I hadn’t expected that I’d be making my next trip to the Witching Assembly building with all my unsparked consorts at my side. I definitely hadn’t expected we’d be making the trip in a chauffeured limo. But here I was, tucked into the back seat between Gabriel and Damon with Seth, Kyler, and Jin across from us, noticing every bump of the wheels as the sleek vehicle raced along our country roads toward Portland.
We understand there have been many recent attempts to harm both you and your consorts, Gwen Remington, the high-ranking Assembly official who’d called for my presence, had said on the phone. It’s in everyone’s best interests to ensure you arrive here safely. And witching society wasn’t very good at doing things by half measures. So, a limo it was.
I guessed Remington saw me as some kind of valuable property now. My consorts and I were among the few who’d known about the demons lurking at the edge of our world, other than the witching families who’d secretly summoned those demons and gained strange powers from them. I couldn’t blame her if she didn’t want to trust the criminals. If the demons had really broken through the portal on that cliffside just a few hours from Portland, like Remington had said, then all witching kind and unsparked too might be screwed if we couldn’t come up with a solution fast.
“What exactly did the Assembly say has happened out at the Cliff?” Ky asked, leaning forward with an intent expression on his freckled face. He had his phone out in his slim hand, poised as if to take notes from my answer—which maybe he was planning on doing. My computer-aficionado consort never met a topic he wasn’t ready to research. “How did the demons get through the portal now? What are they doing?”
“Not much, so far,” I said. “And it sounds like there’s only the one demon actually out. Remington said they suspected its escape had something to do with that guard of Frankford’s who fell over the Cliff… That maybe her death gave a boost to their powers.”
My voice dropped for the last bit. The guard had fallen because she’d been pushed—by the witch who was coming to the Assembly with us, Thalia Ainsworth, sitting in the front seat next to the driver right now.
Thalia probably couldn’t hear me through the privacy screen anyway, but I didn’t want to make her feel guilty. She’d been through enough already. The faction that had been negotiating with the demons had gotten their hooks into who-knew-how-many witches whom they’d forced to use magic to keep the creatures in line. Thalia had been having her spark drained like that for years, maybe decades. It’d been hard enough for her to go anywhere near the Cliff. She’d only shoved the guard out of the way with a spell because the other woman had been about to attack Remington.
“Is that a common thing?” Jin asked, tipping his head to the side. “Death affecting magic like that?” He’d been more involved in the actual magical side of my life than any of my other consorts in the last few weeks, using his artistic skills to paint glyphs I could imbue with protection spells. His lithe fingers were still stained with different colors that hadn’t quite washed off after his last painting session.
“That kind of release of energy—it’s bound to have an effect,” I said. “It’s not something we usually explore very much in witching society, though. Harming animals, let alone people, for the magical gain is against Assembly law. The closest I’ve ever gotten is burning plant materials.”
“But it’s not as if a bunch of demons are going to take the high road,” Damon muttered, tucking his arm around mine. His dark blue eyes flashed. “If the thing I saw in that cave even has a concept of morality.”
“Probably not,” I said. “But we still have to be careful how we handle it. We don’t know how the demon’s going to respond to… well, anything we do.”
Damon grimaced, but he didn’t argue. He did have a habit of jumping into a fight full-throttle without thinking things through a whole lot in advance. Something we’d chided him for plenty of times in the past. But sometimes that passion did work out in our favor.
“Anyway,” I went on, “the one that escaped hasn’t caused much trouble yet, from what Remington said. It’s kind of meandering across the area just east of the coast, pretty slowly, like it’s getting its bearings. It’s knocked over a few fences and burned some patches of grass, but thankfully there aren’t a whole lot of people in that part of the county. The Frankfords chose an isolated spot for their secret dealings. We just can’t assume the demon is going to stay that passive.”
“And we don’t know that more of them won’t push through too,” Ky said.
“Exactly.” I worried at my lower lip. “The bindings on the portal itself might be weaker than they used to be. My dad made it sound as if they needed me to make sure they could keep the demons contained.”
“Hey.” Gabriel squeezed my knee reassuringly, shifting his weight to offer even more of the warmth of his body. “This isn’t your fault in any way, Rose. The Frankfords and the people with them were turning those witches into slaves. None of those women deserved that. You definitely didn’t.”
“I know,” I said quietly. As much as the thought of my father brought a flare of anger into my chest now, sometimes it was still hard to believe that the man who’d raised me, mostly alone, could have been planning that kind of fate for me—even though he’d admitted as much to my face when we’d finally discovered what the Frankfords’ faction was hiding on the Cliff.
But Gabriel sounded so confident, like he always did, that the pinch of guilt over my potential responsibility faded. That faction couldn’t have gone on like it was. We’d had to find a way to stop it. The problem had just gotten a lot more complicated.
Seth frowned where he was sitting next to his twin. The two of them would have been identical if Seth hadn’t kept his tawny hair cropped shorter than Ky’s wild curls and his body bulked up with regular work-outs and the labor he did for his dad’s renovation business.
“How is the Assembly going to feel about the five of us being there with you?” he asked. “I know they weren’t all aware of the Frankfords’ vendetta against us, but they’ve still been punishing—maybe even murdering—witches who got into relationships with guys from outside your community, haven’t they?”
“I don’t know how many people in the Assembly knew about that part either,” I said. “Ky, you found those records in some super-secret section of their network, didn’t you?”
Kyler nodded. “It was blocked off inside an already secure part of the Justice Division’s files. Definitely not full-access to all the employees.”
“So it’s not an open policy. But we will have to be careful.” I twined my fingers with Damon’s and squeezed. “That’s part of the reason I insisted that they accept you all coming with me. If anyone was going to try to hurt you, it’d be a lot easier for them to do it when I’m hundreds of miles away. And pretty much everyone in the Assembly is going to see our consorting as strange. After all, everyone working with the Frankfords has been destroying evidence of these kinds of relationships in the past, attacking anyone who crosses that line… I don’t even know how far back that goes. Maybe even before they started dealing with the demons.”
Why? Just to take as much power and choice from witching women as they could? Did they envy our magic that much? My stomach twisted at the thought.
“They need us right now anyway,” I added. “They’ve got a much bigger problem, and no one else who can help the same way. And they can’t exactly sweep our relationship under the rug—it’s pretty out in the open now.”
“Some of them will come around,” Jin said. “Your one aunt and your cousin—that whole branch of the family—they were totally welcoming.”
“Yeah.” I wished I had them here right now too. But my aunt Ginny was on the other side of the country, and Remington had immediately vetoed the idea that any of the other witches staying on my estate come with us. For now, we’d like to limit exposure to those already well-exposed, she’d said. My cousin Naomi had stayed behind with one of the witches who’d come to me for help after her family, aligned with the Frankfords’ faction, had tried to force a corrupted consorting.
“Whatever happens, we’ll be there with you the whole way,” Gabriel said.
Damon shot him a dark look. “Says the guy who hasn’t been here most of the last two weeks?”
“Hey!” I said before Gabriel had to defend himself. “We know why Gabriel left. He was looking out for us even if he wasn’t nearby, even if we didn’t know it at the time. I get that you didn’t like it, but we have bigger problems now too. We have to stand by each other—be a united front.”
“I’m ready to take them on: Assembly, demons, whatever,” Ky said with a grin and a mock salute.
Damon let out a ragged breath, but he slumped back in the seat at the same time. “I am too,” he said in a resigned voice.
Gabriel ducked his head close to mine and brushed his lips over my cheek. My pulse skipped a beat at the tender gesture. It had been a rough time without him—thinking he’d left because I’d horrified him in my attempts to push back against the Frankfords and their allies. But maybe I’d needed that pain to remind me of the witch I wanted to be.
My newest consort had only just come back to us today. I believed him that he wouldn’t leave again, but it might take a little while before my heart completely recovered.
My head felt too muggy to process much more information or emotion right now. It’d been a long day, and we’d already made the trip between my estate and the Cliff twice. Earlier today I’d had to fight for my life and the lives of my consorts. I’d been looking forward to curling up in bed for a nice long sleep.
Instead, I snuggled closer to Gabriel, setting my head on his shoulder. “I think we should all get as much rest as we can. We’re going to want to go into this situation clear-headed.”
“I can’t argue with that,” Seth said, propping his arm against the window as a sort of pillow. Ky yawned and stretched his legs out as well as he could in the space between us, his foot coming to rest against mine. I let my eyes drift closed.
Impeding demon battles and all, I was so worn out it couldn’t have been more than a few minutes before I was out like a light.
The jerk of the limo coming to a stop woke me up. My head had slid down to Gabriel’s chest—he had his arm around my back, his own head tipped next to mine until the second he snapped awake too. Damon shoved himself upright, his fingers still twined in my grasp. The guys across from us rubbed bleary eyes and yawned. I didn’t think any of us had gotten close to a decent night’s rest.
The privacy screen rolled down. “The Assembly building,” the driver said. “They’re waiting for you.”
It was still night outside, the dark sky hazed with the city’s lights and the downtown street outside the Assembly building quiet. Only one other car rumbled past as we made our way to the broad glass door in the modern gray structure. A damp pressure weighed on the air, as if a storm might be brewing. Hopefully only out here and not in there.
A couple of witches in the trim sweats the Assembly enforcers liked to wear had come to the entrance to meet us. One woman’s eyes widened as she took in my consorts, and the other’s lips curled in what looked like disdain. My jaw tightened, but I managed not to bristle.
“I understand you have a spell binding you that you need taken off?” the first woman said to Thalia.
Thalia opened her mouth and hesitated. The binding prevented her from even acknowledging there was a binding.
“She does,” I said quickly, and the older witch shot me a grateful glance.
The first enforcer motioned for Thalia to follow her, and they disappeared down the hall. The second beckoned us with a flick of her hand.
I’d been in the Assembly building before—to discuss a couple of projects I’d worked on that involved their archives, to apply for my original consorting—but the pale gray halls had never felt quite this imposing then. Maybe it was the darkness beyond the windows, or the drone of the air conditioning system… or maybe it was just the reason I was here, hanging over us.
The enforcer came to a stop at a door around a bend in the hall and eased it open. “Lady Hallowell and her consorts,” she said in introduction, and I was almost completely sure I caught a hint of a sneer at the last word. But there wasn’t time to worry about that, because with a couple more steps, we were faced with some of the most powerful figures in my witching society’s government.
My gaze shot first to the officials I’d seen most recently. Gwen Remington, the head of the International Affairs Division, stood near the head of the long narrow meeting table, her frosted silver-blond hair pulled back in a gold clip and her broad shoulders tensed even as she gave us a small smile as a welcome. Next to her, Justin Brimsey, the head of Unsparked Relations, ran a hand over his gray-and-chestnut buzz-cut, his expression wary. Miriam Travers, a petite witch with an auburn bob from the Finances division who’d accompanied the two higher officials out to the Frankfords’ property yesterday, stood farther down the table. They were the only members of the Assembly who’d witnessed the demons and their portal directly.
The other officials I recognized either vaguely or not at all, other than the couple at the head of the table, who’d turned as we arrived. Eleanor and Joseph Northcott had presided over the entire Assembly for the past eight years. They made a matching set, both of them tall and lean, her braided hair an only slightly lighter shade of gray than his slicked-back waves. Eleanor’s mouth pursed as she took us in; Joseph looked as if he’d just barely managed to catch his eyebrows before they rose. I guessed that reaction was better than horror.
I got to be relieved for the approximately two seconds before one of the less familiar officials down the table, a stern woman with angular features, said, “What are they doing here?”
My back had already stiffened before Remington confirmed who the other woman had been referring to.
“Lady Hallowell requested the presence of her consorts,” she said. “It appears they have been as involved in this matter as she has been, so they may have additional insights.”
“They’re unsparked,” the other witch protested. “We can’t—”
Lady Northcott raised her hand. “The decision has already been made.”
“Not by us,” a younger man across the table said. “I don’t think having unsparked individuals privy to our internal discussions is a wise idea either. If we allow—”
The guys were stirring uneasily behind me. My hands balled at my sides. “If you don’t allow them to stay, then I leave too,” I said. “Is that a clear enough decision for you? My consorts know more than I do about the demons in some ways. Are we going to stop this monster, or did you want to spend your time playing out old prejudices?”
The man shut up. Mr. Northcott gave us a grim smile. “The demon is our first priority, of course. I apologize. We don’t know how quickly we might need to act. Are you ready to get down to business right away?”
I would have loved another few hours’ sleep, preferably on an actual bed, and I’d bet my consorts wouldn’t have minded that either. But the thought of the horrific creature I’d been faced with in the Frankfords’ cave was more than enough to keep me alert.
“We’ll do what we can,” I said. “Let’s get started.”