Authors: S M Reine
Books by SM Reine:
Six Moon Summer
All Hallows’ Moon
Long Night Moon (Spring 2012)
Gray Moon Rising (Summer 2012)
The Darkest Gate (Spring 2012)
Damnation Marked (Summer 2012)
The 19 Dragons
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © SM Reine, 2011
Published by Red Iris Books
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or any portions thereof, in any form.
Email: [email protected]
Interior and cover design by SM Reine.
Part One: Before
James spotted a splatter of blood through the tree boughs. It marked the snow like an ink stain on paper.
He pushed through the pine needles, and her bare feet appeared, blue-toed and limp. He saw the curve of a calf and a knobby, bruised knee. He saw the jut of ribs under her skin and an arm thrown over her face. And the next thing he saw was the twelve other bodies.
Nausea gripped James, but he covered his mouth and maintained composure. His guide was not so lucky. The other man dove behind a bush, gagged twice, and vomited across the frozen earth.
Elise was already dead. He was so certain of it that he almost walked away at that moment. But what would Isaac think of James abandoning his daughter’s body? The indignity of leaving her naked on the ice for the birds to devour was too much, and he came so far to find her remains.
Yet he couldn’t bring himself to step foot in the clearing. Elise looked peaceful, but the others were twisted in agony. Blood marked their fingernails. They had gone out fighting.
Each of the twelve other bodies could have been siblings. They had pale skin and white-blue eyes—he could tell, because they were frozen open—and slender forms draped in white linen. The snow around them looked fluffy, as though it were freshly fallen. Something about that struck him as wrong. It was cold, but it hadn’t snowed in days, leaving the earth a solid sheet of ice.
Taking a closer look, James found it wasn’t snow—the clearing was covered in feathers.
His guide had recovered and began babbling in Russian, but he spoke too fast for James to understand. He heard one recognizable word—
James hung back in the trees, fighting the urge to leave. Nobody in Oymyakon needed to know what he found in the forest. His guide wouldn’t discuss their trip with anyone else. It could remain a secret.
No. Someone would find out. They always did.
He adjusted his balaclava, tuned out the guide’s shouts, and stepped into the clearing.
The hair lifted on his arms. His skull began to buzz.
He tried not to look at the other corpses, but it was like they reached for him, pleading for escape. Their teeth were bared. Their tongues were purple and twisted.
That one had been stabbed in the chest.
The body by his feet was disemboweled.
Those two bodies had died clutching hands.
He couldn’t look at them anymore. He focused on his feet and forced himself to take a step once, twice. Again and again. When he reached Elise, the buzzing grew so loud that he could no longer hear Maksim’s protests.
James hovered a glove over her body. All the energy vanished. The clearing went silent.
He pushed the arm off her face to examine her. Dirty, frayed bandages were wrapped around her hands, so tattered that they looked like they might blow away.
Elise had her father’s auburn hair and his strong nose, but her soft chin belonged entirely to Ariane. Her eyelashes were sealed by ice. How had she died? There wasn’t a mark he could see.
He moved to unwrap one of her hands.
Her eyes fluttered.
“Maksim!” he shouted. Her broad lips parted to exhale silver fog. “Maksim! She’s alive!” He forgot to speak in Russian, but his message didn’t need translation.
His guide shouted and ran to the van. James shed his parka. The cold seeped through his undercoat as he wrapped her in his furs.
. It was impossible. Nobody could have survived an hour naked in the killing frosts of Siberian spring.
James watched the other bodies, waiting for them to jerk to life and creep forward, but they remained lifeless. Elise was the only survivor, even though it was impossible for one small girl to have survived an attack that killed a dozen others.
Unless she had been the one to do the killing.
He carried her out of the clearing without touching the other bodies. There was nothing he could do for them. He wasn’t sure he would have anyway.
The guide opened the van, letting steam escape the back end. As soon as James climbed inside, laying Elise between their extra gas tanks and a rattling space heater, he closed the doors again.
“Hurry!” James said, reverting to his limited Russian.
“She’s a demon,” repeated Maksim as he climbed to the driver’s seat, and then he continued to speak so quickly that James couldn’t understand if he tried. He picked up a word here and there—devils and hell, curses and fear—but he was too busy to translate. He cracked heating packs open and pressed them to Elise’s underarms, her groin, and the back of her neck.
James pulled a glove off with his teeth and touched his bare fingers to her throat. Her pulse was slow but steady. Color began to flush her cheeks.
Maksim said. Maybe. But she was also Isaac and Ariane’s daughter, and James promised to bring her back safely. He kept all of his oaths, no matter how unpleasant.
His driver shouted and gestured. James interrupted him to say, “Town. Take us to town!”
The van bounced and groaned over the path. He had to brace his back against the fuel canisters to keep them from falling on Elise as he searched her body. He found nothing. Aside from a few bruises, she was unharmed.
Surely a girl that young couldn’t have killed so many people without injury. There must have been someone else in the wilds—someone he hadn’t seen. It wasn’t a comforting thought.
He peeled the bandages off and flipped her hands to look at the palms.
James turned her hands over again, heart racing.
It was the first time James wished Elise had died on the tundra, but it was also far from the last.
Isaac Kavanagh gave his daughter a pair of twin falchion swords for her seventh birthday. Wickedly sharp and too big for her hands, Elise accepted them with a grave nod before turning to kill her first demon.
She skewered it. The demon shrieked and wailed.
“Good,” Isaac said with a proud smile. “Very good.”
Later, they will say this day marked the beginning of the end of the world.
(This is only half true.)
Part Two: Sacrifice
Steam drifted from the surface of Marisa Ramirez’s coffee. She blew on it gently, cupping the mug between her hands to warm her chilly fingers. Golden morning light rimmed the closed curtains over the sink. The thermometer outside the window read sixty-six. The swamp cooler clicked on and blew chilled air into the kitchen. Marisa shrank deeper into her sweater.
Augustin Ramirez sat across the table with his face in his hands. The ceiling rattled above their heads as distant screams and sobs peaked in time with fists pounding against the floor.
His left cheek muscle twitched. They exchanged glances, and he found his own haunted expression mirrored in her face.
Hands shaking, she lifted her coffee cup and took a sip.
The doorbell chimed. Their daughter shrieked in response.
“Are you going to get that?” Augustin asked. Marisa didn't respond. His jaw tightened. “I said, are you going to get that?” She ducked her head, lips trembling. The right side of her mouth was darkened with the shadow of a bruise. He made a disgusted noise, shoving his chair back as he stood. “Fine. I'll get the door.”
She took another drink and set the mug down.
The living room blinds were shut and covered by heavy curtains, casting the room in twilight. Augustin navigated to the door by memory, unlocked the dead bolt, peeked through the door.
The woman on the other side pushed her sunglasses into her hair to study him with narrowed eyes. A single scar broke the line of her right eyebrow.
“Augustin Ramirez. Right?”
“Yes,” he said. “I'm sorry... do I know you?”
She held out a hand. She wore black gloves with a button at the wrist. “Elise Kavanagh. James sent me.”
He gave her hand a brief shake. Her grip made his knuckles ache. “James Faulkner?” Augustin asked. “He said he was going to send a—uh, an exorcist to look at our daughter.”
Elise nodded. “Yes, right. I'm the exorcist.”
“You're not what I... that is to say...”
“Yeah, I know. Can I come in?”
“Yes,” Augustin said, stepping aside.
“I'm sorry I'm late. I was on my way to the office, and I wasn't expecting James to ask me to do a job. I haven't been an exorcist in a long time.” She indicated her outfit with a sweep of her hand—a black skirt, white blouse, and black blazer. Augustin wasn’t sure what he expected an exorcist to wear. Maybe leather and chains. Definitely not business casual.