Sneak Peek: DEREK
The burnished smells of the Western Network lay heavy in the air, a palette of spices. Cumin. Paprika. Yellow hellfire pepper. Derek Black’s eyes watered as he peered through the wavering morning heat. The sun had barely begun to rise, and already sweat trickled between his shoulder blades.
He sidestepped a witch muttering under her breath. A heavy turban shielded her from the glare of the sun. Slashes of black colored the space beneath her eyes. That way, the reflection of the sun wouldn’t be so bright.
A crowd of stinky bodies teemed around him, collectively moving down an open alley structured in-between white canvas tents. The market had been open for hours. The owner of a stall of dried, salted camel meat packed up with the morning rays. He’d scuttle into the shadows of some cave or cavern until the scorching hours passed.
Witches called out, selling wares inherent to the nomadic lives of the clans. Animal skeletons. Hides from barrel-chested desert animals. Clay pots. Leather water horns.
The price for water rivaled what witches in the Central Network would pay for a week of food. Derek’s mouth burned at the thought of a fresh drink, and he put a hand down to his left hip. His leather skin was still there.
Orphan children, collectively referred to as “imps” here in the Western Network, had sneakiness down to an art. Most of the time when he came to the West, his water ended up filched by their grabby little hands.
He didn’t care.
Today, he pulled his hood higher, tucking farther back in the fabric. He moved with the crowd, eyes darting. Flashes of color drew his eye as he sought gems. Amulets. Any sign of a demigod in the desert halls of Alkarra. There had been a demigod here just yesterday. He’d unsuccessfully chased him down, then lost him.
Would he return?
The few demigods that the Central Network Protectors had attempted to track were skittish, rarely seen in the same place. The demigods may not even maintain their same appearance from day to day. Amulets might even pass from demigod to demigod, for all a witch knew.
These questions—and more—packed Derek’s mind as he navigated through an equally thick market. The crowd sifted toward the Western Network castle, known as the Arck, which loomed not far away. The red-rock building towered over the less-certain market structures. Rarely did full buildings exist in the West. Tents. Rock outcroppings. Desert lifestyles led to homes carried on backs and reassembled where water existed.
The Arck was set into a brilliant red rock mountain. Cliffs jutted on either side of it, and overhead. Not only did it sprawl out, stories high, chiseled into the darkened brown, reddish orange, and copper stone, but it harbored the jewel of the desert.
The only known spring of fresh water to run with predictability poured through the Arck in a constant flow. The High Priest or High Priestess captured the water, distributing it at their bidding, often as a most powerful political asset.
Derek headed toward the Arck, mind calculating the task ahead. The front facade of the Arck, an unscalable wall, glittered with window panes. A reflection of the climbing sun on the horizon simmered in hues of grapefruit-pink and orange. He’d get inside.
Not that way, though.
Derek slipped into a well-known pub, appreciating the cooler, closed shade of the rock. Patrons cluttered the area, clumped around mugs of ipsum, which flowed more freely here than water now that borders allowed open trade.
The keeper behind the bar nodded to Derek. A burly female witch with sprawling shoulders and short-cut hair. Her tanned skin gave way to dark eyes. She gestured to him with a lift of two fingers.
He returned the greeting, then disappeared into the back.
A storeroom of barrels met him. He navigated carefully, soft as shadows, until he reached a back wall. He ducked, crawled behind the largest barrel and felt along the partition. When he detected an opening, he slipped inside. On hands and knees, he scuttled into cooler air. A tunnel hugged his shoulders, brushing against his arms, until it came to an end.
Once the narrow space opened, he stood.
Behind the pub lay labyrinthine dark halls. An unspoken rule extended to all who dared enter here: no torches.
His fingers dribbled along the wall, following a well-memorized path. The way of mercenaries and vagabonds and criminals. Of those who knew how to work their connections with the underground and then hide in here.
Sometimes, being a Protector required back halls, too.
Minutes later, Derek emerged into a veiled hallway near the servants quarters in the Arck. When he stepped out of the gloomy passage, he emerged at the back of a closet used to store old brooms.
He was no longer a Protector. Instead, he’d transformed into a female witch, slight of frame, with sparkling eyes and dark skin. The transformative magic tingled, particularly when used for such massive reform, but he didn’t need it for long. Just long enough to leave no trace.
Nodding to those he passed, Derek began the gradual, slow work of walking to the top of the Arck, where the High Priestess, Lana, kept her office. It had been awhile since they’d spoken. Or, more aptly, since he’d “checked in” on her.
Sometimes, he visited the Arck as a dignitary. Baxter created an appointment, Lana set out food and a meal, and it was all very . . . presentable.
He invited himself.
In fact, that was most of the time.
The ethics of being an active Protector and the High Priest of the Central Network rippled through his mind again. Did other Highest Witches spy on the other Networks? Unlikely, but they had that option. They just didn’t take it.
Shaking off a twinge of annoyance from that particular question surfacing now of all times, Derek continued his path with dainty steps. Inhabiting the illusion of a woman’s body felt strange. Over the years, he’d trained himself to walk less like a brute, but it didn’t come without concentration.
Outside Lana’s office, he stopped and faded back into the wall with another spell. No other witch lingered to question him, as planned. He waited, grateful to shuck off the transformative magic that dragged on his focus.
Derek waited eighteen minutes, until the next West Guard patrol strolled by. His timing wasn’t accidental. This was the last rotation of their shift. In twenty-one minutes, a different set of West Guards would patrol by with fresh attention. These two were halfway asleep, so they didn’t sense idle magic.
One of them muttered as they passed, rubbing his eyes with the heel of his hand. The other yawned and glanced to the left, where a spiral staircase wound to the floors below. Seeing nothing out of sorts, they left as quietly as they came.
Invisible, Derek stole closer to Lana’s office door. It remained closed, yet not sealed with a spell. A simple incantation amplified the sounds inside. Not many. An occasional rustle of paper. A shuffle of slippers on the floor.
He paused, listening.
Come on, he thought. Give me something, Lana.
A voice he didn’t recognize questioned with a quick tone, “How is my favorite witch?”
The cloying sound sent a prickle of intuition through Derek. That was the tone of a woman in charge. A woman toying with her prey. Not the type of witch Lana would tolerate within her office. If Lana did anything well, it was boundaries.
Derek straightened, pressing his back to the wall. Lana replied with a controlled, arch tone. “Fine.”
“Are you busy?” the female asked.
“Not right this second, but soon.”
Derek strained to hear the deeper nuance in her tone. Was she stiff? Earnest? Lana wasn’t a witch to let anyone manage her. Not when she had wrested control over the Western Network after Mabel left it shattered in the wake of Almorran magic.
Something didn’t feel right.
“Have you tried the magic?” the woman drawled.
Lana hesitated. “No.”
“No? Why not? It was a free gift, no allegiance required. A test, if you will, to determine whether or not witches can use it.”
Derek’s jaw tightened. As a question, have you tried the magic could mean a lot of things. Set against the backdrop of demigods and mortals and the new problems that churned in Alkarra, it sent a dark warning through his gut.
Magicless witches in the South, combined with Council pressure against Central Network support for the South, had been brewing an ugly cocktail for months. The Western Network stood in a position to gain a lot of land if they invaded the weakened Southern Network. With the right campaign, they could possibly take it. Lana could be the greatest High Priestess known in the West, or no one at all.
Lana never took that sort of thing laying down.
Derek needed to see this other witch—or demigod—before they left. But he couldn’t miss what was said.
“I don’t want to try your magic,” Lana said.
A rolling hmmm reverberated from the woman.
Derek’s eyes snagged on a nearby window. A moment of hesitation preceded his decision. Seconds later, the blistering sun crackled across his back. With magic to anchor him to the stone, and an invisibility spell hiding him from view, he moved across the outside of the Arck.
Thankfully, this wasn’t his first time.
Invisibly, he hurried across the scalding rock, stopping at the lip of Lana’s office window. Heat emanated from the stone so intensely he wouldn’t be able to tolerate it for long. Crouching low, he cast a spell to glue his lower body to the wall. The searing rock smoldered against his pants. He gritted his teeth and breathed through the sweat-inducing fury.
The sound amplification spell faded as he moved out of range, so he cast it again. Sounds from the market below intensified also, but with practiced skill—and a bit of desperation—he thought past all of that to hear inside.
An elegant woman stood near Lana, arms hanging at her side. On her right wrist lay a sparkling bracelet with a gaudy stone in the center. Umber hair rippled down her back in columns of curls. Her tall figure, thin shoulders, made Lana appear small. Lana tipped her head back to peer up at her, chin notched high with pride.
Defiance, not fear, brought Lana in front of this other female.
The window thickened their voices, making everything a little less certain, but he managed to decipher what they said against the cacophony of the market.
“There you have it, Dayla. See? It’s not working.” Lana’s shoulders lifted, arms held out. “The god magic is . . . not effective. I don’t need it, anyway. It’s not part of the agreement, just an experiment to . . .”
She trailed away. Dayla folded her arms across her middle.
“It is part of our agreement.”
Lana’s tense tone replied. “There is no agreement,” she muttered.
“We need to figure out if witches can use god magic. You’re able to do magic in general. Perhaps that extends to ours. My Father wants to know.”
“I don’t care about god magic. I just—”
Dayla stepped back. “You care about other things, don’t you? Now hold out your hand.”
Lana growled. “Not now. I have things to do. You want me to acquire the assets? I need to work. There are supply lines to structure and witches to talk to and things to make happen. Not all of us have instant magic.”
“Have you sent the scouting team?”
“They require a week, maybe two, to get a full picture.”
Dayla’s head tilted back as she rolled her eyes. “Fine, but no longer. We have a timeline to attend to, if you remember. Father doesn’t take well to delay, and neither do I.”
Derek’s entire body flushed cold.
Lana spoke about magic that didn’t work with a demigod who wore an amulet. The sparkle of a bracelet with bruised black-and-purple gems was practical confirmation for his worst fears. God magic. Father. Dayla was a confirmed demigod, then. Despite concrete details, Lana had said everything and nothing at the same time. He filled in the gaps, anticipating something heinous, but hoping desperately it wasn’t true.
Acquire the assets.
Supply lines to structure.
A timeline to attend to.
The good gods.
Lana might have given her allegiance to a demigod. It didn’t seem to be going all that well.
“Your next appointment is here,” Dayla murmured, reaching a hand toward Lana’s face. Lana jerked away, teeth bared, before Dayla could touch her. Dayla chuckled, hand dropping back to her side.
She transformed in a moment. Instead of a curvaceous figure and sharp nose, she became a familiar male West Guard. The one Derek had chased just yesterday, then lost in the crowd. One that seemed just off enough to draw attention.
He was no West Guard.
He was no personal servant.
The damned man was a female demigod. Dayla must be a master at deception, because the demigod he had seen yesterday had a reddish-colored amulet. Did she change her amulet appearance so it looked like a child of the god of fire, like all the rest?
Derek thought himself gutted with surprise already, but then Dayla spoke again, this time with the deep burr of a male voice.
“Your appointment with the Council Member from the Central Network is in five minutes. I’m happy to escort you to the meeting place. I believe we will firm up our plans and move forward from here.”
Lana’s shoulders tightened. “Who is it?” she asked.
Dayla laughed. “Right. You want me to tell you all the details of this plan so you can run to your friends and reveal it all? Well, that certainly is your choice. If . . .”
Her voice trailed off with dark promise.
“Fine,” Lana muttered.
The bottom dropped out of Derek’s stomach. Only instinct kept his magic active. He clung to the wall like a bloody chameleon being cooked alive. Sweat beaded over his entire body, making his fingertips slick. Over and over again, words looped through his mind.
Your appointment with the Council Member from the Central Network is in five minutes.
The door opened to reveal a cloaked figure. Broad shoulders indicated a male. A voice, too muffled to make out clearly, spoke from within the folds. A light haze floated around him. A distortion, perhaps?
Did Dayla protect a traitor for her own benefit?
Derek scrambled to absorb every detail possible.
“Your Greatness.” The cloaked figure bowed at the waist to Lana, then nodded to Dayla. The voice was a banal, toneless thing. Definitely changed. “Always good to see you. Shall we?”
Without a flicker of goddess magic for him to follow, Lana, a Central Network traitor, and a demigod left her office in a still silence. With what little composure he had left, Derek released the magic. He dropped through the sultry air, the momentary weightlessness a reprieve on his trembling legs.
He transported away from the West the moment before he would have slammed into sand-packed earth.
* * *
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