A Shift in Ashes
Vampires have excellent reflexes. Feline shapeshifters have better reflexes. That’s why when we walked through the doors of The Inferno I was able to dodge the shot glass headed straight for my face, but Elisa wasn’t fast enough to dodge it completely. Still, it only hit her shoulder instead of her nose.
“Sorry!” a gruff voice called from the bar.
I glanced over my shoulder at Elisa, who was wiping the whiskey off her jacket with a frown. Mikhail and Magos had moved to either side of her and were surveying the room for more threats. Or flying shot glasses. An enormous being ambled over from the bar; he would almost pass for human if not for his ridiculous height. And then there was the issue of all that hair.
“Your aim is still terrible, Kuya,” I said, tilting my head back so I could look up at him.
“Sorry,” he said in a low, rumbly voice and sheepishly handed Elisa some napkins. “I wasn’t aiming for ya, girlie. Those damn lokis were annoying me, and my aim was off.”
Elisa took the napkins from him and pressed them against the wet spot on her jacket. “It’s all right. The lokis annoy everyone.” She smiled brightly at him, and Kuya blushed all the way to the tips of his ears.
I reached up and clapped him on the shoulder. “It’s fine. Elisa’s right, the lokis do annoy the shit out of everyone. I’m pretty sure they believe it’s their sole purpose in life.”
He chuckled and thumped me on the back, not noticing when I stumbled forward a couple of steps. “I was just about to head out, but it was good seeing you, Nemain.” We stepped aside to allow Kuya’s colossal form by.
“What was he?” Elisa asked quietly.
“A kapre,” I answered and headed towards Pele’s office. Elisa followed me while Mikhail and Magos split off to grab a table towards the back of the tavern. “It’s unclear what realm they originally came from. Most of their population lived in the Philippines when they first came to the human realm, but they’ve spread out over the past few centuries. They’re one of a few species largely responsible for the Bigfoot myths.”
“I’m not surprised,” she said with a laugh. “He had to be at least eight feet tall and that was . . . that was a lot of hair.”
“Yeah, they’re a hairy lot,” I agreed. “Harmless though. Kuya is a great cook and throws barbecues during the summer. We’ll go to the next one.”
“I’d like that,” Elisa said as I moved the thick purple curtain aside and waved her through.
Pele glanced up from behind her desk as we entered her office. “Give me a moment,” she said and returned her attention to the book in front of her.
Elisa and I obediently sat in the chars in front of the desk while Pele finished up whatever she was working on. Interrupting her usually resulted in a fireball being thrown at your head. I was used to it. If Elisa wanted to work for Pele in the long run, she’d have to get used to it, too.
“The suit looks good on you, Elisa,” Pele said, closing the book and stacking it neatly with a few others, and turned her piercing turquoise eyes on me. “Do you have it?”
“Of course I have it.” I pulled the chunk of meteorite from my pocket and tossed it to her.
Pele snatched it out of the air and studied it. She wasn’t skilled in making amulets and magical artifacts the way Chamosh was, but she had enough knowledge to evaluate those objects, as well as the materials used to make them.
To me the meteorite felt cold and a little off, but I couldn’t tell anything about it beyond that. “I still don’t see what’s so special about it.”
Pele shrugged and set the meteorite piece down on her desk. “Any material from another planet is useful in crafting amulets and artifacts. Their properties make them difficult to create counter spells against because of how different they are from any material collected from here. That amulet of yours to prevent tracking spells being used on you relied on meteorite fragments.”
“That explains why it was so expensive.” I hadn’t bothered wearing the amulet in months. Sebastian was the one who’d had my blood, and he was dead now.
“That, and Kali charges a premium price.”
I snorted. “I trust you’re good to deliver it to Chamosh?”
“Yes,” Pele said. “He has some plans in motion that will require some careful arranging, and I’ll be working with him.” She turned her attention to Elisa. “You’ll be assisting me with those plans. Chamosh likes you, and he doesn’t like most beings.”
Elisa smiled and kept her expression calm and professional. “Excellent. He was pleasant to work with in our previous engagements and does excellent work.”
I glared at Pele. “You are the worst sort of influence on her.”
Pele gave me a wicked grin and waved at me in dismissal.
I shook my head and rose from the chair. “See you later, kid.” I left Elisa and Pele to their scheming and weaved through the bar patrons until I spotted Eddie’s dirty blond hair towards the back. Mikhail and Magos were already seated with him, but my pace slowed when I saw the other two people at the table. Badb and Kalen, known as The Morrigan and The Erlking to most, and more recently, as Mother and Father to me.
Although I never actually called them that. I still thought of Macha and Nevin as my parents and always would, despite them technically being my aunt and uncle. Both Badb and Kalen accepted that and I was getting used to them being in my life. But I still felt a pang in my heart every time I saw Badb. Her and Macha had been identical twins and the seeing the familiar features hurt even though Macha had died centuries ago.
“What are they doing here?” I muttered as I continued walking over to the table.
Eddie kicked out a chair, and I slid into it. He set a shot glass in front of me and filled it with whiskey. I immediately slammed it back and enjoyed the burning feeling down my throat. Eddie smirked as he slyly looked at Badb and Kalen and then poured more whiskey into my glass.
“Just leave the bottle in front of me,” I grumbled.
Eddie’s smirk grew into a full-fledged grin.
I gave Kalen and Badb my best hard stare. “What are the both of you doing here?”
Kalen’s features showed polite interest. “Perhaps we wanted to check on you after the way you left our last training session?”
My left eye twitched, and I counted to ten in my head. My parents were the only ones in existence who could help me master my magic. In the few months we’d been practicing, I’d already improved drastically. I would have made even more progress if half of our lessons didn’t end with me and Badb going for each other’s throats and Kalen pulling us apart.
“Oh, come now, love,” Badb said. “We had plenty of time to see she was fine since it took her so long to open the gateway to get back home.”
I gritted my teeth as I wondered exactly how upset Pele would be if I broke her rule about no magic being used in her bar. “I repeat. What are you doing here?”
“My apologies. We’re intruding.” Kalen held a hand apologetically to his chest. “Your friend here has something important he wants to share with you.” Even though I hadn’t known him long, I knew there was no rushing Kalen to do anything. It wasn’t a coincidence he and Badb were here at the precise moment Eddie had something important to tell me. Which meant whatever they were plotting was related to Eddie’s news.
“Fine,” I ground out, turning away from my parents before I lost the small amount of patience I still had. “What’s going on, Eddie?”
The playful smile that had been plastered on his face while he watched the exchange between me and my parents slid away as his true self peeked out. Eddie was all fun and games most of the time, but at his core, he was a predator. A dragon to be exact, and even though I’d seen him in his true form only once, it had left a lasting impression.
“I found something,” he said. “An artifact from my home realm.”
“Do you have it?” I sat up a little straighter. Eddie and I had gotten off to a bit of a rough start that had resulted in him swearing a blood oath to never reveal the magic I’d been hiding from everyone in exchange for me taking him to his home realm. Now I considered him a friend and would have taken him to his home realm even without the blood oath.
Unfortunately Eddie had been exiled quite thoroughly and I couldn’t use him to find a path back to his realm, so we’d been searching for something or someone from his realm. The search had proven to be far more difficult than either of us anticipated.
“No.” He shook his head. “But I know where it is. We just have to go and get it.”
“All right.” I swallowed another shot of whiskey. “Where is it?”
“The seraphim realm.” Eddie couldn’t hide his wince.
I stared at him. “Tell me you’re joking.”
“Sorry, can’t do that, I’m afraid,” Eddie replied and grabbed the bottle of whiskey. He didn’t bother pouring it into a glass but drank a third of it straight from the bottle. I had a high tolerance for alcohol, but apparently dragons were on another level.
Badb and Kalen maintained neutral expressions, but Mikhail and Magos looked at me with confusion. “What is the problem with going to the seraphim realm?” Magos asked.
“What do you know of the seraphim?” I gestured at Eddie to give me back the bottle. The greedy bastard clutched it tight to his chest.
Magos glanced at Mikhail. They were both too young to remember the seraphim, and unlike me, they hadn’t spent most of their life traveling through the realms. But Mikhail had served the vampire Council for centuries, and they had collected vast amounts of knowledge in their quest to gain power in this realm.
“The seraphim inspired most of the angel mythology in the human realm,” Mikhail said. “They vanished from this realm roughly two thousand years ago. Rumor is, they were asked to leave by the fae. I’ve never met one, so I know little about them other than they have wings and fire magic. They were apparently quite formidable in battle.”
“Bits of that are true,” I said. “The seraphim do have wings and strong fire magic. Their culture is barbaric and militaristic. When they lived in this realm, they found humans to be quite tasty. They had a bit of fun hunting them down and firebombing cities. It was the daemons, not the fae, that made them leave this realm. After the fae and daemons perfected the magic of creating wards to protect realms from the devourers, they suddenly cared quite a bit about the human population. The spells to protect the daemon, fae, and other realms from the devourers required a constant source of magic, and humans provided that.”
“They are excellent magical batteries,” Eddie agreed, and tipped the whiskey bottle in my direction. “They generate all that lovely magic, and the vast majority of them never use a drop of it. Must be delicious to snack on.” Everyone at the table stared at Eddie, and he shrugged. “I said what I said.”
“I was really hoping you would find what we needed in a nice realm. Maybe one full of sushi and nice sunny spots to nap in.”
“Sorry. I checked those realms first, but they were fresh out of dragon bones.”
“They have a dragon bone?” I raised my eyebrows. Dragon bones were highly sought after because of the amount of magic they contained. Since the dragons had been locked away in their realm, finding bones was nearly impossible. I’d assumed Eddie had been searching for a relic or trinket from his home realm. We didn’t need anything with significant magic; I just needed something from the realm to lock in on. A plain old rock would have worked just fine. But the daemons were overachievers, and when they banished the dragons to their home realm they threw away the key . . . and every trace of the realm they could find. “How the hell did you learn this?”
“Not bone, dragon fangs. One of my regulars came by yesterday. Pele’s cousin actually, Azrael.”
Alarm bells went off in my head. Pele had barely batted an eye when I told her that Eddie was a dragon, and she had been surprisingly hands off about our plan to break into the dragon realm. Which meant she was plotting something, and every time Pele plotted something I ended up being almost swallowed by underground devourers or rescuing lost fae princes.
Seeing the alarm on my face, Eddie finally relinquished the whiskey bottle to me, and I slammed down another shot. “What did Azrael have to say?”
“He was picking up some rare books I’d acquired for him, druidic shit, and he stayed to chat a bit. Told me he’d just gotten back from the seraphim realm where he’d been conducting some business, under the table of course, and the seraphim he was dealing with was some big shot general.”
“What a coincidence.” I gripped the whiskey bottle and poured myself and Eddie another shot. Mikhail pushed his shot glass towards me, but I ignored it. He could pour his own damn whiskey.
“The general’s name is Zephon.” Eddie swiped his shot glass and downed the whiskey in one gulp. “He was bragging about his various conquests and showed the fangs to Azrael. Apparently he has a room somewhere in his house full of trophies.”
“Azrael is sure they’re the real deal?”
Eddie’s burnt amber eyes met mine. “We both know he only went to that realm to confirm they were real. This is Pele’s doing.”
“Which means they are very likely the real thing.” My head fell back, and I stared at the ceiling. “Fuck. We have to go to the seraphim realm.”
“Why the concern about going to this realm?” Magos cut in. “Is it forbidden?”
I looked at Kalen and Badb, who’d remained suspiciously quiet during this entire conversation. Between that and Pele playing cat’s-paw with us, my irritation was reaching all new levels. “It’s not forbidden exactly, but it is . . . highly discouraged. The seraphim are one of the few species that rival the daemons and fae in terms of raw magic power. They’ve been slowly and quietly expanding beyond the realm given to them, but they’ve made no move on the human realm or any realms belonging to the fae and daemons, so it’s been ignored. I have no doubt it’s being closely monitored, but the daemons and fae have more pressing concerns at the moment.”
“Doesn’t seem wise to annoy such a threat and let it grow stronger,” Mikhail pointed out. Magos and Eddie nodded.
“Not my call, not my mess.” I shrugged. “I’ve run into the seraphim in other realms, and it has always been a less than pleasant experience. I was lucky to limp away the last time. We’ll have to plan this as a smash and run job.”
“My favorite kind,” Eddie said.
Magos and Mikhail didn’t look happy about this plan, but they didn’t disagree. If I had it my way, they wouldn’t be coming on this trip, but I doubted I’d get my way. Still, I’d fight with them about it later.
“Technically, no one is forbidden from going to the seraphim realm, but for those who belong to a fae court, it’s understood that they’ll ask permission first,” Kalen said smoothly.
“Ask permission?” I bristled. So this was why they were here. Somehow they knew what Eddie had found and that we’d be going to the seraphim realm. I was getting really tired of my friends and family plotting behind my back.
“You’re part of the Unseelie Court,” Badb cut in, her emerald green eyes practically glowing. “I understand the leash chafes. But you entered the court willingly, and there is no going back now. The Unseelie Queen won’t stop you from going. She’ll just ask for something small in return.”
I glanced back and forth between my parents, suspicion taking root. “You’ve already spoken to her about this.”
Kalen’s dark eyes sparked with amusement. A small grin played across my mother’s lips. I let out a long breath and rubbed my temples. “Just tell me.”
“The Spring Equinox is in one week. Your attendance is requested,” Kalen replied.
I looked at them in confusion. “The price for me going to a forbidden realm . . . is going to a party?”
“You will be there as a member of the Unseelie Court,” Kalen explained. “Your mother and I keep a presence in the court—” Badb snorted, and Kalen let out a low chuckle. “Let me rephrase. I keep somewhat of a presence in the court, and your mother is occasionally dragged kicking and screaming to court events. But the Unseelie Queen wishes for you to have more of a presence. The Spring Equinox will serve as your coming out.”
Eddie made a strangled noise, and I glared at him. At my expression, he lost it, and the laughter he’d been holding back came pouring out of him. A positively wicked smile spread across Mikhail’s face and even Magos started chuckling.
“I hate all of you,” I spat. Thank the fucking gods Jinx wasn’t here for this. Although I had no doubt one of the laughing idiots at the table would be filling him in later.
Kalen and Badb glanced around the table, taking in the reaction of my friends and what was no doubt a murderous expression on my face. “Was it something I said?” Kalen asked.
“I haven’t known our wonderfully cheerful Nemain for that long, but even I know there are two things she absolutely hates. Well, three things.” Eddie held up a finger and counted off. “One, fae politics. Two, fancy parties. And three, being the center of attention.” Eddie shook his head in amusement. “I know both of you are quite proud of yourselves for working out this small bargain on behalf of Nemain and your fae queen, but it just demonstrates how little you know about your daughter.”
Kalen and Badb both stiffened at the insult. Kalen recovered first, slipping into that calm and bemused expression he wore as a mask most of the time. I got the distinct impression that if Badb were in her feline form, she’d be snarling right then. I watched as she reeled her emotions back in until they were hiding behind a bland expression, but her eyes still betrayed a hint of wildness. Her vertical slit pupils slid to mine, and she matched my stare. I looked away first.
“I’ll do it,” I said. “You’re right. I willingly joined the Unseelie Court so Finn could remain free of bullshit like this for the next few decades, and I’ll hold up my end by going to this party and let everyone gawk at me. I’ll ask Pele or Kaysea to come along. That will make it slightly less miserable, and they can keep me from saying the wrong thing.” I sighed. The party would be terrible. To say I was awful at fae politics was an understatement. I’d have to watch every word I spoke, and everyone at the party would be looking for a weakness, something they could use to their advantage later on. We might all belong to the same court, but that didn’t make us friends or allies.
“That won’t be possible, I’m afraid,” Kalen said. “The court of the sea fae is in transition since Kaysea’s father only recently stepped down. It’s tradition for those of the former ruling family to avoid political events for the first few years while the new king or queen steps into their power.”
“Fine,” I conceded. “Why not Pele though?”
“Daemons aren’t invited to these types of events,” Badb said. “Furthermore, Pele isn’t just any daemon. She’s the daughter of the leader of the Assembly. Everyone knows she’ll be taking his place one day. Likely one day soon.”
“Well, on the plus side, if I go by myself, I can avoid dancing for most of the night,” I muttered. “I’ll just have to glower threateningly at any sidhe who attempts to ask me.”
“You can’t dance?” Mikhail arched an eyebrow at me.
“Not well,” I said. “Definitely not at the level expected at a fae court event.”
“You’re over four centuries old. How can you not dance?”
“Because learning how to kill all sorts of beings in all sorts of ways was more important than figuring out how to twirl around on my toes!” I snapped.
Mikhail grinned at me, flashing his fangs. I was calculating how far I’d have to push back in my chair to be able to leap across the table at Mikhail to wipe that grin off his face when Kalen cleared his throat politely. “You will be expected to dance. It’s the Spring Equinox, and you’re new to the court.”
“Fuck,” I groaned.
“I’ll go with you,” Mikhail offered. “I’m a good enough dancer for the both of us.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “Why do you know how to dance?”
“Apparently, the vampires have something in common with the fae. They both like their fancy parties.” The words were casual, but Mikhail’s expression tightened slightly. “First impressions matter, Nemain. Kaysea can show us some dances to practice, or one of them can.” Mikhail gestured at my parents. “Your ability to stab things indeterminately will only get you so far in the fae courts.”
“I’ll stab you indeterminately,” I grumbled.
Mikhail ignored me and turned to my parents. “Will there be any problems with me going?”
Kalen studied Mikhail, and I had to give the vampire credit. He didn’t look the least bit unnerved by Kalen’s gaze. Several types of daemon had solid black eyes, like Zareen. Mikhail had been around her often enough that he was used to it. But Zareen’s black eyes still shone with joy and happiness. Kalen’s bottomless obsidian eyes were cold and touched with cruelty. Even I found them unsettling at times. After a moment, Kalen looked at Badb and something passed between them. Some silent conversation only people who’d been together for centuries were capable of having.
“It will be fine,” Badb finally said. “It’s well-known that you’ve left the vampire Council. Some members of the court might be intrigued by your presence and will likely try to test you, but given your experience with vampire politics, I suspect you’ll be able to weather fae politics just fine.”
“This is going to suck so much,” I said in defeat. Eddie laughed, and I kicked him under the table. A thought occurred to me, and I glanced at Kalen. “Is the Seelie Queen going to be there?”
“Queen Aine will not be in attendance.” His lips quirked up in an amused grin. “By tradition, each Queen celebrates the Spring Equinox separately, in their own court. The Unseelie celebration is being held in Mag Cíuin, which is the realm Queen Elvinia spends the most time in.”
“Good,” I said in relief. The last time I’d seen Aine, I’d broken into her private chambers and threatened to kill her if I found out she had anything to do with the death of Macha and Nevin. They may not have been my parents by blood, but they had raised and loved me all the same, and they would always be my mother and father. The warlocks had played a direct role in their deaths, but I strongly suspected Aine had been the reason Badb and Kalen hadn’t learned about the danger they were in until it was too late.
“I’ll work on getting you something to wear. Your”—Badb stumbled at the words—”Kalen . . . he can show you some of the basic dances.” Uncertainty flashed across Badb’s pretty features, and Kalen reached out and laid a gentle hand on her arm.
“Right.” I stood up, looking away from their small intimate gesture. “There should be a room upstairs where we can begin this torture. Magos, you can head back to the apartment or hang out here. Eddie, let’s chat tomorrow about the seraphim realm. It’ll be difficult to find updated maps, but if you can, that would be really useful. Maybe Pele can pull some out of her ass since she’s decided to involve herself in this.”
“But I want to stay for these dancing lessons.” The corners of Eddie’s lips turned down in a pout.
“I will stab you. Repeatedly.”
“Fine, fine. We’ll talk tomorrow.” Eddie rose and swiped the bottle of whiskey on his way out.
Mikhail walked over to me and held a hand out, a look of challenge on his face. “Shall we?”
I ignored him as I stalked up the stairs. Kalen’s voice carried after me, “You sure you don’t have a death wish, vampire?”
“That remains to be seen.”