Cloud City (Anna Strong Chronicles #9)


Prendergast's face is crumbling, as if he can't understand what he's hearing and is too frightened to try to make sense of it. He shrinks back against the bar like a turtle pulling into a shell. Is he trying to make himself less vulnerable, less exposed? It only makes him look pathetic.

Sophie's face, on the other hand, is determined, a granite mask of resolve and tenacity. She pulls more crystals from the bag, more candles, white this time. She chooses a bundle of herbs tied with a flax ribbon and sets them aside with the vial of clear liquid she withdrew earlier. She walks over to the pentagram. She sweeps away the black candles and crystals with the back of her hand. Then she leans down and draws a circle around the star. She sets out the new candles, arranges the crystals around the perimeter of the circle. She stands up and surveys her work.

"Good. I think we're ready."

She goes to her bag. This time she withdraws a piece of paper and turns to me.

"You'll have to help."


She hands me the paper. "Read this as soon as the crystals ignite."

I look it over. "What is this? Latin? I can't read Latin."

Leticia stalks over, grabs the paper from my hand. "I can read it. I went to school in Boston when Latin was still taught. Unlike the modern educational system that has steadfastly stripped education of all that is important." She reads the words to herself, then fixes Sophie with a warning glare. "This is a prayer for an exorcism. To rid a host of a demon. Jonathan is not a demon."

"That's what I said." I can't help repeating what I told Sophie earlier. Most of the world might think of vampires as demons, I refuse.

"Read it more carefully," Sophie says calmly. "I replaced the word 'demon' with a more innocuous word. 'Spirit'. And I changed the rite. Instead of banishing the spirit to the underworld, it will send the spirit into another human host. Prendergast's body."

Prendergast finally rouses himself. Color returns to his pale face. "You can't do this. I won't let you." He hears what he's saying, rubs a hand over his face, shaking his head. "Am I crazy? Is this a nightmare? I'm leaving. And if anyone of you tries to follow me, I swear I'll-"

He gets no farther. At first I think Leticia has done something-or Sophie-to stop him. It isn't until he clutches a hand to his chest and bends forward at the waist that I hear it. His heart thudding in his chest. Again I think Sophie is doing it.

I whirl on her. "Stop, Sophie. You'll kill him."

She turns wide eyes on me. "I'm not doing anything." When she sees my dark frown, she raises a hand. "I swear. It's not me."

Leticia reaches him first, places a palm flat against his heaving chest. "I think he's having a heart attack."

"Then we need to call an ambulance."

"No." Sophie grabs my arm. "We'll save him by working the spell. Leticia, bring him to the circle. Quickly."

Leticia doesn't hesitate. She sweeps a gasping Prendergast into her arms. "What do I do?"

"Put him the circle."

Leticia sets Prendergast on his feet. His breathing is quick, shallow. He grabs at his left arm. "Please. I have a heart condition. In my pocket. Nitroglycerine."

Leticia casts a glance in Sophie's direction. "Will it affect the spell?"

Sophie shakes her head. "I don't think so. And we need him alive."

Leticia searches his pockets, finally finding the small container in his jacket. She opens it and spills one of the white tablets into her hand.

Prendergast takes it and slips it under his tongue. Within a minute, his breathing has returned to normal, he straightens up. He looks around as if confused to find himself standing in the middle of a circle. "What's going on?"

The pain must have been so intense, he wasn't aware that Leticia had carried him from his place at the bar. He remembers everything else, though, the familiar look of panic settling over his features.

Leticia turns again to Sophie. "What now?"

"He needs to lay down in the circle. I will lie beside him. You read the ritual. Anna, you sprinkle the contents of this vial over me at the proper time."

My head swims with questions. "How will I know the proper time? What's in the vial? Will Prendergast feel anything?"

Sophie has stepped into the circle. "You'll know the proper time, don't worry. And it's holy water in the vial. That should assuage some of your guilt. Nothing poisonous or harmful. Holy water. Prendergast may feel a tingling. But it will feel like renewal, not death. He will feel strong and healthy. That should be the last nitroglycerine tablet he ever needs."

Too pat. What isn't she telling me? Vampire whispers in my ear, magic always exacts a price.

"What about you, Sophie?" I ask.

She shrugs. "Worse case scenario, I'm eighty again. But I was healthy before, I should be healthy again."

Leticia's impatience sparks again. "Can we get on with it?"

"Prendergast, lie down."

He tries to step out of the circle, but Leticia swings him up and has him prone on the floor before he can take a step. He struggles to get up. She places a hand on the middle of his chest. "Sophie, can I knock him out? I can cut off his breathing by pressing right here," she demonstrates by placing a palm on his jugular.

Sophie leans over Prendergast. "Think of it this way, Steven. A new life. One without pain. You're getting everything you wanted."

Prendergast draws a breath, his eyes searching Sophie's. "I won't feel anything?"

Sophie nods. "Nothing bad. Promise."

Leticia removes her hand. "Remember, I move faster than you think. Don't try to pull anything."

He closes his eyes. Is he praying?

Sophie hands Leticia the paper and bundle of herbs and me the vial. Then she steps into the circle and lowers herself to the floor. She positions her body so her head is at his feet. They are close, but not touching. She ignites the candles as she did before, with a wave of her hand. Then she takes Prendergast's hand and looks to Leticia. "Begin."

I see Prendergast's body tense. He still hasn't opened his eyes. Part of me feels sorry for him but part of me feels it was his thirst for vengeance that got him into this predicament. That and the thought of a fortune if he could extort it. What does he think now that he knows the truth? That Deveraux didn't turn his great-grandmother, she turned him? Does he wish he'd never seen the manuscript? Does he curse the lies his family perpetuated to ease their own guilt?

I close my eyes, too. I'm letting this happen. How guilty am I going to feel if something goes wrong?

I imagine pretty fucking guilty.