Portia Gyony stood at the threshold. The air crackled in a whirlwind of electrostatic energy and bore the acrid scent of ozone. Although Imogen was right beside her, it was not right. Within the inscribed circle set down in chalk and salt on the scuffed hardwood floor, Portia's memories were a maelstrom. Imogen lay there, silent and motionless, her hair spread out in a halo of sunset-red curls. For a moment, they were still at the convent with the inferno raging behind them. Portia could taste bitter smoke in her mouth. A scream caught in her throat as she watched Imogen, her sweet, beloved Imogen, collapse the moment she stepped through the gateway that separated the convent from the rest of the world.
Imogen Gyony had been from that moment a soulless doll. It was not the first time she had been separated from her body, but this time there had been no handy necromancer to catch her spirit as it fled. There was only Portia, and she was determined to go and get it back.
The treacherous Lady Claire Aldias sat at her small writing desk, jotting a few equations into the margin of her notebook. The metallic scratching of her fountain pen's nib nearly drove Portia to distraction. Since the night in the convent when Lady Analise Aldias had bound her with an angel's soul, Portia had discovered a host of new abilities. Occasional and often uncontrolled focus of the senses was the latest in a long list of talents, and she trained day after day to learn to control all of them.
Claire grunted and shifted her glasses higher up on her nose.
Portia glanced toward Captain Cadmus Gyony, the head of House Gyony, and he cracked his knuckles. "M'lady, we won't be much pleased if this fails...again."
"It is a delicate arrangement, not that I'd expect the likes of you to understand."
The captain stood alongside Lady Claire, his thickly muscled arms crossed and his waxed moustache twitching with anxiety. If she was intimidated by the Gyony toughs who flanked her, Claire did not show it. She simply ignored them and focused on her machines, stepping between each of the squat generators, tweaking and adjusting, a film of sweat across her face that caused her wire-rimmed glasses to slide down her nose again. Exhaling loudly, she stood up, primly wiping her fingertips on her starched white apron.
"Now, Portia." She smiled and it set Portia's teeth on edge. "Do we remember what your instructions were?"
"Yes, Lady, I do." She patted the canvas shoulder bag that was slung across her body. "I have myrrh and salvation flower, I have holy water and medallions, and I have something treasured by...the deceased." She could not help but glance at Imogen's lifeless body. "I am to anoint her with the myrrh and the salvation flower, present her with her treasured object--"
"This would be easier if you told me what that was."
"I don't see why it's any of your business. My lady."
"Portia, I am not here to harm you."
"Begging your pardon, my lady, but I don't believe you any farther than I can spit." Portia felt the spark of power kindling behind her breastbone. "You want something out of this, just the same as I do. I don't know what that is. I know that you Aldias do nothing out of the kindness of your pitiful black hearts, but I have made my decision that whatever you are getting out of this endeavor is worth it to me to bring Imogen home."
The silence stretched across the growl of the machines and the three Gyony guards coughed meaningfully.
"I won't be threatened by you." Claire folded her hands and settled onto her chair.
Portia's temper bubbled and she tamped it down, taking a few deep breaths. The call of the angel soul within her was seductive, the abilities begging to be set free to wreak terrible vengeance on the Aldias. She had done nothing but train since the moment she had returned to the chapter house, but even so, it was difficult to keep her potent and often surprising powers under control. When she had mastered herself enough to speak again, she met Claire's gaze.
"Madame. I will remind you that you made an agreement." Portia's words were clipped, strained. "Upon your word, as a Nephilim of the Grigori, you have sworn to render us your aid."
"And, so help me, I mean to do exactly that. You have asked to get to the spirit world and there you shall go. If I have to kill you myself to send you there."
Portia matched her chilly smile. "Good. And if I see Lady Hester, I'll be sure to give her your warmest regards."
Claire flushed and turned her attention back to her desk. She consulted her notes for a long moment before reaching for the small control panel beside the desk.
"Everything is ready. You had best say your farewells, Portia."
The captain's face was impassive, but his eyes were red-rimmed. He reached one meaty hand toward her, and as she grasped his wrist in a formal shake he drew her into a tight embrace. "Do me proud, my girl. You are a credit to our house. Come back safe to us." He clapped her back, and then stepped away, staring at his boots a long moment before giving Portia a firm nod and a salute.
She saluted him in return, then turned to the three Gyonys who guarded the entrance. Lady Anna Gyony, the house lieutenant, bowed her head.
"Godspeed, Sister. Remember what we worked on. It will suit you well on the other side."
Portia rolled her shoulders as a tingle blossomed in the center of her back. It passed quickly, and she nodded. "I'll do my best."
"You always have. Hester would be so proud of you. Please send her my love if you indeed see her. She was so dear to Cadmus and myself." Anna embraced Portia quickly and stepped back. Masters Angus and Casey saluted her, and Portia inclined her head to them before stepping back into the circle.
"Ready when you are, Lady Claire."
"Remember, the shadow-world may look familiar in many ways, but it is not the world you know. Be careful. I expect you back here when you've been successful."
Portia bit back a reply and pondered once more what quest she was undertaking on behalf of the Aldias.
Claire pushed the round-handled lever, and blue sparks caressed her gloved fingertips. The generators surrounding Portia chugged into a higher gear, turning the deep hum into an ear-piercing whine. The sigils painted on each generator and inscribed along the cloth-covered wires began to glow. The air whipped past her face, pulling at the hems of her wide, pleated trousers and slapping her across the neck and shoulders with the thick braid of her silver hair. Portia pressed her bag against her hip, lest it flap wildly and disgorge its precious contents. She was weaponless, carrying only the herbs and trinkets given to her by Claire. She hated trusting the woman who had robbed her and all of Penemue of Lady Hester Edulica, the only mother Portia had ever known or loved. Claire was still plotting, still controlling the situation to suit her own ends. Ambition and greed had driven her, were still driving her. And Portia had now entrusted her with not only her life, but Imogen's soul.
Claire motioned to one of the few servants attending on her in the remote little cottage, and the waifish girl brought over a book. It was blackened and burnt; Portia had sifted through the ruins of Nigel's library in the convent for days to find it. Lady Claire gingerly turned the pages as the pale little servant held the tome against her narrow chest. Libitina was her name, Portia recalled. She was a wispy, ashen thing that unnerved Portia considerably with her mouselike movements and the omnipresent odor of lilies that accompanied her. The scent of lilies, so precious to the dead, Nigel had once said.
Claire began to read from the volume, and the wind roared. Sparks and coppery-smelling steam rose in torrents from the generators and danced along the wires that ringed the inscribed circle. Portia crouched defensively over Imogen's body as the walls themselves began to rumble. Claire's voice echoed over the din, each syllable striking Portia to the depths of her soul, reverberating beneath her breastbone where she still bore an arcane glyph carved there with blood and ash. Throughout, Imogen lay unperturbed, with her eyes gently closed and her softly slack mouth showing the pearly edges of her teeth.
"Oh, my love." Portia tucked Imogen's fluttering stray curls behind her ear. She pressed a kiss to her beloved's cool lips. "I will not come home without you."
The door on the far end of the one-room cottage violently blew open. The chalk line ran across the threshold of the door, dividing the cottage that sat in an abandoned field on the outskirts of Penemue from the swirling black void beyond. Portia straightened and faced the vortex. She reached out and grabbed the flapping door. There was a storm on the other side, a storm that mirrored the tempest in the small room, and through the streaking mist she could see a broad field in the darkness, and in the distance a copse of skeletal trees against a bleak horizon.
There was a moment of quiet as Claire's voice faded away and the whirlwind seemed to hold its breath. Portia glanced back. Cadmus nodded grimly. She gazed down at Imogen, memorizing once more every inch of her face, her hair, her clothing, her body.
"Godspeed, child," the captain whispered, touching his fist to his lips, then his heart.
Portia stepped over the threshold and the door slammed shut behind her.