A Shift in Ashes
“You’re lost, aren’t you?”
“I’m not lost!” I snapped at the vampire to my right. The one on my left wisely said nothing. We finally reached the top of the hill we’d been trudging up, and I gazed across the desolate landscape that stretched before us. No plants or any hint of life anywhere. Even the dirt was an odd grey color, as if life had been leeched from the earth itself. As a realmwalker, I’d been to a lot of different realms, so many I’d lost track over the centuries, but this was a new one for me.
One I had no interest in ever returning to again.
Something horrific had happened here, and I could still feel the echoes of it across my skin. Even my magic was uncharacteristically quiet and had retreated deep within me, as if it wanted nothing to do with this realm. I didn’t blame it.
“There.” I pointed to a pile of debris not far from us. “Told you I wasn’t lost.”
Mikhail shrugged. “If you knew where it was, then why didn’t you open a gateway closer to it instead of making us trek across this gods forsaken land?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Did you have something better to do with your day?” I stepped towards him and poked him hard in the chest. “I don’t even remember inviting you on this gig in the first place! And I’m not sharing any of the cut with you, so don’t even ask.”
Mikhail narrowed his eyes at me, but before he could speak Magos cut in, ever the peacekeeper. “Let’s go take a look, shall we? The sooner we find it, the sooner we can get out of here.” Without waiting for our agreement, he headed down the gentle slope, choosing his footing carefully amongst the loose rocks and rubble. I curled my lip up at Mikhail, displaying a fang, and followed after Magos.
“How did Chamosh even know this thing was here in the first place?” Mikhail asked.
“He has a piece of it that he acquired a long time ago. He doesn’t know where it came from, which is why he’s never been able to gain more of it. But when he learned of my ability to access any realm, he wanted to know if I could find one based on something that came from it. I said ‘yes’ and here we are.”
I slipped on a piece of loose shale, and Mikhail’s hand shot out to steady me. I grumbled a thanks, and he let go after a long moment, letting his fingers trail across my skin. My magic that had been content to lie sleeping within me started to stir, but I slapped it back down. Mikhail had been doing that more and more. Finding reasons to touch me and gauge my reaction. I was only partially successful at hiding my responses, and my fae magic was all too eager to come and out and play with Mikhail. If he knew how much my magic seemed to like him, he would become even more impossible than he already was.
“How widely is it known that you can travel through the realms?” Magos asked.
“At this point, I’m pretty sure every single daemon and fae are aware,” I said tiredly. “Pele used to arrange all my gigs, but now too many inquiries are coming in. A lot of it is from people who don’t even need anything; they just want to meet me. Some of them are finding ways to get around Pele, but I’ve been ignoring any direct contact requests.”
Chamosh was the only one I’d agreed to take a gig for lately. He was a grumpy old bastard, but the daemon was an excellent spellcaster and the reason Magos and the vampire brats could freely move around in the sun. Plus, Chamosh was paying well, and he’d owe me a favor. I’d told the rest of those who’d come asking about my abilities to take a hike. I wasn’t enjoying my newfound fame. Most of my life, I’d hidden my magic from everyone else because it would have gotten me killed or enslaved. But recent events had forced me to come out of the shadows and make my abilities known. I was part fae, courtesy of my father, and both he and my mother belonged to the Unseelie Court. Now I did too.
I hated it.
It’d only been a few months, and really nothing in my life had changed that drastically. But I still chafed at the idea of belonging to a court. Previously, I was just a feline shifter who had a solid reputation for finding lost things, nothing more. All my gigs had been arranged through my friend Pele, which meant I rarely had to deal with clients face to face. I’d enjoyed it. Now I walked into a room and everyone stared at me and whispered in the ears of their companions.
That’s her, the daughter of that insane murdering bastard, The Erlking.
Her mother is a real piece of work, too. She’d have to be, to be with that thing for centuries.
The Unseelie Queen’s new pet.
Magos reached our destination first and looked over his shoulder at me. His bright copper eyes seemed so out of place in this realm devoid of life and color. “This was a ship.” He knelt down and picked up a broken piece of what indeed looked like a mast. I crouched next to him and picked up a few more pieces, looking them over. “Which means there was once water here,” he said, dropping the broken mast piece he’d been studying and gazing out over the wreckage. “What happened to this realm?”
I rose and brushed my hands against my pants. “I have no idea. Chamosh doesn’t know anything about this realm. He acquired the chunk of meteorite in a daemon realm a long time ago. Might have fallen to the devourers during the first Cataclysm. It doesn’t really feel like devourers though.” I frowned and looked around the remains of the ship. “I think something else happened to these people, and honestly I don’t want to know. I already have enough crap haunting my dreams, I don’t need more.”
“Fair enough,” Magos replied. “Still, I wonder what these people were like. If any of them made it to another realm or if their entire existence ended here.”
I stared at the broken ship, left behind in a forgotten realm. The shifter realm my parents had come from had fallen to devourers. So had Magos and Mikhail’s home realm. Countless realms had been lost. So many beings, lost and forgotten. Some had vanished without the rest of us even knowing about their existence.
“Let’s find this expensive hunk of rock and go home,” I said, dragging myself out of my melancholy thoughts as I stepped over more debris. “I felt the tug of its magic as soon as we arrived in this realm, and it’s even stronger now. It’s definitely here.” We carefully sorted through the wreckage. I kept expecting to find some bones, but there was nothing. No trace of whoever had manned this ship. I hoped some of them had made it out of this realm alive, even though I knew that was unlikely.
“Found it,” Mikhail said, pulling something from underneath several broken boards. He held up the chunk of meteorite, and it glinted in the fading sunlight. Despite being buried in debris and left to the elements all this time, the black rock sparkled in the light, bits of purple glowing brightly against the black. Mikhail’s dark purplish blue eyes, which always reminded me of twilight, found mine, and I saw the amusement glittering in them. “Seeing how I found it, I do believe I earned my take.”
I snorted. “You only found it because I led us here.” I held my hand out, and he tossed the chunk to me. The rock was cool against my skin, and something about it felt strange. I shoved it into a pouch attached to my belt. “Besides, you don’t even pay rent.”
“I’m not paying rent to sleep on your couch.”
“It’s a nice couch!” I countered.
Magos cleared his throat politely. Right. We had gotten what we came here for. It was time to get out of this damn realm. I carefully picked my way out of the wreckage and stretched out my hand. Magic flowed from me, and a ripple formed in the air. A few seconds later it widened, revealing a modern-looking apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows. I stepped through and waited for the two vampires to follow before closing the gateway.
“I’m going to shower, and then we can head to The Inferno.” I walked down the hallway towards the bathroom. “We’ll drop this off with Pele. One of her minions can bring it to Chamosh. Eddie is going to meet us there. He wants to talk to us about something.”
Ten minutes later, I walked into my bedroom with a towel wrapped around myself. I was pretty sure sand was still ingrained in my skin. I loved our apartment but would honestly kill someone for access to a nice soaking tub right then. The memory of the beautiful wading pool from the fae Queen’s palace floated to the surface. I grimaced. That pool had been real nice, right until a monster had appeared from under the surface and dragged me through a gateway. I’d probably chance going in it again, though. I’d just bring my swords with me.
Movement from the corner of my bedroom caught my attention, but I refused to look.
“No. You just got fed yesterday.” I strode over to my dresser and pulled out some clothes. “We’ve talked about this. You’re not getting fed every day. You’re already too big for this room, and I don’t know where I’m going to move you to yet.”
I closed the dresser drawer a little too hard and tossed the clothes on the bed along with my towel. I reached for my underwear but snatched my hand back as a green vine snapped at where my fingers had just been. The vine wrapped around my underwear and pulled it away. I glared at the plant that now took up an entire corner of my bedroom. When Kaysea had given it to me as a house warming present a year ago, it had been barely a foot tall and contained in a pot on my dresser. Now it was easily four feet tall and was in a massive stone pot in the room’s corner in front of the window, where it could soak up all the sunshine.
The dark green stem that rose out of the dirt was nearly as thick as my waist. Narrow vines with small leaves wound up the stem; amongst them were several thicker vines, like the one currently waving my underwear around. The large electric blue flower at the top of the stem was shaking its petals in frustration, and its bright orange center was opening slightly.
“If you eat my underwear, I’m not feeding you for a week,” I hissed. “And I’ll make sure the kids don’t sneak in here to feed you either!”
The orange center of the flower split open, revealing rows and rows of impossibly sharp teeth that curved backwards at a sharp angle. The vine shoved my underwear in and swallowed it down while I stared at it in disbelief.
Fuming, I grabbed another pair of underwear and yanked the rest of my clothes on and stalked out of the room. Mikhail was grinning widely, and Magos was clearly trying to keep from doing the same.
“It’s easy for both of you to find this funny!” I snapped. “You don’t have a giant plant in your room with a bottomless fucking appetite!”
“I don’t have a room,” Mikhail replied.
I growled in frustration and headed towards the apartment door. “Get cleaned up and meet me downstairs. I’m going to have a chat with the vampire brats. This plant is their damn fault from overfeeding it all the time, and they’re going to help me move it!” I slammed the door and stomped down the stairs, passing the apartment on the second floor where Bryn and Finn lived.
Luna usually stayed on that floor as well, which meant Jinx was there most of the time. I was happy for my friend. He deserved to find love and happiness. But even though he was only one floor below me, I still missed him. He’d been my one constant companion my entire life. I knew I wasn’t being rational about it. He still lived in the same building, and he breezed in and out of our apartment all the time. But I felt like my life was radically changing, and I didn’t know how to deal with it. I just wanted at least one thing to remain the same.
Laughter erupted from the first-floor apartment, and it checked some of my annoyance. I didn’t bother knocking but froze after taking only a few steps inside the apartment. Two vampires, barely past their teenage years, stared back at me. Between their pale skin, dark hair, and striking features, they could pass for brother and sister. Given we didn’t know who their parents were, it was a distinct possibility.
The slightly younger vampire they had pinned to the floor between them was looking at me desperately. Something red was smeared on his face, but it looked too thick to be blood and small yellow chunks lay on the floor around him.
A giggle tore out of the curly-haired girl standing behind the three others with her hands tucked suspiciously behind her back.
“Elisa, dare I ask what you and Misha are doing to Damon?” I opened my mouth slightly and inhaled, parsing the scents. “And why Isabeau is hiding a piece of pizza behind her back?”
Cheese and toppings slid to the floor with a plop as all four vampire kids gazed at me guiltily. “Damon says pineapple has no place on a pizza?” Elisa replied, somehow turning her answer into a question.
“He won’t even try it!” Isabeau tossed the slice, now without cheese or toppings, onto Damon’s shirt and leapt the five feet to the couch like it was nothing. “It’s the best, and he would know that if he would just take a bite!”
“I genuinely don’t know how to respond to this other than I’m not cleaning up this mess and I better not be smelling cheap cheese and pineapple for the next month.”
“Yes, Nemain,” Misha and Damon intoned.
“Also, I have to head to The Inferno for a bit. But when I get back”—I pointed a clawed finger at them—”all of you are helping me move that damn plant out of my room. We’ll put it in the living room, somewhere it can’t reach anything sharp or important.”
“Let’s move it down here!” Isabeau yelled. We were trying and failing to explain the concept of “inside voice” to her.
“No!” everyone said at once, and she slumped against the couch cushions, a sulky expression spreading across her face.
“Is it okay if I get a ride with you?” Elisa asked.
Suspicion crept over me, and I narrowed my eyes at her. “Why?”
“Pele offered me a part-time job as her assistant.” Elisa paused. “On a trial basis. Just to see if I can do it.”
“Of course you can do it,” Bryn said from where she’d been sitting across the living room, well away from the pineapple pizza assault, and gave Elisa a knowing smile. Elisa smiled back at her. Misha and Damon rolled their eyes.
“I strongly suspect that allowing you to train under Pele is a bad idea, but I’m not going to stop you. Just be prepared to take a lot of shit for being a vampire.” I had no doubt Pele had already discussed that with her. Vampires weren’t well-liked or respected in most of the magical community. Pele in particular didn’t like them, but she’d grown to accept, if not respect, most of the vampires who lived with me. Elisa had been locked away for most of her life, but anyone who spoke to her for more than a minute could see the cunning mind and political savviness she wielded like weapons. Gods knew what she would be capable of underneath Pele’s tutelage.
“I’m prepared and I’ll deal with it,” Elisa said smoothly. From her position, she couldn’t see Bryn’s face as it tightened slightly and red flashed briefly across her eyes. Elisa could stand on her own two feet, but if anyone seriously came after her, they’d quickly find themselves at the mercy of a pissed off valkyrie.
“All right,” I said. “Get cleaned up. We’re leaving as soon as Magos and Mikhail are ready.”
Elisa nodded and scooted off to her room. I walked over to the kitchen, where Finn was perched on one of the stools. He was settling in but was still very quiet. At least he no longer looked alarmed or worried at the constant outbursts from the vampire brats.
“Hey, kid,” I said and grabbed one of the last cookies from a plate in the center of the counter, no doubt dropped off by Zareen earlier because nobody in this building could bake. “Luna upstairs, I’m guessing?” I knew she was because that’s where Jinx was. I had felt his presence when I walked past the apartment on the second floor. But asking Finn how he was feeling would result in only a one-word answer. I’d learned other tactics to get the kid talking over the past few months.
“Yes. She’s taking a nap.”
Finn studied the plate of cookies as if he couldn’t figure out if they were a trap or not. I rummaged around in the kitchen and poured him a glass of milk. Setting the glass in front of him, I nudged the cookies a little closer. Finn’s eyes flicked to mine, and I kept my expression calm as those strangely colored eyes looked at me. The inner part of Finn’s eyes were golden yellow, like the color of leaves in the fall. The color shifted to a bright green around the outer layer, the color of spring. Eyes of change.
According to a fae prophecy, Finn, the son of the exiled fae king, would bring about the end of the realms. Unless I changed his fate. Unfortunately, the prophecy hadn’t come with a helpful guide on exactly how I was supposed to do that, so I just pushed the plate of cookies a little closer. When in doubt, eat more sweets.
I was so not cut out for this.
“Luna doesn’t mind the noise down here,” Finn said quietly as he reached for a cookie and carefully took a bite. His eyes lit up as he chewed. “I don’t think Jinx likes it, though.”
I snorted and got myself a glass of milk and dunked my cookie in it. Finn watched with wide eyes and then, with slow, deliberate movements, repeated the process with his cookie and took a nibble. He pulled the milk a little closer and did it again.
A smile tugged at my lips as I took another bite. “Jinx is grumpy. He always has been. Luna is good for him. She helps balance him out.”
“Balance is good,” Finn said with a thoughtful expression. “Like Bryn and Elisa.”
“Exactly like that,” I agreed. Elisa joined us again, running a hand down the well-tailored suit she was wearing. “I see Pele already has you dressing like her.” I shook my head in mock disgust.
Elisa blushed slightly. “She said a certain level of dress was expected given the work she does. Looking professional is important. I didn’t really have anything, so she, uh, sent some stuff over.”
“You look good, kid.” I wasn’t lying. Elisa was stunning with her dark hair and creamy white skin. She had a willowy frame, but the suit complemented her build without swallowing her. The way Bryn was staring at her, the valkyrie was very much a fan of this look.
“You look old and stuffy,” Isabeau chirped from the couch.
Elisa huffed a laugh. “Thanks, Bo. Stay out of trouble while I’m gone, okay?” The young vampire girl gave her an innocent smile, and Elisa looked at Bryn in concern.
“It’ll be fine,” Bryn said, rising and giving Elisa a quick kiss. “Have fun on your first day of work. We’ll have to do something to celebrate tonight.” She toyed with the edges of Elisa’s jacket.
“Can you not do that?” Damon said. “She’s like our sister, and it’s gross.”
Misha and Isabeau voiced their agreement, and I laughed. Elisa and I headed to the front door, and just before we left, I saw Finn reach out for another cookie.