An Excerpt from Blood Spells

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December 16
Five days until the solstice-eclipse
Far south of the U.S. border


As the robed Nightkeepers formed a circle around the ancient stone sarcophagus, deep underground, Patience wanted to yell, Cancel the ceremony. The omens suck!

She didn’t, though, because the others didn’t give a crap about the omens or the Mayan astronomy she’d gotten into lately. Besides, when the prophecies said “On this day, you will jump,” the magi freaking jumped. And when they said the Nightkeepers had to enact the Triad spell at the First Father’s tomb on the Day of Ancestors—aka today—well, it wasn’t like they could put it off, sucky omens or not.

This was now-or-never, do-or-die time . . . or potentially “do and die” given that the spell had a two-thirds attrition rate: The Triad had been formed only once before in the history of the Nightkeepers, and of the three magi chosen back then, only one had survived unscathed. Of the other two, one had gone nuts and the other had died instantly.

Patience suppressed a shiver. The air in the tomb was cool and faintly damp, and the flickering torchlight made the carvings on the walls seem to move in the shadows, morphing from Egyptian to Mayan and back again as though echoing the Nightkeepers’ evolution.

Sweat prickled down her back beneath the lightweight black-on-black combat gear that, along with the black, tattoolike glyph on her inner wrist, identified her as a warrior-mage. She was heavily armed—the Nightkeepers all were—even though it was questionable whether jade-tipped bullets and ceremonial knives would be any use today. The magi weren’t going up against a physical enemy; they were asking the sun god, Kinich Ahau, to choose three of them to receive the Triad powers.

At least that was the theory.

Problem was, theory also said that the entire pantheon was supposed to choose the Triad . . . but at the moment, all the other gods were locked up in the sky, barred from the earth by the Nightkeepers’ enemies. Which meant . . . well, nobody know what that meant for the Triad spell, amping the “not good” vibe that had taken root in Patience’s stomach early that morning when she’d charted the day’s sun, sacred numbers, and light pulses, and got what amounted to a cosmic suggestion that she should stay the hell in bed with the covers pulled over her head until tomorrow.

Not that anybody wanted to hear that right now. The ceremony was starting.

Across the circle, Strike—wearing royal red robes and a scowl of fierce concentration beneath his dark jawline beard—ritually invited the gods and ancestors to listen up. He was speaking ancient Mayan, having memorized the spell phonetically. Beside him, Jade joined in to smooth over his occasional fumbled syllable; she was the only one there who knew the old tongue. Her human mate, Lucius, was fluent, but this was a Nightkeepers-only ceremony . . . which was why the circle consisted of a whopping ten magi when the legends said there should be hundreds, even thousands for the gods to choose from when it came to the Triad spell.

Yeah. Not so much.

Beside Jade was blond, good-looking Sven, face pale and serious beneath his winter-bleached tan. On Strike’s other side were the king’s younger sister, Sasha, and her mate, Michael, who stood with a hunter’s sharp-eyed stillness. Alexis was next in the circle—blond and Amazonian, a warrior to her core. She was nearly as tall as her lean, dark-eyed shape-shifter mate, Nate, who stood beside her, their fingers brushing.

That was where the alternating male-female thing broke down, though, because next to Nate stood interruption personified in the form of their youngest member, Rabbit. But although the = sharp-featured younge man’s veins ran with a dangerous mixture of Nightkeeper and Xibalban blood and he pretty much embodied Murphy’s Law, Rabbit had earned his place on the team.

When he glanced over at Patience, seeming to feel her eyes on him, she mouthed, Good luck. Their early close friendship might have faded over the past two years, but that didn’t mean she’d stopped caring. She couldn’t turn her emotions on and off at will . . . unlike the big man who stood next to her, completing the circle.

She was all too aware of him standing beside her, perfectly balanced and poised to move, as if they were headed into a battle rather than a spell. The black-on-black combat gear and flickering torchlight darkened his hair to sable and robbed his brown eyes of the shimmers of gold that brought them to life. His attention was locked on Strike and Jade as they recited the first layer of spell casting; he didn’t react to Patience and Rabbit’s brief exchange, and his thumbs were hooked into his weapons belt, his fingers not anywhere near brushing hers.

Oh, Brandt, she whispered inwardly. They wore the jun tan marks of a mated mage pair and the wedding bands from their six-year marriage . . . but just now he seemed a million miles away, locked behind the detachment that came with his warrior’s mark. Untouchable. Unreachable.

Part of her wished she could hide beneath the magic like that. But although her warrior’s talent had given her increased speed, reflexes, and magic, and blunted the terror of battle so she could fight through her fear, she still felt the fear and everything that came with it. Brandt, on the other hand, didn’t seem to feel anything when he was in warrior mode.

This isn’t about us, it’s about the war, she reminded herself. Focus.

It was a familiar refrain.

As Strike and Jade finished the first of three repetitions of the spell, a faint hum touched the air. Magic. It began at the very edges of Patience’s hearing and gained depth, swirling around the magi in waves that resonated as both noise and energy. It was more than just the usual Nightkeeper power, she realized with an uneasy shiver. The red-gold sparkle of magic was laced through with a white-light crackle that smelled faintly of ozone, warning that this wasn’t like any other spell the team had cast before.

Her pulse thudded in her ears as the fear broke through, reminding her of what they were doing, the havoc it could cause. If the chosen magi survived the Triad spell, they would gain the powers of all their most powerful forebears . . . at the cost of sharing their skulls and souls with the ghosts of those ancestors.

She couldn’t imagine it. Didn’t want to. Yet the thought of becoming a Triad mage had been giving her nightmares for weeks now.

Don’t choose me or Brandt. Please. The inner whisper broke through the bonds of duty. Even that much of not-quite-a-prayer went against the writs, but it wasn’t the first time she’d been guilty of the sin. How could she avoid it, when the rules of the magi said she had to put the needs of the gods, her king, her teammates, and mankind ahead of those of her husband and children?

Then again, Brandt didn’t have a problem doing that. He just pushed her and the twins into a mental box called “family” when it suited him.

Focus.

“Okay, gang,” Strike said after wrapping up the first repetition of the spell. Red-gold sparks of Nightkeeper power haloed him, glittering in the torchlight. “Let’s link up.”

Along with the others, Patience drew the ceremonial stone knife from her belt and used it to slash her right palm along the lifeline. Pain bit, and then magic fizzed in her bloodstream as the sacrifice connected her more securely to the barrier of psi energy that separated the three planes and supplied the magi with their powers.

With the pain came a hollow ache, as the magic swirled through the hollow void in the center of her soul where she should have been inwardly connected to Harry and Braden. Blood of her blood.

I’m doing this for you, she whispered to the bright, beautiful boys she hadn’t seen in two long years. They were safe, hidden with Woody and Hannah, cut off from the magic and the war. We’ll be together again. On the day after the 2012 end date, she would put her family back together.

Gods willing that they—and the earth—survived.

Switching hands, her grip going slippery with blood, she cut her other palm, then wiped the blade on her robe and returned it to her belt. Finally, unable to delay any longer, she dropped down to sit cross-legged on the cool stone floor, and held out her hands to the men on either side of her.

On her left, Sven linked up immediately, gripping her hand so they were aligned blood to blood. The contact brought a flare of heat and magic, increasing the champagne fizz of magic in her blood to an Alka-Seltzer bubble as he squeezed her hand in a show of support, or maybe more because he was nervous. It was hard to tell what Sven was thinking most of the time.

To her right, though . . .

When her hand hovered midair, unclaimed, ice frosted the hard knot in her stomach. Don’t do it, she thought fiercely at Brandt. Not here. Not now.

It was her darkest unvoiced fear, that one day he would decide that, with the twins gone and the two of them living mostly separate lives, he didn’t want to bother with a shared suite and matching rings, that he was sick of their strained politeness and the way both of them tried too hard to pretend things were getting better.

Once, their mated bond had been so strong that he would have heard her whispered thoughts even without the bloody handclasp of an uplink.

Not now, though.

She looked over at him, and their eyes locked, her sky blue to his gold-spangled brown gone dark and forbidding in the torchlight. The skin was tight across his high cheekbones, aquiline nose, and wide brow, and shadows ringed his eyes, but his hair was neat, his shaved jaw smooth, his eyebrows the matching curves of a gliding eagle’s wings. She felt sweaty and desperate in comparison.

“Don’t do it,” she whispered into the silence that had fallen as the others waited for her and Brandt to complete the circle.

“What’s wrong?” His voice rasped slightly, though she didn’t know if the roughness came from impatience or something else. She couldn’t read him when he was this deep in the magic.

The magic fizz went flat inside her. Everything’s wrong, she wanted to say, but that was the answer of the woman she’d been for too long, the one who had turned inward and self-pitying, becoming depressed after he and Strike had sent the twins away. She wasn’t that person now, though, which meant the quick, knee-jerk answer didn’t fit anymore.

The woman inside her, the one that still loved the memory of the man she had married out in the human world . . . that part of her wanted to tell him to be careful, to stay strong, and even, gods forgive her, to reject the Triad power if he was chosen. She wanted to tell him to think of the twins, of her, of the future they had once imagined.

The warrior inside her, though, refused to go there. The spell wasn’t about being careful; it was about fulfilling a three-thousand-year-old prophecy and maybe—hopefully—gaining the power they would need to defend the barrier during the upcoming winter solstice, when a total lunar eclipse would destabilize the hell out of the barrier.

What was more, both the warrior and the woman inside her knew that she couldn’t turn her back on the war. Between now and the end of 2012 the Nightkeepers needed to hold the rapidly weakening barrier against the Banol Kax. If they didn’t, her future plans wouldn’t matter worth a damn because there wouldn’t be a future, not for her, and not for mankind. The lucky ones would die outright in the first wave, when the dark lords broke out of the underworld. The rest would be horribly trapped as the Banol Kax first fed on their souls, and then used their half-animate bodies to create new armies aimed at conquering the sky itself.

She hadn’t let herself imagine marching as part of that army, had forced herself not to think about the fact that twins were sacred to the old legends, and therefore a threat to the dark lords. But the knowledge haunted her nightmares with shifting shadows and luminous green eyes.

And because of all that, there was only one answer she could give Brandt.

Calling on her warrior self, letting the magic blunt her emotions and bring determination, she stretched out her hand to him, palm up, so the bloody sacrificial cut glistened dark in the torchlight. “The only thing that matters today is calling the Triad. The rest can wait.”

It was the proper answer, the dutiful one. And the warrior within her meant every word of it, even as the woman yearned to turn back the clock.

“We need to—”

“Uplink,” she interrupted.

He exhaled. “Patience . . . ,” he began, but then trailed off and reached out to her in return, pausing just before their fingers touched. Magic curled between them, hazing the air red-gold. The hum changed pitch, inching upward as their eyes locked.

Desire flared, coming from the inextricable link between magic and sex, and the power of the jun tan marks that still joined their souls even though the connection of their minds and hearts had waned. She didn’t feel the added power that had once come when the jun tan link opened fully, joining them heart and soul. But there was heat and need, and an ache of longing.

“Don’t shut me out.” She hadn’t meant to say it, not in front of the others, and certainly not in the middle of the Triad spell.

Always before when she had talked to him about how he put up walls between them, she had gotten blankness edged with frustration, and his reminder that they had a job to do. This time, though, she caught a gleam of gold and a flash of pain.

The sight surprised her, leaving her slow to react when he leaned into her, whispered her name, and kissed her.

And oh, holy crap what a kiss. The soft warmth of his lips was a shocking contrast to the hard control of the man who’d been facing her only moments earlier. They touched just at that single point of contact, with nothing holding her in place; she could pull away, should pull away.

Instead, she leaned in and kissed him back.

Their tongues touched and slid, and his flavor caromed through her, lighting neurons that had been dim for months now. Years. She felt the vibration of his groan, though the sound was lost beneath the escalating hum of power that surrounded them as heat raced through her veins. Excitement heated her blood, coming both from sex magic and the thought that something had changed, that he was finally seeing her, finally connecting with her the way the other mated pairs joined up within the magic. Psi energy flared as he shifted against her, lifting an arm as if to pull her closer.

Instead he took her hand, pressed their bleeding palms together, and completed the circle of ten.

Power zinged through the uplinked magi, and the red-gold buzz of magic went to a bloodred shriek that drowned out Patience’s cry of surprise. Frustration slashed through her, coming less from the interrupted kiss than from the fact that he’d used it—used her—to provide the final power surge they had needed to trigger the spell. The kiss hadn’t been about them at all. It had been about necessity. Damn him.

The world lurched, and suddenly she was moving without going anywhere, her spirit-self peeling out of her corporeal body and caroming sideways into the barrier. Then there was a final wrench of magic as the Triad spell took hold, gripping her with an inexorable force that warned her there was no going back. Not now. Maybe not ever again. Gods.

She tried to take the anger with her, knowing that it was better to be pissed than depressed. But as gray green mist raced past her, laced with lightning and the smell of ozone, all she could do was close her eyes and launch a forbidden plea. Please gods, don’t pick us.