle with them, I thought. Small steps could make large journeys, if admittedly very slow ones. Fidgeting, I lolled my head back to look at the plate-glass ceiling as I waited for Trent to return. Ellasbeth was an idiot. How long did it take to drive half a mile and get settled? There were three chairs here.

“I still think you should let the ever-after collapse,” Jenks said, his knees up almost to his ears as he sat on the rim of the silver tray, then got up when he realized his pants weren’t as good of an insulator as he had first thought.

Frowning, I stood to look at the orchid jammed into the crook of two branches. Jenks followed me, and the brush rustled as the fairies shifted to keep him in their sights. “Earth magic will work for a while before it fades,” he said, demanding my attention as he hovered between me and the orchid. “A year at least. You could take down a reality-based Ku’Sox before that. Ivy and I would help.”

A spike of fear slid through me, quickly shoved down deep. I’d survived Ku’Sox by the skin of my teeth—every single time. But as I counted the new blossoms yet to open on the orchid, the thought of the end of magic rang through me with a new clarity. This was why Nick was helping the psychotic demon. An end or reduction to magic would put humans back in the driver’s seat. I couldn’t believe that Ku’Sox didn’t have a way to keep magic alive with the ever-after gone, doling it out to the highest bidder. Or maybe Dali was right and this was simply a way to get me dead and the rest of the demons kowtowing to him.

I sat back down in Trent’s chair so I could watch Jenks now fussing over the orchid and the path. “I might not be able to hear you if magic fails,” I said as I took one of the gingersnaps I had brought over for Ray. “Ever think about that?”

Jenks’s eyes widened. “Tink loves a duck!” he exclaimed, his wings clattering as he carefully untwisted a stem.

The cookie snapped between my teeth. “Might be a good thing,” I said, chewing.

Wing clatter dropping in pitch, Jenks slowly dusted the plant. It was nerves: he gardened, I ate. “I didn’t think about that,” he said.

“This isn’t only about the demons,” I said, making a face when I washed the cookie down with a swallow of that awful tea. It was tepid, and it sucked dishwater. “Having no magic would piss off the vampires, the Weres, and the witches. We’d all survive, but can you imagine? Everyone would be at a disadvantage. Everyone except the humans.”

Jenks darted back to the table. “Yeah? There was magic before the ever-after.”

I took another one of Trent’s fancy cookies that smelled like almonds. “The ley lines in the Arizona desert are dead. The demons killed them when they made the ever-after.”

Jenks looked into the canopy when someone hissed. Hearing it, he hunkered down, trying to look meek in a butch sort of way. I snapped through my cookie, recalling how the dead lines in the Arizona desert had been unusually close together, overlapping like pickup sticks. Maybe they’d been forced together in order to make a hole in reality, ergo making the ever-after. There was something here. I just didn’t have the time to think about it.

“Maybe you’re right,” Jenks said, as if it pained him to say it. “I still say we’d be better off without demons.”

I wasn’t so sure. Demons were mean, cruel, untrustworthy, and just plain nasty. But the memory of Al sitting in front of his fireplace trying to remember what he originally looked like only made me pity them. The elves had cursed them for trying to kill their entire species, and the demons had returned fire. I wondered if either side remembered what the original insult had been. Hadn’t five thousand years of war been enough?

There was a lesson here, too. I didn’t have time to think about this one, either.

Impatient, I ate another gingersnap, rubbing the crumbs between my fingers before I leaned back and closed my eyes. Jenks’s wings buzzed as he flitted from flower to flower like a hummingbird. “If it stays warm, we’re moving back in the garden this week,” he said out of the blue. “All of us.”

“Great! That’s great,” I said, not opening my eyes. “Are you still in the garden wall?”

“Belle is . . .” he started, and I opened my eyes when he hesitated. Finding him at a nearby orchid, I saw him shrug. “Belle is going to move into the wall, too,” he said quickly, his wings turning red and his dust evaporating before it could hit the plant. “She can have the spare room. We’d just be sharing a front door is all, like you and Ivy.”

Ahh, I thought as I sat up. “That’s good, Jenks.”

“She gets cold fast,” he said as if I had protested her moving in with him, but maybe he was really talking to her sisters in the foliage. “It would be easier to just have one fire.”

Chair scraping, I moved the plate of cookies farther away from me so I’d stop eating them. “I’m proud of you, Jenks,” I said, and he flushed, his wings going full tilt.

“Yeah, well, she’s not cooking for me.”

My smile was faint but sincere. “I’m still proud of you.”

Jenks flew to the table, looking tall next to the tiny cups Trent was using. “She’s okay, I guess. By the way, that gargoyle that showed up last night is still there.”

Frowning, I put my elbows on the table and rested my chin on the back of my hands. I would’ve thought that it was the same one from the ever-after, but there hadn’t been enough scars. “The one that looks older than the basilica?”

Nodding, Jenks speared one of the gingersnaps, holding it over his head like an umbrella as he twirled it. “I don’t like it, Rache. Bis wouldn’t tell me what they were talking about.”

“And you didn’t just spy on them?”

“You don’t think I tried?” Jenks angled his sword until the cookie was at his face. His expression thoughtful, he nibbled a corner off the cookie, looking like Willy Wonka eating an umbrella. “The little turd kept spitting on me. All the way across the Tink-blasted garden. They have better hearing than even Jrixibell.”

I squinted up at the glass ceiling, bored. “I’ll ask him tonight when he wakes up.” I hadn’t wanted to interfere, but if he was still there . . .

“I think they’re spying on us.” Wiping his mouth, Jenks put the nibbled cookie back over his head, resting his sword on his shoulder.

“They have a right to be concerned.” Where in hell are Trent and Ellasbeth? My foot began to bob. “Bis went ape when Al cut off his contact with the ley lines. Can you imagine what might happen if they collapse?” Foot slowing, I thought about that. Maybe I could ask for their help. They might know something the demons didn’t, something that wasn’t written down.

Spinning on a heel, Jenks took a breath to say something, then hesitated when the cookie sailed off the tip of his sword and smack-pattered into the surrounding greenery. There was a rustle and hiss of delight, and I wondered if he’d done it intentionally, tasting it first so they wouldn’t think it was treachery.

“Piss on my daisies, we have to save the demons!” he said, his eyebrows high when my attention came back to him. “I’m not going to let Bis go crazy.”

Ignoring his foul mouth, I set three cookies on the retaining wall. Seriously, how did my life get so screwed up that I was giving cookies to fairies and busting my ass to save the demons?

The faint tap-tap of shoes coming down the path caught my attention, and I sat up. “It’s about bloody time,” I whispered, moving back to my chair before they could round the corner. But it was only Trent, and I watched as his somber silhouette moved slowly through the greenery, his fingers reaching out but not touching the plants in passing like they were old friends. I don’t think he even knew he was doing it. His stance was upright, and he managed a faint, worried smile. Something was different.

“Where’s Ellasbeth?”

“Waiting for coffee,” he said, his green eyes meeting mine for a bare instant. “She doesn’t like Earl Grey.” His fixed smile grew even more stiff. “I’d have rather looked at the book out here, but do you mind coming in?” He looked at Jenks. “Both of you?”

Immediately I stood. “Sure. No problem.”

His smile was a shade forced, and he shook his head when I reached for the tray. “You can leave it.” His focus came to me, and he took a cookie before he turned back up the path. “Is that a new outfit? It looks nice on you.”

Startled, I looked down at my black slacks and linen top. I’d spent almost an hour in my closet, trying to find something professional and casual that Ellasbeth couldn’t label “hooker.”

“Ah, no, but thank you.”

Still smiling, he gestured for me to go with him. “Ellasbeth woke up Ray when she came in, and now she won’t go down. She’s usually such a docile, biddable little girl, but she’s been fussy since . . . her sister is away.” He took a bite of cookie, mood introspective. “I never realized how she depended on Lucy to make her wishes known. She’s had to speak up more. I suppose that’s good.”

The cookie I’d just eaten went tasteless. “Trent—”

His head dropped, and my words cut off at his sudden stillness. “Ellasbeth has been very cooperative. Dropped her petition for Lucy. I think she wants to try to make this work again.”

I froze, almost choking. Why is he telling me this? “Ah, that’s great!” I said, not looking at him as I spun to find my shoulder bag. “If you two get back together, then there won’t be any issues with Lucy at all, right?”

Jenks took to the air, a sickening green dust sparkling from him. “What a little cat scrotum!” he said, and both Trent and I stared. From the bushes, three hissing laughs sounded and were shushed.

“Jenks!” I admonished him, and he hovered, his hands on his hips and a disgusted expression on his face. “What is your problem?”

“Nothin’.” Wings clattering, he flew between Trent and me, headed for the door, a bright silver sparkle falling to show his path.

Okay, my first reaction had been not far from that of Jenks, but honestly, there was nothing between Trent and me, and never would be. If he could make it work with Ellasbeth, it wouldn’t be simply the girls who benefited, but an entire demographic of politically motivated elves. “Sorry,” I said as I fell into place beside Trent, our feet hitting the cobbles at the same time. “He just doesn’t like her.”

Trent was silent, and I looked at him questioningly. “Right,” he said quickly, then ate that cookie he’d taken, but I wasn’t sure what was going through his mind, and that bothered me. Jenks had told me little of what happened when he and Trent stole Lucy from Ellasbeth, saying it was privileged information, but Trent clearly hadn’t appreciated having to steal his own child.

“This is good, isn’t it?” I said, glancing back at the unappealing cold tea to see the fairies descending on it.

Trent looked sideways at me. “Yes, of course it is. It would make everyone’s lives much easier.”

Damn it, I couldn’t read the smile he was giving me, and the nerves suddenly started. What if that book was useless? What if Ellasbeth had brought it all this way, and I couldn’t figure it out? What if . . .

We paused at the door and Trent punched in a code on the pad. It was too fast for me, but I was sure Jenks caught it. There was a heavy thunk of a lock shifting, and Trent nodded, easily moving the huge, perfectly balanced door. “I’m anxious to see what you make of the book she brought,” he said, and Jenks buzzed in ahead of us, ever curious. “I remember looking at the pictures when I was about ten. I don’t know where my mother got it. Probably stole it from Ellasbeth’s mom, seeing as she willed it back to her.”

He chuckled, but I thought he might be serious as I followed him inside. The hallway was brightly lit and sported beautiful close-ups of orchids in the morning dew, but the air smelled stale after the rich scents of the garden.

“You’re going to have to look at it in the girls’ closet,” he said as we started down the carpeted hallway, heading back to the great room.

“A closet?” I said, trying to keep up with him. “You keep your magic books in a closet?”

“You keep your splat gun in a mixing bowl.”

True.

Jenks flew ahead as we entered the lower level of Trent’s great room. To my right was the huge three-story window ward that Lee had made, letting in light and sound but little else. Beyond its faint shimmer was the highly landscaped outside living area with a grill/kitchen and swimming pool. At the far end of the gigantic room was a fireplace large enough to roast an entire elephant in. In between was the grand staircase up to Trent’s apartments.

“Since learning my father’s vault downstairs was not secure, we moved everything to the girls’ closet,” Trent was saying as he headed for the stairway. “Ceri put some kind of demon ward on all the upstairs rooms. They aren’t holy, but it has the same effect. There’s no way in or out but the door, which only Ceri, Quen, and I have access to. If you ask me, it’s safer than my father’s vault. But the reason Ellasbeth insists you look at it there is because it’s temperature and humidity controlled and the book is ancient.”

That Ceri had warded the girls’ rooms sounded about right, and I touched the smooth finish of a couch as we passed. The ground floor here was basically a big party room. Past the stairway was a dark and silent bar area, and behind that the kitchen and underground parking. I knew, because I’d run through it more than once. Damn it, what was I doing having tea and cookies with Ellasbeth while Ceri suffered all that Ku’Sox was capable of?

Jenks dropped from the ceiling, an excited silver dust trailing from him. “Rache!” he exclaimed as he landed on my shoulder, his wings never slowing as they drafted my hair back. “You’ll never guess who’s here!”

“Who?” I asked, almost afraid.

From the third-story apartments, I heard Quen’s distinctive gravelly voice say, “I’ll speak to the chef immediately, Miss Withon.”

“See that you do,” said an imperialistic feminine voice, and I stopped short at the foot of the stairs.

Quen? He was okay? He was back!

Chapter Eleven

I spun to Trent. The smug brat was smirking. “Why didn’t you tell me Quen was back!” I shouted, my urge to smack him hesitating when Quen dryly cleared his throat. Distracted, I looked up at the railing. Quen was there, his pox scars standing out strongly against an unusual paleness. Ray was in his arms, and the little girl clung to him. Both Quen and Trent were smiling. Ellasbeth was not.

Trent’s hand went to my arm to lead me upstairs. “Why did you let me believe Quen was dead the morning he recovered from his vampire bite?” he said, and I jerked my arm away from him as we found the first step.

“I was a little preoccupied with Takata being my birth father,” I said, heart pounding as I took the stairs two at a time.

Trent kept up, maddeningly graceful. “It wasn’t my place to tell . . .”

My eyes narrowed. “Not your place . . . Are we even now? You little . . . cookie maker!” I exclaimed, knocking him off balance when we found the eight-by-eight landing for the first floor. Ellasbeth gasped, but Trent was laughing, even as he caught himself. Quen was here. He was okay. Finally something was going our way.

Seeing me lurch up the last of the stairs, Quen straightened to try to hide his fatigue. Our eyes met, and the older man nodded solemnly. On his hip, Ray gurgled happily. The little girl was in a sweet full-length jumper/Indian-looking robe of some sort cut from a subdued orange-and-brown paisley, her brown hair braided and looped out of the way. Hearing Jenks’s wings, she pushed from her father’s shoulder to find him. She was a beautiful blending of Ceri and Quen, and again I was struck by the frailty of this small family.

“Rachel,” Quen said simply, and I pushed past Ellasbeth in her cream-colored business suit and matching heels.

“That’s not going to do it,” I said as I pulled the older man into a hug, getting Ray mixed up in there somewhere. The curious scent of cinnamon and wine that all elves had mixed with the throat-catching odor of hospital. Under it was his masculine pull, a faint hint of controlled magic and ozone to give it some interest. He smells different from Trent, I thought. Trent’s magic smelled powerful, but Quen’s had a darker tang than Trent’s shadowed glow.

Suddenly realizing Quen’s arms had gone around me in what had probably been self-defense, I pushed back, embarrassed. “They let you out? When?” I said, wincing when Ray grabbed my hair and pulled me in.

The older man made a noise of admonishment, disentangling her fingers and then, unexpectedly, tugged me back to him with one arm, turning us both to the common living room visible through the wide archway. “They didn’t let me do anything. I left. It’s good to see you,” he said, his voice rumbling through me. “You’re the one who sent those damn demon-scented petits fours, aren’t you? They woke me up at midnight, and I left at two.”

I grinned as I slipped out from under his arm. He looked tired but good, the injuries to his nervous system obviously repaired enough to function. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“No, but everything will eventually come back,” he said, and I gave him a light punch on his arm and wrinkled my nose at Ray.

“Tomorrow morning, probably,” I guessed. Three days. That’s how long it took to renew an aura so it didn’t hurt when you tapped a line. What had Ku’Sox done to him?

Trent was making his way to Ellasbeth. Having seen our reunion—and not being a part of it—the woman had retreated to the small kitchen behind the large sunken living room. Four doors led to four suites—Quen and Ceri’s, Trent’s, the girls’. The fourth had been Ellasbeth’s when she had been his fiancée, and by the sound of it, it might be again.

My heart ached at the toys scattered in the living room, and a crayon-scribbled picture of horses was pasted to a door, a sad two feet from the floor. This was the closest that Trent would ever get to a normal family life, and I was angry that Ku’Sox had spoiled it.

Suddenly unsure, I followed Quen and Ray to the sunken living room, having to wave Jenks’s dust out of my way. The last time I’d seen Ellasbeth was when I’d arrested Trent at their wedding. I hadn’t known she’d been pregnant with Lucy at the time, and I didn’t know if it would have made any difference. The well-dressed, sophisticated woman looked broken as she sat at the small kitchen table, her expensive cream-colored slacks and coordinating top and jacket rumpled. She was tired, jet lag and worry having taken their toll on her perfect makeup and upright posture. Even so, I balked as her eyes found mine.

Her strawlike, straight hair looked fake next to Trent’s wispy strands, and her build was too strong to have only elf in her. She was not full blood, and it showed. Money had a way of erasing that, though, and her family was almost as influential as Trent.

Jenks’s wings shivered against my neck as he took refuge, and a chill went through me. “Oh, there’s trouble with a high-end handbag,” he said, and I agreed.

“Ah . . . hello,” I said, feeling awkward, as if she’d come home and found me naked in Trent’s tub. No, wait. She had once.

Ellasbeth stood in a smooth, controlled motion of grace, and I jerked to a stop. Quen gave me a “good luck” look as he continued into the lower living room area with Ray, and Jenks abandoned me, wings clattering. Chicken. But all she did was extend her hand, a stiff expression on her face. “Thank you for agreeing to help Trent get Lucy and Ceri back.”

That was not what I had expected, and I cautiously took her unworked hand in mine. Her voice wasn’t inviting, but it wasn’t cold, either. My thoughts returned to Trent’s words in the greenhouse. She wanted back into his life? Why? Power? Parental and social pressure? Lucy? I didn’t think it was to spend the rest of her life with Trent, but it wasn’t my business.

“Ah, it’s the right thing to do,” I said, letting her hand go and forcing myself to not hide mine behind my back. Her touch had been cold, and I maintained my pleasant expression. No, it wasn’t my business, but Trent would tie himself to this woman if he thought it was what duty required of him. He’d do it for everything she represented despite her having nothing he wanted.

Her smile widened, but didn’t get any warmer. “Still,” she said, her hands clasped before her to look like a proper 1940s wife in her monochromatic dress suit and matching purse. “It’s very noble of you to risk your life when you don’t have a personal stake in the outcome.”

Lemon-yellow dust sifted from the light fixture. Ignoring Jenks’s silent comment, I smiled right back at her. “But I do. Lucy is my godchild, and Ceri is my friend. I freed her from the demons before, and seeing her cry over having a home, husband, and children when she never dreamed of freedom makes me a tad protective of her when some demon tries to take it away.”

“I see.”

I see? Did she say I freaking see? “Besides,” I added when her eye twitched. “If I don’t help him, who will?” My unspoken you? was obvious.

From Ceri’s high-backed embroidery chair, Quen cleared his throat. Trent had his back to us, busy in the kitchen making coffee, and Jenks simply sent down another shower of sparkling dust, the crystal in the fixture tinkling as it shook from his laughter.

Inclining her head, Ellasbeth smoothly sat back down. “I’ll make sure you’re well compensated.” My smile froze as I suddenly became hired help standing before her.

Damn, she was good. “I don’t work for Trent,” I said, suddenly feeling outclassed. Her eyes were on my pinkie ring, and I think she’d recognized it as matching Trent’s. “I work with him.”

Stop it, Rachel, I thought as I realized I was in danger of arguing with an idiot. It wouldn’t hurt you to be nice. She just lost her daughter, not once but twice.

Exhaling, I leaned against the counter, forcing her to turn if she wanted to keep me in her sight. “Ku’Sox won’t hurt either of them,” I said as Trent passed between us to hand Ellasbeth a cup of coffee. “Ku’Sox wants something, and this is the only way he can get it. Hurting them will only piss me off, and Ku’Sox knows that.”

Ellasbeth’s beaming smile to Trent vanished. “Can we please stop saying his name?” she asked, and on his way back to the kitchen, Trent shot me a look to be nice.

“Why?” I crossed my ankles and leaned deeper into the counter. “It’s not like saying it does anything.”

“Coffee, Rachel?” Trent said as he shoved a cup at me, and I scrambled to take it before it sloshed over. A faint blush was showing on Ellasbeth. Maybe that had been a tad petty.

“Ah, you have a book for me to look at, right?” I prompted, then took a sip.

“It’s in the safe room. Look at it in there.” Chin high, Ellasbeth pushed away the cup of coffee Trent had brought her. Out of her sight in the kitchen, Trent hung his head, his free hand rubbing his temple.

Quen rose, his motions slow and pained. Ray was slumped against him, the little girl valiantly fighting sleep and starting to lose. “I’ll show you.”

Jenks peeked over the fixture at me, laughing. It made me feel as if I’d lost something. Damn it, I could be nice to this woman. I didn’t have to be her best friend, just not smack her while we breathed the same air. “Thank you, Ellasbeth. This is going to be a huge help,” I said, but it sounded forced even to me. “We’re going to get them back. It’s going to be okay.”

She looked up. The worry and fear of the last two days pooled in her eyes as she met mine and held them. I don’t think anyone had told her it was going to be okay, and upon hearing it—even if she didn’t believe it—she began to break apart. Tears welled and she quickly turned away, her posture becoming more stiff, more closed. It must be hard when the only comfort you got was from the person you most disliked in the room.

Trent set his coffee aside, the cup hitting the granite loudly. “Quen, while you’re showing Rachel the safe room, Ellasbeth and I will be in the gardens.”

“Why?” Ellasbeth said in distrust as she fumbled in her matching purse for a tissue. “I can help.”

Trent touched the woman’s shoulder, and I shoved a twinge of jealousy away. “If you’re open to it, I’d like to discuss the possibility of joint custody.”

Ellasbeth’s eyes widened. “Trent,” she said breathlessly. “I don’t want to have to need a joint custody agreement at all.”

From the chandelier came a tiny “Eeeeewwww.”

“I just want us to all be together as we are supposed to be,” she said, gazing up at him, tears spilling from her. “I want my family! What if we can’t get her back! What if . . .” Sobbing, the elegant woman dropped her head into her hands and sat alone at the table and cried. Uncomfortable, I glanced at Quen—who clearly didn’t care—then to Trent. He seemed unsure, and I made a face at him to do something. Anything.

Grimacing, he pushed himself into motion, pulling her to her feet so he could hold her. That was even more uncomfortable, but at least she wasn’t crying alone. “Shhhh . . .” Trent soothed, even if he did look a little stiff doing it. But awkward or not, they looked beautiful together. Sophisticated. “Ceri lived among demons for a thousand years,” Trent said, holding the woman as she shook. “Lucy is resilient and brave. The demons won’t hurt her as long as they have a hope I’ll give them what they want.”

My stomach hurt, and I looked away.

“We can talk in the garden,” Trent said, starting to guide her to the stairway. Jenks dropped down from the light fixture, and my lips parted when Trent made a small finger movement to tell him to stay.

Oh, really? I thought, watching Trent help Ellasbeth down the wide stairs, a hand under her elbow as she continued to warble about home and family, and how she had been an idiot.

Idiot. Sure. My thoughts drifted back to her standing at the basilica’s altar, furious at me for ruining her wedding day as I handcuffed Trent for suspicion of murder. I’d ruined her day.

Ray perked up at the sound of Jenks’s wings, and she watched with sleepy eyes as he dropped down to me. “Tink’s little pink rosebuds, you two are like dogs snarling,” he said, and I scowled, looking at the top of the stairway.

“I didn’t hit her, did I?”

He laughed, but I still felt ill. If Ellasbeth was going to be in Trent’s life, I’d probably better start kissing ass if I ever wanted to see the girls again.

Jenks landed on my shoulder as I went to help Quen up the two shallow stairs. I was still wondering about that finger motion. “Is he seriously considering . . . that?” the pixy whispered as Ellasbeth’s voice rose from the great room.

“Looks like it,” I breathed. “If you ask me, she’s nothing but bad news. But they look good together.”

Quen grunted as he got to his feet, unbalanced from Ray and his injuries that he wouldn’t tell me about. Shaking off my offer for assistance, he headed for the nursery, his left leg sluggish on the two stairs.

“Is that what you see?” Jenks said, jerking me back to my last comment. “That they look good together?”

I tried to eye him, but he was too close. “You don’t think they do?”

Pushing open the nursery door with his foot, Quen shook his head. “The joining of the two houses would do a lot in bringing the two factions of our society together. I’m glad someone finally talked some sense into that woman.”

He seemed genuinely pleased, but I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen to Ceri, Ray, and Quen if Ellasbeth entered the family.

“Good thing the man likes frustrating women,” Jenks said, and I tucked a strand of hair behind my ear to shove him off my shoulder. I could still hear Ellasbeth’s tearful protests bracketed by Trent’s musical voice. The farther they got from us, the more hysterical she was getting, and her voicing her doubts wasn’t helping.

“She is wearing your ring, Trenton!” echoed, and then the door slammed shut.

We only had days, and despite Trent’s confident words, I didn’t have a plan; I had a goal whose solution revolved around a book I hadn’t seen yet.

My heart sank as I looked over the dark nursery lit by a friendly, smiling full moon with cows jumping over it. Oh God, Ceri and Lucy. I’d get them back if I had to tear the ever-after apart line by line. “Was it Nick in the woods?” I asked Quen as he nudged a walk-’n’-ride out of the way to get to the closet door.

“On the outside,” he said, and the little girl felt his tension and squirmed to turn around. “His speech patterns were Ku’Sox’s.” Quen shifted his shoulders painfully as he took a set of keys from his pocket. “His combat patterns were Ku’Sox’s as well. I’m surprised the human survived channeling that much power. But then he didn’t have to do much once he got Lucy.”

It must have been horrifying, and my eyes roved over the beauty here as he sifted through the keys: the well-thought-out toys, the books and figures waiting for pretend—the twin cribs, one messy, the other tidy, clearly not slept in, with a lonely giraffe waiting for Lucy’s return. It about broke my heart, and feeling ill, I whispered, “I’m so sorry.”

Silent, Quen held the keys up to Ray, and the little girl took an interest. Quen looked distressed. He knew Ceri would be okay, right? “I’ve been in contact with Dali,” I said as Ray patted the keys. “We have some time before things shift. I’m sure they’re both okay.”

Quen’s entire body relaxed. “It’s what I pray to the Goddess for.”

On the door frame, Jenks shrugged, but I didn’t know what else to say.

Quen still hadn’t unlocked the door, waiting for Ray to lose interest in the keys. I was all for letting children learn when the opportunity presented itself, but I did have a timetable. I took a breath to say something, then hesitated as I realized Ray wasn’t playing with the keys; she was sorting them, her little fingers pushing them around until she found the one she liked with a pat.

“Abba,” she said in her high, little-child voice as she touched the keys, and my eyes widened. I had no idea what Abba was, but it was very clear what she was trying to convey.

“Very good, Ray,” Quen said, his voice soft and holding pride. “That’s the one to get into the big toy box. Now will you go to sleep? Abba has to help Aunt Rachel pick out the toy that’s going to get your mother and Lucy back.”

The elf name for father? I wondered, vowing to ask Jenks about it later. Guardian? Protector? Mom’s Mr. Significant? I didn’t know, but it sounded like a term of affection.

Ray’s face puckered. I thought she was going to cry, but when Quen raised his eyebrows, she thought better of it, turning away from me to cling to him.

“Oh my God,” I said as Quen held her to him with one arm and fitted the key in the lock with the other. “You’re teaching her to be a little you,” I accused, and Quen flashed a smile, not looking at all guilty.

“Someone has to keep Lucy alive when I’m not around,” he said as the door creaked open and he reached in to flick on the light. “Trent’s daughter is entirely too trusting, and I doubt her days with a demon are going to change that. Go on in. I’m going to put Ray down. Ellasbeth already has the book in the cabinet, but this will just take a moment.”

He turned back to the dim nursery, and I waved bye to Ray, the girl watching me over Quen’s shoulder. “Abba,” Ray warbled as Quen put her in the crib, and two little hands reached for him. Quen stooped down to reassure her, and I saw the love before the closet door arced shut. I couldn’t help but feel good. Jenks sighed, and I jumped, having forgotten he was there. Obviously he’d seen the love between them, too. I knew he missed having newlings.

“Wow,” I said as I turned away and took in the “closet.” It was impressive, smaller than the vault Trent had been keeping his most precious secrets in, but more organized. Racks of paintings, shelves of knickknacks of various styles and eras, and one big glass-fronted cabinet with leather-bound books took up most of the room. Cabinetry and a small sink ran along one wall, and a library table with two wingback chairs filled the middle space. Underfoot was a rug that looked old enough to fly, and given the location, it just might if you knew the right word.

“Don’t touch anything, Jenks,” I said, and he scowled at me as he hovered before a rack of shiny ley line baubles.

“I won’t break anything,” he said, then spilled a flash of silver dust as something caught his attention and he darted to it. “Hey! Trent still has that elf porn statue you stole.”

Eyes rolling, I came to see if it was as graphic as I remembered, but I lingered over the pair of rings below Jenks’s feet. One was a simple gold band, the other heavy and ornate. They looked like mismatched wedding bands, reminding me of the rings that Al and I had used when we had shared each other’s strengths. “Ah, Quen?”

Jenks had his hands on his hips as he looked over that nasty statue of three elves in the middle of a threesome. “Tink’s titties,” he said. “I suppose that’s possible.” His head tilted. “You’d need a lot of grease and two straps, though.”

“Quen!” I hissed, and Quen pushed open the safe room’s door, almost shutting it completely behind him. Ray was babbling to herself in the other room, but she’d probably drop off if we didn’t talk too loudly.

“Let me get you the book,” he said, limping past the library table to the tall cabinet.

I pushed close to ask him about the rings, and he handed me a pair of soft gloves lying out on the table. They looked too small, but I tugged them on, thinking they were likely Ceri’s. Quen was putting on a second pair. “Thanks,” I said, feeling the soft knit mold itself to my fingers. “Those rings by Jenks. How old are they?”

The hiss of escaping air from the temperature-controlled cabinet was soft, and Quen glanced at Jenks as he swung the doors wide. “Not sure,” he said shortly. “Old. I can find out.”

“Hey, Quen.” Jenks circled the statue, avarice in his gaze. “Let me know if Trent ever wants to get rid of this. I have a spot in my front room it would look ace in.”

I held my breath as I leaned toward the open cabinet, avoiding any possible demon stink. “Are they demon made?” I asked as I looked over the books, some so old they were falling apart.

Quen looked at me, suspicion in his eyes. “The rings? No. Elven. Why?”

“Al has something similar.” I took a hesitant breath, pleased when I found only the honest scent of leather and decaying ink.

Quen snorted, the rude sound seeming odd coming from him. “I doubt that,” he said as he scanned the spines. “They’re chastity rings.”

Jenks sniggered, coming to make annoying circles around me. “Too late for you, Rache.”

Irked, I waved him off. I thought it odd that Trent would keep chastity rings next to his elf porn, but it wasn’t like he used any of these things. I think. This was his father’s collection, like some dads have stamps. Or guns.

Quen reached for a book set aside by itself. “More accurately, they’re binding rings,” he said, his face showing the strain as he stretched for it. “It creates a continuous bond between two chis so the wearer of the alpha ring can snuff the magical ability of the other if needed. They were used to keep younger, inexperienced elves from exposing themselves as magic users. They don’t work, though. The charm in them is long spent.”

“The books don’t smell,” I said as he set the book on the library table. “Bad, I mean,” when he looked at me. No, they didn’t smell, but there was a faint whine at the back of my ear, like a high-pitched echo of leashed magic that made me uncomfortable.

“None of them have been in the ever-after for at least five hundred years.” His voice was distant as he stood over the book and carefully turned the yellowed pages until he got to a section marked with a black ribbon. The binding made a cracking sound as he shifted the last page, and I swear he winced.

Standing over the tattered book, I looked down to read “Ley Line Corruption and Manipulation” in big, squished loops that I sort of recognized. My eyes went up, and I squinted at Quen suspiciously. “That’s Ceri’s handwriting.”

“No shit!” Jenks said, finally abandoning the statue to come hover over the text.

“I know.” Quen’s eyes shifted as he read the text. “We have six books here that Ceri has copied. A handful of other scripts. She doesn’t remember doing them. Ellasbeth insists that the book stays here. You’re welcome to spend the night if you want to read it cover to cover, but I believe this is what you want. I read it before it was returned to Mrs. Withon.”

Sitting, I looked at Ceri’s extravagant loops and swirls. I sucked at research. If he’d done it already, I was good with that, though I might come back and read it all later. “Thanks,” I said as I tugged the book closer. Quen cringed, and I curled my tingling fingertips under.

“So how come it was at the Withons’?” Jenks said, his feet lightly touching the pages.

Quen sat in the chair across from me, motions slow as if he wasn’t sure he was going to hold together. “Trent’s mother and Ellie were good friends.”

There was more to the story than that, but it didn’t really matter. Jenks flew up when I shifted to a new page, and his dust spilled over everything to make the letters glow. Seeing it, Quen leaned forward. “Interesting . . .”

I met his eyes. “You didn’t know pixy dust makes demon texts glow?”

“No,” he admitted, leaning back and steepling his fingers.

Wondering if this was where Trent got his little nervous tell from, I went back to the text. “You’re shooting yourself in the foot, Quen. Jenks has six bucks looking for property this spring. They can all read and they don’t mind fairies.”

“Hey!” Jenks said. “Quit trying to farm out my kids!”

“Just pointing things out,” I said as I turned the page to a map of the dead lines in Arizona. A second map showed where the author thought they’d been before they’d been shoved together. Quen was right. There might be something here. It was all theory, but theory based on fact and observation.

Seeing me intently quiet, Quen asked, “Do you want something to drink? Eat?”

“No-o-o,” I drawled, feeling like I was close to something.

Hesitating, Quen shifted his chair forward. “I’d like to go out with you the next time you look at the Loveland ley line.”

I thought of his sluggish left leg. He probably couldn’t tap a line yet either. I said nothing, embarrassed. He wasn’t ready to battle demons again. Maybe next week. But next week would be too late.

Quen frowned at my silence, knowing what it meant. Clearly frustrated, he leaned closer until I could smell his aftershave over the characteristic woodsy wine-and-cinnamon scent. “I think I know how Ku’Sox made that event horizon.”

I paused in my reading and looked up. “Event horizon?” Jenks asked, but that was what Al had called it, too.

“The purple line within a line sucking everything in,” he stated, and I shuddered. No wonder I’d felt squished, even if it had only been my mind. Al was lucky to be alive. That the collective had something for him to pattern himself on was probably how he had survived.

Quen carefully lifted the book toward him, his eyes on the yellowed pages. “I think Ku’Sox made it by gathering up the small imbalances that already existed in the other lines, concentrating them in the leaking line you made,” he said, carefully flipping back to the paragraph where the author mentioned the possibility of small line imbalances having no effect if the individual lines were spaced out enough and aligned to the polar forces of nearby lines.

I scooted my chair closer to Quen’s and read the first passage again. “Al did say that the lines were balanced to within safe parameters, implying they all leaked to some degree.”

“Must have been small leaks,” Jenks said, hands on his hips as he hovered over it all, his dust bringing the print back to a new-edged brightness.

“That’s just it,” Quen said, his thick fingers tapping the table. “They don’t add up to what’s in the Loveland ley line.”

“They would if they acted on each other exponentially,” I said.

Quen’s expression twisted in doubt. “Why would they do that?”

“How should I know? I’m shooting at fairies here.” My fingers were starting to cramp from holding the book, and I took my gloves off to rub them. I had enough information to go on a fact-finding mission out at the line. I figured things out by doing, not reading about them. “Al told me that the lines push each other apart, like giant magnets,” I said, unclenching my teeth. God! Am I the only one hearing this whine? “If the lines are positive, pushing away from each other, then maybe the imbalance is negative. Maybe you can’t have a line without a little imbalance.”

“Like those little black and white magnet dogs that don’t like each other unless they go face-to-face?” Jenks laughed, but I thought he had it almost exactly right.

Quen adjusted his position, inadvertently telling me his hip was sore. “Lines don’t move.”

“Mine did,” I said. “A good hundred feet from the second floor of the castle to the garden outside. Al said lines moved a lot when they were new, but they stabilized.” Reaching over, I tapped the page with my naked finger, which made Quen wince. My head gave a throb, and I curved my fingers under, wondering if this might be why Al wore gloves.

“Maybe all the lines leaked at first like mine,” I said, wishing I could ask Al about it. “But the farther apart they got, the smaller the leak became. And when Ku’Sox put the imbalances together again, bang! Big leak.”

Quen’s lips twisted in doubt, which made his hospital stubble more obvious. Jenks, though, was bobbing up and down. “Like one sticktight stuck to your tights compared to a ball of them.”

“Or a bunch of dust scattered in a huge vacuum having no effect compared to the same amount balled up into a planet,” I added, and Quen’s expression smoothed as he considered it. “If that’s how Ku’Sox got that purple sludge in my ley line, then all I have to do is divvy the imbalance back up again, and the leak will go back to its original pace. Clear the crud out, and anyone can see the curse that Ku’Sox used to break my line. They’d have to side against him!”

Jenks dusted an excited gold, but Quen still had doubts if his sour expression was any indication. “He’ll simply break it again,” he said as he closed the book and stood.

“Maybe,” I admitted, feeling a stab of worry. “But I’ll be waiting for him this time. If I catch him at it, then he’s in trouble, not me. If I can prove Ku’Sox broke my line, they won’t kill me but band together and make him behave.” I frowned—they should just band together and be done with him regardless. Cowards.

The hiss of the door was less this time as Quen carefully put Ellasbeth’s book away. It bothered me that Trent was with her right now, believing whatever drivel she was feeding him.

“And you know how to do this?” Quen said as the door sealed shut with a cold sound. “Separate imbalances?”

“No,” I admitted. “But if Bis and I went out there, we might be able to figure it out. He’s really good at separating line signatures.”

Neither one of them said anything, Jenks sitting on Quen’s shoulder and both of them eyeing me in doubt. “He is,” I said in Bis’s defense. “You look at him and all you see is a kid, but I’ve seen the lines through him, and he knows what he’s doing. Besides,” I added, “either of you Abbas got any other ideas? I’m all ears.”

Quen flushed as I used the elf name he’d given himself, but Jenks flew almost into my face. “You’re not going into that purple line. You saw what it did to Al.” He spun to Quen, an alarmed gold dust making a sunbeam on the table. “It fried his aura, and they both almost died!”

Ignoring him, I chewed on my lip. “I’d be careful,” I said, then stifled a shiver. What if I got sucked into it by mistake? Or Ku’Sox shoved me?

“You’re not going out there!” Jenks shrilled, and Quen winced, looking at the closet door. “It’s not safe, and you know it!”

“When is my life safe?” I said, trying not to get riled up. “Trent could spot me if I used Al’s rings. Would that make you happy?”

Jenks dropped several inches before he remembered to move his wings. Still leaning against the cabinet, Quen seemed to stiffen. I knew being almost helpless bothered him. “Al’s rings?” Jenks scoffed, coming down and kicking at the gloves I’d taken off. “You think demon magic is going to work with an elf?”

My eyes went to Quen. He was frowning in thought. “I don’t know. You got anything on demon wedding rings?” I asked, but he was already at the cabinet, putting his gloves back on. “I yanked Al’s soul out of that event horizon using a pair of rings,” I babbled. “They sort of melted our minds together.” Jenks made a face, his dust shifting green. “Not like that,” I said. “It was weird, though, as if I could pull on his strength, and he could pull on mine.”

“Without asking?” Quen reached high to pull down a slim volume. It was falling apart and had no title, so I figured it was a demon text. “You sure they weren’t slave rings?”

Chastity rings sounded far more slavelike than Al’s rings. “Pretty sure,” I said as Jenks peered over Quen’s shoulder. “The connection felt equal. Like a scrying mirror but more complex, sort of like the difference between a phone call and talking in person. Al said the rings made an unbreakable connection,” I said, stifling a shudder at the memory of feeling his pain, then squishing the thought of what sex might feel like. Da-a-amn . . . Feeling two orgasms at once might be worth the invasion of privacy.

Quen eyed me in my sudden silence, setting the volume down before me and pointedly handing me my gloves. I put them on, my curiosity growing as Quen opened it to almost the last page. “I think what you want is here.”

No matter how I tugged the gloves, they felt too tight, but I smiled as I saw the rough drawings. It faded as I read what the demon rings were actually for. Increased sexual pleasure was on there, but they were really created as an implement of war, allowing a sort of superdemon able to overpower elves and whatever more easily. There was no clear master or subordinate ring as there was in the elf chastity rings. How they decided what curse to war with was up for debate, but perhaps that never came up in the heat of battle? I thought it interesting that it was assumed that it took two demons to overpower wild, elven magic. One thing was clear, though. The two people wearing them had no defense against each other if there was treachery. Wedding bands, indeed.

“Look, there it is,” Jenks said, his dust sinking through the pages to make them glow from underneath. “Demon use only. You don’t make something your enemy can use.”

He was right, but I wasn’t going to give up on this, and leaning back in my chair, I racked my brain for an answer. “Well, why not use the chastity rings?” I said suddenly, and Quen started. “You said they made a bond. If it’s tight enough to quash someone’s magic, I bet it’s tight enough to pull me out of trouble.”

Hunched over the book, Quen’s eyes came to mine. “Those are elven chastity rings, not demon wedding bands,” he almost growled.

“Right.” I pushed my chair out and went over to them. “But he could yank me back. Just like Al’s wedding rings!”

They were both staring at me as if I was nuts, but I knew it would work. It had to.

“They’re broken,” Quen said, and Jenks bobbed his head up and down. “The knowledge to make new ones is gone. The women burned all the texts.”

“Big surprise.” Not ready to let this go, I looked at them on their little black saucer. One was tiny, like a child’s ring, which made sense if it was to keep young people in line. “I know someone who can bring spent ley line charms back to life,” I said as I picked them both up.

Quen made a small sound, and I jiggled them in my hand.

“Pierce!” Jenks exclaimed, his wings a harsh rattle. “You’re talking about Pierce! He’s Newt’s familiar! Rache, what have you been putting in your coffee?”

Smiling, I looked at the rings in my palm. Quen was right. They were dead. Not even a whisper of magic.

“Don’t put the little one on!” Quen said as I angled it to my pinkie to see if it would fit, and I hesitated. “That’s the subservient ring. Once it goes on, it doesn’t come off until the master ring allows it.”

Oh. Thinking, I jiggled the rings just to watch Quen’s reaction. “You said they don’t work.”

“You want to risk it? Go ahead. Put it on.”

Jenks came to hover over them, frowning in disapproval. “Even if you could get the rings reinvoked, Pierce is in the ever-after,” he said, kicking the larger one into the smaller. It made a ping that seemed to echo through me.

“Why are you two always Debbie downers?” I said, closing my fingers around them.

Jenks landed on my closed fist. “Just what do you plan to do? Call Newt and ask her to pop you over? She’s nuts!”

From behind me, Trent’s soft voice said, “She doesn’t have to.”

I spun, warming as if I’d been caught stealing his stuff again. Shit, how long had he been there?

“Sorry,” he said as he came farther in and took his hand from the closed door. “I didn’t want to wake Ray up.”

Sure, that’s what he said, but Jenks was smirking at me, and Quen seemed smug that I was the only one Trent had surprised. His manner quick, Trent held out his hand, and I dropped the rings into them. He smelled like the outdoors, and of Ellasbeth’s perfume. I stifled a surge of pique. There was a new drive in him, a purpose. He could again be what the elves wanted, and I forced myself to smile.

Quen looked pained as he stood there, but I couldn’t tell if it was because of his injuries or because Trent was behind me on this. “How do you propose she get there, Sa’han?”

Trent looked up, eager to explain. “My father’s vault door.”

“Perfect!” I exclaimed softly.

“Oh God,” Jenks muttered. “They’re at it again. I’m not going to get out of this one alive. I know it. I can see the web on the wall already!”

“Relax, Jenks.” I took Trent’s hand and turned it palm up so I could gently pry his fingers open. “You’re not going.” My eyes met Trent’s, and I took the rings. “You either.”

Trent’s expression cascaded through about six different emotions, all finally vanishing under a cold calm. “I am a part of this,” he warned me.

“Obviously,” I said as I backed up out of his easy reach. He was still wearing the matching pinkie ring, and something in me felt like it was a victory. “I’ll get the rings working, not you. I know you. You’ll get over there, and you’ll do something noble and throw everything off plan.”

“I will not!”

“You will!” I affirmed. “Besides, if I’m over there slumming in the mall looking for Pierce, everyone will think I’m taking care of Al. If you’re there, it will be noticed.”

Looking as if he were eating slugs, Trent dropped his head, making his bangs fall into his eyes. He knew I was right, and it was killing him.

“Those are my rings and my door,” Trent said, his head coming up and holding his hand out. “I’m going.”

Chin high, I refused to back up—but my hand was in a tight fist, hiding them. I had a fleeting memory of having done something like this before involving a key and the counselor’s locked office. “It’s my old boyfriend, so you stay. I’ll get the rings working, and then we can go out to the line and see what we can do. Deal?”

“Ah, Sa’han?” Quen interrupted.

At the we, Trent’s entire mien shifted from frustration to sour acceptance. Backing off, he licked his thumb and held it out, a challenging slant to his expression. My heart pounded. “Deal,” he said, and I licked my thumb and we pressed them together.

Quen hunched into himself in disgust. Jenks was on his shoulder shedding a weird purple dust, but I was ecstatic. “You won’t follow me,” I insisted, and Trent looked up from under his bangs again, making my heart stop with his half smile.

“I just thumb promised, didn’t I?”

Yes, he had thumb promised, and that he wouldn’t dare break. Or I’d throw him down the camp well and leave him there for three days.

Chapter Twelve

The last time I’d been in the room outside of Trent’s vault, I’d been stealing that elven threesome statue Jenks was so enamored of to gain Trent’s undivided attention. The outer chamber hadn’t changed, the air still flat and unmoving, the floors and walls bare with no furniture. I stared at the blank wall, Jenks on my shoulder and Trent beside me. Quen was down the hall turning on Trent’s magnetic imaging device. It would shift the ley line running through Trent’s compound down into the earth. More proof that the ley lines functioned as magnets on some level.

Once the line was out of its natural course, I could enter the ever-after not through the surface, which not only sucked dishwater but had no direct access to the demon realm, but right into their underground mall. From there I could buy a jump to Newt’s rooms. If she was there, we’d have a chat and I’d borrow Pierce for a few hours. If she wasn’t, then I’d save myself a few bucks and talk to Pierce with her none the wiser. I was hoping for the latter.

“There it goes,” Trent said softly, staring at the wall as if it were a big-screen TV, and feeling a sudden hiccup in my balance, I unfocused my attention and brought my second sight up. Sure enough, the red smear of a ley line now ran through the room at chest height, right before and through the blank wall. It would be an easy matter to step into it, will myself across, and be safe underground. Trent’s father, Kal, had used the ley line as a way to have a temporary door to a doorless vault, accessible when the magnetic resonator was on, and completely impossible to enter when the machine was switched off. It had been off for almost a year now, since Nick and I had burgled the vault behind the wall. I agreed with Trent that having a vault full of precious artifacts where any demon could see them using his second sight was a bad idea, but then again, Trent’s dad might have been using the room for another reason.

Nervous, I wiped my hands on my pants and turned to Trent, startled at his aura. It wavered over him like a gold sheet, like he was on fire. The slash of red through it hadn’t grown, but there was a new hint of black to it that I thought might be the first visible signs of smut. The room with the resonator was fairly close. We had a few minutes until Quen rejoined us.

“Is an hour enough?” Trent asked, calm as ever as he looked at his watch, but I could see by a flicker of darker gold aura that he was nervous. I wasn’t leaving until Quen was here to keep him from following me.

“You want to make it two?” I countered, not sure how long this might take.

Jenks flew from my shoulder, his rainbowlike aura trailing him. “How about five minutes?” he said tightly, and I pleaded with my eyes for him not to make a stink. It was daylight, and pixies couldn’t stay in the ever-after when the sun was up, same as demons couldn’t stay in reality.

“I’ll have a better chance of success if I go alone,” I said, then craned my neck to look through the low ceiling at the banners and dappled light patterns that the demons decorated their mall with. It was early yet, and there wasn’t a lot of traffic, just a few harried familiars and disgruntled demons who’d been pressed into service to clear a debt. I thought I could hear ’80s music being piped in, echoing against the flat places. It was weird standing so far underground and feeling as if you were outside, but the demons had had thousands of years to build their pretend.

Trent eyed me askance—making me wonder if he was checking out my aura for smut—then fixed his gaze firmly ahead to the shop sign visible through the wall, THE COFFEE VAULT. Someone had a sense of humor.

“We can turn the magnet on at fifteen-minute intervals,” Trent said; then we both turned at a scuff at the door.

“Sa’han,” Quen protested, out of breath but clearly having heard him. “The risk . . .”

Trent’s pleasant expression never changed. “We can turn the magnet on at fifteen-minute intervals,” he said again, and Quen nodded reluctantly. Satisfied, Trent turned to the humming ley line.

The sour whine to the ley lines throughout Cincinnati was getting worse. Seeming to hear it as well, Jenks hovered before the line, hands on his hips and glaring at an oblivious man behind the coffeehouse windows. There was no reason for the familiar to be using his second sight, and unless he did, we would be invisible.

I stepped forward, dipping a hand through the line and deciding it felt okay even if it sounded bad, the flow even and smooth. Perhaps Trent’s dad had had a deeper relationship with demonkind than Trent wanted to admit. Being able to step through a ley line and into the demon mall and coffee shop was a little too convenient—even if it was going to save both our asses.

Ready to go, I ran my hands down my linen blouse. It was going to stink to high heaven when I got back. “Quen, don’t let him follow me,” I said as I took a step forward into the line.

“Rachel, wait!”

Trent’s voice stopped me cold, and I turned, still in reality even if I was in the ley line. He was digging in his pocket, and I warmed when I realized I’d almost left without the rings. He held them out, and a spark of magic jumped between us as the rings fell into my hand. It was the ley line, not him, but I still shivered. “Thanks,” I said sheepishly. Nodding, he stepped back with a quick, sharp motion, gesturing for me to go. Jenks’s wings clattered, and with a final thin smile, I willed myself into the ever-after.

Nose wrinkling, I took three steps within the line, walking through the wall in reality and into the demon coffeehouse. I jerked as the muggy stink of ever-after and the echoing sound of a European band singing about red balloons hit me. What is it with demons and the ’80s? I wondered, not for the first time.

The familiar looked up from behind the counter. “By the two worlds colliding, don’t jump into reality in here!” he berated me, perhaps not even knowing about the door and thinking I’d jumped in. He looked oddly familiar with his green apron and cap. “I don’t care how much of a hurry your demon is in for his coffee, if you mesh with the wall, I’m not paying for it.”

I gave the guy a quick smile, backpedaling for the door. “Sorry, wrong store.”

“Use the circles at the fountain,” he said, eyes narrowed. “Stupid-ass newbie.”

He looked like a Scottish lord from a romance novel, the bushy sideburns and thick blocky muscles not doing a thing for me, but as my scrabbling hand found the doorknob, he muttered an oath. “Hey, wait. You’re Rachel Morgan, right?” he said, dropping his rag. “Hold on. I got something for you.”

My hand slipped from the knob, and I turned. “Me?”

His head was down and he was rummaging in a bin behind the counter. “Yeah. My boss has a proposition you might be interested in.”

Shoulders slumping, I sighed. Trent, Quen, and Jenks were probably watching with their second sight, and I did have a timetable. “Sorry,” I said as I yanked the door open and the music got louder. “I’m not making tulpas right now. Saving the world, you know.” Again.

“No, wait! Just take it. I’ll give you a coffee on the house!”

I couldn’t care less about the nasty coffee, but the guy at the fountain’s jump-spot might, and I reluctantly took the envelope he was eagerly extending. It was thick, contract thick, and I shoved it in a back pocket to look at later. An ever-after job might be advantageous if Al and I ended up being strapped for cash. Again . . . Was my life truly this predictable, or did I just keep making the same mistakes over and over?

“Straight up black, right?” the guy was saying, hustling behind the counter for a to-go cup and filling it with something black and bitter. It wasn’t coffee, but it was the best they had, and I took it just to get out of the place.

“Great. Thanks,” I said, hoisting it. “Mmmm, good!”

“On the house,” he affirmed, backing up and looking both nervous and pleased with himself. “Let me know about the contract!”

There was no bell to jingle as I went out into the mall, and after a quick look up and down the wide avenue, I headed to the central fountain and the jump-demons. Though demons could jump lines at will, familiars needed to buy them, and to facilitate ease of passage, demons convicted of minor crimes such as uncommon stupidity paid their debts by providing jumps. On the weekend there might be as many as ten jump-demons clustered around the center fountain moving people out, but this early on a Tuesday morning and with the impending line trouble, there was only one. Head down, I angled to him. He might have just been a demon waiting for someone, but the hat he was wearing said differently.

“Jump me to Newt’s for a coffee?” I said as I got close, and he opened one eye. It was really weird. I knew I was deep underground, but between the shifting lighting, shadow, fitful breeze, and wide space, it felt as if we were outside on a cloudy day. A really hot, cloudy day.

“Newt’s?” he said around a lazy yawn, then did a double take, pulling himself upright when he actually looked at me. A panicked expression raced across his face until it was replaced by mistrust. My eyes narrowed when he poked my shoulder as if trying to decide if I was real. “By the two worlds colliding, you really are Rachel. I thought you were Newt. Damn, girl! Wait until I tell my familiar!”

“Touch me again, and you’ll really be in pain,” I said, shoving the cup at him. “Newt’s kitchen? You know it?”

He took the coffee and looked at the ceiling. “Costs more this week.”

I forced my jaw to unclench. “Look, I’m trying to save your asses. You really think it’s a good idea to try to skin me for a sliver of smut?”

The demon’s gaze came back to me. “No. Look up there. The ceiling is down by about a foot from yesterday. Space is shrinking, and unless you want to end up in a wall, I need a gargoyle assist.”

Shit, it is happening already. No wonder it is so warm.

“Well?” he said. “How bad you want in?”

If I didn’t get these rings fixed, nothing was going to happen. I really didn’t give a flying flip about the ever-after, but I wanted Ceri and Lucy back. “I’ll take the smut,” I said, and he grandly took his cap off to dust the nearest circle.

Two demons across the plaza had noticed me. Damn. One of them was Dali. I gave him a bunny-eared kiss-kiss, and he vanished, leaving his friend to eye me in speculation. Great, this was going just great. “Can we make this fast?” I said as I stepped into the circle. It was taking too long.

Grunting, he gestured and the line iced through me, dissolving me to a thought and back to substance again. The line felt sour, but it was still even in flow. The gargoyle assist made the materialization smooth without the barest hint of unequal air pressures or misstep. I misted back into existence . . . in my kitchen.

“Hey!” I shouted, turning to him, but the jump was complete and I was yelling at my old refrigerator. My eyes narrowed. It was my old refrigerator, the one you could put a goat into, not that Ivy and I ever had. I’d blown it up almost two years ago on the solstice.

“I vowed if you ever put her image on your twisted bones again, I would not stay my hand, you foul carrion!”

I spun. “Pierce!” I shrieked as he came at me from across the kitchen, grabbing a knife from the counter as he ran. “Pierce, it’s me!” My breath exploded out of me as I hit the wall, his arm under my chin and a knife at my middle. This wasn’t my kitchen. The fridge was old. The light was wrong. The copper pots were too tarnished. “It’s me,” I choked, blood pounding. “Get off!”

But he only snarled, the scent of coal dust and shoe polish filling my senses.

“Hey!” I yelped when the knife pricked me, and I kneed him, getting my arms up and between his when his grip eased. “Get off!”

Clutching himself, he fell back. Pissed, I tugged my clothes straight and kicked the knife away. A wave of ever-after coated him, and I touched my side, my fingers coming away wet with blood. Damn it, he’d cut right through my shirt.

Pierce knelt on the floor before me in wool trousers and a colorful vest, looking like an actor from an early movie. His expression pained, he leaned back on his heels, his arms spread wide and his neck bared to me. “Go ahead!” he screamed, eyes shut as if daring me to strike him with lightning. “Rip my heart out, you foul beast! I could use the time off to plan your demise!”

I stared. He looked okay, other than the total surrender thing he had going on. His dark curly hair was down to his shoulders again, but his beard was gone, making him look younger. If he was upright, he’d be almost my height exactly, well proportioned and looking like no stranger to hard work. He opened one eye, and when I didn’t say anything, a hint of confusion made him all the more appealing. I thought I might have loved him once, but he was too quick to use the black magic and he kept trying to kill the very people I needed to survive.

“Ah, Pierce?” I said, thinking this might have been a mistake. “You okay?”

His breath came in a heave and he scrambled to his feet. His face became ashen, then red. “Rachel?” he said, echoing my same hesitancy.

I looked over the kitchen, so clearly a mockery of mine now that I had a moment to look at it. My God, it was hot in here. “Newt isn’t here, is she?” If Newt was making duplicates of my kitchen, then she was probably taunting Pierce with images of me as well. Either that or the man was truly off his rocker; by the horrified expression he was now wearing, though, I thought he was stone-cold sane.

“By all creation. It’s really you!” he exclaimed, and I fell back to the wall when he rushed me. My lips curled up in a smile when he gave me a quick hug, my arms going about him to find he felt both familiar and different. Almost immediately he dropped back, pumping my hand up and down. “I am powerfully sorry!” he gushed, eyes bright. “I thought you were her. The hag appears as you to get a rise out of me when she’s bored. Are you hurt? Did I bruise you? I should have known it was you. Gods, I’m a toad!”

“I’m fine,” I said, hoping he didn’t see the tiny cut. “Sorry about, ah, hitting you. Are you okay?”

He went scarlet, glancing at the floor where he’d prostrated himself on my mercy. “I’m of a mind I deserved it and more.” Looking shamed, he fell back a step. “I agree my situation isn’t ideal and a far cry from the pomp and circumstance of a coven member, but I understand the world here, unlike the one you live in, and every time I try to kill her, I get a little closer.”

I came out from against the wall, both curious and afraid to see the rest of Newt’s apartments. “Oh.”

“I almost had the harlot the last time, but she turned into you.” He gestured weakly, his eyes pinching at the corners as he tried to explain the last five minutes. “I couldn’t do it.”

“Pierce . . .” I started, my hand on the table so alike but not the same as the one Ivy had. Perhaps I should have tried harder to get him back on the reality side of the lines.

“It’s who I am,” he said solemnly, taking my hand and making me look at him. “I think she enjoys my trying to kill her.” He winced, looking worried. “You’re on her mind. Be careful. That’s not a healthy place to be.”

“That’s why I’m here,” I said, pulling away. “She’s out, right?”

“Oh, aye, she’s out on the surface. The ever-after is shrinking, and she’s trying to talk to sleeping gargoyles.” He leaned back, arms over his chest. We could almost be in my kitchen, if you didn’t look close. “There’s talk of killing you. Ku’Sox is petitioning for it in soft whispers.” He pushed forward, eyes eager. “We can kill him, you and I. Rachel, is that why you’re here? It is, isn’t it! Why else would you risk it, especially now!”

“No. Pierce, I can’t kill Ku’Sox.”

He turned away, opening cupboards to show tools and instruments my kitchen had never had. “Not alone, certainly,” he said confidently. “With my help, it’s possible. Let me gather my things, and we will be away, that monster dead in five minutes.”

Distressed, I felt the rings in my pocket. “Not even with your help,” I said, and he glanced up from a drawer, frowning. I remembered that frown, and I stifled a surge of tired anger. “Pierce, I’ve fought him before, and he’s too strong. Too fast. I’m not that good.”

“Mmm,” he grumbled, then shocked me when he opened the gas oven and pulled out a heavy lockbox. “I have a curse I was going to inflict on her next time I found her sleeping.”

The box hit the floor with a thud, and I jumped. He wasn’t listening. “Pierce.”

“Here is the wicked thing!” he said, having opened it up. “That’s a demon killer if I ever saw one!”

“Pierce, stop.” He had stood, and I took his hands, folding them about whatever ley line charm he’d made. Eye to eye, he squinted at me in mistrust, and I slowly let go. “I’m not going to confront Ku’Sox in a test of magic. I’m not afraid of him,” I said when Pierce took a breath to protest, “but everyone else is and I know my limits.”

“Rachel . . .”

“I know my limits,” I said again, silent until he brought his sour expression back to me. “I don’t have to kill him, just prove that he’s the one who unbalanced my line.”

Pierce frowned, looking capable and disappointed in the fake sunlight coming in the window. It was foggy past the blue curtains. It would always be foggy. “Then why are you here if you’re not seeking my help to kill him?”

Heart pounding, I brought out the rings. “These,” I said, and he picked up the largest one. “I need to reinvoke them. You said it was possible.”

“They’re deader than a three-day possum,” he said dryly, handing it back. “What do they do?”

“Create a bond between two people. They’re elven chastity rings.”

Pierce started, his blue eyes jerking from me to the rings and back again. Shoving the “demon killer” ley line charm in a deep pocket, he slid the box back into the oven. Smooth muscles moved under his thin cotton shirt, and I remembered the feel of them under my fingertips. He was a beautiful man, but I didn’t trust his decisions, especially when they impacted my life in a big way. “Chastity rings?” he questioned when the oven door shut.

The rings felt heavy in my palm. “I think I can fix the line, but I need a spotter to pull me out if I get lost. And since the rings make a connection between two magic users . . .”

“An all-fire close one, I’d think,” he muttered, his manner closed as he wiped his fingerprints off the oven door with the towel drying on a cabinet knob.

“Can you do it?”

His eyes flicked up to mine. “I’d rather kill him.”

My sigh was heavy, and I waited. I needed his help, and I knew he wouldn’t let me leave without it. I hadn’t been able to love him, but he had loved me.

Head down, he gestured, and I jumped when a circle tinged with his green aura rose up around us. It was a great deal stronger than I remembered—his time with Newt had done him good. Perhaps I’d misjudged him.

“Does she often make her kitchen look like mine?” I asked as I came closer, the corner of the center counter between us.

“Only when you’re on her mind. I’m powerfully concerned for you, Rachel.”

I wasn’t embarrassed by asking for his help, but it was hard knowing that I meant more to him than he to me. “Thank you,” I whispered as I put the rings on the counter.

“The trick is to not flood them,” he said, ignoring my guilty look. “You can’t use a ley line. That would break them for sure. Even your aura is too much when it’s all together, but if you splinter it . . .” He picked up the rings, positioning the smaller inside the larger. “Fill them with one resonance before allowing the rest in, you can make a pie of it.”

He set the rings in my palm, cupping his hands about it. A shiver went through me, and he smiled. “It’s much like a rainbow is the sum of visible light. You first put in the red, then shift it to orange, then yellow, then green, and so on until you finally get all the colors singing together and they melt into a white light and the charm invokes.”

He was standing close; his warmth and the scent of coal dust and shoe polish were bringing back memories, good but uncomfortable. “Show me?” I asked, and we both looked at the rings in my hand, his cupping mine.

“Push your aura off your hand,” he said, and my head snapped up. “That’s why the circle,” he soothed. “Go on, do it.”

My face puckered up, but I imagined my aura going thin at my fingertips, peeling back from my fingers, soaking into my skin and vanishing to leave a huge gaping hole in my first line of defense. Cold pinpricks stabbed my hand. My aura wanted to return, but I held it off.

“Good.” It had been a hopeful grunt of approval, and I caught back my adrenaline before I lost control. Before me, Pierce shifted his shoulders, clearly uncomfortable as well as he removed his own aura. The rings felt unnaturally heavy in my palm, and Pierce’s loose grip around my hand, intimate.

“Now, I’m of a mind that your gargoyle, Bis, has been leading you in the practice of shifting your aura,” he said, and I nodded, nervous. “Then simply tune the entirety of it to the clearest red you can imagine.”

I met his eyes, seeing an unknown emotion. I couldn’t see my aura, but he could, and flustered, I shifted it, knowing I had it right when he nodded. “Just so,” he said. “Let a thin ribbon of it spill down into your hand. Mind you keep it a trace!” he exclaimed, and I backed off. It was hardly a whisper, but as it touched the rings nestled in my palm, I swear I heard them chime, like the ringing of a glass when you run your finger along the top. I could feel my aura like warm silk, tracing down the soft part of my arm and making a warm pool in my palm.

“You have a knack,” he prompted, clearly pleased. “But even so, there’s too much. It is an art, and you have to plan ahead such that it just fills the memory and no more.”

I licked my lips, eyeing the rings and my aura echoing from them. “How’s this?” I asked as I backed off until there was almost no “sound” at all.

“Perfect. But be of a mind that it’s harder to remove it once given. Err on the side of hunger.”

Smiling, I looked up. There was a happy contentment in his eyes. My smile faded. “Pierce, I can’t do this.”

“You’re halfway there,” he cajoled, and I shook my head, pulling my hand from his.

“No, I mean you! You’re standing there, looking at me as if we just came out of that hole in the ground in Trent’s woods. I can’t do this! I can’t ask you to help me when you think there might be a chance that someday . . .”

My words cut off. I was helpless to continue. Head shaking ruefully, he took my hand back in his own. “I know when I’ve been given the shrug,” he said, tilting his head to keep me quiet when I rushed to explain. “You did well by me, and we both turned our attentions elsewhere. I’d be a cad to expect you to think of me as anything other than fondly. But a man can’t help but remember. Now, hold the aura as it is and shift it to orange. What is needed of the red will remain within the charm. Easy now. If you can do this, then you can do the rest.”

“Thank you,” I breathed, hanging my head and closing my eyes because I couldn’t bear to look at him anymore. Orange, I thought, shifting my aura as Bis and I had been practicing. This was easier than the melding of colors that we usually did, sitting at an outside café and trying to mimic the auras of people passing by, and Pierce’s grunt of approval was like a wash of hope through me.

“Now to yellow,” he prompted. “More than before since yellow is so thin to begin with.”

I knew what he meant, and like hearing a partial chord of a song and knowing what came next, I layered another complexity over the rings, seeing it soak in as the excess orange melted away. The rings were starting to hum, taking on a note all their own.

“The blues and purples,” he whispered, excitement in his voice. “You are a caution, Rachel. The demon you will be!”

I almost lost it, but caught myself, concentrating on the feel of his hands around mine as I added the last. Sweat trickled down, and I cracked open an eye at the funny tickle of feeling in my chi. My aura wanted to flood the rings with power, and I held it tight.

“My God . . .” Pierce breathed. “Easy, Rachel. Hint at a shadow of black. It should have invoked. It needs a harmony of something else, something dark. I’ve never charmed elven silver; it needs something else.”

I was holding my breath, and I let it out as I turned my aura to an ultraviolet hue. It was as if smut snaked down my arm, but when it hit the rings, it pooled around them, refusing to join.

And then tiny cracks appeared in the cold, dead metal. Shit.

“Easy . . .” Pierce whispered as he stared at them. “Let it soak in.”

My head was starting to hurt, and my arm felt dead. Pinpricks coated it, and I began to shake. The cracks grew, sending spiderwebs of instability through the surface of the rings. Panicked, I froze. There wasn’t enough energy in there yet to rekindle the charm, but any more, and it would break. “Pierce?” I warbled, and his fingers around mine grew warm.

“I can’t do anything,” he said. “Rachel, you have to finish it!”

“It’s going to break!” I said. “I can’t hold it!”

“It’s that damned elven magic,” he said, and I caught my breath when his hands left mine. “Your energy is not mixing with the original maker’s. Can you . . . think elf thoughts?”

Think elf thoughts, I mocked in my head, but the cracks weren’t going away. I couldn’t stop, and I couldn’t move forward. I knew it would blow them to hell if I just let it go. “Elf thoughts,” I muttered, frowning as I thought of Trent, tricky, proud, arrogant.

The skin of the rings seemed to shimmer, and I took a quick breath. The cracks were still there, but it felt right. My teeth clenched, and the memory of Trent’s music as he sung my soul to sleep slipped into me, hazy from my subconscious. It was his plea to his goddess that he didn’t believe in to listen, the source of his wild magic. It circled around and around in my head until I felt a somnolent nothing seem to take notice, hesitating in its glorious song, turning one of a thousand eyes to me. Hear me, I thought, begging. See what I’m doing. Lend me your skill.

Wild magic smiled at me, and the skin of the rings warbled. My last shining of aura reached for the rings, and with a ping of sound that echoed in my soul, the magic vibrated through me and became one. That simple, the rings reinvoked themselves and sealed.

I gasped, staring at the rings glowing in my palm like glory itself.

“Well, I’ll be!” Pierce beamed as his protective circle flickered and went out. “You did it! First time out of the box!”

Elated, I clutched the rings. I had a chance now. I had a chance to fix the line, to free Lucy and Ceri. I looked at the clock on the stove before I remembered where I was. I had to get back to Trent. We had to move on this, and now!

“Thank you, Pierce, thank you!” I said, pulling him into an expansive hug, my clenched hand with the rings tight to his back. “I couldn’t have done it without you. I can do something now. Thank you!”

He was smiling when I dropped back, his curls at his forehead damp with the heat, and my expression froze when he touched my hair. “You did it, not me,” he said. “All of it. I only told you how. You never needed me. Even when you were but a young woman.”

I let go of him, the memory of what lay in his eyes rushing back. “I did,” I said, needing to be honest. “I did need you. I was strong with you. You helped me find that.” Eyes down, I shoved the rings away. “I’m sorry,” I said, knowing it was over, but not remembering why.

Pierce took a step back to put more space between us. “I demanded too much,” he said, his sadness at himself, not me. “I see in your heart you found someone who makes you strong who does not hold too tight, who has learned that the pain of losing you to fate is more than the pain of you dying in a cage. Who is he?”

I looked at the clock again. “No one.”

“Ivy?” he guessed, immediately shaking his head. “No. Someone new? No, someone old,” he said firmly, his eyes going to my pocket. “An elf?” he guessed, then became ashen. “Kalamack?” he blurted, taking my shoulders. “Rachel, no,” he pleaded. “I know I have no right, but he lies. He deceives. It is their nature. This is his plan, isn’t it? That you come here, risking yourself instead of him?”

“It was my plan,” I said, pulling back in anger. Oh yes, now I remembered why it hadn’t worked. “It was all I could do to make him stay and not follow me here. He would’ve been recognized. I have a right to be here.” I glanced at Newt’s kitchen. “Well, not here, here, but the ever-after. Besides, would you’ve taught him how to invoke the rings?”

Damn it, he’d made me mad at him again, and I didn’t want to be.

“He made you think it was your idea.” Pierce pleaded, “Don’t trust him. He’s a Kalamack!”

“He . . .” I started, not knowing where I was going with my argument. Pierce had said I’d found someone new to love, and Trent wasn’t it, but to say so sounded like I was protesting my way into a bag of truth. “There’s no reason I can’t work with him,” I said belligerently, making a fist to hide Trent’s pinkie ring. “Ku’Sox stole Ceri and his daughter. I can trust his hate.”

There was a small circle on the floor where I’d popped in, and I stood in it, waiting for his help to get out of here. Nothing like needing an ex-boyfriend to slam your door for you as you make your dramatic exit.

“But he will spoil you, Rachel,” Pierce said, and I stared until I realized he meant ruin, not overindulge. “He’ll turn your heart hard and you will become as him. A shallow, self-indulgent shell of what you are now. Don’t trust him. Let me help you. I have an arsenal. We can destroy Ku’Sox together. Right now. This very hour. Your strength and my charms. Our magics blend so well. With those rings, we can make a fist of it for sure!”

I looked him up and down, not surprised. “The rings are not for attack, they’re a safety net for fixing the line. You keep telling me that Trent is going to change me, but you’re the one who keeps trying to get me to kill everyone!”

“But it needs to be done,” he insisted, and I crossed my arms over my chest.

“Send me to the mall, please,” I said tightly. “I appreciate your help more than you will ever know.”

“Rachel.”

It was stifling, and I brought my attention down from the ceiling. Pierce stood before me, looking capable and strong, with his curls about him and his eyes promising me success. I remembered how thick his circle had become and imagined the skills he’d been honing since becoming Newt’s familiar. Had she been training him for this? “Can you leave Newt’s rooms without being detected?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

His head dropped. “No.”

My posture eased and my anger vanished. “I’m sorry, Pierce,” I said, touching his arm. “You’ll jingle like bells in the forest, and I have to move with stealth. You’ve given me a tool that I didn’t have before. I can do this. Thank you.”

Jaw tight, he looked up, hearing the truth in it.

“Do you need anything?” I asked, not wanting to leave like this.

“Only that which you can’t give. And I will not ask for it.”

Yep, that’s about what I thought. Sick at heart, I shifted foot to foot. “I have to go.”

A savage light lit through his eyes, and his chin lifted. “Wait, there is one thing.” Moving close, his expression became almost taunting. “Let me kiss you good-bye, for if fate allows that I see you again, you will not be you anymore.”

“Pierce . . .” I whispered, but he’d taken both my shoulders and pulled me close. My breath caught, and as our lips touched, he filled my soul with the memory of his love. Tears warmed my eyes, and I didn’t pull away, wanting just for a moment this perfect spot of what we might have had. Our auras, already sensitized to each other, mixed with swirls of pinpricked energy, sparking over our skin as our lips moved against each other, and his hands pressed into me with the memory of what had been.

Slowly he let go, and I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand, not ashamed for my tears. I could have loved him, but he demanded too much.

“I’m not going to change,” I said, meaning several things at once.

Chin high, he let go and stepped back. “Elves are more evil than demons. They warp you to suit their needs and make you think it was your idea. You will always be in my heart, Rachel Morgan. Go, before my foul jailer comes back.”

“Pierce.”

He turned away and gestured. “Go.”

I vanished, seeing him standing in a spot of sunlight that never moved, alone and apart, but wanting more.

I am not becoming Trent’s tool, I thought as I misted back into existence at the fountain and the trite sound of synthesizers and cheerful lyrics beat on me. I was making my own decisions, not Trent’s. Pierce was seeing the world through ancient glasses.

But as I pushed past the few meandering demons in search of the coffeehouse, I couldn’t dispel a faint whisper of warning.

Chapter Thirteen

Cool and carrying the hint of rain, the night wind pushed against me, sporadically sending my hair to tickle my neck. It brought to me the smell of early lilac and the sound of spring frogs and running water. Far in the distance was the sound of interstate traffic, barely a whisper. Behind me, Loveland Castle loomed dark, empty, and forbidding. Trent’s snazzy black sports car sat parked in the dirt lot. My car was still at his gatehouse. The light from the camp lantern on the retaining wall behind me barely made it to the surrounding forest stretching around us—just far enough to make the place feel creepy.

Edgy, I shifted my feet into the gravelly scree of the lower garden path as I stood in the glow of the lantern, my hands on my hips and Bis on the crumbling retaining wall behind me. Four feet tall, it almost put him eye to eye with me. Together we looked across the tall grass at the damaged ley line stretching across the lower, long-fallow garden and waited for Jenks and Trent to return.

The ley line looked ugly with my second sight, worse in the lamp’s glow than it had in the sun, with violet-purple streamers coming from the line to soak up the energy leaking through. But for all its nasty appearance, I was sure the line itself was fine apart from the original leak. Ku’Sox had moved all the minuscule imbalances from the other lines, concentrating them in mine to make an event horizon. It was an event, all right. The last one the demons would ever see.

I shivered despite the night’s warmth, and Bis tightened his grip on the retaining wall, making the stones crack. I didn’t want to let the little guy know how nervous I was, but it was hard with him so close. Trent’s rings were in my pocket. I had refused to give them to him when I’d come back through the vault, afraid he’d come out here with Quen and do something stupid. Quen wasn’t up to magic yet, and it had taken both of us to convince the man to stay with Ray tonight lest Ellasbeth take her to the West Coast for her own hostage demands.

Trent was helping Jenks canvass the nearby area for pixy intel, but I still felt naked knowing that Al wouldn’t be able to save my butt if Ku’Sox showed. For the first time, I was really on my own. “Well?” I whispered to Bis, wishing they would hurry up. “What do you think?”

Bis shifted his clawed hind feet and bits of rock pattered down. “It hurts,” he said, simply, ears pinned to his skull. Depressed, I went to sit on the stone wall beside him, scooting myself up until my feet hung above the lower path.

“But do you think we can separate the imbalances?”

He shrugged, looking lost as his ears perked up. I was asking a lot, and I edged closer, rocks pinching me. “Let me hear,” I said, touching his foot so I could feel the lines resonate.

My teeth clenched as suddenly every single ley line within my reach sung inside my head. It was a heady experience—and why I usually had a bubble of protection around my thoughts when I touched Bis. This time, though, the harsh discord of my nearby ley line cut through the beauty, making my teeth ache and my head hurt.

“My God!” I said as I let go of him and stared at the line with my second sight. “How can you stand it?” And how am I going to separate anything from that noise?

The cat-size gargoyle shrugged, touching his wingtips together over his head. “I don’t have a choice. Everyone is tired of listening to it. I’ve been told to fix it, and fix it now.”

My thoughts zinged back to the three gargoyles I’d seen tonight before we’d left, perched on the roof of the church and spitting at the pixies to keep them out of earshot as they talked in low rumbles. I would’ve gone up into the belfry to eavesdrop, but I was afraid they might take Bis and move to another church. “You!” I said, surprised. “But it’s my line!”

His red eyes glowed eerily in the lantern’s light. “And I’m responsible for you having made it.”

“Bis, this isn’t your fault. Neither is Ku’Sox exploiting the tear to try to break the ever-after. Even if you hadn’t left me, I would have scraped that hole trying to get out.” I clutched my arms around myself, cold as I remembered it. I might have managed to jump the lines, but I’d damaged my aura and scraped a hole in reality in the process.

“But I left you,” he said, unable to look at me.

Smiling, I bubbled my thoughts and touched his shoulder. “It was my fault, not yours, for trying to jump a line before I knew what I was doing.”

He was silent, and I gave his shoulder a squeeze before letting go. I knew he still blamed himself. He’d changed a lot since then, waking up in the day for brief periods, becoming more somber, less prone to playing tricks on the pixies. He was getting older, and I worried that I’d brought an end to his childhood before its time. “Is this why there have been gargoyles on the roof with you?” I asked, not sure how much he’d be willing to tell me.

Immediately Bis brightened. “They’re teaching me the vibrations of their lines,” he said proudly. “Usually a gargoyle is taught by only one other gargoyle, but the lines aren’t acting right, so they’re taking turns by singing me only their line, the one they know by heart.”

“D-demons?” I stammered. “You’ve been talking to demon-bound gargoyles?”

He nodded, almost going invisible as he flushed a deep black to make his red eyes stand out. “They’re trying to teach me all the lines so that I can teach them to you. I only know a few, since most won’t leave the ever-after and their demons. They want me to come to them.”

He dropped his eyes, scared of the idea, and I frowned. “The lines aren’t acting right,” he said, clawed feet shifting as he looked at the line. “Demons aren’t jumping on their own at all. Everyone needs their gargoyle, like they’re brand-new to line jumping.”

Remembering my jump from the mall to Newt’s kitchen, I nodded. “They’re teaching you line jumping,” I said, and he grinned, a glint of light showing on his thick black teeth.

“Yup.”

I looked at the line, then him. “So you know what some of the lines sound like?

He nodded, making a face. “I know what they’re supposed to sound like. They’re off.”

“Because their imbalances are here in my line . . .” Fingers tapping the cold stone, I thought that over. “Bis, if you know what they’re supposed to sound like and you can hear what they sound like now, then maybe I can find what’s missing in my line here and shift it back. It’s the misplaced imbalance that’s causing the trouble.”

Bis’s eyes blinked slowly. “Maybe that’s what they were talking about,” he said, his heavy brow furrowing. “Pigeon poop, Rachel. Talking to those old gars is like talking to crazy old men. They never come out and tell you what they mean. Everything is spoons and two-legged chairs. What does a spoon have to do with a ley line? I don’t know! Do you?”

Clearly he was frustrated. I could sympathize, having listened to enough wise-old-man crap to fill a wheelbarrow. “No,” I admitted, “but if we can separate even one imbalance and put it back, it might make a big difference in the leak. Buy us some more time.”

“Or Ku’Sox might show up,” Bis said.

True. I exhaled heavily and turned in a slow circle, looking into the dark for the silver tracing of pixy dust. Jenks should have been back by now; Trent was slowing him down.

“Sounds kind of hard,” Bis said, the tip of his tail twitching.

I turned to follow his gaze to the ugly, shrill line, slumping as my first excitement died. “I know,” I said dejectedly. “I have no idea how to separate the imbalances.”

Bis moved his wings, the hush of leather against leather making me shiver. “Why does it have to be hard?”

Bis’s head turned. A second later, Jenks’s wings’ clatter became obvious. “It always is,” Jenks said as he hovered before us, dusting heavily and clearly having heard Bis’s last statement. Behind him, a black shadow strode out from the surrounding woods. It had to be Trent, or Jenks would be having issues. Besides, no one else I knew moved with that kind of grace.

“Well?” I asked Jenks, trying not to look at Trent as he rejoined us. Pierce’s warning was still ringing in me. I was not in love with Trent, and never would be—especially with Ellasbeth back in the picture and Trent on a mission to save the elves. True, we worked marginally well together. His unexpected surprises were annoying, but they did generally work out. And yes, he looked more than a little attractive in his sturdy black jeans, tucked-in stretchy shirt, and lightweight rain jacket. His fair hair was covered with a black cap to keep off the damp, and the black gloves were probably just for effect because I knew he wasn’t cold. But to entertain anything more than a casual work relationship was laughable.

Seeing Jenks hovering over his shoulder, I was struck by how they managed to look as if they went together though they were nothing alike. “There isn’t much here for pixies unless there’s a tour coming through,” Jenks said, his face glowing from the dust. “They remember you being here yesterday, and a bunch of demons before that, but not one on his own like Ku’Sox. We did a quick survey, and we’re good for at least a quarter mile unless you count the raccoons.”

I squinted at the line. “Okay. I’m going to take a look-see—”

“You’re not getting in that line!” Jenks shouted, and Bis’s red eyes widened in alarm.

“I’m not getting in the line,” I said, glancing at Trent to see him watching me with the same intensity as Jenks. “You think I’m out here sniffing fairy farts? Bis knows what some of the lines are supposed to sound like, and by comparing that to what they sound like now, maybe we can find the imbalance, bubble it, and move it out . . .”

My words trailed off when Trent tilted his head. “That wasn’t our original idea.”

Jenks hovered right before my nose, wings clattering belligerently. “Yeah? Then what?”

I winced. “Maybe if I move it out, it might just get sucked back into place?”

Bis was making this weird noise, and we all turned to him. I think it was his version of clearing his throat, but it sounded like rocks in a garbage disposal. “Ah, bubbled imbalance won’t get sucked anywhere,” he said apologetically. “But if you tune the bubble holding it to the same vibration as its parent line . . .” His words trailed off and his wings shifted.

Trent’s exhale was long and slow. It wasn’t the immediate no I had expected, and seeing him consider it, Jenks seemed to become even more frustrated.

“Tink’s little pink rosebuds,” he grumbled, landing next to Bis and checking the sharpness of his sword. “Now I’ve got two of them to watch. Whose idea was this?” He looked up at Bis. “Yours?”

I waited nervously as Trent thought it over, his boots scuffing the gravel. “Tuning your aura to a line pulls you into it, so tuning a bubble, which is basically an aura-tainted field of force, will pull whatever is in the bubble to the line? It’s worth a look, since we have the rings as a safety net.” He turned to Jenks. “Jenks, what do you think?”

My eyebrows rose. Asking Jenks for his opinion? Maybe the time they’d worked together had made an impact after all.

“I think you’re all screwy in the head,” he said when Bis nodded his encouragement. “But go ahead. I’ve got Quen’s number in my phone. I’ll call him if you both explode in a flash of black underwear and money so I won’t have to fly all the way home.”

Bis made a snuffing snort of a laugh, but I was thrilled, and my heart gave a thump and settled. “Let’s do it,” I said as I turned to the line. “Bis? You want to sit on my shoulder?”

He nodded, and as Jenks crossed his arms over his chest and hovered over the wall, Bis made the three-beat wing flap to me, landing with his toes spread wide so he wouldn’t gouge me when he landed. The lines flashed into existence at his touch, but prepared for it, I gritted my teeth at the tinfoil-like sensation. It was awful, seeing as we were so close to a line, and I could understand why the gargoyles on both sides of reality were having issues.

“Rache?” Jenks said suspiciously when my eyes closed in a strength-gathering blink.

“Fine,” I said, then choked when Bis tightened his tail around my neck.

“Sorry,” he said as he loosened his hold. The little guy was the size of a cat but had the weight of a bird, smelling like cold stone, leather, and feathers from the pigeons he ate.

“My God,” I said as I stared at the line, a sharp pain starting just over my right eye. “This is awful. Bis, can you show me what one of the line signatures you’ve learned looks like?”

Trent cleared his throat. “You want to use that safety net, or keep it in your pocket, Ms. Morgan?”

I jerked, sheepish at Jenks’s severe look as I wiggled the rings out and extended them to Trent on my palm. Bis wiggled his toes as they glinted in the lantern’s light. “I think you’d have more control if you took the bigger ring,” I said, and as Trent reached for it, I closed my fist. “No funny stuff,” I warned, opening my fingers again.

Trent put his hand under mine to hold it steady, jerking back in alarm when the full force of the lines hit him through Bis. “Holy . . . ah, wow,” he said, eyes wide in the low light, distress clear on him. “Is that what the line feels like to you?”

Bis’s feet tightened on me. “It kind of hurts. Can we hurry up?”

Immediately Trent took the larger ring. I put the smaller one on my pinkie, but if it was like our practice run earlier, nothing would happen until he put his on. It bothered me that the only way I could take off my ring now was if Trent slipped his over mine, nesting them on my finger to remove them both at once. It had been a scary five minutes figuring that out.

“Here we go,” Trent said as he took his gloves off, and Jenks frowned, still not convinced. The glint of the pinkie ring twin to my own caught my eye, and I wondered at the connections we had. I still wore Al’s demon mark. Was it the same thing, or different?

My shoulders wiggled as the ring fitted about Trent’s finger and a weird sensation of entanglement sprung up around me. Bis actually sighed in relief as the connection to the discordant line dulled. It was still there, but it felt diluted—the best I could put it was that the energy was now going through a maze of passages to find me. It was the chastity ring, and when I nodded, Trent eased the grip of it until the flow was again its normal self, almost as if he had lifted me above the maze and I could connect normally.

Trent’s presence was faint in my uppermost thoughts, sort of like a teacher walking the aisles during a test. We were ready, and I closed my eyes.

“Okay.” Bis loosened his tail about my neck and shivered. “Ah, I’m going to sing you Newt’s line first.”

My concentration shattered. “Newt’s!” I exclaimed, heart pounding.

“Newt has a gargoyle?” Jenks exclaimed, and Bis’s tail tightened until I nearly choked.

“Rachel, will you listen? I think I’m going to spew pigeon feathers. Newt’s was the first one I learned, okay?”

I nodded, closing my eyes again, which made me feel dizzy. “Give me a sec,” I said as I sat down in the puddle of lantern light, but then it only felt like the world was tilting.

“Rachel?”

Trent’s voice was close, and I put my palms on the ground for balance. “Dizzy,” I said, smiling at him. “We’re okay.”

Jenks’s wings clattered. “This is as smart as sleeping outside in November,” Jenks grumbled. “You sure you got her, cookie maker?”

“I’ve got her. Just watch the woods, pixy.”

“Listen,” Bis demanded as he resettled his wings, and I closed my eyes, feeling the pure ting of a rise and fall of sound, glittering in my mind’s eye like a silver thread of light, a bare hint of jagged red and gray and silver, half a beat out of step with the glorious hum. It sounded sort of familiar, comfortable. Like the line in the graveyard . . .

“Got it?” he asked, and I mm-hmmed. “This is what it sounds like now,” he said, and I jerked as if struck when the world seemed to hiccup. The feeling of the line I was looking at with my mind shifted slightly, and sure enough, the ragged half step was gone.

“No way,” I whispered, and my eyes opened. Trent was standing guard with his eyes on the forest line. Jenks was hovering at my eye level, his angular features pinched. Behind him, the line glowed like a deranged fair ride, dangerous and unreliable.

“Rache . . .” he warned, and I held a hand up to forestall his next words.

“Trent has me, and I’m not going to do anything Bis doesn’t want.” I reached up to touch the gargoyle’s feet. “Bis? You want me to try to find that ragged half step in the imbalance?”

Bis jumped to the ground before me. The expansive backdrop of the lines in my mindscape had vanished along with his touch, and my shoulders relaxed. Bis shifted from foot to foot as his tail whipped about until he curved it over his feet and sat like a little lion. “I’m sure this is how to fix the line,” he said, and I heard a big unsaid however.

“I’ll be careful,” I said to Jenks, then looked at Trent. “I won’t do anything until Bis tells me I can, okay?”

Jenks squinted at me, and when Trent nodded, the pixy gestured sourly to Bis to get on with it. A four-inch man ruled us all.

“Maybe you should bubble yourself first,” Trent suggested. “In case Ku’Sox shows.”

It was a good idea, but as I sketched a small, easy-to-hold bubble around Bis and myself, Jenks’s dust went an alarmed red.

“Okay! That’s it!” Jenks shouted, hovering before all of us. “I didn’t like this before, and I like it less now! Rache, there has to be another way!”

Bis met my eyes, shaking his head so narrowly it was almost no movement at all. I looked past him to Trent, his stance stiff and his expression fixed. Ku’Sox was stronger than me. If we couldn’t fix the line and prove that Ku’Sox had made it, then how would we ever get Lucy and Ceri back?

“Jenks,” I said softly, and he hummed irately at me. “It’s going to be okay. Trent will yank my butt out if I get stuck.”

“I’m going to do a perimeter,” he muttered. “You and Trent do your magic thing.”

He buzzed off into the dark, and my gaze went to Trent. I didn’t think Jenks was jealous, but it had to be hard to bear that I was putting myself in a narrow spot where anything bad could happen, and probably would.

“Circle?” Trent suggested, his expression holding both determination and frustration for not being able to do this himself. I didn’t have a problem helping him. I loved Ceri and Ray, too.

Feeling odd, I reached a hand to the informal but securely scratched circle in the dirt. It was small, but I was sitting. Rhombus, I whispered within my thoughts, and a molecule-thin sheet of ever-after sprang up. It wavered as Trent tested his hold on me through the rings, and at my nod, the circle sprang up strong again. We were good.

Bis was well within my circle, and he fidgeted, a wingtip sliding out and back in through my bubble. He was the only person in two realities who could pass through my circle. It was why it took a gargoyle to teach a demon—or a witch, for that matter—to line jump. Gargoyles could hear the lines and tell those they were bonded to how to tune their aura so they would be sucked into the right line. What gargoyles got out of the deal was beyond me.

“Okay,” Bis said as he reached out to take my hands. The harsh discord immediately fell on me, and I tried not to wince. His hands felt small in my grip, and I forced myself to smile reassuringly. “Take a look at your line here,” Bis went on. “I’m going to focus on it, and hopefully the rest of the background noise will go away.”

My breath came faster as suddenly the only thing I was hearing/seeing in my mind was my ugly ley line with the purple core screaming at me. I couldn’t even hear the pure ting of energy behind it. It was disgusting. “Rachel?” Bis said in a pained voice, and I opened one eye a little. Behind him, Trent was scribing a larger circle around mine that could hold all of us. Wise man.

“Right.” I turned my awareness to the purple sludge, careful not to get my thoughts near it and possibly get sucked in. Purple, everything was a blaring purple with fading striations of red, the sound of it rushing through me like ants, but the deeper I looked at it, the more I was able to listen past the purple coating to the twining colors behind it. Reds, blues, greens, oranges, and even browns and gold, just like auras, they swirled together but never mixed.

“Find Newt’s imbalance,” Bis whimpered, and I peeked at him again.

“Newt’s!” Jenks shouted, and my eyes opened wide to see him sitting on Trent’s shoulder, unable to stay away. “You telling me the line in the backyard—where my kids play—is Newt’s?”

Bis’s face was screwed up, and he nodded, the tufts on his ears waving. I didn’t like the idea that the line I had claimed as my primary source had been created by Newt, either, but it was what it was. Trent looked a little ill, and I wondered whose half-a-mile-long line was running through his office, back room, and gardens.

Fingers holding Bis’s, I resettled myself on the gravel path. It was obvious that this tight of contact with the line was hurting him. The discord was too loud, too painful.

Bis’s grip on my hands tightened. “Now, Rachel.”

I plunged my thoughts back in the line, ghosting through the purple haze, finding it easier now that I’d done it before, searching, discarding, sifting until I found the half step of red, tiny and lost among the rest. “Got it!” I whispered, heart pounding as I gathered it to me, struggling to pull it free of the rest. It was stuck like Velcro.

“Bubble it,” Bis said. “Bring it out with you. With us.”

With a curious flip-flop of thought, I bubbled the color/sound. My eyes snapped open as the connection broke and I suddenly found myself holding the memory of a mess of half-step red vibration in my mind. Trent was sitting before us, just outside the bubble with the line behind him. His eyes were wide, and I wondered how much he was getting through the rings.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Jenks said, rising up on a dusting of blue. “That sounds like line jumping to me. Isn’t this what you did to make your broken line to begin with?”

Bis was smiling, looking exhausted as his wings drooped. “She’s just going to move the imbalance, not herself.” He looked at me, his craggy brow furrowed in warning. “Right?”

My hair was tickling my face, but I didn’t dare let go of Bis’s hand to brush it aside. “Right,” I said. “And besides, Jenks. I’ve got it already.”

Trent’s face was alight, and I nodded at his unspoken question. Yep, I had it. It was doing flip-flops in my soul, and I didn’t want to think about what might happen if I accidentally let go of the bubble and the imbalance became a part of me, but I had it. It sort of hurt.

“Your line sounds better already,” Bis said, his hand still in mine. “Do you remember what Newt’s line sounds like without the imbalance?”

I bobbed my head, afraid to move. “Tune my aura to it?”

“No!” Bis shouted, startling me as his wings half opened. And then softer, almost sheepishly, he said, “Not your aura, just the bubble around the imbalance.”

I fidgeted, embarrassed that Trent had seen the near miss. “Should I think about Newt?”

Bis’s red eyes widened. “I don’t think so.”

“I wouldn’t,” Jenks said sourly. “Rachel, will you just dump that imbalance and get on with it? Your aura looks really creepy holding a chunk of Newt’s.”

Trent was nodding his agreement, so I closed my eyes to better focus on the bubble of imbalance trapped in my mind’s eye. It was coated with my cheerful gold aura and a thin layer of demon smut, and I needed to shift it to . . . silvery gray red. Licking my lips, I screwed my face up as I tried to imagine silver pinpricks blossoming on my gold sphere, growing to encompass everything.

“Tune it higher,” Bis whimpered, clearly in pain.

“I’m trying!” I said, tightening my focus. My breath sucked in as the bubble flashed silver, overfocusing to a solid black. With a curious sideways shuffle, I pulled it back to silver, imagining a shading of a pure tinge of red lined with gray. For one breathless moment I held it, feeling my entire soul chime with the sound of silver light . . . And then it was . . . gone. There was a faint tug, and then even that severed, my awareness snapping back with a twang.

“Rachel?”

My eyes flew open at Trent’s call. He’d felt it. I thought he might. Heart pounding, I looked at Bis in the lamplight, Trent standing behind him with Jenks on his shoulder. The gargoyle looked as shocked as me. “Holy crap!” I shouted, my voice echoing back from the trees. “Did we—”

“You did!” the small gargoyle exclaimed, and I ducked as he made one push with his wings and was through my circle and airborne, flying loops with the bats and yelling in delight.

I beamed at Trent. We had done it. And if we had done it once, we could do it again and again until the line was fixed!

“You did it, Rachel!” Bis said, startling me as he skidded to a landing on the gravel path, peppering my circle with kicked-up stones. His wings were spread and his eyes wild. “You did it! Look at that line! It sounds better already!”

We all did it,” I said as I dropped the circle to put a hand on his shoulder. The glory of the lines flooded me, and yes, once I got past the discord, I could tell there was the faintest lessening of the leak. Relief filled me, and I swear, I almost cried.

“Nicely done, Rachel.” Smiling up at Trent, I accepted his hand and stood. Our pinkie rings glinted together in the light, and I didn’t know how to feel about it. My hands were shaking, but I was ready to put another imbalance back if Bis was.

Pulling my hand from Trent’s, I looked for Bis. “Another one?” I asked, my intention obvious, and he nodded from the retaining wall, his red eyes glowing in the lamplight.

Jenks’s wings clattered as he dropped down, shrilling something so fast I couldn’t understand him.

“You surprise me, Rachel,” came an oily voice from the dark, and I spun, heart pounding as I turned to the river. Ku’Sox? Crap on toast!

“It’s Ku’Sox!” Jenks shouted, dripping an angry, frightened red dust. His sword was out, and his wings by my ear, harsh.

“Not in that you figured it out,” Ku’Sox said, a small sphere of light blossoming in his hand to show his presence beside my screaming, damaged line, “but that you’re stupid enough to be out here alone.”

Bis landed on my other side, puffing up as much he could by sucking in the moisture from the air. The size of a large dog, he crouched beside me with his tail thrashing.

“She’s not alone,” Jenks spat, hovering at head height and brandishing his sword. “Back off, Cute Socks. I cut your nose off before, I’ll do it again.”

Ku’Sox’s globe of light flickered, and with that as my only warning, I invoked my protection circle, still scratched in the dust around me.

Bis yelped at the energy I yanked through me, the gargoyle shrinking as a ball of greenish black bounced off Trent’s larger circle, invoked an instant before mine. Ku’Sox’s spell hit the nearby retaining wall and stuck, glowing a weird greenish light. I dropped my circle.

I stood, white-faced, and the ugly line hummed through me, harsh and dizzying as I pulled it in, trying to become stronger. “I cursed you!” I exclaimed as I stood behind a grim-faced Trent. “You can’t leave the ever-after!”

“I haven’t.” Smug, he walked into the light of our hissing lantern, and my stomach clenched as my first thought was borne out. Nick. He had possessed him. A doppelgänger curse was easy. Demons did them all the time. Al had once possessed Lee to walk about in reality in the daytime. “You’re fortunate that your boyfriend is rather light in the loafers when it comes to manipulating ley line energy,” Ku’Sox said, confirming my thoughts, “or I would tear through your familiar’s paltry circle and be done with you right now.”

“He’s not my familiar,” I said as Ku’Sox halted before us. “And Nick is not my boyfriend. He is a mistake!”

Nodding absently, Ku’Sox poked at Trent’s circle, evaluating the dimple he made as Bis continued to hiss and Jenks landed on my shoulder in solidarity. The demon was in a three-piece suit, and it looked dumb out here in the weedy garden at the foot of a homemade castle, whereas Al’s crushed green velvet had somehow seemed right at home. The light coming from the spell that had hit the wall supplemented the lantern, showing his silvery-gray hair slicked back and reflecting off his shiny shoes. His expression was smug as he eyed me, running his eyes up and down my silhouette in a way I decidedly didn’t like. “This body I’m in remembers what you feel like. Inside and out.”

Trent stiffened, and the psychotic demon turned to him. “Your whore and child are alive. Come with me now, and they will stay that way.”

I gripped Trent’s arm, but he shrugged me off, the rising scent of cinnamon nearly overpowering the stench of ever-after Ku’Sox reeked of. “If you go with him, nothing will stop him,” I said, and Trent’s frustration grew until his circle hummed with it.

“Don’t you think I know that?”

I wondered if he was wishing he’d never freed Ku’Sox. I knew I was.

Sighing dramatically, Ku’Sox rolled his eyes. “As entertaining as this is, would you mind if we flipped to the last page? I want that curse lifted you put on me, Rachel. I want Trenton Aloysius Kalamack to make me a brand-new generation of demons to play with, and I want the ancient demons dead. I want the ever-after dead so I may never be trapped there again, and I want it all in that order. Notice you are not on the list . . . yet.”

His gaze traveled over the lines of my tattoo, and I stifled a tremor. Feeling it, Jenks lifted from my shoulder. “Are you fairy-farting kidding me?” Jenks said, and Bis’s tail lashed through my bubble. “Rache, you don’t actually believe this freak, do you?”

Ku’Sox almost snarled at the insult, but then his eyes lifted from Bis to Trent. “Working with elves . . . Really, Rachel. I think you should be commended for stretching your abilities, but Newt would be most displeased with you.”

I pushed to the front of Trent’s bubble. “Here’s my list. We fix the line,” I said as I carefully siphoned energy off the discordant line and filled my chi. “Then the ancient demons grow a pair and we all shove you in a little hole in St. Louis again. That’s my list. I don’t care if it’s in that order, either.”

Ku’Sox dramatically rolled his eyes. “My God, you are so like a woman.”

“That’s because I am one.”

“Oh, this is tiresome,” Ku’Sox moaned, and then he gestured, his hand glowing.

“Look out!” Jenks shrilled, shooting straight up. Both Trent and I instinctively crouched. Trent gasped as Ku’Sox’s spell tore through his bubble, breaking it, and I threw a wad of energy at the incoming ball, deflecting it. The night wind shifted my hair, and Ku’Sox’s energy pinged over my ley line and into the woods to die. There was a tug, and Trent’s circle was up again. Ku’Sox jerked to a halt, so close the circle hummed a warning.

Trent’s eyes met mine, and slowly we stood. I felt ill looking at the grim hatred in his expression. I didn’t think it was the rings that had saved our skins. We just knew what to do.

“Curious,” Ku’Sox said, walking the edge of our circle like a lion in the shadows. “Both of you together? Unexpected.” His eyes slid to the ley line. “And potentially troublesome.”

Satisfied, I stood straighter. A drop of sugar-coated anger slipped through my fear. “We can prove you did this,” I said, and he rolled his eyes. “I’m going to Dali and—”

My words cut off as a wash of energy made Ku’Sox flicker. Trent moaned when it melted away to show Ku’Sox holding Lucy on his hip. The fair-headed little girl was only a year old, innocent of the monster who held her and happy with the world. Her little mouth curved up in a smile when she saw me, and then she cried out when she saw Trent, reaching with her hands for him to come take her.

“Rachel, I can’t,” Trent said, ashen. “She’s my daughter.”

“You’ll go to Dali and what?” Ku’Sox said as he held her on his hip, his arrogant expression mocking. Beside me, Trent’s breath quickened. Shit, he might do anything, I thought, and I grabbed his arm, refusing to let go lest he walk through his circle and break it. This was what had happened in the clearing with Quen and Lucy, and I vowed it would have a new ending.

“Down!” Lucy demanded imperiously when she saw Trent, then, “No! No!” when Ku’Sox tightened his grip.

“She’s my godchild. You broke our agreement,” I said as the little girl’s pout drifted into the realm of a tantrum, and the clean-shaven demon in his three-piece charcoal suit smiled a perfect, evil smile.

“File the paperwork.” Frowning, Ku’Sox jiggled Lucy, but she wouldn’t be distracted, her hands extended to Trent and pleading for him to come get her. I didn’t think I could hate Ku’Sox any more. Trent’s hands were fisted, his breathing shallow. Bis’s ears were down in indecision, and Jenks hovered at the top of Trent’s circle, waiting for instruction. I didn’t know what to do. Ku’Sox might hurt her.

Seeing us frozen, Ku’Sox turned the magic wreathing his hand inward. Making a fist, he opened it to release a dozen tiny winged horses, pink, purple, and red. “Love is such a fine weapon when utilized fully,” he said as Lucy caught sight of them and was predictably distracted.

I stiffened when he set the wildly wiggling toddler down, but then he gestured, and the horses galloped into the dark, down the broken path and away from me. Shouting in delight, Lucy wobbled after them, her little riding outfit making her a darling of wealth and privilege.

Trent jerked, catching himself before I had to. If we broke the circle, Ku’Sox would have us at his mercy. Still within our sight, Lucy lost her balance and plopped backward onto her butt. Laughing at her own mistake, she crawled to a retaining wall and regained her feet. My teeth clenched, and my heartache turned to hatred. “I’ll kill you if you hurt her.”

“And then I’ll kill you again,” Jenks said, his dust an eerie black.

“If either of you touch her, I will eat her soul alive,” Ku’Sox said mildly, brushing nonexistent dust from his shoulder. From somewhere in the dark, Lucy giggled.

“This could all be over if you agree to come with me, Trenton Aloysius Kalamack,” he said as he stood before us. “Ceri is no good at fixing things,” he added, looking scornfully at the small gargoyle when Bis hissed at him. “You need to learn some respect, goyle.”

Lucy toddled up, the newly risen moon making her hair a silver halo. Shouting in glee, she threw herself at Ku’Sox’s knees, a purple winged horse in her grip. Trent groaned, and my stomach twisted at Ku’Sox’s fake smile. “Aren’t you a love!” he said brightly as he took her in his arms and rose, giving me an empty black stare when the little girl looked away. Trent was beside himself.

“As you can see, I’ve not hurt little Lucy,” Ku’Sox said, smiling. “I think elf children are sweet, actually. I don’t have that grudge against the elves that my kin do. The new world wouldn’t have that ugliness.”

“Genocide is not a viable path to world peace,” I said, seething. “I can prove you broke my line.”

Seeing my anger, Lucy began to frown. The horse in her hand was dead, but she didn’t let it go. Ku’Sox didn’t seem to care. “Do that,” he said, holding out a cookie to the little girl, but she’d have none of it anymore and wanted down. “I’ll simply say we were working together and you backed out of the deal, leaving me to take the blame.”

I thought of those life rafts in the form of infants. The panic I was holding seemed to shake its chain, gaining another few inches of freedom. They’d likely kill me for sure, four days or not. Dali was right. My silence was buying my continued existence.

Lucy ignored the cookie Ku’Sox kept pushing at her, holding her hands out to Trent instead. “Down!” Lucy shrilled, squirming and kicking him. “Do-o-o-own!” she howled when he held her tighter, throwing the cookie Ku’Sox was trying to pacify her with at him. She truly was Ellasbeth’s daughter and had the vocal power to prove it. “D-a-a-a-addy!” she cried, reaching out to Trent, her little hands opening and closing. “Daddy!

Ku’Sox gave her a little jerk, and she screamed at him, filling the night with her anger. Fear lit through me, and I swear he closed his eyes in bliss when he saw it. Lucy kicked furiously, howling and pinching his arm. Having endured enough, Ku’Sox gave her a shake, and the little girl vanished in a wash of ever-after. For a moment, her last cry of outrage echoed against the trees and castle, and then even that was gone.

“No!” Trent raged, a blur as he lunged at Ku’Sox. I gasped as he threw a ball of black-rimmed energy. It tore through his circle. Jenks was up and away in an instant, Bis hot on his dust trail.

“Trent!” I shouted as the cooler air rushed over me. Ku’Sox snarled, deflecting whatever it was right back at Trent. Every blade of grass, every leaf, took on a razor edge. I lunged for Trent but was jerked back by my hair.

“Ow!” I howled, my scalp on fire as Ku’Sox swung me around and threw me to the ground. I got my knees under me, and the demon shoved me down again, so hard my breath was knocked out. Just within my sight, Trent writhed on the ground, taken out by his own magic.

“You are troublesome,” Ku’Sox said, and he sat on me, pinning me. There was a circle around us keeping both Jenks and Bis powerless, but I could still tap a line. I flooded him with it and he only sucked in his breath, enjoying it.

“Get off!” I shouted into the gravel, then screamed in pain when he wrenched my arm back, nearly dislocating it.

“Playing with elves?” Ku’Sox said, and the agony let up. He traced the outline of my tattoo with a soft finger, and I shuddered, breathing in the scent of carrion and trying not to throw up. This was exactly why I hadn’t wanted to try to fight him. Why did no one listen to me?

“You kill me, and they will be looking at you to fix the line,” I rasped in the dark, scared to death as I felt him fingering the elven chastity ring. “They know you’re responsible for it.”

“As you say,” he drawled, and I felt the ring spin on my finger. “But we also both know they’re cowards, and if you can’t overpower me, then they’ll kill you to gain my good graces again. Is this how you found the strength to shift the imbalance back to the proper line?” he said, tugging experimentally at the ring. “Ingenious, melding your abilities with an elf to best me. Tsk-tsk. Mustn’t play with wild animals.”

“No, wait!” I shouted, helpless, and he gave a tug.

Ku’Sox’s cry of pain was like audible lightning, jerking through me. My arm thudded down on the gravel path, numb and unmoving as he was suddenly not sitting on me but writhing three feet away—his circle broken. It was the ring. It had its own safeguards, and they had just saved my ass.

“Rache! Get up!” Jenks was shouting, his sparkles filling my vision and lighting the night. Dazed, I sat up, dead arm cradled in my lap. “Get up!” he yelled again, and I staggered to my feet. Ku’Sox was picking himself up off the ground. He was between me and Trent, the elf still gasping at his own spell. For an instant, we froze, and with a snarl, Ku’Sox turned to Trent.

“No!” I shouted as the demon went for him, but it was too late, and I ran smack into Ku’Sox’s circle. “Trent!” I exclaimed as I hammered on it, shocks of fire cramping my arm.

Ku’Sox had pulled Trent to his feet, and I was sure it was the last I’d see of him, but with his arm around Trent’s neck, the demon bared his teeth at me. Teeth clenched, I pushed my fingers into his field. There had to be a weakness, a hole. Pinpricks turned to fire, and agony pulsed with my heartbeat as I pressed harder.

“Rache! You’re burning your hand!” Jenks shouted, and with a cry of frustrated pain, I spun away, fingers throbbing. I couldn’t do it. He was stronger than me. But I’d known that already.

Ku’Sox looked me up and down, evaluating.“Clever, giving your elf the master ring,” he snarled, clearly out of sorts for the wallop he’d taken, his back hunched and his perfect hair out of place. “I’m willing to wager I can take this one,” he said, wrestling Trent’s arm up. Trent tried to wiggle free, and Ku’Sox flooded him with energy. I saw it dancing over him like ants, sparkling in the dark. Trent groaned and went still, his eyes bloodshot as he hung in Ku’Sox’s grip, his hand with the chastity ring splayed open.

“You son of a bitch!” I shouted, burned hand cradled as he pulled the ring from Trent and let him fall to the ground, a slumped shadow in the dark. There was a quiver in my chi as the connection failed, but it didn’t matter.

He was going to take him, I thought in anguish as Ku’Sox made a fist around the ring and let the twisted mass of metal hit the ground beside Trent.

“Mustn’t play with demons, little elf,” Ku’Sox mocked as he leaned over Trent and nudged him with a foot. “You’ll end up dead, and I need you. Come with me of your free will, or I will cause you more pain, more heartache than you can bear.”

“No-o-o,” Trent breathed, the pain in his voice cutting me to my soul.

“I’m not going to let you do this!” I shouted, and Ku’Sox straightened, the lamplight making his expression on his long features ugly. Looking at him past the strands of my hair, my hatred grew. “I know how to fix the line, and we will stop you,” I vowed. “This will see you dead. I’m done being nice.”

Trent’s head came up. With a lip-curling sneer, Ku’Sox dismissed my words. “Kill me? Chances are you won’t, but no need to take chances.”

I stiffened when the circle surrounding Ku’Sox and Trent fell, but he wasn’t interested in me anymore. “You, I can take. Come with me,” Ku’Sox said, pointing at Bis, and the gargoyle spread his wings in alarm.

“Bis!” I shouted as both he and Ku’Sox vanished in twin pops of inrushing air. Shocked, I stared, unbelieving in the new silence. Ku’Sox had taken Bis? Why? But the answer was obvious. Without Bis, I couldn’t fix the line, rings or no rings.

Ashen-faced, I stared at Trent. He was as stunned as I was. The lantern’s glow fell upon the three of us, Jenks’s dust shifting to a dismal blue. They were gone. They were gone!

I stared for three seconds at where Bis had been. “No!” I shouted, unbelieving this had happened. “This is not fair!” I shouted at the sky, staggering three steps, but there was nowhere to go. “It’s not fair,” I said softer, then began to cry. I didn’t want to, but the tears came.

Sobbing, I dropped where I was, curled my knees to my chest, and just cried. He had Lucy. He had Ceri. And now he had Bis. Bis. He had Bis, damn it. I was responsible for the kid. And Ku’Sox took him like plucking a flower from a field. I was so stupid.

“Rache? You okay?” Jenks asked from my shoulder, and I lifted my head, wiping my eyes only to get grit in them. Jenks was okay. I knew he would be. Ku’Sox must think he wasn’t a threat.

“Ask me Saturday morning,” I said, my resolve beginning to gather.

Jenks flitted up to my knee, his flight wobbly but growing more steady. “How are we going to get him back?” he asked, his face tight and his determination obvious.

Moving slowly, I got to my feet, too numb to even look at Trent. He had lost Lucy again, and I didn’t want to see that pain. “Plan C,” I said. Trent had seen me cry. I didn’t care. That butcher had Bis, Lucy, Ceri . . .

Jenks landed on my good hand, and my arm ached where Ku’Sox had pulled it. “What’s plan C?”

Taking the remaining chastity ring off my finger, I threw it into the dark. Between me and the river was the broken line, and I looked at it, shaking. He’d taken Bis, Lucy, and Ceri. If I got the chance, I was going to kill him.

“You don’t want to know.”

Chapter Fourteen

The teakettle was whistling. It had been for some time. Angry, I shoved my chair back from the table, leaving the demon spell book open as I went to the cupboard. Muttering under my breath, I grabbed the first cup I touched, only to realize it had blue butterflies on it.

“Who in hell bought a mug with blue butterflies on it!” I shouted, slamming it on the counter beside the stove. “We are serious people doing serious things! I don’t have time for butterflies!”

Chamomile. That’s supposed to be soothing, right? I thought as I ripped the individual package open and dropped it into the cup. I didn’t drink tea often, but it was getting late and I was going to have a hard enough time getting to sleep as it was. Gone. Bis was with that monster, and I was more than livid; I was panicked.

Unthinking, I reached for the teakettle, jerking my hand away and shaking it as the steam hit my fingertips, burned from trying to break Ku’Sox’s circle. “Damn it!” I exclaimed, slamming drawers until I found the potholder and, more carefully this time, filled my cup. Bits of herbs floated up, and the fragrant steam bathed my face. Crap on toast, the bag was broken.

My shoulders slumped, and I stopped. From the hallway came the tiny whispers of the pixies—fresh from their midnight nap—watching my tantrum. Sniffing, I pushed my hair out of my face and tried not to cry into my tea as I imagined Bis trapped with Ku’Sox. The little guy was my responsibility. He was probably terrified.

Staring at my stocking feet with one hand over my middle and the other holding my forehead, I forced myself to breathe. Then I put my arms down, exhaling slowly. I could panic later. Right now, I had to concentrate. The sun would be up in a few hours, and if I didn’t have a plan by then, I’d never get any sleep.

My hands shook as they encircled the mug. The ceramic was hot on my burned skin, and I changed my grip as I carried it back to the big farm table. I had to shove my spell and curse books to the side, and they threatened to spill off. There was nothing in them. I was coming up empty.

Depressed, I set the tea down with a soft thud. Elbows on an open book, I stared at the yellowed pages. The plop of a tear on the faded print surprised me, and I wiped it away, sitting up and away from it.

Bis was gone. Lucy was gone. Ceri was gone. Quen was with us again but unable to do magic. I had until Friday midnight to fix the line and prove to the demons that I could keep Ku’Sox from killing them. I knew how to fix the line, but I couldn’t do it without Bis. If I told the demons what Ku’Sox was doing, Ku’Sox would turn everything around onto me. I didn’t have any demon-magic-invoking babies for them to escape the dying ever-after with. They wouldn’t help me. The truth didn’t matter. It was all about perception.

I jerked, my head nearly exploding as, in shrill shrieks, six pixies skated in from the hall on my slipper. Scoot-the-shoe could usually make me laugh as five or six pixies jammed into my slipper; their screaming like they were on a roller coaster and being chased by an orange cat was hilarious. But tonight . . .

“Jenks!” I shouted, my frustration finding a convenient outlet.

Jenks darted in, his voice hushed as he corralled his kids, almost unheard as his kids complained, fussed, and finally left, flying my slipper out three feet above the floor. “Sorry, Rache. They’ll leave you alone.”

I looked up. He was hovering miserably in the dark threshold, a faintly glowing yellow dust slipping from him. Immediately a layer of guilt slathered itself over my already bad mood, making me even more depressed. “I’m sorry,” I whispered, my hand gesturing uselessly as it sat on the table. “Your kids are okay.” God help me, I’d only made things worse.

He drifted up and down, looking as helpless as I felt. “We’ll get him back,” he finally said, then darted out when someone yelled at her brother to leave her alone.

I turned to the book, not seeing the print. Flipping a page, I felt the tingle of black magic stab my burned fingers. Hissing, I curled my hand into a fist and shoved the book away. I flopped back angrily into the chair, almost knocking myself backward. I knew how to fix the line, but not without Bis. I could get Bis back, but only if I fixed the line.

Jenks and Belle were in the hall, Belle’s lisping whispers obvious but not clear enough to decipher. Depressed, I slumped. I was ruining everyone’s day. Yay, me. I was still staring at the faded demon print when Jenks edged into the kitchen, looking as meek as a flying man capable of lobotomizing fairies in his sleep could. “Ah, how you doing, Rache?”

My teeth were clenched, and I forced them apart. “Fine.” F’ed IN the Extreme, as Ivy would say. I should have called her yesterday, not three hours ago. She was on her way back, but it would take a bit.

Jenks hesitated, then dropped down beside me, wings flat against his back. “It’s going to be okay,” he said. I knew he meant to be encouraging, but it grated like fish scales.

I stared at the wall, my throat closing. Jenks’s kids were soulfully watching from the hallway, sitting on the lintel with their dust like tinsel.

“I’m not Ivy, but I bet we can come up with something,” he said.

I managed to dredge up a smile from somewhere. “I don’t know where to start,” I said as I closed the book. The binding cracked, and I didn’t care.

“When was the last time you ate?”

I listlessly picked at the binding, then quit when I realized it was probably someone’s skin. “I don’t know. Last year, maybe?”

He chuckled, but it sounded forced. “I’ll call for takeout. What sounds good?”

I knew he was trying to be helpful. It bothered him that he couldn’t do anything for me or for Bis, and that the two worlds were about to collide in a big, kind of permanent way. I simply couldn’t find the strength to meet his hesitant smile with my own.

“I’m not hungry,” I said, and his dust faltered as his smile faded. I couldn’t eat knowing that Bis was scared. My failings had put him there. Trent must be frantic about Lucy and Ceri. I didn’t know how he had managed it, remaining calm when he drove me back home.

Silent, Jenks sat on the book, wings unmoving. My chamomile tea grew cold beside me. “I know it hurts,” Jenks said, but I couldn’t look up. “Remember when you told me I’d find a way to live without Matalina?”

My head jerked up. “Bis isn’t dead.”

“Bad example,” he admitted. “But I didn’t believe you, and I should have. It would have made those first few weeks easier. Rache, we will get him back. Believe it.

But I didn’t know how, and my helplessness welled up.

“Oh, thank God!” Jenks exclaimed suddenly, rising up on a column of gold dust and darting into the dark hallway. I wiped the back of my hand under my eye, then sagged again when I heard the bong of the church’s front bell. The pixies clustered on the lintel peeled off one by one to follow Jenks to the front with the enthusiasm they reserved for elves.

“Swell,” I whispered as I looked down at my socks, jeans, and black tee I’d changed into after crying in the shower. Turning in my chair, I eyed the clock over the stove. It was after four in the morning—just about my bedtime, but an elf would be bright-eyed and fresh. I had nothing for Trent or Quen. Nothing at all.

My heart seemed to quiver as I recognized the soft scuffing of Trent’s shoes. I sat up and tried not to look so bedraggled as pixy excitement grew and Trent strode in, looking calm and focused in his long overcoat spotted with rain. He carried a take-out bag from a doughnut shop and a large paper bag with handles in one hand, a small briefcase in the other. Jenks was on his shoulder, looking as right as snow on a mountain. Trent had lost Ceri and Lucy and was keeping it together. If he could do it, I could do it.

“Rachel,” he said, wincing at the noise the pixies were putting out. “I can’t stay, but I had to come into the city to take care of some legal business and I wanted to drop these off and discuss something with you. I hope you don’t mind me stopping in unexpectedly.”

“No, that’s fine,” I said, glancing at where the coffeepot had been, wanting to offer him something. I still hadn’t gotten a new one. Stuff kept interfering. My chest hurt, and I looked at the top of the fridge where Bis usually sat.

Jenks gave me a look to pull it together, then lifted from Trent’s shoulder. “Let me get my kids out of here.” His voice rose. “Hey! How many times have I told you to leave the shoelaces alone!”

Head going down, Trent shifted his feet and three pixies flowed out the door at ankle height, giggling and laughing. Jenks was tight on their dust, and the noise level dropped.

His relief obvious, Trent came farther in and set his briefcase down before placing the bag of doughnuts on the center counter and the paper sack on the table with a heavy thump. He was silent, utterly still, and I looked up. “Are you doing okay?”

I closed the demon textbook and shoved it to the center of the table. “No.”

Trent dropped his rain-spotted hat on the table and began to unpack the leather-bound books of odd sizes from the paper sack. “It was a hard night.”

I couldn’t stop my sarcastic laughter. His daughter had been dangled before him and he had been given a horrible choice. A minor entrusted to my care had been abducted. Bis was only fifty years old. He shouldn’t have even been there. The tears welled, and I held my breath, not wanting to cry in front of him again. “Look at me,” I said as I dabbed at my eyes, trying to make light of it. “I’m such a baby. I can’t stop crying.”

“It’s okay,” he said as he stood by the table and carefully folded the paper sack.

“No, it’s not,” I protested, and Trent walked over to me and placed his hand on my shoulder. His shoes were untied, and I looked up, startled when he crouched to put our eyes at the same level. His eyes were dark with a shared pain. “I meant it’s okay to cry,” he said, and I remembered to breathe. “You’re wound so tight right now, you need a healthy release.”

I shook my head, glad he wasn’t trying to convince me that everything was going to be okay. It wasn’t. This was bad. Really bad. Knowing that he understood helped. He had lost his child. How could I even come close to his grief? His frustration? I thought again, If he can function, then I can too.

With a surprising touch on my cheek, he stood up and edged away. “We’ll get him back. We’ll get them all back.”

I could feel a tingle where his hand had been, and I gazed at him, numb. “I don’t see how. I can fix the line, but not without Bis. And no one will help me if the line is broken.” It was a trap my mind kept circling, and until I broke from it, I was dead in the water.

Still in his coat, Trent pulled Ivy’s chair out of the corner. His motions held a restrained excitement as he sat down to retie his shoes. “That’s why I’m here. I’ve been thinking about tonight,” he said, glancing up as Jenks flew back in.

“Me too.” My voice was a dull flatness compared to his excited eagerness.

“Ku’Sox did a few things tonight to show what he’s afraid of,” Trent insisted.

“What does it matter? They engineered him to be stronger than everyone,” I said, glancing at the books he’d brought. More books. That ought to help, I thought sarcastically, then I looked closer, sitting up and reaching for one. They all had library stickers on them—from the restricted section.

“Hey, these are from the restricted section,” I said, taking one. “Did you steal them?”

Trent flushed, the rims of his ears going charmingly red. “No, of course not. They let me take them out.”

My eyes slid to the brown paper bag he’d brought them over in. “Out of the restricted section? Of the library?

“Yes, so please don’t get anything on them,” he said, moving my cup of chamomile tea to the center counter. “Oh, it’s gone cold,” he said softly, standing up and taking his coat off.

I still couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that they’d let him take restricted books from the library grounds.

Clearly discomfited, Trent dropped his coat over Ivy’s chair. Reaching for his bag of doughnuts, he muttered, “It’s amazing what they let you do when you supply a new roof for the children’s wing and pay for the salary of the children’s events coordinator.”

“They let him take restricted books out,” I said to Jenks, and the pixy shrugged.

Behind the counter, Trent rustled in his bag. “Ah, would you mind if I ate? I sent the staff home Monday and haven’t called them back yet. Ellasbeth can boil water but she won’t.” He paused. “You don’t want any, do you?”

The scent of fried doughnuts was strong. Tearing my gaze from the books, I eyed him standing behind the counter, his head almost touching the hanging utensils. His hair was darker than usual in the electric light, and his face was freshly shaven. Tall and unbowed, the calmness he radiated soaked into me, pushing my panic back to the edges so I could think again. “No, go ahead.”

“Jenks, where are the plates?” Trent asked, and the pixy landed on his shoulder to point the cabinet out.

It felt funny with Trent in here, but the pixy kids were keeping it to a dull roar. The scrape of a plate was loud, and Trent put six pastries on it, taking a stark, plain doughnut from the pile when he set the plate before me and moved the books all the way back to the wall.

“Ku’Sox broke our rings,” Trent said as if it was important, and I watched him take a bite from his plain doughnut, thinking it was odd seeing him here in my kitchen in his suit and tie at four in the morning. “I think that is significant. He didn’t know we were using them as a safety net. He said ‘meld your abilities to an elf to best me.’ Ku’Sox thought we were using them to join our skills, to make ourselves stronger.”

My stomach rumbled at the smell of the fried dough, and hearing it, Trent gestured for me to help myself. I shook my head, eyeing the one with the sprinkles.

“That’s how the demons overpowered him before,” Trent said, still standing in the middle of my kitchen. “He’s afraid of us, demons, elves, anyone, working together. All his actions are to pull the demons apart, break alliances.”

“I can’t argue with that.” Though Trent was clear across the kitchen, I felt as if he was too close, too accessible as he stood there looking good in my church eating a no-frills doughnut.

“And Bis,” he said, making my stomach clench. “He didn’t take him because he wanted leverage on you. If it was only that, he could have twisted the knife and gotten you to take the curse off right then and there.”

I shoved my panic aside. “He took Bis so I couldn’t fix the line,” I said, and Trent nodded.

“Exactly my thoughts,” he said, setting his doughnut with one bite out of it on a napkin from the bag. “He needs it broken. With purple sludge gone, everyone can see the curse he used to damage your line. That’s why he can’t allow you to fix it. But if you could move all the imbalance at once, you might get the same effect. Would you mind if I made something to drink?”

My lips parted at the new thought. “Sure, go ahead,” I said, and he wiped his fingers off on a second napkin, turning to the fridge. Damn, I could move all the imbalance at once. I mean, I knew what my line was supposed to sound like. All I needed to do was bundle up everything that didn’t belong and drop it into another line.

Silent, I jiggled my foot as Trent went to the fridge. Jenks was on his shoulder pointing things out. Trent came out with the milk, surprising me. He likes milk with his doughnuts? You learn something new every day. No, hot chocolate, I decided when Jenks darted around the kitchen and Trent followed, collecting sugar, cocoa, and salt.

“You think I can move the entire wad of imbalance without Bis?” I said.

“The hell she can!” Jenks protested, but I sat up, pulse quickening. “She can’t line jump. That’s what started this!”

“She isn’t line jumping, she’s moving imbalance,” Trent said to Jenks, waving the pixy’s dust from the two cups that Trent had pulled from my cupboards and filled with powdered cocoa. “She’s already proven she can do that.”

I stood up, coming to stand with the counter between us. “I know the signature of the line in the graveyard. I can dump it all there.”

Trent looked up from pouring milk into two mugs when Jenks whistled. “Newt is going to be pissed,” the pixy said, and my enthusiasm faltered, but only for a moment.

“Ah, is one of those mine by chance?” I asked, and Trent’s smile widened.

“Yes.”

Jenks hovered between us, a bright shimmer of red-tinted dust spilling from him. “I don’t like this,” he said. “It sounds risky.”

“It’s perfect,” I said as Trent’s spoon clinked, stirring them both. “Once it’s moved, anyone can see the curse he used to break it.”

“In which case he’ll just say you were backing out of a deal?” Jenks prompted.

My shoulders slumped, and I chewed on my lower lip. “Maybe I could borrow Al’s wedding rings and we could bind our strength together,” I said hesitantly, and Jenks scoffed.

“They don’t work between demon and elf,” Jenks reminded me, but Trent had set the spoon on the napkin beside his half-eaten doughnut and had gone to his coat.

“We have options,” he said as he triumphantly slapped a museum brochure before me. “That is, if you can reinvoke them.”

Eyebrows high, I pulled the colorful brochure to me with ELVEN ARTIFACT SHOW emblazoned on it in a metallic mythological script. I knew there was no such collection at the Cincy museum. There was none anywhere. The elves had just come out of hiding. It was then that it clicked and I looked for the date. Quen had mentioned a museum outing at the end of the week. Sure enough, it started this weekend and ran for three months before going on the road.

“Jenks, would you get this for me?” Trent asked, standing before the microwave with his two mugs, and the pixy darted away, hitting the door button with a two-footed punch. Apparently the afternoon they spent together stealing Lucy had changed both their attitudes toward each other. They almost looked like friends. Finally the incongruity of a pixy helping a multibillionaire figure out my microwave was over, and Trent came to the table, the microwave a humming background to Jenks’s wings.

I smacked the brochure down before Trent. “A museum show of elven artifacts? You arranged this?”

Jenks buzzed into the hall to settle another argument, and Trent ducked his head to look charmingly embarrassed. “Six months ago. As a show of solidarity and pride in our heritage. I’ve been slowly convincing the people I know that we need a public expression of our history, and it’s gratifying what they have kept. Most of the magic artifacts are defunct, but it is an amazing collection nevertheless. Cincinnati will have the show for three months, and then it will be touring for the next three years while I build a new wing.”

Standing at the counter, I opened the brochure. Colorful pictures and descriptions of ancient artifacts met me. Suddenly it looked like a shopping catalog.

Trent leaned closer, close enough that I could smell cinnamon and wine under his aftershave. “Tell me what you think will work the best, and I can have it loaned to you for a few days.”

My eyes came up to find him deadly serious. “They will just give it to you? They might not get it back.”

He nodded. “But if it does, it will be working. They’ll risk it.”

The microwave dinged, and needing a moment, I went to get it, eyeing the restricted library books in passing. Trent might be able to do that, yes. “You probably know better than I what these things can potentially do,” I said as the scent of warm milk and chocolate hit me. My stomach rumbled when I reached for the two perfectly steaming mugs.

“Ah, I know what their owners say they’re supposed to do,” he said, and I hurriedly moved the hot mugs to the counter, shaking the heat from my burned and sensitive fingers. Seeing it, Trent seemed to go still. “You’re burned?”

I hid my hand behind my back. “It’s nothing.”

“Nothing, fairy farts!” Jenks said, and I scowled at him. “She burned it trying to get through Ku’Sox’s circle.”

“It’s fine,” I said, but Trent was reaching for me. I stiffened, but he already had my wrist in his grip. “It’s fine,” I protested again, yanking away.

“Jeez, Rache. He’s not going to bite you,” Jenks griped, and Trent sourly held out his hand, head cocked and challenge screaming from his confident posture.

I wasn’t going to show him, but as Jenks had said, he wasn’t going to bite me. Feeling funny, I extended my hand. My demon scar was obvious, and I flushed when his eyes lingered briefly upon it before bringing my hand closer to him. I cringed a bit as his breath met my raw skin and he frowned. “It will be fine tomorrow,” I said, and I exhaled in relief when he let go. “Here, drink your chocolate.”

I pushed his mug to him, and he took it. His missing fingers showed; then he hid them again. Silent, we both took a drink, thinking our separate thoughts. I held the hot chocolate to my face, breathing it in before I tasted it, debating telling him that Quen had asked me to accompany him to the show. It seemed almost petty now.

“What the artifacts actually do is in the books. Somewhere,” Trent said, and I met his eyes over my mug. Hot chocolate, sweet, rich, bitter, and warm, slipped down, warming me almost as much as Trent’s sly smile. He was sticking me with the research, but I didn’t care. For the first time since losing Bis, I thought we might be able to do this.

Nodding, Trent abruptly put his mug down and reached for his coat. “Just so. I’ll leave the choosing to you then,” he said as he gracefully put his coat on. “I need to get back. Thank you for the hot chocolate.”

“You suck at research, too, huh?” Jenks said, perched on his mug and hazing the surface with his dust.

“Painfully horrible,” Trent said, shrugging his coat over his shoulders and grabbing his hat and briefcase. His motion stopped, and he smiled faintly. “Let me know what piece you want.”

“I will,” I said, then started when Trent turned on a quick heel and headed for the hall. “Hey, what about your doughnuts?”

“You can have them,” he said, already halfway to the sanctuary. “I’m not hungry.”

At a loss, I glanced at Jenks, and he shrugged. Jolted into motion, I followed Trent, having to wave the pixy dust from Jenks’s excited kids out of my way. “Trent, wait,” I said, finally catching up with him at the door. “Thank you,” I said, breathless when I almost ran into him when he turned at the old twin doors. “I think we can do this now.”

Standing there in the dim glow of the light over the pool table, he hesitated. “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

Hands in his pockets, Trent looked totally unlike himself. “What would you have done with Dr. Farin?”

My smile faded. “Your geneticist? The one you killed?”

He nodded, opening the door to let a chill spring night breeze eddy about my ankles. “Now that you know everything, what hung in the balance, what was at stake—how would you have stopped him from going to the press and bringing about the end of everything that you’d spent your life trying to save? Life imprisonment such as a demon demands? Bribe him with even greater wealth, knowing you’d forever be his slave? Or would you end it cleanly, kill one greedy man to save thousands, maybe millions, from suffering?”

My mouth was dry, and I didn’t know what to do with my hands. “I don’t know,” I finally said, and he nodded, deep in thought.

“That’s a fair answer,” he said lightly. “I’d wondered if you’d given any thought to the decisions I make and the possible reasons why.”

I stared at him, thoughts racing through me. I didn’t . . . I didn’t know what to think anymore.

His expression blanked, and my sadness began to creep back. I knew where his thoughts had gone. “I’m sorry about Bis,” he said. “I know it hurts.”

And yet I managed to smile. He did know. He knew the guilt, the panic, and the strength it took to focus that energy on finding a way out. “Thank you,” I said, refusing to cry in front of him again. He smelled like rain and leather over the scent of his aftershave, and my throat tightened and my vision threatened to swim again. “I’m sorry about Ceri and Lucy. I don’t know how you can keep moving forward.”

His eyes rose from my burned hand, and he unexpectedly tucked a strand of hair behind my ear, shocking me. “You were the one who taught me any chance is viable. If I didn’t believe that, I would be a total wreck. I know how it hurts. Forgive me for my choices, maybe?”

Was he going to try to kiss me? I didn’t know how I felt about that anymore. “I did that a long time ago.”

Eyes holding an unreadable emotion, he hesitated, his attention running over my snarly hair. “Down, I think,” he whispered, and making a sharp nod, he turned away.

I backed up, shoulder knocking the door frame as I misjudged and stumbled inside. Embarrassed, I shut the door before he found the sidewalk, but I watched him get into his car from one of the sanctuary’s windows, his form blurry and wavy. Jenks’s wings were a familiar brush of sound as he landed on my shoulder, and together we watched Trent’s car lights flicker to life.

“What did he mean by that?” I said, feeling alone even as I could still smell him in my church.

Jenks’s wings shifted fitfully. “I don’t know.”

Trent drove away, and I tried to look at Jenks on my shoulder, failing. “You called him,” I accused. “You asked him to come over.”

Red dust pooled down my front. “He was coming in to Cincy to talk to his lawyer,” the pixy hedged. “I called him, yeah. I thought he might be able to help. It worked, didn’t it? You’re thinking again, right?”

I turned back to the window, staring out at the night-emptied street. “Uh-huh.”

“With Ivy gone, you needed someone to ground you, Rache, and I’m not big enough to slap you.”

I thought back to my frantic, useless state. He was right. “Sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it. Feel better?”

I put my burned hand on the window, the cool blood-red glass soothing my fingertips. Slowly I nodded. Trent had grounded me. How about that?

“The hot chocolate and doughnuts were his idea, though,” Jenks said, then darted off to tend his children.

Chapter Fifteen

The faint ringing of the phone vibrated against the inside of my skull, and though I tried to incorporate the sound into my dreams of tiny purple hallways and black doors the size of acorns, it pushed itself into my conscious thought, shoving me awake.

The phone is ringing.

Eyes open, I stared at my clock glowing a steady 7:47. “Are you kidding me?” I whispered, and I rolled over on my stomach and put the pillow over my head. I’d only been asleep for a couple of hours and wasn’t planning on getting up until noon.

I’d gone to bed late, not sleeping well with my dreams of shrinking rooms and being crushed in that singularity that Al had been trapped in making my sleep restless. That the sun was up seemed an insult, the bright rays making it past my curtain. Jenks would get the phone. It wouldn’t be for me, anyway. No one hired a demon, and not at seven freaking forty-seven in the morning.

I sighed in relief as the phone finally quit. Then it started again. I groaned, wishing it would go away.

“Ra-a-a-ache!” Jenks’s voice scraped along every nerve I had, and I propped myself up on my elbows.

“What!” I shouted, all the way awake now.

“My kids found Wayde’s glue. I’m unsticking Rex’s whiskers. Will you get that?”

“Are you serious?” I exclaimed.

“You want to hold the cat instead?”

I threw my pillow to the floor. Grumbling, I swung my feet down, jerking them back from the cold. “It’s not even eight yet,” I muttered, trying and failing to get my hair to lie flat as I looked in my dresser mirror. No, I didn’t want to hold a hysterical cat who had had her whiskers glued together. God! I’d be happy when Ivy got home.

I reached for my blue terrycloth robe and jammed my arms in the sleeves. I couldn’t find the slipper the pixies had been playing with yesterday, and staggering down the hall with a scuff-pad, scuff-pad, I tied my robe shut, ready to ream out the magazine salesman who was likely trying to work his way around our answering machine. Everyone important had my cell-phone number. If it was an emergency, they’d call me there.

I squinted in the brighter light in the kitchen, feeling ill from the lack of sleep. Trent’s stack of books sat waiting. There wasn’t a single pixy anywhere, and I wondered if Jenks had finally gotten them all out in the garden. It was spookily quiet.

“I’m coming!” I griped as the phone kept ringing, and ticked, I reached for the receiver. My heart seemed to catch when I saw the caller ID. It was Trent.

I picked up the phone, not knowing what was going on anymore. “Trent?” I said as I hesitantly put the receiver to my ear, not sure if I should be worried or mad. “What by God’s little green apples are you doing calling me at seven forty-seven in the morning?”

There was a short silence, and then a familiar feminine voice said, “Sorry, wrong number.”

I took a fast breath. “Ellasbeth?” I exclaimed, pushing the receiver tighter against my ear. “Is that you?”

Again there was silence. I could hear Ray crying in the background, and my spine stiffened. “Ellasbeth,” I said softly, a hand to my forehead as I turned away from the bright kitchen window. “Trent and I have not slept together. Ever. I think you and he make a great couple. Can I please go back to sleep now?” This was ridiculous. Leave it to Ellasbeth to go poking around the first chance she got.

“I didn’t know it was you,” the woman said, the thread of fear in her voice waking me up faster than slamming a double grande. “You’re the first number on Trenton’s emergency list.”

Ray was still crying. “Where’s Trent?” She didn’t say anything, and I hunched over the phone as Jenks came in, a worried gold dust slipping from him. “Look you . . . elf woman,” I said, not wanting her to hang up on me. “I know you don’t like me, but so help your trickster goddess, if you don’t tell me why you’re calling Trent’s emergency numbers, I’m going to crawl through this telephone line and strangle you.”

Jenks landed on the rim of my vat of saltwater, his expression becoming concerned when Ellasbeth took a frustrated breath. “He’s gone! I think he went into the ever-after to get Lucy.”

My grip on the phone tightened, and Jenks’s wings hummed to life. Trent went off on his own? He dropped a perfectly good plan in my lap and went off and left me here? Son of a bastard!

Jenks darted out, and I stalked across the kitchen, waiting for Ellasbeth to take a breath, but she was well practiced, getting in three sentences belittling Trent before I could attempt even a word. “Ellasbeth, can I talk to Quen, please?” I asked, seething. He was gone. The smart-ass elf was going to get himself killed.

“I’m alone up here!” Ellasbeth shouted. “This baby won’t stop screaming, and there’s no one here to help me!”

Belle came in with Jenks, the fairy concerned as Jenks dropped down and smacked Rex’s paw aside as he filled her in.

“Ellasbeth, stop having hysterics,” I said as I met Jenks’s eyes. “Where is Quen, and how long has Trent been gone?”

Finally she stopped. “I don’t know. Quen is in the basement trying to open the vault.”

Fear, thick and cloying, slithered out from the hopeful promises I’d been telling myself. “How long has Trent been gone?”

“I told you I don’t know!” she shouted, and Ray cried all the louder, frustrated and forgotten in her crib by the sound of it. “The only thing I could get out of Quen was that Trenton used the vault door to get to the ever-after, but before he left, he set the machine to overload and it burned out the fuse. It’s going to be days until we can get a new one. The last time I saw Trent was when he went to work this morning. That was about five.”

Five in the morning—not long after leaving me. Son of a bitch! What was he doing going to confront Ku’Sox by himself? Alone? Damn it all to the Turn and back. I should have made him thumb promise. He was going to get himself killed. But then the thought occurred to me that maybe that had been his plan. He’d said he’d been at his lawyer’s office.

Shit.

My eyes came up. Jenks was pale, waiting to see what I would do. “Ellasbeth, hold on a second,” I said, interrupting her latest harangue.

“Don’t you tell me to hold on, you little witch!”

I covered the receiver. “I think Trent went to confront Ku’Sox alone.”

Jenks’s face darkened. “The idiot!” he shrilled. “He promised me he wouldn’t!”

“Yeah, he sort of let me think that, too,” I said as I looked past him to the kitchen trying to decide the best way to deal with this. As a freed familiar, Trent had some immunity from Ku’Sox, but not if he attacked him. He’d only been there a couple of hours. Maybe he hadn’t done anything yet.

My gaze dropped to my hand and the pinkie ring, twin to Trent’s. The one time I’d used it, Trent had been pulled to me. The question was, had he been wearing it the last time I saw him? Ellasbeth had been razzing him about it, and I knew he was trying to appease her, make it work.

My heart pounded, and I put the phone back to my ear. Ellasbeth was still going on, clueless that I hadn’t been listening. “Ellasbeth. Ellasbeth!” I shouted. “Shut up and listen to me!”

“How dare you—”

“I want you to take Ray,” I said, my tone caustic. “I want you to pick her up out of that crib and I want you to give her a bath. I want you to bake cookies with her. I want you to read her a book. I don’t care what you do, but you are not going to let her sit in her crib and cry. You got me?”

“You want me to read her a book?” Ellasbeth said in disbelief. “My fiancé is battling a demon, and you want me to read a child a book?”

My face burned. “You are going to read her a book,” I said, my words slow so I wouldn’t yell at her. “If I find out you put her in her crib to cry, I’m going to be pissed. Understand? When Quen comes up for air, tell him that I’m trying to yank Trent’s ass out of the ever-after before he goes and does something stupid. Can you do that for me?”

Finally there was silence. “Ellasbeth?” I took a slow breath, trying to find a state of calm. “I’m not Trent’s emergency contact because I look good in leather.”

The click from the line being disconnected was loud. Lips twisting, I hit the button to end the call and set the phone back in the cradle.

“Well?” Jenks asked.

I tightened the tie of my robe. “Just a guess, but I think Trent got tired of waiting for results and went to talk to Ku’Sox.”

I pushed off the counter, and Jenks took to the air. “Ah, Rache?”

“I’m just getting dressed, okay?” I said as I stomped down the hallway to my room, Jenks following me. “I can’t fight the bad guys wearing a robe.” I shut my room’s door in Jenks’s face, and the pixy simply darted under the crack in the door. His wings clattered in nervousness as I threw open my closet and started grabbing things. First Ceri and Lucy, then Bis. Now Trent. Thank God Ivy was on her way home. I needed her help. Damn it, I am tired of this!

“Rache?” Jenks said, coming to rest on a bedpost as I tugged on a pair of jeans, my nightgown riding up.

My heart was pounding. It was almost eight. He’d only been there a couple of hours. Maybe it wasn’t too late. “Turn your back, or I’ll ask Belle where you sleep.”

Wings shifting tone, the pixy spun away. “Rache, I can’t be in the ever-after after sunup.”

His voice was scared, and shocked, I slowed as I pulled my nightgown over my head, snagging my hair. “I’m not going into the ever-after,” I said, then covered myself when he almost turned back around.

“You’re not?”

The cotton shirt rubbed my nose as I yanked it over my head. I couldn’t help a faint smile at the amazement in his voice. “You think I’m crazy?” I said as I stuffed the shirt behind my jeans, then dropped to my knees to find my boots under my bed. “Ku’Sox is psychotic.”

“Then what are you doing?” Jenks flew down to light the underside of my bed. Stretching, I snagged my boots and dragged them out. “You want me to call Felix? Bring the I.S. in on this?”

I sat on the floor of my room and tugged my boots on over my bare feet. “No I.S.,” I said as I got the second boot on and looked at Jenks, my stomach empty and hurting. “But I am going to snatch that idiot out of the ever-after. If I’m lucky, he’ll be with Lucy and Ceri, and we’ll have them both.” Maybe that is his plan.

The pixy’s wings took on a bright silver hue. “Thank Tink’s little pink—ah, rosebuds,” he said in relief as I stood and reached for my door handle. “I thought you were going after Ku’Sox.”

“Not this time.”

My boots clunked on the hard wooden floor. I was not stupid, but I was angry. Trent had gone off without me. Right after we had a plan all worked out. Maybe the books were to distract me.

“She’s not running off!” Jenks said brightly as he zipped into the kitchen ahead of me, and Belle turned from the kitchen window, her expression shocked.

“She’s-s-s-s not?” she said, and I made a face at both of them.

“Good God, you think I’m stupid?” I said, then frowned when neither of them said a word. “Why should I go to the ever-after when all I want is Trent?” I said, holding up my hand so the light caught my pinkie ring.

“Hot piss on a toadstool!” Jenks exclaimed, and Belle waved at his orange sparkles in annoyance. “I forgot about that. You think it will work?”

My feet felt funny in my boots without socks between me and the leather, and I tapped a toe on the center counter’s footplate. “Can’t hurt to try.” If it didn’t work, I might try Newt. My gaze became distant as I remembered being bloody and beaten under Cincy’s streets and using the ring to jump me out and finding it jumped the other person in. It hadn’t been exactly what I had wanted, but that’s the way wild elf magic worked.

It had better work again, I thought as I looked down at it, my knees feeling funny as I recalled the words to invoke the charm. Ta na shay. I needed to find out what that meant.

I took a breath. Grown-up decisions, I thought, thinking that Ivy would be proud of me. “One seriously angry elf, coming up!” I said, tapping the line out back and spinning the ring on my finger. “Ta na shay!

But then my breath came in with a gasp as the ley line in the back reached out and yanked me into it.

“No!” I shouted, the last thing I saw before the line took me completely being Belle’s and Jenks’s shocked expressions as I vanished from my kitchen.

Chapter Sixteen

Wild elven magic coursed through my mind, electricity tasting of wine and music sparkling to my fingertips. The usual welcoming hum was a screeching din, and my stomach gave a heave when a wave of dizziness hit me, evidence of an unbalanced line. I was in a freaking ley line! Bring Trent to me! I wailed, promising the goddess that Trent didn’t believe in everything and anything.

He needs you more than you need him tinkled through me, alien and wild, and I was shoved out of the line.

Arms flailing, I skidded on a white tiled floor. It shimmered under a cold electric light, and my nose wrinkled at the bitter bite of brimstone mixed with the acidic stench of burnt amber. I stood from my crouch, turning from the bank of electronic equipment and lab benches lining both the three sides and a short peninsula of the room to look behind me toward the muffled sound of crying babies. A glass wall stretched from waist height to the ceiling, showing what looked like a hospital nursery, complete with rolling bassinets and young women in uniforms tending them. There was no door. The women looked okay, and I wondered if they knew where they were or if they were borrowed familiars.

“Trent?” I whispered, glad that Ku’Sox hadn’t felt me arrive. He had to be here somewhere. Stupid rings. I hated wild magic. It wasn’t that there were no rules. I just didn’t understand them.

My heart pounded when the familiar sound of a pen hitting the floor and a chair rolling joined the humming of machinery and Trent rolled backward out from behind the peninsula of shoulder-high machines. Shocked, he stared at me.

He was haggard, wearing a lab coat over his expensive slacks and linen pinstripe shirt as if it was a uniform. His usual tie was absent. Red-rimmed and haunted, his eyes blinked numbly at me. His hair was mussed, and his posture as he sat in that chair gave the impression of his insides caving in. He looked as if he’d been gone a year, not four hours. “What are you doing here?” he rasped, the music entirely gone from his voice. “Are you crazy?”

He needs you more than you need him echoed in my memory. “Maybe.” I held up my hand with the pinkie ring on it. “I’m trying to get your ass back to reality. I thought we had some sort of understanding.” Understanding. That wasn’t like an agreement—which had definite expectations. Understanding was more nebulous, more dangerous. What was I doing, trusting Trent with an understanding?

His expression cleared somewhat, and Trent frowned. “I’m not leaving.” He stood, so fast that his chair rolled backward. Lab coat furling, he scooped up his dropped pen, proving he could do businessman, playboy, and lab rat equally well. “You need to leave,” he said as he jotted something into a lab book. “Go. Now. Before Ku’Sox finds you.”

Go? Now? I wasn’t a dog, but seeing as I had no easy way of leaving other than Jenks summoning me back, I crossed my arms and stared at him. Ku’Sox wouldn’t know I was here unless he walked in the door or I tapped a line. My eyes went over the assembled machinery, all humming and clicking. Obviously he and Ku’Sox had come to some understanding. Damn it, I thought we had a plan. Must be the cost analysis had finally tipped the scales.

“Is that it?” I said, and Trent looked up, still standing hunched over his book, his back almost to me, stiff and cold.

“Is that what?”

I gestured at the instruments. “The machine that saved my life?” It was as close as I would go to an outright accusation of his helping Ku’Sox, and his ears reddened.

“No, it’s better by about three generations,” he said, still making notes. “Once I get the strand of DNA I want, I incorporate it into a mild-acting virus that targets the mitochondria. I’m not entirely happy with the strand I’m currently using. I didn’t have a chance to clean it before proliferation.” His pen stopped. Slowly he straightened and looked down at his lab book. “It has a seventy-seven percent perfection, which will cause problems in some of the subjects, but Ku’Sox is a butcher, and if twenty-three percent of his children die, then he will be happy with the seventy-seven remaining.”

I blanched, turning to look at the empty bassinet and the rows of babies—eating, sleeping, crying. There had to be at least a dozen out there. “That’s inhuman.”

Trent gazed at the nursery, a lost expression on his face. “He would’ve been happy with twenty percent.”

My lips curled. “You’re helping him,” I accused, and Trent’s eyes narrowed. “You told me you’d never give him what he wanted!”

His eyes bore into mine. “Is that what you think I’m doing?”

“Hey, if the lab coat fits.”

Making a low sound of discontent, Trent hunched back over his book. Thinking that might have been harsh, I went to the nursery window, my hand cold when it touched the glass. It was obvious that the women could see us, but they went about their business with a blind furtiveness that told me they knew they were alive on sufferance—until Ku’Sox didn’t need them anymore. “He took their nurses, too?” I asked in guilt. I couldn’t save everyone.

“In some cases.”

His words had come from the back of his throat, and the hidden tight disgust in it made me take a second look. All the women had red hair. “Oh,” I said, feeling uncomfortable. “Is there another way out of here?”

“I said I was not leaving.”

The anger in his voice turned me back around. “Stay here?” I said, hand on my hip. “I thought we had a good plan. Thanks for nothing. Where’s Bis? Have you seen him?”

Snagging his rolling chair with a foot, Trent expertly wrangled it around until he could sit. “He’s fine,” he said, so low I could almost not hear it. “The older gargoyles are very keen on talking to him when Ku’Sox isn’t watching.”

“Maybe they’re teaching him the resonances of their lines,” I said, wondering if there might be something good in this after all.

His head bowed, Trent kept writing. Ticked, I came to see what he was doing, and he looked up. “Bis knows the line in the garden,” I said. “Where’s Ceri and Lucy?” His jaw quivered, and I added, “Bis can jump us all out.”

What in hell is his problem? I thought when Trent ran a slow hand over his face, almost ignoring me. “You keep saying you want to work together; well, how about accepting a little help? Trent, pay attention to me!”

Finally he looked up, anguish flashing behind his eyes before he whispered, “Ceri is dead. And Pierce.”

My heart seemed to stop. I took a faltering step, my face cold. He had to be joking! But Trent’s face was pale and his red-rimmed eyes had new meaning as I staggered back against a bank of machines. “Ceri and Pierce?” I whispered, looking through the wall as if I could see Pierce. I’d just seen him. Just talked to him. “Why?”

But then I figured it out. I’d just seen him. Just talked to him. Oh God, this was my fault. I’d talked to Pierce, rekindled his belief that he was a demon killer. Ceri would help him . . . Hand to my stomach, I tried to find something to say, my mind blank.

Seeing my understanding, Trent turned back to the lab book as if it was the only thing real left to him. “What happened?” I breathed. I already knew the why for everything: why Trent was here doing what Ku’Sox wanted, why he’d left with no warning, breaking the only easy way for anyone to follow, why he was closed and distant. Ku’Sox had called Trent’s bluff. “What. Happened!”

My hand shook as it landed on Trent’s shoulder. He didn’t move, either to acknowledge my touch or shake it off. “She and Pierce got it into their heads they could overpower him if they worked together,” he said flatly, and I closed my eyes against the heartache. This was my doing. Oh God. Quen. Ray.

“Ku’Sox told me they tried to kill him in his sleep and that in retaliation he had every right to burn Pierce alive with their own joined curse,” he said, his tone frighteningly empty. “I have no reason to doubt that’s exactly what happened. If Ceri thought she could take him, she’d try. Especially if he had been threatening Lucy. Ceri died several hours later. As best as I can gather.”

I could hardly breathe, my chest hurt so badly. I wanted to rage that he was wrong, that Ku’Sox was tricking him into giving him what he wanted. But the memory of Ceri and Pierce working together to twist a black curse to kill fairies in my garden rose up, making my stomach sink. She’d been impressed with his skill, and Pierce had been trying to kill demons half his living existence and all of his dead. It had been all I could do to keep Pierce from trying to attack Ku’Sox yesterday. Had it only been yesterday? I thought, gazing at my burned fingers.

A tear brimmed and fell, splashing on them, and I made a fist. I didn’t love Pierce, but it still hurt, still ached. And Ceri. She had been so happy, so alive. She finally had the family that she thought she never would. Now it was gone? She was dead?

My grief began to shift to anger. I could do things when I was angry.

“Ellasbeth didn’t tell me any of this,” I said, and Trent looked up, blinking as if he was rearranging his thoughts.

“Ellasbeth doesn’t know,” Trent said, his chest heaving with a sudden breath.

“Quen?” I asked, my voice rising at the end into a squeak. “Does Quen know?” Ellasbeth said he was in the basement trying to get the vault door open. If he managed it, he would be cut down in seconds, helpless without his magic.

Trent was writing in that book again, his numbers careful and precise. “Quen removed her body from my office,” he said dully. “Ku’Sox left her there for me.”

I thought I was going to throw up. Trent was calm, but I could see the rage underneath. Lucy had to still be alive. “Lucy? Bis?” I asked, and his writing hand faltered.

“Alive,” he said, and my rapid breathing sounded harsh. “For the time being. You should leave before he finds you. Our plan can still work. You’ll have to do much of it alone, though.”

My anger bubbled over, and I pushed up from the machine, shaking. “Our plan?” I shouted, and he looked up, his expression horribly blank. “How can you sit there making notations! They’re dead!”

Trent looked down at the book, his mutilated hand showing strongly on the lined paper. “He has a book mirroring mine. If I don’t keep writing, he’ll know something has captured my attention, and he’ll come and see. You need to leave.” Numb, he wrote the time and initialed it. The pen hitting the paper sounded loud, and he turned to look at me straight on.

Numb. He was numb, but there was a seething anger fueled by helplessness underneath. My mouth went dry as I realized he was on a knife’s edge. He could do anything. He had vowed to keep his daughter and Ceri safe, and now Ceri was dead.

“Trent, I’m sorry,” I whispered, and his eye twitched. “This is not fair.”

“Fair?” he said, his anger showing. “When has fair ever entered into my life?”

I backed up as he struggled to take one careful, deliberate breath after another. “When fate levels the field,” he said flatly, “the rich man finds himself struggling to survive while the man plagued with bad luck his entire life is ironically strong enough to prosper. I’m both, Rachel. I’m both.” He hung his head, his fine hair hiding his eyes. “I wanted to believe that love could survive that which fate decrees, that love could remain when all is taken from you. But now . . . The Goddess has surely left me.”

“I didn’t think you believed in her,” I whispered.

His eyes were empty when they met mine. “Chance can’t build such a pit as I’m in. Only a god.”

Trent rocked forward, and I jumped, startled. “There’s no reason you can’t carry on with our plan,” he said suddenly, his voice holding a frantic determination. “I can’t help you, even after you find something to bind multiple strengths together. I have to stay here and keep Lucy safe.” He took my shoulders and gave me a shake. “I will not leave her. I’m going to do everything he tells me to. You have to find what you need, get it, and make it work. Understand?”

His resolve scared me, and I nodded. “Yes.”

He let me go, and I breathed again. “Quen maybe,” he said. “He will protect you when you move the imbalance, show the demons what Ku’Sox has done, and if they do nothing, I will be here to kill him.”

I blinked fast. “K-kill him?” I stammered, my thoughts flashing to Pierce. “Trent, you are not a warrior poet. If Ceri and Pierce couldn’t do it, what makes you think you can!”

Trent turned, looking furious. “Don’t—” he shouted, a finger pointing to make me drop back, and he lowered his voice, his eyes still virulent. “Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do,” he whispered. The scent of spoiled wine and broken fern grew strong.

Frustrated, I rallied my courage. “No one else will! I know you’re upset. I’m upset. But you can’t kill Ku’Sox!”

He walked to the nursery wall and stood looking out at his handiwork. “Your morals are going to be the end of two worlds.”

Morals? I could not believe I was hearing this, and I got in his face, standing between him and the nursery. “This has nothing to do with my morals, and everything to do with how strong he is! You were there! You saw! I don’t care if the one ring to rule them all is in that museum, we can’t overpower him. You don’t have a plan, you have an obituary! Ceri tried with the help of an experienced, powerful witch, and now Ray has only one parent!”

Trent’s hands clenched. “You don’t think I know that?” he shouted, and I could hear babies crying through the window. “Why do you think I burned out the fuse to the vault? You shouldn’t be here, either. Why are you here?”

He was going to try to kill him. He was going to dump the task of proving Ku’Sox’s guilt onto me, and if the demons turned a blind eye, he was going to sacrifice everything to save Lucy. Ceri’s death and Lucy’s vulnerability had tipped him over the edge. “Please,” I said, taking his hand and forcing him to pay attention to me. “Promise me you won’t try to kill him. You’re right about everything you said last night. Give me a chance to make it work. Trent, you came to me asking for trust. It goes both ways.”

Trent grimaced, his head down to look at my hand in his. His fingers moved against mine, his delicate touch skirting my burned fingertips. “You don’t know how powerful he is,” I whispered, pity surging in me, and he brusquely pulled away.

“I’m sorry,” I said, trying again, and this time, he let my hand stay on his shoulder. It was rock hard with tension. “I’m sorry. I loved her, too. Just . . . breathe,” I continued, and listening, he took a ragged breath, holding it. “It’s going to be okay.” I moved closer, the bitter scent of burned cinnamon mixing with the burnt amber stench and making me ill. “Stay here and do what you need to do to keep Lucy safe. I’ll find something to allow us to work together. It’s a good plan, and it won’t get us killed.” I hope.

For a moment, he stood before me, and then he slowly went back to his book, brushing his hair from his eyes before he made a hasty notation. “I thought I could do this,” Trent whispered to the uncaring pages. “I thought I could sacrifice anything to save my species.” He looked up, shocking me cold. “I can’t. She’s my child, Rachel. I can’t. If I can’t find a way to make Lucy safe, I will do everything he tells me to. I will fail everyone and everything. I will sacrifice even my species for her well-being. It’s upside down, and I . . . I can’t change it.”

My heart went out to him. He had changed, and everything was painfully new. Now . . . he might understand me. “You aren’t doing this alone,” I said. I knew the anguish of knowing what to do but not wanting to pay the cost for it.

Heartache showed in his eyes. Behind that was a desperate need to believe. “No?”

There was the barest hint of air movement, and Trent’s eyes shifted over my shoulder. His expression went ugly, and heart pounding, I spun.

Nick. At least I thought it was Nick. My relief was short-lived, adrenaline shoving it out for my hatred. “You!” I exclaimed, sure it was him when I saw his smug expression. He was in jeans and a casual tee, slippers on his feet, looking thin but satisfied, with a clean-shaven face and a haircut that showed every one of his scars. “Did you know Ku’Sox killed Ceri and Pierce?”

Nick leaned back against the window, his ankles crossed confidently. “Who do you think helped cover Pierce’s absence from Newt long enough for them to attack Ku’Sox?”

My jaw dropped. For three seconds, I took that in, the awful truth sifting through my brain. He had . . . Nick had lied to Pierce? Pretended he was helping them kill Ku’Sox and then left them in the lurch? “You son of a bastard!” I screamed, launching myself at him.

Nick put up a hand to ward me off, shifting at the last moment to shove me into the wall.

I floundered at the change of direction, snagging Nick’s shirt. I yanked him down with me. I had time for one good breath before his elbow landed on my middle.

We were a tangle on the floor, and my abdomen felt like it was on fire. Struggling to breathe, I grappled with him, slamming his back into the floor and straddling him. He pushed at me, and I pinned his arms with my knees. Grabbing a handful of hair, I thunked his head into the floor.

“You betrayed Pierce?” I wheezed, hearing babies start to cry, muffled from the glass. “He killed them! You helped him kill them! Ceri is dead because of you! Ceri and Pierce are dead, and I could have loved him!”

Twisting, Nick shoved me off, a nasty snarl on his face. “You could have loved me, too.”

He jumped at me, and I rolled, my back crashing into one of the machines. I shook my head to get the hair from my eyes. Nick was still coming right at me, and I braced myself. We went sprawling again. Nick hauled me into a sitting position, slamming my back up against the machine. “This is for bringing that putrid witch of yours into my apartment.”

My eyes widened and I gasped in pain as his open hand met my cheek in a slap that sent stars through my vision. Trent was yelling, the babies were crying, and my eye felt like it was going to explode.

“And this is for the hell of it!” Nick whispered.

I put a hand up to stop him, and he grabbed it. His other hand was coming at me, and I struggled, trying to get him off!

But before his hand could connect, he was yanked backward and up. Knees going to my chest, I tossed the hair from my eyes at the sodden thunk of fist meeting flesh. Nick reeled into the counter, his feet slipping on the tile floor until he went down. Trent stood between us, his back hunched and shaking the pain from a bleeding hand.

“Son of a bitch.” Touching his bleeding lip, Nick got to his feet. I could feel him begin to gather power, slowly but gaining momentum as a weird keening from the damaged line he was pulling on grew in the back of my head. I stood, so frustrated that I was almost crying. Nick had lied to Pierce and Ceri both. Told them he was helping when he was really setting them up. How could I ever forgive that?

“Rachel!” Trent shouted as he dived in front of me. I jerked my attention from him to Nick. A ball of green-tinted aura was headed right at us. Without thinking, I flung up a hand.

Rhombus!” I shouted, and Trent stooped as Nick’s spell struck and slithered down to the floor where it bubbled into nothing.

Nick was grinning when I brought my attention back up, and I felt sick. Now I’d done it.

Trent was holding my arm. “Are you hurt?”

I shook my head. “I just rang the doorbell,” I said, then added, glowering at Nick, who knew exactly what he’d been doing, “I tapped a line. Ku’Sox knows I’m here.”

Trent stiffened, and then he spun as Lucy’s childlike voice rang out in delight. “Daddy!”

Trent went down on one knee as if he’d been shot, his breath a quick gasp as he stared at Ku’Sox, Lucy on his hip. His expression was fierce with love and desperate hatred, and I don’t think I despised Ku’Sox more than at that moment. He was going to pay. Neither Ku’Sox nor Nick had ever loved anyone, and they would pay.

My pulse thundered in my ears, and I forced my arms to remain at my sides as I backed up to stand by Trent. Dressed in a casual black kimono, Ku’Sox had misted into the room beside Nick before the nursery window. Lucy’s dress mimicked his, and her hand reached for Trent, delight in her eyes. Bis was with him, too, and my jaw clenched as the little guy launched himself toward me, only to be snagged by Ku’Sox and tossed behind him like a kite.

The gargoyle spun through the air out of control, his eyes bright and cheerful as he found the wind in his wings before hitting the wall. I’d swear he was having fun as he changed his out-of-control spiral into a snappy landing on top of one of Trent’s machines where he perched, glowing a bright black. He was all right. He was all right!

Guilt rose, and I shoved it away. I would not feel bad that I was happy for Bis when Ceri and Pierce were dead. Nick had betrayed them. Why? What had he gained?

“You, stay where you are,” the psychotic demon said lightly to Trent as he rose, face awash with heartache. “I already took your second child’s mother. Make a move I don’t approve of and we will explore what else you hold dear. Understand?”

The scent of cinnamon became strong as Trent struggled with himself. He had admitted that he couldn’t sacrifice his daughter. It made him both strong and weak. He knew what it was to love. Maybe he’d always known, and I had been too blind to see it.

“Down!” Lucy demanded, looking sweetly petulant in her Asian kimono, and Ku’Sox shifted her into a football hold, her little feet kicking behind her and her hands pushing at his arm as she made a face and squirmed. “Da-a-a-ddy-y-y!” Clearly not liking Lucy’s frustration, Bis curved his tail around his feet, his ears going flat against his skull.

Nick’s feet scuffed as he edged even with Ku’Sox, and the demon gave him a disparaging glance. “Wait your turn, Nicholas Gregory Sparagmos,” Ku’Sox said as he shoved Nick behind him with one hand splayed on the man’s chest. “You can beat Rachel when I’m done with her. Besides, I want to hear why she’s here. She might, I don’t know . . . want something?” Bis spread his wings, and Ku’Sox looked at him until the gargoyle eased back. “A cup of sugar? An egg, perhaps?” Ku’Sox said, struggling with an increasingly vocal Lucy. “Are you doing a little cooking this afternoon, love?”

My eyes narrowed. “There was no need to kill Ceri and Pierce.”

A hint of a smile lifted Ku’Sox’s thin lips. “Simple enjoyment.” He glanced at the nursery. “What a marvelous woman she was. Al taught her so many, many things. She lasted the entire morning. I didn’t even have to be careful. Ahh, that’s so rare, so invigorating.”

Trent’s jaw was clenched, and my stomach twisted. Lucy had both hands out, craning her neck to see Trent as her fists opened and shut, struggling to reach him, little whines of frustration punctuating her loud demands. “You should have left,” Trent said. I could see parts of him starting to reassert themselves, assessing the situation, deciding what would be cast aside as unrecoverable and what might be salvaged. I wondered which side of the scale I was on.

“Ku’Sox won’t kill me,” I said, my insides shaking as I shifted my feet to find my balance. “If he does, the demons will start looking at him to fix the line.”

Ku’Sox’s expression twitched. “Just so. Unless you give me provocation, it’s best to leave you alone. For a few days.” Now he smiled, and again my loathing fought with my fear. “Which begs the question of what you are doing here, Rachel? Rescuing your familiar?”

Ku’Sox was moving. My heart pounded, and I backed up. Trent, though, didn’t move.

“As he has probably told you, he is here of his own free will,” the demon said, stopping to keep Trent just out of Lucy’s high-pitched, angry reach. “We’re good friends,” Ku’Sox said as he smacked Trent’s cheek. “The elf freed me, and in return, I’m going to free him of everything that binds him, no ties to anyone at all. Aren’t we, little Lucy?”

Trent was almost panting as he stood inches from his daughter, afraid to reach out.

Laughing, Ku’Sox turned away. Under his arm, Lucy cried her frustration.

“I’m not leaving here without Bis and Lucy,” I said, and Nick, leaning against the window and nursing a swollen lip, made a noise of derision. “Lucy is my godchild, and Bis lives with me. I think that comes under ‘not harming me and mine.’ I get ignoring the me part since you’re an ass, but you will not harm them.”

Sure enough, Ku’Sox smiled. “Rachel, Rachel, Rachel, I have no intention of harming you—unless you attack me first, of course. No one will fault me for defending myself. Please, do try. Then I can drop this charade and we can all move on with our lives. That’s what this is all about, you know. Getting others to kill you for me. But interpretation of the law is so-o-o difficult,” he drawled. “As I told you before, get the proper papers filed, and I will gladly hand Lucy over.”

I slumped where I stood, the machines clicking behind me to mark time in this nightmare. Trent’s face was ashen as Ku’Sox struggled with Lucy. “Down!” Lucy cried. “Down, down, do-o-own!”

Giving the girl a little shake, Ku’Sox shifted her to his other side, and her cries went from frustration to hopelessness. Behind him, Bis was waving me off, his gray-skinned hands making the pixy signal to go to ground. He wanted me to leave? Standing at the outskirts, Nick saw the gesture, but Trent didn’t, his attention on Lucy as he became more and more agitated.

“They know you’re lying,” I said so the demon wouldn’t notice Bis talking to me.

“Of course they do.” He turned to Nick, growling, “Get me that chair.” His expression again pleasant, he smiled at me. “Is it not deliciously ironic? My lie is far more attractive than your truth. If they subscribe to my lie, they don’t have to do anything about me—leaving it for you to handle or die. Which you will do if you persist.”

His motions furtive, Nick darted between Trent and the machines for the chair. He looked like a bug, and my lip curled. “I know demons better than you do, Ku’Sox Sha-Ku’ru. They always bite the hand that feeds them.” Nick trundled the rolling chair back to Ku’Sox, and it was all I could do to not reach out and kick him.

“Daddy! Down!” Lucy demanded, her eyes wet as she stared at Trent as if betrayed.

Ku’Sox held Lucy in front of him, looking scornfully at the little girl as she howled. “You’ve noticed that as well?” he said dryly as he sat with Lucy on his lap. She began squirming, her little feet kicking as she struggled. “My God,” Ku’Sox said, his patience clearly wearing thin. “This child is intractable! I should have taken the younger one.”

“Honor our agreement!” I said. “Or I will drag your ass before Dali right now!”

“Of course I will honor it. Go file the papers. Come back in three months.” Ku’Sox’s eyebrows were mockingly high. “Unless you want to settle this a different way?”

Trent paled, and in the corner, Nick shifted to make himself look smaller. If I could free Lucy, then Trent might be free to act when I got that line cleared of the sludge in it. “I’m a reasonable man,” Ku’Sox said, bouncing Lucy, which made her cry even harder. “I’m sure we can come to a mutually agreeable arrangement. I want my freedom, Rachel. Now.

I backed up, remembering the feel of Ku’Sox’s breath on my skin, his grip on my body, the way his eyes touched me. I shook my head, and Ku’Sox smiled knowingly.

“Down, down, down!” Lucy raged, and his gaze never leaving mine, the demon let her slip from him. Immediately she got to her feet, running awkwardly to Trent. My heart seemed to break as Trent dropped down to meet her, holding her tight as his eyes closed, his hand covering the back of her head and his arm around her, lifting her to him. His eyes opened, and I saw his fervent surety that nothing short of death would ever convince him to let go of her again.

Son of a bitch, I thought, looking at Ku’Sox’s soft smile of satisfaction. We were his playthings, dancing to his whim. To say no now would start a bloodbath none of us would survive. Trent would never let Lucy go back to Ku’Sox again. “What do you propose?” I said flatly, having a pretty good idea. He had killed Ceri and Pierce. I wouldn’t give him the chance to kill Lucy.

“Rachel!” Bis complained, wincing when Ku’Sox raised a hand.

Trent looked up, his arms still about Lucy. The little girl was complaining fretfully to him, her words unclear but serious. Behind Ku’Sox, I could see the women and children beyond the glass. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I can’t save you all.

“I want my freedom,” Ku’Sox said with a disturbing lightness. “I want that putrid elven curse you put on me lifted, and I want it lifted now.”

“I want Bis and Lucy, and a trip home,” I said, and he laughed, wiping a spot of baby drool from his sleeve.

“What horrid things babies are. Leaking from every orifice.”

“You said what you want; well, I want Bis and Lucy!” I demanded again as Nick fidgeted behind Ku’Sox. Trent held Lucy tighter, standing up with her as if he would never let her go. He’d do anything for her. Anything. Kisten had looked at me that way once, and it had killed him. Ceri’s death was both Trent’s awakening and his downfall. He loved, he knew loss, and he would fight to keep what was dear to him, the rest be damned.

Ku’Sox told Nick to stop fidgeting with a sharp look. “Both? No. Trent is a nasty little elf. With Lucy gone, he will become most intractable. See? He’s sullen already. And Bis? Well, that’s obviously no. With him, your chances of preventing the end of the ever-after slip into the double digits.”

Bis seemed to deflate in relief. I didn’t like the way Nick noticed, and I cringed when Ku’Sox half turned to look at the gargoyle. “Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing, flying worm. You’re talking to everyone’s gargoyles and learning the lines because I see fit. When the demons die, their gargoyles go with them, and I will want someone familiar with the old lines so I can reinstate them.”

Reinstate the lines? The words hit the pit of my being with a cold certainty. He was intending nothing less than complete destruction. This wasn’t just to get the demons to kill me then return to business as usual. Ku’Sox was aiming at genocide.

“Then I guess we ought to just duke it out now,” I said as I reached out with my thoughts and tapped the line. It filled me, screaming a discord that melded with my thoughts and flashed through me like grief. God, please give me another way out.

“I would consider giving you Lucy, though,” Ku’Sox said, glancing at Trent’s pinkie ring, and I froze, not believing I’d heard him right. Trent looked up, hope so deep in his eyes it hurt.

Nick stiffened in his corner. “L-Lucy?” I said, a part of my mind realizing that the scum bucket was afraid of me. He was afraid! My air came in with a rush, and I dropped the line, pulling myself straight and seeing Ku’Sox’s fear in the way he held his head, squinted at the light. Lucy for his freedom? Two days ago I would have spit in his face, but now . . .

My gaze shot to Trent, his grip on his child almost frantic.

Smiling as if giving benediction, Ku’Sox inclined his head. “I will give you Lucy,” he said softly, but his hem was shaking. “That is”—he looked at Trent, silent across the room with Lucy in his grasp—“if Trenton Aloysius Kalamack agrees to take the place of his daughter as my familiar, and you take that curse from me so I might see the sun again. I do so miss the color yellow.”

Trent stood ashen-faced as Lucy softly complained of nothing. He knew what it was to be a demon slave. I had rescued him from it, and he had saved my life. Now he was going to give his own again to save his daughter, to save two worlds.

“Done,” Trent rasped, his expression riven with grief as he pushed Lucy into my arms. “Take her, Rachel,” he said, his arm stretched out to touch his daughter’s hand as he stepped back, his eyes fixed to the little girl reaching back to him. She leaned toward him, whining, and I held her close, smelling the clean scent of her hair under the stench of burnt amber.

Take the curse from him? He could go anywhere . . .

“I say, done!” Trent shouted. “Send them home!”

Ku’Sox seemed shocked. I know I was. Things were moving too fast, and I jiggled her weight, settling her to me until it felt natural. “I thought elves were known for their patience,” Ku’Sox said, and my gut twisted when he looked at me. “Rachel, is this acceptable to you, providing the elf holds to his end and I have him, body and soul?”

Crap on toast. If Trent was his familiar, he couldn’t help me. That wasn’t even considering that Ku’Sox would have access to everything on my side of the lines. But with Nick, he had that anyway. Torn, I jiggled Lucy. Oh my God. I was going to do it, and I felt light-headed.

“Take her, I beg you.” It was Trent, and I took in his hope, his grief. “Take her,” he whispered again. “I need to know they are safe, my girls.”

“Oh, they will never be safe,” Ku’Sox said, and Trent stiffened.

“They will, or I will not agree!”

Eyes rolling to the ceiling, Ku’Sox idly pushed his rolling chair back, gesturing lightly. “As long as you serve me faithfully, why not?”

Trent’s grip on my shoulder tightened, his breath coming fast in the moment of success, but I was having doubts. My eyes slid to Nick, sullen in the corner. I took a breath to answer. Ku’Sox waited, poised. Nick was tense behind him, looking like a spider. Trent was energy chained—frantic. And Bis . . . I held my breath, trying not to be obvious as I watched him signal me to fly, go, flee . . . no, I think that particular motion meant fall back and circle around.

My heart pounded. Bis was learning how to line jump. And with Lucy safe with me, there was only Trent’s life in the balance. He clearly was ready to sacrifice it. The question was, did I trust him enough to give him a chance to kill Ku’Sox? I needed help with my plan, and Quen and Al were still out of commission. I didn’t know who to ask.

“Throw in a trip home for Lucy and me, and you have a deal,” I whispered, and Ku’Sox clapped his hands, springing to his feet to make me drop back several steps, awkward from Lucy’s weight. “But you will stay out of my church and the environs. Swear to it, Ku’Sox.”

“Capital! I agree! I swear!” Ku’Sox said, looking amused, but seeing a black haze blossom on his hand, I bubbled us. Lucy and I weren’t his target, however.

I spun as Trent hit the floor, choking as he grasped his throat. “Hey!” I shouted, backing up with Lucy, the little girl frightened and growing heavy. “You kill him, and all your demon babies are going to die!”

Ku’Sox strode over, and I backed up, breaking my circle. “That is my foot you feel across your neck,” the demon said, leaning over Trent as he gasped. “Serve me without elven trickery, or it will crush your throat, and then I will move on to your children, your family, and everything you hold dear. Do you understand?”

Sprawled, Trent nodded, hatred burning in his eyes, his hand splayed out to show the missing digits that Al had taken from him. “If you harm them, nothing will save you,” he rasped, and Ku’Sox straightened his kimono with a soft hush.

“Good,” he said, looking down at him. “You have spirit. I’ll enjoy it after the ever-after no longer occupies me.” Making a sudden puff of distaste, Ku’Sox reached down, yanking Trent’s pinkie ring off. My eyes widened when he made a fist, opening it to let a shapeless mass of black char ping dully on the tile floor. He’d melted it. Two in a row. “Get up.”

His attention shifted to me, and I held Lucy closer, turning her so she couldn’t see her dad pick himself up off the floor. My feet moved uneasily. I still needed to get home.

“My freedom?”

My eyes flicked uneasily between Trent and Ku’Sox. Lucy felt heavy in my grasp as she cried for Trent. It wasn’t as if I could just pop out and conveniently forget to free him. The curse had been embedded into his DNA and wouldn’t lift easily. The best I could do was modify it. Swallowing hard, I reached out and tapped the line again. I could feel the collective, hovering just outside my awareness, and I let a small portion of myself slip into it. I’d need the strength of them to make any changes, and I was disgusted when I found them waiting, quiet and still in a watchful unease. The sons of bitches knew. They knew.

My head began to throb behind my right eye as the discordant twang the collective had absorbed from the broken lines soaked into everything. Lucy’s crying stopped, and I wondered if she was picking up more than she should. “Si peccabas poenam meres,” I whispered, the faint memory of a beating drum and stomping feet drifting through my memory as I began the curse anew. Tingles of wild magic sparked through me, and a hazy lassitude dulled my headache. There was an odd pulling sensation as the curse gathered itself within Ku’Sox.

Ku’Sox stiffened, his shoulders twisting as if something had struck his back. His eyes were alight, and his hands in fists. “Finish it. Free me!”

I licked my lips, my heart pounding. I couldn’t look at Trent. He had taught this curse to me, learned it from Ku’Sox. It could not be untwisted, but it could be given away or modified. “I curse you, Ku’Sox Sha-Ku’ru, to be free of restraint, that you may freely travel between reality and the ever-after at your will for as long as you leave me and mine alone!”

The demon’s breath sucked in, and he leaned forward, grimacing at the added restraint.

“That means you stay out of my church, you bastard,” I said, relishing his anger. “You break it, and you’ll find out how the Goddess rewards liars,” I barked at him, heart pounding when a sleepy-eyed presence seemed to swirl through me, laughing languorously before dulling back to slumber. Crap on toast, elven magic was slippery stuff, and I gave a little jump to shift Lucy to a more comfortable position and hide my shudder.

Ku’Sox lifted his chin as if to denounce me. But when he nodded with very bad grace, I sealed the curse. “Facilis descensus Tartarus.

The curse was in Latin, but I knew it was elven magic by the tiny laugh of wicked delight echoing in my mind. It hadn’t come from the collective, and Ku’Sox shuddered as the wild magic slipped reluctantly from me and onto him, the last bit twanging from my outstretched hand. My headache came back, pounding, and before I dropped the line, I felt the souls of the demons in the collective withdraw. They were somber and still, unusual for the usually vocal and self-assured demons. They’d agreed to this, but it had the transparent feeling of ambiguity.

Ku’Sox breathed slowly, and in the corner, Nick hunched into a small shadow of fear. “It will do,” Ku’Sox said, and then his eyes became slate gray. “Leave. You smell like baby shit.”

Lucy was starting to fidget, and I glanced at Trent. He looked crushed and beaten. “I told you I wanted a jump home. Al can’t do it,” I said, deciding he would refuse unless I gave him a reason. “He burned himself at the bottom of your purple sludge.”

Ku’Sox looked me up and down in surprise. “And he got out? How?”

He wasn’t wearing the smile I expected, and I patted Lucy, rocking like I’d seen parents in the grocery store line do. “Through his wedding rings.” Ku’Sox’s eyes went wide in amazement, and I shook my head, backing up. “Send us home,” I demanded. “Now.

Trent’s eyes closed, and I saw his lips move in a silent “Thank you,” but if he was thanking me or the Goddess he didn’t believe in, I didn’t know.

“Go,” Ku’Sox said curtly, and I tensed, slapping a bubble of thought around Lucy and myself as I felt his broken, slimy presence enfold us and push us from his reality. For a moment, I thought he might leave us halfway there and I’d have to chance shifting my aura myself, but then the stink of ever-after fell away, and the ground grew firm under my feet. The late-morning sun spilled through the new spring leaves, and I shivered, feeling winter in the spring damp.

“Home again, home again, jiggity jig,” I said, patting Lucy.

“Aant achel!” the little girl said, laughing as she patted her middle. “Tickles!” I could only assume she meant the sensation of the line through her, but then her eyes widened as she saw the sleeping gargoyles perched everywhere. “Shhh,” she said. “Biz-z-z-z nap.”

I shifted her weight, not wanting to put her down and risk her trying to touch one. “That’s right,” I said as I headed for the church. “Bis is napping. Let’s go call your abba.” Oh God. Quen. Trent had been fond of Ceri, but Quen had loved her with the depth reserved for one who thought he’d never love at all. For once, I was glad he was injured and unable to do magic. If he had been otherwise, he’d likely be dead by now, too, having pitted himself against Ku’Sox.

“Abba!” Lucy crowed, wiggling in delight before she went still in thought. “Cookie?” she added hopefully, and my eyes filled as Lucy patted the dandelion fluff tattoo on my neck.

The sun was shining and I was home, but the reality of what had happened was falling on me anew. Ceri had died protecting Lucy. I’d make sure that Lucy knew that when she was older. “And a cookie,” I said miserably as Jenks’s kids found us, distracting the little girl and making her stretch for their clattering wings and bright voices.

I slowly trudged to the church through the pixy dust, wondering if the kitchen, at least, was baby proofed. I’d have to move my splat gun, bare minimum.

What had I been thinking? Ku’Sox was free. Ceri and Pierce were dead, Trent was a demon slave, again, and the son of a bitch was free.

Chapter Seventeen

The late afternoon sun was gone from the kitchen as I sat at the table, depressed as I stared at the defunct disguise amulet perched in my fingertips. I wasn’t in the best of moods to be trying something so difficult as breathing life into a ley line charm that had been dead for more than ten years, but I wanted some practice before I tried this again with some rich elf’s one-of-a-kind family heirloom.

I’d already found the charm I wanted from the brochure, checking the description and the owner’s claims of powers against an account found in one of the books Trent had gotten from the library. Quen was going to bring it over when he came to pick up Lucy. He was overdue, and I hoped everything was okay.

“Rings,” I said sourly, looking at the charm balanced on my hand. Why couldn’t it be a sword or whip or something pointy? But no, elves apparently had a thing for rings, and the set I’d chosen seemed perfect, allowing a strong connection that would allow me to join my strength to Quen’s or Trent’s. It wasn’t made for war, and I hoped that meant elves and demons could use it. That Al would be healed up enough to help me was nothing I wanted to count on.

“If, if, if,” I muttered as I stared at the charm balanced on my fingertips. I was putting the F back in if, and I didn’t like it. Time was stealing my buffer for when if turned to no. I was starting to hate two-letter words.

I’d thought that practicing reinvoking old charms would be a good idea. I just wished I wasn’t blowing my dad’s old charms to hell, one by one. It didn’t help that I was trying to be quiet as Jenks read to Lucy in the back living room, or that a handful of pixies were playing in my dad’s dusty box, giggling and whispering as they plotted mischief. Between the catchy rhymes from next door, the giggling whispers, and me thinking Jenks had hidden Pierce’s old watch from me so I couldn’t try to resurrect him, it was hard to concentrate.

Indecision had made me cranky, but I figured if Pierce was able to be summoned back to a temporary life, he would be changing my ringtones. My phone had been distressingly silent. Ceri and Pierce were gone, and my heart ached more than I could have imagined.

Stifling a sneeze from the dusty box, I exhaled, balancing the defunct disguise ley line charm and pushing my aura off my hand. The weird mental gymnastics needed to shift my aura to different shades was getting easier, but leaving my hand mostly bare of protection made it ache.

“Hey!” I shouted when the flap of the box flipped out, almost hitting me. Dust rolled up, and I sneezed, earning six high-pitched “bless-yous” from the pixies giggling inside. “Okay, everyone out!” They rose up, a charm between them as they apologized, begging to stay. “Out,” I reaffirmed, holding my hand under the charm, and they dropped it. The tarnished silver fell into my hand, a pool of gold pixy dust seeming to warm it as they apologized again.

“Out, and stay away from Lucy! She’s finally settled down!” I called after them, and they were gone, out through the flue in the back living room if the squeals of Lucy’s delight were any indication. I relaxed a bit as I listened to Jenks’s voice murmur in rhyme, soothing as I set the charm back in the box. Wiping my nose, I sneezed again, but it was only a sneeze. I didn’t expect to hear from Al until it was too late. I was on my own, and I thought it ironic that elves were going to help me save the ever-after and all demonkind.

Exhaling, I emptied my mind of everything but the ring of metal perched in my hand, imagining the smallest whisper of red I could puddling under it. With just the barest nudge, I sent a tiny mote of aura up to the amulet. I held my breath as my aura drifted closer, the glyphs etched into the charm beginning to glow. My heart pounded, and I squinted as the ping of energy grew closer, closer, almost touching the metal. A glowing haze over the amulet moved faster, and when my aura touched the charm . . .

“Ow!” I shouted as my hand cramped up. Jolts of energy darted through my fingers as the full spectrum of my aura raced to protect my hand, and I dropped the charm. From the window came a tiny shattering of glass.

“You okay?” Jenks called, Lucy’s voice rising as well, mimicking his tone perfectly though the words were nonsense.

“Fine!” I exclaimed, frowning when I looked at the window. The brandy snifter on the sill was busted, Al’s chrysalis amid the thick shards. “Nice.” Setting the defunct amulet aside, I stood, my nose wrinkling at the burnt amber smell coming off the chrysalis.

“Rachel?” Quen’s voice called, strong but faint from the front of the church, shortly followed by the slamming of the door into the wall. “Are you in back?”

A bittersweet feeling took me, and I plucked the large chunks of glass out of the sink and dropped them in the trash. “Yes!” I exclaimed, and Lucy mimicked my call again.

A feminine clatter of high heels in the hallway gave me pause until I remembered Ellasbeth. I barely had time to run a hand over my hair before the woman skidded to a halt in the kitchen doorway, her eyes bright, her lips parted, hair a mess and her coat buttoned wrong. “Where?” she said, her eyes roving my kitchen and my empty arms.

“Abba?” Lucy called from the back living room, and Ellasbeth spun. “Abba!” It was demanding this time, and Ellasbeth bolted.

“Oh! My baby!” she said, but she was gone and I was alone, wondering how this was going to go over. Lucy probably didn’t remember her. Sure enough, frightened, intolerant baby protest rose amid Ellasbeth’s dramatic tears. “Lucy! Are you all right? I missed you so much! Look at you. You smell terrible, but I missed you so much. Oh, you got so big!”

I probably didn’t smell all that good either, and I shoved the window open a crack to let the cool spring air pool on the floor. In the back room, Lucy began to fuss in earnest, her complaints almost unheard over Ellasbeth. “It’s going to complicate things,” Jenks’s voice came softly from the hall, mixing with Quen’s footsteps. “We just have to be more careful.”

Jenks and Quen came in as I turned from the window, Ray on Quen’s hip, looking sweet with her dark hair and in her tartan kilt and hat. Ceri’s death came rushing back, and suddenly tears blurred my vision. Damn it, I hadn’t wanted to cry, but seeing him there with his motherless child and knowing that the girl would grow up without Ceri’s love was almost too much to take.

“Don’t,” Quen said raggedly as Jenks hovered uncertainly at his shoulder, and I forced my eyes wide, sniffing the tears back. Quen’s own eyes glistened, the limitless pain in his soul showing. “Please don’t,” he said stoically. “I’ll grieve when the war is over. I can’t afford it now.”

I nodded, head down as I shoved my heartache away. War. That was about right. Quen looked capable in his short leather jacket and cap, like a bad boy grown up with a ’79 Harley parked in a three-car garage and a huge mortgage. The child on his hip somehow worked perfectly. Grief shimmered under his tight jaw and haunted eyes. “I’m sorry,” I said, feeling helpless as he came into the kitchen and set Ray on the center island counter, his hand never leaving her, steadying her as she sat upright and silently watched the pixies who had come in with them. “None of this was your fault.”

“It feels like it is.”

But it wasn’t, and I leaned against the sink, aching at the sounds of Ellasbeth reuniting with her child. It hurt knowing Ceri never would. The pixies in the rack were taking turns dusting different colors, and Ray was riveted. Both Quen and Jenks began to look uncomfortable as Ellasbeth’s noises became louder.

Quen steadied Ray, and remembering Jenks’s cryptic comment when he had come in, I said, “So, what’s up, Jenks? More trouble?”

Sitting on the faucet, Jenks frowned. “Jax is around.” The draft from the window pushed his depressed copper dust from him like a wayward aura. “The kids heard his wings not five minutes ago. And where Jax is, Nick probably follows.”

“Ku’Sox is trying to get around our agreement,” I said as I went to get a paper towel from the roll we kept on the table, a must when living with pixies. Ku’Sox had Trent, body and soul. He was also uncursed, which meant he didn’t need Nick anymore. That made the slimy man dangerous because he would be trying to prove to Ku’Sox that he was still worth something.

The rip of the paper towel was loud as I listened to Ellasbeth say, “Mama, not Abba. Mama, Lucy. Mama.” I couldn’t help my frown. Ceri was her mama, not Ellasbeth.

Jenks flitted to the counter, his wings still as he walked to the edge. “Don’t worry, Rache. We won’t let crap for brains or Jax close enough to know what’s going on.”

“Thank you, Jenks,” I said as I dampened the paper towel and wiped the inside of the sink to get the tiny shards of glass. I had the beginnings of a plan that hinged on two rings I might not be able to use even if I could get them reinvoked.

Quen’s guilty frown when I turned back around stopped me cold. “What?” I said flatly, and he winced. Jenks clattered his wings aggressively, coming to hover beside me. Together we made a united front, Ellasbeth’s continued efforts to get Lucy to say mama an ugly backdrop.

Grimacing, Quen crouched with Ray, setting her on the floor, and gruffly saying, “Go say hi to your sister.” Ray leaned forward into a crawl for the hallway, hesitating to study the feel of the circle I’d gouged out of the linoleum before crossing it.

“Ray!” Lucy crowed, and the little girl’s feet disappeared with a gurgling giggle.

My faint smile faded as Quen rose, his eyes going to the scorch marks, then the ley line charms sitting next to the dusty box. “What aren’t you telling us?” I demanded, and he clasped his hands before him.

“How badly do you need that particular pair of rings?”

Jenks rose up with a sound of disgust, and I threw the towel with the glass shards away, letting the cabinet door slam. “Pretty bad,” I said tightly. “Why?” I couldn’t tell if his grimace was because of the rings or because Ellasbeth was now crying at the girls’ enthusiastic reunion.

“Ah, the family that promised their use won’t give them to us now that Trent is missing.”

Great. That’s just freaking great.

Ellasbeth’s soft, one-sided tearful conversation filtered in from the living room as Quen reached for a chair and sat down. It was unusual, but he was still recovering from the beating he’d taken Monday morning. He’d be on the cusp of having his aura back at full strength tomorrow. It sat sour in me that I’d be risking Ray growing up with no parent at all, but I needed someone to watch my back, and Quen would be shamed if I didn’t ask him.

“I’ll talk to them again,” Quen said, clearly embarrassed. “Unless you want a different pair?”

I frowned. The only other pair that had any chance of making a strong enough connection between elf and demon was a pair that touted itself to be demon slavers. “I don’t know how much it’s going to matter,” I said, frustrated as I started tidying, dropping my dad’s old charms into the box one by one. “I’m having a hard time getting anything to reinvoke.” Friday. I had until Friday night. “What do you mean they won’t let me use their stupid rings?” I blurted suddenly, ticked. “Don’t they know this is for the good of all elfkind!” Quen’s eye twitched at Ellasbeth’s ongoing passive-aggressive conversation with the girls aimed at us, not them. “Don’t you have some kind of authority in his absence? I can probably move the imbalance, but without some power to back it up, I’m going to get smeared into a dark stain on an ever-after rock before any other demon can come out to verify Ku’Sox was behind it!”

Quen lifted a hand and let it fall, clearly at a loss. Jenks just shook his head and darted out of the room, his dust a bright silver. Yelling was getting me nowhere, and tired, I leaned back against the sink. Ivy would be back tonight. Maybe we could just go steal the damn rings.

Rex came in to curve around my ankles, and I ran a hand over my face.

“Can’t you simply explain to the demons what Ku’Sox is doing?” Quen said. “They aren’t stupid. Surely one of them can spot you. Al maybe?”

I never thought I’d ever see the day he would recommend a demon help me, and I smiled. It was short-lived, though. “No,” I said flatly. “They’re afraid down to the last one, and I’m not going to count on Al’s aura being full strength in time.” Quen’s eyebrows rose, and I wiped my hands and leaned into the center counter. “They know what Ku’Sox is up to, better than I do. But the Rosewood babies Nick stole are Ku’Sox’s bribes, life rafts for the demons who back him. They’ll take a sure risk-free bet that might get them permanently in reality over standing up to Ku’Sox and possibly losing everything.”

I hesitated, watching Rex make a slow, nonchalant way to the other side of the kitchen, her tail up and whiskerless face searching. In a fumbling, unbalanced jump from her lack of whiskers, Rex leaped onto the counter by the sink. I smoothly lifted her and set her back on the floor. The tip of the cat’s tail twitched in displeasure as she stared up at the chrysalis. “I have to empty the line of the imbalances and survive long enough for the other demons to agree he broke it. Ku’Sox is stronger than me. Stronger than Newt. Really smart, huh? Making a child that no one can control?”

Quen exhaled in thought, and my stomach knotted. There were too many ifs. Too many maybes. I turned to the cupboard to get something to cover the chrysalis with. “If they don’t give me the rings, I’m just going to go steal them.”

The scrape of the glass going over the chrysalis was loud, and the silence grew as the pixies sang to Lucy and Ray, captivating them—and getting Ellasbeth to finally shut up. On a sudden impulse, I twisted Trent’s pinkie ring off and shoved it under the glass with the chrysalis. Two days. Two freaking days. I didn’t have the time to steal some dumb rings.

Jenks darted in, wincing at his offspring’s noise. “You’re overthinking this,” the pixy said as he came to rest on Ivy’s monitor where he could see the kitchen and a slice of the living room, too. “I say you get the rings, reinvoke them, forget the line, and just pop over to Ku’Sox’s lair so you and Trent can kill the sucker.”

“That’s what Trent wants,” I said, and Quen jerked his head up, clearly alarmed.

“Ah, Rachel?” the older man said, and I raised a hand.

“Relax, I’m not going to try to kill Ku’Sox,” I said, though part of me cried out for revenge. A smarter bruised and battered part of me knew better. “I’m going to need your help, though, to hold off Ku’Sox after moving the imbalance. Will you be up for it Friday night?”

Friday night. Why did I always have to cut these things so close?

“Just try to do this without me,” he grumbled.

Clearly unsure, Jenks dusted a dull gold, his wings blurring to nothing as he stood on the monitor. “Then that’s the plan,” I said, watching Rex pad out of the kitchen. “QED. Quite Easily Done.” Or Quite Easily Dead, as my dad used to say.

It wasn’t a great plan, but it was a plan, and the depressed silence in the kitchen grew until Ellasbeth began shouting at the pixies to get out. They were singing now, and Lucy was joining in, shrieking just for the hell of it. The woman needed help, but I wasn’t going to go in there. Neither was Quen by the look of it, wincing from the shrill voices raised in rhyme and mayhem. Unable to take it anymore, Rex slunk past the kitchen, probably on her way to hide under my bed. Chaos. My life was chaos.

“So I guess the first thing would be to get the rings, preferably without Nick knowing?”

Jenks darted to the hallway to rescue Ellasbeth. “We’re going to have to steal them.”

Quen stood, his pox scars standing out sharp against his pale expression. “I’ll talk to them again,” he said, but Jenks was right. We’d have to steal them, and I stared at the ceiling, going through what I’d need. Rope, silence charms, something to remove aura residue . . .

“Worth a try,” I said as Jenks yelled at his kids to get outside.

Finally there was only Lucy’s loud “singing” as Jenks’s kids left and Ellasbeth staggered into the kitchen, the weight of both girls nearly bringing her down. “Abba!” Lucy cried, her eyes alight as she reached for him. It about broke my heart, but in a good way. Quen immediately took her, having to forcibly pull the blanket-wrapped Lucy from Ellasbeth when the woman indicated he should take Ray instead.

“Coo ox! Coo ox!” Lucy crowed as she patted her blanket, then gently touched Quen’s chin. “Abba, coo ox!”

My face warmed as Ellasbeth’s eyes scanned my kitchen, lingering on the scorch marks, the water glass overturned on the windowsill, and finally to the dusty box. She said nothing, and I would have given a lot to know what she was thinking. Jenks whispered something into Quen’s ear to make him blink, and she frowned. Ever stoic, Quen gently took Lucy’s fingers and pulled them from his face. She was still going on about “coo ox.” I had a bad feeling I knew what she was saying. Ellasbeth, though, was clueless.

“What does that mean, anyway? Coo ox?” the woman asked, clearly thinking our sudden silence meant we’d been talking behind her back.

“Ah, that’s Ku’Sox,” I said, and Ellasbeth’s expression blanked.

“Coo ox!” Lucy crowed, making a show of smelling the blanket. Quen was mystified, but I winced as I figured it out.

“That’s the blanket that Al gave me,” I said. “It probably smells like the ever-after.”

Horrified, Ellasbeth stood, her face red. “It smells like a demon!” she exclaimed, and ignoring Lucy’s triumphant “Coo ox! Coo ox!” she snatched Lucy from Quen, pulling her out from the blanket and letting it fall to the floor.

Staggering under the weight of both girls, she settled herself in Ivy’s chair. “Thank you for getting Lucy back to me,” Ellasbeth said, her expression flashing into irate when she realized her coat was closed wrong as Ray patted the buttons.

Surprised, I stood straighter. “Ah, I just wish I could have gotten everyone out of there.”

Ellasbeth’s gaze came back from the window behind me. Pixies had plastered themselves against the kitchen screen, distracting the girls and making Jenks scowl. “Quen told me you bought Lucy’s freedom at great risk to your own,” she insisted. “I can’t ever thank you enough. If there is anything, ever. At all.”

I said nothing, a hundred things racing through my mind. She was going to be Trent’s wife before too long, and something there really rankled me. He deserved better.

Jenks looked up at my silence, his motions to get his kids to leave faltering. “There is one thing,” I said, and his dust shifted to an alarmed orange.

Ellasbeth blinked in surprise. “Name it,” she said as if granting boons was her hobby.

Be nice, I thought, though it was hard, seeing her holding Ray and Lucy when Ceri no longer could. “I, ah, get that you and Trent are trying to make this work,” I said, and Quen paled. “I think it’s a great idea and all for everyone except Trent.”

“Rachel?” Quen said, and Ellasbeth shot a look at him to shut up.

“Really? Do elaborate.”

I knew it wasn’t the polite thing, but no one else would say this, so I had to. “Do you think you could make half an effort to understand who he’s trying to be?” I finished almost plaintively.

“I beg your pardon?”

Jenks winced, darting to the rack and out of range of anything. Quen also quietly stepped back. But hell, I had fought banshees and crazy vampires. If push came to shove, I could take her. Besides, what was she going to do with two babies on her lap? “He’s great at being what you all need him to be,” I said, gesturing at nothing. “Saving the elves and seeing you safe from the threat of extinction. But did it ever occur to you that he wants to be something else? Don’t crush what he can keep for himself. That’s all I’m asking. Let him have what he can.”

Ellasbeth was white in anger. Lucy jumped in her lap blurting nonsense sounds, but Ray stared up at Ellasbeth and patted her trembling chin.

“Never mind,” I said, dropping my head and sighing. “Go get married. Have more babies. Rule the world. You’ll both be great at it.”

“How dare you!”

I calmly watched her stagger to stand, and knowing it would infuriate her, I turned my back on her to get a glass of water. If she tried anything, I’d throw it on her.

“Quen! Take these children. Let me go!” she exclaimed from behind me, and I heard a scuffle. “Take your hands off me!”

The pixies at the window were watching with rapt attention, and I stifled a smirk.

“Don’t do this,” Quen said to her, his low voice gravelly.

“You will take your hands off me!” she insisted, and I let the water run until it got cold.

“Go wait in the car,” Quen said. Then louder, “Go take the girls and wait in the car.” Finally he shouted, “Go wait in the car, or I will stand by and let her say what she really thinks of you!”

I turned around with my glass of water. Jenks was watching from within a copper bowl hanging from the rack, a weird silty dust falling from it. Tense, Quen stood beside and a little in front of Ellasbeth. She was chalk white, her painted lips a bright contrast. I didn’t care if she was insulted. It had needed to be said. I owed Trent that.

“I understand the strain you’re under,” she said, chin high as Lucy’s hand patted her face. “So the door of friendship is still open between us. You mean a lot to Trent. He explained to me what happened at camp, and I understand your feelings for him.”

My feelings for him? What happened at camp? What was she talking about?

Seemingly satisfied at my cautiously puzzled expression, she pulled herself straighter. “Please bring my fiancé home to us.”

“That’s my intent,” I said dryly, and Quen tugged at her elbow. “But when I do, don’t kill him slowly. Let the man breathe.”

Eyes narrowed, she turned slowly under the weight of the girls and stalked to the hall. “Quen?” she said imperiously. “I will be waiting in the car. Call ahead and see that a bath is drawn for both girls by the time we get to Trenton’s holdings. I want to stop on the way for an entirely new set of clothes for Lucy.”

“It’s only the clothes she has on that are tainted,” Quen said, and the woman glared from the hallway.

“This entire church smells! She will have a new wardrobe!” she exclaimed, then click-clacked her slow, ponderous way to the door, the two girls calling in delight at the pixies waiting for them in the sanctuary.

Okay, that was probably going to come back and bite me on the ass, but I didn’t care. Trent would thank me for it someday. Setting the water aside, I scooped up the blanket Ellasbeth had let fall and brought it to my nose. After three wash cycles, I couldn’t smell anything, but I wasn’t an elf.

Jenks whistled long and loud. “Damn, Rache, you sure know how to make friends.”

Quen took the blanket from me, giving it a sniff as well. “Thank you for making the next forty minutes of my life hell,” he muttered, clearly not smelling anything, either.

A tiny smile quirked the corner of my mouth up. “I’m sorry.”

“No, you aren’t,” he said darkly. “You enjoyed it.”

“Oh, you’re just mad that I could say it and you couldn’t.” Taking the blanket back, I folded it up.

“Quen!” Ellasbeth shouted. “Come open this door! My hands are full with the children.”

“I’ll get it,” Jenks offered, and Quen shot him a thankful glance. Immediately my mood swung back to melancholy as Jenks darted out, halfheartedly telling his kids to leave Lucy and Ray alone.

Still holding the faint remnants of a smile, I pushed away from the counter to give Quen a hug. Ceri was gone, and it hurt. My eyes closed as his arm went around me and the scent of burnt amber mixed with the smell of wine and cinnamon. “I’m sorry,” I said as I stepped back, and his eyes took on a deeper shine.

“Thank you for bringing Lucy back to us,” he said, and I shrugged with one shoulder.

“I wish I could have—” My throat closed. Damn it, how could Ceri be dead?

“It wasn’t your task,” Quen said, and I forced myself to look up. “It was no one’s fault.”

“But . . .”

He smiled, the pain thick in the new wrinkles around his eyes. “She’d tell you to mind your own business and to not blame yourself.”

My head dropped. Probably in loud, small words so I wouldn’t run the risk of misunderstanding. “She would at that,” I said, and he touched my shoulder as he turned away.

“Quen,” I said, and he halted. From the front of the church came a loud boom of sound as the door shut, then blessed silence. I looked at Quen. I had things I wanted to say, that Trent was braver than I had thought, and foolish. That I trusted him, but I also knew there were limits to magic and luck. That I didn’t see a happy ending to this.

“I don’t think Trent is planning on coming back unless he can kill Ku’Sox,” I said flatly, and Quen’s lip twitched. “That Lucy is safe has given him more freedom to act, but unless we can convince the other demons to band up against Ku’Sox, I don’t see a happy ending to this.” I lifted a foot and rubbed the back of my calf to hide my trembling.

Quen’s expression gave me no clue as to what he was feeling. “You think he can do it?”

My breath came fast. “Kill Ku’Sox? Frankly, no. Not alone. All the demons together were only able to shove the psycho in a hole in reality. It might be different now.” I looked at the ceiling, avoiding his eyes. “Sorry about Ellasbeth. I don’t know what came over me.”

Quen chuckled, his shoes scraping as he put a light hand on my shoulder again. “Thank you for trusting Trent,” he said, his eyes heavy with emotion. “Not many do, and even fewer for the right reasons.” He looked toward the front of the church. “I should be able to manipulate line energy tomorrow. It would be my honor to help you at the Loveland line.”

My heart pounded, and a wave of relief took me, even as I worried it might end in more grief, more pain. “Thank you.”

“But I have a favor to ask.”

My head snapped up. Elves asking for favors was never good. “What?” I said flatly.

Quen’s gaze dropped, then came back to mine. “I asked this before, and I’m asking you again.”

Shit. “Quen,” I whined. “I’m not going to do your job. Look at that woman out there. You think she will let me anywhere near him again? And that’s even assuming we all make it out of this alive.”

Taking my hand, he turned it over so the demon mark on my wrist showed. His eyes were filled with grief as they met mine. “Rachel, I didn’t mean it to happen, but I have someone else I have to protect now. Someone besides Trent.”

I remembered Ray on his hip and Lucy’s hands eagerly reaching for him. It was the right thing to do, but still . . . panic slid through me. “Quen, I don’t even like him. I mean, I do, but I live here, and you live there, and how am I supposed to keep track of him when I’ve got my own stuff to do and that woman—”

“Please.” Quen’s expression was pained. “I’m not asking you to do my job. Just . . . understand that I can’t be what he needs anymore to survive. I can’t devote myself to him. Ray—” His voice choked off. It was low when he spoke again. “Ray needs me. All of me, not the thin sliver of me that’s left when Trent needs help. She won’t be safe until Ku’Sox is dead, but after that, I am hers, not Trent’s. You don’t have to work for him, just be there when he needs it. That’s all I’m asking. And maybe don’t let Ellasbeth snuff everything he wants to be.”

My pulse was hammering. I recalled Trent pulling Nick off me, the power that had flowed through me when he’d broken the charm hiding me from Al, waiting until I knew what I would lose if I turned my back on my future, and finally that kiss we had shared. It had only been a kiss—no feelings behind it but my own selfish pleasure. Then I thought of Ellasbeth. He had a duty there, one I knew he would sacrifice everything for. “But . . .”

“I wasn’t sure until now, but I know you’ll be what he needs.”

What he needs? “What about me? Who is going to risk their life for me?”

Quen’s eyes came back to mine. “He will, of course.”

His voice was confident, and I could do nothing but stare with my mouth hanging open.

“I have to go before she learns how to drive,” he said, seeing my confusion. “I’ll talk to the owners of that charm again.”

“I haven’t said yes, yet,” I said, and Quen turned in the threshold, not in the kitchen, not in the hall.

“It’s said that the reason the elves and demons began their war is because of a broken alliance,” he said, the world-weary damage to his face making him look wise. “I’ve always found it to be true—that the best of friends make the bitterest of enemies. Elves and demons, forever fighting. Who is to say that demons weren’t the slaves of elves first?”

My eyes were wide as he inclined his head, spun slowly on a heel, and went down the hall. “Don’t worry about reinvoking the charms,” he said loudly, his steps going faint. “Your dad was a good man, but cheap. The silver is too frail. You’ll be able to fix the good ones.”

I dropped back against the counter, crossing my arms as I listened to him pass through the sanctuary and into the late afternoon sun. Work with Trent? With that dragon in the background watching me? Was he nuts?

Chapter Eighteen

My boots thumped dully on the sidewalk before the church, and with a bag of groceries on my hip, I smiled as I passed the red Mercedes parked at the curb, looking gray in the new dark, but still sexy. Ivy was back early.

Ivy didn’t have a car, much less anything as flamboyant as a red Mercedes, but Nina did, and if Ivy had caught an earlier flight, Nina would have offered to pick her up at the airport. Which was good, seeing as my car was still at Trent’s gatehouse.

The sound of kids playing in the dusk a block over was comforting, but when something ghosted over my head, I instinctively ducked, spinning to follow the shadow floating between me and the sky, still holding the pink of sunset. Slowly my pulse eased as I recognized the shape of a small gargoyle swooping through the spring-narrow leaves, large wings beating heavily as he or she came in almost vertically to land on a tombstone. Yellow eyes swiveled to me, and then her shape melted into the darkness.

My steps had bobbled, and knowing they had heard it, I quickened my pace. There had to be at least a dozen that had flown in since sunset, most on the tall wall surrounding the graveyard, but a few of the smaller ones sat in the neighborhood trees like huge vultures. None of them was on the church, which I thought telling. Jenks had talked to one yesterday, and apparently they were watching Bis’s church to make sure Ku’Sox didn’t damage it while he was in the ever-after.

It both pleased and worried me.

God help me, I had so much to do between now and Friday. It will be easier with Ivy back, I thought as I took the wide stairs of the church fast, shifting the reusable tote so I could get the door. But it opened as I reached for it, and Ivy stood before me, her silhouette sharp in the light pouring onto the stairs.

“Oh thank God you’re here,” I said, shifting the bag to my other hip so I could give her a hug right there on the stoop. “On top of everything else, we have to lift two elven rings from the museum.”

“I should leave more often,” she said, as her arms went briefly around me, her low, throaty voice an audible version of the vampire incense now pouring over me like fragrant oil. Giving her a last squeeze, I stepped back, beaming. Though clearly glad to see me, she was tense and furtive. Her jeans and black sweater were more casual than usual, and her hair, too, was free from its typical ponytail. The new boots she was wearing had a distinctive western feel to them, but she made it work with her sophisticated, trendy jacket.

A tight band eased about my chest as I breathed her in, her vampiric incense laced with the stale plastic scent of air flight and rental cars. Under that was the sweet honeyed smell of Daryl and Glenn’s masculine scent. They were fading, though, and Nina’s expensive perfume was by far the strongest outside influence. Ivy’s hand on my back trembled, and I let her completely go, thoughts of Jax and Nick making my smile falter. I could hear Nina inside, talking to someone. Jenks maybe? Or on the phone, perhaps.

“You should have called me sooner,” Ivy said, her tone accusing as she stepped back into the church. But then her posture slumped, and pain slipped into her black eyes. “How’s Quen doing?”

Mood darkening, I followed her in, waving the new pixy dust aside as Jenks’s kids dove into the bag to see what I’d brought back. “He’s fine, meaning he’s holding everything in, letting it fester.”

She said nothing, and I looked up, reading the concern in her eyes. She had liked Ceri, too. “How are you doing?”

A hundred answers rose up, a hundred frustrations, a hundred raging cries at the world. “I’m fine, too,” I said flatly.

Ivy’s new boots scuffed on the sanctuary’s old floor, her hair falling to hide her face as we headed to the kitchen. Nina’s excited and cheerful voice—no sign of Felix—stood at dark odds with my thoughts.

“So how are Glenn and Daryl?” I asked, and her chin lifted. Concerned, I pulled her to a stop at the top of the hallway. “Ivy?” But she wouldn’t bring her eyes down from the rafters, a hint of emotion welling up as she bit her lip. “Shit,” I whispered, flushing as I realized what I’d done. “I shouldn’t have called you.”

Her eyes flicked to mine, and she shook her head. “I was already on my way back.”

She tried to push past me to go into the hallway, and I got in her way. “What happened?” I demanded. “Did he dump you?”

Ivy’s eyes went pupil black, but I didn’t back down, even when her lips parted to show her teeth. Finally she dropped her head, saying, “Someone tried to sideswipe us on the expressway yesterday.” The way she said it precluded that it was an accident. “Glenn handled it,” she added, voice low as Nina laughed, oblivious to us. “Apparently he’s had some defensive driving classes. Almost as good as the vampire who tried to kill us.”

Her voice was light, but I was too befuddled to do anything as she pushed past me with the intoxicating scent of angry vampire, the complex cocktail plinking through my brain to make my skin ache. I’d thought it was a mistake for her to leave Cincy, but I knew how badly she’d wanted the relationship to work.

“Cormel told me not to leave. I stayed too long. His lapdog is back in the fence,” she said bitterly, halfway down the hall. “He was right. I was wrong. Everything will be fine now.”

She’d given me a reason, but something else had happened out at Flagstaff, something she didn’t want to talk about but probably needed to. Groceries on my hip, I followed her into the brightly lit kitchen. I’d mention it to Jenks. He could push her a lot further than I could, seeing as he couldn’t get bitten.

Nina looked up from Ivy’s computer as I entered, a slim finger running down a search engine list. Jenks hovered over her, clearly interested in the screen. “What will be fine?” Nina said as I dropped the bag on the counter, and the pixy kids flew out, startling me. I’d forgotten they’d been in there, and I exhaled, trying to get rid of the flash of adrenaline.

“Everything,” Ivy said. But her mood seemed glum when she strode to the window and shoved it all the way open. Cool evening air tasting of sunset seeped in, shifting my hair.

Nina wrinkled her carefully powered nose. She looked exceptionally polished tonight, wearing a versatile black pantsuit and functional low heels. Her makeup was light but exquisite, accentuating her fabulous cheekbones and dark coloring. If I hadn’t known by her voice and cadence, I would know it was just her, not Felix, by the color in her cheeks, even if her pupils were edging into a dangerous black. Her eyes were bright and eager as she typed her way through a questionnaire with a speed that was borderline impossible.

“Secrets?” the woman said good-naturedly, her red lips curving up in a smile. Nose wrinkling again, she glanced at me, then away. Oh God, I hadn’t had a chance to shower since coming back from the ever-after. I probably stank. That was why Ivy had shoved the window open, not to get rid of the scent of her anger or my flash of surprise.

Ivy sashayed over to her, and startled, Jenks rose up, wings clattering. “Secrets,” Ivy breathed as she leaned over Nina’s shoulder, her lips inches from her neck. “Always and forever, Nina. It’s what keeps us alive.”

Her eyes on the screen, Nina reached up to touch Ivy’s cheek, hardly noticing.

Embarrassed at my apparent stink, I unpacked the bag. Organic raspberries for an illegal doppelgänger curse, white thread since the pixy girls had absconded with mine, a new coffeemaker . . . Ivy watched in question as I set it clunking on the counter. Her eyes went to the empty spot beside the toaster, and I shrugged.

A faint wish for hot chocolate lifted through me as I took the coffeemaker apart and squirted a splat of soap into it. Filling it with water, I realized my old scar was tingling. Suddenly a lot more awake, I reached for a dish towel and turned. The coffeemaker could wait. Having my back to two amorous vampires was not a good idea.

Ivy was still hunched over Nina, a pale finger tracing something on the monitor, and I felt a pang of loss when Nina smiled beautifully up at her. Nina was on top of the world. It was right about then when things usually fell apart.

“That’s the school Wayde used,” Jenks said, hovering between Nina and the wall as he pointed to a link on the search engine’s list. “He said the rates were high, but the equipment was state-of-the-art, and that’s what you want, right?”

Nina pulled back to see Ivy. “Well, Ivy? You, me, and fifteen thousand feet next Friday?”

I almost choked. “Skydiving?” Ivy hated taking unnecessary chances. “Like two days from now?”

Still bent over Nina, Ivy met my eyes. Maintaining our connection, she found her full height before turning to the fridge. “The week after. You want to come?”

Nina froze. Realizing I’d be a third wheel on a bicycle made for two—or whatever—I turned back to the sudsy coffeemaker. “No, thanks.” It would be all over one way or the other by then. Ivy moving on was a good thing.

Ivy’s motions were intentionally slow as she came out from the fridge, frowning at Nina. She’d caught that jealous stiffening as easily as I had. “We’re out of orange juice,” she said as the door shut hard enough to make the cookie jar rattle.

“We didn’t expect you back this soon,” I said as I rinsed the coffeemaker and set it to dry.

“They have juice at the corner store,” Nina offered. “I’ll run down and get it. I could use the fresh air.” Her nose wrinkled again.

Because I’m stinking up the kitchen, I thought sourly.

Ivy glanced at Jenks with a pleading look, and the pixy brightened as Nina reached for her purse. “Hey, ah, I’ll come with you,” he said, making me more than a little curious. “I’ve got to, ah, stretch my wings. See if we’re the only church on the block with gargoyles on it.”

We were the only church on the block, period. That wasn’t why he was going with her, but content to wait and see, I leaned against the counter and dried the coffeemaker as Nina gave Ivy a quick peck on the corner of her mouth. Ivy’s hand was on her shoulder, the first softening of her mood showing. Whatever was bothering her wasn’t Nina.

Nina strode confidently from the kitchen, Jenks right behind her, his dust a hot silver as he yelled to his kids that Belle had the conn. He’s guarding her?

I put the coffeemaker back together as Nina’s footsteps grew faint. Her voice rose pleasantly as she said something to Jenks, and then there was silence. The door boomed shut.

Ivy’s jaw was tight and her head was bowed.

I exhaled long and slow. It had been a while since we’d been alone together. I hoped whatever it was, it wasn’t too late. “Nina is in a good mood,” I fished. If Ivy wanted to talk, she would.

Ivy pushed herself into motion. “She should be,” she said, a hint of pride in her as she went to her stack of mail and began sorting. “On the way home from the airport, she shoved Felix out of her mind.”

“No!” I put the coffeemaker back in its spot and levered myself up to sit before it. “I didn’t think she had any say in the matter.” Maybe this was why Jenks was with her. Felix would be pissed.

Ivy lifted a shoulder and let it fall, focused on her mail. “If he’d been conditioning her from adolescence, she wouldn’t even think to try, but she grew up without him. Their relationship is only a few months old.” She frowned at the duplicate catalogs from Vamp Vixen. “He’s been relying on her willingness until now, and Nina has a very strong core of self,” she said, smiling faintly. “It’s the first positive step she’s taken to become less dependent on him.” Her smile faded. “He uses her too much.”

Unease trickled down my spine. Though no was in a vampire’s lexicon, it was only to give the other words like sex, hunger, and violence something to bump up against. “You encouraged her to do this?” I said, and a delicate flush crept over her cheeks. “Damn it, Ivy, do you know how dangerous that is? To flaunt your independence before a master?”

Her fingers faltered as they sorted, and I slid from the counter. “Yes, you do,” I said, glad now that I smelled like burnt amber and that the window was open. “Fine. Play with the master vampire. But don’t do it here. I put you back together once. I’m not going to do it again if you go out looking for it!”

Somber, Ivy turned to me, her hair swinging. “I—”

“Don’t tell me you know what you’re doing,” I said, angry that she’d knowingly pushed Nina into something that might get Ivy hurt. “He’s a master vampire, and he’s not even yours!”

“Since when do you have anything to say about what I do!” Ivy exclaimed, her eyes flashing black.

I stood even with the center counter, measuring the space between us. Worlds, there were worlds there. “Since I am your friend,” I pleaded, letting go of my anger so my concern could come forward. “I know I said to try to help her, but goading her master like this? Proving he doesn’t have control? He’s going to be furious. Cormel can’t protect you from everything. He’s pissed you left!”

Turning away, Ivy ripped open an envelope, sorting everything into keep and toss piles.

“Ivy . . .” I pleaded. “You’ve come so far. Why? Is it because you love her?”

“I don’t know!” she said, her eyes black, not in fear, not in hunger, but in heartache. “It didn’t work out between me and Glenn and Daryl, okay? We tried, and it all fell apart. Bad.”

I slumped. This was where her turmoil was coming from. “Your needs are not wrong—”

“Then why couldn’t I make it work, Rachel?” she shouted, and I drew back. “Why did they have to move halfway across a continent to get away from me?”

Throat tight, I crossed the room to her. “Because you need someone who needs you, and I don’t anymore,” I whispered. “Ivy, I’m sorry.”

Her shoulder under my hand trembled, and she backed out of my reach. “There’s no reason to be,” she said softly, hair falling to hide her face. “I have to do this. I like Nina. She’s alive, smart, always moving but never toward anything that doesn’t have meaning. The way she loves life reminds me of you, and she is good at making me do things that I’m afraid to do. But what Felix is doing to her . . . It draws me to her as much as it disgusts me. She’s so much like a master, but innocent.”

Eyes bright with unshed tears, she looked at the ceiling. “I left for a week, and I came back to find he’s in her thoughts almost every waking moment the sun is up, and half the time at night, filling her with power and desire as he sucks in the memory of the sun and love. He won’t leave her alone. I don’t think he can anymore.” Again she looked at her fingers among her mail, shifting them aimlessly. “The man is using her like a drug. He’s not tapping her for blood anymore, which might mean she’s become an extension of himself in his mind. Nina is balanced on a fine edge of control.”

“And you like it.”

Head down, she nodded, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. She felt better for having told me. I could tell. Or maybe it was because I was asking about what she could do, plan . . . fix. “She’s as dependent upon him for control as he is on her for stimulation at this point. He can die twice for all I care, but I don’t want her to pay for his mistake. The only chance Nina has to survive is to take control and tell him no for as long as she can. Even if it puts her in more danger.”

And it would. I could tell. This wasn’t good.

“Nina’s control when alone and under stress is almost nil,” Ivy said, eyes lowered toward the table. “That’s why I asked Jenks to go with her, to buffer any conflicts. I know I can help her learn control if I can keep them apart long enough.” Her head came up, meeting my eyes fully. “She has a chance. If she really wants it, she has a chance.”

I managed a smile to match her own tremulous expression. Ivy had a tremendous need to give, to lift others above the muck she had pulled herself out of. Watching Nina innocently and willingly slip in over her head had been hard. Accepting the challenge to help her was even harder. “Be careful,” I said as I reached across the distance between us and touched her arm. “I’m proud of you, Ivy.”

Her smile slowly vanished, and her dark eyes drifted aimlessly over our kitchen, touching parts of our lives as if she’d never seen them before. “Felix is going to be looking for her tonight. I have to get her to a safe house, but I’ll be back to help plan the museum job.” She took a deep breath, her chin lifting as if she was taking on a new responsibility—or maybe accepting that I wished her well. “The hell they put us through,” she whispered.

I didn’t know what to say. I could tell she was about to leave.

“I should probably go,” Ivy said. “Jenks won’t be able to do much if she loses it. I didn’t want to bring up the safe house while she was in the church. She thinks she’s got the world by the tail.”

Yet another trait that Nina and I shared. “That’s usually when you get bitten,” I said, and Ivy smiled. Nina was far away and distant from me, but there was enough there to make an easy comparison. Ivy might not know it yet, but she was falling in love again.

Ivy reached for her purse, then hesitated. “Are you sure you’ll be okay for a few hours?”

My gut hurt, and I smiled widely. “Oh, hell yes. Nick is around somewhere, but I’ll be fine, especially with all those gargoyles. Ku’Sox won’t show, afraid the curse will bounce back at him. Go.”

Still unsure, Ivy started to back up to the hallway and out of my life. “Stay on hallowed ground until I get back, okay?”

She knew the kitchen wasn’t hallowed ground. “You got it,” I said, turning to look out at the silent, damp garden. “And Ivy? I know what I said, but I will always be here to put you back together. If it should come to that.”

Her smile faltered as she stood in the threshold. “I know. Thank you.”

Head down, she turned away, the keys to Nina’s car jingling. Her footsteps were slow as she made her way through the dark to the front of the church. The boom of the door shook through me.

Arms wrapped around my middle, I smiled even as the tears threatened. This was good. This was very, very good. It had to be if it hurt this much.

Chapter Nineteen

Ms. Morgan! Why is your church the only one with gargoyles?” the woman on my front stoop was saying as I smiled and waved at the camera guy, waiting for the last pixy to come back in before I shut the door in their faces. “What a bitch!” the newscaster added as I bolted it, probably not aware that voices carried through the wall of the church well enough that we didn’t need an intercom.

A peephole would be nice, though, I thought as I put an ear to the door and listened to them pack up and head back to the news van. The camera guy was talking about going down the back street to get a shot of the graveyard and the gargoyles perched on the tombstones, but the woman was in too bad a mood to care about aesthetics. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk to them after they misaligned, misinformed, and generally blew everything out of proportion when it came to my life—but that I really didn’t care to speculate on local TV as to why every single gargoyle in the Cincinnati area was now perched on my church’s wall and in my graveyard.

Sighing, I headed back to the kitchen with pixies in my hair, wishing I’d taken the time to take my apron off before I’d answered the door. I was a mess from spell prep, bits of green stuff and ground herbs marking me. Pixy dust was everywhere, and the ugly red stain on my sleeve from the organic berries looked ominous. At least I wasn’t barefoot.

Boots clunking, I headed for the kitchen, my pixy escort going before me in swirls of cheerful color and noise. Though the night was warm, they were all back inside to avoid the gargoyles. I’d been spelling for hours, and I had to clean something before I could make anything new.

As I ran the water into my spell-grimed pots, Jenks flew in smelling like garden and sounding like wind chimes. Cutting a startling image, he landed on the center counter beside my drying charms. No longer in his usual gardener green, or even his alternate thief-black, skintight ensemble, he all but strutted a few steps, clearly liking the sound of the bells that Belle had sewn into the top of his new boots that she’d made to go with his new black jacket and pants.

Silver and ebony meshed in a sharply angular pattern that never seemed to repeat and, indeed, seemed to change with the light, making a mesmerizing pattern that would get anyone to stare even if Jenks didn’t look like a million bucks in it.

“You sure you don’t want me to harvest more of that yew?” Jenks asked as he came to stand on the spigot. “The gargoyles out there don’t bother me.”

I smiled and ran the now-warm water into the nested spell pots. “No. I’d rather wait. Friday sunrise is the equinox.”

Jenks nodded, jingling his bells when Rex padded in with Belle on her shoulders. “Je-e-enks-s-s-s,” she hissed, her angular features drawn up in annoyance. “I told you to take that off. Those are not fighting clothes-s-s.”

“It’s black, I’m wearing it,” he said, his wings blurring to invisibility. “I don’t have anything else to put on.”

That wasn’t entirely accurate, and I hid a smile and moved the graduated cylinders and mortar to the sink, piling them in the sudsy spell pots. Wringing out the saltwater-soaked rag, I began wiping down my spell-prep area, thinking it rather useless when half of Jenks’s brood was up there, dusting heavily.

“The tails-s-s are too long. If an enemy catches it, he will have you at a dis-s-sadvantage,” she said. “The buttons are too large. They glint in the light. The bells-s-s will give you away.”

I nodded, agreeing with her, and Jenks began to look worried. “I can muffle the bells,” he said, tugging the coat straight. “I like it, fairy woman! I’m wearing it!”

“Your vanity will be your death,” she hissed at him, and Jenks put his hands on his hips.

“Yeah?”

Scowling, Belle nudged Rex toward the door, but the fluffy yellow cat purred her way to me instead, coming to twine about my feet and beg for some attention. Seeing her intent, Belle slipped off, shaking her clothes straight and adjusting the bow across her back.

Jenks flew to the center counter where Belle couldn’t see him from the floor. “Are you sure all this is going to work?” he asked, looking over the assembled charms and spells.

“As long as I can keep your kids’ dust out of them,” I said, then bent down to pick Rex up. “Hi, sweetheart,” I crooned, trying to distract the cat from the pixies arguing over the gumdrop they had found left over from solstice cookie decorations. “I can’t pet you right now. I’m still cleaning the kitchen.”

Jenks rose up on a column of muddy gold. “Everyone out!” he shouted, and the handful of pixies in the rack whined their disappointment. “Go play in the belfry or something!” he added, and the complaints turned to delight. “We’re spending tonight inside!” he added when half of them darted out. “You hear me? I don’t want any of you out there pestering the gargoyles! They might squish you before they know you’re there. Jrixibell! You hear me?”

“Yes, Papa!” the little pixy moaned, then darted out, her dust a bright red of mischief.

“Thanks, Jenks,” I said with a long exhalation, then glanced out the window at the dark garden, the gargoyles’ eyes winking eerily. The older ones looked huge this close to the ground, wings as big as sails stretching in the shadows. No wonder Jenks had corralled his kids back inside for the night. Creeped out, I rinsed the ceramic spoons and set them aside to soak in my saltwater vat.

Rex, who had hid under the chair with wide eyes and flattened ears at the noise from the departing pixies, came out, meowing up at me for an early dinner. Jenks’s wings began to glow as he took to the air. “I don’t like leaving the lines this vulnerable, but Nick isn’t going to show with those gargoyles out there. They probably hate Ku’Sox more than you do.”

I made a sour face. The fact that my line was the only one on the US continent that wasn’t screaming probably had something to do with them being here, too.

“I don’t trust my kids,” Jenks said as he rose up, wings clattering and limbs stretching. “I’ll be on the steeple.”

“I’ll join you,” Belle said, resettling her bow. “I don’t trus-s-st your kids, either.”

Jenks hovered where he was, dust pooling under him. “You want a ride up there?”

Shocked, I stared. Belle, too, seemed taken aback at his offer. “Do you think you can handle my weight, little man?”

“Tink’s panties, yes.”

I watched, amazed as Jenks darted over, picked her up from behind by the waist, and rose, Belle hissing in delight. Wings humming, they flew into the hall, a line of descending silver stars marking their path.

“By the Goddess, you’re more maneuverable than I ever was,” I heard faintly, then even the sound of Jenks’s wings was gone.

“Huh,” I said softly, feeling good. “How about that?”

Smiling, I turned back to the sink. Past the blue curtains and Al’s chrysalis, the hunched shadows of gargoyles were thick among the tombstones, but I could imagine it a month from now with the early flowers blooming and pixies out there instead of in here. I hoped I was here to see it. I had gotten rid of most of the ifs, but it would only take one to bring it all crashing down. Please be okay, Bis.

Slowly the silence soaked in as I finished rinsing everything and set my spelling supplies to dry. My smile faded, and the feeling of being watched pricked through me. There was nothing outside but the low rumbles of the gargoyles. But I knew Nick was out there somewhere—becoming frustrated.

The hair on the back of my neck rose, and even knowing Jenks was on the steeple, I felt as if I was being watched. The air was thick with the scent of vampires, evidence of Ivy and Nina, and nervous, I ran the tap to warm the water as I messed with the soap, head down as I tried to scrub the burnt amber stink out from under my fingernails.

Goose bumps rose, and I couldn’t say why. “Stop it, Rachel,” I whispered as I turned, shocked to see a young, thin vampire standing at my table.

Holy shit! I thought, panic icing through me, first that he might know what I was doing, and then because there was a undead vampire standing in my kitchen and I hadn’t heard him come in. “Who in hell are you?” I said, heart pounding. No wonder I’d felt as if I’d been being watched!

For an instant, I thought he looked like Kisten, the same blond hair falling about his eyes, and when he tossed his head, I almost forgot to breathe. But it wasn’t Kisten. This vampire’s face was thinner, younger, less worldly wise. His frame wasn’t nearly as bulky, giving him a bookish, intelligent mien. His black suit fit him perfectly, a dull white shirt, paisley ascot, and handkerchief finishing his polish. His shoes looked as if they’d never seen the dirt before today.

“I startled you,” he said, hands clasped innocently behind him, but I wasn’t fooled.

“Ivy isn’t here,” I said cautiously, thinking that word she was back got around fast. “I can give her a message.” And then you need to get your ass outta my kitchen, dirt nap. Talking to undead clients in the unsanctified back rooms was standard practice, but they usually knocked first. Damn, this one was old if he could get past Jenks and me without my even hearing him.

“A message will do,” the man said, and I moved to put space between us. I knew it made me look scared, but I wanted to be able to react if I needed to. Slowly his voice filtered through my memory. I recognized it from somewhere, or rather, I recognized how his voice pulled at me, the cadence both mesmerizing and soothing, unnervingly so. Suddenly I was a lot more concerned.

Breathing in my alarm, he moved, the silk of his suit rustling against itself as he tucked a foot behind the other, just the tip touching the floor. His eyes flashed black, and I froze. “I want Nina returned to me,” he said, and that fast, swirling madness entered his eyes.

Shit. “Felix,” I whispered, and he inclined his head, never taking his eyes off mine. This was Felix. He was out of his hole. I was looking at him, not a willing mouthpiece. Ivy had called him out by encouraging Nina to rebel, and he had come. Looking for her.

My fingers slipped from the stainless-steel counter. Felix moved. I got a gasp of air in, and he was on me, pushing me back until I found the wall beside the archway. His arm was under my throat, his breath was on my skin. Delicious tingles sparked through me, and I shoved them aside, refusing to let him take me this way.

“Where is Nina . . .” he began, and I pushed him off me.

He stumbled back, clearly shocked that he hadn’t bespelled me. I was shocked, too. The guy looked like he was eighteen. I didn’t sense any magic keeping him this way. He had died young.

“I’m only going to tell you one more time, Felix,” I said, trying to pull myself out of a defensive crouch. “I don’t care what you want, you will keep your hands off me. Got it?”

Oblivious to my threats, he licked his red lips, gaze darting over the ceiling. “She was here. I can smell her.” Eyes closing, he breathed deep, exhaling to fill the room with the sound of desire. “She has been willful. She needs . . . gentle correction.”

This time I had a bare instant of warning as his eyes met mine before he lunged. “Get off!” I shouted, tapping the line out back as one hand gripped my shoulder and the other twined in my hair. He jerked my head back to lay my neck bare. Energy sizzled as it raced from my chi, running down my hands and burning as it flowed through ever-smaller pathways until it found my palms. I cried out as it burst from me, arcing to him with a tiny pop of sound.

Snarling, he flung me away as it struck him. My back hit the wall, and I stumbled, falling into Ivy’s chair. Tossing the hair from my eyes, I scrambled to my feet, heart pounding. He stood a good eight feet back, almost to the sink. The imprint of my hand showed clearly on his jaw and neck, and he touched it gingerly.

“You said what you wanted. Get out,” I threatened, moving farther into the room so he could leave without getting any closer to me. Where in hell was Jenks? And what was it with the gargoyles letting this guy through? Apparently undead vampires weren’t on their watch list.

But Felix only tugged the sleeves of his suit coat down, clearly trying to calm himself. It wasn’t working. Ivy had been right. This guy was halfway off his rocker.

“Ivy put Nina up to this disobedience,” he said, voice smooth and persuasive, but I wasn’t buying it. “I need her. Directly. Tell me where she is, or I’ll take my needs from you.”

My eyes narrowed at the threat, but I was spared threatening him in turn when Jenks darted in, blade drawn. “Who the hairy-ass fairy are you?”

“You all need correction,” Felix said, and I swear he swallowed back his saliva. “Especially Ivy. I’ve heard about her, been warned she could satisfy me. Bring me to my knees.”

“I can bring you to your knees right now,” I whispered.

“Felix?” the pixy shrilled. “What’s the point of having gargoyles in the backyard if they let this crap through? Troll turds, I’m sorry, Rache.”

My eyes never left Felix’s. He was fast. Faster than Jenks. Still, was I a demon or not? “No need to apologize. Felix was just leaving. Weren’t you?”

“No.” Felix had lost his smile, his youthful features tight in anger that I might be able to stand up to him. It was starting to smell really good in here, but I could ignore it. Mostly. “Give me Nina and I’ll leave you alone for a time. She has it coming.”

How many times had I heard that? How many times did the abuser blame the abused?

“Ivy is trying to help you and Nina both,” I said, keeping my eyes away from the floor and the circle etched into the linoleum. If I could get him two steps closer, he’d be in it. “You are dangerously dependent on her. Let her go. It’s going to kill both of you.”

“Kill me!” he shouted, and Jenks’s wings clattered. Still, Felix remained outside the circle, pacing like a predator afraid to take the bait. “Nina is what is giving me life! She is mine to do what I want with. Mine. Ivy is hiding her. If you won’t give me Nina, restitution is mine to claim. Where is she?

Fingers crooked into claws, he jumped at me again.

This guy is out of his friggin’ mind! I thought as I stood where I was, eyes screwing up against the impact. Jenks darted up and away, the ringing of his sword echoing through me, mixing with the unreal sound of Felix’s anguish.

My eyes flew open as his bone-crushing grip knocked us back into the wall again. Again I poured the line through him.

His fingers tightened as he screamed his frustration, and then he was gone, whirling in anger eight feet away, his black eyes pits. Blood dripped from his face just under his eye, mirrored on Jenks’s sword.

“I will have someone!” Felix shouted, and my lips parted as he crouched, preparing to jump me again. Is he trying to get me to kill him? I thought, shocked when a low sound of hatred rumbled forth, growing as he slid closer, dancing to music that maddened him. “I will have someone . . .”

“Felix, we’re trying to help!” I cried, then traced an informal circle about myself. Seeing it, Felix lunged, arm reaching. Instinct pushed me back, and my heel broke my circle even as it formed. I gasped, then stared, shocked as a shadow from the back living room flew into the kitchen, jerking Felix from me and spinning him into the corner by the fridge.