Read The Inquisitor's Mark Online

Authors: Dianne K. Salerni

The Inquisitor's Mark

Dedication

For my sister, Laurie,
who reads my first drafts
and actually likes them

Contents
1

JAX AUBREY'S PHONE RANG
at least once a day, and it was always the same number. Only one person ever called him, wanting to know where he was, what had happened to him, and when he was coming back.

I'm not coming back.

Jax didn't know how to break that news to Billy Ramirez, although Billy should have figured it out for himself by now. Especially if he'd peeked through the windows of Jax and Riley's old house and discovered it'd been emptied of all their belongings.

It did feel good to know that somebody cared. The last time Billy had seen Jax, three weeks ago, Jax was being driven away in a hearse. When Jax got back the phone he'd lost that night, there'd been a long list of missed calls and worried texts on it.

But Riley had explicit instructions for him regarding the phone. “Don't contact that friend of yours.
What's-his-name. Billy.”

“I have to let him know I'm okay,” Jax protested. “After what he saw—”

“Sorry,” Riley replied curtly. “Too many people are looking for Evangeline.”

Jax sagged. It was his fault Evangeline Emrys had been captured by vassals of the crazy Kin lord Wylit. His stupidity had almost gotten them both killed, along with billions of Normal people who had no idea the residents of a secret eighth day had plotted to destroy the regular seven-day week.

So Jax didn't argue with Riley. But he did send one text. He owed his friend that much.

Jax: im ok don't worry

Billy: dude where r u

Jax didn't reply.

It was also Jax's fault that Melinda Farrow's house had burned down. Jax had almost broken into girly tears apologizing to his magic tutor when she delivered all his stuff from Riley's old house to their new hideout in the mountains of Pennsylvania. He felt even more guilty because the horror of almost losing her family had made Melinda decide she no longer wanted to be Riley's vassal. When Riley released her from her magical vow of service to the Pendragon family, Jax felt it in his own gut.

Jax had sworn his service to Evangeline, so he knew how strong the relationship was between liege lord and vassal. It may have been an emergency that caused Jax to take the oath, but now that the bond between him and Evangeline existed, he couldn't imagine severing it.

It made Jax sad to see Melinda leave Riley's clan. It was small enough already. Riley had no living family and only the three Crandalls as vassals—plus Jax, for whom he was legally responsible. In a way, the little clan was like a family in itself, and lacking any close family of his own, Jax was grateful to be a member.

Still, it was a tight fit in the house Mr. Crandall had found for them. A two-bedroom cabin on the back side of a ski area didn't provide much space for five people, not to mention the sixth person who was present one day out of eight.

In fact, they had to put Evangeline in a room that was meant to be a large closet under the stairs. “Just like Harry Potter,” she remarked when she saw it.

Riley cringed. “Sorry. I suppose we could—”

“No, it's fine. I was joking,” she said quickly, as if afraid he'd take offense. After years of living alone as the eighth-day “ghost” in the house of an old woman, it must've been alarming to discover she was expected to share a small space with a bunch of almost-strangers. In Evangeline's disjointed timeline, she'd been in a car driving through Mexico only a few minutes ago, even though it had been
a week for everyone else. She looked dazed by the abrupt change in location. “I only need a place to sleep,” she said. “It's not like I have anything but the clothes on my back.” Clothes they'd swiped from a clothesline in Mexico—leaving payment, of course.

“I bought spare clothes for you,” Mrs. Crandall assured her.

Evangeline kept close to Jax all that day. He didn't blame her. Mr. and Mrs. Crandall were big and intimidating—both of them built like tanks. Their son, A.J., was just big and goofy, but Evangeline wasn't used to the company of people at all. Jax was the first friend she'd had since she'd been forcibly separated from her family as a child. She still acted a little shy around Riley, too, even though it was obvious she had a crush on him and Riley had made it pretty clear he liked her back.

But there wasn't time to let her get used to socializing with a bunch of people. Evangeline would be with them only twenty-four hours before she vanished again for a week, and they had plans to make.

“The Dulac clansmen who showed up at the pyramid were told you were dead,” Riley informed her. “But the eighth day is intact, so it's obvious an Emrys heir still exists, maintaining the spell. It's a fairly well-known fact that your father had three children—and the Dulacs also know one was lost years ago.”

He said it as tactfully as he could, but Evangeline still
blinked back tears. Her younger brother had died at the hands of Wylit, the same Kin madman who'd captured her.

“With only one Emrys heir left—or so they think—the Dulacs are going to go looking for your sister, to prevent any more attempts by the Kin to alter the spell,” Riley continued. “And what they call ‘protective custody' will really be
servitude
. They'll use her. If she's anywhere near as strong as you were up there on the pyramid, they'll use her magic for their own selfish purposes.”

Evangeline nodded solemnly. She was used to being sought by unscrupulous people—Transitioners and Kin alike. Jax thought it was a terrible burden she lived with: being a key to the Eighth-Day Spell that imprisoned dangerous Kin in an alternate timeline. In some ways, Evangeline and her sister were the two most important people on the planet, and Jax, as the sole vassal of the Emrys family, felt a little inadequate for the job of protecting them. Thankfully, he had Riley's help.

“We'll have to get to Adelina before they do,” Evangeline said. “Do you know where she's hiding?”

“No, but I know who does and where to find
them
,” Riley said.

“The Taliesins,” Evangeline guessed, and Riley nodded.

“If you're in agreement,” he went on, “we can act next week—well, your tomorrow. And after we find her, we'll come out of hiding. You and your sister. And me.”

“What do you mean?” Mr. Crandall broke in.

“I'm done hiding,” Riley repeated, looking Mr. Crandall in the eye. “From Ursula Dulac especially. Once we have Evangeline's sister, I'm claiming my seat at the Table.”

Mr. Crandall and A.J. exchanged uncomfortable glances. Ursula Dulac was the head of the Dulac Transitioner clan, and was a powerful and corrupt leader who used her magic for personal gain. She had arranged for the assassination of Riley's family because the Pendragons wielded too much influence at the Table, the council of Transitioner lords descended from Knights of the Round Table. Riley's father had thwarted her attempts to influence Normal politicians and complete shady business deals. Consequently, Ursula had not only taken action to remove
him
as an obstacle to her plans; she'd tried to wipe out his entire family. She didn't know one of the Pendragons had survived, and it wasn't surprising that the Crandalls were uneasy about her finding out. But Jax did wonder why Mrs. Crandall was now looking with concern at
him
instead of at Riley.

“I agree with anything that reunites me with my sister,” Evangeline said.

“You realize this puts you both in danger,” Mr. Crandall pointed out gruffly. “You'll be targets for anyone who wants to eliminate you”—he looked at Riley—“or
use you as a pawn.” He turned to Evangeline.

“I'm accustomed to people trying to use me,” Evangeline replied simply.

“And I don't intend to be an
easy
target,” Riley said, decisively ending that discussion.

Evangeline offered to instruct the Crandalls on a way to protect this house from enemies who might be looking for them in the meantime. “I could do it myself,” she said, “but I think your talent is better for this type of protection.”

“At your service,” Mr. Crandall replied. He and A.J. were both artisans with the talent of transferring magic into craftsmanship. A.J.'s specialty was tattoos, and Jax had heard that Mr. Crandall had a knack for making honor blades. From scratch. With a forge.

The eighth day passed with them making plans for the following Grunsday and working on protection for the cabin. Evangeline vanished at the stroke of midnight, as she always did. Jax grew bored in her absence. Melinda had brought his bike, and the June weather was cool and pleasant, but the nearest town was ten miles away, and its big attraction was a strip mall and a Denny's. In between, there was nothing but woods, bait shops, ski shops, bait
and
ski shops, and one dirty bus station run out of the back of a convenience store. The cabin's TV got only local channels, and although thanks to Melinda he now
had his computer back, it wasn't connected to anything. Riley had ordered cable and internet, but it hadn't been installed yet.

Mr. Crandall approved of cable but complained about the internet. “Security risk.”

“Let Jax have his computer,” Riley said. “He learned his lesson.”

Riley knew about that too, now—how Jax had contacted a Transitioner forum online, which turned out to be a trap, which led to him getting kidnapped by a bank robber, which led to his rescue by thieves, which led to revealing Evangeline's hiding spot . . .

Jax
had
learned his lesson. But the messages from Billy were getting more and more pathetic. Shortly after Jax ignored a call on Saturday, he got a follow-up text.

Billy: is it something i did

Jax sighed. He took the phone outside, away from the cabin, and sat against a tree. What was the worst that could happen? This was
Billy
.

Jax: u did nothing wrong

Billy: where r u

Jax: middle of nowhere

Billy: r u in trouble with the law?

Jax laughed out loud. What was he supposed to say?
No, I'm hiding from murderous Transitioners and evil Kin. Who are they? Well, the Kin are an ancient race of sorcerers, including some rotten ones who tried to take over the world back in King Arthur's time. To defeat them, King Arthur and his allies trapped all the Kin in a secret eighth day, and the descendants of the people casting the spell became Transitioners, who experience the regular seven days plus the extra one. No, I don't have a head injury, thanks for asking.
Of course, now that Jax thought about it, Billy would probably believe the whole thing. He loved everything related to science fiction and fantasy.

Standing up, Jax put his phone in his back pocket, leaving his friend's last question unanswered. Let Billy's imagination run wild. It would keep him entertained.

He was headed toward the front door of the cabin when he heard Mrs. Crandall's voice through an open window. “You should have talked him into accepting her offer,” she was saying. “You should have
insisted
that Evangeline release him.”

Jax quickly moved up against the side of the house, where he couldn't be seen.

“It's not my place to interfere between a vassal and his liege,” Riley replied.

“But you're his guardian. You promised his father you'd send him back to that Naomi woman as soon as he knew enough to survive—not let him swear on as a vassal
to the Emrys family. That's a dangerous position for anyone, let alone a thirteen-year-old boy!”

Jax held his breath, waiting for Riley to say,
But Jax is smart and brave and talented. He can do the job.

Instead, Riley said, “Did you see how Evangeline stuck to Jax like glue? He's the only one of us she knows really well. We
need
him until she gets more comfortable with us. But you're right. By fall, he's got to go. He needs to be enrolled in school anyway.”

“Sooner,” Mrs. Crandall insisted. “Sooner is better.”

Jax slid down and sat against the side of the house, feeling kicked in the gut.
Guess I'm not a member of Riley's clan after all.

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