Originally Human (World of the Lupi #1.5) : chap 1
Too dignified. I've never been terribly dignified.
A pretty name… it didn't feel right, though. I wasn't in the mood for Rachel. I paused, digging my toes into the sand. Overhead the sky was clear, its black dome fuzzed by the lights ahead. Galveston isn't large, but tourists like a place that's lively at night. I do, too, but prefer to live outside the city proper.
Beside me the great, briny mother was in a quiet mood, her waves lapping at the sand like curled cats' tongues. That made me think of my neighbor, Mrs. Jenks—a nice woman, but with no talent for naming cats. She had three. The one she called Mona was a particular favorite of mine, sleek and black, who referred to herself as Wind-Who-Leaves-the-Grasses-Silent. Quite a mouthful in English, I'll admit.
Well, what about Mona? A better name for a woman than a cat.
No, it was too close to Molly, which was my current name. I'd be forever signing checks wrong.
I sighed and started walking again. Walking in sand is good for the calf muscles. Doing it at night with the ocean whispering beside you is good for the soul.
I'll admit to being vain about my legs. Otherwise I'm on the nice side of average, with my weight holding steady at fashionable-plus-fifteen and a thoroughly Irish face, complete with freckles and a pug nose. More motherly than cute these days, I suppose; I let my hair go white several years ago. But my legs are still excellent.
Not that I was out walking for the sake of my muscle tone tonight. My calves were in better shape than my soul.
Self-pity is so wearing. Unattractive, too. Really, I needed to settle on a name. It was time to move on. Just last night Sam had commented again on how I never seemed to change.
Dear Sam. I sighed again. I would miss him. And several of the others, too, and Galveston itself. I loved the historic section and the view, breakfast at The Phoenix and seafood at Gaido's. I lived so close to the ocean that the salt-and-sea scent drifted in my window, and I could indulge in the private splendor of walking the beach at night…
I was lucky, I reminded myself. Most women wouldn't feel safe alone on the beach at three in the morning. There have always been predators. But some would say that's what I am, too. I'm not easy to harm.
I'd reached the narrow road that divided the public beach from the RV park where I live. Not that the owners call it an RV park, mind. It's a mobile-living village. That's the name, in fact: Beachside Village. I suppose a touch of pretension is inevitable if you want to charge such outlandish prices to rent a spot, and the location is wonderful—outside the city proper, right on the ocean. I stepped onto the soft asphalt, still warm from the summer sun.
There was a soft sound, sort of a pop-whoosh! And a naked man lay at my feet. A beautiful, unconscious, bleeding naked man.
The air turned crisp and my hearing sharpened as those trusty fight-or-flight chemicals did their thing. But there was no one to fight—thank goodness—and I couldn't simply run away.
I do not need this, I told myself as I knelt on the soft, tacky asphalt. My heart was galloping. I had no idea where he had come from or how he'd arrived, but those slashes across his chest, belly, and legs looked intentional. Someone did not like this man. I should head home immediately and call 911.
I touched his throat, found a pulse, and exhaled in relief.
The moon was nearly full, and I have excellent night vision. He was a breathtaking man, with skin so pale the sun might never have touched it. Pale everywhere, too, not just in the usual places. His hair was short, very dark, and almost as curly as my own. His eyelashes were absurdly long, giving him the look of a sleeping child… a look quite at odds with one of the loveliest male bodies I've ever seen. And I am something of a connoisseur of male bodies.
And the slashes on that lovely chest, flat stomach, and muscular thighs were slowly closing. Blood barely oozed now.
Whoever he was, he wasn't entirely human. Not as most people counted such things, anyway. And though I loved Texas, there was no denying most people here were not very tolerant of those of the Blood. Not that he was lupus or Faerie or anything else I recognized, but who else could heal a wound so quickly?
One of the Old Ones could.
I shivered and shut a mental door before a name could slip into my thoughts. No point in taking any chances of disturbing Their sleep. Besides, one of Them wouldn't be so poky about healing a few cuts. The bleeding had stopped, but the gashes remained, a couple quite deep—though not, thankfully, the one in his stomach.
One of Them could have made those cuts, though. And zapped Their victim here, or anywhere else They pleased. I did not need to be part of this. I'd call 911 and let them deal—
He opened his eyes.
They were silver in the moonlight, silver framed by a dark fringe of lashes. And so blank that I was sure there was no one home. The ache of that realization was sharp enough to surprise a small, sad "Oh" from me.
All at once he was there, his gaze focused and intent, latching on to mine as if I'd tossed him a lifeline. "Ke hu räkken?" he whispered.
I am so weak, I thought, annoyed. Long eyelashes and a body to die for, and I lose all sense. I wasn't going to call 911. "I do hope you speak English."
"Enn… glish." He repeated the word as if he were holding it in his mouth, testing it for familiarity. "Yes. I can speak… English. This is England?"
"No, this is Galveston Island. It's in Texas," I added when he looked blank. His accent was decidedly British—upper crust. "U.S.A.? Never mind. I'm going to help you, but I need to know who hurt you. And if they're likely to be close behind."
"Who…" A frown snapped down. He lifted a hand to his side, touched one of the wounds, winced. He looked at his hand, the gory fingertips. "I'm damaged."
"Yes, but not, I think, fatally. Though heaven knows I'm not a doctor. But a doctor would probably notify the police. You were attacked, weren't you?"
He nodded slowly. "Who…" he said again, then stopped, looking baffled. "I'm bleeding."
"Not as much as you were. Look, do you want me to call an ambulance?"
"Am… bulance. An emergency vehicle."
I nodded encouragingly. "Yes, you know—ambulances, doctors, nurses, the hospital, all that. They could take care of you there."
"No." He was suddenly decisive. "No hospital."
I sighed. "In that case, can you walk?"
He considered that briefly. "I think so."
"My motor home isn't far—you can see it from here, the Winnebago with the palm tree and the purple outbuilding. Oh, never mind. You can't see the color now, can you?" I was blithering, which annoyed me. "We need to get you out of sight. Someone might come along—an ordinary someone who would be startled by a naked, wounded man. Or the someone who attacked you. Will he, she, or it be able to follow you here?"
"I don't know."
Not much help. "Well, let's see if we can make it to my place. Please try to be quiet. Mr. Stanhope—he's my neighbor on the west—wakes up if anyone sneezes, and I'd just as soon not have to explain you."
He nodded. Looking as if the motion required every ounce of concentration he could summon, he shifted onto his side, braced himself awkwardly with his hands, and pushed into a sitting position.
He wobbled. I slipped an arm around him. "Dizzy?"
"Not… used to this. It hurts."
"I know. I'm sorry. Can you stand?"
"I will try."
Getting him vertical might have been funny if I'd been watching instead of participating. All those lovely muscles worked fine, but he was too woozy to know what to do with them. We did end up on our feet, though, with my arm around his waist where I wouldn't touch any of his wounds, and his feet set wide, like a toddler unsure of his balance.
He didn't feel like a toddler. A decided sexual buzz warmed me, and it wasn't entirely due to the hard male body pressed against my side. He fairly hummed with energy, some breed of magic I'd never encountered before.
He was also only about three inches taller than me, which was a surprise. Not only is everyone taller than I am these days, but he'd looked big lying down. I suppose it was something about the way he was proportioned—perfectly. And packed solid. Very solid. I'm stronger than I look, but if I had to support too much of his weight we might both end up on the ground.
I turned my head and looked into eyes only inches from mine. The skin around those eyes was tight and bleached. "You okay?"
"I'm unsure what okay means in this context. I can proceed. I want me out of sight, too."
"Let's do it."
A short chain-link fence runs all the way around the Village. Three years ago I persuaded management to let me put in a gate at my plot so I didn't have to go the long way around to get to the beach. By the time we reached that gate, neither of us was breathing normally.
He was in pain. I was aroused. "Not far now," I assured him. I was going to have to behave myself, that was all there was to it. I glanced at his face, taut and damp with sweat. He looked to be in his mid-to-late twenties—too young to think of me sexually unless I wanted him to.
Or got careless. I sighed. This was not going to be easy. "I don't have a thing you can wear."
He stared at me, offended. "I am trying… to breathe. And not bleed. You are… worried about clothing?"
I glanced down. The deep gash in his thigh had started oozing again, which wasn't surprising. I could see bone. "If we can get to the tree, you can lean against it while I get the door open."
He grunted. We lurched forward. Getting through the narrow gate was tricky, but we made it and I more or less propped him against the palm. He looked dreadful. A couple more gashes had started bleeding again, which probably meant he was losing control, perhaps close to passing out. He leaned against the trunk, eyes closed, chest heaving. "I liked… lying down better. You have a place… I can lie down?"
"You can have my bed. We just have to get you there." I hurried to the nearest door—which, with the way my Winnebago was parked, meant the driver's door. I didn't think he was up to trekking around to the other side.
He was going to make a mess of my leather seat, I thought sadly as I dug in the pocket of my shorts for my keyless remote.
The lock clicked before I punched it. I froze.
"What is it?" His voice was low, hoarse.
I turned slowly, my eyes searching the shadows. "Someone unlocked the door before I could."
"Oh." He sounded apologetic. "That might have been me. I am wishing very much to be inside."
"You aren't sure?" My voice may have been a little shrill.
"I'm not used to this place. The energies are different than… they're different." He paused. "Who are you, and why are you helping me?"
Suspicion would be natural, even healthy, under the circumstance. But he sounded more curious than wary. I opened the door, quickly shut off the dome light, and returned to him. "My name is Molly Brown. I'm helping you because you're hurt. Also," I admitted in a flash of honesty, "because I've been rather bored lately."
"You are curious about me." Some fugitive emotion roughened his voice. Disgust? Satisfaction?
"Very. I'll save most of my questions until I get you inside, but—"
"I can't answer your questions."
"You'll have to, if you want my help."
"I cannot," he said hollowly.
The despair in his voice tugged at me. I fought to hold firm against it. "I don't want your life history, but I do need to know who you are, where you came from, who's after you and why."
"I don't know."
"You don't know who tried to kill you?"
"I don't know any of it."
I believed him. I'm a fool sometimes, the same as everyone else, but I believed the crushed bewilderment in his voice. I didn't say anything more, just slid my arm around his waist again.
"You will help anyway?" That was hope I heard now—and oh, how painful hope can be, in all its uncertainty.
"Looks like." I sighed over my folly and supported him the last few feet to my home.
WE got him up the step and into the driver's seat, where he discovered that he liked sitting better than standing, too. But he'd be visible up there, not to mention difficult to work on, so we heaved him onto his feet again and staggered together into my little bedroom, where he fell on the bed and promptly passed out.
I stood there getting my breath back, and not due to unrequited lust this time. He was heavy. Then I tossed a blanket over him, grabbed a smudging stick and the bucket I kept under the sink, and headed back out. He'd left a good deal of blood on the road. He'd probably also left various magical traces. I wouldn't be able to get rid of all the blood or other traces, but I could make them less conspicuous.
Twenty minutes later I'd washed most of the blood off the asphalt and tossed dirt on top of what remained to disguise it. I'd smudged all the way around my little lot, quietly calling up what protections I knew. I'm not Gifted, but there are some things even the magic-blind can do, and the sage I used had been prepared and blessed by a Wiccan High Priestess.
I couldn't help feeling like the little piggy in the straw house, though. I suspected that whoever—whatever?—had clawed up my guest could blow away my puny protections with one big, bad huff.
He was still out cold when I came back in, poor boy. I hated to wake him, but, magic or no magic, those wounds had to be cleaned. He needed fluids, too. But maybe I should call Erin first—my Wiccan friend. I was going to need help. No, better wait until I knew who or what I was dealing with. I needed answers. Or maybe—
Stop it! I told myself sternly. But the body sometimes reveals what we'd rather not know. The hand I lifted to rub my forehead was unsteady, and my insides were gripped by a fine vibration, like a dry leaf aquiver in the wind just before it quits its home on the tree.
Why was I doing this? For all I knew, the unconscious man in my bed was the bad guy, not the victim. Or some complicated mingling of both.
I could do something about that particular uncertainty, at least. I picked up the phone. "Erin?" I said to the sleepy voice on the other end. "This is Molly." For a little while longer, anyway.
"Do you know what time it is?" she muttered. There was a sleepy voice in the background—Erin's husband, Jack, an accountant with a wicked laugh and no trace of a Gift. A good man, though he holds on to trump too long. Erin told him to go back to sleep, then spoke to me. "What is it?"
"I need help."
Now she was crisp, wide awake. "Immediately?"
"No, in the daylight will be fine. Um… I've an unexpected guest, mysterious and somewhat damaged. I'd like you to meet him."
Silence, then a sigh. "I suppose you don't want to tell me more over the phone."
"I'd rather not," I said apologetically. It's very difficult to listen in on a call magically—technology is better at that sort of thing. But it is possible. "Oh, and could you bring me some more of that cleansing mixture you made for me? The one with rue, broom, and agrimony." Which, of course, are not cleansing herbs. They were components of a spell granting true vision, used to see through lies. Used by a Wiccan High Priestess, however, the spell could reveal a good deal more.
"Look for me about nine-thirty." She was grim. "I'd be there earlier, but my car's in the shop. I'll have to take Jack to work so I can use his."
"I owe you."
"You know perfectly well it's the other way around. Molly, for heaven's sake, what have you gotten yourself into?"
"I don't know yet," I said, eyeing the man in my bed—who had woken and was eyeing me back. "But it promises to be interesting. I'll see you in a few hours." I disconnected and put the phone down.
In the soft light from my bedside lamp, my guest's eyes were a clear, pale blue. Quite striking. Also filled with suspicion. "To whom were you speaking?"
Wasn't that just like a man? Earlier he'd trusted for no particular reason, now he suspected when there was little cause—and little remedy, if he'd been right. "No one says 'to whom' these days," I told him, heading for my tiny bathroom, where I collected peroxide and gauze and dampened a washcloth. "You'll need to learn more colloquial speech if you stay here long."
"Whom is the object of the preposition." He frowned as I returned, either at having his grammar corrected or at the prospect of having his wounds cleaned. "How else would one say it?"
"Most people would say, 'Who were you talking to?' Which is technically incorrect, but language changes."
"Very well. Who were you talking to?"
"A friend. She'll do you no harm, as long as you mean no harm. This, however, is going to hurt." I poured peroxide into the deep slash on his thigh and started mopping up the dried blood around it.
His breath hissed between his teeth. He grabbed my wrist. "Stop that!"
I have always wanted to be able to raise one eyebrow, but mine only move in tandem. I lifted them. "Are you certain you can prevent infection?"
"Is that what…" His eyebrows drew together in a frustrated pleat. "There are other ways to prevent infection."
"You didn't want to see a doctor, remember? You're stuck with me, and this is what I know to do."
Grudgingly he nodded and released my wrist. I sat on the bed beside him.
The next few minutes were harder on him than me. I learned long ago how to move into a mental room where sympathy can't intrude. It's a white, private place, nowhere I'd want to live permanently, but there are times when sympathy is a drawback. Besides, I saw no point in both of us suffering.
There were four slashes in his flesh—one in the lower chest, another on the right side of his belly, and two in his thigh. He was lucky. The upper wounds were shallow, slicing through skin and a bit of muscle but leaving his innards intact. One of the thigh wounds was no more than a deep scratch. The other…
I sighed, unhappy with what I saw with the blood cleaned away. "How good are you at healing? The muscle is badly damaged, and I'm not sure my sewing skills are up to putting it back together right."
"Sewing? You wish to sew my muscle?"
"I'll have to, unless you can do something."
He was silent, but with an inward look that suggested he was checking things out in his own way. A moment later, the wound began to close.
It was fascinating to watch. Flesh touched flesh as if hands were gently urging the sides of the wound together, then gradually meshed into unity like dough kneaded back into a single lump. And a delicious energy surged through me, conveyed from him to me through my hand on his leg. My fingers tingled. I licked my lips.
And snatched my hand back. He was a guest, not a meal. Shaken, I let go of my hold on the white, interior space. The slow knitting of his flesh was still fascinating, but my vision was colored by compassion now.
When he finished, the gash was nearly closed and his face was the color of mushrooms. I patted his knee in a motherly way. "Very impressive."
His voice was flat with fatigue. "I cannot do the rest now."
"None of the others are as deep. They'll heal on their own, I imagine." I stood. "Now, if you can stay awake a little longer, you need fluids. Since I can't provide an IV, you'll have to drink as much as you can. Water or orange juice?"
He licked his lips. "Water. Molly?"
"What are you?"
I could have pretended I didn't know what he was talking about. That was my first impulse. He was weak, lost, sundered even from his name. He wouldn't be hard to deceive. I could have asked what he meant, then unraveled whatever chain of logic had led him to ask that question. I'm good at that. I have to be. And the thought of how he'd react to the truth ached like a fresh bruise laid down over old wounds.
But those blue eyes held steady on me, and there was something about them… "I'm a succubus."
His eyes widened.
"Cursed, not damned," I added firmly. "A long time ago, by someone who knew what She was doing when it came to curses. I'm not a demon. Originally, I was human."
"Ah." The tension went out of his face, and his eyelids drooped. "That explains it. Better hurry… with water." His speech was slurring as he let go of whatever force of will had been keeping him awake. He smiled at me. "Thank you, Molly."
HE liked television. And he loved the remote.
At ten-twenty the next morning he was propped up on my couch, channel surfing madly. He'd woken when Erin arrived and had insisted on moving there, over my objections. But he was doing amazingly well.
Erin was outside, readying herself and the spell. She wouldn't perform it out there—between dogs, children, and nosy neighbors that simply wasn't practical. But she needed earth beneath her feet for the preparation.
I'd shown her the spot where my guest arrived last night. Erin had hmm'd and frowned, nodding now and then like a doctor examining a patient, then sent me away.
I was in my galley—it's too small to be called a kitchen—putting together a bouquet garni for the chicken simmering on the stove. The connection between chicken soup and healing may not have been established scientifically, but I'm sure it exists.
"Arthur?" I suggested. "Adam? Aillen?"
He looked away from the television, a sudden smile lighting his face. "You find me handsome?"
"You know Gaelic!" I exclaimed. Another puzzle piece, but I had no idea what to do with it. He looked Celtic, but that lovely, upper-crust British accent… I shook my head and plucked a bit of thyme from the pot on the counter by the window. "Of course I find you handsome. You're gorgeous. You know that. Even if you don't remember, you've seen yourself in the mirror." Before occupying my couch, he'd asked where he could relieve himself. I'd had to explain the plumbing.
He touched his jaw as if reminding himself of the face he hadn't recognized. "It seemed to be a pleasing face, but standards of beauty vary widely."
"I wonder if you talk that way in your native language. Have you remembered any more of it?"
"You said something to me in another language when you first arrived."
His brows knit. "I don't remember. What way do I talk?"
"Correctly. Formally. Did any of those names ring a bell?"
"Ring a bell… oh. You wonder if they are familiar. No, not in a personal way."
An interesting distinction. The names were familiar, but they didn't belong to him. "Well, we have to call you something. Would you object to being Michael for now?"
"Michael… Hebrew for 'gift from God.'" He cocked a single eyebrow at me—which he could do, blast him. "You consider me a blessing."
The idiot male was flirting with me. "What an odd memory you have. You know the meaning of Irish and Hebrew names, but not your own."
That stole the smile from his face. I tried not to feel guilty. I tied the ends of the cheesecloth together and lowered the herbs into the simmering pot, catching it in place with the lid. Keeping my back to him so I wouldn't see the hurt I caused, I said, "Michael is also the name of a militant archangel. Evil is capable of masquerading as good, but generally it prefers not to annoy Michael. One aligned with evil would not be comfortable borrowing Michael's name."
"I am not evil."
"I don't think so, but we don't know what you are. That's what Erin will try to find out." Reluctantly, I abandoned cowardice and turned to face him. "Do you understand what a succubus is?"
"The Latin term for a female demon who draws life from her victims through sexual intercourse. But you said you were cursed into your condition, which makes sense." He smiled suddenly, blindingly. "You aren't evil, either."
"Nor am I good. Michael—"
"You do like that name for me. Very well. I will be Michael."
I could feel myself softening—inside, where it was dangerous, and outside, my muscles growing lax and warm with wanting. So I was sharp to him. "Listen to me. I look like a middle-aged woman, and I am one. A good deal more than middle-aged, actually. But I'm also a succubus, and I live off the energy of others. The energy of men, to be specific, which I acquire through sex."
"Do you not eat?" he asked, curious. "It smells in here as if you enjoy food."
My breath huffed out. He didn't seem to be getting the point. "I eat, but I don't have to. Other people need food and drink to live, and enjoy sex. I need sex to live, and enjoy food and drink."
"I'm glad you didn't lose those pleasures when you were cursed. Do you need to sup in your fashion daily, the same as others need to eat every day?"
"Not every day. Michael, you're either painfully naive or deliberately obtuse. I'm trying to explain why you must not flirt with me. I am not safe."
"You're worried about me!" He was amazed.
I rolled my eyes. The young always think themselves indestructible, but Michael should know better, after what he'd been through. But then, he didn't remember what he'd been through. "Yes," I said. "I'm worried about you."
For an instant his face softened, and I glimpsed in his eyes the ragged edges of adult vulnerability, not the untried trust of youth, as if my simple words had sliced deep into a place that didn't bear touching. "You needn't," he said, and the edges closed up again, hiding whatever memories that deep place held. "You can take nothing from me I don't wish to give."
"What if you wished to give?" My posture shifted as the energy gathered around me, swirling, aching… "I could make you want to give, Michael. You'd want to give… anything."
The door opened. "Molly!" Erin said sharply.
I snapped back. Then just stood there, disoriented, like a stooping hawk suddenly shoved from its plummet. The breath I drew was ragged. "Well," I said as briskly as I could, "what did you learn?"
"Not much." She came in, eyeing me. Erin is a tall woman, bony by my standards but fashionably slender to her generation. Her face was made for drama, with a wide mouth, sharp cheekbones, and a beak of a nose that she considers unlovely but which I quite envy for its distinction. She's supposed to wear glasses, but often forgets or leaves them somewhere. Her hair is a fabulous red bush that nearly reaches her waist. Today she wore it pulled back from her face with a stretchy headband that matched her apple-green t-shirt.
T-shirts are one of the best things about the current age. And bras. Bras have corsets beat all to pieces. "You must have learned something."
She shrugged. "Node energy isn't my area. You knew he came in at a node?"
I nodded. I'm not so utterly insensitive I'd be unaware of a node so close to where I've lived for twelve years. One of the ley lines from it runs beneath my RV. "What else?"
"He's drawing from it."
I glanced at Michael. "Of course," he said. "I could have told you that, had you asked. How else could I heal?"
"And," Erin added, "he came from a long ways away. I couldn't trace him back—the energies are too foreign—but there's a feeling of a great gulf."
I nodded. "I knew he wasn't from this world."
"Not…" She shook her head. "That isn't possible."
Erin is a very good witch and far wiser than I was at her age. But she is young, and thus prone to certainty. "Obviously it's possible, since he's here."
She looked at Michael, eyes wide and suddenly wary.
"Another world," he said thoughtfully, his voice so much deeper than Erin's light soprano. "That makes sense. I don't seem to know much about this one."
"Supposedly you don't remember anything about any others, either," Erin said sharply.
"I don't remember anything, no. But I think perhaps I know a great deal."
"Is that supposed to make sense?" Scowling, she slung her bag off her shoulder and set it on the table of my little dinette. The bag holds her basic ritual apparatus, and is made of heavy black silk. I'd given it to her for Samhain last year. "The realms haven't been close enough to cross between in over five hundred years. Except for Faerie," she added. "And that's closed to mortals. And you aren't Faerie."
"No," he said agreeably. "I'm fairly sure I'm not."
"What about Dis? The place Christians call hell. It leaks into our world sometimes."
"I'm not demonic, either. No more than Molly is."
She looked startled.
"I told him," I admitted. "Not the details, but it did seem he'd a right to know, if he's to stay with me awhile. Now, let's try applying a little reason. Magic is useful, but logic has its place. Michael said—"
"He's remembered his name?" Her eyebrows made a skeptical comment on that.
"I named him, for now."
Erin's eyes narrowed, for names and naming have power, so I hurried on before whatever lecture was simmering could boil over into speech.
"As I was saying, according to Michael, the energies here aren't what he's used to. And he tastes different, unlike anything I've ever—"
"Molly! He's injured."
"I haven't been nibbling," I said, testy. "But I've touched him. I'm sure I've never encountered his like before—and my experience covers rather a lot of ground."
She nodded reluctantly.
"I don't know what he is, but I know some things he isn't. He's not Gifted, not in the sense we use that term, at least. He's not Lupus. And he's not a sorcerer. Last night he unlocked my door without being aware he'd done it, and sorcery requires focus. So does telekinesis. Poltergeists, though—"
"He is so not a poltergeist."
"Will you stop interrupting? Of course he isn't. But he may be from the same place, or a similar realm."
"Or he may be lying."
"No." That came from Michael, who spoke with simple assurance. "I do not lie."
Erin's lip curled. "What, you're from the angelic realm?"
I suspected I knew what lay behind Erin's, antagonism, and it wasn't getting us anywhere. I spoke firmly. "That's what you're going to find out, I hope. Are you ready?"
Her brow pleated. "I don't know, Molly. I'm tied to this world—my knowledge, power, and rituals are all of this realm. He uses node magic, not earth magic. If he really is from elsewhere, how much will I be able to learn?"
"Ritual magic is practiced in forty-two realms," Michael said suddenly. "Many are variants of Wicca. Depending on how one defines the parameters, between eight and seventeen religiously oriented magical systems bear strong similarities to it."
"Forty-two realms?" Erin shook her head. "There aren't that many."
"Where did that come from?" I asked.
Frustration was plain in his eyes. "I don't know. It was just there, but when I try to follow it… nothing." He spread his hands. "I, too, want very much to know what manner of being I am."
Erin studied him a moment, and I suspected she was using other senses than sight—including, I hoped, the compassionate sense of the heart. Maybe she was finally considering the possibility that he was telling the truth. Erin has a problem with good-looking men. "I'll do what I can," she said at last, and began to unpack her bag.
The tradition Erin follows requires nudity only for major workings, when the god and goddess are called rather than simply included in the rite. This was a spell, not an act of worship—though the two are not entirely distinct with Wicca—so she and I kept our clothes on. Michael sat up on the couch with the blanket providing a modesty drape. Not that he had any, from what I'd seen. Modesty, that is. He was well provided with what the blanket was there to conceal.
Erin took out her athame, a glass vial, a black candle, a little pouch, and two silver bowls, each smaller than a cupped hand. "Stand to the south," she said, nodding at me. "No, a little more to your right. That's good. Michael—you have no objection to that name?"
"I'm content with it."
"I've set wards outside Molly's home for protection, and will cast a circle around the three of us to contain the spell. It's vital that you not break the circle once I've set it. You break the circle by stepping outside."
He looked insulted. "Actually it is a sphere, not a circle, but I understand you are using the accustomed term. What type of spell will you be casting?"
"A basic truth spell. It will urge but not compel the truth from you. If you knowingly speak false, I'll see it. With your permission, after a few questions I'll take the spell deeper. That can feel uncomfortable, intrusive. I'll be trying to bring truth up from wherever it's hiding inside you."
He considered that, then nodded. "A great many things have hurt since I woke and saw Molly. I can abide a little discomfort in order to learn what I am and whether I brought danger here with me."
"Also who you are, I hope."
"I am now Michael. As I said, I am content with that."
He looked at me then, and his smile burst over me with the pungent sweetness of summer berries.
I was going to have to be very careful.
Erin doesn't use a compass. The direction of the cardinal points is as obvious to her as sunlight is to others. She put her bag on the floor and knelt beside it, then removed her portable altar—a hand-cut, hand-polished square of oak about ten inches on a side and one inch thick. It went on the floor between myself and Michael. On it she set her tools. The two silver bowls were filled with water and salt—salt for the earth, and the north; water for the west. She put a stick of incense in the altar's east quadrant for air, and a candle in the south for fire. Then she waved her hand.
Like a faucet springing a drip, the candle's wick acquired a flame. A thread of smoke drifted up from the incense. She took up her athame and turned in a slow circle, her lips moving, pointing outward.
Michael's eyes followed, not Erin or the athame, but the direction she pointed. I knew he must be looking at the energies she roused, and envied him. I've always wanted to see the colors of magic.
Erin circled three times, then put her athame on the altar with the knife's tip pointing at Michael. She opened the vial, dampened her finger with the contents and touched each of her eyelids. Then she stepped forward and did the same with each of Michael's lips. "As I will, so mote it be."
His eyes widened, though whether he was startled by her touch or some other sensation I couldn't tell.
She nodded, satisfied. "Molly, you ask the questions."
"All right." I licked my own lips, nervous for no good reason. "Michael, do you remember anything of your life from before you arrived here?"
"The first thing I remember is your face. Your skin looked very soft and your eyes were sad. I couldn't see what color they were, and that was strange to me—I think I'm not used to losing colors in the dark. There was a pucker between your eyebrows. I like your eyebrows," he added. "They have a pretty curve."
The eyebrows he'd complimented shot up. Those weren't the curves most men noticed. "You don't know your name from before?"
"Where do you come from?"
"I don't know. I don't remember it, but it was different from this place. But I do know about this place."
"What do you know?"
"Languages. Facts. Not always the most useful facts," he said ruefully. "And I don't always know that I know until something floats up."
I exchanged a glance with Erin. She nodded, telling me what I was already sure of. He wasn't lying.
She spoke, her voice cool and soothing. "I'm going to take the spell deeper now, Michael. Molly will continue asking questions, but I'll be helping you find the answers."
He nodded fractionally. His eyes never left mine.
"Who gave you those wounds?" I asked.
"I…" He licked his lips. "She? Yes, I think… I was escaping. That made her angry."
"What is she?"
"I don't… that's not coming. But I have the idea she's strong. Very strong."
"Who is she?"
A fine dew of sweat sheened his forehead. "I don't know."
"What do you know about how you got here?"
"They were… someone was… they want to catch me. Keep me."
"Not to kill you?"
"No, they want to—want to—" His head swiveled towards Erin. "Don't!" And he heaved himself sideways, one arm outstretched like a drowning swimmer reaching desperately for rescue.
The circle broke.
THE pop! was like clearing your ears during an airplane's descent with a jaw-cracking yawn, except that it happened under my solar plexus. It should have been similar for Erin, though with more of a sting.
It should not have made her eyes roll back in her head as she sank to the floor in a faint.
I jumped and managed to keep her from hitting her head, ending with both of us on the floor with her head in my lap. Michael rolled off the couch so awkwardly I thought something had happened to him, too. But no, he'd simply made an odd dismount, for he fetched up on the other side of Erin's lax body and sat, staring at her in appalled fascination. "I didn't do it," he said. "I didn't mean to do it."
"Breaking the circle shouldn't have harmed her." I checked her pulse. It was strong and steady, thank goodness.
"No, it wasn't that. But it wasn't me, either—at least, it came through me, but I didn't will it. Maybe…" He put his hands on either side of her face and focused intently on her.
I looked at him sharply. "What are you doing?"
"Trying to fix her. Be quiet."
Should I let him try to repair whatever he'd inadvertently damaged? Or prevent him from doing more harm? Before I could decide, Erin blinked herself back to us. "What… Molly?" She put a hand to her temple. "I have such a headache. What happened?"
"I don't know. Michael broke the circle, and you collapsed."
"Michael? Who's Michael? And what," she demanded, "am I doing lying on the floor with my head in your lap?"
"You don't remember?"
She shook her head.
I considered going back to bed.
"The amnesia should be temporary," Michael said. "I think."
"You probably can't remember."
"I believe that's sarcasm."
Erin sat up, pushing her hair out of her face. Her headband had come off. "The last I remember, you'd woken me up at a godawful hour to ask for help. How did—"
Someone knocked on my door. We all jolted.
"Michael, get on the couch and look like an invalid," I said, scrambling to my feet.
"What does an invalid look like?"
"Pale. You've got that part down, so just lie still and pull the blanket up over you. Make sure your wounds and genitals are hidden. Erin—"
"Not wearing a stitch, is he?" She watched Michael's beautiful backside as he moved to the couch. I couldn't blame her for finding the sight distracting. "But I'm clothed, so we weren't performing a ceremony."
"No, we—" The knocking came again, louder. "Be right there!" I called. "Erin, I know you need answers, but for now pretend you're here to help me with my nephew Michael, who's recovering from a mysterious fever. I thought he'd been cursed, which is why I called you." I headed for the door.
"You don't have a nephew," she informed me.
"That's a fiction," Michael said. "We are supposed to fool whoever is at the door." He pulled the blanket over himself and lay down as stiff and straight if he'd been en-coffined. "Do I look ill?"
Erin was staring at him. "If you had a fever, there wouldn't be anything mysterious about it. Not with those wounds. What—"
"Shh! Michael, until our visitor leaves, speak Gaelic." I jerked the door open and sang out a cheery, "Good morning!" to the stranger on my stoop.
He was alone, so he wasn't from the Mormons. Probably not a salesman, either, not in that suit—gray wool, not top-of-the-line but not shabby, either. Either a Baptist or a business clone, I concluded. Probably the latter. Houston was only forty-five minutes away, and the dress-for-successers there wore suits in spite of our subtropical weather. This was not a testament to endurance; they simply never experienced more than a nibble of it, moving as they did between air-conditioned house, air-conditioned car, and tall, chilly office building.
Or maybe they were icing down the parking garages now, too. "Such nice weather we're having," I told him.
"Lovely," he agreed politely. He was about thirty, with seriously thick lenses on his gold-rimmed glasses. "I need to speak with you a few minutes, ma'am."
"This isn't a good time. Have they started air-conditioning the parking garages yet?"