The tower clock struck midnight. Ravenwood tensed, glanced over her shoulder at the Sanctuary. No lights shone in the mullioned windows. The Masters mustn’t catch her out alone at night. Her reputation at the school had suffered for her sister’s sin.
She lit the torch, black smoke billowing from the flame. A darkling shiver crawled down her rigid spine. The voices that had roused her from sleep whispered a warning as she crept into the abandoned barn. A lonely owl hooted from the rafters, ruffling its feathers and blinking. Red light winked in the bird’s golden eyes. She swallowed hard, straining her ears for any sound. Like a chill, the eerie stillness oozed over her.
Ravenwood had come to say her last goodbye to her sister. Tonight, Alethea slept the peace of the dead in this old outbuilding. Tomorrow, she would be lowered into unhallowed ground. Then only god knew what the fate of a demon’s consort would be. Her breathing rasped loud, puffing white clouds in the October air. She inched deeper into the gloom, shoved the hood of her robe back so that she could see from the corners of her eyes. A web caught in her hair, clung to her face. Another hard shudder coursed through her, and gooseflesh prickled her limbs. Nausea swirled in her stomach. Frantically, she swiped the crusty fly stuck in the web and the disgusting stickiness from her skin.
A shadow moved along the rotted wood pile. A mouse squeaked, scurried out and scampered away. The shade loomed larger, distorted in the flickering light. She flinched back a step. With a shaking hand, she clutched the crucifix around her neck. The shadow crossed the pitchfork, fell on the coffin.
Darkness coalesced into the figure of a winged man. Two yellow orbs glowed in his leathery gray face. The wings were shiny, rubbery black with spines and points. A sweet smell rose from him, but she knew the fragrance was a glamour masking the reek of the Pit.
“Daakiel,” she whispered.
“Well met, Ravenwood.” A laugh rumbled from his broad chest. “Such pretty blonde hair and lovely ivory skin, but beneath your rose and gold beauty is a soul as dark as I am.”
As always, her sister’s lover was naked, his grotesque, swollen equipment proudly on display. She shuddered head to toe, glancing around quickly, studying her options.
There were none.
The creature with hellfire eyes passed a hand with long, vicious claws over the coffin. From inside, came a soft scratching then the lid rattled, an urgent pounding echoing in the ruined barn.
Ravenwood’s heart caught in her throat. A sudden silence crawled along her nerves. The owl hooted and took flight, a wingtip brushing her cheek. She flinched, clamped a hand to her mouth, but a little cry escaped. The demon flexed his wings, stirring a tornado of moldy straw.
A malicious grin split the monstrous face. “Come my pretty,” and with the rasp of claws, he ripped the lid off the pine coffin.
Her dead sister sat bolt upright, empty fish eyes locking to Ravenwood’s. A chilling smile spread Alethea’s blue lips. Crimson pinpointed the black irises. Any innocence that might have remained in the once Acolyte had perished. Like a spider, elbows and knees arched at odd angles, she crawled from the casket. Grave clothes clung to her pale, withered body but her breasts were exposed and bloody. She was horrible.
Ravenwood wouldn’t give the monster the satisfaction of screaming. She bit her tongue hard enough to draw blood. The demon turned and stalked toward her, fangs dripping thick, green saliva. Terrified, she backed away, collided with a stack of old cans, sending them clattering to the ground.
“Dear sister.” Alethea’s corpse spread her arms in invitation. Sharp fangs dented the lower lip of her smile. “Raven, forsake your god. Join me.”
Ravenwood ducked, grabbed the pitchfork and brandished the rusted prongs at the demon. Another unholy laugh rumbled from its throat.
“You cannot escape, Ravenwood. Your sister has paid her dues. She is mine. Tonight, Acolyte, you join me in Hell.”
Playing for time, she flung the pitchfork at the demon and dropped the torch. Smoke billowed from dry straw. Flames sprang up, reaching for the cracked roof. Laughter boomed in the fire. Engulfed in the holocaust, her sister’s horrified face branded the nightmare in memory. The demon’s leering smile didn’t falter.
She whirled and fled, her legs pumping, her feet going nowhere. The school seemed hundreds of miles away and her feet leaden. If she reached the Sanctuary—
A claw sliced her shoulder. Pain scalded her arm. Blood oozed warmth down her back. She whirled, staring straight into the demon’s burning eyes. Lethal pointed teeth lined the creature’s gaping maw.
A scream ripped the black velvet night, searing her throat. She stumbled a retreat, praying aloud.
“No answer?” Daarkiel cupped a hand to his pointed ear. “Pray to someone who will hear you.”
The ground beneath her feet rolled and tossed. She fell to her knees. Fear lodged in her dry throat, strangling her prayers.
“You have taken my lover from me. Burned her alive, you did.” The creature beckoned with a bloody claw. “You will replace her.”
An image of her sister’s living cadaver blinded her. She shook her head. “Never.”
The earth opened, swallowing her. Down she plunged into a loamy grave, the velocity of her fall sweeping her robe over her head. Her feet scraped something hard. Bones. She didn’t have time to scream. The hole closed over her head, burying her alive.
Insects climbed over her feet. Something slithered up her neck. She swallowed the horror and the bile burning her throat. The black dirt caressed her naked arms and legs and matted her hair. Trapped in the earth and in her robe, unable to claw for the surface, she held her breath until her lungs threatened to implode. Terror gripped her heart in an icy hand.
I’m going to suffocate.
A desperate gasp for breath sucked the fatal soil into her mouth and nose. Ravenwood whispered her final prayer. For forgiveness.
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