Some love heals. Some love consumes. Which love wins?
Learning the truth about the malevolenci war changes everything. The fairies, jinn, and vampires have already rebelled, and now zealots threaten to go a step further by siding with the enemy. Traitors are everywhere. Covert plots disrupt centuries of peace. Those still loyal to the Order must end the war quickly, or else there won’t be an Order left to save.
For Esme, their greatest ally’s reappearance is soul-shaking. She knows they must work together, but what does this mean for Esme and Owen’s relationship? And what is Esme’s place now that she’s not this world’s only protector? Do they even need her anymore…or want her?
By invading the heart of the malevolenci world, Esme and Owen have a chance to end this war once and for all. Their elite cavali team is ready to face the dangers of the demons’ hellscape, but the greatest threat is one they never see coming.
(Spoilers if you haven’t read Books 1-2)
“I think he was talking to me.”
Esme stood frozen, staring at her crouched origini. The cloaked woman smiled at her reaction but turned back to Owen. She reached out a hand to help him up.
Owen was also still in shock, but he reached up for the offered assistance and got to his feet. Apparently he couldn’t think of anything to say either, and the trio stood together between the colossal fallen bentaforx wings. Esme peeled her gaze from the origini long enough to peer down the empty space and see the burning bentaforx corpse. It appeared the cavali had taken care of the other demons, and they looked around for further orders.
Owen eyed the cloaked version of Esme. “We need to get you out of here.”
She gave a nod. “Yes, I imagine my return will cause a commotion.”
I’ll say, thought Esme.
She noticed Loukas, the muscular Master Cavali, pointing back up the hill toward the trucks. The black man’s deep voice boomed orders to the men, but then he turned the king’s way and started jogging around the demon’s corpse.
Esme examined the bentaforx wings on either side. “Any idea how we sneak her away?”
“I’ve got one.” The origini held out her leg and aimed her castorca at the toe of her boot. Pulling her fingers together, she burned an illuso spell into her boot. Once the symbol sparked to activate and a shield went up, she disappeared from sight.
Wait, thought Esme as she studied the space where the origini had stood. I can still see a slight shimmer from the spell whenever she moves. Weird.
Loukas jogged closer, and in the dim light Esme saw the relief on his face.
“Try to act normal,” Owen whispered.
“Sure, no problem.”
They exchanged a look as Loukas arrived.
“Glad you’re okay, my lord. We had no idea what was happening in here.” His head turned from one wing wall to the other. He squinted at Esme. “Was that you attacking the demon? I saw someone jump on its chest, so I made the men hold fire, but I couldn’t tell…”
Esme swallowed. “Yeah. It was me. How many cavali did we lose?”
“Five dead. A few more wounded. The bentaforx was so focused on you and Owen that it mostly left us alone.” Loukas paused, hand resting on his cavali gun belt. His eyes moved from Esme to Owen and back again. “Everything okay?”
Owen let out a breath. “I won’t lie to you, Loukas. Something’s happened. But we can’t explain right now. Esme and I need to leave ASAP, and I’d prefer to avoid questions. Can you tell my team to head back without us?”
Loukas hesitated only long enough to glance at Esme again, but he nodded. “Yes, my lord.” He pointed behind them to the building ruins at the far end of the wings. “There’s a road back there. I saw it when the conjuri were putting up illuso spells around the area to hide our battle. None of our trucks came that way. You should be able to sneak off without anyone noticing. I’ll tell the men you had other work to do.”
Owen nodded. “Thanks. I promise we’ll explain as soon as we can.”
“That’d be great.” Loukas seemed like he wanted an explanation now, but he jogged back to his cavali.
Owen looked at Esme, then at the blank space where the origini supposedly stood. “Okay, let’s go. I’ll call Teddy and have him pick us up.” He reached into his cavali pants pocket where he stored his phone while on missions.
Esme kept quiet and continued to walk through the space between the fallen wings. She allowed herself an occasional glance over her shoulder to see the shimmer that showed the origini was following. Only half aware of Owen talking on the phone, she reached the ruined building and started the climb through and over the rubble.
This is insane. We just discovered the truth about the origini and the malevolenci being our creators – wasn’t that enough to deal with? Now here’s the goddess I’m a copy of, dropped back into our lives! Artemis. Her real name is Artemis. What is she doing here? How is she alive? I’ve heard the story of her death a dozen times. A bentaforx snapped her neck. No way she survived that. The cavali with Owen at the time drove the bentaforx back into its rift, and it dragged Artemis’s body with it. Cat balls… Was she still alive?
“Thanks, Teddy.” Owen hung up the phone as they crested the highest point of the building’s wreckage. He glanced back at Esme and started down the far side. “He’ll be here in ten minutes.”
Esme tried to keep her mind off the invisible goddess behind her. “I thought Teddy was still in Texas visiting his mom?”
“Got back earlier tonight.”
She couldn’t think of anything else to say, so she slid down a large chunk of concrete debris and landed on the dirt on the far side. Looking back at the ruins, she saw one section covered in graffiti. A spray-painted ghost was still intact on the collapsed wall she’d descended.
That’s a little too accurate for the situation.
Esme noticed Artemis’s shimmer also now on solid ground, so Esme turned back to find Owen. Ahead in the moonlight, he climbed over a short barricade that stopped the ruins from spilling onto an old road. Esme climbed over the concrete barricade and sat to wait, her feet on the road’s pavement. The road ran left toward the Jazz District; she had no idea what was off to the right. On the far side of the street, an old building similar to a stone castle stood abandoned.
“Oh,” Esme said aloud. “Now I know where we are. That’s the old workhouse.”
“What?” Owen seemed like he’d taken a beating, and he winced as he sat on the barricade a short distance away.
Esme pointed at the historic building. “It used to be a prison. At least it was in my world. My dad brought me here when I was little. It was a weird tourist attraction.”
Beside Esme, the shimmering illuso faded and Artemis appeared. She, too, sat and stretched out her legs, eyeing the building in question. “You sure that wasn’t a castle? Like where royalty lived?”
Esme squirmed. “The royalty of Kansas City? Pretty sure that’s only a thing in this world.”
Artemis chuckled and pulled her long hair free from her cloak. “Touché.” She smiled at Esme, studying her face. “What alt-world are you from?”
“Uh…” Esme looked at the pavement and used a castorca to draw the symbol of her world. “That one.”
Artemis examined the symbol. Her purple eyes widened with interest. “It’s perfect. You’re really good.”
Esme felt a weird rush of pride at the goddess’s compliment. “Thanks. Can’t help it – I have a photographic memory. It’s come in handy with symbol spells.”
The origini smiled. “I’ll bet. I saw how fast you drew the termino over the rift earlier. Impressive.”
Owen, clearly uncomfortable, blew out his lips and rested his hands on his knees. “If you’re not going to discuss anything of actual consequence, how about you keep hidden in the illuso, please?”
“I’m getting to know my alterni, thank you very much. Do you have any idea how cool this is?”
Owen sighed. “If anyone sees you…”
Artemis threw up her hands. “Fine. Fine.” She pulled a ball of magic into her castorca and tossed it to the illuso symbol burned into her boot. A second later, she disappeared into a shimmer again.
Esme looked at Owen. He gave her a tense glower before facing the old castle.
If this is surreal for me, for Owen it must be–
Headlights stretched down the road, and Esme watched the approaching car. She got to her feet with Owen and watched as Thaddeus’s car slowed to a stop on the shoulder nearby. The big man climbed out, closed his door, and walked toward them through the lights of the car.
“Everything okay, my lord?”
“We need a lift back to the house.” Owen shook the bodyguard’s hand, then put his hands on his hips edgily.
Thaddeus faced Esme with the closest thing he had to a smile. “Miss. Good to see you again.”
“You too.” Esme smiled at her bodyguard/butler/almost-friend and took a step toward the car. “Let’s–”
Thaddeus held up a hand. He looked past Esme and stiffened. After sniffing the air, he squinted into the darkness, trying to see whatever he’d detected.
“Get behind me!” The big man darted forward and pulled Esme’s arm to spin her around behind him. He held out his other arm to protect Owen.
Owen made a face. “Uh, Teddy–”
Before Esme knew what was happening, Thaddeus dropped to all fours. The big man’s body arched and stretched, and in the headlights Esme watched in shock as Thaddeus morphed into a man-sized creature. His arms, chest, neck, and head shifted to the form of a bear while his remaining torso and back legs shifted into the back half of an enormous wolf. The Thaddeus beast planted its legs and held its ground in front of Owen and Esme, growling at the shimmering space where the goddess hid in the illuso.
Esme’s heart was pounding.
The shimmering illuso faded. Artemis held up her hands and faced Thaddeus, a guilty smile on her face. “Sorry. It’s just me.”
The beast stopped growling and took a step back. Even for an animal, the stance showed surprise. A second later, Thaddeus bowed his head into his body and morphed back into his normal human form. His suit was still intact, though Esme had no idea how that was possible.
How the fairy dust is any of this possible?
She looked over at Owen. He didn’t seem surprised at all.