The moment I crossed the threshold, I knew I’d made a mistake. It felt as if the air was a band that snapped out and locked me in place. I pushed back toward the door, but it was no use. I’d stay in this room until whoever had set the containment spell decided to set me free.
The whispers I’d been hearing turned to full-on chatter. There were so many voices, so many conversations, I could hardly hear my own thoughts.
“Open the binding.”
“Set her free.”
I covered my ears, and searched for any possible escape or means to break the spell. I wanted the noise to stop. Now. The glamour abruptly dropped away, as if attuned to my desires. My gaze swept around the true version of the room. The walls were covered in Latin. Lines and lines of it—some in larger script, some smaller—filled every inch of the walls from floor to ceiling. Someone had been very busy. I’d never seen magic used like that before.
The letters softly glowed and pulsated like they were part of a living, breathing entity. I wanted to sink to my knees; a spell that powerful wouldn’t be easily broken. But I wouldn’t give up just yet. I searched for signs of an ambush. I was alone, except for a book.
My heartbeat slowed. This had to be the “it” Vittoria described in her diary.
When I set my attention on the book, the voices started again, softer, more enticing. I tentatively dropped my hands from my ears. I could hardly breathe. This was the secret my sister died to keep. I knew it deep down in my bones.
A single shaft of light illuminated the old, leather-bound tome lying closed on a pedestal carved from a solid chunk of obsidian. I’d never seen a gemstone that large before, and cautiously moved forward until I stood over the mysterious book. The voices quieted.
A triple moon symbol molded from pewter adorned the cover, but there was no title to indicate what it contained. It was definitely magical, given how much power emanated from its pages. Soft lavender light surrounded it. It reminded me of the luccicare I saw around humans, and was the same shade of purple as my tattoo. I didn’t know what it meant, but I had a very good idea of what it was—the first book of spells. Impossibly, Vittoria had found La Prima’s grimoire.
It was so plain, so simple. And yet, it had cost my sister so much.
I suddenly wanted to burn it.
It was no larger than any other old book, but the power was unlike anything I’d ever felt. The cover was worn in places where it looked like it had been opened and closed a million times.
Like the night I found my sister’s body, there was a silent, insistent tug in my center. This time, it begged me to open the book, to glimpse the spells I felt spilling from it. I slowly reached over, and flipped it open to a place that had been marked with a ribbon.
Familiar black paper with gold roots edged around the sides greeted me. I scanned the page—it was a summoning for the morning star. I shut the book and stepped away.
Someone had summoned the devil. Or wanted to.
I took a few steady breaths, mind racing. This was the mysterious grimoire my sister had torn pages from. Somehow her magic led her to the first book of spells, and then she’d removed spells to summon demons. I knew for a fact she hadn’t snuck this text into our tiny room, I would have felt it the moment it entered our home and so would Nonna, which meant Vittoria must have stashed it away here. But why would she think it’d be safe within the brotherhood’s walls . . . there was a connection, I just had to think.
I jumped back as a hooded figure stepped into the room, and reached for my blessed chalk. This had to be the person the messenger had sold his secrets to. I bet it was Brother Carmine. How ironic that a witch hunter set a trap using magic. The figure tugged the cowl back, and I froze, ready for the witch-hating brother to attack. Instead, Antonio moved more quickly than I’d thought possible and knocked the chalk out of my hands like it might grow talons and hurt me. I watched it shatter on the ground, then snapped into reality. Relief flooded my system.
“Antonio! You’re alive. I thought . . .” I dragged my gaze up and noticed the expression on his face. Concern wasn’t present. It was hatred. My heart pounded as I took a step back. “W-what happened? Did Envy hurt you?”
“An angel of God would never hurt me.” His lips pulled into a smile that was far from the sweet, shy ones I remembered. “Unlike you.”
I could barely breathe as everything fell into place. Envy didn’t hurt him, or hold him captive. Quite the contrary. Antonio had willingly delivered Claudia straight into my enemies’ hands. He’d known she was a witch and . . .
“It’s you. You killed my sister.” My voice trembled. “Why?”
“Is it really that hard to believe? That I, a man of God, would wish to rid the world of evil?”
“You sound just like Carmine.” I curled my hands into fists, needing to feel the prick of my nails to keep from lashing out. “Murdering innocent women isn’t its own act of evil?”
“God’s finest angels are fierce warriors, Emilia. Sometimes in order to accomplish the greatest good, we must first become a blade of justice and carve through our enemies. You wouldn’t understand. It’s not something you’d be capable of doing, witch.”
What little control I’d managed to hang on to, left me.
“You know nothing of what I can do.”
“Maybe not. But if you use magic on me now, you’ll prove me right.” He jerked his chin toward my combined amulets. They were fiercely glowing. “All witches are born evil.”
My temper and hurt raged around. I stepped forward and unleashed the pent-up wrath I’d been clutching onto since my twin’s murder.
“You’re wrong. We’re not born evil. Some of us become that way. Through hate.”
Strands of my hair lifted as if there were suddenly a breeze. A storm was brewing and it wasn’t of this world. The glowing words that surrounded us pulsed faster. Magic singed the air, and incantations I didn’t know swirled through my mind. Maybe the devil’s horns were fueling me, or the first book of spells was feeding me its charms.
Perhaps it was simply my own darkness escaping. I didn’t care.
I held the Horn of Hades and whispered a spell so foul, the words burned as they left my lips. I lifted my arm, then slashed down in an arc. Invisible claws cut Antonio’s robes to ribbons.
This time I spared his flesh.
Fear entered his eyes. He slowly backed away, hands up. As if that would stop me.
“Frightened?” I stepped toward him. “You should be. I’ve only just begun.”
I lifted my arm and he cringed away. His voice quivered. “M-mercy, Emilia. P-please.”
“Now you want mercy?” Pure, white-hot anger burned in my soul. “Tell me, did my sister beg?”
I thought of her chest, the gaping hole where her heart had been. He did that to her. Our friend. I threw my arm back and slashed his chest open. An eye for an eye. Justice. He pressed his fingers to his wounds, saw blood, and stumbled away. It was nothing more than a scratch.
Fury propelled me forward. “Did you offer Vittoria mercy when she pleaded for her life? Or Valentina? How many women pleaded with you to spare them? Where was your mercy then?”
He fell to his knees and began praying. I waited. But God didn’t show up. The goddess of death and fury did. I knelt down, eyes blazing, and forced him to look at me. I wanted him to see my sister’s face, too. Tears slipped down his cheeks. I fought the urge to smash his skull against the floor and watch the life leave those hate-filled eyes.
Death would be a kindness. And I wasn’t feeling particularly kind.
“When I finally kill you, you will beg for the sweet release of death, Antonio.” I glanced at my finger, concentrated on an invisible blade pricking it. A tiny ruby of blood beaded up. “I swear on my blood, you will never know true happiness again. Your heart will be cursed to be broken each time you forget the sins you’ve committed. And each time you laugh, I will be there, waiting, to remind you.”
I was about to seal the vow with the drop of blood, when the scent of urine filled the space around us, awakening a memory in me. I’d scared the piss out of Antonio. Just like Wrath had done when he’d beaten information from . . . I startled back and let my hand fall to my side.
Wrath, a prince of Hell, had shown mercy.
Knowing the sort of power he had, I don’t know how he’d managed restraint. And I wished I could be a little more like him now. But I wasn’t.
“New rules. You will tell me the truth about everything I ask, and only then will I consider sparing your life. Do you understand?”
“Y-yes.” He nodded several times and inhaled deeply. “W-what do y-you want to know?”
“Before you met this ‘angel of death’ something must have prompted this. Tell me what grew so twisted inside you. So foul.”
“I—I’m not . . .” He shook his head. “A-all right. A week before my mother died, I took her to a woman I thought only used folk magic and prayer to heal. Turned out, she was a witch.” His laugh was hollow. I gave him a flat look and he choked it off. “She caused my mother’s death. I vowed, right then, to make amends to God. I promised if I ever met another witch, I’d send her straight to the dungeons of Hell where she belongs. That’s when my prayers were answered.”
“An angel came to me, shortly after, telling me about the devil’s curse. He said in order to break it, the devil needed to marry a witch. The angel told me that couldn’t happen, or else the devil would be set free. He said he’d provide the names of potential brides, and all I had to do to save us from true evil, was kill witches.”
My gaze strayed to the first book of spells. I thought about my sister again. “Did this angel give you my sister’s name?”
His gaze dropped to the floor. “Your sister’s death was . . . I didn’t want to . . . I even asked the angel to spare her, but he said leaving one seed of evil would cause more to grow. I fought it for a little while. I even argued that she wasn’t a witch, he was mistaken. Then she . . .” He refused to meet my eyes. “Then she started talking about summoning the devil that night in the monastery, and I couldn’t deny the truth. She had to be stopped.”
I held back my fury. Vittoria always joked about summoning the devil, or hexing someone, or other silly things she’d say in front of humans. They normally laughed, thinking she was kidding. I’d worried one day someone might start questioning her. I never thought it would be someone close to us. “You betrayed her. Me.”
“And you didn’t do the same to me?” he asked, his voice turning momentarily sharp before he caught himself. “You cast a spell to make me fall in love with you. You lied to my face every day, hiding the truth of what you are.” Despite my earlier show of power, his face contorted with rage. “You belong in Hell with the other cursed and damned souls. You’re not even human. You disgust me.”
“I have never used a spell on you for love.”
“Can you honestly say—before tonight—that you’ve never used magic on me without my consent? Are you an exception to the rule?”
“Of course I haven’t, I . . .” I closed my mouth. I’d used a forbidden truth spell on him when we were children. I’d violated his free will. What I’d done was wrong, but it didn’t give him the right to murder women in retribution. “How were you planning on stopping the devil from finding a witch in a different city?”
“By summoning him.”
“You, a man of God, doing the work of supposed angels, want to summon the devil?”
“Oh, I don’t want to do it, Emilia. But I’ll do what has to be done. I want him to watch as I destroy his horns.”
My hand went to my amulet. “How do—”
“How did I know you’re wearing the actual horns of the devil?” he mocked. “My angel of death. You see, first we’d destroy every living witch. Then, we’d summon the devil and put a blade through him.”
“What was this angel’s name?”
Antonio lifted a shoulder. “He wouldn’t tell me. But there was something . . . powerful about him. I knew he wasn’t lying. Only something heaven sent could inspire that much glory.”
Whether Antonio knew it or not, I’d bet my soul he’d been influenced by a prince of Hell. And I think I knew exactly who had orchestrated it all: Envy. The traitor demon. I just needed proof, and then I’d destroy him.
“How do the hearts factor in?”
He gave me an odd look. “Hearts?”
Like he didn’t know. Clearly, his cooperation was ending. Or maybe there were parts of his beastly acts he couldn’t face. I stopped paying attention to Antonio, and started thinking about my next move. I thought about my sister, about her plan to summon the devil. She wanted to bargain with him.
Maybe she knew Envy, or some other prince of Hell had been nudging the hands of fate, and that the only way to stop him was to help Pride break the curse. Which would explain why she wanted the werewolves and Greed to team up. Whatever her reasons, she thought her best course of action was to go to the underworld. Antonio might be the instrument of death, he might have chosen to commit these atrocious acts, but he hadn’t acted alone.
Now I wanted to find out who else had helped kill my sister.
An idea, wild and mad, formed in my head. If Antonio actually managed to summon the devil now, I could use it to my advantage. My sister believed that ruling in Hell was her best choice.
Maybe it was mine, too.
“If you’re going to summon the devil, why wait?”
“You’re going to summon him.” Antonio smiled. “And I’m going to kill him when you do.”
I’d like to see him try. I pointed to the half-finished summoning circle and gripped the amulets in my hand. “Light the candles.”
He did as I asked and quickly finished setting up the circle. Instead of using animal bones, he placed flowering wolfsbane between each candle. I stared at the helmet-shaped deep purple and blue petals. It was not at all what I’d think one would use to summon Pride.
When the last piece of wolfsbane was in place, he stepped back and murmured an invitation for me to repeat in Latin. His “angel” had taught him well.
Like the time I summoned Wrath, smoke filled the circle. Lightning whipped around, the atmosphere crackling like we were stuck in the midst of a terrible storm. I expected to see a beautiful man standing before us. I did not expect to see Antonio. His eyes were pools of silvery blue; the only indication he was not the young man who’d grown up next door.
He glanced around, his movements not quite natural. I held my ground as he looked me over. Pride had taken possession of Antonio’s body. Before I could force my expression into a mask of boredom, he stepped closer. My breath hitched. His attention lingered on the diamond-encrusted clips in my hair.
“I have a gift for you, Stella Strega.”
His voice was beautiful. After what I’d recently learned about good and evil, I don’t know why I expected it to be multi-tonal and screeching. “And what will this gift cost me?”
His smile was anything but tender. “Only your soul, of course.”
I smiled back at him, my new groom. He had no idea a storm would soon be approaching Hell. “You have my attention, Pride. Impress me.”
He ran his gaze over me slowly, and snapped his fingers. A charge of magic filled the air. Something crackled and a gown appeared.
It hung from an invisible source, skirts fluttering. The top was a metal corset covered entirely with thorny vines. Layers of black panels gathered at the hips, and flowed to the ground in frothy midnight waves. Every other layer had tiny smoky gems sewn into it, reminding me of crushed hematite. Glittering black snakes twined together in intricate knots at the waist like a belt.
I’d expect nothing less dramatic for the future queen of Hell.
I was pleased my plan was working, and also terrified. There was no turning back now.
The gown swayed and twirled on its own, as if worn by some invisible being, sweeping closer and closer to where I remained motionless. It brushed against me and rushed around my body, spinning wildly until I squeezed my eyes shut. I didn’t like how it reminded me of Lust’s invisible party. In fact, I hated it.
Everything stopped at once. I glanced down, startled to see my berry-colored dress was gone, and in its place the dark beauty hugged my curves.
I gasped as it squeezed me tighter.
The devil inclined his head. “All hail the new consort.”
My heart pounded. “I haven’t received a crown yet.”
“Oh, but you will.” From thin air, he yanked out a dagger with a roaring lion’s head and aimed it at his/Antonio’s heart. “I’ve heard of the vengeance you seek. Accept this human sacrifice as a gift from House Pride, your highness.”
The singular word came out in a strange multi-tonal voice that was at once mine, and completely foreign. The blade hovered against Antonio’s skin, but didn’t pierce it.
I drew in a shaky breath. “I will meet you, or your representative, in an hour in the cavern where I first summoned Wrath. I have something I need to do before I give my final answer.”
The devil’s focus shifted to mine. “Done.”
“Somnus,” I whispered, putting Antonio’s body in an enchanted sleep. If anyone exacted revenge on him, it would be my hand that dealt his punishment.
Heart hammering, I glanced toward the first book of spells. I’d wanted a few minutes to read over it, and glean any last-minute magic before hiding it from the Wicked, but it was gone.
No matter. I’d make do in other ways. Without a backward glance, I left the chamber wearing the devil’s horns and my sinister new dress, feeling my pulse quicken with each step. Before the night was through, I’d strike a deal with Pride that would hopefully be his realm’s undoing.
I silently vowed to my sister I wouldn’t rest until all those responsible for her death met their end.