WHILE THE wound had been healed with magic, the new skin was tight, and the memory was raw. Angus Donohue kept his hand over the scar on his abdomen as though he expected his skin to tear open. He knew it wouldn’t, and it didn’t stop the pain, but he couldn’t drop his hand and walk easily either.
The red sand was warm against the soles of his feet, and the bells around his ankle jangled as he left the shade of Lifeblood Mountain. For the first few days of his recovery, he’d stayed close to the tents of Saka’s tribe. When he wanted to go out, Saka was with him. Each day a little more magic was worked to make sure all of his intestines were properly repaired. His body was healing fine.
But when he was going to sleep, he felt the blade of the knife thrusting into his stomach, twisting and tearing. He was so used to Saka’s sharp knives and the way they cut skin with no whisper of resistance. The knife his father had used wasn’t designed for magic or ritual. It was a knife for killing.
Angus walked and sang softly to himself, even though dizziness darkened the edges of his vision. He would get there and back on his own. He was tired of being trapped in the tent and having people—demons—thinking him a fragile human. He lifted his gaze. The orange sun was low but crawling its way up the cloudless violet sky. He had plenty of time to return to Saka’s tent before the intense heat of midday. If he fell over, he was sure someone would be watching him anyway.
Someone was always watching him. He wasn’t a human trainee sent across the void by the underground. He was Angus, the human apprentice mage—which was something else entirely. Though no one had actually explained the difference, he seemed to be an honorary demon.
His father would’ve been horrified.
Angus’s lips twisted into a bitter smile. His father died knowing that all his stolen magic was being returned to Demonside with every drop of blood and smothered scream. Maybe he didn’t bother to hold back his cries. Maybe he yelled and threatened until his voice was hoarse. Yes, that was more like his father.
Angus stopped three yards from a small cairn that marked his father’s grave. It was well away from the river, the mountain, and the area where the tribes camped. Their tents were colorful blocks in the distance. His chest tightened. Was he too far away?
He scanned the sand for telltale ripples and increased the volume of his singing—a human pop song that blended seamlessly into a demon ballad. It didn’t matter what he sang, only that he made noise to keep the riverwyrms away. The bells around his ankle were another simple deterrent. After one near brush, he had no desire to have a closer look at how many spade-like teeth the creature had for tearing off limbs and dragging its victims beneath the sand to the underground rivers.
He shuddered, not sure which was a worse way to die—bleeding to death, suffocating in sand, or drowning? He’d come so close to finding out.
The demon-style loose pants and shirt fluttered around him in the warm breeze, and the sky stubbornly remained cloudless. His father’s death had lifted a river, but it had sunk just as quickly. Everyone was waiting for rain, hoping that clouds would gather after the next ritual. He dug his toes into the sand and tried to suck up the heat, but the cold in his bones remained.
If there was no rain, Demonside would die. It was already on the edge. For Demonside to live, the magic trapped across the void had to be returned. Human blood would be spilled that night in the hope of rebalancing some of what had been taken.
He closed the last three yards and knocked the top stone off his father’s cairn. “Because of you.”
He shoved another and another off. They rolled down the sides and landed softly in the sand.
“Because of warlocks like you.” He picked up a rock and threw it. The fresh pink skin of his scar tugged. He pressed his hand harder to his stomach, but the pain wasn’t in his gut. His gut was healed but tender. His heart was torn open, and no magic could heal that wound.
“You don’t deserve a marker.” He used the ball off his foot to kick off another rock. “You stabbed me. You tried to kill me.”
His father had almost succeeded.
“I hope your death hurt. I hope you regretted everything you’d ever done in your life.” His mother had lost her husband, and her son was a wanted criminal for siding with the underground and refusing to turn Saka over to be killed by the college. His father had told the college that Angus was a rogue warlock. He’d never be able to live in Vinland without looking over his shoulder. His mother would be heartbroken.
Tears welled, and he didn’t brush them away. “What was so important that you had to kill me? Or was it just that you hated me?”
A breeze tugged at his clothes, and the bells added their tune. There was no other reply. All Angus had needed to do to please his father was graduate from the Warlock College and become a warlock of standing, just like him. He shuddered. The idea of being anything like his father was abhorrent.
He’d tried to avoid going to college. Then he tried to get kicked out. He couldn’t even do that right, because that was the day he met Saka, and Saka had brought him to Demonside.
In one day he’d seen the destruction the warlocks were causing with their quest for power—the way they manipulated the media to blame the demons for the cooling of their world and the increasing rampages.
There was only one flaw with their spin—no one could open a tear in the void from Demonside, not even a human. The void could only be opened from Humanside. A warlock had let the demons through, let them cause fear, and then killed them for their magic.
Too much magic taken and not enough rebalanced. His father’s blood had barely wet the bottom of the dry riverbed.
Angus picked up the rocks he’d knocked off and rebuilt the cairn. The anger was there, but he’d get no answers from a week-old corpse.
Fast footsteps on the sand made him look up.
It wasn’t a demon, but a human.
He lifted his hand and squinted. If it was one of the humans being kept for rebalancing, there was nowhere for them to go. Running would only bring their deaths sooner. He didn’t like the squirming sensation caused by the idea of humans being treated like cattle. But without them, Demonside would die before there was any chance of saving it. If Demonside died, Humanside would freeze over. Ice ages didn’t sound like a whole lot of fun, and already the winters were longer and colder, and crops were failing.
He dropped the rock in his hand. Two worlds were dying so a few could control all the magic. The demons should have thrown his father’s body to the scavengers….
The running human came toward him—not a sacrifice but a trainee.
“I wanted to talk to you before you went back to the camp.” Jim huffed out the words and put his hands on his knees.
“Town… it’s a town, not a camp.” A town that could be packed up and moved to wherever the water was, which left few options these days. Saka had told him how all the land around Lifeblood had once been green and littered with trees. Now it was hard to see even the twisted dead trunks. Many of the tribes were going to stay close to Lifeblood instead of breaking away like they usually would. Fear was in the air and whispered on the breeze.
If Jim wanted to talk to him out here, then it was something he didn’t want to say around demons.
“You didn’t have to run to catch me alone. I’m not speedy at the moment.” Angus patted his stomach. It could’ve been him buried in the sand with no one to mourn his passing. That wasn’t entirely true. Saka would be saddened. He picked up the rock and placed it back on the cairn. He was a better man than his father.
Jim pushed his hair back as he stood. “Yeah. How is that?”
“Fine.” He wasn’t in the mood for chatting with his ex. It hadn’t been long enough for the little flip to stop when he saw Jim smile, but Jim had moved on. He was dating another underground trainee, Lizzie.
Jim picked up the other rock Angus had thrown. He tossed it from hand to hand as he walked back. “How is it really going here? With Saka?”
Ah, so that was what Jim really wanted to know. Angus held out his hand for the rock, and Jim gave it to him. “Good.”
The word fell from his tongue without thought. Saka had been with him, healing him, helping him. Some days they were closer than mage and apprentice. Some days it felt like they were lovers playing with magic the way he and Jim once had, although the amount of magic that he and Saka played with was very different from his early fumblings with Jim.
“Back to rebalancing?” Jim’s eyebrow twitched upward.
Angus swallowed, but his throat was dry. He untied the waterskin from his waist and took a sip. It was warm, but enough. He offered it to Jim, who hadn’t brought water—a foolish thing to do in a desert.
There’d been no talk of rebalancing with blood or sex. The third kind of rebalancing required soul. His father had paid in blood and soul for his magic. Angus doubted the ritual would’ve made a dent in the amount his father owed.
“No, I haven’t been doing much but healing.” And learning about how it was done. That was what he was interested in. He’d wanted to be a doctor, not a warlock.
Jim didn’t have a demon. He had no bond with Demonside, and he couldn’t draw magic via a demon. He was, in Angus’s father’s words, “a know-nothing wizard and not worth wasting your time with.”
“The college will know he’s dead.” Jim handed back the water skin.
Angus had no doubt it had been reported. Everyone knew the demon who spied for the college under duress. What Ruri told her warlock was carefully discussed with the other mages—enough to keep the college happy but not enough to give them any ideas. His father’s death wasn’t a secret that could be kept.
Dead. It was so final, so unreal, even though he was standing at the cairn. He waited for sorrow or even remorse to kick in. When his father stabbed him, Angus made the snap decision to drag his father to Demonside with him. He knew his father would die there, and it hadn’t stopped him. He might as well have held the blade that took his father’s life.
But he didn’t regret bringing his father there. Beneath the anger was the lightness of relief. His father would never hurt anyone, human or demon, again.
“I know. The Warlock College will blame me for not having the decency to die alone.” He was making a habit of not doing what they wanted. What lies would the college tell his mother this time?
Jim drew in a breath. “You aren’t to blame. He made his own choices. We all did.”
“What do you mean? You regret coming here?” The wizards who volunteered to come to Demonside to learn magic were in a unique situation. They learned from the mages as though they were apprentices, and they learned how to pay for their magic to keep the balance, but they had no bond with their demon. The bonus was that magic was visible in Demonside. It made learning so much easier.
Jim shook his head. “It’s weird, but it’s good to know how to use natural magic, how to be strong without a demon….”
Angus was learning that too. He didn’t want to be reliant on Saka for power. The underground was made up of rogue warlocks and wizards who resented the stranglehold the college had on magic. It was an uneasy alliance, made only because they had a common enemy.
Jim shoved his hands into the pockets of his pants. He wasn’t wearing demon-style clothing. None of the trainees did. “He’s dead, so you should know the truth.”
Angus went still. “About what?”
For a moment nothing moved. Even the breeze and the endless sand were still. It was too quiet, too unnerving. Angus stamped his feet a few times to hear the bells.
Jim scowled. “He paid me to break up with you. I couldn’t say anything because he threatened me. The college versus a wizard—it was never going to end well.”
“So you took the money and ran.” Angus bit out the words. Give him a chance to explain.
Jim looked at his feet. “I didn’t have a choice.”
The rage bubbled up and threatened to suck him under. There’s always a choice. You took the easy one.
Angus pressed his fingernails into the tender skin on his belly. The pain grounded him. If he pressed harder, he might draw blood, and then he’d be able to open the sand beneath Jim’s feet and let him vanish the way he had months before. He relaxed his fingers and pulled together a fragile calm. He didn’t care why Jim had taken the bribe, but that didn’t make it all right. “Sometimes it seems like we have no choice because the alternative is too terrifying.”
He sounded like Saka. Maybe he was spending too much time around mages.
Jim looked up, and hope lit his eyes. “So you understand?”
Angus blinked and assessed his former lover. The man who had first introduced him to sex magic—they had tried and failed at it. The man who had introduced him to the teachings of the underground and made him question the college. He nodded because he didn’t want to put what he really felt into words.
Betrayed by someone he thought he loved and who he thought loved him.
He wouldn’t let it happen again.
He liked Saka for his magic and for the sex, but a human couldn’t love a demon, and demons couldn’t love humans. No matter how much he wanted more from Saka, he was never going to get it. He shouldn’t want it either. Humans were destroying Saka’s world. Their alliance was so delicate that Angus wasn’t sure how it would survive.
That time there was no stirring or fondness to the memory of what they’d had.
His father and the college weren’t done trying to ruin his life. Some days it would be easier to be demon.