They say magic has a price. In my experience they’re right. Sure, I’m a witch and I’ve even defeated a demon or two. But that doesn’t mean that I’ve got it all figured out. Or that trouble is done with me…
Maggie Lachlan has become a Techwitch in all senses of the world. Once she was just a super geek, taming wild programs with ease, now magic has become part of her repertoire. She never wanted to inherit her mother’s talents—for magic or trouble—but she has no choice but to come to grips with her powers and try to find her happy place.
But the past doesn’t want to rest easy, and demons aren’t the only problem in town. Her lover, Damon Riley, is launching a new high stakes virtual reality gaming contest and there are those who’d love to see him fail. Supporting him means facing her fears and diving back in the virtual worlds that first led a demon to her doorstep.
With gamers and witches converging on San Francisco for the launch, things are getting strange. And Maggie’s past isn’t done with her yet. So when darkness, power, and technology collide, magic might be the only thing that gets her through the night…
My heart had pounded for plenty of reasons in the last year or so. Grief. Happiness. Orgasms. Terror. Magic. The odd reluctant exercise session. Now, apparently, it was pounding for something that wasn’t even real.
“Maggie, are you okay?” Damon asked.
I nodded slowly, not taking my eyes off the imp hanging in the air a few feet in front of me. The oily sheen of its dark skin, the glint of light on too many needlelike black teeth, and the lack of anything human in its eyes had every instinct I possessed screaming at me to step back. Or just flat-out run away.
Not real. The imp existed only in bytes and magic of the strictly technological variety. Virtual reality terror. I’d played my share of games and faced my share of virtual monsters. But while my brain said “safe,” my body was unconvinced. My heart pounded as I stared at the imp, mouth dry as a desert. “I’m good.” I swallowed and licked my lips, watching the imp.
“You don’t sound good. I can hit the kill switch.” Damon’s voice was worried.
“No. Don’t.” I made myself turn away, toward the man standing beside me in the blank white virtual room. Damon Riley was far nicer to look at than a monster.
Sure, it was only his avatar next to me. Tall, brilliantly blue eyed, dark of hair, and chiseled of body. Dressed in a black T-shirt and cargo pants that displayed all that perfectly. Another virtual illusion. But unlike many people, Damon didn’t really have to tweak his virtual self to look hot. In real life there were a few silver threads in the dark hair and maybe a few more lines crinkling beside the eyes. Which, in my somewhat biased opinion, only made him hotter. But he was stupidly handsome in person or in pixels. Even when he was frowning at me.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
I rolled my eyes and turned back to the imp. Against my better judgment, I took a couple of steps, stretched out a hand, and poked its belly. I didn’t really know what an imp felt like in real life. The only times I’d touched one, I’d been more focused on staying alive. The VR flesh yielded a little like any other creature I touched in a game. But unlike other creatures, the imp didn’t react to the touch.
My breath whooshed out of me in relief. I trusted Damon, and he had promised me this was safe. And if the guy who owns the biggest virtual reality gaming company in the world and who also happens to be one of the smartest tech guys on the planet tells you his simulation is safe, it probably is.
Though he and I had learned the hard way that the darker elements of magic could wreak havoc even when you had the best protections money could buy.
I’d met Damon when he’d hired me to help him figure out a tech problem his army of in-house nerds hadn’t been able to solve. Neither of us had expected magic and demons and chaos would follow.
Him because he generally avoided magic and witches. Me because, well, my mother—a witch who had dabbled on the edges of the darker part of magic herself—had told me I had no magic. After she died, thirteen-year-old me tried to forget all about magic and focus on the normal world with my grandparents, who’d taken me in.
But it turned out my mom had lied to me. I was a witch. One whose powers had been bound.
The fallout from that bond being broken had left me mourning the death of my best friend and Damon wrestling with a corporate scandal, his company, Riley Arts, having to recall games and game systems. One of the biggest recalls in VR history, in fact. Riley Arts had deep pockets due to their past success, but they’d hemorrhaged cash in the recall. The successful launch of Archangel, their latest game, was helping, but from the stories I read in the financial newslinks, it would take a while to completely recover.
And VR was a ruthless industry. Damon didn’t talk about it much, but I knew the vultures must be circling, seeing if they could somehow trip him up while he got back on track.
Riley was about to hit back at the continued doubters. Doing something unprecedented and launching another flagship game and new gametech only a few months after Archangel.
Not to mention a massive gaming tournament to springboard the whole thing. Damon had been working practically nonstop on the project.
Which left the question of just when he’d had time to build the imp.
“It looks amazing,” I said, circling the creature. How had he done it? Running a corporation the size of Righteous—as the gamers called it—was more than a full-time job even when things were going smoothly. Damon had started off as a game designer, but he spent more time in boardrooms and video calls than coding these days. And I’d spent enough time hanging out on the Riley campus to learn just how time-consuming the sort of programming and design that went into producing VR creatures as realistic as this one was.
Damon hadn’t entirely given up sleeping. I knew that because he spent most nights in bed with me. But his spare time was very limited. The fact that he was showing me the imp in a spare hour between meetings on a Sunday afternoon kind of proved that. Not to mention I’d decided to spend the day at the Riley campus to increase our chances of getting some time together.
“When did you even have time to do this?”
I tapped the imp again, more to reassure myself that it wasn’t going to come to life and try to kill me—which was what every other imp I’d crossed paths with had attempted—than anything else.
“Here and there,” he said. “And I had some help.”
“Wait, what?” I swiveled on my heels. “Help? Who? Does Cassandra know about this?”
Cassandra Tallant was head of the Cestis in the USA. The big boss witch of the magical police. Magic wasn’t a secret, but there were certain realities of magical life—like demons and the creatures they controlled, like imps and lesserkind—that were kept out of public knowledge as much as possible. The normals knew that witches were good at healing and could do other useful things, but they didn’t know there were demons trying to break into our world and feed on us.
Just as well.
“She knows,” Damon said.
“Really?” Demons were terrifying. One of them had caused the Big One, the earthquake that had leveled much of San Francisco just over a decade ago. My grandfather had died in that quake. Really, my grandmother had, too. She’d never recovered from her injuries, fading away over a few months. And those were just my losses. So many people had died or lost their homes and businesses.
If a few demons ever managed to break through to our world together, they could quite possibly destroy it. Or enslave humanity. Given humanity didn’t have a great record of handling grand scale threats to our existence well, I wasn’t sure Cassandra would be that keen on Damon telling members of his team the truth about them.
I hadn’t even known that demons were real, and my mom was a witch. Maybe she didn’t tell me because I was just a kid. Or maybe it was because she intended to bind my powers to a demon the night I turned thirteen, wipe my memory of the rite, and let me grow up believing I had no magic.
She died not long after she sold my magic. After that, I lived with my grandparents, who had no magic and wanted to give me the normal childhood I’d missed living the itinerant magic grifter lifestyle with Mom. I was happy to leave that world behind.
No more magic for me.
I’d thought I’d had none, so no questions needed to be asked. Now that I knew what my mom had done to me, I had plenty of questions, but neither she nor my grandparents could provide answers from the grave. I never knew who my father was, so I was getting all my magical education from Cassandra and my roommate, Lizzie, the youngest member of the Cestis.
“Really,” Damon said.
“And she’s okay with it?”
He shrugged. “After what happened with Ajax, Cassandra thought it might be a good idea if we reviewed all our staff. She helped us identify who—outside the security team—has ties to the magical world and knows about this stuff. In case it was needed again.”
Ajax. Even now, a couple of months after he’d kidnapped Damon and me, intending to hand us over to one of the lesserkind who’d served my demon, the name made my stomach clench. He’d died, killed by the creature he’d thought would reward him, but the harm he’d caused didn’t end with his death.
For the second time, Damon had to do a major reexamination of his companies as a result of my magic and my past. The fact that his own security team, the people he trusted with his life and his business, had been compromised had shaken him more than facing a demon.
“Are you sure this is what she meant by ‘needed’?”
“We were talking about my ideas for the Archives, and I told her I wanted to try a couple of things to show her.”
“I’m guessing she was imagining a database, not a VR imp,” I said. Damon and I had only learned about the Cestis’s archives of magical information a few months ago.
Damon’s technology-loving soul had been horrified by the fact that the Archives were analog. Here in the US and in every country where there was a Cestis. He’d been trying to convince Cassandra to let him start digitizing it for safety ever since.
I didn’t know when Cassandra had agreed to a trial. But even if she had, I doubted this what she had in mind. But Damon wasn’t the kind of guy who let an idea go once he’d decided on a course of action. And ever since Ajax, he’d been determined to keep me safe. If he thought dragging the Cestis kicking and screaming into this century was going to help him do that, then it was going to be interesting to see who won if he and Cassandra butted heads.
As long as I could watch from a safe distance.
Damon shrugged again. “This is better. At least when it comes to the various creatures. A picture isn’t the same as seeing something like that.” He flicked his hand at the imp, and it rotated slowly.
I stepped back. I couldn’t disagree with his logic. The Archives had volumes with detailed pictures of the various imps encountered by the Cestis or other witches over the centuries. They’d been drawn by the best artists witchkind could provide, and they were good. But they weren’t the same as seeing an imp brought to life in hideous detail in VR. “You’re thinking this could be some sort of training tool, beyond identification?”
The first time I’d used my magic had been to fry an imp sent to hunt down Damon and me. A purely instinctual burst of power that, luckily, had killed the imp and not fried both of us in the process.
“It would help, wouldn’t it? If people knew what to expect? Knew how these things move, what they can throw at you. How you should respond.”
So maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised that my tech god boyfriend had built me a virtual imp and wasn’t going to stop there. Pixels and programs were one of his love languages, after all.
“I’m not sure Cassandra will think practicing magic virtually is a good idea.” Magic was all about manipulating energy. Going through the motions of a spell or using an incantation without working the energy as well wouldn’t work. And it might not be a great habit to develop. Though maybe there might be some parts of magic—like mixing potions or something—where a safe way to practice proportions or whatever might come in useful. And he was right about the identification part. Seeing an imp in the flesh for the first time might be less terrifying if you had faced one down in VR.
The imp was still revolving slowly, oil-slick skin glistening. As a feat of design, it was a masterpiece. I didn’t want Damon to think I didn’t appreciate all his hard work. But I didn’t want him to waste his efforts if Cassandra was going to kill this idea.
He wasn’t superhuman or even magical. But he’d push himself to his limits if left to his own devices.
He wanted to take care of me, but I was also going to take care of him. “This is amazing work. But you need to tell Cassandra about it now.” I turned and reached out to take his virtual hand. “If you’re going to do this right, you need her blessing and her help.”
Ongoing relationship, oh look I’m the billionaire’s girfriend now, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Demons, magic, explicit sex, kidnapping, nightmares from trauma, death of a parent/grand parents (historical), neglectful parent (historical), natural disaster (historical), unexpected magic, death
Series: TechWitch Book 3
Next book in series: Wicked Dreams
Publisher: emscott enterprises
Publication date: 28 June 2022
ISBN eBook: 9780645294804
ISBN Paperback: 9780645294842
ISBN Large Print Paperback: 9780645294873