An excerpt from
I sat in a small clearing in the woods, surrounded by tall trees and deep shadows. Around me the spirits of the forest slowly gathered. Large and small, they moved into the clearing and found places to settle. Deer and rabbits lay side by side with wolves, foxes, and bears. As they moved, the moonlight glittered off of their insubstantial forms, giving them the illusion of solidity. A wolf came and sat beside me, its soft, brushing touch somehow both warm and cool as mist. One by one they sat with me, joining me to watch the girl sitting on a log near the center of the clearing. A small fire lit the girl with a golden glow. She looked delicate and pretty as she sang in a sweet little girl voice. It was a song I knew by heart, a song my mother used to sing me to sleep when I was a child.
The little girl’s lilting voice reached out to soothe me, to calm my soul. The music washed over me, healing my injuries and leaving me feeling fresh and new. I listened and let all the fear and pain inside me fade away. A wolf spirit limped into the light. A long black gash sliced across its gray shoulder. The wolf came close to the girl and collapsed at her feet. Without stopping her song, the girl reached down and laid her hands on its head. For a long moment nothing happened, but then slowly the black gash moved. It crawled across the surface of the wolf and slithered up the little girl’s arm. Once on her, the blackness oozed over her, like a leprous octopus looking for a place to hide until, finally, it spread to her face. Her eyes seemed to suck the blackness in, to shred it and absorb it. For a moment they turned completely black, and her voice took on an echo of the darkness she’d taken in. Screams and cries of anger resonated in harmony with her sweet little song. And then her song ended, and the wolf rose slowly to its haunches, weak but once again whole.
Out past the firelight, in the shadows, a guttural roar sounded and then another. Soon, the woods were full of the sounds of trees creaking and groaning as if whatever approached shoved them aside like blades of grass. I sprang to my feet, panicked with the need to protect the girl and her charges, but they didn’t seem to share my fear. They rose in unison and turned to face the oncoming threat without any haste or concern.
Three massive figures stepped into the clearing-huge, imposing, dark figures. The largest was three times my height, with heavy legs and the cloven hooves of a bull. Long horns extended from the sides of its head. Leaves and branches caught on the horns as it tore free of the trees. Its frame was blocky, its face hidden in shadow except for its eyes-two blood-red rays of light that pierced the shadows and glowed with menace as they swung my way.
The creature on the right was only half as tall and oozed over the ground. It was a mass of tentacles that extended from a torso shaped vaguely like a man’s. Hundreds of bright-orange eyes covered the tentacles, moving rapidly back and forth and looking in every direction as the tentacles waved through the air.
The last figure was the most hideous. It was the bloated form of a hugely obese man, and it waddled behind the others, its face contorted and twisted. Where there should have been hands were instead clawed talons that clutched the bloodied haunch of an animal-maybe a deer that had been torn in half. It was the shortest of the monsters, but it still stood twice my height. It leaned over and took a bite of the carcass, displaying rows of sharp triangular teeth as its mouth opened wide enough to swallow me whole.
All of the creatures crunched to a halt at the edge of the clearing, stomping and roaring. They were clearly making threats but would not advance any farther on the girl and the animal spirits.
The child still didn’t look afraid, and the animal spirits weren’t fleeing, not even those for whom standing still was not in their nature. Deer and chipmunks stood shoulder to shoulder with wolf and bobcat, facing down evil incarnate without fear.
And then I saw why.
While my attention had been on the invaders, I hadn’t noticed that something else had come into the clearing behind me. Towering motes of air, whirling mists of spirit and will-the old gods. Had they deigned to notice the conflict? Two of the gods moved over, around, through us, toward the three looming threats. Why were they interfering? Was this their domain? As the gods crossed the space between us, their mass increased until they filled all of the sky. Suddenly I felt tiny and insignificant, dwarfed by something far greater than myself. I felt beneath their notice and strengthened by the knowledge that they did notice me, and that they were there, in part, to protect me.
The old gods paused-if a tornado can pause-waiting for the monsters to recognize their peril and leave. But they didn’t. Instead the three began to produce dark weapons from thin air-blades glittering with hellfire.
The horned monster spoke with a voice like breaking rock. “She is ours. You have no right to her.”
My heart froze. Would the old gods forsake me? Had my actions caused too much harm? Would they give up on me completely? Or worse: turn on me like the rest of the world had?
In response, I felt a rush of air surround me, and a golden warmth filled my body. I was not forsaken, I felt loved and cherished, and my fear began to fade. I felt the old gods send a firm, inaudible denial to the creatures. And I knew in that instance that they would never allow me to be taken.
Something touched my hand, and I looked down to see the girl at my side.
The child spoke. “I must go.”
“Go where?” I asked.
“With them,” she said, nodding toward the waiting monsters.
Panic filled me. “No!” I reached out to grab her, but she moved away from me.
“I have to-it’s not time yet. You aren’t ready.”
I tried again to get ahold of her, but she had moved out of my reach.
She looked behind her at the monsters and then back at me. “Three demons in their true forms might be a match even for the old gods. When the time comes, we will stand together. We will fight. The battle will likely kill us all, but what choice do we have?”
At the word demons, my heart pounded hard in my chest. They had somehow been released into this world. There were no demon hunters left. How could we fight the demons? How could we vanquish them before they destroyed us?
There was no fear visible in her determined little eyes as she turned and walked toward the creatures.
I tried to follow the girl and stop her, but where she walked easily I felt like I was swimming against the tide. The air was too thick, and my body moved through it like molasses. I screamed in frustration as she reached the three monsters. The octopus-like demon moved forward, ready to envelop the child in its tentacles. The girl smiled back at me sadly before being swallowed in the monster’s dark embrace…
I woke in a cold sweat. It was only a dream. The legion had not been released. It was just a horrific nightmare, one that I’d been having every night for the past week. My heart still pounded hard in my chest, and sweat covered my body. I lay on my cot and listened to an owl hoot somewhere out in the forest. Every time I closed my eyes, images of blood and death raced through my mind. I tried to push them away, tried to clear my exhausted brain enough to sleep, but no matter how tired I was, I could not quiet my thoughts. How many horrible experiences did it take before you became a horror yourself? Was I already there? The thought banished any hope of sleep.
A light flashed across the walls of the tent as the guard made his hourly patrol. As soon as the light disappeared, I rolled off the cot and walked to the zipped flap of the tent’s entrance and held my breath as I pulled the zipper down. The noise seemed so loud in the silence of the night, but when I emerged on the other side, no one was there.
Moonlight lit the way as I pushed through bushes and trees. My ever-constant fear was there just below the surface, and in response to it, I heard the howl of a wolf on the wind-my spirit pack. They were always close by. Anytime fear raged inside me, my pack swirled into being, ready to fight and protect me.
I didn’t want them around now. If they came, anyone who was awake would know I was sneaking around alone in the dark. I stopped, took one deep breath, and then let it out. I forced myself to be calm. The sound of the wolves drifted away.
I slowly made my way through the trees to a nearby outcrop of rocks. It was not the first time I’d been here. I blended into the shadows as I climbed, trying not to dirty my gray jeans and sweater. I scrambled over loose dirt, gripping the sharp edges of boulders until, breathless, I stood at the very top. Settling onto a large flat rock and looked down at the campsite. Dozens of lights from lanterns and candles flickered in the night. Three-dozen wood cabins were nestled in the trees and smaller tents were scattered all around the forest. How many death dealers had made it to the stronghold? One hundred? Two hundred? More stumbled into camp every day.
My perch raised me above the dense forest, giving me a view of the small valley where the camp lay. Tents and cabins were situated on one side and a river wound through the other. Huge old trees were packed tightly together between the rocky slopes, but I could glimpse the steep, narrow road that provided the only access to the camp on the valley’s far side. I could also see a few of the areas where the road was partially washed away by decades of weather and neglect. I shuddered as I remembered the hair-raising ride to the bottom of the valley and the narrow wooden bridge that crossed the river. I could hear the river flowing nearby, but I could only see a few flashes of reflected moonlight on the water through the trees.
The whole area was breathtaking in daylight, but I found my new home claustrophobic. Hidden down among the pines in the valley, it felt like the rest of the world didn’t exist.
We were in the middle of nowhere, far off the beaten track. It was too far to lure any tourist or casual hikers, and that’s what the Phoenix Guild loved most about it. They had bought the property-which had been built by some over-optimistic developer fifty years ago-and used it frequently as a retreat.
The Guild had several of these types of places scattered around the country, some even more remote than this one. It was hard to imagine a more isolated place. If you didn’t know this valley was here, it would be almost impossible to find. The heavily camouflaged road turned off of a disused mountain track. If someone did brave the narrow road, they would be visible for miles.
The world had become a dangerous place for those who practiced the Death Arts. They came here looking for a safe, secure place to stay. The death dealers may have felt there was safety in numbers, but I didn’t feel safe. These people didn’t accept me as a member of their guild, and they made it very clear that they considered me an outsider. When I walked among them, I could see looks of fear, disgust, and hatred blazing from their eyes. They blamed me for the plight of their people, and they weren’t wrong-it was my fault. I raised a demon, I made the dead walk again, and because of the things I’d done, death dealers were now hunted and killed.
“Can’t sleep?” a voice whispered to me from below.
“I needed some air,” I answered.
I knew he would come. He always did. Every night for the last week, I’d snuck out and found refuge on the rock outcropping. It was the only time I felt free, the only time I could truly breathe. But Luke always came and found me even though he knew I wanted to be left alone.
He climbed up and sat down next to me. “Colina, you might be able to sleep if you try. The council has given their word that you won’t be harmed.”
“And after the trial?” I looked up at the half moon. I wondered if my friends were out there somewhere, looking up at the same moon.
A hand covered mine. “When will you believe that my guild doesn’t mean you harm?”
No matter what he said, I knew the guild would never forgive me. Thousands of people were forced to flee their homes, hunted by violent fanatics. They wanted someone to pay, and I was the most likely target for their rage. I understood the need for vengeance enough to recognize it in others. It didn’t matter that I was almost as much a victim as they were, and that my only crime was fighting back.
The only thing stopping them from stringing me up was the fact that the few elders left in camp were not very forceful personalities. Everyone between eighteen and sixty was out fighting a desperate battle to save as much of the guild as they could. Old men and women had been left behind, shaken to the core by the loss of everything they held dear. They were unwilling or unable to make a decision regarding my “crimes” and had asked the Phoenix Guild Council to send someone higher up to deal with me. When that person showed up, whoever they might be, everything would change.
For now I was free to roam around the campsite, but even though I was free I still knew my every step and action were being watched. Only at night up here on the rock ledge could I breathe, think, relax.
The world outside was in such disarray. I often wondered: if I had just rolled over and let Macaven kill me, would the death dealers be welcoming him and his followers into camp with open arms? I paused for a second, almost laughing out loud at the thought, but Caleb’s-no, Luke’s somber and a-bit-threatening bulk sitting so close to me smothered any thought of humor.
My eyes met his. I couldn’t see his face clearly in the dark, but I knew it held a disapproving look. It was an expression he wore whenever we talked now.
“Why won’t they let me leave?” I whispered.
“Where would you go?” he asked.
He had a good point. I was an outcast. I had nowhere else to go and no people to call my own anymore.
Luke’s hand reached out and touched my cheek.
I forced myself not to move away, but I felt the fear again, felt it tingle down my spine. He told me he would never hurt me, but I couldn’t make myself believe him. “I need to look for them,” I said quietly.
He knew I was talking about my friends-Wendy, the most powerful reader I had ever seen who had become the unwilling host to a demon; Dean, the death dealer and berserker who, I could admit at least to myself, I had complex feelings for and who had declared his love for me; and even Mildred, the enigmatic and maybe crazy master mage who had both saved and betrayed me so many times that I’d lost track of whose side she was on.
I missed them all, and the guilt of leaving them ate away at me. The last time I’d seen them had been back at Gage’s mining town. They’d stood and fought while I’d been carried away from the battle. I hadn’t been there to help my friends, and now their fates were unknown. Were they still alive? I refused to believe anything else. I had to find them.
Luke’s grip tightened on my hand. “There are no sightings. No leads.”
“I know.” I could feel tears filling my eyes. He knew I was upset-he could hear it in my voice. He moved closer.
And there it was again-the panic that rose whenever he came near.
His fingers reached up and touched my hair.
I held my breath. The night was so still, so quiet; I could hear leaves rustling gently in the wind.
He leaned in and kissed me.
I tried to kiss him back. I tried to force away all the confusing thoughts, but as his lips touched mine, I couldn’t help but break away.
“How long until you let me hold you?”
I could hear the pain in his voice. I didn’t know what to say. How could I explain emotions that I had a hard time understanding myself?
“Luke?” The word rang clearly through the night.
“Your sister’s calling,” I said, trying to keep the relief I felt from showing in my voice.
“She can wait,” he whispered.
“You’ll only make her crazy. You know she worries anytime you’re out of her sight.”
Luke sighed and moved away from me. “We’re going to talk about this.”
“We will. I promise,” I said, but I knew it was a lie, I’d been avoiding the conversation for a month. I’d been avoiding him, too, but no matter how much I tried to steer clear of him, he always seemed to find me. Like tonight. Each night when I snuck out, he tracked me down. But this had been the first time he tried to kiss me.
No, that wasn’t true. My fingers went to my lips. He’d kissed me the first day we made our way to the death dealer’s stronghold.
That first night in camp, Luke took me into his arms, but when he leaned in to kiss me all I could see was Caleb’s face staring back at me. My mind had instantly flashed back to the old mining town. I could feel Caleb’s breath against my neck as he pinned me against a tree. I could feel Caleb’s hands burning with hellfire as he tortured me.
I rubbed my jeans. The burn scars were still there. How could I explain to Luke everything that had happened to me while I’d been held prisoner by Gage? I wanted Luke to understand, but no matter how many times I tried, I couldn’t seem to get the words out. I couldn’t tell Luke what Caleb had done to me. I couldn’t tell him that whenever I looked into his eyes I felt fear and terror. Luke wore the face of the guy who tortured me. A guy I believed would have killed me if given the chance.
Luke, the one I loved, was now inside the body of a maniac. The tears were there again. I didn’t bother to wipe them away as they slid down my cheeks.
I watched Luke slowly make his way down the rock pile. I kept pushing Luke away anytime he tried to be intimate, and every time I pushed him away I could see how much it hurt him.
He was trying to be patient. He was trying so desperately to be the guy I’d fallen in love with at the magic shop. Only he wasn’t. A sob escaped my lips. The darkness inside of Caleb was morphing Luke, changing him. The old mage had told me if Luke’s spirit jumped bodies more than once that it could change him. What if, when Luke’s spirit jumped into the second body, it had warped him? What if he’d come back different? What if he’d come back wrong?
The Luke climbing down the rocks to join his sister was so different from the boy I fell in love with. There was a great anger within him now. It burned so bright, and no matter how hard he tried, he could never really hide it. I watched him lose his temper over the slightest things. I watched him treat people, at times, with a cruel streak that turned my blood cold. I knew he wasn’t to blame for the change-he’d been thrown into a body that had courted darkness and evil. It was my fault this happened to him, and I was powerless to help as I watched him struggle against his dark emotions and new powers. A constant battle seemed to rage inside him, a battle I feared he would lose. What kind of monster might he turn into if I told him I no longer loved him?
I suddenly felt very alone. I pulled my knees to my chin and watched as Luke walked through the trees to his sister’s side.
Darla held up a lantern and turned my way. I leaned back against the rock, blending into the shadows. I didn’t want her to know I was out here. She had stepped into a void left by the absence of adults, wielded a huge amount of influence with camp’s remaining young people and generally ignored the old people who were supposed to be in charge.
She made it clear each day how much she wanted to see me pay for what I’d done. She still hated me, but she and the other death dealers were too afraid of me to do much. The show of power I’d displayed when we first came upon them in the woods kept them from trying to hurt me, but it didn’t stop them from demanding justice for what happened in the past. Yesterday I’d been told there was going to be a trial. I was going to answer for my crimes, they said. I would finally be held responsible for my actions.
Luke told me it was just a way for his people to vent and that nothing would come of the trial, but I didn’t believe him. Everyday I saw the hatred in the death dealers’ eyes, and there was no way I would stick around to see if they’d show me mercy.
I planned to leave before the trial started, but I hadn’t told Luke because I still wasn’t sure whose side he was on.
* * *
When I finally made it back to my tent, I dropped down onto my cot and fell asleep. It was a deep and dreamless sleep. When I woke, it was to the smell of freshly brewed coffee.
I knew it was Freddy even with my eyes closed. Bringing me coffee every morning seemed to be his way of showing solidarity with me. He was the one person who didn’t hate me and the only person who had shown me any kindness since I’d been here.
Freddy was Luke’s best friend. He’d helped us storm Macaven’s hideout and save Darla. When Luke died, Darla blamed me, and I thought Freddy had, too, but to my surprise Freddy had somehow found a way to forgive me. Freddy didn’t care that Luke was now in Caleb’s body-he was just happy to have his friend back.
I wished my relationship with Luke could be that uncomplicated.
I rolled over and pried my eyes open. “What’s for breakfast?” I asked as I sat up and reached for the mug.
Freddy wore a red sweater and blue jeans, and his dark hair was slicked back. He handed over the coffee and sat down next to me on the cot, his face scrunching into a grimace. “Oatmeal with raisins.”
I couldn’t help but smile at his expression. “I like oatmeal.”
He shuddered. “I’d rather starve than eat that mush.”
“I don’t think you’ll starve. I’ve seen Darla smuggle you sweet rolls on other oatmeal days.”
He wagged his finger. “Do you have any actual proof?” He gave me a wide grin when I didn’t answer. “Ah, I didn’t think so.”
I took a sip of coffee and watched him over the mug. I wondered how he felt being among the death dealers. He didn’t possess any magic but was still treated with a certain amount of respect. Freddy and Luke’s fathers had been childhood friends, so Freddy and Luke had grown up together as brothers. I wondered, not for the first time: if it wasn’t for that bond, would the others treat him so well? Would death dealers normally tolerate a non-mage in their midst?
I gave Freddy a thoughtful look and said, “You’d better be careful. If it gets out that you’re stealing from the pantry, the food police might come after you.”
“You make it sound like the food is being rationed out.”
“Isn’t it?” I demanded. Freddy might be someone who treated me with respect and friendship, but he’d made it clear he wouldn’t tolerate any disparaging remarks about the death dealers.
He put his hands out and looked exasperated. “More and more people are making their way up here, and it’s a long way to get supplies. They’re just being practical by divvying up the food.”
“Do you always have to defend them?”
He shot back, “Do you always have to act like everything they do has an ulterior motive?”
I didn’t want to fight, so I kept quiet. Freddy was the only friend I had in this place.
He gave me a hard look. “You look terrible.”
“Thanks,” I answered back. I knew I probably looked like a mess. My unbrushed brown hair hung tangled across my shoulders. I knew I had dark bags under my eyes from restless nights. My clothes were rumpled; I’d been wearing them for two days straight.
“Luke says you haven’t been sleeping and you’ve taken to sneaking out at night.”
“Lower your voice.”
In a stage whisper, he said, “Luke thinks the lack of sleep is making you paranoid.”
“Is it paranoid to think a group of people demanding I stand trial have it in for me?”
He waved his hand in the air dismissively. “It’s a mock trail. There’s no real law behind it.”
I took another sip of coffee. “So I’ve been told. If the trial doesn’t have any teeth to it, then what’s the point?”
He looked through the tent flap that opened out onto the camp. “Because it will help everyone blow off some steam.”
I followed his gaze. I’d slept in; it looked like the whole camp was up, dressed, and milling around. A few death dealers walked by our tent then, and I lowered my voice. “Will that make everyone feel better? Shouting to the world that I’m guilty?”
He was quiet for a long moment before he said, “Darla thinks-”
I interrupted him. “Darla would be the first one in line to burn me at the stake. What happens after the trial if the group decides to take justice into their own hands? They could become a vigilante mob. They could string me up in the nearest tree.”
Freddy shook his head, looking exasperated again. “That would never happen. Luke would never let that happen.”
I put the coffee down and curled my hands into a fist. “I don’t need him to protect me.”
He put up both his hands as if in surrender. “Oh, I forgot. You don’t need anyone. You’re self-sufficient now.”
“I am,” I answered.
“One of the most powerful dark mages.”
“I didn’t ask for this power.” But we both knew that was a lie. I’d gone looking for the magic shop, desperate to learn the Death Arts, and I’d willingly taken on the three rituals-first strangled by Luke’s hands only to be brought back to life, then possessed by a spirit, and lastly reluctantly helped a dying girl pass to the other side. I’d done it all with the sole purpose of gaining dark magic for revenge, and now that dark magic was inside me. Freddy might have been joking, but I did have strong magic within me. I didn’t want to hurt Darla or her people, but I wasn’t going to stand idly by if they tried to harm me.
Freddy was watching me closely. He said in a low voice, “They won’t do anything violent.”
My eyes met his. “So everyone keeps telling me.”
“If you’re so unhappy here, why don’t you leave?”
It was my turn to look exasperated. “You don’t think I’ve tried? They’re keeping me here.”
“You’re a powerful mage, maybe the most powerful of the bunch. If you wanted to leave, you could.”
I shook my head. Things had become so complicated. Luke cared about these people-he loved his sister and his guild. What would happen if I had to kill one of them while making my escape? How would Luke feel about me then? At the thought, my blood turned cold. Yes, I was afraid of Luke. Every time he came near me I felt sheer terror I couldn’t seem to control. But a part of me wanted so desperately to just forget everything that had happened and to love him again. I wanted with all my heart to be with the boy I’d met in the magic shop. I knew I couldn’t hurt the death dealers because I didn’t want to see Luke looking at me with the same hatred everyone else did. I wished I could go back to that first day we met. It was a foolish wish; too many things had happened. Luke had changed.
Then again, so had I.
“My friends-” I started to speak but had to swallow hard when Dean’s face flashed before me. “My friends are out there, in danger. I need to find them.”
A thoughtful look crossed Freddy’s face. “You really think they’re still alive?”
“Yes,” I said, but I didn’t know if it was true. Were they still alive?
“You saw the bodies and what was left of the town.” Freddy looked away. “I don’t think there’s much hope.”
Anger filled me at his words. “Wendy left a note on the wall. Find me. Save me. She expects me to help her, and yet here I sit.”
He waved his hand out toward the camp. “So go. We both know they can’t stop you.”
“But if they tried, I would fight. How many death dealers would I have to hurt or kill before I was free?”
He looked surprised by my answer. “You stay because you’re afraid of killing them?”
I just stared at him in silence. Yes, I feared that, but I also feared something much worse. I couldn’t say the words out loud.
He might’ve looked like Caleb, but inside he was Luke. If I had to fight, would I find myself facing Luke? Would I have to defend myself against his hellfire? Was I prepared to use my powers against him? Could I truly hurt Luke if I had to?
* * *
Freddy somehow wrangled me a shower and some clean clothes. The shower was brisk, cold water from the river poured from a large plastic bucket attached to the side of a wooden shower stall. As quickly as I could I soaped myself down and then quickly rinsed my body and hair. I changed into a fresh pair of blue jeans and a black sweater. Once clean, I stood for a few minutes and watched the hustle and bustle of a hundred people going about their daily lives. I knew that, among all the mundane things going on, somewhere Darla and a small group of death dealers were meeting to discuss my upcoming trial.
Did they really think they could force me to go through with it? Why were they so focused on trying to punish me when they should be looking for Gage and his people? Didn’t they care that he was out there somewhere with the demon at his side, plotting to release the legion of demons?
Hostile faces greeted me as I made my way through the camp, walking slowly to the makeshift kitchen-a large, green tent with picnic tables arranged in lines inside.
I took a seat at one of the tables. Eventually a bowl of food was dropped unceremoniously in front of me. “Thanks,” I said to the cook’s retreating back. I took a bite of oatmeal and felt someone slide onto the bench next to me.
“Did you get any sleep?” It was Luke.
He ran his hand through his hair. “Not enough.” Today his blond hair was tied back with a piece of black leather.
To my surprise, he reached into his gray flannel shirt and brought out a small bouquet of wild flowers. A piece of pink ribbon tied the bunch together at the base. “I saw these flowers this morning and thought of you.” He suddenly looked unsure of himself as he handed them over to me.
I looked into his eyes as I accepted the gift. How I wished I could see dark-gray eyes staring back at me, but they weren’t Luke’s, not anymore-but not Caleb’s brown ones, either. The eyes looking back at me were unique: a ring of gray spread from the pupil and a circle of brown lined the iris’ edges. Somehow the eyes I stared into now had combined into both colors. I still didn’t know what that meant.
I held the flowers, and we sat there in silence for a long moment. There was something about the way he held himself, a tension in his muscles and expression… I put the flowers on the table and finally broke the silence. “What’s wrong?”
“Has Darla spoken to you?”
“Not today.” Even though Darla was young, she’d somehow worked her way into a position of leadership with the young people in camp. I looked around. Most of the members in the camp were under twenty. The older death dealers were out trying to bring the rest of their kind safely back to the armed encampments. There was a desperate rush to round up as many of the death dealers as they could before they were all annihilated.
Luke looked off into the distance.
I took another bite of oatmeal and waited for him to tell me what was bothering him.
He finally spoke. “Darla thinks she’s found a spell that can weaken the demon enough to kill it.”
I dropped the spoon. It clattered against the bowl. “She found more information on the demon killers?” I couldn’t keep the excitement from my voice.
He shook his head. “No. She came across a spell that would allow us to make the demon human-and vulnerable.”
I picked up the flowers, twirled them my hand, and tried to make sense of his answer. “But the demon is already human. It was in the form of a little girl when we last saw it.”
“Yes, but even though it was in human form, it wasn’t truly human.” Luke looked down at his hands. For a moment, small orange flames rippled across his skin before disappearing. “It had some power. The longer it stays in the child’s form, the weaker it gets. But this spell would force all the power out of the beast, and it would be completely human. Totally vulnerable.”
“And we could kill it?” My voice rose in excitement.
“Yes. In theory we could kill it, and once its human shell is gone, it will be banished from our world.”
I’d been holding my breath while he answered. I let it out and gushed, “We can finally leave and go find the others! I know the most important thing is to track down the demon, but while we’re looking for it, we can search for our friends.”
He looked away again. “We aren’t leaving. We’re going to force the creature to come to us.” He looked back at me, then reached out and covered my hand. “You’re the one that released the demon, which means you’re intimately connected with it.” He hesitated, and I could see fear in his eyes. “Colina, you have to perform the spell.”
My heart jumped at his words. I stared at him in horror. When I found my voice again, I whispered, “When?”
“Tonight. At the witching hour.”
I pulled my hand out of his. “How long have you known about the spell? How long has your sister?”
A guilty look came into his eyes, but he kept silent.
“If you hadn’t told me, when would I have found out about the ritual? When they dragged me out into the night and shoved a book into my hands?” I demanded.
“Darla is trying to be cautious,” Luke said.
“She still doesn’t trust me.”
He reached for my hand again. “Give her time. I know she’ll come around.”
This time I didn’t pull my hand away. I knew he truly believed his sister would come to trust me, but I didn’t. Darla would never trust me. “Your people are okay with me doing magic?” They’d warned me that if I tried any magic in camp, there would be dire consequences.
“You’re the only one who can do the spell.” I could tell by the way he was avoiding looking at me that he was holding something back. He said in a quiet voice, “I’m not sure Darla has asked the elders’ permission or even told them about it. Darla believes she can do this. That together we can do this.”
“So I’m supposed to help Darla? And possibly get in more trouble with the guild?” I glared at him. “Why should I?” I could tell by his expression that my outburst surprised him. My words were laced with anger as I continued, “She wants my help now, but when the trial starts she’ll be out for my head.”
His fingers squeezed mine. “This could help her finally see that you’re on our side. It will show the others, prove to them that you’re willing to do what you can to help destroy the creature.”
A harsh laugh escaped my lips. “You really think this will make everyone forget about all the things I’ve done?” I knew deep down my actions would haunt me for the rest of my life.
His voice took on a soothing tone. “Eventually they’ll come around. They may never forget, but someday they’ll accept.”
“I think you give people a lot more credit than they deserve.” Did he not see the way the death dealers looked at me? How they treated me? I looked around at the camp. “These people will never forgive me. They’ll never forget.”
He gave my hand another squeeze. “Don’t do it for them. Do it for yourself. I know you deeply regret letting the demon out. I know you want to see it destroyed. Now is your chance to make things right.”
We sat in silence for a long time, staring out at the camp. I finally broke the silence. “Is Darla sure the spell will work?”
He looked at me, and I saw fear in his eyes again. “There’re no guarantees. No one has done this type of magic in a hundred years. It could be dangerous, but I’ll be there with you.”
Those were the words I wanted to hear-Luke would be by my side. It’s what I wanted most in the world. I looked down at my hand still in his and pulled my hand out of his grasp. “Tell your sister I’ll do it, but on one condition: when it‘s done, I want to go look for my friends.”
His eyes filled with rage. “I don’t think you’re in any position to bargain.”
And there it was again-that spark of fury. It came on so quickly these days and often without provocation. The Luke I knew had always seemed in control of his emotions, but since being inside Caleb’s body, the violence flared out of him more and more. It scared me because I knew what Caleb had been capable of. I knew how much Caleb had enjoyed hurting me, and Luke was becoming more like Caleb every day.
I squared my shoulders and straightened my back. I refused to let Luke see my fear. My voice took on a hard edge. “I’ve tried my best to avoid conflict with your family and your guild, but they aren’t going to change their minds about me.” I took in a deep breath and slowly let it out. Directing my frustration at him was not helping the situation. If anything it would make things worse. I forced the irritation from my voice and tried to sound calm. “The others are out there, and I have to try and find them.”
He didn’t say anything.
In a determined voice, I stated, “Once we’ve killed the demon, I’m leaving.”
“You’re going to head off and look for the others alone?” His voice took on a cold edge. “Even if the spell works and the demon becomes human and loses it power, Gage and his followers still have magic. You thought it was insane for fifty death dealers to take Gage on, remember?”
“He must be weaker now. You saw how many of his people were killed during that last fight. I know Gage-the longer he’s out there, the more people he’ll recruit and the stronger he’ll become.” I could tell by the look on Luke’s face that he wanted to argue, so I raised my hand and said, “Wendy is waiting for us to save her. I have to go look for her.”
Luke watched me for a long moment before saying, “After you do the spell, I’ll see if I can convince them to round up a search party.”
“With or without your people, I’m going,” I said.
His hand came down hard on my arm. “You aren’t leaving here without me.”
His fingers tightened. The desire to pull away from him was almost overwhelming, but I forced myself to stay put. I didn’t say a word.
He let go of my arm, and I watched the rage drain away as fast as it had come. In a soft voice, he said, “I know things aren’t right between us. I know you’re having a hard time adjusting to…” His voice petered off. “But let me make this clear-wherever you’re going, I’m going, too.”
I could tell by the look on his face that he meant it. He was coming with me and there was no way I could talk him out of it. I knew he thought I was acting impulsive, but I couldn’t explain to him how I knew Wendy desperately needed me. The longer we waited, the more I feared for her safety. The fate of my friends haunted my every waking moment. Were they all still alive? Could we save them?
I knew it was madness to go after Gage, especially since he still had power over me. When we finally confronted him, he could use that power to control me and stop me from harming him. He could force me to hurt the allies I brought with me.
I needed to tell Luke about Gage. Even now I could sense a sort of pull in the distance-the desire to return to him. When I saw him, would I spout words of love? Would I fall into his arms?
I couldn’t keep what happened from Luke any longer. He had to know. I had to tell him. “Gage…cast a spell on me.” I stopped and cleared my throat. I can do this. I can finally tell him the whole truth.
I forced myself to continue. “He did some kind of Haitian magic on me.”
Luke’s eyes narrowed. “He did a spell on you? Did he hurt you?”
He drugged me and did some kind of magic on me that made me worship him, I wanted to say. Instead I said, “It was some kind of love spell.”
Luke took a step back, clearly shocked by my words.
“Gage wanted me by his side. He wanted to use my powers to cause chaos and destruction.”
Luke shook his head back and forth as if trying to understand. “He made you fall in love with him?”
“Not really in love. He made me think I was in love with him whenever I was close to him.” I hated admitting it out loud. I hated having to tell Luke what had happened.
The anger was there now. Luke’s fist balled up, and I saw hellfire slide across his skin. “Did he touch you? Harm you?”
“Gage used his influence on me to make me do what he wanted…” Embarrassed, I looked away. Gage had kissed me, touched me, and tried to seduce me. How could I tell these things to Luke?
“He wanted you ‘by his side’?”
“Yes,” I answered in a small voice. I still couldn’t meet his eyes.
When I finally did glance up, he quietly asked, “He wanted you in his bed?”
I didn’t answer. Flames burst in the air above Luke’s hands. “If he ever…” He took a deep breath and let it out. He was trying to control his raging emotions. “Did the two of you…?”
I forced myself to meet his eyes. “Mildred said it would be impossible to remove the spell between us if that ever happened.” When Luke didn’t reply, I blurted out, “But he never got a chance.”
“Why are you just now telling me all this?” He looked so angry.
“I didn’t know how to tell you. How could I explain that he forced me into thinking that I loved him?” I realized I was pleading for him to understand. If he didn’t, he might pull away from me, and I couldn’t let that happen. I had to make him understand. “Once Mildred broke the spell and I could finally think clearly, I felt disgusted and ashamed.”
At my words, the tension left his eyes. “He did this to you. You have no blame in this.”
“But I wasn’t strong enough to stop him.” Tears slid down my face. “Mildred gave me something to drink that weakened the spell. I could think again, but now whenever I’m near him…” I could feel a blush rising in my cheeks. “Whenever I think of him, those fake feelings wash over me again.”
“You can’t come with us. You have to stay behind,” he said.
“Like hell I will,” I answered.
“How can I protect you if you lose your mind as soon as you see him?”
“You can’t leave me behind.”
He reached up and touched my face. “Are you sure he didn’t hurt you?”
“He didn’t have a chance. We got away before he could put the rest of his plan into action.”
I remembered when Sonja had interrupted a moment between Gage and me. I had only been dressed in a thin nightgown. Gage had been lowering the strap of the gown when Sonja came in. Thank the Goddess Sonja had interrupted me. If she hadn’t, who knows how far it might have gone? I looked away, mortified.
Luke’s fingers came up and gently held my chin. He forced me to look back into his eyes. “But you don’t feel anything for him now?”
“No.” It was a lie. Every time Gage’s image flashed across my mind, a rush of fake emotions washed over me.
Luke smiled. “Good.”
My heart skipped a beat at his words. He truly sounded like he cared what happened to me. Did he really? Was the Luke I loved still somewhere inside there fighting against the darkness? I hoped it was true with all my heart. But I hadn’t told him the whole truth. I hadn’t told him about the dark wedding. What would he say when he found out Gage forced me to marry him? Would he still be so understanding?
He got up from the table. “Now get some food in you and try to get some sleep this afternoon. You’re going to need your strength for tonight.”
I reached out and touched the flowers he’d given me as I watched him walk away.