Erin Mathews was the owner of the Scarlet Harlot, a lingerie shop Camille frequented. She was also president of the local Faerie Watchers Club, a nationwide group of Fae groupies. Members traded pictures, autographs, asked various Fae in to speak at their meetings, and generally were a harmless, enthusiastic bunch.
When Camille had befriended Erin, we had no idea it would turn out so badly. A few months back, when Menolly's sire had come to town to raise hell, he targeted the human woman, solely because she was our friend, and he knew that hurting her would hurt us.
He'd meant to turn Erin and use her against us, but we had gotten to her first. We couldn't save her life. But we found her in time for Menolly to offer Erin the chance to walk among the undead. Instead of a mass-murderer for a sire, Erin now called Menolly "Mother," and Menolly was now spending a lot of time helping her "daughter" adjust to life on the flip side.
"I fear we're going to see more of this as the battle for control over the portals continues. And with the new portals cropping up randomly as the grid breaks down . . . we're in for a rough time of it," Morio said. "We have to come to grips with the fact that we're walking in the fire now, and fire burns."
Camille let out a long sigh. "He's right. This isn't the worst of it. Having said that, what can we do about Chase? Obviously, we can't give them the seal. And we can't hand over Vanzir, either. So how do we save him?"
"Find Karvanak, and we find Chase. We have to kill the Rāksasa this time. He'll be on us like white on rice if we don't, and he won't stop till we're dead." I slammed my hand on the table. "Why didn't we take him out after he stole the seal? We just skirted him, hoping he'd go away."
"We've been busy," Iris said. "And once he stole the third seal, he wasn't an immediate threat anymore. You know full well that before we even thought about getting near him again, we had to bind Vanzir with the Subjugation Ritual. And that took a lot of energy and time, if you remember."
I sucked back a retort. Iris had worn herself out performing the ritual. Even with Morio and Camille acting as her seconds, it had taken every ounce of energy the Talon-haltija had in order to control the collar of subjugation.
The symbiotic creatures that formed the collars came lumbering in from the astral realm, summoned by force and won over by bribery. They would only agree to act as an agent for subjugation after offerings of blood had been made from all who would wield the whip of the master. Which meant the four of us-Iris, Menolly, Camille, and I-had spent two weeks siphoning off enough of our blood to fill a quart jar before we could even summon the creature. Iris had fasted during that time, which made it even more difficult on the sprite.
During the ritual, the creature, which looked like a translucent eel, swelled thick and fat on our blood, then slithered toward Vanzir's neck, ready to form the living chain of energy beneath his skin that would forever bind him to us.
As it bit into his flesh, he winced, but the manacles holding him down were strong, and he forced himself to relax. The ritual went against every bone in his body, but he seemed determined to go through with it. I was relieved. Our only other option would be to kill him. We couldn't let him go.
As the soul binder wriggled to enlarge the opening it had severed in Vanzir's neck, my stomach churned. And as the astral parasite began to burrow into muscle, I had to force myself to maintain control and not go running out of the room. But I managed to stand vigil with my sisters and Iris.
By the time the tip of its tail had almost disappeared, I could see the head had worked its way around his neck, a few layers beneath the skin. The soul binder's teeth broke through directly opposite the original bite, grabbed hold of its tail like an ouroboros, and then settled deep into the muscle as the skin quickly began to heal over the two narrow slits.
Iris began the chant to forever merge the soul binder and Vanzir. The chant would bind both of them to us. Once again, it felt like we were headed on a one-way trip, deeper into the rabbit hole.
There is no spoon, I thought as the grisly ritual played itself out. Everything was an illusion. It had to be, or I didn't want to be here. And yet . . . and yet . . . from where we stood, everything was terribly, horribly real.
And then it was over, and Vanzir was our slave. He would live or die by our whims. We were his masters. One more hat I didn't want to wear. One more title I didn't want tacked onto my name. But there it was, and here we were, chained to a demon by a blood ritual as old as the demons themselves.
"We should be able to locate Karvanak," Rozurial said. "And quite possibly, we can rescue Chase from him. But won't the Rāksasa be expecting us? You can't fault the dude on intelligence. I agree with Smoky. He was here, looking for more insurance. I'll bet you anything the demon figured there's no way in hell you'd back out of the deal if he had Iris or Maggie. Or both."
"Cripes," Camille said. "I bet you're right."
"Of course he's right," Menolly said, backing her chair away from the table. She began to float, hovering up near the ceiling. She'd always preferred sitting in trees when we were children. Now that she was a vampire, she had transferred her love of heights to floating in midair without any visible means of support. It impressed the hell out of the locals, that was for sure.
Iris jumped off her stool. "Well, he would have had me, too, if it weren't for my excellent hearing." She looked around at what was left of the mess, stuff the dustpan and broom couldn't pick up by themselves. "Delilah's right. If we don't dispatch this cretin, we'll never throw him off our back. And we must rescue Chase. He's part of the family," she added, looking pointedly at me. "Maggie adores him."
Silently thanking her with my eyes, I turned to Zach. He laid a gentle hand on my shoulder. "He's a good man, and he's given his all to your efforts. I'll do whatever I can to help."
Just then, there was a knock on the door. I slipped out to answer it. Vanzir had arrived. Silently, I led him to the kitchen and asked him to sit down.
"You look like you're going to a funeral," he said, glancing around nervously, then he licked his lips. "Something's happened. What's up? Did I do something wrong?"
"No, you didn't." I took a deep breath, then let it out in a shaky stream. Even though I knew he was on our side, my heart flinched. Dealing with demons like Rozurial was one thing. Roz wasn't evil, just chaotic. But I had no doubt that Vanzir had paid his dues when he was a member of the Sub Realms
"It's nothing you did," I said, after a moment. "But Karvanak is on the move. He's captured Chase, and he's holding him for ransom." I held out the box with Chase's fingertip and ring in it.
Vanzir turned a paler shade of white. "Crap." He let out a long sigh and leaned back in his chair. "You're lucky it was Chase's finger he cut off, and not something more personal. Karvanak is a cold-hearted bastard. He's offering a trade for the spirit seal, am I right?"
"Yeah . . ." I wasn't sure quite how to tell him that he was on the menu, too.
"You won't get him back that way," Vanzir said, resting his elbows on the table and staring at the fingertip. "Even if you give Karvanak the seal, he'll carve Chase up in little bites and eat him. He talks a good game and specializes in the double cross."
"Do you think he'll kill Chase before we get there?"
"Not before he realizes you aren't going to hand over the seal. Let's put it this way: Karvanak keeps his options open till he's sewn up a deal. Then he gets rid of the evidence. Chase might not come back totally intact, but he'll be kept alive until the Rāksasa realizes you either don't have the seal or aren't going to give it to him." Vanzir shrugged. "Don't ever underestimate him. He didn't get promoted to general for being stupid."
"There's something else," I said, not wanting to tell him. But sometimes, like with pulling a bad tooth, it's better to just get it over with. "Karvanak also wants you back."
That bought an immediate response. Vanzir jerked up, his eyes wide. "No! You can't-" He fell silent, then looked around at us, anxiously tapping his fingers on the table. "Are you going to hand me over to him?"
For the first time, his voice didn't grate on my nerves, and for the first time, I saw the raw fear on his face. He might be a demon, but he really was terrified of his own kind.
"No," I whispered. "No, we won't. For one thing, you know too much about our operations. For another, trading life for life? No. If you were our prisoner, if you were here under duress, we might. But you made the choice to switch sides, and we don't rat out our allies." The words stuck on my tongue like stray fur, but I had to reassure him. Maybe I didn't like him, but he'd fought by our side.
I looked over at Camille and Menolly. They both nodded. For once we were all on the same page. "But we have to find out where he is. Since Mordred burned down the rug shop, Karvanak's gone into hiding, and we need to know where."
Vanzir crossed to the kitchen window and stared out into the yard.
I followed him and tentatively reached out to put my hand on his shoulder. "Don't worry," I said. "We aren't going to turn you over to Karvanak."
"Of course you aren't. I know too much," he said gruffly, shrugging my hand away. "Your lover's being held by one of Shadow Wing's most ruthless generals. At least, one that he dares send Earthside. There are far worse back in the Subterranean Realms."
He whirled around, his gaze locking with mine. "Do you know what it's like now, living in the Subterranean Realms? Life there was pretty good for a while, until Shadow Wing seized control. Now it's a desperate place. There are thousands of demons down there who would love to come Earthside if only to get away from him."
"Then why are they fighting for him? Why don't they band together and fight against him?" I couldn't understand the reasoning.
Vanzir snorted, leaning on the windowsill. He stared bleakly out into the yard. "Some do-and I know a few. But understand that Shadow Wing is a Soul Eater. He can control the masses because he can swallow any soul standing in his way, be it demon, human, or Fae. He rules with fire and fear, and there are thousands who kneel to him only to keep their heads." He folded his arms across his chest, rubbing his shoulders as if he were freezing. "There's something else."
"What? Tell us now. If you hold out on us-" Menolly swooped down, landing on his other side.
"I'm not holding out on you. I wasn't sure if my imagination was running amok or if what I thought was real, was. Not until I did some scrying this morning. And I'm still not sure I'm right. But if I am, then we have to do more than keep the spirit seals away from him. We have to hunt him down and destroy him." Vanzir was so pale I thought he was going to pass out.
"Tell us," I said. "Tell us what you think is going on."
He scuffed his boot on the Persian rug and turned around, sitting on the sill, looking for all the world like a young David Bowie. "The breakdown in the grid that's allowing new portals to open spontaneously? I think Shadow Wing's discovered a way to use what's happening. My gut tells me he's doing more than trying to rip open the seals. Shadow Wing is fucking crazy. He's not just power hungry. He's mad."
"How so?" The room was so quiet that I could hear every creak, every movement, every shift people made in their chairs.
Vanzir took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. "I think he means to unmake the worlds. Shadow Wing the Unraveller, he calls himself now. I think he's out to do more than conquer. I think he's out to totally annihilate."
"Motherfucking son of a bitch," Menolly said. She seldom showed fear, but she was showing it now and but good. Her eyes were bloodred and her fangs had extended. "What makes you think so?"
"I know a few rogue demons who've managed to escape and cross over," he said. "For the most part they lie low, keep their noses clean, and try to fly under the radar. They don't want anything to do with Karvanak and his cronies. Or with Shadow Wing and this war. We talk a little. And no, they don't know about the Subjugation Ritual. They think I'm just hiding out from Karvanak."
"Why don't you get your butt back over to the table? Delilah's tired and needs to sit down," Smoky said abruptly in that disobey-and-you're-toast tone that he had.
Vanzir gave him a withering look but promptly returned to the table.
I slumped in my chair, and even Menolly slowly floated down from the ceiling and sat beside me, scooting in next to Zach. She gave Vanzir a narrow look. "So what are your buddies saying? And I suggest you give us a list of their names. We'll want to keep them under surveillance."
"Bring me a paper," Vanzir said quietly. He couldn't refuse. "You won't kill them, will you?"
"Only if they turn out to be a problem. If they are, as you say, keeping their noses clean, we'll leave them alone. For now. But if they show any sign of being under Shadow Wing's control, then they can kiss their asses good-bye. And you will keep your mouth shut about the fact that we know about them."