If you’re here, it’s because you can’t wait to read A Fistful of Frost. I think that’s wonderful, because I can’t wait for you to read it either!
I hope you enjoy a sneak peek at the first four chapters of the novel.
Chapter 1: Sometimes I Question My Sanity; Sometimes It Replies
Inspector Pamela Hennessey leaned close, shouting to be heard above the enthusiastic marching band pounding its way across the football field. “Remember what I said, Madison: Show me you’re in control of the pooka. Take charge. You’re not helping Jamie by being soft.”
Avoiding her eyes, I nodded, keenly aware of Jamie standing less than three feet from us. With luck, he hadn’t heard her over the bleating trumpets.
We stood against a retaining wall on the outer rim of the track wrapping Oakmont High’s football field. A flailing, cheering quilt of bundled and blanketed people packed the bleachers, and a steady string of teenagers and their parents filed past on their way to and from the concession stand amidst waves of popcorn and hot dog fumes. Normally Jamie would have been at my elbow, begging for a bowl of nachos, and I would have indulged him, but not with the inspector present. I’d met her less than an hour ago, and I’d already lost track of how many times I’d made a fool of myself in front of her. From here on out, I needed to be a shining example of a perfect pooka-bonded enforcer if I stood a chance of saving face—and saving my region.
Jamie edged closer, his shoulders hunched in a dejected curl, his dichotomous soul churning in agitated waves of black atrum and white lux lucis. I strangled the impulse to comfort him. Like Pamela said, I needed to be firm. Authoritative.
Even if it was my fault Jamie looked lost.
I flexed frozen fingers, encouraging blood and heat back into the digits. A freak cold snap had struck Roseville, California, plummeting the temperature below freezing, and local meteorologists threatened we’d see snow before morning. The novel phenomenon would have been a lot easier to appreciate if I were holed up inside my apartment like a normal person. Normal, however, had hopscotched right over me when I’d been born with the ability to use my soul as a weapon.
A dark shape zipped overhead, and I ducked, my free hand spasming around the clunky necklace resting on my chest. My jerky reaction drew stares, but I pretended not to notice. Quick reflexes could make the difference between living and dying in my line of work. Besides, if the norms could see the swarm of tyv drones buzzing above the stadium, they’d do more than duck; they’d run in terror.
Pretending fear didn’t stretch taut across my nerves, I examined the latest enemy to invade my region. The drones bore an uncanny resemblance to mosquitoes—if mosquitoes grew to the size of pterodactyls. They possessed spiky legs, multifaceted ebony eyes wrapped around triangular heads, and two-foot-long, needle-sharp proboscises for mouths. Where mosquitoes drank blood, the drones devoured lux lucis, the white energy of good people’s souls. This bright, undigested energy in the drones’ translucent abdomens made it possible to track the otherwise black creatures against the obsidian sky, and I told myself it was a blessing. But since I was Roseville’s illuminant enforcer and the person responsible for defending the citizens inside my small region from pernicious, soul-snacking creatures, each glowing drone served as neon-white proof of all the people I’d failed to protect.
An entire sky lit with evidence of my inadequacies as an enforcer, and me standing next to an inspector here to assess my competence. Could this night get any worse?
Pamela gestured to the other enforcer accompanying us and then pointed toward the stands. “Summer, take point but stay close.”
Like a perfect little suck-up, Summer Potts jumped to obey, rushing to kneel in front of the stuffed bleachers, out of sight of the crowds but still able to target the soul-hungry creatures dining on them.
“Here they come. Hold your ground, Madison, and aim for the thorax.”
Five drones tore themselves from the smorgasbord and whipped toward us on blurred wings. If it’d been just me and the inspector, I would have said the drones were attracted to the pure white shimmer of our souls. I’d yet to meet an evil creature who could resist our untainted lux lucis, not even those smart enough to know they gambled with their lives when they snacked on an enforcer. But with the pooka at my side, his soul surging with restrained power, I might as well have been invisible to the drones.
I reached blindly for Jamie’s arm with my left hand, pushing him behind me without taking my eyes off the incoming drones. “Stay close and don’t feed them.”
Here goes nothing. I yanked my palmquell from my pocket, fumbling with the unfamiliar weapon. Painted in eye-watering shades of mustard, the palmquell resembled a gun, which meant I couldn’t use it with impunity. People tended to frown upon guns—real or fake—being brandished at crowded high school events. Improvising, I pretended to blow on my gloves as if to warm my hands, disguising the palmquell in my fists. With luck, holding it closer to my eyes would improve my atrocious aim.
The drones dove for us, dropping into range before I had steeled my nerves. I shoved a dollop of my soul’s energy into the palmquell, the transfer of lux lucis passing through my wool glove and disappearing into the balsa wood gun’s bone chamber. When I jerked the trigger, a bright white slug of lux lucis arced through the air . . . missing all five drones by several feet. They didn’t slow. I pushed more energy into the gun and fired, missing again. The drones closed the distance between us too fast, and I backed up, jostling Jamie. The urge to flee flooded my body with adrenaline. Giving up on accuracy, I shot nonstop, hoping the sheer quantity of lux lucis in the air would deter the drones or—if I was extremely lucky—hit at least one.
The drones dodged around the scatter of bullets.
I sucked in a sharp breath, fear coiling in my chest. They’d dodged. Not a lot of evil creatures were smart enough for such a simple act of self-preservation. Imps practically killed themselves. Vervet might taunt me first, but ultimately their appetites ruled their actions, making them easy prey. Hounds couldn’t stop themselves from attacking, which made them as predictable as they were dangerous. But drones were the lower caste of a more evolved and terrifying creature called sjel tyver. According to my boss, sjel tyver were the brains of the species, which is why I’d assumed that as their scouts, the drones would fall squarely in the “I think with my stomach, so let me help you kill me” category.
Dodging proved that the drones were not stupid and that they might actually be intelligent.
I expected to hear a buzz when the drones zoomed past, but if their wings made such a prosaic sound, the marching band drowned them out. Without slowing, they swept back over the crowded bleachers, blending in with the rest of the swarm. It should have upset me to watch them revert to attacking defenseless norms; instead, I breathed a sigh of relief for my reprieve.
Stomping my chilly feet in my boots, I shook tension from my limbs and monitored the nearest drones swooping along the rim of the stands. They speared their sharp mouths into people’s shoulders, necks, and most disturbingly, their faces, feeding without slowing. With bodies constructed not from sinew and blood but from atrum, evil energy coalesced into shape and form, the drones existed exclusively in the metaphysical plane of Primordium. In other words, only people like myself and the inspector could see them. The norms should have been equally oblivious to the sharp jabs of the drones’ insubstantial needle snouts, but every single person acted out immediately after being struck: a girl in skintight jeans jumped to her feet and boldly picked her underwear from her crack; an elderly man pelted a woman a few rows in front of him with popcorn, temporarily silencing the woman’s obnoxious noisemaker while she looked around for the culprit; a mom in so many layers of coats that she looked like a walking sleeping bag grabbed her purse and shoved toward the aisle, only to stop, confused, on the stairs. It was as if the drones’ bites prompted people into action, and the action itself didn’t matter.
The deafening performance of the band died for three blissful seconds, and in the relative silence, I heard Jamie laughing. My heart warmed until I realized the source of his humor was the peculiar actions of the helpless victims. Pamela sliced her disapproving glare from Jamie to me, and I flinched, mentally adding another mark against us. Then the band launched into Pharrell Williams’s “Happy,” and the crowd went wild, drowning out any chance I had of remedying the moment. Pamela’s attention jerked to the air above my head, and I spun back toward the stands. A trio of drones had split from the swarm, pulled to us by the siren song of my pooka’s soul.
Raising my palmquell, I fired a blast of lux lucis bullets into their midst and pivoted to track two that darted in the same direction. The turn faced me toward the field, Jamie, and—
The inspector was missing.
Wild-eyed, I searched for Pamela, finding her hugging the retaining wall more than twenty feet down the track, almost back to the stadium entrance. Without lifting her hand from her hip, she fired on the attacking drones, and her white bullets streaked through the air as if drawn to their targets.
Panic receded and I sucked in a breath. She hadn’t abandoned me.
Shame chased the thought. I shouldn’t need Pamela to do my job, especially since the inspector hadn’t distanced herself to assist me; she’d backed off so she could dissect my skills—or lack thereof—from a better perspective.
Shunting lux lucis into the palmquell, I sighted on the zigzagging drones. A detached part of me considered how ridiculous I looked to the norms, seemingly staring into the halogen lights, my gloved hands cupped a few inches from my face and my eyes darting back and forth as I tracked drones they couldn’t see. The rest of me didn’t care. In Primordium, the blinding light of the halogens didn’t exist, and I’d work on my covert drone-killing techniques some other time, when we weren’t under attack.
The lead drone faltered—no thanks to any of my shots—and then exploded in a puff of harmless atrum glitter that faded to lifeless gray as it settled on the gravel. I squinted at the next-closest drone, pulsing lux lucis into the palmquell and firing so rapidly it looked as if a single white beam of light extended from the palmquell’s tip.
“Hold still, you stupid inflated mosquito,” I growled.
The drone took two shots from Pamela before I aligned on it; it died with the inspector’s fourth slug of lux lucis before I landed a single hit.
I whirled, hunting for the third drone. It had circled wide, approaching from the hill. I brought my palmquell to bear but hesitated, catching Jamie’s rapt expression. The pooka raised a hand to the drone, a hint of a smile tipping the corners of his mouth, his posture completely at odds with the threat.
He looked like a person caught in a spell.
The sounds of the marching band receded. The crowd ceased to exist. My world narrowed to Jamie and the drone. I pumped lux lucis through the palmquell, but my shots were too slow, and the slender drone flitted through them untouched. No streaks of white bullets came from Pamela’s direction either.
What is she doing? Why did she stop shooting?
The drone bore down on us, zipping wide around my lux lucis stream to strike Jamie. Not going to happen. I shouldered the pooka out of the way, and the drone’s barbed proboscis flicked through my chest as painful as a whip crack. I screamed, short and sharp, clutching my breastbone with my free hand.
Incorporeal creatures weren’t supposed to hurt when they fed!
The drone spun back toward us, angling for Jamie again. Screw this. No way was I going to let a drone inflict that pain on my pooka. I tossed the useless palmquell aside and yanked my pet wood from my pocket. A flick of the wrist extended the telescoping petrified wood weapon into a three-foot wand, every inch of it glistening bright white with as much lux lucis as it could hold. Planting my feet, I raised the wand in front of me like a sword.
The drone’s skittish flight brought it into range, and I burst into motion. Channeling an extra blast of lux lucis down the length of the pet wood, I slashed through the drone’s wings and thorax. The drone exploded. Black glitter rained down on Jamie and me, temporarily obscuring the world.
“We’re leaving. Now.” I grabbed Jamie’s hand before he had a chance to adjust his soul, and his atrum slid cold across my palm. I slapped it back with lux lucis. Jamie flinched and shoved all his soul’s atrum to the far side of his body.
“No. It’s too dangerous.” So long as Jamie was present, the drones wouldn’t stop attacking. Despite looking like a teenage boy, the pooka was still a child, having taken physical form for the first time less than a week ago when he’d imprinted on me, tethering us together for the foreseeable future. He needed protection from so many dangers, not the least of which were evil creatures mesmerized by his power.
I hauled Jamie across the track and shoved through the crowd milling between me and the exit. Jamie stumbled behind me, and I squeezed his hand tighter, afraid I’d lose him. Monitoring the skies for drones, I used the pet wood to poke my way past people who lollygagged in front of us.
“Where are you going?” Pamela demanded.
I hadn’t heard her approach, and I spun, bringing the wand up between us.
“I’m getting Jamie to safety.”
She crossed her arms. “Just Jamie?”
“I can’t protect him out in the open like that.”
Between one breath and the next, all the urgency bled from me. I blinked, confused, and frowned at Jamie’s hand imprisoned in mine. He’d been in danger. The drone had been about to hurt him, and it’d made sense to get him out of the stadium. But—
But I’d killed the drone, and I should have stayed to kill the rest. Furthermore, Jamie had never been in real danger. As a half-evil creature who possessed a frightening amount of atrum himself, the pooka didn’t have anything to fear from a drone. Even if it had taken a bite from him, the drone wouldn’t have gotten anything for its efforts; unlike me, Jamie could prevent creatures from consuming his soul.
Where had that rationality been a moment ago?
Rubbing my chest where the sting of the drone’s bite had already faded, I checked Jamie’s expression, surprised to see wariness pinching his brows. The twin energies of his soul sloshed with agitation on the far side of his body, but his hand in mine—and his entire arm and side—were draped in safe, white energy.
Oh! I’d used my lux lucis against him. I’d hurt him.
What the hell was going on?
Scowling, I turned back to Pamela. The shorter woman stood just beyond reach of my—extended! blazing!—wand. It’d been the most natural thing in the world to draw the weapon in front of the entire stadium. I hadn’t given one thought to the attention I might attract. And how many people had I stabbed with its sharp tip as I’d fled the stadium?
“The first time is the worst,” Pamela said.
Jamie and I shook the ache from our hands when I released him. I collapsed the pet wood and tucked it into my pocket, dismayed when I realized I’d lost the palmquell. I had a vague memory of chucking it . . .
Pamela extended her hand, holding my palmquell out to me. Feeling like I was moving in a dream, I accepted it.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Come here. You need to recharge.”
Pamela led the way to a clump of pines, and I removed a glove and examined my soul. The lux lucis capacity of a palmquell bullet was negligible, but given the quantity of shots I’d fired, it was little wonder my normally cotton-white soul flickered faintly. I planted my hand on the nearest tree, and a cool wash of lux lucis flowed into me from the bark as the pine selflessly replenished my reserves.
“Why did I—” I stopped myself, not sure how to complete the question. Why did I forget all my training? Why did I believe it was imperative to get Jamie away from the drones? Why did I feel like I’d been a different person a few minutes ago? I settled for repeating my original question. “What happened?”
“Drones feed off pieces of souls and inhibitions. They take away your restraint, so whatever it is you want to do in that moment, you do it. The effect tends to last about ten seconds, give or take; then you’re back to normal.”
The anomalies clicked into place: the woman picking her underwear from her butt, the old man chucking popcorn like a child in a food fight—the drones hadn’t evoked action so much as freed people to act. Whatever impulse they’d had the moment the drone fed, they’d acted upon it.
When the drone took a bite from my soul, I’d been concerned with protecting Jamie. After it had fed, nothing else had mattered. I hadn’t thought about the people watching, about my goal to prove myself to Pamela, or even about securing my weapons. My top priority—my only priority—had been Jamie’s safety.
Like a person hypnotized, I’d made the decisions and experienced the emotions, but I hadn’t been in control. Not fully. Which left me playing catch-up even though I’d lived through the events.
“That last drone, why didn’t you shoot it before it struck me?”
“I thought it’d be more informative to see how you reacted.”
Of course. What better way to test an enforcer than to have something strip away her inhibitions to see how she reacted? I released a slow, deliberate breath, telling myself it was the inspector’s job to evaluate my proficiency. Using the drone to do so had simply been pragmatic.
Nevertheless, irritation sharpened my tone when I asked, “And?”
“You confirmed my earlier assessment. You need serious target practice, and you coddle the pooka when you should lead. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Behind Jamie’s back, she gestured to the dark energy pulsing in his soul, her not-so-subtle use of the cliché coming through loud and clear.
As a newly risen pooka, Jamie’s powerful soul encapsulated a fluid, perfect balance of lux lucis and atrum, but his energies wouldn’t stay harmonized for long; he’d gravitate toward one side or the other, and it was my job to ensure Jamie made the kinds of decisions that would transform him into a pure lux lucis creature like myself—only vastly more powerful.
If I failed, he’d turn dark, and because of the bond linking us, I’d be altered in the process, too.
I couldn’t afford to ignore Pamela’s advice.
Still . . .
“Protecting Jamie from harm is not coddling.”
“Between the two of you, you need protection more than the pooka.”
“The drones wouldn’t hurt me,” Jamie said softly.
“Wouldn’t the drone have taken away your inhibitions?” Surely Pamela would agree that an inhibition-free pooka should be avoided.
Jamie shrugged. “I’m not human.”
Pamela gave me a pointed look.
“Well, good.” I sounded petulant even to myself. The drones can’t hurt Jamie, so why aren’t I ecstatic?
“Indeed,” Pamela agreed. “With the drones drawn to him, we can use the pooka to lure them away from the crowds.”
Bingo. “You want to use Jamie as bait?”
“Is there a problem?”
I held my body stiff, wanting to look away from the challenge in the inspector’s eyes, wanting to check Jamie’s face. Hell yes, there was a problem. Jamie was my pooka, bonded to me and under my protection, even if he claimed he didn’t need it. The idea of using him made my stomach knot. But Pamela was an inspector. She outranked me and my boss. More important, she had actual experience in dealing with pookas. If she said I needed to be firmer with Jamie, then I needed to stiffen my backbone. I couldn’t let the bond manipulate me into spoiling him.
“No, no problem here.”
How had this evening gone to Sucksville so fast?
Chapter 2: Everyone Complains about the Weather, but No One Wants to Sacrifice a Virgin
An hour earlier, I’d parked next to my boss’s orange Fiat at the nether reaches of the Oakmont High School parking lot, a familiar buzz of prehunt anticipation tingling through my limbs. Two days off, even if they had been mandated for recovery, had gone a long way toward restoring my enthusiasm for my job. Squeezing in a much-delayed date with Alex Love last night had done the rest.
I’d had a crush on Alex since the first time I’d shown up at his veterinary clinic with my cat, Mr. Bond, when he was still a kitten. It’d taken a few visits, spaced across a few years, before Alex had asked me out, and then I’d had to postpone. Twice. My reasons had been valid—I’d been a teensy bit busy being bonded by the most powerful pooka born in the last decade and stopping a megalomaniac from setting fire to my entire region—but to Alex, who knew nothing about enforcers and my ongoing battle against evil creatures he couldn’t perceive, I’d simply looked flaky. Fortunately, he’d stuck around. Even better, we’d both agreed the date had been worth the wait.
Mmm, so worth the wait. That man could kiss!
“Are you hungry?” Jamie peered at me from the passenger seat.
“You made a nummy noise.”
“Oh. Ah, no. Just thinking.” I deliberately closed the door on the memories of Alex’s firm lips and focused on the here and now.
The final gloomy rays of the sun had disappeared behind the cloud-choked horizon, and the gray sky bled to a starless black. I’d thought that after revealing the neighboring warden Isabel to be a vengeful rogue and facilitating her removal, my region would thrive and I’d be able to coast for a few weeks. After all, Isabel had been behind most of the evil I’d fought since I’d become Roseville’s enforcer, and with her gone, it stood to reason my workload would be lighter. Even factoring in the temporary expansion of my region to include a third of Isabel’s old territory, I’d expected to be done with today’s work by noon.
I should have known better. Isabel’s actions had warped my region, leaving it primed for a whole new evil creature to invade: sjel tyver. If that wasn’t bad enough—and from everything I’d learned about sjel tyver, it was pretty bad—the higher-ups in the Collaborative Illumination Alliance had decided to send an inspector to monitor the situation. A pooka, a rogue warden, and now sjel tyver proved to be too much unusual activity for the CIA to ignore.
I rolled my shoulders, the creep of nerves tightening my muscles. An inspector outranked my boss, and she would be scrutinizing my every move while in town, including my interactions with Jamie. The pooka’s dual nature had everyone on edge, and they wanted reassurances that I had him under control. Which I did.
I shook my head and shoved from the dim interior of the car, squinting against the harsh blue LED lights illuminating the parking lot. An icy breeze cut through my jacket, and I zipped it closed beneath my chin, fluffing my scarf around my neck for good measure. If I wanted something to worry about, I should start with my boss’s plan for me to fix Roseville’s new arctic environment. Though we hadn’t discussed how yet, he literally expected me to raise the temperature of our slice of the planet.
If it didn’t kill me first, this job was going to give me a major superiority complex.
Bundled in a black leather coat, plaid wool scarf, and dark jeans, Brad Pitt leaned against his pocket-size car. Not the Brad Pitt; Warden Brad Pitt, my boss. Squat, with a balding round head and puffy frog lips, he more resembled Danny DeVito than the hunky actor whose name he shared. If he ever resented the inevitable unflattering comparison, Brad never mentioned it and I never asked.
Jamie bounced from the car, a family-size bag of potato chips in hand, his head whipping back and forth to take in the rapidly filling parking lot and the stream of people trekking to the stadium. He might appear old enough to be a recent Oakmont High alumnus, but my pooka had less experience in the world than a toddler, and everything fascinated him, including the yellow school buses strung in a line along the front of the school, each swarmed by teens in letterman jackets weighed down with instruments. I narrowed my eyes at the scene, groaning when I spotted the bright sign above the entrance.
“What?” Jamie asked, tugging his beanie low over his ears.
“It’s not a football game. It’s a marching band competition.”
“What’s a marching band?”
“A lot more fun when there’s a volume knob included.”
I greeted Brad, then popped open the back door of the Civic to retrieve a pair of wool gloves. Since cold in Roseville usually meant temperatures in the high forties, Jamie and I hadn’t been equipped for a night out in subfreezing elements, and nearly everything we wore had been purchased today. It’d taken three stores to find gloves made from natural fibers rather than synthetic, but wool would conduct lux lucis without adding any resistance, so it’d been worth the hunt. We’d also picked up matching black coats, black beanies, black scarves, and dark jeans. In the flat lamplight, even our hair color looked like it matched, though mine was several shades lighter than Jamie’s onyx locks. With our identical height, strangers probably mistook us for siblings.
If only they could see the difference between our souls.
Underneath our outer layers, we both wore black zip-up sweaters, dark shirts, and long johns—mine neon green because they were cheap, Jamie’s gray because men didn’t get color choices. Short of waterproof pants, we were ready to walk through a blizzard.
“We don’t have much time before the inspector arrives,” Brad said as he scurried around the hood of his car. “Hold out your hands.”
I did, and he dumped an item in each cupped palm.
“The soul breaker goes around your neck. Don’t take it off until you’ve chased the sjel tyver out of our territory.”
I examined the two items. One masqueraded as a mustard-orange glue gun, but its balsa wood frame and straight nozzle said otherwise. Process of elimination made the other item the soul breaker. By weight and appearance, I would have guessed it to be a replica of a barbaric Celtic necklace or perhaps a Southwestern saddle adornment. A sturdy leather cord coiled in my palm, the ends sewn to a band of stiff leather from which hung a curved chunk of bamboo as thick as a roll of quarters through the middle and tapered up the arms. If it’d been a smidgen larger, it could have passed for connected cow horns. As it was, I could slide my fist through the arms of bamboo with room to spare. Bold black Celtic knots adorned both the leather and the apex of the knocker. The whole soul breaker could be summed up in one word: hideous.
Reluctantly, I slid the leather cord over my head and settled the soul breaker against my chest. Hoping it’d look more attractive on a different visual spectrum, I blinked to Primordium. Color siphoned from the world, redefining it in a deceptively simplistic black and white. Everything inanimate—from my green Civic to the churned mud at the edge of the lot to the beige stucco school buildings—became the same shade of charcoal. Electric lights didn’t register in this spectrum, but a vague, ambient illumination prevented the landscape from being washed flat, casting enough shadows to provide definition to objects without ever creating true black. Only two things registered as black in Primordium: evil, or atrum, and the vast nothingness of the sky.
Earth’s atmosphere didn’t register in Primordium, and while the void of space wasn’t filled with atrum, it simply wasn’t occupied by anything. I’d worked hard to ignore the insignificant-speck sensation that wormed through my gut whenever I stood beneath the ebony dome, and I’d been so intent on ignoring the sky that it hadn’t occurred to me until now to wonder: How was I supposed to track a flying atrum-bodied creature against a black backdrop?
“Are you sure there aren’t any sjel tyver here?” I asked.
“Positive. Drones are nearby but not tyver.”
“Nearby? Where?” I spun in a tight circle, scanning the skies.
Brad pointed to the stadium. “At the buffet.”
Crass, but he had a point. Why would a creature that ate people’s souls linger over the slim pickings of the parking lot when it could feast from a congregation?
“I don’t see them,” I said.
“You can’t from here. Focus, Madison. We’ve got a lot of information to cover before the inspector gets here.”
“Are you sure we shouldn’t head in? Letting the drones feed on all those people can’t be good.”
“A few unprotected minutes isn’t going to hurt them much. But if you go charging in there without knowing how to defend yourself, and a tyv shows up, you’re as good as dead.”
“Right. Val made that abundantly clear.”
Val was an often irritable, usually sarcastic, undeniably insecure sentient leather-bound enforcer manual Brad had saddled me with when it became obvious I wasn’t learning fast enough. I wore Val against my hip on a leather strap that draped across my chest. This enabled the handbook to “see,” which went a long way toward improving his general mood. It also ensured he experienced everything I did, which gave him a stake in my survival. I’d put up with hip bruises and occasional strap snags if it meant Val gave me sound, lifesaving advice.
Along with telling me that sjel tyver meant soul thieves in Norwegian and providing a picture of a tyv—which resembled a human-size mosquito—Val had informed me that tyver were “mortally perilous.” After reading that bone-chilling phrase, it was little wonder Val’s entry on sjel tyver was burned into my brain:
When sjel tyver feed off normal humans, they steal memories along with pieces of their victims’ souls. However, the fluid nature of an enforcer’s soul makes it vulnerable, and when a tyv feeds off an enforcer, it can steal the entirety of that person’s soul, leaving her little more than a mindless husk. If the enforcer survives the attack, she will be as good as dead, her body permanently comatose.
Drones, the lower scout caste of the tyv species, looked similar to tyver but had been classified by Val as “mostly harmless” for norms and enforcers. They merely stole scraps of souls when they fed, but if they collected enough soul fragments, they could metamorphose into full tyver.
My job was to make sure none consumed enough soul bits to evolve.
“Is there ever going to be a time when our region isn’t facing a catastrophic threat?” The question blurted out unbidden, whine and all. I’d been an enforcer for less than a month, and I’d been running nonstop, tackling everything from a demon to rampaging, fire-breathing salamanders. Now we had an unprecedented swarm of sjel tyver bearing down on us. Not to sound too juvenile, but . . . it wasn’t fair!
Brad swept a hand across his bald crown. “Eventually, yes. You might even get a chance to become bored. Or fully trained.” He sighed. “I wish I had more time to prepare you. You’re too green to be going up against a creature as strong as a tyv.”
“What else is new?”
Jamie finished shaking the crumbs from the bottom of the chip bag into his mouth and joined us. “What’s this?” he asked, poking the soul breaker.
“The only weapon proven to be effective against tyver,” Brad said.
Jamie gave the bamboo knocker a skeptical eyebrow waggle.
Reminded of the reason I’d blinked to Primordium in the first place, I lifted the soul breaker from my chest to examine it. Nope. It hadn’t transformed into something pretty. I pushed a tendril of lux lucis through my fingers into the bamboo. The light ran up the gray curves and under the connecting leather bar, leaving a faint white glow. The clinging energy didn’t surprise me: Previously living objects like bamboo held and conducted lux lucis; I’d expected nothing less from an enforcer weapon. I pushed more energy into the soul breaker, and lux lucis rushed up the bamboo, across the engraved leather, and overflowed to coat the cord around my neck.
Upside down like this, the necklace resembled an Egyptian ankh. If crosses could ward off vampires, maybe this ugly amulet could ward off sjel tyver. Of course, vampires weren’t real, but the legend had to have started somewhere.
“Is it a talisman?” I asked, twisting the soul breaker back and forth.
Brad scoffed. Wrapping his fist around the bamboo U, he gave it a sharp tug. The bamboo separated from the leather with a soft snick. He held the soul breaker in front of my face, giving me a good look at the exposed tips. Each ended in a razor-sharp hook that glistened white with my residual lux lucis.
“You’re an enforcer, not a priest,” Brad said.
He handed the soul breaker to me, and I took it daintily, feeling like an idiot. A tentative test confirmed the hooks were as sharp as they looked, the sides gritty to the touch. When I curled my hand around the apex of the U, the bamboo arms wrapped around the sides of my fist and the hooks extended a few inches past my knuckles. According to Val’s sketch of a tyv, I’d have to be standing inside the circle of the evil insect’s legs to have a chance of killing it with this.
“Are you sure my pet wood wouldn’t be better?” At least it’d give me three feet of reach.
“Even if it were sharp enough, it’s not coated with the necessary ground seal bone to incapacitate a tyv.”
I scrunched up my face. That explained the gritty feel of the soul breaker’s tips. “If tyver are so dangerous, why is the best weapon we’ve got to fight them a horseshoe tipped with fishing hooks? Why not something longer?”
“Because precision matters. The soul breaker’s name is literal: it breaks a tyv’s hold on your soul, and it’s the only thing that will work. If you’re snared by a tyv, the time it takes for your lux lucis to reach the hooks could mean the difference between your survival and your future as a vegetable. You want the hooks to be as short as possible.”
What lovely, nightmare-inducing logic.
“How does it work?” I asked.
“Fill it with lux lucis and stab. Aim for the thorax—the part of the body behind the head. Don’t overthink it.”
I punched the air with the soul breaker.
“Yep. That’s it. Now put it away,” Brad said.
I examined the necklace, or rather the sheath, to determine how the soul breaker reattached. The engraved square of leather parted along the bottom seam to form an upside-down pocket. When I slid the soul breaker tips back into the sheath, magnets glued on the inside of the leather clicked closed, safely encasing the wicked hooks. I jiggled the cord, and the soul breaker swayed, but it didn’t show any signs of falling out.
I clutched the soul breaker and drew it, satisfied when it sprang free in my grip. The thick bamboo fit comfortably in my fist. It might be ugly, but it felt solid. I’d take a well-designed weapon over an attractive, useless one any day.
“What about for the drones?” I asked.
“You won’t need it for the drones. For them, you have the palmquell.”
“Never mind that. We need to teach you how to net— Gummy worms! She’s early.” A cordial smile completely at odds with his words and tone transformed Brad’s face into a beatific mask. I recoiled but he had aimed the expression beyond me. A compact car pulled into the space on the other side of Brad’s Fiat, and I caught a glimpse of two people inside, both with white souls, before they were blocked from view.
“Okay, listen up.” Brad turned his back on the newcomers, dropping his voice to a hiss. All traces of his serene smile vanished. “The inspector holds the fate of both our careers in her hands. She’s the arbitrator of Isabel’s unclaimed region, and she can pass it to whoever she sees fit. By every right, it should go to us.” The feral gleam in his eyes made me want to back up. “Opportunities like this don’t come often, and she’s going to make us prove we’re worthy. I need you on your best behavior, Madison. You and Jamie both. Until I say otherwise, do exactly what Pamela says. Impress her. Knock her socks off. Failing that, don’t embarrass me.”
“I’ve got this,” I promised. I crossed my fingers behind my back and prayed I wasn’t lying.
Chapter 3: Speak Truth to Power
I expected the inspector to look like an Army Ranger, tall, muscular, and radiating an “I could kill you if I wanted to” vibe. The woman who stepped from the car shattered my assumptions. Midfifties, petite, and pale, with a slash of bright auburn in her chin-length white-blond hair, Inspector Pamela Hennessey didn’t look authoritative until her assessing gaze landed on me. Then I fought not to squirm.
“Madison Fox and the pooka Jamie,” she said, not quite a greeting and not a question. It would have sounded rude if not delivered in her posh British accent. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“All good, I hope,” I quipped.
She eyed me up and down, giving me a noncommittal, “Mmm.”
My smile froze at the corners.
Rose climbed from the driver’s seat and shut the car door with more force than necessary. The Latina empath gave me a curt nod, as if we were strangers and not coworkers and friends. What the hell? I stopped pretending to smile. Jamie shifted closer, brushing his gloved hand against mine, worry crinkling his eyebrows as he read the tension of the group. I gave him a shoulder bump to reassure him, pretending to be relaxed. Pamela’s gaze snapped from our touching hands to our shoulders to our faces, and I fought the urge to leap away from Jamie as if I were doing something wrong.
“Give me a net and let’s get your purity test out of the way, Madison,” the inspector said.
“Pardon me?” Wasn’t a purity test a medieval way to judge a woman’s virginity? Not only had that ship long since sailed, but I also didn’t see how it would be relevant—or anyone’s business. I checked Brad’s neutral expression. Did details about my sex life fall under the impress her or don’t embarrass me category?
The inspector rounded on Brad, wispy-fine hair flaring on either side of her pink headband earmuffs. “She doesn’t know what a purity test is? You haven’t tested her once in the last five days?”
“Madison’s purity has never been in question.”
A warning frizzled down my spine at Brad’s bland tone. She’d put him on the defense. I glanced to Rose for a clue, but she only grimaced and looked away.
“Don’t let your recent victories make you arrogant, Brad,” Pamela said. “Of course her purity is in question. She’s bonded to a pooka.”
Aha! This wasn’t about virginity; this was about Jamie’s dual nature and the metaphysical bond he’d placed on me. I’d been warned—repeatedly—to be careful of Jamie’s darker half; more than one bonded enforcer had been corrupted by a pooka’s morally ambiguous influence. No one had mentioned purity tests.
“This is to see if Jamie has . . . changed me?” I asked, choosing my words carefully in deference to Jamie. Nothing in his expression said he took offense to the insinuation that our link might have tainted me. He saw nothing wrong with wielding atrum as readily as lux lucis, and if I failed a purity test, it’d probably make him happy.
“Changed you?” Pamela echoed. “No. I need to know if the pooka’s bond has sullied you.”
So much for being tactful. I peeked sideways at Jamie, but he hadn’t reacted, his gaze focused beyond Pamela on the people walking by.
“Is there a problem?” the inspector asked.
“No. Of course not, but, Inspector Hennessey—” I shot Brad a desperate look.
“Call me Pamela. Never Pam.”
“Got it. Um, Pamela—”
“She doesn’t know how to make a net,” Brad said for me.
“Why not?” Pamela demanded, spinning to confront my boss again, the hem of her wool coat flaring to reveal the calves of her pale leather boots.
“I haven’t had the luxury of instituting a methodical training regimen with Madison.”
“Mmm,” Pamela said.
I was starting to hate that noise.
“And if she encountered a frost moth?” she asked.
“She has a lighter.”
One I’d purchased this afternoon at Brad’s insistence. Shaped like a small blowtorch, with a trigger to ignite the flame, it was the fanciest lighter I’d ever owned. It also had the distinction of being the only lighter I’d ever purchased with the intention of using as a weapon—or at least I thought that was the plan. I pressed my lips together. Now wouldn’t be a good time to confess that after reading Val’s entry on sjel tyver, I’d completely forgotten to ask the handbook about frost moths—what they looked like, where to find them, or how to kill them.
“I can instruct Madison on nets now,” Brad offered.
The inspector shook her head. “Let’s get the inquisition out of the way.”
Pamela pulled her shoulders back and crossed her arms, squaring off in front of me. “Pursuant to the rights granted me as an inspector of the Collaborative Illumination Alliance, I declare my intent to a formal field inquisition of Madison Fox.”
“Acknowledged,” Rose said.
I darted a look from Rose to my boss. Why did Rose appear to be working for Pamela and not Brad? More important: “Did I do something wrong?”
“That’s what I’m about to find out,” Pamela said.
“Pamela is questioning everyone in connection with Isabel,” Brad explained. “A warden going rogue is incredibly rare, and the Triumvirate want to understand how it could have happened and ensure no other rogues are lurking in our midst.”
I let out a breath, trying not to show my relief. Not everything is about me and Jamie, I reminded myself.
“A field inquisition is recognized the same as a trial in front of the Triumvirate,” Brad continued. “Rose will act in the capacity of Truth Seer, and she will judge your responses for honesty.”
Truth Seer seemed an appropriate title for Rose. As an empath, she could sense others’ emotions as if they were her own, which made lying to her impossible. Now that I thought about it, her unwilling participation in everyone else’s emotions could also explain her tense posture. Heck, if she were picking up only my discomfort, it’d be enough to put that scowl on her face.
We all turned when an SUV parked next to my Civic, disgorging distracted parents and disengaged children with noses pressed to phone screens. No one paid attention to our group clustered in the muddy strip between our cars’ bumpers and the fence. Nevertheless, Pamela waited until they walked away before turning back to me. At some invisible signal, Rose stepped forward, expression neutral, and the inquisition began.
“Did you ever work with Isabel?” Pamela asked.
“With? No. I worked in her region at the mall, cleaning up citos for several days.”
“Truth,” Rose intoned.
I twitched and shot Rose a questioning look. She stared into the space between us, her face the mask of a stranger. I curled my toes inside my boots, resisting the impulse to fidget. I’d done nothing wrong. I had no reason to be nervous.
Sure. Nothing bad ever happens to innocent people during inquisitions.
“Have you ever committed an act that caused atrum to accrue on your soul?” Pamela asked.
“On purpose? No.” I ran my fingers down the outside seam of my pants, not quite meeting the inspector’s eyes. “I’ve been fed on by imps and vervet. And a demon . . .” I trailed off, deciding it wasn’t crucial to list every creature that had tainted me with atrum.
Jamie shifted, turning to watch a gangly girl lug a tuba case out of a minivan across the aisle. The pooka’s indifference to the proceedings siphoned some of my nerves, and I took a deep breath and stilled my fingers.
“Listen closely,” the inspector said when my gaze resettled on hers. “Have you ever used atrum?”
“Do you think you can handle your region without the assistance of Niko?”
The question caught me off guard. As optivus aegis, Niko Demitrius assisted in exterminating the most dangerous and deadly evil creatures throughout Northern California. He had frequented my region several times since I’d been hired, but each time the threat level had warranted his elite-enforcer expertise. With Isabel out of the picture, he wouldn’t need to drop in quite so often.
“Yes, I can do this alone.”
Pamela arched a brow at Rose.
“She believes she can,” Rose said.
“Well, that’s something.” Pamela turned back to me. “To your knowledge, has Brad ever used atrum?”
I frowned. “No.”
“What do you think of Brad as a warden?”
I crossed my arms. What kind of a question was that with Brad standing right beside me? “He’s the best warden I’ve ever worked with.”
“Truth,” Rose said on top of Pamela’s snort. Brad was the only warden I’d ever worked with, and we all knew it.
“Are you in control of your pooka?”
I double-checked Jamie’s location. He hadn’t moved from my side, but all his attention had pivoted to the inspector.
Rose took her time before saying, “Truth.”
“Do you feel a desire to do evil things?”
“No.” I bit off the word.
“Does your bond with the pooka influence your actions?”
I huffed out a breath, uncrossing my arms. Jamie had inflated in my periphery, somehow looming even though we were the same height. I needed to calm down before he decided to step in and “save me” from the inspector.
“Of course the bond affects me. That’s the point of it. But it doesn’t make my decisions for me, if that’s what you’re getting at.”
“Would you pass the pooka’s bond to another if you had the opportunity?”
I balled my fists in my pockets and strove to school my expression. I couldn’t decide which was worse: the thought of handing Jamie to another person as if he were an object and not a person, or the fact that Pamela had forced the question on me while Jamie could hear the answer. If I’d had any hesitancy, Rose would have seen through it, and it would have ruined my relationship with Jamie.
“What would make you a better enforcer?”
“Training and experience,” I snarled.
Pamela gave me her first genuine smile, one I wasn’t feeling charitable enough to return. “The trial is complete. Madison Fox, you are free to carry out your duties as an enforcer, barring, of course, passing a purity test.”
“Great.” The moment she looked away, I shook out my hands, trying to dispel my lingering defensiveness. Jamie studied Pamela with the full weight of his power sitting in his eyes, turning away only when a gaggle of teen boys ran past, laughing and shouting at each other.
Brad checked his phone and announced, “Niko’s five minutes out.”
My stomach flipped and my heart rate spiked. I tried to pretend my reaction was rooted in dismay. Niko’s presence meant the sjel tyver were as awful as Val made them out to be, and the optivus aegis thought his substantial skills would be needed to defeat them. Maybe I should have been grateful, but so long as Niko was hanging around, he would be undermining Pamela’s perception of my ability to handle my region.
All those thoughts zipped through my head, nice and logical, but the visceral response of my hormones had little to do with such trivial matters as my safety or my career ambitions. Brad had said Niko and my endocrine system heard sex.
Pamela checked the clock on her phone, then turned to Jamie. “Pooka, I formally request a prophecy.”
“A what?” I asked.
Jamie blinked at the inspector, a slow smile spreading across his face.
“In private,” Pamela added when he opened his mouth. “Come with me.” She strode down the line of parked cars in the opposite direction of the stadium, and Jamie trotted after her without a second glance in my direction.
I took a half step after them, but Brad laid a hand on my arm. “Prophecies are confidential.”
Pamela didn’t stop walking until they reached the end of the row and were almost hidden from sight by the line of vehicles. I leaned to see them better and knocked my head against the chain-link fence.
“Since when is Jamie a fortune-teller?”
“Since birth. He’s a pooka,” Brad said. “Didn’t the handbook inform you about pookas and prophecies?”
“Um, maybe?” I tried to remember Val’s exact wording.
“Check it again.” He turned to Rose, dismissing me. “Did she—”
“Pamela hasn’t allocated any portion of Isabel’s region to anyone,” Rose said.
“Who did you put to inquisition today?”
“Who didn’t we?” Rose tugged her pea coat tighter around her ample frame, popping the collar to shield her neck from a sharp breeze. Fanning silver nails through her long black hair, she pulled the thick mass over her shoulder to drape down her chest like a scarf.
“Did you get any strong impression from her reactions?” Brad asked.
“She liked a few people better than others, but I couldn’t tell if she’s planning on setting anyone up as a new warden.”
“What’d she feel about me during my inquisition?”
Rose stopped fussing with her coat and pinned my boss with a reproving stare. Brad flushed and grimaced.
“Never mind,” he said.
Rose nodded, as if he’d apologized. When they looked my way, I busied myself pulling Val from his strap and opening him across my palm.
In normal sight, every page in the handbook looked blank, like a journal waiting to be filled. Val’s true, quasi-animate nature only became apparent when viewed in Primordium. There, he glowed as bright as I did, his text as dark as normal ink. Black on a living creature meant atrum in every other instance, but on Val, it just made it easier to read his words. I wasn’t sure how that worked, but after I had accepted that a book could be sentient and talk—or write—for itself, I’d stopped worrying too much about the how.
Four words blasted across the page in an excited scrawl: THAT WAS PAMELA HENNESSEY!
“You know her?”
We met once. It was years ago, when she was a mere enforcer, and she told me a story about another handbook she’d known in England. She looks amazing now. Still sharp as a paper cut and strong enough in lux lucis to match even your pooka.
Having seen how much power Jamie could wield, I doubted it, but I didn’t contradict Val. I also didn’t correct his use of “your pooka” rather than Jamie’s name. The relationship between Val and Jamie existed only because both were tied to me. Otherwise my pure lux lucis handbook would never have deigned to associate with a half-atrum pooka.
Words continued to scrawl across Val’s page. Did you know Pamela’s worked on every continent but Antarctica? She speaks three languages and can read hieroglyphics. I think she’s the only person alive to have talked to every handbook.
I eyed the flourishes and curlicues on the fading text. “Does someone have a crush on our inspector?”
Grow up. It’s called respect.
I checked on Jamie, a trickle of unease ruining the delight I took in teasing Val. How long was the inspector going to keep Jamie sequestered down there? Would she put him to an inquisition? If she signaled Rose to join them, I vowed to tag along, too, no matter what Brad said.
I monitored Jamie long enough to be reassured by his calm energy; if he’d been upset, I’d have seen it in the fluid lux lucis and atrum lines of his soul.
“What can you tell me about pooka prophecies?” I asked Val.
Check under “pooka.”
Great, I’d tweaked his pride.
Hoping he wouldn’t pout too long, I flipped through his pages. While most remained blank even in Primordium—to be revealed as Val deemed me worthy of the information—a few held text and sketches. I skimmed past facts on citos, hounds, and imps, stopping when I reached the entry on pookas and rereading the last paragraph:
Pookas are always born in November. In some cultures, they are revered for their ability to bestow prophecies upon others regarding the next year’s events. Other cultures kill them outright.
The first time I’d read the entry, I’d been in shock, overwhelmed by witnessing the birth of a literally magical creature, and I’d skimmed right past Val’s information on prophecies. By the time I’d wrapped my head around Jamie’s ability to transform—at his discretion and seemingly without effort—from a mammoth to a Great Dane to human, I’d completely forgotten the sentence about prophecies. Rereading it now, I found myself less awed than puzzled: How did his ability to shift shapes relate to precognition? Those seemed like two separate types of magic.
I flipped back to Val’s first page.
“What sort of prophecies?”
The kind that foretell the future.
“But why can pookas see the future at all?” I asked, ignoring his sarcasm.
It has to do with their dual natures. Your pooka won’t always have the gift of foresight, but while he’s essentially balanced between good and evil, he’s tuned in to some of the turning points of the future. Val’s uptight handwriting loosened, the spacing between the words increasing. Not a lot is known about how a pooka can see the future, though. Maybe you should ask him about it.
Translation: Val wanted to know, but he didn’t want to talk to Jamie.
“Stay sharp,” Brad barked. “There’s a frost moth headed this way.”
Rose squeezed into the narrow space between me and Brad, eyes darting. “Where? How close? Is it on me?”
“You’re safe,” Brad said, patting Rose awkwardly on the arm. Despite working for the CIA alongside us, her skills as an empath made Rose no more able than a norm to see in Primordium.
“Maybe I should wait in the car.”
“You’re fine. Madison and I both have lighters. We won’t let it feed off you—or us.”
“I’d be more reassured if Madison looked prepared to do more than catch flies.”
I snapped my mouth shut, but I couldn’t tear my gaze from the approaching frost moth. With clumsy gloved fingers, I fumbled in my pocket for the lighter.
“It’s . . . blue,” I said. “Really, really blue.” In the monochromatic spectrum of Primordium, the frost moth’s ten-inch ice-blue wings glowed like twin neon signs as it coasted above a truck five cars away.
I’d seen color in Primordium before. I’d spent a good portion of last week stuck at the mall killing red and green emotion-manipulating spiderlike citos that existed exclusively in Primordium. However, every other creature I had encountered had been black, white, or a mottled combination thereof. I’d assumed citos were the singular exception.
I needed to stop making assumptions about Primordium.
“I don’t care what color it is,” Rose said. “You need to kill it dead before it touches me. Or you.” She prodded me in the ribs.
“That little creature is responsible for freezing Roseville?” I asked, batting her hand aside.
“That one, plus a couple thousand others,” Brad said.
“There are thousands? Where did they come from?”
“Empath hell,” Rose grumbled, rubbing her arms.
“They were already here,” Brad said. “As caterpillars, they burrow into the soil and trees where they’re undetectable to you and me. They can live for decades, maybe centuries in their cocoons, dormant until fire triggers their metamorphosis.”
“The salamanders did this?” We’d had a rash of blazes ignite across our region and the neighboring territories when Isabel had disseminated fire-breathing salamanders among our allies as part of her deranged master plan. They’d burned parkland and a Christmas tree stand in Roseville, and the blazes had escalated to wildfires in the foothills.
Brad nodded, his mouth twisting. “In a typical year, we’ll see a few dozen come out of firewood, and those die quickly once the temperature rises above forty degrees or so. With all the recent fires, we’re up to our fruity gumballs in frost moths, and they’ve shackled us with this fudgesicle weather just in time for an inspection.” He gave the hem of his coat a vicious yank but otherwise kept his expression serene and his tone mild.
It was unnerving, to say the least.
The moth fluttered its wings, twining upward before drifting back down in a lazy circle that carried it away from us.
“I think we’re safe,” I said for Rose’s benefit.
Shuddering, she muttered, “Damn it, Niko. Hurry your scrumptious butt up.”
“You said there are thousands. Where are the rest?” If any other neon-winged moths lurked among the cars, they would have been impossible to miss.
“They’re everywhere it’s cold, from the Sierra Nevada to Sacramento and all across our region.” Brad took in my distraught expression and added, “I don’t expect you to kill them all—just enough to warm up our region a few degrees.”
Well, so long as he wasn’t asking for the impossible. I eyed the miniature blowtorch in my palm. “If flames cause them to hatch, how is a lighter supposed to kill them? Won’t it make them stronger?”
“It’s the heat that kills them,” Pamela said, coming up behind us. “That’s why you have to net a moth.”
I did a double take on the inspector. Her soul didn’t fit within the confines of her body, like mine, and it didn’t have a shape, like a warden’s—her steely white energy bulged from her body in ill-defined protrusions. Beside her, Brad’s angular soul looked crisp and neat. Like all wardens’ souls, his jutted from his body in distinct angles, outlining the precise shape of his region. I noted the extra chunk of land we received when I had bonded Jamie, and the much larger projection of territory temporarily bequeathed to us until Pamela decided how to officially allocate Isabel’s old region. The entirety of Brad’s wonky soul glowed strong and steady, reassuring me that he’d fully acclimated to our larger territory.
In comparison, Pamela’s robust soul looked uncomfortable and lumpy. Maybe she simply had too much power to contain within the confines of her body.
Jamie squeezed in next to me, looking no worse for our separation. We shared reassuring smiles, though mine slid off my face under Pamela’s scrutiny. I tried to read her, but if she’d gotten good or bad news from Jamie, I couldn’t tell.
“Niko’s here,” Brad announced.
“He hasn’t left your region much in the last few weeks,” Pamela said.
I couldn’t help but read censure in her statement. Tucking my hands in my pockets, I shrugged deeper into my coat, sneaking a peek at Brad. The criticism slid right off my boss’s smooth composure, and when Pamela gave him a pointed look, he simply smiled and said, “Mmm,” the sound a perfect imitation of the inspector.
Pamela narrowed her eyes at him, but Brad’s poker face remained unchanged. Smiling to myself, I turned away.
The optivus aegis was easy to pick out among the gray cars, his soul gleaming pure white—and completely contained within the confines of his body, like mine and every other enforcer’s. He veered toward the frost moth when it descended on two teen girls loitering next to a sedan. Coasting on silent icy wings, the moth landed on the taller of the two girls and began to feed, its wings growing incrementally larger with each swallow.
Niko brushed past the girls, his hand darting out and capturing the moth in a maneuver blocked from sight by the car. When he stepped into the aisle, the moth had disappeared, dispatched out of sight.
Looking no worse for being fed upon, the girl turned to her companion, pulling her into a lusty kiss. The shorter teen returned her affection with equal passion, wrapping the taller woman in her arms. Both were oblivious to Niko.
“It’s been years,” Pamela said, offering Niko her hand when he reached us.
“It’s good to see you again, Inspector.”
Niko greeted the rest of us, his sharp eyes lingering on Jamie in an obvious assessment of the pooka’s soul. I received a far more impartial glance, and I strove to project an air of nonchalance, pretending my entire body hadn’t gone on high alert at first sight of him. Over six feet of sculpted, lean muscle tempered by confidence born of years of experience, Niko looked every inch an elite enforcer.
Not that I’d seen every inch of him.
Not that I would say no if he offered.
I shook my head, slamming the door on my imagination, which filled in pictures of his smooth naked chest, the rolling lines of his six-pack abs, the defined obliques guiding the eye straight down to his—
Gnaaah! Get ahold of yourself, Dice! The flush I’d been fighting crested my cheeks, and when I jerked my eyes from the fly of Niko’s jeans, my gaze collided with Rose’s. She grinned at me, fanning her face. I blushed all the harder, knowing she’d felt every nuance of my lust.
“You won’t be joining us, will you?” Pamela asked Niko, her tone indicating his answer better be no.
“You shouldn’t have tyver this low tonight. I’m on my way to Pollock Pines.”
“Good. Both of us in the same small region would be redundant.” She smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “Ah, here’s Summer.”
Summer Potts, my counterpart in the neighboring region to the south, stood at my elbow, close enough to pinch me, and it took all my self-control not to jump. With my attention laser-locked on Niko, I hadn’t noticed her approach, and Summer’s smirk told me she knew it.
“Madison doesn’t know how to make a lux lucis net. Will you teach her, Summer?” Not waiting for a response, Pamela turned to the others. “Let’s give them space.”
Niko, Rose, Brad, and Pamela tromped down the muddy strip a few feet to give us the illusion of privacy. Shoulders tight, Summer clamped her mouth shut and pivoted to face me. Anger lent definition to her prominent cheekbones, giving her naturally tan skin an attractive glow. Of course it did. Summer was everything I wasn’t, including vastly more experienced as an enforcer; why shouldn’t she also be beautiful when irritated? I’d once harbored a hope of becoming friends with her, but Summer’s expression said she’d rather crush me beneath her heel than talk to me.
Unfortunately, that had been my doing.
Chapter Four: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
“I feel really bad about the way it fell out last week,” I said, guilt worming through my gut at the memory. There hadn’t been time to apologize earlier, and I hoped it wasn’t too late. “I never intended to—”
“Save it, Madison.”
“I was trying to prevent the wardens from—”
“Don’t. Don’t make excuses. You gouged as much as you could from my region and my paycheck. Don’t try to sugarcoat it.”
From her paycheck? Had her warden docked her pay in some form of petty retribution? If so, that was between her and her boss.
“I’m sorry. I wasn’t—” I cut myself off this time, stopping before I said, I wasn’t thinking about you. Those weren’t the words of an apology, even if they were true. It’d been at my urging that Brad and I had expanded our region into Summer’s. At the time, I’d been too wrapped up in defending my position, my region, and my boss from the greedy manipulations of Summer’s warden to consider her reaction or her feelings.
Meeting her hard stare, I realized I would do it again, and the rest of my apology died on my tongue.
Summer tossed her long, ebony braid over her shoulder and grimaced. “Right. That’s what I thought. Take off your glove and hold out your hand.” She did as she instructed, extending her arm toward me, palm up.
Blinking to Primordium, I mirrored her, the cold air licking around my fingers and stealing their warmth. Summer flinched when Jamie copied us but kept her eyes fastened on me.
“When you’re first learning, it’s easiest to make a net in your hand. Focus on your palm and push lux lucis straight up, but not so hard that it loses its sticky.”
“Loses its sticky?” I echoed.
Without acknowledging she’d heard me, Summer gathered lux lucis in her hand until it flared twice as bright as the rest of her soul. Then a small bubble formed in the energy, lifting from her palm until it looked like she cloaked a tennis ball beneath her soul.
“Lux lucis wants to cling to your body or be released; it doesn’t want to be in limbo. The key is to use enough force to push the lux lucis away from your body while staying relaxed enough to keep it attached to you. The bubble shape happens naturally.”
Okay. Seemed simple enough.
I collected lux lucis in my raised palm, then projected it toward the sky. My hand flared like a miniature white sun, but the energy remained glued to my body.
“You have to use control,” Summer admonished. “Watch Niko.”
Surprised, I pivoted toward the other group. They stood in a loose square, Pamela facing Niko. Abruptly, Niko’s soul bubbled over his chest, swelling above his puffy coat in a uniform dome. My jaw dropped when Pamela raised her hands and thrust them into Niko’s soul.
In Primordium, both Niko and Pamela glowed with equal brightness. Yet the weird laws of this spectrum made it easy to distinguish the shape of Pamela’s small, ivory hands inside the white net protruding from Niko’s chest. Niko stood immobile, not even breathing. He didn’t look at Pamela, instead focusing his gaze over the inspector’s head, at the fence. When she cycled lux lucis around the misshapen outline of her soul, then up her right arm and into Niko, his jaw clenched, but otherwise he didn’t react. Lux lucis flowed down Pamela’s left arm, swirling around her soul again. I rubbed my breastbone to soothe a sympathetic unease, and the thick leather cord of the soul breaker tangled in my fingers.
The inspector stepped back, brushed her hands together, and declared Niko to be clean. He took a deep breath, his stiff expression slow to relax.
“What was that all about?” I whispered.
“That was a purity test. Brad should have taught you a net days ago and tested you.”
“But Niko isn’t bonded to a pooka. Why did Pamela test his purity?”
“Doesn’t Brad tell you anything? Everyone who came in contact with Isabel is undergoing a purity test and inquisition.” Summer tapped my outstretched palm. “Try again.”
Pamela recited her inquisition speech and began interrogating Niko, her crisp words carrying across the intervening distance. “Have you ever assisted anyone or any creature in moving, using, growing, or cultivating atrum of any kind in your life?”
“Never,” Niko answered.
“Truth,” Rose said.
I tuned them out and pushed lux lucis from my palm, succeeding in amassing an extreme amount of energy in my hand but not in creating a net.
Summer crossed her arms. “You can’t bulldoze your way through everything, Madison. This takes finesse. Cut back on the amount of energy and try again.”
Restricting the lux lucis in my hand, I nudged it toward the sky. A tiny fountain erupted from my palm, spewing bright white light a few inches into the air before the lux lucis fell back into my soul. The droplets tingled upon reentry. I repeated the move on purpose, because I hadn’t known it was possible. I’d always directed lux lucis at or into something, never into empty air.
“You’re pushing too hard,” Summer said.
I shook out my hand and tried again, refining my control. My soul bulged—
“Do you think Madison Fox is capable of handling her region at its temporarily inflated size?”
My concentration shattered, and the energy in my hand snapped back into place, my palm flaring bright. Summer and I both turned to hear Niko’s answer.
Did Pamela get sadistic pleasure out of potentially driving wedges into people’s relationships? Why else did she demand our candid assessments of each other when the recipients of our opinions were within hearing range? I hadn’t appreciated it when I’d been interrogated, and I didn’t appreciate it from my position in the audience either.
I appreciated it even less when Niko took his time responding.
It’s an easy question. Come on, Niko. Can I handle my region or not?
“Yes,” Niko finally said.
“Do you think Madison’s lack of experience presents a drain on your time or resources?”
Wow. Way to pull your punches, Pamela.
I wished Niko would elaborate. If he told the inspector I was an exceptional enforcer, it’d go a long way toward meeting Brad’s goal of impressing Pamela. Of course, if I were an exceptional enforcer, I wouldn’t need to rely on Niko’s praise to influence Pamela’s opinion.
“Why do you think you didn’t know Isabel was spreading evil?” Pamela asked.
The rumble of a car driving by drowned out his response. Summer blinked and refocused on me.
“Concentrate,” she ordered, as if she hadn’t been eavesdropping, too.
Sparing her a glare, I gave the lux lucis in my hand another push, not too hard, finding the balance. It reminded me of learning how to blow a bubble in gum, ferreting out the amount of pressure I could exert before it ripped. An infinitesimal gap lifted between the outline of my soul and my hand. Air wafted through it, tangible and startling, and my soul snapped back to my body.
Summer gasped, and I looked up with a grin, half expecting praise, only to follow her wide-eyed gaze to Jamie. The pooka balanced a net the size of a beach ball on his right palm. Atrum and lux lucis swirled across the surface like a black-and-white rainbow on the outside of a soap bubble; then the atrum slid down the sides, leaving a net of solid lux lucis.
“Show-off,” I said, more for Summer’s benefit than Jamie’s. I’d seen him cast a much larger net of atrum before, though at the time I hadn’t known the correct terminology. He’d used it to sully a teacup Yorkie, turning her into the world’s smallest hound. I’d convinced Jamie to eradicate the atrum he’d forced on the dog, which he’d done with equal ease.
Beaming at me, Jamie brought his left hand up to cup the bulging lux lucis between his palms. When he pulled his hands apart, a separate net wreathed each palm, one black, one white.
“Now you’re just trying to make me look bad,” I said, watching Summer backpedal in my periphery. “Any tips?”
Jamie shrugged. “It’s like starting to shift but stopping partway.”
“Since I’ve only got the one form, that’s not terribly helpful.”
Jamie spread his arms wide and inflated his nets until they touched. The amount of atrum contained in the far one would be enough to seriously harm Summer or me, yet he didn’t show any strain. I should have been alarmed, but I knew Jamie was just playing around.
Summer stumbled against the bumper behind her, the pop of plastic loud in the silence. All conversation in the other group had ceased, and Niko loomed in front of Brad and Rose, Pamela right beside him, both locked on Jamie with equal intensity. The optivus aegis probably had a dozen weapons hidden on his person and the reflexes to use them against the pooka before I could intervene. Who knew what Pamela could do.
“Can you put those away? They make it hard to concentrate.” I heard the strain in my voice and cleared my throat.
Jamie reined in his soul, unaware of his audience. “Your first try wasn’t completely pathetic,” he said.
“Thank you. That’s very gracious.” Sarcasm helped steady me. I lifted my palm for another attempt at a normal-size net, monitoring Pamela and Niko through my lashes. I couldn’t cobble together my concentration until their conversation resumed.
Summer remained as far away from us as the cars allowed.
I coaxed a net into existence, this one the size of a tangerine. Pleased, I drew my hand to my face and examined the gap between my skin and the dome of my soul. It wasn’t empty, like I had expected. Lux lucis swirled inside the bubble like a metaphysical snow globe.
Rose’s stiletto boots clacked like castanets across the pavement, pulling my attention from my soul gazing. She yanked open her car door and jumped in. The door hadn’t closed behind her before the engine turned over and she backed out, pulling her seat belt on as she drove away.
“Is everything okay?” I asked Brad as he, Niko, and Pamela rejoined us.
“She’s had a long day,” Brad said.
Pamela pointed to my hand, where a tiny net still bulged from my palm. “Now do that over your heart.”
I fumbled through a half dozen attempts, clumsy under the scrutiny of Niko, Brad, and Pamela, keenly aware of the gap between my actions and the desired goal of impressing her. Only Jamie appeared uninterested. He rummaged through the bag in the backseat of the Civic, pulling out a granola bar and opening it with a crinkle. Perversely, his distracting sounds helped me forget about Pamela and Niko judging me. My soul swelled a few inches above my breastbone.
“Hold it.” Pamela stepped into my personal space and placed her hands on my chest.
I barely had time to brace for the intrusion of a stranger’s palms on the upper swell of my breasts, let alone the greater intimacy of her touching my soul, before her hands slid inside my net. Dizziness spiraled through my chest at her there/not-there touch. Clinging to the net, I focused on Pamela’s stern mouth, her subtle crow’s-feet, her pencil-darkened brows, and fought against the urge to jerk clear of her touch.
Then Pamela pulsed lux lucis through her hands, and my awareness imploded, following the path of her energy as it invaded my skin, muscles, nerves, and cells. The next pulse collected bits of lux lucis from me, sampling and recycling them. Rifling through bits and pieces of me.
My soul crawled beneath my skin.
When Pamela withdrew her hands, my net snapped back to my body, and I stumbled against the chain-link fence.
“Easy there.” Pamela steadied me with a hand on my arm. “You’re clean.”
Rose’s hasty departure made sense now: Shadowing Pamela all day had forced her to endure not only a procession of uncomfortable inquisitions but also the emotional distress of dozens of purity tests; I’d have run to escape the nauseating ordeal of another one, too.
Half-eaten granola bar forgotten, Jamie pushed to my side, and Pamela backed up so smoothly it didn’t look like a retreat. Inky swirls of atrum curled over skittering waves of lux lucis within the confines of the pooka’s body, telegraphing Jamie’s agitation. I reached for his bare hand, and the moment we touched, he altered his soul so I made contact with lux lucis. He smiled and I returned it without holding his gaze. In Primordium, his eyes whirled in hypnotic spirals of black and white, and staring too long made me dizzy.
I gave his fingers a squeeze, then released them; holding hands in front of the inspector wouldn’t project confidence or authority. However, the brief contact did the trick, and his soul’s energies calmed. Touching had helped steady me, too, and I savored the return of my equilibrium as I tugged on the glove I’d removed for Summer’s lesson.
“Okay, we’ve got drones to kill and—”
My phone blasted Shakira’s “Ready for the Good Times” from my pocket, interrupting the inspector. Bridget.
Normally I would have let my best friend’s call go to voice mail, but Bridget lived in my region, and this job cultivated paranoia. Yesterday we’d made a pact to dissect my date with Alex, and a low-level worry had settled in my gut when I hadn’t been able to reach her earlier.
“Sorry. I need to take this,” I said, stepping away from the group. Jamie trailed after me, crunching his way through the granola bar. Brad scowled, his fingers strangling each other, but he smoothed his expression when Pamela turned toward him.
“Hello, this is Madison,” I said, unnecessarily formal and hushed. No need to project the nature of my call to the inspector.
“Dice! I’m so glad you answered. Today’s been hell. Some first-year got caught in the supply closet with an intern’s face up her skirt, and the partners decided to punish us all with a mandatory five-hour sexual harassment and office etiquette training session today, on a Saturday. The only thing that got me through those horrid videos from the nineties was looking forward to hearing about your date with the luv doctor.”
“‘Face up her skirt’?” Jamie parroted loud enough to turn Summer’s head.
My eyes bulged. Thumbing the volume down on my cell, I put my finger to my lips, my relief to discover Bridget safe and sound swallowed by a flush of mortification. Jamie and I so weren’t ready for a conversation about oral sex.
“Hello? Are you there?”
“Oh crap. The date wasn’t terrible, was it?”
I glanced over my shoulder. Brad’s glare should have drilled a hole through my forehead. “Uh, no. I would give the experience high marks.”
“Is something evil gnawing on you?” Bridget asked, her tone caught between alarm and disapproval.
I snorted. “Not at the moment.” Unlike my family or most of my friends, Bridget knew every detail of my crazy life, up to and including my ability to use lux lucis to kill evil creatures she couldn’t see. The most amazing part was she believed me.
“I thought humans didn’t sniff each other’s crotches,” Jamie said.
“They don’t,” I hissed, covering the phone’s receiver with one hand.
“Did I just hear a man?” Bridget asked.
Scratch that. Bridget knew almost every detail of my crazy life. I hadn’t, however, had time yet to explain a shape-shifting pooka to her, let alone the bond connecting Jamie and me. I didn’t want to do it over the phone, either, especially not with my boss, my boss’s boss, and my boss-mentor Niko a few feet away.
“Then why else would someone have their head up—”
I snatched the last bite of granola from Jamie’s hand and stuffed it into his mouth, then hunched over my phone, cupping my hand around the receiver for privacy.
“Do you remember the inspector I told you was coming? I’m training with her tonight. Like right now.”
“Shoot! Why didn’t you say so? I’ll let you go—”
“Wait. Do me a favor. Stay indoors tonight.”
“What type of evil creature is it this time?”
This was why I adored Bridget: It didn’t matter how insane I sounded; she took it in stride.
“Something called a soul thief. I’ll explain tomorrow.”
Niko strode past me, a reproving look accompanying his nod farewell. A cold ping of guilt zipped through my body, blossoming to alarm when I checked on the others and found them all waiting on me.
“And tell me about your date? Over lunch?” Bridget asked.
“Deal. Gotta go.”
“Who’s Bridget?” Jamie asked when I hung up.
“My best friend from college.” I squeezed past him, eager to get back to the others before Brad burst a blood vessel. “I’ll introduce you tomorrow. I think you’ll like her.”
Jamie grinned and bounced after me. Tomorrow would be interesting, especially for Bridget.
“Keep me apprised of any changes,” Pamela said to Brad as I rejoined them.
“Of course.” Dismissed, he departed with one last bug-eyed look for me and a mouthed “Impress her.”
Without waiting, Pamela marched toward the stadium, and Summer, Jamie, and I rushed to catch up. The inspector took a winding route, detouring to intercept a wayward frost moth that had homed in on a group of teens clustered at the rear of a minivan. The matching lines of their clothing and the blocky letter V sewn into their jackets proclaimed them all to be members of the Oakmont High Vikings band. Oblivious to everything except each other, they squealed and yelled and jostled, making a general ruckus for ruckus’s sake.
Jamie slowed, enticed by their chaotic camaraderie. Glancing between him and the high schoolers, I realized the pooka would have no trouble fitting in with them. Full of energy, half evil, and more than a little reckless, Jamie embodied the spirit of a teenager.
It made me feel old.
Telling myself it wasn’t a bad thing—that with age came maturity and freedom—I examined the teens’ souls. Every one of them exhibited a classic norm soul, their accumulated immoral actions splashed in stagnant shades of gray and black across otherwise pristine white lux lucis. Humans—normal humans, not enforcers and wardens and people who worked for the CIA—always had patchwork souls. I’d never met a norm over the age of ten who didn’t have some gray on her soul, and by the time most people reached their fifties, usually their entire souls were pewter. Or darker.
I’d learned not to judge gray. Gray was the human equivalent of Jamie—some good, some bad. Absolute black atrum was another matter, and I steered wide around the one teen with ebony veins running up her knuckles to her elbows.
Grabbing Jamie’s arm, I urged him to catch up with the others. The moth followed, drawn by the lure of three pure white souls and one mesmerizing pooka.
“Summer, why don’t you show Madison how to exterminate a frost moth,” Pamela said, stopping several car lengths from the boisterous band members. The moth ghosted closer on silent, intangible wings, and Summer jostled me aside to put herself in its path.
“How evil are they?” I asked. From afar, the moth had appeared solid blue, but now I could see its body hung atrum-black between its radiant wings.
“Mostly harmless,” Pamela said. “It would take a long feeding or an absurd number of frost moths to taint a norm, but it could happen. In an average winter, they might not even warrant your attention. Can you see what she’s doing?”
I stepped to the side for a better angle. Summer formed a softball-size net in her palm and swept her hand through the moth, miring it inside the energy of her soul. I cringed. Allowing Pamela’s lux lucis inside mine had been awful; the thought of trapping living atrum in such an intimate cage made my stomach twist.
Lowering her arm, Summer turned to face us and drew a lighter from her pocket. The moth dipped its dark head and fastened its tiny mouth on Summer’s soul just above her wrist. As it fed, its wings fanned in lazy beats, generating an icy draft that stirred my hair and chilled my cheeks.
Impossible. The frost moth existed solely in Primordium. I could pass my hand right through it. It shouldn’t have been able to affect the physical world. And yet . . .
And yet, how else would the moths have lowered the entire region’s temperature?
“Even the cooling weather wouldn’t be a problem if not for the timing.” Pamela’s tone took on a lecturing quality. “But combined with the sjel tyver migration, it’s disastrous. The tyver will push as far south as feasible, which means they’ll be crawling over this region in no time. Normally tyver will migrate no lower than the high Sierras, and the regions up there have measures in place to protect their inhabitants. Down here, the best you guys have is the moderate help of a tragically thinned prajurit population and your palmquells. With all these frost moths bringing record lows to Roseville and more people than ever using their fireplaces, it’s going to be a tough fight.”
Her comment about fireplaces seemed random until I remembered Val’s explanation about tyv reproduction. According to the handbook, tyver had evolved alongside humans, adopting our survival techniques for their gain, most blatantly by co-opting our fires as spawning grounds for their young. Tyv larvae required a cycling hot-and-cold environment for metamorphosis, which made our fireplaces their preferred hatching grounds. Extending their migration as far south as possible proved another tried and true tyv survival tactic; the farther south a tyv drone hatched, the more opportunities it had to feed on human souls during its inaugural migration back to the arctic tundra.
Summer clicked the button on her lighter. Nothing appeared to happen; like other natural forms of light, fire wasn’t visible in Primordium, though a quick blink to normal sight confirmed a cone of blue-red flame extended from the lighter’s nozzle. Without being able to see the snared frost moth, it looked as if Summer were posing for Pyro Magazine, her “empty” hand cupped beneath the slender black lighter, her upper hand holding the flame steady.
I blinked to Primordium to check the frost moth’s reaction. The evil insect fluttered its wings, but trapped in Summer’s net, it couldn’t escape. As fast as a snowflake would melt against a flame, the moth shrank until its entire dark body disappeared inside the bubble of Summer’s soul. Summer collapsed the net, and like a magic trick, the frost moth vanished.
“Whoa!” Jamie brushed past me, his hand reaching for the air beneath the disintegrated frost moth.
I blinked to normal sight and gawked at the flurry of white powder drifting from Summer’s hand. Jamie caught a piece on his glove, drawing it to his face. I leaned close to examine it with him. It wasn’t lux lucis made visible in the normal spectrum, as I’d first assumed. It was snow.
Before I could stop him, Jamie lifted his glove to his mouth and touched his tongue to the flake. It melted upon contact.
“Wicked cool,” he exclaimed.
My mouth curled in horror. Consuming the remains of an evil creature couldn’t be healthy. It definitely wasn’t hygienic.
Glancing around to see Pamela’s reaction, my gaze snagged on Summer. She watched Jamie, or rather, she watched Jamie’s lips, and the intensity of her stare didn’t look like a woman grossed out by seeing him eat flakes of a frost moth’s carcass or like an enforcer suspicious of all things pooka. She looked . . . hungry.
Summer stalked toward Jamie, smooth as a mountain lion after prey. Alarm bells clanged in my head. I stepped forward, breaking her fixation on the pooka. Pinning me with a venomous glare, she curled her fingers into a fist around her lighter and cocked back her arm.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m going to—”
Pamela slid between us and laid a gentle hand on Summer’s elbow, turning her toward the stadium. “Lead the way.”
Something hot flared in Summer’s eyes, then died. She gave herself a shake, and when she glanced over her shoulder at Jamie, mistrust tightened her expression once more. Whatever had been going through her head a moment ago, she’d safely tucked it out of sight.
“Keep up, Madison,” Pamela said before falling into step with Summer.
Frowning, I trailed after them, nudging Jamie to get him moving when a costumed mascot running down the next aisle distracted him.
“What the hell just happened?” I whispered to Val, discreetly tugging him from his strap and opening him.
Nothing. Just like nothing happened the minute before that and the minute before that and the minute before that and the—
I gave him a shake. “Val, come on. Right now, something happened with Summer.”
“Val . . .”
How hard is it for you to hand me to Pamela?
“It’s proving very difficult since you won’t tell me anything I want to know,” I hissed, holding the spine of the book against my lips so he could hear my teeth grit.
If I tell you, you’ll let me talk to her?
I waited for more words to appear, feet dragging to allow the gap to widen between me and the inspector. “Val . . .”
Frost moth. Frost moth. Frost moth. Flip the page already.
Oh. I thumbed ahead to his entry on frost moths. Next to a black-and-white sketch of a moth sat a succinct paragraph. I skimmed over the description to the heart of the short entry:
Frost moths consume cooler emotions as they feed. This drain on a person’s calming sentiments, such as logic and patience, creates an emotional vacuum—one that is typically filled with a person’s hotter emotions until she stabilizes.
“The moth made her angry?” I asked, remembering Summer’s clenched fist.
Anger hadn’t been her emotion when she’d looked at Jamie, though.
Pamela. Now. You promised.
“Yes, Master,” I said, sure Val would miss my sarcasm.
Picking up my pace, I joined Summer and Pamela at the back of the ticket line and waited until their conversation came to a natural lull.
“Pamela, do you have a moment to speak with Val?”
I held the handbook up. “Valentine, er, Valentinus Aurelius.” He’d introduced himself as such, though I suspected he’d made up the pompous name to make himself sound important. Fortunately, he’d been pleased at being given a nickname, and I’d been calling him Val since.
“Ah. I remember this book.” Pamela took Val from me and ran her gloved fingertips over the colorful ribbons on his cover. “It’s looking much healthier than the last time I saw it. Kudos to you, Madison.”
“Thank you. He’s been eager to be reacquainted with you.” I crossed my fingers that Val would play it cool.
She opened him and a flurry of words flowed across his page, but the angle prevented me from reading it. Whatever he said made Pamela chuckle and Summer glare at me.
“That’s incredibly flattering,” Pamela said, speaking to Val. “And what is your assessment of Madison?”
Of course she would ask that first. Val’s response was much shorter this time, and Summer laughed, covering it with a cough when Pamela shot her a look. I crossed my arms and pretended I wasn’t straining to read Val’s text. I should have reminded him we were supposed to be impressing the inspector, not airing grouchy opinions.
“I meant as a companion for you,” Pamela said, and the mirth in her voice stiffened my spine.
A trio of trumpet-toting teens pushed the wrong way through the line, jostling me against Jamie and ruining my chance to eavesdrop on Val and Pamela’s conversation. Settling back on my heels, I surveyed the crowd. Swap out the Vikings insignia on the stadium walls with Berkeley yellow jackets and add in another thousand people, and this could have been a commonplace scene from my high school days. Jamie, however, bounced on his toes, enthralled by the crisp winter air scented with competing aromas of caramel corn and nachos, the band’s music thumping through the stadium, and the jazzed-up crowd singing along.
A group of girls slowed to give Jamie a frank appraisal—which he completely missed, just as they appeared oblivious to my glare. I recognized Jamie qualified as “hot” by most women’s standards. I wasn’t blind. His striking golden eyes shadowed by thick, dark lashes were enough to turn heads, but combined with the kind of square jawline cartoonists loved to exaggerate and a devil-may-care smile, and he earned a phenomenal number of second glances. But when I looked at him, I saw a five-day-old pooka who needed protection. Even from horny teenage girls.
Dang it; I was back to feeling old.
I shoved my hands into my pockets, fighting the urge to whisk Jamie back to the car. I recognized the bond’s manipulation in the extreme reaction. Jamie wasn’t in danger here. If anything, he represented a threat to everyone else.
“Interesting,” Pamela said, openly talking to the handbook and managing not to look crazy in the process. “I would love to learn what you’ve been up to since we last talked, but right now, we’ve got work to do.” Pamela handed Val back to me with a rueful shake of her head. “I do so love the ones that still have their personalities.”
We reached the front of the line, and Summer stepped forward to pay the ticket taker. I used the opportunity to peek inside Val. His comments about me or anything else he and Pamela had discussed were gone. In their place were three exuberant words.
She remembered me!
“You’re hard to forget,” I grumbled before sliding him back into his strap. I’d ferret out what he said about me later. Forking over a twenty to the teen behind the booth, I accepted two tickets and handed the extra to Jamie.
“We should get food,” Jamie decided, eyeing the concession stand. If he’d been in his Great Dane form, his tail would have wagged right off his body.
I tugged him after Pamela. “Maybe later. Right now, we need to focus on impressing the inspector.”
“I could impress her with how much I can eat.”
“I don’t think that’s what Brad had in mind,” I said, but the idea made me grin.
A dozen frost moths fluttered around the outskirts of the crowd at the concession stand. They lit upon people walking alone or in pairs, feeding for a few seconds at a time before flapping to the next person. Each time they ate, their wings grew, and more than one frost moth flew on wings larger than hubcaps.
Pamela ignored them, weaving through the milling people until she reached a pocket of empty space at the edge of the stadium. Steep bleachers lined one side of the football field, the aluminum benches packed with patchwork-norm souls. A marching band danced across the field, a hundred teens playing at earsplitting volume. Without walls and people in the way, the brassy notes of Beyoncé’s latest hit bombarded my eardrums. Baton twirlers and flag wavers circled the band in nonstop, spinning accompaniment, but their energetic antics couldn’t compete with the acrobatic feats of the tyv drones above the stands.
My fingers tightened on Jamie’s arm. Seeing the sketches of drones in Val hadn’t prepared me for the real deal. With wingspans as wide as my stretched arms and two-foot-long barbs projecting from their triangular heads, the drones looked like cartoon monsters come to life as they skimmed through the stands, striking victim after victim, their translucent abdomens swelling bright with lux lucis.
Jamie tugged at my fingers, and I released my death grip with a distracted apology. Summer said something, but her words were lost under the concussive beat of the drum section. Pamela pointed to her ear and shook her head, then gestured for us to circle behind the stadium.
I hesitated before following her. I didn’t want to turn my back on the drones—or all the innocent victims—but I also didn’t have a clue how to proceed.
“How can they hold that much lux lucis without dying?” I asked. Some of the drones’ bloated abdomens looked close to bursting. Consuming such large quantities of lux lucis should have countered their body’s atrum and killed them.
Pamela didn’t answer until the concrete wall of the restroom building stood between us and the band. “The sac in their abdomen allows them to metabolize the lux lucis at a manageable rate. Plus, the energy they steal is more than the surface lux lucis an imp or the like might take from a person. Tyver and drones cut deeper. That’s why a tyv can steal the entirety of your soul or whole memories from a norm. Drones are weaker, so they take only inhib—” Pamela cut herself off, her whole body tensing.
I spun, expecting a Kamikaze drone. Instead, I saw Jamie. He’d roamed a few yards away to a cluster of granite boulders edging a landscaped flower bed, and he jumped along the rocks with the enthusiasm of a goat, testing out his new hiking boots. Despite the crowds, no one paid him much attention. I suspected he wasn’t the first person to climb over those rocks, probably not even the first person tonight.
He was, however, the first pooka to do so, and imps came out of the metaphysical woodwork when they spotted him.
Shaped like sable chinchillas with bodies of coalesced atrum and very little brain matter, imps were the least threatening evil creature in existence. Discounting their disproportionately large mouths filled with rows of sharp teeth and their propensity to view me as a snack, imps were actually cute. Jamie thought so, too, which was the problem. Letting him play fun uncle with a herd of imps was exactly the sort of display Brad had warned me to avoid in front of the inspector.
Crap. I should have anticipated this. Crowds attracted atrum creatures, and atrum creatures couldn’t resist Jamie, imps least of all.
A handful of imps bounced up the boulders and leapt for Jamie’s legs, climbing his body like squirrels up a tree. Each sank their teeth into him as often as claws, but Jamie didn’t allow them to feed off his soul. He even went so far as to restructure his energy so atrum coated him from head to toe, hiding all his lux lucis beneath it. I had seen this transformation before, but it always stole my breath. Standing atop the boulder, his body a dark silhouette of pure atrum, Jamie looked as sinister as a demon and twice as powerful.
The first of the imps reached Jamie’s shoulders, and he sent them tumbling down his arms to his hands, where he windmilled them and launched them into the sky. The imps flew through the air, mouths open in unmistakable glee. Before they’d begun to fall back to earth, Jamie launched another handful.
Menacing, my pooka was not.
Smiling, I turned to explain his actions to the inspector, but my words died in my throat. Pamela’s tense posture hadn’t changed, but while I’d been distracted, she’d materialized a vicious hunting knife from somewhere on her person. Even more terrifying, she looked prepared to use it—on Jamie.