Bound in Smoke

Coming Soon!

Chapter 1

Since this is a work in progress, everything subject to change.


CHAPTER 1

Ember took a deep breath then stood like a lump without pressing the doorbell.

Leave. Leave now. Before it’s too late.

For once, she agreed with that twice-damned voice. She looked behind her, but there was nothing except trees and the long, winding walkway from the cul-de-sac to Doyle Ferran’s home.

“I have to do this,” she said. She stared at the door: big, heavy, wood divided into panels with carefully inked curses in tiny script around the perimeter of every square.

Why?

“You fucking know why.” Until she rang the doorbell or someone inside came to investigate, it wasn't too late to run away.

Tell her you couldn’t get in.

“No excuses, no lies.” She adjusted her denim jacket because she was too warm. Like most Bay Area Californians—born and raised—she didn’t have clothes for temperatures below forty Fahrenheit. With the winter chill and the overcast, and the fact that the morning low had been in the thirties, she ought to be freezing. She wasn’t.

“This is my job,” she whispered in a hard voice.

Supposedly, the mage who lived here was bankrolling Measure D. If passed, the measure would allow local communities to enact pro-human zoning laws and gut the very concept of enforcement zones. Honestly, the world had changed when the local warlord introduced his team of lawyers, PR people, and lobbyists to elected officials of the great State of California. Good, bad, or disastrous, he’d brought the existence of demons into the open. Demons and human magic users.

In return for support and recognition from the state, the warlord and his consortium of magic users had agreed his rules would apply only in negotiated areas in and around the North Bay and the San Francisco Bay Area. Everywhere else in the territory he controlled, the rules applied only to demons. Outside his territory, like right here, for example, there were no rules at all.

Magekind are liars, cheaters, and killers.

“Nobody asked you.” She was a magic user, and she wasn’t any of those things. She pushed the doorbell. “I never killed anyone.”

The button didn’t depress, and there was no chime. You’d think a house this big and fancy would have a functioning doorbell, right? She was about to press the button again when—Wham—everything went haywire.

Her connection to the physical world winked out. No sight, no sound, no body to feel pain. The last second of her existence stretched into infinite terror.

Here.

She slammed back, incapacitated by white-hot agony. She could not see or hear or draw air, and maybe that meant she was dead or soon to be dead. Oddly, she wasn’t afraid anymore.

Here. Here!

She refused to listen to that voice in her final moments.

The lizard part of her brain kicked in, and she gulped in air, then more, and oh damn, maybe death would have been better. Her heart hammered against her chest, and maybe this would kill her. Her breath rasped hard enough to hurt her throat and lungs. Pain leeched all the color from the world and then sound returned in one horrific din.

Not a fucking doorbell, Ember.

She’d studied long and hard for this visit and the first thing she did was stick her finger into a protective ward? She was lucky she wasn’t dead. Then she realized the front door was open and someone—something—was staring at her with a malevolent intent that made her skin crawl.

The center of her chest tugged like it was full of metal filings too close to a magnet. Oh, fuck. Oh, fuck. This was not what she’d thought it would be like. Instinct kicked in.

Warlord.

“Shut the fuck up.” Ember willed herself to be nothing. Uninteresting. A normal human. Nothing to get worked up about. Through sheer will, she stayed on her feet and didn’t make a sound. She’d learned early in life that weakness killed and silence often meant you lived. Pain didn’t matter. Neither did the loss of perspective or the deafening noise. She locked herself down hard and blinked at the open door.

He wasn’t your normal every-day demon, that was for sure. To the extent she could think at all, she knew she ought to know what he was. Knowing, in fact, was vital, and she just couldn’t recall.

Her next thought was that now she was going to die, because her terror returned in full force.

The being in the doorway was the kind of monster human magic users like Doyle Ferran sent after kids and teens who ended up on the streets. Lost kids. Exploited kids. Kids who struggled to stay sane because there was no one to teach them about the magic that, without that education, would destroy them sooner than later. She knew because she’d been one of them.

She blinked again. Everything but the figure in the doorway remained a sepia blur. He was tall and muscular with a severe buzz cut. Without actually hearing words or seeing the finer details of his expression, his boiling hatred came through just fine.

Her head hurt like a mother, which was oddly helpful for her focus. The hum in the back of her head got louder, and she suppressed the urge to clap her hands over her ears. That thing she’d touched, that hadn’t been a ward as much as it had been a booby-trap in a ward.

His lips moved, but his voice was indistinguishable from the cacophony around her. She could see well enough to read lips, though.

What do you want?

Nothing to see here. Nothing at all. She wasn’t a threat to him or anyone he was bound to protect. She tried to smile but wasn’t sure she succeeded.

The figure in the doorway said something else, but she still couldn’t isolate his words from any other noise. She had to lipread again.

I said, what do you want?

Her hearing came back with a sound like a femur snapping. One minute cacophony. The next— crack—all normal. Upstairs someone was listening to country music. Downstairs someone was running a blender or maybe a vacuum. The rattling metal door of a truck going too fast past the top of the cul-de-sac went from soft to louder and then softer and then gone.

“Get out of here, then.”

Her visual disturbances cleared as suddenly as her hearing, and the world went from blurry sepia to full color. Her vision sharpened so rapidly the change made her dizzy. She stepped forward to hide her stumble and keep him from shutting the door in her face. “Wait!”

“Fuck you.” He had no discernible accent, but demons were polyglots in the sense that they had command of whatever language was required to communicate.

Now that she could see clearly, she recognized him from the image gallery she’d painstakingly collected when she took this job. Great. Just great. Not a minor demon, but Doyle Ferran’s fiercest bodyguard.

Warlord. He is a warlord.

He was in human form and wearing what amounted to a uniform among demons in his situation. Carbon-black wool jacket and trousers, a crisp white shirt and tie—his was silver—and expensive-looking shoes. Behind him was a chrome table with a glossy black bowl on it. The floor was black wood planks. The walls were grayish-cream.

Only a few pictures of him existed in the archives she’d gained access to when she was researching this job, but in all of them, he was unbelievably handsome. Same in real life, it turned out. In her experience, the cliche was true. The more powerful the demon, the more perfect the human form. Looking at him, you’d never, ever, know he wasn’t human.

“Savaş, am I right?” she asked.

The demon didn’t react, so it was impossible to tell what he thought of the way she said his name. Sa-VASH. Short first syllable, accent on the second with a long ah-sound. Better to get it right, she’d thought when she was preparing for today. She’d practiced all the unfamiliar names, but who knew, really? She could listen to online recordings of people pronouncing names all day, and that didn’t mean she’d get it right.

Supposedly ‘Savaş’ meant war and with only three feet between them she utterly believed that was true. He was almost always identified in the literature as an original-source demon, meaning he hadn’t been born to a human parent. He’d just come into existence, probably millennia ago.

“I asked what you want, witch.” His fingers flexed on the side of the door. “Tell me or leave.”

“I’d like to see Doyle Ferran, please.”

“Who wants to see him?”

That was a hopeful response. Ember kept her tone light and casual, but her pulse sped up, and a seed of hope took root. Once she was in, she didn’t need a whole lot of time. “Is he here? Could you tell him I’m here, please?”

He stared at her, very unfriendly.

“Look, we don’t need to be BFFs.”

He snorted then waggled his eyebrows in a deliberately provocative manner. “Friends with benefits?”

“I’m doing research for my dissertation, and Mr. Ferran’s name keeps coming up in my literature review.” God damn, she was a good liar.

“Who the fuck are you?”

Fair question. She gave her best friendly smile. “Mary Smith. PhD candidate at Cal Berkeley.”

“Mary Smith who?” In a way, it helped that he was so perfect. She knew he wasn’t human, but if he were or if she weren’t sensitive to demons and magic users and didn’t know what he was, he’d be way out of her league, and that fact reminded her she needed to be alert for mistakes. His physical perfection was distracting as hell, though. Almost more than the magic.

“Mary Smith, who is defending her dissertation in eight months. I emailed him, and his assistant said I should come today at…” Oh, hell. She had no idea what time it was anymore. She looked at her phone. 10:35 AM. “Eleven. I’m a little early, sorry.”

His expression turned stony. “Nobody mentioned any Mary Smith coming by today.”

She pretended to scroll through emails. “There’s been some kind of mix up.” Her phone beeped. A text from her client for this job blipped onto the screen.

Well?

Well fucking nothing. You don’t just show up at Doyle Ferran’s house and waltz in all la-di-dah. “Can you please tell him I’m here?”

“I’m not your messenger boy.”

Oops. None of this was Savaş fault. In fact, she had a moral objection to any magic user doing to a demon what Ferran had done to Savaş. “I know that.”

“How about you stop pretending?”

She pretended, hah, to be confusedly innocent. “What?”

“I have some fun facts for you, witch.” His eyes were to-die-for aquamarine. “The waiting list of your kind who want to work with the mage is a mile long. You’re not apprentice material, and if you think you are, you’re deluded. Go home and dabble with your street witch buddies.”

“Me? An apprentice? Not hardly.” She laughed for real because nothing had amused her this much since ever. “I told you, I have an appointment with Mr. Ferran.” She found her faked up email and held her phone face out. “See?”

He shook his head. “I need a name to add the list. Your real name.”

He was just so perfect. What had he said? Name. Name, right.

Ember Azuria.

“Right, then. Fuck off, Mary.”

She was still shaken from the booby-trapped doorbell ward, and she was still mentally slow. Someone had been clever enough to rig the ward with a booby-trap that affected the surroundings rather than the intruder. Resistance to magic did not necessarily confer resistance to secondary effects like, oh, say, absorbing all the air. Death by asphyxiation wasn't the magical part.

There were too many people, and too much noise, and everything smelled faintly bitter, and the reason she’d picked Mary Smith as a name was lost in that fog. Oh, hell, what if that wasn't the name in her fake email?

Felicia Gomez.

Simple lies were always best. If she’d fucked up, and now—why yes, she had. Her fake graduate student name was, in fact, Felicia Gomez. The name was right there in glowing digital black and white. “Jennifer.”

“Felicia Smith, or Jennifer Gomez?” Stupefyingly attractive. He smiled like he knew it, too. “Either way, never heard of you.”

She refocused on the reason she was here; she had to get inside Doyle Ferran’s house, get the location of all the talismans, and send a map to Romy. Her rent was coming due, and there were bills to pay. Lots of bills, and her fee to Romy Taylor would pay them all and leave some left over. Taylor was her first full-on magekind has a client, and she hoped this would open some doors for her.

“I need to see him.”

He glared at her, and why, why hadn’t she been prepared for how distractingly beautiful he was? Sensitive mouth, golden brown skin two shades lighter than hers, amazing aquamarine eyes. Cheeks, oh, his cheeks were perfect. A body that spoke straight to her ovaries. Not that she was going to do anything. She could privately admit her physical response to him without being a creep about it.

“Is he here?” The difference between book learning and practical experience was her sticking her finger into a booby-trapped ward and screwing up how to address a mageheld demon so she’d get what she needed from their interaction. “Because I really need to talk to him.”

Savaş put one hand high up on the doorjamb and leaned forward. He could have eyes of any color, but he’d chosen this distracting unearthly blue-green. Then again, maybe he hadn’t. Maybe Ferran had ordered it. Some of the magekind liked a certain look. “Ask me if I give a shit.”

Good reminder. The demon didn’t care. Why should he?

“Go away, Felicia Gomez.” He pronounced the name like a native Spanish speaker. She guessed. She barely spoke Spanglish. Her Azuria parents hadn’t wanted her, so she knew nothing about her biological family or their heritage. Hers was pure street witch.

“I didn’t know how else to contact Ferran.”

“Sorry you wasted your time.” Obviously, he wasn’t.

The wind came up and rattled the leaves in the trees around the property. Her knees were still shaky. The edge of Savaş’s mouth twitched. That couldn’t be good. She had her blocks in full force, but her chest and head went all fuzzy and then hot, and she said, way sharper than was wise, “Tell Ferran I am here.”

The effect was immediate, unexpected, and frightening. A mageheld demon had to comply with demands from a human magic user when the imperative was formed with the right sort of power. Apparently that applied even to someone who did that by accident.

His expression blanked out, and her anxiety cranked to Way-Too-High. She needed to stay on his good side, and copping an attitude like she was a trained magic user wasn’t helping. No being a creep or an asshole.

He opened the door wider and stepped aside.

“Thanks.”

“Fuck you, witch.”

A wave of revulsion crashed over her the moment she was past the magical shields in place to keep sensitives from complaining about living near a mage.

Someone has done killing magic here.

Rules about that kind of magic applied in the enforcement zones, and this wasn’t one. Sebastopol was a specific carve out. The tug in the center of her chest got a thousand times worse. There were at least twenty demons here, all of them bound to Ferran and obligated to carry out his orders.

He blocked her way. “Wait here.”

She had to be farther in before she could get the information she needed, but one thing she knew was Ferran’s house was lousy with demons and talismans.

She shuddered when Savaş reached around her to push the door closed. She didn’t like being around this many demons, and the magic that pulsed in this house set her teeth on edge. Not to mention her proximity to Savaş. That was disturbing, too.

There was a reason she lived in the middle of nowhere and well outside the North Bay enforcement zone. The farther away she was from people and cities, the better. Her palms itched, and her fingertips tingled with incipient heat. Please, please, please, don’t let her lose control.

Ferran lived in the biggest house on a cul-de-sac of big houses on big, wooded lots. She knew expensive even when it was ugly as shit, and this place was expensive inside and out. She politely stared at the walls and the slice of living room on view from where she stood. A chrome-framed painting hung on the wall. Who decided swaths of green, orange, and purple was art? Harsh electric light glinted off the chrome arm of a black leather chair. Under normal circumstances, this place would hurt her eyes. Right now, it was visual agony

He cocked his head in the direction of the living room and made a you-first gesture. He followed her in.

More expensive ugly. A monitor, currently dark, took up most of one wall. Chrome shelves lined another wall. The books were spine in. What for? So nobody would know what he read, or maybe didn’t read?

The demon took up position on one side of the room, hands clasped loosely in front of him. After a second or two, she took a seat. The chair was exactly as comfortable as she’d thought. She settled herself because she needed some mental quiet to do this. Thirteen talismans just in this room.

Her phone beeped again, and she switched the device to airplane mode. Romy had no respect and the absurd idea that this was quick and easy when it was neither. Her usual clients were normals who wanted her to confirm that the strange carving or souvenir sitting in their closet was actually a valuable magical artifact. Romy Taylor wasn’t a normal. She was a real-deal trained witch.

Savaş remained motionless when she stood and walked around the room to clear her head.

She passed the glassed-in shelves where the talismans were and pretended interest in an inert shiny ceramic bottle on yet another chrome table. A fun-house reflection of her face appeared in the surface. She cast wider as she made another slow tour and returned to the shelves, aware Savaş was watching her. She pulled out one of the books: a brand-new, never-opened hardback about making friends.

For each magical ping, she fixed a dot on her mental image. Her next stop was the enclosed shelf with a series of netsuke; a rabbit, a seated skeleton, a playful dog, a potbellied fisherman, and various other creatures real and fantastical. It was hard to admire the artistry when she knew what they were and how they were made.

Any inert material worked for a talisman; stone, glass, or metal of a portable size. Ivory carvings, such as these netsuke, were quite popular she’d learned. Twelve gorgeous netsukes made into the stuff of her nightmares. The thirteenth talisman was a ruby cabochon the size of her two of her thumbs and carved into the face of a roaring lion. It was a terrifying work of art.

She glanced at Savaş. She had a moral objection to talismans, too, but she also needed to pay her bills.

The demon’s thousand yard stare didn’t change, but he smirked extra when he said, “He’ll know if you take one.”

They are not safe.

“I know that.”

“Just making sure nothing disappears.”

“I’m not a thief.” Not a thief: the thief’s recon expert, a solid assumption based on her suspicion that Romy intended to steal the talismans. Probably the ruby one. She ran her index finger just above the line of figurines, pausing ever so slightly over the ones that were more powerful than the rest.

Nearly all these beautiful and delicate carvings contained the life force of a demon killed in a bloody ritual murder so dangerous it took a minimum of two magic users to safely conduct. More were recommended.

“You’re all thieves. Cheats, liars, and murderers, too.”

Without looking at him, she said, “Better check your wallet.”

“Fuck off, street witch.”

Without looking at him, she raised a hand, middle finger extended. “Same to you.”

Street witches were the bottom of the magical barrel, discarded and unwanted by their magekind parents. Adults didn’t care what happened to them, and the ones who did had their hands more than full with children being driven insane by late-manifesting gifts.

She paused her finger above the figure of a sleeping horse that pulsed with a horrible energy. She didn’t doubt Savaş knew that carving was among the more powerful of the figures. She got a little too close and snatched away her hand. Her fingers tingled.

Several more dots appeared on her mental map.

A witch or mage drew on the energy trapped inside a talisman to give their magic a boost over and above the low-level but constant amplification provided by rubies or the impermanent boost provided by a substance called copa. Talismans were dangerous and difficult to make, but if you wanted more power, you’d get that from one.

“Ferran isn’t the forgiving sort.” He pronounced the name fer-RAN which was not how she’d imagined it was said. ‘Ferran’ hadn’t been one of the names she’d been uncertain about. Guess she should have looked it up.

“Me neither.”

He laughed, and she looked over her shoulder at him. He was a total hottie. That was the point. Demons reproduced with humans, it turned out. She wasn’t a demon-sex groupie like some, but she understood the temptation.

She held the demon’s gaze just to prove she could. Sex-on-a-stick. No reasonable debate possible. He mouthed the words die, witch at her. She gave him her middle finger again and went back to examining the talismans. “They’re so quiet.”

His silence let her know she’d made another mistake. Still with her back to him, she closed her eyes. Maybe he’d let that go. But he didn’t. He said, “You usually hear something?”

“Do you?” She touched the glass in front of the stylized koi, and her whole hand went numb. Shit. Shit, shit, shit. It was like they were calling to her, begging for help. Screaming.

“I asked you first.”

She shrugged and looked at him, smiling like she was just a dumb street witch who thought she could talk her way into an apprenticeship. “No. I don’t hear anything.”

“Sure, you don’t.”

“I don’t know about you, but I listened and didn’t hear anything.” She wasn’t sure how much longer she could safely stand in front of this many talismans without an unfortunate accident. She kept her back to the netsuke. The skin along her shoulders rippled with awareness. One of the netsuke tipped over and hit the chrome shelf with a distinct plink.

Help them.

She whispered, “I can’t. I’m sorry, I can’t.”

Savaş crossed his ams over his chest. Muscled in just the way that did things for her. “How long are you going force me to make sure you don’t steal anything?”

“I’m having fun. Aren’t you?” Long enough to get her mental reconstruction of the location of every talisman in the house.

He glanced at the couch, suspiciously casual and inviting. “We can have more fun over there. I give good benefits.”

“Tell Ferran I said he’s an asshole.”

His smile was intentionally mocking, and that made her sad. He wasn’t here because he wanted to be. Nor could he leave unless given permission. “As you wish.”

“I understand,” she said. “I really do.”

“Spare me the bleeding heart.” His bitterness jumped through the room like something alive.

“If I were in your place, I’d hate every human ever born.”

“Get out of here. You’ve had your fun. Ferran isn’t going to work with you. Ever. You can sit here all night, and he won’t see you.”

She had what she needed. Before she left, though, she turned her head toward the shelf of netsuke. The horse lay on its side. Next to it, the tail of the carved fish moved.

Howls of agony followed her out.

 

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