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Rift in the Soul

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Rift in the Soul

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Author: Faith Hunter
Publisher: Ace Books, 2024
Series: Soulwood: Book 6
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Nell Ingram draws her powers from deep in the earth, and uses them to help Psy-LED, the Psychometric Law Enforcement Division, which solves paranormal crimes. When a local vampire calls to report a dead body on her compound, Nell knows she and her team have to be ready for anything.

But the dead body is just the beginning of a mystery that involves supernaturals of all kinds, including some of the most powerful vampires in the country. As Nell gets closer to the truth, she begins to understand that the perpetrator is tracking her too--and that there is something personal about this crime. Something with roots that go almost as deep as those in Soulwood.



I stepped on the dirt by the driveway and sniffed the winter air. A cold snap had come through at dusk, and the scent of the Tennessee River only yards away rode high and warm on the night, rising in a swirling mist that obscured much of the landscape. There wasn't time for a deep read of the land, but I needed a feel for it, so I bent and touched the soil with a fingertip, sending my thoughts through the upper layers of dirt and lawn, skimming the surface.

The earth around me was unsettled, as property walked by the undead usually was, but there was no sense of danger. Nothing hurtled through the earth and grabbed me, no wild energies, no fear, no vines or roots, so that was good, but the soil felt different from the last time I had read it. The sense of death was stronger and there was a mixture of something disturbed, disquieted here, so I pushed a little deeper. I caught a hint of fire and excitement, of an unresolved exhilaration, as if the earth rode the brink of something wild. It felt the way it must feel to be at the top of a roller coaster, ready to plunge down. Though I had never been on a roller coaster and couldn't imagine why I ever would want to.

The important thing was that nothing dangerous leaped at me. That was a good start.

I opened my eyes and studied the property owned by Ming Zhane of Glass, the Master of the City of Knoxville. There were several dark circles near the rear of the otherwise pristine lawn, like burned spots, places that might correlate with the sensation of fire. There were burn warnings all over the eastern half of the state, but I could envision Ming demanding the autumn leaves be burned. Her blood-servants would have complied.

While I was down low and out of sight of the house, I pulled the mini-psy-meter from a pocket. It was about the size of a cigarette case, and while not as sensitive as the larger model, it would do in a pinch. Before leaving HQ, I had checked the device against the ambient magics of the witch and the were-creatures of Unit Eighteen, and so a quick reading was possible.

Of the four psysotopes, the device settled firmly in the reading for vampires, so whatever this visit was for, it was likely not a situation with mixed paranormal-creature politics.

I stood, stepped back onto the drive, and glanced at the other cars. Their lights were off, drivers barely visible in the thickening mist. When I gave a thumbs-up, they climbed out of their vehicles, closed their doors, and walked to me across the concrete.

Regional Director Ayatas FireWind, the man I had taken to calling my boss-boss, gave me a small nod, telling me to go ahead. They had my back. Rick LaFleur, Special Agent in Charge of PsyLED Unit Eighteen, glanced at the house and back to me, his black eyes telling me to be careful. Even had there been no mention of a body, the two bosses would have come as my backup because, as Rick said when the call came in, "Weird shit is happening in the vamp world."

I looked back at the potted tree strapped into the passenger seat of my newish car and contemplated bringing the tree with me. Instead I closed the car door I had left open, shutting off the interior lights. Full dark fell on us. Ming's people hadn't turned on the security and landscape lights, which was a little odd. The mist from the river swirled higher and closer, more dense. I locked the car with the small fob.

I reseated my Glock 20, not that I expected to need it here. Ming had requested my presence, personally, to report a dead body, and when the new Master of the City of Knoxville wanted to report a crime, Unit Eighteen listened. Thanks to her, I was lead on this interview, and should Ming be bringing a case to the unit, and not vampire politics, it was possible that I would be lead on my very first case. Rick was betting it was vampire politics, but either way, anytime there were vampires, there was danger.

The two bosses had attended the coronation of the Emperor of Europe only a week past, and they had brought back tales of weird vampire actions and unusual personnel changes. They had even seen a vamp laughing with her fangs out, which they couldn't explain. Vampires could not laugh-laughter was a human emotion-while in predator state. It wasn't possible. Yet they had both seen her laughing.

Since LaFleur and FireWind had returned from New Orleans, vamp rumors of the wild and crazy kind had begun to circulate in Knoxville too. None of the reports were believable, and none had involved video evidence, but everyone wanted a look-see at the locals.

T. Laine, Unit Eighteen's resident witch, had called it "wackadoodle stuff."

"Comms check," FireWind said.

"Ingram here."

"LaFleur here."

"Copy, FireWind, Ingram, LaFleur," Jones said, back at HQ.

Rick and Aya positioned themselves in front and behind me, and together we crossed the concrete drive to the front entrance. Ming didn't live in a castle like Dracula, but she owned a megamansion and several acres on the edge of the Tennessee River. Prime real estate. An attached six-car garage, greenhouse, big barn, and outbuildings. I smelled manure and hay and that familiar scent of horse I remembered from my upbringing at the God's Cloud of Glory Church. It brought a sense of peace that tried to replace the natural uneasiness of a law enforcement officer visiting a vampire lair after dark.

The men separated, leaving me in front. My bosses standing behind me, I knocked on the front door and rang the bell.

Nothing happened. Minutes went by.

I knocked again. Aya checked his watch. He still wore a watch, and not just one of those wrist computers/cell phones. Checking it was ingrained. Rick stared at the security camera, his long white hair catching in the misty breeze. He tilted his head and said, "Someone's coming."

Rick LaFleur was a black wereleopard. There were indications he had sharper senses even in human form and they got sharper closer to the full moon. Were-creatures also got skittish at that time of the month and, while we waited, I counted ahead to the three days when the were-members of PsyLED Eighteen would go furry. I'd rather not have to deal with Rick's big-cat on Ming's property, and I was safe on that point.

The door opened. Standing inside should have been the butler. Instead it was Cai, Ming's human primo, her number one blood-servant, but a vastly different Cai from the last time I saw him. Cai was slim, wiry, Asian, and skilled in several martial arts forms. He moved with that liquid grace of the well-trained fighter, and had all the charm of a steel blade. He did everything for Ming, from keeping her schedule to supposedly killing vampires who got out of line. That was hearsay, but had seemed likely. Until tonight.

Tonight he was grinning. A happy human grin, like a maybe-a-little-drunk kind of grin. And there was blood on his cheek and the neckline of his white T-shirt. "Ming's guests." He threw his arms to the sides in welcome. "Come in come in come in," he said, running the words together. "Ming is . . ." He gestured off into the darkness of the house, turned, and walked away, leaving the door open and three law enforcement agents standing there.

"Is that an invitation?" I asked.

"We assume so," Aya said, stepping past me, moving right, his weapon suddenly in his hand.

"Though we don't know what the invitation is for," Rick finished for him, stepping inside, to the left, his weapon also drawn.

Right. It might be an invitation for me to be supper to the vampires.

"This is the same kind of behavior we saw in New Orleans among many of the blood-servants, and Ming's people have no reason to still be celebrating so long after the coronation of the emperor," Aya said softly.

I drew my weapon but didn't chamber a round. I should. But I didn't. Somehow this didn't feel like an ambush. Which, of course, would make it a really good ambush. I pressed a light switch on the wall and the foyer brightened.

"I don't see a DB," I said, looking around. "No blood spatter on walls or floor. No stink of decay on the air. But Cai did have blood on his shirt."

Patterns at my feet drew my eye. The foyer had been refloored in white marble. In the center, tiny pieces of gray marble, brass, and glistening steel had been inlaid and formed a pair of blades, the sharp steel blades crossed. The single-edged blades themselves had been embedded in the floor; they appeared real but were strangely shaped. One blade looked as if an ax had been crossed with a machete and then a dragon had taken a bite out of the sharp edge. I knew nothing about fighting with blades, but even I could tell the dragon-bitten section was for snagging an opponent's blade out of their hand. The other blade was similar but without the snagging-dragon-bite, and a longer cutting edge. They were different but they were also clearly a pair of blades intended to be used together. The ends of the blades, where they should have attached to real handles-hilts?-were made of brass or gold and were shaped like dragon snouts, as if the steel was erupting from their mouths. Above and between the crossed blades was a green, faceted square.

"Ingram," FireWind snapped. There was an edge of "pay attention" in the tone.

"What's that?" I pointed at the floor.

"Ming's new crest," FireWind said, his tone still sharp. "Since she became MOC."

As if my up-line boss hadn't just snapped at me, I holstered my weapon and started taking pictures, sending them back to HQ. Aya grunted in approval. I was learning how to read him. I flipped on more lights and took shots of the parlor to the left and the hallways leading off into darkness. According to county records, the clan home of the Master of the City was nearly twelve thousand square feet, so I wasn't getting much of the house, but it was the first time I'd been in a position to film it.

As I worked, Rick explained to me, still a newbie, "It's customary for the Master of the City, the most powerful Mithran in the territory, to have their crest inlaid in the entry floor of the city's Council Chambers headquarters, to remind friends and visiting enemies alike who they would have to fight and conquer. Ming is both the MOC and head of the only vampire clan in Knoxville, so her home does double duty."

Ming had been given MOC status by Jane Yellowrock. I remembered that. When I had taken photos of everything I could without wandering around, I pulled the psy-meter from my pocket and quickly took a reading of Ming's foyer. The readings were all over the place.

At a warning signal from Rick, I slid the device away.

Cai wandered toward us from the main sitting room. "You're still here?"

"Ming demanded to see me," I said. "She said she had a body for me. Get her. Please."

"Oh. Sure. Sit sit sit sit." He waved to the sitting room. Then he said, "No. Wait. Tea. I should make tea. Come come come come. This way."

I looked at FireWind, who had a faint smile on his face and gestured I should take point. Cai led the way to the kitchen, which was decorated in black and white with emerald touches here and there. Two six-burner stoves, each with three ovens, and the commercial refrigerator and commercial freezer made my heart thump hard with envy. This was a bakers-canners-chefs' paradise. It would make the Nicholson mamas at God's Cloud of Glory Church turn green.

Cai put on a kettle and got out a fancy tea tin and six cups with saucers. He started humming, something that sounded like a dirge, then suddenly he was whistling what sounded like the music for the old Gilligan's Island TV series.

I looked at the bosses. Both were trying not to appear amused but not doing a good job of it. I wasn't amused. Things felt wrong here. As the water heated, Cai wandered along the counter and out the door at the far end.

"What in God's good heaven is happening?" I asked, my voice soft.

No one replied, but Rick and Aya began to open cabinet doors and drawers and I realized they were conducting a search. For which we didn't have a subpoena. Aya pulled a bottle from a small refrigerator and spun it slowly. "Nineteen forty-seven Cheval Blanc. A bottle sold at auction for over three hundred thousand dollars recently."

A bottle of wine? That bottle was worth more than I owned altogether in the whole world.

Rick opened the commercial refrigerator and said, "The blood-servants are eating well. Whole suckling pig, baby potatoes, and asparagus." He shut the door.

Feeling emboldened, I checked out the stoves and the ovens. They were not just functional, they were works of art, and I ran my hands across the decorative steel corners. The stoves had to cost a fortune, but vampires were often quite rich.

I turned off the kettle, which was steaming, but I didn't make tea. I wanted to read this place, which meant I needed something made of wood that had been here a long time. The floors were marble tile; the cabinets looked new and were painted black inside and out.

Aya closed a second wine fridge and opened a huge pantry. Now I had pantry envy. And it had wood floors.

I held up a hand to let him know I was about to go to work. Walking past him, I slipped off one shoe and placed my bare foot on the wood floor.

Cold and ice met my questing energies. I pushed through, to the underside of the wood planks, and then to the wood supports beneath. Wood, unless petrified, always had a form of power that I could read. Here there was nothing. The wood that constructed this house was truly dead. It no longer had energy, no longer had a . . . a soul, for lack of a better word. I slid my shoe on, stepped back into the main kitchen, and made hard eye contact with each man, trying to communicate, Problem. Magical problem.

Copyright © 2024 by Faith Hunter


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