The Hollows series
To the guy in the leather jacket
I'd like to thank Richard Curtis, my agent, and Diana Gill, my editor. The more I know, the more I appreciate them and what they do.
Tucking my hair back, I squinted at the parchment, trying to form the strange angular letters as smoothly as I could. The ink glistened wetly, but it wasn't red ink, it was blood—my blood—which might account for the slight tremble as I copied the awkward-looking name scripted in characters that weren't English. Beside me was a pile of rejects. If I didn't get it perfect this time, I'd be bleeding yet again. God help me, I was doing a black curse. In a demon's kitchen. On the weekend. How in hell had I gotten here?
Algaliarept stood poised between the slate table and the smaller hearth, his white-gloved hands behind his back. He looked like a stuffy Brit in a murder mystery, and when he shifted impatiently, my tension spiked. "That isn't helping," I said dryly, and his red, goat-slitted eyes widened in mocking surprise, peering at me over his smoked spectacles. He didn't need them for reading. From his crushed green velvet frock to his lace cuffs and proper English accent, the demon was all about show.
"It has to be exact, Rachel, or it won't capture the aura," he said, his attention sliding to the small green bottle on the table. "Trust me, you don't want that floating around unbound."
I sat up and felt my back crack. As I touched the quill tip to my throbbing finger, my unease grew. I was a white witch, damn it, not black. But I wasn't going to write off demon magic just because of a label. I'd read the recipe; I'd interpreted the invocation. Nothing died to provide the ingredients, and the only person who'd suffer would be me. I'd come away from this with a new layer of demon smut on my soul, but I'd also have protection against banshees. After one had nearly killed me last New Year's Eve, I'd willingly entertain a little smut to be safe. Besides, this might lead to a way to save Ivy's soul when she died her first death. For that, I'd risk a lot.
Something, though, felt wrong. Al's squint at the aura bottle was worrisome, and his accent was too precise tonight. He was concerned and trying to hide it. It couldn't be the curse. It was just manipulating an aura, captured energy from a soul. At least... that's what he said.
Frowning, I glanced at Al's cramped handwritten instructions. I wanted to go over them again, but his peeved expression and his soft growl convinced me it could wait until the scripting was done. My "ink" was running thin, and I dabbed more blood from my finger to finish some poor slob's name, someone who trusted a demon... someone like me. Not that I really trust Al, I thought, glancing at the instructions once more.
Al's spelling kitchen was right out of a fantasy flick, one of four rooms he had recovered after selling almost everything to keep his demon ass out of demon-ass jail. The gray stone walls made a large circular space, most of which was covered in identical tall wooden cabinets with glass doors. Behind the rippled glass, Al kept his books and ley-line equipment. The biological ingredients were in a cellar to which access was through a rough hole in the floor. Smoky support beams a good forty feet up came to a point over a central fire pit. The pit itself was a round, raised affair, with vent holes to draw the cold floor air in by way of simple convection. When it got going, it made a comfortable spot for reading, and when fatigue brought me down, Al let me nap on the benches bracketing it. Mr. Fish, my beta, swam in his little bowl on the mantel of the smaller fire in the fireplace. I don't know why I'd brought him from home. It had been Ivy's idea, and when an anxious vampire tells you to take your fish, you take your fish.
Al cleared his throat, and I jumped, fortunately having pulled my quill from the parchment an instant before. Done, thank God. "Good?" I asked, holding it up for inspection, and his white-gloved, thick-fingered hand pinched it at the edge where it wouldn't smear.
He eyed it, my tension easing when he handed it back. "Passable. Now the bowl."
Passable. That was usually as good as it got, and I set the painstakingly scribed bit of paper beside the unlit candle and green bottle of aura, taking up Al's favorite scribing knife and the palm-size earthen bowl. The knife was ugly, the writhing woman on the handle looking like demon porn. Al knew I hated it, which was why he insisted I use it.
The gray bowl was rough in my hand, the inside inscribed with scratched-off words of power. Only the newly scribed name I was etching would react. The theory was to burn the paper and take in the man's name by way of air, then drink water from the bowl, taking in his name by water. This would hit all four elements, earth and water with the bowl, air and fire with the burning parchment. Heaven and earth, with me in the middle. Yippy skippy.
The foreign-looking characters were easier after having practiced with the parchment, and I had it scratched on a tiny open space before Al could sigh more than twice. He'd taken up the bottle of aura, frowning as he gazed into the swirling green.
"What?" I offered, trying to keep the annoyance from my voice. I was his student, sure, but he would still try to backhand me if I got uppity.
Al's brow furrowed, worrying me even more. "I don't like this aura's resonance," he said softly, red eyes probing the glass pinched in his white-clad fingers.
I shifted my weight on my padded chair, trying to stretch my legs. "And?"
Al's focus shifted over his glasses to me. "It's one of Newt's."
"Newt? Since when do you need to get an aura from Newt?" I asked. No one liked the insane demon, but she was the reigning queen of the lost boys, so to speak, and knew everything—when she could remember it.
"Not your concern," he said, and I winced, embarrassed. Al had lost almost everything in his effort to snag me as a familiar, ending up with something vastly more precious but broke just the same. I was a witch, but a common, usually lethal genetic fault had left me able to kindle their magic. Al's status was assured as long as I was his student, but his living was bleak.
"I'll just pop over and find out who it is before we finish this up," he said with forced lightness, setting the bottle down with a sharp tap.
I looked at the assembled pieces. "Now? Why didn't you ask her before?"