Smoke and Summons
A captivating world of monsters and magic from the Wall Street Journal bestselling author of The Paper Magician series.
As a human vessel for an ancient spirit, Sandis lives no ordinary life. At the command of her master, she can be transformed against her will into his weapon—a raging monster summoned to do his bidding. Unlike other vessels, Sandis can host extremely powerful spirits, but hosting such creatures can be fatal. To stay alive, she must run. And in a city fueled by smoke and corruption, she finds a surprising ally.
A cunning thief for hire, Rone owns a rare device that grants him immortality for one minute every day—a unique advantage that will come in handy in Sandis's fight for freedom. But Sandis's master knows how powerful she is. He's determined to get her back, and he has the manpower to find her, wherever she runs.
Now, to outwit her pursuers, Sandis must put all her trust in Rone and his immortal device. For her master has summoned more than mere men to hunt her down…
Release date: February 1, 2019
Print pages: 329
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Smoke and Summons
Charlie N Holmberg
Sandis had several reasons for staying.
The food was good. Better than what her meager income had once afforded, and far better than anything she might scrounge off the streets. Better even than what she’d had back home, when her parents were still alive. The roof never leaked. The constant drip, drip, drip in the slavers’ bunker had nearly driven her mad. She never had to do her own laundry, or her own mending. She got plenty of sleep, as factory shifts had long since been cut from her routine. Her bathwater was always warm.
There were other reasons, of course. If she was caught, she’d be punished, and Kazen’s punishments were memorable. If she wasn’t caught—and that was a big if—she’d probably starve on the streets until her corpse was thrown into one of the city’s numerous trash heaps. Any work she was qualified to do wouldn’t pay enough for her to get housing and food. She and Anon had always barely scraped by, and that was with them both pulling overnight shifts.
Sandis tried to focus on the first set of reasons as she poked at the broiled pig flank, cubed potatoes, and pickled apples on her plate. The food was better. Focus on the food.
Ignoring her own advice, she glanced at the pale ceiling above her and imagined the earth, cobblestone, and abandoned buildings above it. Sandis wasn’t exactly sure how far down she was, only that it would take a long time to dig herself out, if she ever tried. Ever since she was brought here four years ago, the rest of the world had felt very far away.
The small voice came from Alys, who sat across from her. Fifteen years old, just a year older than Sandis had been when she met Kazen. Her brown eyes were Kolin, but her blonde hair didn’t match that of any of the other vessels or the numerous grafters who lurked about Kazen’s lair. Sandis wondered if she had a mixed heritage, but had not yet asked.
She put her finger to her lips, urging Alys to be quiet. Kazen liked his slaves to be quiet. Alys replied with a nearly imperceptible nod and returned to her food. Good girl, Sandis thought. Alys was already blending in nicely. She hadn’t even gotten solitary yet. Sandis would make sure she never did.
The clunking of wood on wood drew her attention as Heath sat down beside her. He didn’t look at her, simply set his plate in front of him and sat heavily on their shared bench. Wielding fork and knife, he cut his food with slow, deliberate movements. Unlike Alys, Heath looked like a true Kolin—dark eyes, dark hair, just like Sandis. Just like his brother, who sat at the end of the table, eating silently and staring straight ahead . . . except for when his eyes shifted to Kaili, beside him. Sandis wished they wouldn’t sit together. Kazen hated any form of friendship among his vessels. Rist’s eyes gave him away.
Beside her, Heath jolted. Peering through the curtain of her hair, cropped an inch above her shoulders, Sandis studied him, taking in the slight wrinkles between his eyebrows, his flared nostrils, the tautness of his shoulders. Something was bothering him, more so than usual. He was upset and trying not to look it.
Something dropped in the next room over. Heath flinched. Despite having been here longer than Sandis, he was always jumpy. He refocused on his meal, his brow and hand twitching as he speared a piece of pork.
He wanted to leave, too. Sandis was sure of it. Most of the vessels—Rist, Dar, Kaili—were complacent in their roles. Like they had forgotten their lives before their brands. Like they really did focus only on the food. But Heath . . . Could something have triggered that unspoken need for freedom? She couldn’t ask, not here. Especially not with Zelna, rotund and covered in wrinkles, standing in the corner, washing dishes.
Then again, even if Sandis didn’t have her reasons to stay . . . what would she go home to? A muted pang echoed in her chest at the thought of her younger brother. Four years since he’d vanished, and it still hurt like an open wound. She’d been searching for him when the slavers grabbed her. The day she’d learned the worst—that he was dead, not just missing—she’d become complacent, too.
The door to the small dining hall opened. Sandis jumped. She hated it when she didn’t hear him coming.
Setting down her utensils, she looked up at the man in the doorway—tall and lean, with a large hooked nose and a black hat drawn down over his forehead. Kazen wore that hat far more often than he didn’t, and he always donned dark colors to match. All the grafters did. The vessels’ beige garments seemed bright in comparison.
The brands on her back itched. She didn’t scratch them.
The others held their breath. No one chewed; no one looked away. Heath trembled—he’d been doing that a lot more lately—and Sandis pinched his thigh beneath the table. Not hard enough to hurt, but enough to steady him. Alys was attentive. Good.
Kazen’s eyes, a rare blue, scanned the vessels before landing on Sandis. Her skin prickled in memory of burning and ripping, of being swallowed whole by otherworldly beings. Of being made a weapon.
A warm pressure built under her skull—a presence she wasn’t supposed to feel, and one she could never tell another soul about, ever.
Vessels weren’t supposed to be aware of their numina, even those they were bound to.
She didn’t want Kazen to know she was special. It didn’t take a scholar to determine that being special was dangerous.
Her toes curled in her slippers, but she stood the moment he said her name, straight and erect and as perfectly as she could muster. Things with Kazen always went smoother when she was perfect. She felt the others’ eyes on her, but her eyes stayed on her master.
He gestured her forward with the crook of a single bony finger protruding from his aged hand.
Leaving her food half-eaten, she came.
* * *
In the fourth hour of the night, in a drafty basement room filled with men, Sandis was a threat. That was why Kazen had brought her there—why he ever brought her anywhere. Why, despite the chill, she wore a loose tunic with a wide-open back, exposing the ancient Noscon script branded with gold leaf down the length of her spine.
That had been one of her least painful experiences in her time among the grafters.
Sandis herself was nothing to fear. She was no stronger than the average eighteen-year-old female, and she had no particular skills outside of what she’d learned working on an assembly line as a child. She wasn’t particularly muscular or overly tall. She didn’t even have a scarred face to instill terror. She was unarmed.
And yet the men here—bankers, accountants, and a few Skeets from the local mob summoned by Kazen—knew what she could become. With a few whispered words from her master, she would cease being Sandis, slave, and would become a creature that didn’t even exist on the mortal plane. A creature whose name was tattooed in mixed blood above the impressions of golden writing burned down her back. A creature that would be completely under the control of his summoner.
“I assure you that everything is in order,” said one of the bankers. Sandis knew he was a banker by the way he was dressed—simple and clean-cut. She also knew he was afraid. Not because he trembled, but because he couldn’t meet anyone’s eyes, and because sweat glistened on his upper lip. He stood with two others on the opposite side of the table, farthest from the door.
“I’m sure it is.” Kazen’s voice was smooth and unhitched despite his age. He’d never disclosed the number to Sandis, but she guessed him to be in his midsixties. He loomed above the banker—above her, and above nearly everyone, save the broad-shouldered Skeet in the back. The mobsmen were not so different from the grafters, save that they didn’t delve into the occult to fight their battles. They didn’t make humans like Sandis into heathenish weapons. In general, they stayed clear of the grafters. But Kazen had recently done business with the Skeets, and money made for easy alliances . . . as did common enemies, which these bankers appeared to be.
Still, the Skeets kept to themselves as Kazen challenged the bankers. Few knew the rituals necessary to dip into the ethereal plane, and even fewer had the courage to try. If the bloodwork wasn’t right, a numen could go wild and attack its summoner. If the police discovered any involvement in the occult, the summoner and his vessel would go straight to Gerech Prison, which was, perhaps, the one place in Kolingrad more frightening than Kazen’s lair. It was also heresy—not that Kazen cared for religion.
Sandis did. Or had. But that didn’t matter anymore.
The brim of Kazen’s hat cast a shadow across his long face. A shadow that concealed the glimmer of his eyes—a glimmer that, if read properly, would reveal his intentions before his words did. Sandis had become fluent in the language of Kazen’s eyes. He was unaware of that fact, or so she hoped. She had few advantages when it came to her master. She liked to think the language of the glimmer was one of them.
“My request to see the ledgers should not be of any particular consequence,” Kazen insisted.
Did the banker hear the threat in his words? They raised gooseflesh on Sandis’s arms. A simple request, but nothing Kazen ever did or said was simple. In all the years she’d spent with him, Sandis had never once heard the man raise his voice, barter, or plead. He’d never needed to. Every person in this room—in this city—was a game piece, and he was a champion player.
The banker nodded and turned back to his two associates. They whispered something under their breath—one of the three Skeets leaned in to listen. Kazen stood erect save for the slight tilt of his head. Both of his large, spidery hands clasped the silver top of his cane. He did not look at her.
For the most part, Sandis kept her face forward. Kazen did not like his vessels participating in his business, and so she never did, even with her expressions. But her eyes dipped as the banker brought out a locked box and set it on the sterile table before him, fidgeting with the key until he had it open.
“I don’t think they are necessary.” The banker glanced at the mobsmen.
Kazen took the first ledger, looked it over, and set it aside. He picked up the second, read the cover, and flipped it open. A ledger with last month’s expense reports, judging by the date. Sandis made sure to avert her eyes once she’d read it. Vessels weren’t allowed to read. Kazen believed she couldn’t. Another small advantage she had, and one she would not give up.
“Your shortcomings affect my business with them. They are quite necessary.” Kazen flipped through another page, and another. One of the Skeets met her eyes, but he quickly looked away.
Alliances aside, he had every right to fear her, though she could do no harm without Kazen. She rarely remembered what he used her for. That was another secret she kept from her master. A vessel was never supposed to remember what happened when she was possessed.
Ireth. The name sounded so loudly in her mind that for a terrifying second, she thought she had spoken it. But the proceedings continued on as normal, with her as a forgotten amenity. Carefully, she glanced around the room, trying to read faces, trying to ignore the smells of sweat, kerosene, and fear that these dark, solid walls seemed to amplify. There were two safes in the farthest corner of the room. No windows. All the lamps but two had been moved to hang over the table where Kazen flipped through pages with painstaking care.
One of the bankers, a younger, thinner man, looked ready to faint. His face was white, his eyes rimmed purple. Sandis didn’t linger on him long—she didn’t want to make him feel worse by setting her attention on him.
A stretch of corkboard pinned with various papers and notes lined the wall to her left. More ledgers, binders, and papers sat stacked on the cabinets beneath it. Her gaze moved slowly over the lettering—she could read, but she’d never had a classroom in which to practice. It took a moment to piece things together.
Donations, that’s what it said. And next to it, Gold Exchange.
Kazen muttered something, but as Sandis moved her gaze back to the bankers, her eyes caught a word that she read instantaneously—a word she knew well, for it was her own last name: Gwenwig.
Her breath caught, and as soon as it did, she forced herself to look forward until it returned to an ordinary pattern.
“That is how banks work, Kazen.” This time the third banker spoke—not the wet-lipped one or the overly pale one, but the oldest one. Wrinkles crimped his forehead into a tangle of lines. “There is always borrowing and lending.”
Sandis glanced back at the ledger and found the name once more. Gwenwig. It was not a beautiful name, and it was not a common one. She knew only three other people with that name, and they were all dead.
“Oh, but, Mr. Bahn,” Kazen said, the silkiness of his voice making Sandis shudder, “I have a special deal with your corporation. That is not how my funds work.”
Gwenwig. She dared to tilt her head a little more to read the full entry: Talbur Gwenwig. A male name. Not her father’s or brother’s. She’d never heard it before.
Breathe, Sandis. She swallowed and willed her heart to steady. Kazen noticed everything, even when it seemed he did not. She moved her eyes forward again, but upon seeing the terror on the three bankers’ faces, she let her gaze fall to the floor.
Gwenwig. Gwenwig. Gwenwig.
Could she have family somewhere in Dresberg?
Did she have family?
Her mouth went dry. The discussion in the room dribbled to a buzz in her ears. Her parents had died when she and Anon were still young. Her brother had perished shortly before Kazen bought her. She had no one left. No one but the grafters, and Ireth.
But . . . Gwenwig. Could her salvation be sitting a few feet to her left?
Kazen’s cold hand landed on her shoulder, his long fingers curling around it. Sandis lifted her eyes but did not meet his. What had she missed? Something terrible, if her master was paying her attention. He only did so in public for one reason.
The three bankers watched her with stark fear. Two of the three Skeets left the room.
“Kazen,” the oldest banker said too loudly, perhaps trying to push authority into his voice. “This is unnecessary!”
“I don’t believe so.” Kazen turned Sandis toward him, away from the ledger she desperately wanted to read. If she turned back, he would know, so she looked at the floor and closed her eyes, waiting, her blood running faster in anticipation of the summoning. Kazen hesitated for a brief moment—was he looking over her shoulder?—but then his palm pressed into her hair, and she forced herself not to cringe. He must be eager to act; he usually made her undress first, so as not to waste clothing.
It never got easier. No matter how many times Kazen summoned a numen into her, it never got easier. Neither did the fear it instilled into Kazen’s victims, nor the pure, unrelenting pain possession wreaked upon her body.
Her stomach tensed, but she opened her mind, welcoming Ireth. Acceptance made the transition more bearable.
Ireth didn’t mean to hurt her.
The old, fluid words flowed from Kazen’s tongue with an evil sort of reverence. Four lines, but they felt like four syllables. Sandis breathed and missed them.
White-hot fury descended upon her. Sirens screamed in her ears. Her body was a thousand threads pulled apart, breaking, snapping. Iron and bile, acid and ripping, tearing, twisting—
* * *
Sandis awoke with a start. The familiar checkered brown pattern on the ceiling of the vessels’ quarters greeted her. A chill prickled the skin of her arms, but beneath her forehead was a residual heat, and when she closed her eyes again, she felt the impression of fire. Of need. Of . . .
It was gone.
She sat up slowly, knowing quick movements would rattle the headache already beginning to surface behind her temples. She breathed deeply, slowly, staring past her gray bedcovers, trying to remember . . . but there were no memories this time. Only fleeting impressions. She tried to grab on to them, mull over them. Fire. Ireth always left the impression of fire. Need. That had been a frequent one, too.
For three and a half years, Sandis had awoken from possession with nothing more than black gaps in her mind. Not even dreams had filled that void.
These flashes had started six months ago. The memory of a face, a scream, the sound of Kazen’s voice giving an order she never could or would have completed in her mortal human form.
Ireth was reaching out to her. Sandis had told no one. She was an enigma, she knew that, and the puzzle of what the fire horse needed remained largely unsolved. The numen could not speak to her directly, or at least, he had not done so yet.
Blinking rapidly, Sandis allowed herself to come fully back to reality. She winced at a headache. Wasn’t surprised to see herself in a new shirt and slacks—Ireth would have destroyed the ones she wore to the bank. When she reached for the water on her side table, her muscles whined of an overuse she could not recall. She downed the liquid in the wooden cup in three swallows, grit and all. The medicine had settled on the bottom. She’d been unconscious longer than usual.
Her stomach growled. She scanned the room, relieved to find some cold meat and an apple set on a tray near the door. She was a slave, yes, but Kazen kept her and the others well fed. Summoning into a broken vessel rarely ended well.
As Sandis carefully stood on still-shaky legs, she heard a muted, choking sound from the corner of the room. She turned and scanned the narrow beds. Six, including her own. All property of Kazen. Her gaze settled on the quivering lump on Heath’s mattress.
She glanced back at the meat. Sighed. “Heath?”
The lump flinched.
Were it any of the others—Alys, Kaili, Dar, even Rist—Sandis would be more concerned. But Heath was often unwell. His moods changed quicker than a shift at the firearms factory. He wore his fear like a heavy cloak.
Sandis stepped toward him slowly until she knew dizziness would not claim her. “Heath, what’s wrong?”
He rolled over, his dingy long brown hair peeking out from his blanket cocoon. His eyes were bloodshot—Sandis’s probably were, too. It happened, with possession. She’d likely have more gray hairs as well.
“I’m next,” he whispered, sounding more like a child than a man two years Sandis’s senior. “I’m next, I’m next.”
“Kazen probably won’t need us again just yet.” Sandis inched toward Rist’s bed and perched at the edge of it. “Are you hungry? I’ll share.”
“Don’t pretend you didn’t hear the screams this morning.”
Prickles cascaded down Sandis’s neck. She lifted her hand to rub the skin beneath her dark hair but winced at a prick of pain. A small red dot on the inside of her elbow told her Kazen had taken a syringe to her while she’d been out. She frowned, but it was expected. Kazen needed her blood to control Ireth.
Refocusing on Heath, she said, “I was dead.”
Not literally, of course.
Heath shook his head. Shot up suddenly and clasped both sides of his head with his large hands. “There was screaming. Last week, too.”
The prickling returned. Sandis had woken in the middle of the night to that screaming. She’d covered her ears and rolled over, singing a lullaby to herself until it went away. She hadn’t investigated. Kazen didn’t like them coming out of their rooms at night, and Sandis followed his rules to perfection.
Screaming wasn’t uncommon, down here.
Heath circled his arms around his knees and rocked back and forth. “He’s experimenting again.”
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