1 October 2043
Fresno Fey Enclave, Southern California
Eight years after the Awakening
Her heart racing, Angie watched with the other students as Nathan dueled another of the teenage boys, their heavy rapiers flashing in the torchlight surrounding the fencing arena. She sat on the edge of a bench with the other mage students, thirty-six teenage boys and girls. Even though she wore jeans and a long-sleeved sweatshirt, she shivered and rubbed her arms. Californian nights in October could grow as cold as the days were hot. A forest of tropical trees and brightly colored flowers surrounded them, and the ever-present flamingos clustered near the bank of a pond, squawking happily. From far away, the local wolf pack howled at the moon.
Nathan and his opponent were shirtless, their athletic frames glistening. At seventeen, Nathan was older and bigger than most of the other students, but the boy he fought was not only his age but taller and heavier, his shoulders and arms corded with muscle. He used his greater size now to force Nathan onto the defensive, coming at him with a blistering series of thrusts and cuts. Angie held her breath as Nathan fell back under the onslaught. Any moment now, she'd see the magical flash of sparks and light that would signify his loss. But that flash never came. Somehow, Nathan's gleaming blade met each of his opponent's strikes, even if only at the very last moment. The third time Nathan’s blade just “happened” to deflect an attack at the last moment, Angie realized Nathan was toying with his opponent and could defeat him at any moment. Nathan was a marvelous fighter, the best in the school.
Angie, only thirteen, was among the worst. She was also unshaded. Her stepmother Char—rather, the school's Grandmaster Mage, Chararah Succubus—insisted she was too young to bond with a shade.
Nathan's opponent altered his tactics, coming at him now from an off angle of attack, but Nathan, faster than an angry elf, dropped on one knee, coming up beneath his opponent’s overextended thrust. Nathan's rapier, more than three feet of sharpened steel, came up beneath the other boy's unprotected throat. Just before the weapon could skewer him, the boy's shade created a half-foot shield of blue-white translucent energy. Sparks erupted as the magical shield blocked the blade.
But it had been a perfect coup de main strike. Had they been fighting with hexed weapons, Nathan would have killed him.
"Match point!" yelled Anthalas, the lanky, white-haired elven fight-master, as he stepped between the two boys, using a long staff to force them apart. "Adept Nathan Case wins."
Unlike the boys, Anthalas was no mage and had no shade to protect him, so he wore a thick padded armored vest called a gambeson. Angie knew all about armor and weapons now. In the years she had been a student of Char's, Angie had learned more about Renaissance sword fighting than she ever would have thought possible.
The students cheered, as did Angie, rising to her feet and jumping in excitement. Everyone adored Nathan; how could they not? His white teeth flashed as he brought his sword blade to his face and executed a salute and then stepped forward, offering his other hand to his opponent. With his long dirty-blond hair and ice-blue eyes, Nathan wasn't just handsome, he was perfect—tall and lean with powerful arms, wide shoulders, and a tapering waist.
And he barely knew Angie was alive.
The other boy accepted Nathan's hand in a firm embrace, acknowledging his loss with grace. Their chests heaved with exertion as they separated and then returned their razor-sharp rapiers to the weapons stand near the edge of the wooden arena.
Angie felt a presence behind her a moment before the feather-light tap on her shoulder. She turned to see one of Char's nymph servants, shorter than she was with pale-blue skin, translucent wings, and otherworldly beauty—despite the all-black, too-large eyes. This one was a water nymph and wore a wisp of light green material that barely covered her, leaving her legs, shoulders, and most of her cleavage bare. Most nymphs rarely wore anything at all, but Char insisted her servants clothe themselves to avoid embarrassing the students, a practice not at all in line with the boys' wishes.
"Grandmaster Chararah Succubus asks that you present yourself to her sanctum," the nymph said, her words distorted, as if she spoke underwater.
Angie's mind raced as she processed the nymph's words. Why would Char want to see her this late at night? It could only mean one thing: She means to put me through the ritual and bond me with a shade—finally! She grinned, her heart filled with light. "Thank you. I'll go right away."
The nymph smiled, exposing her sharp little teeth. Her wings buzzed for a moment, as if she wanted to fly away, but she turned about and skipped off instead.
As the other students returned to the dormitory, Angie headed toward the main school complex, once a two-story log building that had held the zoo's offices, a restaurant, and a gift shop but was now Char's personal sanctum and residence. Although she’d been adopted by Char, Angie lived and studied with the other students. Char insisted it was best she remain among her own kind.
Angie pulled open the large rune-covered wooden door and entered. The interior had long ago been remodeled by skilled elven artisans and furnished with Char's treasured tapestries and erotic art pieces, including the nude statues she loved. Char had a fondness for anything that displayed the naked form—male and female—but she particularly loved ancient Greek art and owned many original pieces. Angie knew nothing of art, but she guessed these pieces must have been valuable—or would have been when such things as money still mattered. These days, a working generator was a real treasure, worth more than life. Char had a generator—several—but she rarely used them, preferring to light her home with hundreds of candles. Nor did she fear fires; a simple cantrip took care of that.
She made her way past the entrance hall and the library and then down the dark oak-lined hallway that led to Char's sanctum. Her excitement grew with each step. Finally, she'd be a real mage. Once she was bonded, she could use magic without the toxic side effects, and her shade would keep her safe from all harm. Nathan would have to notice her now.
She gave a startled gasp as one of the shadows moved, blocking her path. When it stepped into the candlelight, exposing its pale skin and red eyes, she froze—vampire, one of Ephix's children.
Why is it in the house?
This one looked like a young man in his early twenties with curly dark hair, but looks were deceiving. Despite the legends, vampires were Fey, not the undead creatures of the stories, but many were very long-lived. For all she knew, this one might be a hundred years old—or older. Its breath hissed between its fangs, and its eyes locked on her as it caressed its long, thin fingers, the nails too long. When the vampire slid closer, she forced herself to remain perfectly still, her heart hammering. The vampire's face darted toward her, and it sniffed her neck, a long, drawn-out inhalation followed by a satisfied smile. Up close, it smelled of rotting flowers.
"Why are you different?" it asked, its voice a raspy whisper.
"You should not be here," she said, willing strength into her voice. If it realized how frightened she was... "You're not permitted on school property."
Despite Ephix's control over them, most vampires remained bestial, far too easily driven wild by bloodlust. The vampire's lips parted, exposing the two fangs. "You smell so good," it purred. "What are you?"
She was moments from bolting, which could only end in blood, when light flooded the far end of the hallway. The door to Char's sanctum had just opened, and a figure stepped through it. The vampire hissed as it spun about. Angie squinted and recognized the figure in the doorway—Andrej, Char's newest lover. He was tall and dark haired, clean cut and well framed, and so handsome that he was almost pretty. His skin glowed with health now, but when he had arrived several months ago, he had been pale and near death.
Andrej stood in place for a long moment. "Leave her be," he finally said, his voice surprisingly steady.
The vampire snorted. "I do not take orders from toys."
"Do you take orders from me?" a young female voice asked from just behind Angie. At the sound of this voice—one she knew all too well—she almost wet herself.
The vampire fell onto its knees, staring at the floor. Angie slid back against the wall. Behind her stood a small thin woman, young, with her long dark hair braided into a cord draped over a thin shoulder: Ephix, Char's sister.
Ephix was neither beautiful nor plain, being entirely unremarkable, but she was also the most dangerous creature in the entire Fresno Enclave. Tonight, she wore a simple white shift that came to her knees, and she was barefoot. She could have passed for human—if you didn't look too closely into her large brown eyes, eyes that were devoid of even a hint of humanity. Years ago, Angie had seen Ephix's true form, and the memory still haunted her.
"Night Mistress," the vampire said, its thin shoulders trembling. "Apologies. I ... her smell, I couldn't stop myself. It was ..."
"I know what it was," Ephix said in a voice laced with ice. "But you are still not permitted here. She is not for you." Her eyes darted to Angie's, and the smile she gave her was cold. "Run along, Angela dear. My sister waits for you. You, too, Andrej."
Andrej spun away, nearly tripping over his feet in his haste.
"Yes, Ephix," Angie said, bowing quickly before sliding past the kneeling vampire to follow Andrej, her heart jackrabbiting. In a moment, they were both through the doorway into Char's sanctum. As Andrej eased the door closed behind them, Angie exhaled heavily.
"Ah, you found her already, my love," Char said from where she stood in the center of the sanctum, her back to them.
Chararah Succubus was a large woman, towering over others at six and a half feet of height but perfectly framed with a narrow waist, huge bust, and ample curves. Char was built for pleasure and knew it, reveled in it. Her large bat wings and forked tail made her look like a statue come to life. Char dominated every room she entered. She glanced over one wing now and flashed Angie a bright smile, her alien beauty at odds with her demonic appearance.
To call Char beautiful was to say that mountains were large. The succubus exuded grace and majesty, and among the Fresno Fey, she was more akin to a queen than the elected ruler she was. Her features were mostly human, although her eyes were overlarge, oddly slanted, and bright purple, both iris and pupil. She shared the same pointed ears as the elves and other fairies but also sported two curved ram-like horns twisting back from her forehead. Char's long, flowing hair was a mixture of raven black with strands of gray, the only real clue of her advanced age—even Angie didn't know how old she truly was—but her ebony skin remained as flawless and smooth as that of a coltish girl.
Char wore a short red silk bathrobe of Chinese design that exposed most of her shapely thighs. She stood barefoot before a floating object, examining it, her hip cocked to the side, a crystal goblet filled with red wine in one hand. As she sipped, her forked tail swished back and forth, as it often did when her mind was occupied. The sanctum smelled of incense, candle wax, and ... dirt, oddly enough.
Angie's pulse quickened, and a sudden flush of warmth spread through her. It was, she knew all too well, Char's aura of sexual desire. To be fair, the effect was akin to perspiration for the succubus, and she usually suppressed it. But when she was distracted, as she must have been right now, it slipped away from her. "Mother," Angie said, a trace of annoyance in her voice.
"Oh, sorry," Char said sheepishly, sipping her wine again. A moment later, the aura dampened, becoming barely noticeable.
Angie stepped forward and saw more clearly the floating object. It was a large clay jar a foot in height and covered in strange hieroglyphics. Char's druid staff, a potent magical artifact carved from silver Spiritwood and almost as tall as Char, leaned nearby against a wooden case. If Char needed her strongest magic, she'd have the staff in hand, so whatever the jar was, clearly Char wasn't concerned. But just the same, something about the ancient jar drew Angie's eye.
"One of your sister's blood drinkers," Andrej said, his voice sharp with distaste. "It was in the house, drawn here by..." He paused, glancing at Angie, his sentence unfinished. He needn't have bothered. She already knew the effect her blood had on Ephix's vampires. That was why Char had banned them from the house and zoo grounds. They were supposed to remain in the ruins of Fresno, protecting the enclave.
"I see," said Char coldly. Then her face transformed, and she smiled at Angie, motioning her to come closer. "Stand by me, daughter." When Angie approached, Char wrapped an arm across her shoulder and a large wing over her back, letting it hang like a protective cloak. She rested her head atop Angie's, barely grazing her with a twisted ram horn. "I'm sorry. We shall let Ephix deal with her own servant, but I will bring the matter up with her."
"Yes, Mother. I'm fine. I wasn't scared." She leaned against Char's side, wrapping an arm around her waist and squeezing her.
"Of course you were," Char whispered. "You're no idiot. There's no shame in fearing vampires. But for now, I need your help."
"Yes, Mother." Angie's attention fixed on the floating jar. "What is that?"
Something about the jar captivated her. Up close, it looked brittle, and, quite frankly, a bit plain—especially when compared to Char's many other treasures and magical artifacts. The hieroglyphics carved into the jar were interesting, however, and Angie peered intently at them, trying to guess their origin. They weren't elven, or at least she didn't think they were, but you could fill books with the things Angie didn't understand about the elves.
"This," Char said, a rapturous smile on her beautiful features, "was sent to me by our cousins to the east."
"The Kingdom of the Southern Cross?" she asked, finding it hard to believe that the notoriously xenophobic citizens of the former southern states would permit a Fey enclave in their territory.
"Think farther east, half a world away."
"Oh. What does it do?"
Angie leaned forward, her fingers drifting toward the urn, but Char jerked her back. "Don't touch it! And watch your footing. Don't break the ward."
It was then that she noticed the occult markings drawn on the wooden floorboards. The markings created an intricate protective circle four feet across. Most of the ward had been etched in chalk, but Char had also used sifted lines of salt and ash to strengthen the protective bond. The few wards Angie recognized were among the most powerful Char taught, but there were still others she didn't recognize. Angie reassessed her earlier opinion: staff or not, Char had worked her most powerful magic into the creation of those wards. Whatever that jar was, clearly it was magical, a talisman, she guessed. Char collected artifacts and talismans.
She drew her sneaker away from the ward. "It looks old," Angie said. "The sort of thing used to carry water from a well."
Char sniffed. "The jar itself is little more than a container, a sleeve if you will. Perhaps even a prison, although I'm not sure such a word is accurate."
"A prison? What's ... what's in it?"
"Perhaps nothing, at least nothing anymore. Once, however, if the legends are true, it held a very great treasure, though I suspect it is long empty. But before I open it to see, I'd like you to use your special talent. Maybe you can sense something I cannot." She exhaled, her ample cleavage rising and falling with her breaths. "Although ... if I'm being honest with myself, I'm at least a century too late, and the container now holds dust. The entity it once held was old long before I was born, and even the very old must pass into eternity." She gave Angie a squeeze and a smile.
"You're not that old, Mother."
"You are a dutiful daughter but a poor liar. But please, use your gift, and remember, 'ware your footing near the ward."
Angie nodded, squaring her shoulders as she fixed her attention on the slowly rotating jar. She breathed in and out, long drawn-out breaths, centering herself. She was a poor swordfighter and, at best, an average magical student, but she had one special talent none of the other students possessed: when she concentrated, she could detect the presence of life, whether human, animal, or Fey. No other mage, not even Char, could do this. She closed her eyes, focusing on the jar, searching for any trace of life.
There was nothing there. She opened her eyes, certain she was somehow letting Char down even if she knew it wasn't her fault. Char had said it was very old.
But then, before she could say anything, she felt the slightest flicker of a sensation within her skull, as if something had connected psychically with her. And for a moment, she felt an emotion—excitement. There was something within the jar.
At that moment, a long, drawn-out howl of agony tore through the house. Angie spun about, her fear spiking. In a flash, Char retrieved her staff, holding it before her as she faced the door. Andrej, to his credit, placed himself in front of Char, unarmed but ready to throw away his life to slow down an attacker. Char had that effect on her lovers. Angie's legs went weak as the scream continued before finally petering out into a hideous whimpering wail.
It was the vampire. Horror and guilt coursed through her as she understood what was happening. Ephix did not tolerate disobedience.
Andrej turned and stared wide-eyed at Char. "I ... are we under attack?"
"No." Char lowered her staff. "It seems I no longer need speak to my sister about her servants. But ... perhaps her methods."
Angie forced herself to inhale, her heart racing. She ran her fingers over her face, telling herself it wasn't her fault. As frightening as they were, the creature hadn't hurt her, hadn't even threatened to harm her. She stared down, wringing her hands.
And saw that her sneaker had scuffed away the chalk line of the ward.
She stared in confusion for several heartbeats, trying to understand what had just happened. Char must have sensed something, because she sprinted toward Angie, her mouth open, reaching for her.
The jar exploded in fire, a tornado of flames that swept about Angie, roaring in triumph. Angie gasped, flinging her arms to the sides as she floated into the air, surrounded by fire. When she opened her mouth to cry out, the flames poured down her throat.