Ember Lonergan lay on her floor in the dark, the only light the dull radiance of the glow-in-the-dark solar system on her ceiling and the faint shimmer of her boyfriend Mace’s ghostly apparition to her left. They’d been lying together for hours; his head slotted beside hers, feet pointing in opposite directions; not touching. They didn’t speak. They didn’t do anything. Maybe it was shock; maybe it was just knowing that they’d both managed to stay on this side of the veil. Either way, for now, knowing Mace was beside her was enough.
The last twenty-four hours had left her brain a jumbled flight of ideas, a tableau of horrors clicking through her mind like a television cycling through channels. There was no linear flow, no proper narrative, just one image after another. The torn and tattered bodies of the original coven climbing from the fetid dirt. Those nine slobbering demons with their leathery skin and glowing red eyes, their bones visible through skin like feral starving animals. Quinn, just turning and walking away, choosing Silas over them, even after he’d slaughtered Evangeline.
She blinked back tears. Evangeline. She didn’t even have to close her eyes to picture her. The shock, the way the younger girl’s mouth went slack, eyes wide as she realized Silas’s intent, that look of dread etched on her face just before he’d plunged that blade through her heart. It just kept coming back again and again. Quinn had left them to die and had never looked back. That was Silas’s doing. He’d gotten into Quinn’s head, turned him against them.
He wouldn’t get away with it. Silas was going to get everything he had coming to him and more. Mace said Silas couldn’t die, that he was immortal, that even if they killed him, he’d come back. Ember didn’t believe it though. All magic had a loophole. She was a reaper. If there was one thing she knew with certainty, it’s that everything died…eventually. She was going to find a way to put him down; she didn’t care what she had to do.
“You need to rest, luv. You’ve been awake for hours.”
“I can’t. How can I when Silas just took everything from us?”
Mace tilted his head, his shoulder bumping against hers. She hissed at the charge that shot through her, like a rubber band snapping her bare skin. When her power was at its peak, touching him was tolerable—sometimes even pleasurable—but they’d both expended far too much energy. What raising the coven hadn’t drained from her, fighting the Legionaries had.
He moved away, giving her a bit more room. “Sorry, luv.”
She tried to smile but didn’t quite manage. Silas had played her. Worse yet, she should have known he would. She did know it on some level. She’d made the deal anyway. Had she really believed that Silas would do the honorable thing, that he’d just take the coven and leave town? She’d wanted so badly to think they could save Quinn, that they could put Mace back in his body that she’d gambled with their lives, and Evangeline paid the price. Quinn paid the price.
What would become of Quinn now? His soul was rotten. His magic would be amplified exponentially with Silas and the coven to draw from, and he still had Mace’s body. Was the old Quinn dead for good? Was that rotting black soul the only thing left of the boy who loved wi-fi and waffles and her bitchy cousin?
Quinn had killed three people. He hadn’t murdered the cheerleaders, but he’d eaten their souls and set them loose on an unsuspecting town. He had to bear responsibility for the people they’d killed, right? Silas claimed Quinn had no memory of feeding. Did the burden fall to Silas? He’d been complicit in his acts.
But they had all seen what Quinn was becoming, hadn’t they? In the end, they’d done nothing to protect him. They’d needed his magic, so they’d put off dealing with what he was becoming. She’d told herself they had time. She’d thought the plan they’d made would work.
Maybe this one was on her. Everything that happened in the last six months happened after she showed up. She was the bomb that destroyed the happy, normal lives they’d all lived until her arrival.
“You don’t get to claim this one. This one isn’t on you,” Mace said.
Somehow, he always knew what was going on in her head. She wondered if it was their magical connection or something more. Her cheeks flushed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I can’t help it.” She tilted her head, giving him a watery smile. “I’m just exhausted.”
He smiled back, not his usual smirk or even that wicked grin that made her knees weak, but a soft smile that gave Ember a glimpse of the boy he’d been before life had chewed him up and spit out a monster. And he was a monster—her beautiful monster—even death couldn’t change that. His silver hair glowed, his eyes liquid mercury, framed by long sooty lashes and thick dark brows. He was perfection.
“You should be tired; you’ve had a busy day.”
She gave him a half smile. “I mostly just played goalie, keeping the shifters in bounds. Kai and Tristin, though…they were amazing.”
Tristin had banshee-screamed the demon’s spirits from the bodies of those possessed shifters. Kai…well, honestly, she didn’t know what Kai had done, but he’d somehow managed to make those demons disappear without the help of any dark object. It was terrifying but in the coolest possible way.
“Don’t sell yourself short, beautiful. You raised thirteen witches and then managed to maintain control of nine shifters, not to mention your rousing speech to rally the troops. Even I felt inspired.” His mouth hitched up at the corner, looking amused and oddly proud. “Go team and all that nonsense.”
Ember rolled her eyes, the corner of her mouth hitching in some semblance of a smile. “You’re such a jerk.”
“It’s true,” he intoned, as if the thought weighed heavily on him. “About that magnificent speech…how exactly are you going to retrieve Quinn and destroy the Grove?”
Her heart flip-flopped, trepidation sitting like a rock in her belly. “I have a plan,” Ember told him vaguely, her eyes sliding back to the stars on her ceiling. “I totally have a plan.”
Ember watched Mace’s smile bleed to a grin in her periphery. “You have no idea what you’re going to do, do you?”
She huffed out a frustrated breath, hands flailing at her sides. “Of course not. I’m seventeen. I haven’t even mastered driving on the highway or balancing a checkbook. How am I going to overthrow an entire supernatural system of government?”
Mace did laugh at that. “I love you.”
Ember’s breath caught, her gaze jerking to his, searching his face for any hint of sarcasm. His gaze was steady. Would she ever get used to hearing him say that? She swallowed hard, her hands fisting with her need to touch him. “I love you, too.”
“I wish I could kiss you,” he whispered, moving close enough that her magic did its best to rally.
“I wish I could kiss you, too,” she all but moaned, licking her lower lip, frustration burning her insides. “We need to get you back in a body.”
He laughed low at her aggravation. “How do you propose we do that, exactly? There aren’t a whole lot of empty vessels lying around.”
Ember sighed. He was right. They fell into silence again for a long while before something occurred to Ember. “Maybe that’s not true.”
Mace arched a brow. “If you’re talking about a dead body, we know that won’t work, luv.”
That wasn’t what she was thinking at all. “What about a live body?” The more she thought about it, the more convinced she became.
Mace’s eyebrows furrowed together, eyes narrowed in confusion. “You mean forcibly evicting somebody’s soul for mine as you did with Quinn? No, thank you, luv. We’ve all seen how that movie ends.”
Ember pulled a face. “No, jackass.”
He feigned being wounded, giving her his saddest look. “Jackass, is it now? You wound me so. Will my love ever be met with something other than your cruel words?”
Ember gave him her most withering look but inside her heart did somersaults. “What about somebody whose body is alive but whose soul has vacated the premises.”
He looked spooked at the idea though she couldn’t say why. “Like the cheerleaders? I’m pretty sure Silas already put the nail in that particular coffin when he hung them from the rafters of the restaurant,”—he grimaced— “though I suppose Quinn may be leaving a trail of fresh victims, even as we speak.”
“No, not that either.” She tried to figure out how to explain herself without sounding like the world’s biggest ghoul. “Back in New Orleans, when I worked at the funeral home, sometimes I would run with Miller to pick up a body for transport.” Mace’s brows made a run for his hairline, but he said nothing. “Don’t look at me like that. Some nights I just didn’t want to go home. I didn’t want to be alone.” Mace nodded though she could tell he still didn’t quite get where she was going with this. “Miller always just seemed to sense when I was dragging my feet.” She shook her head. “I used to think he was the only person in the world who loved me. Who protected me. What a joke. I was so stupid. He wasn’t protecting me; he was just helping my father poison himself.” Her words were bitter as bile on her tongue.
“Ember, I’m not defending the witch—especially not after what his sister did to me—but he clearly has some affection towards you. Josephine’s powerful, but I doubt she coerced her brother into faking some fatherly love towards you. If she were that concerned for your well-being, she would have removed you from the situation entirely. Miller looked out for you; he gave you a safe place. Your father...he was just trying to hide you, to protect you until you were old enough to protect yourself. That tells me you were very much loved.”
The sting of Miller’s betrayal warred with memories of riding with him in the hearse, windows down, her feet on the dash, laughing at his bad jokes, feeling, for just a few minutes, like an ordinary girl. If she closed her eyes, she could still smell the pungent scent of the city. She could hear the eclectic mix of music that made up New Orleans: zydeco, Southern rock, and blues all bleeding from the open bars and restaurants and blending with the old school jazz pouring from the battered speakers of the hearse.
“Are you alright, luv?”
No. She wasn’t alright. She nodded, swiping at her cheeks and collecting herself before she continued, “Sometimes we didn’t go to the hospital. Some nights we went to this place called St. Ignacio’s. It was a long-term care facility. They took care of patients who needed around-the-clock care but who probably weren’t going to get better. Miller said there were people there whose bodies only kept going because of machines.” She shivered. “It sounded horrific, to be trapped inside a body, unable to live or die. But Miller…he’d said they weren’t alive, that their souls had crossed over and only their bodies remained. He said they were just empty shells. Empty vessels.”
Mace’s expression changed, understanding dawning. “Seems Miller was training you even back then.”
Ember snorted. “He could have just told me the truth. He knew what I was. Instead, he kept me in the dark and helped my father commit suicide by magic.”
Mace’s words were sharp. “Not by magic. By me. Miller may have known your father was going to die, but I’m the one who killed him.”
Ember shivered. “Will you ever tell me what happened to my dad? How you...”
“Yes. I promise but not like this. Not tonight when you’re exhausted, and I can’t touch you. Once I’m back in a body, we’ll talk about it, and I’ll tell you anything you want to know.”
A million questions beat against Ember’s brain. “Anything?”
“Yes, luv. Anything.”