Authors: Marie Castle
Table of Contents
Copyright © 2013 by Marie Castle
Bella Books, Inc.
P.O. Box 10543
Tallahassee, FL 32302
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First Bella Books Edition 2013
Bella Books eBook released 2013
Editor: Katherine V. Forrest
Cover Designed by: KIARO Creative Ltd.
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About the Author
Marie Castle lives in a little town in Mississippi once called Gandsi-Zion for the train stop that ran between the Civil War-era Zion Seminary and the Gulf and Ship Island depot. There, she practices Practical Romanticism (her term for being single). She has been known to dance in her socks when no one is around and does foolish things on a regular basis merely because she can. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted through her Facebook page.
The events and characters in this novel are all fictional. Any similarity to persons still living, dead, or otherwise engaged is coincidental. The same holds true for the history related herein, with two exceptions. Tragically, Hattiesburg’s landmark drive-in theater did recently burn. However, neither the author nor our intrepid heroine were connected to this in any fashion. Secondly, the author does indeed often wonder if her cat is possessed by some dark power. But as the cat swears her innocence, it seems only time will tell.
To borrow a quote from one of Cate’s friends, “In the South, a story never starts where it should. Ask a man why he killed his neighbor, and he might start by saying, ‘Well, I had Cream of Wheat for breakfast, then put on my favorite flannel shirt…’ An hour later, he’ll get to the point.” And that, dear reader, is why this story begins three decades in the past…because it is told by a Southern woman with the traditional penchant for the long-winded version. Even if this is a very untraditional story.
Evie ran as if the demons of hell were chasing her, because if they weren’t, they soon would be. She’d hidden her flame-red hair and bright green eyes underneath a dark, hooded cloak and walked with lowered head at a painfully slow pace until reaching the long-forgotten entrance. Now, she was alone in the labyrinth of tunnels that would lead to a gate similar to the one that had brought her here to Denoir, the first of Hell’s seven realms. It had taken weeks of sending out just the whisper of her power in a subtle search to locate an unguarded gate. Yet, it would take Denoir’s prince mere minutes to discover her escape and send his dogs searching. But they wouldn’t find her before she reached her destination, and then it would be too late.
It might have taken the dark faction months to open the gate that had brought her here. But as a guardian, she was gifted with the power to open and close them at will. She’d fought and nearly defeated the faction, but the Lord and Prince of this realm had been another matter. Like her, he guarded the gates that led in and out of his world very closely. The opening of one had drawn his attention, and so he’d captured her…claimed her…before she could escape home.
That was three months ago. Now she was alone, running, listening to the sounds of her soft shoes scuffling on the rough stone floor. Haunted by even the echo of her breath rushing in and out. It was reckless to run so quickly in the pitch black, but a torch would have aroused suspicion, and using power to form a ball of light might be felt. But light wasn’t needed, because the darkness was no longer empty. She was so near the gate now, and the power of it sang to her. A soft sigh of relief barely passed her lips.
It would take mere seconds to open, pass through, and close the gate again. Her power—her salvation and her damnation. For as a guardian, she had the power to unleash Hell on Earth. A great power, and an even greater responsibility. With enough power, anyone could open a gate for moments. But if a guardian willed it, one could be opened for hours, days, perhaps even an eternity. Masses of the lower-level demon scavengers could roam a green Earth or any of the other realms, sucking the life from anything too weak to protect itself. And that was the best-case scenario.
When the faction had been unable to simply steal her power, they’d tried to force her to their will. They hadn’t succeeded. Neither had the Prince, though his methods had been much different. But that would have changed very soon. With each passing day, her secret had become more difficult to hide. So she ran, not just for herself, but for the child she felt growing within her. The child whose life would be bartered for its mother’s power…or used against its father. She had seen that future and would not allow it to be. She would not wait and be forced to choose between the lives of her entire world or the life of one so precious.
Her heartbeat pounded loudly against the eerie silence of ancient stone walls. What a surprise to find the very thing she sought located below the Prince’s dungeons—in essence, below his very nose. She stopped beside a crack in the tunnel wall barely large enough to slide through. Long ago, it might have been a doorway, but the entrance had been filled with stones until it now seemed as one with its surroundings. Only someone who felt
—the song of power—would know what was there. Evie took a moment to catch her breath then began to work her way through.
Moments later, she stepped into a vast room, empty of everything but cobwebs and dust. The ghostly-white threads luminesced, seeming to sway as winds of power flowed from the darkness. Like a curtain separated by an unseen hand, they opened and closed gracefully as she passed through.
The far wall seemed untouched by time. No webs. No dust. Just a slab of black stone polished to a mirrored sheen, faintly illuminated by the glowing threads. The wall and the gate were one and the same, and they were massive. A smaller, man-sized arch was etched into the stone underneath another, much larger arch that encompassed most of the wall.
The magic in the air changed. Someone had noticed her absence, and large whips of searching power were lashing out. Evie’s already great sense of urgency increased…yet, she stood still, the mirror’s reflection holding her attention. The woman looking back at her had a mass of wild red curls and haunted jade eyes. It was her, and it wasn’t. That woman looked ready to break, which meant it couldn’t be Eleanor Victoria Delacy. Evie was not the sort of woman who fell apart. She was a hunter, trained by the Guild’s masters themselves. She was a Guardian. Most importantly, she was a Delacy, heir to thousands of years of magical knowledge.
Shrugging off her doubts, she placed her right hand on her abdomen then closed her eyes and focused. She barely felt the pain as she cut her finger with the small silver knife she’d stolen two weeks ago. Like tears, crimson drops of blood flowed before being quickly smeared onto the stone, connecting her to the mirror. She willed the gate open, and it obeyed. The solid blackness rippled like living water. Another moment, another measure of power, and the portal’s destination was set. Then she stepped through, one hand on her abdomen and the other at her neck, wrapped around the only thing she had taken of her lover’s—his medallion.
A vision came in the void between worlds. Or rather, it was The Vision, the one that would change everything. The shock of it nearly broke her focused hold on the gate’s end point. In that moment where there is only nothingness, it tested her abilities to absorb the images into a mind no longer in possession of a body. There was no air. No light. No being. Only a fragmented glimpse of the future. Her child, a daughter, would have power. Power greater than her mother’s. Power, perhaps, greater than that of the dark demon with midnight hair and fiery blue eyes who would never know he’d stolen her heart…and given her a child.
Then she was through. And maybe, right before she closed the gate, it was the echoed cry of her stolen heart that shook the still rippling, black-mirrored wall of the cavern she’d landed in. Or maybe it was the cry of another heart in a world that she could never return to. The words,
, echoed in her mind. But were they her thoughts…or another’s?
She would never know.
“For every face that you see, there are hundreds more hiding just beneath the surface.”
Illusions: A Magic User’s Guide
Present Day - Day One
I muttered, “Shit,” plus a few other words my Aunt Helena would consider unladylike under my breath as I watched the supposedly human embezzler I’d been sent to retrieve gleefully playing black-magic dodgeball with a pair of miserable rats. I was too far away to hear their squeals, but the look on Bob’s face (that was my bag-and-tag’s name) was giving me the willies. Of course, my aunt would probably also consider crouching in a gravel parking lot and peering through a dusty warehouse window improper behavior for a Southern belle. But then again, she usually made exceptions for anything I did when working as a runner for our agency, The Darkmirror. My aunt, a semiretired professor, had hit the lecture circuit years ago in her capacity as a Demonology expert. Often out of the country, she didn’t have much to do with the business these days. When my mom disappeared three years ago, that left me in charge. Most days, being the boss was nice. But on days like today, it just meant I had no one but myself to blame for this mess. Well, almost no one.
I was more than willing to blame my latest clients who had insisted that this was a simple job: Track down and bring in one Bob Rainey, the Blood-Kin’s stupid but human accountant. That would be the not-so-human accountant standing in the middle of the building, watching the warehouse’s front and back doors. Or maybe it was more truthful to say that he wasn’t human anymore. The smell of death and decay leaking out of the open window meant that whatever that was in there, it wasn’t alive.
The lights are on, but Bob’s not home.
Which was good. I wouldn’t have to worry about the Kin killing my catch after I handed him over. He was already dead…or as close to dead as a walking corpse could be.
The photo I’d received showed a middle-aged white male with glasses and a clean-shaven head. That didn’t jibe with the badly done toupee and gold bling Bob now sported. If not for the expensive suit, I would’ve suspected some sort of Bob Rainey doppelganger. It wouldn’t be the first time.
But if the suit fits…
And it most certainly did. It was the kind that had an Italian name and cost more than a fashion model’s nose job. I’d been briefly romanced by a player and had learned two important things. How to recognize the cut of an expensive suit was one of them. No one puts a suit that pricey on someone else, especially not someone who smelled like they’d been dug up and microwaved.
Suit. Toupee. Gold chains. All were at odds with Bob’s empty face and the ball of black-magic resting in his hand. I looked again at the photo. It was a match. That was Mr. Bob Rainey, CPA, and the guy who’d stolen ten million from the Kin, New Orleans’ own Vampire Mafia. Or at least, it was Bob’s body. From the smell, I’d say his soul was long gone.
The fee for this job was going
I should’ve known something was amiss when the vamp’s man-of-business, Benito Carmel, called this morning. The Kin didn’t normally farm out these things. Still, it was May. Nightfall would come slowly in the Deep South. A smart thief could take a long lunch, hop an international flight, and be halfway to China before it was dark enough for the fanged ones to walk the streets. Which was why I’d started to wonder when the tracking had been so easy. Ten minutes with a scrying crystal and atlas had led to this warehouse in Gulfport, an hour and a half from the Kin’s home in New Orleans and only forty minutes from my town of Gandsai. Bob should’ve been headed for the airport or, at the least, bought some time by shelling out a couple hundred bucks for an amulet that warded against location spells. That was what I (or anyone else concerned with dying) would’ve done.