New York Times bestselling author Morgan Rhodes takes readers into exhilarating new high-fantasy territory with A BOOK OF SPIRITS AND THIEVES, an epic contemporary saga perfect for fans of Sarah J. Maas and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander.
The lives of Toronto teens Crystal and Becca Hatcher revolve around helping their mother out at the family's used bookstore, the Speckled Muse. It's a relatively uneventful after-school job, until a package arrives addressed to their mother, Julia. Thinking it's nothing more than run-of-the-mill inventory, Becca opens it and removes the book inside, unwittingly triggering an ancient magic and intertwining their fates with the powers that flow from the mysterious leather-bound book. Two parallel worlds collide, and Becca is left in a catatonic state after her spirit is snatched from modern-day Toronto back to the ancient world of Mytica. Crys is guilt-ridden, having witnessed the entire event, and vows to do whatever is necessary to save her.
Written in alternating perspectives that shift between modern-day Toronto and the ancient kingdoms of Mytica, Rhodes delivers a rich and suspenseful series opener that will leave readers breathless.
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“Be careful where you point that thing, young lady. It’ll get you in trouble one day.”
The old man Crys had been stalking for twenty minutes glared at her through the lens of her camera. The deep wrinkles she’d found so fascinating now gathered between his eyes as he creased his forehead.
She snapped a picture.
“Thanks for the advice,” she said, flashing him a grin before she quickly made her escape.
It would be a great shot, one of her best yet. Eyes that had seen at least eighty years of life. A face, weathered and aged, with a thousand stories to tell. Definitely portfolio-worthy.
Crys passed a bank with a digital clock in the window and winced when she saw the time. Becca’s going to kill me, she thought.
The last class had let out at three o’clock, but because she hadn’t gone to school today, she’d completely lost track of time. She could smell spring in the air, finally, after such a long, cold winter. The cool breeze felt fresh and clean and full of possibilities, even beneath the scent of cement and dust and exhaust fumes.
It was five minutes to six when she finally made it to her destination. Five minutes to closing.
The Speckled Muse Bookshop was located on the west edge of the Annex, a Toronto neighborhood adjacent to the U of T campus and the Royal Ontario Museum. Busy streets, a young crowd—thanks to the proximity to the university—lots of restaurants and little independent shops.
Crys paused and snapped a shot of the weathered sign out front—she’d taken the same pic from nearly every angle possible over the last couple of years. Along with the name of the shop written in quirky, painted letters, there was an illustration of a little girl with big glasses, pigtails, and a sprinkling of freckles, sitting on top of a stack of books.
It was a caricature of Crys from when she was five years old, before she even knew how to read. Before she got contacts for her annoying nearsightedness and used her thick glasses only when she absolutely had to.
Back when the Hatchers were a whole family, not just three-quarters of one.
Something warm brushed against her leg, and she lowered her camera with a frown. “Who let you out, Charlie?”
Charlie, an adorable black-and-white kitten, replied with a tiny mew that seemed to have a question mark attached to it.
“Come on.” Crys leaned over and picked him up, pressing him against her chest. “You’re way too close to the street out here, little guy.”
A month ago, when it was early March and still freezing cold, she’d found the kitten next to a garbage can a block away from the store and next to her favorite sushi place. He’d been no bigger than the palm of her hand, and looked forlorn and miserable. She’d brought the shivering handful home and insisted they keep him.
Her mother had taken one look at him and said no. But Crys’s younger sister, Becca, immediately stepped in and argued on behalf of the tiny feline’s fate. Between her two daughters’ joint arguments, Julia Hatcher finally relented. It was the first time in ages that Crys and Becca had agreed on anything. Becca then named him Charlie after Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, one of her favorite books.
Now Crys pushed open the glass front door, triggering the familiar, melodious chime of the doorbell that signaled a customer had entered. Immediately, she felt the heat of Becca’s glare from across the shop.
Yeah, I know. I’m late, she thought. What else is new?
The mail lay on a small table near the door in an untouched heap. Several brown cardboard boxes of books were stacked next to it.
The Speckled Muse was housed in a historical three-story building—one of the oldest in Toronto, dating to the mid-nineteenth century. Crys’s great-grandfather, a man of wealth and influence in the city, had purchased the building seventy years earlier and given it to his book-loving wife so she could open a bookstore. The current sign was relatively new, but the name of the shop was more than sixty years old.
If only great-granddaddy hadn’t squandered his fortune on poor investments, leaving nothing for his family line apart from the bookshop itself.
The Speckled Muse—a Toronto landmark. One of the oldest bookstores in one of the oldest buildings and, as many ancient edifices were, rumored to be haunted. Crys had yet to see evidence of a ghost—apart from hearing the occasional groans and creaks that are normal in any old building.
All of this, both truth and rumor, helped to coax customers through the front door and into the maze-like shelves and nooks and crannies of the shop, which, contrary to its small and quaint storefront, had a massive interior that magically seemed to go on and on.
The first floor of the building was dedicated to the store, and the upper two made up the Hatcher family home, accessed by a winding iron staircase at the very back of the main floor. Three bedrooms and a bathroom on the top floor, a kitchen, a living room, and another bathroom on the second. Plenty big enough for the three of them. And now Charlie, of course.
“Thank you so much for coming in.” Becca handed change to a customer from behind the register. She wore her honey-blond hair off her face, in a loose braid that fell across her right shoulder. There was a pencil tucked behind her ear that Crys would bet she’d totally forgotten about. “I hope you enjoy the book.”
“Thank you for helping me find it!” The woman—a redhead with ruddy cheeks and a toothy grin, whom Crys immediately recognized as a regular customer—clutched the plastic bag bearing the store’s logo to her chest. “My mother read this to me when I was just a little girl. It’s an absolute treasure. And such a good price!”
With a bright smile, and a friendly nod in Crys’s direction, the woman left the shop with her reasonably priced treasure firmly in hand.
“Becca Hatcher—making dreams come true, one book at a time,” Crys said with amusement.
She received no response, just an intensified glare as her younger sister moved from behind the long wooden counter toward the door, sidestepping the books that had piled up and needed to be logged and shelved. She flipped the sign to CLOSED.
It smelled musty in here—like old paper and leather. It was a smell Crys used to love, since it smelled like home, but now she thought they needed to give the shop a good airing out.
“No greeting for your favorite sister in the whole wide world?” Crys pressed.
“You were supposed to be here two hours ago.”
Crys shrugged. “I was otherwise occupied. I knew you could handle things on your own.”
Becca groaned. “Unbelievable. You don’t even care, do you?”
“That you . . . you . . .” Becca’s cheeks reddened with every sputtered word. If there was one thing that could be said about the Hatcher sisters, it was that they didn’t try too hard to keep their emotions hidden.
“I . . . I. . .?” Crys prompted. “What? Forced you to spend two extra hours around your favorite objects while Mom’s out doing her daily chores?”
“You made me miss book club.”
Crys inwardly cringed. Becca loved her stupid book club like a six-year-old loved gummy bears. “You know, you really should try to find a hobby that has nothing to do with books. Expand and grow. Live a little.” She gestured toward the front window, which looked out at the always-busy Bathurst Street. “There’s a whole world out there to discover.”
“You’re right. I do need another hobby,” she replied. “Maybe I should take up photography.”
She said it as if it were an insult.
“You’re so much like Dad—you know that?” Becca added.
Great, Crys thought. Twist that knife in just a little more.
Suddenly, Crys wanted to put down the camera—a Pentax from the eighties that took film that had to be developed in a dark room. It wasn’t fancy, and it definitely wasn’t digital. The flash had broken long ago and been discarded, which, because Crys liked using natural light for her shots anyway, didn’t make any difference to her.
Instead, she held the device up with one hand while still cradling a purring Charlie with the other and snapped a picture. Becca raised her hand to block her face, but it was too late.
“You know I hate having my picture taken!”
“You should get over that.” Crys had found that most people hated having their picture taken, which was why she much preferred taking stealth shots of strangers all around the city. She had no idea why Becca was so camera-shy. The girl could be a model. The lion’s share of the good looks in the family had gone to the younger daughter, a fact Crys tried very hard not to let bother her.
“You’re such a jerk. You know that?” Becca replied. “You only think about yourself.”
“Bite me.” Despite her bravado, a trickle of guilt soured Crys’s stomach, like always. It was definitely time for a subject change. “Did you know Charlie got outside?”
“What?” Becca glanced at the kitten, and her face blanched. “I didn’t even realize . . . If he’d been hit by a car—” She reached across the counter so she could gently pet the top of his head. “Oh, Charlie, I’m sorry.”
“He probably just slipped out with a customer. It’s fine. He’s fine.” The kitten began to squirm, so Crys gently set him down on the floor. He flicked his tail and sauntered away, down a long aisle of crammed bookshelves toward his favorite napping spot in the mystery section.
Becca swept her serious gaze across the front of the store until it fell again on Crys. Her dark blue eyes narrowed, and she cocked her head as if seeing her sister for the first time today. “You changed your hair again.”
Crys twisted a finger around a long pale lock. Normally her hair was a medium ash blond, just like their mother’s. A year ago, she’d started to dye it whenever she felt a whim, and it had since been black, dark brown, red, and, for a short time—and much to their mother’s dismay—bright purple.
Last night she’d gone platinum blond. Her scalp still burned from the peroxide, and she resisted the urge to scratch it, hoping her hair wouldn’t start falling out from the abuse she’d heaped upon it.
Although . . . bald might be cool to try out for a while.
“Yup,” she said. “You like?”
“Sure,” Becca replied after a moment. “It makes your eyes look even lighter.”
“Thanks, I think.” Crys didn’t know if that was a compliment or simply an observation. She had the same eyes as their father—icy blue and so pale they nearly lacked any color entirely. Some people said her eyes were spooky.
She was okay with this.
“Mom’ll be back in an hour,” Becca said, glancing down at her watch.
“Let’s get some sushi in the meantime. I’m starving.” Walking around all day would do that, and Crys had forgotten to have lunch.
“I’m sick of sushi. Let’s figure out dinner after we finish with the store.”
How could anyone ever get sick of sushi? Crys could happily eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner if given the option. “Fine. Just tell me what to do, boss.”
“Sort the mail.” Becca gestured toward the pile near the front door. “And I’ll . . . I guess I’ll shelve these.” She grabbed a cardboard box and hoisted it up onto the counter. “A customer came in and had a bunch of used children’s books she wanted to unload. Mom wasn’t here to vet them as quality, so I took them all. I don’t know why anyone would want to get rid of all these books, but I guess it’s good for business, right?”
“Sure,” Crys replied distractedly, eyeing the mail. She’d spotted a suspicious-looking letter at the top of the pile and started walking toward it. “Shelve away.”
The letter was addressed to her mother, and it was from Sunderland High—Crys’s school.
She ripped it open without a second thought and scanned the contents, which informed Mrs. Hatcher that her daughter, Crystal, had a questionable attendance record. She’d missed three weeks’ worth of classes since the year began. The principal wanted to meet to discuss her frequently truant daughter’s choices and how it could put her graduation in June at risk.
Crys ripped the letter into tiny pieces and threw it in the garbage can. She didn’t need to graduate with top marks to be a photographer. And ever since her two best friends, Amanda and Sara, had both moved away in the last six months, classes held no interest for her anymore.
She only needed to survive until June to leave school behind her forever.
And in seven months she’d turn eighteen. That number meant the freedom to do whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted. Eighteen meant she could finally leave Toronto and travel around the world, taking pictures, fleshing out her portfolio, so she could get a job at a magazine such as National Geographic.
That was both the dream and the plan. And only a matter of months and the occasional annoying letter from school stood in her way.
Along with letters and bills there was a larger parcel, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. It was covered in what looked like European stamps. She recognized the sender’s handwriting immediately.
It was from her aunt Jackie.
Again ignoring the fact that the parcel was addressed to her mother, not her, Crys tore off the paper, curious to see what her aunt had sent. Crys felt it’d been forever since she’d seen or talked to Jackie, who lived in Europe most of the time, exploring and having adventures and romances and getting into trouble like the free spirit she was. Jackie hadn’t graduated high school, either, and her aunt was the coolest and smartest person Crys had ever known. She’d received her education from living life, not from reading textbooks.
“And you’ve sent us . . .” Crys pulled the object out of the packaging, her enthusiasm quickly fading. “. . . a book. Hooray.”
The book did look very old—which meant it might be valuable on the secondhand market. That was one point in its favor. Its cover was smooth brown leather. Handmade, by the feel of it. It was the size of an old atlas and as thick as a dictionary. As heavy as one, too. It had cost Jackie a small fortune in postage to send this overseas.
Affixed to the cover was a metal relief of a bronze bird, its wings spread in flight. Crys traced it with her index finger.
There was no title, and nothing was written on the weathered spine.
A piece of paper fell out as Crys opened the cover. She snatched it up off the worn hardwood floor.
This is it, Jules. I finally found it. Grandma would be proud. Keep it safe, and I’ll be in touch as soon as I can. —J
Crys opened the book. It appeared to be a one-of-a-kind text, similar to the ones ancient monks slaved over all their lives, with decorative calligraphy, careful penmanship, and intricate paintings. The pages felt as fragile as onionskin, but the words inside were crisp and clear, the illustrations of flowers and plants, green landscapes, robed figures, and unfamiliar furry animals as sharp as if they’d been rendered this week.
The language, however . . . Crys frowned down at it. It wasn’t recognizable to her. Definitely not Latin. Or Italian. Or Chinese.
The alphabet was odd, made up of curls and swashes instead of discernible letters. There were no breaks between words; the text looked like lines of gibberish and nonsense rather than an actual language. But it was all rendered with a fine hand as if it might make perfect sense to someone, somewhere.
Some of the text was printed in gold ink, some in black. The gold ink shimmered even in the most shadowy areas of the overstuffed shop as Crys walked it back to the children’s section, easily navigating the maze-like shelves without looking up.
Becca was there, on her knees, sliding the new books into place after noting them in the open ledger beside her. Crys glanced around at the shelves, which were painted pink and blue and green in this area, rather than the standard brown and black in the rest of the store. Kid-sized chairs and a small sofa, both upholstered in bright polka-dotted fabric, were there for reading comfort. A decade ago, on the wall next to the large, round window that made this alcove the brightest part of the shop, her father had painted a mural of a fantasy land with a golden castle and two princesses who looked a great deal like Becca and Crys. The painted words Imagination is Magic curved around the fluffy white clouds in the bright blue sky.
Daniel Hatcher used to organize and host readings every Saturday in this kids’ nook, free for all children and parents. He always made sure there were drinks and snacks available. Local children’s authors would visit and talk to the kids and sign books. And this had also been the place Crys and Becca had lounged for hours in their childhood, spending time together reading and discussing book after book after book.
Times had changed. The nook, once a place of magic and fairy tales, now looked weathered and old. The only ghosts to be found back here were memories of a different time.
“What’s that?” Becca asked, drawing Crys out of her reverie.
“Good question. Jackie sent it. I don’t know what it is, but I hope it’s worth big bucks.”
Becca stood up and brushed some dust off her jeans. “Let me see it.” Crys handed it over, and Becca’s eyes widened as she took it. “Wow. It’s beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. I wonder how old it is.”
“Very old,” Crys replied. “That’s my professional opinion.”
Becca sat down on the small sofa and began to carefully flip through it. “I wonder what language this is.”
“No idea whatsoever.”
“This is like something you’d find in a museum.”
“Do museums pay lots of money for ancient books no one can read?”
This earned Crys a sharp look. “It’s not all about money, you know.”
“Let’s go ahead and agree to disagree on that.”
Becca traced her hand lightly over a fully gold page, the writing so tiny and cramped that there was barely any of the thin paper showing. The ink shone bright in the light from the window, even as dusk had started to descend over the city.
“Don’t get your greasy fingers all over it,” Crys said. “It’ll decrease the value.”
“Quiet.” Becca’s voice was hollow now, distracted, as she peered at the pages, her brows drawing together.
“I don’t know.”
“You look constipated.”
Becca shook her head, not bothering to respond to Crys’s smart-ass comment with even a glare. “This book . . . I feel like I can . . . I don’t know. Sense something from it.”
“Sense something?” Crys laughed and looked up at the ceiling. “Spirits, come to us now! Speak to us through the pages of this weird old book.”
“Shut up. It’s not like that. It’s not . . .”
“Not what?” Crys prompted when Becca fell silent.
Becca’s breathing quickened, her chest rising and falling rapidly.
That was alarming. “Becca, what’s wrong?”
“This book . . .” Becca whispered hoarsely, as if the words were getting stuck in her throat. She began to tremble. “It’s doing something . . . to me. I can feel it . . . pulling.”
“Pulling? Pulling what?” In seconds, a chill spread through Crys, bringing with it a dark and heavy feeling of dread. “You’re starting to freak me out. It’s just a dumb book. Give it back to me.” She held out her hand and waited for her sister to hand it back to her. “Come on! What are you waiting for?”
Becca lurched up to her feet off the small sofa. “I can’t seem to let go of it. I’m trying, but I can’t.”
The golden page began to glow.
Crys swore under her breath. What the hell was going on?
She reached forward to grab it out from her sister’s grip. The moment she touched the book this time, a violent shock tore through her, as if she’d jammed her hand into a light socket. It knocked her backward, and she fell flat on her back on the far side of the alcove. The wind had been knocked from her lungs, and she struggled to find her breath. As fast as she could, she scrambled to her unsteady feet.
“Get that thing away from you, Becca!” she gasped.
Becca’s eyes had filled with the bright golden light from the book. “I don’t know what’s happening. What . . . what is it doing to me? Help me!” Her voice broke with fear. “Please, Crys, help me!”
Crys lunged toward her sister just as light started to stream out of the book, momentarily blinding her and making her stagger back again. She blinked, rubbing her eyes, only to see that sharp beams of this impossibly bright light had wrapped around Becca, slithering around her chest and arms and face like a thousand golden snakes.
Becca screamed, and the bone-chilling sound drew a frightened shriek from Crys’s throat. The book finally dropped from Becca’s hands as she crumpled to the floor in a heap next to it.
Crys scrambled to Becca’s side and grabbed her sister’s shoulders, shaking her. “Becca! Becca, look at me! Look at me!”
The golden glow from the book coated her skin and gathered in her eyes for a moment longer before it finally extinguished.
Becca stared straight ahead, her expression slack.
“Please!” Crys yelled, shaking her harder. “Please say something!”
But her sister didn’t respond. She stared, she blinked. She breathed. But Becca Hatcher was gone—mind and soul.
Gone. In an instant.
Leaving Crys behind, alone . . . with the book responsible.
The Raven Club wasn’t his favorite bar, but it was the noisiest one he knew. Silence meant thinking. And thinking meant remembering.
Tonight he wanted to forget.
Half a bottle of vodka also made forgetting a lot easier. And the club offered its fair share of dark-haired beauties to help take his mind off the date on the calendar.
“You are very helpful, you know that?” he said to the girl on his lap, weaving his fingers into her long hair, which was stiff with hair spray. She wore a low cut, sparkly top and a skirt short enough to get her arrested in many places around the world. Luckily, Toronto wasn’t one of them.
She brushed her lips against his throat. “I aim to please.”
“Aim a little lower, would you?”
“Anything you want.”
He did another shot and glanced at the time on his phone. Midnight. He’d successfully made it through the third of April.
Suddenly, the sickly sweet scent of the girl’s floral perfume had begun to chase his buzz away. Girls, thinking it made them smell like money, piled that garbage on way too thick for his taste.
“Enough,” Farrell said as he pushed her off his lap.
“Oh, come on. We’ve barely gotten started.” She stroked his chest and unbuttoned the top of his white Prada shirt. “Here we are, all alone, just the two of us. It’s destiny, baby.”
He tried not to laugh. “I don’t believe in destiny.”
The private lounge he’d reserved offered a sliver of privacy, but Farrell would hardly call them alone. Only twenty feet away, through a shimmering curtain, was the rest of the club. The sound of throbbing music had begun to make his head ache.
He’d kill for a cigarette, but he was trying to quit.
The brunette had caught his eye when he’d gone to fetch a bottle of Grey Goose from the bar. He had no idea how old she was under all that makeup. Maybe twenty. Maybe thirty. He didn’t really care.
“The night’s still young,” he told her. “We have time, Suzie.”
He gave her one of his best smiles, which never failed to work wonders with difficult females. Right on schedule, her serious expression faded and her eyes sparkled with interest. He didn’t have many talents, but effortless charm and a way with women were two of them.
Also, the public knowledge of Farrell Grayson’s upcoming inheritance helped get him all the female attention he’d ever want.
One hundred million dollars of his grandmother’s vast estate, left to him in her will—with a stipulation: He didn’t get his hands on it until he turned twenty-one.
Only 576 days till he finally had the freedom to do as he pleased without being caught under his parents’ thumbs, totally dependent on his monthly allowance.
“Suzie . . . Stephanie . . . Sexy . . . come back over here, whoever you are,” he said, patting his knee. She did as requested, smiling now.
Her tongue tasted like rum, he thought absently. And Diet Coke.
His phone vibrated and he glanced down at it. It was a message from his kid brother, Adam.
im in big trouble can you come get me
It included an address to one of the seedier neighborhoods downtown.
Another text message swiftly followed: never mind im fine
Yeah, right. Farrell slipped the phone into the inner pocket of his jacket. He grabbed the bottle of vodka and took a swig from it, feeling the pleasant burn all the way down his throat.
Fun was over. Duty called.
“Got to go,” he said.
Stephanie’s eyes widened with surprise. “What? Where?”
“I need to deal with a family thing.”
“I’ll come with you.”
“No thanks,” Farrell said without hesitation.
“Oh, come on.” She traced her long fingernails up his arm. “We’re having such a good time. You really want it to end so soon?”
“I really couldn’t care less.” He kept his smile fixed as her expression fell. “What? You thought this was an open casting call for the role of Farrell Grayson’s girlfriend? Sorry to disappoint you.”
Her surprise faded and her eyes flashed with anger. “Asshole. Everything they say about you is true.”
She got up from his side and stormed out of the lounge, shoving the curtains out of her way, but her arms and hair still got caught in them in her furious need to make a dramatic exit.
Fine with him. He’d never liked the taste of rum anyway.
Since having his license suspended four months ago, Farrell had had to get used to having a chauffeur. It was either that or take public transit—and both of his parents were appalled by the thought of a Grayson riding the subway.
Not that any of this was their fault; it was entirely his. Wrapping his Porsche around a tree had totaled the car, landed him with a DUI the family lawyers were still sorting out, and sent him into the hospital with a serious concussion.
You’re damn lucky you didn’t hurt anybody else, the voice of his conscience snarled. It sounded exactly like his older brother, Connor. All their lives, he’d been the one offering up such pearls of wisdom, whether Farrell wanted them or not.
When the limo reached its destination, Farrell, unsteady on his feet from the amount of liquor he’d consumed, approached a low-rent apartment building.
Out front, several of the streetlamps were broken, casting the treeless area in darkness, apart from the light of the nearly full moon. Shadows moved to his left across the concrete parking lot, but he paid them no attention. He wasn’t looking for trouble—not tonight.
“Wait here,” he told his driver.
Farrell went upstairs and knocked on the door to the apartment number Adam had texted. After a moment, it opened a crack.
“Sorry, we didn’t order any,” the kid said with a smirk.
Farrell smiled at him, then kicked the door open, breaking the security chain. “Where’s my brother?”
The kid scrambled backward. “Hey, I was just kidding around. I was going to let you in. Farrell, right? I’m Peter.” He nodded toward the corner. “That’s Nick.”
The other boy, Nick, watched the two of them warily, taking a shaky step backward as Farrell fisted his hands and moved menacingly toward the first kid.
“Where is Adam?” he growled. “Don’t make me ask again or you’ll regret it.”
“Back room,” Peter said, then cleared his throat. “It’s cool you’re here. You’re welcome to join the party. We don’t mind sharing.”
Farrell moved through the small apartment toward the closed door at the rear. It opened before he reached it, and Adam’s nervous face greeted him.
“Oh, hi,” Adam said.
Yes, his brother definitely looked nervous. Nervous and guilty. “What the hell’s going on?”
“Nothing.” Adam rubbed a hand through his light brown hair. “I mean, everything’s fine. You should go back to whatever you were doing, and I can . . . fix this.”
“Fix what?” When Adam didn’t answer, Farrell shook his head. “I’m taking you home. It’s after midnight. Isn’t that your curfew?”
Adam scowled. “I’m too old for curfews.”
“Our beloved parents might disagree with that. I know they did when I was sixteen. Let’s go.” He blew out a breath. Maybe he was taking the wrong approach. “I got the latest KillerMan movie all loaded up. I know you want to see it as much as I do.”
One thing the brothers shared was their love of Korean action movies. Never dubbed, always with subtitles. They watched at least one a week together in the Graysons’ home theater.
“But the party’s not over yet,” Peter whined.
So these were Adam’s new friends. Both of them gave Farrell a deeply uneasy feeling.
“Party, huh?” he said. “Three kids out late on a Friday night in some sketchy apartment. Doesn’t seem like much of a party to me.” He was met with silence, and he returned his attention to Adam. “What’s in the room?”
Adam grimaced. He held the door open only wide enough for him to look at Farrell, not wide enough for Farrell to see beyond.
“I told you not to come.”
“Yeah. Right after you said you were in trouble. What’s in the room?” he repeated.
Farrell already felt his hangover circling like a mean-spirited vulture. “Show me right now.”
“Yeah, let’s show him.” Nick, with a big, sleazy grin on his face, approached slowly. “The fun just got started. Adam’s first, but you can go second, if you’d like.”
Farrell pushed the door open to reveal a small bedroom. The bed was unmade, the curtains askew. It smelled sour, like unwashed clothing.
An unconscious woman lay on the bed.
“Explain,” he bit out through clenched teeth. “Now.”
“She was looking to party—she just needed a bit of a push.” Peter shrugged. “Led the three of us back here before she passed out. It’s her place.”
She was at least ten years older than the boys. Her red lipstick was smeared, and she smelled like cigarette smoke and alcohol.
“Who drugged her?” Farrell asked as evenly as he could, flicking a glance at Adam. “You?”
Adam shook his head, his expression bleak.
“Did you touch her?” She was still wearing all her clothes, even her panty hose and stiletto heels. But he had to ask.
“No,” Adam replied in barely a whisper.
“He’s been in here for half an hour,” Peter said with a laugh. “We were getting bored waiting for him to get started.”
Farrell ignored him, keeping his attention on Adam. “Were you going to?”
A shadow of fear and uncertainty slid behind Adam’s eyes.
Nick shook his head, grinning. “We tried to help your brother pop his cherry, and this is what—”
Farrell couldn’t hold his anger in anymore. He exploded. He grabbed Nick by his throat and slammed him against the wall, rattling the cheap framed art. “Listen to me very carefully. If you ever—ever—get my brother involved in something like this again, I’m going to kill you—both of you.” He sent a death glare toward Peter before returning his attention to the kid in front of him. “You hear me?”
Nick’s eyes bugged. “Whoa, wait—”
“If you come anywhere near Adam again, I will personally slit you open and watch your guts spill onto the floor, and I’ll enjoy every minute of it. And if I hear that you ever do this to another woman, you will deeply, deeply regret it. Understood?”
Nick nodded frantically. Peter’s acne stood out like bright red dots on his pale face. They both answered in unison: “Understood.”
Farrell finally released Nick. “Get the hell out of here, both of you.”
The two boys scrambled to leave the apartment without another word of protest.
Adam had pressed himself back against the wall, as if wishing he, too, could run away. “Farrell . . . I swear I wouldn’t have—”
“Shut up. Just shut your mouth.” He looked down at his hands to find that they were shaking. He clasped them together as he moved toward the woman on the bed. She groaned and shifted on the sheets. A tacky necklace with a big, fake ruby hung around her neck. Her hair was a brash yellowy blond, with an inch of black roots.
Her fake lashes fluttered, and her eyes opened a crack. A drunken smile stretched her red lips. “Hey, baby. You ready to have some fun?”
“I’ve had my fun for tonight.” He grabbed a blanket and pulled it over her. “Sleep it off. You’ll feel better tomorrow.”
He caught another whiff of cigarette smoke. Farrell made a mental note to stop somewhere for a pack of smokes. He needed nicotine in the worst way. He’d gone three days without a cigarette. That was more than enough.
“Farrell . . . ,” Adam began again, his voice choked.
“Just tell me why you’d want to get involved in something like this.” Farrell didn’t look at him as he moved through the apartment toward the open door. Adam trailed after him like a ghost.
“It’s been a year tonight, you know that?”
Farrell froze. “You’re using that as your excuse?”
“It was a mistake.”
“You’re damn right it was.” He should know what mistakes were. He’d made so many of them himself he’d lost count.
“Ever since Connor died, you’ve been so distant. Mom and Dad . . . they’ve practically ignored me. I don’t feel like I belong anywhere. And Nick and Peter wanted to be my friends. I know it was wrong—and I know I wouldn’t have done anything to her or let them do anything. But tonight . . . for a moment I felt like I belonged somewhere. Like I had a group to call my own.”
One year since Connor died.
It would be so nice to forget. But it didn’t matter how much he drank. That image of Connor was always there, burned into his brain.
“I get it, kid. I do. The need to belong, to have people to depend on through thick and thin. But losers like Peter and Nick aren’t going to give you that. I know what you need.”
“Dad was going to tell you over breakfast, but I’m more than happy to spoil the surprise. The next society meeting is tomorrow night, and you’re on the list. You’re going to be initiated.”
Adam gaped at him, his eyes wide. “Are you serious?”
“Yup. You’re in.”
“I mean, I know practically nothing about it.”
Farrell shrugged. “What happens at the Hawkspear Society stays at the Hawkspear Society. But you’ll learn soon enough.”
Adam just stood there, shaking his head in disbelief, before a gigantic smile spread across his face. “This is amazing.”
“Congrats.” Farrell couldn’t help but smile at his little brother’s exuberant reaction. It wasn’t every day that someone got initiated into a secret society made up of Toronto’s most elite and powerful.
Adam had no idea what lay behind those locked doors, but Farrell knew it would most definitely make him feel like he belonged somewhere. Somewhere incredibly special. Somewhere powerful.
Sixteen was the minimum age for members, but it was still very young. Farrell wasn’t totally certain his brother was ready for what he’d witness tomorrow night.
But rules were rules. And family was family.
Adam Grayson was about to grow up fast. Farrell could only hope like hell that he wouldn’t end up like Connor.
Year 15 of the Goddess Valoria’s Reign
If he valued his life—and he most certainly did—then he needed to hurry. He’d already kept Livius waiting far too long.
The journey from his mother’s small village to the city of Ravenswood had been nearly impossible to complete in only two days while still taking the time to rest and eat. His mother had begged him to stay with her another day, saying she’d cook him a stew from the rabbit she’d caught in her snares that morning. Though his stomach had protested giving up such a fine meal, he’d kissed her quickly on both of her cheeks and embraced her tightly.
“I promise I’ll return the very next chance I get,” he’d told her.
If he hadn’t left, he wouldn’t earn enough to pay the taxes owed on her small cottage. She’d be cast out by the lord of the land, and, like many poor women in the North, she’d be forced to become a beggar.
He’d never allow that to happen.
So he made his way quickly to the city, a treacherous journey across roughly hewn paths and dirt roads, through forests thick with criminals, stinging insects, and beasts with sharp teeth. He had no weapon—he wasn’t allowed to have one of his own—so all he had to aid him were his wits.
At the edge of the forest less than a mile from the city, Maddox’s pace slowed to a halt as he came across an old man lying next to a tipped-over wooden cart, his face and shirt bloodied.
“Boy . . . ,” the old man moaned, reaching out toward Maddox as he approached with apprehension. “Please—please . . . help me.”
“Of course I’ll help you.” He would never ignore someone in dire need like this, even though the sight of blood made his stomach lurch. “What happened here?”
The man’s white hair was sparse, his mostly bald scalp red from the blazing sun. “Thieves stopped my cart. They attacked me and left me for dead. Come closer. You must help me to my feet, help me get to the city.”
Maddox scanned the tree line, now nervous that thieves might be lying in wait. “What direction did they go?”
“Take my hand, boy.”
Maddox hesitated only another moment before he clasped the old man’s hand and helped him to his feet. “You’ve lost a great deal of blood.”
“Not nearly as much as you’ll lose if you don’t do exactly as I say.” The old man produced a dagger and held the sharp edge of steel to Maddox’s throat. “A trusting youth, aren’t you?”
Trusting. Or stupid. In Maddox’s experience, they seemed to be interchangeable when it came to many of his choices.
“Give me all your coin.” The old man’s lips peeled back from broken teeth. His breath smelled like rotting vegetables. “Or I’ll slit your throat.”
Stupid. So very, very stupid.
“Sorry to disappoint, but I don’t have any coin on me.” Maddox grimaced as the man pressed the blade harder and warm blood trickled down his neck. “If you let me go, I promise I can get you plenty.”
“Promises don’t work for me.”
“You’ve obviously confused me with someone else, someone with coin to spare. Do I look like someone who carries bags of gold and silver with me?”
The old man peered at him. “You’re well dressed enough.”
Today he wore tailored leather trousers, a suede vest, and a fine shirt made from linen imported from across the Silver Sea. At first glance, Maddox Corso might be mistaken for the son of a lord.
Which made sense. These clothes had been stolen from the son of a lord.
“How old are you, boy?” the thief asked.
He hesitated before answering truthfully. “Sixteen.”
“Where is your family?”
“In the city up ahead,” he lied. “They’re the ones with the gold.” He racked his mind in search of a way to escape this predicament. “So tell me, do you lie in wait at the side of the road like this often? Is this a hobby or a profession? Is it profitable?”
His questions only got a jab from the blade to silence him.
Maddox then tried to clear his mind, to concentrate on the man and nothing else. To will the thief into unconsciousness with the strange and nameless power inside him.
Unfortunately, his magic failed him today, which wasn’t surprising. It almost always did any time he actually tried to use it.
Another voice cut in. “What are you doing with my son?”
The old man wheeled around to face the intruder, taking Maddox with him. “Your son, eh? So it would appear your father has come looking for you.”
“So it would appear,” Maddox mumbled.
But Livius was his guardian, not his father.
Livius, who was dressed every bit as well as Maddox today beneath his long, hooded cloak, swept his gaze across the otherwise vacant road until it finally landed on the man’s overturned cart. One of his eyes, as always, was covered by a black patch. “Does this setup work well for you? Drawing hapless flies into your sticky web?” he asked.
“Works like a witch’s charm. I find many of those willing to help an old, dying man also have pockets heavy with gold. I only wish to unburden them of that weight.”
Livius’s gaze locked on Maddox, his good eye dark in his tanned face. “The boy is young and naive. He’s susceptible to deception.”
“And I am very grateful for that weakness.” The thief’s grin widened. “You have the power to stop this peacefully. I’m happy to release him . . . provided you show me what I want to see.”
Livius reached into his leather satchel and pulled out a handful of golden coins that glittered under the sun. “Something like this?”
From his current position, Maddox could only guess that the thief’s eyes also glittered.
“Yes, something exactly like that.” The thief roughly poked Maddox in the center of his back. “Take the coins from your father, boy. Take them and put all of them in my bag. Only then will we part ways.”
Maddox did as instructed, the blade pressed to his throat the entire time. He avoided eye contact with Livius, who watched him patiently, his arms crossed over his thick chest. Five handfuls of gold coins made their way into the thief’s worn sheepskin bag.
“Excellent.” The thief shoved Maddox away and picked up the bag from the ground. “Be on your way now, the both of you. And don’t look back, or you’ll regret it.”
“You think you can steal my gold and just walk away?” Livius clasped Maddox’s shoulder, his fingertips biting into his flesh.
“Seems that way, doesn’t it?” The old man turned away with a sneer.
“Not to me.” Livius let go of Maddox, closed the distance between him and the thief in two steps, and sank his blade into the man’s back.
The thief collapsed to the ground, real blood now mixing with the fake substance he’d used to lure Maddox to his side.
With a last hiss, he closed his eyes forever.
“He was old and weaker than you,” Maddox mumbled. “He was going to let me go. You could have taken back the coins without killing him.”
“What did you say?”
Maddox turned to Livius and was greeted with a strike to the side of his face.
A good blow, too. He saw actual stars behind his eyes as he stumbled backward on the loose soil, tasting coppery blood in his mouth.
“You take your own sweet time getting here when you know I’m waiting for you,” Livius growled, “and get yourself in trouble along the way. What else is new, you pathetic little brat? If I hadn’t finally lost my patience and come looking for you, what do you think would have happened? I’m sick to death of dealing with your insolence.”
So don’t deal with me at all, Maddox thought, ignoring the sting on his cheek and the tightness in his chest. Leave. Go away. Never look back.
But he knew that would never happen.
He’d tried to escape from Livius before, but his guardian was a masterful tracker. He’d barely survived the beating he’d received, and he remembered Livius’s voice, low and calm, promising that he’d murder Maddox’s mother very slowly if he ever tried to run away again.
Maddox knew Livius was a man of his word.
He swore he’d protect his mother until his last breath. After Livius was through with him, after he’d used Maddox’s special skills to help pay his many debts, Maddox prayed that he’d be freed to start a life far away from the cruel, heartless monster.
Until then, he knew he had to play along.
“Let’s make haste.” Livius’s words were cold. “Defy me again, brat, and I swear to the goddess I’ll break both of your arms.”
“Yes,” Maddox said slowly. “I can feel it. Your villa is besieged by an evil spirit that has escaped from the dark land beyond death.”
Lord Gillis gasped, holding his hand to his mouth. “I knew it. I knew it! I heard it over and over in the dead of night. It’s frightened my family nearly to the point of madness. A . . . just an evil spirit? Are you sure that’s all it is?”
“Positive,” Maddox lied. “Why? Did you believe it to be something else?”
The lord twisted his hands. “This villa has only recently come into my possession. Years ago, the gardens in the back were allegedly used as a meeting place for immortals to work their magic.”
“Allegedly?” Livius repeated.
“Yes. I, of course, did not witness such sacred meetings myself.”
“No, of course not.” Livius smiled patiently as if dealing with a foolish child who chased butterflies and called them demons. “What an honor and an accomplishment to have purchased such a valuable landmark.”
“Yes. Yes, it is.”
Maddox had no time to think of the immortals, who were said to exist side by side with the citizens of Mytica before he was born. Once the goddesses arrived and took their thrones, there had been no more talk of any other immortals sighted anywhere in the land.
Regardless, Maddox preferred to focus all his attention on spirits—whether or not they were real.
“I can rid your home of this dark presence,” Maddox said.
Lord Gillis nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, wonderful. Please do.”
He hadn’t yet seen the gardens, but Maddox now walked along the hallway of one of the grandest villas he’d ever been invited inside. The floor was a mosaic of bronze and silver tiles that must have cost several lifetimes of a regular working man’s earnings. Portraits of Gillis and his ancestors lined the walls.
Livius stood nearby, his arms crossed over his chest, watching. Waiting.
“Allow me a few more moments to strengthen my contact with the spirit,” Maddox said. “We can’t merely scare it away or it will disappear, only to return again to torment you after we’ve left.”
“Yes, yes,” Lord Gillis said, running a nervous hand over his bald, sweaty scalp. He wore robes—dark orange with elaborate gold embroidery—that swished around his fat legs. “Please, take all the time you need.”
Maddox returned to the hall where the lord had said he first sensed the malevolent entity, and glanced up at the high golden ceiling. Seeing the difference between this elegant home and his mother’s modest cottage caused bitter disappointment to rise in his throat. He would never be able to afford such a fine home for her.
“The spirit’s presence is strongest in this room,” he finally said.
“Do you know who it is? Perhaps this spirit has some sort of grievance with me?”
“Do you have many enemies?” Livius asked.
“No. I mean, I don’t think so.” Lord Gillis glanced nervously at Livius. “None I can think of offhand who’d choose to haunt my home.”
“Maddox?” Livius prompted, his face in an expression of patience and encouragement. He faked sincerity with such ease that sometimes he fooled even Maddox.
“Well,” Maddox began, “even if it is someone you know, once a spirit is devoured by the land of darkness, their essence becomes twisted and malformed. Even if they manage to escape, they’re never the same as they were when they were mortal. They’re dangerous.”
A shiver went down his spine as he spoke these words aloud. It might have been standard, rote dialogue for such appointments as these, but it was also the absolute truth.
“Can they . . . kill?” Gillis asked, his voice tense.
Maddox actually wasn’t sure if they could, but it was a logical question. “They can, indeed.”
The lord let out a shuddery breath. “Then you must do everything in your power to dispose of this spirit immediately!”
Maddox nodded gravely. “I will try my best.”
“He will do more than try,” Livius said with pride. “He will succeed as he’s done for many before. How else would you have heard of Maddox’s stellar reputation as a spirit vanquisher if not from a satisfied customer?”
“When I first heard of the boy’s unusual powers,” Gillis said, his voice low, as if they might be overheard, “I couldn’t believe my own ears. I’ve heard of no one else who can do what your son is capable of. I swear on my own life, I will keep his secret until I meet my grave. Just like you asked.”
“Very good.” Livius clasped the man’s shoulder. “However, please do feel free to tell those who are trustworthy and may require our help. It’s what we do. We help those who have nowhere else to turn.”
Maddox tried very hard not to roll his eyes.
Lord Gillis nervously wrung his hands as he followed Maddox around the room so closely that he could feel the man’s warm breath tickle the back of his neck.
He wanted to get this over with, but if he was too quick about it, the procedure wouldn’t be believable. Too long, and it would strain the patience of everyone involved.
The timing had to be just right.
“This line of work must be so dangerous for you both, though . . . ,” Gillis said after a moment.
“Dangerous?” Livius prompted.
“What the boy can do is so much more than what a witch is capable of. And even witches must protect their secrets.”
Livius’s jaw was tense. “The goddess has become rather strict of late, hasn’t she?”
Gillis laughed nervously. “Yes, I’d say that demanding the head of every accused witch in the North qualifies as rather strict. But what can we do? Defy her and face her judgment ourselves?”
“Have . . . have you ever met her?” Maddox asked, his words now tentative. “The goddess?”
Gillis turned to him. “Indeed, I have. She is as beautiful as the sunrise. She is absolute perfection in every way, and I shall worship Her Radiance every day of my life.”
“As will we all,” Livius murmured, the standard reply for such praise of the goddess.
Maddox mouthed the same response while wondering if Gillis was lying. Very few had seen the goddess in person. She allegedly preferred to remain within the grounds of her huge palace a full day’s journey west of Ravenswood on the very edge of the sea.
“Luckily for us,” Livius continued, “witches are known to be female. I’ve never heard of the goddess’s wrath accusing a male witch.”
“And yet your son is one.”
Maddox wanted to protest being referred to as a witch—as well as the constant assumption that Livius was his father—but he held his tongue.
He wasn’t a witch. Witches had the powers of the elements—earth, fire, air, water. His powers . . . well, he didn’t know what they were, other than utterly useless and unreliable most of the time.
“His gifts are very special and must be protected. That’s my job . . . to protect him.” Livius paused. “Are you ready to begin, Maddox?”
Maddox didn’t feel very special right now, or protected, but he knew what to do. He’d done it many times before. “I am. You might want to stand back, Lord Gillis. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
Lord Gillis immediately took a giant leap away.
Maddox tried not to smile at the man’s dramatics as he pulled a silver box the size of his palm from his satchel. “I will trap the spirit in this box. . . .”
“With your very special power over the dead,” Gillis finished breathlessly.
“Yes.” He tried to inject confidence into the single word.
It was good that Gillis needed no further convincing—he was a believer from the start. That made everything much easier. After this, whatever creaking or knocking heard in the middle of the night that had disturbed the Gillis family enough to seek his help would be considered nothing more than what they actually were: knocks and creaks in a large house on the edge of a tall, windy cliff.
Maddox sensed no actual spirits here, only a family of rich cowards. But to admit this would be to forfeit payment.
He held the box in his hand and closed his eyes.
“Come to me, spirit of the dark. Leave these good people alone. Come to me. Come to me now.”
He waited a few moments, then tapped into the ability he knew he could easily control, which was to summon a shadow from the corner of the room, drawing it toward him in a ribbon of darkness. The shadow swirled in front of him in a dramatic display before he drew it fully into the box.
He closed the lid to trap it inside.
“It is done,” he said solemnly.
Gillis stared at him with utter amazement, which was a completely normal reaction. The trick had impressed many over the three years Maddox and Livius had been traveling together, separating many lords and nobles from their gold.
“Incredible,” Gillis said with awe.
“Your worries are now at an end,” Livius said. “The spirit has been successfully removed from your home, and we shall dispose of it so it will never trouble you again.”
Gillis clasped his hands. “Much gratitude, kind sir. To you and your incredible son.”
I’m not his son, Maddox thought darkly. I’m nothing more than a slave to him.