A Shift in Fortune
The apartment door was open when we reached the bottom landing, and I closed it behind us. Misha greeted me from the kitchen. Like Elisa, Misha had straight black hair, pale skin, and dark indigo blue eyes. I’d assumed they were siblings when we first met, but they told me they weren’t sure. Elisa, Misha, and Damon had grown up together from a young age, with Isabeau joining their group later on. The Vampire Council had kept them contained their entire lives, and they had no idea who their parents were. But because of their upbringing, they considered each other siblings. With Elisa and Misha, that might be true on a literal level.
“Ready for a day of fun?” Misha grinned at me.
I flinched as Isabeau’s high-pitched squeal rang across the living room. “I’m curious what the daemon realm is like.” I rubbed at my ear, trying to get the ringing to stop. “Have you been there before?”
“Yeah,” Misha said, grabbing a piece of bacon and wrapping a pancake around it. “Only a couple times, though. Vampires aren’t exactly well liked by daemons, or anyone for that matter, so Nemain is careful about where she takes us.”
The source of the high-pitched squealing skipped into the kitchen, her brown curls bouncing with the movement, and she slid to a stop in front of Misha. He smiled at the young vampire girl and handed over the pancake-wrapped bacon.
“Thank you!” Isabeau chirped and spun towards the living room. “Finn, you have to try this!”
I watched with a bemused smile as Isabeau tore the pancake roll in half and gave Finn a piece. He tentatively took a small bite, eyes lighting up as he chewed.
“It’s good, right?” Isabeau said, inhaling her piece in two bites. “Elisa makes the best breakfast. Damon and Misha can’t cook anything, but they’re good for ordering pizza.”
“I’m so glad we’re good for something,” Misha said dryly.
“It’s good to have a purpose in life.” I nodded solemnly.
“She jokes!” Damon announced as he lumbered into the kitchen. Grey eyes with a hint of blue met mine, and he grinned. “I was worried when you first arrived that you’d be too serious to fit in with us, but it appears there’s hope for you yet!”
Elisa breezed into the kitchen and smacked him upside the head. “Give her a break. She’s been through a lot and is still adjusting to everything.” She reached into one of the cupboards and pulled out a box of crackers. Misha handed her a small plastic box, and she poured some crackers into it. “Snacks for the kids in case they get hungry,” she explained when she saw my questioning look.
“Oooh!” Damon reached for the crackers, but Elisa swatted his hand away.
“They’re for the kids,” she scolded. “You’re seventeen years old. You don’t get snacks.”
“I still want snacks, though.” Damon gave her a hurt expression. I had to admit, he was really good at it. With his warm brown skin and light brown hair, always in a casual state of disarray around his face, it was hard to not smile back at Damon or give in to his pouting expressions. He was friendly and inviting, and I’d liked him right off the bat. I liked all of them. I just didn’t always know how to act around them.
The vampire kids had their dynamic figured out already. Elisa was in charge as the oldest, Damon and Misha followed her lead, and all of them took care of Isabeau. Finn and I had spent most of our time on the run and fighting for our lives. I didn’t know how to act in a kitchen where we were arguing over who got snacks.
Elisa noticed the change in my demeanor and tossed the box at Damon. “If you want to bring some, you’ll have to pack them yourself.” She walked over and stood by me. “I packed enough for Finn, too.”
“Umm, thanks,” I said awkwardly. “Nemain should be here soon. Mikhail and Magos aren’t coming because Eddie needs them for something.”
The door opened, saving me from trying to think of something else to say, and Nemain breezed in. Her twin swords were on her back, and I spotted at least six daggers strapped to her in various places as well. Apparently, despite her words about this trip being no big deal, she still felt inclined to dress like she was going into battle.
“Yes,” Elisa answered, stuffing the bag of crackers and a couple of bottles of water into her backpack. Finn bent down to pick up Luna and came over to me. Jinx leapt up to Nemain’s shoulder.
“Watch the claws!” she snapped. “Just drop your glamour and go in your fae form. I’m not carrying you the whole time.”
The floor of his workshop has a weird texture. I don’t like it.
“It’s just dust leftover from grinding the stone and gems he uses. It’s barely noticeable.”
It feels like sand. You know how I feel about sand.
Nemain sighed and opened a gateway, revealing a large building made of steel grey stones. Sunlight poured onto the street between us and the dark wooden door leading inside. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the vamp kids shift uncomfortably. All the apartments had floor-to-ceiling windows covered by blackout curtains all day to keep them sheltered. Direct contact with sunlight would burn their skin. It wouldn’t kill them right away, but Elisa told me it felt like holding your arm over a fire. They also couldn’t see well in the brightness of daylight.
“Sorry, Chamosh would have a conniption if I opened a gateway in the middle of his workshop,” Nemain apologized. “I’ll open the door so you can run in. It’s only a few steps.”
“It’ll be fine,” Elisa said. “We’ve all been exposed to sunlight for far longer than this.” Something dark in her tone gave me pause. I knew about Elisa and the others’ history, but only the general details. What exactly had the Vampire Council done to them? Elisa grabbed a throw blanket off the couch and tugged it over Isabeau’s head. “Just like we practiced before, remember?”
Isabeau nodded under the blanket. “I remember.”
Nemain walked onto the bright street and raised the iron knocker on the door, letting it fall once. Heavy footsteps sounded, and the door swung open, revealing a large stocky daemon with dark red skin, solid black eyes, and curling horns. He reminded me of Zareen, a bartender at Pele’s pub and a friend of Nemain’s. I didn’t know Zareen all that well. She had stopped by a couple times, usually in the company of Kaysea, but she was sweet and seemed to be perpetually cheerful.
This daemon was not.
His obsidian black eyes glared at Nemain beneath dark bushy eyebrows, and he raised them and glared at all of us, still waiting on the other side of the gateway. His lips tugged downward, and he grunted and swore under his breath, stomping back inside.
Nemain looked over her shoulder at us. “That was Chamosh’s way of saying hello.” She took a step to the side and gestured towards the open door. “Come on in. Don’t break anything because I can’t afford it.”
I stepped through the gateway first and Finn followed me, still holding Luna. Instead of going inside, I stopped halfway between the gateway and the building. It was only about ten feet. With the afternoon sun at my back, I stretched my wings high and wide. It didn’t create shade exactly, but it helped a little.
Finn tilted his head back so he could study my wings and how they shone even brighter with the sunlight bouncing off the golden feathers. “Pretty,” he said softly, his yellow and green eyes shining.
Elisa stood in front of the gateway, still sheltered from the sun on the apartment side. She was staring at me wide-eyed; awe and something else flickered on her face as she took in my glittering gold wings. Her gaze snagged on mine, and we stared at each other. I was pretty sure I had stopped breathing.
“Quit checking out the valkyrie,” Misha called out and shoved Elisa forward. “You can dwell on your little fantasy once we’re inside.”
Elisa whirled around, ignoring the steam already rising off her skin, and grabbed Misha by the shirt. She yanked him forward and flung him twenty feet away from the door. He crashed down and flipped over a couple of times before sitting upright and shaking his head. He glared at Elisa and snapped out of existence, appearing a second later inside the building.
I blinked. I’d known about Misha’s ability, but I hadn’t realized Elisa was that strong. And what fantasy was he talking about?
Elisa walked past me, very carefully not looking at me as she joined Misha where he stood a few feet in the hallway behind the door. She punched his shoulder, and he stumbled back a few steps, rubbing it as he grumbled something at her.
“Again,” Nemain said patiently. “I can’t afford to pay for anything you break. So unless you want to be on loan to a daemon for a few weeks to work off the debt, I suggest you behave.”
Damon guided Isabeau into the building; like Elisa, he ignored the steam rising off his skin as he calmly but quickly entered the building. My nose twitched at the faint smell of burning skin, but the minor blisters on the vampires’ skin were already healing. Nemain closed the gateway as Finn and I followed the others down the hallway.
Nemain ushered us further into the building, which opened into a large workshop. Like the outside, the inside was all exposed dark grey stone. Despite the lack of windows, it was brightly lit by glowing spheres that floated around the ceiling. Nemain strode confidently into the workshop and started talking to Chamosh, who was ignoring all of us while he picked through gems from a large bin that rested on one of the many workbenches scattered around the floor. We all stood there, gawking at the space in front of us.
Somehow it managed to be both highly organized and chaotic at the same time. From the little I knew of daemons, that seemed to fit with their general personality traits. Half a dozen workbenches were haphazardly set up in the center of the space, some with tools on them, others with bins of gems and stones. The back half of the building had a large forge with a blazing fire. I didn’t see any weapons scattered around, so I wasn’t exactly sure what he was using it for. On either side of us were shelves containing more gems, stones, crystals, and other materials I didn’t recognize.
Isabeau started bouncing towards some shelves, but Elisa grabbed her and held her back.
“Don’t touch anything,” the daemon barked. After giving Nemain one last dirty look, he dropped the large scarlet gem he’d been studying and walked over to us. “It’s bad enough you came here and asked me to work that spell before,” he growled. “But now you’re asking me to do it again for a paltry sum! I’m not running a vampire charity house here.”
“Don’t be rude,” Nemain said in a bored tone. “Everyone, this is Chamosh. He is the one responsible for Magos being able to walk in the sun, and he’s been ever so kind to extend that working to all of you.” The large and imposing daemon scowled at the sarcasm-laden words. But before he could respond, Elisa stepped forward.
“We thank you for taking time out of your schedule to help us with this. I know someone of your skill is highly sought after and that this magic is far simpler than what you would typically work on.” Elisa gave him an earnest smile and placed a hand on her chest. I fought to keep my face neutral at Elisa’s performance. “It means the world to us, and we will be forever grateful to you.”
I didn’t miss that she had chosen her words carefully so she didn’t owe the daemon anything specifically. Gratitude could simply mean being polite. The daemons weren’t as bad as the fae who were more than happy to take advantage of a poorly phrased statement, but I suspected the daemons weren’t that different either. Elisa had been spending time with Pele, and it seemed she was quickly picking up Pele’s gift of words.
Chamosh eyed her, his gruff expression thawing slightly. “What is your name, child?”
The daemon grunted and moved to a different workshop bench where several tools were laid out. “I just finished up a project anyway and had some time this afternoon.” He raised a long thin piece of iron with what looked like a symbol of the sun on one end. “I still have most of the supplies from last time. I just need to power it up again.”
“Wonderful,” Elisa said. “We’ll stay out of your way, and I’ll keep everyone out of trouble while you work. Simply let us know what you need from us when it is time.”
Chamosh grunted again. I was beginning to suspect that was his primary form of communication. He moved towards the furnace, shoving the end of the iron over some burning coals. Alarm shot through me, and my eyes darted to Isabeau. Were they planning on branding the little girl with the spell? I knew nothing about daemon magic or how it worked other than they were on par with fae magic in most ways, but this felt barbaric. Nobody else in the room seemed concerned about this turn of events, though.
It doesn’t hurt. Luna’s kind voice filled my head. Daemons work magic differently than the fae. They mostly rely on fire and earth magic to craft their spells. He’ll cast the spell on the iron brand while it burns, but he’ll cut off the flames and heat before pressing it to their skin. It will leave behind a slightly upraised tattoo.
I relaxed a little and gave her a grateful nod.
“Let’s take a walk,” Nemain announced, turning to face me. “Elisa and Jinx can watch over the others. I’d like some fresh air, and this will give you and Finn a chance to see more of the daemon realm.”
Why do I have to stay here? Jinx complained.
Because Finn isn’t going to leave Luna behind, and I want one of you to stay here, Nemain replied. I really needed to practice communicating telepathically. Nemain wasn’t a strong telepath, and she had to work a little harder to push the thoughts to include me. I seemed to be making her life more difficult at every turn without meaning to.
Jinx looked at where Luna was still curled up in Finn’s arms. Fine, he grumbled. But don’t be gone long.
We’ll be back in twenty minutes, Nemain promised. We’re just going to walk around a couple of blocks and come back.
Jinx leapt from where he’d been sitting on Nemain’s shoulder to a nearby shelf, weaving between a few boxes and perching midway down. His golden eyes glowed against his black fur.
Nemain waved Finn and me forward, and we followed her back down the hallway to the front door. Out on the street, Nemain tilted her head back and stood there for a moment, breathing in the warm afternoon air before tilting her head towards us. “I hate the way daemon workshops smell. The sulfur they use in their spells makes my nose itch.”
“I noticed that. Is it worse for you because you’re a shifter?”
“Yes.” Nemain shrugged. “It’d be even worse if I was in my feline form. It probably bothers the vampires as well, but their sense of smell isn’t nearly as sensitive as mine. They rely more on sight and hearing.”
A few daemons ambled down the street, curiosity brimming on their faces as they passed. Finn bent down and set Luna on her feet where she promptly dropped her glamour. Where a ten-pound cat had stood before was now a hundred-pound feline with a sleek muscular body and long claws that jutted out as she flexed her paws. If we didn’t draw attention before, we certainly would now.
I glanced around the street to see how the daemons would react to a shifter, a valkyrie, and two fae beings in their midst, but aside from a few glancing looks, none of them seemed to mind. I turned my attention to the street.
“This wasn’t what I expected,” I said as I took in the buildings and random decor.
Nemain snickered and walked down the wide street at a leisurely pace. “The fae build their towns and cities with nature in mind, using the natural landscape as the blueprint for how the buildings will be laid out,” she explained. “Did you ever go to any of the cities in Tír na mBeo?”
“Yes, only a few times. Cathair na Sneachta wasn’t that large, but it was definitely far grander than any of the mountain villages. The city streets wound around large trees and most of the buildings’ sides were covered with vines. It was beautiful.” My eyes skimmed the buildings that lined the streets. Not a plant in sight. “This feels . . . lifeless.”
“After spending your entire life in the fae realm, I understand why you would feel that way.”
We approached a four-way intersection with a large fountain at its center. A stone tree rose out of the water, its branches extending just beyond the rim of the fountain. Incredibly detailed leaves adorned its branches made of some type of copper mineral that glittered in the sun. It wasn’t alive. Every part of it was made of stone and minerals, but it was captivating all the same. I didn’t realize I’d moved towards it until my knees bumped into the fountain.
Finn moved to stand by me, and Luna leapt up onto the rim and peered down into the water. “Feel it,” Nemain said from where she stood behind us.
I reached up and felt the tip of a branch. It was warm from the sun, but I could feel the buzz of magic. Finn bumped against me, and I lifted him up to perch on my shoulder. Tentatively, he reached out and lightly touched the pointed tip of a leaf. Unlike Finn, I couldn’t see magic, only feel it. I wished I knew what the tree looked like to him. As it was, it appeared magnificent to me, but given the magic pulsing from it, it was likely even more spectacular to him.
“It’s alive,” Finn said in wonder.
“Most beings think of the fae as being more in touch with nature and magic and the daemons as being the practical species,” Nemain said, coming to stand beside us. “But the daemons are crafty. They never tried to directly compete with the fae; instead, they carved a path that set them apart. Equal in power but not in direct competition. If you want a beautiful silver dagger that will poison anyone stabbed with it while it glistens beautifully in the sunlight, then you go to the fae. But if you want a well-crafted, borderline plain-looking dagger that will leap back into your hand after it’s thrown, then you go to the daemons.”
Nemain ran her fingers along a stony branch. “But the daemons are every bit as capable of creating beautiful, complex things as the fae are. I first saw this tree three centuries ago, and it was barely my height, and now…” She raised her hands and gestured towards the branches that towered above us, stretching towards the sun. “The daemons came very close to extinction once, and they fought hard for every inch of their lives. Their cities might seem lifeless at first glance, but you’ll learn just how untrue that is the more time you spend in them.”
We continued walking around the block, Nemain pointing out buildings and other things she thought would interest us. The more we explored, the more I saw how wrong my original assessment of the daemon city as cold and lifeless was. Even without being able to see the magic that ran deeply throughout the city, the complex architecture entranced me. Daemons clearly loved geometric designs. No two buildings were alike, and different types of stone and minerals created patterns on many of the exteriors. Above us, tunnels made of stone and glass stretched between the taller buildings, creating even more pathways.
Daemons passed us, some giving wary or curious glances, but nothing more. Until one daemon with ice-blue eyes slowed down as they approached us. They had a cold androgynous beauty to them, and I started to move between them and Finn, but Nemain caught my eye and shook her head. The daemon knelt in front of Finn, the beads in their long black braids clicking against each other. Finn stood perfectly still as the daemon held out their hands, clasped together as if holding something between them. Slowly, they opened it, revealing a hawk made of small intricate gears and strips of metal.
Finn cocked his head to the side as he pondered the metal bird, and magic pulsed from the daemon. The hawk opened its beak and let out a small shriek and flapped its wings, flying from the daemon’s palm to Finn’s shoulder. The hawk butted its head against his cheek and let out another squawk. Finn’s eyes grew almost comically wide as he met the eyes of the daemon. The daemon grinned and brushed off their hands, rising and continuing down the street without a word.
I looked at Nemain while Finn coaxed the small hawk onto his finger.
She shrugged. “Children are cherished in daemon society, even children of other species. The fae are similar but more reserved about it; many of them put higher expectations on their own children. The daemons love their children unconditionally.”
An unexpected jolt of anger hit me, and I clenched my hands into fists. Beck’s parents hadn’t loved him unconditionally. The fae boy had grown up with me and most of my childhood memories involved him. His parents had been disappointed in his small amount of magic and that had led him to betraying me and Finn. My nails bit into my skin. I’d killed him for what he’d done but that did nothing to alleviate the anger. I thought he’d been my friend.
“The fae have conditions,” I said bitterly.
“Not all,” Nemain hedged. “But it’s true for many, especially those of the Tuatha Dé Danann.”
The memory of Beck’s head toppling from his shoulders flashed in my mind. I’d done that. Killed my friend with no hesitation after the breadth of his betrayal was made clear. I’d been waiting for the guilt to come, but it never did. Only the anger remained. Nemain walked beside me, and I studied her out of the corner of my eye. Her face was pensive but troubled. It had been her sword I’d used to kill Beck. She’d tossed it to me, knowing full well what I was going to do. None of them had judged me for what I’d done. Except the wolf.
“Do you miss him?” I asked, the words slipping out. I inwardly flinched. We’d all been very careful not to talk about Andrei, and here I was, bringing him up out of nowhere.
I paused, desperately trying to think of another name to throw out that would make sense but not coming up with anything.
Nemain, seeing my hesitation, took a guess. “Andrei?” At my nod, she pursed her lips, her bright green eyes dimming. “I do. Most of my friends think I’m a fool for it. They thought I was an idiot for becoming involved with him in the first place.” A wry smile played across her lips, but her eyes remained hollow. “You and Finn came into my life at an odd time. I’ve spent most of my life hiding my magic, trying not to be noticed by anyone with too much power, particularly the fae and daemons. Andrei made me happy. I knew he would never use me for my magic or political gain. He was kind and funny. Being with him kept the darkness at bay.”
“You loved him?”
“I did. I still do.”
My brows bunched together. “Then why did you end it?”
“Because when Andrei and I first got together, I thought I could keep him out of my world.” Nemain glanced at me. “Our world. You know the path we’re all on now. I’m essentially the caretaker of four Apex vampire children, all of whom are still wanted by the Vampire Council. And I’m part of a prophecy involving the son of the exiled fae king, who is also my ward of sorts now. That alone would have caused tension between me and Andrei and put him in danger. Then there was the small matter of me killing his sister’s lover.”
“The nail in the coffin was when I knew I’d likely have to join the Unseelie Court. Andrei would have stayed. He loved me as much as I loved him. But that love would have turned to hate over the years as he watched me do whatever I needed to keep Finn safe.”
The pain in her voice was my fault. Finn was my responsibility, but I’d failed in keeping him safe so Nemain had been forced to step up. How different could her life have been if Finn and I had never entered it? Or if I’d been more skilled at protecting him? Maybe she and the wolf could have gotten a happy ending.
“I’m sorry.” The words felt so inadequate, but I didn’t know what else to say.
Nemain halted and spun to face me. Her vertical pupils were barely visible in the bright afternoon sun, and her emerald eyes blazed once more. “Listen to me carefully, Bryn. What happened was not your fault. I was already on the radar of the Warlock Circle long before the two of you strolled into my life. Furthermore, I am the daughter of The Morrigan and The Erlking. That truth would have come out eventually because the Unseelie Queen has had her eyes on me for a long time. She was merely biding her time. You are young and will hopefully have a long life. It is impossible to avoid bad or impossible choices in life. Things will happen that you will feel guilty for, and you will be right to feel that way. This is not one of them. Do you understand?”
She waited until I jerked my head in a nod. “Good. Let’s go back. The others should be ready. We have a valkyrie to track down.”