I considered my options. I could send notes to the twelve other families in Palermo, but there was a chance they could be intercepted. Showing up at their homes or businesses was also risky in case we were being watched, so that wasn’t an option. In these strange times, I had to be very cautious about each of my moves. My good intentions might end up costing someone their life. Hopefully the others were taking precautions after the recent murders.
Wrath stepped to the edge of the bone circle, looking like trouble. “Well? Are you ready to become a member of House Wrath?”
“No. Until you decide to work with me as an equal, I decline your offer of protection.”
His smile was filled with venom. “You weren’t ever planning on accepting the blood trade, were you?” I ignored him and plucked my satchel up from the ground and headed for the cave entrance. Wrath called out, “Where are you going?”
“To the monastery.”
“These are dangerous times; you shouldn’t go alone. Set me free and I’ll come with you.”
As if I’d let that happen. “Next time.”
“Benediximus.” Good luck. “It’s your funeral.”
His dark chuckle followed me all the way back to the city.
Two streets away from the monastery, I felt the unmistakable sensation of being watched. I pretended not to notice for a solid block before casually making my way down an empty street. If I had to resort to magic, I didn’t need any witnesses reporting my so-called devilry to the church. When we were much younger, a fratello named Carmine used to search for anyone with evil in their soul. I’d heard the church had sent him to northern Italy, but I thought of him every now and again. Especially when outside the monastery, primed to use magic.
I gripped my cornicello and squinted into the alley beside me, searching for purply luccicare that indicated a human was near. At first, I didn’t see a thing. And then . . .
A low, smooth voice spoke from the shadows. “Well, this is quite a surprise.”
Hair on the back of my neck stood on end as a man emerged from the darkness. His hair was black silk, and his eyes were an animal-like green. No human had eyes that color, and the strange, glittering luccicare surrounding him indicated what I already suspected: Malvagi. I wasn’t sure why, but I let go of my amulet and subtly tucked it inside my bodice.
“You’re . . .” Another demon prince. One I hadn’t summoned to this realm. Which meant there were other ways for them to get here. Something I should have realized sooner since Wrath had been the one standing over my sister last month. Impossible was becoming quite the joke.
I stepped back, and silently prayed to the goddess of battle and victory. The new demon smiled as if he’d read my thoughts. I wanted to look away, but couldn’t. It was as if that odd, pulsating energy of his held me captive no matter how much I wanted to scream.
Instead of panicking, I catalogued details. He was almost as tall as Wrath, and was arresting as opposed to classically handsome, but drew greater attention because of it. He had well-trimmed facial hair that accentuated the hard angles of his face. Staring at him, I almost felt a twinge of—
“Envy.” The demon managed to make a singular word sound both threatening and inviting. “And you are . . . intriguing.”
I didn’t want to be intriguing. I didn’t want to be alone with him. I wanted to escape. I didn’t manage to accomplish any of those things. I stood there, frozen with bone-deep terror. The Wicked hadn’t been seen in this realm for almost one hundred years. Now at least two of them were here.
I couldn’t quite grasp why, but I felt this prince was different from Wrath. There was something about him that came across as lethally angelic. But if he ever had a halo, it was broken now. I wanted to drop to my knees in supplication and also scream for mercy.
Envy lurked at the edge of the alley. Just as Wrath had been the first evening I’d encountered him, his brother was dressed in fine clothes. His suit was solid black, but his shirt and vest were several shades of swirling green shot through with silver threads. He also had a dagger strapped to his side, but this one had a giant green gemstone lodged into its hilt.
All my senses tingled with warning. And fear. This midnight creature wasn’t bound to protect me, and I was acutely aware of my vulnerability.
This skirt had no secret pocket, so I’d left my moon-blessed chalk at home. Which meant I had no way to draw a protection circle, no herbs to offer the earth, and I had a feeling running would only amuse him. I almost choked on terror. I was at the mercy of this devil.
My panic abruptly shifted into something else. A fierce, overwhelming dark feeling fluttered around me like expansive leathery wings. It was cold and ancient—with no beginning and no ending. Like all magic, it just was.
And I longed for all of it to be mine. Every last drop.
I was suddenly jealous of the immense power these demons wielded. Why did the Hell creatures deserve it all? Why was I less worthy of possessing some power of my own?
I was goddess blessed, not demon cursed!
If I had even a fraction of that magic, I could force others to tell me what happened to my twin. I could stop another witch from losing her life in a demonic bargain. And I could bring the underworld to its knees. I wanted what they had so badly that I burned with hatred. It was an ice-cold hate so potent that I was frozen down to my very core.
It was too much. Wanting that which would never be mine . . .
Envy leaned forward, a hungry gleam in his strange eyes. I had the oddest impression that he suffered from those same feelings. That he envied his brothers in a way that almost drove him mad. I could never imagine feeling that way about my twin. It must be so lonely, so isolating.
I held the dagger I’d taken from Wrath, pressed it into my chest, and almost groaned with pleasure as blood beaded up. It pierced my skin with such terrible ecstasy. I was ready to carve out my own heart just to stop the consuming pain of knowing I’d never possess that power—
A little electric current pulsed from my tattoo, sending sparks of energy across my skin, and the spell shattered. I blinked as if coming out of a vivid dream. I glanced from the blade in my shaking hand, to the green-eyed demon whose attention shifted to my arm.
Envy must have been either feeding me his emotions, or turning mine against me.
“Exceptional,” the demon prince said. “Did you feel as I did?”
If he felt like an endless abyss of nothingness, hatred, and ice, then yes. “What did you do to me?”
“Allowed your inner desires to surface. Some call them sins.”
I shivered, feeling violated in a way I’d never known and hoped to never experience again. I’d almost shoved a blade through my heart. If my tattoo hadn’t stopped me, I’d be dead. I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d been wrong about witch hunters; maybe Nonna had been right all along and humans weren’t to blame.
It definitely felt like this demon was responsible for the bodies with missing hearts.
Envy had affected me even with my cornicello. My little charm had been no match for a prince of Hell. I wasn’t even sure if he’d used all of his power, or a small part of it.
If he’d done that while I was in the kitchen with my family . . .
I closed my eyes, not wanting to even think about what he could have forced me to do to them. And how powerless I’d be to resist him. I wondered if any of our precautions and spells or charms truly worked, or if they’d only succeeded in giving us a false sense of security.
With creatures like Envy roaming the earth, I didn’t believe we’d ever truly be safe. I had the sudden urge to cry. No wonder Nonna told us those stories and tried to hide us.
These demons were worse than nightmares. And now they were here.
“Strange.” Envy set his animal-like gaze on me, curious. I glanced down at my tattoo, startled to see snakes now twined around the crescent moons, forming a larger circle around them. I’d been so distracted by fear, I hadn’t felt the burning in my forearm. Envy’s attention cut to the dagger now safely tethered to my hip again and a slow, cunning smile touched his lips. “How very interesting indeed. Such tangled, tangled webs. Summoned through hate, bound by blood.”
“What do you mean?”
He shoved gloved hands into his pockets. “You have something I want.”
“If it’s my still-beating heart, I’m afraid I must decline.”
“No, but I imagine you’ll end up giving that to my brother one day.”
His tone was flat. I wondered if Wrath knew how jealous he was, but said nothing.
“Perhaps we can strike a bargain. If you agree to sell your soul to House Envy, I will help you find what you seek.” His expression was inhuman and ice cold as he waited. The hair on the nape of my neck stood at attention. “I covet unique things. You would make an interesting gift to my court. Do you sing?”
“I’m not unique.” Nor was I a “thing” or a “gift” to be passed around like a curiosity at a party.
“Aren’t you, though?” He smiled. “It’s been a great long while since I last saw a shadow witch. I should like very much for you to join my House.”
I didn’t know what he meant by shadow witch, and it was the least of my worries. An image of humans and witches frozen solid as morbid displays on a grand checkerboard crossed my mind. Envy seemed like the kind of demon who’d proudly show off his trophies, hoping others would be struck with jealousy over his coveted possessions.
I swallowed my growing panic, unsure if it was an image he’d fed to me. I didn’t want to ever find out if that fear held any kernel of truth.
“Well?” Envy asked, an edge creeping into his tone. “Are you willing to join my House? I can offer protection from my realm and my brothers. You’ll certainly need it, especially with all of the unfortunate murders here of late.”
My heart drummed madly. There was an old proverb Nonna always muttered that claimed “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t” and I’d never felt the truth in something more. If given a choice between bargaining with Wrath or Envy, I’d choose Wrath.