The witches gathered in a circle, as sleek and somber as a conspiracy of ravens. Outside that ring was another, made up of friends and employees of Summerfields Orchard, but they kept their distance and observed a respectful silence, all of them watching the witches. Peter Octavian stood perhaps furthest of all from the circle, practically at the edge of the hillside clearing, at the center of which stood a single apple tree, remarkable for the leaves and fruit which blossomed from the branches as if summer were still in full swing instead of coming quickly to a close.
The witches began a ceremonial chant that seemed half incantation and half prayer, and Octavian studied them closely. They had come from all over New England to participate in a joyous occasion - the autumnal equinox - and the various rituals that went along with it for people of their beliefs. Those rituals were still to come but today they were attending to a different sort of ceremony: the funeral of one of their own.
Several of the witches wore robes, preferring perhaps to keep to the old traditions, but most were dressed in ordinary clothing, snug in sweaters and wool coats. When the breeze shifted just right, the wind carried the scent of cinnamon and cider up the hill from the shop in the barn, where bakers were making donuts for visitors. But no visitors were being allowed up onto the hillside this morning. Not just yet.
The chanting witches held their hands out in front of them, fingers stretched toward the soil. The stance gave them a stiff, formal pose, and Octavian was reminded again of black birds. Once upon a time, a cluster of ravens had been called an unkindness, and the word felt appropriate. Though the witches had convened this gray morning for only the most generous and blessed of purposes, it was fate's unkindness that they should have to be here at all.
No rain fell, but clouds hung low above the orchard, dark and pregnant with storm. Octavian would have preferred it if the rain and wind had come already, nourishing and cleansing this small valley on the outskirts of Brattleboro, Vermont, and sweeping away the ominous aura that filled the air with the threat of menace. Keomany Shaw had died to keep chaos and entropy from enveloping the world. The battle had been won, the casualties counted, and order restored. So why did it feel like the storm had yet to break? It was more than the clouds, Octavian knew that. As much as he grieved for Keomany, his skin prickled with the certainty that there was worse yet to come.
The earthwitches raised their hands to the sky as if to part the clouds, but the heavens were indifferent. Together the women intoned a new prayer, commending the spirit of their sister to the earth and the sky. There were seventeen of them in the circle, including Cat Hein and Tori Osborne, the married couple who owned Summerfields, and who had been Keomany's closest friends. The others had arrived in a steady trickle over the past couple of days, in preparation for the equinox ceremonies that the earthwitches would be hosting at the orchard.
'Never saw this coming,' the man standing beside Octavian said in a low voice.
Octavian studied the thin, sixtyish man with the round glasses and the wispy white beard, trying to recall his name. Patrick. Tori had introduced him as the husband of one of the earthwitches, which Octavian had thought interesting. A couple of the others had arrived with companions who were not witches, but for the most part they had come alone or in the company of other witches. Either they were single, or they'd left their non-witch partners at home.
'You knew Keomany?' Octavian asked quietly, glancing at the circle of witches to be sure the whispered exchange would not disturb them. There were perhaps twenty other people outside the ritual circle, and they were all observing in silence.
Patrick smiled sadly. 'We all knew her and loved her. If any of us ever needed proof that Gaea loved us, that the earth mother was still with us, all we had to do was look at Keomany. She'd been chosen, you know? It just radiated from her.'
If he hadn't known better, Octavian would have scoffed at the suggestion that the ancient sentience of the earth itself paid any attention to the human world, or that it had touched Keomany Shaw, given her elemental gifts not bestowed upon others. But he had seen those gifts himself, and he knew the bond that Keomany had forged with the elements. With the earth.
'No doubt about it,' Octavian said, and this seemed to satisfy Patrick, who nodded and said no more.
In the midst of the witches, Cat stepped forward. Tall and curvy, she reminded Octavian of the Rubenesque representations of fertility goddesses in classical art, though her stylish burgundy sweater and black jeans belied the comparison. Cat's face was lined with tears as she reached for the wine bottle in Tori's hands - the wine bottle Octavian had brought back from Massachusetts with him. The wine bottle that contained all that he had managed to collect of Keomany's ashes.
As if she could sense his attention - and perhaps she could - she shot Octavian a withering glance. Though he had once saved her from a very painful death, she had no affection for him. Now, in the wake of Keomany's death, dislike had turned to venom.
Tori handed the wine to her wife, bringing Cat back into the moment. She accepted the bottle and the couple shared a lingering look of sadness. Tori wiped away her own tears and then pressed both hands to her chest as though to quiet her thundering heart. Cat gave Tori a small, sorrowful smile and uncorked the bottle.
Octavian had been surprised when the witches had told him they were going to scatter Keomany's ashes this morning. He had assumed that with the equinox so close, and given the renewal it represented, they would want to wait until then to perform this ceremony. But Keomany had purified the soil in this clearing and had planted the seed of this lone, remarkable apple tree herself, using her earth magic to grow it from seedling to maturity in a matter of minutes. They wanted Keomany to be a part of this soil before the equinox so that she could be purified with it, and grow and have her spirit renewed, joined with Gaea forever.
Who was Octavian to argue?
After all, in the eyes of the witches, he was the man who'd gotten Keomany killed.
It had begun, if Octavian understood correctly, right here in this clearing. Keomany had been using her earthcraft to purify the soil, but when she had reached down into the world and tapped into nature, she had been struck by a wrongness so profound that it had shocked her into unconsciousness. Chaos had infected the world and begun to spread, and Keomany had been able to pinpoint ground zero of the blossoming infection. Several times in the past, Octavian had drawn her into danger in order to combat some supernatural threat, but she had always come back alive. With the crisis in Hawthorne, Massachusetts - the waking of an ancient Chaldean chaos deity called Navalica - it had been Keomany who had sounded the alarm, and who led the charge. The moment she had returned to consciousness, she had called Octavian.
But the witches still blamed him. He had argued the point, but now, as he watched Cat sprinkle Keomany's ashes into the soil amidst the circle of witches, he admitted to himself that he bore at least some of the blame. The first time Keomany had faced real evil, Octavian had been drawn into the fight because she was an old friend of the woman he loved. But after that crisis had passed, Octavian could have kept Keomany out of it. He had enough magic of his own; surely there had been no need to keep putting Keomany in danger.
He frowned and dropped his gaze to the prickly grass underfoot, his own sorrow beginning to break down the defenses he'd erected to hold it back.
No, he thought. It was her fight, too. With her connection to the earth, she wanted to be a part of it.
And that was true, as far as it went. After all, Keomany had called him, this last time. But there had once been measures in place to prevent things like the awakening of Navalica, and Octavian was partly to blame for the fact that those measures were no longer functioning. He had helped to tear down the church's magical hierarchy in order to save the Shadows - the beings most people called vampires. But only in the past couple of years had he begun to fully appreciate the consequences. There were many Hells, and within them lived unimaginable creatures who would have loved to bring the human world to ruin, or make a feast of them, if only there weren't barriers keeping them out.
Without the magic to refresh those barriers - magic no one alive knew how to perform - this dimension's defenses were failing, and humankind was entirely unaware of it. Fortunately, for quite some time, nor had the denizens of the thousand Hells that bordered the human world. But when Navalica woke, it had been like a beacon shining out across the dimensions. Octavian and his allies had captured and imprisoned her, cutting off that beacon. But he knew that some of the demons and monsters would realize what it had meant, or would shamble vaguely in its direction and find that walls which had once kept them out had now fallen.
Keomany was dead. As awful as that was, and as good a friend as she had been, she would not be the last casualty. Things had been set in motion now that he would not be able to stop without a great deal of help. But his first duty had been to Keomany, to take her ashes home so that the people who loved her could mourn her properly. He owed her that, at least.
As for the rest, he decided it would be best not to mention any of it to the witches. Cat and Tori and their friends, though they practiced earthcraft and had some small skill with such magic, had only a fraction of the elemental power that had come so naturally to Keomany. Even if they hadn't disliked him, and blamed him for Keomany's death, Cat and Tori wouldn't have been able to help him.
He had done all he could for Keomany, and for the witches of Summerfields. The time had come for him to be reunited with the woman he loved. Nikki Wydra was a musician and had achieved a certain amount of success. She had seen her share of impossibilities become real, had faced darkness and horror with courage, but she wanted a simpler, more ordinary life. Octavian did not look forward to having to explain to her what had happened with Navalica . . . and what it meant. But after the events of the past few days, he longed to have her in his arms again.
Soon enough, he thought, for it appeared that the witches were nearly done with their ceremony. A light breeze began to eddy some of Keomany's ashes across the clearing, but they blew toward the base of the apple tree at its center, and that seemed only right.
Distant thunder rolled across the sky, the storm getting closer. It seemed the ritual had been timed perfectly, for the clouds were darkening overhead as if it were dusk rather than morning. The witches came together around Cat and Tori, all talking amongst themselves, embracing and wiping away tears. After a few moments, several of them broke away from the group and began to talk with some of the other mourners who had gathered there. A young hipster couple who worked at Summerfields made their way into the circle to join Cat and Tori, the guy gesturing first to make sure they were welcome. Tori hugged them, but Cat only smiled sadly and turned to gaze at the apple tree, with its fruit hanging heavy and ripe with promise.
Octavian turned away. There was nothing more for him here. He hadn't been able to reach Nikki since leaving Hawthorne the previous day. Tonight she was due to perform in Philadelphia, so he knew that she might be too busy with rehearsal and sound check or a dozen other things to respond to the two messages he'd left. But he had also sent her a text asking her to let him know she was all right, and her lack of response had him worried. He imagined it was something trifling - that she'd lost her phone or dropped it in the toilet - but as soon as he was back in his rental car and on the way to the airport, he intended to ring her hotel in Philly. She would be grief-stricken to learn of Keomany's death, and heartbroken that she'd missed this ceremony, the only sort of funeral her old friend would have. But there were other things Octavian and Nikki needed to discuss, like how to make sure the rest of the world didn't end up in ashes, like Keomany.
'You taking off?'
Octavian looked up to see Patrick studying him through those round spectacles.
'I've got a plane to catch.'
'Without saying goodbye to your friends?' Patrick said, nodding back up toward the witches in the clearing.
Octavian glanced at them, saw Cat and Tori holding hands and talking to a small cluster of people.
'Keomany was my friend,' he said, surprising himself with his honesty. 'Trust me, they'll be happier when I'm gone.'
Even as he spoke, Cat seemed to sense the weight of his regard. Wiping a tear from her cheek, she glanced over at him. Her eyes narrowed and her lip curled up in a snarl. Without a word to the others, she broke away and started down the slope toward him. Patrick wisely retreated.
'You son of a bitch,' Cat said, jaw so tight she seemed to bite on the end of each word.
Octavian cocked his head slightly, not sure how to proceed. Past Cat, he saw Tori making swift excuses to their friends and hurrying after her wife. But not even she was going to be able to put out the fire he saw in the earthwitch's eyes.
'Something I can do for you, Cat?' he asked.
He saw the punch coming. It would have been easy to dodge the blow, or simply to stop her. With a gesture, he could have frozen her in place or knocked her backward. But he could feel the fury and grief pouring out of her and he knew that if he let her connect, it would at least give her a moment's catharsis. And in the back of his mind, he figured he deserved it.
Cat hit him so hard that his neck snapped to the side and he turned, staggering a few steps before he was sure he wasn't going to fall down. He'd heard and felt one of her fingers break on impact, but these witches were capable of healing that quickly enough.
'What the hell do you think you're doing?' Tori shouted, grabbing Cat by the arm to keep her from further violence.
'That it?' Octavian asked. 'Or is there more?'
Fuming, Cat tried to pull away but Tori held her tight.
'That's enough,' she said.
'Keomany's dead because of him!' Cat said, never taking her eyes off of Octavian.
'Baby, listen to me,' Tori pleaded, reaching up to touch Cat's face, turning her so that they were eye to eye. 'You were there. Keomany called him. She knew what the stakes were every time she walked into one of these situations with him. You want to hit someone, you want to scream. I know, 'cause I feel the same way. But Peter loved her, too. He lost her, too.'
Cat began to sob and Tori pulled her into an embrace. It should have looked awkward, with Cat so tall and Tori so petite, but they fit together perfectly, as lovers always do. Octavian wanted to walk away, but whatever Cat needed to help her grieve right now, hating him was part of it, and he wanted to make sure she'd said what she needed to say.
As Cat held her and wept, Tori whispered in her ear, but not so quietly that Octavian couldn't hear.
'Think of how long he's been alive, and how many people he's lost. Almost everyone he's ever loved is gone. Some of them died right in front of him. You want to punish him, baby, but there's no way you can make him suffer any more than he has already, just by surviving this long.'
Octavian flinched and took a step back. Noticing the movement, Tori glanced up at him. Her copper eyes held no apology, only pity.
'You should go.'
There were things he wanted to say, small comforts and reassurances, but he knew if he spoke now it would be to ease his own heavy heart. Instead, he glanced once at the others gathered around the clearing on the hill - most of them studiously minding their own business - then he nodded to Tori, turned, and started back down toward the barn and the parking lot beyond.
At the bottom of the hill, people were buying apples and early-season pumpkins while their children were drinking cider and eating fresh-baked donuts at picnic benches and begging for a hay ride. But as Octavian passed amongst them, the first raindrops began to fall, and the sky rumbled with thunder, still distant but coming closer.
The storm had arrived.
The rain drove the mourners indoors. Most of them abandoned the orchard quickly, though the witches were not so intimidated by the storm. The elements were the glory of nature, and the earthwitches both worshipped and took their magic from them. But still they were only human, and on a day of gray sorrow, none of them had any desire to be drenched in cold September rain.
Tori and Cat were the last to leave the clearing, the last to stroll down through the apple trees toward the barn below. Their earthcraft was nothing compared to Keomany's, but they had magic enough to keep the rain from touching them for a few minutes. With the storm coming in so quickly and so unexpectedly, most of their customers would be leaving, and so would their friends. Tomorrow they would all gather to celebrate the equinox together, but today Tori and Cat wanted only to return to their home in the grounds of the orchard, make strong coffee, and wrap themselves in a warm blanket, trying to forget that Keomany would never return to the bedroom they had given her in their own house.
Back on the hill, rain pattered the leaves of the trees and the wind picked up, shaking their branches. Overripe apples came loose and fell to the ground, rolling before being caught in the ragged grass or in ruts in the earth. Lightning flashed, turning the sky white, and the thunder that followed it shook the hills and echoed along the small valley.
A large, perfect apple fell from the new tree in the clearing the witches had left. It did not roll. Strange winds worked against the gusts of the storm, swirling along the newly rejuvenated soil of the clearing, picking up dirt and grass and stones and all of the ashes that the earthwitches had sprinkled onto the ground during their ceremony. Small shoots worked their way up through the earth, roots that seemed to clutch at the apple, plunging through its skin and flesh in search of the seeds within, inspiring them to send out shoots of their own. Impossibly.
The ash and soil and other detritus of the autumn harvest spun about in that unusual wind, collecting around apple and root, growing and taking shape, sculpting and building something new.
For Gaea was threatened, and she would not weep for her daughter.
New York City, New York
Charlotte still hadn't quite gotten used to waking up in daylight. It shouldn't have been that difficult; only seven months had passed since the sadist who called himself Cortez had turned her into a vampire. She remembered life before death very well. But in the time she had spent with Cortez's coven before running away, he had gotten into her head in a way that no one ever had before.
Really, there were no such things as vampires - at least not in the way the movies had always portrayed them. They were blood-drinkers, yes, and they had evil in them, but their true nature was much more complex than that. Vampires were human beings who had been afflicted with a kind of supernatural infection before being killed, a taint that altered them on every level. They were both demonic and divine. 'Angel souls and devil hearts' was the phrase that had been popularized to explain their origins. When one such creature made another, they were resurrected from death as something entirely new, beings capable of shifting their flesh on a molecular level, becoming virtually anything they desired.
For centuries, calling them Shadows, the church had attempted to eradicate them. When that did not work, the Vatican sorcerers responsible for hunting them began to capture the Shadows instead, using magic and torture to alter their thoughts and memories. Many of the vulnerabilities that popular lore attributed to vampires had been invented to weaken them, lies implanted in these Shadows to be released into the world, and soon enough, the Shadows believed that if they went about in daylight the sun would burn them to ash. They began to fear the cross, and to accept themselves as the creatures of evil the church portrayed. These fabricated limitations made them easier to hunt and kill, and soon, their numbers dwindled and they retreated to the darkness for safety, becoming what the church had named them.
With a handful of allies, Peter Octavian had changed that. He had led them to an understanding of their true nature, to realize that they were not simply monsters. The Vatican sorcerers had tried to exterminate them once and for all in a single, climactic battle in Venice, but the Shadows had defeated and destroyed them, the entirety of the truth revealed to the world through a live camera feed from the site. The church had collapsed as a result, and from that day forward, the Shadows had been trying to live side by side with humanity.
Most of them.
Some had no interest in coming out of the darkness. They were unwilling to give up the blood and violence and the hunting of humans. These creatures embraced the name 'vampire' and all that it entailed. They wanted to be the soulless leeches portrayed in folklore, to sleep in grave dirt and kill and feed indiscriminately. But now that the existence of vampires was public knowledge, preying on humanity was more difficult than it had been in earlier ages. International laws were in place. The United Nations not only had Shadows advising them, they established a global Shadow Justice System that required all Shadows to sign their names to a Covenant outlining a code of behavior they swore to follow. Those who refused to sign were labeled rogues, and could be imprisoned for their refusal. The worst of them, the ones who still called themselves vampires, were hunted by a special unit called Task Force Victor.
Charlotte didn't want to be hunted. She had never wanted to be a Shadow or a vampire or anything other than what she had been, a San Diego beach bum who dreamed of being an actress someday. Then her nineteenth birthday had rolled around, and she had found herself dragged into the back of a van by two men who had beaten and raped her, and who had liked the way she fought them enough to bring her home to their master. Cortez had nursed her back to health and then he had turned her and indoctrinated her into the life of a predator. If she closed her eyes now, she could still remember the way her first taste of human blood had made her feel, the rush of pleasure and power and primal celebration. She could practically still taste it on her tongue, and it made her shiver every time she thought of it.
She had run away from Cortez, thinking every moment that he would find her and kill her, that she would awake with him standing over her bed, or turn a corner on the street in Manhattan and see him standing on the sidewalk, still as a statue while the crush of pedestrians flowed around him. His brown eyes and his long, proud nose and thin goatee should have combined to make him handsome, but Cortez only looked cruel. Her fear of him prevented her from ever going home or trying to get in touch with any of her friends from San Diego, so she had started over in New York, hiding from Cortez but also hiding from the rest of the world. Since she had not signed the Covenant, she was a fugitive. A rogue vampire. One of the reasons that she had come to New York in the first place had been to register with the UN, but days had passed, and then weeks, and then months, and she had never gotten up the courage. They would want to know where she came from - who had made her - and that would mean she would be questioned by Task Force Victor.
Meeting Peter Octavian had changed everything.
Charlotte had found herself inexplicably drawn to a small town on the north shore of Massachusetts, a place tainted by chaos which had been growing exponentially. Octavian could have killed her the moment he found out what she was, but he had heard her out - he had trusted her - and she had helped him to take down the ancient chaos queen, Navalica. But Octavian had made it clear that stopping Navalica hadn't put an end to the danger the world was in. The chaos bitch had metaphorically planted a flag and tried to claim the world, and Octavian said that other things - demons and the like - would know it. They'd feel it. And they would come to try to finish the job that she had started.
As a young girl, Charlotte had had dreams. Now, for the first time in her life, she had a purpose. But if she was going to help Octavian, she had to make sure Task Force Victor wasn't going to kill her on sight.
'Shit,' she rasped, holding up a hand to block the wan morning light seeping through her blinds.
A glance at the clock on the nightstand told her it was going on ten a.m. She hadn't been so completely brainwashed by Cortez that she had actually believed the sun would burn her to cinders. The whole world knew the history of Shadows, so when he turned her into a vampire, he couldn't make her afraid of the daylight. The closest he could come was making her afraid of him. Still, four months of sleeping during the day and shying away from the sun had taken its toll. She stayed up well into the night and dozed through most mornings.
Not today. Charlotte wouldn't be going back to her job at the theatre, but she had an appointment to keep.
She threw back the covers and slid to the edge of her bed, sitting up and burying her face in her hands.
'Oh, shit,' she mumbled again into her cupped palms.
Crazy powerful as she was - and there were times when, despite the horror of how she had become like this, she reveled in it - the idea of walking up to the UN Shadow Registry Office scared the hell out of her. The typical person off the street would have no idea how to even hurt her, never mind kill her, but those guys had to have figured out half a dozen ways to obliterate vampires by now.
She felt sick just thinking about it, but Octavian had promised her that she would be all right. He had coached her on what to say and how to approach them, and had asked her to call him as soon as it was done so that he could tell her where he wanted her next. In her human life, Charlotte had never liked authority, always bristling when anyone tried to tell her what to do. But she was joining Octavian's fight and she wanted to help him. He would know best how to use her.
A tiny smile ticked up the edges of her mouth. Then she shook her head, chuckling softly. No naughty thoughts, she chided herself. She had always liked older men, and Octavian looked maybe thirty-six or so, but the guy had been hundreds of years old even before he'd been to Hell. No, there'd be none of that. Not that he'd even try, she thought. To him, you're a kid.
She stood and stretched. Glancing at herself in the mirror above her bureau, she wrinkled her nose in distaste. Looking like this, even dirty old men aren't gonna give you a second glance.
Charlotte shot her reflection the middle finger and laughed as she headed for the bathroom. She turned the water up as hot as she could stand it, soaped and shampooed, then spent another ten minutes just letting the heat get into her flesh and down to her bones. When she stepped out, she toweled off, blew dry her wavy, fox-red hair, and brushed her teeth. Padding back into her bedroom, she put on a pair of gray skinny jeans and a red, long-sleeved top with pencil stripes. She pulled on her beat-up Timberland boots and slipped into a wool jacket that she only wore for special occasions. She didn't feel clean; since the first time Cortez had made her kill a human being for blood, she had never felt clean. But the clothes were laundered and warm and comfortable and this time when she glanced in the mirror, she thought she looked damn good.
If she was about to be arrested or killed, at least she'd look pretty.
The thought made her laugh as she turned and went to the door, making sure she had her keys, even though she couldn't be sure she'd ever come back.
When Charlotte opened the door, the vampires were waiting for her in the hall.