The Legacy House, Angel Island, on a dull Saturday afternoon:
Kat was bored. All of the grown-ups were scattered about the house doing tedious stuff and hadn't even noticed her slip out into the gardens. She wandered 'lonely as a cloud', only the clouds weren't lonely today – there were crowds of them, grey and frowning, filling the sky. She paused to tickle the winged lion behind his stone ears, imagining him waking and purring, shaking the dust of years from his coat, stretching out his frozen limbs and spreading his crow-feather wings, padding after her on soft, silent paws... but that was a pretty daydream and nothing more. Kat sighed and meandered along the rose border. It was forbidden to pick the flowers. She did anyway, choosing a white rose, fully open and almost spent. A few of its petals fell as she broke its stem, so she plucked them one at a time, leaving a trail of confetti across the lawns, murmuring the traditional rhyme "He loves me, he loves me not..." But who?
The rose lasted well into the trees and finished on a 'not'. She wasn't really allowed this far from the house. Mom would have a serious hissy-fit if she found out. Kat squared her shoulders, decided to keep this adventure secret and pressed on towards the edge of the estate.
It was pretty wild up here, where the trees grew closer together and the undergrowth was rarely cut back. Kat Corrigan, the famous explorer, trekked through the jungle in search of the elusive maned wolf, a survivor from prehistoric times, which villagers claimed had been stealing their children and whose eerie howls had been heard in this part of the forest... Kat shook her head, dismissing that storyline. If she ever did explore the wilderness, it would be to find a lost temple and recover some fearsome magical item, no doubt with a whole team of Legacy members at her side. She tried to imagine herself telling everyone what to do, just like Derek did. The very idea made her giggle.
The sudden noise disturbed something ahead of her. She heard a rustle in the shrubbery and froze, then crept forward, holding her breath, expecting to see a bird or a rabbit, perhaps. There was a little clearing where a branch had fallen from an old tree and on it sat... a boy.
He shouldn't be here! was Kat's first thought. No-one should be able to get over or through the fence... Besides that, he was naked – no clothes, not a stitch, not even any shoes. A pair of wings grew out of his shoulders, black and leathery, not quite like a bat's, yet not like a pterodactyl's either. He had dark hair in a halo of short, tangled curls, very pale skin and an air of wildness about him that made her feel distinctly uneasy.
"I know you're there," he said, his voice high and bright like a robin's call. "Come out where I can see you."
Kat stepped into the clearing. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm on a mission." He grinned at her. His teeth were very sharp, like a cat's or a jackal's. Two small golden horns, like pointed bee-hives, nestled in his hair. "I'm a demon!"
"A demon?" Kat laughed at that. "Oh, I don't think so!"
He shrugged sulkily. "Like you'd know a demon from a doorpost, anyhow!"
"I do, so! You can't judge by what they look like, 'cos they can wear different shapes, but you can feel their auras – sizzling with spite and dripping with poison – pure evil." Kat peered at him. "You don't feel that way."
"Okay, so I'm not a real demon." He smiled again. His eyes were huge and very dark, with lashes as long as any girl. "But I will be one day, if I make the grade. I'm an efreet, a kind of evil spirit out of what you mortals have labelled Persian mythology, along with djinn, peris and pookas."
"Are djinn the same as genies?"
"Not really, although I have met some dumb enough to be trapped in a bottle!" He patted the length of branch next to him. "Come and sit down."
Kat hesitated, weighing up the pros and cons of having any dealings with a denizen of the infernal regions and a naked one at that. They were mostly cons; that made up her mind and so she joined him. "Aren't you cold, dressed like that?"
"Don't you mean not dressed?" His smile stretched wider. "Does it bother you?"
"No," she said quickly, looking down at her feet. "No, that's not true. It does, a bit."
"That's okay. I'm meant to make people uncomfortable. It's in the job description. We don't wear clothes in... you know, down there." He pointed at the ground. "Fire hazard."
Kat finally granted him a smile. "I suppose I ought to say hello. My name's..."
"Stop!" He slapped his hand across her mouth to stop the word leaking out. "Don't you know anything? You can't tell your name to a demon!"
She pushed his palm away, annoyed that he'd dared to touch her. "And I suppose you won't tell your name to me? So, what do we call each other?"
He glanced sideways at her. "I'll pick a name for you and you do the same for me. Agreed?"
"I'll go first." He rustled his wings. "How about Leila? It's a Persian word meaning 'beautiful'."
Kat felt her cheeks flush hot and pink, and giggled nervously. "But I'm not beautiful!"
"Your soul is." His eyes twinkled. "But I'm lying to you – demons do that. Leila really means 'night'. It was my mother's name."
"You have a mother?"
"Did have, but we don't talk about her now. She went over to the Light."
Kat frowned. "But I thought that people only went over to the Darkside?"
"Depends which side you start on, I suppose. All doors work both ways. What counts is where you end up." He shrugged. "No, such a dark name doesn't suit you. How about Tabitha? That means 'gazelle'. Anyhow, you look as if you could wiggle your nose and work magic!"
"I can't!" She wiggled her nose anyway. "See? But it's a good name."
"Then you can be Tabitha, my little Tabby-cat... You know, you surely do remind me of a cat. Now, it's your turn. Pick me a name."
Kat said the first thing that dropped into her head. "Michael."
"Oh, please!" He scowled. "Do I look like an archangel?"
Kat giggled. "For sure! Okay, how about Jean-Claude? He's a tough guy out of films."
"Hmmm..?" He shook his head. "No – don't care for the initials. Why don't you call me Luce? It's a family name."
"It'll do." Kat held out her hand. "Hello, Luce – I'm Tabitha."
"Delighted, Miss Tabby." He kissed the back of her hand, his breath tickling on her skin. "And I'm your devoted slave."
"Oh, don't be so wet!" She shook him off. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm here to fight the Legacy." Luce spread his wings, bared his teeth and absolutely failed to look threatening. "Well, maybe not fight, but I am allowed to bother them a bit. It's kinda like a test..."
"You mustn't hurt them!" Kat protested.
"I'm not allowed to do that either." He sighed. "A few scratches, max, and maybe a little itching, but that's as far as it goes. So many rules! So, tell me about them, your Legacy friends – but no names!"
"I'm not sure I should tell you anything."
"As you like." He consulted his left palm, which was covered in tiny squiggles of crimson ink. "I was fully briefed on the set-up here. Precept – tall, dark, miserable and a pain in the ass. Also marked as very dangerous and a psychic, so he could see me."
"He isn't always miserable." Kat corrected. "And he's very brave. If I'm in trouble, I know I can depend on him to rescue me."
"Oh, dear, a hero." Luce shook his head. "The Boss hates 'em. Troublemakers, the lot of them. I'll watch out for my tail around him."
"You have a tail?"
"Sure." He stood up, turned about and there it was, a serpentine outgrowth at the base of his spine, shaded a little darker than his skin and ending in a golden arrow-shape, like the head of a spear. He twirled it around proudly, winding it into a series of sinuous loops. "What do you think?"
He sat down again, folding his wings and basking in her approval. After another glance at his palm, he went on. "A second man, shorter and younger, a fighter. Tends to shoot first, not to mention second and third, and not bother with asking the questions later."
"Yes, that sums him up." Kat agreed, thinking of Nick. "If he sees you, he'd fire at you. He's a very good shot. He might hit you."
"I wouldn't care if he did." The efreet shrugged. "Bullets don't hurt us, they just tickle, and silver ones sting a bit. It's holy water I don't like – that can give you a nasty burn – but you don't have a priest here anymore, do you?"
"No." Kat felt sad for a moment. She missed Philip. "What else do you know?"
"It says here that there are two women. One's young and pretty and clever with those infernal electronic brain-things. She's another psychic, so I'll have to watch my step with her too. The other woman is older..."
"She's my Mom," Kat said quickly.
Luce grinned, not even pausing for breath. "...and lovelier and smarter than any other mortal woman, apart from you, that is!"
"Oh, you're such a liar!"
"Really?" He pulled her hair, very gently. "I'm a demon – what did you expect?"
"I didn't expect to meet anyone out here, least of all a creature from Hell!" She reached over and tickled him under his wing, making him giggle. "I'm psychic too, by the way. Did your notes tell you that?"
"Uh-huh. Watch out for the little one, they said, 'cos she's the most dangerous of the lot!" He tried to wriggle out of her reach. "Missy Tabby-cat has teeth and sharp claws..!"
Kat renewed her attack and Luce returned it, using his wing-tips as well as his hands. The tickling went on for several minutes, until both of them were breathless from laughing so much. They subsided back onto the log and sat for a while in companionable silence.
"You ought to head back to the house," Luce said, at last. "All winged things have weather-sense and I smell rain on the breeze. If you don't go soon, you'll be soaked."
"What will you do?"
"Take shelter in the trees." His eyes glittered with sudden menace. "And wait until dark."
Kat frowned. "Promise me you won't hurt anyone."
"Promise me you won't tell them about me."
She shook her head. "No. If they ask me I'll have to tell – I can't lie, I'm sorry, but I can't."
"And I can't make you any promises," he said, sadly. "Because of what I am, I wouldn't keep them."
Kat stood up and moved to the edge of the clearing, turning round when she reached it. "Can you really fly?"
"Sure I can!" Luce arched his wings up over his head, then unfurled them to their full span. In five great flaps, with a sound like a rushing wind, he rose thirty feet into the air and settled on a high branch of the tree. "Impressive, huh?"
"Very," Kat agreed. "But it won't help you get into the house once the alarms are set."
"Let me worry about that." The efreet grinned. "See you later."
The first rain fell just as she reached the house, great, fat drops of water carried in on a warm, lazy wind. Kat retreated into the kitchen and watched the squall lash the back of the house until Dominick came in to start dinner and distracted her with milk and choc-chip cookies.
For the umpteenth time that afternoon Derek Rayne cursed the poor quality of the photographs he was working from. The Ruling House had requested his opinion on some markings found on a menhir in Ireland, which they believed to be an inscription in Ogham, an ancient language akin to shadows that lay across the stone made the scratches along its upper edge practically indecipherable and Derek had squinted at the images for hours, trying to imagine them into some sort of pattern.
"You'd think they could have done better than this!" he muttered, darkly. "Ten tons of granite with half its length buried – it wasn't going to move, was it? These are so poor that they might as well be an amateur's holiday snaps!"
It crossed his mind again that this might be one of London's sneak tests; every now and then they sent out a neat package of bogus data just to see how far their precepts would run with it. The incident of the possessed fruit in the Florida orange groves had been a classic. The entire Miami house had hit panic and raced around like headless chickens without stopping to notice that the date was the first of April. Best of all had been last St Patrick's Day's gem, with its tale of an infestation of tiny malevolent shape-shifting entities that remained invisible until one had consumed sufficient quantities of a dark-coloured Irish magic-potion, five to six pints of the stuff being the recommended dose. Derek had fallen for neither of these dirty tricks, but it was only a matter of time.
He muttered again and reached for his magnifying glass, then swore under his breath when he found that it had mysteriously moved to the far end of the desk. Objects were unruly today, dancing around of their own accord, never seeming to stay where he put them. Neat stacks of books had abruptly tumbled onto the floor and sheets of paper had blown about without the aid of any stray gusts of air. He'd been distracted by pitter-pattering behind the skirting-boards and rustling in the corners, and even fleeting impressions of movement just glimpsed out of the corner of his eye that turned out to be nothing when he looked directly at them.
"Must ask Dominick to check the place for mice." Derek resolved, setting the photographs aside. It was then that he noticed that a book was missing from his shelves – there was a wide gap where Brewer's Phrase and Fable should have been. He'd bought the dictionary in a crowded and cluttered second-hand bookshop in Oxford and it had been a friend to him ever since; it might not have much academic worth, but it was wonderful for dipping into and filling a dull half-hour with curious facts and mental detours off at a tangent. Derek frowned; not that he minded anyone borrowing it, but it would have been nice if they'd asked him first. Perhaps Kat had taken it to help with her homework. He scooped all the Ogham paperwork back into a file and went in search of his missing tome.
Derek found Kat in the library. The room was in darkness and she sat in a lonely pool of illumination under one of the lamps, her fair head bowed over a book. He turned the rest of the lights on and crossed the room. "Hello, Kat. What are you reading?"
"Nothing." She hastily shut the book. "Fairy tales."
It was a volume about Middle Eastern mythology. "I see. Flying carpets, winged bulls and the phoenix, eh?"
"Isn't that a funny word?" She smiled up at him, shyly. "What would you call them if there were two? Phoenixes? Phoenixi? Or is it a word like sheep – one sheep, many sheep?"
"The Greeks didn't bother to make up a plural. Since the phoenix was unique, it didn't matter." He suppressed a grin at her young and inventive mind. "Kat, did you take anything from my office? A book, maybe?"
She shook her head, her small face very serious. "No."
"Have you been in the control room at all?"
"No, Derek. Not today."
"Okay," he said, casually. "You are staying on the island tonight, aren't you?"
"Sure. Mom says it's too stormy to cross back to the mainland."
"And she's right." Derek paused to listen to the rain beating against the stained glass. "I'll see you at dinner then."
Whilst he was sure that Kat wouldn't lie to him, something about her manner had disturbed him. When he checked the logs the last three souls listed as entering the control room were Leonardo da Vinci, Solomon Grundy and Catherine the Great.
Derek swore under his breath, ducked through the hologram and swept up the stairs like an avenging angel.
"Alex!" he shouted. "Your bloody thinking-machine's playing up again! You'd better get down here and run a check on it!"
Rachel had also spent an uncomfortable afternoon, sitting at a borrowed desk and sifting through a heap of psych files. In the guise of the Luna Foundation, Derek and co were following up on a haunting, a classic poltergeist case with all the trimmings; objects mysteriously moving on their own, water dripping from ceilings with no obvious source, which dried up without a trace in a matter of minutes and showers of stones, both in and outside the house. The family seemed honest if dysfunctional, with a step-father and two unhappy teenagers. Hours of evaluating the tests had brought her no nearer either proving or disproving fraud.
"Damn weather!" Rachel stretched, absently scratching at her back. She had an itch between her shoulder-blades, just in that place it was impossible to reach, and it had been niggling at her for the past hour. She'd hoped to get home tonight, but now they were stranded out here by this stupid squall. "And me with a whole heap of work to get through... What is it with this damn itch?"
She stood up, twisting about to reach the site of her irritation, using one hand and then the other, dancing from her left foot to her right in her efforts to magically make her arms longer. The more she scratched, the worse it itched. "Damn it to hell! This sweater doesn't usually make me break out and I haven't changed detergent lately..."
She found a poker by the fireplace, dusted it down with a tissue and thrust it down the back of her neck. It didn't help – in fact, the soreness redoubled.
"Damn, damn, damn!" Rachel tried using the back of her chair as a scratching post, succeeding only in making her back sting. "Perhaps it's itching powder – ooh, Kat, if you've pulled that dumb trick on me, you're grounded for a whole month!"
She pulled the sweater off, turning it inside-out. There was no evidence of tampering and her back still itched as if it was on fire. Rachel unhooked her bra and ineffectually scratched where the fastening had been. It was only then that she realised she had an audience.
Nick stood just inside the door, arms folded across his chest and a huge grin on his face. "Is this the point where I applaud and shout 'More! ' and you take the rest off?"
"How long have you been there?" She clutched the bra to her chest and the straps promptly fell off her shoulders.
"Long enough. Exactly what were you doing, Rachel?"
"I have this terrible itch... " It sounded a pretty lame excuse. "How could you just stand there and watch me make an idiot of myself and not say anything?"
"You were very entertaining." He was still grinning. "And I was wondering just how far you' d go..."
"You are such a pig!" She was still struggling with her bra, which seemed to have developed a mind of its own and a strange desire to dive to the floor. Embarrassment flushed her scarlet and in the one tiny part of her head that still held a fragment of calm, she was almost sure she could hear distant laughter.
"Sorry." Nick said, not sounding it in the least. "Turn around and let me scratch it for you."
"Okay'" She wriggled under his fingers. "No, not there. Up a bit, a bit more... now right a bit and down a fraction... Yes, there! A little harder... oh, yes, that's the spot! Oh, God, that's so good, that's wonderful...!"
There was a sound behind them from the doorway, the meaningful clearing of a throat. Both of them craned their necks round to see Derek standing there.
"I wasn't doing anything!" Nick said, rapidly.
"This isn't as bad as it looks!" Rachel added.
"Don't bother to explain – I'm not sure I want to know." The precept said, scowling. "Just get your clothes back on and we'll forget all about it."
With that, he turned on his heel and left.
"Oh, shit!" Nick muttered. "Forget it? He'll never let us live this down. He'll probably write it up in the monthly report and we'll be the laughing stock of the whole Legacy!"
"You are such an optimist!" Rachel scolded. "At least you've managed to shift that bloody itch!"
"I did? Hold still a minute." Nick peered at her back, then plucked something out of the hooks of her bra. "Here's the culprit, the little devil!"
He held it up where she could see it, a single hair, short, black and curly.
"It isn't mine," Rachel said. It wasn't one of Kat's either, she thought, with relief.
"Nor mine. Did you steal that sweater from Alex? If you did, I'd say you'd been punished!"
"It's too short for one of Alex's gorgeous ringlets."
"Most of Derek's hair is that dark, but it isn't curly." Nick grinned wickedly "Well, not on his head, anyway...!"
"What are you suggesting?" Understanding painted her crimson again and if she'd had a free hand, she would have cuffed him. "That Derek and I would ever do anything... No, no way! Don't you dare even think about it!"
Nick opted for a strategic retreat and it was quite a while before he stopped grinning.
Kat met Luce in one of the hallways on the way to her room.
"Ill met by moonlight, my lady!" He said, dipping his horned head in a little bow. "Hey, this is fun! It's going pretty well, even if I say so myself."
"But you haven't done anything yet." Kat frowned. "Have you?"
"Two down and two to go!" Luce grinned. The table next to him supported a tall vase, an Oriental patterned thing in cobalt blue, iron-red and gold. He reached out with one wingtip and nudged it. Kat watched in horror as it fell and shattered into a million pieces.
"Oh, no!" She squeaked, covering her face with her hands.
"What?" He peered at her with concern in his dark eyes. "It was only Imari, not Ming. Did you like the hideous creation?"
"I didn't hate it." She confessed. "And I'll be blamed for breaking it..."
Luce slapped his forehead. "Duh! What a moron, huh? Sorry."
He brought his hands together in a single sharp clap. The shards of porcelain lifted from the carpet and danced like a dervish in a multi-coloured whirlwind. They spun in mid-air for a few seconds, then jostled into place. In the space of three heartbeats the vase was intact again and safely back on the table.
"There you go." He bowed again. "Your wish is my command... and all the rest of that outmoded gobbledygook! Whoops, got to go – or I'm history!"
With that, he vanished, just as Alex emerged into the hallway. "Kat, are you okay? I thought I heard something shatter..."
"It wasn't anything," Kat said, tearing her eyes away from the miracle and pretending everything was normal. "Nothing at all. Maybe it was just the wind. Or the storm. Or something."
Alex studied the girl, worried by her tone of voice and her air of distraction. "You sure you're okay, sweetheart? You're not scared of the storm, are you?"
"I'm fine," Kat said absently. "Thank you."
"Maybe you'd better find your Mom and get ready for dinner." Alex suggested. "Unless you want to stay with me for a bit?"
"I'm okay." This time she tried to sound more convincing. "Really. And it's a good idea. Finding Mom, I mean."
Alex shook her head as Kat retreated towards her room. Sometimes that kid could be downright strange. What was it with everyone tonight? She'd passed Nick giggling to himself on the stairs and he'd refused to share the joke, then Rachel had rushed by her, all pink and sweaty with guilt, as if she'd been caught rifling through the contents of the safe. Even Derek, who was moody at the best of times, was like a bear with a sore head. He'd been as morose as hell when he'd summoned her back to the control room and made her run a full check on the computer system, which was having a little paddy all of its own; it had frozen and hung on shutdown, and she'd had to reboot the damned thing three times to get it running again.
"What I need is a long, hot soak before dinner." Alex declared, turning the taps just so to fill the bath with water at exactly the right temperature, and lacing the mix with sandalwood-scented bubbles. She left it to run while she shed her clothes and tied up her hair. When she came back there was nothing in the bath but a heap of foam - the plug had lifted itself out of the drain hole.
"Spooks in the plumbing!" Alex laughed, setting it right.
The second time the bath drained, she was beginning to suspect a practical joke. The third time clinched it. She was almost sure she could hear faraway laughter.
"So that's what he was smirking at!" She scowled. "Right, Boyle, I'll have you for this little prank, I swear I will!"
Nick all but jumped out of his skin when the door to his room was thrown open with an almighty crash. Alex stood in the doorway, wearing only a bathrobe and with all of her hair piled up on top of her head. She looked pretty cute. She was so angry that he could feel the heat boiling off her in waves. Hell hath no fury like a tired woman denied hot water.
"It isn't bloody funny, Nick!" She was yelling at him, actually yelling! "It might have passed for humour in the SEALs, but I don't care for the joke, so you can just stop interfering with my bath water, okay?"
Then she was gone in a flurry of towelling and curls, slamming the door behind her.
Nick shook his head and glared at the walls. "What in hell was that all about? Has everyone around here gone mad?"
Back in her bathroom, Alex was cursing the antiquated plumbing again. Most of the hot water had gone to waste and as much as she juggled with the taps, she could only get it to run lukewarm. She added more bubble-bath and went to retie her hair, which had come loose in her sprint down the corridor. She was only gone for a moment; when she returned there was foam everywhere, piled up in heaps like spice-fragranced snowdrifts, pouring over the edge of the bath like froth on an over-filled beer glass and crawling across the floor like intelligent amoebae. Alex stepped on one and slipped, landing on her backside in the middle of all the mess.
"Damn it all!" She screamed, at nobody in particular. "Damn it all to hell!"
And Luce rubbed his hands together in satisfaction, chuckled to himself and skipped off in the direction of his next hapless target.
Nick found he was uneasy after Alex's melodramatic entrance and exit. He could see no reason for her fury and he had no idea why she'd directed it at him.
"Perhaps it's the wrong time of the month," he told the silent walls. "Or the wrong phase of the moon – maybe psychics get antsy when it's coming on full. Or maybe she's mad at Derek over something; she can't storm in and scream at him, so good old Nick takes the flak!"
He had time to spare before dinner, so he dug out his kit and set to cleaning his gun. It was a chore he'd always enjoyed; the weight of the weapon in his hand, the smell of the oil and the feel of burnished metal against his skin. Before battle it acted as a charm against terror, and even now, it calmed him, laid the ghosts. Little rituals, Nick thought, we all have them; the small, senseless, habitual things we do when the universe gets too big and scary, when we feel tiny, insignificant and vulnerable.
"Which happens way too often around here!" he added aloud, checking that the clip was empty before aiming the gun at random objects around the room. The shadows obligingly became targets for him, a tiger in the far corner, a monster by the mirror and a wolf down by the door. Nick levelled the weapon at each of them, making 'ka-pow' noises as he pretended to shoot, like a kid playing cowboys. He didn't squeeze the trigger though, as he knew better than to fire a dry gun. He drew a final bead on the vulture circling the light fitting, followed its lazy circles for a moment and then imagined taking a pot shot at it.
The explosion was deafening and the recoil kicked his hand back. The bullet took a chunk of plaster out of the ceiling.
Nick dropped the gun as if it had bitten him. "Damn it, you were empty..!"
The door slammed back on its hinges as Derek came through it at a run. "What in hell's going on? What are you shooting at?"
"I was cleaning it. It was empty... I swear it was!"
The precept's anger turned ice-cold. "You aren't that stupid, Nick! Why didn't you check?"
"I did!" He pulled out the clip which was full of fresh air. "Nothing here and nothing in the chamber! Damn it, Derek, do you think I'm a rookie?"
Alex appeared at Derek's shoulder, hastily wrapped in her robe, dripping water and foam on the carpet. "I heard a shot. What's going on?"
"Nick took a dislike to the decor," Derek said, nodding at the ceiling. "He fired an invisible bullet at it."
"Derek, that's unfair! It was empty!"
Then Rachel was there, with Kat tucked out of harm's way behind her. "What's wrong? Who was Nick shooting at?"
"Nothing. It was an accident." Derek snapped. "Leave the boy be. He was just playing with his toys!"
"The gun was empty!" Nick repeated stubbornly.
"Okay," Derek curbed his fury. "Suppose I accept that – so what blew a fist-sized lump of plaster out of the ceiling?"
"Damned if I know!" Nick admitted.
Derek sighed and took stock of the situation. Rachel had stepped down from borderline panic to plain anxiety. Kat was as white as a sheet. Alex was still dripping on the carpet. "Show's over, folks. Go back to what you were doing and try to calm down. And Nick, try not to destroy anything else with phantom ammunition, please. It looks bad on the insurance claims."
He followed Alex along the hallway and she paused at her door. "Do you think the stress is getting to him?"
"What stress? We're not in the throes of crisis at the moment... " As he answered, Derek was abruptly aware of the warm, spicy cloud of scent that surrounded her and the water that lay in dew-drops on her neck and shoulder, and hung like diamonds on the loose tendrils of her hair. Before the gunshot she'd been in the bath, his mind whispered, and, under that robe, she's naked. A scenario spun out before him like a spider's web, a pretty trap loaded with tasty bait; he could slide his hand under that robe, cup her breast in his palm and feel her nipple harden under his touch, then kiss her slightly-parted lips and she'd melt against him, eager, willing...
Derek blinked and shook the vision out of his head. The Alex he knew wouldn't react like that. She'd probably slap him round the face or knee him in the groin for trying it on with her.
"Derek?" Alex was looking at him curiously. "Is it the Sight? Are we in danger?"
"No, nothing like that." He shook his head again. "Probably just a crossed line, eh?"
From his hidey-hole in limbo, Luce watched the precept stalk away in search of a cold shower and the woman return to her tepid bath. He wasn't strictly allowed to dabble in temptation – with subjects who were this gifted with psychic talents it was a risky business at the best of times, even for the professionals – but he hadn't been able to resist.
"So I failed – this time." The efreet shrugged. "So what? Maybe it'll earn me extra points!"
Dinner that night was a subdued affair. Alex was sulking and not speaking to Nick. Rachel was nervous and also not speaking to Nick. Nick was acting the innocent, hard-done-by martyr. Derek was silent and brooding. Kat watched all of them with a dreadful feeling of impending doom.
All was not well in the kitchen. The soup was cold. The roast lamb was burnt on the outside and raw in the middle. The potatoes were too salty, the carrots too crunchy and the peas boiled to mush. When Dominick crept in with dessert and the frozen pavlova was found to be still solid in the centre, while the biscuits were soggy and the cheese had mould on it, things came to an ugly head.
"I'm sorry, sir," Dominick said, his face a study in disbelief. "I just don't understand it! I was sure everything was fine..."
"Don't concern yourself over it," Derek said, wearily. "I'm sure it isn't your fault. Just leave us with the coffee. What's that like, by the way?"
It was too bitter and the cream was sour. Dominick retreated to his kitchen, in disgrace.
"This has been a very tiresome day!" The last of his control snapped and Derek thumped the table with the flat of his hand, making all the china and glasses tinkle. "What the hell is going on around here?"
Nobody said anything. Kat shut her eyes and wished herself somewhere else... anywhere, it didn't matter. Alaska would do, it was far enough away from Derek's wrath. Or Iceland, or maybe even Antarctica... ?
"Kat?" He noticed her silence. He'd take it for guilt, she knew he would – in his place, she'd do the same. She might just as well have a big neon sign flashing over her head, huge red letters that said 'Kat did it!'.
"Kat!" His voice was suddenly hard. "Do you know what's going on?"
She couldn't answer him. She felt like crying, but that wouldn't do any good. A precept wouldn't be impressed by tears; that was probably in their rulebook.
"Kat, did you do any of these things?" Derek demanded, in a low, dangerous voice.
"No . . . !"
"If you played these tricks on us, it would be best if you admitted it now," Rachel said, tight-lipped.
"Mom, I didn't...!"
"Tell us the truth, now," Nick added. "You usually do tell the truth."
They were all ganging up on her. It wasn't fair. She felt her bottom lip start to tremble. "I didn't do anything. Truly, I didn't!"
Alex touched her shoulder. "But you know who did, don't you?"
Kat bit her lip and nodded.
"I think you'd better tell us everything," Derek said, quietly. "From the beginning."
Heck, he was scary when he was mad! No wonder spirits fled from him – Kat didn't blame them. "It began this afternoon, before the rain started. I met someone out in the woods. Well, not really someone... something..."
"Something?" Rachel echoed, her face grim.
"A boy with wings. He said he was a demon in training..."
"You spoke to a demon?" Derek's frown deepened.
"He was very polite." And pretty nice, Kat thought, but she had more sense than to admit that aloud.
"Kat, it could have hurt you!" Alex exclaimed.
"No, he wouldn't do that. He didn't hurt any of you, did he? And he isn't an 'it' – he's a 'he'."
"Did he play all these tricks on us?" She nodded and Derek continued. "Why?"
"He had to. It was a test."
"Why didn't you tell us this earlier?" Derek asked. "Why didn't you tell me?"
He smiled as he asked that crucial question. Kat wished he hadn't done that. It was a thin, empty smile, a veil over his anger, and it made her suddenly very afraid of him. "I didn't know he was doing anything! Until the gunshot in Nick's room... I really didn't know!"
Derek leaned back in his chair, taking a deep breath. He hadn't meant to frighten Kat that badly, hadn't meant to put that terror in her eyes. "It's okay, Kat. You aren't to blame for this. I'm not really angry with you – well, perhaps a little annoyed that you didn't trust me enough to tell me sooner. I'm afraid for you, for all of us, and that fear gets mixed up with anger... "
"Well, I am angry with you, young lady!" Rachel snapped. "What were you thinking of, keeping a secret like that?"
"Kat," Alex said softly. "Is the demon here now?"
"No, I don't think so. Do you want me to call him?"
"Do you know his true name?" Derek asked.
Kat shook her head. "Just a nick-name. He didn't give me that power over him."
The precept frowned, weighing up the risks against the scarcity of data and making a snap decision. "We'll learn nothing without confronting this evil. Summon him, Kat, and let's see what he has to say for himself."
"Luce?" Kat called. "Are you here?"
The efreet appeared at the far end of the table, safely out of their reach. Alex caught her breath at the sight of him. He was such a beautiful creature – but for his horns and the lack of feathers on his wings, he might have been a cherub or a Renaissance putto. Then he dipped in a deep bow, twirled his bladed tail and grinned in amiable malice.
"Greetings, Mistress Tabby!" Luce blew Kat a kiss. "As for the rest of this company, my esteemed enemies, I give you good evening, one and all!"
"That's a good deal more courteous than the way you've been treating us all afternoon," Derek said darkly.
"I am created of smokeless fire. Shall I give reverence to a creature made of dust?" Arrogance glittered in his ebony eyes for a moment, then he shrugged. "'Twas but a game, good sir, a harmless diversion. I'm sorry about the food though. That was a cheap trick, more worthy of a boggart than an imp of my calibre."
"A game?" Nick repeated. "Sneaking a stray bullet into my gun isn't my idea of a game. Somebody might have been hurt!"
"Pity that." The efreet shuffled his feet, pouting. "I was kinda hoping you'd shoot yourself in the toe."
"Why are you here?" Derek demanded. "Why target this particular Legacy house?"
"Luck of the draw – your name came out of the vat," Luce said. "I had no choice in the matter. When all's said and done, I'm as much of a foot-soldier in this war as you are, sir. We both have to follow orders and do things we don't much like..."
"Oh, come off it!" Rachel snapped. "You sure enjoyed tormenting me. I heard you laughing!"
"So did I," Alex said, with a scowl.
"Couldn't help myself, mistress." The efreet chuckled, rustling his wings. "Ah, but you were a sight, flat on your back in the midst of all that foam! So fetching and so furious – a proper picture!"
"Luce... " Kat said, commanding his full attention. "Is the game over now?"
"Yes." He was utterly serious. "Truly."
"Then I'll have my book back," Derek said.
"The dictionary? A little on the populist side for you, sir, isn't it?" Luce waved one hand and the volume appeared at the precept's elbow. "Not exactly a classic... "
Derek jumped at this sudden demonstration of the creature's power. "If you're done with all this foolishness, you can get out of my house – right now!"
Luce froze. Inside a single heartbeat, his whole attitude changed. Gone was the joking, playful imp. In its place was a thing of shadow, dark and very dangerous. "Oh, can I? And if I choose to stay, what then?"
Nick sprang to his feet – afterwards he could never explain why – it was just his instinctive reaction to the efreet's aura of menace. Derek was a little slower, glancing through the doorway into the next room, where his father's sword hung over the fireplace. He wondered if he had any chance of reaching it, or if Nick did, given that their enemy had wings.
Luce watched both of them, noting the precept's look. "You'd fail, both of you. Your pet warrior may be fast, but I'm faster. Still, if you want the sword that badly... "
He flashed a wingtip through an intricate spiral and the weapon appeared, resting across the table in front of Derek.
"Go on, give it your best shot." Luce spread his arms wide. "Plunge that wicked thing right through my heart! I'll grant you the honour of the first blow... " His voice dropped an octave and crimson hell-fire boiled in his eyes. "Then it's my turn!"
Derek hesitated, his left hand poised over the hilt of the sword.
"Go on, pick it up!" the efreet said, in his ugly new voice. "Or are you afraid, little man? If not, you should be..."
"No!" Kat yelled, slapping her hand down on the blade and glaring at Luce. "You said this was only a game! You promised no-one would get hurt!"
"I lied." With a shrug he was almost the boy-imp she'd met in the gardens again. "Never trust a demon, Mistress Tabitha. Betrayal is in our blood, in our very bones... "
"But you aren't a demon yet – you told me that!" There were tears threatening to leak out of Kat's eyes and her voice was shaky. "Haven't you tormented everyone enough? Couldn't you just leave now?"
Still reluctant to take up the sword, Derek sensed, as Kat had, the mismatch between the boy-imp's claims and the truth. Where was the reek of brimstone, the stench of evil that should have filled the entire room? Where was the ice-cold blood-curdling miasma of fear? Certainly there was a pinch of both about Luce, but not enough. Was all this hostile posturing a real threat or just another childish game? If they did face a powerful demonic entity, Derek knew that this was one fight they couldn't win, not by brute force alone, but perhaps it was all just a bluff, like a kid in a sheet and a Hallowe'en mask, throwing his hands in the air and shouting 'boo!' "Yes, go. You've had your fun – now here's an end to it. Leave us in peace."
"Is that what you want?" Luce shook his head sadly. "Ah, but where's the evil in that?"
"You aren't really evil," Kat declared. "Not totally, not through and through. Your mother went over to the Light. Why not you?"
Luce growled a word she didn't recognise, a mess of harsh consonants, ancient and nasty. The air fled from the sound of it in a cold blast of wind and the shadows gibbered in the corners of the room. Time faltered, as if caught in a mailed fist. A single word, then the efreet laughed. "I was warned that you were dangerous – I never thought to have the proof of it! Yes, I'll grant your wish, Mistress Tabby, and leave this place as I found it. As for the Light, it's not for me... "
He spread his wings wide and she was afraid that he'd just vanish. "Wait!"
"What for?" he asked, poised on tip-toe, on the point of taking to the air. "Aren't we done here?"
"Is that it? You drop into my life and disappear just as suddenly... " Kat was flustered, unsure of what she felt, not knowing what she wanted to say. "I mean, will I ever see you again?"
"Considering where I live, you'd better hope not to!" His impish grin was back. "Then again, they do say it's better to have friends both in heaven and hell, so maybe our next meeting won't be that disastrous. Farewell, Kat, until then!"
And then he was gone, faster than the blink of an eye.
Around her, the others broke free of the stillness that the efreet's enchantment had laid on them, coming back to full awareness like dreamers rising to the surface of the pool of sleep.
"What language was that?" Alex demanded.
"No living one." Derek shook his head, dizzy for a moment. "And no dead one that I know."
"The demon's gone," Nick observed.
"For good, I hope," added Rachel.
"Yes, for good." Kat sensed the change in the atmosphere of the room, in the feel of the whole house. The spice of mischief was gone and life could resume its old, boring path. She wasn't sure if she was happy or sad at the prospect.
"Kat, what happened?" Derek asked, touching her hand to get her attention.
"He put a spell on you, I think, and you lost a little time – just a few seconds."
She looked down at the floor, feeling her cheeks going pink. "To say his goodbyes to me, in private. He wasn't all bad..."
"He was a demon, little girl," Rachel said. "A real fire-and-brimstone, steal-your-soul-and-cast-you-down-into-endless-damnation demon! He lied to you, cheated and deceived you. He might even have hurt you, if Derek hadn't scared him away! Don't spare any good thoughts for the likes of that bloody little imp. He doesn't deserve them!"
"You should have told us all about him when you first met him," Alex added. "We could have protected you from his tricks."
"You betcha, kiddo." Nick winked. "We'd have kept you safe from him."
Kat gazed up into their faces, watching them fit the events of today into their own personal belief-systems, watching them twist the truth into neat, rational, bite-sized pieces. She'd seen them do it before. "I was never in danger. Luce wouldn't have harmed me... "
"You can't be sure of that." Derek lifted the sword, turning it so that its blade caught the light, splintering it into multiple reflections. "The face he showed us was false. I think he was much more powerful than he led us to believe."
After the mayhem of the day, the evening settled back into comfortable routine. Peace was made with Dominick and fresh supplies of coffee were brought from the kitchen, drinkable this time. Kat was sent up to bed, kissed and tucked in by her mother. She lay awake in the semi-darkness, listening to the adults moving about the house, with here a distant scrap of conversation and there a sudden, bright laugh. When everything had grown quiet, she climbed out of bed and parted the curtains enough to gaze out across the gardens. The rain had stopped but the wind still raced through the trees, whipping their thinner branches into a frenzy. No-one was out in the gale, not even a small not-quite demon.
"Oh, Luce!" Kat sighed. "Is it so much against the rules for those of us in the Light to be friends with those who happen to be on the other side? Is it so black and white?"
"It's against Legacy policy," Derek said, from behind her. Kat jumped – she hadn't heard him come in. "Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you. I heard noises in here and thought I'd better check on you. And, no, it isn't as clear-cut as black and white – life never is. When you're grown-up you'll learn all about all the tints of grey in between. Until then, take it from me that friendship with demons, even little ones, is far too risky a business to be encouraged."
"Because they lie too much?" Kat frowned. "I think Luce lied more to himself than he ever did to us."
Derek took a deep breath. How perceptive she is, he thought. Such an incisive mind in one so young. "You ought to be asleep, Kat. You shouldn't let today's events trouble you."
She left the window and sat on the end of the bed. "Why do things like this happen to me? Because of this – whatever it is – talent I have?"
"The Sight makes us more vulnerable to attacks from the psychic world."
She shook her head. "I never asked for this gift."
Derek smiled sadly. "None of us did."
"Mom doesn't believe in it."
"But Alex and I do – talk to us. And, if something like Luce ever crosses your path again, tell me about it, please."
"I will." Her eyes were huge and serious. "I promise."
"And, Kat, don't worry. We can give you the weapons you need to fight evil. That's what the Legacy is all about."
Not that she'd need much help, Derek reflected, as he left the tired little girl to sleep. Whereas the rest of them had been irritated and distracted by demonic tricks, Kat had simply followed her instincts. During that final scene in the dining room she'd been scared that somebody might get hurt, one of them or even that damn imp, but she'd never for one moment been afraid for herself – and that was the only weapon she'd ever need.