Muse Books
From Smokeless Fire, Book 3
Release Date:

Jun 17, 2021

ISBN:

978-1-953647-69-6

More From M.A. →

Price to Pay

by

M.A. Guglielmo

She’s gone from party girl of the paranormal to the world’s best hope against a deadly fallen angel.

Zahara‘s tired of saving the world from imminent doom, and her enemy to almost-lover Harut’s “no hanky-panky before marriage” rule is driving her crazy. To take the fight to his evil brother Marut, Zahara returns to the land of the jinn to cobble together an alliance between the peoples of the Mountains of Qaf to defeat the fallen angel. Everything that can’t go wrong does anyway, and after dealing with a malfunctioning magic carpet and killer unicorns, Zahara has to steal back an enchanted feather from a feared necromancer and face down the father she’s never known.

As more of the jinn join Marut in his plan to destroy humanity, Zahara needs Harut’s help more than ever—to save the world and her heart. But when the final confrontation comes, defeating one brother may mean Zahara loses the other forever.

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It was Zahara’s first date night ever with Harut, and she shouldn’t have been surprised his evil brother Marut managed to ruin it so successfully.

The summer evening in Marrakech had started out so promising, too. After spending hours exhaustively planning for the upcoming war against her worst enemy, Zahara had found herself in the unusual situation of being alone with Harut when they weren’t trying to kill each other, avoiding being killed by someone else, or putting aside their many differences to stop one of their relatives from killing a large number of people.

By the end of the night, all three of those decidedly unromantic situations would come back with a vengeance. And it had all started out so well.

“A date.” Harut furrowed his dark eyebrows, his green eyes regarding Zahara with some confusion. As always, she had a good deal of difficulty focusing on whatever he was saying when the two of them made eye contact. He was, quite simply, the most beautiful man she had ever seen. Tall, with black hair, arched cheekbones and the physique of an ancient Greek statue of a young god, he made every part of Zahara tingle when she was with him. Even when they were fighting and the tingling came from her spasms of rage. But not tonight. Tonight was going to be different.

“Yes, a real date.” Zahara tucked her arm into the crook of his elbow and pulled him through the door leading out of their room into the crimson-draped hallway in the Moroccan riad she had selected as a base for their council of war. “We’ve been working hard on stopping your brother from ending the world. Again. I think we’ve earned a night out.”

“I planned to explain more about the dangers of magic to our human companions this evening.” Harut allowed Zahara to lead him past a series of striking black-and-white photographs of people from different walks of life in the North African country. The soulful eyes of a traditional water seller, his copper vessels and serving cups at his side, stared out at them from one wall. From the other, an Amazigh bride wearing beaten silver earrings and a headdress topped with decorative conical spikes gave them a knowing smile.

The pictures had been what had sold her on this particular riad. They had needed a comfortable and centrally located place to stay in Marrakech, the location of Marut’s first deadly foray into the human world, and Zahara had taken charge of selecting the perfect property. Harut had then surrounded it with protective wards and spells, so Marut’s allies couldn’t easily attack them. As for big, bad brother himself, he had fled to the Mountains of Qaf, the world of the jinn, and discussing how to use the curious magical talents of the humans in the group to keep him there had taken up most of the day.

“We have precious little time to plan for the upcoming conflict, and the three of them know little about the powers they’ve been given, and the risks using them will bring.”

“We all might have precious little time to live if your brother Marut and my deadbeat dad Edris have anything to say about it.” Zahara had never been one to delay gratification, and facing the imminent risk of death from both of those so-called angels only made her value her hedonistic ideals more. “Zaid’s here to keep an eye on our little mud children, so I say we deserve a romantic evening out.”

Harut and Zahara stepped out onto the ground floor of the riad. Like other great homes in Morocco that had been converted into small hotels, the structure consisted of large windowless outer walls surrounding an interior courtyard. Their riad had two stories, with the rooms opening up onto interior balconies that overlooked a garden-like space decorated in ivory white with green tiles. A low bubbling pool with a small fountain in its center gave off a soft, wet mist to cool the fading heat of the day’s scorching sun. Trees soared up toward the night sky above them, with lower flowering bushes imparting a whiff of jasmine fragrance to the air. One of the riad’s resident tortoises saluted them with a solemn stretch of its leathery neck as they passed by its favorite perching spot, an artfully placed small boulder set amongst the greenery.

Harut paused to breathe in the night air as they strolled along a tile-patterned walkway to the riad’s exit. “This is a beautiful place. You did an excellent job selecting it, and I was pleasantly surprised you did so without breaking any laws.”

Harut had spent a few millennia hanging by his feet inside a cursed mountain in Iran, and Zahara supposed from his perspective even a dingy motel would be a marked improvement in his living space, much less this airy and luxurious riad. Still, Harut rarely said nice things about Zahara’s life choices, and hearing him praise her for good behavior was a pleasant novelty. Not to mention that she had negotiated a great rental price since the whole place was haunted as hell.

That was fine with Zahara. As long as she could finally spend time in bed with Harut, the ghosts could wail all night long if they felt like it.

“We’re at the front door and you haven’t said no to the date yet.” Zahara reached up to brush her lips against Harut’s ear as she whispered the words to him. “Does that mean I finally get a yes from you?”

“I think spending time with you tonight is the right thing to do.” Harut’s tone of conviction made Zahara uneasy. Her former archenemy and current, well—they weren’t exactly lovers, yet—usually had to be dragged kicking and screaming into anything remotely resembling fun. “It would give us time to talk. About us.”

Zahara preferred to skip over the talking about a relationship phase and get straight to the hot sex, but Harut even accepting the two of them counted as a couple was a major victory. “Wonderful. First, I think we should walk to Jemaa el-Fnaa and check out some of the storytellers in the square. It’s hilarious how wrong their stories about jinn are. Then there’s this pastry shop I found when I first met Zaid here in Marrakech. The sweets are to die for. Literally so, if you’re a dev like Reza Gul who can’t tolerate sugar. I’m thinking of bringing some with me when I visit him in the Mountains of Qaf in case he tries to pull a fast one, which you know he will.”

Their enemy Marut was in the land of the jinn, but so were their most fearsome friends and allies. Granted, many of them, like Reza Gul and Zahara’s own mother, might be considered enemies or allies, depending on the day.

They made their way out of the building and down a winding alley toward a busier street without anyone casting them more than an occasional glance. Harut had assumed a fully human form, with his magnificent eye-studded wings nowhere in sight. Zahara had adopted her human persona as well, with her long black hair tossed back into a casual chignon, and her graceful curves accented by a tunic-style turquoise top and flowing pants. Instead of her usual collection of fabulous and often stolen jewelry, she wore only a simple chain holding the gift Harut had given her—a small orb, its surface ever-changing, like clouds scudding across a tiny planet.

Zahara’s own angel wings, as she referred to them, were also absent, and she bore no resemblance to her natural jinn form, which resembled an oversized black cat with dragon wings and horns. Since even Harut couldn’t handle the cuteness curse of her elemental incarnation, it was a good thing she hadn’t chosen that look.

“I don’t like the idea of you visiting the cursed palace of Azhkenk, much less spending time with the likes of the dev lord that rules it, but I understand in times such as these, we must make allies of our enemies.” Harut pressed closer to her as the bustle and light of Marrakech’s famous central square, Jemaa el-Fnaa, came into view. The space was packed with stalls selling everything from pointed leather slippers to the potions and amulets that guarded against jinn like Zahara, and smoke, spiced with the flavors of local street food, wafted toward them as they entered the square.

“Even enemies like my mother?” Zahara spotted a stall selling sfenj, a fried doughnut specialty often served coated in sugar or drenched in honey, and made a beeline toward it so fast Harut had to jog a step or two to catch up. “At least she’s given her official permission for me to hang out with you while you turn me into some sort of avenging angel.”

“I accept Lilitu and I must put aside our differences to defeat my brother, yes.” Even that grudging admission had to be difficult for Harut. Zahara’s mother had carried out a torrid love affair with both Harut and his brother, back in the day. That had ended up with both brothers being imprisoned in Mount Damavand. So, yes, Lilitu and Harut had a lot of history together and none of it good.

But Zahara didn’t care about history, only the future she and Harut could have together. She was finally with the first man she had ever truly loved, and for once her mother wasn’t trying to ruin things. So far.

“My mistakes with her are why I have to be careful about my feelings toward you.”

“And those feelings would be…” Zahara needed to hear that Harut cared about her, at least on some level. She knew he was sexually attracted to her, dangerously so at times, but making men fall into lust with her was no great trick. She wanted more, and she wanted it with him.

He fell silent at that, and to hide her anxiety she turned to the display of steaming sfenj, planning a minor hex to distract the seller while she stole one of the deep-fried treats. As usual, Harut picked up on the slightest hint of bad behavior on her part and asked the man behind the cart the price. He handed over some local currency he probably didn’t even understand the value of and gave her two of the doughnuts before she could even try to swipe one. “You must know I love you, Zahara.”

She had already bitten into the hot crunch of the first sfenj, and she used the fragrant cooked dough filling her mouth to cover up her stunned silence. He was in love with her, and she knew she was in love with him. Hearing him say it finally was overwhelming. She had wanted to hear those words from him for so long she couldn’t quite trust that this moment was real. If it was too good to be true, she didn’t want to know the truth.

“My attraction to your mother was nothing more than a physical reaction. I want—no, I need—for the connection between us to be something much deeper.”

Zahara wiped off her sugar-encrusted lips with her finger and licked it clean. Then she wagged it in his direction. “I want to point out I am in no way opposed to physical reactions.”

“We need to get married.” Harut could have told Zahara he was planning to take up surfing and leave the world to burn and she would have been less surprised. “It’s the right thing to do.”

There had a been a few occasions—okay, more than a few—when Zahara had daydreamed of this moment. Harut professing his love for her, her responding with the same three wonderful words tumbling out. Then the two of them embraced, kissed, and went off to have fantastic sex for days on end.

Not once had her romantic fantasies included the part where Harut had proposed to cement their relationship in stone, or parchment, or the skin of an important enemy outlined in blood, as was the time-honored custom for her clan’s marriage contracts. Love was beautiful, wonderful—even easy now that she knew what it felt like. Marriage sounded awfully permanent.

Harut searched her face, his gaze intense. “I thought this would please you. Did I mistake your interest in me?”

“No, it’s not a mistake.” Zahara tried to push down the rush of acid panic that had flooded through her at the mention of eternal commitment. “I love you too, and I want to be with you. It’s just the two of us getting married would be—complicated.”

She rested the half-eaten doughnut and its warm steaming twin back down on the stall counter and took a few steps away. For once, desserts didn’t tempt her in the slightest. Harut moved to her side as they walked through the crowds thronging the square, and Zahara tried to organize her thoughts.

“For one thing,” she began, thinking about screaming, “By the gods and blood of my ancestors, are you crazy?” at him and deciding against it. “There isn’t a legal marriage contract the two of us could sign. My mother would have to approve of the match, and technically, so does your clan. What are we going to do, ask Marut and Edris to stop destroying the world long enough to bless our nuptials?”

“I don’t care what Lilitu thinks.” Harut’s voice tightened and his body stiffened as they walked. “And I certainly don’t think my brother and your father are in any position to morally criticize our union. Is this about your engagement to Orotalt? I thought that absurd plan had ended when he tried to assassinate his uncle. I’m sure Reza Gul has killed him off by now.”

Zahara drew in a breath. Orotalt, the nephew of the dev lord of Azhkenk, had tried to revive the long-standing dev family tradition of murdering the head of the clan and taking his place. To do so, he had schemed to free Marut and have the fallen angel kill his uncle for him. That was the part Harut already knew. Now she had to tell him what he didn’t know about.

“Orotalt’s not dead because after I saved Reza’s life, I demanded he let his nephew live as payback.” Zahara hadn’t shared this particular bit of information with Harut, and this was probably not the best time to tell him.

Well, too late now.

She got the rest out fast, like ripping off a Band-Aid. “Instead, Reza threw Orotalt into the Azhkenk dungeons and asked all of his multiple children to come up with the most creative ways possible to torture him. I’m not sure who won that contest, but one of the requirements was he had to survive the experience.”

Harut whirled on her, the storm of fury in his eyes so fierce she took a step back away from him. Her mind flashed back to the first time Harut had realized she was a jinn, and how close he had come to killing her. Of course, she and Zaid had done their best to bump him off beforehand, to be fair.

“Do you still plan to marry him, then?” Harut’s voice was low, and dangerous. How had this date night gone so wrong so fast?

“The engagement is off, null and void, kaput.” Zahara drew her finger across her own throat for emphasis. “Even my mother, who tried to arrange the match, realizes Orotalt is not a suitable choice for a son-in-law. But Lilitu will disown me if I marry you. She told me that to my face, and we need her for this fight. We can’t afford to alienate her, or Reza, for that matter.”

His face had tightened into a storm of fury, and Zahara braced herself for another explosive argument between the two of them about her mother.

Instead, the explosion erupted behind her.

The concussive force of the blast knocked her forward and into Harut’s arms. He grabbed her and held her upright, and the two of them turned to see a jagged tear in the sky above them, carving a dark path between the stars and stretching down to the earth like a bolt of lightning frozen in place. Toppled carts sprawled across the center of the square, and dazed and injured people lay on the ground, some bleeding. Panic overtook those farther away from the source, and they began to scramble away, in a rush that threatened to hurt even more.

Then something began to crawl out of the unnatural cleft in the reality of the square. A pair of giant forelegs, like the claws of a crab, came into view. They gripped both sides of the opening and forced it open wider, expanding the absolute blackness inside. An insectoid head emerged, followed by a segmented body with six additional appendages, all in gleaming cobalt-blue metal. A tail followed, curled over the back of the creature and ending in a wicked stinger.

A metal scorpion the size of a house was crawling out of nothingness into the crowded marketplace of Jemaa el Fnaa, murder clearly on its mind. This nightmare had Marut written all over it.

Crossing from the Mountains of Qaf to the human world wasn’t difficult for Zahara, and other demon jinn like her. She could just pop into the levels of hell and out into a high-end boutique in Dubai, for example. Others, like the peri of Persia or even someone as powerful as Marut, could only transition from one world to the other through a place where the veil between the land of the jinn and the land of the mud children was thin.

Every one of those portals—except one—had been closed by peri magic in the days following Marut’s flight to the Mountains of Qaf after his defeat in Seattle. That meant that Zahara’s least favorite fallen angel had managed to create his own pathway into the human world.

She and Harut had just witnessed the birth of a new door between the worlds, and something gleaming and terrible was walking through it.

Harut released his hold on Zahara, and took a step forward, then another. As he strode toward the monster, a pair of wings unfolded from his back. Each white feather was covered in eyes, some blinking, others gleaming and intent at the scene around him. He reached down to his belt, and his hand came up grasping the hilt of a golden sword. Flames erupted from its blade, and screaming people parted around him as he moved to deal with this new and deadly threat.

This was normally the time Zahara would do the sensible thing—turn into her death-by-cute shape, fade into invisibility, and watch the carnage unfold from a convenient and safe perch far, far away from danger.

But a lot had changed since Zahara had first met Harut and Marut. She loved one and knew she needed to kill the other, and she no longer ran from fights. Even if, deep down, she’d prefer to take the easy way out.

So she walked toward the scorpion monster too, her own wings appearing behind her. Her feathers were black, and the eyes embedded into them strange and inhuman, but her resemblance to her birth father Edris, the angel who had sentenced Harut and Marut to an eternity of punishment, was clear. She unsheathed her own sword, then concentrated until its sparkling diamond-studded hilt and graceful curved blade altered, becoming a savage short weapon whose dull bronze surface was stained with the blood of countless victims. She might look like her father now, but her mother, Lilitu, the devourer of souls, had given her both life and a weapon deadly enough to defend it with.

Another shape stepped out of the widening cleft. With his tall confident stride and a fiery sword at his waist, he could have been a mirror image of the man who only seconds ago had told her he loved her.

But Marut was nothing like his brother. Except that both of them were great at ruining a promising date.

Marut stood in the square, his gaze as disdainful and hate-filled as ever. In one hand he held two silver leashes, each attached to a collar encircling the neck of a dog with jet-black fur and eyes like pools of yellow sulfur.

Zahara hadn’t thought Marut would be a dog person. Then again, the canines in question weren’t actual animals, only jinn minions in their elemental forms, looking like a pair of zombie Labrador retrievers. Served them right for choosing the wrong brother.

“Peace be upon you.” He drawled out the words with a sneer of sarcasm, as Zahara and Harut drew up short, their swords held at the ready. “The peace of the dead, to make myself clear. You defeated me once in this accursed place, and I intend to take my revenge on both of you and this entire city.”

End of Excerpt