Merlin had destroyed the world as he knew it. The question was what to do next.
As with many disasters, the beginning had been innocent enough. He’d lived in the kingdom of Camelot as the enchanter to King Arthur. Those were eventful years—someone was always trying to murder the king, antagonize a dragon or start a war. Often it was his rival in magic, Morgan LaFaye, who wanted Arthur’s crown for herself. In nearly every case, the first person Arthur called was Merlin, whether for magic, for advice or even just to complain. In that brief, wonderful time, the solitary enchanter had been part of a community. He’d had friends and drinking partners. He’d even kept pets.READ MORE
Not that things were perfect. In those days demons roamed the mortal realms, causing untold suffering to everyone in their path. The witches, fae and human lords formed an alliance under Camelot’s banner to cast the demons out. Thousands of soldiers massed to do battle, but it was Merlin’s magic they counted on for victory. Merlin delivered and they won, but at a terrible cost. As a side effect of his final spell, the fae suffered irreparable damage and fled to nurse their wounds. In a parting shot, the fae swore to return and wreak vengeance on King Arthur and all of humankind.
No one knew when this attack would come. So, once again, Camelot turned to Merlin for answers. With a heavy heart, he summoned all the knights of Camelot to the Church of the Holy Well and put them into an enchanted sleep. For centuries they lay upon their tombs as stone statues, set to awaken when it was time to fight once more.
Centuries rolled by, and Merlin wandered many enchanted lands in search of a cure for the fae. Meanwhile, the Medievaland theme park bought the Church of the Holy Well and the stone knights and shipped them all to Carlyle, Washington, as a tourist attraction. In the process, many of Arthur’s knights were sold as museum pieces and curiosities.
When Merlin returned to the mortal realms, no one knew where the knights of the famous Round Table had gone. Camelot was in ruins. The fae—who had chosen Morgan LaFaye as their new and wicked queen—picked this moment to return, seeking vengeance. And, just in case his day wasn’t bad enough, the demons were back—including his ex.
Sorcerer, enchanter, wizard, witch, warlock—they were all job descriptions that were synonymous with “idiot.” A person could be born of witch stock and blessed or cursed with natural talents, but it was lunacy to make magic a profession.
This raised the question of precisely why Merlin Ambrosius had been a professional enchanter for over two thousand years and had earned the laughable title of Merlin the Wise. By most standards, he was the most powerful magic user in the land, but that wasn’t always an advantage. While Regular Joe Enchanter might have a bad day and blow up his cauldron, Merlin had ripped the souls out of the entire fae race. Merlin the Wise? Not so much.
And now here he was, about to peer through a portal torn through time and space to spy on the scariest creepy-crawlies to ever sprout horns.
His workshop was on the top level of an old warehouse while the bottom floor was occupied by an automotive repair shop. It was a good arrangement, since Merlin preferred to work at night when the employees had gone home and wouldn’t be tempted to ask about funny smells, indoor hail storms or a flock of flying toads. Today, though, the shop was shut and he had the place to himself. This was a definite bonus, even if it meant getting up before noon. Superstar wizard or not, stalking demons on a sunny afternoon was slightly less terrifying than on a dark and stormy night.
The ritual circle was drawn in chalk in the middle of the floor and the scant furniture pushed aside. The curtains were pulled, softening the light. Empty space yawned up to the rafters, the shadows untouched by the dozen sweet-scented candles flickering in the draft. A hush blanketed the room. Merlin sat cross-legged in the middle of the circle, his comfortable jeans and faded T-shirt at odds with the solemnity of the magic. The truth was, ritual robes didn’t matter. Only strength of will and focus would help with this kind of work—which was, in effect, eavesdropping.
Merlin needed information. Specifically, he needed to know what Camelot’s enemies had been doing in recent months, because rumors were flying on the magical grapevine, blog sites and social media accounts—not to mention Camelot’s spy network. On one hand, there were the fae. They had been far too quiet since the autumn—no attacks, no gratuitous death threats, no random monsters unleashed to trample a city—and the silence was making everyone nervous.
On the other hand, the demon courts were stirring. Arthur, with Merlin’s help, had thrown the hellspawn back into the Abyss during Camelot’s glory days. But no banishment lasted forever and sooner or later the demons would try to return. Was that what was going on?
He cupped his scrying stone in the palms of his hands, willing answers to flow his way. The stone was cool, smooth and heavy and he concentrated until it was the only object filling his senses. Popular culture loved the image of a wizard with a crystal ball, but to tune into Radio Demon, dark red agate was best. The good stuff was rare, and Merlin had searched for centuries for a flawless globe the size of a small pumpkin. When he’d finally found what he wanted, it had cost enough gold to purchase a small country, but it had been one of his go-to tools ever since.
He spoke a word, and the solid rock dissolved into a cloud of dark gray streaked like a bloody sunset. He still held a hard sphere, but it was like a bubble now. Inside was a window into a complex web of realities that included Faery, the Forest Sauvage, the Crystal Mountains and many more separate but connected realms. He nudged the vision until he was staring into the demon territory called the Abyss.
The mist parted and Merlin had a view of two figures. It wasn’t the best angle—he was somewhere above and to the left—but that was an advantage. Spy holes were unpredictable and he had no desire to get caught. Grumpy demons had sent the last unlucky eavesdropper home in a soup bowl.
At first he could only see two figures talking, but a quick shake of the ball fixed the audio.
“What do you mean, you were summoned?” asked the taller of the two in a scholarly accent. He was dressed in a well-tailored suit, his head bald and his black beard neatly clipped. He would have looked at home in any metropolitan city except for the claws, pointy teeth and yellow eyes slitted like a goat’s. Merlin knew this demon’s name was Tenebrius. They’d had uneasy dealings before.
“I know,” replied the other demon, who called himself Gorm. He was small, about the size of a large cat or a smallish monkey, and his leathery skin reminded Merlin of an old shoe. “In these days of computers and binge television, who bothers to summon a demon? But there I was in a chalk circle just like the old days. Talk about retro.”
“Don’t try to be funny,” said Tenebrius, narrowing his eyes. “Who was it?”
“LaFaye. You know, the Queen of Faery?”
The image of Tenebrius stiffened. So did Merlin. Morgan LaFaye had caused most of Camelot’s headaches until she’d been imprisoned. She shouldn’t have been able to summon so much as pizza delivery from inside her enchanted jail.
“What does she want?” asked Tenebrius with obvious caution. He was staring at Gorm with something between suspicion and—was that envy?
Gorm shrugged. “Power. Freedom. King Arthur’s head on a platter.”
Tenebrius looked down his nose and clasped his hands behind his back, resembling a supercilious butler. “The usual, you mean.”
“She is a queen locked up and separated from her people.”
Tenebrius snorted, releasing a cloud of smoke from his nostrils. “She rose to power by trading on the fae’s grievance against Camelot. I’d hardly call that a good qualification for a leader. They’re better off without her, even if they have lost their souls.”
And that summed up the damage caused by the spell Merlin had used to banish the demons. Gone was the fae’s love of beauty, their laughter, their art. Now they were emotionless automatons sworn to take vengeance on Camelot and feast on the life energy of mortals. Old, familiar guilt gnawed inside him, no less sharp for all the centuries that had passed.
Gorm frowned. “Her Majesty has a grievance.”
“Don’t we all?” Tenebrius examined his claws. “Do you trust her?”
“Would you trust someone who summoned one of us?”
Tenebrius rolled his slitted eyes. “But why you? Was her magic so weakened by prison that she was forced to grab the first demon she came to?”
“Uh—” Gorm started to look up, as if sensing Merlin’s intense interest in the conversation, but was distracted a moment later.
“Who’s grabbing whom?” came a third and very female voice.
Merlin all but dropped the ball, his mouth suddenly desert dry. The image warped and churned until he forced it back into focus—and then wished he hadn’t. Vivian swam into view. She looked as good as she had the last time they’d wrestled between her silken sheets. Scholars claimed demons were made of energy and therefore had no true physical form, yet there was no question that Vivian was exquisite. She was tall and slender but curvaceous in ways that were hard to achieve except as a fantasy art centerfold. A thick river of blue-black hair hung to her knees and framed a heart-shaped face set with enormous violet eyes. Warm toffee skin—bountifully visible despite her glittering armor—stirred dangerous, even disturbing, memories. Beyond Vivian’s inhuman loveliness, her demon ancestry showed in the long, black, feline tail that twitched behind her.
Ex-lovers were tricky things. Demon ex-lovers were a whole new level of dangerous. Merlin still wanted to devour her one lick at a time. Merlin the very, very Unwise. He closed his eyes, hoping she’d disappear. Unfortunately, when he looked again, she was still there. Then he cursed the loss of those two seconds when he might have been gazing at her. Vivian had been his, his pleasure and poison and his personal drug of choice. He’d moved on, but she’d never completely left his bloodstream.
“Gorm got himself summoned,” said Tenebrius.
“Who was the lucky enchanter?” Vivian asked. She gave a lush smile with dainty, feline fangs.
“The Queen of Faery.”
“Oh,” said Vivian, quickly losing the grin, “her. It’s almost tempting to give the fae their souls again. Then they’d get rid of Lafaye themselves.”
Tenebrius gave her a sly look. “You don’t think the situation presents some interesting opportunities?”
Merlin wondered what he meant by that, but Gorm interrupted. “Is it even possible to restore their souls?”
“Theoretically,” said Vivian. “Everything’s possible with us.”
“But we could do it?” Gorm persisted.
Tenebrius shrugged. “The spell came from a demon to begin with. Therefore, demon magic could reverse it.”
By all the riches of the goblin kings! Merlin sat frozen. Hope rose, wild and shattering, and he squeezed the ball so that his hands would not shake. He had searched and searched for a means to fix the fae, but had found nothing. Then again, he’d been searching among healers and wielders of the Light, not hellspawn. Demons corrupted and destroyed. They did not improve.
And yet Tenebrius had just said that the demons could provide a cure. Impossible. Brilliant. Amazing. Merlin struggled to control his breath. How was he going to get his hands on a demon-crafted cure? Because it was immediately, solidly obvious that he had to, whatever the cost.
His gaze went from Tenebrius back to the she-demon again. At the sight of her sumptuous body, things—possibly his survival instincts—shriveled in terror while other bits and pieces heated with a toxic mix of panic and desire. Any involvement with demons was an appallingly bad move. Sex was beyond stupid, but he’d been there and done that and insanely lusted for more.
Vivian wanted him dead, and some of her reasons were justified. To begin with, he’d stolen from her. The battle spell that had gone so horribly wrong had come from her grimoire—the great and horrible book of magic that rested on a bone pedestal in her chambers. Maybe she had the power to help the fae—but that would mean facing her again. Now, there was a terrifying idea.
The door behind Merlin banged open with a loud crack. “Hey, you busy?”
Startled out of deep concentration, Merlin jumped, dropping the globe. With a curse, he snatched it up.
“Oops. Sorry, dude.” The new voice seemed to ring in the rafters, blaringly loud against the profound silence of the magical circle. A corner of Merlin’s brain identified the speaker as his student, Clary Greene, but the rest of him was teetering on the edge of panic. When he righted the globe, the swirling clouds parted inside the stone once more. He peered until the image of the room grew crisp. Three demon faces stared back at him with murderous expressions.
Merlin said something much stronger than “oops.”
Vivian’s eyes began to glow. “Merlin!” she snarled, his name trailing into a feline hiss that spoke of unfinished business.
Merlin quickly set the agate ball on the floor and sprang away, colliding with Clary’s slight form. His student’s pixie-like features crumpled in confusion. “What’s going on?”
“Duck!” he ordered, grabbing her shoulder and pushing her to the floor.
Bolts of power blasted from the agate globe in rainbow colors, arcing in jagged lightning all through the room. With three demons firing at once, it looked like an otherworldly octopus, its tentacles grabbing objects and zapping them to showers of ash. Merlin’s bookshelf exploded, burning pages filling the air as if he was trapped in an apocalyptic snow globe.
“Making friends again?” Clary asked, flicking ash from her shaggy blond head. Her words were flippant, but her face was tense.
“Stay low. They’re demons.”
Clary’s witch-green eyes went wide. She was Vivian’s opposite—a lean, fair tomboy with more attitude than magical talent. She was also everything that Vivian was not—honest, kind, thoughtful and far too good to be in Merlin’s life. She was a drink of clean water to a man parched by his own excesses, an innocent despite what she believed about herself. Everything about her had beckoned, woman to man, but he’d kept their relationship professional. It was bad enough that she had begged him to teach her magic. He should have refused. Nothing good came to anyone who lingered near him.
And right now lingering was not an option.
“Move,” he snapped, forcing her to creep backward one step at a time. The slow pace was nerve-racking, but it gave him a moment to weave a protective spell around them both.
He was just in time. Lightning fried his worktable, shattering a row of orderly glass vials, and then his bicycle sizzled and warped into a piece of futuristic sculpture. Merlin scowled as the seat burst into flame. Maybe he should rethink the slow and steady approach.
Vivian’s clear voice rang from the agate globe. “Curse you, Merlin Ambrosius. I vow that you shall not escape me, but shall suffer due vengeance for what you have done!”
“What did you do?” Clary whispered. “She’s really mad.”
“Not now,” Merlin muttered. Not ever, if he had a choice.
He sprang at the agate ball, intending to break the connection between his workshop and the demon realm with a well-placed bolt of his own. Before he was halfway there, a purple tentacle of energy lashed out and fastened on his chest. A blaze of pain sang through him, fierce as a sword stroke. He thrust out a hand, warping the stream of power away before his heart stopped.
Then Clary cast her own counter spell, just the way he’d taught her. The blow struck, but only clipped the edge of the stone ball, rolling it outside the containment of the ritual circle. Merlin pounced, but the damage was done. Once outside the circle, the demons were free to cross over into his world. As he groped on the floor for the agate, Vivian’s armored boots appeared in his field of view. He looked up and up her long legs to her shapely body and finally to her furious eyes.
“Who is this witch?” Vivian pointed a claw-tipped finger at Clary. Her long black tail swished back and forth, leaving an arc in the ashes coating the floor.
“Darling. Sweetheart. She’s my student,” he said in calming tones as he got to his feet, still clutching the stone. The agate sparked with the demons’ power, as if he held a heavy ball of pure electricity.
“Does she know what you really are?” Anger twisted Vivian’s beautiful face. “Or should I say, does she have any idea how low you will stoop for power?”
Clearly, the demon was still mad that he’d stolen her spell. Or, more likely she was furious that he’d left their bed without a word—but there had been no choice, under the circumstances. It was that or hand Camelot and everybody else over to the hellspawn.
Vivian’s furious form was just a projection of energy—half in her own world and half in his—and yet Merlin took a cautious step back. “Clary is only a student, Vivian. I can promise you that much.”
“I’m standing right here,” Clary snapped.
It was the wrong tone to take with an angry demon. Vivian flicked a bolt of power from her fingertips that hurled Clary against the wall. To Merlin’s horror, the young witch stuck there, suspended above the floor like a butterfly on a pin. Clary grabbed at her chest, tearing at the zipper of her leather jacket as if she needed air.
“Enough!” Merlin roared. “She is nothing to you.”
“But she is something to you. I can smell it!”
“She’s under my protection.” He lashed out, breaking Vivian’s hold.
The demoness rounded on him, fixing him with those hypnotic violet eyes. Her predatory beauty held him for a split second too long. As Clary crumpled to the floor, Vivian’s claws slashed at the girl, leaving long, red tracks soaking through the sleeve of thin burgundy leather. Vivian snarled, showing fangs. In moments, Clary would be dead—and for no reason other than because she’d interrupted his ritual.
Desperation knotted Merlin’s chest. He lifted the agate globe, infusing it with his power. Part of him screamed to stop, to guard his own interests, but the fever of his grief and guilt was too strong. With a howl, he smashed the globe to the floor. It exploded into a thousand shards, taking most of his earthly wealth with it. Vivian shrieked—a high, pained banshee wail—and vanished with a pop of air pressure that left his ears ringing. A heavy stink of burning amber hung in the air, borne on wisps of purple smoke. Clary began to cough, a racking, bubbling gasp of sound.
Merlin fell to his knees at her side. “It’s over.”
He put an arm around the young woman, helping her to sit up. The warm, slender weight of her seemed painfully fragile. Witches were mortal, as easily broken as ordinary humans, and Clary’s face had drained of color. He touched her cheek with the back of his hand to find her skin was cold.
His stomach clenched with panic. “How badly are you hurt?”
She didn’t answer. She wasn’t breathing anymore.
Clary jolted awake. Power surged through her body, painful and suffocating. Her spine arched into it—or maybe away from it, she wasn’t sure. Merlin had one hand on her side and the other on her chest, using his magic like a defibrillator. The sensation hammered her from the inside while every hair on her body stood straight up. When he released her, she sagged in relief. A drifting sensation took over, as if she were a feather in an updraft.
Merlin’s fingers went to her neck, checking for a pulse. His hands were hot from working spells, the touch firm yet gentle. In her weakened state, Clary shivered slightly, wanting to bare her throat in surrender. She was a sucker for dark, broody masculinity and he projected it like a beacon. All the same, Clary sucked in a breath before he got any big ideas about mouth-to-mouth. If Merlin was going to kiss her, she wanted wine and soft music, not blood and the dirty workshop floor.
Another bolt of power, more pain, another pulse check. Clary managed a moan, and she heard the sharp intake of Merlin’s breath. His hand withdrew from her pulse point as she forced her eyes open. He was staring down at her with his peculiar amber eyes, dark brows furrowed in concern. She was used to him prickly, arrogant or sarcastic, but not this. She’d never seen that oddly vulnerable expression before—but it quickly fled as their gazes met.
“You’re alive.” He said it like a fact, any softness gone.
“Yup.” Clary pushed herself up on her elbows. She hurt all over. “What was that?”
“I got that much.” Clary held up her arm, peering through the rents in her jacket where the demon’s claws had slashed. Merlin’s zap of power had stopped the bleeding, but the deep scratches were red, puffy and hurt like blazes.
“Demon claws are toxic.”
“Got that, too.”
“I can put a salve on the wound, but you’d be smart to have Tamsin look at it,” Merlin said. “Your sister is a better healer than I am.”
“She’s better than anybody.” Clary said it with the automatic loyalty of a little sister, but it was true. “She’s got a better bedside manner, too.”
Merlin raised a brow, his natural arrogance back in place. “Just be glad you’re alive.”
She studied Merlin, acutely aware of how much magic he’d used to shut Vivian down. He looked like a man in his early thirties, but there was no telling how old he actually was. He was lean-faced with permanent stubble and dark hair that curled at his collar. At first glance, he looked like a radical arts professor or dot-com squillionaire contemplating his next disruptive innovation. It took a second look to notice the muscular physique hidden by the comfortable clothes. Merlin had a way of sliding under most radars, but Clary never underestimated the power he could pluck out of thin air. She was witch born, a member of the Shadowring Coven, but he was light years beyond their strongest warlocks.
That strength was like catnip to her—although she’d never, ever admit that out loud. “What were you doing?” she demanded, struggling the rest of the way to a sitting position.
“A surveillance ritual.” His face tensed as if afraid to reveal too much. “There’ve been rumors of demon activity in the Forest Sauvage.”
The forest lay at the junction of several supernatural realms. “Demons show up there anyway, don’t they?”
“One or two of the strongest hellspawn can leave the Abyss, but only for brief periods. It’s not a regular occurrence. Yet Arthur’s spies report a demon has been meeting with the fae generals on multiple occasions.”
“You want to know what they’re up to,” she murmured, a horrible awareness of what she’d interrupted settling in. Gawd, how stupid was she? It was a wonder Merlin hadn’t kicked her out of his workshop after her first lesson. He would have to now.
“I was summoning information through a scrying portal. The conversation was growing interesting when you arrived.” His tone was precise and growing colder with every syllable. Now that the crisis was over, he was getting angry.
Clary pressed a hand to her pounding head. “They heard me come in?”
She cringed inwardly, but lifted her head, refusing to let her mortification show. “Then Babe-a-licious with the tail showed up.”
“Yes.” There was no mistaking the frost in his tone now. “Vivian. Do you have any idea how dangerous she is?”
“She tried to kill me.” Clary’s insides hollowed as the words sank home. Dear goddess, she did kill me! And Merlin had brought her back before a second had passed—but it had happened. Her witch’s senses had felt it happen. The realization left her light-headed.
“She doesn’t get to have you,” he said in a low voice.
Their gazes locked, and something twisted in Clary’s chest. She’d been hurt on Merlin’s watch, and he was furious. No, what she saw in his eyes was more than icy anger. It was a heated, primal possessiveness that came from a far different Merlin than she knew. Clary’s breath stopped. Surely she was misreading the situation. Death and zapping had scrambled her thoughts. “What happened when you smashed the stone?”
“The demon returned to where she came from.”
“Will she come back?”
“If she does, it will be for me. She won’t bother you. You were incidental.”
Clary might have been insulted, but she was barely listening now. The events of the past few minutes fell over her like a shadow, pushing everything else, even Merlin, aside. She’d felt death coming like a cold, black vortex. She began to shake, her mind scrambling to get away from a memory of gathering darkness. She drew her knees into her chest, hugging them. “I shouldn’t have walked in on you.”
“No, you shouldn’t have,” he said in a voice filled with the same mix of ice and fire. “You’d be a better student of magic if you paid attention to the world around you. That would include door wards.”
Tears stung behind her eyelids. Trust Merlin to use death as a teachable moment. “You could be sympathetic. At least a little.”
He made a noise that wasn’t quite a snort. “You asked me to teach you proper magic and not the baby food the covens use. If you want warm and fuzzy, get a rabbit. Real magic is deadly.”
Clary took a shuddering breath. “No kidding.”
He was relentless. “Today your carelessness cost me a valuable tool.”
She sighed her resentment. “I’ll get you a new stone.”
“You can’t. There was only one like it, and now I’m blind to what the demons are doing.”
Abruptly, he stood and crossed the room to kick a shard of agate against the wall. It bounced with a savage clatter. Clary got to her feet, her knees wobbling. Merlin was right about her needing Tamsin’s medical help. She braced her hand against the wall so she’d stop weaving. “I’m sorry.”
He spun and stormed back to her in one motion, moving so fast she barely knew what was happening. He took her by the shoulders, the grip rough. “Don’t ever do that again!”
And then his mouth crushed hers in a hard, angry kiss. Clary gasped in surprise, but there was no air, only him, and only his need. She rose slowly onto her toes, the gesture both surrender and a desire to hold her own. She’d been kissed many times before, but never consumed this way. His lips were greedy and hot with that same confusing array of emotions she’d seen a moment ago. Anger. Fear. Possession. Protectiveness.
Volatile. That was the word she’d so often used in her own head when thinking about him. Volatile, though he kept himself on a very short chain. Right now that chain had slipped.
And she liked it. Head spinning, she leaned back against the wall, trapped between the plaster and the hard muscle of his chest. Now that the first shock was past, she moved her mouth under his, returning the kiss. Hot breath fanned against her cheek, sending tingles down her spine. She’d never understood the stories about danger sparking desire until this moment, but now she was soaring, lust a hot wire lighting up her whole frame. Being alive was very, very good.
Merlin had braced his hands on either side of her head, but now he stroked them down her body in a long, slow caress. It was a languid movement as if he was measuring and memorizing her every curve. Clary let her arms drift up to link behind his neck.
“I think I’ll skip the fuzzy bunny and keep you instead,” she murmured.
The effect of her words was electric. He stepped out of her embrace as unexpectedly as he’d entered it, pushing a hand through his hair. “We can’t do this.” He turned away as if he needed to regain control.
After being killed, revived, scolded, and ravished, Clary was getting whiplash. “Why not?” she asked through clenched teeth.
“She was angry,” Clary conceded. “Did you and she have a, um, thing?”
He made a noise like a strangling bear. “She is everything unholy.”
Yup, Viv was an ex. For some reason, that sparked her temper in a way nothing else had. Clary wiped her mouth on her sleeve.
“I said you were incidental to her.” His voice had gone cold again. “Let’s keep it that way. Touching you was a mistake.”
Merlin faced her, frowning at her sarcastic tone. “Yes.”
“So Vivian is a jealous mean girl,” Clary snapped. “That’s not my problem, and I’m not a mistake. I don’t deserve that kind of disrespect.”
And yet she did. She was a screw-up, a talentless hack of a witch and not much better with her personal life. She’d just proven it all over again by bursting in where she wasn’t wanted. The knowledge scalded her, but it also raised her defenses. It was one thing to reject her as a magician, but he’d just rejected her as a woman.
“Don’t be difficult,” he replied.
“Don’t be an idiot. I’m a person, not an error.” She’d never spoken to Merlin like this, but she’d never been this upset. She didn’t care if he had a point.
Clary pushed away from the wall. Merlin took a step forward as if to support her, but she wasn’t dizzy now. Anger had cleared her head and set her pulse speeding at a quick march. Her whole body sang with pain, but she stalked toward the door on perfectly steady feet.
“Clary!” Merlin said, his tone thick with irritation. “Come back here.”
“Don’t talk to me right now. And don’t come after me.” Clary slammed the workshop door behind her, taking the steps down to the main level of the warehouse at a run. She didn’t look back.
When she reached the street a minute later, the late May sunshine seemed strange. There was no darkness, no storms and certainly no demons. Sparrows flitted through the last blossoms of the cherry trees lining the streets, and a senior couple walked matching Scotty dogs in the leaf-dappled shade. It was the perfect day for a cross-country bike ride, the kind that might take her fifty or sixty miles. Clary shook her head, feeling as if she was suddenly in the wrong movie.
She started walking, the residue of her anger still hot in her veins. Merlin’s workshop was at the edge of Carlyle’s bustling downtown and a twenty-minute walk from her sister’s apartment. If Clary went for a visit, she could get her throbbing arm checked and complain to Tamsin about men at the same time.
Tamsin would be sympathetic for sure. Clary was the baby of the family and her uncertain talent upset a cartload of familial expectations, but she was an accomplished computer programmer and was making a new career as a social media consultant for Medievaland. Tamsin would tell her she was doing fine, which was exactly what she needed right now.
The social media job had been a stroke of luck, something she’d pitched to Camelot when she’d moved across the country to study with Merlin. In fact, she was his first student in a hundred years because she’d refused to take no for an answer the moment she’d found out her big sister had met the man. In her imagination he’d been the ultimate enchanter, a rebel prince of the magical world. He’d turned out to be short-tempered and demanding, arrogant and aloof. She’d been crushed.
It wasn’t that Merlin was a bad teacher—he was fabulous. He drilled her remorselessly, showing her three or four ways to launch a spell until they found one that worked for her. Fighting spells, spying spells, portals, wards—he taught far more practical application than theory and approached every lesson with resolute patience. Her skills had leaped forward. It was just that he was so very Merlin.
Clary swore under her breath. You’d think he could have put a sign on the door to keep visitors out. Sure, she’d dropped by unexpectedly with a question about the homework he’d given her and, yes, there had been a ward she disarmed to walk in, but he always had a ward on the door. Sometimes he put them there just to test her. How was she to know he’d be chatting with hellspawn?
And as for the rest, why was she surprised? It had been a kiss in the moment, a rare moment of compassion from a very dark horse. Merlin was the greatest enchanter in written history. She was so far down the food chain she wasn’t even on the menu. There would never be anything more between them, however much that one embrace made her imagination explode.
She ground her teeth. Maybe she should have stuck with computers. At least software didn’t have claws. At least it didn’t kiss her and then shut down the moment with a wall of ice.
Clary’s thoughts scattered as she neared Tamsin’s street. This block was lined with low-rise storefronts featuring a drugstore, a used clothing exchange and a place that still sold vinyl records. The neighborhood was like a small town where shopkeepers greeted their customers by name and residents knew which child belonged to which mother. Normally, she enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere, but she was starting to feel sick again. Whatever fury she’d been running on was draining fast. There was a café with a few outdoor tables, and she sat down on one of the ornate metal chairs. She rested her head on her good hand and cradled her injured arm in her lap. I should call Tamsin, she thought, but the pocket with her phone seemed miles away.
Her heart was hammering, perspiration clammy on her skin. It took her a moment to recognize the sensation as raw, primal fear. But why? She was out of danger now, wasn’t she? Hadn’t Merlin said Clary herself was of no interest to the demons? And yet, it felt as if something was looking over her shoulder. She jerked around, but saw nothing except a passerby startled by Clary’s frown.
The sudden motion sent spikes of pain up her arm. She pushed up the torn sleeve of her jacket to see the scratches were swelling now. She touched the pink skin and discovered it was hot. Infection. Wonderful. No wonder she felt queasy. She slumped in the chair, aware of the clatter and bustle of the coffee shop though it seemed far, far in the distance.
She fished her phone out and set it on the table, realizing she’d have to dial it left-handed because the fingers of her injured hand had gone numb. Clary had managed to punch the code that unlocked it when a wave of pain struck her. It was like the shock of power Merlin had administered, but on steroids.
Clary hunched over the table, robbed of the breath even to cry out. A white haze swallowed the world around her, turning everything to static. Sound vanished, a high, thin hum filling her brain. She began to shake—not a ladylike trembling, either. Her head lolled back as her jerking knees rattled the table. All at once she was on the ground, her cheek pressed to the gritty sidewalk.
Hands gathered her up. Voices distant and muffled as if she was under water. She was in the chair again, the cold metal beneath the seat of her jeans. Hard to stay in the chair because her limbs were like spaghetti.
There was a sound like a bubble popping, and she could see and hear again.
“By the Abyss!” Clary gasped as the world smacked her like cold water. Sounds, colors, smells all seemed out of control. Clary blinked, wiping her eyes with the back of her good hand.
“Can we call someone for you?” asked a voice.
Clary squinted, recognizing the square, pleasant face of the woman who ran the coffee shop. She searched for the woman’s name, but it was gone. “Huh?”
“You passed out,” the woman said slowly and carefully. “You might have had a seizure.”
Goddess! She should probably be in the hospital, but then she’d have to explain the claw marks. Clary looked around. Her phone was still on the table. “Tamsin,” she said, but couldn’t manage more. A wave of disorientation swamped her. Her voice sounded wrong, but she wasn’t sure why.
“Tamsin who lives in the apartment building down the street?” the woman asked.
Clary nodded, afraid to speak again.
“She ordered a birthday cake for the weekend. I have her number.” The woman bustled back inside.
Clary closed her eyes. Whose birthday was it? The name bobbed just out of reach of her thoughts. Facts and memories receded, as if her consciousness was a balloon that had come untethered. When she opened her eyes again, she caught sight of her reflection in the café window and froze.
Her face was familiar, and it was not. So this is what it’s like to be human.
Clary’s thoughts swerved. What the blazes?
She’d recognized the voice in her head. Cold needles of fear crept up her body, turning her fingers and nose so cold it felt like January. Something had been watching her, and now she knew it was Vivian.
Or what’s left of me after Merlin smashed his precious globe. Immortals are hard to kill, but I was vulnerable when he did that. I needed a safe harbor and your body was empty for a split second before he brought you back. Hope you don’t mind a roomie.
Clary sat up straight, fighting a sudden urge to scream. Her head, seemingly of its own accord, turned back to her reflection. She took in the mop of shaggy blond hair, the ragged, bloody clothes and her wide, frightened eyes.
It’s not the body I’m used to, but beggars can’t be choosers. Still, we need to do something about the wardrobe.