“Wish I could say this incantation won’t sting.” I smiled brightly, though the gesture was anything but genuine. My plan was to put the men in front of me at ease, yet by their grim expressions—all hooded eyes and tight lips—I couldn’t say it worked. Who could blame them when I’d gotten Ryder, Dean, and Asher possessed by spirits along with myself? Add to that, the demon inside of me had taken control of them. The kick in the teeth was that when the demons had taken over our bodies, we had watched in our minds as they’d attacked patrons at the Howling Wolf bar. Yet we hadn’t been able to hear a thing or tap into the demons’ thoughts. So we knew very little at this point. Oh, and did I mention that a big-ass Loa demon was coming to claim me and use the three guys as sacrifices? Yep, to say we were fucked was the understatement of the year.
“We got this.” Ryder winked my way, then glanced around the table in the Howling Wolf bar. In the past week, I’d made amends with my ex, Ryder, gotten close with Dean, a goddamn detective, who had my stomach fluttering in his presence. Asher remained a stranger, but I wanted to get to know him. To understand the man who worried about his lost sister, know how he ticked if we were to become a solid union and defeat evil.
Hell, that sounded ridiculous, like a cliché TV show.
“We’re buckled up and ready to ride this rollercoaster into Hell.” Ryder’s mouth curled upward, brimming with sincerity, making me feel like scum. As a lion shifter, Ryder rarely did anything half-heartedly. That came down to his loyalty. Me… I harbored a dark secret that wore on my mind. None of the men knew the Loa hunting me was planning on sacrificing them. I had no intention of telling them because I was determined to get them out of harm’s way. No matter the consequences.
Ryder’s hand reached across the table and took mine, squeezing ever-so-lightly. “We’re in this together.”
That right there was the problem. If only I were in danger, sure, I’d face the apocalypse, but to have casualties because of me… hell no. My knees bounced under the table. Rage rattled through me, gripping my heart, jabbing it with a dagger.
“Are you joining the incantation, Knox?” Dean’s Aussie accent always had me smiling. Damn, he sounded like sex. He knocked back a shot of straight whiskey, slamming the glass on to the table, shaking himself and reaching for the bottle. “Sure would have preferred beer.”
Nothing like numbing the nerves before dealing with a spirit.
“Yeah, I’m in. Better to be safe than sorry,” Knox responded.
I didn’t believe he was possessed. He’d assisted us in defeating the spirits, so he stayed to help us out.
I met his intense gaze. He’d been my closest friend since our first introduction in a foster home when we’d both been teens. We’d bonded at once, ran away, and lived on the streets together for a while. So we understood hardship better than anyone. We’d stolen food for each other, Knox had gotten beaten up trying to protect me, and I’d gained myself a criminal record to cover for him stealing jewelry.
The candle on our table flickered, tossing shadows across his face. Thick brows crowned his pale-green eyes, swimming in softness and worry. His nose sat at a slight angle from having it broken too often in fights. Not quite what you’d expect from a priest-in-training in the seminarian stage of his theology studies at the local church. But ever since he’d almost died from a drug overdose, he’d found God. Now, the man I’d fantasized about was so far out of my reach, he might as well have lived on Mars.
While the three drank, Knox sat quietly, his hands in his pockets, his overgrown dark Mohawk pushed over one side of his head, reaching his jawline. It revealed his undercut. The tribal ink on his neck from his gang days slid beneath the collar of his black buttoned-up shirt. His lingering eyes were on me, studying me. What was he thinking? How horrific the night had gone? What a freak I was? Did he regret kissing me back at his place? I’d waited for so long to have him finally make a move, but I had panicked and bolted because I didn’t want to be the reason he broke his vows to the church. Then this demon shit had happened.
He gave me a slight nod, his attention falling to my bottle of rum.
“All right,” I started, pulling down on the mini skirt that rode up my to my ass because the demon who took me over earlier decided I should dress like a sex worker. “Let’s get this revelation ceremony done.” I hoped to discover anything about the Loa orchestrating the target on my back. To know why the fuck it was coming after me would help. If he had hired the spirits inside us, magic would have bound them together. Revelation casts were straightforward and all about revealing secrets. Once we had the details, we could come up with a plan to take him down. Though I somehow doubted it would be that easy.
“I’m ready.” Ryder cracked his interlaced fingers, his smirk contagious. All of the guys, in fact, stared at me without judgment, easing my jumping nerves.
I took the neck of the bottle and poured rum into an empty glass. Asher had brought me a thick candle from the bar’s storage room along with a small wooden bowl of olive oil. Similar ones filled with mixed nuts decorated the other tables. I dipped my fingers in the lubricant and dressed the white candle as I closed my eyes. White represented protection, purification, and truth, suiting our ritual perfectly. Starting in the middle of the candle, I spread the oil halfway up the top, then the bottom and base, concentration in my mind on discovering the truth of what lay inside Asher, Dean, and Ryder. I ran my fingers across the slick surface. The whole idea of the oil was to allow the ritual to be more powerful and attuned to my intent. I didn’t have essential oils, but olive oil would work just as well, even if it was missing the scent.
A tingle of energy bubbled across my hands, telling me the preparation was complete. I practiced magic, though I wasn’t devoted to any specific religion because I still had no clue what the fuck I was, let alone who. Long story, but after the recent possessions, my ability to manifest fire came at a single thought, no concentration, nothing. So that was new. Before it would take deep intensity.
Once I opened my eyes, all the men wore a strange expression. They stared at my fingers clasped around the candle, glistening and slippery. Only when I looked down at the way I gripped the rod-like shape did it hit me why they gawked as if I were handling their dicks.
“Get your heads out of the gutter. Geez.” I set the candle on the ground near my chair so it didn’t get tainted from the next part.
Asher cleared his throat. “Never seen anyone rub a candle that way before.”
I laughed at how fast their minds shifted from danger to sex, though it intrigued me to have all four react the same way. If I waved the candle in the air, would all of them follow my hand like those funny cat videos?
Dean shifted in his seat as if unable to get comfortable, scratching his jawline. On cue, Ryder slid his hand down between his legs to adjust himself. Knox held it together, but the twitch at the corners on this mouth told me he was just as bad as the others, getting off on me stroking an inanimate object.
I shook my head. “You four need to get laid—badly.”
“Is that an invitation?” Ryder jumped at the chance, grinning devilishly. No one else seemed to protest but waited for my response, as if this were a legit question. Sure, I found myself attracted to Ryder, Knox, and even Dean. My thoughts had even drifted to having all three in my life at once, but hey, a girl can dream.
I huffed. “Let’s focus on this for now.”
“Gotcha,” Ryder said. “We’ll pick this back up later.”
I nudged him in the shin with my boot. He waggled his eyebrows in response.
With my glass brimming with rum in hand, I explained, “Don’t freak, but I need you to concentrate on the white light surrounding you, keeping you protected.” I shivered. This could go wrong, drawing out their evil spirits again. But last time they only came out when the monster inside me called to them. This incantation was about tapping into them, not me, so I prayed that it kept their spirits at bay. Sure, it was a gamble, but sitting back and doing nothing wouldn’t work. The answer lay within all of us.
Dean cocked an eyebrow.
“You don’t want to get this into your eyes,” I said. “It’ll definitely sting.”
“That’s supposed to make us feel better.” Dean eyed my rum.
“It’ll be fine,” Ryder said. “Just be cool.”
He gained a frown from both Dean and Knox.
“Okay, let’s do this.” Before they got into an argument over petty crap.
All four men shut their eyes. My gut churned with unease because last time I meditated, the spirit inside me came out and tried to kill everyone. But Knox had helped me bring out a part of myself a didn’t know existed—fiery and powerful. It jolted the sprit back into me and not a beep since. Hope it stayed that way until I found a solution to get rid of it forever.
I filled my lungs and called to air, wind, water, and earth for protection, to seal us in a binding circle.
“This shield is my ability to keep us protected, to keep out harm, keep dark entities away.” Digging deep, I focused on drawing the energies from the universe toward me, melding their power with mine. A magic I didn’t understand lay in my bones—the only way I could explain why I called forward spirits. The same ability let me tap into the universe’s source. Add to that the healing potency of saliva, sealing the power, and my prayer. This had to work.
When a tingle jolted up my spine, I raised the glass to my mouth and whispered, “Protect these men. Keep the evil at bay. Reveal who controls them.”
A spark hummed over my skin. Something stirred in my mind, a darkness I couldn’t quite reach. I tilted back my head, pouring the shot into my mouth, its heat burning my tongue, my cheeks. Without hesitation, I spat out the rum through my clenched teeth, spraying the four men’s faces and necks.
They flinched from the sudden splashing, but none opened their eyes or complained, so hooray for them. Rum lined my mouth, tasting sweet and sharp. In haste, I wiped my hands down my trousers, cleaning them of oil, I picked up the candle from the floor. At a click of my fingers, flames flickered to life on my fingertips. I lit the wick, well aware my fire hurt demons but no normal humans. Shaking the fire away, I demanded, “I command you to show me who your master is.”
At first nothing. My skin rippled with the jitters. No one moved, including Knox, also caught in the ritual. A blueish wisp of smoke curled upward from my candle. On my next exhale, my breath fluttered out with a similar hue, spreading outward like fog, curling around each of their heads. A chill slithered up my spine.
Silence. The men didn’t move. No twitching or sighing. The last remnants of rum trailed down their faces.
An eeriness engulfed us. It was too quiet.
There was movement around Knox. His aura appeared in the form of a glorious sunlight pulsing from him as if it might strike out should anything touch him. As suspected, he remained pure and clean of demonic infestation. That left me at ease because having infected three of them was bad enough without drawing Knox into the chaos.
Dean’s eyes shot open to round discs, and I jumped in my seat. Black and swollen. Ink-like tears fell from the edges, running down along either side of his nose and around the corners of his mouth. No reaction from Dean. But why was he weeping? Was the master who controlled the entities heartbroken? Had he lost someone and was that why he now came for me? Maybe I had hurt someone close to him.
Ryder raised both hands cupped together and shook them as if they were maracas. With eyes remaining shut, he opened his hands and two dice materialized out of thin air. They hit the table, landing at once with two snake eyes facing upward. I swallowed the thickness in my throat… bad luck! He picked up the dice and repeated the gesture while Dean kept crying black goo.
A rustling echoed around us as if I were in the woods. I stilled and waited. A single brown leaf fell in front of Asher. Then more cascaded over his head. I glanced up at the dark ceiling, almost expecting to find a tree. The leaves kept falling around him, piling up on his shoulders, in his lap. What did the leaves mean? A changing season? The symbolism for something dying, maybe being reborn?
But something moved behind Asher’s head. Something thin and long… Wait, what is that? I squinted and leaned forward for a better look, but the leaves fell faster, harder, obscuring my view. Whatever hid behind him didn’t want me seeing it. Excitement pumped through my veins. This might be the answer we needed.
“Show yourself,” I insisted, my breath racing toward Asher like greedy fingers. “I command you.”
A growl rumbled around us, loud enough to shake the floorboards beneath my feet. I gasped, holding myself steady.
“Come forward, coward!” I hissed.
The whole room trembled, groaning, creaking. Framed photos dropped off the walls. Overhead, the light bulb on a string swung wildly. Yep, all for show, but I was ready despite the dread coiling tight in my gut.
My palms tingled, fire sparking alight. A rush of power snapped through the room, my hair shifting on my nape.
Suddenly, a skeleton face with long fangs jutted out from behind Asher’s shoulder. Its gaping mouth opened, sharp incisors catapulting toward my face.
Terror shackled me as paralyzing pain spread through me.
I screamed, scrambling backward, throwing out my fiery hands in defense. My chair didn’t budge under me. Instead, the momentum sent me tumbling backward, me still in my seat. My legs slammed into the underside of the table. The damn thing came with me, its feet screeching as it dragged along the wooden floor. The candle fell over, and the table’s surface caught on fire as the flame found the rum.
I hit the floor with my back, palms outward, expecting an attack. But it never came. The earlier energy on my skin flatlined, and now only the fiery heat nipped at my flesh.
Groans and footfalls escaped as the men jumped away from the table devoured in flames.
I scrambled up, my head whirring.
“I’ve got the extinguisher,” Asher called out. Knox and Ryder pulled the chairs away to ensure nothing else got burned.
Dean was at my side, hauling me away from the inferno while Asher extinguished the mess as the fire alarm went off. Something clicked overhead and sprinklers sprayed water on everything in sight, including us.
“Hell!” I mumbled, still unable to clear my head. It had happened so fast that only now reality struck me asI trembled.
The fire went out. Now we all stood bewildered, getting wetter, confusion bleeding across their expressions.
“What the fuck happened?” Asher roared.