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Excerpt for The Witch Stone by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

A NineStar Press Publication

Published by NineStar Press

P.O. Box 91792,

Albuquerque, New Mexico, 87199 USA.

www.ninestarpress.com

The Witch Stone

Copyright © 2018 by Jasmine Hong

Cover Art by Natasha Snow Copyright © 2018

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any material form, whether by printing, photocopying, scanning or otherwise without the written permission of the publisher. To request permission and all other inquiries, contact NineStar Press at the physical or web addresses above or at Contact@ninestarpress.com.

Printed in the USA

First Edition

March, 2018


The Witch Stone

Court of Ash and Thorn, Book One

Jasmine Hong




Table of Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

About the Author

Chapter One: The Ex

The day started out normal.

The dawn sky had been clear; I had my study’s window cracked open while I worked because of the heat. The glass warding chimes my mother gave me sat in the kitchen throwing colored shapes all over the floor while I reviewed schematics at my desk. Outside, there was nothing but the orange glow of the streetlamp and the lightening horizon.

Not ten minutes before six, clouds rolled in, blotting out the moon, leaving me in the anemic light of the candles guttering from the wind. That was when my wards started screaming bloody murder, shooting bright yellow lines of alarm along my walls, ceiling, and floor. The chimes spun violently even though there was no wind. Drama queens. Although considering who they told me was at my doorstep, pounding on the door—well.

I thought I knew what to expect when I opened the door, and I dragged my feet as much as I could. I paused to disentangle my leg from the blanket that fell off my half-collapsed couch instead of just kicking it off, and even went so far as to ball it up and throw it on the armchair. I considered watering the dried hunk of fern that rested on the table. I had no desire to see my ex any time soon, much less at six in the morning.

I slammed the door open. “What do you want?”

What I did not expect, however, was for him to fall forward as soon as I opened the door, hitting the foyer floor with a thud and splattering my bare feet with what looked like blood. Lucky the landlord was too cheap to buy carpet—much easier to clean questionable fluids off concrete.

My entire living room blazed with yellow, making him look even more sickly.

He sat up and snarled, “We have to get out of here.” Most of the blood wasn’t his, but he was hurt worse than I’d thought, bruises already forming on his torso and limbs. A giant handprint wrapped around his neck.

There was something else, though, in my home. Something that didn’t quite belong there, though it wasn’t malicious or it would have been expelled. No, it was powerful but passive enough to go through my wards and not set off any alarms. Its presence felt like a strong pulse. Warm.

“What did you do, Salim?”

“What do you mean, what did I do?”

Something slammed against the wards on my doorway. Claws groped through the opening, piercing the thinner webbing but catching on the main lines. The wards screeched, flaring purple and sparking. I could feel everything my wards touched in a way. It wasn’t precisely the same as touching it myself, just sort of a muted sensation depending on how much magic the thing had. But Salim was almost bursting with magic. And so was the thing fighting against my wards now.

For a moment, I froze. It wasn’t like I was accustomed to seeing demons on a regular basis and this was one ugly motherfucker. Some demons can look human—better than human—but this…was not one of them.

“Cal!” Salim grabbed hold of my shoulders, shaking me.

With a twist of my hand, I tightened the wards on its claws, managing to sever one of its fingers in the process. Immediately, my wards absorbed its blood, lines of runes shooting back and forth between them as they started breaking the material down to find a weakness. Losing that bit of itself didn’t even give the demon pause. It threw itself against the entrance again, this time using its teeth. I spread the net of the ward lines apart this time, forcing its jaw wide. Too late I realized that it was preparing to spit venom at us.

The liquid writhed against my wards, hissing and finally oozing—hurtling forward as it ate through the gaps. In a last-ditch effort, I pulled my wards back like a slingshot and sent the entire glob back at the gaping maw with one huge heave.

The wards finally finished processing and started wrapping around the demon, immobilizing limb after limb, and set to absorbing it, which was a bit like eating fiery shards of glass, only less pleasant. They were, after all, an extension of my power, so I felt every second of the absorption process.

Sidestepping spots of the venom where they had gotten past the wards, I went to go grab my staff. Without a conduit, using magic was like trying to grapple with lightning. Kind of like talking to Salim. He was a lot more pleasant to be around when he was passed out.

Several lines of the wards gathered along my staff as I picked it up from beside the coat rack. The thing let out an ugly roar.

“What are you doing, Cal?” Salim asked.

“I’m going to destroy it.”

“That’s not going to work!”

“Isn’t that why you came here? Now shut up!”

“The Court is dead!” Salim said.

“What?”

The wards had started strangling the demon; its blood smelled like battery acid. Its eyes bulged as it fought to let off another roar and struggled against the wards.

“You’re as bad as Salim in one of his moods.”

It thrashed to let me know just what it thought about that. This time when the blood hit the wards, it was launched back at the demon. The wards might be able to handle it on their own, but it was time to give things a little push.

“Batter up, motherfucker.” Swinging my staff with my whole weight, I hit it right on the schnozz. I felt the lines take, ramming into its head like hooks and sending out spines to prevent it from pulling free.

“Cal, you fucking dickweed,” Salim said. “Don’t compare me to that thing.”

I spun around to look at him, just in time to see the demon’s claws shoot past me toward Salim, who was holding something in his hands. Something that felt like a heartbeat that thrummed through my entire living room.

Then everything exploded.

I shook my head, trying to get rid of the lights dancing in my vision. The demon was little more than a smudge on my doorstep. I foresaw a great deal of scrubbing the next day.

Outside, the sky rumbled and buzzed with electricity. All the hair on my body stood on end.

“Salim…was that you?” He was never that strong before. The most he could do was call up a strong wind or two, or a rain. Not call down lightning.

“Bastard,” he wheezed, collapsing at my feet.

And that was when the storm broke.

Chapter Two: The Stone

He managed to groan before slumping against the invisible wall of my wards, his arm dropping uselessly from the doorknob, sending something skittering across my floor.

“Fuck, what happened to you?”

Salim passed out right after I asked. He wore only shreds of cloth, like he’d just passed through a hurricane. His knuckles were practically pulp. Looked like most of the blood on him wasn’t his though, especially since some of it was green and purple.

A quick twist of my ward threads transported him from the doorway to the couch, with the additional benefit of shutting them the hell up, since he now had permission to be in my home. I’d have to buy a new blanket but, well, he probably wasn’t the grossest thing to wind up on my couch. Given it was ruined already, I used the blanket to wipe the gunk off.

I hadn’t seen him in years. His hair was longer, slicked upward in a pompadour that had mostly collapsed and fallen apart, but he looked more or less the same underneath all the gore and bruises. The state he was in said he was into something bad. Add to that the sudden increase in power, and I knew getting involved would bring everything down around my ears. Salim’s problems had always turned into my problems. Like the time he’d convinced me to join a coven. I knew they wouldn’t be too receptive to the idea of a Chang in their midst, not after the Changs had been so litigious toward other magical groups, so I’d had to join under a false name. But then they found out and one thing led to another. Salim was trouble—he always had been. It had drawn me to him at first, but now it was just tiring.

I stared at the wreckage of my living room and tried not to sigh. Salim was half collapsed on the floor against the side of the couch, so I hoisted him up, trying to ignore the span of skin pressed against me. He was clammy, so I threw the blanket on him.

Salim was a pretty puzzle, but not one I cared to solve. Not anymore. I had ended it for a reason I had no desire to revisit.

We had met years ago, at a conclave for the Court. At the time, he was a low-level judicial assistant and I was a mere representative of my family, the youngest of several hundred cousins and therefore the one whose time was the most expendable. I had fallen hard and fast, and Salim… Well, Salim had his sights on something beyond me and no room for anything but his ambition once he saw it within his reach.

Rain clattered against the old window AC and I cursed—the window in the study was still open—and rushed to save the thick rolls of architectural drawings I had left on my desk. They weren’t too badly drenched, but I had to pat fat dollops of water off the one on the top of the pile with my shirt. This time, the sigh escaped my lips.

“Cal!” And, of course, Salim woke up.

With a tap on the ward lines inscribed on the floor, I was in my living room again.

“Get these things off me,” he said grumpily, struggling against some of the wayward ward lines that had tangled around him, visible as lines of light where they came in contact with him. I tugged at them, and they let him go—reluctantly. “I can’t believe you tied me up.”

“Yeah, well.” I shrugged and left it at that, not telling him that they’d done it on their own because I didn’t want to think why they’d done so. When we’d been together, I had still lived with my mom, so he didn’t know that they did as they pleased. “Why are you here, Salim?”

“No reason.” His fingers tapped his collarbone, and his eyes widened. “Where did you put it?”

“What do you mean?” I raised an eyebrow, although I knew exactly what he was talking about. How could I not, when it was like a heavy weight, tugging on the wards like a bird caught in a net? With a twitch of my fingers, I summoned it into my hand. “This?”

It was a flat, circular stone, its surface smooth and unremarkable, with a hole in the middle through which someone had threaded a leather strap so it could be worn like a necklace. The stone itself was plain, normal—probably granite—but thrummed with energy.

He made a grab for it, but the wards snapped against him, holding him back. Unfortunately, he was still mostly naked, and now that he was no longer covered by my coat, I got an eyeful. And my wards transmitted the feel of his skin—and exposed bits—to me. Real helpful.

I kept my gaze resolutely on his face. “What is it? And why was that demon after you?”

Salim growled, pressing harder against the barrier. “Give it back.”

Taking an involuntary step back—because the combination of him naked, and my completely perverted wards was not a good one—I wound up falling back against my couch. Which was still covered in questionable substances. “Not until you tell me what’s going on.” I folded my arms, trying to look stern instead of petulant.

For a moment, Salim just stood in the middle of my living room, breathing hard and looking…frustrated. “I have to find the Lord,” Salim mumbled finally. I could practically hear the capitalization.

“The lord,” I repeated. “I mean, I’ll be the first to agree you need Jesus—”

“The Lord of the city,” Salim snapped. “I don’t need your wisecracks right now, Cal.” Fortunately for both of us, he had stopped pushing against my wards, and they had decided to back off. For now. He didn’t think to cover up, though, which was starting to make conversation a bit…difficult.

“Since when? Why?”

“I—It’s complicated, okay?” Running his hand against his cheek, Salim gave a frustrated growl. “Look, I’m not expecting you to understand. Just give that back to me and I’ll get out of your hair.”

“No, no.” I held up my hand, like that was going to prevent him from doing anything. The guy had just taken out a demon with goddamn lightning not a few minutes ago. “Explain this to me again. You’re looking for the Lord. Of the city.” It wasn’t that I thought he’d been exaggerating when he said the Court was dead. I just hadn’t realized he meant all the Court was dead. Including the Lord of the Court, who’d been my grandmother’s contemporary. An old harpy of a woman, I thought she’d live forever.

“Yes,” Salim hissed.

That did explain a lot: big cities were like magical anchors, at least in modern days. Lots of people, lots of energy—not to mention most highly populated areas tended to be intersected by telluric currents, which was what made the surrounding areas have the number of natural resources that made them attractive to civilization, which in turn fed and swelled the currents—and all of it held together, shaped by the Lord of the City, who kept things from falling apart.

The bigger the city, the bigger the influence, so in as big of a city as Longshore, without the Lord, we were lucky that the entire thing hadn’t collapsed into a giant sinkhole and started a chain of tsunamis that would wipe out the coast on the other side of the world. It was still a possibility if the magic wasn’t carefully siphoned off and contained and redistributed.

“Wait, but you—is this—” I stared aghast at the stone swinging gently from side to side from the strap of leather in my hand. “If you have the lodestone, that means—”

“She’s dead.”

The stone dropped from my slack fingers, sending my ward lines vibrating as it descended. It rolled back toward me before hitting my foot and falling over.

“But then the stone should have gone to the new Lord!” I gaped at him. “You—”

Salim was already shaking his head. “I’m not.” He ran a hand through his hair and gave a frustrated growled. “Her entire Court got taken out. I was there in the aftermath. For some reason, the stone didn’t go to the new Lord.” His mouth flattened. “The Gate said something was interfering with it right before he gave me the stone and died.”

“So, what does that mean?” Even if he wasn’t the Lord, he was now the highest-ranked Courtier in the city. That explained the lightning. And the demon. The stone was trying to protect him.

All the magical energy of the city was being directed by Salim now, though passively, since only the Lord could actually control it. Usually that energy was spread throughout the Court, the ruling body of everything magic and fae—which was now a party of one: Salim. He should have been just about crippled with the psychic agony of having about a couple hundred thousand times more power than normal. And, obviously, he wasn’t quite in control.

“The stone is holding most of it off, I think,” Salim said, correctly interpreting the progression of expressions crossing my face: shock, disbelief, horror.

“Okay.” I stood and combed my hair out of my face, though it simply fell back over my eyes. Even if the stone could hold it off for now, that wasn’t likely to be the case for long. Otherwise, why bother to have a Lord at all? Except there was no telling how long it would be able to keep Salim safe before all the power from the telluric currents built up and burst through, killing him in the process. Not to mention all the power-hungry in the city coming after him to get ahold of it.

“Okay?” His brow wrinkled.

“I’ll help you.”

“No!” The air crackled, making my wards flare purple as they neutralized whatever magical energies had stirred up with Salim’s agitation. The room glowed with the color, throwing an odd pallor over Salim’s snarl and making him look a bit like a vaudevillian villain and rendering his face even more alien than his ears did.

But I was used to Salim’s theatrics. “We have to go to the Council,” I said, grabbing his arm.

The power that surged through my hand was like a strong, stiff drink: burning, dark, and heady. It raced between us somehow amplified, all of it converging upon me and lighting me up like a metal rod in a storm. Though it didn’t quite hurt, it was powerful. Enough to make me stagger back and make Salim stop with the crackling. Unfortunately, I didn’t.

A kind of numbness spread through my limbs, but my joints were locked, keeping me standing upright. My head swam.

And then it stopped.

When I was a kid, my cousin Teddy and I used to lay in the mostly dried-out streambeds in between the tall, scrubby sand dunes near his home. If it had rained recently, the shallow water would flow around our outstretched arms and legs, making our fingers and toes tingle with the cold even while our faces got all sunburnt. It was unlike any other sensation: the icy coldness of the stream, the gritty, soft sand packed under our backs that would billow up and cloud the water if we moved too much, the sun drawing prickles of sweat onto our foreheads…and the teeth-rattling hum that would go through our bones sometimes, the pressure that made breathing difficult, as though the entire sky were trying to press us into the earth. We used to see who could stand it the longest.

Years later, we discovered what that hum was—a telluric current.

Most people couldn’t feel them. Much of that had to do with those who protected the telluric currents, the teams of people dedicated to masking their presence, and the Lords who prevented the currents from shifting and amassing or losing too much power. A single unstable current could be devastating. See fire, famine, catastrophe, et cetera, et cetera.

The lodestone dropped me into the heart of the telluric currents like a raindrop into a flood.

My knees, watery, folded. Salim lunged to catch me.

Chapter Three: The Chase

I woke up to yelling.

“Shut up,” I mumbled.

“Calvin!” The car’s wheels squealed as Salim rounded a corner. “Jesus Christ!”

We careened down poorly lit streets. I had been haphazardly tossed into the backseat of my own car and was now sliding around as Salim hurtled through the factories just a few miles north of the quiet suburb where I lived. Given that I wasn’t belted in, I slid across the seat with every wild turn.

“Salim, what the hell!” I clutched at one seatbelt, which finally snapped taut as I was thrown backward.

“Demon!” Salim shouted back at me.

“Can’t you just do your whole smiting routine again?” My head thumped against the back of the passenger side seat while I turned, trying to get a good look at our pursuer. This time it looked like a bull, putting off steam and small licks of fire. Its skin, if it could be called that, was made of metallic plates the color of pitch, and inside the plates was lava that dripped out of its mouth and nose without falling to the earth. Each of its footfalls rumbled through the ground. Probably the residential area heard it as no more than the passing of a freight train.

“A little busy here.” Salim’s sudden left made skid marks on the road as he yawed toward the city limits. “I can’t do it.”

“It’s literally magic!” I said in disbelief. “What about the stone?”

“Attached to you!”

I knew he was right even before I looked down to find the stone still stuck to my ankle like a magnet. Dimly, I could sense the telluric currents still in the back of my mind, like a flicker of light in the corner of my vision which disappeared if I tried to look directly at it. Then the sensation was ripped away and the stone dropped from my ankle onto the car floor.

“Turn back!” I shouted. My finger scrabbled against the floor seeking the stone, but to no avail. It had slid forward, underneath the seat. I groped for it desperately.

“Unlike you, I like living, Cal!”

The demon was less than a hundred yards from us. But we had passed the city line. Right where it was herding us. One flank brushed against a utility pole, which caught on fire before the smoke billowed around it and choked the flames out, leaving the base charred and so weakened that it fell. Its fellows joined it, leaning precariously and supported only by the lines, which were attached to the still standing posts. Soon the weight was such that the lines ahead of us were being pulled straight off.

“Turn.” One ahead. Two. The demon less than fifteen yards on us and gaining. “Right! Now, Salim.”

He glanced back at me, and I saw the licks of flame that darted out from the bull behind us reflected in his eyes. He must have found something in my eyes other than fear because he threw the wheel rightward. The bull overshot behind us, and the electrical lines that had slowly begun to fall got caught in its horns. The bull let out an outraged low that thundered through the streets. It charged forward nonetheless, trailing the electrical lines after it like a bridal train.

When we passed back over the city limit at the end of the block, the lodestone jumped straight into my seeking fingers.

We were still in the industrial section, but soon we would come upon the corporate buildings that led toward the metropolitan areas and the downtown, which would be packed with people even at so early an hour. Soon, too, people would be driving in to work. Plus, the bull had fallen behind, but it wouldn’t be for long. I clambered over the center console and slid into the passenger seat as quickly as I could, bracing myself against the roof. I knew these roads like the back of my hand.

In an effort to keep all of the businesses in the area, the mayor had ordered development in the sector. The city had just resurfaced its roads there, where almost ten years of wear from semis going to and from the factories had left it pitted and cracked. Now, though, with the new asphalt all laid with wards that I had designed, it was the perfect conduit for a larger, emergency-scale working if only I could figure out how to kludge it to the purpose. And I knew just the thing.

“Turn left.” I flipped the stone over from where it clung to my wrist to my fingers. I held it up to the window and peered through the hole in the middle so I could see the faint swirls of the telluric currents clearly. They gathered overhead like storm clouds following us. And now we were coming up to my goal: a turnabout, where a giant metal globe statue stood right in the middle of an island, around which the road formed the circle. The sky was almost entirely lit now, taking a rosy hue from the sun. “Stop the car,” I said as we flew past the entrance to the turnabout.

“Seriously?”

“Trust me.”

“Fine,” he growled, slamming on the brake. My head nearly hit the dashboard.

I spared him half a glare, turned backward in my seat, and pointed at the globe. “Could you take a boost from the stone and you know, smite?” The bull was just entering the turnabout. If we hesitated even a moment longer, it would trample us. As it was, it didn’t seem likely to slow down enough to avoid the globe itself.

Salim grabbed my hand palm-to-palm, with the stone sandwiched between. His grip felt like static electricity.

The bull hit the globe, disrupting the street ward and triggering the automatic protection mechanism, which threw up a capturing net to immobilize it magically by trapping it in the globe.

To the Changs, I had always been a disappointment. First, I was male. Second, until I was in high school, I’d shown no signs of magical ability. Then came the third strike—not only could I use magic, but it was atavistic, a throwback to when the Changs had been the one of the principle magical powers in China, with their male-dominated structural magic. Almost magically null, only able to draw small amounts of power in short intervals if they had any at all, Chang men ruled in coalitions formed to create stable, permanent structural magic, dependent upon layers and layers of trickery and intricately laid sigils. It was a subtle magic, the only type taught formally, and almost anyone could do it given the right teachers—which women weren’t given. Instead, they were left to their own devices, untaught if they had any magic to speak of unless their mothers could teach them in piecemeal lessons.

In the new country, the Chang women had all the power in the family, a position won with blood, so that they wouldn’t have to live like in the old country. There, Chang women had to hide their power for fear of being rooted out and burned up while the men siphoned off their power in the name of the greater good. That was a skill my mother never had to teach me. It came naturally. As the matriarch often said, maybe she would have been better off drowning me when I was born. After all, I represented everything she and her mother had run away from, coming to America.

Siphoning power off the blowback from the dying ward was almost too easy, and I could feel myself as I started to drain Salim, too. He panicked, trying to tug his hand from mine until I shoved all that power back at him. It pinballed back and forth between the two of us, gathering momentum. Sweat gathered on my forehead. The bull broke one horn free of the globe, then the other. I let go one last time, catapulting the magic straight at Salim. The energy flew through his body and exploded out, only barely directed by him toward the bull stuck inside the globe in the form of a huge blast of lightning. The windshield cracked and shattered, showering us with bits of glass.

My ears were ringing, so I didn’t notice the wailing of sirens in the distance until I saw the lights. As the police pulled up, Salim and I slowly got out of the car with our hands up. We didn’t resist as they cuffed us.

Chapter Four: The Detective

When I was fifteen, my mom told me that if I ever got arrested, she wouldn’t answer if I called before ten a.m. or after ten p.m. I’d thought she was joking. Mostly because I never expected to get arrested. Surprise. She did always think Salim was a bad influence on me. Although I don’t think she could have predicted that he’d get me arrested years after we had broken up.

The officers who picked us up took one look at the pair of us and started laughing their asses off. Salim was wearing nothing but what he was born with, and I was in sweats and a T-shirt that said “I pooped today” because I hadn’t exactly gotten dressed with the expectation of getting my mugshot taken. No doubt the cousin who’d given me the shirt would want a copy of the photo. And then we found ourselves being stuffed in the back of a cruiser. Just like magic.

“Why the hell didn’t you put something on?” I hissed.

“It’s not like I had time to stop by the mall while we were being chased by a fucking demon,” he snarled back. He refused to look at me for the rest of the drive, instead turning to face the window as best he could with his wrists cuffed together.

It was just past six when we arrived at the station. They gave Salim a blanket to wrap around his waist to avoid giving anyone else an eyeful. The station was oddly crowded for so early in the morning, or at least that’s what it seemed like to me. Most of them, offenders and police alike, looked as dazed as Salim and me. And, from what I could glean from the whispered “Damn, seriously?”, the drunk tank was so full of people that our two most diligent captors had to leave us sitting on a bench that sat against the wall with an entire line of others with newly acquired silver bracelets for processing.

I was exhausted, not having slept at all since the day before, but my insides were still buzzing with the energy I had taken off Salim and the magic that had rebounded after the powerful blow Salim and I had sent to kill the demon. From the feel of the ward, the leftover power from both our attack and the demon had revitalized the ward, pretty much cauterizing the tear the demon had made in it in the first place—and actually had doubled the ward’s strength. It wasn’t elegant but, most likely, the ward would hold, thus bolstering the protection over the entire city.

One of the detectives who passed by frowned slightly at Salim—in contemplation, it seemed, rather than anger or because he was upset. Almost as if he was trying to figure out a puzzle. Salim didn’t notice because he was still in a snit over being assumed some sort of perverted degenerate. When the detective saw me, his face went blank.

Normal people who knew of the magical community were wary of magic, but in all honesty, they were few and far in between. Magic had been faced with skepticism on all sides. It had been helpful when it had to be hidden but less so in cases such as this. However, the Changs had a reputation in the magical community. And I was currently, though likely would not be in the future, the face of the Changs when it came to public appearances. If this detective knew about magic, about me, as I suspected he did because why else would he single us out, he could help to smooth things over. If he was sympathetic, which was no guarantee. On the other hand, if worse came to worst, I could call my mom. After ten a.m.

The murmuring and fidgeting of our fellow captives drew my notice just as the detective met my eyes. Probably still charged from the attack, the second of the morning, Salim was starting to crackle as he seethed. By now I was apparently so used to the feeling of the electricity dancing over my skin, and the numbness and heat that accompanied, that I hadn’t even registered the small tendrils that arced toward me. We hadn’t yet got the attention of any of the officers or detectives, seeing as none were simply milling about. The officer guarding us was dealing with a man crying hysterically at the end of the bench toward the door.

“Salim, calm down. You’re sparking.” He was also starting to let off smoke. Pressure built in the air, and those around us moved farther away.

“Trying,” he said, voice strained.

Now that I was looking closer, I saw that his face was almost completely red with effort and that all the lightning was striking in my direction. Convenient, since smiting either police or prisoners would not endear us to the authorities any, but also really, really unnerving. My ears popped, and the pressure suddenly eased.

The detective I had noticed staring stood in front of us, frowning. “Come with me,” he said.

One of his colleagues stopped him as he was leading us into the building.

I heard bare snatches of their conversation: “Not a priority”; “Special case”; “Just drunks.” Mostly I was engaged bearing most of Salim’s weight as he breathed heavily and clutched at my arm. The farther we strayed behind the detective, the greater the pressure increased, so I hustled Salim until we were nearly on the man’s heels when he turned around so many corners I was sure he was leading us into a maze. I only got really concerned when he hit the button for the elevator.

His gaze darted around the empty elevator hall. “You have the stone.”

Cold fear doused any aspersions that had formed on my tongue, pushing them down to lodge firmly in my throat. I shoved Salim behind me, where he fell to his knees, despite my being all but useless at offensive magic. If I had to, I would strangle this detective with my cuffed hands. Or try, anyway. “What?”

The stone I had hidden by tucking it up behind the back of my knee underneath my pants, where it stuck because we were still within city limits. The officers who arrested us didn’t seem inclined to do anything beyond a cursory pat-down, and the stone was thin enough that they didn’t even feel it.

The elevator dinged as we stood staring at one another. It started to slide closed, but the detective stopped it with a hand. “Just get in,” he said.

Salim was insensible by this point, and though I bristled at the detective grabbing him, I could do nothing about it when the man pushed me aside with a shoulder. To my surprise, he was quite gentle as he helped Salim stand, ignoring that the blanket had slipped. He handed Salim off to me without comment once we were inside the elevator, then propped Salim up against one of the walls and backed away slowly when I darted between them protectively. While Salim had been one of my worst youthful mistakes, I wasn’t about to leave him in the hands of an enemy. The detective pressed the button for the basement floor without once looking back at us.

The enemy, such as he was, was tall, at least six feet, his blue-eyed gaze obscured by the loosely curly sandy-brown fringe that fell over his eyes. Honestly, he was really attractive in a fresh, baby-faced way. He looked like a recruit right out of the academy, not nearly old enough nor grizzled enough to already be a detective. But there he was, in a rumpled, two-days-unlaundered suit and a bristle of unshaven whiskers that said he’d been working overtime—or that he was trying to grow it out so he wouldn’t look like a literal fetus. His gaze was alert and sharp, penetrating as a high beam in a fog. In short, he was pretty much the opposite of the finicky, precise Salim, who was ever looking past people as if he had already forgotten they existed. The cant of his eyebrow as he caught me staring made my face hot with embarrassment, but I refused to look away first.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“Barnaby Barnes, Emissary of Stonewood City. Call me Barney, please.” He pressed his lips together—to hold back a smile, rather than a sneer. “And I’ll thank you for not making any dinosaur jokes.”

I struggled against a smile myself, and only Salim half-collapsed behind me prevented a bubble of laughter born mostly of sheer exhaustion from escaping my mouth. “No promises.”

Chapter Five: The Emissary

Magical aptitude and specialties run in families—but where most families propagated with only those families with powers similar to their own in order to try to increase their power, the Chang women were power.

Through selectively arranged marriages, the matriarchs had diversified the number of specialty magics in our blood pool until we had ties to almost every single magically significant family in the west. But most of the men had no power to speak of, or if they did, it was inherited from some other family line.

And then there was me.

I’d showed no signs of power as a child, so the entire family had considered me magically null. And for the most part, they simply left me alone, which was well enough for my mother, who disliked most people. I knew eventually my grandmother might turn her all-seeing-eye toward us, but we were more or less sheltered by my sheer ordinariness. Later I would find out that because I was born male my mother was knocked out of the running for inheritance despite being the first-born daughter, but my mom never seemed to resent me for that. The real danger came when I’d started showing signs of power at thirteen. Ruinous, for my mother. Potentially deadly, for both of us.

So my mother had run. We’d gone off the grid, except once, so I could take the GED. That first year I’d suffered debilitating spates of growth, during which I all but drained my mom of her power to make up years of deficit, being unable to generate it on my own. And still, I could perform no magic. But it was unsustainable—the situation, my siphoning of power, my lack of control. Which was when her mother had called her back.

I can remember that night clearly: It was summer. We were in the south by then, some four years after leaving the west coast. The air had been sullen and sticky and hot, so humid that it felt like breathing water. Mom’s chimes, which always seemed to sound even when there was no wind, had stopped. I should have been asleep, but instead, I had crawled onto the roof of our camper, suffering the mosquitoes in the vain hope of finding a cool breeze. A split second after they stopped moving, the glass bells of the chime had shattered.

My mom had flown out of the camper, shotgun in hand. I’d run to her side, but she pushed me behind her. And that’s how I’d met my grandmother.



Barnaby “Barney” Barnes, emissary of Stonewood, led us from the elevator to the morgue.

Stonewood was the neighboring city in the sprawl of the county. There was really no clear delineation between cities in the county and most of the cities surrounding the city used to be part of Longshore. Because of its size, Longshore was split, but it still had the port and thriving industry. As it had originally been the epicenter of all things magical in the region, aside from Los Angeles, emissaries from the surrounding cities that had originally been part of Longshore occupied positions in the Court. It was more of a symbolic role than anything, and they didn’t always attend the Court, but they mostly held jobs in the city. They couldn’t function in their duties if it were otherwise. They advised the Court when legislation or changes in their home cities would affect Longshore.

“So, what exactly does an emissary do?” I asked the emissary.

“Well, I liaise with Longshore’s Court on issues pertaining to both cities. There’s quite a number of emissaries from the surrounding cities.” Because they’d all once been part of Longshore’s territory.

But what had happened to the other emissaries, if the entire Court was taken out? Presumably, they would be at their day jobs or whatnot, like Barney had been apparently. But surely some had been with the Court when it was taken out. Well, that was a headache that was for the new Court, not my problem.

The emissary exchanged a few brief words with the woman who was presumably the coroner. She waved us past, apparently completely unperturbed by Salim’s state of undress. Both Salim and I were listing against each other by then, but Salim seemed to have revived a bit in the cold of the morgue. By sheer stubbornness, we made it inside the room into which the coroner had waved us.

“First things first,” Barney said, coming into it a minute after us. He handed Salim a pair of scrubs. “I think you should put this on.”

Salim’s face did a strange dance of resentful gratefulness, but he put the scrubs on without a word.

“Why are we here?” I asked.

“Early this morning, a massacre occurred.” Beside me, Salim stiffened. “Shortly thereafter, clusters of increasingly destructive and violent crimes started happening all around the city. Yours included.” He held a hand up to forestall protest. “I know you must have a reasonable explanation, but suffice it to say, since the entire Court of this city was murdered, everything went to hell.”

“But that doesn’t explain what we’re doing here,” Salim snarled, dignity and ire apparently recovering now that he was clothed.

“I need you to help me make a positive ID on all of them, just to make sure they didn’t manage to take out their murderer, too,” Barney said wearily. “It’s going to be a crapshoot trying to find their families, and I can’t exactly volunteer this information myself, given the circumstances…” His mouth quirked. “Besides, if you’re helping me, it’ll make it easier to get the guys to give you a pass.” He gestured to the shirt that Salim hadn’t been able to put on because he was still cuffed.

Salim squared his shoulders, frowning. It occurred to me that Barney could be lying about being the Stonewood emissary and neither of us would know. Salim worked in the Archive, which outsiders weren’t allowed into, and I had only ever attended minor Court functions as a representative of my grandmother’s seat on the Council. The only times I had ever said more than two words were when my grandmother had me deliver letters. And everyone else who would know was either dead or out of our reach. Still, it wasn’t like anyone else was offering their help.

“I’ll go,” Salim said finally. He turned to look at me but said to Barney: “Cal doesn’t need to see that.”


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