Demons, murder, and a trip straight to Hell...
I thought I'd get a little time off before the veritable poop hit the fan, but fate -- or rather the Fates -- have other ideas. The witch who tried to have my sister possessed has escaped, and not only do I find him dead, but I don't have a clue who he was working with. Or working for...
Now I have a Council Member in human jail, a ragtag bunch of stuffy law-abiders to lead, and a solid inkling that the next person on the chopping block is me.
All of that would be bad enough, but I've got bigger problems. Maria isn't quite right after a demon almost stole her body, and I have a hunch it's going to require a trip to Hell to get it fixed.
Time to sharpen my athames. Vacation time is over.
Release date: January 17, 2020
Publisher: Annie Anderson
Print pages: 304
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Sister of Embers & Echoes
My eyes narrowed over the rim of my teacup. My grandmother crossed her legs, matching my glare as she sipped her own tea. In all likelihood, she was holding in a laugh. Bernadette had seen oceans rise and fall, empires crumble to dust, entire civilizations wiped from the face of the earth. As one of the first demons in Hell, nothing short of a full-blown apocalypse was going to phase her.
Especially not my paltry little glare.
Uncrossing my legs, I folded them underneath me, sucking down another sip of my tea as I settled deeper into the overstuffed armchair. I wasn’t a big tea kind of person, but the herbal blend I’d concocted in a fit of nerves last week seemed to be growing on me. I’d been doing a lot of things like that—things that Maria would have done herself if she’d just freaking wake up.
“I’m not setting foot in Aether until Maria wakes up, and that’s final.”
Like that word ever stopped my grandmother. I was pretty sure if she had even a single shred less class, she’d have given the Fates the old double middle-finger salute while telling them to kiss her ass.
That last bit might just be wishful thinking on my part. At least it was amusing to think about.
“It’s been a week, Maxima,” Bernadette chided softly, her voice full of understanding, but her message clear. I couldn’t wait much longer to interrogate Elias. The Fates were running out of patience, and I was running out of time.
“Have they gotten anything out of him at all?” I asked, unable to keep my gaze from shifting from Bernadette to Maria’s closed bedroom door.
I didn’t like being on this side of it. I didn’t like that I wasn’t watching her.
I didn’t like that I couldn’t figure out a way to help.
A week ago, Elias Flynn tried to use my sister as a sacrifice by offering her up to a demon as a host. Bernadette helped me stop him, but Maria still wasn’t awake. The longer her sleep lasted, the more I realized we might not have been as successful as I once thought.
If we were successful at all.
“He isn’t telling us anything we didn’t know already. Della refuses to go without you, and very few witches are willing to do memory spells. Especially since he is no more magical than a human now.”
I pursed my lips but refused to feel guilty. Elias used to be a very gifted moon witch. I say “used to be” because I turned off his magic like a kitchen faucet. I had a feeling I wasn’t supposed to be able to do that. And since I was the only person I knew who was actually able to do that bit of magic, I wasn’t a hundred percent on how it actually worked.
“I’m not sorry for nulling him. It was either that or kill him.”
Elias wasn’t the first person I’d nulled. I did the same to a shifter named Finn. Finn had deserved it, too, but no one deserved to have his powers stripped more than Elias.
“No one is saying you did the wrong thing, Maxima. But there are realities to this situation you need to be aware of. I’m not going to sugarcoat it just because you decided to take a holiday in the middle of a shit storm.”
Bernadette uncrossed her legs, planted her feet, and stood. Her visage of an aging beauty slipped for a moment, showing her true face underneath. I always tended to forget that she put on the façade of an older woman rather than keep the unchanging one she was born with. And to see the face that she tried so desperately to keep hidden meant she was well and truly done with my bullshit.
I was acting like a child with no responsibilities instead of the four-hundred-year-old newly minted Leader of the Keys. Other than order takeout and watch my sister sleep, I had done little else besides tooling around my greenhouse and trying not to panic.
“She is in this mess because of me,” I whispered, trying not to let all my sorrow fall from my mouth at once.
“No, Maria is in this mess because of a moon witch with an ax to grind. Maria is stuck in that bed because I didn’t do my job of keeping you and yours safe. You want a pity party? Well, you’re going to have to pass some around, kid. Put the blame on the prat who deserves it and find out what else he knows. That’s the only way we’re going to find out who else is with him. Letting him sit in that cell is just asking for the guilty parties to gut him in his sleep to keep him quiet.”
Well, she wasn’t wrong.
“Fine.” I sighed, resignation pulling at every letter in that single syllable. “I’ll go in. Tomorrow, though. Let me get an actual night of rest, and I’ll go into Aether in the morning.”
Bernadette huffed, but it was a good-natured one, so I shot her a smile.
“So now that that little drama is over, tell me about that big box of fighting leathers just sitting on your coffee table. I read the card. You made a deal with Alistair Quinn? Do I even want to know why?”
I thought back to the night I accidentally summoned a demon to my casting room. Directly from Hell. An act that should have taken an entire coven of witches with not a little bit of magic to accomplish. Bernadette would be the least likely to judge me for what happened with Alistair.
“I may have accidentally summoned him into a circle. From Hell. In exchange for him not ratting me out, I owe him a favor. I kinda thought I repaid him by nominating him for the Council, but…”
The sigh coming from Bernadette’s throat sounded like her soul was escaping. So maybe she would judge the shit out of me for making that deal. Super.
“You made a deal with a demon for a favor of his choosing, and because you gave him what he wanted without him having to ask for it, he essentially gets a freebie,” she said, finishing my sentence.
“Didn’t anyone ever tell you not to make deals with demons?” She said it like only an airheaded infant with no common sense could ever possibly not know this. To her credit, it should be a “no shit” kind of response, but being a Rogue for as long as I was, those little tidbits of wisdom were hard to come by.
“Since I didn’t even know demons existed until a year ago, that would be a hard no.”
Not that it took a genius to put it together, though.
Bernadette’s visage flickered again, and the gravity of my particular predicament settled like a lead weight in my stomach.
“Making a deal with a demon is quite like making a deal with a Fae. They are concrete and binding, and there isn’t a loophole big enough to wriggle through. And refusing to hold up your end of the bargain means nasty things. I hope whatever he asks of you, you can stomach.”
Because I would be completing the bargain. Whether I liked it or not. Got it.
“Before I made it, I told him the favor couldn’t include sex or murder, so at least there’s that?” I said, wincing as I took another sip of my tea.
Bernadette’s lips twisted like those caveats weren’t enough coverage for my ass that was currently swinging in the wind.
“At least that’s something. Honestly, I doubt the Council would have charged you. Not for a Quinn.”
I thought back at all the times I’d been charged for something I not only didn’t do but was actually executed for. Not that those executions took… Yeah, I highly doubted the Council would have refrained from torching me on the spot. Even if some of them were my friends.
Trying to keep my skepticism off my face, I prodded my grandmother for info.
“Tell me more about the Quinns. What am I getting myself into?”
Settling back in her chair, Bernadette began sipping her tea. Not a good sign.
“I don’t know much about Alistair other than when he helped take out the Keys, but if I had to guess, he’s nothing like his family. Clotho sure hates him, but she hates all the Quinns. Not just Alistair. His father is a piece of work, and from what I’ve heard, his mother isn’t much better. If you can avoid his family while you deal with Alistair, it would be for the best.”
I tried to reconcile the man who’d stood up to me and stood by me in battle, with the man the Fates and my grandmother warned me off of. The man who’d given me the best kiss I’d ever received while also not treating me like spun glass. The man who’d made me take a deal to keep my ass out of hot water, but held my hair back when I’d gotten hit with a nasty case of backlash.
It made sense, and it didn’t.
Everyone said Alistair wasn’t like his family—not that I knew exactly what that meant—but I could see their trepidation, too. He seemed cold and aloof when I’d first met him, but he’d changed so much since then. I didn’t know if I saw something he didn’t show everyone else, or if I was making another mistake in a long line of epic blunders before him. But I couldn’t help my disappointment—no matter how idiotic it might be.
“No Alistair. Got it.” Was that my voice sounding that pitiful, or was I just tired? Yeah. Tired. I was totally tired.
Bernadette reached across my little side table to take my hand.
“I didn’t say no Alistair. I said, avoid his family. But while I’m at it, I will say guard your heart, dear. There isn’t a world or realm or dimension that will readily accept you two. Royal blood or not. So keep him around and fall in love if you must, but keep your wits. Yeah?”
That was about as much of a blessing as I was going to get. Bernadette’s opinion on relationships was skewed by eons of neglect and pain. She was what I figured I would have been like had I not been forced into friendships and a makeshift ragtag bunch of family who refused to let me go.
But skewed by pain or not, her message was a hard kernel of truth I would just have to swallow.
“Yeah. Eyes open. I got it.” I had a feeling keeping my eyes open wouldn’t help me at all, but I was going to do it.
“Why don’t you tell me about Maria?” Bernadette said, changing the subject. “Is she showing any other symptoms? Stirring, screaming, levitating?”
What was this, The Exorcist? Was that what real possession was like? Was Maria going to start crawling up the walls next?
At my stunned expression, Bernadette started laughing.
“Not. Funny.” I seethed, setting my teacup down so hard I nearly cracked the damn thing.
“Come on. It was a little funny,” she said into her cup, smiling like the demon queen she was.
“It would only be funny if it were someone else’s sister. It is not funny when it’s my sister. And no. As of today, there has been no puking up split pea soup or her head doing a full three-sixty. She’s just… sleeping. Her heart’s beating, her breathing is normal, her wounds are healing.”
But I left off the last bit I didn’t want to say.
She’s fine. She just won’t wake up.
But Bernadette knew exactly what I left out. She knew because, in the short span of time we’d known each other, she’d grasped just how precious having family was to me. After four centuries without one, I refused to go back to my island existence.
“If it will make you feel better, I’ll check on her. But these things take time. She nearly died. Give her body time to rest. Give her mind time to heal. Dying might be old hat to you, but Maria’s never done it before. She doesn’t know how it changes you.”
My eyes stung, my lips twisting in a grimace as I tried not to let myself cry. Maria’s heart had stopped. What if we were too late? What if she never woke up? Those two thoughts had swirled in my brain all week, but I refused to say them aloud.
“She’s going to be fine, Max,” Bernadette murmured, squeezing my hand so I’d meet her gaze. “I promise.”
All I could give her was a nod, so she released me to peek in on Maria. I let her do this alone since Maria’s room was already overcrowded.
Teresa and Ian had camped out in Maria’s room, bickering and sniping at each other every chance they got. I tried to steer clear, hence my constant greenhouse pursuits.
Bernadette seemed exasperated when she strode out of the room moments later, giving me the knowing side-long glance that said everything she probably couldn’t say out loud because we had more than a few prying ears in this house.
“I’ll come back later. Try to get them to eat and shower, will you?”
“I’ll do what I can,” I muttered, knowing full well I had no intention of telling my mother to do anything other than what she was already doing.
I liked my head right where it was, thank you very much.
But as I stared at my now-closed front door, Bernadette gone to do whatever it was Bernadette did, doubts flooded my brain all over again.
What if we were too late?
My gaze slid to Maria’s closed door, Ian and Teresa’s bickering only slightly muffled by the wood. I had a whole casting room downstairs with enough grimoires to sink a ship. Maybe they had something—hell, anything—that could shed some light on what was happening to Maria.
Or maybe I just needed to keep myself busy until I went into Aether in the morning.
Yeah, I wasn’t kidding myself, but a look couldn’t hurt, right?
I soon found myself in the windowless casting room, the planked walls welcoming me. Snapping my fingers, I lit all the candles at once. As the flames flared, I pored over the spines to see if I had anything that might help. The grimoires were titled by family name. The books likely passed along the line from mother to daughter until the line either died out or was so diluted with human genes that their power was nil.
Sullivan, Goode, Morehouse, Alden, Bishop, Farrington, Wardwell, Parker, Miller.
I had more, but those were the most prominent witch lines. I didn’t have any of the Flynn grimoires. Still, I started at some of the names I knew—the ones I was sure were members of the Arcadios coven at some point before it was disbanded. Snagging the Alden grimoire, I settled onto the chaise lounge and started reading.
When my neck started screaming in agony, and the candle’s light was nearly spent, I gave up on the notion I’d find anything of value regarding my current situation. If I wanted to make a man disembowel himself or pluck out his own eyeballs, though, I had at least three different ways to do it.
And I thought I was vicious. Old-school witches made me look like a freaking saint.
If I couldn’t figure out how demon possession really worked, I was going to have to finagle a workaround based on a locator spell I’d concocted. If I changed to word order, I could check on my sister, maybe?
If I could see into Maria’s mind... If I could see she was in there and not the incorporeal parasite Elias summoned, then maybe I could coax her back to consciousness. Even to my tired brain that sounded like a bunch of hooey. Peeking into someone’s subconscious seemed like an excellent way to find out shit I never wanted to know. Still, if it meant knowing my sister was okay, I figured I could risk it.
I selected a vial of Maria’s blood from my apothecary cabinet, the contents clotted and dried, but still effective. When Maria started staying with me, I insisted on having several vials of her blood on hand. One sure-fire way to track a witch was by her blood, and since the last time I tried to track her ass down turned into a veritable shitshow, I wasn’t taking any more chances.
Fuck scrying. I had a better way to find my little sister.
Drawing a circle of salt around myself, I settled in the center, relaxing my limbs as I began the chants with a slight modification to the spell. I knew where Maria’s body was. I needed to find her mind.
“Mens et animus, ut animam meam. Mentem mihi. Ostende mihi faciem eius meam.” I spoke no louder than a whisper, closing my eyes so I could attempt to see inside my sister’s mind.
Mind to mind, soul to soul. Show me her mind. Show me her soul.
I whispered the words until my voice became hoarse, and my ass went numb. All I saw was the blackness behind my own eyelids. I couldn’t even get a glimpse of the faint glow of the candles. Opening my eyes, I checked to make sure they were all still lit. Fifteen candles stood with their flickering flames standing at attention. I closed my eyes again.
Blackness reigned. No light from the candles. Where Maria was—if she was anywhere but upstairs—was dark as pitch. Forcing more of myself into the spell, I tried to see something, anything, but I couldn’t.
Something was hindering me. A barrier of some kind. I opened my eyes, and my gaze settled on the ring of white. The circle of salt… it was keeping me protected.
In a moment of complete idiocy, I kicked out my bare foot, scattering the grains and opening the circle. All at once, blackness clouded my vision, and the silence was no more.
Screaming. A woman was screaming like she was being tortured. Like everything she was and everything she would be was being ripped from her piece by piece.
What was more unsettling? That sound was not coming from me.
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