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The Demon Abraxas

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From the back copy:

San Francisco after dark can be full of unusual sights, but the last thing Ana Khoury expects to stumble across is black-garbed figures carrying a body into a building. Her call to 911 is interrupted by a blow to the head, plunging her into nothingness.

Sabel Young has long been attracted to the gentle and alluring Ana, but her esoteric assignments have left her with few options for romance. When she realizes that Ana has been taken—and by whom—her very private life and Ana’s normal world collide. Her orders were specific: she is not supposed to get involved with demons.

Even if Sabel’s interest in Ana weren’t already personal, there is no way she will leave a woman with no magic in the hands of dark powers. With daring and luck she pulls Ana to safety and at first it appears they have escaped dark magic unscathed. At first…

 

Romantic paranormal / urban fantasy novel.

Romantic paranormal / urban fantasy novel.

From The Demon Abraxas:

CHAPTER ONE

“We could be out dancing,” Ruben said and rattled the ice in his glass impatiently.

He looked like a Titan standing in the same room as the men Ana worked with. Most of them were short and skinny or short and pot-bellied, plus they’d given the casual, thirty-second attention to their clothes that most straight guys did. In his short-sleeved designer shirt, Ruben looked like a movie star—even though he was only a semi-employed character actor.

“You invited yourself to this party, remember?” Ana told him and tried to keep from smiling. She wanted him there with her just in case that last minute invitation she’d fired off actually bore fruit.

“I forgot what a straight wasteland you work in,” he said. His beautiful mouth sulked, but his eyes were bright with teasing.

“Bear that in mind the next time you suggest I find a girlfriend at work,” Ana told him.

She set her empty glass down on a table and peeked into her purse to check the clock on her cell phone. In another half-hour they could make a graceful exit. She could send Ruben off to the bars and … do what? She was all gussied up in a Donna Karan silk dress she’d picked up crazy on sale, maybe she should try wearing it out on the town. It wasn’t like she could do any worse.

“I should go talk to my boss,” she said.

“I thought she wasn’t here.”

“Not Helen, my other boss. The boss of both of us. Can you stay out of trouble?”

“No.”

“Try?”

He pouted and she rolled her eyes at him. At least flamboyantly gay didn’t stand out in San Francisco the way it would have in South Dakota. Ruben could butch it up for events like tonight, but his bearing still screamed “Queer!”

Ana turned away to look for Stephen Detlefsen, but he was already headed her way. His massive shoulders, the remnant of youthful athleticism, were now entirely dwarfed by an expansive belly so large he could have been carrying two children full term.

“Great work on the anniversary announcement,” he said and clapped one heavy hand on Ana’s shoulder. Ana was taller than Detlefsen, even when she didn’t have heels on, but that never seemed to faze him.

“That was mostly Helen,” Ana admitted.

“Where is she?” he asked. At the same time, Ruben said, “Holy shit, is that HER?”

Ana turned in the direction Ruben faced. In a room full of men wearing khakis and ill-fitting jackets, the woman in the ivory suit looked like a swan landing in a junkyard. Dr. Sabel Young, professor and occasional corporate diversity trainer, stepped into the crowd easily, greeting people as she passed, lightly pressing hands offered to her. Ana didn’t know if Sabel remembered everyone who turned to say hello to her, but they certainly remembered her. She wasn’t tall, maybe two inches short of Ana’s 5’9” frame, but her body moved with a composed elegance that made her seem taller—or maybe it was the heels. Ana couldn’t see her feet and even if they were visible, she wouldn’t waste her time looking there.

The ivory jacket was gorgeous with a single button below the delicate V of the deep collar and a subtle empire waist. Sabel had paired it with a black shirt open at the throat and showing just the top rise of her breasts. Her straight black hair matched the shirt and the contrasting black and ivory highlighted her pale skin.

Ana felt too tall, too awkward, too heavy, too much shoulder and angle, bone and weight and muscle. She was as uncoordinated as a kid who’d happened into her mother’s closet. Her purse didn’t match her dress, the shoes weren’t right at all, she should have worn the pearls … oh, that’s right, she didn’t own pearls. But of course Sabel did—a tiny strand of pearls strung on white gold that looked almost as fiercely expensive as that jacket. Did she moonlight as a corporate trainer just for the outfits? Ana wondered as Sabel headed for them.

Sabel had worked with Roth Software to deliver two trainings to their nearly 400 employees and Ana had been the one assigned to help set up the rooms and coordinate the events. At first she believed the frivolous assignment was a hint that the company thought she had too much free time. By the time they were setting up the second training Ana began to wonder if Sabel had asked for her specifically. She couldn’t tell if Sabel was flirting with her in a subtle and completely corporate-appropriate way or if it was only her wishful thinking.

Ana had already spent the whole three hours of the first training mentally undressing Sabel, assuming she was safely inaccessible. But then something she said in their last meeting stuck with her and inspired Ana to forward the invitation. After hitting send, she’d realized that she should have just added Sabel to the batch email list and not waited days and sent the invite personally.

Ana picked Ruben’s glass up off the bar and took a long drink from it. The alcohol burned her back to the present.

“Dr. Young,” Detlefsen said, boomingly because he never said anything quietly. “Are you checking up on us?”

She smiled and inclined her head as she shook the hand he held out to her. He spared her his usual bone-grinding grip.

“You remember Ana?” he asked.

“Yes, she took wonderful care of me.”

“Thank you,” Ana managed through dry lips. “And this is my roommate Ruben.”

“My pleasure,” Ruben said with too much emphasis. He held out his hand but when she reached to shake it, he turned her hand and bowed his head to kiss her knuckles.

Sabel bent with him so that her head remained lower than his throughout the gesture.

“I’m utterly charmed. Is that Armani?” Ruben said. Ana wanted to kick him.

“You have a discerning eye,” Sabel told him and gently reclaimed her hand from his fingers. She turned back to Detlefsen. “I wanted to congratulate you, and everyone, on your fifth anniversary. That’s a landmark for so many companies. I hear you started with four people.”

“And now we’re nearly four hundred,” he said proudly. “Let me introduce you to the founders.”

The two of them went off toward the center of the party and Ana stared after them.

“Yes, you should,” Ruben said.

He caught the bartender’s eye and ordered a fresh drink while pushing the half-empty glass back toward Ana. She sighed and took another sip of the fruity vodka thing.

“Do you really think she plays for our team?” Ana asked.

“You said she was flirting with you.”

“What if I was reading into it?” Ana watched the moonbeam brightness of Sabel’s suit move through the room away from her.

“A diversity trainer? Honestly? Honey, that’s a synonym for queer.”

“I thought you told me to stop chasing ice queens.”

“That was so last week,” he declared. “I’m making an exception. I’ll take your car, you tell her I was a shit that forgot about you and you ask for a ride.”

“Like hell you will. I was thinking I should go by Helen’s place. It’s not like her to miss this event.”

“This thrilling party of the century?” Ruben asked.

He waved his hand around in an arc to indicate the vast room filled with people talking quietly to each other.

“She practically helped found the company,” Ana told him, but the words sounded thin.

“And that’s a reason to go by her place in the middle of the night? Oh, wait, she lives near that gal you hooked up with a few months back, the swimmer?”

“Marine biologist,” Ana said.

“And you’re trying to tell me that an advanced degree beats an Armani suit?”

Ana glanced across the room and got a beautiful view of the way the short jacket ended just above Sabel’s shapely backside. “She has a Ph.D. too,” she said, her voice sounding plaintive to her own ears.

“That’s it, I’m catching a cab to the bars – you’re not allowed home until you have her number.”

“I don’t think the security system has a ‘dateless and denied’ setting,” Ana told him.

“It does now.”

He kissed the side of her head and headed for the door. She could tell the sexual orientation of every man in the room based on whose eyes followed Ruben as he left.

She leaned her elbow on the bar and sipped her way through the rest of Ruben’s drink. Then she fished her phone out of her purse and texted the marine biologist to see if she was home, awake, and interested. She could just swing by Helen’s apartment building and see if the light was on, maybe call up and ask if Helen needed anything and then, having discharged her good Samaritan duty, swing a few blocks over and take care of some other pressing needs.

“Ana,” Sabel’s voice said next to her ear and she jumped. “Hold still.”

A warm touch brushed the back of her neck, sending a shiver down the length of her body. She felt a feathered kiss of fabric as well and then Sabel ran her silken fingertips along the neckline of Ana’s dress.

“There you go. Your tag was sticking up.”

Ana stared at her. Was she serious? Was she flirting? Was she somehow both flirting and serious?

“Thanks.” She was overly conscious of her elbow on the bar and straightened up. Not a single intelligent word came to mind. This close, Sabel smelled like fresh mint and wildflowers and apricot musk.

“Is Helen here?” Sabel asked. “I wanted to congratulate her.”

“No, she, um, emailed me earlier that she wasn’t feeling well. It is her kind of event. I thought I might go check on her, though I suppose it’s late.” Ana clamped her mouth shut. She sounded like an idiot.

“I think that’s thoughtful,” Sabel said. “Are you two friends?”

“We’ve worked together for a few years. She’s taught me a lot about public relations. I was just in marketing before.” Ana stopped but Sabel didn’t say anything else so she tried to come up with something to get her talking, “You’re a professor when you’re not training corporate geeks like us?”

“Religious Studies with a focus on social psychology; diversity training gives me a practical application for it,” Sabel said and looked like she would say more, but Detlefsen called to her to come meet someone else and she apologized to Ana and slipped back into the crowd.

Ana waited, but the group of people standing around Sabel talking kept growing. Would all ninety percent of the men in the room, the straight ones who hadn’t watched Ruben’s exit, eventually magnetize to Sabel? I should go over there, Ana thought, just push into the group and talk about something meaningless for an hour.

But she didn’t know how to do that. She wasn’t used to feeling this flummoxed in a work setting. If only she hadn’t considered in detail how she wanted to get Sabel out of the charcoal gray suit she’d worn to the second training, then she might be able to carry on some sufficiently mundane conversation.

Ruben was going to kill her for leaving. She picked her purse up off the bar and headed for the door. Helen lived in Ashbury Heights in an old Victorian that had been cut up into large apartments. Of course there was no parking anywhere near it, even for the little silver and white Mini Cooper Ana had bought to navigate the horrible parking in San Francisco. She had to park two blocks away in a space that was marginally legal. Only after she locked the car and started walking in her heels did it occur to her that it was ten at night and she was trooping the streets in an evening dress and heels to intrude on her boss at home.

On the bright side, after she checked on Helen it was just another mile to the apartment of that tall and charmingly awkward marine biologist she’d hooked up with off and on for the last six months. Ruben was right, she had a thing for smart, inaccessible women, but tonight that could work to her advantage.

Helen’s building was in the middle of the street and when Ana rounded the corner, a BMW sat double-parked in front of it, lights out. She ducked into a doorway and peered around the corner. Could this be Helen’s mystery lover? Ana knew she had someone, but Helen never talked about him. It was a nice car: a 5-series. A man came out of the front door and motioned to someone in the car. Two more men got out, dressed entirely in black. Ana opened her purse and pulled out her phone and can of pepper spray.

The two men hauled something out of the back seat, long and heavy, wrapped in a blanket. Ana’s heart hammered before she fully realized why. This was the kind of scene she expected to see on television, not from twenty feet away. She wanted to believe it was a rolled rug, but the contours of hip and shoulder were too clear: they carried a body between them. They were carrying a body into Helen’s building and there were only three apartments they could be going into.

There was a chance, her rational mind suggested, that it was Helen and she was unconscious for some good reason, like having passed out at a party or … or …. Perhaps if Ana meddled she would only embarrass herself and everyone involved.

Her gut told her to call the cops now. She ducked back into the darkness of the doorway and dialed 911.

“Please state the nature of your emergency,” the operator said.

Ana whispered the address and told her, “There are three men in black here, they’re carrying a body into the building. It’s Helen Reed’s apartment, I’m afraid she’s in danger.”

“Are you in danger?” the operator asked.

“I don’t think they saw me.”

“Can you stay where you are?”

“Yes.”

“All right, I have police and ambulance on the way. Can you stay on the line? I only want you to keep talking to me if it’s safe for you to do so.”

“Let me look,” Ana whispered. She turned, crept to the edge of the doorway again and looked.

A man stared at her from two feet away. “There you are,” he said as if he’d found a lost pet.

Ana pepper sprayed him in the eyes, then ran. A heavy weight, much too large to be a fist, hit her in the head and knocked her into darkness.

#

Sabel stood in the doorway to the bedroom and stared at the unmoving figure on the bed. She couldn’t risk touching her and leaving fingerprints, but she knelt by the bed, held her own hair up and back, and leaned an ear over Helen’s mouth. Yes, she was dead and no more than a few hours gone based on the warmth still radiating from her skin.

Her instructions were to watch and inform—and not get involved. She still felt like she’d failed. She hadn’t been able to figure out what Helen was mixed up in and now the woman was dead.

She straightened up and went back to the doorway. Then down the hall, across the living room and out the front door. She used a soft cloth to pull the door shut and then a touch of magic to remind the door that it had been locked before she went in. The bolt clicked back into place.

Had Ana come by to check on Helen? Had she rung the bell or just seen the lights off and assumed Helen was sleeping off an illness? Sabel stepped out of the front door into the cool air. There were sirens in the distance coming closer. Were they for Helen? If so, who had called the police?

She started walking quickly back toward her car, but the glint of a streetlight against a piece of metal on the sidewalk caught her eye. It was a cell phone. She picked it up and walked around the corner where she could look at it without being spotted by the police.

Last number dialed: 911.

The number before that: Helen Reed.

And there was a received text message from a woman named Shery: “I’d love to see you, come by any time tonight.”

Sabel smiled at that, but the other two were troubling. She navigated to the email app for confirmation and, as she’d anticipated, the emails were all addressed to Ana Khoury. So Ana was here, called 911 and then dropped her phone?

She opened her mouth and took a long inhale of the evening air. The taste of power prickled between her tongue and palate. Magic recently used left this trace in the air like the charged ions before a storm. Ana didn’t have magic, so someone had used it on her.

Sabel hurried back to her car where she could focus. In the driver’s seat, she opened her purse and pulled out the short golden hair she’d taken from the back of Ana’s dress earlier in the evening. She’d taken it to use in case she needed to follow Ana to Helen—if Helen wasn’t really at her apartment—but now she could use it to find Ana herself. She wrapped the hair around her fingers doubling and tripling its potency, then she brought her hand close to her mouth and breathed over it the words, “Lead me.”

The hair tugged her hand toward the north. She started the car and drove, feeling the pull of the hair around her fingers. She’d just crossed the Golden Gate Bridge when the sensation cut off abruptly.

“Shit!” she said, “Shit, shit shit,” and hit her fist against the steering wheel with each repeat of the word.

If they had killed Ana too, the hair would still tug for hours. No tug meant Ana was deep inside someone else’s magic. For that to happen to a woman with no magic of her own … Sabel had no way to know exactly how bad that could be, but it was very bad.

 

CHAPTER TWO

Ana opened her eyes on the dark blur of a moving road. She was slumped in the passenger seat of a car—from the look of the hood it was the BMW she’d been watching—and she couldn’t move. I’ve been drugged, she thought in some far corner of her mind. Through force of will, she made her head roll left enough to see the man driving.

Pay attention, she told herself, you have to stay awake and find a way out of this.

He was extraordinarily beautiful, in a rugged, thick-featured way. In profile a brutally strong cheekbone framed a darkly-lashed eye and thin, sculpted lips. At least he wouldn’t be hard to describe to the police, even if she only saw one side of his face. The fingers of her right hand twitched and then crept together into a fist.

“What did you do to me?” she asked, slurring and stumbling through the words.

His visible eyebrow lifted. “You can still talk? Delightful. Too bad I can’t keep you around.” The way he sighed at those last words made her cold inside.

Her fear came with a bottomless grief. There had been kids in her hometown, the well-dressed ones with good colleges in their futures, who had expected her to die young and would be surprised to know she’d made it to thirty. She’d promised herself she’d outlive all of them and she had a long way to go yet to pull that off.

“Where are you taking me?” Ana asked. Her mind seemed blessedly clear in contrast to her uncooperative body.

He laughed and the rich baritone sound was bitterly silky in Ana’s ears. “I’m not going to tell you,” he said. “You’re a gift for some friends.”

“You must not like those friends very much.”

He didn’t reply and they drove into Marin, winding into a neighborhood of well-kept houses with large yards. Soon he would stop the car and she was going to fight her way out. The old familiar adrenaline of anticipated pain flared inside her, burning off the remaining sluggishness in her limbs. She hated men who thought a busty blonde woman like herself could neither think nor fight, and she aimed to make this one pay for his mistake.

He pulled up a long driveway lined with young sycamores, their leaves yellow-gray in the moonlight. As the car slowed, Ana clicked open the door and threw herself out. Her body hit the ground at an angle and she tumbled. The ridiculous part of her mind swore about the dirt grinding into the silk dress as she scrambled up, her muscles still slow and clumsy.

“Grab her!” a new voice shouted from behind. Molasses seemed to encase her, like running in a dream, her legs wouldn’t do what she wanted and she stumbled down the driveway at half speed, moving by the slope’s gravity and sheer force of will. A hand grabbed her shoulder and she lurched away, falling forward to hit the asphalt hip first and then with the side of her head. A blast of pain flashed across her skull.

Ana rolled over fighting the man who came down after her, jabbing fingers at his throat while her right foot kicked for his knee. It wasn’t the driver of the car, but some goon with a dark hood over his face. His head dodged her jab, but the instep of her shoe connected and he yelped in pain. She’d crawl away if she had to. A second man, wearing a loose ski mask, grabbed her flailing arm and locked an icy metal cuff around her wrist.

She made a fist with her left hand and cracked it into the side of his head, and she started yelling. She yelled for help and yelled, “Fire!” and a string of obscenities. The first man recovered from her kick and his hands grabbed her free wrist while both men forced her onto her belly. She scissored her legs like a swimmer, trying to connect with anything. The driver’s black leather shoes came into her field of vision.

“Enough,” he said from above her head. His fingers touched the back of her skull and she blacked out again.

She woke on her side on pale canvas, with her head throbbing and her hands cuffed behind her back. Her body told her only minutes had passed: her mouth wasn’t dry and her pulse was still elevated from her attempted escape. She heard a man’s voice, but the words sounded foreign. Her eyes slowly adjusted to the dimmer light and she looked up at a wide, bare ceiling. The pain in her head was so fierce she didn’t dare sit up yet, so she talked to herself silently, trying to calm down, take the measure of this place, find a way out. It didn’t do any good to panic; that could come later when she was away from here.

You’ve got to survive, she told herself. Don’t think about what they might do. Don’t add to the fear. Breathe slowly and use the brain God gave you. People have escaped worse situations. Damn it, girl, this is not how you die.

Dominating the vast room was a large white cloth or tarp spread across the floor with designs drawn in black and a few unsteady brown lines. In the center of the tarp, near her, were two concentric circles with foreign letters in strings between them, and inside those circles stood a man in an unbelted black robe with a dark cowl cloaking his face. Around him were three other men each in a smaller circle and facing him was an empty circle inside a triangle. More men stood around the outside of the tarp on the bare floor. All of them were masked, some with plain knit masks, others with hoods that looked like silk or satin pulled over their heads with only the eyes showing.

She wished Ruben were here. He was strong enough to give these men the beating they deserved. But the image of Ruben hitting these men felt so alien to her, she found herself picturing her brother Gunnar instead, breaking the nose of this one and the arm of that one. She’d never seen Gunnar hit anyone, only seen him get hit, but she was certain he could do it. All the men in her family could.

Most of these men wore long black robes or tunics, only two had dark suits on, with bangles around their necks consisting of many pointed stars and symbols she didn’t recognize. The driver was the only one in the room who didn’t wear a hood. He was also the only one on the tarp not standing inside a circle.

One of the men glanced over at her. “She’s awake,” he announced to the room.

“Perfect timing,” Driver said.

Ana pushed herself up to sitting and turned to get a view of the rest of the room. There were no windows and only one solid-looking wood door on the far side of the room. A layer of sweat increased the chill that rose from the hard floor into her muscles. Her handcuffs had been tied with a length of rope, about ten feet she guessed, to a metal ring that rose out of the floor under the tarp. A small hole had been cut in the fabric for it. Hysterical laughter threatened to burst out of her mouth and she ground her teeth together so hard her jaw burned. Setting a metal ring into a concrete floor meant a lot of planning had gone into this event. What the hell was it?

If she could untie herself, she would still have to find a way to run, in handcuffs, past all these men and up the stairs. Perhaps if she knew what they were doing, she could use it to her advantage, maybe talk them into untying her. Under the cloying, woody smell of the incense, she caught the frozen metal scent of fear, not just her own. They weren’t unified; could she find the weak one and get him to help her?

A tremor ran up one of her arms. How long did she have until the insulation of shock wore off and the panic overwhelmed her?

She made herself count the men in the room: twelve. Some stood perfectly still while a few shifted from foot to foot. One had a censer like in a church that he dangled at the end of a chain. It smelled like hot sugar and pine trees. All the men had folded their street clothes neatly along one side of the room and she wondered if her purse was there with her cell phone in it—or had she dropped those outside of Helen’s apartment when she tried to run? If her phone was in the room, was it better to run to her phone or the door?

The men’s costumes weren’t uniform; some of the hoods were ski masks, others like lopsided pillowcases in black satin. A few looked like they had been sewn together by a seamstress of uneven skill. She marked the three antsy men with sloppy outfits as the weak ones. Although they all wore black robes or suits and cowls, she thought of the one in the center-most position as Black Hood, because his head covering was the most well-made and elaborate, giving the impression of a neatly sewn hood over a close-fitting cloth mask. He faced the empty circle and began to recite a series of words that meant nothing to Ana. He paused and recited them again. Then Driver called them back to him and the two of them chanted together.

Ana despaired of identifying any of them if … no, when, she told herself, when she got out and went to the police. She could only make out the breadth of shoulders under their robes, from narrow and skinny to wide and well muscled, and only a few had enough gut to round the front of their robes. Black Hood looked like an iron pillar.

They reminded her, oddly, of a group of boys at her high school who played at being dark wizards, thinking they could talk to the dead and amass mysterious powers. Those boys came from nice houses and had new clothes to wear each year, yet they managed to be dissatisfied because they were not handsome or strong, because they thought they lacked power and were looking for any way that they could compensate. A few of them liked to brag to Ana, to try to spook her with stories of late night trips to the cemetery—when they spoke to her, which was a last resort considering her dirt poor, outcast status back then. She didn’t understand the kind of power they wanted; at that age, power to her was a fist or a sharp kick, and it was enough money and a car so that she could get away from there and never go back.

What did these men want? Was it the same kind of power as those boys back in school? Could she give it to them and survive?

Most of the men had taken places inside circles drawn around the outer edges of the tarp, and two suited guards took a handful of white powder from a dish by the door, carried it to a spot on the floor, then trickled the powder in a circle around them. Black Hood and Driver repeated the foreign sounding words until they all blurred together for Ana. Their voices rose in volume as they spoke, entreating at first and then threatening, dropping again to rumbling. The other men swayed at the sound of the chant. One slipped to his knees, but came up again still inside his circle. The air felt like the pause in a storm right before a twister forms.

As far as she could tell there was nothing inside one empty circle in the center of all of them. Everything else about this pageant was so real she almost expected to see something, a dark twisted figure or a cloud of smoke like a movie genie. How long would it take these men to admit their ritual hadn’t worked? Her fingers struggled with the rope knotted tightly against the short metal chain of the handcuffs. She’d untied tough knots before; you just had to work at the rope persistently until it moved. It was only a matter of time, but how much time? Sweat covered her fingers, making them slip over the smooth rope.

The man who had fallen to his knees suddenly shook, once, violently and threw his head back with a shout. “The woman! She is calling for the woman!”

Oppressive silence filled the room. Ana bit her cheek so hard she tasted blood. She wouldn’t scream for these men.

“Bring her!” Driver roared at the shaking man, his voice so loud it echoed.

The man staggered out of his circle toward her. “I hear her,” the man was saying over his shoulder to the others who stood rooted to their positions around the room. “Drake, I hear her, like a wind roaring.” He clapped his hands over his ears for a moment and then tore them away.

#

The mask hid the water pooling in Jacob’s eyes, though he was certain the demon who called himself Nathan Drake could smell his grief and its accompanying rage. It should have been Helen here to take this possession, not this blond popsicle. Jacob still couldn’t accept that she’d died; he had never meant for circumstances to play out the way they had. Why hadn’t he forced them to wait? It had been so long already, what would another month or two matter? He’d been impatient himself, that was the sad truth of it and he’d been willing to believe Drake.

Drake said the stars were right, the omens—it wasn’t worth it to wait. Earlier that night, when they’d first tried this, Helen had come down the stairs in her garnet red gown with the grace of an antelope, steady against her fear. He’d been so proud of her. Now Ana Khoury shrank away from them with all the poise of a whipped dog.

Jacob hadn’t minded Ana in the office when they worked together. He’d even admired her shape, nicely put together though a bit on the sturdy side, and she was a fine publicist, did her job with enthusiasm and success. But she knew nothing about magic and demons. Drake said she was hot-blooded and that she had darkness in her. What did she know about darkness? His fingers strayed down to touch his right hip where the scars began, the decades-old pain forged into strength.

He’d caught his first demon when he was sixteen and back in the hospital for the fifth time. The creature came to feed on his pain, but he saw its smoky form and wrestled with it until it spoke in words he could understand and promised to bring something that could teach him. Twenty-five years he’d been studying, experimenting, and perfecting himself. He’d called Drake to him and now Drake presumed to tell him how they would perform this ritual and with this ignorant girl.

Helen had studied with him for two years and she’d been a surprisingly quick student. Tears closed his throat and he swallowed them down along with his rising anger. Only a fool let his emotions play freely in a summoning ritual. Jacob had learned the hard way; now nothing offered these creatures an entry into himself except his pure will. He reminded himself this ritual was only a stepping-stone, a formality for Drake, then they would get to the real work at hand. Let this one have his moment, Jacob thought; he could wait now that he’d seen the consequence of pushing forward too quickly.

Drake called again for Ana to be brought into the center circle and the young summoner they called DK left his own circle to walk drunkenly toward her. Jacob wanted to drag the man bodily back, but it was too late, he’d already broken his protection. If he picked up some creature drawn to this power tonight it was going to take weeks to get it out again.

“I hear her, Jacob, I hear her,” DK kept repeating in a murmur. Poor idiot. They called him DK because the summoning name he chose, “Demonknight” was too embarrassing to use regularly. They all had summoning names that masked their identities. The group kept DK in the coven because of his extraordinary sensitivity to the ethereal world. He’d been the first to hear The Woman last time also. Jacob did not envy him.

“Please,” DK begged Ana who flinched away from his grasping arm.

This is a disaster, Jacob thought and then banished the idea; Focus or fail. He couldn’t speak aloud, Ana might recognize his voice from the office, but he bent his will toward her, lending strength to DK’s efforts.

Drake had no such limits on his voice or appearance. He didn’t care who knew he was involved here because he didn’t expect Ana to survive, at least not as herself. “Come and get in the circle,” he purred. “Or I will put you there.”

If they were going to use trash as the vessel, they should not have chosen Ana. He understood Drake’s logic: that if it went wrong and she died it would look like someone had targeted the publicists at Roth Software and they could frame the ephemeral “drug dealers” in shipping they’d set up months ago. Ana was too pretty, too young, too charismatic to use as a vessel, though those very characteristics were what Drake wanted. Some of the less disciplined men were hesitating now. DK seemed afraid to touch her and in his peripheral vision he could see two others fidgeting nervously.

“Come and get me,” Ana spat back at Drake.

Drake crossed the room as fast as thought and hauled her to her feet so swiftly that Ana’s gasp choked in the back of her throat. Drake’s voice was pitched low, but it carried through the still room. “This will go more easily if you enter the circle willingly. It’s less likely to kill you that way.”

Ana’s eyes flicked past him to the grand circle on the floor and up to Jacob’s masked face, then past him. She was a bright girl, looking for the powerful and the weak in this group. Maybe this would work after all. If only it had been Helen.

“Fine,” she told Drake. “If you uncuff me.”

Drake shoved her forward to her knees and tugged at the handcuffs. They clicked open without benefit of a key and Ana had to throw her hands forward to avoid pitching on her face from the momentum of that sudden freedom. From where he stood on the far side of the grand circle, Jacob saw the expressions flick across her face as she crouched on hands and knees: the relief of having her hands free and the dismay of the distance still to cross to reach the exit, not to mention that most of the summoners were between her and the door.

What had killed Helen? If he knew he might tell Ana to prepare her to accept the demon that waited for her, even breaking his silence to do it, but he had no idea why Helen had failed. Jacob never had a problem letting demons into his body, only getting them out again. The bone cancer of his teens had given him a lot of practice with invasive procedures. He thought Helen had been open; had she only put on a brave face for him? If he could go back he would change so many aspects of tonight.

Ana’s eyes were neither willing nor unwilling, they were furious. Jacob hoped that was enough. He did not want to have to prepare for this particular ritual again.

“Into the circle,” Drake said. “No running.”

Ana rolled over from hands-and-knees to sitting and unbuckled her sandals. Drake’s eyebrows shot up and Jacob suppressed a chuckle. She really thought she was going to get a chance to run. But of course she did; she didn’t believe in demons and thought this was all for show. She had no way of comprehending what was going to happen to her when she crossed that double line and probably thought it was just a silly design. She didn’t understand it was the boundary into another world. He wouldn’t have believed it either if so many years of experience hadn’t shown him how the worlds really worked.

A pang of sympathy stabbed up from his hip with the memory of the times he’d let demons come into him, the mind-shattering pain of it and the violation of the last bastion of self. If they weren’t going to take the time to train up another adept like Helen, they should have used someone older and less alive. It was a shame to destroy her.