The fourth Jessica McClain novel – a fast-paced and irresistibly sexy urban fantasy novel perfect for fans of Kelley Armstrong, Patricia Briggs, Keri Arthur and Rachel Vincent.
The force of the blow shot me out of the circle. My body crashed into the concrete wall, three ribs broken this time. Blood trickled down the back of my neck, tickling my skin, my head wound closing quickly. Instead of standing, I leaned back and rested my shoulders against the cool wall. My patience had evaporated a long time ago.
It had been five days and I’d had enough.
“Get up and do it again,” a commanding voice ordered me for the tenth time that morning.
I spread my arms wide. “What’s the point? I already told you I don’t care if the circle holds me. All I need to do is get down there and back. I don’t see why this is still an issue.”
“And I’ve already told you that the circle is the only protection you’re going to have in the Underworld.” Tally’s neatly clipped nails drummed along her hips. Her long frosty-blonde hair was tied back in a low ponytail, a military fatigue cap pulled tightly down around her eyes. She was clad in black, right down to her Nike cross-trainers. How could someone so small still look tough in yoga pants and tennis shoes? “When you get yourself into trouble—which by the way is a for sure rather than a maybe—the circle will be the only safe place you’ll have in Hell. And in case you’ve already forgotten, we’re going to be working our asses off up here to keep the magic running while you’re down there. So the very least you can do is act like you care. Now get up and do it again.”
I stood immediately. “Of course I care,” I retorted, barely resisting the urge to stamp my foot in frustration. “But this is taking too long and you know it.” I paced toward her. “The Underworld operates on its own timetable, which you’ve already mentioned more than a dozen times. A week here could mean a year there and vice versa.” Anger welled in my throat and I swallowed hard, trying to get past the knot that formed every time I thought about my brother being held prisoner there. “Waiting around is killing me, and it’s literally killing Tyler. I don’t want to waste another moment. I’m willing to go now and I’m prepared to take my chances once I get there.”
My twin brother had been kidnapped and taken to the Underworld by none other than the Prince of Hell himself. No one needed to tell me Tyler was in serious danger. The demons would torture him for any information he had and toss him away like garbage. And they would be merciless about it.
My brother was in agony and I was trying to stay inside a witch circle.
Tally strode over with purpose, stopping directly inside my personal space. She had to tilt her head up to address me, which gave me some brief personal satisfaction. My wolf growled at the intrusion, but I stilled her. I wanted to hear what Tally had to say.
“You’re not going to be worth anything to him dead,” she declared. “Which I know you’re smart enough to figure out on your own. It’s very simple. If you can’t hold the circle, you die. It’s the only lifeline you’ll have in a very dark, very dangerous place. If the demons knock you out of the perimeter, you lose, which means you don’t come back. And neither does your brother.” Her irises sparked deeply, her emotions right at the forefront. Seeing her feelings so close to the surface surprised me, since originally she had refused to help us.
Once we had all returned from New Orleans, banged and bruised from a fight on multiple fronts, she’d informed us the witches were out. She wasn’t willing to risk putting her Coven in jeopardy by helping me go up against the demons, who were the witches’ natural enemies. But a few days later something had changed her mind.
I glanced to my right at the rosy-cheeked child playing in the corner with her dolls. Maggie immediately glanced up at me and smiled. My best guess was that Maggie had told her mother something important, and that information had ultimately changed Tally’s mind. When I’d prodded Tally about it later, she’d refused to divulge the reason she’d had a change of heart, but whatever it was, Tally had agreed to help my team get to the Underworld, and I was trying hard to be patient.
It wasn’t exactly working.
I sighed as I ran a hand through my hair, turning in a full circle, frustrated. “Listen, I understand what you’re telling me, but since the day we arrived on your doorstep none of this has gone according to plan.” I faced her again, hands braced on my hips. “I can’t stay in the circle, none of your spells have changed my signature, I can’t bring any real weapons with me, and your organic ones disintegrate before I have a chance to use them. Your witches haven’t been able to create anything strong enough to stun the Prince of Hell anyway—so what are we really doing here? We’re wasting precious time that could be better spent saving my brother.”
“This is hardly a waste of time.” Without taking her eyes off mine she yelled, “Reaper, get in the circle!”
“Fine,” Ray grumbled from the sidelines. “But I’m leaning toward Hannon on this one. We’ve been at this for days and none of us can hold the circle, including the Vamp Queen. We aren’t witches, and the power you’re hitting us with feels strange. It’s slippery and it comes on too fast.” Eudoxia, the Vampire Queen, had taken the morning off. Being in a house full of cranky witches who had balked at the vampire intrusion was beginning to take a toll on everyone.
The Vamp Queen had actually arrived a few days ago. The promise of my blood and a step toward godhood had finally been enough to sway her, but she wasn’t happy about it. She’d brought several of her minions, and keeping the witches and the vamps from killing each other was proving to be a full-time job for everyone. The house was so tense you couldn’t sneeze without someone cocking their weapon or snapping down their fangs.
“All you have to do is pay attention and do what I tell you,” Tally said to Ray, who now stood at attention in the middle of the circle.
We were situated in a room deep under the Coven. The circle to the Underworld was a permanent fixture here. Nothing like having a gateway to Hell in your basement. But I didn’t have to live here so I couldn’t really complain. It was just a ten on the creep‑o‑meter, if anyone had bothered to ask me. A thick line about six inches wide and a foot deep was etched into the raw earth. The circle was about ten feet in diameter and it’d been filled with a white powdery substance that I assumed was chalk from the smell. One of the witches had told me it made the connection to the Underworld super strong. I hadn’t doubted it for a moment. Heavy magic swirled around the room and made my chest thump like I was too close to an amp at a rock concert. Whatever was meant to happen in this room was intense. I’d also been told the walls were over five feet thick and the door was made of several inches of steel with a silver core.
“The only thing I’ve been doing this entire time is paying attention,” Ray complained, his arms up. “Do you honestly think I enjoy having my ass thrown against a wall over and over again?”
“When I hit you with the demon magic, you have to absorb it,” Tally ordered, ignoring his snark like a pro. “Don’t try and shield it away from you. Take it fully into your body. Reaper, you eat souls for a living, eat this, and when you’re done, eject it.” Without any more instruction she aimed an ugly, gnarled wooden staff at Ray. It was covered with gruesome, howling faces, all of them with reptilian eyes. Tally incanted something under her breath, and a current of energy manifested in the air and rushed forward like a lightning bolt.
It hit Ray squarely in the chest.
But instead of flying backward as he had in the past, he flung his arms wide and started to shake like he was possessed. After a few seconds he doubled over, straining, the magic clearly taking hold. His new fangs snapped down and his face began to shift downward in that awful vamp slide—his facial bones elongating, making his skin appear to be made of hot wax.
Something I wasn’t fond of witnessing, but it couldn’t be helped.
Ray had recently become a potent mix of vampire and reaper. The reaper piece had been a total surprise and the best theory any of us had was that my blood had brought his latent reaper genes to the forefront. I’d also inadvertently become his vamp Master after feeding him my blood to complete his transition—much to the chagrin of both of us. But because Ray was pigheaded and ridiculously ornery, the relationship hadn’t solidified fully yet. Something new had been forged between us, however—something I was certain was going to be a work in progress until the very end of time.
I observed him now with morbid curiosity.
He was a strong, stubborn son of a bitch, and right now he was going to show me up or die trying. That kind of pure tenacity had earned him a grudging respect from everyone, including me. He was a brand-new supernatural, but there was no denying he was powerful.
“You will get it in no time, Ma Reine.” Naomi came to stand beside me. “I have no doubt you will learn to harness the magic as you have done before.”
“That’s the problem.” I turned toward her, tearing my eyes off the spectacle of Ray. “I don’t feel like there’s anything to harness. Whatever Tally is throwing at us isn’t full demon magic. I’ve felt the dark, smoky demon essence before, and I’ve shaken it off. But this is a hybrid of some kind and it shocks my system. It comes too fast and before I can think about mounting a defense, I’m out of the circle.”
“It’s concentrated on purpose,” Tally said, overhearing our conversation perfectly. “If the Prince of Hell wanted you dead, it would hit you with the equivalent of a loaded handgun. This is cannon fire.” She shook her staff. “When ten demons hit you at once, it will feel like a wrecking ball smashing into your body. This is me getting you used to it the hard way.” She gestured at Ray, who was still doubled over in the middle of the circle. “Demons can’t physically pass through the circle boundaries, but their magic can. They will do everything to try and knock you out of your only protection, and once you’re out, you’re free for the taking.”
Only organic matter could pass through a witch circle.
I’d been told that if demons tried to cross the boundary their blood boiled in their veins, killing them instantly. I glanced down at my hemp fatigues. I wore the witches’ standard combat uniform. It was dark green and formfitting, and it held a little stretch, courtesy of some natural rubber plant woven between the fibers for ease of motion. The outfit was also spelled to act like a shield against some of the lesser demon magic, but it didn’t seem to be repelling much of whatever Tally had tossed at me.
Ray made a low strangled noise and began to stagger back and forth, bobbing and weaving like a drunk, his arms cartwheeling in front of him. He came close to the edge of the circle a few times but never crossed the line. Then, without warning, his chest bowed toward the ceiling and he bellowed, and a second later he doubled over and vomited all over the ground.
Thick, black sludge hit the dirt floor in a rush.
“Ew, Ray,” I coughed, covering my face with the inside of my elbow as bile rose in my throat. When I’d taken in the magic Tally had thrown at me, it had never manifested physically like that. We’re not ejecting anything, so where does our magic go? I asked my wolf. She gave a sharp bark and shook her head. I took that to mean she had no idea either. Maybe it passes through us and that’s why it’s not working?
Seeing it come out of Ray was sobering.
Before Tally could congratulate Ray on finally gaining control of the magic, a sweet child’s voice piped up from my right. “It’s okay to have a tummy ache. Demons don’t like you.” She pronounced the word “demon” like denims in her two-year-old cadence. “You are very strong.”
“Maggie,” Tally cautioned, the tenderness in her voice reserved only for her daughter, “you need to stay back. Mommy told you this was a very dangerous place. I agreed to let you come here at your insistence, but you have to follow the rules or go back upstairs.”
The child had indeed wandered to the edge of the circle. She pointed to Ray as she took a step backward, listening to her mom like a champ. “Reaper.” She smiled and clapped her hands together. “He did it.”
He had indeed done it.
Ray stood there with a big grin on his face, a smear of black sludge across his chin. “Take that, huh, kid? The demons won’t get me now.”
Maggie giggled before she abruptly sobered. “Demons are bad.”
“You got that right.” Ray strode out of the circle. As he crossed the line a crackle of power ran through the room, making my ears pop.
“Maggie, take another step back,” Tally ordered. The toddler hadn’t gone back to play with her less interesting toys. “This circle is too dangerous for little girls. You can’t stand so close. Go and play with your dollies while Mommy finishes her work. I’m almost done. There’s only one more person to try.” She arched a pointed look in my direction.
The child took a few more reluctant steps backward but was not interested one bit in playing with her dolls. Once she was situated a little farther away, she raised her chubby little finger at me. “Time for you to go.”
I chuckled. “Oracles don’t do time, remember, Maggie?” I edged toward the circle, resigned to yet another try. “But just for you, I’ll let your mom blast me one more time. How does that sound?” As I walked by her, I patted her on the head.
“Kitty be mad.”
She’d been calling Rourke “Kitty” ever since we arrived and it made me smile every single time she uttered that word. We had no idea how she knew what he was, other than she was an oracle and probably knew everything. But he’d indulged her the entire time, never correcting her. She’d even spent a few meals perched on his lap. The size difference between them was comical; he was the giant to her Tinker Bell. Witnessing him being so careful and patient with her was nothing short of heart-melting. He’d admitted to me later that he’d never held a child before. But it didn’t matter. He was clearly cut out for parent duty. My wolf made a sound that sent chills racing up my spine and I had to shake it off quickly or I’d leave right now and go search for him.
Instead of having fun with Rourke, I sighed as I entered the circle for what felt like the hundredth time. I turned around and faced the bystanders, Tally, Naomi, Ray, and Maggie, who all stood on the outside, certainly hoping I would finally succeed and we could move on with business. “Kitty’s not very happy with me today, is he?” I asked Maggie as I readied myself for the assault.
The child shook her head solemnly.
After he had witnessed me repeatedly ejected from the circle, receiving constant contusions and broken bones, and engaging in intense hand‑to‑hand combat training, it was decided Rourke was no longer allowed in the Circle of Fun room. His snarls and threats were making it hard for everyone to concentrate, including me.
Incapacitating a demon had been much tougher than I’d ever expected, because their true nature was serpentine and they had extremely hard skeletons. The demon dummies the witches had built were made of some sort of spelled metal and they were a bitch to destroy. I was always left bleeding and exhausted at the end of the day.
It didn’t help that Rourke was still grappling with the fact that he couldn’t accompany me to the Underworld.
It consumed our daily conversation, and truth be told, he had begun to wear me down. I was on the verge of allowing him to accompany me, even though the demons would know his signature the moment he crossed over. I couldn’t deny that he was my strongest ally and undoubtedly the best man for the job. And, ultimately, I wanted my brother back, and having Rourke with me in the Underworld would give us the greatest odds of achieving that goal.
The door to the circle room opened with a loud groan and I glanced over, half expecting to see Rourke barging in. I knew he was close because my blood rang with his tension. Once the door was open I could scent him, but it wasn’t him.
“Hiya,” Marcy called as she shut the door behind her, using her backside. “How goes the training?”
“It sucks, as usual,” I replied wryly, readying my stance to take the magic Tally was about to launch at me. “Your aunt is a wicked taskmaster and she thinks I can channel hybrid demon magic, but it turns out I can’t. It’s too strong and it keeps blowing me out of the circle.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. It’s not too strong.” Marcy’s tone was decisive as she strode forward. “You’re just a wimp.” She smiled as she bent over and swept Maggie into her arms. “Hi, Cherub. Fancy meeting you here.” She planted a kiss on the child’s cheek.
One of Maggie’s arms snaked behind Marcy’s neck. “Kitty be mad,” she told Marcy in an earnest voice. “He be mad at me.” She placed a chubby finger on her own chest.
Marcy raised an eyebrow at me.
“No way, Big Kitty loves you. He’d never be mad at you,” Marcy crooned. “Besides, cats don’t get mad at people, they just get annoyed, and then all you have to do to fix it is feed them and they’re totally over it. We’ll get Big Kitty a nice sucker and he’ll be good as new. How’s that?”
Maggie didn’t look convinced, but nodded anyway.
“Are you ready this time?” Tally asked me pointedly, bringing us all back to task. “It’s my daughter’s naptime and I’d like to wrap this up, if you don’t mind.”
“Oh, she’s ready.” Marcy smirked. “Look at her face. That’s her determined look. See the way her lip is quirking up at that odd angle and her head is tilted slightly to the right? That’s her game face, and it’s on.”
“You pain me. Right here.” I pointed to my backside, keeping it clean for Maggie. I knew Marcy would appreciate the gesture. “And it makes me want to use this.” I pointed to the bent knuckle on my middle finger. “And if I’m so wimpy, why don’t you come in here and give this a try, huh? We’ll see how long you can stay in the circle with demon magic up in your grill.”
“I can’t do that. You see, it’s a sliding wimp scale.” She readjusted Maggie on her hip while trying not to laugh too hard. “And my wimp runs strong. One blast of that demon juice and I’d be a goner. And once I was dead, you’d have one angry werewolf up in your grill and you’d wish you were already in the Underworld.” She chortled. “The demons would be delightful compared to the wrath of my guy. He’d rip this place apart trying to avenge my dead, broken body.”
James and Marcy were mated in every sense.
And she was right. If something were to happen to her it would shatter him. “Angry” would not be an apt term. “Ballistic” would be closer to the truth. The two of them had come back unified from their ordeal with the sorcerers, but the only information I’d managed to pull out of her so far was hazy, involving “near death” and “best sex ever.” It was typical of Marcy to keep it light and not delve too deeply into the trauma, and because she hadn’t ventured into the nitty-gritty on her own, I hadn’t pressed her. More than likely, being kidnapped had shaken her to the core and she wasn’t ready to discuss the details yet.
On the flip side, along with terrifying her, it had also brought out a magic streak I’d known she had inside her all along.
No more tentative Marcy. This was kick-ass Marcy with new, twitchy fingers. The Coven was already in discussions to finally
vote her in after she’d schooled a few of her old nemeses once she’d arrived—including Awful Angie, whom Rourke and I had the misfortune of encountering the last time we’d been here. Rourke was determined to strap Angie onto the ancient Vespa she’d forced us to use when we were running for our lives and send her into the lake as payback. But so far our paths hadn’t crossed. It was likely Tally had sent her away on purpose, which had been a smart move.
“I don’t have to worry about a pissed-off werewolf,” I countered. “I wouldn’t let you in this circle anyway—”
The blast from Tally’s staff struck me so hard, my breath lodged in my chest and I collapsed to my knees. I grabbed on to my neck and gasped like a fish out of water, but I’d managed to capture the magic this time, so that was a win.
Tally’s element of surprise might’ve been the ticket, but the only problem was I couldn’t breathe. I pounded on my chest and clawed my neck trying to force oxygen into my windpipe, but nothing worked.
“That’s it.” Tally’s voice sounded tinny and far away. “Take control of it. Mold it how you want it so you can force it back out.”
It was clear she’d never been on the receiving end of her wicked staff from Hell.
I managed to draw in a single breath through a very closed airway, right as a soft tremor rippled through the dirt beneath me.
The movement was just enough to catch my attention.
Did you feel that? My wolf ignored me in favor of snapping and ripping at the magic consuming us. The hybrid demon magic had manifested as a thick, dark mass in my mind, and as it cascaded over my eyes I was launched into total darkness.
I’d indeed captured the magic, but I couldn’t mold it. I couldn’t do anything with it. And it was taking over as fast as it could.
My wolf managed to tear a small patch of clarity open in my mind and I sucked in another gulp of air as quickly as I could. I was still on my knees, but surprisingly, my body had started to shake in rhythm with the ground tremors.
The vibration running through my body hummed like a musical note.
I wrenched my head up, but I still couldn’t see anything through the dark magic covering my eyes. Do you hear that? My wolf stopped what she was doing, her ears up and alert.
Someone was yelling and the only thing I could make out was my name.
Then two more words.