The tingling haze of the ley line fell from Algaliarept slowly as he shifted himself from reality to the ever-after. His lip curled at the flash of burnt amber stench, and then his nose became immune. He’d returned almost to the exact point at which he left, and he stood in his library before the fireplace, his chair, tea, and book waiting for his return just as he left them.
“An auspicious beginning,” he said softly as he reached for the poker and stabbed the peat fire higher. He hadn’t a wood fire in ages, and he missed the honest smell. Mood dulling, he picked up the book that Felicia’s granddaughter had interrupted him from. When the tickling of a summons had first risen through him, he’d been cross. Now, he looked at the book with a weary jadedness. “Literary slop,” he said, tossing it onto the flames.
Leaning closer, he breathed in the bright, new flames, relishing them. But then it was gone, and the scent of burning peat returned.
Exhaling, he fell back into his chair. He was tired of not having any windows, but the sand-scrubbed wasteland above ground was worse. Maybe someday someone would summon him somewhere other than a basement, but he doubted it.
He reached out, his thick knuckled fingers delicately touching his teacup to find it had gone cold. He could warm it, but it would still be bitter. “Ceri!” he shouted, finding no respite in the loud release. “Tea!”
Algaliarept listened, satisfied she was getting it when he heard her soft movements. He leaned back, his mood souring even more. He needed a new familiar more than he needed the income of selling anything he could catch. Though skilled, Ceri was just about at the end of her usefulness.
And now I’ve someone new to play with, he thought, flexing his hand and watching how the light of the fire played upon it. The little bird’s concentration had been divided for a good three seconds. If there had been a quake—anything to break the flow—he would have escaped and she would have been his on her first summons. But it had not, which boded well. She might be worth something.
A smile curved his lips up, but he wasn’t sure if it was because he almost had the clever elf, or that he didn’t and the game still ran. She’d been scared, but not enough to never call him again.
A small scuff drew his attention, and Algaliarept sat up as Ceri entered, carefully pausing a moment to shut the door behind her before coming forward. A small tray with a new pot and cup was in her hands, and she had to move slow in her extravagant silks and lengths of fabric. Fair, with skin as smooth as a young girl’s, she looked about twenty, dressed in the gold, purple, and green of her house, long since dust.
“What did I say about going barefoot?” Algaliarept said tiredly, not having to look down to know she was shunning her slippers.
Head lowered so her long blond hair covered her face, she hid her feet.
“Thank you, Ceri,” he said as she set the new pot beside the old. A thousand years she had been with him, and she was still afraid of growing old. Vanity. Apart from that, she was a clever thing, the repository of his skills and a representation of how skilled a slave he could provide to his kin for a price. But she was losing it. He seldom saw her true fire anymore. He kept her now for nostalgia. That, and she could craft most of his daily magics for him.
He silently stewed, staring at the flames as the black tea chattered into a clean cup. He’d rather have green, or even white, but black didn’t pick up the stink of burnt amber as much.
Suddenly realizing she wasn’t moving, he looked up, finding her waiting to know how his summons had gone. Eyebrows rising, he pulled himself upright. “Someone new,” he said, feeling an unusual heat on his hand as he took up the cup. The new skin was sensitive. “She’s clever and strong. You get to live another day. Until I get her. Or someone like her.”
Narrow chin dropping in disappointment, Ceri turned away.
“Her price is pride, Ceri, not vanity,” he mused aloud, and Ceri went to tend the fire, clearly wanting to go hide behind the oven and cry in that her life was forced to continue. “Her downfall will be easier to orchestrate than yours. She wants something so badly, I can feel her ache from here. Fool girl.”
Algaliarept sat up, his eyes traveling over Ceri’s shape hidden behind the multitudes of fabric he allowed her to drape herself in. “She’s a dark elf,” he said, and she set the pokers aside. “Fancy that. A dark elf taking your place. Her genome is almost as intact as yours. A thousand years older, and still intact. Perhaps we shouldn’t have inbred you so much.”
Ceri’s lips pressed together, a glint of hatred gathering at the back of her green eyes.
Seeing it, he smiled lovingly, taking her chin in a gentle hand. “There you are, love,” he said softly, and her focus cleared on his. “It’s nice to see you again. You don’t like that, do you.”
She said nothing, and with a sudden motion, he smacked her face.
Ceri gasped at the sharp crack of sound, falling back and swinging her hair to hide herself.
“Your race is fair because we like it that way,” Algaliarept said, and she was gone, back to the same numbness she spent most of her time in now.
“The tea is perfect,” he added, brow furrowed. “Thank you. I need a hundred transform curses prepped by tomorrow to look like her no-I-couldn’t boyfriend. You’ll find the recipe in my workroom. Go.”
Silent, the small woman left. Algaliarept breathed in the last of her scent before it vanished. He stretched his hand, remembering the pain of trying to force his way out of Felicia Eloytrisk Cambri’s circle. She’d reinforced it with salt, the clever woman. He’d gotten a taste of her genetic code, a wisp of it left on the candle she had lit, the pattern atomized and floating in the air for anyone to read.
Her genome was remarkably intact. Her children would need minimal intervention to survive unless she joined with one of the older families, but seeing as all of them would perish the thought of their sons marrying a dark elf, it would never happen. Such marvelous fools. Removing her from the genetic pool would be a small but significant step in ending the elves, not only for taking her genetic material out of play, but for the as yet undiscovered cures lurking in her brain. A virus, she said. It was possible they could use a virus to fix the damage their curse had done, but unless they could get it into their germ cells, it was still a stop-gap measure.
His foot began to tap as his scattered drive began to coalesce. Almost he wished she would ask him to help her succeed in restoring her species’ genome. He could do it. Perhaps. His kin would bitch and moan, but as much as he’d like to see an end to the elves, once they were gone, there’d be nothing left to aspire to, to achieve. Any of them. And the elves’ end was close. A generation or two, and it would be done.
Newt, your dream is almost finished, he thought, remembering her before she went crazy from casting a spell too strong. Her pale feet had been bare on the earth as they poked out from under Dali’s robes. It had been too big for her, but hers had been rags, and she had wanted to look her best when she cursed their masters into their eventual slaves.
Melancholy, he flexed his hand, remembering her nonchalance as she had fixed it with a curse no one had known existed until she’d used it. That was the day she’d gone insane, the day they’d gained their freedom, and the day the great war started. It was a war the elves had lost, fleeing to reality to leave the winners stuck in the accumulated toxic waste of a magical war. He wasn’t sure he cared anymore.
The need to do something became too much, and in a sudden surge of motion, Algaliarept wedged his scrying mirror out from between the cushion and arm of the chair. The ebony glass was etched with a silver-laced precision, reflecting the world between the silver strands in a hesitant, shadow reality. It was singularly beautiful, even with the tiny chip. It caused only the slightest of blurring of voices. He should replace it, but resources were tight.
Shifting uneasily, he settled his burned hand atop the scribed lines. Wincing, he took his hand off and used his left instead. The connection wasn’t as secure, but it didn’t echo like tinfoil across his new nerves. Content, he reached a sliver of his awareness out, finding the mirror side of the ley lines and pulling a wisp of connection to him. “Dallkarackint.”
Almost immediately Algaliarept’s consciousness seemed to expand as the other demon acknowledged him and they shared mental space. Dali was busy, his impatience spilling through Algaliarept like a toxic fog.
Gally, I’m busy. Can it wait until your probation hearing? slipped into Algaliarept’s thoughts, the demon’s presence fading already.
I’ve not been in to see you for six hundred years, Dali.
Has it been that long? Dali thought. How time drags when it doesn’t mean anything. What do you want? And it had better not be reservations. You don’t have the money.
Algaliarept’s lip twitched, and he stifled his annoyance before Dali noticed it supplementing his own. I have information on the Kalamack family. Who needs it?
Why? Dali thought, and Algaliarept shoved his anticipation down deep.
You interested? he asked, feeling Dali set whatever he was doing aside and pay attention. The Kalamacks were an old family, much in demand.
I might be. Dali’s presence in his seemed to sigh. What do you have?
First and last name, Algaliarept thought. If you sell it for me, I’ll give you three percent.
No middle? Dali complained, his thoughts becoming distracted. Hardly worth my time.
Take it or leave it, Al thought. Three percent, and you’ll have the knowledge as well.
Now Dali was interested. Done. Who do you have?
Algaliarept pressed his hand deeper into the scrying mirror, trying to make their connection more singular. Trenton Kalamack. He wasn’t going to ever give him Felicia Eloytrisk Cambri’s name. She was precious, a dark spot of purist ebony among diamonds, a familiar worth cultivating. Though coveted, Kalamacks had never been much at magic. Their worth came from the desire to torment them, and Algaliarept was bored with torment.
Dali was silent for a moment, most likely taking a moment to mentally go through his rolodex. I’ll see what I can do. I could get you more with a middle name.
Tell me about it, Algaliarept muttered, his force on the mirror easing.
Are you entertaining summoners again? Dali asked suddenly.
Perhaps, he said with a feigned lightness. Anyone in the market for a dark elf?
Dali chuckled into their joined minds. That wouldn’t be a Kalamack.
No, Algaliarept thought. But I might be able to get two for the price of one.
I’ll ask around, Dali thought, giving the impression of rustling papers. Is she any good?
Algaliarept thought it interesting Dali had guessed it was a female. She burned the hell out of my hand and I still didn’t get through.
Talent is good. Angry last’s longer.
She’s got both, Algaliarept thought, proud of her though he’d only known her for ten minutes.
Fine, Dali thought, suddenly distracted. But if I find a buyer, I want that middle name. I know you have it.
Algaliarept felt a smile widen his face. Thank you, Dali. It is always a pleasure— He jumped as the connection snapped with the sharpness of a falling whip. “Son of a bitch hung up on me,” he muttered, lifting his hand.
But his smile returned as he tucked his scrying mirror away. His tea had gone cold again, and he warmed it with a quick thought. She’d call him again. Trying to break her circle hadn’t been the last-ditch effort it looked like, but rather him planting the false idea that she was stronger than him. Right now she was scared, but she was an elf and would see his failure as her strength, not as a warning to desist. At least, not for long. He could give her what she wanted, or at least convince her he could. She might even survive to evade him as her grandmother had. But it would cost, and cost her dearly.