Cover Art: Damonza Editor: Rachel Porter Prophecy
Copyright 2019 Sheryl Steines All rights reserved.
ISBN 10: 0-9858652-8-8
ISBN 13: 978-0-9858652-8-3
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.
All Rights are reserved. With the exception of fair use excerpts for reviews and critical articles, no part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the author.
Table of Contents
The Wizard Hall Chronicles
The Wizard Hall Chronicles
The Day of First Sun
One week after Annie returned home from Paris…
Since returning from France, Annie couldn’t help but think if Sturtagaard hadn’t let her know that Amelie was a vampire, she would have spent the week deliriously recovering from her recent injuries, watching television, baking, or enjoying some other mindless activity rather than chasing and killing the vampire. She shuddered at the thought.
She had little time in France to dwell on the loss of the Black Market or of its connection to her father’s eight-year-old murder investigation. But, in the end, the journey across Europe left her exhausted. She moved the heating pad to a new location and snuggled into the corner of her sectional sofa, wrapping herself in a thick, warm blanket. It didn’t take long for sleep to overtake her, leaving her blissfully unaware for; the entire afternoon.
When she woke, she was enveloped in Cham’s arms. He was sound asleep.
Of course and I’m not anymore.
Annie slid out of his embrace, pulled the blanket to his chin, and left him sleeping in the corner. She walked through the dark house and switched on the kitchen light, which blinded her momentarily. When she gained her bearings, she was immediately drawn to the dusty box that had been sitting on her kitchen table since before she left for France. After searching her house and garage, she had finally found it in the crawl space in the basement, where her father hid it eight years prior. But the newspaper from Sturtagaard, letting her know Princess Amelie was still alive and living as a vampire, had put going through it on hold. Though Cham was curious, he had left the box alone. Now that Annie felt better and more rested, her curiosity was overwhelming.
Annie was fairly certain that, in it, she would find the missing file for the case her father was investigating when he died. She sighed and glanced at Cham sleeping in the other room; his chest rose and fell peacefully.
She lifted the lid and peered inside. Sure enough, she saw a file and pulled it from the box. Her father’s handwriting was slanted and square, scrawled across the spaces for guard name, case name and number. She could still feel the grooves left from where he had pressed the pen into the folder. Her stomach roiled with relief and uncertainty.
Is this still important?
With a tentative sigh, Annie opened the folder. It had been partitioned into several sections; the first item she saw was a note addressed to her in the same familiar writing.
“What the hell?” she asked no one as she unclipped the note.
My dearest Annie,
If you are reading this, I am dead. And as I write this, that realization hits me hard with the things I will miss or have already missed. For that, my angel, I am so very sorry.
But sometimes as a wizard guard, there are cases so challenging that you are forced to do things that you otherwise would not do. Sometimes the rules can no longer apply. There is too much at stake to risk our way of life and the lives of our family.
I have to make a choice. I have to choose being with you and Samantha for as long as I can, or I can save the world from ourselves. It’s a choice that I deeply regret that I have to make. Sometimes our choices lead us to this very place and time.
I came across Wolfgange Rathbone in the course of this case. The Chintamani Stones that once belonged to King Solomon have been stolen and are sold in the Black Market. They are a danger to our people, and to the nonmagicals that we share this world with.
So sorry my love, but they asked me to stop. They asked me to hand over the stones that I was able to retrieve. They belonged to the Wizard Guard, to the Wizard Council but I did as they requested because they threatened my child. They threatened you, Annie.
My dear, sweet Annie. It wasn’t the first time that your very existence has been threatened. I regret that I will not physically be there for you at any time to protect you. But there is a reason why I so diligently trained you, my dear. Because there will be a time in your future when you need to know what to do, how to keep yourself alive. I gave you all that I could in the short time that I had with you.
I promise you, Annie, that I gave them back all of the stones I had in my possession. But when you deal with secret societies such as the Fraternitatem of Solomon, which hide themselves away and don’t participate in the world as it is, you find that you can’t trust them. They are paranoid, distrustful, and have many secrets I wish I could have shared with you.
They had Rathbone in their employ, and it’s him I fear the most. Not because I can’t defend myself against his weaknesses, but because I have you in my head, and your safety blinds me. I will die before I let them get to you. Because there is a prophecy my love. You are at the center, and I will do whatever I can in life and death to ensure that the prophecy doesn’t come true.
This might seem to be the ramblings of a man who knows his death is imminent, but I assure you, this is real. If I am dead, it was at the hands of Rathbone on the orders of the Fraternitatem of Solomon. They will still be after the stones that I promise I no longer have.
Please believe me that I will do everything in my power to keep myself safe, to keep my friends and my children away from this difficult case. I do this for all of you because it was I who dug myself into this mess.
You deserved so much better than what I gave you. I wish that I could have raised you more like I did Samantha, but I couldn’t. I had to protect you.
Rathbone knows this prophecy, and he is using it against me to get what he wants. Be wary of him.
I didn’t die in vain. I died to protect you and the powers you will someday have.
You are so very special, my love, so strong, so beautiful. I wish you happiness, security, and safety. May you remember all that I taught you. Be safe, my darling. I love you always.
Shaking, Annie placed the folder inside her blood-lock cabinet and slammed the door shut. As she reread the letter from her father, she slid herself to the floor, lowered her head, and cried.
She hid the letter in her thick sock. Throughout the evening, the paper would scratch her skin whenever she moved. Annie still hadn’t shared what she discovered with Cham. There were too many questions, and she hadn’t wrapped her head around the information. He clearly knew something was bothering her; it made him overly attentive and patient as he held up the conversation. In that, she felt guilty and anxious. All Annie wanted to do was pull out the folder and dig into its secrets.
Even though she was exhausted, Annie couldn’t sleep. She sat on the window seat beside the bed and watched the moon travel across the sky, but it didn’t calm or help quiet her thoughts. She broke down and snuck through the dark house, retrieving the folder from her locked cabinet. She held her breath, burning her lungs as she opened the well-organized folder. Jason had broken the contents into sections that were each separated by a sheet of colored construction paper. She slowly let air out of her lungs, took another deep breath, and noted each section: photos, notes, and a plastic bag stapled to the folder, containing a small cassette tape.
What the hell?
She forced herself to breathe in and out, in and out, as she opened the binder clip that held a large stack of photos. Her jaw dropped violently and her heart hammered; the pictures slipped to the table.
“No. No. No. That…” Her voice cracked.
“Annie, what’s wrong?”
She had been so lost in the first picture, she hadn’t heard Cham enter the kitchen.
“It can’t be,” she murmured.
Though she hadn’t acknowledged him, he sat beside her and grabbed the first picture. His jaw went slack. “This is… this is your mom,” he said and turned the picture over. “With Arden Blakely?”
Annie shook her head, unable to speak. The shock was so raw that she ached.
But what is it really?
Reluctantly, she picked up the next picture and forced herself to stare at it, focusing on what she might learn from it.
The faces, so familiar, so young—and yet to Annie, there was nothing in their expressions to make her think they were friendly. Her mother’s eyes were squinting, possibly by a hot sun. They appeared empty, sad maybe. But it was her jaw that stood out to Annie, clenched tightly as though she would vomit or was under great stress.
Eight years ago, Dr. Arden Blakely had less gray in her short hair, fewer wrinkles around the mouth, and her eyes appeared focused and determined, not hazy with post-traumatic stress. Annie guessed she was probably a full-time assassin for the secretive Fraternitatem of Solomon back then.
Seeing the pictures of her mother, alive when she was thought to be dead, brought up a swirl of memories of her father’s death, and each memory socked her in the stomach a second time.
Annie remembered the days when Jason Pearce didn’t make it home due to a hot lead on an investigation. When she and her sister, Samantha, were young, babysitters or friends had been lined up. When they were old enough, he’d send word that he wouldn’t be returning until late—or early, depending on one’s view point.
But the night he died, there had been no contact. As the hours stretched without word, Ryan Connelly, his Wizard Guard partner, grew worried. After twenty-four hours, several Wizard Guard colleagues—Milo Rawley, John Gibbs, Ryan Connelly, Trish Buck, and Kirby Winslow—began a frantic search of the Black Market. When they hadn’t found Jason at the market, they searched for him at all of his usual haunts, called and visited his contacts, and even interviewed Archibald Mortimer. There had been no clues as to where Jason Pearce had gone.
Kathy Connelly and her son, Robin Price, had come to the house to sit with Annie and Samantha to keep them occupied while they waited to hear from Jason or the team.
By the end of the second day, the telecom manager, Melissa Swiss, came to Ryan with news of a John Doe in the Chicago morgue. The dead man’s description was uncannily similar to Jason.
When Ryan came home alone, his face was pale and forlorn. Annie’s heart sank, her stomach roiled. She couldn’t see Samantha through the flow of tears that she couldn’t stop.
The days passed in a blur. People arrived with food and condolences. Janie Parker, Dave Smith, and Cham Chamsky sat with her. When she couldn’t speak, they stayed anyway.
Eventually, Annie would move on and live her life, graduating from high school, becoming a wizard guard. In the years since Jason died, she had gone to the records room at Wizard Hall and copied the contents of his death investigation folder.
Sometimes she wished she hadn’t; the crime scene photos of where he died had left her shaken. He died alone, battered and broken, only discovered when employees returned to work on Monday morning. She could never un-see those images. They would be with her forever, and when she thought of them, she would feel numb and cold with an anger that would fill her all over again.
While it was the common belief that Wolfgange Rathbone had killed him, there was a lack of evidence until they convicted him of the murder of Princess Amelie of Amborix. To rattle Annie and attempt an escape, he admitted his role in Jason’s death. Though Annie knew it was a ploy, she also knew that he indeed killed her father.
“Annie, please say something,” Cham said, his voice filled with such anxiety that she finally pulled herself away from the dark memories.
“I’m sorry,” Annie whispered. “I just opened the folder now.” Her voice was parched. She summoned the note with trembling hands. “The newspaper article with Amelie pushed this all away. You were sleeping, so I finally decided to tackle it.” She was breathy, it was difficult to suck in the air and release it. She passed him the note. “I found that earlier today. In the folder.” Since finding it, she had clenched it tightly, folded it and reopened it several times. It was almost as worn as she felt.
Annie rested her elbows on the table, her head fell in her hands and she cried. There was no point in hiding the bitter emotions that had been violently stirred within her.
Cham slid the folder back across the table and wrapped his arm around her shoulder. “Take your time. We’ll go through the folder when you’re ready,” he said. “I can call Ryan if you’d like.”
Annie pulled away from him, sat straighter, and summoned the folder. “No. Not yet. Not until we know what this is.” She wiped her eyes, her hands still quivering.
“We don’t have to do this now.”
She reached for the letter. “Read this. Now,” she demanded. While he read, Annie picked up the next picture. The images of her mom took her breath away. She pulled the next picture, a blurry image of her mother in what Annie knew to be the Cave of Ages in southern Israel.
She pushed the photos to the side, unable to look at them any further, and fumbled with the notes, not sure she wanted to read the contents.
“A prophecy. He’s implying you’re in danger,” Cham said with much anxiety in his voice.
“Apparently,” she responded coolly. Her emotions seemed to burn hot and cold as she attempted to grasp what it all meant.
Cham shuffled through the additional pictures. “I don’t even know where to start asking questions,” he admitted, still stunned by the images and her father’s explanation.
“Who’s buried in her grave? Did Dad know it wasn’t her? Did she leave willingly, and why? If she’s with Arden Blakely in the picture, does that mean she’s a member of the Fraternitatem? Is she one of their assassins?” Annie asked, all in a rush.
“Yeah, those questions.” He sighed.
When Annie glanced up, Zola, her Aloja fairy, stood in the shadows. Her emerald green eyes were shaded with gray, for the sadness she was unable to hide. Zola had been magically linked with Annie since she was a baby. What Annie felt, Zola felt.
“You knew about Mom.” Annie didn’t mask the accusation.
Zola glided across the wood floor. Her transparent wings were like wisps of fragile skin, fluttering when she walked. She took a seat across from Annie, her expression determined and thoughtful.
“There was something…” her eyes crinkled in concentration “… odd. Her body felt odd. But she wasn’t magical, so I couldn’t trust the reading.” Zola saw the folder on the table top and pulled it close. A small squeak escaped her lips when she saw the photos. Her hands shook.
“Don’t tell Samantha until you know when these were taken and if she’s still alive. Your pain is more than I can bear right now,” Zola said as she placed the pictures away in the file.
Annie promised Zola she’d keep the pictures to herself until she knew for certain what the images meant. Before returning to work, Annie did an internet search for Emily Pearce, but she discovered she wasn’t as creative or as knowledgeable as Bucky Hart, the computer guru at Wizard Hall. Rather than fumbling aimlessly through the internet, she thought she’d ask Bucky to take a crack at the search.
She held her breath as she knocked on Bucky’s cubicle wall, knowing asking him to do this would open up so many more questions, but Annie needed to know. While Jason had hidden the files to protect them, he must have known that Annie would eventually find the box in the crawl space.
“Hey, Annie Pearce. Come on in,” Bucky said as he cleared a chair for her.
She took in a deep, slow breath which did little to ease the nausea in her belly.
“What’s up?” he asked. He frowned when he saw her pale face.
“How much do you know about my dad’s murder?” Annie whispered. Instinctively, he placed a hand on the wall and sent a muffle spell across his small cubicle, enveloping them in privacy.
“I know Rathbone did it. It’s related to the Fraternitatem and the Chintamani stones. Beyond that, I’m clueless,” Bucky said.
Annie shook her head. “This needs to stay between you and me. If I’m not around, find Cham. He’s the only person who knows this.” Bucky understood her stern, serious expression and nodded in agreement.
She handed Bucky a picture of Dr. Arden Blakely with Emily Pearce. He examined the picture and glanced back at Annie. “Isn’t this that doctor? The assassin? She looks younger, but…”
“It’s Dr. Arden Blakely,” she said quietly.
“That’s not why you want me to see this,” Bucky said.
Bucky grimaced and reviewed the picture again. This time, he couldn’t ignore the striking similarities between the other woman and Annie. He stared back at Annie. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say the other one is related to you,” he said guardedly. Bucky, all of twenty years old, had been a child when Annie’s father had worked in Wizard Hall. He had heard about Jason Pearce and his skills as a wizard guard and only knew from others that Annie’s mom died when she was very young. Until now, it probably hadn’t occurred to him that he had never seen a picture of her mother in her cubicle. Bucky observed Annie carefully.
Annie cleared her throat to find her voice. “It’s my mom, Emily Pearce.”
Bucky turned the picture over, and noted the date—July, 2011—and the name of the two women: Emily Pearce, Dr. Arden Blakely.
“Annie, I’m not sure what to say except I’m sorry.” His concern was overwhelming.
“Thanks. I found this in a folder hidden in my crawl space. Dad was protecting someone… her, us. I don’t know why. This was taken eight years ago. I looked for her online, but I’m not you,” Annie said.
Normally Bucky would have made a smartass-y joke, but he sensed Annie’s pain and said, “I can do a search. Find out if she’s still alive.” He stared at the picture again. “Maybe the Middle Eastern Guard… never mind that. Everything about the Fraternitatem is very difficult to find. She might have gone dark.”
“Weirdly, they still used Arden’s real name. Maybe they are with Emily? I get that I’m asking for the impossible. That’s why I’m coming to you.” Annie sighed and her hands shook as she took back the picture.
“I appreciate your confidence. Just so I know, is there anything else in the folder that might help?”
Annie shook her head. “I haven’t gone through it all yet. I’ll pass along what I can when I find it.” Annie grimaced and wrote down some names. “I’m assuming if Emily’s alive, she’s in the Middle East. Though Arden Blakely was eventually released. Emily could have come home. I have a grandmother here. I haven’t seen her since I was three, but her name is Gloriana Worthington. Maybe Emily got in touch with her. Maybe?”
“I’ll do what I can. Though I can’t help but wonder if you really want to do this,” Bucky commented.
Annie chuckled. “I don’t, but I can’t not look.”
Bucky pulled out a folder, marked it data search, Lady Elizabeth in honor of Annie’s middle name, and placed the note about Annie’s grandmother inside. He held out for the picture. Annie stared at it before handing it over. He quickly made a copy and handed the original back to her. Once he had the folder created, he punctured his finger in his blood lock and placed the folder inside, closing the drawer. “It’s lucky I like you,” he quipped.
“Yeah, I know.”
By three in the afternoon Annie received the following text: Nothing yet. But it’s the Fraternitatem. I will keep looking. It may take time. B
Annie pocketed her phone and sighed. She pulled up the folder she was reviewing on a cold case, but she couldn’t concentrate on the new lead. Restless, she decided to share with the one person who was there when the events happened and who could remain detached if needed. She knocked on Gibbs’s cubicle beside hers. Each tap jiggled the wall.
He glanced up from a picture he was reviewing with a large magnifying glass. “Girl,” he said and motioned for her to sit. “You look like hell.” He observed her carefully.
“Not sleeping.” She pulled out the file and slid it across his desk. Gibbs of all people recognized the handwriting, the case number, the folder.
“You found the missing file.” He pulled out the contents. Annie had left Jason’s note on the front of the contents. He picked it up and read.
His hands shook as he read Jason’s words, his warning to Annie, her imminent danger. Gibbs said nothing as he continued through the folder, stopping on the picture of Emily and Dr. Arden Blakely. He turned the picture over, noting the date.
“Who else knows?” Gibbs asked.
“Cham, Zola, and Bucky,” she said.
“Has Bucky found her?”
Annie shook her head. “Not yet.”
Gibbs returned to the folder, quickly perusing the rest of the images, and stopped at the cassette tape. “Have you listened to this yet?”
Again, Annie shook her head. “I need a tape deck that small. I don’t have one. I’ll listen soon.”
He reassembled the documents and slid the folder back to Annie. She placed them back in her field pack. “He never told me he found her. Who did we bury?” Gibbs asked mostly to himself as he turned around. He, like most wizard guards, had a blood lock on the credenza. He punctured his finger, opened the drawer, and searched for his personal folder on Emily’s death.
“Zola thought there was something odd about her body,” Annie said.
“We didn’t see a glimmer on the body. We couldn’t find any distinguishing magic that would tell us how she died. While we found inconsistent magic on her, we thought she was killed by a nonmagical.”
“So what happened?”
“Someone with an agenda, with complex magic, needed Emily for some purpose,” Gibbs said softly.
And who would fall into that category?
“I have my notes here.” He slid the folder to Annie, who placed it in Jason’s file. “When Bucky finds her, let me know. Okay?”
Annie nodded. “I will.”
Annie shot awake as the sound of a text message pierced the darkness. Her breathing was heavy and her hands trembled as she read the message. It was sent by the telecommunications rep, Max White, one of the hundreds of reps across the United States who managed the 911 emergency call systems, searching for hints of wayward magic, creatures, or evil wizards.
Multi cls. 2 Poss dmn Howard St. Evanston.
Annie put down her phone and contemplated the report. Multiple calls, 2 possible demons on Howard Street in Evanston, Illinois. Depending on the police reports, odd calls were sorted and turned over to the appropriate department, whether it was the on-call wizard guard or to the Vampire Attack Unit. Tonight, the call was routed to the Wizard Guard department, specifically Annie and her partner Spencer Ray, who were on call for the night.
Rolling her eyes, she knew it could be a number of things from vagrants to teenagers pranking local residents. While many calls were legitimate demon reports, Annie wasn’t expecting much of anything at three in the morning during summer vacation.
She raced through her morning routine, dressing in her demon-chasing clothes: jeans, T-shirt, thick hoodie, and gym shoes. Observing herself in the mirror, she gathered her thick, chocolate-brown curls into a messy bun, clipping it with an etched golden protection amulet Zola had given her when she was a young girl.
Checking her phone, she groaned before finishing up; dropping eye drops in her red eyes caused from another sleepless night, dotting concealer around the dark circles that she couldn’t erase, and running lip gloss across her lips.
“Ugh,” she murmured and shut off the bathroom light. Stopping at Cham, she bent over him and kissed his cheek.
“Everything okay?” Cham murmured, wrapped tightly inside the blankets.
“Mysterious demons near Howard Street,” she said.
He sat up and held her wrist. “You okay? You tossed and turned a lot last night.”
She hesitated. It wasn’t the moment to let him in on her night’s musings because it was the same thing that had kept her awake for the last three months: no news from Bucky regarding her mom. She sighed softly. “I’m fine. We’ll talk later. Gotta run.” She kissed him one last time before racing down the stairs for the demon.
“This is the neighborhood,” Spencer said as he re-checked the coordinates left an hour ago by Max White.
They had walked up and down Howard Street for several blocks in either direction and began making a large circle around the neighborhood.
“And Max heard these calls on the 911 call system? I don’t see the police,” Annie commented dryly. As she expected, this looked like it would end up being a wild goose chase. “Why are we here again?”
“More than one call came in. Buck it up,” Spencer teased.
Their flashlights swept the sidewalk as they turned down an empty alley, a perfect place for teenagers to cause trouble.
Each house stood silent as families slept, their side yards empty and their backyards filled with swing sets, barbeques, and the occasional blow-up pool or trampoline. Up ahead, Annie spotted a trail of overturned garbage cans, used food containers, ripped plastic bags, and rotted food.
“Looks like we found something.” Annie pointed her flashlight down the road as another garbage can was tossed into the alley with a loud crash.
Annie and Spencer glanced at each other, bemused. Both shut off their flashlights and cautiously crept along the alley, following the sound of garbage cans being clacked together.
Stopping short, they listened to angry grunting and plastic bags being ripped apart, with unwanted items strewn into the road. Slowly, they stepped beside the garage door and poked their heads around the wall, expecting a gaggle of bored teenagers. Annie’s jaw dropped.
In the bright moonlight, they saw a man… but not a man. He was easily over seven feet tall, very thick and muscular. Whatever he was, he lifted the can above his head with no effort and dumped the contents on the ground.
“That is one big… what is it?” Spencer asked.
Annie flashed her light in the creature’s eyes, temporarily blinding it. She took in its face, its pockmarked skin covered in battle scars, its delicate features for a creature of that size and girth, a long, thin nose, close-set eyes, and squared yellow teeth. To Annie, the creature’s face seemed nearly human. Though he was bigger than even a large human man, she could see his human-like limbs, long and thick, and five fingers on each hand.
“I think he’s a large demon?” Annie asked. But there was something in his quizzical expression, his lack of communication.
Is he human or demon?
“What are you doing, sir?” Spencer asked cautiously, his palms facing the being that he too had been struggling to identify.
There were two basic classifications for demons: humanoid or animalhood. A humanoid demon had delicate human features, relatively hairless skin, and independent thought. They were vampires, furies, succubae, banshees, and the like.
The other demons, animalhood, seemed less like people and were covered in fur or scales. Some had four limbs and a head, but they lacked speech and independent thought. Usually, that particular demon lived in the wilderness, away from civilization and hunted prey.
Both Annie and Spencer saw this creature as something different.
The demon grunted in surprise, offered no explanation for his presence, and in one easy motion, tossed the garbage can at them and ran down the alley.
“Crap, that thing is huge,” Spencer noted as he and Annie charged after it.
For his size and girth, he lumbered down the alley quickly. Fearing exposure if they teleported after it, Annie and Spencer pumped their arms and picked up their pace to keep from losing him in the darkness.
The demon turned left at the next intersection as if he knew where he was going, running faster without tiring. Annie and Spencer followed and were soon dripping in sweat, with cramps in their legs and sides.
Without warning, the demon slid to a stop. Annie and Spencer slowed and crept along the edge of the sidewalk, trying to ascertain what had stopped him so quickly. Blocking its path was an equally tall and sturdy man, his eyes glaring at the creature. Annie observed him quickly but in the dark could only see his tunic, tied at the waist with a thin string and a sword hanging at his hip.
“What the hell?” Spencer murmured
They observed the man with the sword intently. He removed long, thin hair from his face as his eyes darted from the demon to them. He shouted harshly at the demon.
“What did he say?” Spencer asked Annie.
“I don’t know,” she admitted. In an instant, the demon ran one way, the man the other.
“Go!” Annie pointed. She followed the demon, leaving Spencer to chase the man.
For an hour, Annie pursued the demon, slowly winding closer to the center of the neighborhood. His longer strides kept him several blocks ahead of her. While she quickly grew tired, the demon continued to run without slowing.
Streetlamps stood like soldiers on both sides of the street; some flickered but others lacked bulbs entirely. The demon ran either through beams of light or into the shadows. Annie listened to the heavy pounding of his thick feet against the cement sidewalk and followed.
An early summer rain spattered the sidewalk and stuck to Annie’s curly hair. She pushed several strands behind her ears and wiped her face with a moist sleeve.
This is getting ridiculous.
Still several blocks from the demon, she anxiously glanced down both sides of the street, crossing into an older and more familiar commercial neighborhood. With dawn nearing, the small, independent businesses were still boarded up for the night, metal bars hanging protectively against the windows and doors.
The wizard-only store known as the Snake Head Letters, came into view. It traded in magical objects, potions, books, and other trinkets that ran from highly questionable to purely evil. Annie spied the owner, Archibald Mortimer, observing her with some interest as she ran past the grimy front window of his store. He neither helped nor hindered her efforts, nor reacted in any way. It was clearly a change in his attitude where she was concerned.
Annie assumed he hadn’t gotten over the beating he received at the hand of Gladden Worchester three months ago. Gladden had beaten Mortimer, forcing the older, weaker man to give up information on Annie. Although he had tried to keep quiet, a few well-placed, devastating blows convinced him to reveal what he knew about her.
The beating caused a string of events to occur, which all together led to the destruction of the Black Market. While that loss was a boon to Mortimer’s business, he was a changed man, withdrawn and nearly silent. It was still too early to determine the repercussions to the wizarding world.
Annie put Mortimer out of her mind and slipped between two buildings as sharp pricks of pain seized her side, belly, and chest. Although she exercised regularly, the extended chase left her exhausted and doubled over, searching for breath.
While listening to the demon’s clumsy footsteps, she realized how much farther away he was now. She peered around the wall and saw him run through the light of a streetlamp and turn down the next street. Annie sighed, glanced down each side of the empty roadway, and teleported herself a few blocks ahead of the demon.
He barreled toward her. She calculated her timing and threw a jinx. The magic hit the demon in the shoulder, jerking him backwards. He growled.
Cautiously, Annie shone her bright flashlight into his eyes.
“What are you doing here?” Annie asked. A humanoid demon would have answered, but this one only grunted, sniffed, and snorted.
Human features, animal mannerisms?
She removed the flashlight from the demon’s eyes and saw something else there. As the creature clamored away from her, she realized she saw terror.
The sky turned a dim gray with hints of orange as dawn approached. Annie watched the demon hobble across the road, heading for a narrow two-story home at the end of the block. Reaching its destination, the demon shuffled up the stairs, yanked the front door open, and ran inside.
What the hell?
With the demon confined to the house, she slowed her pace, giving herself time to catch her breath and take in her surroundings. Thin houses on small plots of land lined both sides of the street; each house was similar in size and design. The houses in this older neighborhood appeared well maintained, all except for the house at the end of the lane. She stood on the sidewalk and stared the building, which leaned to the left.
Annie cautiously stepped up the cracked sidewalk, thin chips of cement cracking under her shoes. The small porch felt sad and neglected, with several rotted boards and an overhang that had separated from the house. She stood at the open door that hung limply on the hinges and listened to the sounds of ripping and thumping above her. She flashed her light inside the room without entering the house.
The narrow room was cluttered with abandoned furniture: a ripped sofa, a spindled chair missing its fourth leg, and a low coffee table with a scratched top. Beyond the room, she saw a darkened hallway that she could only assume led to a kitchen.
The walls were dirty, with peeling paint and a lone picture of a boat on the ocean hung askew. The worn carpeting had a large scorch mark at the center. She raised her eyebrows.
“Why do these buildings always look like this?” she murmured.
Something heavy crashed inside, causing the ceiling to shake. Annie glanced up.
“Going inside by yourself?”
Annie jumped at the familiar voice. She spied Sturtagaard leaning against a tree just outside the property line.
“What are you doing here?” Annie scowled. She hadn’t seen the vampire since returning from France, and it had been a pleasurable three months without his sniffing, sneering, and ill temper. She didn’t even care that he had assisted in the capture and staking of the vampire, Princess Amelie. Frankly, Annie was glad he hadn’t been around.
Annie debated if she should engage in conversation with him, but as always, he piqued her interest. She strolled off the rotted deck and stood in the small patch of front yard.
“I’m just making sure you’re doing your part,” he mocked.
“My part in what?” she asked guardedly. Another thump echoed from the upstairs; she turned back to the house quickly.
“That one’s too stupid. You have time,” Sturtagaard said. He glanced at his fingernails as though checking his manicure was still intact, pretending he was uninterested in her presence there.
“That’s not a typical demon, is it?” Annie asked. She was curious as to Sturtagaard’s real purpose.
How deep is he in this?
“No. It’s not. You will find out in time.” His lips turned upwards. He appeared bored, like he couldn’t be bothered with this conversation.
“What part am I playing?” she asked him.
Sturtagaard shrugged. Angry he was pushing her buttons, Annie summoned a stake and flipped it in the air, catching the hard ash in the palm of her hand. As it landed, Sturtagaard jumped at the sound, but he didn’t look at her immediately. When he was done checking his nails, he rooted around in the dirt beneath his usually well-groomed leather shoes. When he finished stalling, he glared at her.
“I’ve said too much already. I, like everyone else in this, had a role and this was mine.”
“What the hell are you yammering about?” Another crash boomed inside the house. “Unless you have something useful to say, I’m leaving.” Annie returned Sturtagaard’s glare, but he simply shrugged.
“You’ll be safe when the thunder comes,” he said.
The ominous advice made little sense to Annie. She clearly wore her anger and confusion on her face. Sturtagaard couldn’t help but laugh.
“What are you playing at?” she shouted at him, losing all patience with the vampire.
“I’m not playing at anything. I’m giving you, shall we say, helpful advice.” He crossed his arms against his chest and leaned into the tree.
“Why am I wasting my time?” she mumbled. But Sturtagaard, thanks to his vampire hearing, heard the words through her semi-closed lips.
“Because you are curious as to why I’m here and the meaning of my message. I know you, girl. I’ve known all about you from the minute I first met you. You aren’t as complicated as you think you are. You are still trying to please your daddy, and you won’t stop until you’re dead like him,” Sturtagaard hissed.
Annie ignored the noises and marched to the vampire, who seemed unnerved by her. This bothered Annie. She held the stake against his chest.
“What the hell do you want?” she asked through gritted teeth.
“I’m responsible for making sure you came here, to this house, on this day. You need to follow the plan just as much as I do. This will all make sense to you in a few days. Oooh, I fear I’ve said too much,” Sturtagaard said nonchalantly, as if that would make it all better.
“Why shouldn’t I stake you now?” She pressed the sharp point into his chest; he pursed his lips.
“You can’t because the Wizard Council says so.” He offered a crooked smile exposing his fangs. “Besides, I know where the new Black Market is.”
She held the stake tightly in her grasp. “Really… and where’s that?” she taunted.
“Now, now girl. One problem at a time. It’s time you deal with that demon up there. Otherwise, this whole exercise will be useless.” He pushed the stake away, glanced at the lightening sky, and rolled away from the tree, skulking into the nearby forest.
That damn vampire!
For a brief moment, Annie stared into the trees, debating if she should run after Sturtagaard and force him to explain his cryptic messages. It was the next crash that caused her to return to the house.
Immediately upon entering, a rancid, rotten smell assaulted her. There was something else…
Odd that she should smell the burnt stench of an herb used to conjure black magic or demons.
Annie set her flashlight on dim and scanned the walls, ceiling, and floor, stopping on the burn mark across the musty carpet. She knelt beside the scorch mark, touched the soot, and sniffed the silky power.
“It is mullein,” she said to the empty room. “Is this where the demon was conjured?”
Thump! She looked up at the ceiling. The center chandelier swayed from the crash on the floor above.
In hopes of avoiding a hand-to-hand fight with a demon twice her size and three times the weight, Annie summoned her crystal and took a reading of the magical energy found in and around the soot on the carpet. The crystal glowed a deep black. She looked inside, reading the dark magic that appeared about a week old.
The ceiling continued to shake as the restless demon tossed several hard objects. Annie sighed, pocketed her crystal, and checked her phone, leaving a message for Bucky Hart.
Who owns this house? she texted him, sending him the coordinates immediately.
When she finished, she took one last look around the room before heading up the stairs.
It was a crappy house, probably long abandoned. The treads were uneven and squeaked with each step. The entire staircase felt as though it leaned to the left. Annie took cautious steps reaching the top and stepping on the second floor.
The hallway contained two bedrooms and a bathroom. She tried the handle on the door to her right; it was locked.
I’ll check it later if there’s time.
Currently, her perceived assumptions about demons were jumbled. This demon was perplexing; different than any she had ever chased before. While he acted much like a low-level demon that lacked speech and thought, he ran with purpose toward this house, to that room, and proceeded to search for something.
But Sturtagaard called it a stupid one.
Guardedly, she walked to the front bedroom and poked her head inside. The demon had toppled a large armoire, which now lay front side down. There was a large footprint on the back panel, which lay in pieces. Wall boards were haphazardly piled on top of it, with additional thin bits of dust and two-by-fours contributing to the growing pile of debris.
Annie stared in horror as the demon continued to yank large pieces of wall board and studs from the side wall. He had already removed a large hole.
What is he looking for?
Annie froze when her phone buzzed, but the demon, preoccupied with his work, seemed unaware he was being watched. She breathed a sigh of relief, then waved her hand across her back pocket and shut off the ringtone.
Agitated, the demon reached inside the hole; whatever was hidden in the wall was still out of its reach. The demon grabbed another handful of wall and pulled. It cracked and ripped as the board gave way, detaching from the studs. The demon tossed the section of wall on a pile.
Again, the demon stuck his head into the hole and squealed. He still didn’t seem to comprehend why he couldn’t reach whatever he was searching for. In frustration, he punched at the stud like a punching bag.
Fearing the instability of the old house, Annie raised her palm and shot a jinx, sending yellow sparks flying through the air and hitting the beast in the upper arm. His arm jerked forward. The demon growled and clutched his shoulder.
Spotting Annie, the demon barked and then lunged. Her hands shook as she cast a stronger jinx, but either she missed or the curse was weaker than expected. The demon seemed unaffected by the blast. He clipped Annie’s shoulder, knocking her to the ground.
Before she could react or turn away, the demon sat on her, crunching his thick legs around her petite frame, squeezing her and shoving her head into the musty, dirty carpeting.
Annie flailed her arms, landing feeble blows to the demon’s body. No matter how much she stretched, her short, thin fingers couldn’t wrap around the creature’s neck. The demon bent close to Annie’s face. His breath and general body odor made her gag.
Since he was close enough to her now, she found the base of the demon’s neck and pushed with her thumbs, irritating the large creature. He howled.
Annie attempted to twist away, but the demon had her secure. Growing anxious, she threw her hands upwards and cast the strongest jinx she could muster. It hit the demon’s head, sending him flying backwards.
She scampered off the dirty floor and ran toward the door. Two large hands yanked her up. As Annie hung in the air with her arms pinned to her side, she kicked out her legs in vain. Panicked and growing weak, Annie finally took one last kick. This time, her boot made contact with the demon’s ribcage. The demon growled and smiled, easily tossing her down the hallway like she was a rag doll.
“Ahhhh!” Annie flew through the air; her head hit the wall and she flipped over, landing face first on the musty carpet. “Ooooff,” she moaned.
Her stomach churned at the stench deeply buried in the wood floor. Her head felt heavy and filled with ringing and buzzing. As she came to awareness, the distinct sound of a deep-throated laughter came to her.
Annie turned her head and opened her eyes. Shapes and colors swirled before her. Gingerly, she raised her head, then violently heaved what little acid she had in her stomach. The bitter taste of bile burned her tongue.
She struggled to sit, pushing herself up with rubbery arms. As the world spun around her, a new wave of nausea attacked her. She turned and dry heaved again; there was nothing left in her stomach. Exhausted, Annie slumped against the spongy wall and took a deep breath, shivering at the pain shooting through her body.
The demon continued to laugh, to hiccough, to grunt as though Annie’s pain was the funniest thing he had ever seen.
Maybe it is funny.
Normally, this reaction would have angered her and she would have felt like a fool. But this demon, one that she had never seen before, intrigued her.
Though still fuzzy, she could see the human-like features of the face and the shape of the body, the mannerisms, the clothes. For Annie, the demon just didn’t add up. Nothing seemed to fit.
A hybrid? Where does that come from?
She shuddered at the thought.
While the demon remained preoccupied with his own amusement, Annie pressed herself against the wall and pushed up. Weak and trembling, she twisted her palms outward, took whatever energy she had left, and let the jinx fly from her hands. Large green sparks flew from her palm and landed in the demon’s mouth. His eyes widened, and his body sputtered and jerked violently. Annie watched in amazement as smoke billowed from his mouth, like a volcano about to erupt. The demon howled as the spell ripped him apart. Annie ducked low, covering her head with her arms as creature parts flew across the hallway and bedroom.
When she looked up again, she saw slimy remains covering the ceiling, walls, and carpeting. Blood and sinew hung from the hallway light. Wet pieces plopped to the carpet and slid down the walls. When she felt monster guts run down her cheek, Annie blanched and wiped away the gore. She pulled parts from her thick hair, flinging them to the ground in disgust. Again, Annie’s phone buzzed. She raised her eyebrows, surprised the phone hadn’t broken in her fall, and answered the call.
“Yeah,” she breathed heavily. It hurt to take in the air.
“It’s me. Where are you?” Spencer asked with an anxious tone.
She leaned against the wall and closed her eyes.
“I got it,” she wheezed, trying to take a deep breath. “Demon parts everywhere.” She lips curled in disgust when a demon finger plopped in her lap.
“I thought it was a retrieval, not a kill,” he said.
“A little change in plans. Sorry.” She threw the demon finger on the floor.
Spencer repeated, “So, where are you?”
“I’m at the end of Keeney Street near the trees. It’s the only house that looks abandoned,” she answered.
Demon parts continued to fall to the floor.
“Did you catch that man?” she wheezed.
“No. He got away. I’m coming for you. You sound horrible,” he said.
She couldn’t argue as she pushed back against the wall and pulled herself up. “I’m going to collect samples,” she said as she limped down the hall. “And figure out what the hell he was searching for when I found it. I’ll see you soon.” She slipped in a pile of demon slime. “Ooooff. Shit!” she said as she grabbed the door jamb.
“Are you okay?” Spencer asked. “You sound hurt.”
“I’m fine. I’ll see you later. Okay?” She entered the room and headed to the hole in the wall.
“On my way now,” he said.
She directed the flashlight between the studs and stuck her head inside the hole.
“Oh,” she said.
“Annie? What’s happening?”
“Later,” she said and placed the phone in her back pocket without saying goodbye.
A white object was nestled between the studs at the floor. She summoned it and let the object hang in the air above her palm. She trained her flashlight on the four-inch-long artifact that appeared to be a hand-carved piece of…
The design was old, grotesque, a human shape with an ugly face and a long beard, carved to a point. A triangle-shaped hat sat on top of wild hair. Someone over time had drilled an uneven hole through the top point of the hat.
A necklace? Amulet?
She ran a palm across the small totem and chanted a reveal spell. The statue radiated a shimmering white light.
At least it’s good magic.
The statue vibrated against her skin. When she held it to her ear, it hummed softly and tickled her skin. She quickly realized it was a talisman —an object strong enough to create magic or conjure an object or possibly even a demon.
“So where did you come from and how did my demon know you were in the wall?” Annie asked aloud. She placed it back to her ear as if it could reveal its secrets.
Her attention shifted when she noticed unusual noises around her. When she turned around, she saw demon parts roll across the floor and slosh and plop from the ceiling. Slimy and oddly colored muscle and sinew slid across the carpet, carrying with them bits of dirt and carpet fibers. Wet muscles, organs, fingers, and legs found each other as if they were magic. They reformed, taking their original shapes. Slowly, a body grew. Arms and legs sprouted from its massive trunk. Feet and hands shot out from the end of the limbs.
Confused, agitated, frustrated, the demon thrashed about on the floor, flaying and jerking, his thick hands feeling for a missing head.
Annie jumped back in horror as the regenerated, headless demon thrashed about. She gawked as a tiny head developed from the stocky tree trunk of a neck. Gradually, the head blew up like a balloon. The same ugly face appeared; long, stringy hair sprouted from the scalp and down to the shoulders.
The demon’s eyes, wild with anger, darted back and forth until they found Annie. With the talisman in hand, she teleported from the room. The demon grunted, pulled himself up, and stumbled as he lumbered out the door.
Halfway down the stairs, the demon, seeing Annie in the front room, slipped and dove for her. She lunged out of the way; the demon hit the floor, which shook at the crash.
Panicked, Annie cast a strong jinx, hitting the demon in the chest. Weakened from being blown apart, the demon fell through the bay window, shattering the glass across the overgrown bushes beneath the window.
Annie ran outside and cast another jinx. She missed the escaping demon, instead hitting the dry bushes which began to smoke.
“Damn.” She conjured a water bottle, dousing the small fire.
The demon rushed her. Both fell against the hand railing. All of the demon’s weight pinned Annie against the weakening wood. When she cast another spell, she sent them both through the front door.
Propelled by adrenaline, Annie rolled away as the demon clambered up and lunged for her. She teleported to the end of the hallway, which was just dark enough to keep her hidden from the creature. She pressed against the wall. With her palm out, she lifted the spindly chair and threw it at the demon. The creature looked around, still unable to see Annie, and stomped on the chair, breaking it into smaller bits.
The demon grew angry and growled loudly. He sniffed several times before walking to the hallway. Annie cast the next spell, lifting the end table. It only grazed the beast in the chest and fell to the floor. The demon stomped it to pieces.
Annie stepped further into the shadows toward the kitchen. She could smell both the demon’s stench and her own. It smelled like fear.
With one more spell, she directed the sofa toward the demon, knocking it to its knees. Nearly out of energy, she stepped in front of the demon and launched another attack with successive spells, not letting up until the creature keeled over, unconscious.
Exhausted, she leaned against the wall and slid to the floor, wincing with pain.
“What the hell?” Spencer said as he entered the house. He glanced around the room at the broken window and the oddly placed, broken furniture. “Annie?” he shouted.
“Here!” Her voice was small; she had difficulty breathing.
Spencer shined the light in the room and ran for Annie, sidestepping the unconscious demon.
“What the hell happened?” He knelt beside her.
“The demon regenerated. Did you know demons could do that?” Her breathing was shallow. She winced.
“I need to get you out of here.” He offered his hand. She waved him away.
“No. He’s strong and dangerous. You need to get him to Tartarus. I can wait.”
He shined his light in her eyes. She turned away. “No, you can’t,” Spencer said.
Spencer pulled out his phone and explained the situation to the voice on the other end. Annie knew it must be Graham Lightner, manager of the Vampire Attack Unit. A team would be here soon.
“I’m going to secure the demon and then get you the hell out of here.” He assessed the sleeping creature, lifted a heavy eyelid, and placed a finger under the demon’s nose to feel the air rush in and out. Certain that he was only knocked out, Spencer started tying the demon’s feet with magical rope, ensuring he couldn’t escape.
“Clothes and no shoes?” Spencer pulled on the rope to make sure he couldn’t make it budge and began to tie the demon’s hands behind his back. “Has he said anything? He doesn’t seem to be of the talking and thought type,” Spencer said as he continued to tie the demon with magical rope.
“No. He’s only grunted and howled. This is the most bizarre demon.” Annie stopped to take a shallow breath. She watched Spencer finish securing the demon; quickly and efficiently, the large beast was bound in magical rope that nothing could escape. “I watched him act like an animal, digging through the garbage, and sniffing the air. Plus, he stinks. But then I swear he was thinking and working out a problem.” She coughed. Pain seized her body, and she shuddered.
As the successive spells to the demon began to wear off, he growled a low guttural sound.
“And he doesn’t speak,” Annie added.
“Just the growling? Grunting?” Spencer pulled the last of the rope taut around the demon’s wrist.
“Just sounds. No words,” she said and took as deep of a breath as she could. Spots popped out before her eyes.
“Regeneration is new.” He pulled the demon’s chin to study the face and cast a sleeping spell over the creature.
“I blew him up. Pieces flew everywhere. But everything regrew in the time I talked to you,” Annie explained.
To be sure the demon was contained, Spencer summoned additional magical rope, and tied the demon’s arms to his very thick body. Even he couldn’t release the magical knots. “I think it’s secure,” he said and pulled the demon in the air, letting him float.
At a sound from behind them, Spencer and Annie both turned around to see Graham Lightner approaching.
“Hey, Graham,” Spencer said.
“What a mess.” Graham walked to the demon and saw Annie still sitting on the floor. “You need the hospital,” he said as he touched the demon, assessing his condition.
“Yeah. In a minute. I blasted a spell, but the demon blew up and regenerated,” Annie informed him.
“You used multiple spells?” Graham said as he noted the number of spell marks across the creature’s face and arms.
“He was pock marked prior to my spells. It looks like he’s seen a lot of battles,” Annie said.
Skye Starling, another member of the VAU entered the room and nodded at the small group.
“Take Annie to the hospital,” Graham told Spencer, waving Skye over.
“Hi, Spencer. Well, get a look at this demon. Tried to take it yourself did you, Annie?” Skye joked. “Wow. Go to the hospital. We’ve got this.”
Annie stumbled as Spencer helped her up. “On our way. When you get the demon to Tartarus, can you take DNA and have Perkins Abernathy try and date the demon…” Annie touched his shirt; roughly woven, nearly gray from dirt and out of place. “And the clothes? The demon didn’t get these from a garbage can. They’re odd to say the least.”
“Almost looks like what my man wore. Though without shoes and a weapon,” Spencer said.
“We have no idea what the demon is or where he came from. Blowing him up didn’t work.” Annie faltered with her first step, nearly falling in Spencer’s arms.
“Annie, go. We’ll take care of this and let you know what we find,” Graham said patiently. “Go.” He and Skye watched as Spencer teleported Annie to the hospital.
“So I can leave when you’re done?” Annie asked Dr. Christine Andrews, head of the Black Magic Medicine Department.
The doctor was well familiar with the wizard guards, having treated all of them at least once. She ignored Annie’s question as she took her blood pressure and recorded the results in Annie’s chart on the electronic tablet. She bit her lower lip and looked at Annie quizzically. “Seriously? Have you looked at yourself? You’re a mess!” She placed the tablet on the long rolling table that crossed the end of Annie’s bed. Whether Annie liked it or not, she would be using that table later that evening for her dinner. “That’s the second concussion you’ve had in three months, and now you have at least one broken rib. I’m grounding you,” Dr. Christine advised.
“I can’t get any work done here,” Annie grumbled.
Dr. Christine placed her hands on either side of Annie’s head and chanted a healing spell to reduce the swelling to Annie’s brain. Annie closed her eyes; the warm tingly sensation spread across her forehead and to the back of her head, easing the pain and nausea. When the spell was complete, Dr. Christine lifted Annie’s eyelids and checked her sight. “How does that feel?”
“Better. I’m fine. Just put that in the chart and let me go. Please.”
The doctor laughed as the door to the room opened. Cham entered cautiously, taking a seat beside Annie.
“Hey, babe. Hi, Dr. Christine.” He sat patiently beside the bed as the doctor finished her assessment.
Annie closed her eyes again, feeling the warmth of the spell as it continued to work the magic. “What did Spencer say about his target?”
“I said no work,” Dr. Christine reminded her as she returned to fiddling with Annie’s chart, making adjustments to the course of treatment.
Annie rolled her eyes.
“The man you saw got away. We’ll do another sweep of the area tonight,” Cham told her. He began rubbing her palm with his thumb. The simple motion always comforted her. “He said they knew each other.”
When Dr. Christine finished adding to Annie’s medical chart, she continued the examination by poking Annie’s ribs. “How does it feel?”
Annie winced and sucked in air, holding it in her lungs. “Hurts.” She slowly let out her breath.
“I think you have two broken ribs. I’m ordering an X-ray.” Dr. Christine tapped the end of the pen against the tablet before making notes. She exited the room. Annie could hear her low voice mumbling to someone in the hallway, but she was too tired to figure out what Dr. Christine was saying about her.
“You look like hell, by the way,” Cham said. He kissed her hand.
“Every girl likes to hear that from her boyfriend,” Annie mumbled.
“The point is you need rest. Stay tonight. Let them take care of you,” he offered.
“I’d rather go home and let you take care of me.” But Annie knew the broken ribs and concussion meant she’d be stuck here for the night.
Dr. Christine returned, picked up the chart again and made additional notes.
“If you know, can’t you just heal them?” Annie asked.
Dr. Christine smiled and patted Annie’s hand as a portable X-ray machine was wheeled into her room. While it was being set up, Dr. Christine said, “You know I can’t just do that. I need to know exactly where it’s cracked. You need rest. It’ll take a lot of magical energy to heal.”
Annie sighed as the bed was laid flat and the X-ray machine placed above her. Cham hid in the hallway as they took several pictures of her ribs.
When they finished, Cham returned and the X-ray machine was wheeled out.
Cham handed her a scroll. It was sealed with the Wizard Guard seal, a triangle with a wand at the center. Annie knew what it was and tossed it in her lap.
“Tired?” he asked.
“You have no idea. This isn’t what I expected today,” Annie said. She played with the functions on the bed and raised herself to a more or less comfortable sitting position.
“Not gonna read that?” he asked.
Annie chuckled. “Don’t make me laugh. I’m off. I figured as much.” For his sake, she pulled apart the scroll and read the order, signed by Milo Rawley, Wizard Guard Department Manager, giving her the next week off.
“The demon’s at Tartarus. Gibbs and I will go off and find the other man that you saw. All your other cases can wait,” he reminded her. She began to drum her fingers against the safety railing on the bed. “You really can’t sit still, can you?” Cham asked. He took her right hand and held it.
“If I can’t do anything anyway, I’d rather do nothing at home.”
Dr. Christine entered. “Two ribs. I’ll start the healing spell now. You’re staying overnight and I really hope you don’t work while you’re here,” she said. She handed Annie her X-ray and, as Annie reviewed the cracks on her two ribs, the healing spell warmed and tingled and knitted her bones back together. Absorbing the magical energy and using her own to heal was an exhausting experience. Annie held her breath as the doctor held her hand above Annie’s ribs and cast the spell.
“So this round is complete. The pain should ease in a few minutes. I’ll, come back later for more healing and, in the meantime, no magic, no work. I’m serious about that,” Dr. Christine fervently reminded Annie.
“I’m too tired now anyway.” Annie yawned and pulled the blankets to her chin.
After scratching notes on Annie’s chart, Dr. Christine left them alone in the sterile, white-walled room. Her soft voice discussed patients with someone in the hall. A soft comfortable din wafted to Annie.
“You should go home, too,” she told Cham. “I’ll be fine.”
“Really? I’m staying until they kick me out. Besides, you’ll be getting calls soon, I’d like to know what’s going on.”
Annie nodded. “The man spoke a language I didn’t recognize.” She stifled another yawn just as her phone buzzed beside her on the table, vibrating against the metal top. She summoned the phone and turned to him. “And you knew that how?”
Cham shrugged and offered a smile as she answered the call from Bucky and put it on speaker. “Hi, Bucky. Find out about the house?”
“Firstly, how are you feeling?” he asked.
“Eh. You know. Concussion and two broken ribs. The usual,” she said. Bucky offered a friendly chuckle.
“Good to know. Feel better. And as to your question, that house was recently purchased by a Gila Donaldson.”
“Huh? Any relation to Emerson Donaldson?” Cham asked, clearly thinking immediately of the researcher for the Wizard Guard that he and Annie both worked with.
“I knew you’d ask that. So I pulled all Gila Donaldsons. There’s only one in the United States. Based on age, birthday, address, etc., it is Emerson’s grandmother.”
Annie and Cham exchanged surprised glances. “Thanks, Bucky. Was there anything else?” Annie asked.
Bucky typed away at his keyboard as he always did when they spoke. “That’s it. I have copies of the mortgage and note for confirmation. Was there anything else you need me to search for?” he asked.
Annie looked at the phone. “Nope. The Donaldsons are descendants of the original coven so we’ll have to play it differently. It’s odd though,” Annie said thoughtfully.
“Yeah. I thought so too. Bit of a coincidence if you believe in them. Anyway, if you need something else, let me know. And feel better soon,” Bucky added and hung up.
Annie played with her phone for a moment, assigning a meaning to the new information. “What do you think?” Cham finally said.
Before she could answer, Spencer and Gibbs entered the room.
“You look marginally better.” Spencer sat in the chair to her right. “You were about to answer?”
Annie chuckled and grimaced as she shifted positions. She was growing stiff in the neck, back, and legs from the fight with the demon. “Get a load of this. The house is owned by Gila Donaldson, Emerson’s grandmother,” Annie said.
Both Gibbs and Spencer took a moment to digest that tidbit. Annie bent at the waist and touched her toes. Still uncomfortable, she leaned against the bed again, struggling to find a comfortable spot.
“So, if we don’t believe that’s a coincidence, what are we thinking?” Gibbs asked. He leaned against wall of the room, his thick arms folded across his chest.
“I smelled mullein in the front room.” She summoned her crystal and tossed it to Cham. “It’s definitely black magic.”
Cham looked inside the crystal before handing it to Gibbs. He waved his palm once before giving it to Spencer.
“You think Gila Donaldson summoned a regenerating demon?” Gibbs asked.
Spencer handed the crystal to Annie, who tossed it in her lap. “Someone conjured a demon. Was it her? It’s not a stretch, seeing that she purchased the house,” Annie concluded.
Annie closed her eyes when she saw spots floating in front of her. A dull ache formed at the back of her head and was creeping to the top of her head, threatening her forehead. She touched the hard knot at the center of her forehead and grimaced.
“You’re tired. We should go,” Spencer said.
“No, it’s fine. Just a bump and a dull ache,” she said.
“No, we’ll go. I’m heading to the library to get a handle on the regenerating demons,” Spencer said.
“There’s more,” Annie said. Exhaustion finally had a grip on her, but she needed them to know this. “Sturtagaard was outside the house when I got there.” It wasn’t good news; the three men looked at her with surprise, worry, and anger.
“Now, why is he involving himself?” Cham asked, his jaw clenched. He tightly held the arm rests of his seat.
Maybe I shouldn’t have brought it up.
“I’m not sure how he’s involved. He said a few weird things. First, he told me I have a part to play in this,” Annie began. She looked at Spencer. The two of them were fond of each other and enjoyed working together. At the mention of Sturtagaard, he seemed rather upset, his hands balled into tight fists.
“A part to play in what?” he asked. After spending a week in France babysitting the vampire, neither he nor Annie was happy at the prospect of doing it again.
Annie shrugged. “Beats me. He wouldn’t elaborate, feared he said too much.” She rolled her eyes before looking at Cham. Annie had only shared the next piece with Cham and Gibbs, and couldn’t bear to look at Spencer.
She carried the letter from her dad in her field pack. Now with Sturtagaard’s words, she wondered if her part in whatever this was had something to do with her father’s warning of a prophecy.
“He also said I would be safe in the thunder,” Annie said.
Gibbs and Spencer looked at her suspiciously.
“What the hell is he planning this time?” Gibbs asked.
Annie summoned the letter from her dad and handed it to Spencer. “I found Dad’s missing case file. This was in it.” She glanced quickly at Gibbs and dropped her gaze.
Gibbs pretended to read the letter over Spencer’s shoulder. When they finished, they exchanged glances.
“I would’ve ignored the vamp until reading the letter,” Gibbs admitted. “Outside the house owned by Donaldson, a descendant of the original coven. Odd coincidence.”
“You don’t believe in those,” Annie reminded him.
“I don’t either. I wonder though, if this has something to do with why we can’t stake him,” Spencer said.
Annie hadn’t thought of that. It was a bone of contention with the wizard guards; after all of the problems he caused over the centuries, it was forbidden to stake the vampire and no one knew the real reason.
“We should go,” Spencer said and handed her the letter.
“Girl, get better.” Gibbs kissed her temple.
She watched them leave.
“It took a turn for the odd,” Annie mumbled.
“Worry about it in the morning. Get some sleep.” Cham ordered with a smile. He watched as Annie fell into a restless sleep.
Familiar, worried whispers tempted her to consciousness. Annie’s eyes flickered, their images became clear to her. She kept her eyes closed, feigning sleep; she wasn’t ready for family just yet.
But Annie couldn’t hide from Cham. “You’re awake,” he said drawing all attention back to her. She pouted for his benefit as they descended on her, the family that she and her sister Samantha created after their parents died. Kathy and Ryan couldn’t help it; she was as important to them as they were to her.
“Good, sweetie. You’re awake.” Kathy planted a kiss on her cheek and pulled her into a hug. “I hear it’s not so bad. They’ll release you tomorrow.” She smiled at her goddaughter. Kathy and Ryan had been her dad’s best friends. Annie had known Kathy her whole life, and had anyone ever asked, Kathy’s face was the only face Annie saw when she thought of “mom.”
“Feeling better?” Kathy asked hopefully.
“Yeah. Tired is all,” Annie said.
Ryan sat at her feet. He was the man who kept her from falling to pieces when her father died. He hid his emotions behind his smile; all she had to do was look in his eyes to know he was worried.
“Annie.” Ryan squeezed her foot. “I thought this was a quick capture,” his voice quivered though he joked.
“Why shouldn’t I have any fun?” Annie replied.
Though she felt better, her body ached from her feet to her head, something a strong pain potion would eventually take care of. She fidgeted with the bed controls, trying to find relief as well as avoiding eye contact with her sister, who glared at her uncomfortably.
“You had to go up against a seven-foot-tall demon?” Samantha finally said.
Annie stared at her sister, frowning. “If I knew my magic wouldn’t affect him, I would’ve waited for backup. We took him down, so he’s off the street. Besides, I’m fine. You guys came and visited. Go home, eat something good. Think of me.”
“We just wanted to make sure you were okay. And you’re relatively okay. Though you really need to stop falling on your head.” Kathy winked.
“I’ll try and remember that when the next demon throws me across a room.” Annie held Kathy’s hand, letting her mother her.
“And just to let you know, Robin is coming home in a few days. I want you well enough to come to dinner,” Kathy said. Her son was, by trade, an adventurer traveling the world in search of rare and dangerous magical artifacts. He always came home when he found something or if his mother harangued him. Annie wondered which it was this time.
“That’ll be fun,” Annie said. “Anyway, before you all berate me for working or to get me to take care of myself or yell at me, go home. I see it’s night, and I’m fine.”
“Fine, we’ll go. You sleep and rest.” Kathy offered another hug and kiss. “I love you, honey. Sleep well.” Reluctantly, Kathy pulled away. In the time since Annie had found her father’s file and read his note, she missed her parents even more and, in that moment, would have preferred Kathy to stay. She resisted the urge to beg her to spend the night in the hospital room with her.
“Make sure you don’t go to work too soon. Though I know you.” Ryan touched her hair and kissed her forehead. “Love you, sweetie.”
“I love you,” Samantha whispered. It was all she could say. Annie knew that every time she got hurt on the job, it reminded Samantha of all they had lost. Annie felt a tinge of guilt.
Annie waved and waited as they reluctantly left the room, their footsteps growing softer as they left the floor.
“They could’ve stayed,” Cham said.
“When I’m hurt, it causes them pain and I feel guilty,” she said. “Much like how I feel when you first see me here.”
To avoid his gaze, she picked up her phone and checked for messages.
“Expecting a call?” Cham asked.
“Seeing that it’s 8:00 PM, I expect there’s no news from Graham or Perkins yet.” She dropped her phone on the table, it pinged against the metal. “I’m going to Tartarus tomorrow. I want to study that demon,” Annie said.
“I figured you would.” He sat back in his chair as the door swung open once again as Dr. Christine entered to resume Annie’s treatment.
Annie finally convinced Cham to leave, albeit reluctantly.
While she felt better, the room was dark, cold, and lonely; she missed his presence, his scent, his touch. But Annie needed time alone to process the connections.
Finding her father’s file, reading his notes, seeing the pictures, and once she found a tape recorder and listened to the tape, forever changed her. She couldn’t un-see or un-hear what it contained. While she was glad to have found the missing folder and know what was inside, she ultimately knew that loading the information on the cassette tape to her phone would be a bad idea. It was filled with such pain, emptiness, and anger that was more than she could bear—and Annie was bearing it alone.
She snuggled under thin covers, inserted her ear buds and tapped on the recording to hear her mother’s voice for the maybe the hundredth time. It didn’t get easier.
“Emily. You died. I saw your body. You were dead!” Jason’s voice rose with emotion.
“And now I’m not,” Emily said.
“Emily, how are you here? Why are you here?” Jason asked, such deep sadness in his voice.
There was a moment of silence between Jason and Emily. Footsteps clicked in the distance.
“Because they… they told me they would hurt Anne Elizabeth if I didn’t come. I couldn’t let that happen. I went with them.” Emily sighed. “Jason, there is so much even you don’t know.”
“Why didn’t you tell me? I could have helped you.”
Emily laughed coldly, robotically. “They’re powerful. They had ways to make me see that I needed to leave. Even you, the great Jason Pearce, Wizard Guard, is no match for them. What could you possibly have done?”
Metal scraped against glass. Someone slurped. “You shouldn’t be here,” Emily said.
“I can take you back with me. Now,” Jason pleaded.
“No. What’s done is done. I have a life here. Family who needs me. Even if I wanted to leave with you, I couldn’t. There’s something I’m meant to do. A greater purpose for me. I can’t leave. I don’t want to.”
“You left a family who loves and needs you. Don’t you care about Sami and Annie?”
“If you had left well enough alone, left me alone, we wouldn’t be here now. All you had to do was give them the stones and leave. Why must you make things more difficult than they need to be?” Glass clinked against glass.
“Emily, what did they do to you?” A chair scraped against a floor, a table rattled.
“Let go of me!” Emily’s voice sounded cold, bitter, possibly angry. “Go home. Be with your children before the Fraternitatem kills you. I won’t be coming with you.” Another chair scraped across the floor and footsteps grew softer as Emily seemed to leave and the tape ended.
Each time Annie listened, she shuddered and grew colder. “She didn’t even ask how we were,” she said to herself softly. She wiped away a tear, as she had each time she’d listened. Fewer fell now than when she first listened to the tape. Replacing the sadness was a new round of anger she couldn’t control.
Twenty feet below the human basements of Tartarus Prison were the demon pits, a noisy, dark, and smelly space created to securely house all demons captured by the Wizard Guard or the VAU. Each individual pit was a ten-foot-by ten-foot square and ten feet deep. The stone walls and floors were covered in a slick, oily substance that kept demons from climbing out. Ever since the prison was built in 1692, no demon had ever been able to leave.
Anyone who entered the stairwell was immediately hit with humidity and an unbearable stench that saturated their clothes and hair. Only the very determined came down to the pits and stayed for any length of time. Most witches and wizards never came down at all, if they even knew it existed.
Annie grimaced as the guard from the Wizard Zoological Society steered her to her demon’s pit. Noomi, a petite woman with long brown hair and light-blue eyes, flashed a smile as she led Annie across slimy, dung covered stones and rotted food. Low growls, angry grunts, and frenzied cries wafted up to them.
“Here you go, Annie. Not sure why you want to see it,” Noomi said. She was dressed for the job in dark coveralls and heavy gloves. She placed her hands on her hips as she waited to escort Annie back out.
“I’ve never seen a demon that could regenerate. I was curious.” Annie crouched low and peered at the creature as he paced wildly. He stopped suddenly, glanced at the smooth stone walls, and felt for a hand hold to pull himself free. The stones, however, were cut in such a way there were no spaces between each rock, and any cracks were self-repairing. In frustration, the demon kicked the wall and continued the dizzying pacing.
“He’s been doing this all day,” Noomi advised.
“Has he said anything?”
“No. He acts humanoid and animalhood at the same time. It’s the damnedest thing.”
Annie took a breath and shuddered. Her body still ached from tracking and capturing the creature. It had been all she could do to convince the hospital she was ready for release, but now that she was down in the pits, she wished she had stayed in the ultra-clean and quiet hospital room.
“Do you mind if I stay for a bit? I’d like to see what he does,” Annie said.
“Suit yourself. I’ll be in quadrant four working on another demon if you need me.” Noomi walked from Annie toward the back of the large pit area; her flashlight bounced as she walked.
Annie sighed, summoned a blanket, and laid it flat on the top of the pit where she took a seat. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t stop observing and studying the creature.
Where did you come from?
The more the demon paced the pit, the more frustrated he became. With nothing else it could do, the demon ran at the wall and gave it a heavy punch. The force was so strong the stone cracked and loose debris clinked against the floor. Seeing the foothold, the demon punched the stone several inches above the first hole.
But this was Tartarus Prison, a structure designed to hold evil wizards, vampires, and the most dangerous demons of the magical world. Within minutes of the stone breaking apart, the magic inside caused it to promptly repair itself. The demon yelped and shook out the pain in his hand.
“Hey, Annie,” Spencer called out from behind her. He joined her on the floor. “How are you feeling?”
“Stiff and sore, but otherwise I’m good. No more concussion, no more cracked ribs.” Even as she spoke to him, she couldn’t take her eyes from the demon. “He’s restless,” Annie offered and placed her chin in her hands, resting her elbows on her knees.
Spencer bent at the waist and watched with curiosity. “My target is human,” he said.
“Hmmm,” she murmured. The demon looked at his hands and back to the wall as if planning escape.
“So, what do the human and the demon have in common? Do you think they’re here together?” Spencer asked.
“Well, it appears your target knew the demon. What the hell language was he speaking anyway?” Annie asked.
“I recognized nothing he said.”
“Look at what the demon is wearing? It’s so…”
“It’s not modern. The long tunic, loose pants, primitive shoes. Mine wore boots that were higher on his legs, not these bootie things. Actually, they’re both dressed in similar clothes,” Spencer said.
“Who wears that?” Annie said. She desperately tried to connect the dots and she feared there wasn’t enough information to do that yet. And no matter what ideas she came up with to explain the demon and his presence here, she just couldn’t place the regeneration demon in the pit. She was stumped.
“Cosplay?” Spencer asked.
Annie glared. “Next guess.” He chuckled.
The demon marched along the walls of the pit, turning left at each corner and continuing down the next wall.
“Clothing notwithstanding, maybe your target was the one who conjured the demon with mullein, and it escaped and he was out searching for it,” Annie suggested.
“When we meet with Gila Donaldson, we’ll have to ask her if she knew him and why he’d be doing that in her house,” Spencer quipped.
“Ugh. This demon’s making me dizzy.” Annie finally pulled away from watching the creature and turned to Spencer. “How about we pay a visit to Gila Donaldson and find out what she knows?” Annie’s phone buzzed. She glanced at it. “Actually, Graham and Perkins have something for us. I hope they don’t mind the stench.”
“The smell’s worse once you’re out of the pits.” Annie grimaced at her smell as Spencer held the lab door open for her. Graham Lightner, manager of the VAU, and Perkins Abernathy, the Wizard Hall lab manager, were discussing the clothing samples laid across the farthest stainless steel table in the large laboratory. “Oh, good, you’re here,” Perkins said and waved them to the table.
The lab had been blown to pieces three months ago when a rogue French Wizard Guard attacked Wizard Hall with an ingenious spell. Marielle Beauchamp was now serving time in a nonmagical prison in France after killing several family members for the remaining Beauchamp money and property.
Annie was surprised how much work they’d managed to do with the lab in such a short time. Rather than holding just three stainless steel tables, the room was now large enough for five gleaming tables. The shelves below each table held clear storage boxes filled with implements and tools. Cabinets and shelves covered all the walls, a new door led to the shower room. She noticed the vent to the incinerator was no longer in the middle of the floor, open and exposed. She guessed it might be hidden in the changing/shower room.
The room was clean, smelling of disinfectant and ammonia.
The wall between the lab and gym space was rebuilt, including a window that was thicker than the previous one. She glanced inside the gym. The massive space was partially finished. The floor had been installed, the walls were bare. The wall between the gym and the maintenance department had been blown out in the blast and was now rebuilt.
“It looks good,” Annie said as she and Spencer joined the two managers at the table.
“Thanks, Annie. I’ve got to say, yet again, you bring me the most unusual things,” Perkins said as he picked up a vial. “What’s your impression of the demon?”
“Well, he seems half human and half demon,” Annie responded.
Perkins raised his eyebrows. “Yes. He’s a weird combination of the two, and there’s nothing like it in the databases.”
“Awesome,” Annie said without cheer.
“He is a demon. We just don’t know the species, location of orientation, or how he was created,” Perkins added.
“But he is a hybrid? Please tell me he was created with magic, and not by intermingling of the species,” she said.
Perkins chuckled. “Well, I can’t say that with any confidence, but I will say it’s a bit weird. There is a dark magical trace attached to the demon, but it’s old. So old that we ran the trace twice. It’s one hundred years old,” Perkins said.
“The demon’s one hundred years old?” Spencer asked.
Perkins shook his head. “I thought that, too. So I sent Minka and Roscoe back to the demon to examine him best they could. You know freezing him, checking his teeth for wear, taking X-rays. If we look at the demon as if he’s a human, the demon would be about fifteen years old. But then, he’s a demon. His teeth could wear quicker than a human, or not as much. So we looked at his pelvic bones and how they were formed. Also about fifteen years old. Because he’s not magical, we can’t measure his trace, but honestly, I think the demon is younger than one hundred years old.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” Annie said.
“The body is young; the magic is old. So no, it doesn’t make sense,” Perkins replied.
“Could it be that the species of demon was created a hundred years ago, and they have been reproducing,” Spencer suggested.
“That’s my best guess. I’d have to do more tests if you need an exact age of the demon. But I think if the species was originally created, the demons are now reproducing on their own,” Perkins explained.
Annie frowned. “We don’t need an exact age. I’m more concerned about where he came from. He had to be conjured from somewhere. And I’ve never seen a demon like this.”
Graham stepped in. “Well, the VAU did a little sweep of the house after you left. Good catch on the mullein. It was recently used, probably to conjure the demon. We haven’t determined from where. However, that brings us back to Perkins and the clothing.”
She raised her eyebrows in anticipation.
Perkins held up one of the many fabric swatches they pulled from the demon. The first came from his tunic. What had started as a white garment was now dirty gray and covered with black smudges and dark brown spots of dried blood. “This is from his shirt. We dated this to the late ninth century.”
“Seriously?” Spencer asked.
Annie and Spencer each donned latex gloves and held the fabric samples. “Late ninth century? And the rest of the items?” Annie asked as she picked up a sample of the leather belt and a sample of the pants.
“All the same,” Perkins said.
“So the demon was probably summoned from the ninth century? I wasn’t expecting that,” Annie said. She rubbed the fabric between her gloved fingers before placing them back on the table.
“Allen and Skye captured the magic. They’re trying to reverse the spell to determine the date and time the demon came from. The next bit of help should get us closer.” He offered a sly smile.
Annie and Spencer glanced at each other. “What about your target? He was dressed the same, wasn’t he?
“Yeah, he was,” Spencer said.
“You can’t summon a human,” Graham said.
“Is it a coincidence that he was there at the same time?” Perkins asked.
Spencer laughed. “He spoke a language we didn’t recognize, and he and the demon at least seemed aware of each other.”
“Our best bet is to trace the conjuring energy to find out where he came from. In terms of your target, Spencer, we just need to bring him in. He could clear all of this up as well,” Graham reiterated.
“Another thought, I can pull a tooth. There’s way to determine where a person or creature grew up by how their adult teeth were formed. I can try that with the demon,” Perkins offered.
“Let’s hold off on pulling the tooth for now. We can make the leap and assume if the clothes are from the late ninth century, the demon probably is too. At least that will give me a time frame for research into the demon,” Annie advised.
“Just remember, if he came from the ninth century, the magic inside him is still a hundred years old. You might want to start in the eighth century and work to the end of the ninth,” Perkins suggested.
“Next question then, why summon a ninth-century demon here?” Graham asked.
“And if the man is here for the demon, where did he come from?” Spencer added.
“Those are definitely the questions to ask,” Annie said as she thought of her dad’s letter, the prophecy, and Sturtagaard’s cryptic message.
After a quick shower, Annie and Spencer grabbed their lunches and found an empty table in the Wizard Hall courtyard. The summer day was warm but not too hot, and the bright sun invited several wizards to have an outdoor picnic on what felt like a perfect summer day.
The southwest corner of the courtyard held the elementary school, preschools, and camps. The enclosed playground was filled with young children, climbing on the equipment, laughing, shouting and running around, taking full advantage of their summer break. Annie wondered if Cham’s nephews, his brother Jimmy’s sons, were out for their lunch break.
Cham and Gibbs joined them, pulling her away from reflecting on the kids. “So what’s new?” Cham kissed Annie’s cheek and sat beside her. He unwrapped his meatball sandwich and took a large bite.
Annie explained the DNA test, clothing samples, and the mullein trace.
“Should we state the obvious?” Cham asked when he swallowed.
Annie played with her turkey sandwich. “That the demon is wearing clothing dated to the ninth century and was most likely conjured from the past?”
They were quiet for the moment as they continued to eat their lunches.
“You do realize that Sturtagaard was a Viking in northern England, specifically Northumbria, in the ninth century,” Gibbs said. He stabbed his steak with his fork and cut off a piece.
“Records are inconsistent. Some magical historians say he was turned somewhere in between 865 and 875 CE, other historians think he was turned in 950 CE. That’s generations apart,” Annie said.
“You should ask him,” Gibbs grumbled.
Annie frowned and turned to Spencer. “I didn’t get a great look at your target, but what did he look like to you?” Annie asked Spencer.
“You’re going to make me say it aren’t you?” Spencer asked. She raised her eyebrows. “He looks like a Viking.”
“So you’re suggesting time travel?” Cham asked.
Spencer chuckled. “No. I’m not suggesting anything.” He took another bite of his salad.
“Ugh.” Annie summoned the talisman she found in the house. “With everything else, I nearly forgot. The demon was looking for this.” She lay it on the table.
The three wizard guards stared at the talisman. “It’s weird. The Vikings started invading England in 793,” Annie began. “The coven came here at the end of the ninth century or early tenth century. The dates aren’t completely accurate.”
Spencer picked up the talisman. “These and mullein are used to conjure demons. So again I ask, why conjure a ninth century demon?”
Annie took a bite of her sandwich and chewed slowly.
“Think back to Jason’s letter. He mentioned a prophecy. Sturtagaard is at the house when you get there. Let’s say he knows what’s going on, that you need to find the demon. Conjuring a demon and leaving it to terrorize a neighborhood would bring out the Wizard Guard,” Gibbs said.
“It’s all too… perfectly planned and executed,” Annie said.
“Why? Because he got you to the house when he wanted you to be there? It did take a week for us to be connected with the demon.” Spencer said.
“Okay. So not perfectly executed.” Annie took a swig of water from her bottle.
“I can’t see Sturtagaard conjuring a demon. Too much work, too little reward. I wonder what his role is?” Cham frowned.
“Annie. How long have you had that note?” Spencer asked.
She glanced at Cham and quickly at Gibbs. “I’ve had it for three months.”
“Have you tried to find the prophecy your dad mentioned?” Spencer asked.
Annie had spent the last three months not sleeping well as she waited for Bucky to find her mother. It had seemed more pressing than finding a prophecy. But now she realized Spencer was right. “Honestly, there were some other things in my dad’s missing file I wanted to investigate first. I hadn’t thought to search for the prophecy,” Annie explained.
“So what should we tackle first, the prophecy, Sturtagaard, or Gila Donaldson?” Spencer asked, rolling his sandwich wrapping in a ball and stuffing it in his bag.
“Sturtagaard won’t give us an honest answer. Let’s find out what Mrs. Donaldson knows. Maybe she can clear it up and we can send the demon back to where it came. If we need to, I can have Mrs. Cuttlebrink look for the prophecy,” Annie said.
“And the other one?” Spencer asked.
“Gibbs and I will go and find a tall man dressed in ninth-century clothing. What could go wrong?” Cham teased.
As the Wizard Guard department manager, it wouldn’t be odd for Milo Rawley to come to Tartarus Prison to interview suspects or to conduct other Wizard Guard business. He mostly chose not to come unless absolutely necessary. Today wasn’t, but he couldn’t stay away from a demon far too interesting to not observe for himself. He sat on the edge of the pit as the creature paced, scratched feverishly at the stone wall, and grimaced at the blood dripping from his raw fingertips. Milo wanted to cast the spell to blow him up, but refrained.
When the demon wailed a slow, anxious cry, Milo inched closer for a better look.
The demon paced, glanced around the empty pit, and appeared to be thinking of something.
Milo moved his palms, thinking about blowing the demon up, but for a second time, he rested his hands on his knees.
“So, have you seen him regenerate yet?”
Milo smiled. Ryan Connelly, the Grand Marksman of the Wizard Council for America, was standing behind him and looking into the pit.
“I haven’t seen you at Tartarus in a while. What brings you here?” Milo asked.
Gracefully, Ryan lowered himself to the edge of the pit and crossed his long legs, taking a look at the regenerating demon. Ryan rarely ventured to Tartarus Prison unless it was of great importance. This wouldn’t normally be considered important.
“Well, I must admit, I’m very curious about this demon.” Ryan said, sounding nearly giddy. As a former wizard guard, he rarely came across something he hadn’t seen before. “And that is the creature Annie went up against. I’m surprised she wasn’t more injured.”
“She can fight,” Milo said. He was reflective, silent, his usual gruffness not present.
“What are you thinking?” Ryan asked. It was unlike Milo not to share.
“They think the demon is from the ninth century,” Milo said.
Ryan raised his eyebrows. “Have they caught the other one yet?
“Cham and Gibbs are going out later today.” Milo sighed.
The demon, tired from pacing, from the chase yesterday, and from the present day demon pit, sat in the center and stared at the bloodstained wall.
“What’s he doing?” Ryan asked.
“Thinking,” Milo said sardonically. “You ready to see this?” Ryan offered a nod.
As if they were kids in a toy store, the two men excitedly stood. Milo grinned as he jinxed the demon. At impact, the creature blew apart. His innards flew across the large pit; bits and pieces of the demon covered the walls and the floor, some landing beside Milo’s foot. Yet, as quickly as the creature blew up, body parts—muscles, sinew, fluids—inched together, reforming the large creature. Arms and legs sprung out of the torso, and hair grew from the new head. The demon shrieked; his voice reverberated across the basement.
Other demons throughout the prison reacted with grunts, cries, and barks.
“That was cool,” Ryan said. “Buy you a beer?”
Annie and Spencer landed in the side yard of the house belonging to Gila Donaldson, a corner lot along Sheridan Road in Evanston. At this time of day, most residents were still at work, though the well-traveled street was quite busy.
They separated as Annie strolled to the empty backyard where the pool water glistened and the cushions on the chairs baked in the sun. Annie glanced at the three-story home towering above her before strolling to the front yard, stopping at a side window. The lights were off, and the expensive television above the fireplace was black. She gazed across the yard, along the sidewalk, and to the house next door. She met Spencer at the front door.
“She could be at work,” Annie suggested. She and Spencer walked up slate-covered steps and stood before the intricate, leaded glass window on the front door. She pressed the doorbell.
“Nice house,” Spencer commented.
“It pays to be a descendant of the original Wizard Council, I guess,” Annie said.
They waited the acceptable amount of time before Spencer pressed the bell again. Annie stepped off the porch and peered at the windows. The curtains in the attic window fluttered.
“Someone’s home.” Annie pointed up. “I saw movement in the attic window.”
They waited for a moment longer. Just as Spencer was about to push the bell for a third time, the door squeaked open.
Seventy-two-year-old Gila Donaldson was slim with nicely coiffed silvery blonde hair. Her skirt and blouse were contrasting shades of beige. She looked put together though perhaps overdressed for the hot summer day.
“Hello, Mrs. Donaldson, I’m Annie Pearce and this is Spencer Ray. We’re wizard guards.” Both held their badges for her to see.
The descendant of the original coven mumbled to herself incomprehensibly, though Annie thought she heard the name Anaise.
“So, how can I help the Wizard Guard?” Gila asked cautiously.
“We have some questions about the house you own on Freeny Avenue in Evanston. Can we come in?” Spencer asked. Gila Donaldson tightly held the handle of the front door, Annie glanced uneasily at Spencer.
“I can’t figure what the Wizard Guard is doing with that knowledge. It’s really none of your business,” Gila said curtly.
“Actually, ma’am, may we come in? There’s been some trouble at the house we need to discuss,” Annie said.
With her hands tightly gripping the door handle, Gila Donaldson motioned them inside, closed the door quickly, and walked them to the front room. “Please sit. Can I offer you some water or some tea? Coffee?” she asked.
“No, ma’am. Just a few minutes of your time,” Spencer said.
Reluctantly, Gila Donaldson sat across from Spencer and Annie and placed her hands in her lap, wringing them. “How can I help you?” she finally asked.
“Ma’am, I chased a demon to that house yesterday morning. He stormed inside as if he knew the house, and he completely destroyed the front bedroom looking for this.” Annie held up the talisman, observing Gila carefully as she did. Gila’s eyes widened, but she said nothing.
“Do you know what this is for?” Annie asked.
Gila shifted in her seat and pulled a loose strand of hair from her face, tucking it behind her neatly styled short bob. “It’s a talisman,” she mumbled.
“We found mullein trace and magical summoning spells in the house. Did you or someone you know summon a ninth-century demon?” Annie asked.
“That’s private property. You had no permission to enter the premises. I can report you,” Gila said indignantly.
Annie and Spencer exchanged glances. “Mrs. Donaldson. We realize that we didn’t have permission to enter, but a demon was running loose in the neighborhood, and we were not aware that you owned what looked to be an abandoned home. We as wizard guards are within our rights to investigate a magical creature in a nonmagical neighborhood. We captured the creature and secured him at Tartarus,” Spencer told her.
Gila moved her hands to the armrests of her chair. Her hands clutched them so tightly that her knuckles turned white.
“Fine. I’ll give you that, but I do not give you permission to enter the property again,” Gila said, though her voice was soft and weak. Even she realized that dark magic had occurred there and that the wizard guards indeed had the right to investigate. She sighed deeply.
“I know you’re aware that’s not true. The house is a crime scene. We can go back to investigate.” Spencer watched her reactions closely. Reluctantly, her muscles slackened and she let go of the chair.
“Thank you for informing me about the demon. Is there anything else?”
“We think this demon has something to do with a prophecy that involves Annie, and we would like your help to find out what that is. We think she might be in danger,” Spencer said clearly and with authority as he stared at Gila.
She drummed her fingers against her silk skirt. “I’m sorry if this demon caused you problems. I hope it hasn’t hurt anyone.” She sighed again as if resigned to continue, then looked at Annie. “There are certain things that are going to happen to you. I wish I could say more. I really do, but Annie Pearce, this is your destiny. I am only one small part of this and I did what I was required to do. I can’t tell you anymore. It is up to you to figure it out.”
Annie stared at the talisman and then back to Gila Donaldson. “So you were required to summon a demon and a man from the ninth century for what purpose?”
Gila shook her head, stood and opened an antique desk in the corner of the long front room. She took out a yellowed, brittle scroll sealed with the wax seal of the Wizard Council. She handed it to Annie. “I was told very little over the years except that I was to summon a demon. I don’t know what man you are referring to, but you can’t summon a living human. Once you became engaged in the events, I was to give this to you,” Gila said and handed the scroll to Annie.
The seal was thick and dry, nearly brittle, but it looked as though it hadn’t been touched in years.
Perhaps even one thousand years?
“Is this the prophecy?” Annie asked. Gila shook her head.
“I don’t know what that is. All I know is what I’ve told you. I have nothing else. And thank you for alerting me the house was destroyed. I’ll have someone on that soon. I think you need to leave now.”
Gila rushed them from her house without saying goodbye.
Spencer glanced at the front door. “Maybe Emerson will be a little more forthcoming. Shall we find out?”
Gila Donaldson watched Annie and Spencer leave her property from behind the attic curtains. It pained her to lie so blatantly, but then, they all their roles and that was hers. She stood over her alter where her familial Book of Shadows lay opened to the pages that guided her every action where Anaise concerned.
My dearest Gila, the letter began.
There will come a time when you will need to set the plan in motion. You, Gila dear, will meet Anaise the Brave and your single goal will be to get her back to us, whatever the cost.
All that you need has been recorded here in this Book of Shadows. We all have our roles, yours starts here and will end with Anaise coming to us and returning home…
Gila re-read the plan as it was laid out centuries ago. Today, she was to give these pages to Annie. But she didn’t.
Because her power will be too strong.
Annie was special, the power that would come to her would endanger them all. The conflict had roiled in Gila’s stomach when she was given her destiny. For what she was about to do, she could only hope the ancient ones would forgive her for her transgressions.
Before hounding Emerson Donaldson, Annie and Spencer met in the conference room on the fifth floor of Wizard Hall. She stared out the large window and down on the roaring traffic.
“What are you waiting for?” Spencer asked patiently.
“I wanna know, but I don’t.” Annie stared at the unbroken seal of the scroll and snapped it easily. She sighed and unrolled the scroll.
We called to the ancient ones for guidance. They sent us your vision in the fire and exclaimed that it will be you who will save us from these wretched beasts that have overrun our home. Blessed be. This is to reassure you of the ancient ones’ love and the gift to you for the role you play in this war. The great coven of Northumbria will forever be in your servitude.