Published by Bento Box Books Edited by Louisa Stephens Cover Art by Lind Copyright © 2017 Carmen Caine Ebook Edition This ebook is licensed for your p...7 downloads 364 Views 1MB Size
Published by Bento Box Books Edited by Louisa Stephens Cover Art by Lind Copyright © 2017 Carmen Caine Ebook Edition This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please
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Table of Contents An Alternate Universe Swiss Cheese Inside or Not? The Seeds of Mutiny A Dark Secret Nightmares Fool Me Twice Stone Cold A New Door Opens Raven Mon Enfant Fantôme Dysfunction at its Finest An Unwelcome Intervention
Imp Haven The Godmother The Masked Man Fingers in Every Pie Darling Something Darker A Daughter of Mine Twenty-four Hours Items One and Two Prison Masks and Glitter Chaos Galore The White Owl About the Author Carmen’s Other Books
An Alternate Universe I stirred, stretching first before slowly opening my eyes. Shadows still shrouded my bedroom walls. I propped myself up on an elbow and peered down into the living room below. Through the floor-to-ceiling windows, the lights of New York City glittered against the backdrop of a clear night sky and a full, silver moon. In the distance, the ever-present police sirens wailed. Odd. I couldn’t have slept more than a few hours, but I felt fantastic—like I’d slept for a week. Yawning, I began sifting through my thoughts, dredging up my last memory before I’d passed out from sheer exhaustion. Lucian. Lucian was in there somewhere. Oh yeah, I’d collapsed onto his
muscled chest, hadn’t I? The horrendous pain in my head had started up again. I’d cured it by sprinting up the stairs, crawling into bed, and plopping myself next to—no, on—the astonished warlock. I tossed a glance over my shoulder and eyed the empty sheets behind me. Well, he wasn’t there now. As if on cue, Lucian’s sexy rumble murmured from the darkest corner of my room, “And how long has your head been hurting, Cassidy?” I jerked, startled, as he emerged from the shadows, his head tilted sideways as if listening to a far off sound. “A week?” he queried, his deep voice resonating in the slight, cultured British accent. “Maybe more?” “Yeah, something like that,” I admitted, shrugging a little. Curious, I slipped out of bed and
joined him. Obviously, something was up. “What is it?” I asked. He dropped his silver-blue gaze on me. The thick, dark line of his lashes highlighted the intensity of those eyes and in the dim light, they practically glowed. I let myself take yet another quick, visual inventory of his physical assets. Tall. Strong. The sexy kind of lean that accompanied constant physical activity. He was a handsome devil. An elegant one, too. Pure eye candy. Taking a deep breath, I forced myself back to the business at hand. “So, how long have I been out? Days?” I probed, but then a new thought dawned. I’d slept awfully well. I felt pretty darn good. Too good. Suddenly suspicious, I half accused, “Did you spell me again?” A chuckle rumbled deep in Lucian’s chest,
and a charming smile crooked his carved, perfectly shaped lips. “I didn’t spell you, my dear,” he demurred. He demonstrated then, by sweeping a hand over his head. The ceiling above responded, glistening with pinpricks of light resembling the twinkle of distant stars. They were beautiful. I watched them sparkle above my head for a few moments and then glanced back at the warlock towering at my side, studying me through a heavily lidded gaze. “And why reproduce the Milky Way?” I asked, again finding his bulging biceps a tad more interesting than the miniature galaxy twinkling overhead. Lucian moved to tuck a stray, auburn lock of hair behind my ear in a gesture startlingly …
tender? “New wards,” he explained, nodding at the blinking canopy above. So, the network of stars explained the lack of pounding headaches. I smiled, grateful for the cool blanket of relief. Maybe I’d just spend the week in bed, hiding from the world and the messy, confusing business of revenge and other things I didn’t want to think about at the moment. “Someone powerful is attacking you,” Lucian went on to say. “But they’ll find it harder now.” My smile wilted and turned into a grimace. Yeah. Like I said. I didn’t want to think of Dear ol’ Dad the Mindbreaker right now. “So, how long does this light show last?” I asked, steering the conversation in a different direction—any direction, as long as it was away from Emilio.
“However long you stay around, Cassidy,” Lucian replied mildly. I snorted a little. “Somehow, I don’t think it’s that easy to walk away from you,” I said with a healthy dose of sarcasm. Of course, with Lucian, things always took astonishing detours. At those words, his gaze altered. His lashes lowered. “You can leave, my dear. You can reject my protection by simply saying so, but I’d wager you’d find life far more difficult, would you not? The hunger alone would drive one mad.” Oh, I saw the line he walked with that statement, implying that if I rejected his protection, I would smell his incredibly delicious mana again and be driven crazy by the lust for it. Well, that was true enough. But that wasn’t what he really
meant. The suggestive undercurrent in his tone implied something else, something that piqued my interest. Lifting my chin, I adopted a huskier tone than usual to reply, “I’d have to disagree, Lord Rowle. I prefer to indulge in appetizers. It does wonders for controlling hunger pains.” Two players always made the game of innuendo a more delightful one. A smile played over his lips, and just like that, tension and attraction crackled between us so strongly that I felt I could almost touch it. I let my eyes drift, slowly and deliberately, over his tall form. Handsome as sin. I particularly enjoyed how the fabric of his black tank top stretched over the hard planes of his chest and outlined his yummy, chiseled abs. Yeah, at times, I found him obnoxious, pompous, and annoying, but neither of
us could deny the chemistry we shared, an everpresent passion simmering just beneath the surface, ready to ignite at a moment’s notice. His smile deepened and his silver gaze dropped, ogling me as much as I ogled him. I’m not sure how long we stood there, relishing what we saw. Time seemed suspended, resuming only when he moved, reaching out and cupping the back of my neck with his hand to pull me close while stepping into me at the same time. His lips found mine at once. I was more than ready. He started with a nibble of my lower lip, but reading the impatience of my mood, quickly closed his mouth over mine in the savage, raw kiss I expected—no, demanded—from him. He took my lips in a kiss of the smoldering, scorching kind, one that burned my skin like a brand as his tongue
began moving in a show of magical mastery, reminiscent of the warlock himself. Passionate. Sensuous. Raw. A rollercoaster of a ride. He played me like an instrument, at times, soft and teasing, then incredibly slow before letting loose again to ravage my mouth and bring me to a frenzied state of desire. I melted against him, moaning in outright pleasure. At about the third, prolonged moan, he ratcheted things up a notch. Abandoning my lips, he dragged his tongue up my neck with excruciating leisure, beginning with my collarbone and ending under my jaw before once again, closing his mouth over mine in an even deeper, demanding kiss than before. But right in the middle of it all, he pulled a
typical, unexpected Lucian maneuver. Lifting his lips from mine, but keeping them mere millimeters away, he whispered, “I thought you’d run. I’m curious why you stay.” Really? He wanted to talk now? Caught in the haze of lust, I shook my head to clear it and licked my lips. Ok. So, he wanted to know why I hadn’t run? Why I still hung around? Hmmm… If I were completely honest, so did I. Just why did I stay? Not so long ago, I hadn’t even known the Charmed world existed. Once I’d stumbled into it, my life had turned into one long, chaotic stress-ball nightmare of survival that only grew worse with time. Bolting would be so much easier than staying at this point—especially with that latest Mindbreaker discovery.
I straightened a little. Now that I thought about it, why didn’t I just pack up and leave? Was it my mom? Lucian? The fact the Charmed could track me down to the ends of the earth anyway? Or maybe, just maybe … did I feel some twisted sense of belonging now and didn’t really want to go? Passion doused, I turned away from him, only to jump back, startled upon discovering a large mirror propped against the wall, a mirror that hadn’t been there before. “Why’s that there?” I asked, my voice sounding unnaturally loud, harsh even. “To deflect your attacker,” he answered in his polished dulcet tones. “Whoever it may be. So far, I’ve experienced quite the difficulty in tracking their identity.” I walked to the mirror, knowing I could
answer that one easily enough. My attacker? Emilio. But what would be the point? I frowned. Maybe I should be dusting off those running shoes after all. As legend told it, the entire Charmed world had fought against the Mindbreaker—and had lost, for the most part. He’d obliterated more than one magical species. They’d never truly vanquished him. Whenever they’d gotten close, he’d simply disappeared of his own accord to wait it out and regroup. One warlock—even an extraordinarily powerful Rowle warlock—didn’t stand a chance against such an evil creature as Emilio. So, again, just how could it help telling everyone that their worst legendary nightmare had returned and, oh yeah, I also happened to be his daughter? I frowned and closed my eyes. What a
downer. “What is it, sweetheart?” Lucian’s voice queried softly in my ear. One breath. That’s all it took. One puff of his breath on the back of my neck, under my ear, and thoughts of Emilio faded away as my passion reignited. I opened my eyes and peered at my reflection outlined in the mirror before me. Lucian loomed close behind. Shafts of moonlight shimmered through the windows, lending his dark hair an almost bluish cast and accentuating the pronounced line of his jaw. I reached out and traced his jawline with a fingertip on the glass. He moved closer and eyed me appreciatively, his gaze caressing my skin as if he were using his tongue. My auburn hair fell
across my face, hiding my green eyes in a way that only drew attention to my full-lipped mouth. As his gaze dropped to my lips, they parted of their own volition, obviously begging for another kiss. Yeah, Emilio could wait—maybe even forever. Kiss me, Lucian. I commanded silently. Now. On some level, he must have heard. Strong male arms wrapped around me from behind. I leaned back, wanting more of his touch, at least while I could, anyway. When it came to intimacy, the specter inside me always interfered, turning my hunger into a literal one and ending with the object of my desire fleeing my bed in terror. I winced, recalling how I’d even chased the last guy out of my apartment and down the street in the middle of the night, smacking my lips, unable to see him as
anything but the juiciest of cheeseburgers on legs. “What is it?” Lucian whispered, nuzzling my ear as his palms slipped inside my shirt to skim up my stomach, feeling hot on my bare skin. I caught my breath. “This is dangerous, isn’t it?” I asked with marked reluctance. His hands paused. “I mean, for you. Remember last time?” We’d gotten this far before with the heavy petting —and I’d nearly devoured his life spark. He’d spelled me in self-defense. “You can’t hurt me, Cassidy,” he assured into my hair. “Not anymore.” Of course, I wanted to hear that. But even more, I wanted to know I wouldn’t wake up in the morning having dined on Lucian like a black widow during the night. “How can you be so sure?” I insisted, stubbornly.
He kissed the nape of my neck before catching my earlobe between his teeth. Crud. It was hard to think when he did that. He chuckled, soft and low. “Trust me. There’s nothing to fear, sweetheart. Our contract still holds,” he promised, a devilish gleam in his eye. Ever so slowly, he brushed his lips against my neck and allowed his hands to resume their slide upwards and finally under my bra. My breath hitched. Well, there was no thinking now—not with that maneuver. Logic, reason, and all shades of judgment flew out the window the instant his hands cupped and caressed my breasts. I held my breath as my nerve-endings began to sing, responding to his expert, teasing touch. I hadn’t known a man’s hands could push me so easily beyond the realm of thinking. Simplicity
reigned now. Breaking contracts, rejecting wards, running away, a maniac as a father … it all vanished outright. Now, I had nothing to do but feel. I entered an alternate universe then, one of intense, magnified sensation, one in which every cell in my body sprang to life. In unison, our breathing slowed and deepened. His lean hips began to move against me and, feeling hot and heavy, I rocked against him in return. His fingers moved over my sensitive flesh, leaving a trail of molten lava. I closed my eyes, resting my head against his shoulder as one of his hands left my breasts to voyage downward, outlining my hips before sliding between my thighs. I shivered at the foreign sensations. Neither of
us spoke. We just kept breathing. His hands stayed on me as I molded myself against him pushing back against his lean hips. Rhythmically, he caressed me before suddenly grasping my upper arms and swinging me around to face him. With lashes dropping low, he studied me in silence, clearly asking if I wanted him to continue. I answered by running my palms up his chest and locking my hands behind his neck. He went for it then, threading his fingers through my hair as he sought my mouth again, meeting my lips with a kiss as hungry as my own. Our tongues connected, his dominating mine so deliciously that I half collapsed against his chest. With kisses of that magnitude, I knew I’d be shuddering with bliss before we even made it to
the bed. He seemed to read my mind. He began to undress me then, slowly guiding me to the bed and divesting me of clothing first and then himself along the way. Once free of any barriers between us, he swept an arm under my knees and carried me the rest of the way to lay back with me in a sleek, fluid motion. He was like a fish in water, elegant, graceful, his skillful hands and fingers moving everywhere to elicit every pleasurable sensation. Sliding over me, his skin so hot on mine, he captured my wrists with one hand and, pulling them over my head, ran his tongue up sensuously from my navel to my jaw. Meeting my eyes once again, he paused, staring down at me, his dark hair falling over his face. I caught a shivering breath of reaction.
He drew back a little, his eyes twinkling with wicked intent as his lips curved into the smile of a predator knowing he’d trapped his prey—a prey so very beyond eager to be trapped. Lust smoldered in his eyes, a lust I knew matched my own. He stroked my cheek with his thumb, the movements mesmerizingly slow and gentle and then once again, lowered his lips to mine as his body followed suit. Our hands began to move, his possessive, as if memorizing every inch of my skin, and mine in a curious, sensory inventory of the warlock boldly daring to make love to me despite the ever-hungry specter lurking inside. Hard, bulging biceps. Wide shoulders. Narrow waist. Lean, muscled thighs. Tight butt. All, a delight to touch but so very hard to concentrate on with his incredibly soft lips
licking, nibbling, and sucking on parts of my body I could’ve sworn never even existed before. It felt like it lasted forever and yet only a few seconds at the same time. When he finished, I felt myself floating, completely boneless in his arms. I was more than ready when he finally took me. A half-moan slipped out of me as he joined our lips with another white-hot kiss and, at last, our bodies as well. Caught in passion, we moved with an ever-increasing tempo, meeting and meshing in the dance of desire as the soft, steamy sounds of flesh on flesh filled the darkness around us. His lips and tongue felt like fire. I tangled my hands in his hair, my fingernails scraping his back as his body tightened over my own. My blood pulsed hot. A delightful warmth began to build until my body arched, my every
muscle as taut as a bowstring. My teeth clenched as waves of ecstasy washed over me. With a savage, full-throated groan of pleasure, Lucian joined me, casting his head back and gasping, the cords of muscle on his neck standing rigid. Timeless. It felt endless. We hung there in ecstasy together until finally, the last waves of our combined pleasure subsided. Finally, Lucian braced himself on his palms and looked down into my panting face, a multitude of expressions crossing his own. Tenderness. Surprise. Pleasure. For the most part, emotions I shared, of course, but now that the intensity had passed, my primary feeling was one of good old-fashioned relief. Relief. Relief that I hadn’t lost control and killed him after all. It put me in a great mood.
Inhaling a deep breath, I released it and, rolling him over, playfully straddled his hips. He was so very wickedly sensual. I couldn’t resist running my hands over his hard, sculpted chest as I stared into his incredible blue eyes. Silver threads of mana ran through his irises, heralding an unusual power. “You were right,” I admitted, letting myself truly relax for the first time. “Your wards held.” “Only because you wanted them to, my dear,” he replied, his tones butter-smooth. “You’re the one in control here. A warlock cannot protect someone who refuses to accept his protection.” Good to know, I suppose. My gaze fell on his hand. The scar left by his great-to-the-somethinggrandmother’s blast-from-the-past spell had faded to a thin, silver line. Following my gaze, he cocked a brow and
holding up his hand, flexed his fingers. “So, you’re a white warlock now?” I snooped, curious. Something entered his eyes. Confusion? Bewilderment? That surprised me. Yeah. Confusion. It had to be. I didn’t know Lucian could be plagued by anything other than a self-inflated ego. “White?” he repeated. Drawing his lips in a rueful line, he added, “Gray, perhaps.” Again, the confusion. Odd. “Sooooo—” I began, but as his sensuous gaze raked over me, I completely lost track of where I was going with that and let my fingernails graze his chest, down past his naval instead. We were obviously headed for part deux
when Lucian’s cellphone buzzed on the bedside table. I sighed. His chest heaved as well. Pulling me back down again, he captured my lips in a quick kiss before rolling me off his legs. Sitting up, he answered his phone with a “Yes, Strix, we’re on our way.” Yeah. Strix. We had a prison break to deal with. Talk about mind shifts. Hanging up on the Nether Reach keeper, Lucian leaned down and pulled me out of bed, straight into his arms. He hooked a thumb under my chin to guide my mouth back to his and brushed a quick kiss over my lips. “We’ll continue this later, sweetheart,” he half-growled the promise. Later. I couldn’t complain. Even though I
wasn’t quite sure where this was headed, I could say that waking up to Lucian's wickedly hot abs in the morning wouldn’t be such a bad thing. But now? Now it was time to leave the alternate universe of sensory experiences and head back to reality to investigate a prison break—right after I found my imp, of course. I was tired of winging it in the Charmed world. This time, I wasn’t going anywhere without Ricky.
Swiss Cheese Finding Ricky was easy enough. Waking him up? Yeah, I gave up on that one. I settled for pouring him out of the blender and into my coat pocket, all the while crossing my fingers he’d wake up in time to be useful. Lucian hovered near the front door, struggling to keep his composure as he observed the process from under dark, furrowed brows. I glared, silently daring him to comment even as I wondered just how and when I’d turned into Ricky’s defender in all of this. Lucian caught my look but didn’t take the bait. Smart man—or warlock, rather. Instead, he diverted his attention to brushing imaginary lint off
the sleeve of his freshly pressed white shirt. As he stood there, all dapper in his expensive dark suit, I suddenly realized the stark contrast of my black Harley-Davidson jacket, designer ripped jeans, and suede boots, a perfect illustration of just how polar-opposite we truly were—and probably why we couldn’t keep our hands off each other. Thoughts of his hands made me think of other things, and my mind couldn’t help sidetracking in admiration over the way his outfit set off his straight, square shoulders. Lucian glanced up at me then and cocked an amused brow, clearly following the nature of my thoughts. I guess it hadn’t been too hard. I’d practically been drooling. “Shall we, my dear?” he asked, opening the
apartment door with a slight bow. Sighing that I was headed out of the apartment with him instead of back up to the bedroom, I moved to join him, but the instant I stepped abreast, Ricky decided to belch, long and loud. Lucian winced. “Shhh, Ricky,” I growled, slapping my pocket in warning before glancing up at the glowering warlock. “Your fault,” I reminded him defensively. “You picked the turmeric addict.” “I had my reasons,” he muttered in obvious distaste. Just what were those reasons? He wouldn’t tell me, of course. He refused to share one jot of information as we headed down the plush-carpeted hall, into the fancy elevator, and once on ground level, swiftly through the marble-laden lobby with
its canopy of chandeliers. “You’re impossible, Lucian,” I muttered, stalking after him through the revolving door. He kept looking straight ahead, but a smile graced his elegant lips as he strode to a waiting yellow cab. Atop the taxi was a two-sided placard advertising tickets to an upcoming masked ball at the Cloisters Museum at the Met. Cripes. My stomach growled. It was just the sort of elite-mana buffet event I’d normally find well worth the cost of admission. Too bad things were so hectic at the moment. Lucian opened the door and waved me in. I scooted across the worn leather seat as he slid in beside me, giving the driver the address. I’d never heard of the area before. Apparently, the driver hadn’t either. As he
dickered back and forth with Lucian, I slipped my hand into my pocket to check on Ricky to ensure he hadn’t escaped. He hadn’t. He lay there, a snoring, vibrating, puddle of warm syrup in my fingers. It could’ve been cute—if it hadn’t been Ricky. The taxi driver took off and I settled back as we sped through New York City’s nighttime streets. Through the window, I watched the buildings whiz by, wondering just how many vampires and werewolves roamed the rooftops above. My mother? Jacques? Gloria? And what of Dorian and his clan, the group that Lucian had just set free? Would they be after us despite Dorian’s assurances they wouldn’t? Could we trust him? Could I trust him … or anyone, for that matter? I didn’t have much time to go down that rabbit hole as mere minutes later, the cab pulled down a
narrow street lined with old, bare-branched trees with prickly bark, their roots upending and cracking what was left of the concrete sidewalk. Slowing down, the driver read off the addresses as we passed a decrepit TV repair shop and a graffiti-adorned real estate office before finally stopping in front of a rundown, 24-hour drugstore with oily, stained windows. I hopped out of the cab and stretched, eyeing my surroundings and trying to pinpoint my location, but drew a blank. The tall buildings hugging the street blocked any view of the skyline beyond. So, where the heck was I? “This way,” Lucian’s sexy rumble intruded on my thoughts. I turned to see him motioning me into the drugstore and followed. A bell jingled as we
stepped inside, and a grizzled, unshaven clerk in his fifties snapped to attention at the counter. Yep, Charmed. The entire place. We’d entered another hidden sanctuary like the 50s diner, although not nearly as an inviting one. This one was dim. Dreary. A thick layer of dust covered everything, from the products on the shelves to the garish, green-checkered linoleum floor. And the clerk, though clearly Charmed given the pure intensity of his mana, exuded an unappealing scent reminiscent of boiled cabbage and okra. I wondered what species of the supernatural produced such a rank stench. Ogres? Trolls? The clerk, though somewhat knobby-nosed and with huge ears, looked merely human than anything else. Lucian didn’t give me time for any more observations. Breezing past the mysterious clerk,
he strode down an aisle filled with severely dated, yellowing paper products, and headed towards the back of the store with a purpose made evident in each of his long steps. “Yup, yup, she’s waiting for you, Lord Rowle,” the clerk called after him in a guttural rasp. “Thanks,” Lucian grunted without turning his head. He was in a hurry, and I had to half run to keep up. I’d barely any chance to wonder who ‘she’ might be before Tabitha stepped out from behind a display of frizzy, shedding wigs on faceless styrofoam heads to greet us. Sporting a sheath pink-silk evening gown with matching spike heels, she appeared as thrilled and excited to see me as I did her.
“Evening, Tabitha,” I muttered. Her dark eyes flicked my way just long enough to skewer me with a glare as severe as the ponytail threatening to pull every black hair out of her head. No surprises there. She’d hated me from the beginning, and we’d only gone downhill from there. But then, to be fair, she was the Rowle House Drake, and I had betrayed Lucian by setting the puppet-version of Dorian free. Could I really expect a snake creature charged with protecting the last Rowle to forgive such a transgression so easily—if ever? Almost feeling a tad guilty, I sent her a tepid, half-hearted, half-baked—way under-baked— apologetic smile. Yeah, appearing on the outside to be a petite Asian woman with a keen fashion sense, I knew
from experience that on the inside lurked the cold heart of a snake, ready to strike at any moment. Her venomous eyes stared straight ahead, refusing to acknowledge my existence as if that alone would make me run away like a field mouse. I shrugged. So much for overtures. I didn’t really owe her an apology anyway—given Lucian was clearly fine with me. The warlock hadn’t waited on our reunion. “Be quick,” he ordered crisply without bothering to look at either of us as he paused before a padlocked door at the back of the store. Tabitha didn’t budge. She made me go first, forcing me to run the gamut of her loathing looks. Whatever. I hurried along, joining Lucian as he’d just finished waving his long fingers over the lock. The mechanism popped at once and the door
slid open, sideways like an elevator, to reveal a bright rectangle of light obscuring any view of what lay beyond. Lucian vanished within at once. I hesitated, not relishing the idea of just blindly stepping through, but then, compared with remaining in Tabitha’s sphere of control, it was clearly the better choice. Closing my eyes, I stepped forward. A blast of wintry wind nearly bowled me over, but it lasted only a few seconds before cool fingers of mist caressed my face. The next instant, my prisoner barcode flared to life. Great. I knew what that meant. Strix—my arresting officer, case manager, lawyer, yada yada —was there. Yeah, I knew the whole point of our
venture was to help him investigate a prison break, but that hardly made dealing with him any easier. He was such a pain. “Cassidy.” Strix’s voice sounded uncomfortably close by. “This will make things easier.” Frowning, I lifted my lashes to see his tall, lean form right beside me wearing a Robin Hoodstyled leather outfit complete with bow slung over one shoulder and his straight blond hair held back by thick braids on the sides. A white bandana circled his neck, and even though he looked perfectly well-rested, I took that as a sign he’d been fighting. The cut on his cheek reinforced the theory. My delayed senses suddenly recognized the particular brand of mana hanging heavy in the air,
and I jerked in surprise. The Nether Reaches? With a growing sense of unease, I glanced around and confirmed it by the swirling mists, the thick loamy soil under my feet, and the glimpse of mana pools in the distance, dotting the ground like a honeycomb. Odd. I’d anticipated a lot more screeching, hand-waving, and accusations before Strix would allow me back into the Nether Reaches—at the very least, not without an armed escort. I hadn’t expected to simply be allowed to walk through a door unannounced. In the distance, the sudden wailing flutes of the specter kindred played on the wind. I shivered, as deep inside, my specter soul stirred, almost purring, elated to return home. Uneasy, I turned on Strix. “I thought you told
me never to come back here,” I greeted him warily, half-expecting him to make good on his threat to slap a pair of handcuffs around my wrists and toss me into prison. “What happened to ‘you’re not welcome here’ and ‘don’t you dare open the door’?” His lip quirked to the side. Irritation? Amusement? A combination of both? Tabitha shimmered into view on the edge of my vision as Lucian emerged from a roiling cloud of mist nearby. I frowned, bewildered. “And how did I get here, anyway? I thought I had to practically die first.” This time, amusement trumped all other emotions on the Nether Reach keeper’s face. “Where did you get such a notion?” he asked with
the hint of a chuckle. “Under. Over. Dark. Light. Nether. Other. All of the Reaches are on Earth, simply hidden to the naked eye, and all Reaches are easily accessible by the Charmed.” His microscopic attempt at mirth faded as he added in a much more serious tone, “Providing they follow the law and maintain updated travel documents, of course.” I lifted a suspicious brow, recalling my earlier forays into the Nether Reaches when Dorian had pinned me to the wall with a spear, and Emilio had tossed me off a building. Both times, I’d arrived skeleton first. The flesh had followed…eventually. I hadn’t seen any keepers wandering around checking Charmed travel visas. Reading my skeptical expression, Strix dribbled a few more crumbs of explanation. “Ah,
but you’re the special case, Cassidy. You don’t travel through the authorized access points. You’re one of a kind. You’ve been making your own gates, punching holes into the Reach walls as if they were Swiss cheese.” He let that sink in before adding, “And that is precisely why I’ve summoned you here. Someone created a new gate.” “I didn’t do it,” I said, unsheathing my knives before he could blink. Crud. I’d stepped right into a trap.
Inside or Not? I stood on alert, firmly gripping a silverbladed knife in each hand and more than ready to use them both as Strix took a swift step back. “Whoa there,” he responded quickly, raising his forearm to block his face. “I’m not blaming you! You’re not a suspect.” At the same time, Lucian’s deep rumble cut through the air. “At ease, Cassidy. We’re here as consultants only, and I’m not convinced there even is a new gate as Strix believes.” “There is,” Strix objected before facing me again but noticeably keeping out of range. “You’re not a suspect,” he repeated.
I took a guarded breath, allowing the alarm to slip down a notch. Slowly, I lowered my blades. “But really, why isn’t she?” Tabitha asked then, her voice sounding remote and heartless like it always did when it discussed me. Gee, thanks, Tabitha. I scowled her way, fully expecting Lucian to pipe up with my alibi then, since I’d been in his continuous company for quite some time, but to my surprise, Strix came to my defense instead. “I thoroughly vetted Cassidy myself,” the blond keeper interjected, nodding at the Drake with a cool and absolute confidence. “She’s clear, Tabitha.” I blinked, surprised at the unexpected appearance of Strix, my Defender. I’d seen plenty of Mr. High-and-Mighty, along with the
Prosecutor, not to mention the Bad Cop, but I’d never seen this side of him before. I lifted a suspicious brow. Why the change of heart towards me? But I found Tabitha’s response then to be even more surprising. “If you say it is so, it is so,” she grunted, mouthing the words in obvious distaste. Wow. Just what had all of those self-writing papers revealed in that Charmed police office? I lifted a curious brow at Strix, but he’d already turned to Lucian to give him the latest prison-break news. Taking advantage of the reprieve, I slipped my hand into my pocket in the vain attempt to poke Ricky awake. I could use a Charmed imp with encyclopedic knowledge—like yesterday. Wake up. I mind-shouted at him. Time to earn
your keep! But did he obey? Well, when did Ricky ever obey? He just flowed around and through my fingers like liquid smoke to settle back into a snoozing puddle without even bothering to burp a curry-scented response this time. I scowled and after a few more pokes, gave up and tuned into Lucian’s conversation instead. “Heath informed me he found nothing,” the warlock was explaining. “Even after widening the search perimeter at least four times.” Strix lifted a knowing brow that held more than a hint of mockery—but mockery of the friendly kind. “Naturally. There’s nothing to be found, Lord Rowle. I told you. Whoever breached the prison broke in from the inside.” Strange wording. But then again, Strix was
strange. “An insider job?” I asked, feeling comfortable enough to jam my knives back into their sheaths, which were hidden in my boots. “Insider?” Strix snorted, acting all huffy with me once again. “Certainly not. The keepers are beyond question. The breach occurred inside the prison, by an outsider, Cassidy.” Yeah. That made sense. Not. If he could get huffy, so could I. “How can it be a prison break if the break happened inside?” I insisted with a healthy dose of impatience myself. “What does that even mean? Did anyone even escape?” Strix and Lucian exchanged a look. “Spill it,” I growled with a growing sense of alarm.
Amazingly, Strix indulged me. “Yes, we have escapees,” he replied, his blue eyes locked on mine. He waited a few seconds before adding, “Three Fallen Ones. Including yours. I’d only just captured it a mere two hours before the breach.” Mine? I didn’t own a Fallen One. His mention of the foul creatures summoned images I’d much rather forget. The gaping mouth. The long, pointed tongue. The rank stench of evil and decay. I could almost see the soulless husk of a creature floating in the swirling mists in front of me, its moth-eaten cloak fluttering in the wind. No. I wasn’t going to deal with Fallen Ones. Not when they already expected some sort of payment from Emilio and doubly so, since they couldn’t tell him apart from me. Jerking my chin up in a silent, emphatic
statement of mutiny, I sealed it with a verbal one. “I didn’t sign up for tracking Fallen Ones. It’s a flat-out no.” Again, Lucian’s sexy rumble was quick to reassure me. “We’re not here for that, Cassidy. We’re here to find a breach and a breach only, providing there is one to be found.” I searched his silver-blue gaze but saw nothing but sincerity. Yeah, for better or worse, I trusted him now. “Fine,” I begrudgingly agreed. “But let’s make it quick.” Talk of Fallen Ones made me uneasy. Especially when no one knew where they were.
A Jagger’s Warning “And this is the cell of the recently captured one,” Strix informed crisply, pointing the way. He’d stopped calling it my Fallen One after I’d bitten his head off over it several times. I followed him through the prison and paused at the bottom of a wide staircase leading up to a massive white door. It was still protected by prison guards wearing iridescent gray body armor. When we reached the top, the guards saluted, and after deactivating the door, stood aside to let us pass. We’d spent the last few hours snooping around the Nether Reach maximum-security prison looking for any sign of a gate that might explain the Fallen Ones’ disappearance. From the outside, the
prison looked just like a medieval castle— Dracula’s, that is—complete with barbed spikes embedded in the walls and lightning bolts continually zapping the towers from the dark clouds above. On the inside, however, it resembled something more out of a sci-fi movie. Minimalistic. Sleek lines. Clinically white. Around each corner, I almost expected to find stormtroopers ready to ambush me with E-11 blaster rifles. Strix had led us away from the general prison population and directly to the towers where they’d isolated the Fallen Ones. We’d combed through every inch of two large cells already—and found nothing. Expecting more of the same, I filed into the last cell behind the others, but the instant I crossed
the threshold, I felt it. A secret. A resonance. Odd. I couldn’t smell anything. I just knew it was there. How? “What is it?” Strix asked, noticing my subtle shift in mood. I frowned, and ignoring him, moved to the walls to run my hands over them on the off-chance I’d feel the mana I instinctively knew was there. The first wall was clean. And the second. But on the third, I must have been midway through my inspection when the hard surface beneath my fingers suddenly just … disappeared. I caught my breath and jerked back in surprise. Instantly, all eyes swiveled in my direction. “What is it?” Lucian asked at once. I squinted at the wall. Strange. It certainly
looked solid. Again, I ran my hands over the white surface. Yes. An opening. Definitely a hole. Round, like a manhole in the street, but a bit larger. “Here,” I said, pointing. Lucian was already by my side, reaching past me to skim his long, elegant fingers over the wall. “Where?” he asked, his handsome face drawn in a puzzled expression. I lifted my brows. “Has it disappeared?” I asked, touching the wall again. No. It was still there. “A hole,” I said, taking his hand in mine to guide it. But of course, it was Lucian, wasn’t it? The second my skin touched his, other thoughts flashed through my brain, thoughts related to our steamy bedroom session. I shivered, just a tad. He noticed. He leaned closer, his breath hot on my cheek, and
he paused just long enough to slant me a suggestive look before nodding at the wall once again. “Where?” he asked, keeping to business, but dropping his voice sizzling low. I smiled. “Hole?” Strix repeated, joining us. Yeah. Leave it to Strix to dampen my mood. But then, it probably wasn’t a bad thing right now with Fallen Ones in the picture. Lifting a brow to Lucian that promised more later, I turned back to the wall and ran both hands over its white, clinical expanse, and pointed out the hole’s perimeter. “That big,” I said, glancing over my shoulder at both of their astonished faces. Strange. Why couldn’t they feel it? Strix furrowed his brows and gave it a try, drawing his lips into a fine line of deep
concentration. “The wall does feel different here,” he finally admitted in a low voice. “Yes, yes. I’m sure of it.” “Different?” I snorted. “What wall? There’s no wall at all here. Look. I’ll show you.” I leaned forward to demonstrate, but Lucian’s strong hand caught my wrist in a vice-like grip. “Wait, sweetheart,” he cautioned, his silverlaced gaze razor-sharp and his jaw tight with concern. “This could be dangerous.” I snorted again. “No need to go all protective on me. It’s just a hole. I’m not diving in. Look, just a hand.” I shoved my hand inside—well, I only meant to stick a hand in there, but I guess I should’ve listened to Lucian for once. Things weren’t quite what they seemed. The instant my hand breached
the hole’s entrance, it sucked in my entire body like an industrial-sized vacuum cleaner, and I went diving head first after all. I heard Lucian shout. Someone grabbed my ankle. Strix? There was a blinding flash of light. A spell of some kind? It missed. I kept falling. Down. A heart-dropping long, long way down. Everything smelled like eucalyptus. The sudden impact of striking the ground knocked me unconscious. *** I awoke sometime later—exactly how much later, I couldn’t say. It could have been minutes, hours, or even days. I lay in a crumpled heap on the ground. White plumes of mist swirled around me. Nether Reach mists? A deep breath confirmed it.
Moaning, I sat up. I’d lost my jacket in the fall, and I’d ripped my jeans, and judging by my stiff leg, I’d obviously broken a bone or two as well. I stood up and winced, recognizing the tingling sensation of my bones knitting themselves back together. Well, it was my first hint of the time, anyway, and if healing times were normal, it placed me roughly at being unconscious for only about fifteen minutes. Dusting the crumbling, loamy dirt off my backside, I scanned the area, but I saw nothing but mist, mist, and even more mist. So. Either the hole in the prison was just an escape shoot or else I’d fallen somewhere else, and injured myself enough to punch a new hole straight back into the Nether Reaches. No matter what I did, I ended up back here like a boomerang.
One day, soon, I’d have to force Ricky to sit down and explain just how the reaches connected to— wait. Ricky? “Ricky?” I gasped, frantically searching for my jacket. A familiar, keening wail cut the air and I froze, recognizing it at once. The next instant, Jaggers appeared, their silver eyes blinking into existence around me. I took a deep, steadying breath. “Cassssssssssidy,” a voice breathed from behind. I knew that voice. It belonged to Justice, the jagger who considered herself my mother—and perhaps, in some way she was. After all, she’d given me my specter soul. Steeling my nerve, I turned to face her.
She hung there, suspended in the air behind me, the specter of a woman with glowing, silver eyes, no nose, but still a wide mouth. Her strawlike hair eddied around her in a white halo-like cloud, and her tattered dress floated on the wind. Oddly, this time, I didn’t find her so difficult to look at. Maybe it was perception, or maybe because I just wasn’t as afraid anymore. Under my curious gaze, her dress began to change from tatters to lace. And her hair? The rough edges began to soften. I watched, fascinated, but she moved close to me then and, startled, I stepped back, a surge of fear turning her dress back to tatters and her hands boney, skeletal. “Be careful, little one,” Justice whispered, dropping her hands to her sides. “I brought you
here to warn you.” I blinked. Brought me? “Yeah, a bit of a rough ride,” I muttered as I flexed my leg. If she heard me, she didn’t acknowledge it. She just kept right on. “You are not ready to face them yet. You cannot let them find you. They are tracking you.” “Who is?” I asked, even though I was pretty sure I already knew. A chorus of girlish, unworldly voices hissed and chattered around us. “No names. No names. Do not bring them here, Justice.” The silver eyes around me began winking out in outright alarm, underscoring my suspicions. Justice didn’t listen to the other jaggers. Like any true mother, she told me the difficult stuff anyway. “The Fallen Ones,” she dared to name
them amidst the shocked and aghast hisses of the few jaggers who had stayed. Right. Confirmed. “Figured,” I said. “You should not wander the mists alone,” she told me. “Do not come here.” “Hadn’t planned on it,” I grated in reply. I glanced around at the thick clouds of fog circling me, so thick I couldn’t see more than ten feet in any direction. Justice floated closer to me, and even without a nose and just two glowing pinpricks for eyes, it was easy enough to read the alarm on her face. “Now that the last Fallen One has delivered its charge, they’ll expect their payment, little one,” she continued earnestly. “They cannot distinguish you from your father. If they find you, they will demand you pay the price. And if you fail, you will
suffer.” My hair stood on the back of my neck at the words price and payment. “What do they want?” I swallowed, alarmed. Justice shook her head. “I do not know what he promised them,” she replied. “Only they know the contract they forged between them—” Something nagged on the edge of my memory and then I belatedly realized just what she’d said. “Wait a second,” I interrupted. “What do you mean, the last one delivered its charge?” Her wide mouth curved into a sad smile. “The orbs of the Mindbreaker’s power, my little one. He has retrieved all but the one—” She didn’t have to tell me. I already knew it. I finished her sentence for her, “All but the one I ate.”
I dimly heard her say ‘yes’ as the jaggers around me began to wail and the flutes resumed. Great. Well, that wasn’t good news. I’d eaten Emilio’s last Ping Pong ball of power. Somehow, I didn’t think he’d be all that understanding. Justice lifted her head, turning it sharply to one side as if listening to something. “I must go,” she said abruptly. “Don’t!” I said, reaching for her. “I need more answers!” But she was already moving away. “He’s looking for it. Desperately,” she whispered, her voice somehow sounding still loud and clear on the swirling mists, reaching for me like the long, spindly fingers of a ghost’s hand. “Be careful, little one. You must not let him know where it is.”
“Don’t plan on it,” I said hoarsely. Crud. I didn’t even know what to start thinking. Was she really just going to leave me alone out here? Where the hell was I even? The mists churned around me, rising to envelope Justice’s specter form in a billowy embrace even as her voice continued to ride the wind in the plaintive notes of a song. “Be the light that swallows their darkness, Cassidy. You can smell their fear. Use it. Make them see. But do not think of them on the mists. If you do, little one, you’ll summon them to you like a magnet. You cannot—you must not—think of them here and you must not take specter form. Do not call the mists to you.” My brows ascended to my hairline. What the heck? So, I was just one big Fallen One homing
signal with the easiest ‘on’ switch imaginable? Don’t even think about them—especially when someone tells you not to? Riiiiight. As the last straw-like strand of Justice’s hair faded into the mist, she whispered a parting message. “Follow the trail, little one. It will lead you back to the gate I snatched you from.” And with that, she vanished. The jaggers moved away quickly then, their keening wails mingling with the distant cracks of thunder. Strange. Their inhuman voices didn’t sound hideous to me like they had before. This time, I found the sound beautiful in a heart-rending and mournful way. Part of me ached to join them. A gust of wind blew in my face, carrying with it the distinct aroma of eucalyptus.
I reached out, catching the mana filament in my hand, seizing anything to take my thoughts away from that of which I must not think. Don’t think of Fallen Ones, Cassidy. Not one thought. Not their tattered cloaks. Nope. Not even their stench. I gave a half-growl, half-roar of frustration. Yeah, this was going to be a real struggle. Gritting my teeth, I focused on the eucalyptus again and ordered myself, “Follow the mana. Think of mana and mana alone.” Or maybe Lucian. Now, that was a thought, but I’d scarcely thought it when a bolt of lightning cracked above my head and the next moment, Strix strode through the mists, wearing the same dark blue-hooded cloak and black chain-link armor I’d
met him in. He even carried the same silver engraved bow in his hand. His expression broke into overt relief the instant he saw me. “Cassidy!” “Strix!” I said at the same time, surprised to see him but even more shocked at what I saw on his mouth. Heaven forbid. Was that a genuine smile? Then my gaze dropped to his other hand and I gasped, “Is that my jacket?” “Yes,” he said, tossing it at me. “Your imp’s still contained within, sleeping, of a sort.” I caught it and found Ricky just as he said, still sleeping. “What happened?” I asked, drawing the jacket up over my shoulders. “How long have I been gone?” “Not long. We aren’t far from the prison,” came his reply. “Half an hour?”
A jagger wail pierced the mists to the left. Justice. I recognized her voice. So, she still watched over me. At the sound, Strix raised his bow but he didn’t place a bolt on the string. “The jaggers … seemed … to have led me here,” he uttered the words in obvious disbelief. “I’m not surprised,” I said. The specter kindred looked after their own. I took a deep, revitalizing breath of the mana-packed mists. The longer I stayed here, the more I could see myself flirting with the idea of staying permanently. Specter vision was natural here. I could see the eucalyptus-scented strand streaming back through the mists to a door a few yards away. So. Strix was right. Someone had created a gate.
When I turned, it was to find Strix watching me with an unreadable expression. “You can’t be a keeper here without seeing the fragile beauty of it all,” he confessed in a soft whisper. The next moment, his face hardened once again. “The Fallen Ones must have used the hole you discovered and escaped to the mists—” “No,” I cut him off. “You were right. There’s a new gate.” I pointed. “There. Can you see it?” He followed the line of my finger but only frowned. Strange. So very strange. I took his hand and pulled him forward, meaning only to show him, but the gate wasn’t a normal one. It behaved more like a Venus flytrap than anything else. Before I could react, the door opened and several long, green mana fingers erupted, ensnaring us like a lasso to
pull us right inside. Again, my stomach dropped, but it was a much shorter ride this time. About two seconds later, we fell, landing on what looked like a commercial, gray-carpeted office floor. Rolling and unsheathing our weapons, we both leapt to our feet, circling back to back as we took stock of our surroundings. A banner hung on one wall, large, bearing a vibrant red Swiss Cross on a white background. Computers and electronic equipment lined the other walls. There was a window. Plate glass. Fairly large. Through it, I saw the silhouette of the Empire State building in front of a gray sky. In the distance, the perpetual police siren wailed. The stench of a familiar mana polluting the air only confirmed it.
We’d not only landed back in New York City; we’d apparently broken into a Knights Templar lab. And then a pervading, familiar aroma floated past my nostrils. “Culpepper,” I growled.
The Seeds of Mutiny “It’s a trap, Cassidy!” Strix’s voice cut the air. “It’s a trap!” He didn’t wait for me to respond. He grabbed my forearm and, yanking me out of the lab and right out of the Templar-forged mana gate, he punched his own hole and took me straight back into the Nether Reaches. It. Hurt. Like. Hell. My muscles screamed. It felt like someone had flayed me alive by reaching their hands right into my body, lifting my skeleton out and ripping every tendon, ligament, and muscle in my keeping. The next instant, we crashed onto the floor,
right back where we’d started in the Fallen One’s cell with Lucian and Tabitha gaping down at us in shocked amazement. “We made it!” I felt Strix gasp underneath me. I lay on his chest, sweating and still panting from the jarring force of our return as Lucian dropped to one knee beside me, his hands reaching out and his face suffused with alarm. “Are you hurt?” he asked. I shook my head, but the next thing I knew, he’d pulled me into his arms. Who knew Lucian could be so mushy? “It’s not possible,” Strix was saying in obvious denial. “How? How did they do this? They can’t.” “Who?” Lucian’s deep voice queried, sounding loud under my ear.
“It’s a mistake!” Strix swore. “Has to be.” As Lucian repeated a louder “Who?” I pushed away and standing up, supplied the answer. “Culpepper,” I said. “Culpepper’s behind it. The Knights Templar. They created a gate right in the middle of the prison.” Lucian sucked in a huge breath, stunned. “Humans? Impossible!” Yeah. Make that two for denial. They went around in circles for a few minutes, unable to believe humans could breach the Charmed reaches. I couldn’t blame them. It was a momentous discovery and one that would rock the Charmed world. Lucian didn’t want to stay after that. Strix took us directly back to the apartment, flashing right into Lucian’s kitchen. There, Strix and Lucian
engaged in part two of denial for a few minutes before the Nether Reach keeper finally left, this time, through the apartment’s front door. The door had scarcely closed before it opened again. Emilio. He swept past the kitchen and into the living room in a sudden rush of wind, solidifying before Lucian’s snazzy, black leather couch to take a seat, cigar in one hand and a tumbler of whiskey in the other. Honestly, he seemed nothing like the ancient, evil, and insane creature he truly was. As far as outward appearances went, he looked just like your average, stereotypical Italian executive, no more than thirty-five years of age, medium height, classic Roman nose, and dark hair with a penchant for expensive tailored suits, cigars, and whiskey.
But, of course, he wasn’t average or stereotypical or human … or even just an evil, Charmed criminal mastermind. He was the Mindbreaker. The fact he was also my father made me want to vomit. With a slow, measured step, Lucian joined him in the living room and in a low, deep rumble, began bringing him up-to-speed on the latest events. I stayed in the kitchen, studying Lucian’s masked, apathetic expression. Their relationship puzzled me. Just what did Emilio have over him? Why did he dance to Emilio’s tune? “Knights Templar?” Emilio repeated, his oddly colorless eyes locked on Lucian’s. “Impossibile! Humans cannot accomplish such a feat. Hallucinations. Allucinazioni. You are wasting your time and mine. Precious time.
Prezioso!” Unable to look at Emilio anymore, I cocked a brow at the view through Lucian’s window instead. The city skyline had lightened. Low on the horizon, dawn was breaking in all of its pink glory. I tapped my fingers on the kitchen counter’s black granite, calculating that, as a vampire, Emilio had about three minutes before the sun rose and he’d have to hightail it out of there to snuggle in his coffin for the day. Yeah, I knew he could gallivant in the sun as much as he pleased, but he hadn’t shared that with the rest of the world yet. That meant I had only three minutes of his odious company left right now. Three minutes, I promised myself, smiling in anticipation. “You are wrong, Emilio,” Lucian was firmly saying as he tossed his jacket over a chair and
loosened his tie. “They have penetrated the Reaches. They have broken the barrier of our protection. We must find out how. A summoning of the clans—” “No, no, no,” Emilio interrupted with a smile —a cold, humorless one. “Assolutamente, no. It is a false alarm. An error. Un errore. I will not—” “I insist,” Lucian cut in, returning his smile, chill for chill. I paused my finger tapping. Just who was in charge here right now? I honestly couldn’t say. Yet again, I mulled over their odd relationship. Outside, the sky turned brighter. Emilio flashed to his feet. “I do not have time for keeper fantasies,” he spat vehemently, the whisky splashing from his glass betraying just how truly upset he was. “I have a crisis that supersedes
your allucinazioni, your hallucinations here! There is real work to do, Lucian! Real work that cannot wait.” Silent anger rolled off Lucian in palpable waves, but he dipped his head and asked anyway, “And what emergency is this, then?” Emilio nodded, and knowing he’d won, allowed his shoulders to relax. Taking his time, he drained what whisky remained and snuffed his cigar in the empty tumbler before answering, “My sketchbook. You must find it.” Surprised, I jerked but quickly changed it to a cough. Emilio didn’t miss my response. His eyes latched onto me at once. “My sketchbook,” he repeated the words, drawing them out slowly. Did he know I had it? Crud. With the rapid
completely slipped my mind. Fortunately, Lucian cut in. “Sketchbook,” he echoed the word in a voice of such dead calm it only revealed the depth of his anger. “Buy something else to scribble in. I’ve more important things to do.” That snagged Emilio’s attention. He ripped his eyes from mine to glare at Lucian instead. “There is nothing of greater importance, ragazzo sciocco!” he hissed. “I am not asking. È un ordine. An order.” Behind him, the sky turned a bright gold and a beam of light pierced it. One second, Emilio stood there in front of the window. The next, he hovered at the apartment door as the breeze in his wake ruffled my hair.
commanded the warlock imperiously, his hand on the doorknob. “They’re always causing problems. They cannot break into the reaches. Impossibile. Let Strix and the other keepers fret over such fantasies. Your time is too important to waste. I need my sketchbook. And now. Find it. At once. In una sola volta. I must have it. This very night.” He stood there, waiting for Lucian’s response much longer than he should have. The sunrays spilled through the window and slowly tracked their way to the door. I watched, fascinated, wondering if he’d let himself become so distracted by his precious sketchbook that he’d accidentally let them touch his skin. The first golden sunbeam couldn’t have been more than two inches away from Emilio’s finely
crafted Italian shoes when Lucian reluctantly acquiesced, “Fine then.” The next instant, Emilio vanished. I expelled a long breath as Lucian stalked to the door and, slamming it shut, remained there to rest his forehead against the wall. A shadow emerged from behind the couch then. Esmeralda. She paused a moment to level me a cool stare before ascending the steps to Lucian’s bedroom, tail high in the air. I watched her, somewhat unnerved. She didn’t seem all cat, but then, I hadn’t met a cat that ever had. When she disappeared from view, I turned away, only to draw back, startled, to find Lucian had silently joined me at the kitchen counter. “I’ll call the clans myself,” were the first words out of his mouth. His normally smooth
baritone held an uncharacteristically rough edge. “It’s time the clans forged a truce. The balance of power is shifting into dangerous territory. In our arrogance, we’ve ignored the Templars for far, far too long.” I nodded, but somewhere in the middle of his speech—ok, first word—my gaze had drifted to his Adam’s apple and the fact he’d unbuttoned his shirt. It took him about two seconds to notice my distraction. He responded at once, stepping behind me to slide his hands low over my hips, he pulled me back against his chest. I liked it. I really did. I let my mind take a deeper detour into the sensual. But, really, was there another option when you had a sexy, yummy warlock running his hands over you? I turned in his arms. He caught my lower lip between his teeth. I
kissed him back, hard, instantly pushing us into the hot and primal, but I only had his shirt halfway off before a distinct swishing sound interrupted us from behind. Lucian lifted his head. I didn’t have to move. I could smell him. The burning barcode on my hand confirmed it. Strix had returned. “Rotten timing,” I groaned under my breath, letting my hands fall to my side. The Nether Reach keeper dipped his head in an apology of sorts. “I have urgent news, Lord Rowle,” he said curtly. “Something you must see. It cannot wait.” I sighed and stepped back, but Lucian caught me again and whispered in my ear, “Save that appetite of yours for later, sweetheart.”
I lowered my lashes. “Are you taking me for granted?” I challenged softly. Yeah. Like I was going to refuse him? We both knew better, but I could tell by the playful glitter in his eye that he enjoyed my response all the same. Reaching over, he tucked an auburn curl behind my ear, letting his thumb trail the line of my jaw, and then buttoning his shirt, turned to Strix and cocked his head my way. “And Cassidy?” I wasn’t in the mood. Besides, I had to get rid of the sketchbook. Before Strix could reply, I interjected, “I’m just going to sit this one out if you don’t mind. Catch you guys later, ok?” I faked a yawn, but to my surprise, it morphed into a real one. Oddly, Strix seemed relieved, but I couldn’t
be sure. They didn’t wait. The next second, they’d vanished in a flash of light. “Whatever,” I mumbled, unaccountably annoyed. Another yawn rolled over me. Yeah, after that rough ride through the gate made by the Knights Templar, I felt like I’d been hit by a sledgehammer. Maybe a nap wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all. But only after I’d ditched the sketchbook.
A Dark Secret Ricky crawled out of my jacket the instant I dropped it on my bed. “Nice timing,” I snorted. “Danger’s over.” The imp pinned his long ears down in irritation, and after a growl accompanied by a brief display of teeth, he stalked over to the pillow and, plopping down right on it, curled up into a tiny ball of black smoke. I rolled my eyes. Yeah. The turmeric still hadn’t filtered through his system yet. Just how much had my mother planted around the place? “Sleep it off,” I muttered, dropping onto my knees and sliding my hands under the mattress.
Phew. The sketchbook was still there. Gripping the leather spine, I pulled it out and settled next to the bed to inspect it in greater detail. It was an odd thing for Emilio to fixate on. I’d skimmed through it before, finding mostly charcoal renditions of Gloria’s face and a few of the silver ring. “So, what is so important about you?” I asked aloud, as if the sketchbook would simply just answer. I started with a mana inspection first, slowly running my hands over the ancient, cracked leather binding and both sides of the cover. No viable spells, only old and broken ones, so faint I couldn’t track anything back to their origins. I studied the Mindbreaker’s symbol emblazoned on the back, dimly noting my mana signature looked the same.
Grimacing at the thought, I opened the book and skimmed over the yellowed pages. Nothing new. The same as I’d seen before. Page after page of Gloria, pencil and charcoal, and all sizes and positions. Just the sketches of a madman’s obsession. Dropping the sketchbook, I leaned back and sighed. A minute later, a shadow appeared on the top of the steps leading down into the living room below. I smothered a gasp—and promptly rolled my eyes. It was only Ricky. Crud. When had he slipped off the bed? I opened my mouth to ask but immediately shut it after noticing the way he scuttled and tiptoed across the carpet. Did he really not notice me sitting there just a few feet away, obviously watching him?
Apparently not. He vanished under the bathroom door, and at the sound of a soft rustling of a plastic wrapper, I bounded after him, slamming the door back and flipping on the light switch. Yep, there he was, huddled behind the trashcan under the sink, clutching a yellow spice bottle. Turmeric. Just how many secret stashes did he have? I moved. Fast. I snatched the spice right out of his greedy little fingers, opened it, and flushed it down the toilet before his jaw had finished dropping in pure shock. Then it all started. The shrieking. The wailing. The theatrics of pulling his face down with his smoky fingers. For only about eight inches of smoke, he owned a pretty powerful set of lungs.
But we’d done this all before, and I didn’t have patience for it this time. Ignoring him, I snagged a Kleenex and, stuffing it in my ears, left him in the bathroom, sniveling in despair. Scooping up the sketchbook, I tossed it on the bed. I sure couldn’t see whatever Emilio wanted with it, but right now, I couldn’t afford getting caught red-handed. With the Fallen Ones loose, I had to start playing it safe—or safer, anyway—and that translated into returning the dang book as soon as I could. As far as actually returning the thing, I figured I’d just stuff it back in the bag of clothes I’d borrowed from Blair and once in Emilio’s apartment, conveniently drop his artistic tribute to Gloria behind some couch or some such place.
He’d find it. Or not. I didn’t really care. All that mattered is that it wasn’t in my apartment. Pulling Blair’s shopping bag from the closet, I returned to the bed only to find Ricky sitting right on top of the object occupying my thoughts, arms akimbo and his ears flattened into a horizontal line of attitude with a capital A. Well, at least we’d passed the crying stage. Pulling the Kleenex wads out of my ears, I said, “It isn’t the end of the world you know, Ricky. Detox should be almost over. You’re practically there.” He drew his eyes into narrow slits and standing up, pointed at the sketchbook beneath his feet. “Oh, so you found Emilio’s book—oh wait, you didn’t find it. My bad. You pinched it.” He paused before adding in the most acidic voice I’d ever heard, “Blimey, pinch the vampire’s most
prized possession. That’ll end swell. Do I have to be the evil one here? WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?” I blinked, amazed at the sheer volume of sarcasm dripping out of the little guy. “Chill, you’re a bit late to the party here. I’m returning it,” I snapped, tipping the sketchbook to roll him off onto the bed. “It’s no big deal.” “Tell yourself that,” he retorted, rolling his eyes scornfully. I was about to brush the whole thing off when I paused and narrowed my eyes. “So, it is a big deal?” I asked, suspiciously. Jabbing my finger on the book’s cover, I pressed further. “What’s so special about this thing? Do you know?” His ears twitched, just enough to convince me that he did before turning his back on me and
moving to the bookcase built into the headboard. I glanced back at Emilio’s prized possession. “What’s the secret?” I persisted. Again, I began flipping through the yellowed pages. Clip. Clip. Clip. Ignoring the sound he was making, I squinted down at Gloria’s face staring back up at me. What was so special here? I couldn’t see it. Clip. Clip. Clip. Growling, I gave in and lifted my head. Ricky had perched on a shelf with a pair of nail clippers. Clip, clip, clip. I rolled my eyes. “You don't even have toenails. You're made of smoke, buddy." He pinned his ears down to his neck and clipped faster. Clip. Clip. Clip. Clip. Whatever. I slammed the sketchbook shut.
“Enough. I get it. Bad decision on my part for taking it. Too risky. Especially for a book of old drawings.” Ricky clipped a few more times, out of pure spite, before tossing the clippers onto the pillow and marching back to glare at me. “You don’t mess with a vampire who puffs cigars and drinks whisky,” he hissed in an intense whisper. “He’s Barney Rubble, he is. Trouble. And with a big ‘T’.” So. He’d noticed Emilio wasn’t all vampire. I eyed him uneasily. Just what else did he know? The imp’s eyes seemed suddenly too old and wise for an imp—especially one named Ricky. And then he looked away with an exaggerated yawn. “What’s in the pages glued together, eh?” he asked offhand. “That’s the only thing of interest in
that collection of musty old pages, duck.” I did a double take. “What? Glued pages?” My miscreant shook his head. “The thick page, doll, the thick one,” he answered, saying each syllable slowly before shoving his toe in the middle of the sketchbook. “You’re a bit of a barmpot, aren’t you now?” I didn’t take his bait. Excited, I flipped the book open to the page he’d pointed out with his toe and felt its thickness. “You’re right!” I breathed, surprised. Someone had carefully sealed two of the sheets together. Ricky grinned, suddenly all excited himself, and pretending to crack knuckles he didn’t have, eagerly crouched down beside me. As I began the painstaking process of prying
the yellowed pages apart, he gave a nasal giggle. “What do you say about a reward, love, eh?” he suggested, batting his eyelids. “Just a jot of turmeric. A few grains. Vitamins for the nails, just vitamins for the nails.” I shot him a look. “Not going to happen,” I replied. He looked so crestfallen that I felt a genuine pull of sympathy. Yeah, he was beyond annoying and every bothersome adjective in the dictionary combined, but he’d grown on me. “Sorry, buddy, but I can’t,” I said, softening my voice with understanding. “It’ll just prolong the pain of withdrawal. I’ll be your strength in this, ok?” He snarled and bared his sharp, pointed little teeth again. Not the response I was going for, but what did I expect? Irritation rose to swallow all
the warm fuzzies and dropping the sketchbook, I snagged him by the back of the neck and suspended him over the bed. He couldn’t have weighed more than a sugar cube—if that. He hung there like a misbehaving puppy—one of those rabid, hostile Chihuahuas from Hell kind of puppies. “Sleep it off,” I ordered and scowling, dropped him back in my jacket pocket. He didn’t respond. He just melted into a surly, sullen puddle of ungratefulness. “Right,” I grunted, returning my attention back to the page. The cracked, brittle edges came off in my hands as I carefully went about the business of separating the two sheets, but finally, the last inch gave away. Satisfied, I carefully turned the new page.
And choked. A blast of mana assaulted my nostrils. A powerful, heady mix and obviously the work of more than one elite spellmaster. But it wasn’t the complexity of the spell that astounded me. It was the sketch itself, half in charcoal and half in what looked like watercolor. The likeness was so detailed, so incredible it appeared to be … breathing? And the eyes—the silver-laced eyes … they moved, seeming to read my very soul. “Gives me the collywobbles,” Ricky gasped from my jacket pocket. “Not good, doll, not good at all.” “No, it isn’t,” I choked. There, on the page, lay the perfect image of
Lord Lucian Rowle.
Nightmares I stood in my room, transfixed with horror at the sight of Lucian’s likeness on the page. I’d never encountered such a complex spell before, the mana of it so multifaceted, so knotted, I didn’t dare touch a single strand lest I cause him irreparable harm. “Lucian’s under a spell,” I stated the obvious in abject horror. “Flaming Nora!” the little imp gasped and shivered, pointing a smoke finger at the page. “Stone me, but I didn’t expect that. Have a care, mate. Tear the page and you might off him altogether.” I bit my lip and eyed the sketch uneasily.
“Don’t suppose we can show him and let him know?” Even as I asked it, I knew it absurd. Ricky enjoyed confirming it with an exaggerated eye roll. “It’s a Terzi spell, duck. He’ll see only a blank page. You can’t put the kibosh on your own spell.” He kept up the astonished antics but I ignored him. “Figured,” I muttered, shaking my head. “No wonder Emilio wanted this back.” It all made so much more sense now. Oh, I understood their relationship now. Very well. “We’ve got to set Lucian free, Ricky.” The little imp drew up short and flattened his ears. “A fanciful dream, that,” he hissed with surprising vehemence. “Have a gander at that page again. That spell reeks of a dozen grand witches right there. And it’s only the key.”
“Key?” I repeated, incredulous. “Isn’t it the spell?” I’d seen Lucian break an equivalent spell over me in Venice by simply ripping the page in half. “There’s more?” Ricky rolled his eyes again, but then turned suddenly serious. “This spell can’t be broken. The key’s no good without the lock, eh?” Shaking his head at the sketch, he whistled low under his breath. “And if that’s the key, I’d hate to see the portrait.” I slammed the sketchbook shut. “Then we’re going portrait-hunting,” I announced, making my decision at once. Ricky wasn’t on board. His jaw dropped and he looked at me, dumbfounded. “Did you not just hear what I said? Something like a fanciful dream? Impossible? Undoable? Does a ‘you can’t do it’
make more sense to you, maybe?” Ignoring him, I ran my hand over the sketchbook’s leather cover. I couldn’t give it back now. I needed a better hiding place, away from the apartment. Grabbing the shopping bag, I dropped the sketchbook inside. “Right. We’ve an errand to run.” Ricky pressed his hands against his head as if in pain before hopping onto my shoulder, craning his head around and plastering his large eyeballs about an inch from mine. “Anyone home? Halloooooo! Anyone in there?” I swished my hand through him. “You’re an Elite, Ricky,” I retorted. “Time to buck up. We’ve work to do.” That set off a litany of criticisms, pretty much all revolving around my inability to understand.
“You’re a barmpot” and “you daft wazzock” were the most flattering of the bunch. I didn’t care. He was an eight-or-so inch height, turmeric-addicted puff of smoke. Yeah, he had his uses, but I was the one in charge here. “Tough,” I finally growled, putting an end to his tirade. He gave up then and sullenly slipped into my pocket, muttering, “Brilliant. Just brilliant. And what’s your plan?” Plan was a bit of a strong word, but I wasn’t about to admit that to him. However, I did have a firm place to start. “Let’s pay True a little visit, shall we?” I asked in a brisk tone, and snatched the shopping bag. Ricky moaned and melted back into my pocket, but not before leaving a final complaint.
“That bloke gives me the collywobbles.” I smiled. “Oh, come on now. True’s family,” I said, jogging down the spiraled stairs and heading to the front door. Yeah, I’d drop the sketchbook off with True for a while. After all, the Night Terror had that blasted Hell Stone of mine in his keeping. What was one more thing? *** The cab ride could have been amusing if I hadn’t been so worried. Ricky grumbled so loudly in my pocket, making all sorts of obnoxious sounds, that I caught the driver’s eyes on me more than once, peering through the rear-view mirror with a mixture of disgust and concern. Whatever. I had bigger things to worry about. I could only hope True, as Keeper of the Old Wisdom, would part with some much-needed advice on the best
approach of breaking Lucian’s spell. As the taxi pulled up to the cemetery’s wide, vine-covered entrance, I tossed a few wadded bills into the front seat and telling him to stop there, hopped out. Dark clouds covered the sky, giving the illusion that evening had arrived even though it wasn’t yet noon. A cold drop of rain splashed my nose. I shivered, but not because of the rain. The cemetery gave me the creeps. It looked like something out of an Adam’s Family episode. Tall, black iron fence, leaning at odd angles here and there. Scrubby bare-branched trees that looked black even in the patches of sunlight. Lichenencrusted stone monuments with weather-worn lettering. Actually, creepy was a major understatement. Of course, Night Terrors would
love such a place. A gravel pathway meandered through the cemetery’s center. I headed down it, the crunch of my boots sounding inordinately loud as I made my way to the Rowle family crypt marked by its coat of arms carved above the arched doors. I noticed the leaves. So many of them, scattered all over the stone floor. Piles of soggy, damp leaves. I hadn’t noticed so many leaves before. They almost made the place look abandoned. The ones at the back were dry, rustling under my boots as I ran my hands over the back wall, searching for the hidden door leading to the Night Terror domain below. After a few minutes, I found it and pushing it open, stepped inside. I noticed the torches first, flickering low on the walls, some completely guttered, but a
sufficient number still burning to provide enough light—barely—to illuminate the staircase winding into the darkness below. I frowned. Something was wrong. From the depths of my pocket, Ricky must have felt it too, because he slithered out to perch on my shoulder like a parrot and breathe loudly in my ear. Gripping the shopping bag tight in one hand, I unsheathed a knife with the other and began a cautious descent, but the feeling of danger only grew with each step. “Something’s off,” Ricky hissed in my ear about halfway down. “Yeah,” I grunted tersely, alert and wary. I paused a moment, peering down over the edge. We still had about halfway to go before reaching the
bottom. I nodded at the steps with my chin and suggested, “Why don’t you run on ahead and check it out?” He was smoke. What could hurt him? But his jaw dropped, anyway. “Say what?” he asked, astonished. “Have you gone nutters?” I spared a moment to scowl at him. “Isn’t that an imp’s job?” I retorted, softly and under my breath, of course, but somehow it sounded more like a shout. He drew his little smoke body up to its full eight-or-so-inch height, obviously preparing to deliver the speech of speeches when I smelled it, wafting up from below on a current of air. Stunned, I cut Ricky off with a sharp, chopping motion. “Knights Templar,” I gasped. Culpepper. Without a doubt, I detected
Culpepper’s mana. But faint. Stale. More than a day old. I eyed the yawing darkness ahead of me, the torches winking out at odd intervals like a string of old, half-burnt-out Christmas lights. Whatever had happened below, it was long over with now. I flew down the steps then, calling True’s name over and over until the dark caverns rang with the echoes of my voice. When I finally reached the bottom, the dying torchlight revealed a place in disarray. Yeah, the Night Terrors were minimalists, but that made it all the more unusual to see their black, iron candelabras tipped over and broken wax candles scarring the floor. I called True a few more times, but when only my own voice came back at me, I gave up and ran to his vault, the Night Terror treasure chamber
housing his gold and precious mana vials. But instead of seeing the colorful vials that had reminded me of glowworms endlessly stretching into the distance, only darkness greeted my eyes and the decaying, muddied mix of so many manas combined that my stomach began to churn. The place reeked of death. Darting back to the outer passage, I grabbed a torch and returned, holding it aloft. Devastation met my eyes. Broken mana vials littered the floor. The gold? Gone. But then my eyes snagged on something dreadful: empty Night Terror cloaks scattered all over the chamber floor. With a sense of foreboding, I moved to the nearest one, broken glass crunching under the heels of my boots. I didn’t see the outlined shape of a
body beneath the cloth but I couldn’t deny the stench of death wafting up to greet my nostrils. Slowly, hesitantly, I knelt and lifted the cloak off the floor. A fine shower of white dust shimmered from the cloak to lay there, glittering amongst the shards of glass on the floor. There was no missing that unique, alabaster, glowing shade. Dropping the cloak, I recoiled, feeling sick. “They’re dead,” I choked. Cloak after cloak stretched out as far as I could see. They were dead. Gone. All of them. I couldn’t move. I didn’t know which cloak belonged to True, but suddenly, it became important to at least try to find it. “I’ll call for help,” Ricky’s small voice
echoed forlornly in the vast chamber. I didn’t answer. I began lifting up cloak after cloak, looking for something—anything—that would show it had belonged to True. I don’t know how long I did that in the Temple of Nightmares— never was there a place more aptly named. I kept moving from cloak to cloak until suddenly, Lucian was there. “Cassidy,” the warlock’s deep voice sounded in my ear as he lifted me to my feet. “It’s over. You should leave this place.” I held onto his strong arms and glanced around, for the first time noticing the place crawled with Charmed folk. Strix. Tabitha. I caught a glimpse of Heath’s Hawaiian shirt and shock of bright blond hair moving through a myriad of faces I didn’t recognize.
I focused on Lucian’s handsome face then. “The Knights Templar are too powerful,” I said, my voice cracking with emotion. His blue-silver gaze left mine to flick over the Night Terror’s cloaks laying in silent testimony to the horrific act. “The Knights Templar have always been dangerous,” he admitted curtly, tightening his jaw. “But something’s changed of late. We have to find out what. They’ve never acted so boldly or with such power.” I studied his face, but then suddenly remembering the sketchbook, gasped, “My bag!” Pushing myself out of his grasp, I ran to the chamber’s entrance only to see Ricky darting after me, waving his little hands. “Over here, duck,” he called, practically gyrating his entire body for attention.
I stumbled a little, my heel catching on the uneven stone flooring and altered course for his direction. He ran to greet me, jumping to catch the edge of my jacket and swinging up like a monkey. “Your bag’s over there, in the corner cubby,” he hissed in my ear. “Couldn’t have him taking a gander at it now, could we?” So, my miscreant had come through. “I owe you one,” I said, expelling a breath of relief as I dashed to the cubby and snatched the bag. Ricky giggled his trademark nasal sound and his eyes grew big, taking on that ‘Puss in Boots’look. “A bit of aloo gobi would hit the spot—” he began, practically drooling. “What is it?” Lucian’s deep voice interrupted from behind.
Ricky’s mouth closed as I whirled, clutching the bag tightly to my body with both arms. “I just want out of here, Lucian,” I told him. It was true. It was all I could think about. “Now. Please.” He didn’t ask why. He just took my arm and led me up the stairs.
Fool Me Twice The Fallen One followed me, no matter how hard or fast I ran. I ducked into a building, catching my breath, only to turn around and see it floating a few feet off the ground, directly behind me. “Cassideeeee,” it whispered. A cold wave of fear washed over me. I knelt on the ground, drawing the Mindbreaker’s symbol on the floor now filled with sand. “Cassiddeeeeeeeee,” the voice repeated, sharper this time. I choked. I wasn’t going to make it. It was after me.
And it wanted payment. Slap. I sat bolt upright, putting a hand to my burning cheek as Ricky tumbled down from my shoulder and landed in my lap—tumbled as much as smoke could, anyway. There was a lot more slithering and poofing involved. I frowned, looking around for my attacker but not seeing one. “Sorry, doll,” the imp yawned unapologetically and then stretching his neck, pretended to crack bones he didn’t have. “Had to wake you up. You were making quite the racket. Box of toys there. Noise, that is.” I rubbed my stinging cheek in disbelief, wondering if I should be mad or impressed. “For a
creature made of smoke, you sure pack a punch,” I grumbled. I glanced down through the stairs to the windows below. Night had fallen already. Crud. I’d slept too long. I’d only meant to take a nap. Squinting my eyes, I replayed the last events. Lucian had taken me directly home from the cemetery. I’d run up the stairs, and not having a better hiding place, returned the sketchbook back to its mattress hiding place. I’d only just collapsed on the bed and buried my face when the mattress had dipped under Lucian’s weight. He’d silently slipped his arms around me and pulled me back against his chest in a comforting embrace. I’d closed my eyes, intending to stay there only a few minutes… Well, that hadn’t worked out very well.
Judging by the inky darkness outside, I’d slept a good seven hours or more. “Great,” I complained under my breath as I brushed my auburn hair back into a ponytail. I’d wasted a good chunk of time—time I didn’t have. Not that I even had a plan yet. But still. With a prolonged sigh, I cradled my head on my knees, feeling in over my head—drowning, actually. After Tabitha’s investigation, I’d foolishly thought things would slow down just a tad, at least long enough for me to get a cursory education of the Charmed world I’d blundered into, but now? Instead of feeling as if I were driving in the dark at a hundred miles an hour with zero visibility, it felt like someone had cranked the speed up to a thousand. I took a deep, steadying breath. The deaths of
True and his fellow Night Terrors had hit me harder than I could’ve imagined. Yeah, I wanted their deaths avenged. I wanted Culpepper and his Knights Templar buddies to pay. But it was more than just justice. I felt heartsick. Somehow, True— the gaunt, alabaster half-specter of a Night Terror —had really become the odd uncle I’d teasingly thought him to be. Family. Kind of. Not that I knew much about that. An unexpected and very unfamiliar wave of emotion threatened to overwhelm me. I straightened and frowned. “Focus, Cassidy,” I muttered to myself. Right. The sketchbook problem. A sketchbook I really couldn’t get caught with, especially by Lucian. If he found it while under Emilio’s spell, he’d probably trot right over
to the vampire as fast as he could and deliver it— and me—on a silver platter. Tabitha? Yeah, she protected Lucian above all else, but I couldn’t trust she’d listen to me long enough to get the whole story. No doubt, she’d see the whole thing as an excuse to finally lop my head off before I’d even finished presenting the evidence. Heath might listen, but I didn’t even know where he was. Other than that, the only Charmed folk I knew were Terzi, and … I paused as a seed of an idea formed. Dorian? The Scottish highlander of a vampire just might be the answer this time. He hated Emilio as much as I did. He’d certainly benefit from cutting
off Emilio’s control over Lucian. And now that Lucian had freed the highlander’s clan, he just might even be in a good enough mood to help … even though Lucian had cursed them all to begin with. Hmmm. Well, Dorian owed me big time. Didn’t he? I winced. That argument kind of fell on its face, too. Yeah, I’d freed him … but only after helping to spell him in the first place. I bit my lip. Dorian was a wild card but the only card I had to play. “Right,” I said, making up my mind. “New plan.” Ricky jerked awake from where he’d curled up to nap at my feet. “Eh, what?” Before I could explain, a sharp series of raps on the door below startled us both and sent him diving into my boot for cover.
spellfinding,” I snorted sarcastically, rolling my eyes as I moved to get out of bed. Before my feet hit the floor, the door crashed open and a vampire flashed up the stairs. As quick as she was, I smelled her first. Blair. My mother. I barely had time to register that fact before she stood at the foot of the bed, wearing one of her pink chiffon numbers with silver strappy heels. I could tell by her sickly aroma that she’d dined yet again on another drug addict. I opened my mouth, intending to gripe about Emilio. I mean, why couldn’t he offer her a decent meal? But with one look at her face, the words died on my tongue. She just hovered there, looking so very … lost. “Mom,” I heard myself say instead. “Let’s go. Let’s run. Just the two of us.”
It was impossible. I knew that. She’d never leave Emilio, but at that moment, the kid still hiding somewhere deep—very deep—inside me wanted to try one last time to pry her out of his clutches. I expected her to roll her eyes. To make fun of me. To trot to the bathroom and look at herself in the mirror. But to my complete shock, she fixed her lips in a taut, pained line and replied, “Just let me get my things first. Come with me, Cassidy. Let’s go.” I blinked, unable to believe my ears. “Really?” “Come quickly,” she said, nodding, appearing so very, very distant. “He’s not there now.” I hesitated. Her face held so very little emotion, but was that really new? And she had
betrayed me before, drawing me out of the villa in Venice and right into Dorian’s trap. Could I her? Especially with Emilio involved especially when I knew very well that anything Emilio, her conscience, logic,
trust and with and
reasoning had long since disappeared. But this time, she seemed genuinely … anxious? She didn’t wait for me. As I stayed there half on the bed, one foot hovering an inch above the floor, she flashed down the stairs, out, and back up to Emilio’s penthouse. I blinked. Could I believe her? Did she mean it this time? “She’s probably up to something,” I muttered acidly, finally standing. “What? Who?” Ricky’s head popped out of
my boot. “Blair? She’s not the bad sort. Not the bad sort at all.” I snorted. “That settles it right there. You’re only sticking up for her because she…” Because she’d littered turmeric all over my apartment and Lucian’s at Emilio’s request, no doubt to squeeze whatever information they wanted right out of the imp. I took a deep breath, glad that I’d stopped myself from saying the ‘T’-word just in time and covered up my near faux pas by dumping Ricky out of my boot and onto the bed. I needed my boots anyway. He rolled out head over heels, giggling, before scurrying to wiggle under the pillow, obviously intent on still sleeping. Phew. Theatrics avoided, I padded to the closet and, sifting through my cardboard box of clothes, pulled out black
jeans and a leatherette vest shirt. I dressed, waffling the entire time. Should I go? Should I stay? I mean just how truthful was Blair? Well, I knew the answer to that one: not very. However, there was a first time for everything, wasn’t there? In the end, I went, but more from a sense of obligation than anything else—and only after jamming an extra knife into my left boot. Leaving Ricky snoozing under the pillow, I left my apartment and, stalking past the elevator, took the stairs instead, two steps at a time. My mother had left the penthouse door unlocked and open, just an inch. I hesitated. Was I making a mistake? Honest answer? Yes. But I did it anyway. Slowly, I kicked back the door with my boot and strode inside,
straight through the designer living room and into Blair’s pink Barbie doll boudoir of a bedroom. She sat there, waiting for me, lounging on a white fur chaise lounge and buffing her nails. I paused at the door, my stomach turning with a mixture of anger and disappointment. Yeah. This looked more realistic. And so very Blair. “You sure don’t look ready to go anywhere,” I said, crossing my arms. “So?” So, what kind of trap was it this time? My eyes flicked around. “So?” my mother repeated peevishly, barely moving her head in my direction. I grimaced, deciding to leave before she got the chance to mess with me further, but I wasn’t above a parting shot. Just to irritate her, I lowered my voice and, adopting an earnest tone—complete
with nervous tremor— whispered urgently, “Let’s go, Blair! Let’s go now. We can live on the run. We can be free, get jobs. Delivering pizzas is mostly nighttime work, you know. You could do it, even as a vampire. We’ll be together and we’ll be happy.” She blanched. I think at the word job. The next instant, she sat before her vanity with its large mirror, looking sideways at her reflection and adjusting her hair. “Do you want to borrow more clothes, Cassidy?” she asked, abruptly switching subjects. “You can take whatever you like.” I lifted my brow. Huh? “Or I can pack some for you. Oh, did you borrow anything else last time? Books or anything? Things. Something in the shopping bag you borrowed? That you took back? From whatever. The shopping bag?” she asked, letting her voice
fade away as if she didn’t care and then she lifted her chin, looking smug and altogether pleased with herself, as if she’d just delivered an Oscar-worthy performance. I watched, astonished. So. That was it. My mother. Emilio’s willing pawn. I watched her preen in the mirror. Could she really be that unaware she sounded so rehearsed? So stilted, like the worst actor in a badly acted play? And then my feelings for Blair untangled themselves from my logic. Cripes! Emilio suspected me. This was Emilio’s trap. I had to get out of there—pronto. “Nope, no books,” I lied, keeping my voice neutral. “And I’m good on clothes, thanks.” She raised her chin another notch, displeased
with my response, but I didn’t care. It was long past time to go. Feeling like a fool for staying as long as I had, I pivoted on my heel, intending to run as if the hounds of hell barked at my heels—or in this case, just the one hound. But I was too late. There he was, standing right behind me. Watching every move. “La mia principessa,” he whispered softly. I froze like a deer caught in headlights. “Come, join me, Cassidy,” he said, holding out his hands. “Let us talk, shall we?” So. Just how was I going to get past him? “Sorry, kinda on a tight schedule right now,” I said, hoping to toss a monkey wrench into his plan. I managed a weak smile and then added offhandedly, “We’re trying to track down that sketchbook of
yours, you know. Gotta run. Lucian’s waiting for me.” The next instant, Emilio stood directly in front of me, his eyes glinting. Luminescent, golden threads of living light flickered in his irises. Mana. Mana that wouldn’t be there in a vampire, of course. Did that mean he could spell me now? I took a step back. I had to leave. Now. Before he figured out a way around Lucian’s wards and popped my mind like a balloon in a vise. He blocked my exit, of course. This time, he spoke from directly behind me. “Spare your father a moment, un attimo,” he insisted. I didn’t have to see his face; I could hear the cruel smile in his voice. “Family. It is important. Come to my study. We should talk, you and I.” Yeah, not happening. I sidestepped him and
headed for the door. “And your wedding, your engagement, should not a father and daughter discuss such things?” he continued. With another flash, he appeared in the doorway again, lounging casually against the frame as he began to pat his shirt pocket for a cigar. “Come, mia principessa—” “I’m fine,” I cut him short. “I’ve really got to leave—” Yeah. He was psychotic. He dropped the fatherly façade immediately to catch me by the throat and shove me back against the wall in his favorite rag doll maneuver, holding me there with feet dangling. I gasped. He liked that. A smile played over his lips as his sharp fingernails pricked my throat and his fingers flexed. With a crunch of bones, my windpipe caved
under the pressure. It freaking hurt. “A father should not have to beg a daughter to speak with him, eh?” he contemptuously spat in my face. “A conversation. A simple conversation. It is not so much to ask, eh, mia principessa?” I frantically clawed at his fingers. Unable to breathe, my vision tunneled. I tried kicking him, but he was far, far too strong. Then something moved over his shoulder. As my world darkened, I saw my mother rise from where she sat in front of her vanity mirror, and in its reflection, a frown appeared, marring her perfect features. “You will talk to me,” Emilio grated into my ear. I hardly heard him. I saw only my mother’s face. Her hand moved. Her perfect mouth opened. I
could hardly see now. Everything was so dark. Pain ripped my throat. He’d broken my neck. I was sure of it. But I struggled to hang onto the last shred of consciousness. I wanted to know. I had to know. Would Blair stand up to Emilio for me? Would she tell him to stop? She took so very, very long, but finally, her lips formed the words the child inside of me had waited a lifetime to hear, “Emilio, stop. Don’t do this.” A mild recrimination, to be sure, but one nonetheless. Emilio didn’t take it as mild. His head snapped back as if she’d punched him. His every muscle tensed. As his fingers released me, I slid down the wall, my jelly legs no longer able to provide
support. Oblivion threatened. I still couldn’t breathe. He’d damaged my throat so much that it no longer allowed air into my lungs. The scene that played out before me then looked like a black-and-white movie—a slow one. I watched Emilio turn on my mother, his face a mask of scorn and mockery. He moved to her side. The next instant, he’d struck her hard, sending her crashing against the opposite wall as only a vampire could. Yeah. I knew she was strong. As a vampire, she was more than capable of taking such a blow without any real damage. But something inside me broke all the same. I lost all control. With an unearthly cry, the specter inside me unleashed herself.
Stone Cold My vision shifted. My specter senses flared to life. I screamed inhuman, unearthly sounds of rage. My hearing altered, each movement, each sound more vivid and magnified than the last. The Mists of the Reaches appeared, swirling around me in a welcome embrace. I reached out to them. Fear. Yes. Fear was a weapon at my disposal now. As a specter, I would launch everything I had at Emilio. “No, little one! No!” a voice warned on the mists, sounding so very faint and far away. Justice? I heard her speaking, telling me—no, begging me—to stop, but I couldn’t respond. Caught in my rage, I was unreachable. Beyond
reason. I saw only Emilio. He’d whirled to face me, shock written on his every feature. I laughed, a horrible, nasty sound. “Yes,” I hissed. “I am truly your daughter. Look at me.” His eyes flared gold, and the mana swirling there pulsed even brighter than before. And then, he offered me a chilling glimpse of his power. He sliced through Lucian’s protective wards like butter. Effortlessly. So very easily. A sharp, lancing pain split my skull, drilling right through me down to my life spark itself. The pain cut my very soul, but in so doing, it cleared the haze of my specter thinking. What was I doing? Raw fear slithered up my spine. I’d blundered—fatally. I’d attacked the Mindbreaker.
I’d prodded a sleeping giant—no, the behemoth of evil monsters. Compared to him, I was nothing. I couldn’t win this battle. And even worse. I’d ignored Justice’s warning. Before I even finished the thought, a bloodcurdling wail tore through the room and the stench of death, smoke, and sulfur filled the air. Numb, I recognized the sound. Fallen Ones. It was too late. I’d called them to me like a magnet. The pain in my head vanished as Emilio fell back, whirling in a circle and searching through the mist hanging in the air around us. With his control broken, I dropped out of the specter, sick with horror, and into my human form once again. What had I done?
The next second, I got an answer I didn’t want. The dark, deep voice of my nightmare echoed in the mists around me. “Cassideeeee. Open the gate,” the shadow demanded. The sound spurred me into action. I’d healed enough to breathe now and regaining muscle control, I rolled, instinctively dropping into a crouch, fangs extending as I unsheathed a knife in each hand. Emilio took another step back. “What is this?” he hissed, glancing from side-to-side in disbelief. But again, he moved too quickly for me. With impossible speed, he caught me by the hair and half carried, half dragged me down the hall into his study with no more effort than if I was a paper doll.
His study had changed. Someone had cleared the place free of all furniture, the desk and chair, even the Picassos on the wall were all gone, and in their place, hung the large, silver ring we’d discovered in Anya’s basement and the same ring Emilio had featured so often in the sketchbook. Lucian’s insistence on keeping it obviously hadn’t meant much, not with Emilio holding him under a spell. No wonder the vampire hadn’t been concerned the entire time. Emilio dropped me on the study floor, and lifting his booted foot, struck me hard as my mother zipped through the door to hover there, wringing her hands. Fear ran rampant in her eyes. But she wasn’t looking at me. Or Emilio. She was looking at the ring. I took a deep breath, my windpipes knitting
back enough to allow a distinct scent to cross my nostrils. Eucalyptus. The same aroma I’d encountered in the Nether Reaches. The hair stood on the back of my neck. I didn’t want to turn around, but I couldn’t stop myself. There behind me, the ring began to spin, spewing Nether Reach mist from its core. It moved so fast it became a blur and then in its place, shadows began to coalesce. As they solidified into the shape I dreaded, a deep-throated chanting filled the air. I stood there. Paralyzed. Rooted to the spot. The Fallen One appeared then, hanging in the ring, heaving. Venom dripped from a tongue flicking out of its dark helmet. Through the iron slits, I caught a glimpse of reddened leather skin
and wispy clumps of black hair. Was it man? Demon? Something entirely unholy? Perhaps all three. It wasn’t dead, I could tell that now. It had mana in its veins and that meant it must be a mortal creature of some kind. It extended its long, skeletal arms as if trying to grab me, its tattered black cloak flowing over its gaunt form like a living thing. “At last! Finalmente!” Emilio’s voice rang out from behind me, jubilant and teeming with triumph. “At last, you come to me! Creature of the Deep Reaches, give me that which I seek! Give me the last one.” The Fallen One threw back its head and howled before slowly wheezing in reply, “I have naught to give, Mindbreaker. I have already discharged myself of the burden you bade me carry.”
I knew where that conversation was headed. I scrambled back, but my legs felt like wet noodles and refused to carry me very far. “No!” I choked. I’d failed. Disastrously failed. I couldn’t let the Fallen One tell him. “Don’t say it.” Everything was spinning out of control—and quickly. My pleas fell on deaf ears. Pointing a boney finger directly at me, the Fallen One hissed its hoarse reply anyway, delivering words that sealed my fate. “At birth, that one received what you seek.” I froze. So. The secret was out now. I watched, woodenly, as Emilio’s face went blank. “Received,” he repeated, his voice a deadly kind of calm as his black gaze slid over me. “Explain.” “Eaten. Burned into her soul,” the creature
willingly obliged, with each word spewing more of its foul stench into the room. “Impossible!” Emilio disagreed, his voice calm and scarcely above a whisper. “It cannot be undone,” the Fallen One stated. “Your signatures. They are now the same. Even I cannot tell the difference between you.” A tremor of rage crossed Emilio’s face then. Destruction flared in his eyes. And then reason left him. Throwing his head back, he screamed in pure madness. His fangs appeared. His nails thickened into outright claws. And when I saw his glowing, golden eyes again, the pupils had turned a bright, blood red. He flashed over to me, and in an unguarded moment of raw fury, twisted a knife from my hand
and faster than I could see, whirled, sending it straight towards the door. My stomach dropped. Time fragmented in frozen slices, each taking an eon to play in full length. I watched, helpless, as the silver blade flew, its aim perfect and true, straight towards its victim. Blair. My mother. She saw it coming. I read the panic in her eyes. Her coral-tinted lips opened and an agonizing scream erupted from her throat even before the knife buried itself into her heart. She managed a single step forward, stretching out her hands as she staggered towards him—not me. “Emilio, my love,” she gasped in an unsteady whisper, an expression of sheer hopelessness on
her face. The next instant, the silver snuffed out her life. She collapsed inward, turning into dust. I watched every particle in slow motion as it rained to the ground like a fine shower of sand before vanishing entirely. And then … she was gone, leaving only the aroma of her perfume behind. I didn’t move. I didn’t cry. But I felt my soul splinter and turn stone cold. Emilio pivoted in a slow circle, as if only then realizing the magnitude of his mistake. Now? Now, he had nothing to hold over my head. Our eyes met. This time, it was my smile that darkened. Somehow, Lucian appeared in the study door,
his handsome face a mask of concern and outright worry. “What’s going on here?” he demanded. I didn’t respond. I’d lost the capacity to feel. Every cell inside of me had turned to ice. Stone cold. Revenge. I understood it now. I rose to my feet and stalked past Emilio. He just let me go. I shoved past Lucian. He’d tried to follow me. I’d stopped him. I don’t remember how. It didn’t matter. I returned to my apartment and collected every weapon in my arsenal, storing it somewhere on my body before hitting the cash and bank card next, knowing I’d have to clear out my account first, before anyone tried to stop me by cutting off funds.
Throwing on my black leather jacket last, I pulled the sketchbook out from under my mattress and flipping it open, yanked the page with Lucian’s likeness out in one, swift single jerk. And then I left. Kicking my front door wide open, I strode through without a backwards glance. I didn’t bother locking it. Why did I care? I wasn’t coming back. My thoughts had crystalized with unusual clarity. Everything was so simple now. I would make Emilio pay. I would destroy his world. I’d rip everything he wanted—everything he’d fought and waited for—right out of his grasp. I’d set Lucian free. I’d inform the Knights Templar about the vampire lurking in the apartment penthouse.
I’d destroy his cherished ring and his prized Hell Stone to boot. And his precious ping pong balls of power? I’d figure out how to rip every single one of them straight out of his black, heartless soul. And then? Well, when I couldn’t find anything left to torture him with, then and only then, I’d obliterate him myself.
A New Door Opens I crouched high on some random rooftop overlooking the shadier neighborhoods of the city far below. Small wonder the Charmed inhabited the heights of the city. From this vantage point, I found it easier to spot anyone—or anything—that might be out to get me. This would be my life now. A life on the run. I’d cleared out my bank account first. I’d hidden the cash at various spots around the city. Lucian had been a generous employer. I’d never possessed an account with so many zeros before, and to avoid Emilio catching up with me, I’d no longer be renting a place. So, I figured I had quite some time before money became an issue
again. Food wasn’t an expense. I’d just feed on the streets when I got hungry, and if I wanted sleep, well, I could find a hostel to hole up in for a while. A gust of wind blew my hair back from of my face. Dark clouds crossed the sky, obscuring the moon. Bitter rain drizzled down from above, but I scarcely noticed from where I crouched, mechanically calculating my next move. By now, Emilio had found the sketchbook. He’d discovered I’d stolen the precious key to his power over Lucian. If he hadn’t wanted me dead before, he certainly would now. He’d send everything he had right after me. I needed a diversion. Fast. Something to stop him from nipping at my heels while I went about making his life a living hell. Emilio hated Dorian with a passion, but the
Scottish vampire wasn’t easy to manipulate. No, I needed another option. I could only think of one other force big enough to accomplish what I needed: the Knights Templar. They hated anything Charmed. They’d been after me before. Maybe I could draw them out, lead them to Emilio and sic them on him like a pack of wild dogs. “Right,” I said aloud, standing up to dust my hands. I’d start off by finding the Knights Templar lab first. Emilio wouldn’t think to look for me there. He wouldn’t be expecting me to walk right into the heart of the enemy camp. I’d find the lab, stir things up a bit, frame Emilio, and then after setting the swarm of hornets off in his direction, I’d track down Lucian’s portrait and break Emilio’s
control over his pet warlock. He’d never see it coming. “Templar lab, Templar lab,” I muttered, scanning the New York City skyline. I’d been inside the lab with Strix already. I knew the view outside the window. I just had to get a rough match of the Empire State Building to pinpoint the general location. After that, it couldn’t be that hard to sniff out Culpepper’s mana or that eucalyptus stench. Eager to move, I chose my direction and, running across the roof, leapt to the next building to repeat the process. I didn’t mind heights anymore, thanks to Emilio. Rooftop fall? Been there, done that. “Cassidy,” Dorian’s voice suddenly rang through my mind, calling on the clan party line.
“Cassidy, we have to talk about this.” I ignored him. He wasn’t part of my plan right now. He kept at it. I let his voice fade to background noise. I didn’t even try to listen to what he said. I had work to do. Several times, I spied the silhouettes of vampires on the surrounding rooftops. Their mana announced them as Terzi clan members. Did Dorian send them? I didn’t know, but it didn’t matter since they left me alone. Less than an hour later, I’d recreated the approximate Templar window view of the Empire State Building and decided to take my search to the ground. Swinging over the rooftop’s edge, I descended the nearest rickety fire exit to drop from level to level until I finally stood in a grimy, pothole ridden alley. Rats squeaked and rooted behind
a stack of wooden pallets. The entire place stank. Stalking to the alley’s entrance, I peered both ways into the street but saw nothing but the stray collapsed, cardboard box and the occasional, passed-out bum here and there. I moved out, quickly, and keeping to the shadows, began combing the area. It only took fifteen minutes to find him. Midway down 36th. Culpepper. I followed his stench to the source: a smooth gray, steel-and-glass three-tiered office building housing a shoe repair and a sports club on the bottom floor. Bingo. From my location relative to the Empire State Building, it looked like a match— from the building’s third tier, twentieth floor or so. Deciding to stake the place out for a bit, I
crossed the street and ducked into the recessed entrance of the FedEx store directly opposite and merged into the shadows to inspect Culpepper’s building in greater detail. Breaking in from the outside appeared out of the question. The super smooth exterior and flush windows offered nothing to hold onto. At least from this angle. I’d obviously have better luck from the inside. “So, are we breaking in or staking out?” a familiar, nasal cackle sounded from somewhere over my head. I tensed. “Go away, Ricky,” I said, clenching my teeth. “I’m on my own now. You’re free. Go. Scram. Tell Lucian I’m not coming back.” Something moved above the FedEx sign and I looked up to see Ricky skittering down the building’s exterior, sideways like a squirrel and
his mouth wide open in a teeth-showcasing grin. “Can’t do that, poppet,” he said. “I’m on the lam myself. It’s just me and you. You and me. The two of us. Living our lives as bootsie old tramps.” Crud. I couldn’t have him running back to Lucian spilling my whereabouts. I’d have to leave and come back later—after I’d ditched him. “There’s no ‘us’ here,” I spat acidly, heaving off the wall. Ricky opened his mouth to object, but movement across the street cut off any further conversation we might have had—and nixed my plans on dumping Ricky. Two figures suddenly emerged from the sports club. I recognized the first one instantly, not only from his grizzled, pockmarked features but from the stink of his mana as well.
Culpepper. But the second? From the broadness of shoulders and general build, Culpepper’s companion appeared to be a man wearing a dark, full-length, medieval-style cloak with one of those round, cowled hoods. I couldn’t smell him right off, so I took a deeper, probing breath. No luck. Odd. I couldn’t smell a thing. Judging from the height, it couldn’t be Lucian or Heath. Strange. Who else could mask their mana from me? I watched, intrigued, as the two men walked down the street towards the corner bank, but before they reached it, Culpepper ended the conversation with a quick, half-bow and headed back towards the sports club. No sooner had he vanished inside than the cloaked man picked up the pace and turning the corner, set off. Fast. Like
vampire fast. I didn’t hesitate. I went after him. Who the heck was he? His sheer speed alone announced him as a vampire but I couldn’t pick up any of that uniquely spicy, vampire death aroma. I lost him, twice. I only stumbled on him by accident the third time, nearly barreling right into him when he paused outside a red brick Gothic house that someone had turned into a vegan restaurant. A crooked Sorry We’re Closed sign hung in the window which was shrouded with a beaded curtain. Potted evergreens cluttered the porch. Baskets of dead, twisted flower stalks hung from wrought iron plant hooks at three-foot intervals around the entire place, matching the brown strips of narrow grass that ringed the house and pretended to be a lawn. A chain link fence circled
the parking lot at the back. I dashed across the street and crouched behind a parked car as the mysterious figure continued standing there a few minutes before suddenly walking to a side door and slipping inside. Seconds later, the half-basement windows lit near the ground as various lights within the house switched on. I waited a bit, but at no further sign of activity, darted back across the street and crept up to peer through the ground-level windows. Metal blinds covered the first window and the second as well, but on the third, one of the slats bent up just enough to allow a glimpse inside. A dim yellow glow flickering around a partially opened interior door provided enough light to illuminate what looked like a NASA control room. Black leather
office chairs. Tempered, smoky glass desks. Slimpaneled monitors. Paper-thin keyboards. It had to be another Templar lab. What luck. “Jackpot.” I smiled coldly. “There’s something nasty behind that door, I’d warrant,” Ricky hissed from above me. “Can’t be good.” I looked up to find him hanging upside down from a flower basket. “Go away,” I snapped, waving him aside. “And don’t follow me.” Scrunching deeper into my leather jacket to ward off the cold, I moved to the back of the house, near the parking lot and found another door. Curious, I tried the knob. Astonishingly, it wasn’t locked. After putting my ear against it and hearing nothing, I pushed it open and stepped inside. A long, dingy hallway stretched out before
me. One of those old outdated kind of hallways with dark wood paneling and lit with a single flickering bulb. This part of the house obviously hadn’t been updated in years. To my immediate left, a set of wooden stairs led into the basement below, to my right, an identical set led to the rooms above. A sudden heavy thumping sounded directly above my head, followed by muffled growls and rapidly approaching footsteps. “Down first, then,” I muttered to myself. As the bumping grew louder and closer, I dashed to the basement control room, searching for the darkest corner to hide. I’d just crawled under a desk when the cloaked vampire emerged from the stairs I’d just vacated, dragging behind him the body of an unconscious wolf, a large beast, smoky-
gray, and twice the size of a normal one. Striding across the room, the vampire paused before the interior door and kicked it open. Light spilled from the inside. I drew back further under the desk, but the cloaked figure wasn’t looking for me. Humming a tune under his breath, he slung the wolf into the room as if it weighed no more than a stuffed toy. I watched the knocked-out creature sail across a white linoleum floor to crash against a wall of metal cages. The vampire grabbed a chain, and after securing the wolf to one end and anchoring the other to a large metal ring protruding from the floor, he took a syringe from a lab kit and jammed the needle straight into the creature’s neck. The wolf awoke with a lion-like roar, its lips splitting savagely, revealing sharp, ravening fangs.
“I’ll never do it for you,” it growled low, its eyes glowing with hatred as it threw its weight from side to side, trying to break the chains through sheer brute force. The cloaked vampire snorted a laugh and returned to the control room and the nearest desk. He paused. I tensed, prepared to fight. Could he sense me hiding there, lurking so close by? He glanced around, as if looking, but then finally stretched and, putting his hands up under his hood, removed a gold-colored mask from his face and set it down on the desk. With another yawn, he took a seat in front of the computer, and the soft rapid tapping of keys filled the air. I crouched, barely daring to breathe, my muscles bunching into tighter knots with each
passing minute. The keys kept clicking. The vampire yawned again. Strangely, I zeroed in on that. I’d never seen my mother yawn. Ever. Was he truly vampire? Had the Templars managed to simulate vampire speed somehow? I analyzed every scrap of scent that I could, searching for any hint of what he might be but found nothing. Nothing. In the distance, the hum of a motor down the street vibrated closer and closer until I heard the spin of tires on gravel as a car pulled into the parking lot behind the house. The vampire—if that’s what he was—didn’t wait. Lifting his head, he zipped up the stairs with his cloak billowing out behind him. The door
opened, closed, and a draft of cold air blew down from above, signaling he’d left. The next moment, a car door slammed followed by a loud roar as the vehicle peeled out of the parking lot and onto the road and then … silence. I waited about ten more seconds and then jumped to my feet. I had to learn as much as I could before they came back. I darted to the desk first. He’d logged off the computer, so no luck there. The mask startled me, though. An antique fiercelooking face with an intricately carved beard and with just two holes for the eyes. It wasn’t just gold-colored. It looked like the real thing. Frowning, I picked it up and turned it over, finding the inside smooth with no markings of any kind. I took a deep sniff. Nothing. Not one trace of
mana. A low growl rumbled from the open interior door behind me. Slowly, I put the mask down and turned towards the wolf, wondering if it were friend or foe. It stood there, still chained to the ring on the white linoleum floor. The fur along the creature’s spine bristled as it sniffed the air, saliva dripping from its massive canines, its large eyes narrowed into two, long thin slits. Under that wary gaze, I moved to the room, pausing on the threshold to cast a quick glance around. The place was definitely a lab, in every sense of the word. Fluorescent lighting. Ten-gallon drums marked with hazardous waste symbols. Large
metal animal cages lined one wall, empty except the last one in the corner. Something flickered there. A large whiteboard hung on the wall across from the cages, covered with Post-It notes, the writing in that same mysterious script I’d seen before in Emilio’s library in Venice. That surprised me. Was the script a Templar thing? A waft of mana crossed my nostrils then, something odd I’d never encountered before. Unique. Weak, yes, but still hot and intense, a conundrum of a mix. Staying well out of the wolf’s reach, I followed my nose to a bookcase. The source of the mana turned out to be a large blue coffee mug sitting on the top shelf. I picked it up and glanced at the contents. Blood.
I drew back, repulsed, even as I wondered just what kind of blood. It clearly wasn’t human. The wolf startled me with a howl, a long drawn out mournful cry, one reminding me of the jaggers in the mist, and feeling a charge in the air, I whirled. The creature crouched there, still chained to the floor, but mists swirled around it now, Nether Reach mists that altered everything, including the wolf’s appearance. The nails looked longer, the canines sharper, and each strand of its silvertipped fur seemed to practically glow with an unearthly light. The specter in me responded, whispering the desire to unleash itself. At once, the wolf’s head jerked around and it eyed me with open interest.
The white swirls of mist curled around me and then I heard it, the echo of a hair-raising shriek: the cry of a Fallen One. The hair on the back of my neck crawled at the sound. “No,” I growled harshly at the mysterious wolf. “Don’t do that. You’ll call them here.” It bared its teeth at me. Fierce. I understood that. “You really want them here?” I challenged. Apparently, it didn’t. Already, the mists were thinning around us. “What kind of wolf are you?” I asked, frowning. Was there such a thing as a specter wolf? The wolf didn’t answer. It flicked its ears back, and the next moment, an unusually tall, young woman stood in its place. High and wide
cheekbones. Strong nose. Lips holding the hint of a sneer. Rough, raw, one of those Lara Croft bad-ass types complete with silky, black hair pulled back in a no-nonsense ponytail. Her wolf-gray eyes hadn’t changed. They appeared just a shade too large for a human. She stood there, still chained, looking like she’d been through a warzone. Bruised cheekbone. Split lip. Torn jeans. “You smell like him. He murdered my kindred,” she said, her sneer becoming more pronounced with each syllable. So, she knew Dear ol’ Dad the Mindbreaker. “Yeah, well, he murdered mine, too,” I replied woodenly, my voice completely lacking emotion. That provoked a low rumble of a laugh, a bitter laugh if I ever heard one. I didn’t care. “What is this place?” I asked,
glancing around. “A Templar lab? What are they trying to get you to do?” She didn’t answer. Well, she pulled her lip back and bared her teeth. I wasn’t surprised. I hadn’t really expected an answer, anyway. I walked up to the chain and gave it a yank. Of course, it didn’t budge. She could’ve just done that herself. “Where’s the key?” I asked. She lifted a skeptical brow but nodded to a file cabinet near the corner cage. “Top drawer,” she said. “Though you’d be a fool to let me go.” I didn’t think so. I was trusting my gut with this one. “I don’t know what you are, but I do know only the specter kindred can call the mists,” I said, heading for the cabinet. “That makes us family—or close enough, anyway. Obviously, we both could use an ally.”
She growled. I reached for the drawer, but the cage at my feet flickered again, drawing my gaze. Curious, I squatted next to it just as Ricky arrived. Taking one look, he flattened his ears and whispered, “Fire sprites. A troublesome lot. Best keep them caged.” I squinted into the cage at the fire sprites huddled in the back. They were thin, gangly creatures, looking like half-burnt sticks of wood with arms and legs. As they moved, various parts of their bodies flamed to life before fading to smolder and glow like coals. Odd. But even more so was their scent. I recognized it on the first flareup. The contents of the coffee mug? Fire sprite blood. Gruesome.
Rising to my feet, I slammed the bolt back hard with the heel of my boot and unlocked the cage. “Scram,” I told the fire sprites. “Get out of here before he comes back.” I didn’t have to tell them twice. They fled, though not before a few paused to spit in Ricky’s direction. Interesting. Apparently, the dislike was mutual between imps and fire sprites. Turning my attention back to the file cabinet, I yanked the drawer open, fished out the keys, and tossed them at the wolf before the letters scrawled across a manila file registered, forming an all too familiar name. The name of Gloria Ramsey.
Raven The name of Gloria Ramsey stood out on the manila folder in large, bold block letters. Judging from the number of pages crammed inside, the mask-wearing, mystery dude shared Emilio’s obsession with Dorian’s red-headed, save-theEarth hippy sister of a vampire. I didn’t understand their fascination with her—but then, she probably hadn’t tried killing them as infants at least a dozen times or so, either. Such things altered one’s view. I plopped the folder on top of the cabinet for a quick inspection. Photos. Stakeout reports—lots. Apparently, this guy carefully documented her every move. According to the most recent reports, she’d taken to favoring the Roxy Hotel as her
primary residence. Note to self: avoid the Roxy like the plague. I kept flipping through the folder. Pictures. More pictures. And even more pictures. Whatever. I slammed it shut, finding the detour a fairly useless one. A movement at my elbow made me glance back. The black-haired, specter wolf stood close behind me still in her human form, but sans chain this time and with arms akimbo and feet wide apart. “Raven,” she introduced herself tersely, eyeing me up and down as if weighing the temptation to rip out my throat. “The name’s Raven.” “Cassidy,” I replied just as clipped, reaching for the next cabinet drawer. Raven nodded at the parking lot above with a
tilt of her chin. “He’ll be back,” she warned. “Soon, I’m out of here.” “Suit yourself,” I said, yanking the drawer open. Empty. And the next. The last held two slim files about a vampire and a witch, each holding a single sheet of paper, nothing like the Ode to Gloria folder in the top drawer. Losing interest in the file cabinet altogether, I kicked the last drawer shut and headed back to the bookcase when the same distinct hum of the SUV rumbled in the distance. Crud. Back already? I heaved a sigh. Time to leave—for now, anyway. I sprinted back up the stairs and opening the back door, peered out into the darkness. My eyes caught Raven standing in the parking lot, tense, alert, and again as a majestic, gray wolf. Meeting
my gaze, she pivoted and, loping across the asphalt to the back, jumped over the chain-link fence in an effortless arc. I tore out of the house to join her, vaulting over the fence and crouching at her side before the back door even swung shut. A moment later, the SUV pulled in, its headlights cutting through the darkness and fanning over the parking lot like two mini-searchlights before stopping by the back door. Several figures hopped out to vanish inside the house, but not before I took a good, deep whiff of their mana. It didn’t help much. New scents. All of them—except the guy I still couldn’t smell, of course. Humans. Not a Charmed soul in the lot. Knights Templar? As the last one disappeared inside, Raven growled, “That miniature portrait you’ve got. I
recognize it.” Good nose, but with as much mana as the sketch of Lucian held, it wasn’t that surprising she could smell it. I jerked my gaze to meet her eyes, glowing silver in the dark. “How?” I demanded. She shook her head. “It is too dangerous to linger here. Follow me,” she ordered instead, already turning on her massive paws. “I will pay my debt to you, keeper, and then we shall part ways.” I lifted a brow at the word ‘keeper’ but rose to my feet. She was right about the danger. “Then let’s move,” I agreed. “You can crash at my place for a bit,” she offered with a gruff reluctance before eyeing the house with outright hatred blazing in her eyes. “When the heat’s off, you can put some distance
between yourself and that crrrowd.” The last word came out as a prolonged growl. I shrugged. I wasn’t interested in distance nor did I feel inclined to share my plans with her, but her ‘heat’s off’ comment stood out. She sounded as if she knew something about me, and I wanted to know what and how. She bounded away, setting a fast pace and I headed after her. Why did I trust her? It was the mists, I suppose. Instinct. The specter kindred really meant just that: kindred. We ran through the streets in a northerly direction, quickly, and under the cover of darkness. To any humans that saw us, we’d have appeared to be nothing more than a strange flash in their peripheral vision. I didn’t think much during that run. I didn’t want to. I just ran after the wolf, matching her
stride for stride until finally, we arrived at an older, white house with a large wrap-around porch and a yard ringed with bushy pines. A collection of cars in various states of repair cluttered the driveway and an old pickup mounted on cinder blocks took up the entire front yard. Padding to the backyard, Raven jumped onto the porch, shifting into her human-self the moment her feet touched the redwood-stained planking. The next instant, a small streak of gray fur launched itself from the seat of a brightly painted, classical, straight-backed rocking chair. A wolf pup. Interesting. I hadn’t pegged Raven as the motherly type. “Good job staying put, little girl,” Raven grunted at the pup yapping at her heels. “Now run off and tell Eirini we’ve got company.”
The pup obediently dashed away, and Raven watched her go, her stern visage cracking a little before she turned my way. “We’re just guests here ourselves,” she explained, opening the screen door and flipping the light switch. “Eirini’s not one to mess with. You’ll have to keep that imp of yours under control.” Imp. At the word, I scowled and whirled, scanning the area for signs of Ricky. I found them at once in a tangle of twigs and rotting leaves scooting across the backyard, heading in my direction. “Go away,” I hissed. “Vamoose. I’m serious. I’m working alone now.” He took the acknowledgment of his presence as an invitation to join instead. Dropping the attempt at camouflage, he ran for the porch, making
it to the back step just as Raven’s pup returned. The little ball of fur took one sniff and jumped straight at him, jaws open and her entire body wagging. “Down, Fido, down!” Ricky spat, climbing my leg like a tree. “Gorblimey! Give her a biscuit or a soft toy, would you, duck?” I cocked a brow. He’d squealed in pure delight while whizzing around in blender blades. Obviously, the only harm a puppy could cause would be rank irritation—and that was good enough for me. “Great idea,” I agreed, grabbing him by the scruff of the neck and dropping him straight onto the pup’s head. “Enjoy.” As the pup yipped in delight at the prospect of a new chew toy, I turned back to Raven. “Just what
do you know about this sketch?” I asked, getting straight down to business. Raven stood there, leaning casually against the door jamb with a slight wry grin pulling at the corner of her mouth. “Remind me to stay on your good side,” she muttered under her breath. Moving aside to let me pass, she added, “Come on in.” I stepped into a small, cluttered kitchen with yellowed vinyl flooring, Formica countertops, and a wooden kitchen table with three chairs pushed up against the window. Powerful mana hung in the air, Raven and her pup’s, but something else as well, a kind of salty, sea tang that reminded me of the ocean. “Sit,” Raven said, nodding at a chair as she opened a cupboard. Yanking out two chipped coffee mugs, she filled them with water and shoved
them into the microwave before joining me. “Sit,” she repeated, shoving a chair my way as she collapsed into one herself. I sat, stretching out my feet and tapping the table with my finger. “The sketch I have?” I asked and, wanting to know more about her ‘heat’s off’ comment, added, “Is someone looking for me?” Ignoring the last question, she answered the first. “The sketch. I recognize the scent. Smells identical to a larger portrait I saw a couple of weeks ago on a different job, a portrait of Lord Lucian Rowle.” Well, that was a surprise. But there had to be a catch. It couldn’t be that easy. “Where?” I asked curtly. “Oh, it’s not there now,” she replied. “A gaggle of Terzi witches made off with it. I don’t
know where they went, but I know of someone who does. I’ll take you to him. At sundown. But we’ll have to be careful. You’re gonna have to lie low for at least a few days, anyway.” “And why’s that?” I pressed. “You made the Most Wanted List,” she answered readily enough, a distinct trace of humor in her voice. “If you hadn’t saved my hide tonight, I’d have been tracking you myself with the price they put on your head.” She gave me an unapologetically wide, wolf grin. “This hunter always finds her prey, keeper.” I lifted a brow, wondering who’d stuck me on the list. Emilio? Lucian? Strix? All three? And keeper? Was the position hereditary? Thanks to Dear ol’ Dad, was I a keeper, too? If so, how could I use that to my advantage?
The microwave dinged and she got up, returning a moment later with two steaming mugs and two single-serve packets of instant coffee. Some fancy kind of brand named Vive le Café or some such thing. “You’ve got more than one faction looking for you,” Raven said as she stirred the contents of her packet into the water. The pungent scent of coffee filled the air. “Sorry for the battery acid, but it’s all I got.” I opened my packet and, woodenly repeating her motions, pretended to take a sip. I’d dine on mana later. “Just who’s looking for me?” I asked, pulling her back on track. “It might be a shorter conversation to discuss who isn’t,” she said with a humph, but then her gray eyes narrowed and lost all traces of humor.
“But no one else really matters much when you’ve got the carrion of the Reaches after you.” “Carrion?” I echoed, but even as the word left my lips, I knew who she meant. The Fallen Ones. “They’re not ones to cross paths with,” she continued starkly. “If I were you, I’d cut a deal and get out now, while you’re still alive.” Cut a deal? If only it were that simple. And as far as being alive? “Not much they can do, is there?” I muttered dryly. She lifted a slow brow over the rim of her coffee mug in a way that informed me there actually was. “You’re awfully new at this, aren’t you?” she commented and slowly set her mug down. “The Fallen Ones are the bane of the Specter Kindred, Cassidy. One cut,” she dropped
her voice and made a slicing motion across her neck from ear-to-ear. “One cut and it’s over for us.” So ... I could die. Strangely, I felt nothing at the news. My voice turned hard as I replied, “Good to know. So, who else is looking for me?” “Short answer?” she asked, shrugging herself. “Everyone. The two major clans. Marchesi and Terzi. You hit the lists a few hours ago.” Rising to her feet, she crooked a finger over her shoulder bidding me to follow as she stalked into the next room. “I’ll get you some sweats. Catch some sleep. We’ll meet him at sundown.” “Him?” I probed, following her into a small living room with a gray tweed couch, a TV on a dresser, and a wooden chest that served as a coffee table.
Raven waved a hand for me to stay and moved into the adjoining bedroom. A moment later, she reappeared, holding a t-shirt and sweats. “Yeah, I trust him, and that’s rare for me,” she said. “You’ll meet him tonight. I’ll let him give you his name himself. I keep secrets. Even yours.” Odd. I liked that answer. As much as I could like anything, anyway. “Fine,” I grunted, catching the clothing she tossed my way. As she returned to the kitchen, I sank down onto the couch and rested my head on the back, feeling strangely sapped of strength. Closing my eyes, I stayed there, listening to the silence and letting my mind just drift as darkness slowly rose to sweep me away. *** “Limey parasite!”
surroundings at once. Raven’s couch. The lengthening shadows on the wall announced it later than I liked. Ricky stood on the back of the couch, a sodden, dripping puff of smoke, looking remarkably like a half-drowned rat. Before I could open my mouth to object, he shook his entire body like a dog shakes its wet fur, flinging puppy drool in all directions—and a lot on me. “Stop it!” I growled, sitting bolt upright. “I’m all squidgy now. If I take chill, it’s your fault,” the imp gave his best imitation of a dry, hacking cough and managed to look downright pitiful. “Hours. Corralled. I suffered with that creature for hours! A beast. A real beast.” He pointed to Raven’s pup sprawled on her
back exposing her round puppy belly, snoring, and with all four chubby paws in the air. She looked like anything but a beast. I arched a cool brow at Ricky. “I told you to leave. You’re not my responsibility anymore.” He craned his neck and sent me a dirty look. “Eh, the imp contract begs to differ on that score,” he retorted. “I’m stuck like glue until you find that bottle and another willing soul agrees to the terms and signs the contract, pet.” That surprised me. Find the bottle? Yeah, right. I’d left it in Venice on some plane. And as for finding another willing soul to take him on? I’d have more luck finding the bottle. “That’s a terrible deal,” I objected. He gave me a cheeky grin and hopping down beside me, jabbed me in the ribs. “Some say
terrible, some say awesome. It's all in how you pronounce it, love,” he replied with his trademark nasal giggle. I leveled a cool stare his way. Maybe if I ignored him, he’d get bored and leave on his own. “Sunset in thirty minutes,” Raven’s low alto sounded from the kitchen. “You can borrow some clothes if you want. Closet’s in the bedroom. By the time you’re ready, it’ll be time to leave. He’s expecting us.” “Right,” I said. Rising to my feet, I stepped over the pup and headed for a quick shower and clothes. I returned a short time later to find Ricky snoring on the back of the couch. “Ready?” Raven asked from the porch outside.
I joined her with a nod. “He’s not far,” she said, melting into the majestic gray, specter wolf. “Let’s be quick.” “Ready when you are,” I said. I’d scarcely finished the words before she was off. The sun had set. It was getting dark. A cold, soft rain drifted gently down from above as we headed out into the suburbs. We didn’t run far. Only a few blocks later, she jumped over a light tan privacy fence and landed next to a pile of purple milk crates stacked under a streetlight behind a convenience store. “We’re meeting him here?” I asked, lifting a curious brow. The words barely left my lips before a rush of wind blasted my face. I saw him first. He appeared as if from thin
air, the sudden gust ruffling his shoulder-length dark hair. The next instant, I smelled him. He eyed me from under thick, dark lashes as the shadows from the streetlight played over his face, highlighting the scar that graced his lean cheek. Jacques, the leader of the Terzi clan, had arrived.
Mon Enfant Fantôme The last time I’d met Jacques, he’d cracked my ribs throwing me down the stairs. Of course, I’d gotten in a few good punches myself. Still, with him standing so close, I longed for the familiar weight of a silver blade in my hand. He stood there under the streetlight, looking as he always did, just a bit too beautiful to be real. Dressed in a fashionable black trench coat, his hair fell over his face in a dark, sexy wave of mystery, everything about him epitomizing the phrase tall, dark, and handsome to the nth degree. I clenched my jaw. “Jacques,” I grated a greeting before stating the obvious. “So, this is a trap.”
That surprised Raven. She flicked her long, silver-tipped ears. The next instant, she stood as a woman, her thick, black eyeliner underscoring genuine astonishment in her eyes. “You know him?” she asked, indicating the vampire with a jerk of her head. Jacques raised a hand and opened his mouth to speak, but I didn’t give him the chance. Yeah, he was ancient, fast. I knew he could block me if he wanted, but I went for my silver knife anyway. Strangely, he didn’t flex one muscle to stop me. “Don’t move,” I warned, brandishing the blade, torn between curiosity and anger. “I’m not going anywhere with you, Terzi clan leader or not.” Jacques thinned his lips, the corners crooking
up in sympathy. “I’m not here to capture you, Cassidy. I’m here to help,” he said gently, his French accent still coloring his voice even after countless years. I gripped the hilt of my knife tighter. “I don’t need help,” I replied fiercely. Sorrow flickered across his face. Pain that seemed real. “I felt the death of your mother,” he said, striking his heart with his fist. “I’m sorry for your loss, child. I will see her death avenged. I swear it.” He appeared genuinely distressed, but his words meant nothing to me, not even the word ‘mother’. I stared at him unmoved, unfeeling. He’d probably have elicited more emotion in me by talking about the weather. The sympathy on his face and in his voice
deepened. “You’re in shock, Cassidy. We all are. Let me help you, mon enfant fantôme. Come home to your clan. We are Terzi, you and I. This is not a battle you can fight alone. Not with what we have learned this very fateful day.” “Not interested,” I said with a nonchalant shrug. “I’m on my own now. If that’s all, I’m going —” “Wait,” he cut in, holding out a hand. I raised my dagger a little higher in warning. “Not one step closer, Jacques.” The smile curving his lips was a sad one. “You do not need weapons with me, ma cherie.” Slowly, so I could see each fluid movement, he removed a piece of paper from his coat pocket and held it up between two long fingers. “This is what you seek, child. A name. I knew nothing of the
portrait curse on Lord Lucian Rowle until Raven’s message last night. I’ve discovered only one identity so far, a Terzi rogue. I give you her name, Cassidy, but beware. She’s dangerous.” I narrowed my eyes, still suspecting a trap of some kind. Jacques sighed. He turned to Raven then and even though he veiled his expressive eyes with long, thick lashes, I couldn’t miss the look he sent her, one of the smoldering, sensual kind. “I thank you, ma belle louve, for keeping her safe,” he murmured, before addressing me once again. “Someday, you’ll understand what a clan means, but until then, I leave this name for you. Remember, if you call, I will come. Au revoir.” With a bow, he let the paper drop from his fingers. He was gone before it reached the ground.
Trapping the folded sheet with the heel of my boot, I lifted a brow at Raven, still standing next to the crates. “Thanks. Your debt’s paid. See you around.” I shot the words out like bullets. I didn’t wait for her response. I snatched the paper from the ground, and tucking it into my pocket, vaulted back over the privacy fence. I ran then, as fast as I could and occasionally checked over my shoulder for signs of pursuit, but neither Raven nor Jacques followed as far as I could tell. Leaving the suburbs, I headed back into the city. I was hungry. I needed energy before anything else. Stepping out of the shadows, I headed to the first subway stop and only after picking up a quick meal amidst the jostling crowds, read the name and address scribbled on Jacques’ slip of paper.
Wendy. Wendy Baldwin. And an address in Queens, right on the way back to the Templars’ lab. Fine. I’d be efficient and check Wendy out first. “Showtime,” I muttered under my breath. If it was a trap, I’d deal with it there. *** When I saw Wendy, my first instinct was to laugh aloud. How could anyone think her dangerous? Not even five feet tall, she looked like Mrs. Claus. White hair, laughing brown eyes, and round, wire-rimmed glasses perched on the end of a button nose. She even wore a bright red sweater and soft suede, black ankle boots. But with Wendy, my first instinct proved wrong. It didn’t take long to discover her mean streak—not with Ricky around. I would soon find out much to my misfortune, the puff of smoke had tailed me.
I hopped off the train at the nearest stop, taking long strides up the subway steps and out into the busy sidewalks above. I found the address a few blocks over, a small art supply store on the bottom floor of an old, brick building with rusted, barred windows and door. A flickering neon sign announced it still open, its bright pink light illuminating a hastily written note advertising oil painting classes every night for the next week from 7 until 10PM. I strode inside, a leather cat collar studded with brass bells jingled from the top of the door announcing my entrance. The next instant, Wendy’s mana blasted my nostrils. Yeah, I’d never met her before, but now faced with her raw scent, I found it unique enough to pick out from the blend I’d detected on Lucian’s sketch.
So, Jacques hadn’t sent me on a wild goose chase. Good to know. At a scuffle to my left, I whirled to see a bald man wearing a blue flannel shirt heading my way, dragging a large cardboard box behind him. “How can I help you?” he asked, his thin lips barely moving from under a birdlike nose. I took a deep breath first. Human. Not one drop of Charmed blood. “Just looking,” I replied, heading down the paint and brush aisle. The man mumbled something after me, but I focused on Wendy’s mana instead, tracking her trail to a small, dingy room at the back. Someone had taped a sign on the door, a sheet of paper with the hastily written words of ‘Classes Here.’ Unsheathing a knife for good measure, I slipped it up my jacket sleeve before peering
through the doorway into a standard cluttered craft room, the scent of glue, paint, and turpentine warring with the mana in the air. And that’s when I saw Wendy, looking harmless enough and all grandmotherly with a brush in her hand and a streak of blue paint on her chin. She stood behind a table of old ladies dabbing splotches of paint on largely blank canvases. Paint tubes, art books, and glass mason jars of brush cleaner littered the surfaces around them. The instant I appeared in the door, Wendy glanced over and greeted me with a warm smile. “Can I help you, darling? Have you come to join us? We’ve got plenty of room. Come on in.” Wary of a Terzi witch with a brush in her hand —no matter how friendly she looked—I simply
shook my head. “No thanks. I’m just checking things out.” Still smiling, she adjusted her glasses on her nose and subjected me to a deeper inspection. A few seconds later, her aged face crinkled into an even wider smile. Apparently, I passed the test. “No need to be shy,” she insisted. “Try it out. Painting is food for the soul. Isn’t it, ladies?” The last comment she addressed to the old women grouped at the table. They cackled and tittered, waving their knobby hands in arthritic invitations to join them. “So, which ol’ blue-haired bat are we going after?” Ricky’s snarky voice suddenly snorted near my elbow. “The one resembling a Muppet or the one who looks like Gollum?” He spoke softly. I could barely hear him.
Surely, the women in the room couldn’t have, but he had the effect of a bolt of lightning on Wendy. With a harsh intake of breath, she lifted one hand to draw a symbol in the air with her brush, while with the other, she rapped her knuckles on the table, hard. At once, the old women clustered around the tables froze in some kind of spell—all except two, one who surprisingly looked like a Muppet and the other, the Gollum creature from Lord of the Rings. “An imp,” Wendy hissed, her grandmotherly smile melting into a severe, angry line. A chortle from the Muppet-lookalike jarred my attention her way. “Let’s catch it,” she suggested in a thin, reedy voice. “It’s been years since I got my fingers on genuine imp smoke.” “Come out, come out, wherever you are,” the
Gollum-witch sang. Wendy grabbed a mason jar and with a flick of her wrist, hurled it straight at me. She missed. It whizzed past my cheek to shatter against the door jamb—but then maybe she wasn’t aiming for me. Behind me, I heard Ricky squeal like an injured animal. The sound propelled me into action. I attacked, but not with my knife. Oddly, I forgot about it completely and instead, with a wild, banshee cry, flared into specter form, my altered vision enabling me to see the thick, colorful threads of mana swirling in the room. Fear. Maybe it was time I learned to play the harp. With a cold sense of detachment, I reached for the threads, seeking ones I could manipulate. As I moved, I caught sight of my boney hand
and grinned as the women gasped. Of course, my banshee appearance frightened them, even before I’d figured out how to ‘play the harp’. There was only one thing I could say to that: good. Taking full advantage of my ghoulish appearance, I lurched their way, feeling a ripple of pleasure as the old women fell back with a collective gasp. I zeroed in on the big, yellow string of mana stemming from Wendy’s outstretched hands. It did resemble a harp string, but just how did one ‘play’ fear? Reaching out, I ran a fingertip over the string several times before deciding to give it a vicious pluck. I guess my specter instincts came into play then. Apparently, I’d plucked it just right. The mana thread shimmered in response and I watched the vibrations travel back down to the source.
Wendy shuddered the instant they hit. Fear? Well, if not fear, something very much like it crossed her face. Grabbing a spray bottle from the table, she began misting the air as she raised her voice in a sudden, frantic curse. For good measure, I plucked the thread again before moving to the other witches, taking satisfaction in their sharp gasps and paling faces as the vibrations rolled over them. But they had a few tricks of their own up their sleeves. Despite their fear, they banded together and linking arms, raised their voices in a communal curse. I responded with another banshee cry, sending the mana around me vibrating wildly in all directions. The women turned white. Their voices
weakened but they didn’t stop. They were old, experienced. Despite the waves of fear I lobbed at them, they finally finished their spell anyway, and at the last word, bright, blue balls of mana erupted from their fingers and raced straight back at me. Crud. I was particularly susceptible to spells —even from the greenest of witchlings. I’d only just wondered what damage a combined curse from masters would do, when the blue mana balls came to a screeching halt about three feet away and bouncing off some kind of invisible shield, careened towards the ceiling instead. A moment later, they evaporated with a harmless pffft. I lifted a brow. So. Lucian still protected me. Raw fear, heavy and real, flashed over the women’s faces then. Abruptly, they broke off their
attack and as one, fled back into the art store as if the fires of hell lapped at their heels. But then, perhaps they did. The last woman had scarcely escaped from the room when a different kind of cry sounded from over my shoulder, a dim echo of a Fallen One’s scream. Gasping myself, I whirled to see Nether Reach mists choking the air behind me, along with the shadow of a hand, a very disturbing hand. The shock jolted me out of specter form and just in time. Again, I heard the deep rumble of Casideeeee coming through the mists as the hand stretched closer but before it could reach me, the mists faded away, taking with them the threat of the Fallen One’s arrival. I took a deep, shuddering breath. Cripes. I’d
lucked out. A little uneasy with the shade lurking within me, I vowed to avoid specter form and pivoted on my heel. I had Wendy on the run now. Maybe she’d lead me to the portrait, or at the very least, to another clue of where it might be. I couldn’t lose her now. Ricky huddled against the door jamb, looking a little frazzled but unharmed. He waved as I jumped over his head and dashed back through the store. Wendy had spelled the bald cashier on her way out, leaving him frozen like a mannequin, holding a blank canvas in the middle of the aisle. Skipping past him, I burst out onto the sidewalk and lifting my head to the sky, took a deep breath. I found her trail immediately. She hadn’t even bothered to cover her tracks, at least not for the
first few blocks. After that, she’d apparently calmed down enough to attempt hiding herself from me. It didn’t work. I still managed to track her six blocks further north to a row of redbrick townhouses with crumbling concrete steps and doors with chipped paint. To my surprise, I found Wendy herself midway down the block. From her out-of-breath appearance, she’d only just arrived on her front porch. She obviously didn’t share Lucian’s warlock speed. She stood there panting at the front door, visibly shaking as she juggled the contents of her purse in the search for keys. Every few seconds, she paused to cast a quick, anxious glance over her shoulder to make sure I hadn’t followed her. Good. I had her nervous. A shallow smile
played on my lips at the thought. I stayed on the opposite side of the street and slipped farther back into the shadows behind an empty black van. Eventually, she unlocked her door and stumbled inside. Seconds later, a light flipped on in a second-story window. Through the open curtains, I saw her talking on a cellphone, pacing back and forth and waving her hands in broad, animated gestures. “Blimey, but she can’t be up to anything good the way she’s chattering on that blower,” Ricky’s loud stage whisper broke my train of thought. I scowled. “Scram. You’ve caused enough trouble already.” “Hoighty-toighty, how was I to know those witches had set imp traps, eh?” He shrugged and slithering up the side of the van, perched to sit
cross-legged on the very top. “Lucky I distracted them into revealing themselves, eh? Otherwise, they’d have invited you in and had you spelled or my name isn’t Richard Thaddeus Mavromoustafakis.” Deep inside, I suspected he was right, but I wasn’t in the mood to acknowledge it. Instead, I let a long, loud breath of annoyance out of my nostrils and nodded at the house across the street. “If I can’t get rid of you, make yourself useful. I’m going in that house,” I told him. “You’re good with locks. Go open the door.” His grin took up his entire face. Rubbing his smoke fingers together in excitement, he leapt off the van and dashed across the street—or at least I think he did. It was dark. He was made of black smoke. I couldn’t really tell where he was or if
he’d gotten sidetracked again. I stood there glowering and burrowed my chin into my jacket. A few pedestrians wandered by, but after catching one glimpse of me, hurried off in the opposite direction. Good. I didn’t want to deal with anyone. I waited … and waited. Finally deciding Ricky had gotten sidetracked, I stepped off the curb to break into Wendy’s house myself when he suddenly scrambled up my boot. Climbing up through my jacket, he giggled triumphantly in my ear. “Pop around to the back, guvna. The door’s wide open.” I responded with a grunt and took the street in long strides to the narrow alley that separated each group of four townhouses. Wendy’s backyard looked just like any other in the neighborhood, a
cookie-cutter, graveled five-foot-square plot, just enough for a trashcan. I cleared the two steps and, trusting that Ricky had really come through, reached for the knob. The smoky imp jumped onto the bricks, glomming onto them like a lizard. He hung there with a proud, cheeky grin as slowly, I opened the door and leaned inside for a look. A shaft of light from a nearby hallway spilled into the room. The place was musty. Old. Judging from the shabby furniture and red-flocked wallpaper, no one had remodeled it in years. I took a deep breath, finding Wendy’s mana prevalent in the place, embedded in the walls even, along with stale traces of the witches Ricky had dubbed Gollum and the Muppet. Clearly, those women had spent a lifetime here, casting spells.
“She’s upstairs, still
announced, gleefully scampering into the room ahead of me. I moved inside, allowing the door to shut quietly behind me as my eyes adjusted to the dim lighting. I saw them then. Paintings. Lots. Layers of them. All of them portraits and creepy ones. The occupants lurking in each frame appeared alive, almost … breathing. Ricky startled me by dropping down from the ceiling to land on my shoulder. “Not too keen on those, guvna,” he hissed in my ear, pointing at the frames. I scowled but nodded in agreement and scanned the walls for Lucian’s likeness. I didn’t find it. Of course. It wouldn’t be that easy. Suddenly, Ricky pinched my earlobe and
dragged my head to the right. “Eh, not so keen on that either, duck,” he said, pointing a warning finger up to the ceiling. “Not a good sign, that.” I glanced up, taking a moment to recognize the moving mass above for what it was. They were small. Tiny. The only kind of spiders you don’t find yourself tripping over your feet to get away from. Well, one or two at a time, anyway. With the numbers writhing on the ceiling over my head, I almost ran anyway. The only thing that stopped me was the sound of a motor cutting off outside and boots clomping up the steps. I dove for cover behind the couch as the door knob jiggled and a blast of winter air rushed through the room. An all too familiar and entirely unexpected scent assaulted my nostrils then. The light flipped
on and a harsh, strident voice rang through the room—a voice I’d heard before. “Wendy? I’m here. Quit talking on the phone and come down. Hurry up.” Slowly, I peeked around the back of the couch for a visual validation. Blonde hair. Gray eyes. Pink lips. A face reminding me a bit of a monkey. She wore a long gray coat, hot-pink yoga pants, and knee-high, rubber Hunter rain boots with white fleece inserts. Anya.
Dysfunction at its Finest Anya Maria Tudor—the spider-obsessed, Romanian witch who’d almost killed Lucian— stood in the hallway, her honey-blonde hair pulled back in a bun with a new tarantula hair accessory fastened to the side. I eyed the furry arachnid suspiciously, wondering what spell it protected. As I watched, Anya took her cellphone out of her coat pocket and began scanning her messages, the star-shaped scar on the back of her hand standing out even in the room’s dim light. “Wendy, I’m here,” she called out again, jabbing her phone with an annoyed finger. “What’s the big emergency? I don’t have all night.” Upstairs, a door opened and closed and the
old witch from the art store hissed from the top of the steps, “You didn’t say she was unholy. Dangerous! That’s what she is, plain dangerous! I tell you, you’ll need a lot more than a few witches to catch the likes of her. I’m off the case. You can’t pay me enough for this, girl! I don’t spell the unholy. That scar on your hand should be enough to scare you off, too!” Anya’s slender form went rigid. “You saw her? Where? When?” So, Anya had put a price on my head? As I absorbed that surprise, Wendy stormed down the stairs, each step creaking a protest under her weight until she appeared at the bottom, wearing a fluffy, yellow bathrobe and her hair half done up in pink, plastic curlers. “She found me. How’s that, I ask?” the old
Terzi witch huffed before unleashing a barrage of questions. “Just what does she know? What aren’t you telling me? I only just got the job order and the girls and I had just started painting! How did she find us? We hadn’t even set the spell yet. Do we have a leak? She couldn’t have sensed it on her own now, could she? Heavens, Jacques doesn’t know, does he?” Anya’s nostrils flared, drawing attention to the lower half of her face that most resembled a primate. “It’s a coincidence,” she retorted in a flat voice. “They don’t know anything about you, and she’s weak, Wendy, practically useless. You’re getting yourself riled up for no reason. Calm down and tell me when you last saw her?” But there was no placating the old woman. “Oh, she’s long gone now,” she snapped angrily.
“She can move. Fast. And that imp of hers, it’s a crafty one. Set off all the traps without falling into any of the spells, basically stole the cheese, it did. What kind of imp can do that? It didn’t even take the turmeric. Not one gram. That imp certainly isn’t the turmeric addict you claimed him to be. You’re lying. Why’s that?” Uh, Ricky refusing turmeric? Riiiight. I almost snorted a laugh. Anya’s chin snapped up. “Have a care, Wendy, we pay you well. Very well!” she warned in a harsh tone. “You’re the one making a mistake here. Maybe you’re getting too old for the job.” I arched a brow. Well, if she thought Ricky’d bypassed the turmeric, I had to reluctantly agree with Anya on this one. The witch brushed the comments aside and
continued her accusations undaunted. “You’re withholding important details here, girl. Just what have you gotten me involved in? That Cassidy is unholy.” She shuddered and fanned her face. Anya rolled her eyes. “Cassidy is nothing. Nothing. She’s useless. Ignorant. Stupid. Weak,” she spat each accusation with increasing venom and with a disparaging toss of her head, added a few more. “She’s obnoxious. Annoying. A thickheaded, ugly fool. And she’s cheap. Cheap.” Wow. I hadn’t realized she even knew my name, let alone hated me so much. I stared at the back of her blonde head, puzzled. “Well, you’re wrong on that score, Anya,” Wendy snorted, jutting out her jaw in disagreement. “She’s certainly no fool. Your obsession with Lucian is clouding your judgment here. Oh, and
while we’re on the subject of warlocks, just take a wild guess who’s protecting her, would you? Those wards deflected our strongest, joint spell. There’s only one warlock who could’ve pulled that off.” Anya’s nostrils flared again and her mouth thinned into an angry line. “You’re wrong. He cares nothing for her,” she retorted, her lips trembling a little. My lips parted in surprise. So. That was it? She carried a flame for Lucian? But … hadn’t she just tried to kill him? Huh? I missed the next exchange. When I tuned back in, Anya had made a decision. “I’ll send the wolves,” she was saying with a stubborn tilt of her chin. “They’ll find her. She can’t have gone far. The art store is just a few
blocks away.” Wendy shrugged. “You can try catching her, but you’ll need a lot more than wolves, foolish girl —especially with Lucian in the mix here. Get your head out of the clouds. He’s involved with this one —” “No,” Anya interrupted stiffly. “You’re wrong. Leave Lucian to me.” Wendy responded with a sarcastic laugh. “Oh, haven’t we already done that?” Putting her hands on her hips, she struck a pose and continued in a high falsetto. “I’ll take care of Lucian. He’s mine. I’ve got his heart wrapped around my little fing—” “Stop it!” Anya snapped, clenching her hands into fists. The old Terzi witch obliged, but the look she leveled at Anya smacked of disgust. “You’re a fool
if you think you can control him, even with what’s left of that portrait you’re hoarding. Didn’t he just stand at death’s door not that long ago? If that doesn’t tell you that he’d rather die than give in to you, I don’t know what will. You can pluck every hair out of your head and make a thousand brushes for me to paint with. It won’t make one jot of difference. He doesn’t love you. He never will. You’re an idiot—” “That’s enough,” Anya said, raising her voice to drown out Wendy’s. “You’re off the case. I’ll give it to the wolves. Enough! I’m finished here.” Wendy stood there, huffing, clucking, and shaking her head from side to side before cinching her bathrobe tighter around her waist and sweeping back upstairs. With a huff of her own, Anya left.
I paused. I really needed to rile up the Templars and set them on Emilio. And it was dark, no doubt, half the Charmed population was out looking for me … but had I heard right? Had Wendy just given me an all-important answer? You’re a fool if you think you can control him, even with what’s left of that portrait you’re hoarding. Anya had Lucian’s portrait? I didn’t hesitate further. I followed. *** Anya led me to the Roxy, Gloria’s hideout and a place I’d planned to avoid. With its marquee lights, red bricks inside and out, engraved copper ceiling tiles, and vintage milk-glass lighting fixtures, the place made me feel like someone had
transported me back to the 1920’s. I entered, hanging back as Anya minced across the Persian carpets covering the floor of a lobby fitted with tufted leather couches in various shades of red, black, and beige. The entire place was edgy. Retro. Chic. A doorman wearing a red velour uniform met Anya by the elevators. “Your guest has arrived, ma’am,” he said in a polite, carefully neutral tone. “I sent him on up to Penthouse 8.” The blonde-haired Romanian witch didn’t bother to respond. Tossing her head, she pulled out her phone again and started flipping through her messages. The doorman just nodded. Obviously, he was used to her shenanigans. “Allow me,” he said into the silence and reaching over, pressed the
elevator’s up button. He waited by her side, a fake smile plastered over his face as the elevator car began its slow ascent. Up. That was easy enough. I left them there and hit the stairs seeking my own alternate route to the very top. I found one in the service stairs, and minutes later, strolled across the hotel’s tar-andgravel roof to scale a block wall and peer into Penthouse 8’s secluded rooftop terrace directly below. An open-aired haven met my eyes, an oasis with a marble floor, a circular cream-colored couch, and a virtual forest of evergreen potted plants hugged the perimeters against the dramatic backdrop of the city skyline. In the center, a modern, floating staircase wound down into the penthouse below. Voices drifted up through the opening. A man
and a woman’s—Anya’s. Bingo. I took a deep breath, searching for mana, but the chill night wind interfered, and I couldn’t detect a thing. Moving closer to up my detection chances, I dropped from the wall and landed silently behind the largest collection of potted plants in the far corner. My foot had scarcely touched the tiles when I saw them. Thousands. Heaps of tiny spiders poured out of the tile cracks, shifting on the terrace floor like a pile of sand. Crud. I must’ve triggered a trap. Unsheathing my knives, I stood at the ready, certain the little suckers had betrayed me, but either their spidey-sense wasn’t so hot or they really didn’t care about me lurking there on the rooftop.
Nothing happened. No one barreled up the stairs my way. The spiders kept moving, and then as I watched, they squatted in formation. Slowly, they marched in lines to form the intricately woven Celtic circles of the Mindbreaker’s symbol, down to the tiniest detail. Were they communicating to me … or calling him? Whatever the case, it certainly couldn’t be good. Before I could do anything about it, Anya chose that moment to stomp up the stairs and emerge onto the terrace looking grim and angry, her nostrils flaring wide. “This situation is out of control,” she snapped. “None of this was supposed to happen!” The next instant, I smelled him.
Emilio. I barely had time to register his presence before his voice snaked across the terrace. “You walk a thin line. Such a fine, un sottile confine.” I swore silently under my breath. Emilio? Here? This really wasn’t good, but what could I do? I couldn’t even lift a finger without exposing my hiding place. Probably couldn’t even breathe. Helpless, I could do nothing more than watch. Emilio blurred up the stairs to materialize behind Anya. He wore a black tuxedo with a crisp white shirt, and his fingers curled around his everpresent whisky tumbler. Putting the glass to his lips, he tossed the remainder of the liquid into his mouth and swished it around before commanding, “Know your place.” Apparently, Anya didn’t, or she was so
agitated, she hadn’t heard him. “Dead. In the ground,” she spat acidly. “That’s where she belongs. Dead. D. E. A. D.” Emilio frowned in displeasure. “I have asked you this question twice already. Answer it. Where is she?” he demanded. “Why is she not standing here before me now? Eh? Why?” I huddled behind the plants, still stunned to learn that Anya was in cahoots with Emilio. Although, the fact he’d have his fingers in every piece of the pie—Terzi, Marchesi, or whatever— didn’t really surprise me. And it explained a hella lot. Like why we’d found his precious ring in Anya’s townhouse to begin with. But more importantly, it implied he must’ve been the mastermind behind Anya’s attempt on Lucian’s life. Weird. Why? Especially when he already held the
key to Lucian’s existence: the Terzi portrait and the sketch that unlocked it. Unable to hold still, Anya began pacing in tight circles around the couch. “All factions are on the move,” she was saying in a brusque manner. “They’ll drag her in soon enough.” Emilio tossed his head back and laughed, a low, mirthless laugh rife with contempt. “Soon enough? Presto! Presto! That is not a precise enough answer, foolish girl. Time is not a friend here. Deliver her to me. At once. Subito! That is what I ask of you. Do you not listen?” Obviously, the her of this conversation had to be me. And it was a tad ironic. I mean, unbeknownst to them both, Anya actually had delivered me straight into his hands—or to the same rooftop anyway. That neither Emilio nor
Anya noticed was fortunate, even though a bit surprising, especially with the mounds of little spiders still marching to the Mindbreaker tune at my feet. “Cassidy was never in the plan,” Anya was saying. “She’s complicated everything. I am Lucian’s intended bride. My finger should wear the Rowle ring along with everything it means!” Emilio’s dark eyes flashed and his fangs bared. “Silenzio! Silence! Plans change. She succeeded where you failed, foolish girl. And now? Now, I must have her before me. I must bend her to my will before it is too late.” My lip curled at that one. Bend me to his will? Right. He really was a madman. But Anya was still stuck on Lucian, and the candle she held for him was a hot and heavy one.
“You took Lucian away from me. You! Supporting that engagement was a fatal mistake, Emilio! You ruined the plan! We began to lose control from the moment he met her. You should’ve killed her that very night. Oh, you had so many, many chances!” Bloodthirsty much? I settled in, highly interested. After all, they were heavily discussing plans and their plans were something I could throw monkey wrenches into, intentionally this time. Emilio tossed his empty glass onto the couch and took a cigar out of his pocket. Slowly, ever so slowly, he lit the thing and after taking two, very long puffs, said, “Plans change. You failed. So many mistakes. Grossi errori. The mess you created.” He paused and shook his head, obviously having no issue with rubbing her nose in it.
“Distraction. Distrarre l'uomo. Just distract the man so he will remain blind to what he is. It’s all I’ve asked of you. Weaken him. Allow me to regain control of this latchling, this latchling I took at birth, and this latchling I need so very desperately. He is essential. That is all I asked. So simple. So very, very simple.” Anya’s nostrils flared again, even wider this time. Dropping his voice low, Emilio’s whisper alone betrayed the depth of his anger. “But did you accomplish this simple, so easy task, foolish girl?” But Anya, it seemed, was either pigheaded, obtuse, or completely delusional—maybe all three. “We do not need her. Let’s change the contract,” she stubbornly replied. “We have him in the palm of our hands now. It will all be over at the event.
The brushes remade, the portrait repainted. He’ll be ours to command. She’s a distraction. A wild card. It’ll be better when she’s dead!” I cocked a brow. Well, Anya was consistent at least. She certainly wanted me dead. “Fool!” Emilio spat, clearly at the end of his patience. “Open your eyes. The latchling does not lust after you. With Lucian, you have failed. It is over. Finished. Finito!” Latchling. What the heck was this latchling thing about? I wondered at the word even as I watched a pink rage tinge Anya’s cheeks. “Remove the distraction, and he will see only me,” she swore, her chin trembling with the force of her anger. “You knew this, this engagement was a threat to your hold on him. Why did you let it happen? Why didn’t you kill her then? Are you
protecting her?” Emilio clucked and laughed, a cold and very cruel sound. “Protect her? Not then. No, it was always about Lucian then. Not her. Oh, I stopped what I could, foolish girl. I corrected your mistake. Yours. The first moment I saw them together, I knew that had I touched her, I would have lost the latchling forever. Delay? The best I could do. But I? I am not blind. Lucian has eyes only for your sister. Cassidy holds the key now. Cassidy. His wards for her now? Unbreakable. Infrangibile ...” His voice droned in the background, no doubt revealing vital information I’d need to dance my way out of this tangled web, but my attention had snagged on one particular word. Sister?
I frowned behind the potted junipers and other plants clustered in the corner of the terrace, momentarily stuck on the word “sister”. Beneath my feet, the miniscule spiders continued their militaristic formations. So. Did Emilio mean sister as in the general sisterhood of women? Could be. Or did he mean sister as in… sister-sister? I lifted a speculative brow. He’d been alive for centuries. Maybe I wasn’t the only fluke. Maybe I had hundreds of siblings out there. The sound of shattering glass drew my
attention back to their conversation. Anya had grabbed Emilio’s empty whisky tumbler from the couch and had dashed it to the terrace floor. I half-expected Emilio to grab her by the neck and pin her against the wall like he always did with me, but he merely laughed, a full and deepthroated laugh that rang through the dark New York City night. “Ah, but fortune favors me now. Centuries I have waited. So many years. Tanti anni. I refuse to wait any longer. Lucian? He eats out of the palm of her hand like a dog, un cane.” He smiled, a chilling, ruthless smile. “With her, I control this latchling at last.” “Stop it!” Anya gasped, as if protesting would automatically change the universe to her liking.
Even in the dim lighting, I could see the vein pulsing on her forehead. But Emilio wasn’t listening. He stood on the terrace, his eyes locked into the distance and lit with a strange combination of anger and excitement. “Cassidy inherited my blood, the keeper’s blood. You?” He turned to Anya then and said the fateful words, “You are your mother’s daughter. A witch. A simple witch. I fathered you, but you inherited nothing from me. Useless. Un esperimento inutile.” Well, there was no denying it now. The blonde Romanian witch hellbent on my demise really was related. In this case, sister really meant sister. Yeah, I experienced a momentary twinge of dismay—repulsion, perhaps—at the discovery my twisted, dysfunctional family tree had sprouted
acknowledged the feeling before it fled. I didn’t have to feign indifference. I felt it. It left me cold, calculating, and wondering just how I might turn this newfound knowledge to my advantage. “Cassidy, lass,” Dorian’s voice cut into my thoughts. “Talk to me.” As always, Dorian had rotten timing. I straightened my shoulders and shook him off to focus on Anya. She looked furious, standing before Emilio and waving her hands, obviously desperate. Pitiful, even. “One last chance, father,” she was begging. “The gala. When I bring the portrait to the gala, he’ll forget about her. When he sees me, and with fresh strands of his hair woven with mine, Wendy can regain control. She’s positive the brush will
work this time. Absolutely convinced.” Yep. Delusional. Wendy hadn’t said anything like that. Emilio didn’t believe her either. He made a sound of disgust. The next moment, he abruptly whirled, focusing his eyes like twin lasers in my direction. I froze, not even daring to breathe. “What is it?” Anya hissed, following his gaze my way. Hex it. Somehow, he’d discovered me. Had the spiders’ message finally gotten through? I watched, tense, as he tilted his head speculatively from right to left. Yeah. I was going to have to make a run for it. “Emilio!” a man’s voice drifted up from the penthouse below. “Quickly!”
Lucian? “They’re here,” Anya said then, her countenance brightening at once. “Maybe they’ve found her.” A smile spread over Emilio’s lips then and spinning on his heel, he flashed back down the stairs and into the penthouse with Anya close behind. I didn’t waste a second. It was now or never to put some much-needed distance between myself and Emilio’s cronies. I scaled the terrace wall and dashed across the hotel’s rooftop. What a night of revelations. Success on several fronts. I not only had a rock-solid lead on Lucian’s portrait, I had confirmation that its loss would harm Emilio even more than I’d thought. I smiled in anticipation of the moment.
But I didn’t let myself crow for long. I was a hunted thing. Obviously, I had more than one kind of hound from hell chasing me down. I needed my Emilio distraction. Pronto. Getting those Templars on Emilio’s tail had to be my highest priority. I couldn’t keep trusting my luck. Reaching the roof-access door, I yanked it open and barreled through, leaping over the railing to drop directly down onto the first landing. I didn’t expect to see him standing there waiting for me, but considering the Roxy was his sister’s favorite hideout, I really should’ve expected it. Dorian. Powerful and overwhelming, he loomed from the shadows, his stern brows scowling over jadegreen eyes that glittered at me from down the
strong slope of his nose. His brown head sported a modern, fashionable crop, and he’d traded his kilt for a fleece-lined denim jean jacket, a striped shirt open at the neck, and dark, slim-fit jeans. Before I could even twitch a finger, he clamped a heavy hand on my shoulder and pulled me after him, down every flight of stairs to the hotel’s jazz club cellar entrance. With one swift kick, he crashed the door wide open and dragged me inside. The place smelled like bleach. A yellow ‘Wet Floor Sign’ stood on a still-damp floor. Apparently, the night crew had only just finished cleaning up after the evening’s patrons. I cast a quick glance at my surroundings, taking in the vaulted ceilings, peeling faux paint, and cocktail bar. The word Django stood out in bright red paint
on the back of the stage wall. Dorian half carried me to a red leather booth with a bowl of peanuts on the table. He tossed me down, snagged a walnut-stained Bentwood chair from a neighboring table and, flipping it around, took a seat. Letting out a long sigh like a punctured balloon, he folded his massively muscled arms across the back to just sit there and look at me. Even with his trendy haircut and clothes, he still looked like a fifteenth century highlander to me. Raw. Rough. Brawny. I matched his silent stare with a cold one of my own. As the seconds dragged on, I finally headed him off with a wary, “Whatever it is you want to say, I’m not interested.” The statement only goaded him into talking. I
couldn’t complain. The sooner we got this over with, the better. With a confident and cool shrug as well as a distinct note of sympathy in his voice, he replied, “You’re mad with sorrow, lass. You canna wage this battle on your own now. ‘Tis far, far too perilous.” He might have said more. I don’t really know. I zoned out. The peanuts grabbed my attention. Ricky bribes. As long as the little runt was hanging around me, I might as well be prepared to coerce him into doing more things my way and for me. It couldn’t hurt carrying peanuts around. I’d just finished stuffing the third handful into my inner jacket when Dorian’s strong fingers caught me by the wrist to give me a little shake. I looked up into his face. I suppose the
bleeding sympathy on his face would’ve melted the hardest of hearts, but I didn’t even have a heart, soft or hard. “Ach, ‘twas an almost mortal wound, lass,” he was saying. He paused, as if accessing the clan party line before resuming with, “Mayhap ‘twill make more sense if I speak in the present turn of phrase, aye? Shock. You’re in shock, as they say it now.” I wasn’t in the mood for useless pontification or lecturing. “I’m busy,” I said in a curt, flat tone. “Nice chat.” I moved to stand up, but his strong fingers caught my forearm and yanked me back down again. “Aye, but you’re not fine at all, lass,” he disagreed firmly. I snorted. “Look, no tears. No hysterics.
Nothing.” Honestly, I really felt nothing. Surely, he could see that. Blair hadn’t been the motherliest of mothers. He just stared at me again. Irritated, I blew a loud, long breath and drummed my fingers on the table. “You’ve got nothing left to say? Ok, are we done now? I’m busy.” He reached over then and tucked an auburn, errant strand of hair behind my ear in an almost paternal gesture. “‘Tis dangerous on your own. There’s a price on your head. The city teems with masters of the hunt, keen on snaring you like a hare. And you need training afore you face him. Come back with me. The clan will see you taken care of, aye?” He kept blathering on, but I’d reached my
final limit. Clenching my jaw, I unsheathed a silver dagger from my boot and drove it deep into the table, slapping the top of the hilt with my palm for added emphasis. “I’m busy, Dorian. I’m really busy,” I repeated, standing up again. This time, he didn’t try to stop me, but he did sigh and, licking his lips, murmured softly as I brushed past him, “We’ll not let your mother’s death go unavenged. She was a member of the clan, lass.” That made me pause. An anger I wasn’t aware I’d had simmering within me suddenly surged into a rage. “And why would I believe you? You didn’t help her much while she was here, did you? She basically had to scrabble around in the garbage to find something to eat.” He started yammering something along the
lines that she’d chosen to live with Emilio but I didn’t have the patience for it. I shot him a frosty look and just left. I had things to do. I strode down a redbrick-lined hallway covered with jazz posters and headed back to the lobby to pick up Anya’s trail once again. I found it. Fresh. Leading right out the front door. Crud. She’d already left. I forced myself to relax, consciously imposing upon my fists to unclench and, hoping Dorian’s little intervention hadn’t ultimately cost me her address, skipped outside the hotel in the hopes of still finding her. Anya’s trail led me down the street to a nearby underground parking garage. Second floor. Third space next to the elevator. But there, her trail vanished abruptly.
Hex it. Now I had to find her all over again. I was tired of flying by the seat of my pants, but what choice did I have with so many moving pieces that refused to hold still while I figured them out? In a darkening mood, I headed out through the streets, reprioritizing my options in my head. Emilio and Anya had talked about a gala. Something to do with art that was coming soon. I’d have to compile a list. And I could always swing by Wendy’s. No doubt, I’d find a few more hints there. I rounded a corner, nearly bowling over a tipsy couple, one whiff of their mana along with their breath curdled my appetite. I’d hit the Manhattan bar-closing hour, not exactly the best time of the day to pick up a quick meal.
I smelled it then, the cool, soft, sweet scent of vanilla blowing past my nostrils. Mana. Charmed. I saw her just a moment later, a flash really, jumping from the second story of a nearby building. She came straight at me, the streetlights glinting on a .357 Magnum revolver pointed straight at me. “Halt!” she barked. “Don’t move! Hands up!” Like I’d just stand there and let her use me for target practice? And what the heck was she? I couldn’t place her species. I heard a scuffle behind me to the left and whirled as a stalky male vampire rushed to grab me with icy fingers stronger than steel. Yep. The clan affiliation running through his mana announced him a member of the Marchesi clan.
Emilio’s dogs. Bounty hunters. I shifted, breaking his grip, and rolling away, unsheathed my blades to pop up into a fighting stance, but I’d no sooner than raised my weaponry before both the vampire and the vanilla-scented woman fell back with prolonged hisses. I didn’t have to bother turning around. I’d smelled them the instant they’d arrived. Whether I’d wanted them to or not, the Calvary in the form of Jacques and Dorian had arrived. Were they stalking me? The vanilla-scented woman fell back, visibly afraid. A blur streaked past me, making a pffting kind of sound. The breeze from it had just blown the hair back from my face when I caught sight of Dorian’s hulking figure standing about five feet in front of me with the woman and the vampire
streaking away in the distance. “Well then.” Jacques’ full-bodied laugh accompanied a savage smile as he stepped up beside me. “I would say don’t frighten the children, Dorian, but in this case, it’s better to send them packing before they get themselves in anymore trouble tonight.” “Ach, what are the Chosen kin made of these days, Jacques?” Dorian asked with a mischievous grin, his teeth flashing white in the darkness as he ran his hands through his hair. “I dinna even touch them afore they were off like wee frightened stags. In my day, the Charmed were made of stouter stuff.” Something glistening in the gutter caught my eye. I lifted a brow, recognizing the vanillascented woman’s gun. I preferred knives, but at this
point with the sheer number of bounty hunters after me, the more weaponry I had at my disposal, the better. I bent down and picking it up, jammed it in my belt. The movement drew Jacques’ eyes on me. “You can’t do this on your own, Cassidy,” he said, his voice edged with concern. “It’s too dangerous. Trust me, we—” Trust? I rolled my eyes. I didn’t have a problem interrupting him. “Trust you? Why? Being a clan member didn’t really help Blair out all that much, did it?” Dorian cocked an eyebrow at me but stayed silent with his arms folded across his broad chest as Jacques looked at me with a mix of sympathy, kindness, and regret playing over his elegant
features. “You have no reason to trust, mon enfant fantôme. Not yet. But soon, you will see and understand. I have faith.” I was already walking away, but it didn’t stop me from yelling a reply over my shoulder. “We’re done here, so don’t follow me!” I’d like to say that was my only encounter with the legion of bounty hunters on my tail, but it wasn’t. I’d scarcely reached the next block before I caught the strong scent of a new vampire, affiliation distinctly unknown, coming up swiftly from behind. I ran, but he was faster. Within thirty feet, I felt the tip of his sharp, needlelike fangs grazing my shoulder. His mistake saved me from capture. As he hissed in surprise at the pure mana
boiling in my bloodstream, I took advantage and pivoting, struck his shoulder with my booted heel, the momentum spinning him around. Jerking my elbow upward, I then smashed it under his chin and plunged my silver-bladed knife straight into his chest. I hadn’t missed. He crumbled to dust before my eyes. A gust of wind brought more police sirens to my ears, along with fresh mana scents. Four at least, probably more, coming from three different directions. Great. A Charmed version of whack-a-mole. “This way,” Ricky suddenly piped up from the right. “Follow me.” I glanced over to see the little imp hopping up and down on the black iron porch railings
enclosing a line of old brick row houses. The instant he caught my attention, he leapt off the railing and ran, waving for me to follow. Another gust of wind brought a couple of new hunters to my nose. Ricky zoomed back. “Come onnnnnn,” he urged. “Let’s get off the street before we get in another punch-up. I’m knackered. I know a safe place we can kip down for the night. This way before they catch wind of us. Spit spot!”
Imp Haven Ricky steered me at top speed through a maze of alleys, deserted streets, over, under, and even through buildings. My pursuers didn’t let up. They only grew in number during that frantic journey. They almost caught us twice, but we managed to elude them, once by diving into a manhole and taking to the underground and the other, by climbing a tree, jumping into an open window, and running through an all-night comic book and coffee store. I followed Ricky, my confidence growing with each step along with my astonishment of his ability to escape. He was a master. I should’ve
known. Imps hated their bottles with a passion. They were capricious. Put the two together and of course they’d foster Houdini-like escape artist skills in avoiding anything that didn’t strike their fancy. Finally, after outwitting a small pack of just three wolves, we arrived at a tiny East Village underground Japanese eatery with a traditional Chochin paper lantern hanging on a hook beside a bright red door. “Sit at the bar and ask for the Smoked One Fish Eat on the Run roll with a dash of turmeric on the side,” Ricky ordered as we dashed down the cement steps towards the entrance. I did a double-take. “Turmeric? Is that why we’re here?” I scowled. A howl at the end of the block cut Ricky’s
reply short. With a grin, he promptly vanished under the door. A couple of new wolves appeared at the end of the block, their noses upturned, sniffing. “It’s probably just one whiff and you’ll sell me out,” I grumbled after Ricky. But I didn’t have a choice. Hoping I’d get a chance to at least run out the back before he could finish betraying me, I grit my teeth and shoving the door open, strode inside. Fish and soy sauce blasted my nostrils. The place? Tiny, quaint, and packed. Customers hugged the bar ringing the refrigerated display case like sardines. Two sushi chefs wearing red kerchiefs chattered away, busy slicing slabs of raw tuna, salmon, and other fish while a couple of waitresses navigated the crowd holding trays of
steaming green tea. Behind the chefs, dried fish hung from the ceiling on strings. A red curtain covered a door in the back, and a high shelf ringed the entire perimeter of the ceiling, holding row upon row of clay, tan-speckled, personalized sake bottles with names—some in English, some in Kanji—scrawled upon them with a black Sharpie. Mana whirled around me, faint and wispy, but so much of it that I felt like I’d stepped into a room filled with spider webs. I lifted a brow. The mana wasn’t coming from the people. It came from the … sake bottles? I subjected the bottles above my head to a closer inspection, and then the lightbulb turned on. These weren’t your average sake bottles— they were imp bottles. “Table for one?” a slim, doe-eyed hostess
appeared in front of me to ask. I took a silent, deep breath. Not a drop of Charmed blood in her. At my nod, she led me to a stool at the very end of the bar. I took my seat, wondering if she knew that hundreds of whimsical imps danced in the sake bottles crammed on the shelves above her head. As she handed me a menu, I waved it away. “I’d just like a Smoked One Fish Eat on the Run roll,” I said. I hesitated before adding the “with a dash of turmeric on the side.” The instant the word turmeric slipped out of my mouth, the lids on the sake bottles jiggled, just enough to reveal a sliver of the hundreds of glowing eyes honing directly in on me. No one else appeared to have noticed. They were too busy
concentrating on their food. “Tea with that?” the waitress asked without batting an eye. “Uh, no thanks,” I said. She nodded and walked off. I folded my arms on the bar and waited. Should I run? Should I stay? The sushi chefs went about their business, along with the waitresses. Customers ate and laughed around me. What was supposed to happen? Almost immediately after thinking that, something tickled my knee. I jerked and glanced down under the bar— and nearly jumped out of my seat. An imp stood there, an elderly female with bright pink lipstick and a fur coat draped around her scrawny neck. Her bright yellow eyes flickered
as she stared at me while puffing on a cigarette in a long-stemmed, black lacquer holder. I blinked. She grinned then, reminding me of Ricky. “You just wait a little second until Dejon sets the spell, dawwwling,” she drawled in a gritty smoker’s rasp. “And then just walk your two little feet through those red curtains. It’s safe on the other side.” I tossed a quick look at the sushi chefs still slicing away at raw fish. Were they just going to let me barge through the curtains right behind them? Especially with the sign nailed above them, a sign I hadn’t noticed before and one that said ‘Keep Out’. The imp spread her lips wide in a smile, revealing rows of smoke-stained teeth. “Oh,
Dejon’s spell will take care of all that,” she said, reading my eye movents and fluttering her fingers in a nonchalant gesture. “The humans won’t see you. Poof! You’ll be invisible before their eyes, at least until you reach the red curtain.” It happened then, before I even had time to frame a question. The next moment, Dejon— whoever or whatever he or she was—cast the spell. The people surrounding me vanished instantly—visually, that is. I could still hear them eating and chatting around me. “The red curtains, dawwwling,” the imp directed, taking another puff on her cigarette. Crud. Dejon’s spell had worked alright. Especially on me. “I’m spelled,” I hissed. “What?” the man next to me asked and
glancing my way, jumped upon seeing no one there. The fur-draped imp frowned. “Careful, dawwwling,” she warned. “They can still hear and feel you. Be quick, will you? That spell won’t last long.” I sent a glare her way. Great. I rose to my feet and began to move, wondering just how many toes I’d stomp on along the way. Turns out, quite a few. I was basically blind. Yeah, I tried to keep on the narrow path between the crooked rows of chairs, but it didn’t do much good without seeing the bodies in them. Plus, in all the din, I couldn’t hear where the waitresses were. Within six feet, I ran smack dab into one of them carrying a tray of tea. Hot tea flew everywhere.
People began to swear. I made a run for it. Grunts and groans followed me as I ran, and then someone said, “Is that a rat?” Chairs moved. People squealed. From the corner of my eye, something black streaked by. A cat? As nervous laughter sounded around me, accompanied by titters of “oh, just a cat!”, “how did a cat get in here?”, and “catch it!”, I took a short cut, and jumping onto the sushi bar, dove between the chefs to fall through the red curtain. The first thing I saw as I rolled to my feet was Ricky, collapsed onto a Persian carpet in front of me and dissolving into a fit of giggles. “Gorblimey, that was priceless,” he choked. “You’re absolutely mental.”
I scowled and took stock of my surroundings. I stood in a small room with a variety of red Persian carpets lining the walls, hanging from the ceiling, and scattered over the floor. “What is this place?” I asked. “A carpet gallery?” The fur-wearing imp chose that moment to stomp through the curtain. “That’s being careful?” she snapped at me, her ears a flat, horizontal line. “Harrumph. Good thing that cat managed to distract them all.” Great. I found Ricky alone irritating enough. How was I going to handle two imps, especially this grizzled fossil with an attitude? “Not my fault,” I snapped in return. “That spell Dejon cast spelled me too.” She folded her spindly arms and still puffing
on her cigarette, drummed her fingers on her elbows, and even though she was made of smoke, I inexplicably heard the rratta-tat-tat-tat-tat of her fingertips striking her bones. Well, providing imps had those. After a moment, Ricky sat up and grinned. “She’s a bit of a barmpot, Edna.” He dropped his voice several octaves and kept talking, switching into what I presumed to be an Imp language. It sounded like a lot of hissing and spitting. Whatever he said, Edna’s mouth dropped open and she began to snicker. Yeah. Clearly, he hadn’t been too flattering. Edna shook her head and then leaned back to peer through the red curtains. “Well, well, look at what I see, dawwwling! A pair of rats walking into my house. Harrumph. Busy night.” Puffing on her
cigarette, she strode through the curtains without once looking my way. “Who’s that?” I asked Ricky after she’d gone. “The imp Godmother?” “Something like that,” he hedged, chuckling. “Let’s not faff around, eh, duck? Can’t have her catching us here when she comes back.” Not wanting to be on the receiving end of all those smoke-stained teeth, I heartily agreed. As Ricky slipped behind a dark red carpet hanging on the wall, I followed him into another small room, empty of furniture except for the orange sagging sofa in the corner. Someone had cut a large hole in the floorboards, right in the middle of the room. As Ricky jumped down with a gleeful squeal, I stalked to the edge and peered down after him.
The hole opened onto the floor below. Someone had embedded a black, iron ladder on one side and a fireman’s pole on the other. I chose the latter. Swinging my legs over, I slid my way down, landing in a long, narrow hall lined with framed photos. Imps. All of them. Imps in various places around the world and captured in famous moments in history. Abraham Lincoln at the White House with an imp on his shoulder. Albert Einstein staring at a chalkboard of formulas—an imp correcting his math in the corner. Marilyn Monroe at a beauty shop trying out the same shade of bright pink lipstick worn by the imp perched on her vanity table. I squinted at that one closer. Was that a black lacquer cigarette holder in the imp’s other hand? “This way,” Ricky called from about twenty
feet away, hopping impatiently up and down at the foot of a staircase. Prying myself away from the pictures, I ran after him. “This place is a maze,” I said, tracking him through a series of twists and turns until he finally stopped. “We’re here,” he announced. He pointed at a narrow door that looked more like a single French window. Streaming himself through the keyhole like a piece of spaghetti, he unlocked it from the other side and swung it open while hanging off the handle like a monkey. I squeezed passed him, entering a room barely big enough to hold a twin bed, a nightstand with a squat raccoon statue, and a small round mirror on the wall. The lamp hanging from the ceiling looked like a two-foot, yellow glowing pom-pom. A
yellow zebra quilt covered the bed. “Interesting décor,” I muttered, making my way to the tiny glass window. “Where am I? A shelter for Charmed on the run?” “Eh,” was all I heard Ricky grunt before the view of the street hijacked my attention. I drew my breath in with a sharp hiss. Wolves. Pacing the sidewalks and sniffing just a few yards away. “They can’t see in,” Ricky assured as he bounced up and down on the bed. “Imp glass. You can see out. They can’t see in.” I turned on him with a raised brow. “Imp glass?” But getting any more information from him was impossible. I gave up after a few tries and went in search of a shower instead. I found one
three doors down, one of those antiquated ones that looked more like a circular metal cage than something to bathe in, but it worked, so I couldn’t complain. Shrugging out of my jacket and clothes, I hopped in and stayed there a bit, letting the hot water blast over my aching skin. Finally, feeling clean but exhausted, I stumbled back to my room and stretched out fulllength on the bed. Someone had set a plate of biscuits and lemon wedges on the side table. “That your dinner, Ricky?” I asked aloud, wondering where he was. The yellow pom-pom ceiling lamp jiggled and Ricky’s head popped out from the side. Oh. Maybe it wasn’t a lamp, but an imp bed? His green eyes zeroed in on the plate and his
nostrils flared in obvious disappointment. “Not enough in your handbag for a decent meal, eh? That mangarie isn’t a proper meal.” I lifted a brow at the implication. “I’m paying for this?” He shrugged and began turning around like a dog three times to find a comfortable spot in the lamp. I remembered the peanuts then. I grinned. Now was the perfect time to squeeze some muchneeded info out of my Charmed encyclopedia. Faking a yawn, I unzipped my jacket pocket and shook out a handful of peanuts. Yep. Those black ears perked. I tossed a peanut in my mouth and chewed to maximize the crunch. Ricky’s ears zinged upright. He turned my
way, his nose twitching. I popped another one between my teeth. Ricky shivered. Crunching on yet another peanut had him hanging upside down off the pom-pom like a possum, his neck craning my way. “So, what’s a latchling?” I asked him in a conversational tone. He appeared genuinely surprised. “Now, I haven’t heard of a latchling in years, duck. Years.” He dropped from the ceiling, landing on his feet like a cat. “Oh?” I probed. “Are they some kind of dinosaur? A bird? Like a hatchling of some kind?” Ricky snorted and ambled up the bed with his hands behind his back like he was just out for an evening stroll. “Latchlings are a bit too much,
guvna. Really. No one should have that much power. Never met one myself. They’re witches and warlocks who take their parents’ full-fledged power the moment they’re conceived. Suck it all out. Like a leech. They bypass years of training and start off as infants with fully developed skills and only go on from there.” He licked his lips as he wormed his way closer. “What d’ya say about me having a quick nosh on those peanuts now, eh?” I flipped him one. His tongue lashed out like an anteater to slurp it down, shell and all. “So they’re warlocks and witches on steroids?” I asked, dangling another peanut from my fingers. “And then some. They’re strong. Merlin. Gwydion. Baba Yaga. All latchlings,” he said,
licking his lips as he followed every movement the peanut made. So, Lucian wasn’t just a powerful warlock, but a super-duper powerful one. “Special powers? What kind?” “Depends on the latchling,” he said with a shrug. “They’re all different.” “Lucian?” I pressed further. “What kind of latchling is he?” A guffaw erupted from the depths of Ricky’s belly. “Lord Rowle? A latchling? Rich. Where did you hear that balderdash?” So. Very few—including Lucian, apparently —knew of his dormant latchling abilities. Interesting. As Ricky continued snorting in laughter, I tossed him a couple more peanuts just to shut him up.
“Go to sleep,” I yawned after a while. “We aren’t staying here long.” I frowned, wondering how the ‘we’ had slipped out so easily. I wrote it off to exhaustion. Ricky hung around a few more minutes, hoping for more peanuts but finally giving up, jumped back into the pom-pom lamp. I yawned again, and finally allowing my heavy-lidded eyes to close, soon drifted into a fitful sleep—and an unexpectedly short one.
The Godmother I stood in the Nether Reaches. The mists swirled around me, caressing my skin, begging me to leave everything else behind to join the other jaggers wailing on the plains. In the distance, a Fallen One screeched. Payment. That’s what it wanted. Payment. I knew what they wanted. I was ready for them this time. I whirled — I jolted awake to the sting of someone slapping my cheek. Instinct took over. I struck back. There wasn’t anything there, except maybe a spider web, but then something thumped against the wall nearby.
I sat up, abruptly, my heart racing and a knife already in hand. I caught a flash of white near the floor under the window. I recognized it a moment later. Ricky’s teeth, framed by grinning lips. So. He’d smacked me awake again. “Sorry, guvna,” he said in a voice that sounded anything but apologetic as he hopped back onto the bed. “Can’t have you calling the mists, now—especially in your sleep.” I glanced around. A dense fog hung heavy in the room. Cripes. How could I control my actions in my sleep? Ricky had been right to slap me awake, but I sent him a scowl anyway, and rubbing my sore cheek, grumbled, “You enjoyed that too much.” He giggled that nasal giggle.
I swung my legs off the bed and squinted through the imp-glass window, rubbing neck muscles tauter than bowstrings. It was getting gray outside. Morning wasn’t far off. I obviously hadn’t slept long, but I wasn’t in the mood to climb back in bed and try again. Ricky didn’t share the same attitude. The yellow pom-pom on the ceiling already reverberated with the sound of his snores. I left him there. After checking my array of knives and adding to the collection the gun I’d filched from the bounty hunter the night before, I headed out the door, intent on snatching a bite to eat. Running from my pursuers had worked up quite an appetite. “Dawwwling, come talk,” a familiar rasp sounded from near the floor on my left the instant I stepped into the hall.
I turned to find Edna standing there, a purplefeathered boa fluffed around her scrawny neck as she puffed on her cigarette, the butt ringed in a dark red lipstick. “Are you watching me?” I asked, lifting a brow. “Should I?” she cackled. She took another deep puff and flicked the ash and spark on the floor. Immediately, tiny imps—babies?—skittered out from the floorboards to slap each other’s hands and grab the sparks before dancing their way back whence they came, some of them batting the sparks around like miniature soccer balls. “This way, dawwwling,” Edna directed. Beckoning with a nod of her chin and tossing the end of the feathered boa over her shoulder, she
proceeded to stroll grandly down the hall. Man. Just what was it about that eight-inch puff of smoke I found so intimidating? I didn’t even try to disagree. I just fell in line behind her. Edna led me down the hall and into another before pointing her cigarette at an open door at the very end. “There,” she said. “My office. Let’s get down to business.” I winced at that word. Business. I didn’t have any cash on me. I hadn’t expected to be paying for a room. “Come in, come in, dawwwling,” she urged, standing on the threshold and waving me in. Drawing a deep breath, I complied. I saw the fireplace first. A large one that covered one entire wall. A hellish blaze roared on the hearth. The rest of her office looked straight out
of the Godfather movie. Velvet gold curtains. A tufted brocade couch lining one wall. Tiffany lamps. Dark, walnut-stained side tables. In the center, stood a massive English Victorian mahogany desk with a leather, brass-studded chair behind it. There was nothing on the desk except a green lamp perched on one corner. Edna pointed and I took the proscribed seat on the couch, wondering what an eight-inch imp would want with such a huge desk when she strolled right past it to sit directly in the fire—right smack dab on the center of a burning log. “Ah,” she heaved a long, pleasurable sigh as the flames rose to lick her face. “Can’t get warm enough in these long, New York winters.” The boa around her neck went up in a sudden burst of flames. It only made her grin all the wider. “Now,
dawwwling,” she said, keeping her black lacquer cigarette holder safely out of the fire. “We have business, you and I.” “How much?” I asked, driving directly to the point. “Ricky didn’t tell me the going rate here for a night’s stay.” She snickered and shook her head. “Of all my grandchildren, he’s the most, shall we say, entertaining of the lot, dawwwling.” I looked at her, surprised. Edna? Ricky’s grandmother? It matched. It really did. “Ricky knows very well his little bottlehugger stays with him free of charge,” she went on to add. “Capricious, that one.” She chuckled, long and low, a sound oozing with pride. I heard her, but found myself a bit stuck on the word ‘bottlehugger’ and even more on the way
she’d said it. The inflections gave me the impression that bottlehugger was one of the politer versions of what they called us behind our backs. But going back to the matter at hand, I pressed in a somewhat suspicious tone, “Then what do you mean by business?” Oh, she was as sharp as a tack. She cocked a brow my way, instantly picking up on the suspicion. She didn’t answer, not until she’d leaned her head out of the flames to puff on her cigarette a couple of times before returning to roast herself some more. “That little sketch in your pocket, dawwwling,” she obliged. “You can’t risk being caught with that. Not with all those bounty hunters hot on your trail. Forty-two. I counted forty-two after you tonight.” She paused and then added in an amused, lower rasp. “You’re quite,
shall we say, popular right now.” Not the word I would’ve chosen. And I shouldn’t have been all that surprised she knew about the sketch. Not really. Ricky had watched the entire event. She’d probably got him talking with just the promise of turmeric. Again, her uncanny ability to follow my thoughts showed itself. “Every imp on the shelf guarding the door smelled that drawing the instant you walked inside, dawwwling. It’s not that difficult. Half of your trackers will smell it, too. You might as well just walk through the streets screaming ‘I’m here, come get me!’ wouldn’t you say?” She cackled, sounding so very much like Ricky. “It’s how they’re finding you so easily. Think about it.” I couldn’t deny the truth of her words. The
thing reeked of mana and Raven had smelled it herself. “So, how’s this your business?” I asked instead. “I offer the safest storage service on the east coast,” she said then, her grin widening to Cheshire-Cat proportions. “Imp bottles. Only the owner can open it, but, of course, you know how those things work, don’t you?” Not really. Considering I’d promptly lost Ricky’s, but I wasn’t about to admit that. “And Ricky is my favorite out of the five hundred, dawwwling,” Edna continued with a so very proud smile. “He’s young. Impulsive. Likes a dash of danger. But I can’t have him caught by the opposition now, can I? Cement shoes. Those little pinkies, snippy snip. Ricky’s family. Family.” Cement shoes? Snippy snip on the fingers? I
blinked. She really was a mobster. “So, there you have it, dawwwling. I’ll give you your first imp bottle to protect that sketch, free of charge. It’ll prevent anyone from detecting it. No one can smell or see through imp glass, and better yet, no one can remove it but you. But when this is all over, you’ll align with Edna for your storage needs. Deal?” She hopped out of the fire and walked towards me, her hand extended. Align? Storage needs. Storage? The eight inches of smoke staring up at me seemed larger than life now. Just what did she mean by storage? Bodies? I shivered. But I couldn’t deny the fact that having an imp bottle would be incredibly useful right now. I hesitated but not for long, and feeling like I’d just sold my soul to another devil besides
Lucian, reached out and shook her hand. “Deal.” “Done.” Edna grinned and, leaning back, gave a shrill whistle. At once, another imp scampered in, carrying a tiny, glass, blue bottle no bigger than my thumb. I raised a skeptical brow. “That’s a 38kg bottle,” Edna informed me, her lips quivering in a superior smile. “It’ll hold that sketch and then some, dawwwling.” She snapped her fingers. This time, another imp dashed in, bringing a pink boa, and after draping it over her shoulders, they both pranced away, leaving me there, sitting on the couch, holding the tiny bottle. I turned the bottle over in my hands, altering my vision just enough to detect mana infused in the metal, but the kind of spiderweb-wisp mana, not
the heavy ropes of Wendy’s spells kind of mana. Good. Seemed safe enough. I pulled the stopper and, removing the sketch of Lucian out of my pocket, rolled it up and held it over the opening. Something sucked the portrait inside. It vanished from under my fingers with a distinct, whooshing sound. My heart dropped, but I’d no sooner thought about retrieving the sketch than it zipped straight back from the bottle into my fingers again. I dropped and retrieved it several more times before nodding in satisfaction. Not a bad deal. Tucking the little blue bottle into my inner jacket pocket, I left. I didn’t return to the room where Ricky snoozed. I just kept on walking. I had things to do, and with the host of bounty hunters after me, my first order of business had to be sending the
Knights Templar straight at Emilio. How? My best option stood with the vegan restaurant first. I could get into the place easier than the smooth-faced fortress lab above the sports club. Yeah, I’d break in, find a way to drop a hint, maybe even follow a Templar or two. I’d concoct some way to leave them breadcrumbs of some kind, breadcrumbs that would lead them straight to Emilio. By the time I stepped outside the sushi restaurant, the sun had risen in a bright blue sky devoid of clouds. A couple of purple and grey pigeons fluffed their feathers on the rooftop above. The air smelled fresh. Crisp. After a quick visual inspection followed by several deep breaths revealed no bounty hunters on
the block, I skipped down the steps and hit the sidewalk at a fast clip, making my way to the nearest subway station for a quick meal. It didn’t take long to eat. The place was packed with earlymorning commuters, and a mere fifteen minutes later, I slipped onto a southbound train. The vegan restaurant was open for breakfast. Through the window, I could see customers munching on sprout-filled wraps and drinking coffee out of recycled-glass mugs. A car rumbled out of the parking lot behind the house, and as it pulled away, I crossed the narrow strip of brown, dried grass and slipped to the back of the house. Surprisingly, the back door stood wide open. I glanced around. Not a soul in sight. Voices filtered down the narrow hallway from the dining room up front, but the voices were distant. Busy.
Chatting and laughing. Good. Time to move. In a flash, I darted through the door and zipped down the basement stairs, but on the bottom step, came to an abrupt, screeching halt. Nothing. Someone had cleared the entire place. There wasn’t one sign of the Templars or the NASA-type control room I’d hidden in before. I just saw boxes. Stacks upon stacks of flattened cardboard boxes lining one wall and halfopened boxes of cups and lids, plastic delicatessen containers, and napkins lining the other. The door to the inner room stood wide open, but instead of animal cages, I saw cleaning supplies, a mop bucket, and someone’s racing bike with a flat tire. But then, a small gust of air.
At the precise same instant, I felt the barrel of a gun pressed in the small of my back. I smelled him next. Culpepper. “Put your hands up,” came that familiar southern, clipped tone. “Come with me. Quietly.”
The Masked Man I stood there in the basement with Culpepper’s gun jammed against my spine, battling the temptation to set my inner specter free. Of course, I knew I couldn’t. As much as I didn’t like the idea, I could really use him to achieve my goal. I might be able to use him to get in the Templar lab. Somehow. And if I could get him talking, maybe I’d learn the best way to set the Templars on Emilio like wild, rabid dogs. “What do you want from me?” I asked tersely. The Knights Templar responded by pressing the cool barrel of another pistol against my temple. “Silver bullets,” he said. I could hear the cruel smile in his voice. “Both guns have silver bullets.”
He punctuated each syllable by jabbing me harder with each pistol. So. He thought silver bullets could take me out. I faked a shiver to reinforce his belief. “Easy there,” I said. I knew he was arrogant. I also knew he had an axe to grind after failing to capture me before. Maybe I could get him in a chatty mood and garner intel. Adding a tremor to my voice, I continued, “Maybe we can make a deal, huh? I know things. Things you could use. Names. Locations. Evil masterminds.” Culpepper snorted and pushed me forward. “Move. To the wall,” he ordered. “You’re coming with me. Right now, the highest priced head on the street is yours.” “So, I made your most wanted list, too?” I caught my breath sharply, like I’d been shot, but it
wasn’t much of a stretch to fake the surprise this time. “You’re special,” he replied with a hefty dose of sarcasm in his southern, clipped tones. “Hands on the wall.” I slapped my palms flat on the cold cement blocks, and still searching for a way to keep him talking, added, “I’m not your enemy here—” “You’re Charmed, as you call yourselves, and that’s enough,” he interrupted. He removed the pistol from my spine to slap some kind of high-tech handcuff on my left wrist. The instant it touched my flesh, it sent a jolt of electricity straight through me, the pain reminiscent of the Terzi hex-net. Reflex made me lash out. Culpepper swore.
He zapped me again, this time with some kind of Taser. The banshee in me screamed for permission to attack. I stumbled back, struggling with the desire to give it. Culpepper took advantage of my distraction. He stepped in front of me and delivered a hard punch, straight to my face. Swallowing a grunt of pain, I staggered back from the force of the blow and, losing my balance, fell hard. The salty tang of blood filled my mouth. Crud. I’d bitten my lip and then some. Had he broken my nose? He must have. I could feel the bones crunch a little as they started knitting themselves back together. I looked up from the floor and into the cragfaced Knights Templar’s enraged brown eyes. He stood there, swearing under his breath and glaring
at me while cradling a limp wrist. He’d aged since I’d seen him last. Odd. It hadn’t been that long ago. His widow’s peak hairline had receded further from his large forehead and he’d lost weight. Maybe it was the black outfit. His skin looked sallow, even drier. Harder. Each wrinkle scoring his face looking as if etched in stone. As I scrambled to my feet, he struck me again. A curse exploded from my lips. It was all I could do to keep from going full banshee on him as I went down the second time. I only succeeded by promising myself I’d save it all—with interest— for later. So much for talking. “Don’t resist. You’re coming with me to the lab,” he grated harshly. That was welcome news. The lab. Perfect. In
the heart of things, and exactly where I wanted to be. I pretended to wilt. He had the second cuff on me in a flash. I strained against them. Yeah. No biggie. They’d slide right off my boney specter hands. No harm in letting him bind me and think he’d ‘got me good’. I moaned a little for show. I wasn’t much of an actress but Culpepper didn’t seem to notice. Nodding, he expelled a long breath of satisfaction from his nose and yanked a phone out of his pocket. The call was a quick one. “Got her. I’ll be there. I’m bringing her in.” Something moved behind Culpepper’s head. A shadow. Ricky. Slinking along the top of the blinds. I winced. Great. I didn’t need an imp wildcard right now. I scowled in his direction,
hoping he’d get the hint and just go away. He didn’t. Of course. But he did slink down into the blinds and flatten himself on one of the vertical slats. I couldn’t tell if he were hiding or settling in for a morning sunbath, but it didn’t matter, providing he stayed out of sight. “We’ll have you jabbering faster than you can blink an eye,” Culpepper was saying when I tuned back in. He grinned, his lean cheeks creasing into yet more lines around his mouth. I wondered about what. “That’s what you think,” I said, feigning resistance and, keeping in character, strained at my handcuffs a couple of times. He stood there, watching me. I couldn’t really read him except for the sadistic twinkle in his eye. That was hard to miss. “Oh, I can make it hurt,” he
promised. I nodded, pretending to be intimidated. Somewhere, in the back of my mind, something shouted, reminding me just how much that Templar version of the hex-net had hurt, but the cold part of me shrugged it away. I understood my specter skills now. The Templars couldn’t really keep me a captive if I didn’t want to be one. Culpepper quit talking to me then. Pointing his gun straight at me, he went about the business of removing my weaponry, starting with the gun I’d picked up in the street and removing three of the knives in my boots. Nor did he seem to feel the imp bottle tucked in my pocket. I found that interesting. Was it invisible as well? In short order, he had me tromping up the stairs, out the back and across the parking lot to get
in the back of a black SUV. After chaining me with silver chains in the back like a dog, he hopped into the front seat and we set off. The trip didn’t take long. The third time I caught him looking at me through the rearview mirror, I suddenly remembered the silver chains and the fact that silver and vampires don’t really mix. Right. He expected pain. I began to squirm and hiss as if the metal seared my flesh. He bought it, nodding in satisfaction as he headed downtown. “It hurts,” I hissed for the tenth time. Geez. Couldn’t he drive any faster? I was getting bored. “So hot. It sizzles.” I almost yawned. I barely caught myself in time. “There’s a lot more where that came from,” he responded from the driver’s seat. We turned the corner. Finally. The smooth,
gray-faced building housing the Templar lab towered above me to the right. We’d arrived. He didn’t bother parking. We were met at the curb by a group of Templars, all human, of course. This particular group looked fairly similar, all Men-In-Black or Matrix-like, complete with sunglasses, ear pieces, dark trench coats, short haircuts, and the same jaw and lip lines. While one whizzed off with the SUV, the rest surrounded me like bodyguards and escorted me into the building as if I were a celebrity escaping the paparazzi. We turned heads. People followed me with their eyes, but the Templars pushed me down the hall and into a waiting elevator before anyone got a good look —or noticed the handcuffs. As the doors closed, one of the Templars
flipped out a blue card key and holding it up to a red sensor, pressed ‘14’ on the number pad. Note to self: key card access. If I wanted to come back later and plant evidence, I’d have to use this little trip to steal one of those cards. I scowled. Where was Ricky when I really needed him? The elevator was a souped-up one. I’d no sooner glanced at my first ‘captor’ and subjected the dude to a deeper inspection when the doors whooshed open and they bundled me out. The reception area looked like an ultramodern law office, albeit a gloomy one. Black, glossy reception desk with floor-level lighting. Two large, flat disk lamps dropping from the ceiling above to shine on a paperless reception desk. A low, black couch pressed against the windows which were covered with black shades.
The floor, however, was white and the walls a muted gray. Large, five-foot silver letters spelling out “A & G” covered the wall to the left. The Templars bundled me through the lobby area and down a narrow hallway to what looked like a large conference room. Wood floor. A huge TV embedded in the wall. The massive round table took up the rest of the room. Round. Cute. No doubt they saw themselves as Knights of the Round Table. “Wait here,” one of the Templars barked. I glanced over my shoulder. During the shuffle, Culpepper had left the group. As I watched, the rest of the Templars filed out, leaving me alone. Interesting. I’d thought they’d have immediately started with torture. Maybe they were
prepping the room. The moment the door clicked shut behind them, I commenced a complete inspection of my surroundings, but there wasn’t anything else to see. I’d just finished scouring the room for hidden doors when Culpepper returned. His brown eyes flicked to my handcuffs. “You can stop the silver charade now, Cassidy,” he said in a crisp, sardonic tone. “Take a seat.” Yeah. I had to admit I wasn’t Academy Award-winning material. I took the seat, watching him with interest as he settled into a chair opposite and crossed his legs, his face an expressionless mask. The next instant, he started off with a blunt, “You’re up to something. What?” Right. Like I’d just spill the beans like that.
“What makes you think so?” I prodded. He glanced around the room, his mouth set in an unreadable line. “Well, wow. Gee whiz, what could ever have tipped me off?” he asked with biting sarcasm. “Maybe the fact you just waltzed in here without killing anyone this time?” His brown eyes drilled straight through mine. “So, tell me now, just what are you pulling? Just why are you here?” Alright. I had to switch gears here. Time to lie, but if there was one thing I understood about lying, it was the fact you had to sprinkle your lie with as much truth as possible to get it past the sniff test. “I’m sure you know I’m wanted on the streets right now. Made a few Charmed enemies,” I said, letting my shoulders deflate in what I hoped would look like resignation.
“Okay,” was all he said when I didn’t continue. When I still remained silent, he finally gestured me with two impatient fingers to go on. “I need a safe house,” I said in a rush then. “I know too much. They’re after me because they know if I talk, they’re done with. I’m safer turning state’s evidence now. I’ll be your informant, give you the details of just who controls this city and in return, I’ll—” “Templars don’t work with informants,” he cut in. He laughed, a deep, gritty sound, his face a mask of mockery. “We take what we want.” “Not with me,” I blustered on. “You can’t break me, and if you try, you’ll regret it. The only way you’ll get what you want is through a partnership. You know I’m not your average vampire. I’m different. You don’t know what I’m
capable of.” We locked gazes. Damn. He had a fantastic poker face. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. After a few tense moments, he sighed and pushed back from the table. “So, what do you got then?” he asked in his southern lilt. “Why is this worth my time?” Inexplicably, I hesitated. “Tell me,” the Templar demanded. I’d been all set to blab some kind of an Emilio tidbit to lead him on, but instinct made me pause. This was just too easy. A sharp rap on the door prevented further conversation. At Culpepper’s grunt, the door opened and a woman wearing a dark navy suit popped her head around the corner. “The
Grandmaster has arrived, sir.” Culpepper clamped his jaw and nodded. The woman left. “Come with me,” the Knights Templar grunted, rising to his feet. “And no monkey business. There’s a hundred Templars here. You don’t stand a chance.” I nodded. Whatever. I wasn’t afraid of him or his buddies. Worst case, I could just go specter and open my own door to the Nether Reaches and run off. Emboldened, I followed him down the hall and into another room, this one bigger with three large TV monitors on the wall instead of one and a table that could seat at least fifty. Large red Templar Cross banners hung on the walls. At least thirty Templars clustered around someone at the far-left corner, blocking my view of
the speaker. “The gate must be expanded,” the speaker was saying, his voice sounding oddly muffled. “Tune it lower.” A ripple of assent ringed the crowd. “Do you doubt me now, Jason?” the speaker laughed. Laughter circled the crowd this time and they parted enough to reveal a man dropping to his knees. Bowing his head and slapping his forearm across his chest, he replied, “Forgive me, my lord. I have sinned in doubting you.” The crowd shifted again and I caught my first glimpse of the speaker. I blinked, shocked to see the man I’d followed before, the one I couldn’t smell, and the one wearing the bearded, gold mask.
“Then go. Ready the gate,” the masked man ordered. “We’re running out of time.” I watched the Templars file past the masked man, bowing their heads and reverently kissing his fingers, but only half had gone through this ceremony before the subject of their adoration caught sight of me and visibly paused. “Leave us,” he ordered the crowd, “Leave us. Leave us, at once.” The Templars scrambled to obey. A strange sense of trepidation filled me as the masked man continued to simply stare in my direction. He unsettled me. Had I made a huge mistake by coming here? My gut responded with a big, fat ‘yes’. He began walking my way, taking an eon to arrive, his every step a masterful demonstration of
complete control and power. “Grandmaster,” Culpepper murmured from my side as he arrived. “Here is the creature you sought.” I barely had time to register his words before the grandmaster came to a stop before me, and then, with a smooth, elegant gesture removed his mask. My mouth dropped open. It was Emilio.
Fingers in Every Pie Just seeing Emilio standing there felt like a sucker punch to the gut. My grand plans came crashing down around me. There would be no setting the Templars on him now. They were cronies. Of course. It made total sense. What else would Emilio do with all that free time at his disposal? Centuries of it? There are only so many women to court and so many cigars and tumblers of whisky one can consume. He wouldn’t waste time just hoping things would fall in his favor. He’d be making sure of it. He’d have his fingers in every piece of the pie. He’d come up with a contingency plan for the contingency of a contingency all the
way to the nth degree. Still … I. Was. Shocked. I just stood there, staring at him, completely dumbstruck. In the background, I heard Culpepper yapping about something, his voice a dull drone in my ears. Emilio tilted his head to reply. I watched, my body numb, and slowly, ever so slowly, my thoughts began to flow once again. Good thing I hadn’t spilled the beans on Emilio to Culpepper. Gut instinct had paid off that time. And the Charmed? I wondered what they’d think of the fact that Emilio ran the Templar organization, no doubt using it to weed out anyone who stood in his way. No wonder he hadn’t wanted Lucian sniffing around and calling a clan meeting to unite against a common threat.
So, what else had Emilio corrupted? It struck me then. True had claimed they’d nearly vanquished the Mindbreaker ages ago. They hadn’t. He’d just let them think they had. He’d just changed his mode of operation. Yeah, he might have temporarily lost some of his mindbreaking abilities. Maybe. But he hadn’t retreated like a dog licking its wounds. He’d started or corrupted the Templars and continued his scourge against the Charmed under the guise of humanity. No doubt, he had his fingers in every utterly horrible event throughout history. “Then go,” Emilio’s crisp order cut through my thoughts. “I’ll catch up with you later.” I stared at his lips. He didn’t even sound like the same person. The Italian accent and the sprinkling of foreign phrases? Gone. Standing there
in his smart Italian suit, he looked and sounded just like a businessman who’d spent his whole life in Manhattan. Culpepper nodded, and then without even a glance in my direction, pivoted sharply on his heel and strode out the door. I just continued to stare at Emilio. Yeah, the next move was his. I didn’t even know where to start. For a time, Emilio simply stared back, thoughtfully turning the gold mask in his hands. He might as well have been wearing it. I couldn’t tell what the heck he was thinking. I eyed the mask with its carved, golden beard. So, I’d followed Emilio to that vegan restaurant. I couldn’t smell him then, just like now, even though I’d detected his spicy, vampire death scent before.
Where had it gone? I stared into his blue-greengray, whatever-the-color-they-were eyes. They thrived with more mana now than ever before. Did that mean he wasn’t vampire at all anymore? Or was he still some hybrid? I guess it didn’t matter. It didn’t change things. I was stuck sharing his signature … The answer struck me then. Of course, Cassidy. You get so used to your own body odor. You can’t really smell yourself. I winced. The answer had been staring me in the face the entire time. What took me so long? The Gloria-obsession file alone should’ve clued me into his identity from the start. “Casssssidy,” Emilio said my name slowly. The sound of my name on his lips jolted my
thoughts into lightning speed. Right. I was going to have to dance my way out of this one somehow. Somehow. One thing for sure, my pet plan of turning the Knights Templar on to Dear ol’ Dad the Mindbreaker wasn’t going to work anymore. But on the bright side, since I hadn’t played my cards yet, no one truly knew why I was there—beyond the fact I’d wanted to betray someone. As an idea arced across my mind, I lifted my head and assumed the face of defiance. Emilio wouldn’t believe anything else. I had to give him a win on this one—and quick. I had to keep him out of my mind. Who knew just what havoc he could wreak there. “I’ll never forgive you,” I rasped. “You killed
my mother.” Surprisingly, my words came out stilted. I didn’t feel any pain or emotion speaking of my mother. Not even anger. Just … nothing. Odd. Emilio chuckled. The next instant, I felt his cold, menacing breath on the back of my neck. “Such is the fate of any who stand in my way, mia principessa. Death. La morte.” Yeah, the anger was still there, simmering, just ready to erupt. “You’re not invincible,” I retorted with a tad more venom than planned. Dial it back, Cassidy. Dial it back. His low growl startled me, sounding more wolf than vampire. “Then you do not know your father. Invincibile?” He laughed again, clearly finding my statement most amusing. Ma certo che sono invincibile.
Now that he was out of my head, I didn’t speak Italian anymore, but I really didn’t have to. It was pretty obvious whatever he’d said was a selfserving statement about his own superiority. Whatever. A sly, crafty smile played over his lips and planting his face in mine, he whispered, “You will join me.” I couldn’t stop my jaw from clenching. “What if I don’t want to?” I spat. In hindsight, I should’ve avoided that particular question. He answered with a demonstration, catching me by the throat in his favorite Choke-CassidyManeuver and throwing me against the conference room wall. I landed wrong. I heard the crack of breaking bone and an intense pain shot through my
ribcage. That didn’t stop him. He picked me up again, only to slam me back down with a force that knocked the breath from my lungs. I lay there in a huddled heap, awash with pain even as the tingling of my reknitting bones raced over me. But then, the pressure in my head began. My heart sank. I knew what came next. Panic seized me then, full-blown and real. I couldn’t win. I was outmatched. Emilio was the Mindbreaker. I already knew he could slice through my mind as easily as butter. Was it checkmate? “You can’t win,” he hissed, standing over me. “There is no escape, mia principessa. Conform. Be my puppet. Mia marionette. It is your only
choice.” I gritted my teeth against the strengthening pain threatening the sanctity of my mind. I’d escaped before by turning specter, but that could have simply been due to the element of surprise more than anything else. And anyway, turning specter wasn’t really much of an option anymore, not if it brought the Fallen Ones down on my head. They’d watch my father break my mind and then they’d take whatever was left as the payment they so desperately sought. “Casssssidy,” I heard the echo of Emilio’s voice, this time, within my mind. Survival kicked in. I fought back as best as I could, but just how does one truly fight against a mind invasion? Thoughts with thoughts? Anger? Concentration? The thought of trying any of the
three only made my head feel like it would explode. “You are my offspring,” Emilio cackled in my brain. “My instrument.” “Never!” I gasped. He yanked me up again. His fingers closed around my throat, nearly crushing my windpipe. Was he trying to make me change into specter form? “It is pointless to resist,” his words echoed in the confines of my skull. “Your mind is mine to wield. Mine to control.” He released me from his devastating grip and I fell to my knees, panting in pain. I felt an incredibly oppressive weight press down on the top of my head, as if someone were trying to drive it straight down past my shoulders and into my
body cavity. I wasn’t going to win with this one. I felt fear. Complete, utter fear. “What do you want from me?” I gasped. No need to act this time. I was truly afraid. The pressure increased even more. Blackness swirled around me. Take a deep breath, Cassidy, don’t panic. I hovered on the edge of consciousness. A small part of the specter within me stirred then. Not much. Just a single strand of Nether Reach-mist worth. Just enough for me to see the energy flowing from Emilio’s body directly into my own. “Cassidy,” a faraway voice called my name on that single thread of mist. “Ground yourself, child,” Justice’s soft voice chimed in my ears.
“Ground yourself to the mists. Let the energy flow through you. Do not fight it. Let it go through you. Do not fight it.” I wanted to laugh a very bitter laugh. Don’t fight? How can you just stand down when you’re struggling for your life? But I found her words strangely encouraging, but not in the manner she’d intended. No, I took her message as the seed of temptation to simply give up. Why was I even trying to fight? Emilio was a force impossible to resist. Creatures for centuries had fallen before him. Who could really stand against him? Why should I resist? There wasn’t a way out of this, so why not give up? He sensed my defeat. Smelled it, even. A smile curved on his lips. But I was beyond really caring anymore. The
thought Justice planted in my head caught hold, and as the pain pushed past bearable, I succumbed. Sweating profusely, I let it go. I was just too tired. Fine. I’d lost. “You win,” I gasped through white lips, giving up completely. He laughed, a confident laugh of triumph. The next instant the pain in my mind simply vanished. I took a long, dragging breath, feeling almost giddy with relief. “Yes,” Emilio said, again in my thoughts. He sounded as pleased as Punch. “Submission. At last. You have lost, mia principessa. You are mine. Mine to use. My minion. La mia schiava. Now, you will obey my every command.” I heard his voice chuckling loud in my mind
and clenched my teeth for what came next. “Where is the portrait from my sketchbook?” he whispered. I waited, expecting another wave of pain, but he only followed it with another more insistent, “Tell me. The portrait. Where is it?” I blinked, confused. He stood there, waiting expectantly. Did he think I’d just tell him? What was I missing? “There are limits to my patience,” he hissed. Odd. Now that I wasn’t actively fighting back, I could feel an incredible energy rolling through me in waves. Mega-power. He was pouring it directly into me. “Answer me,” he threatened, squinting his eyes and adding more energy to the mix.
Instinct made me react with fear, fear that he’d start the pain again. Emilio seemed attuned to fear. A gloating smile spread over Emilio’s lips as he crouched beside me, his fingers quivering as if they wanted to choke me again. “Where is the portrait?” he repeated. “Tell me. I must retrieve it. At once. Subito!” I stared at him, the fear fading into outright confusion. The more energy he sent my way, the stranger I felt, like I had a powerline running right through me, but it didn’t hurt. It just felt weird. “Speak!” he ordered, his eyes suddenly narrowing into two thin calculating slits. I didn’t like the looks of that. Hoping to head off another mind attack, I licked my lips and said the first thing that popped in my head. I didn’t
really give it much thought. Heck, I would’ve said anything to keep from feeling that pain again. “I don’t have it.” To my great astonishment, he took my lie at face value. Anger suffused his features. “Where? Where is it! Tell me at once!” he raged, again his words echoing in my brain. I braced myself for more pain, but to my curious surprise, it never materialized. Could it be … Justice was right? The key for me was not resisting? “Answer me! At once!” he demanded, this time, saying the words aloud as well as in my mind. Again, another jolt. This time, I pretended to writhe in agony as my mind frantically raced over the facts. Could it
be? Could it be the fact that I shared so much of him from his signature down to his smell that I was even immune to his mind-breaking? Could one break their own mind? Well, I didn’t have a choice but to test my theory with fire. “Dorian,” I lied. “I gave it to Dorian.” If I’d thought I’d seen Emilio enraged before, I was wrong. Or maybe it was something infinitely beyond rage that masked his face now. Tossing his head back, he extended his fangs and screamed, “Dorian!” I just sat there, dumbfounded, speechless, and thunderstruck. He believed me. Yeah, the thought of Dorian possessing his precious key to Lucian’s control was an obviously
devastating blow, but … He believed my lie. He thought he controlled me. He freaking believed I couldn’t lie to him. Emilio stood there, obviously wanting to harm me. I could tell from the wrath in his eyes. He managed to restrain himself. Obviously, I was still too important. He needed that Ping Pong ball of power. I watched his face work and finally, his shoulders sagged. I guess he didn’t see the point of causing me bodily harm, now that he was certain I was his puppet, living only to execute his will. Letting out a long, long sigh, he murmured. “It is war, then. War. Battaglia del apocolypse. I will unleash destruction upon the Terzi. At last. At very long, long last.” I stayed where I was, pretending to be
submissive, and honestly, still so astonished at the odd twist of events to really do anything else but just sit there flabbergasted. “You will assist in correcting this blunder,” Emilio continued, ordering me as if I were a robot to be programmed. “But first, control Lucian. Calm him. He cannot break free before I fix this mess, this caos, that you have created.” “Yes, Papa,” I said, forcing myself not to gag on the word. A light entered Emilio’s eyes then. He actually smiled. “As it should be,” he whispered so softly I scarcely heard him. “Yes, mia principessa. This between us … as it should have been from the start. Yes, you will stay here by my side. Mia principessa, a worthy heir.” Yeah. He was insane. Did he really harbor
delusions of fatherhood on top of everything else? Good. It would only be another knife to stick into his gut. “Yes, Papa,” I replied as a dutiful daughter would. Rising to my feet, I added, “I’ll go find Lucian now.” “Make him happy, mia principessa,” he ordered, but caught me by the forearm before I could take another step towards the door. “No, no, no. Non c'è. The Templars must not see you. This way.” I nodded. “Yes, Papa,” I replied. The bile was getting easier to swallow each time I said the words. He moved to the three TV screens embedded in the wall. “Bring Lucian to my penthouse,” he said. “We must plan the devastation of the Terzi.
We will start this day, oggi stesso.” “Yes, Papa.” Something told me I was going to get really sick of saying those particular words. “I will destroy Dorian. I will turn Jacques to dust,” he was saying as he reached behind one of the TVs. A hidden door slid open. “Dust,” he continued, waving me into the opening. “Polvere. They take what is mine, and it is war. They know this.” Whatever. I’d have to warn Jacques and Dorian—after I learned of Emilio’s plans, of course. I looked forward to Emilio screaming in defeat as he witnessed his grandiose plans of world domination fall apart at his feet. I followed him down a narrow, twisting set of stairs to the floor below, amazed that what I had
thought to be a fatal blow had turned into the ultimate gift instead, one I’d never dreamed of in my wildest flights of fancy. What better way to achieve revenge than from inside my enemy’s operation? If Emilio wanted to muck with my mind, then I was sure as heck going to muck with his. The rage I’d seen on his face over Dorian having his precious portrait made me smile. I’d do whatever it took to see that level of devastation on his face again and again. I was so lost in my thoughts that I nearly ran straight into Emilio at the bottom of the steps. “Your escort,” my father said as he stepped aside. “She will take you to Lucian. Straightway. Pronto.” As he stepped aside, I saw a familiar figure.
Black miniskirt. Red boots. Her blonde hair falling loose over a pinstriped blazer. Anya.
Darling Anya stared at me, mouth agape. I couldn’t miss the livid hatred in her eyes. Who could? With her nostrils flaring wide, she walked out of my view. I stepped into the room, some kind of a corporate lounge with recessed lighting, muted gray furniture, and smoked-glass coffee tables. It was empty. Everything looked new, unused, as if simply there for show. Emilio pressed his palm on the wall and a panel sprang into place, melting seamlessly into the wall and exposing a secret door. So, he must have his own private route in and out of the
Templar lab. I filed that little factoid away to be exploited later. “A hunter does not always run after his prey,” Emilio announced with a pompous smile. “There are times when the prey runs straight into his waiting arms.” And sometimes, they burrow in like parasites to destroy the host, I silently amended even as I planted a vapid smile on my face. As Emilio surrendered to self-congratulatory chuckling once again, I glanced over at Anya. Yeah. She was freaking furious. When I was younger, I’d often dreamt of a family, complete with father and siblings. Be careful what you wish for … Emilio strutted to the door. “Take her to Lucian. At once. Rapidamente,” he ordered Anya.
“I need him pliable. Flessibile. Like putty in my hands. Tonight, the war begins. At long, long last.” Wow. Talk about socially unaware. Was he really going to order her to deliver what she saw as her worst competition straight to the object of her desire? Short answer: yes. The look on Anya’s face? I couldn’t begin to describe the mix of outrage, anger, and horror that popped up on her face. But one thing I’ll say for Anya—well, two things—she was determined and fearless when it came to Lucian. “No.” She shook her head obstinately, her nostrils splaying even wider than before. “Cassidy is unnecessary. Lucian is under control—” This time, Emilio didn’t put up with her delusions. Drawing himself up, he thundered in a voice I felt for sure would have struck fear into the
heart of even a Fallen One, “You will escort Cassidy as I say. Immediatamente!” She clenched her fists. “I—” Emilio wheeled on her, exposing an impressive set of fangs. So, he still had that vampire side in him somewhere. “Immediatamente!” he repeated, this time, his voice oh-so-soft and deadly. And this time, she remained silent—but with hatred boiling in her eyes. Yeah, she was obviously going to stick a knife between my ribs— or worse, spell me—the first chance she got. Still, I found the exchange interesting. Clearly, she wasn’t under Emilio’s mind control. Why? Did he have limits to his abilities? That thought intrigued me. Anya turned to me then and spat, “Move it.”
She strode to the door, her long, blonde ringlets flouncing angrily. I eyed her outfit. Yeah, she’d clearly dolled herself up a bit. No doubt, she had designs of her own for Lucian tonight. As I followed her, Emilio’s voice slipped into my head, soft and cool. “Lucian must be receptive. Calm. In the best of moods. Distract him. He must not think to question me.” Did he suspect I couldn’t hear him? I hesitated. So, just how was I supposed to act? How did this mind-breaking thing actually work? Was I supposed to act brainless at all times? Or was I supposed to just be myself and respond to direct commands like a dog whenever Emilio decided to bark in my head? And when he whispered and got sneaky, was I just supposed to respond to such ‘subliminal’ orders like I’d thought
them on my own? I didn’t have a choice but to wing it again, and trusting my gut, I kept walking, pretending I didn’t hear his soft suggestion. By the time I joined Anya at the elevators, I figured I was behaving as he expected because he wasn’t dashing after me, choking me, or tossing me against another wall. I arrived to find Anya standing there, vigorously punching the down button. She greeted me with a vicious hiss. “So, what is it you’re after here? What do you want?” What did I want? We could start with tossing her in jail for attempted murder and end with Emilio’s head on a pike, but, of course, a mindcontrolled zombie wouldn’t actually say any of that.
“Just what Emilio says,” I replied dutifully instead, just in case he’d chosen to eavesdrop. “Make Lucian recep—” “Do you think I’m just going to be tossed out like garbage?” she interrupted, her chin noticeably quivering with rage. Yeah. She was puzzling. Did she think Lucian would just welcome her with open arms after she’d tried killing him? What was I missing here? Thankfully, the elevator dinged open. It was empty, except for the clusters of little spiders welling up in the corners the instant she stepped inside. “Why spiders?” I asked, switching subjects. She turned and gave me a long, level stare, before facing the elevator door once again. Okay, then. So much for idle chit-chat.
She gave me the cold shoulder from that moment on, all the way to the parking garage, into a black Porsche, and as we zipped insanely through traffic all the way back to Lucian’s penthouse. I didn’t really mind. I didn’t want to talk to her, either. We made it to the apartment building in record time. I eyed it looming up before me. Funny. I hadn’t expected to return. I certainly hadn’t expected to come back to Emilio’s pad as an insider. I couldn’t resist a gloating smile of my own. I couldn’t have planned it all better if I’d tried. Now, I could really get down to the business of revenge. Anya’s Porsche slowed to a near stop to take the turn leading to the underground garage.
I made an instant decision then. “Catch you later,” I said, opening the door to skip out. As my foot touched the asphalt, she gunned the gas, sending me sprawling into the street. She nearly ran over my ankle as she sped off, but not before I caught the flash of her superior, smug smile as I fell. So much for sisterly love. “Hey, get that car’s plate!” a pedestrian shouted from the sidewalk as another rushed to my side. A man in sweats loomed over me, offering a helping hand. A jogger. Young. As he lifted me to my feet, I couldn’t resist brushing my hand over his chest and nipping a little mana. Energy coursed through me. “I’m fine,” I smiled at him. “Thanks.”
My meal nodded. “Sure you don’t need an ambulance?” he asked, appearing not quite as energetic as before. “I’m fine,” I assured him, and the concerned crowd gathering around me. Crud. I’d ripped my jeans. My knee was bleeding. “No big deal. Just practicing a stunt.” My excuse was a lame one. They didn’t believe me—especially with the bloody knee, but I didn’t have time to deal with it. Sending them a smile, I sprinted into the building’s marble lobby, and not wanting to join the half-dozen or so collected around the elevators, I hit the stairs instead. My mind raced as I jogged steadily up the flights. While I didn’t have any clothes left in my apartment to adequately play the part of ‘calming’
Lucian to my father’s expectations, I knew Blair sure had a ton. No doubt, they were still there. They were. No one stopped me as I flashed into Emilio’s grandiose, overdone penthouse, but again, most likely, any watchers or such things he had guarding his private possessions probably had orders from Emilio to let me be, since he thought I was his zombie. As I entered my mother’s Barbie-like bedroom, something tugged deep in my stomach— or at least I think it did. It was gone before I really acknowledged it. I padded over to her vanity and stooping, looked into the mirror to inspect my reflection. Cripes. I looked rough with my hair bedraggled, a fading bruise on my left cheek from
Anya’s car stunt, and my clothes ripped and torn. I patted my inner pocket. Yep. The imp bottle was still there. I sent a mental ‘thank you’ to Edna as I headed to my mother’s closet. I didn’t really care what I wore. I grabbed the first slinky number I came across, a sleeveless, form-fitting, scarlet satin cocktail dress with a ruffle down the right side. After a quick shower, I blow-dried my hair, shimmied into the tight material, and hitting the jewelry box, topped the whole thing off with large, three-inch, diamondshaped earrings studded with rubies. The makeup came next. Smokey bedroom eyes. Dark red lipstick. I stared at my reflection. If Lucian knew anything about me, he’d immediately clue in to the fact that something was up just from my
appearance alone. Emilio, however, would no doubt be pleased at my efforts to follow his orders. I eyed my boots with a twinge of regret, knowing I couldn’t really wear them with this particular dress. I didn’t have my knives, anyway. I’d have to get some. And soon. I eyed my mother’s shoe collection—I quit counting at two hundred— and picked a pair of provocative, six-inch glitter platform sandals with silver spike heels. And since I wasn’t going anywhere without my imp bottle, I inspected her collection of clutches next. A satin crystal evening bag with a long silver ribbon as a handle stood out. I snagged it. It wasn’t empty. Curious, I snapped it open. A gun. A small one. And bullets. Silver.
I lifted a brow. So, Blair had kept a gun with silver bullets. As a vampire, it was an odd thing to keep. I wondered who she’d kept it for. Emilio? Surely not. Whatever her reasons, I couldn’t help but grin, just a little. Yeah, silver wouldn’t do anything to the Mindbreaker, but it might deter him a few seconds. It might harm his followers even more. And anyway, I didn’t feel entirely dressed without some kind of weapon on me. Dropping the imp bottle next to the gun, I snapped the purse shut and slipped the long ribbon over my shoulder. Lucian. It was time to see him. Again, I felt a fleeting sliver of emotion, and again, something deep inside that vanished before I’d scarcely acknowledged its existence. I didn’t want to waste any time thinking about it though.
I’d just stepped outside Blair’s bedroom when I heard voices, a man and a woman’s. I smelled Anya’s mana the next instant. Interested, I followed my nose and flashing down the hall, peered through a partially opened door into a room I’d never seen before, a kind of a cross between a dining room and conference room. It was difficult to tell. A metallic oval table took up the center, its chairs made of some kind of expensive wood, no doubt endangered from the looks of it. A black kidney-shaped bar covered one side of the room, and on the opposite wall, hung several large portraits, ancient, old, and all of Emilio. I rolled my eyes and cautiously opened the door just a tad more. I saw Anya then, prancing towards the table
to lean back against it and pout, apparently thinking it sexy. She tilted her head to one side in an obvious attempt to show off what she thought were fabulous sheets of long, blonde hair. “Come here, darling,” she said, holding out her hands. He walked across the room then and my stomach turned as I caught sight of a familiar lean and muscular figure wearing a polished, silk-blend suit. Lucian.
Something Darker Lucian looked awful. Exhaustion lined his face. His cheeks were dark with stubble. The closer he got to Anya, the more she writhed against the table like a cat in heat. He didn’t seem to notice—the ultimate insult. In fact, he appeared downright irritated with her. Coming to a stop at least three feet away, he peered down at her from furrowed brows. “No,” he said curtly. “I’m not going. I’m not enough of a fool to attend an art gala at the Cloisters in the center of a Terzi stronghold, and a masked ball no less, one that would only give them cover. Why would I do such a thing?” Masked
advertisement for that before. An image of the twosided placard atop the taxi flashed through my mind. Cripes. It was tomorrow! “Oh, but you must go, darling,” Anya was saying. But Lucian wasn’t paying attention to her anymore. He must have felt my eyes on him then, or maybe his warlock sixth-sense kicked in. Leaning back, he turned his head and looked straight at the door and straight into my eyes. And he froze. It took Anya a few seconds to catch on that her target had gotten distracted. She leaned against the table, batting her eyelashes and fluttering her fingers against her throat before she finally followed his gaze. She didn’t like what she saw. The instant she caught sight of me, her nostrils
flared in that monkey-reminiscent look. Well, I’d been caught eavesdropping. Nothing to do now but to own it. Pushing the door wide open, I walked inside. I didn’t get far. Lucian pounced on me like a cat, sleek and graceful. Folding me into his arms, his expression was one of pure, overt relief. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere,” he whispered into my hair before pressing his cheek against the top of my head. “You’re safe. Safe. That’s all that matters.” Again, I experienced fleeting feelings. Feeling safe. Wanting to stay right where I was, close to Lucian. Loss. Sadness. The last sensation made me step back, out of his embrace. Whoa there, Cassidy. You don’t have time for distractions. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere,”
Lucian repeated, his eyes dropping over me and then back up to my face. A faint, puzzled expression entered his gaze. Yeah. He definitely knew me. I responded with a wide, bright, and obviously fake smile. “Papa’s having a meeting tonight. I didn’t want to miss it.” He didn’t miss a beat. “Right,” he responded, his tone reserved. “The meeting,” Anya said, trying to draw his attention back. “The meeting I was talking about.” So. She’d tried to undercut me. Reach Lucian first. The car maneuver made sense now. I bet she regretted the fact she hadn’t knifed me in the ribs instead. “We’ll start as soon as Emilio arrives. He should be here any second now,” she continued,
her stormy gray eyes shooting daggers at me. “You —” But Lucian didn’t even seem to notice her talking. “I’ve been so worried about you, Cassidy,” he admitted to me softly, a raw, emotional edge roughening his tone. “I guess I still am.” “Nothing to fret about here,” I replied, forcing a small laugh. He held my eyes for a second before leaning in to kiss me this time, a gentle kiss, but it was Lucian we were talking about. Even his softest, lightest kiss offered a glimpse of the primal underneath. An involuntary shudder ran through my body. Careful, Cassidy. What part of ‘No distractions allowed’ don’t you understand? I pulled back, but
not before I wiped my palms down the front of his shirt, just to enjoy the feel of his hard abs under my hands. I shivered again. “Lucian!” Anya called in a strident tone. “Come here, darling. We’ve got real things to discuss now.” “Why doesn’t she just go away?” Lucian demanded softly under his breath. I smiled and lifted a brow. “What’s with the ‘darling’?” I couldn’t help but ask, not bothering to keep my voice as low. “Didn’t she just try to kill you not all that long ago?” Anya jerked in outright alarm. Lucian’s brows knit into a bewildered line. “Kill me?” he repeated, and then his lips curved into a smile. “Ah, you mean our disagreement over … over …” He paused, clearly confused.
I lifted a brow. So. They’d been tinkering with his portrait, adding a few more spells on him somehow. Judging by the suspicion running rampant on his face, the effort wouldn’t last long. “Darling, join me,” Anya ordered, moving towards us and watching me with hawk eyes, obviously afraid I’d breathe more life into that particular skeleton hiding in her closet. Oh, it was tempting. So, very, very tempting, but I knew Emilio wouldn’t appreciate the misstep. Anya arrived at Lucian’s side and clamped a possessive hand down on his forearm. He brushed her off, irritated, his mouth forming a tight, displeased line and then he turned back to me. “What are you talking about, Cassidy?” he pressed again, obviously not so ready to let it go as I was.
Yeah, that Terzi spell wasn’t going to last much longer. “Never mind,” I said, focusing on my assigned role. “Let’s just wait for Emilio, shall we?” I took his hand, keenly aware of Anya practically foaming at the mouth as I led him to the bar. “How about a drink—” I began, but Emilio’s soft voice chose that moment to slither into the room. “Lucian,” Emilio greeted, casually strolling through the door. He appeared jovial, relaxed, as if ready for an evening of light entertainment instead of discussing war plans—but then, maybe such things were one and the same to him. “We have a most pressing issue. Importante. Critico.”
Lucian locked his gaze straight ahead at the wall over the bar. “And what is this critical issue?” he asked without turning around. Emilio’s eyes shifted to me and then back to Lucian, seemingly in an attempt to gauge his level of ‘pliability’. Ah! It was a chance to earn some brownie points with Dear ol’ Dad—along with an added benefit of ticking Anya off a bit more. I seized it. Moving behind Lucian, I slid my hands over his shoulders. “Sit,” I suggested in a low voice, pushing him towards one of the stools. He let me guide him and took the seat, but not before raising a suspicious brow in my direction. I didn’t care. As long as he participated, it didn’t matter where he thought I was going right now.
But with Lucian under my hands, it was a bit harder to concentrate than I’d planned. I couldn’t resist running my fingers over his shoulders again, finding myself drawn to the memory of his sizzling flesh on mine. My hand crept around his collar and slipped inside his shirt, just enough to slide my thumb over his collarbone. “The Terzi,” Emilio’s voice crashed through my thoughts as he joined us at the bar. Both Lucian and I jerked, just enough that Emilio noticed. The vampire—or whatever the heck he was—allowed his chameleon-like eyes to smile in a self-serving, proud smirk, as if his mindbreaking abilities alone had fostered the raw passion surging between Lucian and me. I clenched my jaw, wanting to object. Concentrate, Cassidy. You’ve got to play this
cool, girl. “And what of the Terzi?” Lucian’s deep voice rumbled beneath my fingers. Yeah, he was getting a bit too distracting. I withdrew my hands and took a seat on the neighboring stool as Anya quickly claimed the other. Emilio didn’t answer at first. He reached under the bar and pulled out a bottle of Scotch and a tumbler. We all watched him pour the liquid, the cacophony of drops sounding inordinately loud and harsh in the absolute stillness of the room. Finally, Emilio set the bottle down and looking up, replied to Lucian with one word. “War.” Lucian tensed and his dark lashes lowered over his silver eyes. “We should hold a clan meeting, not start a war,” he objected. “We have
other enemies here, such as the … the …” He paused and frowned. Wow. Had they tried spelling him into forgetting the Templars, too? From the way Emilio’s angry eyes flicked to Anya, they obviously had. Catching her father’s stare on her, Anya kicked into action. “Oh, who can stand up to you?” she fawned a shade too loud, reaching over to stroke Lucian’s arm. Lucian pulled back, his every muscle tense and anger visibly simmering on his face. “Ah, but this can wait,” Emilio murmured, switching gears. He clearly knew a lost cause when he saw one. “This matter. We shall discuss it later. Much later. Now? Now, let us celebrate Cassidy’s return instead, shall we? Salutiamo, mia
principessa.” At that, Lucian got to his feet like a marionette being pulled upright. “Then I’m leaving,” he said, woodenly. “And taking Cassidy with me. We’ll celebrate in private.” I liked the sound of that. Anya didn’t. “Come, Cassidy,” Lucian murmured in my direction and then pivoting sharply, strode for the door, slamming it as he left. I wanted to run right after him, but I knew a Mindbreaker Zombie would see to Emilio’s wishes first. The instant the door shut behind Lucian, I jumped off the stool, offering, “I’ll just go bring him back, Papa.” Emilio nodded, clearly pleased with my
response, even as he quickly disagreed. “No, not tonight, mia principessa. His anger runs far too deep, too powerful. Go. Calm him. We must keep him calm.” Some alone time with Lucian instead of hanging around Emilio and Anya? A bonus for me, then. My smile was more on the genuine side this time as I dashed to the door before Emilio could change his mind. As I left, I heard him hiss at Anya, “This is what you insist is control?” Yeah, she was in for it, but I didn’t feel too sympathetic. In my books, she certainly deserved what she got. I caught up with Lucian in Emilio’s obscenely lavish living room, an odd mix of modern art, Japanese vases, and Roman busts that suited
Emilio to a T. Lucian had obviously been waiting for me. He stood with his arms folded behind his back, staring out the floor-to-ceiling windows at the view of the city. “The sun,” Lucian said, the moment I arrived. “It hasn’t set.” “Yeah,” I agreed, coming up behind him and slipping my arm through his. “We’ve got a couple hours yet.” He kept staring straight ahead. I couldn’t follow the direction of his thoughts until he mouthed the one word, “Emilio.” I put it together then and glanced at Lucian in alarm. This wasn’t good. Lucian had noticed. Emilio had been so distraught with Dorian and the Terzi, he’d blundered by walking around in broad daylight. And if he found out Lucian had noticed
… well, who knew just what he’d do to him. Whatever it was, it wouldn’t be good. “Come,” I said, knowing I had to get Lucian out of there—and fast. I grabbed his hand and pulled him out of the penthouse, but halfway down to his apartment, he snatched my hand and changed course, taking me to the rooftop instead. “What are we doing up here?” I asked, glancing at the late afternoon sky above me. He answered by pulling me close and, burying his nose in my hair, inhaled deeply. “I want to taste … touch … take,” he confessed, his voice deep and sensual. He sighed and stepping away, looked down at me with an expression impossible to mistake for anything but lust. His gaze alone made an electrical shock zing
down my spine. “Then take,” I invited, my voice low, hoarse. He reached out and trailed a finger along my jawline. “Come with me, Cassidy,” he murmured with a thoughtful shimmer in his incredible eyes. “Let’s leave this place. This business of revenge … it isn’t worth it.” A momentary, strange yearning to run away with him leapt inside me, but I quickly quashed it down. I couldn’t leave. Not now. Not when I’d finally positioned myself for success. I was part of something darker now. I couldn’t—no, wouldn’t— go. “I can’t,” I said. His face grew visibly pale and his mouth tightened. “If I beg?” he asked, playing that card. “I understand. I do. Revenge ate my soul, but you …” His eyes took on a distant look as the past drew
him in. After a moment, he smiled tiredly, and bending down, kissed the tip of my nose. “You’ve changed the order of things for me, Cassidy. Can you not allow me to do the same for you?” I stepped into him and slid my arms around his neck. He smelled good. He responded with a soft groan and wound his fingers through my hair. “Come with me, I beg you. Walk away from this, from whatever you’re doing here.” “Shut up and kiss me,” I replied harshly. He caught my face between his hands and searched my face for a time, locking his gorgeous mana-threaded eyes with mine and then, with a low noise of frustration, slowly untangled himself from me. I swallowed a harsh cry of disappointment
when he pulled away. “No, not like this,” he murmured, his voice unable to hide the disappointment. “You’re in shock, Cassidy.” That again. I snorted a laugh, a sound that carried no amusement. “That’s what they all say.” “Well, whoever they are, they’re right,” he replied smoothly. I wasn’t in the mood to be preached at again. Irritated, I brushed him off. “Well, so long then,” I said sourly. “Good night.” As I stepped past him, he grabbed me by the forearm and snapped me around to face him. “Don’t do this,” he said earnestly, keeping his tone and expression carefully neutral. “Don’t play this game with Emilio. It’s far too dangerous. Walk away.”
positioned myself to reap revenge? I couldn’t. Not for myself or for him. If I walked away now, he’d stay enslaved, a victim to a gaggle of Marchesi spells. “Sorry, can’t,” I clipped the words and shaking myself free, stalked away. This time, Lucian didn’t try to stop me. I felt his gaze burning the back of my head as I crossed the roof and headed back down the metal-grid stairs. Whatever. Some day, he’d be grateful, especially once I’d broken his spell. I’d see him free—and enjoy Emilio’s emotional trauma along the way. Which was most important? I couldn’t honestly say. Part of me screamed Lucian, but the darker part of me laughed, focusing on Emilio’s
devastation instead. I felt cold inside. Was that what they called ‘shock’? Lost in my thoughts, I returned to Emilio’s penthouse on autopilot and found myself in front of the door to the conference room once again. I could hear the low hum of his voice, still berating Anya. Holding my breath, I leaned closer and strained to hear. “We are on the verge of losing complete control of this latchling,” Emilo was hissing. The sound of his boots striking the floor revealed that he was pacing heavily in circles. “Rischieremo di perdere il controllo.” I heard an odd, muffled sound, a cross between a squeak and a crunch. Emilio chuckled. “The gala,” Anya said then. “The Terzi
witches assure me—” “It is I whom they must convince.” Emilio’s harsh voice cut through hers. “They must assure me their spells will hold this time. They must assure me, promettimi, they are ready to take him at this gala. Just as you, Anya, must convince me, convincermi that you can make him walk into the very trap he knows awaits him there. Can you swear this?” Surprisingly, Anya didn’t answer. Emilio chuckled, a cold, chilling sound. “At last, you face the truth. He will not listen. Not to you. Not one word. Non una sola parola.” But Anya was single-minded. “She’s too dangerous to keep. Get rid of her. Should they discover her still alive, their suspicions will only grow—”
Yep, she was still trying to off me, but I was a tad more interested in the identity of ‘they’. They sounded like a promising avenue toward Emilio’s distress. So, just who were they? Luckily, Emilio cleared that right up with a shocked response of, “Do you think to criticize me? You? An inconsequential, irrazionale, daughter? Leave the Templars to me. Do not think to interfere.” I perked up then. What was this? Trouble in Templar Paradise? I lifted my brows, surprised. Had I written off the Templar angle too early? Could they be a wild card? Now that I thought about it, we had left their lab via a secret door in the wall. What would be the need for that? And that first night I saw Emilio
as the masked man? Hadn’t he waited for Culpepper to walk out of sight before dashing off at vampiric speed? Could it be? I caught my breath and smiled. Could it mean that Culpepper didn’t know Emilio was Charmed? Maybe all wasn’t lost on that front, after all. Maybe Emilio didn’t want them to know because he’d lose something he considered valuable if his secret were revealed? Or better yet, maybe they’d hunt him, attack him like I’d dreamt they would from the start. Memories of Culpepper’s hex-netlike torture session indicated a big ol’ YES. I grinned then, outright. The repeat of the odd squeal-crunch, followed by a thump this time, drew my attention
back to the voices raging on the other side of the door. Anya’s objections had ratcheted up a notch. I suppose the thought of losing Lucian made her desperately fearless. “Cassidy is your blind spot!” she practically screamed. “Culpepper’s already suspicious. He’s starting to remember things he shouldn’t from that last spell—” “Then you are far too weak of a witch. Inutile!” Emilio’s baritone dripped with disgust. “Culpepper, I cannot lose. You must stop this. Presto!” Bingo. Such a productive afternoon. Why, oh, why hadn’t I infiltrated Emilio’s inner circle from the start? I’d erred by fighting him head-on. I should’ve played the role of doting daughter so very much earlier.
Crossing my arms, I leaned my head back against the wall, closed my eyes, and mulled over the beginnings of a plan. So, Culpepper was key, huh? And Emilio had all but confirmed he’d break away somehow, should he learn of Emilio’s Charmed activities. That meant I had to get Emilio to reveal himself to Culpepper in a way that couldn’t be misunderstood or mistaken. A one-shot deal, a deal easier said than done. Emilio was a pretty slimy, cool character. Devious. In fact, I’d only seen him really lose absolute control around Dorian … I held my breath. Dorian. From the very start, Emilio had gone insane over anything Dorian, beginning with the mere mention of the Scottish Highlander-of-a-vampire’s
name and the thought of him being free in Venice. And when I’d lied today about Dorian possessing his precious sketch, Emilio had charged off into broad daylight, unwittingly revealing his daywalking abilities to Lucian. It struck me like a bolt of lightning then. The answer to all of my problems. It was brilliant. Inspired. The gala. The gala was a godsend. I could use it to solve my current problems in one fell swoop, one package, tied neatly with a bow. Emilio wouldn’t see it coming. I nearly cackled aloud. Yeah, it was playing with fire—many fires actually, but I could pull it off. At the gala, I could show Culpepper just who his boss really was. I could orchestrate Emilio’s downfall by using
Lucian as bait. Using Lucian as the worm, I knew that I could get both Dorian and Emilio to bite, and after I’d set the Templars on my fish, I’d destroy the portrait with the key and set the bait free. Once Culpepper saw fangs in Emilio’s mouth … well, it would be over for the Masked Man. At worst, Emilio would suffer the loss of his pet army which would, no doubt, put a serious crimp in his future war plans or whatever the heck he was dreaming up. At best, they’d pile on him like a pack of rabid dogs. Follow that up with the destruction of Lucian’s spelled portrait, Dear ol’ Dad the Mindbreaker would be in for a hell of a night. With a slow smile, I lifted my head, letting my eyes glitter. I couldn’t see a downside. The thump in the adjoining room sounded
louder this time, along with the squeak-crunch that reminded me of the creak of an old wooden door. “He must be there!” Emilio’s harsh voice filtered into the hall where I stood. “You? You, I cannot trust. Lucian must attend that gala.” Ah, I couldn’t have asked for a better cue. I grinned and shoving the door open, stepped inside. “I can bring him, Papa,” I said. “No problem. I can get him there. Piece of—” I couldn’t bring myself to mouth the last word ‘cake’. After taking one look at the scene inside, I just wanted to vomit.
A Daughter of Mine My father—no, I couldn’t bring myself to call him that—Emilio was evil, wicked, and depraved. He stood at the bar, his fangs extended and his eyes red as he drained the last drop of blood from a dying fire sprite’s neck. Its dead companions lay in wilted heaps on the floor, their bodies twisted and broken, pools of blood slowly fanning out from underneath them. Emilio’s crisp white shirt was crisp and white no longer, but red around the color and speckled pink everywhere else. The coppery stench of blood hung heavy in the air. I gagged. “Ah, mia principessa.” Emilio’s eyes lit as they fell upon me. “You? You I will hear. You, I
will listen to. I will give an ear. Tell me, how will you bring this latchling to the gala? How will you make the man walk into what he knows is a trap?” If there was one thing I knew about lying, it was to keep to the truth as much as possible. But I didn’t answer him at first. I was too busy controlling my queasy stomach. It took a supreme act of willpower to force myself to join him at the bar, stepping over dead fire sprites as if it were commonplace. But I did it. I even managed a sort of smile as I flopped onto the barstool next to him. I noticed Anya then. She stood on the other side of the bar, her face a mask of open hatred. Right. Well, our relationship was beyond salvageable. So much for sisterhood. Facing Emilio once more, I said, “Easy. Lucian wants a
clan meeting? I’ll tell him that’s what he’s getting.” “Ah, and you would betray him?” Emilio whispered, drawing his lips back. Betray. The word made me want to smile. If only he knew just who I really would betray. A drop of fire sprite blood trickled down the side of his mouth. My stomach turned again. Still, I managed a nonchalant shrug. “Does it matter? Lucian’s a tool to be used, like anything else,” I answered. Yeah, Emilio loved sayings and riddles, didn’t he? “One only covers the back of another until they need to plunge the knife in.” Emilio loved that answer. His eyes gleamed with pride, and turning to Anya, he waved a hand at me and said, “This! This is how a daughter of mine should think, should act. See? She does not
hesitate to betray the object of her desire for the good of the cause. She is not a fool, uno sciocco. She would never lust after a lost hope. That? That is why Lucian can see no one else.” Well, if Anya hadn’t hated me before, she certainly would now. I didn’t look at her. I’d already poked the cobra. Why antagonize it even more? Besides, my stomach was becoming impossible to control. I couldn’t stand much more of the stench. Rising to my feet, I announced, “Then I shall set things in motion, Papa. Tomorrow? Where should I bring him? When will you be there?” That made Emilio’s head snap back. His eyes zeroed in on mine. “I? I?” Crud. Was he suspicious? I forced myself to steadily meet his gaze. “Just tell me where and
when to bring him to you.” “I shall not attend,” came Emilio’s crisp announcement. Alright, that wouldn’t work. My plan hinged on his presence. “He won’t come if you’re not there,” I said, thinking quickly. “Lucian has spies of his own, you know. If they don’t see you at the gala, he’ll know it’s a trap.” Emilio entered my mind then. The intense jolt of his energy lanced through me like a knife. “Why?” he whispered in my head. “Why do you insist I come, principessa?” My every instinct screamed, telling me to run but it was too late now to do anything other than blunder through it. Now? Well, now I’d find out if I were truly impervious to his mindbreaking or if I’d just been lucky the first time.
Forcing my thoughts to calm, I mentally repeated the same lie I’d just verbalized. Emilio simply stood there, searching my face, neither speaking with his lips or his mind. The seconds dragged between us. “Your mother’s things? Do you wish to keep them? Donate them?” Emilio suddenly offered aloud. He was watching me. Closely. Speaking as if she’d somehow died a natural death and he merely wished to see her effects handled according to family wishes. The old me railed inside, wanting to spit in his face, but I forced my smile to return instead and calmly replied, “I’ll keep them here, Papa, if you don’t mind. I’d like to stay in her room for a bit. I … I,” I paused and tried to dredge up a few tears but failed miserably in the attempt. Oh, well. I
settled for choking emotion instead. “I … just … want … just want a chance to get to know you better, if you don’t mind. You’re … all I have … left now.” Again. A long silence. My fingers itched to grab the gun with its silver bullets still tucked away in my clutch hanging off my shoulder. Maybe, just maybe, it would slow Emilio down long enough for me to run. Then, Emilio laughed, long and loud. His shoulders relaxed. Spreading his arms wide and with his palms up, he tossed his head back and took a deep, triumphant breath. “One day,” he all but chortled. “Only one more day and this latchling’s fate shall be sealed. The spell then? Unbreakable. My return? Inevitable.”
I held still. He looked at me then. “Bring him.” He followed the order with a direct whisper in my mind, “At nine. The Cloister Gardens. He must be there. He must walk through the doors of his own volition, a willing sacrifice. Then, and only then, will I gain complete control.” I nodded. “Then I’ll be going,” I said. One day. I had one freaking day and hella things to do. “Got to set it all up.” “When? Where?” I heard Anya ask as I left. I ignored her and escaped the room. Really, what did she expect? Did she really think I’d just be all chummy after she’d tossed me out of her car and kept trying to burn me to a crisp with those laser beam glares of hers? Not to mention her continual demands to have me killed?
I had rooftops to scale and places to lurk. I had Dorian and Jacques to track down and Templars to outrun. I couldn’t do that in a cocktail dress and heels. I returned to Blair’s closet in search of suitable clothing—something that wasn’t Barbie-doll pink and festooned with lacy frills. It took awhile. My mother had never been a practical person, as her clothing attested. Eventually, though, I managed to dig up a clean pair of dark pants and a shirt. I still had my jacket. I finalized my plan as I dressed. I’d get Dorian and Jacques on board first. News of the Templars’ Nether Reach breach would be enough to pique their interest. That, coupled with the fact Lucian would meet them in their own territory would no doubt seal the deal. After all, what did they have to lose? And once I’d gained proof of
their willingness to meet, Lucian would dive right in. After that? I’d hit Culpepper, but I figured he’d be the easiest of the lot. Pretty much all I’d have to do would be flash past and he’d come running after me like a dog chasing a rabbit. I could lead him around until Dorian made his appearance which would make Emilio go all ballistic. Then, bam. Destory the portrait. Yeah, the plan was a little tricky, but doable. “Right, then,” I muttered under my breath. “Jacques and Dorian, here I come.” I’d just transferred the imp bottle into my jacket’s inner pocket when a familiar nasal voice hissed near the door, “Pssst. This way.” I lifted a brow, surprised to see Ricky
scooting in under the door. “Now! He’s not paying attention,” the imp urged, waving his hands. “Run for it!” “Run? No,” I replied, shaking my head. I glanced around Blair’s room. “These are my new digs.” Ricky’s mouth dropped open. “Blimey, but you’ve gone barmy. You’re ripe for the madhouse. Maybe it’s time for the Blues-and-Twos!” I frowned. What the heck was he talking about? Reading my confusion, he rolled his eyes and made the noise of an ambulance siren, but in a hushed, half-whispery way. I snorted. “Don’t be ridiculous,” I said, snapping my jacket cuffs. The little puff of smoke cocked his head to
one side. “You can’t stay here, love. Let’s pop on out of this lion’s den and have a chinwag—” “No. I’m staying,” I inserted calmly. “Gorblimey! You can’t be serious, doll,” he gasped, as if he were really shocked this time. I blew out a breath. “What part of no don’t you understand?” I asked, irritated. “The N or the O?” Ricky made a long face and tiptoed across the carpet to hop onto Blair’s vanity. “It’s dangerous. You’d be a nutter to stay.” Before I could object again, he added, “I haven’t been bone-idle here, duck. I’ve found something you won’t like. Emilio’s not your bog-standard vampire, you know. Just wait until you see what he’s nicked.” He ran off then, skittering back under the door.
I hesitated. I had things to do. Ricky slipped back inside to gyrate from head to toe and point with both hands to the outside hallway. Yeah, such odd, cryptic behavior could just as easily mean he’d found a new source of turmeric rather than something pressing, and while I was inclined to believe the former, I heaved a sigh and followed him anyway. “Make it quick,” I growled. “Don’t putter around.” He led me down the hallway and as we turned to the right, something streaked past. Black. A cat? “Esmeralda?” I whispered. The shadow vanished through an open door ahead. Both Ricky and I broke into a run, entering a
room decorated in muted shades of gold with recessed lighting, a marble floor, and a circular bed resting upon a raised dias. Mirrors and fine art adorned the walls. An antique Persian carpet, also round, took up the center of the room. Emilio’s bedroom? I hesitated. I sure as heck didn’t want to be caught here. How could I explain it? “Quick now,” Ricky whispered, his long black smoky ears standing on alert. “He’ll be coming soon. She’s there. Hurry.” He pointed to a small door midway down the left wall. It was an odd door, cupboard-sized, looking more like an electrical panel access door than anything else. Curious, I approached and squatting down, peered inside to discover the opening led to a much bigger area than I’d imagined.
Mana. Lots. Ancient, powerful, and heavy. Fascinated, I crawled through the opening and rose to my feet. It had to be Emilio’s private storage area, a holding place for his most precious items. Stacks of portraits and paintings leaned against shelves filled with clocks, so many clocks from antiques to modern, and lamps, again, lamps of all sizes and shapes. Glass jars filled with beads. Flower pots and vases. I looked at them in wonder. They had to be keys to spells, if not the spells themselves. I wondered just whom and what I’d set free should I destroy the lot? I heard the sound of soft sobbing from behind and whirled to see a birdcage of fire sprites suspended from the ceiling. At least a dozen of the little creatures huddled on the bottom, quivering.
I shuddered, knowing their fate. One of the fire sprites stretched its hands out to me, whimpering like a wounded thing. “Don’t worry, buddy,” I said, striding over to yank open the cage door. They didn’t hesitate. They leapt out like lemmings, but the one who’d implored me paused before jumping out after the others. “What is it?” I whispered, leaning closer. It stretched its twig-like fingers towards mine. I reached for it. Its eyes grew round, large. Its lips opened and it beckoned me closer. I held my breath. What was it going to tell me? It waited until I was only a few inches away. I felt its delicate fingers tremble between mine, and then it flared into a brilliant coal, slicing its razor sharp nails right across my nose and scorching my fingers as it
jumped after the others, cackling wickedly along the way. I scowled and sucked my singed fingertips. “Yeah, I can see why you don’t have friends,” I grumbled. “Ungrateful wretches.” “You can’t blame them,” a weak, shaky voice sounded from above. Startled again, I glanced up to see the strangest sight. A creature sat on top of a shelf. From the waist up, it appeared as a wizened gnome of some kind, brown skin, wrinkles, fuzzy gray hair but with ageless, brilliant green eyes, green eyes that I knew a little too well. Green eyes that had caused me a nice bit of trouble. But the bottom half? Was I hallucinating? I shook my head. Nope. The bottom half still remained in black cat form.
Twenty-four Hours It was so far left field I couldn’t do anything but stare blankly at the gnome-sprite-cat-whateverit-was creature hunched on the top shelf in a distinctly uncomfortable ball. As I watched, Esmeralda continued with a heavy breath accompanying each labored word. “I have little time, Cassidy. Ages ago, I lost my powers. I saved only the last bit to deliver a vital message to Elizabeth’s latchling.” “Uh, ok,” I heard myself mumble, still stunned. So, the cat-gnome was talking about Lucian-the-Latchling now, too? Esmeralda’s green eyes blinked slowly, still
looking so very catlike in the wrinkled, ancient face. “Emilio took it,” she whispered, directing my attention to a bundle of fleece resting on the shelf beneath her. “Open it.” Feeling as if caught in a dream, I stepped forward and pulled down a corner of the fleece. I recoiled with a sharp breath. The Hell Stone lay beneath my fingers, the smell of death from the Night Terror’s domain somehow clinged to its rough stone surface. So. Of course. Emilio had killed True. True. Someone I’d grown fond of. A stab of pain arced through my heart, threatening to leave me weak and undone. No, I couldn’t let that happen. I needed strength now. Cold, brute strength. As Lucian had said, revenge was a dish best served cold. Gritting my teeth, I raised a determined face
back at Esmeralda. “What’s he trying to do with this?” I asked. She sat on the shelf above me, struggling to retain her gnomish form, but she was three-fourths cat now with a black cat body and what looked like a doll’s head sewn on top. “The more I watch you, Cassidy, the more I’m certain this message is meant for your ears and not Lucian’s,” she whispered so softly I could barely hear. “For centuries, I waited for his arrival, but they ensorcelled him the moment of his birth with spells, powerful spells.” “I hope to change that,” I said, clenching my fist. She didn’t seem to hear me. “None of us foresaw your arrival. We all focused on the latchling, but I believe it’s you, Cassidy, as much
as Lucian. She hears you, too.” I frowned. “Who?” Two black cat ears popped out of Esmeralda’s head along with a light dusting of fur on the forehead. She’d be a cat again, in seconds. “Sorry, uh, I’m not really following,” I said with growing alarm. “What’s this message?” Under my gaze, she turned back into a cat, but not before her last words hissed in the small room, “She’s locked in the Hell Stone. Elizabeth. Save her. She knows the secret to his undoing.” With that, she melted back into her black cat shape, crouching on the top shelf and whipping her tail from side-to-side. I blinked. Lady Elizabeth Rowle was locked inside the Hell Stone?
Yeah, I’d heard her before. In Venice. Talking through the portraits. But inside the Hell Stone? True had told me the Hell Stone held many trapped and tortured minds. I’d heard their screams myself. I’d thought they were stuck there in eternal hell. Could they be set free? I eyed the stone in front of me with horror. True had saved it for me, declaring it my birthright —and Emilio had killed him for it. Anger boiled up in me then. A deep, unstoppable force. The kind of anger that gives you incredible strength. The kind of anger that makes you fearless. The kind of anger that possesses you and makes its own decisions. A glitter on the shelf beneath the Hell Stone drew my attention to Emilio’s other trinkets, particularly to a knife standing out amongst a collection of chisels and
tools. It was a stunning blade. Silver. Ancient. Engraved with Celtic swirls and a script I didn’t recognize. Grabbing the knife, I ran my hands over the Hell Stone’s intricately carved Mindbreaker symbols, and then, caving into my fury, I drove the blade deep into the porous stone, scoring a new symbol over the old ones. Ricky appeared at my elbow. “Not a good idea, that,” he warned, and when I ignored him, he jumped on my shoulder and shouted in my ear, “Eh, let’s leave that alone, duck!” When I still continued to ignore him, he jumped onto the knife. The next instant, it turned red-hot, and I let it drop through my fingers onto the floor. I gasped.
A low sound emanated from the shelf above me. A growl? I looked up to watch Esmerelda jump down and crouch eye-level with me, her green eyes in a narrow slit and her tail curled at the tip. Purring. She was purring. “You like that?” I asked, pointing to the new mark I’d cut across the Hell Stone. Amusement flashed in her eyes, and she jumped down to weave her soft body around my ankles. “See that?” I turned on Ricky. “Esmeralda approves.” “Yeah, well, she’s single-minded on this, duck,” the imp replied with a scowl. “Let’s get out of here, eh? You’ll have enough fancy dancing as it is with that mark, now. Let’s not make it worse.”
I snorted. Emilio thought he could read my mind and ask me all he wanted as to whether I knew anything about the mark. All I had to do was say ‘no’—providing I wasn’t caught red-handed. I picked up the knife and studied it, tempted to take it with me. Yeah, I’d love to have the feel of silver back in my hands right now, but I couldn’t take the blade with me. Reluctantly, I set it back on the shelf. Ricky was right. I had to leave before I got caught. No point in opening this can of worms any sooner than necessary. I knelt beside Esmeralda and looked her straight in the eye. “I’ll work on getting Elizabeth out,” I promised. “But first, I’ve got to set Lucian free.” Among other things. She seemed to like that. She turned away then, holding her tail high.
“He’s moving, duck,” Ricky said then, standing on sudden alert. “We’ve got to get out of here. Now.” I ran. Something in his voice made me run. I guess it was the sincerity. I dashed out of the bedroom, straight out of the penthouse, barely remembering to slow down at the stairwell in case I met an Uncharmed. At the bottom floor, I paused and glanced around. It didn’t look like Ricky had followed me, but that was the thing about Ricky, he could pretty much hide anywhere. Straightening my jacket, I patted the imp bottle and the gun and pushing open the door, strode into the apartment building’s marble lobby. “Training for the Olympics?” A security guard whistled from his array of monitors near the revolving doors.
So, he’d witnessed my mad dash? I’d have to slow down a bit, obviously, and practice more care. I just smiled, waved, and hurried outside before he could strike up more of a conversation. Once out in the cold air, I took a deep breath and glanced around. Cloudy. Dark. A typical New York City winter evening. It was late and only getting later. I had roughly twenty-four hours to get everything in place, certainly not a moment to waste. I buried my nose in my jacket and headed downtown, fleshing out the details of my plan along the way. The sun began to slip under the horizon as I joined the commuters in the subway and by the time I’d emerged onto the busy downtown streets, the last ray of sun had vanished, leaving behind only a trail of pink in the sky.
Good. Dorian and Jacques would be awake now and I needed shadow-cover. I headed for the nearest fire escape and climbed up and out onto the rooftop so that I could call on the Terzi party line. I knew it would take a few tries with my faulty connection, but I figured supplementing the names with a couple of mental images would get the job done. I’d had luck with that before. Closing my eyes, I concentrated, calling out to Dorian and Jacques, attaching—if you will—a couple of images, one of myself hanging for dear life at the edge of a cliff and another of myself frantically paddling a sinking boat. There, that should up the urgency. I strode to the roof’s edge, near a rat’s nest of electrical cables and, grabbing my phone, flicked my thumb through pages of gala details. It was
quite the fundraiser. Live auctions. Jazz ensembles. Cocktail buffet. And the evening’s final event: the masked ball, costumes and masks required. A crème-de-la-crème event. No doubt, there would be many Charmed folk hiding under all those costumes and masks. My mouth watered at the thought. My stomach complained a moment later. “Yeah, yeah, I’ll feed you soon,” I grunted. A scuff of a boot on gravel sounded from behind. I whirled, expecting Jacques and Dorian, but saw only Ricky, tiptoeing across the roof to join me. “I don’t get it,” I said as he arrived. “You’re smoke and you’re not even a foot tall. How do you make all that noise?” And, for that matter, how did he pack such a punch when he slapped me awake?
He ignored my questions and dove into the electrical wires. The next instant, he’d plugged himself in between two of the cables, sending a shower of sparks and an electrical surge right through his body. “So, what’s the plan, duck?” he asked, his teeth chattering with each word and his voice sizzling with the force of the current running through him. I stared at him. Of course. Zapping yourself with electricity fit right in there with chopping yourself up with blender blades and playing in the fire. Ricky emerged from the wires, every inch of his smokey body standing on end. He looked like a black pom-pom with hands and feet. I snorted a laugh, unable to take him seriously.
“So, what’s the plan?” he repeated. “We can’t spend the night faffing and poncing about now, can we?” I rolled my eyes and turned away. Like he should talk. “I’ve got this under control,” I said. I wasn’t about to share my plan with anyone— especially Ricky. I began stalking away when I realized I did need to pick his brain. Pausing, I tossed a question over my shoulder. “So, once I have the portrait and the sketch key in one room, just how do I break the spell?” He darted after me, his feet making soft slap, slap sounds before he sat by my side like a dog. “They have to touch. That’s it.” He illustrated by slapping his palms together. Again, I heard an odd, distinct slapping sound, as if far larger hands had just clapped. “It’s the feedback, duck. Spit-spot.
The sketch unravels the spell faster than you can blink an eye.” “Sounds easy enough.” I said. He flattened his ears into a horizontal line. “It’s a bit more sticky wicket than that. They. All three. The key. The portrait. The spelled victim.” “Oh.” I frowned a little. Not as easy. But still doable. I just had to get the witches out of the way. Maybe I’d sic the Templars on them first. “Gotcha.” I turned just as a shadow arched down from above. Two shadows. The next instant, Jacques and Dorian dropped down to block my path.
Items One and Two Jacques stood there, looking mysterious in a dark leather trench coat unbuttoned enough to reveal a white shirt and a loose, red tie dangling under his collar like a silk necklace. I could smell her distinct mana on him. The wolf. Raven. The strength of her unique scent mingling with his, along with his tousled hair, informed me I’d obviously interrupted something between them. Interesting. Wolves and vampires usually didn’t mix. Sweeping his dark hair out of his eyes, Jacques’ sharp gaze raked me from head to toe. “You certainly do not look wet, mon enfante fantôme,” he observed in an amused, mocking
tone. “Nor do you appear to be hanging from a cliff,” Dorian said then, stepping up to join him. Despite the fact he’d covered his muscular frame in faded jeans and a black wool peacoat with deep pockets, he still had that medieval highlander look, like he’d stepped straight out of Rob Roy or Braveheart. Well, at least my message had gotten through fairly unaltered this time. “It’s urgent,” I said, getting right down to business. “I’ve got a message from Lucian.” “Lucian?” Jacques repeated, lifting a dubious brow as his dark eyes bored intently into mine. Dorian merely crossed his arms over his broad chest. I just continued right on in a mix of truth and
falsehood. “A meeting. Lucian wants a clan meeting. He’ll meet on your turf. At the gala.” “The gala?” Jacques’ fangs flashed into existence. Dorian drew a deep breath. It was my turn to raise a brow at their reactions. Jacques tilted his head to one side. “Why the gala?” he asked. “Why would Lucian walk into a witches’ nest so willingly?” His tone was one of rank disbelief. Dorian raised an equally chary brow. “It’s a matter of grave importance,” I said, steering myself back onto the truth. “It’s the Templars. They broke into the Nether Reaches.” Silence met this revelation. If Jacques was surprised, he didn’t show it.
Dorian’s jade green eyes narrowed into razor-thin slits. Finally, Jacques clasped his hands behind his back and stepping closer to me, braced his feet wide apart. “And what are your intentions here, mon enfante fantôme?” Yeah, definitely not going as planned. “Must I have an intention of some kind other than to deliver his message?” I queried in turn. Jacques quirked his lip and remained standing as he was, observing me from under hooded eyes. I glanced over at Dorian. He’d jutted his square jaw in a tense line, his expression as mysteriously unreadable as Jacques’. Fine. They didn’t believe me. And honestly, I had a good idea of why not. I was acting out of character, standing there all tense and watching
their every move. Right then. What would the old Cassidy have done? That was easy. She wouldn’t have cared. “Suspicious lot,” I groused, resurrecting my old self. “Well, consider message delivered. I’ve got better things to do.” I spun on my heel to leave, but I’d scarcely turned around before Jacques and Dorian again materialized in front of me as if from thin air. “Ah, then we shall play this game,” Jacques said with a wink. “Mayhap it is time to set aside our differences,” Dorian murmured. Mission accomplished. “Fine then,” I said with a shrug. “The Cloister Gardens. Nine sharp.” I moved to stride past them but they flashed away, leaving me alone on the rooftop once again.
I waited about ten seconds before relaxing enough to take a breath. One item down. I had to hit Lucian next. Then last on the list, the Templars. I glanced around for Ricky. It took me a minute to find him, crouched on the rooftop ledge like a gargoyle. “Is that your version of hiding your head in the sand?” I asked, striding towards him. He flattened his ears and sidled away, hunching his shoulders over to hide something. “What do you have?” I asked, suddenly suspicious. As I reached for him, he scooted away, but not before I caught the telltale flash of blue light between his hands. He had my phone. I pounced then, snatching it right out of his smokey little
fingers. “So, you’re Ricky Thaddeues-Whatever, Pickpocketer Extraordinare?” I asked sourly. I should’ve known it would be the devious sort of skill he’d foster. He grinned. Wide. In fact, I don’t think I’d ever seen him puff up with quite so much pride. Figured. Everything was backwards with imps. I’d obviously just handed him the king of compliments on a silver platter. Scowling, I glanced down at the tiny screen. No wonder he’d kept out of my hair. He’d set up a Twitter profile and had tweeted out a stream of ridiculous selfies. “Not a good idea,” I warned, thumbing through the pictures. “Have you forgotten about the Templars? They’re always on the lookout for Charmed slipups.” He could easily have captured
and posted images of Jacques with fangs exposed and who knows what else. “Oh, puhleeease, mate,” he snorted and rolled his eyes. “Everyone knows Twitter is a load of tosh.” I squinted at the photos. The majority of them depicted a single eyeball and nostrils, so I felt inclined to agree. Few would think them real. “Still a bad idea. Once they’re in the cloud, they’re in the cloud to stay.” He obviously wasn’t paying attention to me. “Stone the crows, but will you take a look at that?” he cackled, jabbing the screen. “Over ten thousand followers in fifteen minutes. That’s a record for me, duck.” I scowled and jammed my phone into my back pocket. “I’m out of here.”
I left him there, sulking on the rooftop and headed for the fire escape. On the first step, I paused. The moonlight cast an almost metallic glow upon the acres of concrete, glass, and steel that made up the city surrounding me. It looked surreal. Something about it drew my attention inward to myself, to my lack of emotion. Yeah, I really felt disconnected, as if I didn’t really exist, or like I’d been thrust into the Twilight Zone or was stuck in a dark, grim comic book. I stood there a moment, but then shrugged it off. Whatever. It was easier to get things done when you didn’t care as much. Zipping down the fire escape, I grabbed a late dinner on the sidewalks on my way back to the apartment building. My next target? Lucian. I was eager to see
him. I missed him. In short order, I stood in front of his door and tried the knob. It wasn’t locked. I took it as an invitation to enter. Darkness shrouded his apartment, but as I moved to the picture windows in the living room, a light flipped on in the bedroom above. The next instant, I saw his reflection in the window, appearing behind me. Our eyes met and locked as slowly, ever so slowly, he lowered his lips to brush the side of my neck. Goose bumps rippled across my skin. I reached back and ran my fingers through his dark hair. Lucian wrapped his warm arms around me then and pulled me back against his hard chest. “I have to kiss you now,” he whispered.
I lay my head back on his shoulder. We stood there a minute before he turned me in his arms and raked his hot breath over my cheek, his strong hands sliding low over my hips. Our lips sealed and our tongues collided. I wasn’t in the mood for teasing. I pushed into him, demanding and craving more than just his mouth. He kissed me harder and let his hands explore—but not for long. All too soon, he pulled back, his lips lingering mere millimeters away. “Let’s run, Cassidy.” That again. I wasn’t in the mood to think. I studied his pale, silver-blue eyes framed by dark, sooty lashes. “You’re gorgeous,” I lowered my voice into a purr. “Don’t talk. Just kiss me.” Aristocratic. Elegant. Sexy. Stunning could be the only word to describe Lucian. Well, not true.
From the way his brows knotted at my response, I had to tack on the word “grumpy”. I sighed and stepped back. Since he obviously wasn’t going to participate on the physical front right now, I figured I might as well get down to business. “I’ve got good news,” I said, looping my arm through his. Lucian lifted an eyebrow. “News?” he queried softly. “The clan meeting you wanted to set up,” I replied. “Jacques and Dorian will meet you tomorrow.” He stood there. Silent. Withdrawn. Not exactly the way I’d envisioned it going. Finally, when he did speak, it was a warning. “You don’t know who you’re playing with, Cassidy.”
On the contrary, I knew exactly who I was playing with, but I couldn’t tell him, for many reasons, the single biggest being that he was spelled himself. A bark of harsh laughter escaped his lips then. “You’re not the only one caught in the desire for revenge,” he explained, a muscle pulsing on his lean jaw. “In fact, we all are, are we not? You, Gloria, Dorian, Emilio, and myself. All of us are seeking revenge in our own way, all wrestling with its all-consuming anger. What will our outcomes be? Truly, this is nothing more than a study in revenge, is it not? In some way, each one of us is even justified.” Alright, this was definitely careening in the wrong direction. “You’re right,” I reasoned, trying to pull him back on course. “The Marchesi
shouldn’t fight the Terzi. They want to talk, too.” “You mean to say Emilio changed his mind about that?” He spat Emilio’s name in pure contempt. “Why would he?” I obviously wasn’t going to be able to spin this one. Crud. I hadn’t planned on telling this much of the truth. “Emilio doesn’t know about this,” I admitted. “I set it up. I was there, you know. I saw what the Templars did. And after what you did, you know, setting Dorian’s clan free, I figured it wasn’t that big of a deal to—” “Wait, what?” Lucian interrupted, his handsome face a mask of confusion. “I set Dorian’s clan free? I?” What had they done? Given him a complete lobotomy? “They’ve really done a number on you, haven’t they?” I murmured, shaking my head.
A moment of strained silence passed between us. “Right, then,” was all he said. He believed me. I could tell by the way his shoulders deflated. “They’ll be waiting at the Cloisters tomorrow. 9:00PM,” I said, determined to see this through. “And nothing I say will stop you from going,” he said in a fatalistic tone. It struck me then. Oh, I’d been playing this all wrong. I had him. He’d show up anywhere to protect me. “You’re right. Nothing is going to stop me. I’m going,” I replied, lifting my chin. He reached for me again, holding me close and pressing my cheek against his heart. “What we feel for each other will be our ruin.” My conscience twinged. Just a little, but I
shrugged it away. Why should I feel guilty? He would benefit from the night’s events. “I’ve got to go,” I said, extricating myself from his embrace. “I’ll be at the Cloisters, with or without you.” Something flickered in his eyes. I skipped out of his apartment then. Item two, complete. I only had item three left, and arguably the trickiest so far. The Knights Templar. It was getting close to midnight. I had twentyone hours before it all went down. Somewhere in it all, I needed to grab some sleep. I couldn’t afford to run on empty when the gala required me to be at the top of my game. And as my heart cried out to run back to Lucian’s apartment willy-nilly, I knew that would only exhaust me more. I certainly
wouldn’t be sleeping there. No, I’d be far better off getting a head start on the Templars. They weren’t going to be easy. Culpepper was a slimy and formidable foe, but a foe who played a critical role in my plan of revenge. Somehow, I’d have to get him to listen to me. I had to open his eyes. I had to rip control of the Knights Templar right out of Emilio’s greedy, evil grasp. And I had to succeed on the first try. If I bungled it up, who knew when I’d ever have the chance again? I forced my feet to carry me out of Lucian’s apartment building, back to the subway system, and thirty minutes later, I stood under the FedEx store’s awning once again. The building holding the Templars lab rose across the street, high above me, with only the occasional light shining through dark,
plate-glass windows. Street traffic had died down. A few pedestrians passed by on the sidewalk, but they kept their eyes glued on their phones and didn’t seem to even notice me. I buried my face in my jacket and studied the building. Obviously, the Templars would be watching their perimeters—especially at night when the vampires roamed. No doubt, they’d mounted surveillance equipment every two feet around the entire block. Most likely, they were even watching me now. The thought made me uneasy. If true, I was only digging my own hole deeper the longer I stood out there trying to figure out how to break in. I’d probably be far better off making a mad dash for it. Once inside, I could find Emilio’s secret door … A truck distracted me then, a small one
covered in street grime, and emblazoned on the side were the words “A & J Grade ‘A’ Commercial Cleaning Services”. It slowed down and signaled in front of the building, and as it began turning into the parking garage, I saw the rear cargo door hadn’t been pulled all the way down, leaving a roughly two-foot opening. Without thinking twice, I flashed across the street as fast as I could and in a half-jump, halftwist combination, slid right through the opening like a baseball player sliding into home base. The truck lurched beneath me. I suppose it could’ve been worse. I grazed my shoulder and ripped my pants, cutting my knee, the other one this time, as I slammed into a wall of black trash bags, causing the entire lot to fall on my head—an inconvenience, at best, and a smelly one. Gritting
my teeth, I scrambled to my feet and crouched down, peering through the opening at the garage outside as the truck slowly trundled down the parking levels. Finally, it stopped in front of a halfopen door with spray-painted stencil letters spelling Maintenance on the front. I was out of the truck and into the hallway before the driver cut the truck’s engine. This time, the maintenance door wasn’t a secret entrance to the Fringe but really was just a door to your average maintenance facility. Cracked, wet cement floor. A line of yellow mop buckets filled with gray sludge. Rows of wheeled trashcans. Voices echoed my way. I didn’t stick around. Spying an exit sign, I dashed to the door and hit the steps. I had no other choice but to make a run for it
now. I flexed my leg. The gash on my knee had already healed. A second later, the stiffness faded, too. I was ready. Running up the stairs as fast as I could, I crossed my fingers that no one would notice the blur streaking up the flights until it was too late. The numbers passed by in a flash and in seconds, I’d arrived directly under the Knights Templar lab. Not hesitating, I barreled through the door as fast as I could. I had to find Emilio’s secret entrance and— Everything happened at once, but her laugh really stood out. Anya’s. It was a belly laugh, filled with wicked glee. It eerily echoed around me as hordes of spiders dropped down from the ceiling above. It was terrifying, seeing those tiny
bodies hurling right at me, but within a foot from striking my body, they suddenly zapped into flames, burning up like miniature meteorites striking the atmosphere. Lucian’s wards in action. I’d barely smiled when something pierced my neck, and I felt my body freeze. “Emilio will have no choice but to face the truth now,” I heard Anya say. Her voice sounded strange, as if she spoke underwater. I felt a sharp pain lance through my forehead. “Let’s see how he reacts when he sees his precious pet has betrayed him,” she cackled. The nausea hit then, along with the realization that despite Lucian’s protection, I’d been spelled. I pitched forward, darkness spinning around me.
Suddenly, as if from a great distance, I heard a roar. It sounded horrible. Deep. Vicious. Snarling like an angry lion. Anya screamed. Then huge hands picked me up and everything went black.
Prison I stretched, feeling content. Lazy. Comfortable. Like a cat napping in the sun on a hot summer day. Slowly, I opened my eyes. Yellow pom-pom hanging from the ceiling. Narrow bed. Window to the right revealing the New York City night sky. I knew where I was. I was back in Edna’s safe house. I sat up, bewildered, and then everything returned in a rush. Anya had attacked me. I’d been spelled. Something large and loud had rescued me and … brought me here? Why Edna’s? How long had I been out? I had precious little time to waste. I got
to my feet, somewhat mollified by the dark, inky sky outside. From the looks of it, I couldn’t have lost more than a couple of hours. “What happened?” I asked aloud, figuring Ricky lurked in the room somewhere. I patted my body for my phone but came up short. “What time is it?” The pom-pom on the ceiling rustled and true to form, Ricky popped out his head. “Anya spelled you, duck,” he stated the obvious. “And it’s late.” “Late doesn’t cut it,” I grumbled. “I need the exact time.” No phone on the small side table with the squat raccoon statue either. Then the lightbulb turned on and I cocked a suspicious brow at Ricky. I didn’t have time for his shenanigans. I lunged, plucking him right out of his fluffy, yellow nest.
Yep, he had my phone alright. He dropped it like a hot potato and I caught it before it hit the floor. “Lor-love-a-duck, but you must have X-ray vision,” he groused petulantly. “It’s 8:19.” I frowned at the dark sky. It was way darker than usual for morning. Was there a storm? Had I really slept almost eight hours? I glanced down at my phone for confirmation. It was a ‘no’ on the eight hours—but a ‘yes’ on the 8:19—as in 8:19 PM. I’d slept hella longer than eight measly hours. Try twenty. I stared at my phone in shock. “You slept the day away.” Ricky yawned and stretched before cocking his head to one side. “Didn’t you set up a Terzi-Marchesi meet up at the
gala slash, masked ball-thingamajig?” But the word gala pierced through my shocked haze. Gala. “Forty-one minutes,” I whispered hoarsely. I had forty-one minutes before my plan kicked off and I hadn’t even started on the Templar angle. They’d need at least twenty or so minutes just to get to the gala from their lab. That left me a whole twenty-one minutes to get them on their way. I actually wasted a precious minute, just standing there, stunned. “So, it’s back to bed,” I heard Ricky cackle with glee as he dove back into his pom-pom hideaway. “No,” I said hoarsely. “There’s got to be a way.” I couldn’t just give up. I couldn’t. “Way?” he asked, popping his head out at me
curiously. “Way for what?” “The Templars,” I replied. My lips felt stiff. Wooden. “I’ve got to get them to the gala.” Ricky rolled his eyes. “Not much chance of that, guvna. Not unless you can transport yourself directly into their lab and—” Transport myself. I caught my breath. I actually could transport myself, straight from the Nether Reach breach into the lab—providing they hadn’t closed it. And getting to the Nether Reaches? Yeah, Justice had warned me about calling the mists. The Fallen Ones would be waiting. But I could be quick. I could even outrun Strix, if he should choose to chase me—I hoped that I could, anyway. As hairy as it sounded, it was my only path forward.
“Right,” I said aloud. “I’ll just go light a fire under the Templars’ tails and then hightail it to the gala.” “In those rags?” Ricky cocked a smoky brow at me. I glanced down at my torn jeans. “Good point,” I acknowledged. Emilio would take just one look and know I’d been up to no good. “I can’t believe I’m going to do this, but I’m gonna rely on you to get me some kind of dress, then and meet me at the gala. Women’s bathroom. First floor. Be there.” Having little time to spare, I didn’t wait for the imp’s answer and instead hoped he’d come through without getting distracted by turmeric. Summoning the banshee inside me, I slipped, then, into specter form.
It was so easy this time, so easy to alter my vision and to call the mists, but the instant I did, I heard Justice shout, “No! Cassidy! Do not call the mists!” But I didn’t listen. I ignored her warning and punched a door, straight into the Nether Reaches and directly where I wanted to go: the Nether Reach prison. As the mists swirled around me, I heard them calling my name—the Fallen Ones. Three distinct voices. All dark. Angry. Desolate. Something unholy brushed my arm. I recoiled, unable to stop the scream erupting from my lips. And then my feet touched solid ground and I ran forward, battling my way past grasping, boney fingers, and then the last vestige of mists fell away
to reveal the Nether Reach prison’s white-tiled floor. The Fallen One’s voices vanished. I expelled a breath of relief and glanced around. I saw the same futuristic décor as before, clean sleek lines and wide staircases leading to each corner tower, only this time, the space wasn’t empty. To my left, stood a great hulking creature with wide-set shoulders and mane of hair like a lion. Ahead, a group of disgruntled trolls eyed me with open, greedy interest. At a hiss in my ear, I whirled to see a warlock standing there with a pet snake. I’d landed smack dab in the general prison population. Crud. I really didn’t have time for this. I drew my gun in a flash. “Stand back,” I
barked. They gasped. But they weren’t staring at the gun. They were gaping at my hand. “Criminal Level Five,” the hulking creature grunted and slithered away as the trolls scattered. I glanced at the criminal barcode etched in the webbing between my thumb and fingers. So. Who knew Strix’s little criminal branding would prove useful? I didn’t stop to question it. I grabbed the warlock by the neck before he could squirm away and adjusting my grip, shoved the gun against his ribs. “I’m in a hurry,” I said. “Get me to that tower.” I nodded with my chin. He swallowed nervously but nodded. We’d taken no more than three steps forward before he hissed, “Keepers!” I clenched my jaw. I didn’t freaking have time
for this. “Run,” the warlock whispered. “We’ll cover for you.” He raised his hand and at once, the prisoners began shouting and banging on the walls. It sounded and looked like a scene straight out of your stereotypical prison movie. I ran then, catching only a glimpse of a Nether Reach keeper with thick eyebrows and deep-set eyes charging my way before two trolls blocked his path. Blue lights flashed. An alarm shrilled. Ignoring them, I dashed up the stairs and headed straight for the Fallen One’s tower cell, hoping against all hope that the breach the Templars had caused was still up and running. It was.
I caught the stench of eucalyptus the instant I barged into the cell. Not stopping, not even for a second, I ran at the wall at full speed and jumped headlong into the tunnel.
Masks and Glitter I dropped into the same Templar lab as before, only this time, it wasn’t empty. Same view of the lit city skyline and the Templar Red Cross banner on the wall, but this time, three hooded Templars hunched over the electronic equipment. Crud. I hadn’t planned taking them on so quickly in their own domain, but I had the element of surprise to my advantage and obviously, no choice but to run at them like a wild beast. Astonishingly, I caught them unprepared. With the size of the hole they’d drilled into the Nether Reaches, they should’ve been ready and armed to the teeth for something barging back through—but they weren’t. It was an obvious sign they really didn’t
understand just what they’d breached. The three knights turned as one, and my world shifted into fast-forward. A tall Templar with a gaunt face and red hair recovered first to lunge at me, but I sent him flying back against the wall with a well-aimed roundhouse kick. Another jumped to take his place. I launched him after the first. He careened into the electronic equipment, striking his head, and slid to the floor, unconscious. The last man reached for some kind of assault rifle, but my elbow collided with his chin before he pulled the trigger. His head snapped back. I heard the crunch of breaking bone, and he wilted, collapsing to the floor. In roughly ten seconds, I’d taken them down. I expelled a relieved breath and then inhaled, searching for Culpepper’s mana, but the Nether
Reach mists floating in the room interfered. Great. I had to open the door into who knows what to hunt him down. I could only hope he was in the lab. I didn’t have time to chase him down anywhere else. Helping myself to one of the Templars’ hooded cloaks, I quickly pulled it over my clothes and strode out the door. Luck stood with me. I caught Culpepper’s distinct scent at once, drifting my direction from what looked like an open kitchen area ahead. I moved closer and peered into the room but cursing silently, jerked back upon seeing several groups of Templars milled around eating slices of pizza. Culpepper’s mana came from the other side of the room, from an office with an open door. From where I stood, I caught the corner of a sleek black desk and his left arm resting on a stack of paper.
I scowled. I was out of options, and I certainly couldn’t afford standing there analyzing the best route forward. It was time for speed. I had to flash through the group of Templars and into the office before they caught me, and once inside, secure the door until I’d convinced Culpepper to show up at the gala, pronto. Just how was I going to persuade him? I hadn’t had time to perfect my spiel. With the time I had left, again, my only option was to be blunt and direct. I waited three more seconds, until the majority of the Templars had their mouths full, and then I charged across the room like a maddened bull—a vampiric bull, of course—one zipping past so fast they heard Culpepper’s office door crash shut even before feeling the first rush of wind. Within two seconds, I jammed a door under
the knob and, spinning on my heel, jumped at Culpepper, pinned him down, and pressed his cheek flat on the desk. “Things aren’t going your way this time,” I growled, giving his face an extra push for emphasis. He snorted. As the Templars outside began banging on the door, I barked, “We need to talk. Tell your buddies to back off.” With his lips squished into a fish position, his southern drawl sounded half-muffled as he replied with a snarky, “Now, why would I do that, Cassidy?” “Want the answer to why I’m still alive?” I asked in turn, staying laser-focused on my mission. “I know you’ve been suspicious. Maybe it’s time
you discovered your gold-masked man isn’t who you think he is.” The muscle on his jaw twitched. The banging on the door grew louder. The hinges rattled. Yeah, that door was coming down soon. I had to crack him, but how? Raising my voice over the noise, I drew on all things Emilio and kept on talking in a kind of verbal-shotgun attack all the while watching Culpepper’s face for any type of reaction. “Your masked leader is a vampire named Emilio. Well, a vampire and something altogether unholy that allows him to walk in daylight. He’s definitely Charmed. Evil. Twisted. And he’s played you for quite some time. The Templars are his pet puppets. You clean up his messes, destroy his enemies, that kind of thing.” The Night Terrors
suddenly sprang to mind. “That Night Terror raid? Want to know why he really set you on them? He wanted you—” At the mention of Night Terrors, Culpepper reacted. Under my grip, his pockmarked face creased into a smile. “That Night Terror raid rid the world of a terror cult,” he said, his voice all grit. “That’s not a good enough reason for you?” Naming True and his cohorts a “terror cult” would’ve made the old Cassidy boil with anger, but the new Cassidy smiled. Bingo. I’d snared my fish. Play it right and I could set him on Emilio like a wild dog. I laughed a cold, chilling laugh. “Oh, Emilio played you with that one as well. He was all chummy with the Night Terrors for centuries until they dared to cross him. He used you to get his Hell Stone—”
I felt Culpepper freeze outright beneath my fingers. Checkmate. “How do you know about that?” he rasped. I chuckled. Who’d have thought the Hell Stone would be the ace up my sleeve? Such an easy one to play, too. “Oh, you think that’s a secret?” I asked, feigning astonishment. He didn’t answer me. Directly, anyway. The fact that he shouted to the Templars to “stand down” spoke volumes. The thudding on the door died instantly. “The Hell Stone,” he grated. “It’s under lock and key. How do you know about that? Only the Grandmaster and I know of its existence. It’s here, safe in the vault, and I know you haven’t been there.”
“Tch, tch, tch,” I clucked. “So naïve. You really are his fool. Go run and look in your vault. You’re not going to see it there. The Hell Stone is in Emilio’s penthouse, amongst his personal art collection.” Culpepper went limp. Something glittered in the corner of my eye. My knives. Letting him go, I grabbed them from the corner of his desk. “Reclaiming my tools,” I said, quickly sheathing two but keeping the third in my hand. “Be there at the gala. The Cloisters. Nine sharp. Show up and you’ll see your precious, gold-masked man without his mask. Then you’ll see just how you’ve been played.” I glanced up at a clock on the wall. “Twenty-three minutes. We’ve got just twenty-three minutes.” Crud. I had to go.
“Why are you doing this?” he asked, slowly sitting up. But I didn’t answer. I didn’t wait any longer. I had to get out. I summoned enough of my specter soul to call the mists. They came at once, but carried with them the sound of Justice’s frantic voice pleading for me to stop. “Not another door, Cassidy! Not another door!” but I ignored her. Oh, how I should’ve listened. How I would pay for that. But I didn’t know that then. The darkest form of revenge possible had seized my soul. Culpepper and his office vanished from my sight as I stepped into the mists and opened a new door leading back to the Nether Reaches. The field of pools materialized before me and I smiled, surprised how easy I found transitioning
to the Nether Reaches now. I knelt beside one of the glowing pools and dipped my fingers into the mana, drawing deeply to feed. Pure, raw energy coursed through my veins. I closed my eyes and rose to my feet feeling completely restored and refreshed. Compared to this, feeding on humans was like munching decade-old Cheetos versus dining at the 21 Club in Manhattan. If only I could return here to eat all the time, I’d be the epitome of strength, almost invincible. I stretched, turning my thoughts back to the gala. Yeah, I had to leave the Nether Reaches before the Fallen Ones pinpointed my location and — Something hard struck me on the side of the head. Fireworks flashed behind my eyes. My barcode sizzled at precisely the same
moment. It was a dirty move. He didn’t have to strike me. I fell to my knees under the force of the blow and wincing, glanced up into Strix’s steely gray eyes. He was wearing his leather-hunting outfit again, complete with bow slung across his back and his blond hair braided in elfish Lord of the Rings braids. He’d just struck me with the butt of his gun— wait, my gun. Just how had he gotten that? “And how many enemies do you intend to make tonight?” the blond Nether Reach keeper asked in subzero tones as he yanked me to my feet. I expelled a defiant and exasperated breath. “I really don’t have time for this.” “It’s a crime for you to be here
unsupervised,” he replied crisply, his gray eyes glittering with ice. “I warned you.” I sized him up. Could I take him on? Truthful answer? No. Crud. That left talking my way out of this, and with Strix, I pretty much had to stick to the truth. I scowled, allowing my resentment to show and replied, “I really can’t stay. Lucian’s under a spell and the only chance to break it is at this art gala. It’s a one-shot deal set to go off at 9:00 PM sharp. I’ve only got minutes, so let me go.” I left it at that. I wasn’t about to mention I’d tossed Dorian, Jacques, and the Knights Templar into the mix, as well as having hopes of dealing Emilio a mortal blow. He didn’t need to know everything. Strix narrowed his eyes into hawkish slits.
“Lord Rowle … spelled?” he scoffed. I answered that one easily enough. Pulling the imp bottle out of my jacket pocket, I yanked the portrait straight out, unrolling it just enough and just long enough to corroborate my accusations before stuffing it back in. Strix blinked in surprise, but he still had the gall to continue with, “Nether Reach law states I must take you in.” For a second, the old Cassidy emerged, wanting so much to slap his smug face, but she fizzled, leaving herself with cold calculation once again. Strix had a soft spot. I’d seen it. And it was that he prized the truth above all else. “Things really aren’t so cut-and-dried or black and white, are they, Strix? It’s all just so many shades of muddy gray. Maybe I’m not as bad as you think I
am.” “And in turn, maybe I’m not as bad as you think I am,” he countered, jutting out his jaw. “Though, personally, I do think you’re a bit of a loose cannon.” “And I consider you a major jerk extraordinaire,” the old Cassidy emerged to retort. Down, girl. Down. He angled his chin and pinned me with a stone glare. “Let’s just leave it at that, shall we? You’re still under arrest, but with the way your intentions graded at the station, I’ll allow you the opportunity to prove you’re telling the truth before executing the law further. Let’s investigate the situation at the gala.” So, he really was judge, jury, and executioner. “Fine.” I didn’t care what he said as long as
he let me go. With the chaos I knew would soon ensue, I’d have plenty of opportunities to escape. “See if you can keep up.” He grabbed me before I could take a step farther. “No. We’re doing this my way now,” he said and the next minute, ripped me straight out of the Nether Reaches the hard, bone-jarring, fleshripping way. I suppose I should’ve been grateful. I didn’t hear the Fallen Ones nor feel their boney fingers grasping for me this time, but his mode of travel hurt like no freaking jetlag a human ever felt, that was for sure. Seconds later, I stood behind the Cloisters at the Met, panting heavily and wincing in pain. “Hurts, does it?” Strix asked mildly. “Yeah,” I grunted, wiping the sweat from my
brow. “It always does with you.” “I’m not surprised,” he murmured absently, glancing around. Part of me wanted to ask him why it had to hurt so badly. I really wanted to know, but I knew I had to save it for another day. There were only mere minutes left now. “The gala,” Strix said, waving his arm. “We’re here. So, lead on.” Music filtered from the well-lit stone building rising before me. Spotlights hit long, buildingheight banners hanging from the roof’s edge, advertising the lavish event being held inside. A steady stream of men smells, way more than evening gowns and lamppost-dotted path
and women—and by the one Charmed—dressed in tuxedos moved up the towards the entrance.
Cameras flashed. I checked my phone for the time. Seventeen minutes left before it all went down. Seventeen minutes to find Ricky with my clothes, change, find Emilio, and then play it all cool and innocent. Close, but doable. Despite the setbacks, I seemed to be landing this plane—granted, without wings, rudders, and the engine on fire, but it was landing. “I’ve got to change,” I said, lifting a brow at Strix’s Keeper outfit. It certainly looked like a costume Legolas would feel at home wearing, and nothing like a tuxedo. “You should, too.” “They won’t even see me,” he replied with full confidence and folded his arms. “I’m not letting you out of my sight.” “They’re hardly going to miss you, you know,” I retorted. “You’re going to stand out like a
wannabe Elrond, except younger and with bleachblond hair.” And especially with a bow slung over his shoulder. How was he even going to get past security? He merely lifted a pointed brow. “Whatever,” I replied with a shrug. I didn’t have time for useless banter. It was time to head to the impending apocalypse-of-a-gala. “Use your elfish speed, then.” He didn’t stop me this time as I sprinted to a side entrance, nearly bowling over a bald, potbellied man exiting the building at the same time as I entered. The man flattened himself against the wall and then gave me an awkward half-bow before changing his mind the instant he caught sight of my torn jeans. “Hey, you there, are you in the wrong place?”
he shouted after me. I ignored him and dashed down the hall towards the women’s bathroom. Music swirled in the air, harpsichords and lutes mixing with the din of many voices. The hallway was relatively empty, but I did garner the curious glance of every patron lurking there before I found the women’s bathroom and dashed inside. A quick scan revealed it was empty, except for a middle-aged woman refreshing her lipstick in front of the mirror. I caught her staring at me as I scanned the tiled floors and stalls again, looking for any sign of Ricky. Great. No sign. Fuming inwardly, I stalked to one of the stalls to peek inside as the woman at the mirror hurriedly left, snatching her cellphone
out of her purse. Yeah, she was calling security. That gave me three minutes or less to change. But into what? Geez, I should’ve known better than to trust my turmeric-addled imp. Crud. I hadn’t given it much thought at the time, but surprisingly, my choice of clothing really mattered now. I wouldn’t get far in my jeans—especially ones torn at the knee. “Hex it all, Ricky,” I snapped aloud. “I thought I could trust you with procuring clothes at the very least.” I’d really thought he would come through for me. I should’ve— “Psst!” Tiny little voices hissed near my feet. I drew back, at first thinking the half-dozen black shadows scooting across the bathroom tiles were Anya’s arachnid minions of a large variety, but they were actually imps. Tiny ones. Children.
They didn’t speak. They pointed at a door marked ‘Storage’ at the back and without waiting, streaked across the floor to zip under it. It swung back a moment later, and there was Ricky, hanging on the knob in his favorite monkey-play maneuver. “Spit spot, duck,” he cackled, dropping to the floor and waving me frantically inside. “There’s a gaggle of old biddies on the way and two security guards. You’ve got two minutes before they barge in here.” I dashed inside, closing the door behind me only to run straight into a large pile of netting. “What the—” I gave a muffled gasp. I clawed at the stuff to get it out of my way, but that only made more of it fall on my head, and I went down in a tangle of baby-blue netting. “Don’t go all barmy on your gown, guvna,”
Ricky admonished, jumping onto my shoulder and stopping me from batting more material out of the way. “Blimey, but I’ll be brown bread—dead—if I don’t bring this back to Edna in mint condition.” “Gown?” I looked at the thirty or so yards of material covering the closet floor. “One ballgown,” Ricky cackled, pointing to what could’ve been a Disney-trademarked Cinderella princess dress, and then he pointed to a Venetian plague doctor’s mask with a huge, curvy hawk nose. “And one masquerade mask, as ordered.” Really, what else could I expect when I’d put an imp in charge of my wardrobe? “You didn’t bring the glass slippers,” I muttered sarcastically, reaching for the godawful dress. “Not wearing the mask.”
I didn’t want to wear the dress either, but I couldn’t mingle with jeans and a jacket covered in dirt, blood, and sweat. “One minute,” Ricky announced. I dove into the yards of netting, ignoring Ricky’s attempts to foist the mask on me anyway, and I dropped the imp bottle in my boot next to my knives. Uncomfortable, yeah, but the ballgown didn’t have pockets and I certainly couldn’t wear my jacket. As I tied the last laces, several small imps jumped onto my shoulders and began patting my face while a few others pulled at my hair. I scowled, shaking them free. I didn’t have time for imp shenanigans. “Ten seconds,” Ricky chimed. I had to call it done. I bolted out of the closet, pausing for two seconds to douse myself with the
cheap, complimentary bathroom perfume. I caught my reflection in the mirror then. The small imps had accomplished wonders with my face and hair. Even in that small amount of time, they’d poufed my auburn locks and edged my eyes with black eyeliner, giving me smoky, bedroom eyes. They’d probably used soot, but with the professional results, it didn’t really matter, and I certainly wasn’t one to waste time preening and puffing in front of a mirror like my mother. I escaped the bathroom—the gown sweeping both sides of the door—just as a pair of security guards rounded the corner up ahead. I slowed down and lifted my chin, adopting an expression of disdain as I grandly swept down the hall. They looked at me. For sure. But only
because of the dress. It was obvious. They blinked, their eyes sweeping over the volumes of material before returning back up to my face, and then with their faces torn between amusement and wonder, nodded at me to run for the bathroom. Whatever. I didn’t care what they thought about the dang gown as long as they weren’t hunting me down. I picked up my skirts. I had mere minutes left. Where was Lucian? Emilio? I couldn’t smell them, but then, I wouldn’t be able to, of course. But Culpepper? Jacques? Dorian? I took a deep breath and frowned. No luck. I caught her scent then. Wendy, along with her Gollum and Muppet friend as well, coming around the corner ahead. In a swish of baby-blue netting, I ran down the hall and circled the corner just in time to see
the three old women entering a small office. Of course, the stares of the few scattered couples dotting the hallway zeroed in on me. It was impossible to sneak around in a Cinderella ballgown. I sailed down the hall, but paused before the door long enough to retrieve a silver blade from my boot and, burying it in the lengths of blue netting, placed my hand on the knob. Strix appeared then, as if from thin air to touch my arm and murmur a cautious “wait.” “No,” I said, shaking my head firmly. “This is it.” I turned the knob and stepped inside. The room was a small one. A private office. I saw Anya first, wearing a black cocktail dress, three-inch platform heels, and a necklace of diamonds sparkling around her neck.
Emilio stood beside her in a black tuxedo and with his perpetual cigar in his hand. I saw the three witches then, hovering in the back and holding a life-size portrait. But it wasn’t your average portrait. It was of Lucian. The astounding. And it was … breathing.
Chaos Galore Emilio looked genuinely pleased to see me. The rest in the room not so much, but I hardly noticed. Lucian’s full-length, oil portrait in its gilded frame had grabbed my complete attention. “You have arrived,” I heard Emilio say in the background. From the corner of my eye, I saw Wendy’s hand fly to her mouth. “Cassidy!” she gasped. Still, I stared at the portrait. Something was wrong with it. The paint appeared wet. I squinted. It was wet. Parts of Lucian’s face were melting and sliding off the canvas. “And Lucian? Has he arrived?” Emilio’s voice sounded from within my mind.
Ah, focus, Cassidy. Time to focus. I lifted my chin and smiled at him. “He’ll be there at the cloister’s gardens, Papa,” I assured, shoving down the nausea from uttering the word ‘papa’ in such sugary sweet—and brainless— tones. Yeah, I’d lost track of Lucian the past twenty or so hours, but I knew in my gut he’d show up, if only to see me safe. And while it smacked of betrayal to use him as bait for my revenge project, I salved my conscience by reminding myself I would be setting him free. I really could now. I had two of the required elements within my grasp. The portrait … and the key. I just needed the victim. Anya’s nostrils flared angrily. “Just what game are you really playing?” she spat at me, but in an oddly subdued, almost hesitant way.
Fear. I could sense the fear in her. I looked over, interested and curious, but then, during our last encounter, she’d screamed in response to a strange, lion-like roar right before I’d lost consciousness. I briefly wondered what had happened, but I knew it would have to wait. The clock on the wall announced it 9:00PM. “We’re late,” I said, pointing to the door. “And we can’t be late.” I had to get them moving. I couldn’t hazard Dorian, Jacques, and Lucian meeting on their own without Emilio there—or the Templar witnesses. “Hurry.” But Anya seemed in a sudden mood to chat. “Cassidy’s lying,” she hissed. “She’s up to something.” “Silence! Silenzio!” Emilio broke in, baring his fangs in a rare show of animosity. “One more
word of this Templar cospirazione and I shall exile you to the Dark Reaches with your mother!” So. Anya had stumbled on the truth. Interesting. And mother? Dark Reaches? But, back to the Templars. “Templars?” I repeated, feigning bewilderment. “Whatever are you talking about, Anya?” I sent her the sweetest of smiles. Her nostrils flared even wider. Emilio smiled, holding his arms wide. “Cassidy is my offspring, filled with deadly promise and incapable, incapace, of such a thing as betrayal. Tradirmi? Mai! Impossibile!” I clenched my teeth. The clock displayed 9:01PM. “He’s there, Papa,” I lied. Enough with the grandstanding already. I had to get them all moving before my plan fell to ruins. “Lucian’s waiting.
Come on.” I forced myself to touch Emilio’s hand. His flesh felt odd, familiar, like touching my own skin. I found it beyond disturbing. Emilio didn’t. He appeared to appreciate the gesture. Bestowing a fatherly smile on me, he nodded graciously my way. “Ah, then let us go to the gardens to meet Lucian.” About freaking time. “The portrait. You must bring it,” Emilio ordered. I eyed the portrait again. The way it was melting betrayed just how hard of a time they were having retaining control over Lucian. I wanted to laugh aloud, and I actually might have if I hadn’t noticed Wendy’s worried gaze latching onto me. I lifted a brow her direction. She sent me a weak smile, obviously trying to
convince herself she wasn’t afraid. I smiled back. Mine wasn’t a friendly smile. She knew the difference. She turned to her companions, swallowing nervously, and the three witches bent their heads close together and murmured the ancient words of another spell. There was a bright flash and the portrait shrank and morphed, growing thinner and smaller to finally flutter to the floor as a gala program guide. Anya reached for it, but Wendy slapped her hand away. “This spell won’t last long,” the old witch said. “We’ve got ten minutes, at most.” “We’re really running late,” I repeated impatiently, glancing at the clock again. This time, Emilio finally moved through the door and out into the hall. I waited for the rest to
leave, letting Wendy out before me before hurrying to catch up with Emilio and Anya walking ahead. “Cassidy was there,” the Romanian witch was insisting as I arrived. “I saw her at the lab—” Time to turn the tables on her a bit. “Lab?” I repeated, inserting myself into the conversation. “I don’t remember meeting you at a lab. What lab were you waiting for me at?” Anya frowned, clearly not appreciating the emphasis on her own presence there. To her dismay, Emilio followed up on the same line of questioning. “So many times, so many, molti, that I have told you to avoid them. They grow suspicious. Your jealousy will betray us all. It is time I sent you away. Molto lontano.” Alarm crossed Anya’s face. “No!” she objected.
I tuned out then. Let them battle it out on their own. I had Lucian to find. As we emerged out onto the cloister’s gardens, a rush of color and glittering lights met my eyes. The crowd flowed under the arched walkways and through the enclosed gardens in a chic and put-together sea of men in black tuxedos and women in slim-fitting evening gowns. They were elegant, elite, suave, wearing their minimal, Venetian-style eye masks on their heads or holding them upright on the occasional gold, beribboned stick. Good call that I’d passed over wearing the hawk-nosed plague doctor mask. Bad call on Cinderella’s poufy, baby-blue gown. The instant I stepped into the garden, heads
turned and I drew all eyes to me like a magnet. Whatever. I took a deep breath. A plethora of Charmed mana assaulted my senses. Great. At least half the crowd belonged to the Charmed variety, a healthy mix of Terzi and Marchesi alike, but from Emilio’s relaxed demeanor, I could only assume the Terzi in the crowd belonged to the rogues who’d painted the portrait. They were obviously there en force to see their masterpiece safely secured. I clenched my jaw, refusing to entertain the notion I’d just sprung a trap on Lucian he wouldn’t be able to escape and, frowning, inhaled deeply again. No sign of Dorian, Jacques, or Culpepper. Where were they? It was past 9:00PM. Sharp, I’d said. I’d told each of them sharp!
“Lucian?” Emilio murmured from my side. “I’ll get him, Papa,” I assured, and to buy time, quickly moved away as if I knew where to meet him. I was halfway down the walkway when a shadow caught my attention. A small shadow, approximately eight inches in height and darting under a buffet table near a wet bar. Great. Ricky. Just what I needed. Not. I clenched my jaw and hurried over, hoping I could catch him and rope him into helping me find Lucian. “A drink, mademoiselle?” the bartender asked as I approached. Yeah, no one was missing me in thirty or so yards of blue netting. “No, thanks—” I began, shaking my head, but
then catching sight of Ricky diving into the cocktail shaker, changed it to a quick, “You know, why not? Give me a mixed drink.” The bartender grinned. “And what would you like, mademoiselle?” I scowled at the cocktail shaker. I had so, so many things to do right now. The bartender lifted the stainless-steel shaker and glanced inside. Crud. I grabbed the first appetizer I could reach from the table and asked, “And what is this?” The guy glanced up and squinted, “Ah, I believe it is duck pâté, mademoiselle.” He smiled. “Take a bite. It’s delicious.” Great. Human food. But at least I’d secured his attention. I forced myself to smile back and bit into the mix of pickled olives and duck liver. It
tasted like slimy sawdust. Irritating. I'd be picking it out of my teeth for hours. The bartender’s smile took on a flirtatious cast. “And your drink, mademoiselle? It is mademoiselle, is it not?” I felt him then, standing behind me, even before I felt his hot breath on my neck. “A Banshee. Shaken, please,” Lucian’s deep, cultured tones supplied for me. “And yes, she’s a mademoiselle, but one already called for.” I smiled at his humorous choice of cocktail and leaned back, feeling his hard, warm abs pressed against my back. He slid his arms around my waist and smoothed the netting low over my hips. “You should’ve added lots of ice,” I murmured, tilting back to whisper in his ear. It
would serve Ricky right to suffer a bit of torture. “Can’t have him causing chaos now, can we?” He chuckled low against my neck. I smiled, watching the bartender shake the drink and then pour it into a crystal cocktail glass. I grabbed it, quickly, before he noticed the two mischievous, green eyeballs floating on the surface and turned away. “What are you doing?” I growled at Ricky as he zipped out of the glass and disappeared into my voluminous skirts. “I say, look at that bit,” he snickered, popping out near my waistband to point at the buffet table. “Never did like oysters, duck, they’re just saucers of sno—snot.” A hiccup interrupted his last word. Great. Just what I freaking didn’t need—a drunk imp.
“Let’s get out of here,” Lucian murmured, returning behind me to capture my waist once again. “Something doesn’t feel right.” I shivered, enjoying the wickedly sensual distraction of his hard body pressed against mine. It nearly derailed my entire plan. I almost missed Culpepper’s scent followed at once by Dorian’s and Jacques’. Then Emilio was there, cradling a tumbler of whisky in his hand. I stepped out of Lucian’s embrace and turned, seeing him for the first time that evening. He was drop-dead gorgeous, powerfully built, yet elegantly lean in a crisp, black tuxedo. “This probably isn’t the best time to tell you I’m leaving your employ, Marchesi,” Lucian addressed Emilio at once with a cynical smile
gracing his lips. “But I am.” I blinked, amazed that with a roomful of Terzi witches and warlocks along with the layers of spells they’d painted on his portrait, that he was still breaking free—maybe not entirely, but rebelling enough to cause Emilio’s colorless eyes to flicker in concern. “Enough of this, eh?” Emilio replied, obviously eager to switch subjects. “Let us enjoy this delightful evening, shall we not?” The harpsichordists finished their number and the crowd clapped. Through the fluttering hands, I could see Wendy making her way towards us. Emilio nodded his chin her way in a clear, silent command to hurry. I nodded as well, wanting her to hop to it, too.
Hang in there, Lucian. Soon, you’re going to be free. Wendy would bring the portrait in less than a minute. Lucian was already there. All I needed was the sketch, tucked in my boot. Knocking a spoon from the buffet table, I laughed a “Oh, I’m so clumsy” and bent to pick it up, retrieving the imp bottle along the way. I rose to find Lucian watching me with a furrowed brow and a slight smile. “Come, let’s go, Cassidy,” he said, holding out his hand. A new ensemble began to play and a few dancers surged into an impromptu waltz, temporarily blocking Wendy’s path. “I’m leaving,” Lucian continued, giving his hand a shake. “Now. Come. Please.” “No! You cannot!” Emilio urged, sounding
frazzled and distracted. “You cannot go.” He frowned, waving outright to Wendy. She altered course, moving sideways to seek a new route forward as dancers whirled around her. Lucian turned his head curiously following Emilio’s gaze, but I caught him by the chin and forced his eyes back to me. “Okay, I’ll go with you,” I said, fluttering my lashes at him. I tried to loop my arm through his to slow him down—after all, I needed Wendy, too—but he narrowed his eyes in suspicion. He wasn’t about to let someone pin him like a beetle on a card here in the heart of Terzi territory—not even me. He searched my face. “I’ll wait outside. We’ll meet there.” I understood him. I knew he referred to
Dorian and Jacques. I glanced around again. Where were they? I’d no sooner wondered when I detected their mana swirling around me. They were close. So very close. I squinted to the left, searching for them, but caught a glimpse of Culpepper’s grizzly mug instead, peering out from behind a pillar a few arches down. Perfect. All pieces of the puzzle had arrived. I smiled. I was close. So very, very close. Then Lucian took another step away. I frowned. Wrong direction, buddy! I need to break your spell, first. Where was Strix when I needed him? It was like he’d suddenly vanished. Odd. Had something happened to him? Lucian kept on walking.
“Wait!” Emilio exploded, calling after him. “I forbid you to go!” That made Lucian pause. He glanced over his shoulder, looking as calm and self-possessed as ever. “Do I look like I am asking your permission?” he challenged calmly, the kind of calm that bordered on violence. Wendy was yards away and closing fast. I gripped the imp bottle so very tightly and reached out for Lucian once again. And then, when things seemed to be coming to a head, it all went south. Polar. Antarctica south. And in less than ten seconds. Jacques tipped it off. He chose that moment to appear in front of Emilio, looking downright spooky and mysterious in his black tux and
masquerade mask. With a mocking twist of his lips, he greeted Emilio in a tone of thrilling scorn, “And a fine evening to you, Emilio Marchesi. A true delight to see you in person, I’m sure, after all these centuries.” Emilio’s head snapped back in shock. And then Dorian arrived. Emilio froze. Completely. For about five seconds. For five very long seconds, the two simply locked stares, Emilio in shock, his face impassive and Dorian with his lips curled in the most contemptuous and belittling of smiles. On the sixth second, Emilio’s fingers flexed. The whisky tumbler in his grip shattered. And then, unable to contain his rage a moment longer, he snarled, a full-throated, vicious, and inhuman
sound, and blasting out his fangs, he charged at Dorian like a wild boar. I couldn’t have planned it better if I’d tried. Culpepper and the Templars jumped into the mix then, dressed in black body armor like Navy SEALs, shouting and pointing assault rifles and sending a spray of silver bullets straight at Dorian and Emilio. The ballroom erupted in mass chaos. People screeched and ran in circles, flopping around like headless chickens. Emilio screamed—a priceless sound—the fury and rage suffusing his face, warming every inch of my ice-cold soul. Success. Perfecto—well, almost. I saw Wendy then. She was running. In the wrong direction. Running away from Lucian who
was looking only at me. “Get out of here, Cassidy!” he yelled, stretching a hand out to me. A Templar dropped between us, and then two more. I heard more gunshots. Close up this time. Lucian went down. Fire lanced through my left thigh. A patch of blood appeared above my rib cage, staining the baby-blue dress a deep red. I frowned and then felt the delayed pain, along with a mushrooming rage of my own. I should’ve known better than to trust Culpepper. What a fool I’d been. Just because I’d been so laser-focused on destroying Emilio didn’t mean he shared the same, sole obsession. Of course, he’d go after all of us, after anything Charmed.
My personal vendetta and Emilio-takedown turned into an all-out Charmed, three-way war then with Emilio and Dorian battling in the center, the Marchesi and Terzi along the perimeter, and all of us against the Templars, who were busy tossing cloned hex-nets around like candy and showering us all with silver bullets. I lunged for the Templar who’d shot me, my wounds already healing. I sent him flying with a knife embedded in the side of his neck. I scarcely noticed where he fell. I was worried about Lucian. I arrived where he’d fallen, but his body wasn’t there, just the smear of his blood staining the cloister’s stones. Sirens wailed in the distance. The fighting intensified. People screamed louder.
From the corner of my eye, I saw Dorian sink his teeth into a Templars’ neck. A dark stream of blood spurted out from between his lips. I whirled, searching for Lucian, but spying only Emilio, dashing across the garden with Culpepper hot on his trail. There was no sign of Wendy or Lucian’s portrait, or—I realized with horror—my imp bottle. I gasped, searching the ground, trying to recall just when or where I’d dropped it. “Lor-love-a-duck, but what a blow!” I heard Ricky shout. I whirled to see him balanced on the edge of the buffet table, punching and kicking the air and cheering as he watched Dorian fight two Templars. “That’s right! Crash-bang-wallop him, right to
the kisser!” the little imp shouted. I saw it in his hands then, as he raised his spindly arms to cheer Dorian on. The imp bottle. Relief flooded me as I pushed through the chaos, avoiding blows and kicks. The blasted dress hampered my movements, and I tripped twice before finally reaching Ricky’s side. I snatched the bottle right out of his hand. He didn’t even notice. He was enthralled with Jacques and Dorian again as they took on a new onslaught of attackers—Marchesi, this time—his little, smoky head bobbing back and forth as if he were watching a tennis match. I saw Lucian then, leaning against a pillar a good thirty feet away. From the looks of it, he’d taken a bullet to the leg. I picked up my skirts, intending to run to his
side when the Templars suddenly fell back. The next instant, Dorian and Jacques flashed away. The cloister gardens filled with Marchesi then, along with rogue Terzi, all shouting victory as Emilio returned, furious, angry, but obviously still in charge. I blinked, filling with growing alarm. What had happened? Emilio had won? And Lucian? He was a sitting duck, leaning against the pillar, clutching his wounded leg, obviously weakened, losing the will to resist. I stared, horrified, knowing I stood responsible. Almost as if he’d read my mind, Lucian lifted his handsome head and fixed an unreadable dark gaze right on me.
I swallowed. A wave—a tidal wave—of guilt rose from somewhere to nearly bury me whole. I couldn’t let Emilio catch him. In his weakened condition, they just might spell him forever. Oh, what had I done? The Charmed fell back as Emilio stalked to where Lucian huddled against the pillar. Outside the building, the sirens suddenly stopped. I could still hear the screams of the crowds, but inside the cloister garden, silence reigned supreme. All eyes watched Emilio as he slowly came to a stop right in front of Lucian. Slowly, Lucian lifted his head. “I am done serving you,” he said defiantly, pain evident in his
voice. “You’re done controlling me.” Emilio snorted but then turning his head to one side, ordered, “Take care of the humans. Their minds. Wipe them all.” He waved towards the sounds of the hysterical screams. A group of about twenty witches and warlocks, a mix of both Marchesi and Terzi, rushed out of the garden to do his bidding. “This trap,” Emilio spat, turning back to Lucian. “You think you have injured me? A mortal blow?” Locking his hands behind his back, he walked in a slow circle around the injured warlock and scathingly repeated, “Un colpo mortale?” Lucian said nothing. “The Templars?” As Emilio spoke their name, his fangs appeared once again. He stood there
several long moments, clearly struggling with a deep-seated rage, before losing control entirely to swear inconsolably in Italian. Somewhere in the middle of his tirade, he grabbed Lucian by the throat and began choking him. I gasped, the specter in me flaring to life. This was my doing. I couldn’t let Lucian pay, of all people, not Lucian. As Lucian choked, struggling to breathe, I lifted my hands to summon the mists. They answered, but this time, instead of Justice, they brought a voice I’d heard before, a voice that had spoken to me through the portraits in Venice, and a voice supposed to be long dead. I stared, astonished, at Lucian’s engagement ring— Elizabeth Rowle’s ring—now glowing on my
finger. “Cassidy, child, you must free him,” she whispered to me on the mists. “You cannot let them spell him, not again. They will win this time. He will lose his soul. Now! Now is his only chance.” I took a deep, shaking breath. “I can’t free him,” I choked, the emotions of just what I’d done threatening to overwhelm me all at once. “The portrait’s gone. They’ve taken it away.” “You must free him before they bring it back. You can do it, child,” she whispered in reply. “What is seldom, is wonderful.” I frowned, hissing under my breath so no one could hear, “What?” Her voice took on a monotonous quality then. “Whoever burns his backside must himself
sit upon it,” she droned. That made sense? In what world? Or was I losing her again? She’d spouted sayings before, when she lost our connection. “The wine is sweet, but the paying bitter,” she whispered, fading away. That struck a little close to home. A movement on the far side of the trashlittered garden caught my eye. It was Wendy and her cohorts, bringing Lucian’s portrait as the Charmed in the garden began to chant the words of a spell. It was now or never. Break the spell? Free him? How? How could I do it without the portrait, without touching all three as Ricky had said? Yeah, I’d broken spells before, even
Dorian’s, by removing the mana, thread by thread, but I couldn’t smell Lucian. He’d set his wards on me, preventing me from— I heard him then, in the back of my mind. When we’d made love that day. He’d told me I could reject his protection. I caught my breath. I could reject his protection. I looked at the string tied around my wrist, Lucian’s puppet string. I was bound to him. He kept me safe from so much in the Charmed world —even safe from attacking and consuming his lifespark. If I rejected him, I’d be able to smell him again, and in theory, I could remove his mana from the portrait’s key and break the spell. But at the price of giving up his protection and never seeing him again.
Inside my ice-cold soul, my heart broke. I knew I was going to do it. I could never keep him enslaved just to ensure my own survival. I drew a knife from my boot. Wendy had almost arrived with the portrait. I had very little time left. Sliding the blade under the puppet string, I sliced it in half. As it fell to the ground, I lifted my chin and blinking my specter vision away, whispered, “Lord Lucian Rowle, I reject your protection utterly. Completely. Undeniably.” I felt his wards shatter. He clearly felt it, too. His head snapped up. His entire body jerked and he turned towards me, gasping a soundless, “No!” I fell to my knees then, behind the overturned buffet table. The few curious gazes that had
glanced my way flicked away, back to Emilio as the vampire began speaking once again. Crouching down further, under the table’s cover, I snatched the sketch out of the imp bottle. Wendy was only seconds away. Focus, Cassidy. Focus. I took a deep breath. Lucian’s mana was incredible. Pure. Incomprehensible, really. I’d missed his incredible scent, a scent far better than roses, lavender, coffee, or fresh bread. It was a good thing I’d chosen to join Emilio’s camp now. Now that I could smell Lucian, I’d never be able to live or work with him again. Five steps. Wendy was five steps away. I did it then. I consumed Lucian’s mana with one, slow swipe of my hand across the page. It
was odd. The silver threads seemed to leap into my hand, unwinding themselves from the sketch as if on their own accord. And then, it was over. The page beneath my hand turned dull. Brittle. Lifting it up, I tore it in half. And with that, I set Lucian free.
The White Owl Lucian bowed his head and went limp. For a long, horrible, and heart-wrenching moment, I feared I’d killed him. Emilio snatched the portrait from Wendy and reached for Lucian with one hand. Lucian moved then, cupping his hands together as his deep voice rang through the Cloisters, speaking mysterious words in some long-forgotten tongue. A silvery, white light leapt into life in his hands. Emilio gasped, dropping the portrait and falling back to clutch his heart. There was a bright flash of light, and then,
with a clap of thunder, Lucian vanished, and in his place, rose a beautiful, snowy white owl. “No!” Emilio screamed, collapsing to the ground. “No! Impossibile! È Impossibile!” The owl spread its white wings wide, launching itself straight into the air. It circled the garden, once, high above, before gliding away to disappear into the New York City night sky. I bowed my head then, and only then, recognized the salty tang of tears falling unchecked down my cheeks. It was over. I’d lost him. I’d lost Lucian. Forever. The End.
The Story of Cassidy and Lucian continues in the next installment due later this year, titled, “Mindgames”
About the Author Click this link for a list of Carmen's books on Amazon
Like many of us on this planet, USA Today Bestselling and Multiple Award-Winning author Carmen Caine is from another world. She spends every moment she can scribbling stories on sticky notes that her kids find posted all over the car, house, and barn. When she’s not busy working as a software engineer or writing stories, she spends her time texting her kids on an insanely small, Keebler-Elf-sized keyboard (yes, she hates cell phones), trying to convince her Doberman that being jealous of the new Frenchton puppy just isn’t
worth it (no luck so far), and tending to the barn full of animal misfits, including a runt lamb who sneaks inside the house and a rescue llama with a bad attitude. Carmen is very terrible at tweeting and even worse about posting on Facebook (although she does make a New Year’s Resolution to improve every year). However, she would like to have you as a friend, please find her at the following places:
Carmen and Madison's Facebook Fanpage Facebook friends with Carmen Caine ( aka Madison ) Carmen's Twitter Carmen's website
Carmen’s Other Books Monster – Cassidy Edwards, Book 1 The Bestselling Cassidy Edwards Series, Book 1 Revenge. It’s all I've lived for. Revenge against those who stacked the cards against me from the start. But I’m changing the deck now. I’m getting even. Born to a vampire, I wasn’t supposed to survive—but I did. My name is Cassidy. Cassidy Edwards. And I’m the first of my kind. The Job: Trapping a sixteenth-century Scottish Highlander of a vampire who just might
be seduction itself. The Team: A firedrake with an attitude, a werewolf with a problem, and an imp in dire need of rehab. The Boss: A dangerously powerful warlock as handsome as sin. My Problem: Bluffing my way into a job, my first mission into the Charmed world opens a Pandora's box of betrayal and secrets ... along with attractions of the most lethal kind.
Spellfinder – Cassidy Edwards, Book 2 Revenge. Until now, my revenge was more of an idea. A fantasy. A mere whisper of what revenge should be. But it was a seed—and it was
time for it to sprout. My name is Cassidy. Cassidy Edwards. And I'm the first of my kind. The Job: Hunting a mysterious force attacking the House of Rowle with spells of the most malevolent, arachnid kind. The Players: A wickedly handsome warlockof-a-boss, a hostile Nether Reach Keeper hell-bent on my arrest, and a vampire who just might believe that he’s my father. My Problem: As my new Spellfinding gig plunges me deeper into the world of the Charmed Mafia, destiny presents the king of all conflicts … forcing me to walk a tightrope of lust and betrayal as the monster inside me awakens.
Mindbreaker – Cassidy Edwards,
Book 3 Revenge. After my first taste, I find I like it. But as I maneuver my way through danger, my idea of revenge is turned on its head. My name is Cassidy. Cassidy Edwards. And I'm the first of my kind. The Job: Finding just who broke Dorian Ramsey's puppet curse and set the powerful vampire free. Only I've got a personal conflict of interest this time--it was me. The Team: A Drake itching for any excuse to pin the crime on me--guilty or not. A Keeper wanting to pitch me in a Nether Reach prison--just for existing. A Warlock I barely recognize. The Curve Ball: Dancing my way through the evidence, I uncover an avalanche of answers regarding my past and discover nothing is truly
what it seems.
Latchling Blood Moon – A Cassidy Edwards Novella, Book 3.5 Fate picked me to face an ancient evil. As a powerful Latchling of the Stonehenge Druids, I, Lady Elizabeth Rowle, walked the path of my destiny. I lived life battle-ready, training continually, and spending my days delving into the arcane, seeking any and all knowledge that might aid my quest. At last, I felt ready to face the evil haunting my dreams. But there was one thing I hadn’t prepared for. Love Scotland, Fourteenth Century: When Lady Elizabeth Rowle discovers the ancient evil of the
Mindbreaker has reawakened, she knows her time has come. Finding unexpected allies in the Scottish Highlander, Dorian Ramsey, and the French Devil of a vampire, Jacques LeBeau, she fights the battle of her life—only to discover that fate has other plans.
Highland Blood Moon – A Cassidy Edwards Short Story, Book 3.6 A message summons Dorian Ramsey home to discover his village ravaged by a mysterious Night Viper and his sister caught in web of treachery. To save her, he must make a choice—a choice that alters his destiny forever.
This novella also includes the short story: Bonepicker My name is Raven. They call me a Bonepicker—a lone wolf, a wolf without a pack— but I’m no ordinary wolf. I’m a wolf of the Mists and I feed on carrion of a special kind, the Carrion of the Reaches. There’s not a Reach I can’t break into nor a place I can’t escape—in spite of having so many prices on my head, they’d confuse a calculator. Christmas is a holiday I'd rather forget, but then I accept a job from Lord Lucian Rowle and everything changes.
Rebel – Cassidy Edwards, Book 4
Revenge. I understand it now. The ice-cold soul. The single-minded focus. The strength it provides. My name is Cassidy. Cassidy Edwards. And I'm the first of my kind. The Job: Investigating a prison break in the Nether Reaches The Players: A warlock who doesn’t know he has a secret—but I do. A mysterious, goldenmasked figure controlling the Knights Templar from behind the scenes. A new family member who wants nothing more than my head on a silver platter. The Curveball: A Nether Reach investigation rips me from the arms of love and sets me firmly on the cold path of revenge that threatens to consume my very soul.
Mindgames – Cassidy Edwards, Book 5: Coming out later in 2017
The Glass Wall Series (Complete four-book set) What if humans were more powerful than they thought? What if an alien race had a reason to keep humanity entrenched in fear? And what if ancient beings that we've met before were still trying to protect us? And just what if the fate of Earth depended upon an average 17-year-old girl with a few secrets of her own?
Would she discover that the power of love was truly the strongest of all?
Heather House: Witch of the Moors (IPPY Gold, Ben Franklin Gold, Readers’ Favorite Gold) Scotland, 1589 - As the spare for the heir, Alec Montgomery devoted his time to the pursuit of pleasure. Lighthearted and fiercely loyal, Alec spent his days as his brother's right-hand man while avidly thwarting the king’s matchmaking attempts and his mother's desire that he join the priesthood. But on one stormy night, a mysterious crone and a chance meeting on the moors bring his fate full circle. To escape a Montgomery raid as a wee lass, Sorcha Cunningham and her mother fled into the forest and stumbled upon the refuge of Heather House with its ancient stone circle. The dreams
came to Sorcha that night, dreams that would portend the horrors of her future, forcing her to face a destiny written in the stars. As the age-old feud between the Montgomery and Cunningham clans ignite, Alec and Sorcha walk a precipice of desire and danger as King James VI of Scotland ushers in the age of witchhunting and the North Berwick Witch Trials threaten to rip them apart.
The Highland Heather and Hearts Scottish Award-Winning Romance Collection The Kindling Heart - (Scotland, 1478) Ruan MacLeod was through with women. They were nothing but trouble. Leaving the rash life of his youth behind, he returned to Skye, seeking peace. He never meant to split the clan or start a war with the MacDonald of Duntulm. He certainly never foresaw an arranged marriage to the most scandalous woman in Scotland. Even though she was twice his age, the size of a horse and mother to more than one illegitimate child, he agreed to secure his sister's freedom.
However, even that plan goes drastically awry. On his wedding day, he finds himself faced instead with an enticing, green-eyed lass named Bree. A walking disaster, his bride immediately turns his world into chaos and threatens to melt his resolve never to love again. IPPY Silver Award-Winning Novel: The Bedeviled Heart - (Scotland, 1479) Cameron Malcolm Stewart, Earl of Lennox, had made his peace with destiny. It was not his fate to love as other men. Each of his politically arranged marriages had ended in disaster. And though he had never touched a one of his wives, he had come to believe that sharing his name would consign a woman to an early grave. So, on the sunny spring day Cameron
encounters a delightfully devious, bright-eyed lass selling charmed stones in one of Stirling's alehouses, he tosses her a shilling, thinking only to steal a kiss. But it is a kiss that will change his life forever. IPPY Bronze Award-Winning Novel: The Daring Heart - (Scotland, 1482) - To the scandalous Lord Julian Gray, marriage is a malady and nothing more. How can a man even court a lass longer than a fortnight when there are so many pouting lips to kiss? Roaming the courts of Europe, Julian appears to spend his time drinking wine, wagering gold, and dandling willing lasses upon his knee. But no one knows the man behind the mask. No one knows that he is Le Marin--Europe's most daring and
brazen spy. But everything changes the night he finds a dagger pressed against his ribs and an alluring hazel-eyed minx in his bed. The Bold Heart - (Scotland, 1488) - Ewan was a battle-weary warrior with haunted dreams. He no longer believed in love. On the Isle of Skye, the raven-haired Merry MacLeod spends her days caring for the clan elderly and hurtling across the moors on the back of her black stallion. A high-spirited, adventurous lass, she is no longer troubled by childhood memories of the day the braw lad, Ewan MacLean, rescued her from her husband, the cruel MacDonald. But when she hears the very same Ewan is now confined in an English prison, she
disguises herself as a lad and sets out to repay her debt. After a bold, mysterious youth rescues Ewan and his men from the English, the group swiftly makes their way back to Scotland. But no sooner embarked on their journey home, a young Prince James sounds the call to arms, rises against his father, King James III of Scotland, and plunges Scotland into a dangerous civil war. But as they journey to join the prince, both Ewan and Alec discover their rescuer's secret and both men find themselves falling unexpectedly in love with the raven-haired beauty.