We walked into a large room that was filled with crates and fishing traps. Ropes hung from rusted nails on the wall. Wooden floors creaked with each of our steps. I wasn’t normally prone to feeling uneasy about buildings, but there was something unsettling about the space. A slight, strange humming set my nerves further on edge. Dust motes swirled in the moonlight.
I hoped we’d caused the disturbance and some demons weren’t lying in wait. I really didn’t want to face any more creatures like the dead demon outside. Wrath was annoyingly unaffected. He strode through the room with the ease of knowing he was the most lethal predator. He inspected the fishing gear, and kicked at a rusty anchor that had been discarded near a back exit.
“It looks like this location hasn’t been used in some time,” he said.
“Do you believe it was just a coincidence that the Aper demon led me here?”
He lifted a shoulder. “Anything look familiar?”
“I . . .”
I scanned the space. Fishing nets, ropes, various hooks in strange shapes nailed to the far wall, and wire traps. Everything looked average. Except for that sensation I couldn’t name. It felt familiar in a way. I slowly walked around the perimeter, pausing at each piece of fishing gear. There had to be some reason we ended up here. And I was so close to figuring it out . . .
I picked up a rusted hook and let it fall back against the wall. It was perfectly ordinary.
I blew out a breath. I didn’t want to waste time, touching each old hook. Especially when I might possibly have a much better clue waiting for me at home in Vittoria’s diary. Still . . . I couldn’t quiet the insistent tug in my center. I did another sweep of the room, but nothing stood out. It seemed that the Aper demon attack and this empty building were unrelated.
“Well?” Wrath asked. “Do you recognize anything?”
Nothing aside from the symbol I was almost certain my sister had sketched in her diary. I shook my head, wanting to hurry to my house to retrieve it. “No.”
“Very well. Let’s go home.”
I didn’t point out that his stolen, ruined palace was not my home and never would be.
“I have to go collect my things,” I said. “I’ll meet you there soon. You should dispose of the demon outside.”
Before he could argue, I slipped out the door and headed to my house.
I slumped against the doorframe in my bedroom and surveyed the carnage. Floorboards were ripped up and broken. Wooden splinters littered the little knotted rug Nonna made for me and Vittoria when we were little. Feathers floated on the breeze blowing in from the shattered window. Someone had taken out a lot of aggression on my mattress.
Or something. Wrath said princes of Hell had to be invited into a mortal’s home, but, as I’d recently discovered, that rule didn’t hold true for all demons. Lower-caste creatures of Hell seemed to do as they pleased. The Umbra slipped beyond our protection charms, and no formal invitation had been sent to it. Wrath also mentioned magic didn’t work on them the same way it did on corporeal beings, so it was likely more an issue with that than our protection charms.
Which still wasn’t comforting.
Without even fully walking into the room I knew my sister’s diary was long gone, taking her many secrets with it. An Umbra demon was the likely perpetrator of this theft. And that brought Greed back to the top of my suspect list. He was the only prince of Hell thus far that I knew used them to do his bidding.
I wondered about those nights I thought I’d felt someone watching as I drifted into sleep. It was unsettling and invasive, having private moments become a spectacle for prying eyes. All the times I’d gotten dressed, or collapsed in grief. Emotions raw and unchecked because I thought I’d been alone. I glanced out the window, wondering if someone was out there now, watching this latest horror unfold.
I rubbed my hands over my arms, trying to shake the sudden chills. If my bedroom wasn’t on the second floor, and if I didn’t travel through the rest of the house to get here, I’d think the entire place had been ransacked. Aside from my trashed bedroom, the rest of our home was untouched. And so were my family members. Somehow Nonna must not have heard anything unusual, because she was napping peacefully in her bedroom on the lower level. Everyone else was at Sea & Vine until they completed dinner service. Thank the goddess.
Just to put my mind at ease, I made my way across the debris, and peered into Vittoria’s old hiding place. The grimoire pages I’d tucked back in there after I’d summoned Wrath were torn to shreds. Her perfumes smashed. The love notes were missing, along with her diary.
A tear hit the floor. Followed by another. I felt like I was falling, too. Slipping between cracks and losing myself to grief all over again. Seeing Vittoria’s things smashed and broken . . . it was all too much.
I crossed the remnants of what used to be our safe haven, and collapsed onto what was left of my bed. It sank with my weight, sitting cockeyed and wrong. Like everything else in my world.
A sob tore loose. The harder I tried fighting it, the more uncontrollable my sobbing became. How foolish to think I had nothing left to lose. The demons went and proved me wrong. Even if I put our room back together, it would never be the same again.
My sister’s belongings and everything she’d loved had been destroyed.
Vittoria had finally been erased from my world. And now I wasn’t sure I knew how to go on. I laid on my side and tucked my knees up to my chin and cried. I didn’t care if there was an incorporeal demon watching. I didn’t care if there was a witch hunter, or prince of Hell, or sadistic human monster delighting in my pain. I lost something I’d never regain, and I mourned.
If the Aper demon was only a small taste of what was to come, my city would spend many nights crying over stolen loved ones. I felt so helpless. So lost and alone. How could I stop such powerful beings? The whole situation seemed impossibly hopeless. I’d been deluding myself into thinking I stood a chance at solving the murders, and saving other lives. I wanted to help, but it wasn’t enough. I heaved and hiccupped until I had nothing left. I hated how altered this world had become.
It took a little more time, but I finally dried my tears. The demons stole my sister’s life, and would keep taking and taking until they were stopped. So what if I didn’t have all the answers? I would do everything I could to stop the gates of Hell from opening. I’d had enough.
I pushed myself up, clutched at my anger, and went to grab my pen and pot of ink. I wrote out a quick note to my family, telling them I loved them, and promised I’d be fine, but I couldn’t stay here anymore. I vowed to keep them safe, no matter what.
No one else I loved would be taken from me.
I’d use the darkest of magic to be certain of it.
“How are you doing?” I asked Claudia. Her face was splotchy and her eyes were swollen.
“Please, come in.” She opened the door to her home and I stepped inside. The curtains were all drawn tightly. Glittery black candles burned and flickered on almost every surface, giving off a peppery scent. An altar piled with animal bones and bunches of dried herbs adorned the top of a small chest in the sitting room. A mirror lay against the wall behind it, reflecting the macabre scene back at me. I’d almost forgotten poor Valentina had been murdered.
It felt like a year ago, not just a day.
“Are you all right?”
“I’m not sure. I feel a strange mixture of emotions.” Claudia’s voice was quiet. She motioned for us to sit on a threadbare sofa before the altar of mourning. “At first I felt like someone had ripped out my heart, too. Then I felt numb. And now . . .” she sniffled, shook her head. She wouldn’t meet my gaze.
“Now you want vengeance.”
She glanced up sharply, and swiped at her nose. “Is that wrong?”
“No. I used to think it was, but not anymore.” I swiveled on the cushion and clutched her hands. “Do you have a spell to make a ward that’s powerful enough to kill a demon if it tries crossing it?”
Claudia’s grip on me tightened and she set her jaw. “I believe so.”
“Even an invisible one?”
“Good,” I said. “I want you to cast a ward around your home immediately, and mine if you can, too. Do you need blood for the spell?” She dropped her gaze again and nodded. I figured as much. Dark magic demanded payment. I let go of her hands and rolled back one of the sheer sleeves on my blouse. “I’ll just need a knife, two vials, some lavender oil, and a bandage.”
“Emilia, you can’t—”
“I can,” I said, firmly. “I want to help any way I can.”
“All right.” My friend pushed herself to her feet. Her sadness had been replaced by something sharper, angrier. Something I recognized in myself now, too. “I’ll fetch the blade.”
Wrath didn’t utter one word when I barged into his stolen palace and marched up the stairs. I imagined he sensed my raging emotions and was courteous enough to give me a wide berth.
He watched in silence, one annoying brow raised, as I tugged at the bandage on my arm and disappeared from view. On the third floor, down the end of an elegant hallway, I found a room that was five times the size of the bedroom I’d shared with Vittoria.
I should have probably hated it for being so beautiful, but couldn’t.
It had ice blue walls with a sunshine-colored tapestry and a four-poster bed—smack in the middle—that I could roll across at least three times and not topple off of. A tiled bathing chamber with a sunken tub and floor-length mirror was attached, and even with a few cracks and chips, I decided it would definitely do.
Though, given the newness of the bed and tapestry, maybe I hadn’t been the first person to think I’d like this room. I wanted to be annoyed that Wrath guessed right, but was exhausted and didn’t have the capacity to feel much of anything. It had been a long terrible day.
I unpacked my own blanket, flicked it across the mattress, and smoothed it down. I tossed the pillow on next, and even though it wasn’t much, it felt a little more like home. Especially since home didn’t feel like home after my room had been invaded and destroyed. Before I started crying again, I went into the bathing chamber and turned on the water.