Lost Talismans and a Tequila – Annette Marie

Druids and witches are not the same thing. I mean, I knew that already, but seeing the differences firsthand was a whole new experience. “So, uh,” I began, eyebrows arched, “are you sure this is … strictly necessary?” Kaveri looked up, her long brown hair swinging over one shoulder. Balancing a bag of dark soil on her palm, she frowned. “Of course. Is something the matter?” “It’s just … the first time I did this, it was different.” She straightened, and several feet away, Delta also turned toward me, holding a bundle of fresh-cut flowers. The two witches gave me looks that were part “then your first time was wrong” and part “are you serious right now?” With a deep chuckle, Philip walked past the two witches. He carried a large tree branch, dead leaves still clinging to it. “I’m guessing your previous experience involved a druid?” Kaveri and Delta pulled faces as though he’d uttered a nasty swear word. I made a face back at them. Was there any point in denying it? Considering my entire guild thought I’d had relations with a notorious rogue druid, it wasn’t exactly a secret. “Yep,” I declared unapologetically. “And it was a snap, gotta say.” Delta sniffed.

“And probably a weak bond.” Kaveri glanced away, a faint flush tinting her warm tawny skin. She’d never admit it, but she totally had the mythic version of a bad-boy crush on said druid. “Unfortunately,” Philip said, “we only know one way to join a witch and her fae familiar. It’s slower, but equally effective.” “I wasn’t complaining,” I clarified. Okay, maybe a little bit of complaining. “Just … you know, making sure I understand.” Not that I understood anything about the weird nature circle the three witches were setting up around me. Philip had chosen a cluster of trees in a park only a few blocks from the Crow and Hammer for the fae-familiar ritual.

It was a nice spot, sheltered from passersby, and I could almost forget we were in Vancouver’s disreputable Downtown Eastside. The mood was only a little ruined by the fact that, three months ago in this same park, I’d participated in a five-way confrontation between a team of demon hunters, a demon mage, an unbound demon, and a contracted demon, plus me, Aaron, and Kai. There’d been a lot of demons. But the witches didn’t know about that incident, and I had no plans to mention it. I hitched a pleasant smile onto my face as Philip, Delta, and Kaveri bustled around me, setting up their fancy dirt circle with leaves, flowers, dried herbs, seeds, a dish of water, and a wax candle. Philip used his stick to scratch incomprehensible markings in the hard-packed earth. Considering I was supposed to be a witch—according to my mythic registration paperwork, at least—I should probably know more about the Spiritalis class and their unique magic. While they worked, I curled my arms around the warm critter in my lap. Hoshi watched the witches with curious fuchsia eyes, her long silver tail looping behind me. Her spiny, insect-like wings were tucked against her back, but her long antennae bobbed in my face, the crystalline tips glowing faintly.

She perked up when the three witches took positions around the circle and began a songlike chant. The sylph weaved her head side to side as she listened, huge eyes blinking. Repairing my bond with Hoshi was high on my to-do list, but as the chant went on, I couldn’t stop my thoughts from wandering. Fresh in my mind were too many traumas, the memories crowding each other as they fought for my attention. A week ago, Kai and I sneaking onto a plane and flying south to Los Angeles. Breaking into an MPD precinct to rescue Zak and destroying the building on our way out. That night, Zak and I returning to the ruins of his farm. Grieving together over what he’d lost. His hatred-fueled need for revenge. Had it only been three days since we’d planned our attack on Varvara Nikolaev, her rogues, and her inexplicably powerful golems? Only three days since Zak had betrayed me, Ezra had lost control, and I’d destroyed all my magic to save him? “Tori?” I jolted.

Philip was crouched beside me, a narrow stick of charcoal in his hand. “Where would you like the familiar mark?” he asked. Untangling my arms from Hoshi, I unzipped my leather jacket and shrugged it off. The late January cold bit into my skin as I rolled up the sleeve of my thin sweater. I wanted it in the same spot as last time. Philip held my upper arm steady as he began to draw. I twisted my mouth at the scratchy tip of the charcoal, thinking wistfully of Zak’s pragmatic eyeliner pencil. That probably wasn’t natural enough for a witch. It took the witch a few minutes longer to complete the complex design, but he didn’t need a reference for it, which impressed me. He lowered the charcoal and surveyed his work.

“Excellent,” he said. “Now, we begin the formal ritual of exchange, where I’ll invite the fae to—” Hoshi stretched out her neck and bumped her nose against the mark on my arm. Heat flashed through my body—followed by a wave of swirling color in my mind. “Hoshi!” I gushed delightedly, sweeping her into a squirmy hug. A rainbow of pink assaulted my mind’s eye as she buried her face in my chest, tail flicking. “Or we can skip that part,” Philip said drily. “You have a strong bond with your familiar without any magic at all, Tori.” “Probably because she’s my friend,” I said, giving the sylph one more squeeze. “Are we done?” “I guess so.” As I pushed to my feet, I glanced across at the elaborate nature circle, then at my arm.

I almost asked if we really couldn’t have skipped to the familiar mark part, but instead, I grinned at the witches. “Thanks for your help. I’m so glad to have Hoshi back.” They smiled happily, and Delta even looked misty-eyed over the sylph’s dizzying dance, her serpentine body undulating excitedly as she circled me. Her language of color was pinging in my head so fast I couldn’t follow, but I wasn’t worried about that. We had lots of time to catch up. As Philip and Delta tidied the circle, Kaveri wandered over to me. She watched Hoshi settle behind my back, her paws on my shoulders. “Thanks again, Kaveri,” I said more quietly. “I really appreciate it.

” She nodded. “It wouldn’t have worked, you know.” “Huh?” She pointed at my bare arm, the charcoal lines dark against my pale skin. “If Philip had drawn that without the ritual, it wouldn’t have worked. Don’t you remember what I told you?” “Uh … which thing that you told me?” “About witches versus druids. Druids can manipulate natural energies directly, but witches can’t do that. We need the ritual.” “Oh.” Right. No need to admit I barely recalled that conversation.

The arrival of the actual druid we’d been discussing had distracted me immediately afterward. “I would’ve liked to see the Crystal Druid perform a familiar ritual without … the ritual. It would’ve been interesting to witness.” She gave me a sidelong look. “I don’t suppose he’ll be back to visit you?” A heavy weight settled over me, pressing on my lungs. “No. He’s long gone.” “But aren’t you two frien—” “No.” The word came out harsh and clipped. “We were never friends.

” She glanced down at her feet. “Sorry.” Hoshi nudged the back of my neck. Shaking myself, I stooped to grab my jacket and pulled it on. Beneath the black markings on my arm would be a faintly glowing replica of the design that would fade in a few days. Kind of a shame, as the pinkish blue magic looked pretty damn cool. As I zipped up my jacket, Philip slung his duffle bag of witchy supplies over his shoulder. “Shall we head back?” I nodded, and Hoshi spun a final circle around me before fading from sight. The three witches glanced up to watch her fly away—or that’s what I assumed was going on. They could see the sylph when she shifted into the fae demesne, but my lame human eyes couldn’t detect shit.

Oh well. Having glimpsed the secret fae world, I was cool with nice, predictable human reality. As we followed a quiet street back toward the guild, I let the witches draw ahead of me. My thoughts were wandering again, rushing forward to what came next—to the impossible task I had to accomplish and the obstacles piling up in my path. I’d fought mages, sorcerers, witches, fae, and demons, but my new enemy was undefeatable and unstoppable: time. When you wanted it to hurry up, it slowed to a crawl. When you desperately needed more, it rushed ahead. Time was such an asshole. As the cube-shaped guild came into view, a gray SUV rolled through the intersection and slowed, its signal flashing. It turned into the parking lot.

“I’m going around the back,” I told the witches. “See you inside.” Waving, Kaveri followed Philip and Delta to the front door. I veered toward the sidewalk, and as I entered the lot, the SUV door slammed shut. Not realizing he had an audience, Aaron stood with his shoulders hunched, keys clutched in his hand. The sight of the pyromage alone, when just a week ago it had been rare to see him without one or both of his best friends at his side, made me ache. At the crunch of gravel under my shoes, he glanced up. His shoulders went back and he flashed a grin—but it didn’t reach his dull blue eyes. “Hey,” I said. “You’re here early.

” “So are you.” He reached out, and I stepped into his arms. He hugged me tight. “How’d the familiar reunion go?” “All done!” I said brightly, arms around his broad shoulders. Our sentimental hug wasn’t strictly necessary—it’d been less than a day since we’d seen each other—but we both needed it. “Hoshi and I can talk again.” “Awesome.” I peeled myself from his hold and headed for the guild’s back door. “What about you? I didn’t know you were coming in today.” “I want to check with the officers if there’s anything I can help with.

Maybe I can cover Felix’s shift or something.” Zora, Felix’s sword-wielding sorceress wife, was still in critical condition after the battle against Varvara’s forces. We were all waiting anxiously for good news from the guild’s healers. Holding the door for Aaron, I didn’t point out that he could’ve called Girard or Tabitha instead of showing up at the guild. It was second nature for most Crow and Hammer members to return to the guild during times of uncertainty. This place was their safe haven. “That’s considerate,” I began, nervousness shooting through me as I followed him into the narrow kitchen, “but instead of volunteering for shifts, maybe—” I broke off. Almost too quiet to hear, someone sniffed wetly. Aaron frowned, and we both looked toward a nearby door, open a crack. Another sniffle sounded.

Was someone crying? Stepping sideways, I swung the door open to reveal Clara’s office, her desk piled so high with folders that it resembled a model of Manhattan’s skyscrapers. The assistant guild master jumped when the door bumped the wall. She whirled on her chair, holding a handful of crisp white papers. A courier envelope lay in her lap, the top torn open. “Oh!” She wiped hastily at her face. “Tori, Aaron! Good morning! Or—oh—afternoon, I guess. Good afternoon!” “Clara …” I took in her rumpled brown hair and trembling mouth with concern. “What’s wrong?” “Nothing!” She clutched the papers to her chest as though trying to hide them. “I’m fine.” She ruined her firm declaration with another sniff.

Aaron pointed at the papers. “What’s that?” “Nothing. You shouldn’t be back here, Aaron. Kitchen staff only.” “Okay, but what are those papers?” “Paperwork, and it’s none of your concern.” “Clara.” I gave her a gentle but firm stare. “What’s wrong?” All the fight went out of her, and she slumped miserably in her chair. “I guess you two already know anyway.” She held out the papers, and Aaron took them.

I leaned close as we scanned an official document, the MPD logo filling the top left corner. “It’s just so sudden,” Clara mumbled, tearing a bit of cardboard off the stiff courier envelope. “No one so much as mentioned …” The title at the top of the page burned into my brain: Guild Transfer Request. “He never said anything … then to just … so sudden …” Aaron’s fingers bit into the papers, crinkling the crisp white surface, but even as the packet shook with the force of his grip, I couldn’t miss the name on the form. Kaisuke Yamada. Ripping more pieces off the envelope, Clara sighed heavily. “I just can’t imagine the Crow and Hammer without Kai.” “He’s transferring out?” I whispered. “He’s leaving the guild?” Clara’s head snapped up. Her face paled as she took in our expressions.

“You … you didn’t know?” The documents crumpled in Aaron’s fist, then he shoved them at me. Turning on his heel, he swept out of the small office. I held the form, fighting the urge to tear it up. “I—I’ll call him,” I said unsteadily. “Convince him to—to wait.” Tears welled in Clara’s eyes. “The transfer is already done, Tori. That’s the signed paperwork for our records.” I flipped to the last page. There at the bottom was Kai’s sharp, slashing signature.

Below it was Darius’s scrawled autograph, and beneath that, a loopy name. The signatory: Makiko Miura, Acting Guild Master, MiraCo. My jaw clenched so hard pain built in my teeth. Tossing the papers toward Clara, I rushed out after Aaron. She half-heartedly called me back, but I continued through the empty kitchen and shoved through the saloon doors. Aaron sat on his usual stool at the bar, elbows braced on the countertop and forehead resting on both hands as he stared at the scuffed wood. Aside from him, the pub was deserted, the neatly arranged chairs waiting for the dinner rush. I stopped across from him, breathing hard as I fought to calm my emotions. “I should’ve expected it,” Aaron muttered. “They want to bury him in that guild as deep as they can.

Of course they’d transfer him.” I pressed both hands to the bar top, fingers splayed. “We joined together.” He slid his hands up into his hair. “I’ve never been a member of the Crow and Hammer without him. I’ve never been a member of any guild without him.” “He’ll be back,” I whispered. “He said he’ll figure it out. He promised.” Aaron didn’t reply, his fists clenching in his copper hair.

After a long moment, he dragged his head up. “I need a drink.” I slapped my butt, searching for my phone so I could check the time, before remembering I’d left it at home on Philip’s orders. No electronics allowed during my witchy nature ritual. But even without my phone’s clock, I knew it was nowhere near four, when the pub officially opened. With a quick look at Aaron’s morose pallor, I decided to ignore that. “What do you want?” “Tequila. Lots of tequila.” I got out a pair of shot glasses and fetched a bottle of silver tequila off the back shelves. After pouring two shots to the brim, I slid one to him.

He didn’t pick up the glass. “What the hell are we going to do? Kai’s left the guild, and Ezra is …” He swore, his voice hoarsening. “What do we do?” I took hold of his hand and pushed the shot against his palm. Then I lifted my glass to my lips and stared at him until he raised his. In unison, we tossed the liquor back. I swallowed against the burn. “Aaron.” I set my glass on the bar and picked up the tequila bottle. “You can’t volunteer to take Felix’s shift.” He watched me refill our shot glasses.

“Why not?” “Because we have something else to do.” I slid his shot over and lifted mine. The cold glass pressed against my lower lip. “I don’t know what we can do for Kai right now, but Ezra needs our help.” Aaron’s fair skin lost what little color it had left, and he threw back his shot like it was the only thing keeping his stomach down—which made no sense to me. Tequila had the opposite effect on my stomach. His glass thudded against the counter. “There’s only one thing we can do to help Ezra.” I poured the tequila down my throat, then slammed my glass down beside his. “Bullshit.

I know you and Kai looked into it years ago, but neither of you has connections to the world of black magic. Zak did—or does.” I grimaced. “Whatever. What I mean is I asked him about it.” “What did he say?” “He said whatever the MPD knows about Demonica—or what they admit to knowing— is the kid-gloves version. It’s the basics and nothing more. Zak said that summoners are like druids, and that master summoners guard their secrets, never revealing them to anyone but their chosen apprentice.” Aaron clenched and unclenched his jaw. “Zak is a lying bas—” I raised my voice over his.

“I also talked to an ex-summoner from Odin’s Eye, who told me there’s no standard method of creating a demon mage, and each summoner who does it has a different technique.” Pressing my hands to the counter, I leaned across the bar. “To unmake a demon mage, we need to know how he was made. We need to dig into the dark magic of Demonica—the scary, illegal shit that MagiPol doesn’t want anyone to know about.” “And how will we do that?” he asked with a mutinous scowl, like I was suggesting we cancel Christmas. I exhaled harshly through my nose. “I get it, Aaron. You don’t want to hope. You already tried everything, and you’ve been steeling yourself for this for years. It’ll just hurt more to try again and fail.

” “If you understand, then why—” “Because I won’t ignore a chance, no matter how slim. I don’t care if the odds are one in a million. I’m going to try everything before I let you or Kai or Darius end Ezra’s life.” He absorbed my vehement words, then huffed. “I’m not doing anything about Ezra without Kai, but Darius knows what happened. You can’t stop him from—” “I can. I already did.” Aaron’s eyes widened. “I talked to him. He’s going to wait.

He even cleared my shifts so we can leave immediately.” “We—leave? What? Where?” I splashed more tequila into my shot glass and raised it in a toast to no one. “We’ll go first thing tomorrow. I just need to arrange a few things, and talk to Kai … and Ezra.” “Go where, Tori?” Knowing he wouldn’t like my answer one bit, I tossed the shot back and smacked the glass down. I met his demanding glower with a steady stare. “We’re going to Enright.”

.

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