The Pale Princess (Paperback)
The Pale Princess (Paperback)
Book 11 in The Aegis of Merlin Series
Even vampires have boogeymen.
Talon always thought the stories about the Pale Princess were just that, stories.
At least he did until she showed up, took control of most of his people, and forced him to flee for his continued existence.
And who does the most powerful vampire in the world turn to when he needs help?
Conryu Koda, the Reaper’s Chosen, and the human charged with hunting down and eliminating the servants of the newly arrived demon lords.
But is even Conryu powerful enough to defeat someone that can control vampires?
Conryu stepped out of his magical library into an empty space in a parking garage, took a breath, and grimaced at the stink of exhaust and trash. All around him skyscrapers thrust into the sky, the people inside no doubt going about their business as if the world weren’t threatened by the return of eight lords of hell.
He smiled. That was exactly how things should be. Panic helped no one and would displease both the Reaper and the Goddess, two of the powers Conryu answered to.
Across the street from the garage waited the Department of Magic’s headquarters and on floor… Crap, which floor did Mr. Kane tell him again?
“Prime, where are we going?”
Prime, his ill-tempered scholomantic, flew around to look at him. Resembling nothing so much as a black book with the face of a demon on its front cover, Prime served as both Conryu’s familiar and instructor of all things dark magic. Prime also had a much better memory for details than Conryu.
“Tenth floor, Master. And I’ll tell you again that this meeting is a waste of time. These weaklings need you, not the other way around.”
He hoped for some new clues about potential temples or maybe even a hint about where Baphomet’s hellpriest ended up after Conryu destroyed his temple, but his scholomantic wasn’t convinced. They’d been back and forth on this subject half a dozen times, but Conryu figured one more round couldn’t hurt. “In a fight with a hellpriest, I won’t argue, but they have people and resources I don’t. If the Department picks up a whiff of something dangerous, they can pass it along, so I have somewhere to look. It’s potentially useful enough to make the hour or two we’ll spend chatting worthwhile.”
Conryu set out for the Department. He’d arrived around midmorning in the hope that everyone would already be at work and, happily, the street was largely empty save for a handful of homeless men who stared at Prime as if debating whether or not the scholomantic was a hallucination. Non-wizards and even some wizards that didn’t know him often had that reaction. A flying demon book just wasn’t the sort of thing people saw on a regular basis.
Prime snorted. “You just want to see your mother and girlfriend. Our minds are linked. You can’t lie to me.”
“Everything I said was true, just not the full truth.” Conryu took the steps two at a time, paused in front of the towering black building, and let out a long sigh.
What tactic would Mr. Kane try today to get him to join the team? He didn’t know, but also didn’t doubt Maria’s father would have some plan. Whatever he had in mind, it wouldn’t work. Conryu had his mind made up on that matter. He refused to risk anyone in a fight with a hellpriest or guardian demon. Especially anyone too weak to actually make a difference.
Steeling himself, Conryu pulled the door open and stepped into the waiting area. A few men in suits occupied the scattered leather chairs. They glanced up at Conryu, who, with his jeans, t-shirt, and biker boots, looked like he belonged in a bar not the headquarters of the Department of Magic.
Ignoring the looks, he went to the main desk and stood in front of one of the secretaries, a cute, dark-skinned woman about thirty dressed in a black skirt and white blouse. She looked up at him, shifted her gaze to Prime, swallowed, and looked back to him.
“Conryu Koda?” she asked.
“That’s right. Director Kane’s expecting me. He said I could go right up to the tenth floor, but I figured I should check in just to be safe.”
She tapped her keyboard and nodded. “Yes, you can head up. And thank you for checking in. It makes it easier for us to keep track of who’s coming and going.”
He smiled. “Always happy to make someone’s life easier. I don’t get to do that very often. See you on my way out.”
She smiled back, flashing perfect white teeth. “I’ll look forward to it.”
He left the front desk and made the short walk to a bank of elevators. As soon as he pressed the call button a chime sounded and the second door to his right opened. He pressed the button marked ten and the doors closed.
As the horrid music played Prime said, “You were flirting with that female.”
“I was being friendly, it’s not the same thing. I didn’t hit on her or ask for her phone number or anything.”
Prime growled a little. “I’ll never understand your human mating practices.”
“No, probably not.” The chime rang again and the music mercifully stopped as the doors opened on the tenth floor. He stepped out into an empty hall and frowned. “Where’s the stupid conference room? Would it kill someone to put a map on the wall?”
He turned right and found a kneeling figure in black waiting. Not Kai; this one wasn’t slim enough. She raised her head revealing sparkling green eyes.
“Hello, Melina. Did Maria send you to find me?”
“No, Chosen. I sensed your presence and came to make my report. I thought you’d wish to hear it before your meeting.” All the ninjas were serious around him, but since he’d healed her in Black City, Melina had been even more uptight than the rest.
“That’s very thoughtful, thank you. Please, go ahead. Oh, you can stand up.”
“Yes, Chosen.” She hopped to her feet and bowed. “Maria spends her days doing research and scrying on potential temple locations. So far she has found nothing of great interest. She has also been in no danger.”
As reports went it wasn’t terribly interesting. But as long as Maria stayed safe, nothing else mattered. “Thank you, Melina. You and your team are doing a fine job. If you’d be kind enough to escort me to the meeting room, I’d appreciate it.”
It was subtle, but she seemed to swell up, just a little, at the chance to serve him directly. Melina went left then took the next right, pausing almost immediately in front of a door labeled Room 1.
“Everyone is inside waiting for you.” Melina bowed and vanished into the borderland.
“Think she’ll ever relax around me?” Conryu asked.
“No.” Prime never pulled any punches despite having no arms.
“Thanks, pal.” Conryu knocked and waited.
A few seconds later a tall, broad-shouldered bald man in a dark suit opened the door. If you didn’t know him, Mr. Kane could look intimidating. Of course, having faced down demons and the Reaper himself, nothing much intimidated Conryu, certainly not Maria’s dad.
“Conryu, thanks very much for stopping by. We just finished moving into our new headquarters. Come in, we have a lot to talk about.”
Conryu did as Mr. Kane bid and found Maria and her mom, both dressed in the matching white robes of a light magic user; Mrs. Umbra, dressed all in black as was her habit; and his mom, seated around a table. Four monitors, all blank at the moment, hung on the wall so the directors of the other Alliance magic departments could teleconference when necessary. It looked pretty much identical to the meeting room at their temporary base in Sentinel City.
Everyone smiled and his mother stood, came around the table, and hugged him. She had a smudge of grease on her cheek and wore practical jeans and a long-sleeved top.
He reached up and brushed the grease away with a microburst of light magic. “You’ve been working in the motor pool again.”
“I’m upgrading some of our anti-magic equipment.” She frowned. “Don’t try and distract me. You haven’t been eating enough. You’re too skinny.”
“I don’t think I’m that skinny. It’s good to see you, Mom.”
She kissed his cheek. “You too. Sit down, we’ve got a lot to talk about.”
He obliged, careful to keep a safe distance from Maria. The dark magic aura he’d picked up during his time as the temporary ruler of Hell hurt her if he got too close. He had a spell he wanted to test after the meeting, but business before pleasure.
Maria offered him a sad smile but before they had a chance to talk Mr. Kane sat at the head of the table and said, “Shall we get this meeting underway? Angeline?”
Mrs. Umbra cleared her throat. “I’ve finished a spell that can determine if a person has been transformed into a thrall. The plant Conryu provided was tremendously valuable. Unfortunately, I can find no way to turn someone already transformed back to normal.”
“That’s because they’re already dead,” Prime said. “The transformation process replaces their soul with a demon spirit. You can’t heal a corpse.”
“I see your book hasn’t improved his manners.” Mrs. Umbra glared at Prime who had the good sense to fly around behind Conryu’s head, partly out of sight. “His bad manners aside, St. Seraphim and I concluded the same thing. It’s a one-way process, unfortunately.”
“At least you can confirm that people in high places aren’t under Baphomet’s control,” Conryu said. “That’s a relief.”
Mrs. Umbra nodded. “I’ve already shared the new spell far and wide. Soon everyone will be using it as a matter of course. It’ll be a nuisance, but a necessary one.”
“Maria?” Mr. Kane asked.
“I’ve been looking into that group from the Pacific Northwest that call themselves druids. So far there’s nothing that indicates they’re demon worshippers, but their magic mirrors that of the hellpriest. I thought sending a team in to talk to them might be wise.”
Mr. Kane nodded. “Couldn’t hurt. I’ll talk to the Seattle office and have them send someone out.”
“If they sense any dark magic,” Conryu said. “Have them pull back and contact me. If that hellpriest is hiding out there, you really don’t want some low-level agents getting close.”
“That’s our standard protocol now,” Mr. Kane said. “What about you? Found anything interesting?”
Conryu shook his head. “Unfortunately not. I wandered around Rome on the off chance some of their pantheon was based on one of the demon lords, but I didn’t sense anything out of the ordinary and nothing tried to kill me. A definite sign of no demonic activity. When we finish here, I’m going to Crete to investigate the legend of the Minotaur. Maybe it has something to do with the Horned One and maybe not, but better to check it out. By the way, where’s Jonny?”
“He’s going undercover to investigate an illegal fight club,” Mr. Kane said. “We’ve found a handful of bodies that appear beaten to death and there’s an aura of lingering magic around them. Not dark magic.”
“It is, but two of our best agents are backing him up. As long as there’s no hellpriest involved, I’m confident they can handle anything else.” Mr. Kane stood. “Does anyone have anything else to add?”
When no one spoke, he continued. “Then I declare our first meeting at our permanent home ended. We’ll see you next month, Conryu, barring an emergency.”
“I’ll be here. Maria, do you have a sec?”
“Sure.” She got up and followed him out into the hall. “What’s up?”
“I’ve been working on a new spell, a variation on the light magic barrier I used when I fought the guardian demon. I think it will seal the dark magic aura and I wanted to test it if you’re willing.”
“Yes, please. I need a hug in the worst way.”
Conryu needed far more than that, but it would be a good start. He held out his hand and the staff of all elements appeared. The crystal at the top turned white and light magic flooded out. At his mental command it surrounded his body from head to toe before vanishing.
He sent the staff back to its pocket dimension and nodded. Maria took a step closer, inside the area where the dark magic aura started hurting her.
No flinch, no grimace of pain. So far so good.
She surged forward, wrapped her arms around his neck, and kissed him full on the lips. Conryu wrapped his arms around her and held her close. By the Goddess that felt good.
When they finally broke apart, she was grinning from ear to ear. “It didn’t hurt at all and I couldn’t even tell the spell was there. You did it.”
“Seems like it.” He refused to get his hopes too high. “Want to walk me out?”
She took his hand. “I’d love to.”
They went to the elevators and rode down, neither speaking, each content to enjoy the other’s company. They hadn’t been this close in far too long. Just holding Maria’s hand felt like a dream.
In the lobby they walked past the secretaries and he nodded to the lady that checked him in.
“Who was that?” Maria asked, sounding curious rather than jealous.
Conryu shrugged and pushed open the front door. “An overworked, underappreciated civil servant in need of a little recognition.”
Just outside the door he felt the spell slipping.
Conryu let go of her hand and jumped away an instant before the light magic barrier shattered.
“Are you okay?” Maria asked. “The dark magic feels even stronger now.”
“It built up inside the barrier until it shattered. I was afraid that might happen. Damn it! I need to figure out some way to vent the energy that doesn’t hurt you in the process.”
Her smile never wavered. “You’ll figure it out and at least now we can spend a few minutes together. I doubted we’d ever get that much again. Be careful in Crete. I love you.”
“I love you too.”
She waved and hurried back inside.
He sighed and tried to decide if that was a success or failure. Then he remembered the feeling of Maria in his arms and grinned. A success for sure.