After a few more minutes of mindlessly pushing forward down familiar streets, I stood outside our stone house and paused under the trellis covered with plumeria, unable to formulate the words I needed to say. I had no idea how to deliver the news to my family.
In moments they’d all feel like they’d been beaten and broken, too.
From here on out, our lives would never be the same again. I imagined my mother’s scream. My father’s tears. The horror in Nonna’s face, knowing all her preparations to save us from evil had been pointless.
Vittoria was dead.
I must have cried out or made some small noise. A swath of golden light cut through the darkness before fading as quickly. Nonna was at the window, waiting. She’d likely been there since she came home. Worrying and fretting. Her warnings about the devil stirring the seas, and the sky being the color of his blood didn’t seem like silly old superstition now.
The door swung open before I finished climbing the steps carved into the front of our home and reached the knob.
Nonna started shaking her head, her eyes watering, as she grabbed her cornicello. I didn’t have to say anything. The blood staining my hands said enough. “No.” Her bottom lip quivered. I’d never seen such despair and undulated fear in Nonna’s face before. “No. It can’t be.”
The hollowness inside me spread. All her lessons, all of our charms . . . for nothing.
“Vittoria is . . .” I swallowed hard, the action nearly choking me. “She’s . . .”
I stared down at the serpent dagger I still held, but had no memory of taking. I wondered if it was the weapon that had taken my sister’s life. My grip on it tightened.
Nonna took one look at the dagger and wrapped me in her arms, holding me fiercely against her. “What happened, bambina?”
I buried my face in her shoulder, breathing in the familiar scent of spices and herbs. Hugging Nonna made everything real. The whole goddessless nightmare.
“Your worst fears.”
Flashes of my twin and her missing heart crossed my mind, and whatever thread of strength I’d been clutching to snapped, plunging me into darkness.
The day after we laid my sister to rest, I sat alone in our room, an unopened book in my lap. It was so quiet. I used to cherish peaceful days like this, when my twin was out being adventurous and I was adventuring with a favorite character. A good book was its own brand of magic, one I could safely indulge in without fear of getting caught by those who hunted us. I loved escaping from reality, especially during times of trouble. Stories made everything possible.
My attention moved to the door the same way it had all morning, searching for a sign Vittoria was about to charge through it, her face flushed and her grin wide. All remained still.
Downstairs a spoon clinked against the cast iron cauldron. A moment later herbal scents wafted up. Nonna had been making spell candles nonstop. She lit them for the polizia, helping to guide them in their search. Or so she claimed. I’d seen the juniper berry and belladonna candle she’d made with a dash of salt and a pinch of pepper. It was her own recipe and it wasn’t used for clarity.
I set my book aside and went downstairs, hovering near the edge of the kitchen. Not quite hungry, but feeling empty, hollow. I hadn’t felt like cooking or creating, and couldn’t imagine ever feeling that light and free again. Living in a world without my sister felt dark and wrong.
Nonna glanced up. “Come sit, Emilia. I’ll make you something to eat.”
“That’s all right, Nonna. I can fix something.”
I went to the ice box and almost burst into tears when I saw the pitcher of limoncello wine Vittoria had made for me. No one had touched it.
I quickly shut the door, and perched on the edge of the closest stool.
“Here.” Nonna set a bowl of sweetened ricotta in front of me, her expression kind. “Desserts always go down easy.”
I pushed the creamy concoction around. “Do you think someone found out . . . what we are? Maybe Vittoria joked about the devil or demons to the wrong human.”
“No, bambina. I don’t believe it was a human who attacked her at all. Not with the signs we’ve been receiving. Or the blood debt.”
I’d forgotten all about the mysterious blood debt. It seemed an entire lifetime had passed since Nonna first mentioned it. “You believe the blood debt is responsible for Vittoria’s murder?”
“Mmh. It was part of an ancient bargain struck between La Prima and the devil. Some believe La Prima cursed the Wicked, others believe the devil cursed witches. A warning came one day: ‘When witch blood spills across Sicily, take your daughters and hide. The Malvagi have arrived.’ Now there’s been three witch murders.”
“It doesn’t mean the Wicked killed them. What about witch hunters? Don’t you think that sounds more logical than demon royalty breaking out of Hell? You know as well as I do how much humans fear witches, and how willing they are to commit the very sins they accuse us of. In fact, Antonio said a village not far from here is convinced shape-shifters have been cavorting with a goddess. Maybe someone like that saw Vittoria whisper a charm and killed her.”
“The devil stirred the seas and made the sky bleed. What more will convince you that danger is knocking at our door that has nothing to do with mortals? What use do humans have with witch hearts?”
I took a deep breath, trying to calm the anger building inside me. This wasn’t the time to believe stories passed down from generations ago. Now was the time to consider the facts that made the most sense. Starting with the first victim in Sciacca—more than a week before Emilia’s murder—not a single witch family had come forward with information about the Wicked’s arrival. Until new evidence or proof was uncovered about the demon princes, I’d stick with my theory of a human being responsible.
“Are we going to speak with the police, Nonna?”
“If they investigate too closely and discover what we are, do you think your fate will be any different than your sister’s?”
I shook my head. I didn’t want to fight with my grandma. I also couldn’t quite figure out a way to tell the police witch hunters might be to blame without casting suspicion on us.
I was so frustrated, I could scream. My twin had been murdered. No one who knew my sister would ever wish her harm. Which meant it had to be a stranger, or someone who’d figured out what she was. According to Nonna, the other two victims were also witches. That wasn’t a mere coincidence—it was a connection. A woman with a little power was terrifying to some.
I curled my hands into fists, focusing on the pain of my nails sinking into my skin. Someone chose to hurt Vittoria. And I wanted to know who. Why.
What had Vittoria been doing in the hours leading up to the attack? She didn’t usually visit the monastery, but I’d seen her there twice in as many days.
It was possible she was meeting that strange dark-haired man there. For what purpose, I wasn’t sure. She could have been secretly involved with him. Or maybe the murderer dragged her there against her will. Maybe she didn’t know him at all and he’d intercepted her while she’d been on her way elsewhere.
I couldn’t recall exactly what time she’d left Sea & Vine. That day had started off like any other—we’d gotten up, dressed, shared a morning meal, and went to work with our family to prep for the busy festival day.
I hadn’t even asked where she was going. I didn’t know she wouldn’t ever return.
Tears threatened, but I held them in. If I could go back in time, I’d do so many things differently. I shoved the heels of my hands into my eyes, and commanded myself to keep it together.
“It’s not easy for any of us, Emilia,” Nonna said. “Let this go. Let the goddesses take their vengeance in their own way. The First Witch won’t allow things to continue like this—trust that she has a plan for the Malvagi, and work on your protection charms. Your family needs you.”
“I can’t sit here while the person who killed her walks free. Please don’t ask me to trust in a witch I’ve never met, or in goddesses I’m not sure really exist. Vittoria deserves justice.”
Nonna cupped my face, her eyes watering. “You must put this to rest for your family. Nothing good will come from knocking on doors best left closed. Find forgiveness and acceptance in your heart, or darkness will seep in and destroy you.”
I excused myself and went back upstairs. I needed to be alone with my thoughts. I dropped onto my bed, haunted with memories of that cursed chamber where I’d found Vittoria.
I’d gone over it again and again in excruciating detail, trying to figure out what brought my sister there. I was missing something vital. Something that might help find Vittoria’s killer.
I closed my eyes and concentrated as hard as I could, pretending I was standing in that room again with her body. I kept thinking about how she was dressed. I had no idea where she’d gotten the white gown. She wasn’t wearing it the last time I saw her. Which begged the question of what she’d been doing that afternoon. Was she secretly about to marry Domenico? Or had she planned something else?
Then there was the mystery of her missing cornicello. Nonna told us to never take off our amulets and apart from that one time when we were eight, we never did. Or at least I never did again. Maybe my sister had, but I couldn’t fathom why. We didn’t have to see or even fully believe in the Wicked to fear them. Nonna’s stories were terrifying enough. Vittoria joked about Nonna’s superstitions, but she was out digging up grave dirt, swiping vials of holy water, and blessing our amulets by the light of a full moon each month right along with me.
I rolled onto my side, contemplating the most troubling questions of all; if she hadn’t taken her protection amulet off, who did and where was it now?
If a witch hunter discovered who she was, it was possible he took it as a prize. Maybe he suspected it was an actual magical object, unlike other human-made amulets. My thoughts turned to that dark-haired stranger again. Dressed in such fine clothes, he certainly wasn’t a member of the holy brotherhood. And he didn’t look like the sort to turn his life over to God. He seemed too defiant for religion. I hadn’t met a witch hunter before, so I couldn’t rule that out. Maybe he was a thief—he’d certainly moved around the shadows with ease.