by Marie Castle
Cate Delacy isn’t thrilled to be volunteered as a finder of lost bodies, but she’s not immune to Gemini Roskov’s grief and righteous desire to claim her father’s remains. It means a confrontation with the hostile Council of Supernatural Beings that controls far too much of New Orleans’ darker mysteries and…personalities.
Face time with the Council isn’t a good idea for Cate, what with their dislike of her entire family, as well as their mistrust of her untested powers, distaste for her unladylike attitude, and disdain for her need to know the truth. A less direct way must be found.
Then there is the matter of Cate’s feelings for the too sexy and too immortal Jacqueline Slone, whose loyalties are as clear as black glass at midnight. Something is rising inside both of them, and it may well be a lover’s touch that reveals a truth no one is expecting.
Marie Castle – A stunning new voice in the supernatural!
Book Two of the Darkmirror Series.
The Devil You Know —
Praise for Marie Castle's DarkMirror Agency Series
Marie Castle Revitalizes the Lesfic Dark Urban Fantasy Landscape! - Queerly Reading Lesbian
GCLS Goldie Awards
Hell's Belle— Finalist, Lesbian Paranormal, Lesbian Debut Fiction.
Lambda Literary Awards
Hell's Belle — Finalist, LGBT Speculative Fiction / Paranormal.
Denoir, the First of Hell’s Seven Realms—
Thirty Years, Ten Months, and a Lifetime Ago
Evie’s exhausted heart labored, chipping away at her fortitude with each stumbling beat. Slowly, steadily, she moved doggedly forward, favoring her wounded shoulder, pacing herself in the heat that persisted despite this world’s golden-red sun having set hours ago. Three moons hung low overhead, making it easy to see…and be seen. Her weary eyes searched the blue desert cliffs for shelter. The land was littered with strange rock formations, scraggly golden shrubs, and oddly-colored purple cacti. Some of the formations and larger plants would have hidden her from sight temporarily. But she needed something more substantial, something that could be warded.
It wasn’t a question if she would be found…but when.
They had been on this world two days. Unlike her, her pursuers were not trained for such harsh conditions. But they followed her with almost mindless diligence. They knew her blood was their only escape. Unlike Earth, there was no life here to fuel the opening of a portal. Unless they turned on each other, there was no sacrifice here but her.
And that was how Evie wished it. She would not be forced to watch another girl die. Here there was nothing and no one to protect, which was why she had switched the gate’s destination to a spot with the least magical activity—damning her to a place where it was impossible to hide her own magical signature. Damning her to run until she could run no more.
Seeing a thin shadow slash across a ledged cliff high above, she headed toward it, carefully stepping from rock to rock to leave no prints, avoiding prickly plants that would tear her clothes and leave telltale threads. Even as she climbed along a game trail, she used the barest edge of magic to watch the sorcerers.
There were thirteen, possibly more, slowly moving a mile behind. Too many to fight alone. Fortunately, her mama hadn’t raised a fool. Evie was intent on running, not fighting. She would not die today. The sorcerers were sorely mistaken if they thought the gate they had arrived through was the only one this world had to offer.
The ledge was a shallow cave that led downward to a slightly larger cave. She moved deeper into the cliff, using as little magic as possible to light her way, marveling as she went at the paintings lining the walls. Some showed men with wings fighting men covered in flames as they hovered in a dark night sky remarkably like the one she had just left. Three shadowed moons hung low against the horizon. One painting showed massive humpbacked demon creatures roaming over a land covered with tall golden grasses. Another showed rivers running with fire and black blood. The last image showed a barren world, its sun cold and black.
Evie shuddered and hurried on, pulled by the comforting call of a familiar song. At each turn, she left a ball of green magic pressed tightly into the roof. Each was powerful but well hidden. The last cave was nothing more than a narrow tunnel, the entrance to which she blocked with heavy wards.
By the time Evie reached the black stone gate at the back of the cave, she was stumbling. She lay down to rest, relying upon her magic to warn her of the sorcerers’ approach. They would need a half day or more to find their way into her temporary sanctuary. As she drifted away, Evie’s thoughts were of her family, especially her twin sister, Helena. The sisters had always been able to sense each other, but with Evie’s forced trip through the darkmirror to Denoir that bond had been severed. No doubt her family thought her dead. She might well be before this was finished.
Evie awoke hours later when the darkmirror at her back began to resonate to a new song, signaling its opening. Tired, sore, weak from the dagger she had taken to the shoulder two days ago, Evie rose as quickly as she could. Her sword had long since been lost, but she was far from defenseless. She stood ready, an orb of green magic blazing in her hand, when the black-haired demon, his body encased in fire, stepped through the liquid blackness. The bright light shining from the gold medallion at his neck was blinding in the dim cave. The gate was wide enough for two to enter side by side, but he seemed to fill its entirety. Evie knew it was an illusion created by the flames, but knowing made the sight no less impressive.
Evie knew enough about demons to know he was Royal. Only they were like the guardians and could travel at will through the gates. But she didn’t bow, didn’t kneel. She held her head high and defiant, ready to fight to the death. On this world, she owed allegiance to none but herself.
The gate stilled behind him and the gold medallion’s glow dimmed. Evie’s jade eyes met the demon’s light blue ones.
The man smiled, noting the guardian’s powerful protections. His power shot out, sensing the traps she had left for those following her. It was a wily plan: To bring the caves down upon their heads as she moved into the gate, entombing all but herself…if she was lucky.
It was the sort of action he could respect. Too bad he couldn’t let her do it. He had been watching her and her pursuers from afar for two days. She was strong, brave, resourceful. He had already decided to intervene when the threat her magic posed to the caves made his impulsive decision an obligation. This place was sacred to his people. It was his duty to preserve it.
“Guardian.” He tipped his head to her, his voice smoothly even. She was the first gate-keeper to cross into their lands in hundreds of years. Their entrance wasn’t forbidden, but there were rules to be observed—formalities to honor—and for good reason. She would have been dead ten times over if he had not used his magic to lure away the scavengers frequently attracted by the scent of her sweet blood.
“Demon.” She tipped her head in turn, keeping her eyes on him.
Sweeping a hand out, he created an image of the black-clad sorcerers making their way up the same path she had traveled hours before. While she slept, the sun had risen. She could see the men’s skin boiling red under the bright rays, the sweat beading on their heads, the blood now long dry on their hands. They would have been wise to do as she and travel by night. Even demons did not willingly venture into the desert during the day’s heat.
“You bring trouble to my world,” he said.
“Believe me, it wasn’t my intention.” Her voice was hoarse from disuse and dehydration.
The demon considered the woman before him. Her normally bright red hair was dull with dust and sweat. Her hands shook with tiredness. But her shoulders were back and proud, her stance fierce. It was the fight he saw in her eyes—the determination he had watched fuel her for these two days—that had made him wish to help her long before she had found his people’s ancient sanctuary.
“Your kind and mine have an agreement.” His eyes glowed bright with magic. Fire swirled in their depths. “Do you know what it is?”
She nodded once.
“Good.” He waved his hand. As they watched, the men pursuing her erupted in flames, their mouths open in silent screams. The image changed to the gate they had used miles away to enter this world. One man lay on the ground, snoozing in the dry riverbed’s shade. The other sat lazily guarding the black stone that had once lain under twenty feet of rushing water. Within a second, they too were in flames.
In the span of a few heartbeats, her enemies were dead. Her pursuers had become the prey. But she was no less trapped. While her sister had studied demonology, Evie kept the guardians’ lore. This Demon Lord had done her a favor. Unrequested or not, she was obligated to return it. She owed him four days for each sorcerer he had killed on her behalf. She counted the smoldering piles. Sixty days. Her magic, counsel, and service were his for that period.
He held out his hand. Evie looked at it. She was obligated to serve him but not touch him. As his medallion began to glow again, turning the black stone to liquid, Evie found herself placing her hand in his. Both flinched at the spark that arced between them but neither acknowledged it.
“Demon,” she asked, “what are your expectations?”
He looked at her, his eyes piercing in their clarity. “Call me Falcon.” Just before they stepped into the stone, he succumbed to a moment of unprecedented weakness. “I have no expectations,” he reassured her. “I would release you today if I could. But there are rules that must be upheld.”
She nodded and stepped through with him, moving with the blink of an eye to the demon’s home on the other side of this world.
Strangely, she believed him. For a man who could kill fifteen men without thought, he was a surprisingly honest demon. If she could find a way to let her family know she was safe, the next two months might not be the torture she had expected.
Of course, she could be wrong. Sometimes expectations or the lack thereof simply begged to be broken.
“A good disguise must incorporate sound, touch, smell…all the senses. You must not simply hide behind the mask. You must be the mask.”
—Illusions: A Magic User’s Guide, Volume Two
Gandsai, Mississippi—Day Nine
“Shoo! Shoo!” I jabbed the broom at the pony-sized hellhound lounging on my back lawn. The bristled end stopped feet shy of contact, halted by the swirling blue and green warded energy wall separating us. My late great-grandmother Grams had used the same broom more than once when chasing our evil hell-spawn of a cat, Hex, who had a knack for creating trouble where trouble wasn’t wanted. The broom was as effective on the hound as it was on the cat, which was not at all.
The demonic doggie—a female I assumed from her larger size and darker coloring—blinked black eyes at me then resumed gnawing on a deer haunch.
We had houseguests this morning. As soon as they finished breakfast, some would leave the safety of the wards and head home. No doubt my grandmother, Nana, would consider it unmannerly to let our guests be eaten by a hellhound. That sort of thing just wasn’t done. If I couldn’t get the hound to move on I was in for a lecture.
“Scat, cat!” I waved the broom over my head.
The hound gave me an offended look before rolling her eyes at the broom. She was more intelligent than the hounds I had met previously. Of course, those had been trying to rip out my throat so I hadn’t been inclined to offer an IQ test before dispatching them.
“You don’t like being called a cat. So noted.” I pulled hellfire from within myself, lit the broom ablaze, and used it to gesture toward the woods. “Now scram before I send you back to hell the hard way!”
The hound bared wickedly sharp teeth bloody with her breakfast.
Safe to say that was a no.
I returned the gesture, showing her my meanest smile. “You have something right about here.” I pointed to my upper right molar. “They call it floss, honey. Invest in some. And it’s been a rough week. You’ll have to do better.”
The hound flicked a tongue across her teeth, hunched a shoulder as if to say Whatever, and returned to her food.
“Don’t be fooled by my sweet disposition and southern drawl.” I shook the fiery broom. “I could fry your ass if I wanted to!”
The hound turned her back on me and waved her tail in a clear Bring it gesture.
“Ugh,” I doused my flames, “you obviously have no idea how stinky a fricasseed hellhound carcass is.” I waved the broom for emphasis before lowering it.
The crunch of bone was her only response.
My nose twitched. Smelling smoke, I looked to see the broom’s bristles were singed. That was the third this year. Nana would be ticked. Even more so if I killed a hellhound on the lawn and didn’t clean up. Little miss sassy paws was getting a reprieve…so long as I could ensure she didn’t snack on our company once she finished the deer.
I had the sinking suspicion no matter how things went I would still get a lecture. Damn it all to hell and back, I hated Mondays.
I blew a lock of raven-black hair from my eyes. It curled in the high humidity and fell back against the side of my face. I couldn’t believe I was arguing with a hellhound on the back lawn while in the house my family was serving breakfast to a passel of weretigers. More importantly, I couldn’t believe this hell-mutt was even here. We had recently killed two hellhounds nearby on the front lawn after they had attacked us. That was when I had learned roasting demonic creatures created a nasty mess. You would think the remaining stench would deter further visits.
“Maybe I’m losing my touch.” It could be I wasn’t intimidating this morning, what with my bare feet, cutoff jeans shorts, and shower-damp hair. I was already a petite woman, topping out at five feet five with my boots on. People never took me seriously…until a knife pressed to their ribs threatened to drive home the point. Or maybe the hound knew I couldn’t come for it without lowering the ward door and exposing myself. Even so, the beast should have been a little scared. According to my mother’s twin sister, Helena, I was half-witch, half-demon, and more trouble than the cat…which was saying something.
Unfortunately, recent events had proved my aunt right. I was trouble. Or at least had mad skills when it came to landing my ass in it.
It had all started a week ago yesterday when I’d skipped Sunday brunch with my ex-mother-in-law to retrieve Bob Rainey. Rainey, the stupid but human accountant for New Orleans’ Vampire Mafia, had run off with millions of his boss’s dollars. The Kin had hired my family’s PI agency, The Darkmirror, to bring him back.
Or that was the story I’d been handed.
I had tracked Rainey to a warehouse in Gulfport about an hour and a half from my home in Gandsai, Mississippi. There I found him handing a briefcase to a cloaked man he called Nicodemus. If that wasn’t bad enough, Rainey had become a walking corpse possessed by the dark spirit Sarkoph. Nicodemus vanished while Sarkoph used Rainey’s body to attack me with black magic. When the fight ended, I was injured, Sarkoph had been banished to who knows where, Rainey’s corpse was half-incinerated, and the money was gone.
The Vamps hadn’t been pleased.
They’d grudgingly paid me for the job and offered a bonus to find the money, so I put out feelers for Nicodemus, whose name and a gold medallion left on Rainey’s corpse were my only clues. That was followed by a call from Luke, the unfortunate werewolf who had briefly been my husband, with a cryptic message from Jupiter Jones, a New Orleans trumpet player and the darkest-skinned man I had ever met. Jup said trouble was headed my way. As usual he was right. My asking around about Nicodemus had led the Supernatural Council’s local sheriff to me. Sheriff Fera was also looking for Nicky-boy, only for much darker reasons.
I don’t like or trust The Council, especially after my mother disappeared three years ago on what I believed was a Council mission. But my family had the power to open and close the hell-gates at will. With that power came the responsibility of policing the darkmirrors—what we call the black stone gates that cross the void between worlds. We are guardians. When Fera said Nicodemus was looking to open a darkmirror and bring his demon master’s army through, I had no choice but to accept the help of her contact, former Council operative Detective Jacqueline Slone. With smoky gray eyes, auburn hair, and a dimple that popped out when she grinned, Jacq turned out to be as alluring as she was mysterious. From the very moment we met, we had been drawn to each other. There was something frighteningly powerful growing between us, but neither of us seemed to have the good sense to run from it. I wasn’t sure where this relationship with Jacq was going…where it could go. We have what you might call a major incompatibility. I was mortal, she immortal. But I knew I was falling in love with her.
Which brings us to last night when we finally found Nicodemus and his minions. When the showdown ended, I walked away with bruises and a concussion. Jacq had a cut on her thigh. We were both alive and healing supernaturally fast. Not everyone had been so lucky.
I gripped the broom handle as my demon-half stirred within me, drawn out by my anger and sadness. One of the casualties had been our neighbor and family friend, Professor Arno Wellsy. We believed he and the other men in his group had been possessed by Nicodemus and his brothers during a Virginian coal mine cave-in, though no one understood what they were doing there. Wellsy was a history professor, the other two a guide and a financier. A fourth member of their group, a woman illusionist, had been lost and was presumed dead. Part of me wanted to grieve for Wellsy’s loss, but I locked that part away even as I pushed my demon-half down. There would be time to mourn once I’d discovered how Wellsy had come to be involved in this. Until then, there was work to do and guests to see on their way. Plus Jacq and I had our first official date tonight. The chivalrous woman wanted to “court” me and I was of a mind to let her. The timing wasn’t the best with us both injured and the case only partially wrapped, but I’d had enough of death. I wanted to live and that meant time alone with the woman who warmed my heart and made me feel alive. Tomorrow would be soon enough to begin looking into Wellsy’s death.
I turned my attention back to the hound now savoring the last stubby bones. Maybe my witchy Spidey sense was busted. I should have been alarmed by the hound’s presence but wasn’t. I still had the feeling something big was on the horizon, a storm not finished with Nicodemus, but my gut said this hound wasn’t part of it, which didn’t make sense. Why else would a hellhound be here? Hellhounds were rare, usually staying in, well, Hell. Or rather they lived in the Otherworld, but Hell was easier to say. At least they had been rare until a few days ago when two of them attacked. Larger than the largest Great Dane with a pit bull’s locking jaws and the magical ability to track their prey through any plane of existence, hellhounds would never be mistaken for anything from Earth. Did I mention their eyes sometimes glow an eerie, cliché red? Well, they did.
But this hound was different. She hadn’t joined the two when they had rushed us. Instead she’d peed on my truck tire then stolen my floppy-eared bunny slipper only to return it later. Annoying yes, but not exactly aggressive. And she was familiar for a more recent reason…
I stepped closer to the wards, examining the bites and scratches marring the hound’s flanks. A memory formed in my mind. I was driving to confront Nicodemus. Two of his raptor creatures tried to stop me but something rushed out of the night and caught them. I thought it was a Were in animal form, even as I knew that couldn’t be. The Weres were moving in from the opposite direction. It had been this hound. The cuts and scratches matched those the Weres had gotten while fighting the raptors.
“Why would you help me?” I asked softly.
The hound picked up the deer bones with her mouth, turned, and paced toward the wards. She dropped the bones near a blue ley line arch and backed away. Steam blew from her nostrils before disappearing in the sultry summer air.
“Seriously,” I snorted, making a face, “if you’re going to give a girl a gift, stick with chocolates or diamonds. Slobbery bones went out of style with cavemen!”
My laughter died in my throat as my light blue eyes met the hound’s black ones. For an instant, our minds meshed. She blinked and we separated. But that moment of connection had been enough to transmit a message. I let out a long breath, confused.
“The bones aren’t the gift. You are the gift.”
The hound’s head dipped in acknowledgment.
“Who…why…?” I stopped as Nana yelled out the open kitchen door.
“Cate, the wards are fine. I checked them this morning. Come say goodbye to our guests.” She paused. “And you better not have burned my broom again!” The bushes separating us kept me from seeing Nana but I knew her faded-green gaze would be turned inward as it was when she saw a vision of the past or future.
“I hate it when she does that.” I muttered, turning back to the hound. The lawn was empty but for a small pile of half-eaten bones.
Assured the hellhound was gone, I lowered the ward door and levitated the bones into the woods. As I walked back to the house, I broke burned bristles from the broom and wondered who would send me a hellhound. A sarcastic stubborn hound no less. I didn’t have a clue, but I could guarantee I would find out soon. Such a gift deserved a proper thank you. Nana would certainly agree.
It was the mannerly thing to do.