Bound in Smoke

Coming Soon!

Chapter 1

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


Ember took a deep breath, gave herself one last atta girl, you can do this! and then stood like a lump without pressing the doorbell. She wasn’t a demon-denier, doh, because she’d known about them for years before the local warlord and his team of lawyers and PR people went public with a few strategic officials of the State of California.

The warlord, Nikodemus, had announced a set of rules for all magic users, demon and human, and supposedly he enforced them in agreed upon zones in the San Francisco Bay Area. Like a lot of rules, what got enforced against whom never turned out entirely fair.

Technically this Sebastopol, California house was outside the enforcement area. Upsides and downsides to that. The mage who lived here probably wouldn’t play fair, but really, when did a trained mage ever play fair? Never, in her experience.

She pressed the doorbell. The button didn’t depress, and there was no chime. You’d think a house this big and fancy wouldn’t have a broken doorbell, right? She was about to push the button again when everything went haywire.

Wham.

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 the infinite.

I am here.

No, no, no, no, no!

She slammed back into her body and was instantly incapacitated. Agony burned through her with white-hot intensity. She could not see or hear or draw air, and maybe that was going to kill her.

Here. I am here.

She shut down that other voice because, damn it, she refused to be insane in her final moments.

The lizard part of her brain kicked in, and she gulped in a breath, then one more, then another, and oh dog, maybe death would have been better. Her heart slammed 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 this shit for how many months now 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 such malevolent intent that her skin crawled.

The center of her chest tugged like it was full of metal filings and she was too close to a magnet. 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. In the life she’d left behind, weakness killed and silence meant you lived.

Pain didn’t matter. Neither did the crazy loss of perspective or the noise. She locked herself down hard and blinked at the now open door. What the hell was he?

Her next thought was that now she was going to die, because more of her scattered memories clicked in. She knew exactly what he was.

He was the monster people like Doyle Ferran sent after a certain kind of kid who lived 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 was likely going to destroy them. She knew because she’d been one. She’d fought every day to stay strong and alive.

She blinked again, and more details came into focus.

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

The hum in the back of her head got louder, and she had to suppress the urge to clap her hands over her ears. Her head hurt like a mother, which was oddly helpful for her focus.

His lips moved, but his voice got lost in 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 tried to smile, but, to be honest, she wasn’t sure she succeeded.

The figure in the doorway said something more, 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. 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 keep him from shutting the door in her face. “Wait!”

“Fuck you.” He had no discernible accent, but according to her research, he was a polyglot in the sense that he had full command of whatever language was required to communicate.

Now that she could see clearly, she recognized him from the picture gallery she’d painstakingly collected. Great. Just great. One of Doyle Ferran’s fiercest bodyguards.

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 a silver tie. 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, but in all of them, he was unbelievably handsome. Apparently it was true that 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 the two of 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. Was it her imagination, or had the tip of his finger transformed into a talon? “Tell me or leave.”

“Is Romy here?” She was here at Doyle Ferran’s house because Romy hadn’t checked in when she was supposed to.

“Who wants to know?”

She took care to keep her tone light. “Look, could you just tell her I’m here?”

He stared at her, very unfriendly. Well, okay. They didn’t need to be friends. He just needed to tell her where Romy was. “Who the fuck are you?”

Fair question. She gave her best friendly smile. “Jane Doe.”

“Jane Doe who?” In a way, it helped that he was so perfect. She knew he wasn’t human, but if he were, he’d be way out of her league.

“Jane Doe, who is worried about Romy.”

His expression turned stony. “Never heard her mention any Jane Doe.”

She was still shaken up from the doorbell mistake and the lingering symptoms of nearly dying from that. There were too many people, and too much noise and everything smelled faintly bitter, plus she’d fucked up already. Chances were good she’d fuck up again when mistakes with a demon like Savaş were likely to be fatal.

“Still waiting for a real name.”

Name. Name, right. He was just so perfect. Her name.

“Right, then. Fuck off, Jane.”

“Ember.”

“Ember Doe, or Jane Ember? Either way, never heard of you.”

She’d spent hours and hours researching the mage who lived here; Doyle Ferran, born in Chicago in 1876, apprenticed to the great mage Magellan for three years in the early part of the twentieth century. She knew the names and histories of each of Ferran’s principal magehelds, Savaş included. They were all dangerous, of course, but Savaş was a warlord, that is, a demon capable of increasing its power through taking oaths of fealty from other, less powerful demons. That is, if he weren’t magically enslaved to Ferran.

Among the magekind, Ferran was accorded significant prestige for having brought a warlord under his control.

“I haven’t heard from Romy in over a week.”

His upper lip curled. “You aren’t really good friends then, are you?”

“I need to see her.” She was Romy’s failsafe, just like Romy was hers.

He glared at her, and she really hadn’t been prepared for how distractingly beautiful he was, albeit in a hard, mean, and thoroughly frightening way.

“Is she here?” She was in over her head, that was obvious. This was the difference between book learning and practical experience.

“Do I look like a babysitter?”

“We were supposed to get together last week.” Romy hadn’t responded to any of their usual methods of staying in touch. No texts, no social media, no calls, nothing via apps, no response to any of her inquiries.

Savaş put one hand high up on the doorjamb and leaned forward. “Ask me if I give a shit.”

“I know you don’t.” Good reminder. The demon didn’t care. Why should he?

“Glad that’s clear. Now go away.”

“I didn’t know how to contact Ferran.” Shortly after the Big Revelation from Nikodemus, Romy had convinced Ferran to take her on as an apprentice, and from everything Ember had been hearing, Romy’s magical training was going well. Until last week, she hadn’t missed a single check-in. “I need to make sure she’s okay.”

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

“If you want me to go away, tell her I’m here.” The wind came up and rattled the leaves in the trees around the property. “Or tell her to answer her phone.”

“No can do.” The edge of Savaş’s mouth twitched. That couldn’t be good.

“Can I talk to Ferran?”

Savaş smirked at her with such delight she knew he was about to lie. “He doesn’t want to be disturbed today.”

“Tell him I’m here to see Romy.” She made that an imperative. She hated taking that tack with him, but she didn’t see much choice. A mageheld demon had to comply with a request like that when it came from a human magic user, even one as insignificant as her.

His expression blanked out. She didn’t blame him for his attitude. He opened the door wider and stepped aside. “Wait here.”

She shuddered the moment he closed the door behind her. The tug in the center of her chest ramped up. There were at least twenty demons here, all of them bound to Ferran and obligated to carry out his orders. There was a reason she’d moved to the middle of nowhere, outside the enforcement zone because she didn’t want to run afoul of those rules. Living where there were so few people had made her complacent. Finding out how deeply unprepared she was scared the hell out of her.

“Thank you,” she said.

“Fuck you, witch.”

She politely stared at the walls and the slice of living room on view from where she stood. Definitely not her decorating preference, so good thing this wasn’t her house. A chrome-framed painting consisting of swaths of green, orange, and purple hung on the wall. Harsh electric light glinted off the chrome arm of a black leather chair. How did Romy stand living here?

He cocked his head in the direction of the living room and followed her in. Ferran’s house was the biggest house on a cul-de-sac of big houses on big, wooded lots, and the inside was even more impressive than the outside. Not her style, but impressive.

The rest of the furniture was like the chair she’d seen; black leather and chrome. A screen, 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. Something on the other side of the room radiated sickening power. More than one thing. Great. Another challenge to her precarious control.

Twenty minutes later, no one had come down, and her ass and lower back ached. Forty minutes later, she was still waiting. Savaş had started to smirk about ten minutes ago, and now he was positively joyful. Message received. Normally she would have left fifty-five minutes ago, but Romy should have checked in last week, and she hadn’t, so the heck with Doyle Ferran ignoring her.

Savaş remained motionless when she stood and walked around the room. She passed the shelves and pretended she was interested in an inert glass bottle on yet another chrome table. A fun-house reflection of her face wavered in the surface.

She made another slow tour and returned to the shelves, aware Savaş was watching her every move. She pulled out one of the books. It was a brand-new, never-opened hardback about making friends.

Her next stop was a shelf with a series of netsuke; a rabbit, a seated skeleton, a playful dog, a potbellied fisherman, and various other animals, real and fantastical. They were all intriguing, but the objects of power drew her attention. It was hard to admire the artistry when she knew what they were and how they were made. She glanced at Savaş.

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

“I’m not a thief.” If she wavered for even a second she’d lose control. There was never a good time and place for that, but now would be especially bad. Even so, she ran her index finger just above the line of figurines, pausing ever so slightly over the ones that were more than beautifully carved netsuke. Mere weeks into her private research she’d found out talismans were made in a bloody, ritual murder. Just reading about it had given her nightmares.

“All you street witches are thieves.”

The slang term referred to someone like her; the abandoned child of trained magic users. The magekind, that is, human magic users, tested their children for magical ability at the age of three. They didn’t keep the ones who failed. Romy had been adopted by a family that didn’t want two girls. Ember had been dumped into the foster care system at the age of three.

There were a lot of street witches— mages too— and most of them were seriously messed up. Like her. And Romy. Romy had run away from her adoptive family when she was twelve, and they’d reunited shortly after that.

She paused her finger above an ivory horse that pulsed with power. She didn’t doubt Savaş knew the horse was among the more powerful of the carvings. Any object of 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.

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

“Fuck off.”

“Same to you.”

“If you can’t back up that attitude, it’s going to get you killed.”

“Attitude is all I’ve got.” A lot of the kids who survived the streets could do things. Twisted, dangerous, sometimes frightening things that nobody wanted to admit. In terms of magic and general ability, Ember was way below the average, well into D or F territory, while Romy was way above average.

But Ember could do a trick or two. She got a little too close to the horse and snatched away her hand.

Ferran might well have made some of these himself. A witch or mage drew on the energy trapped inside a talisman to give their magic a significant boost over and above the low-level but constant amplification provided by rubies.

One manuscript she’d found claimed demons could return the trapped life-force to its source and thereby end its torment. This was at least partially true. Another source warned of the danger of unstable talismans. Definitely true.

“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.

“Of course not.” She held the demon’s gaze just to prove she could. He mouthed the words die, witch at her. She gave him her middle finger and went back to examining the talismans. Her curiosity got the better of her, though. “Do you hear them screaming when Ferran uses them?”

While he was taking that in, she registered that she’d made a mistake—another mistake—letting wonder if she heard screams. Jesus, you’d think she was completely ignorant. She touched one of the inert figures; a stylized koi. She sent a pulse of power into it. If Romy was here, she’d know Ember had been here, too.

“What screams?”

She looked her her shoulder at him and smiled like she didn’t know shit. Not too far off, all this considered. “Just kidding.”

She wasn’t sure how much longer she could safely stand in front of this many talismans without an unfortunate accident. It was past time for her to get out of here before her luck ran out. She turned her back on the netsuke. The skin along her shoulders rippled with awareness.

“How long are you going force me to watch you?”

“I’m having fun. Aren’t you?”

He glared at her.

Tell Ferran I said he’s an asshole.”

His smile was intentionally mocking. “As you wish.”

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

“You don’t understand shit.”

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

“Get the fuck out of here.”

Considering she hadn’t got what she’d come here for, she was feeling okay about her visit. Before she left, though, she turned her head toward the netsuke. The tail of the carved fish moved, and she smiled to herself on her way out.

 

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