TUESDAY / NOVEMBER 28
The setting sun yielded warmth as weak as its light, and a meager snow was falling. Persephone Alcmedi sat on the stone bench where she and Menessos and Xerxadrea had buried the mermaid fairy Aquula. She had thought that this place would be quiet and feel peaceful and safe.
On all counts, she had been wrong.
The barren branches of the trees at the Cleveland Botanical Garden offered no protection. She felt exposed and watched. Gone was the soft whisper of their shifting leaves; the only voice they had now was the taunting clatter of wind gusted limbs smacking together.
Tight muscles lifted her shoulders a defensive fraction. Clenched hands lay in her lap. Three and a half weeks ago, here, after Aquula’s secret midnight burial, they had been attacked by fey. Xerxadrea had saved her life, diving in front of a fire bolt meant for Seph.
Her gaze rose to the glass house. Within those panes and beside the waterfall, Xerxadrea had died.
Better me than you, she had said.
Seph had come here tonight intending to meditate, but instead these lonely grounds once again bore witness to her tears. When she thought of Xerxadrea those drops always threatened, but this time she could not help setting them free. She mourned her friend.
As the tears fell, she realized she was weeping for more than the Eldrenne. She also wept because being the Lustrata was not something she wanted to be, but she had no choice. She wept because she was afraid, and was so tired of being afraid. And she wept because everything about her life had changed in the last seven weeks…and because danger and death was becoming commonplace.
When the crying waned, her burden weighed a little less. The wind’s icy fingers curled around her neck. Involuntarily, Seph shivered, thinking about how the world was racing toward its winter slumber. In Greek myth, this season existed because the goddess Demeter mourned the absence of her daughter, Persephone’s namesake, who spent this part of the year in the underworld surrounded by the dead as wife of Hades.
Seven days ago, in the wee hours of November twenty-first, that had nearly become Seph’s fate.
Trapped inside her meditation, she had escaped only because of a risky group effort including Nana, Johnny, and a trio high ranking women from the local Covenstead—not all of whom even liked her. In the wake of the affair, the questions still outnumbered the answers. And she wanted answers.
Meditation, to her, meant visiting her totem animal, the jackal named Amenemhab. This may not give her direct answers, but it usually provided clarity that would in turn determine a course of action.
But being hi-jacked by the god Hades had had a detrimental effect on her daily routine. In the week since the incident, she had not been able to meditate.
She’d waited a few days before attempting it. She’d counseled herself that fear was to be expected. But then she’d seized up in her mind, unable to flip that switch that took her to an alpha state. The first time she passed it off as a fluke. In the days since, each failure compounded the problem.
I have overcome the odds a statistically impossible amount of times. I am the Lustrata and I will not leave this seat until I have done what I came here to do.
Still, the words to initiate the relaxing process stuck in her throat.
This is not my home, where I was…taken. This is a peaceful garden.
In her mind, she worked to change the howling wind and colliding branches into something positive, like distant applause. She forced her hands to relax. Cleansing breath in and out.
This is the day of the full moon. I placed a circle of silver-string around me. On it are silver beads and protective quartz crystals. I poured a circle of blessed thunder water. I have sapphires—known for protecting their owners from captivity—at each compass point. I am wearing rubies, known to protect wearers against all foes.
I am well protected.
She repeated the last nine times, but it remained difficult to relax her body. After several more cleansing breaths and visualizing a white light shining slowly from her head down to her toes, and using that light as a trigger to relax the muscles on which it shone, she finally achieved a measure of calm. She whispered the words,
“Mother, seal my circle
and give me a safe and sacred space.
I need to think clearly
to solve the new troubles I face.”
With that, she touched that mental switch. She pushed at it. She shoved with all her mental might.
Instead of a bench in the cold garden, she sat on a rock at the shore of a great lake. The sun was high in the sky, and the breath of the world blew across her cheek like a warm kiss.
A deep sigh emitted from her left.
The jackal had his head cocked. His brown eyes were soft with relief. He stood, and she noticed that he seemed thick, not lean like a jackal should be. Stepping slowly, his paws made deep prints in the soft sandy dirt. He gathered his hind legs like he would leap, but instead laboriously lifted one paw onto the rock then the other. He hefted himself up until he was almost standing straight up on his hind legs. He slipped a paw onto her thigh.
Leaning in, he ran his muzzle along her cheek and pressed his chest to her shoulder. “It is good to see you.”
She wrapped her arms around his neck and hugged him back. “Likewise.”
They held the pose for a moment, then he backed away to stand on all fours beside the rock. He panted hard as if the activity had taxed him. “I am worried, Persephone.”
Instead of answering, he looked down the shoreline. A hundred yards away stood a wooly black ram, head lifted, watching them. Beyond him, more inland, was another. As Seph scanned the distance, she saw dozens of dark rams with curled horns. All were watching her.
The pit of her stomach turned cold. Such rams were the preferred sacrifice to Hades, in ancient times. Even if he couldn’t steal her from this meditation, he could generate eyes that would report back to him.
“Spies,” the jackal whispered, confirming her suspicion.
A howl brought her attention around the opposite way.
In this direction the land sloped sharply upward and there were large sections of rock jutting up from under the soil. Only thirty feet away, atop one of the great slabs of stone a black wolfhound posed like he was a dog show champion. Dangling from a cord around his neck was a silver disc. Even at the distance she identified it: the Stropholos of Hecate, or Hecate’s Wheel.
From his elevated perch he could see all the rams.
So Hecate was also watchful. But one black hound against dozens of rams?
“You are well protected,” Amenemhab said, “but watched.”
His choice of words being the same as her mantra sent a chill fluttering up her spine. “What am I supposed to do?” That one question and the despair in her tone summed up all that she felt.
Amenemhab spun toward the rock. “Fight!” he growled.
“Here? In this place?”
“Everywhere.” His voice was little more than a rasp around his panting.
She noticed that his head was even with his shoulders instead of held high. “I’ve not seen you like this before. You’re always the calm voice of reason. My conscience.”
His tail wagged once, but stayed low. “There are things you must discover. Things that others have hidden from you. Hidden from everyone.”
“I cannot reveal to you what I do not know. You must seek the knowledge.”
“Where ever it can be found.”
Cryptic conversations were standard here, but she had never learned to like it. “Okay…who can tell me where to start?”
“You already know where to start.”
She searched her thoughts and came up blank. “If you don’t have the information, how do you know about it?”
“As you have said, I am your conscience. I know only what you know, Persephone, including the things you do not want to know but nonetheless do. I carry what falls through the cracks, the hints you do not pick up, the data you willingly hide from yourself, and all the truths you do not wish to face. I bear those curiosities that prick at your mind, inquiries unformed, and those questions you dare not ask.” He paused and staggered a step. “Ask them!” his whisper quavered intensely. His legs trembled and gave. Though he tried to make it look like he had simply lain down in a rough manner, he couldn’t keep his head up. Chin dropping onto his front paws, ears pricked forward, his eyes slid shut like he was slipping into a nap.
Leaping off the rock she landed on her knees at his side. “Amenemhab!” She slid her hands under his chin and tried to lift his head. It must’ve weighed fifty pounds. She called his name again and repositioned herself to have better leverage. She lifted his head a few inches.
His eyelids parted slightly. “You always see a silver lining,” he whispered. “But there’s one you missed. Find it. Ask. And unburden me.”
“Attention guests!” The authoritative voice emitted from the garden speakers, throwing her from the meditation and into regular consciousness. “It is now four-fifty-five. The Cleveland Botanical Garden will be closing in five minutes. Thank you for coming. We hope to see you again soon, but ask that at this time you please exit the garden and the greenhouses. Have a safe journey home and a wonderful evening.”
Persephone couldn’t come all the way to Cleveland and not stop and see Beverley. Not even if her last trip to the haven had gone badly. Besides, Menessos might be able to help her understand what had happened with Amenemhab.
Civil twilight was gone when Seph stopped the Toyota Avalon in front of the building with the white terra cotta tiles. A piece of Public Square history, the old May Company’s underground theater was likely the only subterranean real estate in Cleveland. That was precisely why it was home to the local vampire haven.
The ground floors above were under interior construction to become the Haven—with a capital H—a night club that would be a major moneymaker for the group as well as a tourist draw for the city.
She reached for the door handle and scanned around at the traffic, noting a limousine heading south on Ontario. Three other limos followed it. She wondered what fancy event was going on south of town.
A trio of familiar faces exited the haven: two male vampires and one Beholder woman. Of the men, one was white and very Viking with his facial hair, the other black and very Zulu with his lean figure. Climbing out of the driver’s seat, she nodded at each in turn. “Bjorn. Zenzele. Ivanka.” All were wearing surly expressions, which was normal for the men. Not so much for Ivanka, but then Persephone’s last departure from the haven had actually been an escape from Ivanka.
“Come vith me.”
“Of course.” Seph flashed a confident smile.
The Russian woman led her toward the doors. She glanced up at the Chicago style tripartite windows then scanned over her shoulder to see which vampire was bringing up the rear. It was Zenzele. Bjorn was taking her car to their private garage.
The Haven had frosted windows so no one could see inside, but as they approached, Beholders came out the main doors with signs that read GRAND OPENING THIS FRIDAY.
Ivanka and Zenzele escorted her to Goliath’s office, let her in, and told her to wait. Decorated to mimic a gentleman’s library, there was cherry paneling and shelves with aged books. Lighted glass cases held relics and weaponry of ages past. She plopped down into one of the leather covered guest chairs opposite the desk.
Seconds ticked by on the grandfather clock and she noted the blotter on the desk was unmarked. She recognized the closed laptop as the one Menessos had used when he was Haven Master. Everything was as it had been, except the small case that had held a wickedly curved dagger was no longer on the desk. She glanced around, checking shelves for it. It was not here.
Minutes later, Goliath entered and shut the door behind him.
She sat straighter. “Haven Master.”
His suit style was decidedly Asian, tailored for his lean body. The fabric was flat black, instead of his typical shiny pleather. The high collar and thick cuffs flaunted silver embroidery, a motif that incorporated small skulls and bony hands. Skeletal pattern aside, the ensemble embraced the Goth style that was his custom, but with enough sophisticated elegance that it easily passed for professional VIP.
She hadn’t felt before that her attire was less appropriate that his.
Her sweatshirt was topped by a hoodie and blazer, layered for warmth. Paired with jeans and hiking boots, she was markedly casual for the formal greeting in his office.
He took the seat behind the desk, posture rigid enough to make the pickiest schoolmarm proud. His straight and longish hair poured from the collar like a white-blond waterfall. Nordic features made handsome angles of his face, but his forget-me-not eyes were like blue daggers set in alabaster.
A powerful vampire’s gaze could be as deadly as his fangs, so Seph gave him just a glance and avoided eye contact with him. Though he had been Menessos’s right hand, and assassination was among his specialties, he was young compared to most of the undead in leadership positions. Remembering that, and the fact that he had been Made by Menessos, and that she had power over him because she had Marked Menessos, her gaze returned to his and lingered boldly.
“You left this haven in spite of being ordered to remain within it.”
“I had an appointment.”
“It was not cleared with me.”
“I do not and will not accept the notion that I have to clear my schedule through you.”
“It is customary for the Erus Veneficus to do her Haven Master’s bidding, and to prioritize his requests before any other appointments. My predecessor did not clarify the responsibilities and expectations that came with the position he granted you?”
Her jaw offset for a heartbeat. “Goliath.”
“Oh, that’s right. You didn’t obey him because you ruled him. And through him…me.” He glowered.
She had used her power over Menessos, once and only once, to put them both on their knees. She’d done it to force Goliath to release her arm when his actions and words were scaring her. With his new position of power, that she could do this must be very disconcerting for him, as well as a concern for his higher-ups. That’s what this is about. “It is not customary that a court witch also happens to be the foretold Lustrata.”
His lips crooked to one side. “You are too special for this haven now?”
“I didn’t say that. You can’t deny that’s true, either.”
“I did not.”
“I suggest that from here on out, you refrain from giving me orders—”
“That would be terribly considerate of me, wouldn’t it?”
She ignored his mocking. “—and I will refrain from making you look like you aren’t in control.”
He stood. “Your words imply that you would allow a ruse, making it seem that I am in control when in fact you are.”
“I have no such intentions. You know that. You know me.”
His chin leveled up. “I know that humans make poor choices when they are pushed into desperation. As Lustrata, you will be pushed there.”
She stood, too, and defiantly kept focus on his eyes. “You could remove me as court witch.” She paused. “But then you’d lose the prestige of being the haven with the Lustrata serving as its Erus Veneficus.”
“Serving?” He laughed a cruel little sound and came slowly around the desk. “Defiance is not service, witch. Besides, you’d lose face as well if ousted from this haven. Your Witch Elders would think you weak if you cannot maintain your ties to the vampires. Of course it is mostly the sex that keeps your bindings to the wolves, isn’t it?” He grabbed her by the arm just as he had done before. He whispered, “Where’s my sweet physical bribe, Persephone?”
“Let go,” she said through clenched teeth.
His eyes glowed like an ice-blue neon sign. “Make me.”
Persephone reached deep within, into that place deeper than her core, where souls bonded. She touched that piece of Menessos she carried, and invoked it, reached through it into Menessos, searching for that piece of Goliath he carried. She felt so many others…. Beverley. Risqué. Talto.
But Goliath wasn’t there.
“Menessos released me.” His lips touched her ear. His breath was warm and his fangs frighteningly close. “It is expected that the Haven Master has tasted the blood of his Erus Veneficus.”