A claw swept across my face, and I felt the hot breath of hell. The monster had arrived.
I shook myself awake and stared into the eyes of my One True Enemy, who sat on my chest like a succubus. Sleek and black and glaring at me with unabashed loathing.
“Rawr,” she said.
“What?” I asked, trying to make sense of my surroundings. “And why?”
“That, Elisa, is a cat,” said the wickedly gorgeous shapeshifter currently in human form beside me. Connor Keene’s hair was dark and wavy, his body toned and muscles taut. One strong arm was slung over his face, and a smile curved his very kissable mouth. “I’m surprised you didn’t know that.”
He might have been my future husband, but I gave him a look nearly as gnarly as the one I’d given the cat. “Why,” I began again, with admirable patience, “is it this cat and why is it in this house?”
“Nothing to do with me,” he said. And gave Eleanor of Aquitaine an arch look. “Cat, why are you here?”
Eleanor of Aquitaine (not Eleanor or Elle, unless you wanted scratching) belonged to, or owned, Lulu Bell, my roommate and sorcerer. But we weren’t in the loft Lulu and I shared; we were in Connor’s town house. Only Connor “lived” in the town house, but we’d all taken up at least temporary residence there recently. Me, because he was my future husband. Lulu, because she was my bestie and I wanted her safe. Alexei Breckenridge, because he was Connor’s best friend and Lulu’s (boyfriend? friend? friend with benefits?) something or other. He’d stayed over at the town house during Chicago’s most recent supernatural disturbance and hadn’t yet left.
And now, apparently, we’d added the damned cat.
At my apparently rude question, said cat jumped off the bed and slunk into the bathroom.
“Demon visitation complete,” I said. At least until she made it into the closet and began running through our clothes like they were a joint car wash and scratching pad.
I glanced at Connor. “How are you feeling?”
He rolled his shoulder, testing. “A little sore, but I’ll manage.” Connor was the son of the North American Central Pack’s current Apex, Gabriel Keene. Connor had already taken down three challengers in his effort to ascend to Apex when his dad retired. And they kept coming.
“Nothing tonight, right?”
“Nothing tonight,” he said. “You?”
“Depends on the actual demons,” I said.
I was a vampire born into Chicago’s Cadogan House and an associate Ombudsman, one of Chicago’s human-supernatural liaisons. Less than a week ago, we’d sealed away Andaras (aka Rose, aka Eglantine, aka “Rosantine”), the first demon to enter Chicago in two hundred years. While she was no longer a problem, she’d triggered two of the wards in the city’s Victorian-era magical defense system. We were still trying to get the apparently single-use wards online again, and keep the city from being overrun by demons walking through the literal gap in our defenses. A few demons had made it through already; we were battling them as we found them now and sprinkling copious amounts of salt—a new addition to the Ombud operating procedure—across Chicago. We hadn’t had a night off since we’d brought the House back, and we were basically on call until the problem was resolved.
In addition to their penchant for troublemaking and violence, Rosantine had temporarily sent Cadogan House and its inhabitants—including my, Lulu’s, and Connor’s parents—into another dimension. Did not enjoy; did not wish to repeat.
Connor pulled me against him, enveloped me in warmth and magic and . . . him. “Just give me one minute,” he said. “And then you can yell at the cat.”
I snorted. “One minute,” I said, and smoothed a hand over his chest. He made a satisfied sigh and closed his eyes. There were shadows beneath them—faint, dark crescents brought on by too much magic and too much physical exertion.
“I know you don’t want to stop until you’ve claimed the throne,” I said. “But if you need to stop before you can do that, it’s fine. We will find a different way to be.”
He was quiet for a moment, then smoothed a hand over my long, wavy hair. “A different way?”
“Well, we could join the circus. You could be the strong man in those little glittery shorts. I’ll do the trapeze. We’ll live out of an RV and eat take-out Chinese.”
“That’s quite a plan.”
“Maybe better as a backup situation. In the meantime, continue kicking their asses.”
“That’s the plan,” he said, and kissed my forehead.
The bedroom door, already cracked, was pushed open fully by the sorceress who stepped into the doorway. Her gaze searched the room, but she ignored us—entwined as we were.
“Your minute is up,” I said.
“Her Highness is in the bathroom,” Connor announced. “Elisa scared her off.”
“Lulu,” I said—a question, a declaration, and a curse in two syllables.
“She was getting lonely,” Lulu said, moving into the room. There was a lot of feisty spirit in that petite frame, and an apparent skill at old magic—the bloody, potentially evil kind. But the paint-spattered white coveralls, rolled up at arms and ankles, mitigated the effect. She was an artist first, a sorceress second. And until a week ago, a completely nonpracticing one. Demons had changed everything.
Lulu was currently working on a mural in Hyde Park, not far from Cadogan House.
I narrowed my gaze as she strode to the bathroom, where something made a clunking sound. “What did she destroy?” I called out.
Lulu emerged, the cat sitting queenlike in her arms. “Here, or there?” she asked with a smile.
My stare didn’t change. “What did she pee on at the loft?”
“Let’s just say, if pee was gold, we’d both be rich. And I hope you didn’t like those pink sneakers.”
“You’re both very entertaining,” Connor said, rolling over to reveal the smooth curves of muscle across his back. “But maybe you could entertain somewhere else?”
With impeccable timing, Alexei stepped into the room, bagel in hand. Silently, he looked at us, then at Lulu and the cat, then chewed. Like Connor, Alexei was tall and strong, with pale skin and dark blond hair. Alexei didn’t talk much; he was a man of quiet loyalty who said much with his piercing hazel eyes. And knew how to back up a friend.
“And you brought her here why?” I asked.
“We can’t leave her alone at the loft forever,” Lulu said. “And with the demons out there, who knows how long we’ll be camped out here.”
“I’ll deal with the demons,” I said. “And your parents are working on repairing the broken wards.” Lulu’s parents were powerful sorcerers.
“I know. I was just saying. Nobody expects it to be immediate. Freaking demons.”
“Freaking demons,” Connor and Alexei muttered in unison.
Lulu stroked Eleanor of Aquitaine, who purred beneath her paint-stained fingers. While that cat wanted nothing to do with me, she plainly loved Lulu. And it wasn’t my style to break up a family.
Resigned, I sighed and looked at Connor. “Your house, your rules.”
“I don’t have a problem with it,” he said, voice muffled from the pillow. “She actually likes me.”
And that stung a little. “She can stay,” I told Lulu. “Just keep her out of this room. And any other room in which I might make an appearance.”
“That’s most of the house.” Lulu’s voice was flat.
“Is it?” I asked as innocently as I could manage.
My screen buzzed, and I plucked the thin rectangle of glass from the side table.
“Work,” I said, and even the cat went silent. Work rarely delivered good news an hour before I made it into the office.
“Elisa,” I answered. “And you’re on speaker with a demon cat and the sups who enable it.” This was not the time for video.
“Roger” was the caller’s response. Roger Yuen was the Ombudsman and my boss. “I’m on with Petra and Theo.” They were my coworkers. Petra, an aeromancer and light-conspiracy-theory enthusiast, and Theo, a human former cop and my partner.
“How is Eleanor of Aquitaine?” Petra asked, and the cat actually rowr’d a response.
“Good girl,” Petra added.
“What’s happened?” I asked, trying to steer my evening away from the resident demon.
“We aren’t sure,” Roger said. “A burst of magic was reported during the day. Looks like around three o’clock in the afternoon.”
“Reported by whom?” I asked.
“We’ve gotten calls from nymphs who called it a ‘magicky bass drop’ and from a representative of the river trolls who called it a ‘big loud.’”
“Checks out,” Connor murmured.
“How did you get ‘burst of magic’ out of that?” Lulu asked, moving closer to the screen.
“ComEd,” Roger said. That was Chicago’s power supplier. “They recorded a power surge at the same time. There are also complaints about satellite and telecom services going down. None of it lasted for more than a few seconds. Most of the complaints went to the mayor’s office, and they were routed back to us.”
Connor had grabbed his screen, and I guessed he was sending a message to the Pack to see if they’d experienced anything.
“Was it a demon?” I asked, my heart beating a little faster.
“Not that we’ve found. The guards didn’t see any activity at the wards. And there were no reports of anyone actually seeing anything. Just feeling it or its effects.”
“Well, there was the UFO sighting,” Petra said. “But we’re pretty confident a UFO did not land on Soldier Field in order to steal children.” She paused. “Because aliens are more interested in tech than bio, really.”
“Hmm,” I said noncommittally. “What about the fairies? They’re magically powerful. They’d almost certainly have felt it.” And maybe their bristly queen, Claudia, would have some insight about what it was.
“Haven’t heard from them,” Roger said. “But that’s not unusual.”
“A few Pack members—those who were awake—felt it,” Connor said, reading his screen. “No one can say what it was or where it originated. They just felt a sudden burst of energy.”
“Something with the ley lines?” I wondered. Three of the world-spanning lines of magical power ran through Chicago. The city’s demon wards were powered by cornerstones—big bespelled stones that got their energy from the ley lines and, in turn, helped regulate them.
“What could have affected them?” Theo asked.
“I don’t know. Demons? Sorcerers?” I asked, looking at Lulu.
“You’re asking if they could affect the ley lines? I mean, I’m not an expert, but I don’t know how they could. Ley lines are pure power. I don’t think sorcerers could sway them much. And if they’d done something, some kind of spell, I think we’d have felt it.”
“So what should we do?” I asked Roger.
“Maybe it’s nothing,” Roger said. “Just a hitch in the lines because the demon wards were recently triggered. But if it’s something more, I don’t want it getting worse. I’m thinking patrols around the city. Maybe we won’t find anything, but at least we’ll have done our due diligence. Wait— You have that dinner tonight, don’t you?”
Connor and I were scheduled to have dinner with his parents to celebrate our engagement.
He’d apparently asked for my father’s permission despite his seemingly casual proposal, and we’d shared the news with my parents just after he’d proposed. Neither my mom or dad had been surprised, but they had been supportive and thrilled to welcome a shifter into the family.
“We can be late,” Connor said.
I looked at him. “You’re sure?”
He nodded. “Dinner won’t matter much if demons overrun the city.”
“I mean, we’ll still have to eat,” I murmured, but took his point.
“We can be late,” he said again, this time with a smile that had me melting a little.
“Connor and I can start here,” I said. “We’ll talk to the fairies.” I’d also need to send a message to my informant. Jonathan Black was half-elf, half-sorcerer, and an attorney with mysterious clients, at least some of whom were criminals. He’d tried to kill me; he’d also saved my life. He was an enigma.
“Petra and I will start here,” Theo said, “although my arm would probably not be hella effective against arrows right now.”
“Hella deflective, anyway,” Alexei offered, chewing.
The first demon had triggered the ward that had broken Theo’s arm, but a fairy had put an arrow through his leg. He was human, but as brave as they come.
“Sounds good,” I said. “Want me to check with the Houses? They won’t have been awake, but they may know something.”
Chicago, with its three ley lines, collected sups like kids collected comics. It was home to four vampire Houses.
“You take Cadogan and Washington,” Theo said. “We’ll take Navarre and Grey.”
“Got it. And we’ll let you know if we find anything on our end. Stay safe out there.”
“Same,” Theo said. “But immortality probably gives you an advantage there.”
He wasn’t wrong.
# # #
The breakfast party was disbanded. Alexei took the last bite of his bagel downstairs; Lulu followed him. While Connor showered, I checked in with my parents at Cadogan House and Uncle Malik at Washington House. He wasn’t my actual uncle, but my dad’s former Second at Cadogan House, and I’d grown up with him and his wife.
Neither House, unfortunately, had anything to offer regarding the magical burst. They’d been unconscious during the day (being vampires), and the human guards who watched over their Houses hadn’t felt or reported anything. I also sent a message to Black and didn’t get an immediate response, which wasn’t especially surprising. He operated on his own schedule.
Then it was my turn in the shower and dressing for a night of who knew what. Connor opted for his preferred jeans, T-shirt, and boots combo; I went for jeans, boots with a stiletto thin enough to double as a weapon, and a couple of thin, layered shirts to combat the coming fall chill. I pulled my long, wavy blond hair into a topknot—the better to fight with—and offered my attention to the second consciousness inside me.
There were two of us in here. In addition to me, my body housed a remnant of the spell that had bound a supernatural creature into my mother’s katana two decades ago—and that had bound me to my mother, allowing her to give birth to the world’s first vampire child. Lulu’s mother, Mallory, had created that spell. The creature, called the Egregore, had been created by a sorcerer named Sorcha Reed. She’d been killed by her creation.
I called the remnant “monster,” and its presence was a secret that only Connor knew the full truth about, as I hadn’t wanted anyone else—particularly not Aunt Mallory and my parents—to know that I’d been contaminated by Sorcha’s magic. Or feel guilty about any of it.
I’d only recently come to understand monster’s greatest wish—being reunited with the rest of the Egregore in my mother’s sword. Not, as I’d presumed, finishing the Egregore’s mission of ravaging Chicago. Now that I’d finally grokked that wish, monster had become . . . naggier. It wanted out, as it frequently reminded me. But in addition to requiring from-scratch and risky magic, putting monster into the sword would require me to make a confession I’d been hiding for years. So that wasn’t high on my list.
Checking in with monster usually meant ensuring it wasn’t feeling anxious or hyperactive, which usually meant it needed some stretching or exercise of its own. It seemed to enjoy yoga, although not as much as it used to. . . .
Out, it silently said.
Working on it, I told monster silently for approximately the hundredth time over the last week. It took time to build the spell that put you here, and it’s going to take time to get you out again.
Because I had no idea what I would become if monster was gone, it also took more bravery than I could spare at the moment, what with the demons.
Let’s be honest—they made a convenient excuse for pretty much everything.
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