An Excerpt from Demonkeepers

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June 12, New Moon
Two years, six months and nine days to the zero date
University of Texas, Austin



"I just got the booty call," Jade announced as she let herself into Anna’s office, which could’ve doubled as the set for a movie of the archaeologist-slash-adventurer-saves-the-day variety, with artifact-crammed shelves and framed photographs of rainforests and ruins. After closing the door to make sure nobody out in the cool, faintly damp halls of the art history building could overhear unless they made a real effort, Jade dropped into the empty chair opposite her friend’s desk and let out a frustrated sigh. "Thing is, it wasn’t the booty-er calling. It was your brother."

Anna winced. "Ew."

"No kidding, huh?" Not that Jade thought Anna’s brother was an ‘ew’—far from it. Strike was massive, raven-haired and seriously drool-worthy, but he was also thoroughly mated, and the fact that he was the Nightkeepers’ king had added to the squick factor, taking the uncomfortable phone call from "gee, it’d be nice if you and Lucius hooked back up" into royal decree territory. Granted, Jade had volunteered for booty duty, and the sexual mores of a mage were way more liberal than human-norm, but still.

Propping her feet on a cracked, knee-high clay pot that showed a sacrificial scene of the ripping-out-the-victim’s-beating-heart variety and currently served as Anna’s trash can, she slumped down and let her long, straight hair fall forward around her face. It obscured her view of the trim jeans and upscale, low-heeled sandals that would’ve looked casually elegant on Anna, but on her just blended. As she slouched, she swore she heard Shandi’s voice in her head, chiding, Sit up straight, Jade. The members of the harvester bloodline are always dutiful, diligent and decorous. The three Ds. Even before she’d known she was a Nightkeeper, or that her last name of Farmer was a modern take on her bloodline, she’d been hearing about duty, diligence and decorum, along with the familiar remonstrations: walk, don’t run; listen, don’t talk; speak, don’t shout; follow, don’t lead; blend, don’t stand out.
Gack.

Tucking her hair behind her ears and straightening her spine—because she wanted to, not because of her winikin’s remembered chidings, dang it—Jade glanced at the black, tattoolike bloodline glyph she wore on her inner forearm, along with the talent mark that tagged her as little more than a glorified librarian. Bared by the soft white button-down sleeves she’d rolled up past her elbows, the marks stood out in sharp relief against her pale skin, which refused to tan despite her otherwise dark coloring of sable hair and light green, almost seafoam eyes. Ten bucks says Shandi never expected that the ‘duty’ part of the three Ds would come down to something like this, she thought snidely, though she had zero problem with what she was being asked to do. Her problem was that Strike had been the one doing the asking. Damn it, Lucius.

"You could bail." Anna leaned back in her desk chair, toying with the thin metal chain that disappeared at her neckline. The king’s sister was a striking woman in her late thirties, wearing a moss-colored lightweight sweater that counterpointed her dark, russet-highlighted hair and the piercing cobalt eyes she and Strike had both inherited from their father, King Scarred-Jaguar. Despite her heritage, though, Anna had recently stepped up to head the human university’s ancient civilizations department. Of the scant dozen Nightkeepers still living, she was the only one who had refused to take up residence at Skywatch and commit to the Nightkeepers’ war against the Banol Kax and the fast-approaching zero-date. Although Jade knew that Anna’s decision had caused—was still causing—problems back at Skywatch, she considered herself lucky that the other woman had stuck to her guns, not just because the university connection gave the Nightkeepers access to high-level information on the ancient Maya and the world at large, but because the campus itself had turned into a landing spot for magi looking to get away from Skywatch without being totally out of the loop ... like Rabbit, who’d needed to escape the compound’s isolation and memories of his borderline sociopathic father, and Jade, who’d needed ... hell, she didn’t know what she’d needed. Space, maybe. Perspective. A cooling-off period, and some new skills that didn’t rely on magic.
Now, though, she was being called back to Skywatch. Back to duty. And back to a man who ... shit.

Jade took a deep breath. "Sure I could back out." As she turned her palms up, her forearm marks flashed a black-on-white reminder of duty. "But then what? We need access to the library, and Lucius isn’t getting it done on his own, nor have the others managed to trigger his powers using rituals and blood. And we’ve got plenty of proof that sex magic trumps blood sacrifice. Strike and Leah have used the power sex to drive the Banol Kax back to the underworld, Nate and Alexis used it to repair a breach in the barrier, and Michael and Sasha used it to defeat Iago and his Xibalbans." Although that last point was somewhat debatable.

The Nightkeepers’ distant relatives and earthly enemies, the Xibalbans, had been quiet since the winter solstice, it was true, but the last time the magi had seen the Xibalbans’ leader, Iago, he’d had been in the process of summoning the soul of the long-dead—and seriously bloodthirsty—Aztec god-king, Moctezuma. The transition spell Iago had enacted was capable of creating an ajaw-makol: a powerful human-demon hybrid that retained its human characteristics in direct proportion to the degree of evil in the host’s soul, and could thereafter summon lesser demons with little ceremony. But if the transition spell were interrupted—as it had been when the Nightkeepers had breached Iago’s mountain lair the prior winter—the outcome was less clear. The few hints Jade had found in the Nightkeepers’ frustratingly incomplete archive suggested that an interrupted makol transition could go one of two ways. Most often, the human host-to-be slid into a comalike stasis for weeks or months while the demon spirit fought to integrate itself—or not—with the host’s brain. Which was what the Nightkeepers suspected was happening with Iago. More rarely, both the demon and human consciousnesses could coexist, fighting for dominance of the host’s brain ... which was what had happened to Lucius two years earlier. The Nightkeepers had eventually managed to rescue him and banish the makol, but that hadn’t actually been their goal. What they’d really done was offer his soul to the in-between in an effort to turn him into the Prophet: an incarnate conduit capable of channeling badly needed intel from the metaphysical plane where the library had been hidden. Lucius’s exorcism and survival had been a side benefit, which galled Jade at the same time that it forced her gratitude.

When Lucius had been at Skywatch, he’d worked with her in the archive, translating and interpreting the few primary Mayan codex fragments that had survived the Conquistadors’ fires, along with other references, such as the diary of a seemingly schizophrenic Spanish missionary who had swung between worshiping and fearing the natives he was supposed to be converting, and the journal of a young mage who’d nearly been killed sneaking back into the Mayan territories in the late 1800s. It was a sad truth that in the months he’d been under house arrest at Skywatch, Lucius had contributed far more to the archive project than Jade had in the two years she’d been on it, yet his rescue hadn’t been a priority ... and neither was his survival now, unless she managed to help him make some magic.

She tried not to notice how Anna was just sitting there looking at her, the way she did with her Intro to Maya Studies students. Keep going, the look said, you’ll see where you went wrong in a minute. "Three times now," Jade continued doggedly, "sex magic has turned out to be the key to unlocking the larger powers necessary for successful high-level magic: Godkeeper magic in Leah and Alexis’s cases, the Volatile’s shapeshifting ability for Nate, and the balanced matter and antimatter of Michael and Sasha’s talents. So it seems logical that sex magic could be the key that triggers the Prophet’s power."

Granted, Lucius wasn’t a Nightkeeper. But despite the ongoing debate among the Nightkeepers, particularly the members of the royal council, Jade didn’t think he was incapable of becoming the Prophet due to his humanity, his former demonic connection, or the fact that he’d retained his soul when the library spell had called for its sacrifice. Her instincts said he just needed a jumpstart, with an emphasis on the jump part—as in he needed to get himself jumped. And if that was bound to make things complicated, so be it. She’d made herself scarce for the past five-plus months since his return to Skywatch; she could leave again afterwards if she had to. It wasn’t like anyone was begging her to come back. And didn’t that just suck?

"There’s one big difference between your situation and the other cases you’re talking about." Anna raised an eyebrow. "Unless there isn’t?"

And there was the crux of another major debate. Was it the sex magic itself that unlocked the bigger powers, or was the emotional pair-bonding of a mated couple the key, with sex magic as a collateral bonus? Hello, chicken and egg. Of the three couples Jade had named, in the aftermath of the big battles they’d been instrumental in winning, two had gained the jun tan marks signifying them as mated, soul-bound pairs. And although Michael’s connection to death magic prevented him from forming the jun tan, he and Sasha had gotten engaged human-style, diamond ring and all. Which suggested it wasn’t just the sex magic that was important, it was the emotions too.

Jade had heard the argument before—ad nauseum—but it pinched harder coming from Anna. She and Jade had become friends in the months since Jade had fled from Skywatch to the university for a crash course in Mayan epigraphy and some breathing room ... but Anna’s relationship with Lucius went a good six years further back. She’d been his boss, his mentor, and briefly his bond-master under Nightkeeper law.

"I don’t think it’s a question of love," Jade said, glancing past Anna’s left shoulder to the shelf beyond, where a crudely faked statuette of Flower Quetzal, the Aztec goddess of love and female sexuality, seemed to be smirking at her. Doggedly, she continued: "I think in each of the prior cases, the couples were struggling with identity issues, trying not to lose their senses of self to the magic or their feelings for each other. That won’t be a problem for Lucius and me. I don’t have much in the way of magic, and we’re not ... Well, we had sex once, that was it." And oh, holy shit, had that been a disaster. Not the sex, but the way she’d flubbed the aftermath. "We’re just friends now." she finished. "Sort of." At least they had been. Before.

"The jun tan the others earned through sex magic doesn’t symbolize friendship ... And neither does what Strike wants you to do."

"It’s just sex." Jade glanced at her friend as a new reason for the cross-examination occurred to her. "Unless you think he’s still too fragile?" Even with his grisly wounds on the mend thanks to Sasha’s healing magic, Lucius had been badly depleted in the weeks following his return to the Nightkeepers. He’d been disconnected and clumsy, as though, even with the makol gone from his head, he wasn’t at home inside his own body. More, he’d been deeply ashamed of the weakness, thanks to a childhood spent as the runt in a family of jocks. Had his condition deteriorated?
"Fragile is not the word that comes to mind." There was an odd note in Anna’s voice.
"Then what’s with the ‘don’t do it’ vibes?"

"I think ..." Anna trailed off, then shook her head. "You know? Forget I said anything. It’s not fair for me to say on one hand that I want Strike to deal me out of the hierarchy, then on the other go running around trying to subvert the royal council’s plan."

Jade winced at learning the should-Jade-jump-Lucius discussion hadn’t just been a three-way of her, Strike and Anna, as she’d thought, but had also included the other members of the royal council: Leah, Jox, Nate and Alexis. Michael had probably been involved, too, as he was practically a council member; and if he knew what was going on, then so did Sasha. And Shandi had probably been in on the conversation, though Jade figured that her winikin probably hadn’t added much beyond, "Whatever you think is best, sire." Jade was determined not to let that matter, though. For once, she was the one taking action while the others hung back and played supporting roles. The harvester bloodline might have tended toward shieldbearers rather than fighters, and she might be the only living Nightkeeper aside from Anna who didn’t wear the warrior’s talent mark, but this time she was on the front lines, ready to take one for the team.
So to speak.

Anna touched her chain again. Though Jade couldn’t see the heavy pendant it held, she could easily picture the yellow crystal skull. Handed down through Anna’s maternal lineage, the yellow quartz effigy was the focus of an itza’at seer’s visionary gift. Normally Anna blocked her talent, which was glitchy at best, but Jade thought she caught a faint hum of power in the air as the other woman said, "I’m not sure ..." But then she trailed off, eyes dark and distant.

Jade straightened. "Are you seeing something?"

"Gods, no." Anna self-consciously dropped her hand from her throat, pressing her palm to the solid wood of the desk. "It’s just a feeling, and probably nothing more than the fact that I care deeply about both of you, and hate that I can’t be there for Lucius without giving up the promises that I’ve made to people here."

Jade didn’t bother pointing out that vows made to humans were pretty far down in the writs when it came to the list of a mage’s priorities. Anna was forging her own path, which wasn’t necessarily the same one set down by the First Father and the generations of magi since. So instead, she said, "Will it help if I promise to be gentle?"

Anna made a face. "Again. Ew."

Jade laughed, but the humor was strictly on the surface. Underneath it all, she wanted to press further—about whether or not Anna was having visions again, about how Lucius had looked when she’d last seen him ... and whether he’d asked about her. But, just as Jade had cut off Strike and Anna whenever they had tried to tell her about Lucius’s progress before, she didn’t ask now. In the end, what mattered most were the results. Besides, she’d given her word to her king, and according to the writs, a vow made to him was second only to a promise made to the gods. Since the gods were currently incommunicado, thanks to Iago’s destruction of the skyroad ...

She had a booty call to answer.