I took a deep breath to settle myself, jerking the cuff of my gloves up to cover the bare patch of skin at my wrist. My fingers were numb through the fleece as I moved my next-to-largest spell pot to sit beside a small chipped tombstone, being careful to not let the transfer media spill. It was cold, and my breath steamed in the light of the cheap white candle I had bought on sale last week.
Spilling a bit of wax, I stuck the taper to the top of the grave marker. My stomach knotted as I fixed my attention on the growing haze at the horizon, scarcely discernable from the surrounding city lights. The moon would be up soon, being just past full and waning. Not a good time to be summoning demons, but it would be coming anyway if I didn't call it. I'd rather meet Algaliarept on my own terms - before midnight.
I grimaced, glancing at the brightly lit church behind me where Ivy and I lived. Ivy was running errands, not even aware I had made a deal with a demon, much less that it was time to pay for its services. I suppose I could be doing this inside where it was warm, in my beautiful kitchen with my spelling supplies and all the modern comforts, but calling demons in the middle of a graveyard had a perverse rightness to it, even with the snow and cold.
And I wanted to meet it here so Ivy wouldn't have to spend tomorrow cleaning blood off the ceiling.
Whether it would be demon blood or my own was a question I hoped I wouldn't have to answer. I wouldn't allow myself to be pulled into the ever-after to be Algaliarept's familiar. I couldn't. I had cut it once and made it bleed. If it could bleed, it could die. God, help me survive this. Help me find a way to make something good here.
The fabric of my coat rasped as I clutched my arms about myself and used my boot to awkwardly scrape a circle of six inches of crusty snow off the clay-red cement slab where I had seen a large circle etched out. The room-sized rectangular block of stone was a substantial marker as to where God's grace stopped and chaos took over. The previous clergy had laid it down over the adulterated spot of once hallowed ground, either to be sure no one else was put to rest there accidentally or to fix the elaborate, half-kneeling, battle-weary angel it encompassed into the ground. The name on the massive tombstone had been chiseled off, leaving only the dates. Whomever it was had died in 1852 at the age of twenty-four. I hoped it wasn't an omen.
Cementing someone into the ground to keep him or her from rising again sometimes worked - and sometimes it didn't - but in any case, the area wasn't sanctified anymore. And since it was surrounded by ground that was still consecrated, it made a good spot to summon a demon. If worse came to worst, I could always duck onto sanctified ground and be safe until the sun rose and Algaliarept was pulled back into the ever-after.
My fingers were shaking as I took from my coat pocket a white silk pouch of salt that I had scraped out of my twenty-five-pound bag. The amount was excessive, but I wanted a solid circle, and some of the salt would be diluted as it melted the snow. I glanced at the sky to estimate where north was, finding a mark on the etched circle right where I thought it should be. That someone had used this circle to summon demons before didn't instill me with any confidence. It wasn't illegal or immoral to summon demons, just really, really stupid.
I made a slow clockwise path from north, my footprints paralleling the outside track of the salt as I laid it down, enclosing the angel monolith along with most of the blasphemed ground. The circle would be a good fifteen feet across, a rather large enclosure which generally took at least three witches to make and hold, but I was good enough to channel that much ley line force alone. Which, now that I thought about it, might be why the demon was so interested in snagging me as its newest familiar.
Tonight I'd find out if my carefully worded verbal contract made three months ago would keep me alive and on the right side of the ley lines. I had agreed to be Algaliarept's familiar voluntarily if it testified against Piscary, the catch being that I got to keep my soul.
The trial had officially ended two hours after sunset tonight, sealing the demon's end of the bargain and making my end enforceable. That the undead vampire who controlled most of Cincinnati's underworld had been sentenced to five centuries for the murders of the city's best ley line witches hardly seemed important now. Especially when I was betting his lawyers would get him out in a measly one.
Right now the question on everyone's mind on both sides of the law was whether Kisten, his former scion, would be able to hold everything together until the undead vampire got out, because Ivy wasn't going to do it, scion or no. If I managed to get through this night alive and with my soul intact, I'd start worrying about me a little less and my roommate a little more, but first I had to settle up with the demon.
Shoulders so tight they hurt, I took the milky green tapers from my coat pocket and placed them on the circle to represent the points of a pentagram I wouldn't be drawing. I lit them from the white candle I used to make the transfer media. The tiny flames flickered, and I watched for a moment to be sure they weren't going to go out before I stuck the white candle back on the broken grave marker outside the circle.
The hushed sound of a car pulled my attention to the high walls dividing the graveyard from our neighbors. Steadying myself to tap the nearby ley line, I tugged my knit cap down, stomped the snow from the hem of my jeans, and made one last check that I had everything. But there was nothing left to procrastinate with.
Another slow breath, and I touched my will to the tiny ley line running through the church's graveyard. My breath hissed in through my nose and I stiffened, almost falling as my equilibrium shifted. The ley line seemed to have picked up the winter chill, slicing through me with an unusual coldness. Putting out a gloved hand, I steadied myself against the candlelit tombstone while the incoming energy continued to build.
Once the strengths equilibrated, the extra incoming force would flow back to the line. Until then I had to grit my teeth and bear it as tingling sensations backwashed at the theoretical extremities in my mind that mirrored my real fingers and toes. Each time it was worse. Each time it was faster. Each time it was more of an assault.
Though it seemed like forever, the force balanced in a heartbeat. My hands started to sweat and an uncomfortable sensation of being both hot and cold took me, like being in a fever. I took off my gloves and jammed them into a deep pocket. The charms on my bracelet jingled, clear in the winter-silenced air. They wouldn't help me. Not even the cross.
I wanted to set my circle quickly. Somehow Algaliarept knew when I tapped a line, and I had to summon it before it showed up on its own and robbed me of the thread of power I might claim as its summoner. The copper spell pot with the transfer media was cold when I picked it up and did something no witch ever did and lived to tell of it; I stepped forward, putting myself into the same circle I was going to call Algaliarept into.
Standing across from the person-sized monument cemented to the ground, I exhaled. The monolith was covered in a black smut from bacteria and city pollution, making it look like a fallen angel. That the figure was bowed weeping over a sword held horizontally in his hands as an offering only added to the creepy feeling. There was a bird's nest wedged into the fold of the wings as they curved around the body, and the face didn't look right. The arms, too, were too long to be human or Inderlander. Even Jenks didn't let his kids play around this one.
"Please let me be right," I whispered to the statue as I mentally moved the white rill of salt from this reality to that of the ever-after. I staggered as most of the energy pooling in my center was yanked out to force the shift. The media in the pot sloshed, and still not having found my balance, I set it down in the snow before it spilled. My eyes went to the green candles. They had turned eerily transparent, having been moved to the ever-after with the salt. The flames, though, existed in both worlds, adding their glow to the night.
The power from the line began to build again, the slow increase as uncomfortable as the first quick influx of tapping a line, but the ribbon of salt had been replaced with an equal amount of ever-after reality arching high to close over my head. Nothing more substantial than air could pass the shifting bands of reality, and because I set the circle, only I could break it - providing I had made it properly to begin with.
"Algaliarept, I summon you," I whispered, my heart pounding. Most people used all sorts of trappings to summon and contain a demon, but seeing as I already had an arrangement with it, simply saying its name and willing its presence would pull it across the lines. Lucky me.
My gut clenched when a small patch of snow melted between the warrior angel and me. The snow steamed, the cloud of reddish vapor billowing up to follow the confines of a body not yet taken shape. I waited, my tension growing. Algaliarept varied its shape, sifting through my mind without me even knowing to choose what scared me the most. Once it had been Ivy. Then Kisten - until I had pinned him in an elevator in a foolish moment of vampire-induced passion. It's hard to be scared of someone after you've French-kissed him. Nick, my boyfriend, always got a slavering dog the size of a pony.
This time, though, the mist was definitely a human shape, and I guessed it was going to show up either as Piscary - the vampire I had just put in prison - or perhaps its more typical vision of a young British gentleman in a green velveteen coat with tails.
"Neither scares you anymore," came a voice from the mist, jerking my head up.
It was my voice. "Aw, crap," I swore, picking up my spell pot and backing away until I almost broke my circle. It was going to show up as me. I hated that. "I'm not afraid of myself!" I shouted, even before it finished coalescing.
"Oh, yes you are."
It had the right sound, but the cadence and accent were wrong. I stared, riveted, as Algaliarept took on my outline, running its hands suggestively down itself, flattening its chest to my lame excuse of womanhood and giving me h*ps that were probably a little more curvaceous than I deserved. It dressed itself in black leather pants, a red halter top, and high-heeled black sandals that looked ridiculous out in the middle of a snowy graveyard.
Eyelids lightly closed and lips open, it shook its head to make my frizzy shoulder-length red curls take shape out of the lingering haze of ever-after. It gave me more freckles than I could possibly have, and my eyes weren't the red orbs it showed when it opened them, but green. Mine weren't slitted like a goat's either.
"You got the eyes wrong," I said, and I set my spell pot down at the edge of the circle. I gritted my teeth, hating that it heard my voice quaver.
Hip cocked, the demon put out a sandaled foot and snapped its fingers. A pair of black shades materialized in its grip, and it put them on, hiding its unnatural eyes. "Now they're right," it said, and I shuddered at how close it matched my voice.
"You don't look anything like me," I said, not realizing I had lost so much weight, and deciding I could go back to eating shakes and fries.
Algaliarept smiled. "Perhaps if I put my hair up?" it mocked coyly as it gathered the unruly mass and held it atop my, er, its head. Biting its lips to redden them, it moaned and shifted as if its hands were tied above it, looking like it was into bondage games. Falling back onto the sword the angel held, it posed like a whore.
I hunched deeper into my coat with the fake fur around the collar. From the distant street came the slow sound of a passing car. "Can we get on with this? My feet are getting cold."
It pulled its head up and smiled. "You are such the party pooper, Rachel Mariana Morgan," it said in my voice, but now with its customary highbrow British accent. "But a very good sport. Not making me drag you into the ever-after shows a fine strength of mind. I'm going to enjoy breaking you."
I jerked when a smear of ever-after energy cascaded over it. It was shifting forms again, but my shoulders eased when it turned itself into its usual vision of lace and green velvet. Dark hair styled long and round smoked glasses twisted into existence. Pale skin and a strong-featured face appeared, matching its trim, narrow-waisted figure in elegance. High-heeled boots and an exquisitely tailored coat finished the outfit, turning the demon into a charismatic young businessman of the eighteenth century, possessing wealth and poised for greatness.
My thoughts touched on the horrific crime scene I had contaminated last fall while trying to pin the murders of Cincinnati's best ley line witches on Trent Kalamack. Al had slaughtered them in Piscary's name. Each of them had died in pain for its enjoyment. Al was a sadist, no matter how good the demon looked.
"Yes, let's get on with it," it said as it took a tin of a black dust that smelled like Brimstone and inhaled a pinch deeply. It rubbed its nose and moved to poke at my circle with a boot, making me wince. "Nice and tight. But it's cold. Ceri likes it warm."
Ceri? I wondered as all the snow within the circle melted in a flash of condensation. The scent of wet pavement rose strong, then vanished as the cement dried to a pale red.
"Ceri," Algaliarept said, its voice shocking me in its soft tone, both coaxing and demanding. "Come."
I stared when a woman stepped from behind Algaliarept, seemingly from nowhere. She was thin, her heart-shaped face sallow and her cheekbones showing too strongly. Standing substantially shorter than I, she had a diminutive, almost childlike mien. Her head was down, and her pale translucent hair hung straight to her mid-back. She was dressed in a beautiful gown that dropped to her bare feet. It was exquisite - lush silk dyed in rich purples, greens, and golds - and it fitted her curvaceous form like it had been painted on. Though she was small, she was well-proportioned, if perhaps a shade fragile looking.
"Ceri," Algaliarept said, putting a white-gloved hand to tilt her head up. Her eyes were green, wide, and empty. "What did I tell you about going barefoot?"