Perish Twice

Chapter One

As a rule, I don't take kindly to people trying to kill me.

So the night two assassins from House Sareille came after me, I was understandably upset.

It was the door that tipped me off. I charmed it a long time ago so that it would squeak every time I opened it. It opens quietly only when I have unexpected visitors inside the apartment. Smart me. Otherwise, the blast of magic sent my way would have packed a far nastier punch. Instead, the flare of blue-white energy splashed harmlessly, if dramatically, off the shield I threw up around myself with no more than a split second to spare.

My keys hit the hard-wood floor with a harsh jangle. I hadn't even had time to flip the lights on, and for that I was grateful now. The dark would serve me just as well as it would them.

I dropped into a crouch, slinking forward and to the left to maneuver my way into my apartment's little kitchen. I gave myself a second to think. The first attack had come from the living room, near the door to the bedroom. But I'd caught a flash of another figure, silhouetted against the living room's long windows. Two of them, then. This was going to be fun.

Taking a few deep breaths, I called ether to me. Thick tendrils of lightning, the bruised purple of a violent thunderstorm, wrapped around my arms. The lightning hissed and snapped, and I could smell burning ozone.

I'd take out the one who'd attacked me first, I decided. Then I'd go for the other one. Neutralize the most immediate threat first. Clean up the remnants after.

The faintest sound of movement from the other room had my head snapping to the side. I tensed, muscles coiled painfully tight. Footsteps, so soft no one should have heard them.

Fortunately, I am not no one.

As the footsteps drew closer to the kitchen and my hiding place, I threw myself through the doorway and into the living room. I took the roll on my right shoulder and came up on my knees, arms extended. With a whisper of will, I sent the lightning gauntleting my forearms streaking toward the intruder, aiming for his head. It seemed I hadn't fallen too far out of practice, and my strike hit. Lightning exploded across the intruder's face. Screaming, he fell backwards, clawing at his cheeks.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw the second intruder raise his hand. A streak of blue-white magic shot toward me and I ducked behind the couch, narrowly avoiding having my head taken off my shoulders. Behind me, the magic slammed into the wall, showering me with bits of beige-painted plaster. Inwardly I sighed. My landlord was going to have a fit.

I didn't have time to worry about the paint job. I sensed more than saw the second attacker drawing power for another strike. Another blast tore through the couch, an inch from my head. I swallowed a curse. Keeping low, I crept a few steps to the right. I could see the boot of the first guy I'd taken out peeking past the end of the couch. Still down for the count. Hoping to have the element of surprise, I lunged out from behind the couch, catching the second attacker around the knees and taking him down hard. I heard a sharp crack as his head rebounded against the floor and his breath escaped him in a pained whistle.

I raised my hand, held sideways like a blade, to ram it against his throat, intending to cut off his air. He intercepted the blow, wrapping cold fingers around my wrist and wrenching my arm to the side. I retaliated by using my other hand to deliver an open-palmed blow to the underside of his jaw, ramming the back of his head against the floor again and stunning him.

I was calling up another round of energy from the lightning gauntlets I still wore when something from behind rammed hard into my shoulders, sending me sprawling to the floor. My cheek clipped the corner of the coffee table as I fell, a hot sting an inch or two long. I flipped over and back up

into a crouch fast enough to see a shadow hovering in the middle of the room, too dark and too, well, mobile, to be just a shadow. Behind it stood the first of the two attackers, his palm held out. An angry burn from my lightning streaked over the left side of his face, making his cold, determined expression even fiercer.

He wielded the shadow like a club, giving it weight and substance no ordinary patch of darkness should have. He made a quick gesture with his fingers, and the shadow zinged toward me, sharpening itself from a club into an arrow, easily capable of piercing flesh. I shot a bolt of lightning straight at it, sending the bright energy winging through his shadow. As the lightning breached the edge of the shadow, it splintered like cracks through stone, sending a web of light all throughout the darkness. Cracked, the shadow splintered like glass. Little pieces of darkness fell to the floor, only to be reabsorbed into the ordinary shadows of the room.

Momentarily stripped of his shadow weapon, he came at me. In one fluid move, almost before I had a chance to register it, he was over the couch and swinging at me. His fist clipped my chin, and I spun with the motion rather than resisting it. The blow would leave a bruise, sure, but at least it wouldn't break my jaw. Bracing my hands against the wall, I didn't turn around and face him as my attacker would expect, but instead used my leverage to throw my head back into his face as he came up behind me for his follow up. Satisfaction flickered through me as I heard the cartilage in his nose break. He stumbled back, and I turned to deliver a series of quick jabs to his torso.

He lashed out at me but, with blood and pain blinding him, only managed one glancing blow across my shoulder. I drove him steadily backward, my lightning gauntlets giving the room eerie flashes of illumination as I hammered away, trying to find the weak spots in his guard. He missed a step and stumbled, and I took my opportunity. I grabbed his head with both my hands, my palms against his temples. With a single mental command, I sent my power through my hands and into his mind. Lightning flashed, bright white-violet, and he collapsed, twitching as the pathways of his brain overflowed with hot magic.

A quicksilver-fast reflection in the window across from me was the only thing that saved me from a knife in the back. I twisted at the last second, and the second attacker's knife only scored a shallow cut between my shoulder blades. Following the initial sting of the blade was the telltale burn of infused shadow magic, and I couldn't help the growl that escaped as pain burned through my veins. I caught his knife arm at the wrist, gripping hard enough to feel the bones grind together. When he still didn't drop the knife, I stepped close to him, putting my foot between his and using my body weight to push him back and against the wall. I raised his captured hand above his hand and smashed it against the wall, again and again until he let go of the knife. The blade, rippling with green-black shadows, fell to the floor, where the blade buried itself an inch or so into the wood.

Pressed up against him like I was, the smell of his sweat and fury was overwhelming. He managed to snake a hand between us and drove me back with a jab to the stomach. I released his wrist and took a step back to keep my guard intact. He feinted forward with another jab followed by a right hook, and I saw a swirl of shadow coalescing in the air between us. I ducked under his attack and grabbed his shoulders, pulling him close and slamming my forehead into his face. With him momentarily stunned, I pushed him back against the wall and delivered a brutal snap kick to his chest. He ricocheted off the wall and dropped to the floor, leaving a faint man-shaped outline of cracked plaster.

On the floor, he groaned once and started to rise, but a well-placed kick had him on his back again. Looking down at a man who would kill me without a second's hesitation, I drove a bolt of magic into his mind as I had done to the other one. He jerked once and fell silent. The apartment seemed unnaturally dark as I let my lightning gauntlets fade and stood listening to my own ragged breathing.

I didn't kill them. They would have the mother of all headaches and a cracked rib or two when they woke, but I didn't kill them.

"I don't do that anymore, boys," I murmured to the unconscious assassins sprawled on the floor of my apartment. "Not when I don't have to."

I wiped at the blood drying on my cheek and swore. How in the hell had these guys found me? I'd been so careful. I'd disappeared, a clean break with no ties, no loose ends. No way to track me. I glanced down at the would-be assassins. Well, apparently I'd been wrong. And it wasn't a nice feeling.

I used a focused gust of air to flip the light switch, illuminating the ruins of my apartment. There were a few holes burned into the wall, not to mention the man-shaped dent in the plaster that was going to be difficult to explain to the landlord. The coffee table had been knocked over when I'd hit it, and magazines, books, and a cup of day-old coffee had all crashed to the floor. The couch had hemorrhaged a cloud of fabric and stuffing from the blast it had taken, and I could still smell burnt linen.

I sighed, turning my attention to the unconscious men. I crouched down, flipping the second assassin over to take a good look at him. He had the pale, translucent skin and dark hair of House Sareille. Feeling my stomach start to sink, I went to the other assassin and looked him over too. Same lean build and look. I peeled back one of his eyelids with my thumb, careful not to touch the blistering burn I'd given him. Sure enough, the ebon-black eye of Sareille stared sightlessly past me. Of all the Houses to have found me, why did it have to be them?

Who else did you piss off enough to go after you, Emma? came the snarled thought from the darker corners of my mind. Besides your own, that is.

Firmly determined to leave the past where it belonged, I busied myself dragging the unconscious assassins toward the center of the room. I nudged the overturned coffee table to the side and swept a small area clear of debris, then laid the men out on the floor, making sure to arrange their limbs comfortably. No reason not to be polite.

I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths, clearing my mind and trying to ignore the scent of burnt linen tickling my nostrils. Once the last of my adrenaline trickled away and I'd pushed away any distracting thoughts, I concentrated on the air just above the prone bodies on my floor. I felt my brow wrinkle faintly as the air started to crackle. Even if I couldn't see the faint white glow through my closed eyelids, I could sense the flow of power. It was fundamentally and indescribably different than the magic of my House, but no less a part of me.

The power built, glowing white hot and lighting the inside of my eyelids. When it was strong enough, I drew the power into me, feeling it glide through me like water through a sieve. The feeling of nearly boundless power was an intoxicating one, and I allowed myself a moment to revel in the knowledge that now, at this moment, I was the one wielding it. Hot sparks skipped across my skin, down my spine, through my hair, and I shivered with power.

Reigning in the power to a more manageable level so I wouldn't blind myself when I opened my eyes, I forced the white light into a sphere. It drifted in the air a few feet above the men, twinkling like my own personal star. Getting a solid grip on the energy with my mind, I shifted it, spreading it out like a shroud. Once I'd created a sheet of power large enough to cover the men, I let the light drift down, draping it over them. The light molded to their bodies like a second skin, turning them into white marble statues. It would bind them and protect them when I sent them through the rift, safe until they reached the other side.

I felt a bead of sweat slide down the side of my face. The fight had taken a lot out of me, and I was running out of energy. Just a few more seconds and the spell would be done. I lifted my hands, palms pressed together, above the assassins at my feet. I called the last of my power and split the air with a resounding crack of thunder. A jagged line of black nothingness appeared in the air like a hellish thunderbolt. I used my power to force it open, creating a hole in this realm that would lead to another, the realm the assassins had come from and the realm of my birth. It was a place I hoped never to see again.

Inside the hole, the black nothingness gradually resolved into slowly spinning whorls of color. If I waited long enough, I would be able to see exactly where I was sending the men back. I didn't want to wait.

I let the portal take the men, their white-shrouded bodies drifting up into the air and into the rift in reality. They went together, side by side, feet first. Their shoulders and heads were the only parts of them that hadn't made it through when loud knocking on the door startled me and made me glance back.

Drained as I was, my power slipped. I whipped my head back toward the rift in time to see the eyes of one of the assassin's shoot open, his mouth twisted around a painful scream. Scrabbling for more power to force into the rift to keep it open, I lunged forward and shoved the two assassins through before they came completely unbound.

If they went through the portal unbound, the force of the negative space between realms would strip flesh from bone and deposit them on the other side as two unrecognizable piles of ash.

And no one wants that.

The portal snapped closed with the low sucking sound of water rushing to fill a void, leaving the apartment empty and silent again.

Silent, that is, except for the knocking on the door, which had only grown more insistent.

"Emma, are you alright? Emma?"

My heart stuttering painfully in my chest from the close call, I took a shaky breath and went to open the door. On the other side stood Sam Carlisle, my neighbor one floor down.

"Hi, Sam," I said, leaning against the door frame and pretending as hard as I could that I hadn't just sent two would-be assassins through a hole in reality like priority mail.

It took him a second to answer, and as he stood there staring at me I smoothed back a strand of blonde hair that had escaped my ponytail, flashing him my best smile.

"Emma, are you all right? I heard a lot of crashing around from downstairs."

"It was just the TV."

He glanced over at the television, which was silent and dark next to the overturned coffee table.

"I turned it off. Just now. It was really loud," I added lamely.

"Oh." Sam looked unconvinced. "What happened? In here, I mean." He waved his hand in the general direction of the mess that was left of my living room.

"Uhm. Redecorating."

He watched me, his eyes squinted and crinkly at the corners, like he was trying not to smile. I restricted my expression to a bland, polite smile.

"Want any help?"

"No," I said, glancing back at the room. "I can handle it. Thanks for stopping by, though."

I started to close the door, but Sam laid his hand against it to stop me. "Hey, I wanted to ask you," he said, taking a step forward. "A friend of mine is having a party Saturday night. Nothing fancy, just some friends getting together. I thought you might like to go, if you weren't busy."

"What, you mean with you?" I winced as soon as the words were out of my mouth. "Wait, that didn't mean what—that came out wrong."

The almost-smile was back in his eyes. "Yes, with me."

My mind flashed back to the two men who'd just broken into my apartment and tried to kill me. "I don't know. I've kind of got a lot of things going on right now."

"Right, the redecorating." His eyes scanned the room behind me again. "No, it's no problem. Good luck with that."

I smiled. "Yeah."

Sam tucked his hands into the pockets of his jeans and took a step back to clear the threshold. "Well, just think about it, in case you change your mind. Saturday at eight."

"Will do," I said, giving a half wave as he turned and disappeared down the hallway.

I closed the door and let out a pent-up breath. Shaking my head slightly, I turned—and froze. There, standing in the middle of my apartment, was the last person I was expecting to see.

My brother.

"Audun." I stared dumbly for a second, then, "What the hell are you doing here?"

Dressed in the sleek black and midnight blue leather armor of the Kiraugha House Guard, my brother cut a pretty imposing figure. His pale blond hair was slicked back, making the angles of his face even sharper and the green-blue of his eyes even brighter. He stood tall, shoulders back, with such an air of command that I wasn't at all surprised to see a Commander's sigil on his chest. So he'd been promoted. Good for him. Two other men from the House Guard stood behind him, one on each side.

"Nice to see you too, Aerie," Audun said, voice dry.

I winced. I hadn't heard that name in nearly six years. "It's Emma now."

His pale brows rose. "Is that what you're calling yourself? It's kind of quaint, really. You living here in this realm, pretending to be human." His expression darkened. "Turning your back on your House and your family."

"Shut up, Audun." I rubbed at my forehead. "How did you find me?"

"You opened a rift. We traced it back to you."

"What? That's impossible. Only another Rifter can trace a portal back to the one who opened it."

"That's true," Audun said, nodding thoughtfully. "Then it's lucky we had little Bastiaan here to do that for us."

Audun stepped to the side, and I saw that there were four people, not three. The kid couldn't have been more than sixteen, with a pale, painfully gaunt face. The faded black tunic and pants he was wearing were a few sizes to large for him. Dark hair hung in his face, almost obscuring the eyes that were an unnervingly pure white.

"He's a Rifter."

Audun laughed mockingly. "Ah, yes, give my sister the prize for most observant."

"Where did you find him? The Rifters were all hunted down—"

"Driven to the brink of extinction and the remaining few enslaved by any House lucky enough to contain one, yes we know." Audun's eyes narrowed and his voice turned cold. "Some of us stuck around long enough to see that little bit of history play out, you know."

I folded my arms across my chest and determinedly ignored the insult and the hurt that flashed through me unexpectedly. "How did you capture him, Audun? Threaten his family until he agreed to cooperate?"

My brother bared his teeth. "Something like that."

Next to him, the Rifter boy shivered.

Of the nine Houses of magic, Rifters are the most unstable. They have the power to open gateways between realms, creating bridges between the realities that make up the layers of the universe. As far as we know, there are no more than a handful of realms stable enough to support sentient life for more than short periods of time. But the only two major realms are the mortal realm that humans call Earth, and the realm of creatures of magic, which we call Mehrein. A Rifter's gateway is the only way to travel between the realms.

For thousands of years, House Ylirian—the House of the Rifters—enjoyed a position of power in Mehrein. They were the only ones who could create the bridges that would allow the other Houses contact with other realms. And, as any good history book will tell you, power corrupts, and absolute

power corrupts absolutely. Guess what happened. The other eight Houses grew to resent Ylirian's control over the realms. Some Houses tried to breed with the Rifters, bring the much sought-after power into their own bloodlines. For the most part, their efforts were unsuccessful. The nature of the Rifters' power made it difficult to cultivate alongside the abilities of the other Houses. Most of the half-breed children went insane before they hit their tenth birthday, thanks to violent reactions between the abilities of their Houses and the Rifter's power that was forced on them.

An unlucky few survived.

Any child who survived with both a House power and a Rifter's power was a highly valued commodity. They provided their respective House with a means to contact and interact with the other realms. The children would be kept under close guard, a slave to their own House, forced to build the bridges between realms at the whims of important House members.

After the first few successful crossbreeds were created, the other Houses began to hunt down pureblood Rifters. No one House deserved to be able to control the fate of Mehrein, they all said. Hypocrites. That's exactly what each House started to do. Wipe out their competition, the Rifter half-breeds of rival Houses.

Assassinating children.

It was around that time that I left. And I had no intentions of going back.

"I'm going to ask one more time, Audun," I said, my voice as icy as I could manage. "What the hell do you want?"

"Where is Lukyan Sareille?"

I felt as if I'd been sucker punched. For a second I couldn't take in enough air. "What?" I managed at last.

"Where is Lukyan Sareille?" Audun repeated slowly, as if I were an idiot.

"I have no idea."

"You don't know where he is? You sure? Because he was the last one you were seen with before you left Mehrein."

"He never made it to the other side," I said, my voice barely audible.

My brother put on a fake expression of concern. "Oh, that's right. Sareille's House Guard caught up to you two before you could make good on your escape. They captured him and—" his mouth formed a little O "—you took off. Left him there. Alone."

My heart thudded dully and six years' worth of memories and nightmares flashed through my brain.

"Do you know what happened after you left?" he went on, mercilessly. "What they did to him? Tortured for years by his own House. When they finally got tired of his screaming they stuck him in some lightless cell in the deepest hole they could find."

I'd known it, known what would happen to him—to either of us—if we were caught trying to run. In the darkest part of my heart, I knew exactly what I was condemning him to when I walked through that rift without him in order to save my own skin. But hearing it confirmed by my brother made it worse than I'd ever thought possible.

"But," I whispered when the last of his accusations died away, "why are you looking for him now?" A flicker of hope ignited. "He's alive? He escaped?"

Audun smiled humorlessly. "You could say that."

I glanced from my brother to the two guards flanking him. Their expressions were neutral, but there was something in their eyes. Unease.

"What happened?"

"House Sareille is gone."

I blinked. "You mean the estate house?"

"That, and just about every high-ranking member of the bloodline." He crossed his arms over his chest, leather armor creaking. "Three days ago, something attacked the Sareille estate. All told, there were thirty-seven members of the House on the grounds that day. All of them were killed."

Thirty-seven people. A massacre. "And you think it was Lukyan?" Disbelief tinged my words.

"It was confirmed as being the work of a Darkwalker, and Lukyan was the only member of the House with powers strong enough to accomplish something like that. When his cell was checked in the aftermath of the attack, it was empty."

I shook my head, trying to make the pieces fit. "But that doesn't make sense. House Sareille sent assassins after me. Just now. Tonight. Highly trained, not just any thugs. If Sareille's power base is gone, who's pulling the strings?"

The question hung in heavy silence. Audun returned my incredulous gaze with a steady, grim look.

"Then why come to me?"
"After the attack, the Council of Nine convened in an emergency meeting to discuss the possibility of a retaliatory attack on the person or persons responsible. It was then that it was decided Lukyan Sareille was behind the attack. They believed it was an act of revenge for the years of torture."

"That still doesn't explain why you're here." A thought had my stomach plunging. "Unless…you think he's coming after me now too."

Audun nodded. "It makes sense that he would see you as the one who betrayed him most of all."

Hearing him say it so matter-of-factly made my skin go cold. "I had no choice."

He glanced around at the evidence of the fight with the assassins before returning his eyes to mine. "You really still think he sees it that way?"

"So, Lukyan single-handedly destroys the entirety of House Sareille as vengeance for what they did to him, but then he spares two Sareille assassins just to send them after me? How did he find me in the first place? The only reason you were able to find me was by following the rift I opened."

"We don't know. But you're going to help us find out."

I snorted. "Why should I help you? You show up here without invitation and warning, with an enslaved Rifter, no less, and demand my help?" I glanced at the boy, shivering as his white gaze passed over me. "I don't think so."

"Look, Aerie—"

"Emma," I snarled. "Aerie died a long time ago."

That made my brother pause. "Fine," he said, inclining his head a fraction. "But it doesn't change who you are. Or your obligations to your House."

"Screw our House!"

Audun's hand shot out, wreathed in lightning. His fingers wrapped around my throat before I could so much as blink, tightening with bruising force. He wrenched me closer, so that our foreheads were nearly touching.

"You do what you will with your life." His voice was low and deadly. "But you do not blaspheme the House that raised you."

I met his furious gaze squarely, refusing to look away. I wasn't going to be cowed like a misbehaving dog. Just when the lightning energy sheathing Audun's hand began to singe the flesh of my throat, he released me, shoving me back.

"The Triumvirate expects you to report in by sundown tomorrow. All members of House Kiraugha are to convene at the estate at that time."

He turned and nodded at the two guards. The two men each laid a hand on either shoulder of the kid between them. Audun barked a command at the Rifter-breed child. The kid just closed his eyes

and lifted his hands, spreading them apart in the air slowly. A rift—larger and more stable than the one I'd constructed earlier—appeared, colorful whirls of light playing against the black.

The two guards and the Rifter child stepped through, disappearing through the portal and back into what I could now make out as part of the Kiraugha estate grounds. Audun turned back to me.

"Consider this your official summons."

He stepped through the rift, and I was alone again.

Only when the last of the rift's energy had dissipated did I allow myself to run a shaky hand through my hair. Seeing my brother for the first time in six years would have been an uncomfortable meeting in and of itself, but the news he'd brought added a whole other layer of complication.

I glanced around my ruined apartment. I needed someplace quieter to think. This place was too overloaded with supernatural energy right now. And try as I might, I couldn't quite get the image of the half-unbound assassin's screaming face as he went through the rift out of my mind.

Grabbing my keys from the floor in the corner, where they'd been kicked during the fight, I locked up and headed for the one place that always helped me clear my head: the roof. The apartment building I lived in was a ten story high rise, one of the newer apartment complexes nestled in downtown Seattle. The rent was fairly outrageous, but I was willing to stomach it for the spectacular view of the city that the place offered.

I opened the roof access door and stepped outside, reveling in the feeling of the wind running through my hair. I was delighted to see a line of dark clouds spreading across the distant horizon, blotting out what few stars I could see on a normal night in the city. A storm would help me calm down, I decided.

Storms are my addiction. They are for me what alcohol is for some people, or drugs or expensive shoes. I can't get enough.

I stood on the roof of my apartment building, arms spread wide, and called the storm closer to me. Purple-white whips of lightning flickered across the sky, dancing ever closer. The lightning momentarily left delicate traceries across the roiling, bruise-colored clouds. I breathed deep, inhaling the scent of scorched sky the flashes left behind. Thunder cracked just overhead, and I felt its power resonate through every cell of my body. For just a second, the thunder was all I could hear, all I wanted to hear.

I closed my eyes and concentrated on drawing the storm even closer, pulling more power from the rolling thunderheads. Little cyclones of cool air whipped themselves into a frenzy all across the roof, pulling at the edges of my clothing and hair.

More, I needed more.

Lightning flashed again, leaving a pattern like a dreamcatcher on the back of my eyelids. The sternum-rumbling thunder wasn't even a half second behind it. The storm was turning into quite a big one. I laughed out loud, reveling in the sheer power of this storm. I knew what I must have looked like—insane—but no one else was up here and so I didn't mind.

The storm was really going now, with flashes of lightning every other breath and an almost continuous rumbling of thunder. The wind had picked up too, and if I hadn't been using my abilities to shield myself, it probably would have thrown me clear off the roof and to the ground thirty stories beneath me.

Thunder cut through me again, and I screamed right along with it. Something wordless and primal, I imagine. I'm not always quite there when a really good storm rolls around. It does something to me, switches off the logical part of my brain and amps up the part of me that craves danger and excitement. Like a really good high.

I caught the faint traces of power in the air that heralded a vicious lightning strike. I held my arms higher, beckoning the white-hot energy. A jagged streak of lightning erupted out of the clouds just above me, screaming down through the air and into my waiting palms. Little waterfalls of white light

played over my skin, hissing and snapping. I felt a delicious wave of power. I curled my hands into fists, watching the lightning jump from left to right and back again, only to run up my arms, down my spine, through my hair.

I allowed myself to savor the feeling for a moment. Nothing existed but me and the storm. Slowly, one razor-sharp thread at a time, the lightning bolts sank through my skin: through the palms of my hands, along my arms and legs, through my open eyes. My scalp prickled as I drank in the power, so raw and fierce. I was letting the natural energy feed my own magical reserves, replenishing and bolstering them. Lightning zinged through my veins. I blew out a breath, tasting burnt ozone. I loved this part, the moment when you feel like you can do anything.

When I could feel my own power reserves brimming with as much force as I could safely handle, I released my grip on the storm. The dark clouds gathered just above me remained for a few minutes more, spending their fury over Seattle's skyline before drifting away like a normal storm.

I stood alone on the rooftop, feeling the dying wind against my face and the chill of the autumn night through my coat. Now that the storm was gone and my adrenalin was returning to normal levels, I was starting to feel all the aches and bruises from the fight. My right shoulder felt like it'd been under the wheels of a semi truck, the cut along my cheek was still stinging, and my jaw ached from where I'd been punched.

Groaning a little as I rolled my shoulder to loosen it up, I sat down on the edge of the roof, dangling my feet over the side with nothing between the soles of my boots and the street below but twelve stories of air. Even the fantastic view of the city wasn't enough to distract me for long.

One of the Nine Houses was essentially destroyed. The culprit was the man I'd loved and lost over six years ago. Now he was coming after me to settle what he saw as an act of unforgivable betrayal. And to top it all off, I had to return to the realm of my birth within twenty-four hours to face the family I'd left behind when I started my new life.

And if I didn't go back, if I refused to acknowledge the authority of my House in time of crisis, I knew the assassins I'd faced tonight would be nothing compared to what the Triumvirate of House Kiraugha would throw at me.

I sighed, tasting faint traces of lightning on the back of my tongue.

Maybe, I thought bitterly, I should have just let the assassins win.

Would have been quicker.