Lies and Illusion: Chapter 1

I gripped the half-inch shard of silver between my finger and thumb, closed my eyes, and opened myself to my magic. The rosy glow of liquid light at the center of my being sloshed and bubbled as I dove into it, and the familiar tide of my emotions washed over me, as they always did when I tapped into the fae side of my powers. I’d done this so many times today that I no longer felt overwhelmed when I called the magic. The worry—dread, even—at the impossibility of my task had become, well, not comfortable . . . never that . . . but tolerable.

The edges of the silver scrap dug into my skin as I squeezed tighter, focusing on my goal. One more impossible task on the road to peace, but I’d accomplished the impossible before. I could do it again. I pushed my awareness into the metal, diving deep. Its core was cold and hard—a tangle of steel cables rather than the ribbonlike threads found at the center of living things. The shard’s core sang of the deep earth, of moonlight, and of a flexible strength that was happy to change its form to the need at hand. That’s why I’d chosen silver; of all the metals, it was the most accommodating. I peeled off a thread of the hazy pink light of my magic and wove it into the shard’s core, binding, coaxing, telling the metal what I needed it to be.

I twisted together strands of silver with ribbons of magic as I pictured the beat of light and heat against my skin. At the same time, I wrapped the image of a protective cage around the silver shard. Pouring magic into the metal, I twined the feelings, linking them, syncing the cage to the feeling of heat and expanding the protective shell to encompass my hand. The silver grew warm. My fingers shook, pinching harder so as not to drop the smooth shard. The cords of its core deformed and rearranged as I pushed my magic into it. Changed it.

Yes, I whispered to the metal, as it gave way under my will and the force of my magic. That’s it. The cords solidified. I choked off the trickle of magic connecting me to the metal, let my awareness sink back into my own body, and opened my eyes.

The walls and tools of my studio surrounded me, a comforting embrace, but I kept my attention on the half-inch shard of eighteen-gauge silver I’d cut for the purpose of this experiment. It looked like a perfectly normal hunk of metal pinched in my hand, its polished surface a bit clouded by the heat and moisture of my skin.

Please work. I pushed that prayer into the metal, not with magic but with hope. Lifting a lighter from my workbench, I lit a flame and brought it slowly toward my hand. If my magic worked, the spell locked into the silver would save my fingers from being burned.

The flame wavered as I moved the lighter closer to my skin. So far so good. I brought my hands together. Heat seared my knuckles. I jerked my hands apart.

“Dammit.” Flipping the lighter closed, I slammed it to the desk and threw the useless silver shard onto the pile of failed attempts heaped at the edge of my workbench. It clinked against its companions, mocking me with their growing numbers. A guttural snarl built in my throat, erupting as an inarticulate shout as I swept my arm across the table. Silver shards scattered like confetti across my studio, bouncing off cabinets and the bricks of the cold forge, sliding over the smooth concrete floor to hide in the shadows of my larger tools. The tinkle of metal connecting with other objects echoed through the studio like wind chimes in a tornado for one brief moment. Then all fell still and silent. Only the angry huff of my breath filled the space as I covered my face with my hands and let myself wallow in the frustration of failure.

The earthy smells of fresh wood and metal dust mixed with the old char scent baked into my forge and the various chemicals used to color, clean, and otherwise treat metals. The puffs of my breath came a little slower as my pulse eased off the throttle. I tipped my chin to my chest, burrowing my fingers into the tied-back strands of my auburn hair. My gaze found and followed the whorls of wood grain across my workbench. Every scratch, scorch, and divot lifted my spirits a little higher. Hundreds of projects had come to life in this space. Tools and sculptures. Practical pieces and flights of fancy. Even before I knew I had magic. Especially then. Before fate, friendship, and long-lost family ties had dragged me into this impossible situation. This was my sanctuary. My kingdom. Here, I could do anything . . . eventually.

“But maybe not today.” I pushed to my feet with a long, deep exhale, grabbed a broom out of the corner, and went to work cleaning up my tantrum.

As I swept, my mind drifted, teasing out possibilities about why the imbuing hadn’t worked. Was it a shortcoming of power on my part? I’d managed to forge sunlight into metal before, so trapping a single property within a piece of silver should have been well within my abilities. Of course, that time I’d had my fae friend Kai to bolster and help direct my magic. I’d also turned a crumpled knot of fabric into a blazing handful of pure sunshine and shoved it into the face of an angry vampire, and I’d done that entirely on my own. I knew I could trap the heat of a flame, but somehow, despite weeks of trying, I still hadn’t managed to. I’d thought perhaps the issue was with getting the silver to absorb something that wasn’t there to begin with, which was why I’d poured heat into the heart of the metal first—like called to like. Clearly that hadn’t been the solution. Perhaps the problem came from expanding the field beyond the shard itself?

I crouched and brushed the collected shards onto a dustpan. “I just don’t know enough about the way my fae magic works.” The studio’s silence pressed against me in quiet agreement. My practitioner magic, the magic I’d inherited from my father, was newer, but it was more instinctive. I’d think of something, focus a bit of power, then the something would happen. The magic I’d inherited from my fae heritage had a lot more rules, but mastering them was necessary if I wanted any amount of permanence to my spell. I sighed and dumped my failed attempts into the scrap bin.

After propping the broom back in the corner, I retrieved my sketchbook from the floor, where I’d knocked it, and opened it to the sketch of a stylized sun pendant layered with notes and angry red scribbles. I’d thought today, with the implementation of my latest insight, I might finally succeed, might actually be able to dig myself out of the debt hanging over me like an avalanche poised to fall. I scoffed at my own optimism and snapped the notebook closed. Weeks of work and I was no closer to trapping sunlight . . . no closer to replicating the daywalking amulet that had protected James for years . . . no closer to fulfilling my oath. Tucking my journal of impossible tasks under one arm, I turned off the studio lights and stepped into the crisp mountain breeze.

A ceiling of gray clouds, heavy with rain and slightly paler in the west where the hidden sun was on its way down, kissed the tops of pine trees. Dim light blurred the shadows of the forest. The yellow-green of new growth dotted evergreen branches, while the fuzzy white tufts and round leaves of waking aspens filled in the gaps. Most of winter had melted away, save a few patches of gray slush tucked into the deepest shadows.

Soft dirt slicked with moisture clung to the tread of my boots as I left the oversized shed that served as my studio and retraced my earlier tracks across my property. My stomach grumbled as the front door to my modest ranch home drew closer, as if my physical body had suddenly woken from the trance I seemed to fall under whenever I focused on my work. Breakfast had been a very long time ago, and lunch had been a hasty granola bar. The extra energy I’d burned tapping into my magic, successful or not, came roaring into my awareness, sapping the strength from my limbs. I stumbled, dizzy, and pressed a hand to my gut. The cool breeze blowing through the valley ruffled my ponytail and snuck through a hole in the knee of my torn jeans. I hurried my steps, patting the rust-flecked blue paint of my sleeping Jeep as I passed, and pushed through the front door.

The TV in my living room played Aladdin for the umpteenth time. The genie was singing about what an amazing friend he was. That sentiment also applied to Emma, whose slippered feet peeked above the nearest armrest of the couch. I kicked off my boots and stepped around the sofa. Emma’s head was propped on a pillow against the other arm rest. The dark fluff of her buzzed hair topped her pale face. A dozen silver rings and studs pierced her ears, her eyebrow, her nose. Her eyes were closed. Her hands were folded over a tie-dyed T-shirt, rising and falling with her breath. She looked as if she were sleeping, but as soon as I rounded the end of the couch her eyes opened. Her milky-white stare found me.

It was disconcerting to have that blind gaze focus on me, not that Emma’s eyes really had anything to do with her sight these days. Her practitioner magic had been damaged, then twisted—an unintended side effect from an encounter with an immensely powerful fae—resulting in a new form of magic that we were still trying to understand.

“Any luck?” Emma asked, grabbing a remote off the coffee table to pause her movie.

I shook my head, trusting her sonar-like awareness to convey the motion.

“Victoria’s not going to be thrilled about that.”

I rolled my eyes at mention of the vampire who ruled over the Denver metro area. “Thanks for the reminder.” As if I could forget the threat looming over me if I didn’t keep my promise to deliver amulets that neutralized sunlight—a delivery that was already overdue.

I dropped my sketchbook on the coffee table and continued past Emma, through the dining area dominated by my thrift-store oak table, and around the bar-height counter that acted as a boundary line for the kitchen. “I think I’ve got the how of imbuing down okay. It’s what I’m trying to imbue that’s the problem. It’s too complicated.”

“Bael did it,” Emma pointed out.

Another reminder I could do without. Thoughts of my fae grandfather and his skill with our family magic irritated me on the best of days. Today was not the best of days. I opened the refrigerator door with enough force to make the condiments rattle and pulled out a leftover burrito from dinner two nights ago.

“Maybe you should pop over to Enchantment and ask for another lesson?”

I sighed. “If only it were that simple.” The single lesson I’d had with Bael constituted nearly everything I knew about using my fae abilities. Of course I would love to learn more, and I was sure he’d be happy to teach me . . . for a price. Nothing came free with the fae. Least of all with Bael. He was the lord of the fae realm of Enchantment after all. “I’d rather steer clear of fae realms for a while.”

“You may not have a choice if you want to keep your promise to Victoria,” Emma said. “No one gets everything they want out of life. At some point you’ll have to decide what’s most important to you, and compromise on the rest. Besides,” she continued, “you’ll have to go back eventually, if for no other reason than to tell Kai it’s safe for him to come home.”

I made a noncommittal grunt and shoved my burrito in the microwave. My second roommate, Kai, had retreated into the faerie realms—along with any fae with a sense of self-preservation—while the dust settled after a conflict with a powerful rogue siren and her enchanted army brought humans and fae to the brink of open war. There’d been casualties on both sides, and it had seemed smart for my non-human friends to make themselves scarce until we knew what the fallout would be. It had taken weeks, but official pardons were offered to those of us who’d helped end that conflict. The human world wasn’t exactly safe for fae at the moment, but Kai would no longer be arrested on sight if he came home.

“In fact,” Emma continued, “maybe Kai could help you with the amulets.” She sat up and pivoted to face the kitchen. “He helped you make zombie-killing bullets and that anti-vampire knife.”

The microwave dinged. I retrieved my steaming burrito and carried the hot plate to the table, inhaling the spicy aroma. “Maybe,” I said, but I didn’t hold out much hope that Kai could help. He was fae, but young and inexperienced, and he couldn’t imbue. That skill was unique to only one bloodline. Bael’s. “I’ll ask him before I ask Bael, anyway, but I’m not sure any fae will help me make artifacts that eliminate the vampires’ biggest weakness, seeing how they’re not thrilled that vampires exist in the first place.”

Emma shifted suddenly, twisting to look at the front door.

I froze with my fork halfway to my mouth. A string of melty cheese stretched from the promised bite. “What is it?” I whispered.

Then I heard it—the rumble of an engine.

“We’re about to have company,” Emma said.

I glanced mournfully at the temptation on my fork, then set the bite down on the plate and stood up. “Anyone you recognize?”

Emma squinted as though she could see through the building’s wall, which I suppose she kind of could. She shook her head. “Just one. Human. No magic.”

A car door closed outside.

I crossed the living room and waited. Three solid knocks sounded on the front door. I took a breath and pulled it open.

A short woman with a messy blond bun stared at me through thin, rectangular glasses. Her green eyes were the color of spring grass, but they seemed unfocused, as though she were staring at something slightly behind me. She wore high heels and a pinstripe dress suit in shades of gray. She held a clipboard against her breast.

I raised an eyebrow. “We don’t get a lot of solicitors out here.”

“Alyssandra Katherine Blackwood?” The woman’s voice had a singsong quality, but the use of my full legal name grated like nails on a chalkboard.

“Who wants to know?”

She glanced at her clipboard. “Are you Alyssandra Katherine Blackwood?”

I narrowed my eyes. “Yes.”

“Then I am here to collect you.”

I took a step back. “Excuse me?”

Emma stood in my peripheral vision, circling the couch in case I needed backup.

“Your presence is required at an emergency conclave of the council.”

“Which council?” I asked. “The council of the Unified Church? The PTF directors? Have they finally set a date to begin treaty negotiations with the fae?”

She shook her head. A rumble of thunder pealed through the overhead clouds. When the sound died, the woman spoke into the silence of the hushed forest. “The Council of Seven.”

I staggered as though gut-punched and grabbed the door for support. My chest refused to expand. The Council of Seven, also known as the Council of Sin. The vampire council. Part of me had hoped I’d never have to meet the bogeymen that kept the rest of the vampires in line, but that had been a thin hope after James’s cameo on the evening news when he’d been recorded defending the local PTF headquarters from rogue forces. A well-known vampire—at least well known in the paranatural community—standing bare-chested under the midday sun. How could the council not take notice? And it wouldn’t have taken much poking around for that trail to lead them to me.

I forced myself to inhale. At least they’d sent an envoy rather than the assassin James had predicted. Perhaps there was still a chance for me to talk my way out of serious trouble. I cleared my dry throat and asked, “When is the conclave?”

“It will begin as soon as you arrive. We need to leave now.”

“They’re already in town?” I pressed a hand over my racing heart to suppress its rib-jarring pounding while I considered the implications of having a large group of incredibly powerful vampires visit my already volatile city. “Where exactly is this happening? How long will it take?”

“For the security of the council, I cannot answer those questions.”

“You can’t be serious.” Emma pulled the door open wider so she could stand beside me. “You expect her to just drop everything and come running at a moment’s notice without having any of her questions answered?”

“Yes.” The woman frowned. “This invitation will not be offered again. If you refuse to come with me now, you will forfeit your chance to present your case before the council.”

I set my hand on Emma’s shoulder. “It’s okay, Em. I got this.”

The truth was I didn’t have it. I was a fisherman in a rowboat who’d accidentally caught a shark and been dragged out to sea. I was adrift without oars or a compass, but letting Emma see that wouldn’t change the situation. It would only make her worry more.

“I expected something like this might happen,” I lied. After James’s description of the council, what I’d expected was for them to slide into my bedroom like smoke and slit my throat while I slept. I slapped a smile on my face and tried to project optimism. “This is a good thing, really. I’ll be able to clear up any misunderstandings they may have about me. Maybe I can even convince them to join the paranatural alliance.”

She scowled at me. “Then I’m coming with you. You’ll need backup.”

“I’m only going to talk.”

“The last time you said that, you were snatched off a public dock and sucked into an underwater fae realm for three days.”

“Vampires can’t cross realms.”

“That’s not the point.”

The woman cleared her throat. “Only Ms. Blackwood may come, but her safety will be guaranteed for the duration of the conclave.”

“There.” I indicated the woman and fought to keep a straight face. “You have the word of this creepy total stranger that I’ll be safe.”

The corners of Emma’s mouth twitched. I watched her trying to fight her smile as I struggled with my own. We both burst out laughing. Sometimes the world was just too ridiculous to do anything but laugh or scream. I’d spent plenty of time screaming. Laughter felt better.

I wiped tears from my eyes. “Seriously though, if the vampire council wanted me dead, I’d be dead. The fact that this invitation isn’t coming on the tip of a knife means they want something from me. So long as that’s true, I’m safe enough. The same can’t be said for you.”

Emma crossed her arms with a harrumph.

The woman looked from one of us to the other, her expression neutral. “Are you coming, or not?”

I nodded. Dubious as this woman’s guarantee of safety might be, I doubted she was lying when she said this invitation wouldn’t be offered again. If I turned the council away now, their next envoy wouldn’t be so polite. “Can you give me an estimate of how long this meeting will take? Hours? Days?”

“The conclave will last as long as necessary. It will adjourn once the council is satisfied.”

I twisted my lips, trying to dislodge the sour flavor her useless answer put in my mouth. My experience with politicians—and vampires or not, that’s what the council members were—was that they were never satisfied. “Can I at least pack a bag in case I want to freshen up between sessions?”

“Everything you need will be provided for you.”

“No offense, but I prefer to wear my own underwear.”

She looked at her watch. “Five minutes. No weapons.”

That last comment smothered any lingering mirth like a plunge through an iced-over lake. The thought of being completely at the mercy of unknown vampires brought back memories of my time as a captive of the previous master of Denver—trapped in my own head, looking through the windows of my eyes as a stranger moved my body like a puppeteer. I shoved those memories back and slammed a steel door in my mind. Not all vampires were evil, and not all thralls were victims.

I didn’t invite the woman in. I simply turned and walked toward my bedroom. Emma closed the door in the woman’s face and followed me. As soon as I crossed the threshold to my bedroom, I pulled out my cell phone and speed-dialed James. Setting the phone to speaker, I set it on the end of my bed to free my hands for packing.

“I don’t like this,” Emma said from the hall as I shoved clothes into a teal-and-black backpack.

“Neither do I, but this honestly isn’t the worst way this could have gone.” I crossed to my attached bathroom to grab a few essentials. “We knew there’d be a response to James’s public daywalking. If explaining the situation to the vampire council is the worst to come out of this, I’ll be happy.”

“And if it’s not?” she asked, voicing my concern that a group of power-hungry immortals probably wanted more from me than a simple explanation.

“Then I’ll deal with it.” I shoved my toiletries in the bag. My phone call rolled over to James’s voicemail. Scooping up the phone, I waited for the beep then said tersely, “Call me asap.” I pressed the “hang up” button with more force than was strictly necessary, stuffed the phone in my pocket, and zipped my bag closed. Finding the magical thread that connected me to James where our souls had been twined together, I strummed it like a guitar string. A deep vibration thrummed through me, carrying the chant of I am here. That echo tugged me like a compass needle in the direction of Boulder, the direction of James.

“You should delay until you hear from him,” Emma said. “Maybe he’ll have an alternative to this near-kidnapping.”

“If the vampire council wants to talk to me, chances are they want to talk to him as well, and I don’t think even James would dare turn them down. These folks scare some of the most dangerous people in the world.”

“That’s comforting.”

“The most likely reason James isn’t answering is that he’s already at, or on his way to, this conclave. In which case I’ll see him there.” I would have liked the chance to talk to him without an audience, but at least the side effects of our interlinked souls gave us options, assuming we could get close enough to each other.

Emma crossed her arms. “And if it turns out he’s not there?”

“Even better.” I slung my bag over one shoulder. “If by some miracle this isn’t about James and his newfound ability to get a tan, then the council must want to talk to me about joining the paranatural alliance. If that’s the case, I’d like to make a good first impression. Having James go all white-knight protector on my behalf isn’t likely to accomplish that, so it’ll be easier all around if he’s left out of this.”

“I’d still be happier if you had backup.”

“Me, too. But you heard the talking statue out there. The vampires’ dubious promise of safety doesn’t extend to my friends.” I set my hand on her shoulder. “I don’t really have a choice here. I have to go, or face worse consequences down the road, but I won’t put you in danger.”

Emma pursed her lips but thought better of whatever else she wanted to say.

“Call David and let him know what’s going on. He can work with Garrett and Sarah to cover any emergencies that might come up while I’m . . . otherwise occupied.” I cast a wistful look at the light-imbued knife on my dresser—my only battle-tested protection against vampires—sighed, and pulled Emma into a hug. “Will you be okay on your own?”

“Will you?” She shot back.

“Touché.” I stepped away. “Don’t throw any wild parties while I’m gone.”

“Only if you promise not to do anything reckless.”

I wrinkled my nose. “That’s a tall ask, considering my track record.”

“Just come back safe.”

When I opened the front door again, the woman who’d been sent to collect me was standing in the exact same place she had been, as though time had simply frozen on that side of the door.

“Ready?” she asked.

“As I’ll ever be.”

She backtracked to her car and climbed into the driver’s seat. She didn’t offer to pop the trunk, so I tucked my bag on the floor between my feet on the passenger side. She backed up and swung the car around before I’d gotten my seat belt clicked.

I twisted to see my home, tucked between towering pines with my rusted Jeep out front and my studio hunkered nearby. When the driveway curved and stole my view, it felt as if a hollow had been scooped out of my chest. I faced front and stared into the growing darkness. “What do I call you?”

“You needn’t call me anything. I’m an extension of the conclave steward, Zuri Yahaya.”

My limbs turned to ice as all the warmth in my body seemed to retreat from that statement. I studied the woman’s profile. She was a thrall—a person whose sense of self had been completely overridden by a vampire. That’s why her gaze seemed so distant. Her personality wasn’t really in there.

More memories threatened to surface. I shuddered and rubbed my arms to dislodge the phantom sensation of teeth against my skin. Those thoughts were reserved for my nightmares; I refused to let them plague my waking world.

“Do you remember who you were before?”

She cast me a condescending smile. “I do.”

“What was your name?”

“Helen Oswald.”

“And you’re okay with . . . this?” I gestured to her body, unsure how to indicate the wrongness I felt when I looked at her.

“I am.”

I slouched against my seat and turned my attention back to the window, unable to frame a response that didn’t sound like an insult. Gravel gave way to pavement as we left my driveway, and I wondered just where this ride would take me. A fat raindrop exploded against the windshield. Then another. Then all at once, the rain let loose as the long-threatening storm broke over the mountain.