RACHEL MORGAN IS BACK--AND THE HOLLOWS WILL NEVER BE THE SAME.
What happens after you've saved the world? Well, if you're Rachel Mariana Morgan, witch-born demon, you quickly discover that something might have gone just a little bit wrong. That the very same acts you and your friends took to forge new powers may have released something bound by the old. With a rash of zombies, some strange new murders, and an exceedingly mysterious new demon in town, it will take everything Rachel has to counter this new threat to the world--and it may demand the sacrifice of what she holds most dear.
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"That's an unfortunate misconception that I've been working hard to correct," Landon said, and I stared at the radio, not liking that the priest's professional, tutored voice had lost none of its elven persuasion through my car's speaker. I was parked at the curb outside the church, waiting for Ivy and Jenks-who were late. Late enough that my to-go coffee was gone and I was down to listening to the news to try to stay awake. Landon spouting his lies on Cincy's radio circuit was better than a double espresso.
"So you claim it wasn't poor spell casting that sent the rescued souls of the undead back to the ever-after, but Mr. Kalamack?" the interviewer said, and I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel, imagining Landon's fair features and thin lips curving up in a reassuring and fake smile.
"I do." Landon's confidence was absolute as he lied. "The spell to return the undead their souls was cast by the entire elven religious dewar and our political enclave. It fell due to Kalamack's tampering. Which is why the witches joined us on our second attempt."
"Ha!" I exclaimed, my voice coming back hard in my tiny car. "Trent didn't mess with your lousy charm. It was bad spell casting. Hack," I added, then angrily changed the channel.
"-possible food contamination being tied to the recent spate of domestic assaults in the greater Cincinnati and Hollows area, having just this morning taken its first human victim."
I turned the radio off. Food contamination did not lead to violence, unless it was the now-extinct T-4 Angel tomato.
Leaning back, I stared at the car's ceiling and tried to "let go," as Jenks would say. Landon had been spouting his alternate version of reality for months. It was frustrating that no one-not Al, or Dali, or Trent-had come forward to say anything contrary. Every time I brought it up, Trent would pull me into a hug and tell me that things were being said behind closed doors and that to make the argument public would make me a scapegoat.
Nervous, I tucked a tickling strand of my curly red hair behind an ear and fiddled with my empty coffee cup. A gentleman's agreement between Trent and Landon to keep my name out of the news was more than likely. And my name had been suspiciously absent. Not that I was complaining. I didn't know how much more collateral damage my life could take.
Dropping the empty cup into the holder, I settled back to wait. The ticking of my shiny red MINI's engine cooling in the sunny morning was a gently slowing rhythm, and I felt myself relax despite Landon's lies. Walking into the silence that gripped the church without Ivy and Jenks had all the appeal of eating toasted butterfly wings. Besides, it was warm in my car, and I didn't think the heat was on in the church yet.
Late November was cold in Cincinnati, and I squinted up through the tinted band of windshield until I found Bis's lumpy shape sleeping beside the steeple. New gray shingles covered the hole the elven Goddess had blown through the roof in frustration, but the kitchen and living room were still missing, and boards still covered the busted windows. The colored glass that Jenks had been so proud of glittered like jewels among the lengthening grass and fallen leaves. "Please bring coffee," I whispered as my head thumped back against the headrest and I closed my eyes.
I'd gotten up way too early for this, but Ivy was coming off of third shift at the I.S. and David had been available. Jenks, of course, was up. But my sleep had been restless, my dreams running the gamut from Ray grown-up and marrying a Rosewood baby to me in an insane asylum, being visited by Trent. I was tired, and almost immediately I felt myself begin to fall asleep, the familiar sounds of my street soothing after two months of living on Kisten's boat, The Solar, now docked at the quay next to Piscary's old restaurant.
My eyes began to twitch, and I slipped into REM sleep eerily fast. Stray threads of memory sparked: Ivy and me having coffee in Piscary's stripped-down kitchen, waking up beside Trent and seeing his smile as he watched me open my eyes, Jenks and me sharing a quiet moment, me in my robe and him sitting on my coffeepot, trying to get warm enough to fly. Snippets of conversation that never happened slowly evolved into actions that never occurred as I began to dream.
"One of us isn't going to make it off this boat," my dream Jenks said, black sparkles falling from him as he drew his garden sword and flew at me.
My body twitched as, in my dream, I flung myself back to hit the teak floorboards. Still dreaming, I tapped a line and blasted Jenks into a thousand spiders that rained down on me.
Gasping, I snorted awake, heart pounding as my tingling hands brushed my legs to push off the imagined spiders. Jenks . . . , I thought, horrified that I'd hurt him, even in a dream. Jenks was my rock, the one I depended upon the most, the one who depended upon me to keep him alive through the winter. Why would I dream he'd try to hurt me, forcing me to hurt him?
"Damn," I whispered as I made fists of my tingling hands. Had I tapped a line in my sleep? Shaken, I reached for the door and got out to distance myself from the nightmare.
The late-November morning was chill after the stuffy car, and I hunched deeper into my dark green leather coat. It was almost black, really, the oily sheen going well with my ofttimes frizzy red hair, pale complexion, and occasional kick-ass attitude. Still . . . I eased the door to my car shut, using my hip to close it with a soft click to preserve the quiet of the middle- to lower-class neighborhood. It was just before nine, which meant the few humans on the street were on their way to work or school and most Inderlanders were nowhere near thinking about getting up.
Hands in my pockets, I followed the cracked sidewalk to the church's wide steps. My vamp-made boots were nearly silent in the dappled sun showing through bare branches. A bedraggled, loose-feathered crow sat ominously among the flowers and plates of food that decked the cement steps, and I frowned. The offerings had been left by grateful ex-familiars, freed when the demons regained the ability to walk in reality. It had been two months, but the pile had grown, not diminished, and seeing them there reminded me of when Cincinnati thought I'd died in the blast that had torn off the back of the church and spread it over the garden and adjacent graveyard.
It had been a hard September.
"Shoo," I said, waving at the bird, and the untidy thing flew onto the nearest tree, silent and unafraid, waiting for me to leave before it would come back down and take what it wanted.
The door was unlocked, and a feeling of Camelot lost rose as I gazed up at the shiny metal plaque. Tamwood, Jenks, and Morgan, Vampiric Charms LLC. Lip twitching, I pushed the door open and went in, boots scuffing in the dark vestibule as I shut the door and sealed out the morning light. I wasn't ready to let this go, but even I was having a hard time ignoring the writing on the wall with the three of us being scattered while the church was repaired.
I slowed as the peace of the place erased the lingering unease from my dream. On the table beside the door, letters and junk mail were stacked in an ever-higher mess. "Postal weeds," Jenks called them, and as I waited for my eyes to adjust to the glow of the single unbroken window, I winnowed through the topmost envelopes to find the bills and tuck them in my back pocket.
Even now I could smell the scent of vampire, pixy, and witch laced through the stronger scents of plywood, cut two-by-fours, and the sweaty Weres fixing the place. Kisten's pool table sat against the wall where the Goddess had pushed it as if it had been made of cardboard. Ivy's baby grand had fared better, but it was covered in construction dust, whereas Kisten's pool table had a vinyl cover and a stenciled sign stating that whoever used it as a workbench would be eviscerated.
I smiled, arms swinging as I headed for it. It was good to have friends.
The scent of melting shoes and burning flesh tickled my nose, and I avoided the outlines of rubber glued to the floorboards where the Goddess had stood. The mystics who served as her uncountable eyes had been so thick that the corpse she'd been animating had been burning. A line of char showed where Al had circled us, the smut from a thousand years of curses serving as an unexpected protective filter from the Goddess's rage. Plywood covered the hole in the floor, and my eyes rose to the thick cracked beams and, higher, past the false ceiling, to the glint of new nail tips.
There'd been the reek of burned pixy dust, the feeling of hopeless odds, of no escape. My focus blurred as I remembered Ivy's pure sob of joy when Nina saw her soul in the one she loved and knew it was safe: good things, too.
Melancholy, I pulled the cover off the pool table in a sliding sound of vinyl.
A muffled gasp of surprise spun me to the abandoned altar, where we'd shoved the couch, chairs, and coffee table. It was a kid, towheaded and gawky, maybe sixteen. He stared at me in wide-eyed surprise from the sawdust-laden couch. A plate of half-eaten food sat on the low table before him, but it was obvious that he'd been sleeping.
"Goddess guts," he said, a scared but resolute look on him. "I didn't hear you come in."
I dropped the vinyl cover, my feet placed wide on the floor of my church. "What are you doing here?" My gaze went to the plate, and he flushed, his fair features becoming red under his thin, transparent, almost white hair. He was an elf, and my stance eased. A little.
"I, ah, thought this was your waiting room." He stood. He was almost my height, but youth made him thinner, awkward in torn jeans and an olive green T-shirt. "I was waiting."
For me? "What do you want?" I asked, gaze flicking to the plate again.
His sneakers shifted on the old oak floors, and I stifled a shiver at the sound. "I, ah . . . You know Mr. Kalamack. Can you get me in to talk to him? It's important."
My eyebrows rose at the mix of fear and strength in his voice. Mr. Kalamack. I hadn't thought of Trent as Mr. Kalamack in a long time. He was, as Jenks would say, my main squeeze, the sparkle in my dust, the flower in my garden, the sword in my . . . ah, yeah. We'd been dating.
"You need some help? What's your name?" I reached for my phone, but the sound of a car door slamming pulled my attention to the front of the church. He was gone when I turned back.
Without a sound, I thought. "Kind of flighty, aren't you?" I whispered as his lanky shadow passed outside the unbroken window, furtive and fast. He must have gone out Ivy's window. God knew Ivy had used that particular egress on more than one occasion.
But my frown eased when the familiar clatter of pixy wings fell like a balm over the battered church and Jenks flew in, gold dust trailing from him in contentment. Saluting me, the four-inch pixy flew into the exposed rafters on his dragonfly-like wings to inspect the roof repair. More dust sifted from him like a living sunbeam, pooling on the floor before vanishing in a faint draft.
"Just 'cause we're living on Kisten's old boat doesn't mean you can slack off on the yard work, Rache," he said as he dropped down, hands on his hips in his best Peter Pan pose and hovered before me. "The lawn looks like hell."
My spider dream flashed through me, but my breath to answer hesitated when Ivy strode in, a plate of cookies from the front steps in hand. "Ease up, Jenks," she said, her voice like living dust, gray, silky-and just as irritating when she spoke the truth. "She's been busy. We all have."
Ivy hit the lights, and I squinted when they flickered on. I hadn't even known power had been restored, but my flash of guilt vanished as I gave Ivy a quick one-armed hug and breathed deep, taking in the scent of oiled steel and orange juice. The distinctive smell of the I.S. tower was heavy on her, the multitude of vampires, witches, and Weres mixing together with the scent of paperwork and quick feet on the pavement. It told me as much as her professional attire and slightly dilated eyes that she'd come right from work. Under it all was a growing thread of Nina, as distinctive as a fingerprint. That they'd found a lasting happiness together made a lot of the crap my life dished out bearable.
"Cookie?" she said, backing up and holding out the plate, and I shook my head. The risk of a casual assassination attempt was too real and I didn't know who had made them. True, I'd been half responsible for getting the ley lines-and hence magic-working again, but no one but me was happy that the demons were living freely in reality. Elf magic wasn't working well, the running theory behind closed doors being it was because their Goddess had been reborn from an off-balance demon. Again sort of my fault.
I'd had only a smattering of jobs since, all from Trent. I was beginning to think he was finding events for me to escort him to so I'd have a paycheck. Boyfriend or not, I wasn't going to work for him for free. If the danger was real-and it was-the paycheck should be, too.