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Brynja clucked and muttered in German as she gently turned Dad’s palm over between her small hands. “Oh, Mikhail. How did this happen?”
I cringed as the tips of his fingers came into view. They were colored purple, nearly blackened.
She shook her head and clucked again. I waited irritably for her to tell more, to give me more information.
To give me reassurance that we could fix this.
Brynja lay his hand down and reached for the covers. Dad grunted as she pulled them away from his torso, but he didn’t awaken. Perspiration beaded along his hairline, and his skin had paled even more from earlier that evening.
She tugged at his sweatshirt, exposing his abdomen. Dark lines carved pathways beneath his skin, all roads converging in a circle of spider-webbed darkness where his heart beat.
A wave of nausea hit me. I sat on the edge of the bed and closed my eyes against the sight of my father’s magickally destroyed body.
“He really has worked himself to death,” I murmured.
“What?” Brynja sounded lost in thought. She covered Dad up again and looked at me. “No, sweetheart. This isn’t something he’s done to himself. He’s been cursed.”
“Someone did this to him?” My vision swam. I leaned forward and stuck my head between my knees, sucking in deep, even breaths. Someone had cursed my dad.
Someone had cursed my dad.
Jerick leaned stoically against the wall by the door, all trace of his good humor gone. He asked, “What can we do? Can we heal him?”
“We can try traditional methods — some tinctures meant to curb spells perhaps. But ultimately, our only road from here is to find out who did this. The perpetrator is the only person who can cease the spell before it…” Brynja trailed off.
Kills him hovered in the room around us.
“Can we trace the magickal signature?” I asked.
Brynja trailed a palm over Dad’s torso. She closed her eyes as her hand hovered over his heart. She shook her head. “We can try. I can’t sense anything. It’s so easy now to hide one’s signature.”
Easy for her to say. My signature may have been a neon-flashing go-go dancer, for all the stealth it had. The Council catalogued all witches by thirteen years of age, when their powers became most evident. If I cursed someone, the Council would take one whiff of the magick and haul my ass to jail.
Between the collected centuries of practice shared by Herm, Helga, and Brynja, we didn’t need a spell to confirm what they could tell by sight. But a brief spell using Dad’s blood validated what we already knew — it was a curse, and it couldn’t be traced.
“What now?” I asked. My father slept soundly, his chest rising and falling beneath his layers of warm clothes.
“We have three days from the beginning of the spell to stop it,” Brynja responded, subdued. “Two of those days are gone.”
“So, what can we do?” Jerick cut in.
Brynja caught his eye and touched her forehead in an acknowledgement of the divine. “Pray.”
* * *
Brynja left soon thereafter in a cab. I sat on the edge of my father’s bed, Jerick in a chair in the corner, as Dad slept. His breathing seemed labored; his face sweated profusely. He moaned under his breath and rolled to his side. I touched his leg, at a complete loss.
On the floor at my knee, Herm leaned against me soundlessly.
“I don’t know what to do,” I murmured. “I can’t live without him, Jerick. I can’t lose him. He’s all I have.”
“You have me. Herm. Brynja.”
“I know, but he’s my dad. He’s my world.” The words caught in my throat, strangling me. I wanted to scream or cry or stop breathing entirely.
The room was dark, lit only by the ceaseless annoyance of infomercials. They comforted Dad. They always had. He could sleep with them going all night, the sound high enough to wake the dead.
Jerick took a shaky breath. “What would you do to save him?”
I looked at him like he’d asked me the stupidest question in the world. “Anything. I would do anything to save him.” And I felt it intensely, deep within my gut, an ache that told me I would sacrifice heaven and earth to save my only parent.
Jerick closed his eyes. “I’m going to regret telling you this.”
“You never regret telling me anything. You’re a gossip.”
I expected my cousin to laugh, but he just opened his eyes and leveled a serious glare on me. “There’s a guy you should see. I’ve heard of him before, but I’ve never met him. Not personally. I don’t know… he’s always seemed like a-a boogey man. Nobody I know has ever met him. Legend says he holds the key to the gates of hell.”
“Hell isn’t real. Neither are boogey men.”
“But do you know that? For sure?” His black eyes glittered in the dark of the room.
I shivered and clutched Dad’s knee as if he could ground me to this place and time, where hell didn’t exist and he could still get better.
“The underworld?” I said uncertainly.
Jerick nodded. “This guy can get you in. That’s what I hear, anyway.”
“Jerick, that’s insane. The underworld isn’t real. Even if it was, why would I want to go there?”
“Because the Lord of the Underworld has more power over life and death than you or I could ever imagine. He might be able to save Mikhail. At a price.”
* * *
I found myself walking the streets of East Harlem in the hours before dawn, feeling foolish as fuck for listening to my idiot cousin.
This area of town was as rough as the hide of a shark, and if you spent long enough around it, you’d bleed. But I palmed my pepper spray and kept my protection spells wrapped tight around me, my sights set on a specific address.
I was on a damned fool’s errand, and I knew it. Jerick’s idiot friends and their idiot tall tales. I’d probably find a crack house at the end of this carefully handwritten address, complete with a man waiting to rape and murder a sweet little twenty-something like me.
I clutched my pepper spray tighter and wished my imagination would shut the hell up.
Less than twenty-four hours till sundown and the beginning of Samhain, and I felt the spirits restless around me, like they were in my little Jersey house. The veil was thinning quickly, and who knew what beasties followed me in the night. I longed for the sun to chase away the shadows; I longed for streetlamps that weren’t busted and eyes that didn’t follow me in the night.
“Out for a good time, baby?” a woman asked as I passed her hidey-hole. She perched on a cracked set of porch stairs, her long brown legs bare beneath a mini-skirt that barely hid her goods. She leaned forward, smiling, thick, heavy breasts swinging. “Momma’s got what you need.”
I ignored her, but put my finger on the button for my spray.
“Or maybe Momma can find you what you really need,” the woman called as I hurried past. “We’ve got it all, baby. We can give you all.”
I counted to five, doubling my steps to the words. Nothing followed me but the sound of her phlegmy laughter and the lonely hoot of an owl.
I reached my destination without further molestation. I didn’t have a name — just an address that took me to a Spanish grocery.
The place was closed for the night, lights off and no one around. I peered through the barred windows, searching for any kind of movement within but to no avail. A security light illuminated an empty row of aisles stocked full of brightly colored kibbles, but no people. I knocked; the sound echoed down the street. God knew what kind of attention that would bring.
Casting a furtive glance around me, I checked for witnesses. If there were any, they were well-hidden. I closed my eyes and centered myself, then traced a sigil on the glass front door. Raidho, the rune of travel. I visualized the glass and bars fading, allowing me entry.
Manipulation of energy. Manipulation of molecules. I may not have been able to piece things back together when they broke, but I could damn sure take them apart.
I walked through the bars as if they didn’t exist, and the store’s cool interior rushed around me. Behind me, the entrance sealed together again, and I moved further inside.
I stalked through the grocery, searching for anything out of place. The gently humming refrigerators yielded no results, and the back room was surprisingly clean but devoid of inhabitants. The bathrooms smelled of disinfectant, and the cash register hung open, money drawer gone, presumably in the safe for the night.
But I felt… something. Something not quite right in the darkest corners of the back room.
Calling up Witchsight isn’t hard, but the amount of energy it requires can knock you on your ass. I closed my eyes and reached for my power, the German words my father once taught me flowing from my lips on a whisper. Witchsight would reveal things not visible to the mundane world. Anything touched by the paranormal, by the Otherside.
I felt the energy settle over me and opened my eyes, blinking against the sudden flare. The once dark store was now illuminated by the cast of otherworldly energy. The stuff was everywhere, as if the Otherside had taken up residence in a lonely, privately-owned grocery.
And near the small office, I found an outline of a door in a wall where there was none.
A magickal door required no handle to open. I pressed my fingers to the wall and pushed, and the door swung inward, brilliant light exploding from the interior.
Whatever lay behind the door was most definitely magickal.
I let go of my Witchsight; otherwise, I’d go blind under the weight of it. The ensuing darkness seemed even more deep and dangerous, so I whipped out my phone, triggered the flashlight, and began to descend.
The narrow stone staircase sloped further at every turn, until I had to hold the wall in one hand to keep myself from tumbling down. I took step after step, the earth bearing down on me more with every sweep of the staircase. I walked forever, until I felt the sun had risen above and the world had turned on its axis to begin anew without me in it. Still, the staircase went on.
When the end came, it was so abrupt I nearly fell over my own feet on solid ground. I leaned on the wall, dizzy and disoriented. A hallway stretched into an apex of night before me, my little flashlight revealing nothing.
I fought back a thrill of terror and pressed on.
If the staircase took forever, the hallway took longer. An entire age of mankind could have passed in the silent solitude of my journey. I felt so outside of myself, as if I’d born, lived, and died to walk this tunnel.
I passed no cross tunnels. No doors. The never-ending coffin of stone made my skin crawl until I was ready to claw my way to the surface with only my fingernails.
“Fucking ridiculous,” I spat, kicking at the dusty floor. Something about my voice steadied me. Reminded me I was real. “What am I doing? Where the hell am I? Hello!”
My yell echoed ahead. I laughed, a little hysterically, because it was better to do that than cry.
Suddenly, a figure appeared in the hallway. I thought I’d imagined it at first — a gray shadow with no substance, a trick of the eye because I’d clearly lost my damn mind. But then the shadow blinked, and I was no longer alone.
He was the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen. Messy blond hair fell into eyes that shone mahogany in the light from my camera. He was huge, taller than me by a head, wider than me by a world. Shadows painted hollows on the sharp planes of his face, and he looked like someone’s interpretation of classic beauty in blue jeans and a gray sweatshirt.
Then he slammed me against the wall.
My head hit stone and lights flashed where vision belonged. I noticed in an offhand, uninterested way that my phone flew from my fingers and click-clacked down the stone floor, light extinguished. His hand remained on my shoulder, pinning me to the wall.
I raised a hand to his shoulder and called my power. Witchsight was a pretty amazing thing; see, what infiltrated the mundane world and allowed me to see the unseen could also be gathered and used as a weapon. Witchlight.
Pure energy rushed towards me as I spoke the incantation. I could draw the Witchlight in, like a sponge soaking up water, until I was the one who shone and the world around me dimmed beneath my glory.
Witchlight hit him with a force no less than his own punch. He stumbled backwards and hit the opposite wall, steadying himself with both hands on the stone. I raised my palms, glowing brilliant green, and he hissed.
Sharp, pointy canines glinted in the Witchlight.
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