Eighteen

My lungs rebounded, and I felt myself slip; then I jerked upright even before flesh had reformed to separate Al from me again. Pulse hammering, I staggered when Al let me go, narrowly avoiding a fall to the slick black stone engraved with that same pattern of intertwined icy-white-edged circles that the coven had. Wincing, I tucked my fading pain amulet back under my shirt. I leaned to snatch Pierce’s hat off the floor, and my hip protested. It was probably black and blue by now.

Al had his back to me as he poked about in one of the tall cupboards, the old glass in the wooden frames making his face a blur. “Make up the fire if you’re cold,” he said, tossing a palm-size bag at me.

I scrambled to catch it, knowing he’d smack me if it touched the floor. The bag was squishy, probably holding coarse salt. Feeling achy, I crossed the room to set the black silk bag on the corner of the slate table standing between the smaller hearth fire cheerfully glowing and the huge—but dark—circular fire pit in the middle of the room. With a sigh, I dropped Pierce’s hat on the bench surrounding the central fire. The drugs were wearing off, and, arms around myself, I weighed the trouble of starting a fire in the main pit with simply being cold for the time it would take to do the curse. My God, he was finally going to do it.

A soft glow blossomed in the six fixed globes when Al pulled a book from an unlocked cabinet to check on something, barely illuminating the slate table before the smaller hearth. There were two chairs at it, one at either end—the first with padded cushions and arms, the second a simple stool. It had shocked the hell out of me the first time I’d tried to sit on the stool and found myself smacked halfway across the room. I was supposed to use Ceri’s comfortable chair, apparently.

My thoughts drifted back to my own kitchen and I sighed, not for missing the gleaming counters and bright lights, but for the people I’d left behind. “You know I can’t start a fire to save my life,” I complained as I gingerly picked out some thin sticks from the basket of kindling. It wasn’t that cold, but if I was trying to light a fire, he’d stop throwing spelling equipment at me. “Don’t you have some Logs-o-Fire or something?”

Al didn’t even look up from his collection of knives in a locked case. “Then we’ll be cold until you learn. Try not to use all the kindling. It’s expensive.” Seeing me stirring the ash at the center of the pit for signs of life, he crossed the room to set that ugly ceremonial knife with the writhing woman on it beside the bag.

“Can’t you just turn up the heat?” I complained. His receiving room looked like a mansion, the mundane kitchen where Pierce slept was modern, and I’d never seen Al’s bedroom, thank God, but here, he went rustic.

“No pipes here,” he said, voice faint as he thoughtfully fingered his stash of candles.

My head bobbed. Duh. Even a hastily set circle would be secure. I glanced at the mantel where Krathion still sat next to Mr. Fish, and I shivered. How often was I going to need protection from a banshee, anyway?

Al shut a drawer hard, then set a small, thin plank of what was probably redwood out with the salt and candles. “Feeling more yourself?” he asked slyly.

Again my head nodded, and I dropped a chunk of wood in the pit to serve as a heat trap, snuggling it into the ash. “Yes,” I said shortly, thinking the ash on my hands smelled better than the burnt amber that permeated the place. I was going to have to shower when I got home.

“Pity.” Al turned away, scanning a shelf of metal objects and plucking one at seeming random. “I liked you drunk. You’re more fun. Can I make you a cake, love?”

He was grinning evilly, and I grimaced at his ruddy face and his goat-slitted eyes. They looked almost normal in the dim light. I took a breath to tell him where he could shove his cake, but he jerked, his eyes going to the hearth and an eager light coming into them. “I knew it. Little runt!” he whispered, bolting across the room.

I stood as Pierce popped into existence before the small hearth, right into Al’s grip. “Got you!” Al snarled, a white-gloved hand around his throat. Pierce’s eyes widened, then he screwed them shut—right before Al shoved his head into the stone mantel. Mr. Fish splashed at the ugly thump, and Pierce grunted in pain. Pierce’s hand flung into the air, and the coffee mug from Nick’s apartment rolled off to shatter on the hard floor.

“Watch out for Krathion!” I shouted, seeing the bottle tip, but it rocked back, safe.

“That’s for threatening me with Newt,” Al said. “I own you. Don’t forget it.”

“Al! Stop!” I cried as Al shoved Pierce’s head into the mantel a second time. “You’re going to knock Krathion off!”

“And that’s for not staying put when I told you to,” the demon snarled, but Pierce couldn’t possibly hear him. His eyes had rolled back and he had gone limp.

“Al!” I shouted, and he opened his hand to let Pierce slump to the hearth, out cold.

The demon turned to me, and I skidded to a halt beside the table, frightened by his seething anger. Behind him, the low fire burned. At his feet, Pierce lay, unmoving.

“What is your problem!” I asked, wanting to see if Pierce was okay, but Al’s eyes were evaluating me from over his smoked glasses, and his white-gloved hands were in fists.

“The only reason you’re still standing,” Al said, his voice whispering an echo in the dark, high ceiling, “is because you didn’t put him up to it. I will not be threatened by a familiar.”

My mouth was dry, and I dropped my attention to Pierce for an instant before returning it to Al. “He keeps trying to protect me. Damn it, Al, I didn’t ask for this.”

His posture easing, Al dropped his gaze to look at Pierce. Using the toe of his shiny buckled shoe, he edged Pierce’s coat away from the fire. I took a slow breath, thinking the worst might be over, but still my heart was pounding. “Maybe Newt was right,” Al said blandly.

“About what?” God, he’d just knocked him out. Pierce could be bleeding inside his skull and we’d never know.

But Al didn’t answer me, instead going to a cupboard and leaving Pierce crumpled where he lay. “Move him,” he said, his back to me as he rummaged. “Unless you want me to do it?”

No, I didn’t want Al to do it. He’d likely pick him up and throw him across the room. Knees protesting, I knelt on the hard marble floor. My jaw clenched as I turned Pierce’s head to me and lifted his eyelids to make sure his pupils were dilating the way they should. He looked like he was sleeping, but there were twin lumps under his hair when I felt for them. The softly curling black was like silk on my fingertips, and I sat back on my heels and exhaled. He was probably going to be okay.

“Now, Rachel.”

Giving Al a nasty look, I stood and grabbed Pierce under his shoulders. Straining, I shuffled backward, dragging him past the table and across the expanse to the fire pit. There was no way I could get him off the floor and onto the bench, so I left him there, taking a moment to arrange his arms and legs. Where did Pierce get silk socks?

“I can’t believe you knocked him out,” I said, then ducked when Al threw something at me. I spun to see a heavy copper pyramid thunk into the wall, leaving a dent.

“I told him not to come,” Al said with an empty, vaguely jealous slant to his eyes. “I don’t want him seeing this. Forget the fire. You won’t be here long enough to get cold.”

I glanced at Pierce, seeing his slow, even breaths. Mood sour, I picked up the heavy pyramid and set it on the table with an attention-getting thump. “I hate you, Al,” I said, but he only started to hum as he sat on his stool with a flourish and began arranging things. “I really do,” I offered again. “What if he’s seriously hurt?”

Al calmly looked at me over his glasses. “Then I’ll fix him after our chat and before I send him back to you. We don’t want Newt saying I left you with an inferior chaperone. He’ll be fine. Sit. Unless you want to keep my name?”

My heart gave a thump, and I eased into Ceri’s chair, wondering if I was following in her footsteps and would spend the next millennia thinking this thing before me in lace and velvet was my world.

Seeing him busy with the bag of salt, I reached for a gold candle. Al slapped my hand, and I scowled at him.

“You watch,” he said as I shoved my stinging hand under my arm. “I’ll tell you when I need you, not before.”

“Fine with me,” I said tightly. I glanced at Pierce, but his eyes were still shut.

Still humming, Al opened the small black bag. White glove gone, he reached in and removed a handful of gray grit, tracing a foot-long Mobius strip on the slate between us. The greasy dust sifted from him as his humming took on the sound of a chant. Low and tonal, the sound struck deep in my primitive brain and made me sit straighter. It was like the chant of Asian monks, the foreign power of something else, mysterious and alien. Though nothing changed, Al looked utterly different, sitting before me with words I’d never understand coming from him.

“That’s not salt,” I said as the last spilled from his hand and he wiped it on a white cloth that he pulled from an inside pocket.

“I’m not going to use salt,” he said, and tossed the soiled towel at me. “What do you take me for? It’s cremation dust.” Al’s gaze went distant. “She died screaming. I was inside her at the time. God, I could feel everything. It was like I was dying with her.”

What am I doing here?

Repulsed, I leaned away, my breath hissing in when Al reached over his glyph and put his hand atop mine. I pulled back, but he gripped me harder, forcing my hand to the table. His gloves were still missing, and his skin was darker than I would’ve thought. A tingle was spilling from him to me, and I yanked out from under him, thinking it shouldn’t feel that good.

“It’s power, Rachel,” Al said softly, gaze fixed to mine. “Thinking that it’s evil is only because of your bad upbringing. You should go with your instincts and enjoy it. Gordian Nathaniel Pierce does.” His hand returned to his side of the table, and I remembered to breathe. “Give me the pyramid.”

I couldn’t get the frown off my face, and I stared at Al. He was waiting, confident that I’d reach across the table and hand it to him—when he was closer to it than me. The drug was completely out of my system and I felt drained. Al’s gaze slid to Pierce in a silent threat, and I reached for the pyramid. To show defiance now would only hurt Pierce more.

Al’s thick lips parted in a smile as my fingers pressed into the warm metal, finding purchase on the engraved figures. It was heavier than it looked, and I could feel my arm take the weight, but I hesitated as I looked at the odd writing on it that my ley-line pyramid lacked. The metal, too, wasn’t friendly copper like I’d originally thought, but something denser, darker, feeling like salted iron to my fingers.

It was hard to explain, and I reluctantly set it on Al’s waiting hand. His palm was crisscrossed with heavy, distinct lines where most people had only a few. I’d never seen his palm before, and he frowned when he saw me scrutinize it.

Al curled his fingers around the pyramid and placed it in the middle of the figure eight where the dust lines crossed. His chanting started up again, and I stifled a shiver. Naked fingers reaching, Al set the gray candle in the cave of the figure eight nearest me, and the gold one before him. I caught the placing words ipse and alius among his monotone mumbling.

“You’re doing it wrong,” I said, and Al’s chanting ceased.

“I’m doing it properly—student,” he said as he took up another handful of dust.

“But my aura is gold,” I protested. “Why do I have the gray candle? “

“Because I say so. You’re gray, Rachel. Grayer than fog, and just as dense. Besides, I’m always the gold candle.”

It wasn’t a reason, and I wasn’t going to let him screw this up on purpose.

“Light your candle,” Al said. “There are tapers in the can.”

I glanced at the jar of thin strips of wood beside his hearth fire, then jerked when he snatched my wrist, forcing my palm up and dropping a handful of dust into it. It felt alive, greasy and staticky. If only to get rid of it, I sifted it around the base of the unlit gray candle saying the setting word, ipse, then grumbling that I should be the gold, not him.

“Ipse,” Al echoed, mocking me as I set my candle with the same word he used. His fingers pinched the cold wick, and when they parted, the candle was lit. Smirking, I did the same, whispering ipse again. The candle might be gray—which was not a good choice—but I’d set it twice with the proper word. If the spell failed to work, it wouldn’t be my fault.

“Who taught you how to light candles from your thoughts?” Al said, his goat-slitted eyes on Pierce.

The man was still out cold, and I shrugged. “Ceri,” I said, but my gut was tightening. This had to work. I wanted it done, and done now.

Grunting in acceptance, Al balanced a narrow shaving of redwood atop the pyramid. It was a small relief that this, at least, was unchanged. Al took off his glasses. Arms on the slate table, he leaned over the spell, now ready for the focusing objects. Expression eager, he handed me his ceremonial knife.

“Can I use the other one?” I asked, looking in distaste at the curved blade and the image of a tormented, naked woman writhing about the handle, hands and feet bound and mouth open in a scream.

“No.”

I took a slow breath. Just do it, I thought, touching the blade to my finger.

“There is no almost when it comes to magic,” Al said, and adrenaline surged when his hand clamped down over the knife and pressed it against me. I jerked, my hand suddenly warm and slick as I pulled away. Pain was a pulse behind it.

“Damn it, Al!” I shouted, staring in horror at my bloody palm, then the knife in my other hand, slick and gleaming. My grip tightened on the handle. Frightened and angry, I looked at Al, but his hand was even worse. When I’d pulled away, I’d cut him deep. Most of the blood on me was his. I think.

“I thought your blood wasn’t an accurate focusing object anymore,” I said, and the demon met my gaze, having been eying his palm with interest as to which lines I’d cut across.

“It wasn’t—until you set it back to zero with that little stunt of yours,” he said, holding his hand over his end of the balanced stick. “All together now… “

My heart was pounding, and my hand shook as I set the knife down. Black magic. Just do it. Finish it. Shivering inside, I held my bleeding hand over the stick, and with a few rubs at my finger, the blood started to drip. Al squeezed his hand until a red rivulet started down the inside of his fist. Three drops to mirror mine hit the stick, and his bloodied hand opened.

He made a pleased sound, and the scent of burnt amber rose to mix with the scent of redwood and wood smoke. Almost done. “Finish it,” I said, then jerked when he leaned over the table and grabbed my wrist with his bloody, sticky fingers, yanking me half out of my chair. “What are you doing?” I demanded, scared.

“Relax,” Al said, smearing our blood together on the last candle. “Count yourself lucky I don’t want to share the twisting another way.”

He meant sex, and I tugged my hand from Al’s, only to find it recaptured and pressed against the candle again. “Try it and you’ll be walking funny for a week,” I said, glaring.

“One night, itchy witch, you’ll come to me,” was all he said. Still holding me halfway across the table with my arm outstretched, he smiled and whispered, “Evulago.”

My hand in his grip, I stared. My heart hammered, and the wax beneath our fingers became warm. That was the word that would start it all, the one that registered the curse and made it stick. And through my hand touching his, I felt a sensation of disconnection, as if the floor wasn’t quite under me. If I closed my eyes, I wasn’t sure if I would be here when I opened them, or if I’d be lost in an open, whispering space of the collective where everyone was talking and no one listened. But this time, when Al’s word echoed in my head, it was as if someone paused.

Al glowered. “You’ve been recognized. This is exactly why I didn’t want to do this.”

His hand let go, and I eased away. Immediately the feeling of the open room and vertigo faded. Nervous, I picked up the white cloth he had thrown at me earlier and wiped my hand as clean as I could get it before tossing it into his hearth fire to burn. I’d not leave it around with the blood of both of us on it.

As the cloth caught, I could feel the curse winding its way through me, settling into my bones, becoming a part of me. My vision was blurry, and I realized I was seeing Al’s aura, untainted and unsullied by his millennium of ever-after imbalance. Lips parted, I shifted my eyes from his to mine, also visible as we did the curse. Al’s aura was a freaking gold. It was shot through with red and purple, but it was gold, same as mine. Same as Trent’s.

The demon saw my shock, and he smiled. “Surprised?” he said softly, voice low and seductive. “Funny how these things work out. Doesn’t mean anything though. Not really.”

“Ye-e-e-eah,” I drawled, gaze flicking behind him to Pierce. Either he was still out, or he was faking. Al’s eyes were on mine when I turned back, and I felt cold as I recalled him tasting my aura after I did a spell to see the dead. “Can we finish this?” I said, uneasy.

Head bobbing once, Al reached out and simply spun the stick a hundred and eighty degrees. “Omnia mutantur,” he said firmly.

All things change, I thought, then blinked when Al shuddered. His eyes closed, and he breathed deeply, as if tasting something on the air. I’d never seen him with his eyes closed like that, and I noticed the faint lines at the corners. “I take this,” he mouthed, not a sound coming from him. I remembered the imbalance hitting me when I did the curse. It had hurt like hell until I accepted it. For Al, there had been no pain—but he hadn’t tried to avoid it either.

My head was hurting, and after glancing at Pierce, I breathed, “My mark?”

Al’s eyes opened, landing immediately on mine. There was nothing in his expression. “It’s gone,” he said simply, and a thrill spun from my head to my toes.

I scooted my chair back and fumbled at my boot. “I said it was gone,” Al said indignantly.

“I believe you.” Heart pounding, I wedged my boot off, and it hit the floor with a thump. Fumbling with the sock, I peeled it off like a snake-skin and twisted my foot up and around. Tears filled my eyes, spilling out and down in a warm trickle. The underside of my foot was smooth and unbroken. The raised circle with a slash through it was gone. It was gone!

Blinking furiously, I smiled. “It’s gone,” I said, letting my foot go. “I did it!”

“Yada yada yada,” Al said sourly. “You tricked the big bad demon. Congratulations. The only way I’m going to save face is by snagging some excellent ley-line witches. Coven quality, you say?”

My exuberance died. “Al, wait,” I said as I set my foot on the icy floor, feeling the cold soak up all the way to my spine. “Do you know what they will do to me if you show up and try to snag them?” I’d known this was a possibility, but at the time, it had been me or them, and me always wins when the them is a bully.

Al stood, strutting over to Pierce and looking down at him, nudging him with a toe. “Do you know how rare it is for a coven-quality witch to summon me? Raw and untutored in the art of containing a demon? They kill their own if they become skilled in the dark arts, don’t they, Gordian Nathaniel Pierce?” he said to the unconscious witch. “If you can get out of their circle, Rachel, I can, too.”

My face skewed up in worry as a sheet of ever-after coated him, and suddenly it looked as if I was standing above Pierce, far too sexy and slim in my working leathers, my hair wild and my lips parted. Oh. Shit.

“My name is Rachel Morgan,” Al said, mimicking my voice perfectly. “I like black panties, action movies, and being on top.”

My jaw clenched, and I wondered how much I was going to pay for getting my name back. “I’m never going to get my shunning removed if you do that,” I said as I shook my sock right side out again.

“I don’t give a flying damn.” Looking like himself again, Al shifted his shoulders as if trying to fit back in his skin. “I don’t know why you even care about your shunning,” he said as he returned to the table and began gathering things. “I’ve told you you’d be welcome here. Have a name that is respected. Have I not proved we can work together? That I can honor my word?”

“Only when I force you to.”

“That you’re safe, protected?” he continued as if I hadn’t said anything as he slid his pyramid away and shut the cupboard. “Why do you fight this, itchy witch?”

I tugged my sock back on, eyes downcast. “I’m not a demon. You said it yourself.” Lee thought I was, though.

His lips curved up in a nasty smile, and he tossed the used candles into a bin. “Perception is everything, determining how others treat us. If enough people think you’re a demon, you are.”

Snatching up my boot, I glanced at Pierce and away. I was eager to get home, even if I was loath to leave Pierce. He wasn’t my responsibility, but that didn’t mean I didn’t care. I was going to have to make a call. The coven still had my old cell phone. Maybe if I warned them, I wouldn’t get blamed when someone ended up dead or snagged. Maybe. Maybe not.

“You really should stay,” Al said mildly as he put the ashes back in the box he kept them locked in. “Your friends are all going to die.”

“Not today they’re not,” I said, feeling my anger rise

Al turned to look at me. “No,” he agreed. “But they will. Eventually. You won’t. Not anymore. Unless you’re stupid about it.”

My pulse hammered, and I stared at Al. Was he kidding?

“He’s going to hurt you,” Al said, looking at Pierce. “I can take care of you, teach you to survive. Be there for you, even if you do hate me.”

I shivered. “I don’t want him,” I said, and Al turned away, seeming smaller somehow.

“Mmmm.” Al stood before me, running his gaze up and down and lingering on the mess my hair had become. “Do you think the coven might summon me tonight?” he asked as he took my arm and escorted me past Pierce to the elaborate glyph of the screaming face. His smile deepened, becoming pure evil. “I do.”

“Al, wait,” I said as I hobbled with him, one foot in a boot, one in a sock. But I knew my protests would be futile. If I warned them, I wasn’t helping my case of being a white witch, seeing that I’d have to explain why Al had his name back. If I didn’t warn them and Al took someone… Well, if he took them all, I might stay out of jail, but how could I live with myself?

“If they don’t summon me,” Al continued, “I suspect that they’ll likely spend their resources sending assassins after you. It’s a tricky moral problem, isn’t it? Warn them, and they survive to kill you. Remain silent, and they die and you live. My little gray witch.”

He reached to touch my face, and I swung my boot at him. Al only laughed. “Get yourself cleaned up, will you? You’re a mess,” he said, then gave me a shove.

I fell backward onto the screaming face etched into the marble floor, feeling my body dissolve into thought as my boot skidded across the stone floor. Before I could feel the cold of nothing, the black stone shifted to the familiar salt-laced linoleum of my kitchen. I was home.

Looking up, I found Ivy, Jenks, and Lee waiting for me. Silently they took in my blood-smeared hand and the lack of Pierce. Ivy sighed and Jenks’s wings slowed and stopped. My jaw clenched, and I forced it to relax.

I was home. I’d gotten a demon mark removed. I couldn’t be summoned by anyone but Al and my friends. And I didn’t have the slightest idea what I was going to do.

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