Still Not Dead Enough

Book 2 of The Dead Among Us

When the dead refuse to rest in peace,
perhaps they just need a helping hand.

Still Not Dead Enough, Book 2 of The Dead Among Us
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ISBN: 978-1-938701-33-7 (eBook)
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Version 2014.04.11

Contents

Prologue: Salt, Silver, Iron

Chapter 1: No Safe Harbor

Chapter 2: The Black

Chapter 3: An Old Story

Chapter 4: The Hunt

Chapter 5: The Bearer

Chapter 6: The Secret Uncovered

Chapter 7: An Ancient Invocation

Chapter 8: The Cloe Card

Chapter 9: The Alice Connection

Chapter 10: Immortality Truncated

Chapter 11: The Triple Goddess

Chapter 12: Delivery Complete

Chapter 13: A Bargain Fulfilled

Chapter 14: An Unexpected Visitor

Chapter 15: The Trap Is Set

Chapter 16: Oaths That Bind

Chapter 17: No Free Will

Chapter 18: Memories Unlocked

Chapter 19: Pass-Fail Time

Chapter 20: Always a Target

Chapter 21: Not Really Welcome

Chapter 22: The Truth of the Beast

Chapter 23: Many Paths to Betrayal

Chapter 24: Reality Redefined

Chapter 25: A Choice of Desires

Epilogue: Doubts and Fears

Acknowledgements

Other Books Available by J. L. Doty

About the Author

Still Not Dead Enough

Book 2 of The Dead Among Us

When the dead refuse to rest in peace,
perhaps they just need a helping hand.

Prologue: Salt, Silver, Iron

“Focus,” McGowan growled. “Try to remember that feeling you got when your wife’s spirit came to you.”

Seated with the older man at the table in McGowan’s kitchen, Paul only made a half-hearted attempt to comply. The feeling he’d gotten when Suzanna had come to him—relief that she’d come back, and fear that he was bug-fuck nuts—the old man didn’t understand.

“For me it’s like an itch,” McGowan said. “Kind of in the back of my thoughts.”

They wanted him to learn some simple spells—in this case a fire spell—so he could develop control. If he could turn simple spells on and off at will, then he’d have a conscious understanding of what he’d been doing spontaneously, and, hopefully, he’d get rid of the spontaneous part. At least that was the theory, a theory that didn’t seem too valid at the moment. After three such lessons Paul had failed miserably.

“For you it’ll probably be different. It’s different for everyone. You have to find your connection to power and focus it.”

Paul clung to a belief—or perhaps more a hope—that these wizards and witches were all a bunch of nut cases. Even after his experience with the Secundus, he wanted desperately to find a rational explanation for all the irrational crap he’d gone through. He’d rather just walk away from it all, start rebuilding his life, a normal life where wizards and witches and demons and pointy-eared elves were great fun in some book. But they wouldn’t let him. If he didn’t apprentice to someone they were afraid he’d start doing crazy stuff again. And then they’d all want him dead, including the Mad Queen and her fairy friends. Certainly, McGowan was better than that asshole Russian.

“The spirit of your wife didn’t just come to you,” McGowan continued. “You brought it with an act of will.”

He did remember how Suzanna and Cloe had come to him. His desire to see them again had combined with the pain of losing them, and that had coalesced into something real and solid deep inside him, a hot spark of need.

“Yes,” McGowan said, “I can feel it. Your power is coalescing nicely. Now focus on the paper, feed the power into the paper. And don’t think of it as heat. Remember, fire is an elemental. Think of it as pure fire, an elemental that can consume almost anything.”

McGowan had placed a cast-iron frying pan in the middle of the table with a crumpled piece of paper in it. Somehow, Paul was supposed to light that paper on fire with this magic stuff. Play along, Paul thought. Play along and keep them happy.

Paul focused that hot spark of need on the paper in the pan. He felt some sort of energy swirling about him, a quiet maelstrom that didn’t manifest in a physical sense, and he fed some of that into the spark, though still nothing happened. But the spark responded almost as if it were alive, as if it was a conscious being rather than some form of elemental energy. And he sensed it hungering for more. He reluctantly gave it a little more, and it responded like a small kitten purring happily.

“That’s it,” McGowan said. “You’re headed in the right direction. I know this is difficult for a beginner, but you’re not strong enough to cause any harm. So focus and give it everything you’ve got.”

I want your all, the spark said to him, a silent whisper buried somewhere deep in his soul.

“Don’t hold back,” McGowan said. “Push yourself.”

All right, Paul thought.

He took hold of the maelstrom forcibly, gathered all of the energy he could handle and fed the whole thing into the spark.

A massive ball of fire roared to life in the middle of the table, and a blast of hot air forced Paul to stand up and step back, singing hairs on his face and arms. On the other side of the table McGowan shouted, “Holy shit!” He jumped up from his chair and backed away from the raging inferno licking at the ceiling of the kitchen.

The life Paul had sensed in the spark had come fully awake, though it was nascent, almost embryonic, and it wanted more from him. McGowan said something and waved his arms, somehow manipulated that maelstrom of energy and the spark receded. But as the flames died, Paul had the oddest feeling that the life he’d sensed hadn’t really left him, though sooty black smoke continued to rise from the ruin of the kitchen table as a reminder that something had come from somewhere and joined them in the kitchen, no matter how briefly.

Sarah, McGowan’s personal assistant, appeared in the kitchen entrance, feet spread, fists knuckled on her hips, an angry scowl on her face. “I warned you this kind of training should be done in your workshop.”

McGowan said something to her but Paul had stopped listening, had turned inward and focused on that spark of power within him. It was there, and he had nearly burned down McGowan’s house with it. He, Paul Conklin, had done some magic stuff, some very dangerous magic stuff. That, he couldn’t deny.

••••

“Salt,” Katherine said, “silver and iron.” Paul and she were seated across from each other at the new kitchen table in McGowan’s home. Katherine lifted a mug of coffee to her lips, blew on it and took a sip. Paul sipped his own coffee as she continued. “Three substances that are unique when it comes to the Three Realms.”

It had taken three weeks to repair the ruin of the kitchen. Paul had melted the cast-iron frying pan into a blob of slag, and it had burned a hole right through the table, would have burned its way through the floor to the rooms below had McGowan not quenched it with his own powers. The ceiling and cabinets had been scorched, the appliances scored and blackened, an amazing amount of damage for such a simple little spell. For anyone else it would have taken a couple of months to gut the kitchen and repair it properly. But money talked, and apparently, McGowan had plenty of that kind of talk.

In the middle of the kitchen table sat a simple arrangement of salt and pepper shakers, a small basket of paper napkins, and a vase of colorful flowers. Katherine reached out, took the saltshaker, twisted off its cap and poured a thumbnail-size pile on the table in front of her. Then she pinched a bit of salt between her thumb and forefinger, and rubbing the two fingers together in a circular motion, she sprinkled a fine dusting of white crystals in front of her on the table. She did it slowly, almost absentmindedly.

She’d been like that since that night Paul had destroyed the Secundus demon and they’d learned he was a necromancer, distant, absent. Whenever Paul was around it was as if she wasn’t there, her thoughts focused elsewhere. Either that or she was in a hurry to be away from him.

“Salt is quite unique,” she said, drawing a line with her finger through the dusting of powder on the table. To a cursory glance one might think she was looking at her finger tracing the line through the salt, but her eyes remained unfocused in a thousand-yard stare. “It makes an excellent protective circle, though you can use almost any substance for that, and each has certain advantages. But lay down a ring of salt, push power into it and invoke the proper spells, and you can form an impenetrable circle, a circle no being can cross—mortal, demon or fey—a circle through which no magic can pass, through which no physical substance can pass.”

One side benefit if apprenticing to McGowan was that Paul had more opportunity to run into Katherine, purely by chance, of course, as had happened today.

She looked up from the salt on the table and her eyes settled on Paul, though it took them a long second to focus. “Salt can also break a spell, or mute it badly. You saw that happen when we were doused with seawater at the Secundus’s mansion. It’s good to carry a little salt on you. If you’re ever spelled, mix it with water and rub yourself down.”

Paul had come to McGowan’s place for one of his lessons. He’d run into Katherine, and as soon as she’d seen him she’d tried to leave, and he had to insist she sit down and talk to him, had to be almost rude about it. And then she’d managed to avoid really talking to him by turning it into an impromptu lesson.

“Now silver,” she said, “is quite interesting. Soft and compliant here on the Mortal Plane, you’d never think to make a knife or sword out of it. But take that same piece of silver into Faerie, and it’s harder than the hardest steel. Sidhe warriors carry thin rapiers made of pure silver, and they can easily cut a man in two with such a blade—at least in Faerie.”

She picked up her mug of coffee, held it just below the edge of the table and brushed the salt into it. Then she stood and crossed the room to the sink. Now that her bruises had healed, she’d returned to wearing expensive looking business suits, the skirt cut just above the knees, high-heels clacking on the kitchen floor. The suit would fit in any corporate boardroom, but it was cut to emphasize her figure, and somehow, on her, a business suit was something quite sexy. She dumped the salted remains of her coffee into the kitchen sink, rinsed the cup out with a little tap water and left it there. She said she looked good in high-heels, and she did, but Paul wasn’t looking at her shoes.

A voice whispered in Paul’s ear, “You’re staring at my daughter’s ass.”

Paul jumped and turned to find that McGowan had snuck up on him, was standing over him frowning unhappily. All he could think to say was, “Uhhhh!”

Katherine said, “Was he now?”

Paul spun back to Katherine. She was still standing with her back turned toward him, but had twisted about to look down at her own butt. “A girl likes to know her best . . . assets . . . are appreciated.” Her eyes lifted to look at Paul, and it was the Katherine he knew, no blushing, no shyness. She batted her eyelashes at him. “I’m flattered, Conklin.”

McGowan snarled at her, “Don’t act slutty.”

She turned toward him and marched across the room, saying, “Don’t act like such a father. I’m a grown woman so I get to be as slutty as I want.”

McGowan rolled his eyes as she turned to Paul. “We can finish talking about salt, silver and iron—and my ass—later. I’ve gotta go.”

She turned and headed toward the front door. Paul got up to follow her, but McGowan stepped in his way. “You can’t leave. We’ve got a lesson.”

Paul said, “I’ll be right back,” then stepped around McGowan and into the hall just in time to see the front door closing. By the time he got out the front door Katherine was thirty feet up the sidewalk.

“Katherine, wait,” he called.

She hesitated, turned and waited for him, and as he approached her he realized the other, more reserved and distant Katherine had returned. “Why are you avoiding me?” he asked.

She eyed him warily, suspiciously, thought about that for a moment, then said, “You’re a necromancer. None of us really understands what that means, and I think that’s probably a very dangerous thing to be. And I’ve thought about that a lot, and I really don’t need a dangerous man in my life. Been there, done that.”

She turned away from him, but he caught her arm. “What does that mean?”

She shook her head. “I don’t want to talk about it.” She turned and marched away, marched like a soldier going to battle, making it clear she didn’t want Paul to follow her.

••••

With the Summer Queen standing beside him High Chancellor Cadilus watched Katherine’s image in the scrying bowl as she marched up the street. When Paul turned and returned to the Old Wizard’s house, she said, “I am pleased. You have . . . unusually adept talent on the Mortal Plane.”

Cadilus nodded respectfully. “I’ve spent centuries developing the conduits needed to function there. I’ve set the spells myself, and I’m using some of our mages to maintain them.”

She smiled, and he knew by the absence of flames in her eyes that she was pleased. “I see you’re driving a nice wedge between the two young people.”

Again, Cadilus nodded. “As you requested, Your Majesty, though I must move cautiously and subtly to be certain the Old Wizard doesn’t detect my interference.”

She turned away from him, saying, “What spells are you using?”

A set of tall French doors appeared in the wall in front of her, and she stepped through them. Cadilus followed her out onto a balcony overlooking the countryside of Faerie. “Just a simple spell to make her doubt him, and to question her own feelings. Those short-lived mortals don’t truly understand the nature of a necromancer, so it’s not difficult to introduce doubt into the equation, leavened by a bit of suspicion and paranoia. The effect of my spells wanes when she’s protected within the wards of the Old Wizard’s home, or if, for any other reason we can’t reach her. But when she emerges and one of my assistants regains access to her, the spells are quickly reinforced.”

She turned toward him and smiled, her emerald green eyes bathing Cadilus in the glory of the Summer Queen. “You have done well. Separated and untrusting, those two young mortals are weaker. We’ll need that weakness when the time comes. Have the Realms calmed?”

“On the surface, yes, Your Majesty.”

Her eyes narrowed unhappily. “That doesn’t sound . . . comforting.”

Cadilus shook his head. “The young man is a necromancer, which explains some of his unusual abilities. The mortals all now accept that he’s not a demon, though I wonder if a necromancer can really exist without some demon blood in his veins.”

As he spoke the shadows of undeveloped, primordial Sidhe spirits coalesced about the Summer Queen’s flame-red hair. “The Netherworld is quiet, Your Majesty, with no overt unrest. But when I look closely there is a certain watchfulness there; I suspect some high-caste nether beings are quite interested in this necromancer, and I find their anticipation discomforting.”

The flames had returned to her eyes, and the spirits fluttering about her had become unsettled. “And let’s not forget the Morrigan,” she said.

Cadilus nodded. “Yes. The triple goddess is . . . aroused, though quiescent. But the mere fact that she is focused on the matter, that she finds it of such keen interest . . . I know not what to make of that.”

“Perhaps you should have a word with the black.”

Cadilus grimaced, and Magreth frowned sympathetically. “Yes, my dear Cadilus, an unpleasant task, and difficult, and so a task I can only trust to you.”

Cadilus sighed. “I’ll have to think carefully how to approach them. And who among them to approach. And what inducement I can offer such unstable creatures.”

“I’m sure you’ll come up with something,” she said. “The black are, after all, most effective when focused on the right target.”

••••

Anogh waited impatiently in the old fortress. He sensed that Taal’mara was near, and the prospect of seeing her again sent his heart racing. He stood on a high balcony looking out upon the territories of the non-aligned fey, ruled by neither Court, beholden to none, the home of the wild fey: leprechauns, brownies, sprites, pixies, banshees—and most dangerous of all—the black fey.

“My darling,” Taal’mara whispered behind him as her arms encircled his waist.

He turned slowly to face her, still held within her arms, wrapped his own arms about her and reveled in her beauty. Her almond shaped eyes had dark, vertically slit pupils framed by amber irises, offset by the pale white skin of true Sidhe royalty. Her dark hair cascaded past her shoulders in a wealth of ringlets and curls. And she’d chosen a diaphanous gown that thrilled and excited him with delightful hints of the pleasures that awaited them both. Their lips met, a long, delicate kiss. It had been months since their last assignation, and Anogh just wanted to hold her for a moment, to glory in the scent of her, the nearness of her.

When their lips parted she whispered, “I’ve missed you so.”

“And I you,” he said.

“If only we could be wed, then we’d no longer need to meet in secret, to steal hidden moments, concealed trysts, veiled glances at some event we must both attend.”

Anogh sighed wearily. “We’ve talked of this a thousand times. Ag would never allow the Summer Knight to wed the Winter Princess. If he knew his daughter had given her heart to me . . . it could mean war.”

She laid her head on his shoulder. “Yes. We must content ourselves with our little stolen moments.” She stepped out of his arms, took his hand, turned and led him into the bedroom . . .

. . . Anogh stared at the portrait of Taal’mara. It was the only pleasure not denied him in more than six hundred years. She had stolen his heart then, long ago, and Ag had stolen her from him.

“And so my brother knight weeps for his lost love. How touching!”

Anogh turned slowly toward the sound of Simuth’s voice. The Winter Knight strode toward him across the Hall of Memories, a broad grin splitting his face. As always, his rapier hung at his side, and also, as always, he wore a cloak of arrogance and cruelty. “Does her image make your heart beat fondly, even after all these centuries, my brother?”

“You know nothing of my heart,” Anogh said coldly. “Nor of any heart, for that matter . . .” He spit sarcasm in Simuth’s face, “. . . my brother knight.”

Simuth’s grin disappeared. “Do not mock me, oh tenderly devoted knight, he who still foolishly loves a princess dead now for more than six centuries. Bring forth my ire, and you’ll regret it dearly.”

It was Anogh’s turn to grin. He called forth his own rapier to hang at his side, took a menacing step toward the Winter Knight with his hand resting casually on its hilt. “My oaths bind me only so much, my brother knight. They will not prevent me from spoiling your lovely smile, should you choose to be the aggressor.”

Simuth stepped back, successfully hiding his fear, though Anogh saw it plainly. “You have only begun to pay the price of your folly with Taal’mara,” Simuth snarled. “Six hundred years is nothing, Anogh. I have all eternity to watch you squirm.”

Anogh smiled coldly. “Perhaps you do, Simuth. Then again, perhaps not.”

••••

When Paul returned to McGowan’s kitchen Colleen was waiting for him, seated at the table with a steaming cup of tea in front of her. As he sat down opposite her she swept her hair back from her face, but it refused to obey and fluttered forward, almost as if it were elemental with a mind of its own. It draped about her shoulders, bright red locks intertwined with small silver charms. If he looked away from her, looked slightly to one side so she was only visible in the periphery of his vision, he got the distinct impression her hair drifted on a light breeze. But when he looked directly her way there was no such breeze, and her curly red locks lay static and immobile, though even looking directly at them he still had the impression of motion.

“Walter sends his apologies,” she said. “He’s been called elsewhere, so I’ll work with you today.” She lifted the cup of tea to her lips and blew softly at the steam. “He said Katherine was teaching you about salt, silver and iron. Tell me what you learned.”

Paul repeated the points Katherine had made about salt and silver. “I don’t think she was finished with silver, and she really didn’t talk about iron.”

Colleen fingered one of the silver trinkets in her hair. “For we mortals, silver has two primary uses. It’s an excellent focus to contain spells, or to hold power for later use, though that’s a bit advanced for you at this stage. More importantly, silver will burn the flesh of a nether being, and spelled silver can annihilate a netherlife that’s crossed to the Mortal Plane.”

“That’s why my bullets had an effect on that Tertius in Katherine’s home, right? But why the iron? Why does Devoe mix iron in the bullets too? He said something about the fey.”

Colleen spoke thoughtfully. “I don’t know Mr. Devoe at all well, but apparently he can be a very dangerous man. And Walter swears by him. And you say he mixes iron in his ammunition?”

“He told me so himself. Iron and silver.”

“That means he wants to be prepared to kill fey as well as demons. Iron doesn’t exist in Faerie in any form, and cold iron burns the flesh of the fey the way silver burns that of a demon. The royal Sidhe are immortal. They don’t age and die, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be killed, though we only have rumors as to how. It must involve iron in some way, but just shooting one with an iron bullet, or stabbing one with an iron or steel knife; that alone won’t do it, though it will give them considerable pain and grief until the bullet or knife is removed. It’s rumored beheading is involved, but again that alone won’t do it. And again that’s only unconfirmed rumor.”

“They can survive being beheaded?”

Colleen looked into her tea thoughtfully, and Paul wondered if she would now teach him how to read tea leaves. “The royal Sidhe are reputed to be able to heal any wound, given time and power. But then I’ve never killed one, or beheaded one, nor has any mortal I know of, so it’s all speculation.”

She changed the subject abruptly. “I don’t sense your arcane abilities as I did a few weeks ago. You’ve been practicing, eh?”

Paul had become quite adept at the fire spell. He could turn it on and off at will, could control its intensity and the size of the blaze, could even hold fire cupped in the palm of his hand without the need for something like paper to burn, and could do it without burning himself.

“Ya,” he said. “You want me to demonstrate?”

Colleen glanced at the ceiling, the table and the floor, and her eyes widened. “No fire spells.”

Paul shook his head. “I’m never going to live that down, am I?”

She grinned. “Not for some time yet, young man. Let’s go out on the patio. Things are less flammable there.”

••••

She was such a lovely child, blonde hair, blue eyes. The first time he’d seen her she’d worn a gray pinafore over a pale-blue dress, with white knee-high stockings and shiny black shoes—very Alice in Wonderland. He loved Alice in Wonderland, not the story but the girl. He wished Alice was real so he could love her, truly love her.

“Alice,” he said to her, as she sat shivering in the passenger seat next to him. He reached out and ran a finger along her jawline.

“My name’s not Alice,” she said, her voice barely more than a squeak. “Y’all got the wrong girl. Let me go. Please, let me go.”

It had been trivial to spell her, though the spell itself was not trivial. He had to control her, make her walk willingly into his car, make her cooperate; do as he said without screaming or crying out. But at the same time her perception of the situation must not be masked. She mustn’t be absolved of the fear. The fear was too important, the terror too much a part of his need. He wished he could spare her that, but his soul would never allow that.

He caressed her cheek again and she shivered, tears streaming down her face.

She pleaded, “I ain’t who you think I am.”

She had a deep, south Texas accent, and the am’s came out more like ayum, a good syllable and a half. I ain’t who you think I ayum.

Someday she’d be a pretty little cheerleader in high school.

No, the voice said. It crawled across his soul like sandpaper on old wood. She’s not going to high school.

He turned down a street not far from her home, pulled off to the side of the road and killed the engine. It was early evening, dark, just after dinner, a residential street. This wouldn’t take long.

“No,” she said. “No . . . no . . . no.”

“Alice,” he said, though now his words carried the timbre of the voice within him, a harsh growl. “This is how it must be.”

He reached out, his actions no longer his to control, gently caressed the girl he loved and released the voice within his soul.

She screamed, she cried and she struggled. She fought, but he was careful not to harm her in any way, not in any physical way, not in any visible way. There mustn’t be any outward signs of trauma or harm.

As she struggled he leaned across the seat of the car, cupped the back of her head in one hand and tilted her head back. She opened her mouth to scream, but in the same instant he opened his mouth and covered hers with his. Then he exhaled, and as he leaned away from her a black shadowy stain extended from his mouth to hers, flowing from him to her, entering her soul. For just an instant she looked at him with blood-red, goat-slitted eyes. Then a spasm shook her, and she thrashed about, shaking and coughing and gagging. She struggled for what seemed an eternity, but really only the blink of an eye for mortal men. And then she died, and her death washed over him, filled him with sorrow. It would have been wonderful if he could have loved Alice a little longer, just for a time, the two of them.

He’d drop the body off near her home. There’d be less suspicion that way.

Chapter 1: No Safe Harbor

Katherine McGowan met her father in the reception room outside her office. “Hi, father,” she said, and gave him a big hug. He just grinned, followed her back into her office, sat down on the couch against one wall.

She asked, “So what’s so urgent it can’t wait until we have dinner this weekend?”

Walter McGowan took a deep breath and she knew she wouldn’t like what he had to say. “I need your help with Paul. I need you to take a more active role in his training. And next week Salisteen wants me to bring him down to Dallas. She suspects some sort of netherlife crossed over some time ago and is feeding in the Dallas area, and she’d like to see if Paul’s special abilities might prove advantageous.”

The old man had omitted something. “Paul’s not ready for a hunt. It was pure luck that the fiasco with the Secundus didn’t end in a terrible tragedy.”

Her father was a horrible liar, and at that moment he looked exceedingly uncomfortable. “I don’t think it was luck,” he said. “I’ve read up on necromancers—had to brush up on my Latin. I’ve got a grimoire written by a ninth century Saxon monk. I trust his written word more than most because his spells and incantations actually work. And he believed chance conforms subtly to the needs of a necromancer, and the people he needs to help him do whatever he’s supposed to do, are drawn to him.”

He shut up and let her chew on that for a moment. She didn’t like the idea she might be drawn into some arcane, mysterious sequence of events, regardless of her own desires. But if practitioners were drawn to Paul, that meant . . . “Wait! You mean you and Colleen and me?”

McGowan nodded slowly, thoughtfully. “Colleen and I have discussed this, and yes, that’s probably what’s happened. And, oddly enough, that probably means he needs those asshole Russians in some way.”

She couldn’t hold back her anger, stood and leaned forward on her desk. “No! Absolutely not! Before he came along I was just a simple, little witch. I’d never met a demon, never been to the Netherworld, never met leprechauns and Sidhe, never been kidnapped to Faerie—never even been to Faerie for that matter, never had a bunch of crazy Russians shooting at me . . .” She ran out of steam, sat down in her chair and closed her eyes.

“You know how strong he is?” the old man asked calmly. “When I was trying to locate him he repeatedly snapped my locator spell with nothing more than a shrug.”

Now that was intriguing. There weren’t more than a couple practitioners in the world who could snap one of Walter McGowan’s spells, let alone do so with so little effort.

The old man continued. “I thought you liked him.”

She opened her eyes. “I do. I did. But . . . there’s something wrong about him. It just doesn’t feel right. You know, he told me himself he thought he was nuts, and he’s probably right.”

“I thought shrinks didn’t use words like nuts.”

“Ok,” she hissed. “Then let’s use the proper technical terms. He’s probably all fucked up. You know, bongo, wacko. I don’t need to be around someone like that.”

“But he’s not. He’s quite sane. He thought he was bug-fuck nuts—those are his words, by the way. I would never use such derogatory terms—”

She groaned, “Ah jeese! Get to the point. Please.”

The old man hesitated, and for the first time in her life he seemed uncertain. She suddenly felt a chill, and fear gripped her. “My dear,” he said calmly, carefully, pointedly, “the point is, he is sane. And the point is . . . I don’t understand much of the magic he’s using.”

“Oh my God,” she whispered, and dropped back into her chair.

••••

Anogh had been summoned, and when he entered Ag’s private audience chamber he was surprised to find the unpleasant Russians there as well. Ag and Karpov were seated in large, comfortable chairs near the back of the room, speaking in hushed tones, while Karpov’s two thugs gawked about like bumpkins, and Simuth looked upon them with obvious distaste.

Anogh approached Ag but stopped at a polite distance and waited. Ag and Karpov conversed for several more minutes; then Ag looked up and took notice of the Summer Knight. Ag stood and Karpov stood with him. As they walked toward the center of the room, Anogh, Simuth and the two thugs joined them there.

“Sir Knights,” Karpov said, acknowledging Anogh and Simuth. “It appears we have a common cause.”

“Yes,” Ag said, looking pointedly at Anogh. “This necromancer is a problem for us all. And I find it disquieting he’s bound himself to the Old Wizard. It would be better if he were bound to the Winter Court, or, to our good friend Vasily here. And you’ll help him, won’t you, my Summer Knight?”

Anogh bowed slightly. “If that is Your Majesty’s desire, then, of course.”

Karpov looked at his two thugs and said, “And His Majesty tells me he believes a necromancer must have some demon blood in his veins.”

The big bearish fellow grumbled, “I knew he was a fucking demon.”

Karpov’s hand lashed out and struck the fellow across the cheek, a slap that resounded loudly in the small room. The strike had been fast, inhumanly so, like that of a pit viper. “You will not use such crude language in the presence of His Majesty. Apologize.”

“I am sorry, Your Majesty,” the big bear grumbled in his thick accent, lowering his eyes. “Please forgive me.”

Ag waved a hand impatiently and spoke to Karpov. “These young fools all have so much to learn.” He looked Anogh’s way. “But I think you’ll find Sir Anogh to be quite resourceful on the Mortal Plane.”

••••

Leftover pizza, the breakfast of champions. Paul finished the last cold, congealed slice, gulped down the last of a cup of coffee, stuffed both Sigs and his holsters into a cloth shopping bag, pulled on his coat and shot out the door.

He couldn’t find it in his heart to return to his old place. He and Suzanna had lived there since before they were married, and Cloe had spent her entire life there. And after the “home invasion” by the Russians, it had been easy to break the lease. Paul had found a new apartment, a nice apartment as apartments went, just a little lonely. He missed Suzanna and Cloe, but he’d sworn a silent oath he wouldn’t fall into that trap again. They were gone, and he’d accepted that, whether he liked it or not.

The new place was South of Market, an area of San Francisco devoid of the quaint charm of nineteenth-century, wood-frame houses with three or four stories of bay windows. A few years ago Paul read an article predicting South of Market was destined to become a new, upscale, yuppie enclave. Paul hoped no one took stock market tips from the guy who wrote the article. Some people wanted to call South of Market SoMa, hoping to give it a fashionable flair like SoHo in New York. But tall, modern office buildings dominated the north side of the district, while the south was filled with cheap hotels, a few rundown buildings, and some apartment buildings four or five stories high, boxy structures with little charm. In any case, Paul had signed a lease on a three-and-a-half room bachelor flat: living room, bedroom, small bathroom, half a kitchen.

When he arrived at McGowan’s the old man met him at the door and hustled him into a car with the cryptic explanation of, “We’re going to see Clark, introduce you properly.”

As McGowan pulled out onto Van Ness, he shifted into his lecture voice and said, “On the way let’s talk about the Three Realms: the Mortal Plane, the Netherworld, and Faerie. They’re also sometimes referred to as the three lives. First—”

“Wait,” Paul said. “First let’s talk about why you’re doing this for me.”

McGowan frowned as Paul continued. “I’m nothing to you. Nobody. But it must be costing you a great deal of money to take care of me, and certainly a great deal of effort. And most importantly, I am, apparently, a dangerous unknown. And now you’re willing to put that aside. Why?”

McGowan considered his words carefully. “A lot of reasons, kid. First, if you had continued the way you were going, someone, probably me, would have had to kill you to prevent you from harming others. Think about Cassius. Two, three, four hundred years ago some sorcerer let that Secundus loose on the Mortal Plane. And a demon like that needs to consume two or three lives a month. Do the math. It doesn’t matter if that ancient sorcerer let him loose through evil intent, or merely sloppiness or inexperience. If there was the possibility you might do the same, we’d stop you, even if that meant killing you. But while I will admit I can be ruthless, I’d rather not commit murder until I know I can’t fix you properly.”

“So if I don’t cooperate, you, or someone else, will kill me?”

McGowan shrugged. “I honestly don’t know. You’re not what we thought—a simple rogue—so I’d probably hold off. But I can’t vouch for those Russians.

“Another reason I’m working with you is that you’re an unknown, to us all. There hasn’t been a necromancer around for twelve hundred years, not that we know of. So I need to understand why you’re here, now, at this time and place.”

“There has to be a reason?”

“Ya, I think so.” McGowan looked away from the road, looked at Paul carefully for a moment, studying him, evaluating him. His eyes returned to the road and he said, “Our history books are written by historians who don’t believe in magic or sorcery, so they make events fit into their mundane framework. But I’ve spent years translating and studying ancient grimoires—basically cookbooks for magic and sorcery with little bits of history thrown in—written by men and women hundreds of years ago with a vastly different perspective. And believe me it’s a bitch trying to understand them. They’re vague, and superstitious, so a lot of interpretation is needed. But an alternate interpretation that emerges is that a couple thousand years ago a Primus caste demon, one of the nine princes of hell, crossed over to the Mortal Plane. That led to the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the dark ages. And it wasn’t until about eight or nine hundred years later that a necromancer came along to banish the Primus back to the Netherworld.”

“Jesus!” Paul said, his thoughts racing. Maybe he could just run away and hide. Play along with McGowan for a day or two, yank all his savings out of the bank, take only cash, move to some south Pacific island, grow a beard, become a beach-bum and just hide.

“Paul!” McGowan shouted. “Calm down. It’s just all speculation, and conjecture. I told you it’s all subject to wide ranging interpretation. And you should see some of the crap those superstitious idiots wrote ten, twelve hundred years ago. Remember, these are the same morons who came up with the test for a witch: drown her, and if she lives she’s a witch so kill her, but if she dies she’s innocent, so pray for her when you bury her.”

Paul forced himself into an artificial calm. “Well, at least now that everyone knows I’m a necromancer they’re not out to kill me anymore.”

McGowan sucked air through his teeth. “About that . . .”

“Ah shit! Please tell me I’m not a target again.”

“Wellllll!” McGowan grimaced unhappily. “It’s not that simple. You see, the Sidhe don’t have souls, so they’re kind of . . . not really considered among the living, so . . . you may have some extra special powers over them, and they don’t like that.”

Paul turned on him and demanded, “What kind of powers?”

McGowan’s grimace remained. “We don’t know. Maybe none. But the Sidhe Courts, as a rule, don’t take any chances in such matters, so don’t assume anything.”

“Well, at least the fucking Russians aren’t trying to kill me anymore.”

McGowan added a frown to his grimace. “About that too. It’s really hard to bring a Primus caste over, even for me, but maybe not for a necromancer. So your very existence might make it possible.”

Paul managed to get his voice down to a growl. “So everyone thinks I’m going to cause the destruction of civilization?”

McGowan glanced at him apologetically. “I just wouldn’t assume there is anyone who isn’t out to kill you. Well . . . you can count on me and Colleen and Katherine and Clark. We’re on your side. That’s why we’re going to see Clark.”

“Clark?”

“Ya. Clark Devoe.”

“Who?”

“Gun shop owner. You met him when you came to his store. And then again the night you took out that Secundus. That was a nice piece of work, I might add. Earned you a few brownie points among my colleagues. That’s why some of them won’t . . . well . . . might not try to kill you.”

McGowan pulled the car into a parking spot in front of South-Bay Guns and Ammo. Paul remembered the place from his one and only visit. It was still rather seedy, a simple, unassuming storefront with a neon sign. And it needed a coat of paint.

McGowan pulled a briefcase out of the back seat, nodded toward Paul’s shopping bag containing his Sigs and said, “Grab your stuff, kid.”

Paul followed him into the shop. It had only been a few months since he’d first wandered into the place and it hadn’t changed, a long row of glass display cases running down the right side with handguns displayed under glass, racks of rifles on the wall behind the cases. Along the left wall were racks of ammunition, clothing, holsters, cleaning kits, all sorts of paraphernalia.

The plump female with frizzy, unkempt hair sat behind the counter toward the back. She wore another moo-moo, or maybe the same one, and was eating something out of a plastic refrigerator tub. “How ya doin’, Mr. McGowan,” she said around a mouth full of food. “Clark’s expecting you. Go on back.”

Clark Devoe was waiting for them in the back room. He looked to be in his mid-sixties with shoulder length gray-blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail, and three or four days of stubbly beard growth. Paul thought he might be wearing the same old army fatigue jacket and NRA cap he’d had on the first time Paul met him.

“Mr. McGowan,” Devoe said, shaking McGowan’s hand.

He turned to Paul, shook Paul’s hand in a hard grip and said, “Nice job you did on the vamp.” He looked down at Paul’s shopping bag. “Let’s see what you bought.”

Paul upended the bag on a nearby workbench. Both Sigs were in their hinged, blue, plastic, factory cases. Devoe opened one, lifted the weapon, ratcheted the slide back, then quickly field stripped it, removing the slide and the barrel. He sighted carefully down the barrel. “This is good hardware, little expensive, but a good choice. And it looks like you’re cleaning it and oiling it properly.”

Devoe went through the same process with the other Sig. Paul apparently passed muster on that one as well. The man questioned him a bit on his background as a child hunting with his father, was happy to hear he’d gone through a couple thousand rounds at a gun range to get the feel of the two weapons. Devoe wasn’t so pleased with the holster. “This is ok, but it could jam you up a little, slow you down in a pinch. Leave it with me for a few days and I’ll make some mods.”

McGowan opened his briefcase, handed Paul a small card and an envelope full of paperwork. “That’s a CCW permit—to carry a concealed weapon—for the state of California. You don’t know it but you applied for it and received it several months ago.”

Devoe nodded toward the card. “Those’re hard as hell to get in this state. Mr. McGowan has connections.”

Devoe gave Paul a pump-action sawed-off twelve-gauge and a couple hundred rounds of his “special double-ought.”

Paul looked at McGowan and Devoe and said, “Where’s the uzi, and maybe a fifty-caliber machine gun? I could mount it on the floor of my living room to cover the front door.”

Devoe frowned and looked at McGowan. “Kid ain’t gonna live long if he don’t start taking this seriously.”

••••

He watched her walk to the bus stop, the beautiful little Mexican girl. Watched her carefully and couldn’t take his eyes off her.

Her parents had dressed her in a blue pinafore over a pale red dress, and matching blue knee-high stockings ending in shiny black shoes—very Alice in Wonderland. He loved Alice in Wonderland, not the story but the girl.

The little Mexican girl’s parents must be very proud of her, must love her very much. She had incredible raven-black hair that hung past her shoulders, flawless olive skin and almond shaped eyes. He thought she might even be more beautiful than the little blonde, and that brought a pang of guilt. It felt like cheating to desire the little Mexican girl more than the little blonde, a horrible act of infidelity.

No, the voice said, a faint hiss somewhere deep within his soul. She is the one.

Yes. He’d loved the little blonde so much, but now she was gone and he so desperately needed someone to hold, someone to share his affection. But this one would be different. This time he would just watch from afar, admire her, love her even, but never touch her. He didn’t want to hurt her. She was too beautiful to be hurt. He just wanted to hold her closely, tell her how much he loved her, how much he needed her.

Own her. We must have her, all of her, nothing held back.

“No,” he pleaded, closing his eyes, grimacing as he tried to shut the voice out of his soul. “Not this time. Please not this time.”

Yes, always. Look at her.

He opened his eyes. The young girl had stopped to talk to a boy her own age, Mexican like her, though his features were a little darker than hers.

Imagine touching her, caressing her carefully, running your fingers along such delicate, flawless skin.

“Yes,” he said. “Yes . . . yes.”

Once she knows how much you love her, how deeply you care for her, she’ll love you back, love you with all her heart.

He could see that she must have a loving heart, a kind heart. “Yes . . . yes, she will.”

Chapter 2: The Black

Katherine watched from the sidelines as Paul tried a small fire spell. He and Colleen were seated opposite one another at a table they’d dragged into her father’s workshop, while Katherine and her father, standing to one side, looked on. She’d come here with considerable trepidation, but now, after about an hour with the four of them working together in her father’s workshop, she couldn’t understand why she’d been so fearful of working with Paul, fearful of just being in the same room with him. It didn’t make sense.

Paul held both hands out, cupped together as if trying to hold water or beg for alms. He concentrated and a faint glow appeared just above his hands. It wavered for a moment then steadied and became a small, hot spark illuminating the room like an uncovered light bulb.

Her father was right. She didn’t recognize the arcane power Paul used. If it was earth magic, or he was tapping a ley line, she’d sense his manipulation of such forces. But she got nothing. She looked at her father and he nodded, as if to say, See what I mean.

Colleen spoke softly to Paul and he extinguished the bright spark. Then she said, “Close your eyes and focus on me, try to sense what I’m doing.”

Colleen extended one palm and, with a thought, she tapped a nearby ley line and fire appeared just above her hand. But unlike Paul’s hot, bright spark, this was a flickering, dancing flame a few inches tall. Katherine easily sensed her use of the arcane forces.

Colleen asked, “Were you able to sense what I did?”

Paul kept his eyes closed as he said, “I felt . . . feel something.”

Colleen nodded. “Good. I’m going to hold this flame, and I want you to extend your hand again, and try to repeat what I did.”

Paul extended a hand and his brow wrinkled with concentration. The hot spark appeared, but he said, “No,” and it just as quickly disappeared. And again Katherine had felt nothing. Then a small flame fluttered to life in his palm, and Katherine felt him pulling normal power, pulling on the same ley line. It was interesting that he could pull on a ley line so instinctively. Katherine had expected him to naturally gravitate to earth magic, and from the expression on her father’s face, so had he.

The flame suddenly flared and grew to about a foot in height, then it shrank back and steadied, though it flickered wildly. Normal magic, with a beginner’s lack of control, but still normal.

“Release the spell,” Colleen said, as her flame disappeared.

Paul did so, and his too disappeared.

Katherine had a sudden inspiration. There were some techniques she’d used with troubled children that might help here. She walked up to the table and said to Colleen, “I have an idea. Let me try something.”

Colleen stood and walked over to McGowan. Katherine didn’t take her place, but paced back and forth in front of the table as she said to Paul, “I want you to show me something. Not repeat something we’ve taught you. Just something on your own.”

He looked at her skeptically. “Show you what?”

“I don’t know. There must be something you can do that no one else can do. Maybe something unique, something you’re really good at. Think about it.”

“I’m assuming you don’t mean belching the national anthem at a beer drinking frat party.”

She stopped pacing. “Can you actually do that?”

“No, but I knew a guy who could.”

“Come on,” she said. “There must be something you can do that’s unique, and doesn’t involve disgusting bodily functions.”

He pondered that for a moment, then a little sparkle appeared in his eyes.

She prompted him, “There is something, isn’t there?”

“Well, ya,” he said reluctantly. “But it’s just a party trick. I used to do it in college.” He grinned. “It was great for meeting girls.”

She looked over to her father and said, “See, he’s slutty too.”

She turned back to Paul. “What is it?”

He was clearly embarrassed at having to make the admission. “I can throw knives. Well, anything that’s metal and sharp: nails, whatever. I can stick it every time, and I can hit a half-inch target from across the room.”

“Did you practice this a lot?”

“No. I can just do it.”

“So you could do it now?”

He shrugged, still clearly embarrassed. “I suppose, though I haven’t tried since I was in college.”

She stopped pacing and faced him squarely. “Let’s give it a try.”

She turned to her father. “Any knives down here?”

He shook his head. “Not that aren’t heavily spelled.”

She looked around the workshop. There were three old wooden cabinets against one wall, all about six feet high, scratched and scarred old things. She pointed at one, looked at her father. “Mind if we use that as a target?”

McGowan shrugged. “Sure, go ahead.”

Katherine turned to Colleen. “Would you go up to the kitchen and grab a random selection of knives?”

Katherine walked over to her father’s workbench, scrounged in a drawer and found a black ink marker, walked over to the cabinet and quickly painted several small circles on the face of it, each about the size of a thumbnail. By the time she’d finished, Colleen had returned and dumped an assortment of knives on the table in front of Paul. He stood and examined them carefully.

Pointing at the cabinet, Katherine said, “Ok, Conklin, let’s see what you got.” Then she stepped several feet to the side, well out of the way.

“Thanks for the show of confidence,” he said, as he picked up a small paring knife and flipped it in the air a few times, catching it each time by the handle. “Ok. Now in the movies, the knife thrower always holds the knife by the blade when he throws it.” He flipped the knife a few more times, was clearly warming up to the show. “But that’s not necessary when you’re as good as I am.” He flipped the knife a few more times as he spoke. “You know, I met Suzanna doing this.” He stopped abruptly, and with a flick of the wrist tossed the knife across the room, stuck the point in one of the targets she’d drawn.

She walked over to the target, noted that the knife was perfectly centered in the small bull’s-eye. She’d felt a flow of power as he’d thrown the knife, just the tiniest bit, probably just enough to nudge the direction of the knife. But he wasn’t drawing on a ley line, or earth power, and she didn’t think he’d used his own life force.

She turned back to him. “Not bad, Conklin. Let’s see it again.”

“Ok, sweetheart,” he said in a bad Bogart imitation, now juggling three knives easily. A flick of the wrist, another flick, another flick, and all three knives were stuck perfectly in three targets.

She shouted, “Wooooooo!” and slapped her hands together, applauding loudly. “I’m impressed, Conklin.” She pulled the knives out of the cabinet. It wasn’t difficult since they’d hardly penetrated the wood. She laid the knives back on the table in front of him. “Can you throw them harder?”

“I don’t know. I suppose. Why?”

She wanted to get him to use more power than just the hint she’d sensed. “Oh, I don’t know. I’d think if you’re throwing a knife as a weapon, like they do in the movies, you’d have to throw it a lot harder than that. Otherwise, you’d just give someone a nasty cut. And in the movies they always drop the bad guy with one throw.”

Paul picked up one of the larger knives. “I’ll give it a try.” He flipped the knife in the air a couple of times, then drew back his arm and threw it hard. It thudded into the cabinet with considerable force, again centered in the target. But his throw had disappointed her. He’d still only used a hint of power to direct the knife, while the extra force had come from his arm.

“Come on, Conklin. You can do better than that. Harder.”

He picked up another knife, followed the formula of flipping it a few times, then threw it so hard he grunted with the effort. Again the knife landed home, but again all its force had come from his arm.

“Come on, Conklin. Harder.”

He picked up another, followed his usual formula and threw it with all his strength. But again no real use of power, though she saw his frustration growing as she taunted him. And that was exactly what she wanted.

She pulled a bit of power, formed a small spell to increase his frustration, fed the power into it and tossed it at him as she shouted, “That’s not it. I want to see you throw it really hard, much harder than that. Harder, damn it.”

He picked up another knife, flipped it in the air several times, concentrating on it. He had become clearly, visibly frustrated. But this time, with each flip she kept shouting “Harder,” and she sensed him drawing power from somewhere and concentrating it in the knife, most likely doing it unconsciously, instinctively. And each time he drew she felt a chill wash over her. Then he suddenly drew back his arm and threw the knife with a tremendous release of power.

Katherine heard a loud crash and her knees went weak. She dropped into a chair gasping for air, had trouble catching her breath as if she’d just run a mile, wrapped her arms around herself and shivered uncontrollably. Amazingly enough, her breath formed a cloud of steam in the chill air.

“Jesus!” she heard Paul say. The knife was buried to the hilt in the face of the cabinet. He put one hand against the cabinet, tried to pull the knife out with the other, grunted a couple of times and finally gave up.

Katherine’s shivering grew uncontrollably violent as Colleen sat down next to her and her father approached Paul. Colleen wore a sweater which she quickly pulled off and wrapped around Katherine. “You’re bordering on hypothermia.”

Katherine noticed that everyone’s breath was visible in the air. Walter looked at Paul but spoke for the benefit of them all. “He pulled the energy out of the air, pulled it out of Brownian motion—heat energy—dropped the temperature around the two of you by about thirty degrees.”

Colleen put a hand on Katherine’s forehead and said, “He also pulled it out of her, dropped her core temperature by a couple of degrees.”

Katherine’s father nodded. “That adds up. The body is mostly water, which has a considerable heat capacity. Air temperature would drop much more than body temperature.”

Katherine felt warmth flowing into her from Colleen’s touch. The shivering slowly subsided, but she was still weak in the knees. Colleen helped her to her feet and they started across the workshop.

Paul looked badly shaken, stunned, and his gaze kept switching between the knife and Katherine. Colleen hesitated at the workshop door, looked at him angrily and said, “You could have killed her. You really need to control that.”

••••

Paul looked at the knife buried in the cabinet. The cabinet was made of heavy oak. The knife, with a blade about six inches long and a handle made of some sort of hard, black material, had plunged a good inch past the end of the blade, splitting and cracking the handle. It was impossible, utterly fantastic, and yet he remembered how he’d done it, that feeling of control over the environment around him. There had been a vast well of . . . something. He couldn’t put a name to it. Maybe it was energy, as the old man had said. But for Paul it had just been there, something he could tap into without consciously thinking about it. He had pulled on it effortlessly, drawn it to him, into him. And as Katherine had shouted at him, he’d drawn more and more of it, filling him with a sense of strength and confidence.

The two women had left, leaving him alone with the old man, who was still staring intently at the knife handle protruding from the cabinet. “Physical magic,” McGowan said. “There’s no other word for it, and nobody does that.” He looked at Paul. “At least not until you came along.”

Paul asked, “I almost killed her, huh?”

“No, not really. You scared the shit out of Colleen and she overreacted a bit. You’d have to pull a lot more heat out of Katherine than that to kill her.”

McGowan continued to stare at the knife handle. “You told me that when Alexei tried to shove your hand in that food processor and you pulled energy out of him, you didn’t feel anything. Right?”

“Ya.”

“No sensation of increased strength or power flowing into you or anything like that?”

“Ya, that’s what I said.” Paul had told McGowan he’d gained almost superhuman strength when he’d pulled power out of the demon, but he’d gotten nothing from the Russian. And they’d agreed it was best not spread that information around.

“I’m guessing what you just did here was similar to what you did to Alexei. Doesn’t sound like you pulled heat out of him, but maybe it was some sort of physical energy.”

McGowan looked away from the knife, looked at Paul and shook his head. “I just don’t know.”

••••

Katherine felt a lot better, still a little weak in the knees, but only slightly. Colleen insisted on walking her to her car.

As Katherine fumbled for her keys the sensation of being watched came back to her. But before she could react, Colleen hissed, almost growled, and marched over to a car parked about twenty feet away. She put both hands on her hips and spoke to a shadow in the lee of the car. “Show yourself, little man.”

The shadow shimmered for a second, then Jim’Jiminie appeared, a little man about knee-high. He wore green leggings, a brown doublet, purple shirt, with a floppy red hat perched jauntily on his head. He leaned casually against the car’s tire. “Now sure, sweet darlin’,” he said. “I’m just a simple fellow standin’ on the street, mindin’ me own business.”

Colleen’s accent grew quite thick. “And I’m a pink unicorn, you little madman. Do you really want to be playing your games with me, little man?”

The little man shrugged. “I can smell him all over her.” He nodded toward Katherine. “And if such as me can sense it, do you really believe the Sidhe of the royal blood will be fooled?”

“Why are you telling me this?”

Again he shrugged. “Not all fey are enamored of the Summer and Winter Courts, mortal. It would not be in our best interest to see him bound to either Seelie or Unseelie. For try to bind him they will, even if they have to use her to do so. And with that, I bid you adieu, fair lady.” He doffed his hat, bowed from the waist, and disappeared in a sparkle of fairy dust.

••••

Cadilus rarely suffered from apprehension or doubt. Given any situation he could invariably determine the correct course of action. And yet now, standing on a pristine, gravel-strewn path in the Garden of Sorrows, the ramparts of the seat of the Seelie Court rising high above him, he felt like the lowliest of peasants.

“You have chosen an ally?” Magreth asked.

“Yes, Your Majesty . . . an . . . ally.”

“You hesitate. How unlike you. Do you doubt him?”

“She, Your Majesty. The ally is of the fairer sex.”

Magreth turned to face him. “Do you mock me?”

Cadilus lowered his eyes. “No, Your Majesty. Never. I have asked Sabreatha to join us.”

Magreth hissed, a sharp intake of breath. The shadows of the ancient Sidhe spirits appeared, dancing about her head and shoulders. “An ally of dubious distinction. And you believe that’s wise?”

“There is no wise course of action, Your Majesty, not with a necromancer active on the Mortal Plane. But I do believe I have taken an expedient course of action. Though, I must admit, a dangerous one.”

She stood still and lifeless for an eternity, staring at him, judging him. Her eyes didn’t blink, her breast didn’t rise and fall with the breath of the living. And then slowly she nodded once, an almost imperceptible tilt of her head. “Very well. Summon her forth.”

Cadilus did so with a thought. Nothing happened for a moment, or two, or three. Then a shadow flitted above the ramparts high above, and an angry shriek echoed across the garden, something akin to the sharp cry of a hunting hawk. The shadow flittered in and out of existence at different places among the embrasures and merlons of the parapets, like a wary predator sniffing carefully at prey, fearful that a larger and more dangerous predator might be lying in wait. Another shriek echoed through the garden, the shadow disappeared, then, an instant later, reappeared among the shadows of a large oak in the far corner of the garden.

The figure hesitated in the shadows there for several seconds, clearly surveying her surroundings. Then she stepped carefully out into the light of Faerie, and even Cadilus, one of the most powerful mages of the Seelie Court, and here on his home ground, even he had difficulty penetrating the magic of this most-wild of black fey. He had the impression of a tall humanoid shape walking toward them, but obscured by untamed shadows that fluttered like a flame struggling in a harsh breeze.

The tall shape stopped before Magreth at a warily safe distance and faced her squarely. The flames appeared in Magreth’s eyes and danced there angrily as she stared at the wild magic before her. After several seconds she said, “You come before me, an invited guest, granted my parole and protection while here . . . and you show not the least modicum of common courtesy?”

Sabreatha, with her shadows that never stilled, remained motionless for several seconds. Then again the shriek of some wild predator echoed through the garden, and slowly she lowered herself to one knee. She bowed her head, and the shadows fluttering about her dissipated. It was a slow process, as if it took a strong effort of will to banish the darkness that enveloped her. One by one her features became more defined and distinct, though the shadows didn’t disappear completely, for there was always a hint of them fluttering about her. But now, before Magreth, knelt a woman dressed in tight gray leathers, a long-sword strapped to her side, an unstrung long-bow in her left hand. She had pale, golden hair, twisted into dreadlocks that, with her head bowed, hung past her face and obscured it.

“That’s better,” Magreth said. “You may rise.”

In the blink of an eye Sabreatha had risen and stood proudly, stood over them both for she was easily a hand-span taller than Cadilus, and he was not a small man. Her eyes shifted color continuously, blue, brown, hazel, amber, black, every color imaginable, and her dreadlocks fluttered slightly as if touched by a light breeze, though Cadilus noted the air was still. She opened her mouth, hesitated as if she found it difficult to speak an ordinary tongue. And when her lips moved, her voice was no more than a haunted whisper on the wind. “You asked and I have come.”

It was an overt reminder that she was here at their request, and too, that it was up to them to state the purpose of this meeting.

Cadilus said, “We have a commission for you.”

The whisper of her words brushed across his senses. “And what kind of commission would that be?”

Magreth said haughtily, “For what kind of commission do you think we would summon one such as you.”

Sabreatha’s lips parted in something akin to a smile, but not a smile. She was quite beautiful in a strangely haunted way. “One such as me. An interesting turn of phrase.”

Magreth clearly did not like the tone of this meeting. “You are what you are, and we may desire your services.”

“I am what I am . . . and I am all that I am not.”

“You know what we need. This necromancer, he is dangerous if not controlled properly.”

Sabreatha stared at them for a long moment before speaking. “And what would you have me do.”

Magreth swept a hand out dismissively. “I leave that up to you.”

Again, a long pause filled with silence. “Perhaps les flèche du coeur.”

Cadilus flinched, and Magreth said, “An extreme solution. But, nevertheless, a solution.”

Sabreatha nodded her ascent. “I will deliver les flèche du coeur. And payment?”

“What do you desire?”

Now Sabreatha did smile. “Parole to walk the domains of the Seelie Court.”

Magreth shook her head. “Never.”

Cadilus intervened. “Perhaps, Your Majesty, if we placed the proper restrictions on such parole . . . you might find it acceptable.”

Magreth considered that for a moment. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, we may be able to come to an accommodation here.”

••••

He pulled his car into the parking lot of the strip mall across the street from the bus stop. He had crafted a spell to hide the car from any watchful eye, a difficult spell he’d reinforced over a period of several months. It turned the eye subtly, made the watcher want to look elsewhere, and drew their interest away from the vehicle and its driver. But it was always wise to be cautious, so he found a parking place near other cars, but with empty slots next to it. It wouldn’t do to park way at the edge of the lot where all the stalls were empty. A lone car would stand out, and someone might take notice, if they could resist the pull of the spell.

He killed the engine, rolled down a window, opened a newspaper and pretended to read, as if waiting for someone. He’d carefully chosen the position of the car so he could look past the edge of the paper at the bus stop.

It was late afternoon and the little Mexican girl’s bus should be along shortly. He actually read a bit of the newspaper while he waited. But when the school bus appeared up the street it had his full attention.

The bus stopped at the corner, flared out a stop sign on its side and traffic going both ways came to a halt. A half-dozen kids scampered off the bus, some met by their parents, some not. No one met the little Mexican girl, but as she walked up the sidewalk the little Mexican boy accompanied her, the same boy she’d spoken with the other day. Today she wore a colorful dress that flared out at the waist and ended at knee height, and her hair was in ponytails. Lovely!

She looked at the boy coyly and giggled. It was too far to be certain, but he probably blushed a little as he smiled at her. As they walked she swung a knapsack back and forth carelessly, and danced around him a bit while he marched slowly forward. She never took her eyes off him, clearly wanted his approval, wanted his attention.

She’s paying too much attention to this boy, the voice said. Way too much attention.

“Yes, she is. He can’t have her. She’s ours.”

We may have to do something about him.

“Yes, we may have to.”

Chapter 3: An Old Story

Paul had never been inside Katherine’s practice. He’d briefly stalked her outside her offices, trying to make contact after his first misadventures with the Russians and the big hoodoo demon in the Netherworld.

Katherine had furnished her reception area with comfortable chairs and a couch, side tables with stacks of magazines neatly arranged, like almost any doctor’s office anywhere. Behind a large desk sat a middle-aged woman, attractive, well dressed, light brown hair cut just above her shoulders.

Paul said, “I’m Paul Conklin.”

She smiled. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Conklin. Dr. McGowan’s expecting you, so go on in.”

Old man McGowan had arranged for Katherine to give Paul his first lesson in protective circles, said she was quite good at it. Paul opened the door to Katherine’s office and stepped in. Seated behind her desk she looked up at him and frowned slightly, not a terribly welcome expression. “Give me a moment, Conklin.”

She scribbled a signature on something, flipped the page aside, scribbled something on another page, put down her pen and looked at him. “Thanks for being patient, the rest can wait. I’m to teach you about circles, huh?”

Paul shrugged. “Teach away. I’m a willing pupil.”

Today she wore a gray business suit, coat and slacks, with a pale blue blouse, one of those blouses ever so slightly translucent so that one could just barely make out the silhouette of the black bra and something else lacy beneath it. She did an awfully good job of making something sexy out of the most conservative business attire.

She stood, came around from behind the desk, headed for a door in the side of her office. “Let’s go to my workshop.”

He followed her, tried not to admire the way the slacks gave a nice view of her shape. She led him into a room with a hardwood floor, a small, wooden workbench against one wall with a couple of stools, and next to it a locked storage cabinet. Against another wall were a comfortable couch and a couple of chairs, with the center of the room clear and open. Katherine approached the storage cabinet, pulled some keys out of her pocket, fumbled at the lock for a moment, then opened the doors wide. In it, Paul saw shelves filled with bottles, jars, packages, all sorts of things that meant nothing to him. She pulled out a blue, cylindrical canister.

“Salt?” Paul asked.

“Yes,” she said, kicking off her high-heels. She walked to the center of the room, opened the tap on the canister of salt, poured a line of it in a circle about three feet in diameter. “As I told you it makes for a great circle. Now, step over the line of salt and into the circle.”

He did as told. She sat down on the floor just outside the circle, crossed her legs, closed her eyes, and he saw them squint as she concentrated. He also felt the unmistakable sensation of someone drawing power, a perception he’d only recently come to understand. She sat that way for about a minute, then suddenly opened her eyes and blurted out, “Motherfucker.”

“Motherfucker?” Paul asked her.

She blushed. “Long story,” she said. But when he raised a sardonic eyebrow she added, “But I can see you’re not going to let me get away without telling it.”

He didn’t say anything, just grinned and nodded.

“Ok,” she said. “You see, it’s easiest to initiate certain kinds of spells if you associate a specific and unique word with the moment of setting the spell. It can be any word you choose, but after you’ve done it enough times, a trigger word makes it easier to focus your power.”

“Motherfucker?” he asked her again.

Again she blushed. “I was at a rebellious stage, early teens, purposefully doing things to piss-off my father. I thought it was cool to smoke cigarettes and swear a lot, turned a bit Goth, all of which met with lots of disapproval from him, which was exactly what I wanted. Teenage girls can be such nasty little bitches.”

“Really pushed his buttons, huh?”

“Every chance I could. Even had my navel pierced, but it got infected, for which I’m actually grateful because it was quite painful, and that made me leery of piercings and tattoos. Thank god I never got any I couldn’t easily hide, but I’ve still got that small scar on my navel. Anyway, that was about the time he taught me circles. My first attempt was a miserable failure, and the power I drew slammed into my hand like a hammer. I ran around the room shaking my hand shouting, ‘Motherfucker, motherfucker, motherfucker.’ I’ve tried to associate other words with setting a circle, and they sort of work, but for me that one word works better than anything else.”

Paul nodded, grinned, raised that eyebrow again and said knowingly, “Motherfucker.”

She blushed again and said, “Stop that.”

“Stop what?” he teased.

“If you don’t stop that I’ll leave you in that circle all day.” She grinned evilly. “Don’t bump your nose, smart ass, but just try to step out of that circle.”

Paul reached forward carefully and his hand pressed against an invisible wall above the line of salt. He put both hands against it, tried to push through it, put some serious weight behind it and failed utterly. There was no visual sense that anything occupied the space there, no shimmer in the air, no bending of the light passing through it, as there would be with a pane of glass.

“Bend down and try to break the circle of salt.”

He tried, couldn’t touch it.

“You can set a circle around yourself to protect yourself, keeping everything else out. Or, you can set a circle from without to lock something evil and disgusting in, like I’ve done here.”

Paul sat down on the floor in the circle facing her. “I’m evil and disgusting?”

She smiled. “Maybe not evil and disgusting, but definitely low moral standards.”

He laughed. “My moral standards aren’t low.” He carefully looked into her eyes. “I’m just attracted to beautiful women.” Again she blushed.

“What about the shape of the circle?” he asked. “Does it have to be perfect?”

She shook her head. “No, though the farther you deviate from a perfect circle, the weaker it becomes. But you have to deviate quite a bit before you seriously weaken it. One variation, and this only works for demons, is to put the circle inside a pentagram, with the circle touching all interior sides of the pentagram. You’ll create a much stronger circle, but again, only for demons.

“The interesting thing about circles is that even someone relatively weak can hold a circle against someone quite powerful like my father. That’s because a circle is a natural shape. Nature wants to see a circle maintained, so once it’s in place it’s virtually impossible to break from the other side.”

She reached forward, passed a finger through the salt. “I just broke the circle.”

Paul asked, “How powerful is your father?” Paul had learned there were three kinds of practitioners. There were hedge witches and minor practitioners who knew instinctively when they were in the presence of another practitioner, but nothing more. Then those like Paul and Katherine who could spot another practitioner, but could also read their level of capability in comparison to their own. McGowan and Colleen fell into the third category. They were so powerful they could hide their level of capability from everyone else, though they couldn’t hide the fact that they were practitioners from another practitioner.

She shrugged. “I don’t really know, though all my life I’ve noticed many practitioners look upon him with a kind of reverent awe. So I think he’s pretty serious stuff.”

She sighed. “Back to circle school. Keep in mind that if I hadn’t kept feeding that circle power it would weaken, and with some effort you would have eventually been able to reach the salt and break it. An alternative is to push a lot of power into a circle after initially setting it, then leave and forget it. It’s like putting gas in a car, the more you put in the tank, the farther it’ll go, or in the case of a circle, the longer it’ll last after you’ve left it. But it’ll eventually weaken, and can then be broken.”

Abruptly she stood, offered him a hand. “Here, you make a circle around me.” She helped him to his feet.

She got a broom and a dustpan, swept up the circle she’d made. “Why can’t we just use that circle. Seems a waste of salt.”

“That’s another thing,” she said. “It can be salt, chalk, precious metal, silver, a bunch of stones, almost anything will do. A precious metal is best, depending upon what you’re trying to contain, salt is second best, and you can reuse the salt, but you must construct the circle if you’re going to set it.” She finished sweeping up the salt, then sat down where the circle had been.

He took the canister of salt, poured a reasonably accurate circle around her and sat down on the floor facing her.

“Now I want you to think of the circle as an impregnable wall, all the while concentrating on the salt as the foundation of the wall.”

He focused, recalled the invisible wall she had created around him.

“Now start drawing power,” she said. “It doesn’t take much, and don’t feed it into the salt. That’ll just blow the salt around. Instead, start feeding it into the imaginary wall. The salt is only the foundation. There’ll come a moment when the wall is complete, and you’ll know it on an instinctive level, then pick a word, and seal the circle.”

As she spoke he saw the wall forming, not in any visible sense, but with his newly formed arcane senses. And when the moment came, as she’d told him, he knew it in his bones. He said, “Ok,” and the salt scattered as if blown about by a breeze.

She helped him sweep up the salt and he laid down another circle, and again she sat within it. “This time use a trigger word, something stronger than ok.”

He tried “Abracadabra, fiddle-de-de,” and nothing worked. Each time he set the circle, and each time the salt scattered.

They’d set the salt one more time, and again she sat within it. She said, “You need to focus better.”

She said it just as he was ready to set the circle, and angrily he shouted, “Bullshit!”

“What do you mean?” she asked angrily. “I’m not bullshitting you. Everything I said is true. I—”

“No, no, no,” he said. “I didn’t mean bullshit on you. Bullshit’s my word. If you get to have motherfucker, I get to have bullshit.”

She laughed, shook her head. “You’re incorrigible.” They both looked at the salt circle and it hadn’t scattered. She reached out carefully, and he saw the palm of her hand flatten as it pressed against the inside of the circle he’d set. “Very good! I guess the lesson is complete. Go ahead and break the circle. I have to get back to work.”

He leaned back, grinned evilly and said, “I tell you what. You show me one of those tattoos, and I’ll break the circle.”

Her eyes narrowed angrily. “I said I didn’t get any tattoos.”

“That’s not what you said. You said you didn’t get any that you, and I quote, ‘couldn’t easily hide.’” He leaned a little to the side and leered at her ass. “Any tattoos that you can hide?” She blushed and he knew he was right. “Show me one and I’ll let you out.”

She jumped to her feet, put her hands on her hips. “You listen to me, Conklin. This is extortion. I won’t stand for it.” She pushed irrationally at the circle, muttering a few well-chosen curses at him.

Still sitting on the floor with her standing over him, he realized he wasn’t getting the reaction he’d hoped for, so he reached out and broke the circle. But at that moment she was pushing on it, and with her weight against it she toppled forward. Sitting there he looked up, realized what he’d done, leapt back to try to catch her, and she landed right on top of him. He let out a loud, “oomph,” as she knocked the wind out of him.

Laying on top of him as he gasped for air she laughed. “Well, well, funny man. You got exactly what you deserved. That’s poetic justice if I’ve ever—”

He shut her up by putting his hand gently behind her head, pressing his lips against hers and kissing her deeply. He didn’t have to force her, would never have done so. She groaned, closed her eyes, responding with an almost desperate need, their tongues dancing hungrily back and forth. It was a long, eager kiss during which her entire body responded and melted against him comfortably, warmly, passionately. But then she tensed, her eyes widened, she put a hand on his chest and pushed away from him. She scrambled off him, climbed quickly to her feet and backed across the room. “I’m not going to cross that line.”

She turned and almost ran from the room.

Paul picked himself up off the floor. “God damn it,” he said softly and headed for the door, hoping to catch her and apologize.

••••

Anogh traced the line of Taal’mara’s hip as she lay naked beside him, sleeping peacefully, lying on her side with her back to him. They were taking a chance meeting on the eve of the festivities of the equinox. But his hunger for the taste of her skin grew with each clandestine rendezvous, with each kiss, each session of their lovemaking. She was, after all, Unseelie, and the courtiers of the Winter Court were legend for their sexual proclivities, even more so than the Seelie Court, which had a reputation of its own. He was deeply ensnared in their love, though no more ensnared than she. They both knew they were taking too many chances, and had repeatedly sworn they would be more careful, see each other less frequently. But she had confessed that, like he, each moment they were apart was an eternity, and each day they shared together seemed but a blink in time.

She sighed deeply, stretched sensuously and rolled over. “My love,” she whispered, then wrapped her arms around him and kissed him. And as his passion blossomed, he wondered again how they had come to be so foolish, wondered at how it might end, though deep inside a piece of him knew there was little chance it would end well . . .

“Sir Anogh,” Ag called, bringing him out of his reverie. “You must join us . . . here in the present. Don’t you find the past a bit dated?” The room full of Unseelie courtiers twittered at Ag’s humor.

Anogh nodded his head respectfully. “Forgive me, Your Majesty.”

Ag had that look of cruel anticipation that always precluded unpleasantness. “She was a lovely creature. I should have bedded her myself a few times.” A father, speaking so casually of bedding his own daughter, did not raise eyebrows here as it would in the Seelie Court.

Anogh knew he was a fool to succumb to temptation as he said, “Certainly you would have enjoyed it far more than she.”

The beating that ensued was vicious, cruel and brutal.

••••

Standing at the right hand of Ag’s throne, Simuth watched Sabreatha stride across the floor of Ag’s formal audience chamber. She was a fearful sight, a tall specter of untamed shadows and wild magic with a broadsword strapped to her back and an unstrung long-bow in her left hand. She stopped at the base of the steps beneath the throne, stood straight and tall with her shadowed head canted at a slight angle, as if regarding Ag with disdain, a clearly intentional violation of protocol.

Simuth bent close to Ag’s ear and whispered, “We don’t need this black fey. Let me kill him myself. I’ll—”

Ag raised his right hand, silencing Simuth, though his gaze remained on Sabreatha. He and she stared at each other for several seconds, then Ag finally broke the silence. “Thank you for coming, child of dark magics.”

Sabreatha’s head merely nodded once. When she spoke her voice crawled through Simuth’s heart like the hiss of water spattering on a hot brand. “You summoned, I came. State your business.”

Ag shrugged, tried to be nonchalant as he said, “The Unseelie Court may have common cause with the black fey.”

“I doubt it,” Sabreatha hissed. “State your business.”

“There is the matter of this necromancer—”

“State your business.”

“He is a danger to us all, and something must be done about him—”

“State your business.”

Ag flinched, agitated that she showed so little deference. “This necromancer is . . . how shall I say—”

“State your business.”

Ag snarled, “I’m trying to, but you—”

“State your business.”

Ag stood and screamed, “I want him dead. I don’t care how it’s done. I want him dead.”

The ever-changing shadows dancing about Sabreatha’s face slowly dissipated, and she looked upon the king with her multi-colored eyes. She turned her gaze upon Simuth, and he realized she really didn’t look upon him, but rather through him, an unnerving glance filled with contempt. He shuddered, and was relieved when she looked back at Ag and said, “Perhaps les flèche du coeur.”

“Yes,” Ag said, stepping forward to the edge of the dais greedily. “Yes, deliver the arrow of the heart and I’ll grant you anything.” He hesitated, thought better of such a bargain. “Well, almost anything. What would you have?”

The shadows returned to obscure her face and eyes. “Free access to the domains of the Unseelie Court.”

“Yes,” Ag agreed. “We have a bargain.”

Sabreatha reached above her head, gripped the hilt of the broadsword protruding there and drew the blade. A steel blade, it reminded him that Sabreatha could touch cold iron, the only fey that could do so.

She swung the blade down, and it rang out as it tore a chip of stone from the first step of the dais in a shower of sparks. “My signature,” she said, “for a bargain signed and sealed.”

She sheathed the sword and, without waiting for leave, turned and strode from the hall.

When Ag and Simuth were once again alone, the king sat down and breathed a long sigh of relief. Simuth couldn’t take his eyes from the chipped first step of the dais, Sabreatha’s signature. He said, “Anogh will be furious when he hears of this.”

Ag growled, “Don’t be a fool. The Summer Knight must not know of this.”

••••

As Paul stepped onto the street outside of Katherine’s office, a strange otherworldly screech sent a shiver down his spine. It was not unlike the high-pitched cry of a hunting hawk. He paused on the sidewalk, looked up toward the sky and caught a hint of movement out of the corner of his eye. Something flittered high above, just at the roofline of the buildings around him. Perhaps a hawk of some kind, but so obscured in shadow, try as he might he couldn’t focus on it, couldn’t discern its true nature.

Twice more, on his walk back to his apartment, he heard the strange shriek and looked up, but never saw anything that might utter such a cry. It must have been a hawk or a falcon that had drifted into the city and become confused by the cacophony of sights and sounds. Easily explained, though he couldn’t as easily put the encounter out of his mind, and it continued to bother him late into the night.

••••

As the airplane banked, far below the cluster of skyscrapers that was Dallas came into view. Colleen had spent the entire flight drilling Paul in various exercises that would help him control what other practitioners sensed in him. “No spells on the plane,” she’d said. “We’ll just work on control. It wouldn’t do to light the plane on fire.”

Colleen, McGowan and Katherine were all obviously a bit uneasy about him meeting this Salisteen. It had become clear that Colleen, McGowan, Karpov, Salisteen and a few others were in a league all their own when it came to throwing around this magic stuff, and there was more to this than just making a good impression on Salisteen. But Paul didn’t know how much more, and though Katherine had joined them on this trip to Dallas, she’d remained distant. Paul could no longer count on her to fill him in on what he didn’t know.

“That’s much better,” Colleen said. “If I didn’t know to look, I wouldn’t know you were a practitioner.”

Paul had worked hard to camouflage his abilities. Colleen had told him that only a few months ago he’d stood out like “. . . a petulant child throwing a temper tantrum at a sedate gathering of older people.” It had helped considerably that he’d learned to see the maelstrom that hovered about other practitioners.

“By the way,” Colleen said, “you’re less subject to an arcane attack when you shield yourself that way. That maelstrom, as you call it, is linked to your aura, and when you suppress its perceptibility to others you prevent them from manipulating you or attacking you through it.”

Paul had spent weeks trying to accomplish this level of control.

“Tell me about Suzanna,” Colleen said without warning.

“Suzanna!” Paul said, a bit startled by the sudden change of subject. “What brought that on?”

“If you can talk about her, and still maintain your shields, then I’ll know you’re getting the hang of it.” She hesitated for a moment, as if trying to decide if she’d tell him more. “And I’m curious. I suspect there was a reason you two were attracted to one another, so I’d like to know more.”

Paul recalled the evening he’d met Suzanna. “There’s not much to tell. We met in college, in our senior year. Met at a party thrown by a mutual friend. Hit it off right away, started dating, fell in love. Couldn’t afford to get married right away, so we worked for a couple of years before tying the knot. Couldn’t afford to have children right away, so we worked for a couple more years before having Cloe. Nothing really unusual or special about us. Quite ordinary, in fact.”

“And the friend who introduced you?”

“He didn’t really introduce us. He just threw a party and we both showed up, happened to run into each other. Pure chance.”

She raised an eyebrow skeptically. “There may not be a lot of chance where you’re concerned. How did Suzanna die?”

Paul really didn’t want to look into that dark hole in his soul. “She just disappeared one day, gone without reason or a word. I spent a week just crazy-nuts trying to find her. Then the cops identified her body in a car accident, totaled it, head-on with a big truck. I’m pretty certain they figured it was suicide, though around me they only dropped a few hints about that. More in the questions they asked. You know: was she depressed? That kind of stuff.”

“And you didn’t believe it was suicide?”

“No,” he said angrily. “I checked into it, studied up on it. She didn’t show any of the symptoms. Not a one.”

“And Cloe, what about her?”

That hole was even deeper and darker, and he had trouble getting the words out. “Couple months later, hit-and-run, right outside her school.”

Colleen reached out and put a comforting hand on Paul’s shoulder. “What about Suzanna’s parents?”

“She was an orphan, didn’t really have any. She’d spent a lot of years in foster homes, but never more than a few years in any one place, not long enough so anyone really thought of her as their daughter. She grew up surprisingly normal, for all that.”

They both sat there in silence. The pilot announced their final approach into DFW. The attendants picked up the trash, the plane maneuvered around a bit, then settled into the long, straight path to the runway. The plane jerked and the wheels screeched, and the plane coasted to a stop at the end of the runway. The engine pitch rose again and the pilot taxied toward their gate.

“Paul,” Colleen said. “There’s something I’ve suspected about Suzanna for some time now. And I think you just confirmed my suspicions.”

Paul felt anger swelling up within him as he looked sharply at Colleen and said, “I don’t want to hear anything bad about her. She’s gone, so leave it at that.”

Colleen shook her head. “No, Paul. It’s not bad. I just think she was a Sidhe foundling.”

“What’s a foundling?”

Colleen hesitated. “Your apartment had the scent of long-term Unseelie habitation. Not the kind of scent you’d detect with your nose, but rather an arcane residue. It’s considerably diminished, which would be consistent with the fact that Suzanna has been gone for more than a year, but it’s unmistakable.”

Paul’s patience had shredded. He tried not to sound angry as he again demanded, “What’s a foundling?”

“I’m guessing a Sidhe woman of the Unseelie Court took a mortal lover, bore a child, was pressured in some way to give up the child or wanted to hide the birth, left her here as an orphan in the Mortal Plane. Possibly never had contact with her again.”

“But Suzanna never had any Sidhe powers.”

“All Sidhe have extraordinary powers in Faerie, but one must be a mage, a wizard or a witch, to have powers here in the Mortal Plane. If Suzanna was merely half-Sidhe, but not a mage, then however powerful she might or might not have been in Faerie, she would have been quite normal here.”

Paul stared at the back of the seat in front of him as the plane pulled up to the gate, the chime sounded, the passengers stood and began gathering up their possessions. Colleen stood, then leaned down close to Paul’s ear, “I know it’s a lot to take in.”

Paul stood, and as he did so Colleen smiled at him and said, “By the way, you held your shields nicely while talking about Suzanna and Cloe.”

••••

It would be rather easy to learn where they lived, the little Mexican boy and the pretty Mexican girl. He’d just follow them home, but he’d do so carefully. He couldn’t follow behind them in his car, barely moving along at two or three miles an hour. That would be pushing the limits of the spell that hid the car. And it would be far too dangerous to walk behind them; they were just ambling along and he’d have to walk too slowly. No, much too obvious. But he’d done this before, and it was easy.

After the bus dropped them off he waited and watched them walk up the street, the engine in his car idling. As they approached the corner he backed out of his parking place and drove slowly across the mall parking lot. He pulled out on the road just as they turned the corner and walked out of sight. He drove slowly down the street, and by the time he turned the same corner, they were just reaching the next corner, and by the time he passed them they had walked straight without turning. He continued on and didn’t look back. Patience. It required patience to do this right.

The next day he approached them from the opposite direction, saw them continue to walk straight for another block. The next two days he stayed away, and the following day he confirmed the next turn in their walk home. Now it was time to stay away from the entire neighborhood for a while. He’d come back in a few days, a long enough absence to insure that some observant parent didn’t spot a pattern and take notice of his car.

He now knew the pattern of their day, knew the school they attended, the route the bus took to bring them home and the bus stop. Eventually, he’d watch each of them walk right up to their front door as he drove past.

Soon, the voice said. Soon.

Chapter 4: The Hunt

Salisteen sent a chauffeured limo for them. The passenger compartment—back seat really didn’t do it justice—had two seats facing each other, with plenty of leg-room for all. Paul and McGowan sat in a seat facing Colleen and Katherine. The limo also had a wet bar, TV, the works.

As the limo drove out of the airport Colleen and Katherine were quietly discussing something, so Paul asked McGowan, “I take it she’s loaded.”

“More than me, kid.”

“Are all top practitioners loaded?”

“Pretty much.”

“Why?”

“Better to have money than not.”

Paul tried a different approach. “I guess I really mean how? Do you predict the future or something and invest in the stock market? Something like that?”

McGowan frowned and considered Paul’s question carefully. “It’s pretty hard to predict the future. Only some of us can do it, and then only to a limited extent. I can teach you a couple of incantations, the same ones good old Nostradamus used, but the results are always vague and subject to wide interpretation. That was his big problem, eventually drove him nuts trying to figure out what the results meant.”

McGowan looked at Paul carefully. “But that’s not what you’re really asking. Is it?”

“No. I’m just wondering if you game the system in some way.”

McGowan shrugged. “Most of us don’t need to. We tend to live rather long lives, and because we are practitioners, opportunities do come our way. But if you wanted to game the system and make some money, you’d have to be careful what you did. You might spell some dice and win big at the casinos, and they’ll let you win once or twice then cut you off. And a couple of them—though they don’t realize it—employ practitioners as heads of security. Practitioners are good at spotting anyone trying to beat the system. And they consider it cheating, so you might end up with your legs broken.”

McGowan looked at him pointedly and frowned. “You want to get rich?”

Paul shook his head adamantly. “No, not that, I’m just trying to understand the rules.”

McGowan pursed his lips and thought carefully. “There aren’t many. I suppose the big one is: don’t bring mundane attention to your abilities, or those of others. There was a time when strong practitioners were respected, and often employed as royal advisors and counselors. But then we went through that nasty time when they burned witches at the stake, and that left us all a little shy about notoriety. You want to murder someone, you want to use your power to do it, that’s between you and the law, as long as they don’t find out about your abilities, though I personally don’t like criminals and might just choose to see justice done. On the other hand, you start leaving a string of bizarre, unanswered killings behind you, and there’ll be no maybe’s about it. There are several of us who will definitely step in and stop you, permanently.

“Say you figure out an alchemical spell for turning lead or iron into gold. Go ahead, make yourself rich. But don’t make so much gold that you start affecting world financial markets. That might prompt someone to start asking the kind of questions we don’t want asked. We’ll step in.

“And you already know about setting a demon loose in this life, either purposefully or by accident, we’ll step in. We’ll get rid of the demon, then sit down and have a talk about how we can be certain you won’t do it again. And if the talk doesn’t reassure us sufficiently, you probably won’t survive it.”

McGowan kept referring to we, as if there was some organization. “Who’s we? Is there some group, or council or something?”

McGowan shook his head. “There’s about a dozen of us worldwide that are in a league all our own. There’s me, Karpov and Colleen. You’re about to meet Salisteen. Then there’s Charlie Stowicz in New York, three or four in Europe, three or four more in Asia, couple in South America, one in Australia. We’re a pretty stubborn, contrary bunch that, by and large, don’t usually get along well. But there are certain things that’ll make us band together.”

McGowan chuckled, laughing at some private joke. “That Russian wants us to get organized, write down rules, have an executive council. We’d have rank based on power; the more powerful you are, the higher your rank. All that kind of stuff.”

Paul grimaced. “And I suppose Karpov wants to be the head of this executive council?”

“Exactly,” McGowan said, shaking his head sadly. “Though the rank-power relationship thing already exists in a de facto fashion. It’s only natural.”

“Where would that put you?”

“I’d be up there, kid. I’ve been at the top of the feeding chain for a long time.”

“And me?”

McGowan looked at Paul as if appraising him carefully. “Too soon to say, kid. Clearly you’ll be well above the middle ranks. But how much above, only time, practice and experience will tell. And you are unique.”

“The necromancer thing?”

“Ya, the necromancer thing?”

“Sounds like there’s a bunch of factions. What faction are you part of?”

McGowan shrugged and grinned. “You might say I’m one of the leaders of the anarchist faction: no organization, no committees, and we already have enough rules.”

Paul thought it through carefully. “So you help me out, you teach me, I’m the sorcerer’s apprentice and all that, and I’ll naturally feel indebted. So you’ll probably gain a supporter, and who knows how much rank I’ll be able to put behind that support.”

McGowan threw his head back and laughed loudly. “Well, you ain’t stupid, kid.”

“What about the Sidhe? How do they play into this?”

“Good question. The Sidhe are enormously powerful in Faerie, but weaker here in the Mortal Plane. With a few exceptions, here they’re more like mid-level practitioners. If they can control one or more of us, then that gives them strength here.”

“And how would they control me?”

McGowan’s focus drifted away for a moment, and he smiled as if at a fond memory. “The Sidhe of the royal blood can be quite beguiling, and that is probably the only capability they have that isn’t weakened here on the Mortal Plane. When they want to be, the men and women both are the most beautiful beings you have ever seen. They can turn it on and off like a light switch. I’ve seen mortal men without the slightest homosexual tendency, become so obsessed with a Sidhe male they destroy themselves with the compulsion. But more than that, if you’re not prepared, they can make you want them, desire to please them, willing to do anything to make them happy. You become a virtual slave without even knowing it, obsessively, compulsively needing their constant approval.”

The limo pulled into a large U-shaped driveway in front of an enormous McMansion, easily twenty thousand square feet. Paul gawked like a country bumpkin when McGowan said, “This is Highland Park. Lot of money in this neighborhood.”

••••

Anogh waited well down the street from the mansion of the powerful witch. Hidden within a simple glamour in the shadows of a large tree, he watched the limousine pause at a wrought-iron gate. After a brief delay the gate swung open and the large car pulled forward onto the grounds of the estate. He watched the druid, the Old Wizard, his daughter and the necromancer emerge from the limo and disappear into the mansion.

He also watched Cadilus’s two young mages stalking the periphery of the mansion’s grounds. Both had shape-shifted into small falcons and flitted back and forth on drafts of warm air, careful to remain beyond the mansion’s wards. Shape-shifting was difficult magic for a Sidhe mage on the Mortal Plane, so both were clearly powerful and dangerous.

A sharp cry broke the quiet of the afternoon, and a large red-tailed hawk swooped down out of the sky. Much bigger than the falcons, its attack was unexpected, and it nearly impaled one on its talons, but the smaller bird dodged at the last moment and escaped without damage. Outmatched by the larger bird, the two falcons fled into the distance, while the hawk landed on the wall surrounding the compound of a neighbor.

A mortal might think the little drama quite ordinary, predators contesting their hunting territory. But the cry of the hawk had an arcane quality to it Anogh recognized.

How had the black fey come into this? he wondered. But more importantly, why this particular being, this most dangerous of beings?

••••

Salisteen met them just inside the front door of the McMansion in a foyer larger than Paul’s apartment. It had curved staircases winding both left and right around a massive crystalline chandelier, both leading up to a second floor landing.

She was a tall, elegant black woman, African-American, looked like a retired model a bit past her prime, but still quite good looking. She wore a knee length dress, long legs ending in tall, spike heels, curly, brown hair cut in a very short afro. When McGowan introduced them Paul extended his hand. Salisteen beamed at him gorgeously and smiled, gripped his right hand in hers, but reached out with her left hand and took hold of his elbow, then pulled him toward her to within a distance that bordered on intimate. “Paul,” she said sensuously, their faces only inches apart. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” She had an accent that could only be described as Texas elegant, every vowel articulated carefully. The word pleasure came out like a promise, and Paul grew aware of some very attractive cleavage not far below his chin, though he was careful not to look down and stare at it.

She stepped back from him and released his hand, but she paused and looked him up and down carefully, as if examining her next meal. Her smile broadened, and in a slow drawl she said, “This should be very interesting.”

Katherine said, “My dear, Paul is not an appetizer for dinner.”

Salisteen turned and looked at her. “Of course not, darling.” She glanced back at Paul. “I think he’d be an entire meal all by himself, including desert. And I am in the mood for desert.”

She turned and walked toward the interior of the house, spoke as she walked, “Come with me. The servants will take care of your luggage. I have rooms prepared for you.”

Paul noticed there was a preponderance of rather good-looking young men among Salisteen’s servants, some runway-model caliber, all rather weak practitioners. They wore simple white coats that ended just below their waistline. There were also a few individuals dressed in business suits, male and female, all good looking but nothing like the runway-model servants. The suits were further distinguished from the servants in that each had a little curly, flesh-colored wire running from an ear into the collar of their coat, and also each was a much stronger practitioner. No one needed to tell Paul the suits were security.

Salisteen led them to a large office with floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out onto a patio and an enormous lawn. Waiting in the office was a fellow that looked like a dockworker, short, stocky, a little overweight, heavily muscled. He had the kind of dark, black hair that left a five-o’clock shadow ten minutes after shaving.

“Charlie!” McGowan said, obviously surprised to see the man there. “What are you doing here?”

“Walter,” the man said. To all outward appearances they were two old friends, but there seemed an element of tension between them. “Salisteen asked me to come and help too.” He spoke with a thick New York accent.

McGowan made introductions, and Paul learned the fellow was Charlie Stowicz. That meant they had four of the five most powerful wizards in North America present in the room. McGowan’s uneasiness put Paul on edge. Whereas Salisteen wanted to eat Paul for desert, Stowicz looked at him like he wanted to hang him from the nearest tree. Colleen confirmed Paul’s suspicions when she leaned close to his ear and whispered, “The only reason Charlie would be here is to see you. And I’m not sure if that’s good.”

••••

Dinner was a casual affair, a simple help-yourself buffet. Katherine would have enjoyed it more, but when that cougar Salisteen heard Paul had never tasted Texas barbecue, she personally introduced him to every dish on the table. The slut never lost physical contact with him: a hand on his elbow, her hip brushing against his. She was probably spelling him, and Katherine considered checking his aura.

What am I doing? Katherine asked herself. First I avoid him like the plague, then I turn into a seething bag of jealous hormones? She had no claims on Paul, and if he wanted that over-sexed, middle-aged trollop, he could damn well have her.

They sat at picnic tables on one of the many patios. Katherine sat opposite Paul while Salisteen carefully chose a seat next to him, her hip brushing up against his. The conversation immediately turned to the demon kills. “It seems to have progressed to about one or two victims a month,” Salisteen said. “And it’s careful, never strikes in the same municipality twice, at least not without waiting several months between victims. Only strikes in larger communities that deal regularly with unusual deaths. The victims are all young girls about eight or nine years old. But other than that, no set pattern to victim type: white, black, Hispanic, blonde, brunette, rich, poor.”

Paul asked, “But wouldn’t someone connect the dots on a string of murders like that?”

Stowicz lifted his napkin to his face and wiped a bit of sauce from his chin. “No sign of trauma, right?” He looked to Salisteen for confirmation and she nodded.

He turned to Paul. “No sign of trauma, no drugs in the system, no needle marks, nothing that’ll show up on an autopsy. Medical examiner just chalks it up to natural causes, sometimes of unknown origin, sometimes they take a guess.”

Salisteen added, “And the greater Dallas/Fort Worth area has a population of well over six million. They deal with thousands of deaths from all causes every day.” She stared at her food for a moment, used her fork to push it around the plate without tasting it. “This one’s careful. But I don’t think it’s ventured outside the Dallas/Fort Worth area.”

Colleen asked, “And what brought it to your attention?”

Salisteen frowned and continued to stare at her food as if recalling a bad memory. “A friend of mine, Mike Ramirez, Sergeant in the Rangers, good cop, smart cop.”

She looked pointedly at Paul. “As you say, he connected the dots.”

She took a pull on a bottle of beer. “He’s also a practitioner of middling talent, checked out one of the bodies and spotted the demon stink, knows when to ask for my help. In these kinds of cases Mike’ll bring me on board as a consultant, pays me a small fee—a very small fee—to make it look right. That allows me and my associates limited, but official, access to view a body or something like that. He’s identified four confirmed victims and four or five other possibilities.

“I called in a number of local practitioners, and with phone calls from Mike paving the way, we canvassed the morgues in the greater Dallas area, looking closely at any death that didn’t have an obvious cause. But we’d have to get court orders and exhume the bodies to be sure. It looks like it’s gone on for about six months.”

The conversation moved on and they talked about some sort of police procedure, but Paul looked deeply troubled, had stopped eating and just toyed with his food. “Little girls eight or nine,” he said, his voice barely a whisper. “Cloe would be eight now.”

Katherine’s heart lurched as she realized what this meant to him.

Salisteen turned to him and asked sharply. “Who’s Cloe?” The conversation at the table abruptly halted.

“The little girls,” Paul said. “Any pattern there?”

Salisteen frowned at the obvious evasion and she shook her head. “Mostly white and Hispanic, though we suspect one black girl was a victim, but we won’t know for sure without exhumation. They were all different hair color, different economic status. No pattern.”

Paul nodded, stared at his food with blank, vacant eyes. “There has to be a pattern,” he said.

Salisteen dismissed him rather casually. “None we’ve been able to spot so far. The most recent victim hasn’t been buried yet, so we’re going to see her tomorrow.”

••••

He’d timed it perfectly; as he turned onto the street two blocks away the little Mexican boy and the pretty Mexican girl parted, each walking down a different street. He had no interest in the little Mexican boy; he wasn’t Alice. He could never be Alice. But he could be a problem, might get in the way at the wrong moment, so he decided to follow the boy instead of pretty little Alice.

He drove slowly, but not too slowly. There was an art to remaining unnoticed, a skill he’d acquired slowly with much practice and patience. And the power of the voice within him helped too, and his own skills as a practitioner helped immeasurably.

He watched the little Mexican boy walk up to the front door to his house, an above-average house that meant his parents had above-average money. He drove past and continued on without looking back.

Chapter 5: The Bearer

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