Black Magic Sanction (The Hollows #8)

1,232
04.03.2019

The slamming of the screen door behind me jumped through me like a spark. I had to get away. I had to go somewhere to regroup, figure out what had just happened. But as I stood in the silence, there was no peace in the living room. Ivy's couch was heady with vampire incense and memories. Leaving wet footprints, I paced into the kitchen.

My sneakers squeaked to a halt, and my heart pounded as I listened to the calls of the pixies through the window. The blue lights on the fridge's ice maker glowed, and I looked at the picture of me and Jenks standing before the bridge at Mackinaw. But the kitchen held no comfort even though my glinting spell pots and herbs made it mine. It was Ivy's, too, and the thought of her black eyes savage with the need to survive was too fresh.

Spinning, I walked past my room to the sanctuary. The hint of burnt amber coming from my bathroom and the blanket Al had given me – still waiting to be washed – seemed like a veil I had to push through, and I held my breath until I got to the wide space. As I stood at the end of the hall, the whispers of pixies at play seemed to echo from my past, the bright room a pleasant mix of all three of us and the memory of Kisten. There was no comfort here.

I was trapped by everything I cared about. I wanted to be cocooned, safe, but my security had always been the church and those in it. Right now, they were what was knotting my gut.

At a loss, I collapsed on the couch, pulling my knees to my chest and trying to find something to ease the ache. Sniffing back a tear of frustration, I thought of Al's kitchen and the hours I'd spent there in front of the smaller hearth, in the quiet with Mr. Fish and my own thoughts to keep me company. There was a peaceful security there, with the world pushed to the edges as I learned something new, gaining satisfaction and a grudging "passable" from the very demon I'd once been terrified of. I still was, but it was an old terror now, like growing up thinking you weren't going to see the next spring.

There was a scuffing at the top of the hall. Forehead on my drawn-up knees, I didn't look.

"Rachel?"

It was Pierce, and my head started to hurt. "Go away," I said. It had been his idea.

"I'm sorry," he said softly, and I lifted my head when he started to walk away.

"Wait," I blurted out, remembering the sorrow in his eyes when he had suggested the curse. He'd used it before. Maybe he knew how to justify it. "Don't go," I whispered.

Slowly he turned. Heartache showed on his pinched brow. For me? I wondered. For his part in helping me lose my innocence? The question of whether I'd use black magic to save those I loved had been answered, and I didn't know how to feel about it.

I watched Pierce's grace as he came back and sat across from me, perched on the edge of the chair with the coffee table between us. Exhaling, he put his elbows on his knees and looked at his hand, burnt and sore. I could smell the garden on him. It mixed with his redwood-witch smell, strong for just having done high magic – black magic.

"Is everyone okay?" I asked, guilty for thinking only of myself. "Bis? Jenks's kids?"

Pierce tossed the hair from his eyes. "Three of Jenks's kids were savaged but will mend. Jenks is death on as a strategist."

I put my feet on the floor and heaved to a stand, tired. "I should see if I can help," I said, even as I dreaded going back out there.

Pierce rose with me. "They're fine," he said, taking my fingers with his unburnt hand to give his words more strength. "It's you I'm powerful worried about."

The concern in his eyes caused my eyes to well. Damn it, I wasn't going to cry – even if I'd almost wiped out an entire clan of people. Pierce reached out, and I drew back. I needed something, but not that. I didn't deserve the comfort of another person. And not him. It would be too easy, and it might not be real.

Pierce's hand dropped, his expression becoming even more concerned as he saw my fear. "Talk to me," he said simply.

That… I could do, and I looked at him miserably as the band around my chest tightened. He was probably the only person who might understand. "I don't know anything anymore," I whispered. "I almost killed them. Pierce, what am I doing7. I am exactly what they call me. A black witch. Maybe I should just go with it. Go hide in the ever-after with Al. Leave my friends… " The tears started to well again. Leaving was not what I wanted.

Smiling faintly, he sat down, pulling me down with his mere presence. He didn't say a thing as I sat across from him and pulled my knees to my chin, but just that he was listening without judgment was enough to make me cry. I knew Jenks had killed before to protect his family. Ceri was a bloodthirsty savage despite her elegant charm and beauty – and always had been. Ivy was Ivy. I wasn't going to pretend that Pierce wasn't capable of killing someone. It was the thought of me killing someone I couldn't handle.

"I didn't want to be like this," I said softly.

"It was a decision," he said, safe and nonconfrontational.

"A decision to kill someone," I said bitterly. "With magic." That's all the curse did. There was no pretending that it was to heat bathwater or start the grill. It was able to break through an aura to burn someone alive – black magic no matter how you looked at it.

"You saved Jenks and his family," he offered. "Would you rather they be dead?"

I pulled back, not liking what I was feeling. "There had to have been a better way," I said dryly, my gaze going past him to the burnt pool table.

"Perhaps," he said slowly. "I swan I wouldVe killed them straight out to keep Jenks from making a die of it and you safe. I still think allowing them to live is a mistake. It remains to see if you are strong enough to see it through. And how."

"It wasn't a mistake," I said, affronted, and he sighed, burnt hand held loosely in the other as he looked down at them. Okay, maybe it was a mistake, but f d make it again in a heartbeat. Or maybe find another way to begin with. There just wasn't an answer that I liked, and exhausted in mind and body, I said, "They're right." Pierce's eyes met mine, and I added, "Vivian. Brooke. Everyone. I'm a demon. I deserve what they're trying to do to me." I raised a hand and let it fall, staring at it on my lap and wondering if I could smell burnt amber on it. "I'm filthy."

Pierce only smiled as if I was endearing, making me want to smack him. "You're not," he said, softening my anger. "Surviving the decision of letting such ornery people live will be its own punishment. Don't look to add to it."

"I don't want to be this person," I said, frowning when I heard Ivy come in and go to her bathroom. Getting something for the scratch on her bicep, probably.

"But this is who you are."

"Only because people keep throwing this crap at me!" I said loudly. "If everyone would leave me alone, I wouldn't have to do this stuff!" Ivy's bathroom door creaked again and she moved to her room. Cant I have one conversation without everyone listening in?

"The council will come after you now," I said, feeling better for some reason. "They know you've been helping me."

His gaze was in the rafters. "They'd do that anyway. I was never officially shunned because I was coven and it would've been embarrassing. Shortsighted pig farmers. That I dealt with demons in order to kill them meant nothing. What they think isn't worth a picayune."

Focus blurring, I thought about the very powerful charms, no, curses, that I'd seen him twist, and then the conversation we'd had at Nick's place. How come I couldn't not care about what the coven thought?

"Just exactly why were they so hot to kill you, anyway?" I asked. I had to know. I'd seen what he was capable of, and I had to know what he'd done.

Head bowed, Pierce looked at his hands. "My situation wasn't much of a circumstance," he said sourly. "I held trust with demons to kill them, but you can imagine that didn't mean a hooter to the coven. They were a sight more skerry of demons than they are today."

The coffee table was between us, but my skin was tingling. "That's why Al thought you'd kill me," I said. "Because you kill demons, and I'm a student of one?"

Pierce shook his head. "I wouldn't hurt you, even if you were a demon yourself."

The back door slammed behind Ivy, and I jumped, having forgotten she was in here. "Good," I said, a tad more bitter than I had intended, "because I probably am one."

But Pierce only touched his nose and smiled. "You're feeling better," he asserted.

Yeah, I was. Suddenly nervous, I stood.

"It's not what you are, but who you are," Pierce said, and when he stood as well, I started edging into the hall. "I saw you when you had just tipped the scales to womanhood, and I can tell you that you're much the same in your mind now as you were then."

"And what is that?" I asked from within the dark hallway.

Pierce was silent until he stopped right before me, his face showing an unreadable emotion. "You're firm in will, pure in intent, strong in magic. But now it's tempered with wisdom, and you're more beautiful and brilliant yet." I went to turn away, and he pulled me back. "You are shades of gray swirling, balancing needs and desires," he added, watching me. "You are good, Rachel. No matter what your choices lead you to, you will remain such."

My eyes warmed as my emotions tipped back the other way. Damn it, this was exactly what I needed, but I knew better than to trust fairy tales. "Is it harder to be good when you know too much, or is it that your mistakes make bigger messes?" I asked, miserable.

His hand fell from me. "You're moved by love. That means everything. Take it from one who's lost all and then gained more."

I dropped my head, feeling the weight in my chest start to lift. Exhaling long and slow, I realized I'd found my comfort in his words. Calm took me. Ivy and Jenks. His family. My church. Even Nick. Maybe Trent. They were all important to me. So I lived among savage people with a thin veneer of civility. Who didn't? I knew them. I loved them. I'd fight for their survival, and worry about the rest later.

"You're back," Pierce said softly. "You find your feet so fast, mistress witch. What are you going to do about the fairies?"

A faint embarrassment warmed my cheeks. "I thought we'd just let them go if they promised to leave us alone," I said as I started for the back of the church. I felt different, and I didn't know why. Maybe it was because I hadn't cried on his shoulder, but stood fast to my decisions. Accepted them. If it had been a mistake, then I'd fix it.

Pierce shook his head as he followed almost at my shoulder, and realizing I was proposing we trust a fairy to keep its word, I grimaced. "You're right. Stupid idea. Maybe I could put them in a box and ship them to Borneo."

"You can't send them anywhere," Pierce said. "They're a paltry seven-by-nine warrior without their wings. I opine, I mean, I think it's a slow, starving death they face. Living on one's own hook the way they do."

"I can't do anything right, can I?" We had reached the back living room, and I glanced at the new clock Ivy had put on the mantel, wondering if it had come from Piscary's. An hour after sunrise, and I'm still alive. How about that?

"It's not an issue of right or wrong," Pierce said as he reached to open the door. "I like that you create choices where none exist. I'm anxious to see how you make a fist of this, though."

"You're not going to help me, are you?" I asked, and he grinned.

"Sakes' alive, Rachel. Asking me to think is a powerful task."

My eyebrows rose, but I was in a much better mood when the sounds of the garden slipped around me. Taking a deep breath, I stepped out onto the small back porch.

The garden and graveyard beyond it weren't bad. From the vantage point atop the stairs, I could see a wide ring of burnt earth where the curse had begun to take hold at the edges, ribbons of wilting vegetation making random paths, like lightning, to it from where we had sheltered under Pierce's bubble. Imagining everything burnt made me sick. One of my neighbors was outside looking at the damage to his lawn, but he went in when he saw me. Wise choice.

Someone – Ivy, presumably – had turned the picnic table upright, and the fairies had been moved to it. They were in a circle, probably for their protection. A stash of cotton, medical tape, and antiseptic were in there with them. Two of the most able fairies were using their sharp teeth to cut the medical tape since their swords were currently being sported by Jenks's children. I'd always wondered where his kids got fairy steel. Now I knew.

The pixies hovering above them were not being nice. Pierce was right. This was bad. I couldn't ask Jenks to let them stay in the garden under his protection. He'd never forgive me, and it would probably kill the fairies. Death by pride.

Ivy looked up from dabbing an antibiotic cream on her arm as I schlumped down the stairs. Rising, she came over with a bandage, glancing back once at the fairies when Jenks's kids started shouting a vulgar song at them. "You okay?" she asked as she handed me the bandage and I pulled the tape off, fixing it in place over the tiny scratch and surrounding bruise.

"Not really." I crumpled up the tape and shoved it in a pocket. Behind me, Pierce eased over to the table, sitting down and forcing the pixies back with his presence. "How about you?"

She shrugged, and our attention went to Ceri, her back to us and her dress charmingly tied up around her knees as she knelt in the grass and helped three of Jenks's youngest kids prop up a bush that had gotten caught in the vanguard heat trails.

"Sorry for running off like that," I said. "Is Ceri still mad at me?"

Her eyes came back to me, a wide rim of brown around them in the sun. Nodding, she said, "Jenks caught a scout on his way to send word to the coven that the attack failed. Chased him down the block. We've got a small space before they send something else, I imagine, unless they're watching us."

I hope not, I thought, wondering if Vivian had seen it all. "Where's the scout?"

"Funny you should ask." She started back to the table, not answering my question.

Pierce looked up from a conversation with the fairy that Jenks had almost killed in front of me. I wondered what the fairy was saying – his thoughts I'd almost permanently silenced. Not ready to talk to him, I looked to Ceri. Pulling my shoulders up, I reluctantly went to her. The pixies with her scattered at her soft word, and I sighed.

"Don't talk to me," she said curtly as she tended the shrub. "I'm angry with you."

Her hands were busy with the plant, and I knelt beside her, my knees getting damp again. "I'm sorry," I said, thinking it was weird to apologize for not killing someone. "I couldn't do it."

Ceri pressed new dirt around the shrub. Her fair hair swung, but her motions were losing their sharpness. I handed her a twig to prop up a stem, and she snatched it. "Lee told me what the coven was doing," she said unexpectedly. "He said you'd be under siege, so I came to help. I left Trent to do it. Left Quen." She looked up, and I blinked to see tears in her eyes.

"Trent won't let you come back," I said, surprised. Damn it, she had left her secure home and excellent care for her unborn baby to help me, and I'd thrown her help in the dirt.

"I can," she said, her gaze on the dirt under her nails. "But I won't. I failed."

Huh?

Ceri took a deep breath and stood, still graceful despite her pregnancy. "Why do you think I was staying at Trent's estates?" she asked as I stood.

"To be closer to Quen?" I guessed. "Trent's gardens? His hot tub?"

Making a rude noise, she undid the ties, dropping the hem of her dress. "I was spying," she said wryly. "I was trying to keep you safe. It was what I was trained for." Her voice grew airy, almost sarcastic. "Educated by my mother to be married off to a rival family to spy on them and make sure treachery wasn't planned against us. Al used me as such, letting others borrow me on occasion. I was good at it." Her eyes flicked to mine. "At least I thought I was. When I finally find something worth spying for, I fail. I had no idea Trent was tangling you up. Not a hint beforehand, and none even after it happened."

"I'm sorry. I should have tried harder to reach you," I said, and she shook her head.

"You can't get through. Security has been tight since he decided to announce his candidacy for mayor this Friday, but it makes no difference. I failed."

Her head dropped, and I gave her shoulder a squeeze. "Don't worry about it. Trent's a tricky bastard. I'd be willing to bet he didn't tell Quen, even. How were you to know?"

"Oh, they all knew," she said bitterly. "Anything Trent knows, both Quen and Jonathan know. It's like a bloody men's club. Worse than the demons. Rachel, I can't go back."

Was it fear or shame? I couldn't tell. "Trent wouldn't hurt you," I said quickly. "Quen wouldn't let him."

"No," she agreed so confidently that I believed her. "Trent wouldn't hurt me, even if Quen wasn't there." Her gaze went to her swelling middle, and she made a rude face. "But I should have known that you were in trouble. If Trent would let pixies in his gardens, I'd have a hundred eyes and maybe be of some help, but I've nothing. I'm useless."

She sounded forlorn. Reaching out, I gave her a hug. The hint of ozone clinging to her mixed with something wild that might be her child growing within her. "You aren't useless. Ceri, don't be so hard on yourself. Trent is good at this."

The clatter of pixy wings pushed us apart, and Jax darted between us, Jenks's oldest son shedding orange sparkles of discontent. "Ms. Morgan, what do you want to do with the wingless wonders? They're starting to stink."

My brow furrowed as I turned to the picnic table. Giving Ceri a touch on her shoulder, I followed Jax back to Ivy and Pierce… and the fairies. Tired from a lack of sleep and the spent adrenaline, I sat beside Pierce. Before us on the old wood under a green-tinted sheet of ever-after were the survivors. Sixteen. That was it. The rest had "accidentally" died at some point between me destroying their wings and now. The scent of hot chitin and burning hair smelled faintly like a lobster boil, and it made me ill.

I could tell the leader from the rest by the bandage around his head where Jenks had struck him. He looked proud, his long pale face stiff with anger. All his teeth were sharp, more savage than a vampire's, and they showed when he talked. His eyes were black and too big for his face. Fairies were a savage race, and without the softening of the wings, they looked like pale grim reapers in their flowing white, almost ragged clothes made from spider silk. All of them without exception had white hair, the men keeping it as long as the few women I could see. The women had smaller teeth and were somewhat shorter, but otherwise, they looked the same.

The leader was staring at us, standing proudly even though he was clearly unbalanced by his missing wings. None of them had shoes, and the belts hanging tight around their waists were empty of their swords and bows. The last of the burnable weapons was going on the fire now, and I watched a young fairy snarl and throw an ichor-soaked wad of cotton at the barrier as presumably her weapons went on the blaze.

Jax hovered beside me, his hands on his hips, looking a lot like his father. "You should have let us kill them," he said, worrying me.

The leader lifted his chin. "You did that when you gave my sword to a pixy brat," he said, his words having a soft lisp and almost lyrical pacing.

Jax rose up, shouting, "You're an animal! Destroying everything in a garden when a little care and precision enriches it. We have to fight you or you'd destroy everything! You leave barren lots and weeds! Locusts. That's what you are. Bugs!"

The fairy looked up, hatred in his black eyes. "I'm not talking to you, maggot."

Pierce waved his hand to get rid of Jax's heavy dusting, and the pixy darted up and down, wings clattering. "Are you the leader?" I asked, not surprised when the fairy nodded.

"I'm not above anyone," he said, "but I made the decision to be here, and others followed. I'm Sidereal."

"Sidereal," I echoed. "I'm Rachel," I said, "but you probably already knew that."

"The name of a lesser soon fades." Sidereal corrected his slow tilt forward, a blush of anger coming over him at his own ineptness in maintaining his balance without his wings.

"I wish you hadn't attacked us," I muttered.

Sidereal began walking in a careful, slow circle. His balance was better when he was moving. "It was a good gamble. If we won, we would survive until the fall migration. If we failed, we wouldn't care." He stopped his pacing, hand against the barrier between us. "Keeping us alive won't give you a bargaining chip with the coven. We're tools to be discarded."

My eyes widened. It had never occurred to me to use them as hostages. "You aren't tools," I said, nervously picking at the table. "And you're not hostages either. I broke the spell because there has to be another way. You're still alive. When there is life, there are choices."

Sidereal turned, almost falling as he overcorrected his balance. "We are the walking dead," he said, huge eyes dark with anger. "Our wings won't grow back. My people are flightless. We can't migrate, and we can't fight. We were going to gain the land we needed or die in glory. Now we have nothing. Less than if we'd kept to our faded land and died as paupers. You've given us a very hard death, demon spawn."

Pierce smacked the table to make everyone jump. "Don't call her that," he threatened, and Sidereal gave him a sour look.

"I was the walking dead once," I said, and Ivy snorted. "I am right now, actually. But I try."

Sidereal turned away. The stumps of his wings were covered, but pale ichor had discolored the gauze. My gut twisted. Pierce was right. Without their wings, they couldn't compete. Death, though hard, would have been a blessing. A blessing I took from them. Think, Rachel. "Maybe there's a charm to mend your wings?" I offered.

Head tilted, Sidereal turned. "We still have no land."

"Then maybe you can stay here."

"Filth!" Jax shouted, wings a harsh clatter and sword pointing. "Never. Never!"

Ivy frowned, and Pierce looked worried. "There's got to be a way to fix this," I said.

Sidereal strode forward, having to catch his balance with a hand against the inside of the bubble. "You'd make us live under the protection of pixies?" he snarled, showing his fangs. "You'd make slaves of us?"

"They are backstabbing sneaks!" Jax exclaimed, drawing the attention of the pixies at the fire. "We'll kill them before letting them into our garden!"

"What's the big deal?" I said tightly. "You don't even eat the same things. It's just a matter of agreeing to abide by the rules of courtesy. And it's not your decision, it's your dad's." Sitting straighter, I looked for Jenks. "Jenks?" I called, tired of Jax's adolescent intolerance. It wouldn't be easy to get pixies and fairies to coexist, but they were going to try.

"They will destroy everything!" Jax exclaimed, red faced as hot glitter sifted from him. "You're an ignorant lunker!"

Ceri was smiling with an I-told-you-so expression, her arms crossed to show off her middle, and I frowned. "Jenks!" I shouted, listening for his wings and hearing nothing. My gaze slid to Ivy, alarm trickling through me. "When was the last time you saw Jenks?"

"When he told me of the scout," she said, rising fast.

"Jenks!" I shouted, and even Ceri dropped her arms and looked into the trees.

For five long seconds, we listened for his wings while fear wound tighter through me. Motions rough, I got up from the picnic table, hitting it hard enough to make my leg hurt. Ceri's hushed "Go find your father" to Jenks's kids made my chest tighten.

"If you killed him, I will squish you myself," I threatened Sidereal, and he bared his teeth and hissed at me like a cat.

"Looking forward to it."

Jax was a flash of pixy dust, and he was gone, having flung himself forty feet straight up to do a rough visual.

"Where are you, Jenks?" I muttered, seeing the darting sparkles of his kids making patterns in the bright sun as they searched. There'd be no reason for him to leave unless…

My face went cold, and I looked at Ivy. "Matalina," I said breathlessly, and Ivy's face paled. I hadn't seen her since their last stand.

Shit.