Authors: Claudia Gray
THE ULTIMATE WEAPON IS FORGED FROM HATE.”
Nadia watched Elizabeth reach into the glowing woodstove in the corner, the one burning with a flame that did not come from wood. Although Elizabeth’s fingers had to be singed by the heat, she never flinched. Did you become immune to pain when you became a Sorceress, sworn to serve the One Beneath?
Soon Nadia would find out, because she was now sworn to Him too.
She hadn’t made that bargain freely, out of the lust for power that drove Elizabeth, the four-hundred-year-old witch who now served as her teacher. Nadia had been forced to swear herself to the master of hell in order to save the people of Captive’s Sound from Elizabeth’s terrible curse. Now she was trapped, learning the darkest magic the Sorceress had to teach.
Elizabeth continued. “People try to pretend that hatred is . . . debris. Just the wreckage of something else.” She withdrew her hand from the stove, her fingers reddened from the heat; Nadia saw her holding something small that glowed with an unearthly, beautiful light. Even as Elizabeth’s skin smoldered from the heat of what she held, she brought it closer to her face. “But hatred has its own power. Its own role to play in the world. To understand dark magic, you must understand hate.”
Nadia’s mother had told her that sacrifices, too, had their own power. That was when Nadia had learned that Mom hadn’t simply abandoned her family, with no thought for Nadia’s training or Dad’s heart or poor little Cole. Instead, Mom had sacrificed her love for them—her very ability to love—in an attempt to protect her daughter from the One Beneath. Nadia had been born as the child of two witching bloodlines, one perfectly created for the casting of dark magic; that meant she was precisely the kind of servant the One Beneath most wanted.
However, her mother’s sacrifice had been for nothing. The One Beneath had found a way to trap Nadia anyway.
Now she could only hope her own sacrifice would have power. Nadia had given herself to the One Beneath to save the people of Captive’s Sound—particularly her family, her best friend, Verlaine, and Mateo. Always Mateo. Maybe, in time, that would be enough to save her from darkness.
Otherwise, she would be trapped in the service of the One Beneath forever—and trapped into helping Him cross
into the mortal world, destroying it completely.
They sat together in Elizabeth’s house, in what had been witched to look like any normal living room—practically a page out of the Pottery Barn catalog. But Nadia, now possessed of the magic allowing her to see through Elizabeth’s glamours, knew the room was a ruin. This ramshackle wooden house had been Elizabeth’s home for at least a century and probably more; the floor was littered with broken glass, every corner laced with cobwebs spun by spiders that would do Elizabeth’s bidding. Patterned paper put up long ago now hung from the walls in ragged strips, and the few pieces of furniture were bent with years, hardly more than the rotten frames of the chairs and sofa they had been. Nadia and Elizabeth sat near the stove, which burned . . . no telling what, something never meant to be used as fuel. That was all Nadia knew for sure.
I can’t end up like her
, Nadia thought, clenching her hands so tightly that her fingernails dug into her palms.
Elizabeth’s hardly even human anymore. There has to be a way out for me. There has to be a way to stop the One Beneath.
As long as she was sworn to the service of the lord of hell, Nadia had rules she was forced to follow. Her only chance to learn how to defeat Him—and Elizabeth—was by pretending to be a loyal student of dark magic.
No, Elizabeth wasn’t fool enough to believe that. But if Nadia acted the role of a perfect student, Elizabeth would have to pretend to be a perfect teacher. The rules of service to the One Beneath imprisoned them both.
“Is there any defense against it?” Nadia asked. “Against the perfect weapon, I mean. Against hatred.”
Elizabeth didn’t answer right away. She continued holding the glowing ember between her fingers, though by now small tendrils of smoke snaked up from her fingertips. Her flesh must have been burning, and she must have felt the pain, but she didn’t care. Nadia would have been impressed if she weren’t completely grossed out.
Finally Elizabeth let the ember drop to the wooden floor; it sizzled against the old, warped floorboards, a brief glow of red before it went dark. Only then did Elizabeth lift her face to Nadia’s. She was fair where Nadia was dark, with freckled cheeks, chestnut curls, and an oval face that looked sweet to those who didn’t know better.
“Love,” Elizabeth said. “Love is the only defense against hatred.”
Nadia tried to keep her expression impassive, but inside she seized this, clutched it close. Finally she had a reason to hope.
Love defeats hate—of course it does. How could it be any other way?
Elizabeth smiled, as though she’d overheard Nadia’s thoughts. Maybe she had. “But love doesn’t last forever. Hatred endures.”
Mateo knew only that he was looking for her. She seemed to be the only thing that mattered in the world.
Not that he seemed to be in the regular world any longer . . .
Where am I?
He wasn’t sure, but he was beginning to believe that he might . . . he might be in hell.
Mateo lifted his head, trying to understand his surroundings. Despite the darkness, he could tell that he stood inside a cavern—but one illuminated from outside by some light so powerful that it shone through stone with the red glow of lava. Heat and moisture surrounded him, made him feel sticky. Mateo had to struggle to catch his breath. A deep
could only have been the beating of his frightened heart.
In the fitful crimson light, Mateo could make out only the faintest outline of the shape around him. He saw sloping walls, a slightly bowed roof overhead, and vast curving arches around him—harder, darker lines within the stone—
They weren’t stone. They were . . . ribs.
A shudder rippled through Mateo as he realized he wasn’t inside a cave; instead he was inside a living thing, vast and terrible. The heart he heard beating was not his own. It was as though he’d been swallowed whole, or eaten alive.
But somehow he wasn’t alone inside the beast. He could hear groans, shrieks, cries of pain, all of them echoing within this creature’s flesh but far away—until someone screamed just next to him.
Mateo turned around to see Nadia wearing black, her eyes wide with tears, as she hung in midair. But the scream had come from Verlaine, who clung to Nadia so she wouldn’t fall. Verlaine’s gray hair streamed out behind her as though they were in a whirlwind, one Mateo couldn’t feel even as he reached out for Nadia—
He jerked awake, hands scrabbling for his blankets,
but—once again—he wasn’t in his own bed. Tonight, Mateo’s sleepwalking had taken him to the edge of the pier, almost into the water of the sound.
Someday I’m going to wake up just in time to drown.
Mateo tucked his bare feet under him; the early-December chill was harsh, way too cold to be outside in just boxers and a T-shirt. At least the snow from two days ago had melted. Otherwise he might have woken up with frostbite, too. Shivering, he started to get up and hurry back to his house before Dad realized he was gone—his father was already worried enough.
But then he saw the water, really saw it, and went still.
Anyone else who looked at the sound right now would see a seashore on a cloudy winter night: sand turned silver-gray by the moonlight, the dark surface of the water almost too smooth, the distant lighthouse sweeping its one pale beam around and around.
Mateo, however, was Nadia’s Steadfast. That meant he helped strengthen her magic; any spell she cast when he was near her was far more powerful. Steadfasts also gained the ability to see magic at work around them. Thanks to Elizabeth, magic was tied into the very framework of Captive’s Sound, visible everywhere, twisting and dark.
Which meant that Mateo could see the town was on the verge of falling apart.
A viscous, roiling substance arched overhead, like a dome blocking Captive’s Sound from the stars; its light was feverish, tinted red. Deep lines in the earth seemed as though
they were on the verge of crumbling in, collapsing into vast sinkholes. Worst of all, out in the water, something stirred fitfully, as if it were preparing to surface. By now he knew that was the place where Elizabeth was breaking down the barrier between the demonic world and the mortal one—the gate she was preparing for the One Beneath.
Mateo clenched his fists as he stared at it, wishing there was something, anything he could do to make this stop—
A strange pulse ran through his body. It wasn’t painful, exactly, but it jolted him. Around his limbs, Mateo thought he saw a bluish light . . . but he couldn’t be sure. It faded fast.
Just your Steadfast powers messing with you
, he told himself, even though the powers had never done that before.
Stop making yourself crazy and go inside.
Mateo forced himself to turn away from the nightmarish scene. The whole way back to his house, he kept his head down, looking only at the pier and the sand beneath his feet, which were reddened with cold. By the time he slipped back inside, he was almost numb, and he fumbled with the door . . . but luckily his father remained sound asleep.
As far as his dad knew, Mateo had begun “having seizures” in the past several weeks. That was how he’d been diagnosed by doctors who couldn’t see the signs of magic, and what his father stubbornly insisted on believing. But everyone else in town knew what the real problem was, even people who had no idea that magic existed. Otherwise-reasonable people in Captive’s Sound still believed in the Cabot Curse.
It was part of the town’s folklore by now: In every
generation, one member of the Cabot family went violently and irreversibly insane. Mateo’s mother had been the last. Like all the others, she had become convinced that she could see the future through increasingly disturbing dreams. Like too many of his ancestors, she had chosen to end her own life.
Mateo’s dreams had begun this summer. Ever since then, he’d been spiraling further and further from “normal”—whatever the hell that was in this town. Everybody at school had always treated him strangely, like they were just waiting for him to lose it one day.
So, doing crazy stuff like waking up all around town, disheveled and ranting about whatever he’d just seen? Really not helping.
Mateo paused, remembering his terrible dream of the girl he loved in the belly of hell. His mind remained full of that nightmarish vision of her, weeping in grief and fear.
By now he knew that the dreams sent to him by his curse really did come true.
Another beautifully screwed-up morning in Captive’s Sound.
Verlaine was up early, determined to swing by the
’s office before she went into school. Usually people around here were all too eager to ignore the weirdness around them, but after what had been going on the last few weeks—complete with mystery illnesses and a brief quarantine by the Centers for Disease Control—surely everyone
was going to come to their senses.
Coming to their senses might mean actually paying attention to the town newspaper, which was why Verlaine, world’s-most-glorious-and-yet-unsung intern, was headed there now.
Okay, I might not have Steadfast powers, but even I can tell this town is at dangerously high levels of Not Okay.
She brushed a stray lock of her brilliant silver hair out of her eyes as she stood in the town square. The town hall still had a couple of windows boarded up from the near-riot a few weeks ago, when Mrs. Prasad had briefly, and unfortunately, been given the power to see demons and gone after everyone around her with an ax. A few quarantine signs still hung on local businesses; the quarantine had been lifted, but people who were recovering from Elizabeth’s witchcraft—
, she thought,
the phrase for the newspaper is “mystery illness”
—hadn’t necessarily gone back to work or school. Not everyone bounced back as quickly as her uncle Gary had.
The other sign of disquiet Verlaine saw was subtler; it was more something she didn’t see. Normally, when she stopped in at the newspaper before school, she crossed paths with a few dozen other people: Mateo’s father, Mr. Perez, on his way to get La Catrina ready to open; bank employees in their business clothes; various other people who had reason to be at work crazy early. Today, there was almost no one. The coffee shop was open, but instead of waiting in the usual long line, Verlaine was able to walk straight up to the counter.
Now, as she sipped her latte from a Hello Kitty insulated cup, she stared at a nearly deserted town square. It was almost eerie, how empty the place felt. If they were out West, she figured a tumbleweed would blow through.
It was like people could sense what was coming.
Which they couldn’t. The populace of Captive’s Sound would have had to be both a whole lot more knowledgeable, and possibly psychic, to guess that their town was about to become ground zero for the impending apocalypse.
She fished her keys from her backpack; they jangled against the door as she let herself into the
office. This was basically one medium-sized room, which smelled of old books, atop a basement filled with file-cabinet archives. The printing technology was so out-of-date that she’d once found some iron letters in a drawer, left over from a typesetter they’d gotten rid of only a few years ago. Nobody else was around, which was hardly unusual. The owners saw the newspaper as an excuse to print classified ads and supermarket circulars, with the actual news serving mostly as a garnish, kind of like the parsley on a restaurant platter. If the town was going to get any actual information, that was pretty much up to Verlaine.
She walked to the desk, shuffling through the few papers she found there, wondering idly whether her bosses had left a note for her, one with actual instructions. (Email and texting were much too modern for them.) As she did, though, she heard the quiet scrape of the door opening behind her. A soft heat warmed her back, her legs, like a tropical sun had
suddenly risen over a Rhode Island December—except the heat came straight from hell.