This story is also available for download from major ebook retailers.
“No! Olga!” I whirled at the sound of my brother-in-law’s panicked shout. My name hasn’t been Olga for more than a century, but that’s how he first knew me. I smelled diesel fuel and felt a wave of pure power knock me off my feet, sending me flying backward an instant before a car bomb blew, taking out most of the café and a fair portion of the street. I hit the pavement hard, back first, knocking the breath from my lungs. My head hit next, and the world went dark.
* * *
I came to lying in the center of a circle trap. The silver circle with its golden pentagram was fastened—by magic and mechanics—to the stone floor of a dungeon. I’d never been in “the deeps” before, but I was betting that’s where I was—one of the maximum-security prison floors maintained by the Guard. The magical version of the police, the Guard works hard to keep regular humans from catching on to our existence.
I tried to sit up. It was a mistake. My vision swam in streamers, my stomach clenching and heaving. Luckily I hadn’t eaten recently, so I only vomited a nasty little puddle of bile. My head felt as if it had been split with an axe. I reached for healing power without thinking about it and was rewarded for my efforts by a surge of magic like an electric current pouring through my body. I screamed and passed out.
The next time I woke, I was not alone.
“Olga Petrovic.” Valentin Chrischenko spit my original name out like a curse. For him it probably was one. Valentin and I had quite a history. Once upon a time our parents had arranged for us to wed. We managed to escape that particular horror, but only barely. How many hundred years later, he hadn’t changed much at all. He was still short and bandy-legged, with heavy features and a wild mane of coarse black hair. His dark eyes held the flecks of red that were one sure signal of a fire mage. Judging from the way he was glaring down his nose at me, he hadn’t lost one whit of his pride or arrogance. “You are here for questioning regarding terrorist acts resulting in the deaths of humans and the deaths of wizards Nadya Petrovic Hunter and Special Agent Roger Hunter.”
Nadya . . . Roger . . . dead. My head swam, and this time it wasn’t the concussion. Tears flowed down my cheeks. Nadya—sweet, beautiful Nadya, my baby sister—and oh God, Roger. Both, gone. Their poor daughter.
“That is what you are going to tell us.” He gestured toward a darkened corner of the room. There were shapes there, but I couldn’t tell through the obscuring spell whether they were even human, let alone who they might be.
I stared up at him, vision blurred by tears. He really believed I’d had something to do with this? Was he insane? I would never . . . “I want to speak with a Defender.”
“You have not been charged. Yet you ask for a Defender?” In anger his speech was taking on the old Russian accent. I still sounded fully American, but then again, I’d been away from Mother Russia for a very long time. After a couple of hundred years even the thickest accent wears down.
“If you are the investigating officer and the one conducting this interview? Hell, yes.”
His face flushed, his hands clenching and unclenching in an unconscious gesture of pure rage. Making him angry wasn’t going to be helpful, but I was not going to give testimony in front of Valentin—and whoever was hidden in the corner—without a representative.
I lay silently in the spotlight, waiting for them to fetch a defense counselor. It wouldn’t take long, since the Investigation, Prosecution, and Defense departments are all conveniently located in the same building.
I used the brief pause to try to recover from Valentin’s devastating news. I loved Nadya, and Roger had grown nearly as dear to me over the years of their marriage. The pain of losing them was far worse than my physical injuries. And those were not insignificant.
I’ve been in worse shape–not often, mind you. My long auburn hair was matted and crusted with blood from a scalp wound. I had a concussion at least, perhaps even a skull fracture. There were deep cuts and bruises wherever skin showed, and the pain I felt every time I drew breath spoke of cracked or broken ribs. Whether or not there was internal bleeding was something I’d need my magic to read. As an earth mage, healing is my gift, but at the moment, my powers were locked away from me by the circle trap. It was clear that my captors hadn’t bothered to have me examined. That meant that they either (a) didn’t know what they were doing or (b) didn’t care whether I lived or died.
Probably (b). Roger was a cop. He’d been popular, and he’d been killed in the line of duty. If they truly thought I was responsible . . .well, why waste the energy healing me up just to face the executioner?
But why on Earth did they suspect me? I love Nadya and Roger both . . . loved. I felt a stab of pain at the correction. Loved.
I’m not a criminal. But, to be honest, out of the five hundred or so people with mage gifts, I would probably come close to topping the list of the ten most irritating. I am opinionated, vocal, and talented. Not a combination to instill love in those in authority.
But for me—or any magic-worker—to use a car bomb made no sense. Why would a practitioner of any power at all use a mundane method? It was crude. And wasteful. How many ordinary humans had that bomb taken out along with the intended magical victims? How does one even go about building a bomb? I hadn’t a clue. But if I was being set up for multiple murder, I’d wager a fair amount they’d found plans for the bomb somewhere among my belongings.
If I wanted to kill someone I’d just call a duel and be done with it. Any earth mage worth the title could cause the heart to stop in your chest or make buildings fall and crush someone. I could do more and worse with little effort.
Right now, though, I was tapped out. Two successive earthquakes in Haiti and Chile had taken the power right out of me. I’d thrown everything I had into stabilizing the underlying pressures to minimize aftershocks. In fact, I was so worn out that my older sister Ana had ordered one of her apprentices, Piotr Chrischenko, Valentin’s only child, to transport me to her apartment in New York. And oh, hadn’t that trip been awkward.
A shimmer of light parted the shadows in the corner for just a second and a man stepped through. He was gorgeous. Under any other conditions I would’ve just stared, admiring the view. Because he was definitely worth a long look. Tall, six four at least, with a muscular build that was enhanced by the cut of his very expensive gray suit. His hair was dark blond, worn longer than was currently fashionable, and tousled, as if he’d been running his hands through it. You’d think with that hair he’d have blue eyes, but he didn’t. They were gray, the gray of storm clouds, with the flecks of metallic silver of an air worker. He reeked of power.
“Why has she not been healed? Or at least put in a position to heal herself?” His words dripped disgust and were aimed at those who watched from the darkness. He was ignoring Valentin. It was a deliberate insult, and not a slight one. Duels have been fought for less.
Of course Valentin reacted. He couldn’t not. He did not, however, call the other mage out. “Under the circumstances . . .”
“I’m sorry,” my defense counsel said as he moved to stand toe to toe with Valentin, “but as with American law, our law states that Olga Petrovic is considered innocent until found guilty. As such she is entitled to immediate medical attention for any life-threatening injury.” He shook his head. “This”—he gestured around the room—“is barbaric.”
“And what makes you believe she hasn’t received treatment?”
“Even from here I can see that her left pupil is blown.”
Valentin hissed. As a fire mage he wasn’t a healer, but even he knew enough about head injuries to know how bad that was. With a gesture and a muttered curse he released the circle trap and called for an earth mage.
“Tell me everything.” My counselor, Alex Curtis, sat in a chair next to my bed in the small hospital that serves those mages injured too badly to be healed in one sitting. He had a netbook on his lap and was poised to take notes.
“A few weeks ago I was taking a nap when I was jolted awake by something. It was earth magic, but it was wrong. Amazingly powerful but completely uncontrolled. And it didn’t have a signature I knew.”
Alex looked at me quizzically. “Why would it?”
“I know most of the earth workers, and I know all the ones with that level of power. Seconds later, the earthquake hit Haiti.”
He nodded, signaling for me to continue as his fingers tapped furiously across the keys.
“I called Ana, my older sister, to see if she’d felt it. She had, and though she also didn’t know who was behind it, she was already gearing up her team to investigate and do disaster relief. I told her I wanted to go with her. We both felt that there was something wrong about the quake.”
“One of her apprentices, an air worker named Piotr, transported me to Ana’s camp outside of Port au Prince.” I paused, at a loss for words. It had been hell on earth. The smell of dust and blood; the air ringing with screams of pain, cries for help, and wails of mourning; the ground shifting beneath me as buildings creaked and groaned from strain, threatening to collapse.
And someone had caused that misery.
In that moment, I’d hated with a holy passion. If I could’ve found the bastard who’d done it . . . well, I’m not sure what I would have done, but whatever it was, it wouldn’t have been bad enough. Not nearly bad enough to pay for the carnage I had witnessed.
“Ana and her apprentices were part of the relief effort. Ana, JoAnn, and Connie, the earth mages, were healing the injured; Robbie, the water mage, was purifying water for them and for people to drink. Piotr, the air mage, was transporting supplies. My job was to stabilize the ground beneath us. I couldn’t stop the aftershocks entirely. The tectonic plates were too damaged. But I could release the stress into unpopulated areas whenever possible. And while I worked I tried to find something, anything, that would tell me who had done this . . . this . . . evil.”
“Not really. The magic was . . . strange . . . wrong. As if the power was being used by someone who shouldn’t be able to use it, and thus couldn’t control it.”
“What did you do?”
“What could I do? I contacted Roger.” Technically I could have reported my suspicions to any of the authorities, but I knew and respected my brother-in-law. He’d take me seriously and push others to look into it thoroughly.
“Then I did my best at earthworking until I was magically exhausted. After that I helped with the relief efforts any way I could. I’d still be there if Ana hadn’t had Piotr drag me back to New York. Where I learned that she’d called Nadya and told her to keep an eye on me.”
“So why were you meeting your sister and brother-in-law at the restaurant?”
“Nadya called just a few minutes after I arrived. She said she needed to talk to me. Katarina, my niece, was in trouble.” I blinked back tears, but my voice was steady. I wanted to mourn my sister, and avenge her. But to do either I needed to survive.
“What kind of trouble?”
“I don’t know. She was going to tell me over lunch.”
“Could Katarina have done the working that caused the earthquakes?”
I shook my head. “Not a chance. She’s still young enough to be clumsy, but not like that. And she wouldn’t have the power.” Unless . . .
He opened his mouth to ask the next question, but I waved him to silence. A terrible thought had occurred to me. I hoped I was wrong. Surely Kat wouldn’t have . . . Then again, she was sixteen, powerful, and rebellious as hell.
I threw off the covers and climbed out of the bed. I wasn’t moving well. They’d only healed the worst of the injuries, and I didn’t have enough energy left to do much more than normal human healing on my own. It didn’t matter. If I was wrong, I’d have a longer recovery and look like a fool. If I was right . . . Dear God, don’t let me be right.
I yanked open one of a pair of drawers and pulled out my clothing. As I strode into the bathroom I said, “There’s a spell—a very old, evil spell. It uses murder to steal a mage’s power. Get Valentin. We need to go to Roger and Nadya’s loft. Now.”
“I do not like this,” Valentin grumbled. He’d been grumbling since Alex had dragged him out of bed at my behest. It had taken a couple of hours to get me released and obtain authorization to come here. After two hours of listening to Valentin’s complaints I was even more grateful than usual that we hadn’t wound up married.
Much of the delay had been Valentin’s fault. He had refused to let me leave the hospital until his assistants had checked out my story. Once they’d contacted Ana and Piotr and verified that I couldn’t possibly have had time to build and plant the bomb, I’d been released. Since I wasn’t technically under arrest, I didn’t have to include him in what I was about to do, but I wanted him there. First, he was an official with the Guard and could get us past any spells guarding the house. Second, he’d give our mission legitimacy if I was right.
That didn’t mean I was enjoying having him along. “Will you just stop?” I snarled. “It’s not like I’m enjoying this any more than you are. I need to make sure the grimoires are still protected. Nadya and Roger were guarding them for me.” I didn’t say what I feared, that one or both of the books were missing.
Valentin paled and began swearing under his breath in Russian. I hadn’t heard those particular phrases in a while, but they’re fairly memorable. I almost smiled.
“What’s so important about these grimoires?” Alex asked.
Valentin responded, saving me the trouble. Just as well, since I was busy taking down the wards. They were complex, and while they wouldn’t kill us, they’d put us back in the hospital if they weren’t properly disarmed. “They were our fathers’.” He turned to me. “Do you need help with that?”
“No. I’ve got it.” The wards fell as I spoke. I used my key to unlock the deadbolt.
I opened the door, but Valentin entered first, power at the ready. We were all nervous. Even Alex, who didn’t have any idea just what was in those grimoires, was tense, his breathing harsh in my ears.
“Stay here,” Valentin ordered. I obeyed. He knew what he was doing, and in my current state I wouldn’t be any use in a fight.
He moved silently, with speed and surprising grace, from one part of the loft space to another.
When he gave the all-clear I hurried into the bedroom area, to my sister’s jewel case. It was a moment’s work to find, in the top drawer, the charm bracelet she’d been given by our mother. Nadya, Ana, and I all had identical bracelets. Hidden among the shining silver kittens and stars was the key to my sister’s hope chest. I’d never completely understood why she chose to keep those dangerous books at the foot of her bed. If she’d used a safe, she’d said, any idiot burglar might stumble onto them. She wanted them close to hand, where she could keep an eye on them, but still hidden. Still locked up.
I muttered the words to drop Nadya’s wards as I slid the key into the lock. A deft twist of the wrist and the lock clicked free and I was able to lift the lid.
There was a flash of light, and I had an instant to regret my actions before the pain hit. My breath caught in my throat. I couldn’t swear. I couldn’t even breathe. I’d tripped a spell, but it wasn’t earth based. I didn’t know what it was, and I couldn’t have spoken words to counter it if my life depended on it. Which, in fact, it might.
Even as my sight dimmed and I struggled to cling to consciousness I saw Valentin grab one of my sister’s lipsticks from the dresser and use it to trace runes on the floor. He and Alex were both chanting. Seconds later, the pressure on my chest vanished.
I coughed and choked, sucking sweet, fresh, blessed air into my lungs in deep gasps. Somehow, Valentin had caught me as I fell. Now, with more gentleness than I would have expected, he steered me over to the bed, where I collapsed into a sitting position.
“What should I be looking for?” Alex was staring into the hope chest.
“A pair of ancient grimoires, leather-bound, with symbols and Cyrillic lettering on the covers. One black, one red.”
“There’s only the black one here.”
It wasn’t that I doubted him, but I had to look. Had to. Because while I absolutely believed what he said, I wanted . . . needed him to be wrong. I peered over the open wooden lid and saw my father’s grimoire, exactly where it should be. And next to it? Nothing, just a void in the dust in the shape of a large rectangle. The grimoire of Vladamir Chrischenko, the book detailing some of the most evil spells and workings in the history of man, was gone.
“Maybe your sister Ana took it?” Alex put a reassuring arm around me. I needed it. I was shaking, shivering from a cold that had nothing to do with the ambient temperature and from a weakness not brought on by any spell. But while my body was apparently incapable of functioning, my mind wouldn’t stop.
“Ana would’ve taken both books. Besides, she couldn’t use either.” It made no sense. The grimoires were both incredibly valuable and hideously dangerous. There were protection spells woven into the fabric of the bindings themselves–spells keyed to the bloodlines . . . “Oh!”
“You’ve thought of something,” Alex announced. Both he and Valentin stared at me expectantly.
“Only I, my chosen heir, or the heir of your bloodline could touch that grimoire, Valentin.” I kept my voice carefully neutral. “Yours because it was originally your ancestor’s. Mine . . .”
“Because your father won it by killing mine in a duel,” he finished the sentence for me, his mind following swiftly along the same trail mine had traveled. “Who was your heir?”
“Until or unless I have a child, the Office of the Justice is my heir. He would not be able to use it, but it would at least be safe. It has to be someone from your bloodline, Valentin, or both books would be gone.”
“You are wrong.” He met my eyes, glaring at me as a flush crept up his cheeks. His expression practically dared me to argue.
“Your brother . . .” If looks could kill, Valentin would have cut me down. As it was, I couldn’t quite bring myself to complete the sentence.
“Has been dead for a decade,” Alex answered.
“Then who . . . ?”
“Valentin’s son, Piotr, is an air mage. He could have set that trap. And triggering it let him know we are here.”
“No. No, he would not.” Valentin’s words were firm, the denial real. But his eyes held a pain that could only come from doubt.
I don’t know what we would have said, how much further the argument would have progressed, if his cell phone hadn’t begun vibrating. He pulled it from his pocket and answered, “Chrischenko.”
I couldn’t hear the other side of the conversation, but I didn’t need to. “Piotr.” All the color drained from Valentin’s face, and I feared for a moment that he might faint. “What have you done?”
Impossibly, he paled further and tears filled his eyes. Then something the boy said triggered more than sorrow. Valentin straightened, his tear-stained face hardening into rigid lines as he passed me the phone.
“You will give me the grimoire,” Piotr told me.
“I have your niece. I will kill her. In fact, I want to. Every death makes me more powerful. But not as powerful as that book.”
The man on the phone bore no resemblance at all to the boy I’d been with just the other day. That boy had been shy, nervous, almost awed. An excellent job of acting, since he now sounded utterly calm . . . and completely insane.
“Even if I wanted to, I can’t. There are spells worked into the book itself. The only way ownership can be transferred is by inheritance passing it through the bloodline, or by winning it in a duel to the death.”
“Why would I lie? You have my niece. Based on what you’ve done thus far, I know you’re capable of murdering her. For all I know, you may already have killed her.”
There was a pause. I heard him say, “Scream for your aunt, Kat. Let her know you still live.”
She screamed the word “bastard,” in a voice hoarse with pain and rage.
“See, alive and still in one piece . . . more or less. I can send you a finger if you like. Or maybe an ear.”
“Not necessary.” I kept my voice bland and cold, though I was filled with burning rage. “You want the grimoire. The only way you can get it is by defeating me in a duel with all the formalities. The only way I will agree to a duel is if you release Katarina, alive and unharmed.”
“A duel, then.”
“With all the formalities, or it won’t work.”
“Very well, with all the formalities. Meet me at the foot of Old Woman Rock in Joshua Tree, noon tomorrow. Bring your witness.”
“She will be my witness. Last one standing gets both books.”
“And she goes unharmed.”
He hung up. I hit the end button and handed the phone to Valentin. He was as pale as a corpse, shaking, but there were no tears. I felt sorry for him. I really did. Piotr had turned against everything his father believed in, was a throwback to his grandfather, who had been a world-class villain. Vladamir had been terrifying as much for his lack of humanity as for his power.
“I need to go to my wife. I . . . don’t want her learning of this from someone else.”
“I’ll take you,” Alex offered. He reached out to take Valentin’s arm. Before they could leave I said, “Alex, when you’re done, I’ll need your help.”
“You’ll have it.”
I spent the time while Alex was gone gathering up everything I would need. What I was about to do was dangerous in the extreme, but the worst it could do was kill me—and it would give me the only chance I might have to defeat Piotr.
It was a ritual my father had known and Vladamir hadn’t. It was the secret that had enabled my father to defeat Vladamir. Although “defeat” was a bit of a misnomer, since both men had died. Father had just managed to hold on a couple of hours longer.
Not a happy prospect. I didn’t want to die. And Piotr had been very clever in choosing his location. If I pulled energy from the ground in Southern California, I might cause a quake that would make the one we’d been cleaning up after look like a baby.
So I couldn’t draw from the ground. Which meant I only had what energy my body could hold. And I was still drained to the dregs.
Yes, Piotr had been a clever, clever boy. Here’s hoping I was just as clever.
Eyjafjallajökull is a beautiful place. Then again, I’ve always liked Iceland, and volcanoes are as beautiful as they are deadly. Alex and I were close to the vent. Not in it, no. He’d flatly refused, stating he didn’t have enough knowledge or strength to keep the two of us shielded for the long hours of the ritual if we were actually inside the eruption. I had to take his word for it. Even where we were, a mile away, the power was awesome. Overhead a spray of lava, joined by a “dirty thunderstorm,” raged. Electrically charged particles were forced through the vent into the atmosphere, and I could sense the impact of chunks of ice, some as big as my head, against Alex’s shield. The shield muffled the noise as well, so I didn’t hear the cracks of thunder or the rumbling of the very earth itself.
It had been about 3:00 p.m. when we’d left New York: 12:00 noon LA time and 7:00 p.m. at the glacier. Alex swore he could keep track of the time. Good, because there was no way I would be able to. Then again, I had enough to think about.
I paced out a circle in the snow, marking each point of the interior pentacle with a spot of my blood before setting a brown candle onto the ground and lighting it. Brown for earth energy. If I’d been an air mage, I’d have used white; blue for water. But brown it was. I’d taken the candles from Nadya and Roger’s personal stash.
Tears stung my eyes that had nothing to do with smoke and ash. The prevailing winds were blowing away from us.
Ritual magic has never been my favorite thing. I’m a restless, high-energy type. It’s hard for me to sit still and empty my mind of all emotions. But now I had no choice. I had to shed my grief and anger at my sister’s death, my fear. Having Alex there was an additional distraction, even though all he was doing was maintaining the shield. Utterly ridiculous, to be distracted by a handsome man at a time like this. But he had impressed me; he had courage and power, and he’d shown me a great deal of kindness and consideration. Stop it. Now is not the time, I admonished myself sternly. But it took longer than it should have to center myself and begin.
I sat in the lotus position, butt naked, in the middle of a power circle, on coarse ice, reciting a rhythmic chant in Russian. My throat was raw from the volcano’s fumes, and my butt was cold. In front of me was a wind-up alarm clock set to California time. It would ring two hours before the duel; I’d need half an hour to wind down the spell. Then I’d have an hour and a half to clean up, file the appropriate paperwork, and get to Old Woman Rock to make my preparations.
Not a lot of time, and all the time in the world.
It didn’t feel like I expected, tapping into the raw force of the mother earth. I expected to be overwhelmed, burned nearly to ash by its awesome power. And it was awesome. But it was also right . . . and gentle. Every living thing was a part of that wondrous whole, and I felt the flickering energy of life itself—birth, life, and death—like a symphony of magic playing across my sensitized nerves. The exhaustion of the past weeks faded to nothingness as the energy bathed me in warmth, making me feel reborn. When the alarm rang I didn’t want to let go. It was so tempting to stay there, in the earth’s embrace. But I thought of Nadya, of Roger; of mages murdered for their magic and of countless humans killed in the earthquakes.
Thinking of the earthquakes was a mistake. The earth felt pain, and this wasn’t the slow disease of pollution or global warning. This was the stab of a knife. The earth’s rage was a primal thing. Pain flattened me, crushed me like a gnat beneath a giant’s boot.
I face him soon. I will avenge you. I thought the words, tried to form images, to communicate. I wasn’t sure if I succeeded, but the pain eased. I could breathe, could move, and felt my body begin healing itself. By the time the ritual was finished I was whole again.
I stepped out of the circle and reclaimed my clothes from Alex. I didn’t speak as I pulled on lacy undergarments, then comfortable black jeans and simple red T-shirt.
“Are you all right?” He was looking at me strangely as he passed me the rest of my clothes.
“I think so. Why?”
He swallowed hard. “You’ve changed.”
I looked up at him. “Changed how?”
I’d pulled my long auburn hair back in a tight ponytail before starting the ritual. Reaching up, I pulled the end of the tail in front of my face.
My hair was white. Pure white. Oh, my.
Was I all right? I thought about that as I pulled up the zipper on my black leather biker jacket. I felt good but . . . strange: empty, light-headed. Power thrummed through my body. I could feel it pounding through me in time with the beat of my heart. It was intense, amazing, and just short of painful. “I don’t know.”
His sarcasm grounded me, made me smile. “Hey, I’m alive.”
His expression darkened, and he looked down at me in what probably should’ve been an intimidating manner. But all I could see was that he was tired, so tired. The shield had drained a lot out of him. “You weren’t expecting to be?”
I smiled up at him. Taking his arm, I pushed a gentle wash of healing energy into him. “I was very drained. It was possible I wouldn’t be able to control the power. It could easily have overwhelmed me.”
“You didn’t tell me that.”
“Would it have made any difference? I needed to do this.”
“Someone else could challenge him.”
I looked into his blazing eyes. He’d have done it. Maybe he could have beaten Piotr. But this duel had to be mine. Alex couldn’t possibly understand that. He didn’t know me, didn’t know my history.
Ultimately, the entire mess was my fault. It had started with me, hundreds of years ago. It was a different time, and I was a teenage girl who refused to be sold into marriage. I humiliated a powerful nobleman and mage, and to defend me, my father was forced to fight and die. My father had chosen me as his heir. The grimoires came to me. They were mine to protect. And I’d failed.
I couldn’t fail again.
“Stick around. If I lose you’ll get your chance.”
He didn’t argue. Didn’t say a word. He just stared at me for an endless moment.
Then he did something I didn’t expect. He kissed me.
It was a good kiss, delivered with enough skill and body English to make my knees weak and my heart pound. When our lips parted I managed to speak, but my voice was breathy. “Not that I mind, but isn’t that against the rules?”
“Only if I represent you. Since they’ve dropped the charges, you’re no longer my client.” He smiled down at me and gently reached over to brush a stray white curl back from my face. “I figured I’d better do it now, while I’ve got the chance.”
“You think I’ll lose?”
He paused, choosing his words carefully. “You reek of power. I can feel it coming off of you in waves. But I know you well enough already to know that you’ll fight fairly. He won’t.”
“Which reminds me. There’s something we need to discuss.”
Joshua Tree National Park has a sere beauty that draws rock climbers from around the world. Pale tan fingers of craggy stone stretch beseechingly toward a sky so intensely blue it almost hurts to look at. Native scrub bushes and Joshua trees dot the ground, and what wildlife was there went to ground at the sound of our footfalls.
I didn’t want witnesses stumbling onto what was about to happen. After placing my father’s grimoire on a flat rock within a protective circle I began a few simple preparations. An aversion spell is neither hard nor particularly tricky. I sent my will out as far as I could see, north, east, south, and west. Anyone tempted to come within three miles of this spot would get nervous first. If they persisted, they would be struck ill. Nothing serious or lasting. But for the three or four hours of my slugfest with Piotr, any innocent would-be bystanders would be perched on the porcelain throne.
I had intended to pace off the dueling area and check for hidden traps, but Piotr arrived early, my niece in tow. She looked rough, her red hair a tangled mess, a dark bruise marring the right side of her face. He flung her to the sandy ground at Alex’s feet, where she lay sobbing piteously.
“Shall we begin?” He sneered. He set the grimoire he carried next to mine. If passing through my circle stung him, he didn’t let it show.
I kept my expression neutral. He looked like a fool, dressed all in black like the villain from an old movie. But he was a dangerous fool. He was so stuffed with power that he practically glowed with it, and it had gone to his head. At least I hoped it had. Because I wanted him overconfident. “Of course.”
There are traditions for formal duels that need to be followed to the letter if the winner is to benefit and take the loser’s magic and artifacts. Alex spoke the ritual words, his voice ringing with power as it bounced off of the rocks, echoing through our makeshift arena. Back to back, Piotr and I each sent our power outward, creating a circle of magical fire that enclosed us. This would contain our magic and prevent any interference from those outside the ring. The circle would stand until either or both of us fell.
The two halves of the circle met with an almost deafening roar, the sound signaling the beginning of the duel.
I dived away from Piotr as I cast my first spell. I didn’t attack him directly. Instead, I spoke words that tuned the ground beneath us to my magic. He’d still be able to use earth magic, but it would be tremendously difficult for him, draining him of energy. And he wouldn’t be able to pull enough energy from the ground to cause an earthquake.
I rolled and rose to my feet; his first blow missed me entirely. But he recovered quickly. Fast as a thought he launched an attack, opening a crack in the ground, intending to let the earth swallow me. Expressions of surprise and rage raced across his face as he felt his power hit my spell.
I willed the ground beneath me solid before he’d finished speaking. When Piotr’s force hit my impenetrable wall of power, it shattered backward, so the crack he’d intended for me nearly caught him instead. He made a frantic jump for steady ground, only to have me pull that out from under him as well before dropping a boulder or two on top of him just for spite.
Then he conjured a tornado.
Not a big tornado as far as that goes. But still, a tornado. That rope of vicious wind sucked the air from my lungs, spinning sand and debris into deadly projectiles. I countered by pulling the heat from the ground, converting it into a lightning bolt that I sent crashing into his chest.
He lost control of the twister, and it dissipated almost as fast as it had appeared. In a frozen instant I saw the first flicker of fear in his eyes.
I might have felt smug about that—if I wasn’t so damned tired. Not because of the effort, although flinging around this level of magic was hugely draining. Still, I’d pulled enough energy from the volcano that I could slug it out a while more. But I was heartsick. Because now that the battle was raging, Kat had gotten careless. Though she still lay on the ground, apparently distraught, her eyes were avid. The shift in concentration left her body free to heal the superficial injuries that had been meant to fool me into believing she was another of Piotr’s victims.
Piotr drew breath to scream a word that was meant to suck the air from my lungs. I raised a wall of stone between us, and his command bounced off it harmlessly.
Roaring in rage and frustration, he used his stolen power to smash the wall and began raining blows upon me. Since the power he was using was not his, he had little control. I was able to counter each effort with ease, which only served to fuel his fury.
I didn’t see the signal pass between them, but there must have been one. Because at the same instant that he reached inside his jacket, Kat pulled a knife from her boot and surged up at Alex.
I called my power.
Earth magic is used to heal. But it can also be used to kill. My father had taught me that. Taught me harshly, so that I would be a worthy guardian of the knowledge he was willing to me. I spoke a single word in Russian, then watched as Piotr’s body cast out every drop of moisture it held; the water exploded outward like rain and soaked into the sandy ground beneath him. He fell to the ground, shrieking in hideous agony, but the sound quickly died to a rattle as his throat dried up. Liquid blood turned to sand in his veins: his body collapsed in on itself in death, mummified more thoroughly than any pharaoh.
The circle fell.
I turned away from Piotr’s corpse, swallowing bile. He’d earned his death, but I didn’t feel good about it, any more than I could be happy that my niece had failed to kill Alex and now lay bound and helpless at the feet of the authorities he’d summoned.
“It should have been mine.” Kat’s voice was raw with pain and rage.
I turned slowly, fighting back tears for my sister, her husband, and so many others. My voice was harsh as hers. “You were never my heir. Never would have been.” With a gesture I said a word that froze her vocal cords. No more talking. I couldn’t bear it.
I stared down at the bound volumes, wondering what I should do with them. They needed to be stored somewhere safe. I just didn’t know where.
“Olga.” Alex spoke softly. There was sympathy in his voice—or maybe pity. “Valentin and his wife have petitioned for Piotr’s body. They want to give him a decent burial.”
I blinked up at him, surprising myself with the sting of tears. They’d have had to file their petition before the duel. Which meant Valentin had known, or at least believed, that I would kill their son.
“They can have their burial.” It was hard to speak, but I managed to choke out the words. “But don’t let them see the body. It’s too . . .” I stopped, unsure how to finish.
“I’ll take care of it,” he promised. “You take care of those.” He nodded in the direction of the grimoires. “And when you’re done, we’ll go somewhere and rest. Just the two of us.”
I looked up into those serious storm-gray eyes. “I don’t think I’ll be very good company.”
He gave a sad smile. “I wouldn’t expect you to be. Not at first. But it’ll get better in time.”
Copyright © 2010 C.T. Adams
Art copyright © 2010 Dave Palumbo
Acquired and edited for Tor.com by Melissa Ann Singer.