(Wait! Wait! I want to start at the beginning! Go here)
It was Amber’s last day on earth, if Plan A didn’t work. When I came home late from the hardware store, carrying a bag of rock salt on my shoulder to the back yard, the house was dark and empty. Zoë left a note saying she was having some kind of a piercing open house at the tattoo parlor, and wouldn’t be home until after midnight. She also said that Darius, intrigued by the possibility of meeting young kinky girls, had begged to be allowed to attend and was granted an invitation. In a way it was the best thing that could possibly happen, as if Ruby were smiling on my friends (despite refusing every request for an audience) saving them from sharing my fate.
Because honestly, I still had no idea if the fey would eat Nightjack. The only thread of a chance I had was from a single spell in Jess’ book. Jess’ weird notation made it unclear, but it seemed as though the spell would make Nightjack irresistible. I could only hope that meant eatable-irresistible, like a chocolate cookie, not dreamy hunk-irresistible, because that would only work on me. Plan A at this point consisted of doing Jess’ spell, activating the circle, calling Nightjack’s name out loud until he showed up, then releasing all the fey at once, hoping they knew what to do. It wasn’t a brilliant plan, but it didn’t involve human sacrifice.
Zoë’s chimineria, a terracotta fireplace pot, had been burning yard waste all day, converting it to ash for the banishing spell. Darius helped me get a large river rock, but left me to fetch the spiny jumping cholla cactus on my own. The cholla wasn’t for the banishing spell, it was for a circle to keep me safe. I’d made a second circle inside that, and also had a henna protection spell on my back. Then I temporarily broke the ward around the house, so that Nightjack could come in. Fortune favors the prepared.
It had taken all day to construct the two circles. The inner one was only as wide as my outstretched arms. When activated, it would keep out anything, gnosti or human, or anything thrown or wielded by such. That’s what Susie’s book said, anyway. The outer one, the one with the spiny cactus pads, extended from one edge of the patio to the other. The rabbit hutch containing all the trapped fey just barely fit inside the outer circle when I turned it over on its end. The fey inside squeaked and fluttered around angrily. Good. Maybe they were angry enough to kill. Now for whatever crop of fey the honey had drawn that day. I stepped gingerly over the cholla ring and went under the orange tree to get the cat trap.
There was a cat in it.
“Now how did you get in there?” I asked the cat. “You’re not supposed to like honey.”
The cat was slinky and black, with a nose like a Siamese and a Siamese’s kinked tail. The cat had a bramblemae between its paws, and my first impression was that of a sphinx who had caught a traveler and was now testing his victim’s riddle competence before eating him.
I looked briefly over my shoulder, out of habit. I’d pretended to hate cats ever since I moved in. It made shirking litterbox and puke cleanup duties that much easier. No one was around, so I stuck my fingers through the cage and scratched the cat behind the ears. The cat began to purr.
“So, you caught a bramblemae. Can’t quite figure out if it’s a sparrow or a mouse, can you? How can you even see it? You must be a special cat.”
The cat stopped purring and looked past me. Its irises contracted to slits.
“Some cats can see the fey, just as some people can.” Nightjack lounged on the edge of the cinderblock wall as if it were the arm of a couch. He dropped gracefully into the yard and sauntered over, in that too-sexy, too-masculine way of his. Nightjack inspired twin feelings of horniness and fear. Those two emotions were a caustic combination, neither one allowing me full use of my brain.
“What are you doing here? Don’t you think you caused enough damage last time?”
“What’s this for?” Nightjack picked up the cat trap and spun it around. The black Siamese hissed at him, which immediately endeared it to me. “A silver trap? Baited with honey? You’ve got some spell in the works, don’t you?”
“Maybe I just wanted to replace the pet you murdered.”
“Don’t fuck with me!” He snarled, suave flirtation going to bestial rage in an instant. The speed at which his emotions changed scared me more than the anger. Constantly angry, I could handle. Flirtatious and murderous alternating without warning left me reeling.
I backed away slowly, hoping he wouldn’t notice me going for the protection circle.
“Oh no you don’t,” he snapped, striding past me. He kicked the circle open with one foot. The cholla stuck to him, barbed spines clinging to his sock, and Nightjack shook his leg to get them free. He still held the cat trap, and the black Siamese yowled with anger as it got spun around.
Ruby, if you ever wanted to help me, now is the time. I dashed towards the house, hoping to get Nightjack away from my circles.
He caught me as easily as if I were a crawling baby, holding me aloft by the midsection. Nightjack hissed sensuously into my ear. “Where do you think you’re going? We have a lot to discuss, babe. You and me are going to be so close.”
“No, no, we’re not.”
“Why not?” Nightjack slid his hand up my chest. I wasn’t sure if he was going to try to fondle my breast or rip my heart out of my ribcage. “I can give you power. I can give you anything you want.”
“I want you to go away!” I squirmed in his grasp. Why wasn’t the henna protecting me? He shouldn’t be able to touch me like this, should he? “Just go home!”
He dropped me on the ground and flipped me over, before I had a chance to wince and grasp my bruised shin. Nightjack knelt on my torso and leaned down until his face was inches from my own. “You brought me here.”
“Not me.” That was supposed to come out defiant, but I barely whispered it, and couldn’t help flinching after the words left my mouth. “It wasn’t me.”
Nightjack put his fingers against the side of my face. I flinched, but he had flipped back into sexy mode. This was driving me crazy. He should just fuck me or kill me. He might do both. He grabbed my chin and turned my head to one side, licking his tongue along the curve of my ear. “Why are you so resistant?”
“Because I don’t want you to kill me.”
“It will be different with you.”
Did that line ever sound like anything but bullshit? I flicked a pain spell into his eyes, and while he was distracted, I made a mad dash to the cholla circle, snatching up the cat trap on the way. Nightjack grabbed me, but it was too late. I managed to use the end of the cat trap to push the cholla back into place.
My release mantra made the power flow into the outer circle, sealing Nightjack off. He pounded against it, like a pissed off mime, testing for weak spots. The chimineria stood just inside the outer circle. The white stone nestled inside the hot ash, and the sack of salt lay close enough to the chimineria that I could have banished him right there, if only there were enough blood. I let the cat out of the cat trap. The cat didn’t know who trapped it, only who let it out. It purred and rubbed against me, making me feel guilty, because it was my fault it was here. A pair of hexelmoths and the tiny griffin-like bramblemae came out too, fluttering around the ceiling of the inner sphere. Djinns and the fey might not be the same, but that ward worked for both of them.
I stepped into the inner circle, the one drawn in chalk and acid. Of the two, it was stronger, and would keep anything out or anything in, but of course it was too tiny to contain much in the way of spell components.
“You can’t stay in there forever,” he said.
“Yeah I can.” At least, for a day or two, or until someone showed up. Or maybe no one should show up. Or maybe Darius and Zoë would show up, and they would just get killed. Crap, I was screwed. “Amber will come. She will help me.”
Nightjack pulled up a plastic patio chair and reclined in it.
“Where’s Amber?,” I asked.
“Don’t you wish you knew?” He grinned, and as much as I stared at his face in the waning light, I couldn’t tell by his expression if he’d killed her or not.
So we sat, me trapped inside the ring, and him out. Okay, now what? Wait until he got distracted, make a dash for my phone inside the house, and call Amber? Great. By that time Nightjack would have left, to kill Amber and strike at me another day. Maybe she was already on her way. Or maybe Nightjack had figured out our plan, and had somehow incapacitated her. What if she were already dead? The black cat chased fey around the outer circle, dashing this way and that in apparent glee. At least one of us was happy.
I pushed gently against the inner ward. The ward gave gently under my pressure. As its creator, I could break it if I wanted to; I just didn’t want to. It was like seeing how far you could stretch a balloon without it bursting. A few more steps took me closer to the silvered rabbit hutch.
He leaned forward. “Whatcha doing?”
Instead of answering, I opened the cage and let out the fey, then retreated to the center of the inner ward. The faeries fluttered and scrambled free of the cage, then stopped, halted by the gnosti-barrier. The black cat squeaked like a kitten and launched herself at them.
“Oh, you’ve got some kind of plan, is it? I just love human mages. They think they can outwit us. It’s so amusing when they fail.”
I plucked a hair from my head, took an old key from my pocket, and started Jess’ spell. Winding the hair around the key, I chanted continuously, waxing louder and softer, a phrase that sounded curiously like “oh-yeah-baby.” Nightjack folded his arms and stared at me, a smirk on his face. Power hummed from the earth through my feet, making my lips numb as though I’d been playing my trumpet for too long. If it was going to work, it was going to work now. I released the outer ward. Nightjack stumbled forward and the fey rushed out. Some of them clustered around his head, and he swatted at them. Were they eating him? Was this really going to work? The gate leading to the carport squawked open. Oh great, Amber, perfect timing. Just when it looked as though she wasn’t needed …
But then Nightjack blew all the fey away from him in a puff of smoke and flame, and Bible Ed walked out into the yard.
“I heard you tell Charlotte what you were going to do, Susie,” Ed said. He wore a clean white shirt, pressed and starched, with a turquoise bolo tie at the neck. His boots were shiny, and even his jeans looked ironed. His thin hair had been oiled so thick the comb marks still showed. Was it a good day, or a bad day?
“Who the hell is this guy?” Nightjack asked me.
“You are an affront to God,” Ed told Nightjack.
Bad day. If it were a good day, he’d be calling the police instead of acting like a paladin. “Ed, now is not really a good time,” I said as calmly and firmly as possible. “I think you should leave now.” And maybe call the MIB.
Bible Ed pulled a small orange new testament from his pocket and began reading.
“Ed, you have to get out of here!”
“You like this guy?” Nightjack asked.
“You can’t suck his soul out. He’s innocent.”
“Soul.” Nightjack scoffed. “That isn’t what we take, though it might as well be. The ‘rules’ say I can only take summoners who make three wishes. Innocent has nothing to do with it.”
“Ed didn’t make any, and neither did I.”
Nightjack shrugged. “You haven’t had the right motivation yet.” And with one movement, he picked up the hot neck of the chimineria, swung it at Ed, and smashed him in the head. White ash billowed out from the opening, and the heavy white stone clunked against the side like the clapper of a dead bell. Ed fell, still clutching the orange bible. His head had split open. Shards of crumbly terracotta clung to the combed furrows of hair.
“Don’t you wish he weren’t going to die?”
One little wish, and Ed would live again. Thick wet blood flooded out around the crack in his skull, and the billowing clouds of ash settled on it. Ed could live, I could make it happen.
“God’s plan for me …” Ed muttered, looking at me, another one of those nonverbal cues for something important. “I sacrifice.”
“Awww, he’s in so much pain,” Nightjack cooed, kicking Ed. “Don’t you wish he weren’t?”
Ash. White stone. Salt. Blood. I kicked off my shoes, standing barefoot on the warm patio so that less stood between me and the earth. With a deep breath, I took in as much energy as I could hold, and then shaped it into the banishment spell.
Nightjack scoffed. “You’ll never be able to channel enough energy to—“
Whatever he said got cut off as a billion kilowatts of magical energy used me as a conductor. Each nerve in my body felt as though it were vibrating at an intense frequency, every cell was about to be shaken loose. My feet glued themselves to the earth, sending down roots of something until it wasn’t clear anymore where my body ended and the rest of the earth began. An arc of power linked from Ed, to me, to the djinn. Nightjack grimaced and flailed back and forth, trying to free himself from whatever force arced between us. The ash exploded into a cloud so thick I could barely draw a breath. And still the power grew. Pain wasn’t the right word for it. It felt more like holding on to Zoë’s palm sander for too long, like an orgasm that had been going on for an hour, like something mere mortals were not meant to bear. It didn’t hurt, but it was too much.
And I didn’t know how to stop.
The white stone vibrated itself into sharp gravel, and the salt bounced up and down in a pattering rain against the patio. Ed bled, pouring his life out into my spell. I felt his life ebb away, sucked into the vortex I’d created. Nightjack shimmered, then vanished, blasted into the Elsewhere with the raw force of it all. And it was going to take me too. The energy rushed through me, a river forced through a narrow gorge, burning me out inside, rocking me back and forth until my knees gave out and I broke my own circle.
I felt bricks under my head, but my eyes didn’t work very well. Blue retinal burns danced in front of my vision.
“Susan?” Amber asked. “You okay?”
My ears were ringing. My whole body was ringing.
“Susan? Can you hear me?”
“Yes,” I mouthed.
She took my arm and helped me sit up. A few shards of broken terracotta and a circle blown free of debris were the only signs left of Nightjack and Ed. The salt had vanished, its sack torn and crumbled, and the square silvered rabbit hutch had become a rhombus. Small fey popped into existence, clutching onto the tree branches and the frame of the house.
A furry black head pushed up under my hand, forcing me to pet it. I scratched the black cat, and it looked at me with uncannily blue eyes. Despite the fact that Amber was a witness, I picked the cat up and held it, cuddling it and rocking it back and forth, waiting for the earth to calm down again.