2.0 The Light Who Binds




01 2.0 The Light Who Binds2Mor

Winter, Year 1, Red Ages

It’s getting closer. Bolder. It’s been tracking me for three days now. I run as swiftly through the forest as my starved body can, holding wee Sorcha tightly in the sling wrapped about my torso. Low-hanging branches and brush tear into my forearms, but I pay no mind as I roughly push them aside.

I glance back and don’t see the beast. But I know it’s there. Invisible, and silent, it stalks us. My mind’s eye sees many things my real vision cannot. Flashes of images that make me shudder. Hungry eyes watching, waiting. Fangs descending.

A bird squawks at my intrusion, and I stumble in exhaustion. Fear rips through me as I remember how Shaina’s fall ensured her death. An injury to me now would do the same. But I catch myself. My years of running over the moors as a youth have served me well.

The Sea Caves must be within one day’s travel from here, perhaps less. I’m so tired, but I dare not rest. This morning I awoke to the vision of the man-creature leaning over me while I slept. His fangs were extended as he stroked my hair and stared hungrily at my neck. No, I cannot sleep again. Not tonight, for tonight he may not walk away.

With resolve, I push through branches and shrubs, following the river to the sea. I stop for a moment at the bank and scoop handfuls of water into my parched mouth. Then, tenderly, I expose Sorcha’s little mouth and dribble water onto her tongue, hoping desperately that it will keep her alive.

Her sweet, round face lolls pathetically in the crook of my arm, a pale ghost of the rosy baby she had been just a few days prior. Her eyes remain lifeless, and my heart clenches. If I don’t reach the Sea Caves soon, her chances will be ended. The sinister chill of the wind wraps around us, trying to claim her, and I have no more warmth to offer than my own body. With grim determination, I set off again at an exhausted trot.

Darkness falls, and the moon hangs high and bright atop a shield of mist. The glowing orb is ambivalent to my worry about being easier to track, but at least it gives light to walk by. The fog thickens with each passing hour as I move steadily toward the sea. Serpent-like, it twists and writhes, then billows up in alarming gusts, enveloping us in its pearly, biting embrace. Despite my chattering teeth, I take solace in the icy wind because it means we must be getting closer.

I see a nearly imperceptible movement from the corner of my eye. A dark shadow hovers on a tree limb high above, out of place in the misty forest. Then the fog shifts, and the shadow disappears in a smear of white like the rest of the world. But I know what it is.

So this is it, then. I have come so far, but the beast will get me before I reach safety. The fear and panic that have been building within me for days have finally driven me to my wit’s end. I will stop this now.

“Show yourself!” I shout. “Let me look upon the face that will end my life and the life of this innocent child.”

The shadow leaps from the trees above me, and the man—no, the beast who used to be a man—stands before me now. Tall and powerful with long fangs cutting into his lip. Dirty and ragged, the tattered remnants of clothes hanging off him. Then he speaks, and his voice is that of a man. “I have no wish to harm you. I’ve seen what happens to those who kill to ease their craving.”

His sharp eyes pierce me.

I don’t believe him, and though I tremble in fear, I bite back. “Then why do you stand over me while I sleep and gaze at my neck with longing? Why, even now, do your eyes flit to the lifeblood pulsing there?”

He turns away in shame. “Because I hunger. I have not yet eaten since I was turned. The pain is nearly unbearable.”

“Why do you stalk me, then?”

He moves in close and grips my arms, fingernails digging into my gaunt shoulder blades. I gasp at the shock of his touch.

“Because your blood calls to me,” he snarls in frustration.

“Is it my blood you want, or my flesh?”

His brow wrinkles in confusion. Then he drags his nose over my neck, inhaling the scent of my skin. Fear racks my body, but I stand frozen in place, trembling beneath his hands. He gives my jaw one long lick. The baby hangs silently between us.

“It is your blood I hunger for.”

Then, in a flash, he’s ten feet away, where the mist is thick and his features indistinguishable.

“How long?” I ask.

His voice travels softly through the silvery haze. “What do you mean?”

“How long before you give in to the hunger and slay me?”

“I don’t know. Soon, I fear.”

The stark honesty of his reply shakes me to my bones. My knees collapse beneath me and I sprawl backwards on the damp earth, clutching Sorcha to my breast. “Must you end my life? Can’t you take some blood, enough to ease your pain, but leave enough for me to live? I must get this child to the Sea Caves, to the Dragon tribe. She’s ill and starving. She hasn’t woken once today. Already, I fear it’s too late for her.”

He moves forward and regards Sorcha with concern. “You think I could stop? None of the others did.”

“Did they try?”

The question hangs heavy in the air between us while his eyes dart from my neck to the motionless baby pressed to my breast and back again.

Suddenly steel bands grasp my shoulders, sharp daggers pierce my neck, and my body arches in an instinctual scream that’s absorbed by the unsympathetic forest. His mouth undulates relentlessly, like a baby at a teat. I feel my lifeblood flowing inexorably toward his mouth, but surprisingly, the pain is minimal. Before I can struggle against his strength, I’m overcome by a profound exhaustion, heavy as a leaden blanket, which forces me against the earth. My vision grows dim as it tunnels ever narrower. Then the last prick of light blinks out.

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Chapter 01: Three Deaths


01 2.0 The Light Who Binds2Bluebell Kildare

July 7, 2022, Red Ages

Lightning streaks across the twilight sky casting a brilliant glow on the building before me. Stone gargoyles loom above me, their eyes seeming to gleam and blink, their great amphibious wings, arched for flight. A slow roll of thunder fills the air as though the bowels of the earth are opening.

I behold the formidable oak doors of the Dragomir Magical Artifact Shop, wondering what mysteries lie inside. Oh, I know many spells, charms, and magic secrets reside within the artifacts, but those aren’t the unknowns I seek tonight. Tonight, I anticipate learning secrets about myself.

From behind me, the warmth of Jack’s chest radiates into my back, and Varg leans into my thigh. A measure of calm returns to me. Whatever news awaits me, at least I have friends at my side. I straighten my spine, lift my chin, and remove the remaining space between me and my future, pushing the heavy oak doors open to boldly stride in.

As I enter the shop, eddies of dust coalesce from the swish of the doors into a whirlwind at my feet. I’m instantly comforted by the familiar shelves of aged magical texts stacked on bookshelves and delighted by the glass-doored cabinet stocked with magical artifacts. I was last here just a few months ago, but I feel like an entirely different woman now.

Dragomira stands behind the counter and lifts her head with a weary expression, but a fierce glint fills her warm, brown eyes. She is not Dragomira right now. No, she is the Dragomir. Her movements, as fluid as rippling water, trace a path across the room as she quietly deadbolts the door behind us.

With a wave of her hand, she beckons us into her back room. A small fire flickers in the fireplace, casting dancing shadows across the walls. Jack and I take a seat in wing-backed chairs next to the hearth, while Dragomira, still curiously silent, pours three drinks from a beautiful decanter sitting on an ornate wooden table amidst the chairs. She places one in my hand in silent command, watching as I taste it. The shock of whiskey burns my throat and slides warmly to my belly. She sets a glass in front of Jack and keeps the last for herself.

As Dragomira takes her place, I notice again how strikingly beautiful she is. Her hair cascades in long, tumultuous brown waves against her olive skin, and her deep-set eyes gleam with life. Sitting back in her chair, she directs her scrutiny toward me. “Welcome, Illustrissima,” she begins. “I’m sure you have many questions.”

Her harmonious voice rolls through me in a soothing wave. I forget myself for a moment and tilt my ear to enjoy its song. Then I gather myself and say, “I do. Let’s start with the name Illustrissima. Why did you give this name to me?”

Dragomira blinks. Then she regards me steadily and answers, “I no more gave you the name Illustrissima than I gave you your blue eyes. It is a Latin word that has many meanings: the Shining One, the Bright One, the Lustrous One, the Famous One, the Distinguished One.” She waves her hand as though all of that is inconsequential. “You are all of these things. You simply are the Illustrissima.”

I take a slow sip of whiskey. “You can see my light.”

The Dragomir’s eyes flare with a glint of yellow in acknowledgement.


She contemplates the fire for a moment before responding. “I am also many things. I have magic . . . gifts, you might call them, which allow me to see things that would normally pass unnoticed. However, what I have been most as of late is a scholar.” She looks at me intently again. “Tonight, your time would be better spent allowing me to share what I’ve learned about you.”

She’s right; after all, Jack and the Dragomir have kept me waiting on this information for months now. “Yes, why don’t you,” I answer curtly.

The Dragomir raises her eyebrows and Jack gives me a warning glance, but I am not so easily cowed.

She nods and settles back in her chair. “Let’s start at the beginning. I’ve told you the story of Patersuco and the inception of the Vampire race. As you know, it didn’t take long for him to kill in bloodlust and turn Dark, as corrupt as he was, but he had already started creating children. And so the curse spread.”

“What I did not tell you was that Patersuco was survived by his wife. Shaina lived in the village, and before the first winter of the Red Ages had passed, several of the townspeople had died at the hands of Patersuco and his Vampire progeny. The villagers turned on Shaina and burned her as a witch.”

I shudder at the thought of that pain, thankful I wasn’t there to feel it.

“Yes, these were rough times, Illustrissima. We have very few written accounts from that time, but from what we know, Shaina was Gifted. Like you, she was an Empath. The villagers tied her to an ash tree and used oak branches to burn her alive.”

“Both these trees have deep, old magic. Ash acts as a bridge between worlds, and oak provides strength. Somehow, the combination of the rage of the villagers, the strength of the oak, and the power of the ash all fed Shaina’s pain, creating a force strong enough to open a pathway from Shaina to the Great Demon Lilith. As she burned, Shaina was able to reach across to the Plane of Fire and lay a powerful curse upon Lilith.”

“What was the curse?”

Dragomira leans back, and her eyes glaze as her mind transports to another place and time. The firelight flickers, and shadows play artfully on the curve of her cheekbone. Then her husky whisper fills the room.


“Lilith, I call on you to hear me.

By my blood, you will be destroyed.


A light will come—

a light that shines through your evil;

a light that calls you to answer for your deeds;

a light that binds you as I am bound and burns you as I burn;

a light that rips you asunder and destroys your darkness.


Lilith, hear me.

I call to you.

By my blood, you will pay for what you have done.


Lilith, by my blood, you will be destroyed.”


As these words wash over me, tendrils of fear sink into my flesh and thread through my soul. The curse grabs something deep and dark inside of me, and I start to shiver. I reach out for my drink and take another burning sip.

My voice comes, breathless but laden with protest against the implications of Dragomira’s story. “And you believe I am this light? You’ve proved no connection.”

She takes another drink of whiskey, a deep pull this time. I’m not sure if it’s the fire reflecting off them, but her eyes seem to swirl with yellow in their depths.

“Three times Shaina called Lilith’s name that night. Three times she demanded that Lilith listen. Three times she said that retribution would be by her blood. This cinched the curse. But what you need to know most is that while Patersuco’s son was sacrificed, his twin sister survived. Her name was Sorcha.”

“Still, how does that relate to me?”

She raises one dark eyebrow at me. “When Shaina said ‘by my blood,’ she meant her lineage, not the blood that flowed through her veins. You are Shaina’s only remaining descendent, through Sorcha.”

I stand rapidly, knocking into the table and causing it to rock furiously, my glass of whiskey threatens to spill. The table eventually comes to a rest, but I do not. I fling myself across the room and pace as the thoughts roil around in my brain. Despite the cacophony of questions on the tip of my tongue, one thought rises urgently above the rest.

They think I’m supposed to destroy Lilith!

I spin around to see both Jack and Dragomira watching me with grave concern.

Jack sits tensely on the edge of his seat as though ready to leap to my rescue. The light glints off his cropped golden curls, and he reminds me of a fierce golden angel ready for vengeance. Every hard plane of his body speaks of coiled strength and lethal abilities. I’ve felt those enticing planes beneath my fingertips just a few times, and I’m honest enough with myself to admit I want more.

Dragomira says, “There’s more.”

Jack and Varg growl simultaneously, and I guess the more she’s talking about isn’t quite the more I want.

I swipe my drink from the table and knock back the rest. The liquid scorches my throat and traces a fiery path down to my belly, providing a momentary distraction. With a huff, I sit down again and cross my arms. “Just tell me all in one shot, please. I’d like to process this once, not five times.”

Dragomira deliberately refills my glass. I consider this a bad omen. She begins again, this time watching me intently.

“Shaina was close with a woman named Mor who had the gift of sight. She warned Shaina that the villagers were coming for her. Still, they could not escape in time. When Shaina saw that she couldn’t outrun them, she entrusted Mor with Sorcha.

“Mor watched the burning from the safety of the woods, and it is she who documented the events of that night. Afterward, she took the babe to the Dragon tribe, a clan who lived in the Sea Caves nearby. While she was there, she had a vision. That’s what brings us to you.”

Dragomira lifts her hand and a roll of parchment flies off the mantle and into her palm. She passes it to me, and I carefully unroll the aged hide. Quietly, I read aloud the ancient script that promises to reveal my fate.


The DARK ONE spreads her plague across the land.

Rivers run red and earth soaks black with blood.

Man will fear the Cursed and greatly decline.

When they hide like rabbits, the end is near.

The DECEIVER will dance in her triumph.


There is one way that Man can rise again:

trust their enemy

live as one people,

or all will perish.


If they succeed, the DESTROYER will rage;

mourn her loss of souls,

plot her artifice,

move forth with vengeance.


Beware! The PRETENDER has many ways.

Need changes to greed;

love corrupts to hate;

hope buckles to fear.


Foes renew and the Great Pact is broken.

When Man wrongs Man, the BEAST has all but won.

Yet one last path still remaining for Man,

Yet one last path to deliver the Cursed.

The scion of Shaina’s blood will shine BRIGHT.


The BRANDED ONE will thrice-fold be guarded:

blade preserves body;

bone benefacts mind;

Cursed entrenches soul.


The LUSTROUS ONE will thrice-fold be fitted:

light her palisade,

justice her design,

love her instrument.


The ONE WHO IS KNOWN will thrice-fold meet death:

once in trade for life,

once that is taken,

once that is given.


The LIGHT WHO SHINES will shatter the darkness.

The LIGHT WHO SHINES will deliver the Cursed.

The LIGHT WHO SHINES will assail the DARK ONE.

The ANNIHILATOR will be destroyed.

The ERODER OF SOULS will be rebirthed.


Be steadfast, for the end is uncertain.


The edges of the aged parchment nearly crumble under the force of my grip. I loosen my shaking hands, and color flows back into my knuckles. Varg, sensing my stress, leans heavily against my knee. He places his snout in my lap, raises his eyebrows and blinks his ice blue eyes. I wrap my fingers in his long fur, gaining strength from his comfort.

I turn my attention to Dragomira and Jack. They clearly knew the prophecy, as their faces are not filled with questions; instead, a great solemnity surrounds them like a thick mist. Dragomira seems weary but resolute. Jack’s eyes burn with an unnatural shine, and fear and pain wisps around him in an eerie dance. Most telling of all are the tentative vines of hope intertwined with his concern.

Once more, I fill the dark silence. “The first stanza refers to the beginning of the Red Ages. The second stanza clearly describes the creation of the Great Pact.”

An unhappy agreement with my interpretation weighs their expressions.

I study the parchment for another moment. “We have no way of knowing if the third and fourth stanzas have occurred yet. The beginning of the fifth stanza says that the Great Pact will be broken.”

My hands tremble at the thought of that. It is not an event I wish to see in my lifetime. The image of Daylight Vampires taking blood at will and Dark Vampires going unchecked by Daylight Vampires horrifies my very soul.

Dragomira prompts, “And what does the end of the fifth stanza predict?”

Suddenly, I feel older than the darkness of the sky and more burdened than the ground beneath the mountains. “It predicts my birth and says I am the last hope.”

I lay my hand on Jack’s arm. “The last hope to free the Vampires from the curse.”

His jaw clenches, and his body becomes taut. Shame wraps around him as guilt leaks from him like wine through a sieve, filling all corners of the room.

“Jack?” I ask.

He glances at me briefly, then stares straight ahead. “You should go over the rest.”

The parchment, all but forgotten in that singular moment, still remains in my hand. I wrestle my eyes away from him and examine the next set of stanzas. “I can see how the Lustrous One could refer to me, but what about the Branded One and the One Who is Known”

Dragomira responds, “Recall that Illustrissima means Famous One and Distinguished One. To say someone is known is equivalent to saying they’re famous. Remember, there was no technology in those days—no phones, cars, or news stations. People’s circles were small. If someone was widely known, they were famous.”

“But I’m not famous, and I’m certainly not branded.”

Jack grimaces further. “You are famous. When the slaves were found in Blackwater’s house, the Dilectus Deo staged protests across the land. Of course, you were missing at the time, so your name was spoken in every other broadcast. The Dilectus Deo cast aspersions on you, said that you were involved in the crime rather than a victim. You were a topic of much debate.”

“You’re also branded. Your birthmark is no ordinary mark. To be marked like that is to be distinguished. It connects you both to the name Illustrissima and to the prophecy.”

It feels as though the noose is tightening further. I can’t imagine that I’m special enough to be the savior of the breeds. Every scrap of my life has been a fight for even the smallest amount of respect, so to be cast in this light, as though I’m important . . . I just can’t grasp it. But, clearly, they believe it.

“So you really think that I’m the Illustrissima, and I’m supposed to deliver the Vampires from the curse?”

Jack replies softly, “You don’t have to do anything. I’m not sure that the entire Vampire breed is worth your life.”

“Jack, it isn’t just the Vampire breed at stake,” I point out. “According to the prophecy, the fate of all mankind hangs in the balance. That’s a large prize for destroying Lilith. If this is true, then it’s lucky that I’ve already died twice and I only have once more to go.”

Their heads snap toward me, four shocked eyes taking me in as though wings have suddenly sprouted from my back.

I narrow my gaze as I take in their befuddlement. I was sure they would have known.

“I was stillborn,” I explain, “and with a combination of my father’s healing skills and my mother calling to my soul, much the way you did, Jack, I came back to life. That’s the first death, which was in exchange for life. The second death, the death that was taken, was at Blackwater’s hands. That leaves a third death: one that must be given, though I have absolutely no idea what that means. And I’m not saying I believe the prophecy, but how does one go about giving a life and killing the Great Demon, anyway? I’m certainly not killing anyone in sacrifice.”

A wry smile slides across Dragomira’s face. “If I knew, and if it were within my power, I assure you it would already be done. I can tell you though, it’s no coincidence that the amulet found its way into your hands. This is ultimately a war between you and Lilith, and somehow the Grimoire is involved. I wouldn’t be surprised if that necklace of yours played a part as well.”

I lightly finger the Belladonna necklace, which drapes down my breasts and shoulders like a piece of archaic chainmail. “Can you remove it? Do you know how?”

Dragomira stands in obvious dismissal. “Come to me tomorrow evening, and I will see. Now, I have other things to attend.”

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Chapter 02: Seeking Wisdom

01 2.0 The Light Who Binds2Bluebell Kildare

July 7, 2022, Red Ages

Fat, icy raindrops fall from the night sky, drenching my hair and clothes. I should have worn my cloak tonight. Varg and I bound up the steps to St. Michael’s Church and welcome the dry antechamber.

I hope Father O’Brennen is still up. Though I’m not religious, he’s always been there for me. When my parents died, he encouraged my grandparents to take me in, but they were too full of hate for the Gifted, so he placed me in the Green Tree Orphanage. The housemothers would bring us here for Sunday mass, and I would escape to the bell tower, happy to be alone. When I came of age, Father O’Brennen let me live rent-free in an apartment next door until I got my first job. Above all, he’s always been a counselor to me, someone to just listen when I need a sounding board. I certainly need both now.

I find him in the kitchen, standing by the beige tiled counter with a cookie in his mouth. A few crumbs fall to the gray slate floor as he chews. Father O’Brennan is of average height and build, his graying hair capped with a small bald spot. But his most stunning features are his deep-set, dark gray eyes that are so expressive, so wise, and so filled with compassion.

“Father O’Brennen,” I call from the arched doorway, leaning slightly so Varg can poke his head in next to me.

He jumps up guiltily.

“Having a midnight snack, are we?” I tease.

An abashed smile fills his gentle face. “Caught red-handed, I suppose. Come on in, Blue. I’m glad to see you looking so well. Would you like some cookies?”

“I’d love some.”

He opens the cookie jar, grabs another plate, and pours me a glass of milk.

“Mmm, chocolate chip,” I say through a mouthful of cookie. “My favorite.”

He chuckles, then pulls out another jar and hands a cookie to Varg. “That’s peanut butter for him. So, how are you, Blue?”

“Fit as a fiddle.” I peer down at my cookies and pick at the corner of one until it crumbles. “But I’ve had a bit of a shock over some things I learned today.”

His eyes soften. “Well, sometimes it is best to unload your worries. So why don’t you share the burden with me?”

I smile at his gentle kindness. “Remember how you told me I was stillborn and my mother called my soul back into my body?”

“Of course,” he says, studying my face.

I peer intently at my plate again. “Well, the same thing happened to me again in the crypt with Blackwater. Jack found me because my soul’s light was burning so brightly, he said it was shining straight past the moon. He called my soul back into my body and gave me Vampire blood to bring me back to life.”

“I see.”

I glance at Father O’Brennan. His forehead is furrowed in grave concentration.

I push forward through the rest. “Well, that isn’t nearly all of it. Today, I spoke with Jack and Dragomira. You may know her as the owner of the Dragomir Magical Artifact Shop.”

Father O’Brennen gives a little murmur of acknowledgement.

“Apparently, a prophecy from the beginning of the Red Ages foretold of my birth, and somehow I’m supposed to fight the Great Demon Lilith and destroy her.” I keep going now, avoiding his gaze because otherwise I’m afraid I won’t get it out. “I’m called the Illustrissima. It means ‘the Light Who Shines.’ The prophecy says the Great Pact will be broken, and I have to destroy Lilith to save mankind and deliver the Vampires from their curse.

“It says a lot of things in threes—like I’ll be thrice guarded and have three weapons. It also says I’ll have three deaths.”

I pause now, conscious of how ridiculous it all sounds, expecting to see disbelief or scorn on his face. Instead, his solemn eyes gently hold mine as he places his hand on my shoulder. “That’s a heavy burden to bear.”

“Yes, it is. I’ll do what I can, of course. But I have no idea what I should do now.”

“If this is your calling, it will find you,” he responds. “When the time is right, I’m sure you’ll know what to do. Just trust in the Lord and follow your heart.”

“Well, you know, I’m not very happy with the way he runs things, so the Lord and I aren’t exactly on speaking terms right now.”

Father O’Brennen smiles at me gently. “I know that. I’ll pray for you, if that helps.”

“Thanks, Father. It does. So, can you tell me anything about the number three? It struck me as odd that everything in the prophecy was supposed to be in threes.”

He gets that dreamy expression that he gets during mass sometimes. “Three is a very important number in the Catholic Church. It signifies unity, completion, and perfection, and as you know, the Trinity is comprised of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In broader Christianity, Jesus was crucified and entombed for three days before he arose. It’s a strong number, significant in Pagan mythology and other religions, as well. Some mythological gods were considered to be triple-deities and were said to have three different aspects. For instance, the goddess Badb was also known as Macha and Anand. Ancient Druidism was comprised of three specialties; the Bards who were the memory of the tribe, the Ovates who were natural healers, and the Druids and Druidesses who were shamans or directors of the rituals.

“Those who believe in the Lady of Light say she came to earth once at the beginning of the Red Ages to teach Daylight Vampires to feed without killing, then a second time to usher in the Great Pact. And it’s said she’s promised to come to earth a third time at the end of the Red Ages to guide us to peace. I think it bodes well for you that things will come in threes.”

How interesting. “Do you believe these other Gods really existed?”

He smiles. “I believe in only one God. But I think you have to consider what “existed” means. If a group of people believe in a god and worship him or her, doesn’t that god exist for them? Over man’s history, many gods have been worshiped. Some people believe those gods truly did exist and when man stopped believing in them, they lost their divine powers and faded away. In my faith, I believe those were false gods and idols and whether they truly existed is not of consequence.”

“I have one more question, Father.”

“I have open ears.”

This question has confused me the most. “Why me, Father? Why do you think all this is happening to me?”

Father O’Brennen eyes droop in deep empathy. “You’ve had a hard life, Blue. No doubt. But don’t most heroes have to rise above hardship and misery?”

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Chapter 03: Double Trouble


01 2.0 The Light Who Binds2Bluebell Kildare

July 8, 2022, Red Ages

Varg and I step inside the warehouse, but before I have a chance to take in my surroundings, a sharp blow to my knee has me crashing toward the mat. I hold my hands out, desperately trying to keep my face from smashing into the floor.

As I break my fall, another force slams into my back, pushing my head inexorably toward the mat. I resist. My arms strain with every bit of their strength and tremble with exertion, but I’m no match for the force behind me.

My elbows collapse and I’m knocked flat so hard that my breath is stolen away. I gasp for air as my attacker takes my weapons and yanks my arms behind my back.

Still determined to escape, I kick my legs backwards. To my delight, my aim is true. I hear a soft groan, and then a man’s voice requests, “Can you remove your beast? He’s wrapped his fangs around my neck.”

I grunt into the mat. “It depends. Will you let me up?”

The tense voice says, “Yes, I only intended to teach you a lesson about being caught unawares.”

“Seems you’ve been caught unawares, too,” I retort. “Varg, stand down.”

The heavy weight lifts off me, and I rise to face my attacker. Wang stands tall and sleek with well-defined abs and biceps. In contrast, his round face appears soft and sweet, especially when his dimples make an appearance. Right now, the corners of his soft lips rise in an impish smile.

His partner Yao appears at his side. Yao is the complete opposite of Wang. He reminds me of a Samurai in build; he’s of average height but solid all over. He wears a full beard, a sleeveless shirt, and the same style of flowing black pants that Wang does.

Wang and Yao are two world class warriors who Jack commissioned to train me. In addition to being partners in battle, they are also lovers, inseparable since they first came up against each other as undefeated champions of their regions in the annual Cathay Tournament. I was too young at the time to remember it, but it’s said they battled non-stop for over twenty-four hours before the tournament was finally called a draw.

Since the Dark Vampires wiped out most of humanity in the Bloody Era of the Red Ages, the majority of Earth is sparsely populated. The families who escaped to the New World fared better than the Old World, because the Vampires were slower to arrive here. So we recovered much more quickly after the Great Pact. However, in the Old World, the continents of Christendom in the West, Cathay in the East, and Africa to the south were all devastated. The few peoples remaining from those continents were true survivors, strong and swift in battle, who passed down a warrior culture to future generations.

Wang and Yao, having been raised to the Eastern warrior arts on Cathay, went on to compete in and win tournaments all over the world. When Yao and Wang retired, they moved to the New World. Sometimes they disappear from the public eye for months at a time, leaving the media speculating that the pair is working private assignments.

When Jack said he was going to find a trainer for me after I failed to fend off Tobias Blackwater’s assault, I thought he was going to sign me up for a boxing class at a local gym. Instead, he hired the two greatest warriors of Cathay. He arranged everything, provided this warehouse, put them up nearby, and gave them an unlimited budget for training equipment. So their sole focus is finding ways to torment me.

Wang hands me my knife and gun. Embarrassed that he was able to get them from me so easily, I take them back. He immediately goes into lecture mode.

“You have a wonderful advantage with your gift, but you must wake up!” he says. “Your five senses are dull. Your sixth sense is sleeping most of the time. We’ll be watching for when you’re not alert. Remember, if I were your enemy, you’d be dead right now—beast or no beast.”

I sheathe my knife and lift my chin in determination. “Then you have your work cut out for you, so let’s get started.”

Yao agrees a little too enthusiastically for me. “Yes, we’ll run six miles today.”

“Six miles! You’ve been adding about two blocks each day and suddenly you’re adding a mile?”

He steels his face. “It took you two months to run five miles easily. Now you have a strong base, so you’ll progress faster.”

I bow my head in acceptance and walk toward the locker to stow my weapons for the run.

Yao stops me. “This time, bring your weapons. You won’t always have my protection when you run.”

With a scowl I snap my holster back on, but I can’t fault his logic.

A minute later we’re flying down a mountain trail. Yao likes to go downhill first so I’m already exhausted by the uphill portion of the run. It’s just another cruelty he inflicts. Er, I mean, it’s just another tactic he employs to increase my stamina. But for now, this blessed beginning part is my favorite. We run down the east side of the mountain, thick with the shifting fog of early morning. The pink wash of dawn filtering through the mist is a glorious sight to behold.

“Stop,” Yao commands.

I immediately turn in a tight circle to my right and start uphill a few steps, letting my momentum fade until I come to a complete stop. Teaching me to stop while running at an ungodly pace downhill was one of the first lessons Yao taught me. Use the mountain, he always advises. It took just one good tumble to teach me that lesson.

“Run,” he commands, and I dutifully obey.

He has this thing about strengthening the heart, and supposedly stopping and starting quickly helps. He says the most valuable muscles in running are your heart and your diaphragm.

Yao yells for me to return. I grit my teeth and circle again to run back up the mountain. Three miles uphill is no easy feat, but he claims the most important strength you need is your determination. I suck it up and push my legs to continue despite their burning protests.

“Breathe through your nose! Use your diaphragm,” he yells from behind me.

You would think I’d remember that rule after swallowing goodness knows how many bugs, but my instinct is to gasp for breath. Yao says it’s inefficient breathing, and I can tell he’s right. I snap my mouth closed and breathe the crisp dawn air through my nostrils.

Varg zips past me, ducking under trees and gliding over brush, ignoring the path entirely. He loves the morning runs, the evil beast.

During the last mile my thighs feel as though they’re on fire, but Yao’s constant yammering from behind me keeps me going. “Use your arms and your sides to help pull your body along,” he commands.

When I start to slouch, Yao advises, “Keep your head up, and be aware of your surroundings.”

When I focus too much on the path, he commands, “Stop staring at the ground! Your enemy is not underfoot.” This one is difficult for me because we’re running uphill, and the ground is before me, but I get his point. You can’t see your enemy if your eyes are glued to your feet. Learning to keep my knees soft so I can take the impact of uneven ground was one of the hardest lessons.

We make it to the final stretch of the run. Varg stands on top of the ridge behind the warehouse watching us approach, as though to say, “Hah! I beat you.” Spawn of Satan.

When I reach the top of the mountain, Yao has me walk the perimeter of the warehouse three times to slow my heart rate. I don’t know why he allows me this cooling off period when he makes me stop and go so quickly during the run, but I’m grateful for the short reprieve. He handles all my basic strength and endurance training while Wang concentrates more on fighting and weapons. Naturally, that means I hate Yao more than Wang—but when Wang has me pinned to the floor, it’s hard to decide who I loathe most

Ready to turn myself over to Wang’s gentle abuse, I push through the warehouse doors again to reveal the expansive training room, but first, Yao has a few words for me. “You thought you weren’t able to do six miles,” he says. “What did you learn?”

I spit out through gritted teeth, “That I hate you, and I was wrong.”

He smiles broadly, stretching his beard to gigantic proportions. “Yes, and it’s fine to hate me as long as you learn that perceived limitations of your body can be overcome with a strong mind.”

Wang stands in front of me, eager for his chance to torment. “Today we begin a new challenge: you will complete half of your practice blindfolded.”


Wang grins, throwing those two gorgeous dimples into his baby-faced cheeks. “Yes, since you can sense souls, your ability to fight in the dark will be a great advantage.”

He spends the next forty-five minutes painstakingly correcting my posture and my movements as we run through a series of forms for Taekwondo and Jiu-Jitsu. After doing a set with my eyes open, he hands me a blindfold and makes me repeat it in the dark.

“In the past you’ve used your eyes to balance. Now you’ll learn to feel your center of gravity,” he advises.

At first I’m off balance, but as he corrects my posture by touch, I slowly get the feel for it, and a small feeling of pride wells up inside me.

At the end of the hour, Wang announces that I’m to wrap up my session with shooting practice. That sounds like a nice, relaxing break, but Yao wants me to spend thirty minutes rollerblading on the ramps after that to increase my balance and core body strength, followed by arm work on the obstacle course. I groan my objections, but I know I have no choice.

I take a deep breath. This is going to be a long, excruciating session. At least today’s my day off work and I can relax with a book after training. I let my mind wander, and my thoughts return briefly to yesterday’s meeting with Dragomira and this whole “destroy Lilith” business. As tired as I am, I stiffen my backbone and carry on without complaint. Well, without too many complaints.

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Chapter 04: Sweet, Obliging Woman


01 2.0 The Light Who Binds2Bluebell Kildare

July 8, 2022, Red Ages

The sun shines through the windshield of my car, making me narrow my eyes against the glare. Since I’ve finished my book and there’s nothing else on my agenda until my meeting with Dragomira, I’m cruising over to Maud’s place.

I’d say that Maud is like a mother to me, but since she acts so young, I call her one of my closest friends. I met her in the orphanage where I grew up. She used to visit and read to all the children, and that hour was among the only happy memories I have of that place. When I was younger, I wanted her to adopt me, but her husband William wouldn’t allow it. He felt his job was too dangerous to allow him to be a parent. Still, Maud and I remained close and became even closer after William died. She’s my touchstone, and I need one desperately right now.

On the right side of the road, a sight outside of Paco’s Loco Tacos has me chuckling uncontrollably. Paco must be trying to drum up business because he’s twirling around on the sidewalk wearing colorful Mexican festival attire. But the best part is his sombrero. It’s made with every color in the rainbow and the brim is about five feet wide. He could fit his entire staff under there with him. I can’t help it, that get-up deserves a reward. I swing over and grab some tacos for Maud.

As I pull up to the curb in front of her house, Varg exudes an unhappy rumbling sound. It isn’t his usual ferocious growl announcing danger, but he’s clearly displeased. Worried about Maud, I throw open Varg’s door and rush to the house. By the time I hit the porch, I can tell there’s nothing to fear as Maud’s stressed voice carries at a high pitch from the backyard.

“When I’m ready to deal with this garden, I will, and it will be in my own sweet time. If you don’t like it, put up a higher fence!”

“But sweetie, I’d be happy to help you with it.” Harry’s placating voice is much quieter than Maud’s.

She cuts in. “Yes, so you keep saying. I’ll think about it, but not now when I have a pounding headache. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

I hear the sliding door open and slam shut, obviously leaving Harry on the other side.

Maud opens the front door a few seconds later, two red spots on her cheeks. “Blue! Come on in.”

I hand her the bag. “Here’s some tacos for you for later. I’m not hungry myself.”

“Oh, thank you, dear.” She spins around with the bag and huffs off to the kitchen, mumbling, “Of all the insufferable . . . ”

The rest of her thought is drowned out by the blender, and I chuckle as I let myself in.

She raises her voice, “I’m making Alexanders, and you’re joining me, hungry or not.”

“Yes, ma’am!”

I sit down at the table and watch as Harry hops over the fence to his house.

Maud, with her glowing orange hair and a white-on-green polka dot dress, stomps around the kitchen. She pulls some frosty glasses out of the freezer, and with an artful grace that even her anger can’t diminish, she fills them with a flourish. She sets them on the table and sinks into her chair, clearly extremely annoyed.

“Thank you. You were a little light on the cognac today, I noticed.”

Maud blushes. “I’m watching my waist.”

“All twenty inches of it?”

She rolls her eyes.

“And you were a little heavy on the cream today.”

She throws up her hands. “Well, that man drives me crazy. I have to do something!”

I burst out laughing. “What? Did he cheat on you? Beat you? Break your crystal stemware?”

She scowls. “He wants to fix the back garden!”

“And . . . is that so bad?”

Maud quiets and traces the dew on the side of her glass as confusion spills out of her. “I’m just not ready for it.” She sighs. “Did you know that William and I had a big fight about the garden the last morning he left for work?”

I sober up quickly, at that little jewel of information. “No, I didn’t. What was the fight about?”

“The day before, I’d had a dizzy spell in the garden. I got overheated, that’s all. The sun made me dehydrated, but I was fine by the next morning. I wanted to work on it that day, to weed it. But he insisted I wait for him. I told him I’d take it easy, but he wouldn’t even hear of it. He was so overbearing sometimes. Anyway, I was so mad, that I went out and weeded the garden to spite him.”

Her eyes brim with moisture. “I was probably weeding the damn garden while he was taking his last breath.” With that, a stream of tears spill down her cheeks.

I wrap my arms around her from behind her chair and murmur into her shoulder, “He isn’t mad, Maud. He loved how spunky you are. If you had listened to him, he wouldn’t have known what to do.”


“Truly. When you guys fought around me, and you pretended to concede, William would roll his eyes while your back was turned.”

The corner of Maud’s mouth lifts as she blots her face with a napkin. “Really?”

“I promise. He’d expect nothing less than you weeding the garden. Do you think he would have stayed with you all those years if he really wanted a sweet, obliging woman?”

“Hey, now!” Maud laughs as she squeezes my hands tight.

I smile down at her and take my seat again.

“I think weeding the garden is fine. William wouldn’t be mad.”

Maud purses her lips in consideration. “Maybe you’re right.”

It would be so wonderful if she got over this garden issue. She’s been a prisoner to it for years.

“If you were to work in the garden, what would you plant?” I prod.

Maud’s eyes start to shine as she turns to the window, contemplating the wild jungle that makes up the back yard. “I’ve been in a mood for peonies, maybe some hydrangeas—and you don’t think it’s too late for petunias, do you?”

I can picture the finished garden in my mind. “It’s never too late for petunias in the South. They’d be lovely around the swing, wouldn’t they?”

“Yes, they would. Maybe Harry will help me till that area tomorrow.”

“I think he’s dying to be asked.”

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Chapter 05: Foreboding News


01 2.0 The Light Who Binds2Jack Tanner

July 9, 2022, Red Ages

As I pull in front of Blue’s apartment, she comes rounding the corner, her hair flowing behind her. The lean silhouette of her softly rounded body arrests my attention. Varg walks on the street side of the walkway with his nostrils and ears on high alert, protective as always. The neighborhood is quiet, and the firefly lampposts gleam softly on the street pavers, but still I’m glad she has him, especially after dark.

Blue lets Varg in the back seat, then slides gracefully into the front where I’m immediately assaulted by her scent: clean notes of mint and tea tree oil overlapping her earthy, womanly essence. Varg smells equally strong but far less enticing. He sniffs me a few times; then settles down for the ride, apparently no more enthralled with my scent than I am with his.

As she sets her bag on the floor and pulls the buckle closed with one hand, the other hand, absently fingers the Belladonna necklace. It peeks out from beneath her white ruffled collar shirt, an unusual departure from the casual knit tops she typically wears under her vest. “Does the necklace bother you?”

Her lovely face twists into a grimace, and her stunning blue eyes spark with annoyance. “It bothers me in the sense that it’s sitting on my neck and I have nothing to wear with it.”

I glance down at the subtle but delectable curve of her breasts at the collar opening. “What you have on seems fine to me.”

Blue’s grimace deepens and she pulls her fingers away from the necklace, tucking her hair behind her ear. Her mark, the streak of blue tinted hair, stands out in vivid contrast to her long, dark chocolate tresses. She asks, “Do you think she’ll be able to get this thing off me?”

“If she can’t, I’ll be surprised.”

As I put the car in gear and head over to the Dragomir Magical Artifact Shop, she reaches over and turns the radio to soft jazz. When the track ends, a broadcaster comes on. “The dramatic and frightening increase in Dark Vampire turnings continues to plague the city of Crimson Hollow. Seven deaths were reported yesterday, and the numbers continue to climb. Be sure to stay inside when the sun goes down, and don’t forget to pick up your holy water. The city’s churches have banded together to donate up to five vials per family. Just stop by your local church for a supply.”

Blue turns to me. “Jack, you should let me help with those cases. I’ve got time now.”

The idea of her chasing after Dark Vampires turns my insides cold. Rarely do Norms or even the Gifted take on the job of exterminator, and usually it means an early grave. That job is best left to Daylight Vampires who can compete on an equal playing field. “We aren’t there yet,” I assure her. “I’m bringing in some new exterminators to help with the problem.”

“When? Because the death toll is rising, and we’re bordering on all-out panic. Plus the Dilectus Deo are using this to strengthen their platform. We can’t afford for this to continue, or all the supernatural breeds will be at risk.”

“Well, the Dilectus Deo is upset about it, no doubt. But for some reason they’re fixated on the magical community.”

Blue scrunches her eyebrows. “Maybe they’re worried about retaliation from the Vampires and think the Gifted are an easier target.”


Blue chews her lip as she ponders the situation. “It is odd, though . . . Is this issue still limited to Crimson Hollow?”

“So far, though the Dilectus Deo are riling folks up across the continent.”


She continues to chew her lip, and erotic thoughts slip into my mind. Oh, how I would love to pull over right now and take that lip into my mouth, biting it gently until a drop of blood forms, then soothing it with my tongue. Don’t think of her that way, I scold myself.

Her damn lucky teeth . . .

Don’t think of her that way, for Christ’s sake!

“How’s your training coming?”

Blue’s entire countenance brightens, a stunning smile appearing on her face. Damn it.

“Well, besides the fact that Wang and Yao are evil incarnate, and I’m utterly exhausted from the workouts, I love it. But, seriously, four hours a day?”

“We’ve got to get you in shape quickly. What should I have them omit? Speed? Strength? Weapon use? Hand-to-hand combat?” I shake my head. “It has to be done, all of it.”

She sighs in resignation. “So where did you find Wang and Yao? I knew you were getting me a trainer, but I never expected the two great warrior lovers of the Cathay.”

I smile at that. “Who’s more suited to train the future savior of the world?”

Blue smacks my shoulder. “Shut up! I don’t believe that myself, and even if it were true, you better not go advertising it like that. Besides, if I do somehow manage to fulfill the prophecy, love is supposed to be my weapon, and I doubt that Wang and Yao will help me there.”

I chuckle at that. “No, I don’t suppose they will.” But then I sober up. “You’re too important to the future of all breeds and too vulnerable to attack from anyone who might wish to harm you. For your own safety, you have to be able to defend yourself.”

Blue frowns and starts to fidget. “Light is my palisade, so that’s my defense. Justice is my design, so that’s my motive. And love is my instrument, so that is what I should use to destroy her. But how do you destroy with love? It doesn’t even seem right. Love isn’t destructive. It builds a person up.”

“It will come to you when it’s time.”

Blue glares at me. “I guess I need to find someone to love, and since you aren’t up for the job, I should probably start dating.”

A deep pain strikes me in the depths of my chest at that thought, but thankfully at that moment we arrive at the Dragomir Magical Artifact Shop. Not a moment too soon, by my estimation. I don’t care to get into that conversation.

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Chapter 06: An Awakened Soul


01 2.0 The Light Who Binds2Bluebell Kildare

July 9, 2022, Red Ages

I stomp into the Dragomir Magical Artifact Shop, releasing some of my irritation at the darn prophecy and Jack.

Dragomira spots my flashing eyes. “Hah!” she barks. “So the lovers quarrel.”

“We aren’t lovers,” I protest vehemently. Unfortunately.

Jack grimaces, and Varg releases a short puff of air through his nostrils that sounds suspiciously like a snort. Whose side is he on, anyway?

Dragomira throws me a patronizing glance. “So you say. Bolt the door behind you and follow me.”

We make our way to the back room. Situated in the middle of the only open floor space, surrounded by rows of shelves containing all manner of magical goodies, is a high wooden stool. I toss my bag on the floor and take the seat, nervous about what’s about to transpire.

“What are you going to do?”

Dragomira gives me a magnificent smile, clearly happily anticipating this task. “First I’ll examine it with my eyes, my fingers, and then my other senses. Now, I haven’t all day. Unbuckle your vest and unbutton your blouse a bit so I can examine it.”

I give Jack a hard glare over her shoulder as though he arranged this just for his pleasure. His lips quirk the barest hint of a smile in response, and he can’t control the telltale signs of amusement in the crinkling corners of his eyes. I glare harder.

Once I’ve arranged my collar to afford as much modesty as possible while still giving Dragomira a view of my shoulders and the tops of my breasts, she starts circling me.

Her penetrating gaze takes in every minute detail of the necklace as her excitement and determination fill the room. She’s a woman who enjoys a challenge. She fingers the interlocking links and counts the dangling strands. She even counts the number of links per strand.

After several minutes of agonizing silence, she murmurs, “This was made around the beginning of the Red Ages. It most likely originated somewhere in the Fertile Crescent, and it’s clearly very powerful.”

“How can it be when it doesn’t work on me at all? My gift has actually been more powerful since I’ve had it on.”

“Hmm.” She sounds disbelieving.

“I’ll prove it,” I insist. “Think of an emotional event in your past.”

Dragomira steps back and tightens her face into an indiscernible mask, but a distinct wave of rage billows from her body.

“Rage,” I say. “Give me something else.” After a second, I sense tremendous loss. “You’re grieving. Do I need to continue?”

Dragomira shakes her head.

I shift in my seat, and my shirt falls slightly.

Dragomira’s sharp intake of breath draws my eyes to her face. She’s staring at my birthmark, a dot twice encircled, the outer circle is wavy like a sun sign. She mutters, “So this is the birthmark. Well, that makes sense now.”


Still gazing at my blemish, she speaks, almost as though to herself. “You don’t have a magic gift at all. Well, you do have the blue streak of hair, so you may indeed have a gift—but it certainly isn’t the power you’ve displayed while wearing this necklace. Your birthmark signifies many things, but what it most represents is that of the eternal soul.”

She peers at me intently now. “What you have, my dear Illustrissima is an awakened soul.”

My eyes lock with Jack’s from across the room as I ponder what that means, and a profound silence fills the air.

Dragomira sits down in one of the wingback chairs. I move to get down from the stool, but she stops me with a wave of her hand. “This will just take a moment. The Gifted have the ability to use magic, which is nothing more than the transferring or unlocking of energy. As I’m sure you know, the energy is always borrowed from one object and transferred to another in the magical act. The energy isn’t retained in the body, nor does it touch the soul.

“But Blue, you’re different. You don’t have to use the energy of any object. You are the energy. It’s more than that. Normally a soul is confined within the skin, and only a small amount of light escapes.”

Dragomira glances at Jack. “You can clearly see that her light fills the room,” she says. “It’s free, so to speak.”

She turns to me again. “Of course, if you allowed your soul to separate completely from your body, you would lose touch with your humanity and have a difficult time returning, so your soul must stay in residence. But you can shape it and use it at your will; it has no boundaries.”

I protest, “But my soul does have boundaries. I had to push so hard to get it out at first when I was in the crypt, and I was so tired that I had to pull energy from some source in the sky. I’m not sure, but it might have been from the Plane of Light.”

Dragomira purses her lips. “Perhaps you use your body as a reservoir or you don’t know how to fully access your power, but either way, you can perform your ‘magic,’ so to speak, with your own soul. Nevertheless, this necklace must come off. It’s pointless to speculate further until it does and we see what happens to your power.” She jumps off the chair to examine it again.

I suspect she has some interesting theories that I wish I were privy to. Even if my soul has no boundaries, my patience certainly does. I clasp my hands together, and Dragomira begins to probe the necklace with her mind. I’m surprised I can feel her energy pushing against my skin, sometimes forceful, sometimes as light as a summer breeze.

After a few minutes, she stands back, emanating a feeling of satisfaction.

“Did you unlock it?” I ask.

“Not yet, but I believe I know the way. Patience.”

Dragomira starts chanting in the same ancient language she used when I was first in her shop. Someone, whom we now assume to have been Blackwater, tried to penetrate her wards, which are the protective spells cast around her building. Just like then, her rich voice in its multitude of tones strikes a deep chord within me. She starts moving her arms in a silent language of their own in harmony with the rhythm of the chant. Her eyes seem to flicker with a golden light, and the room fills with the thrum of power, a gentle electrifying sensation. It seems as though the power is seeping through the walls and the floor. She’s pulling it into her.

The necklace grows hot on my skin, and the pressure in the room intensifies. I focus on Jack and Varg to distract myself.

Jack leans back in his chair, his eyes half closed, utterly transfixed by the situation. I like to call this his panther stare; he appears relaxed, but like silk over steel, he’s disguising his strength, lulling his victim into relaxation. And like the panther, he hides as he stalks, but is ever ready to pounce.

Varg grumbles low in his chest and bares his teeth menacingly at an unseen threat. The power of Dragomira’s ritual continues to weigh heavy in the air, but the room is still—except that strangely, Varg’s fur waves like he’s in the eye of a storm, as though unfelt wind blows on him alone. His eyes are intent on me and low rumbling noises continually emit from his throat.

Dragomira peers appraisingly at Varg, then dismisses him as she circles me, the cadence of her song quickening. She moves her hands in brief, rapid strokes, alternating between cutting sharply through the air and waving gracefully, sinuously. The crushing force of the power, the weight of the air, the electrifying tingles become almost unbearable, and Dragomira’s face breaks into a sheen of sweat as she whirls around me.

Abruptly, the air lightens and seems to evaporate from the room. A cracking sound snaps loudly from several directions at once as her cabinet doors shatter. The glass crashes to the floor, making a tinkling noise as the shards hit each other on the way down. The necklace latch bursts open and the chain slides off my neck and into my lap.

Jack and Varg rush toward us, and Dragomira collapses in the chair. I stand shakily with the Belladonna necklace grasped loosely in my hand. A strange sense of isolation strikes me, a colorless depression that I can’t name. I wave aside Jack’s unspoken offer of assistance and walk on unsteady legs to the comfort of the upholstery. I tuck the necklace into my bag, and with a deep breath, I sink into the chair.

“I feel so peculiar.”

“How so?” Dragomira prods.

“I feel somehow less, like everything is coming at me through a long tunnel,” I explain. “I think the necklace heightened my senses, and I’m back to normal now, but it doesn’t feel like normal anymore. It feels restrictive.” I sweep the three of them with my senses. “Yes, you’re all duller now.”

Jack glances at Dragomira with a question in his face, and she nods in return. I watch the exchange in frustration. “What?”

He eyes me with concern. “Your light is shining less brightly now. In fact, your aura is back to what it was before the necklace.”

Dragomira frowns. “The necklace was subduing magic that is currently at work on you. I think someone has spelled you and it’s constrained your soul. Do you know anything about this?”

I lean forward, shocked. “Constrained my soul? When would someone have done that? Blackwater wasn’t Gifted in that way.”

Jack asks, “Have you felt any unusual shifts in your senses? Was there a time when your senses were more powerful before the necklace?”

I puzzle at this and sift through my memories. “Maybe they were stronger when I was very young, at the orphanage.”

He runs his hands through his hair, enraged. “For Christ’s sake! I should have thought of that. The housemother, Anna Marie. For some reason she must have locked down your soul. Maybe that’s how she got the children to stop fearing you so much.”

My mind grapples with that, and the pieces click together. “Yes! She took me to the woods for a special picnic. She said we were going to sing songs so the kids would like me better. That’s exactly it!”

Dragomira seems skeptical. “Pull your chair over here. Let me examine this work.”

I drag the chair across the rough wooden planks until I’m directly across from her. She leans forward and applies a gentle pressure against my head. I feel a kind of light shifting feeling, like she’s sifting through some airy force-field on the surface of my skin that I never felt before. It makes me shiver.

Dragomira settles back in her chair. “This isn’t the work of a housemother. This is the work of a powerful sorceress. A finer weaving I’ve never seen from a human. She’s woven gossamer, gray magic around your soul to lock it in place.”

“Gray magic! But she wasn’t an evil sort of woman, I would swear it. She was the kindest housemother there.”

“Gray magic is not evil,” Dragomira scoffs. “That’s ridiculous superstition. It simply utilizes lower life forms that have already died of natural causes. It’s a mix of residual energy from life and the entropy that occurs with death. Gray magic is perfect for neutralizing life-force, which you have in abundance.”

“Can you undo it?”

She purses her lips. “Yes, I can undo it. It will be delicate work. But think on this. You say she had no bad intentions, yet she wove it around you. What do you think will happen to your light and your senses when we completely release your soul?”

Jack wears a contemplative expression that matches my mood. Holding his gaze steadily, I reply, “I think my light will become brighter and my senses stronger. It’ll be difficult, maybe even overwhelming at first. I’ll know more about people than I even know now, and it’ll make them uneasy. But I’m not a child who will accidently slip and tell people what I know. I won’t cause them to fear me like I did when I was young. And I’ll acclimatize over time to the stronger senses. That’s my best guess.”

Jack nods in agreement.

I turn to Dragomira. “Please do it.”

“Then come kneel in front of me.”

I do as she asks, and she lays her hands on the top of my head. I relax my mind to feel her work. This time there are no hand gestures, only a soft murmuring from the back of her throat. It sounds almost guttural but is so vibrant in tone that it reminds me of the scent of rich, dark soil just after a fresh rain.

Unexpectedly, I feel Varg’s warm, fluffy fur as he leans his head on my lap. I smile and stroke him as Dragomira combs through the surface of my mind and just under the skin of my body. It feels almost ticklish, like a feather brushing against my thoughts. She delves in and out with the lightest touch, and I can almost imagine her pulling threads loose as her low, rhythmic chanting progresses.

With Varg warm against me and Dragomira’s psychic massage, I grow sleepy after a time. With great will, I prop my eyes open to see Jack. He sits, watching closely with a tight expression on his face. He catches my gaze and smiles.

Suddenly, his pupils constrict and his eyes widen in alarm. At the same moment I feel a rush of, well, everything. Everything becomes larger, louder, and stronger. I can feel Jack’s worry with precision, and underneath I sense his affection, desire, and even reverence. I frown at the reverence part. That needs to stop.

My face must give me away because the next thing I know, Jack has controlled his emotions, and my attention shifts to Dragomira. She feels hopeful, good, and strong, but she seethes with an unquenchable, bitter rage underneath. I reel back from her, and noticing, she smiles a bitter smile.

“Don’t worry, Blue. That anger is not for anyone of this world.”

I’m tempted to open up my senses to examine her soul, but out of respect for her privacy, I refrain.

Instead, I turn to Varg. He issues a feeling of watchful concern, steadfast loyalty, and a wild, predatory magic that lies just beneath the surface.

I return to Jack. “What are you so worried about?”

He whispers, “Your soul light. It brightens this room like the sun glistening on a snow-covered landscape. It’s almost hard to see you through it.”

Dragomira scoffs. “You will survive, Jack. You’ll get accustomed to it like she will. If not, get sunglasses.”

She turns to me. “Apparently the housemother Anna Marie locked your soul light down with the gray magic to make it weaker. Whether she had good or bad intentions, we can only speculate. Then when Tobias Blackwater put the Belladonna necklace on you, he assumed it would restrain your gift—But because your gift isn’t a normal gift, but rather an awakened soul, all it did was counteract the spell that Anna Marie put on you. That’s why the Belladonna necklace served to make your senses stronger.”

The whole thing makes sense now. That explains why Blackwater thought the necklace would make it impossible to use my gift. “So the Belladonna necklace actually works?”

“Yes, it counteracted the magic that was suppressing your soul light.” She clears her throat. “One last thing, and then I’ll ask you two to leave so I can rest.”

Now I sense weariness billowing off her in gusts, as the euphoria from her accomplishment wanes.

She throws her hand up, frustrated. “Illustrissima. I gave you a knife and gave you its name. Yet when you needed it most, you didn’t call it.”

I’m perplexed. “Call the knife?”

“Yes!” she hisses. “You just need to call the knife, and it will come.”

“Are you serious?”

Her lips press firmly together and her frustration pours out of her like she’s dealing with the slow kid in class, and maybe she is. “Yes! When things have names they should be used. Call it. Now.”

Feeling silly, I do as she requests. “Guardian,” I call out. Nothing happens. I regard her curiously.

A smile plays over her lips. “Where is the knife at present?”

Jack answers, “It’s at my house. I forgot to bring it back to her. It was found at the crypt among Blackwater’s possessions.”

As he speaks, I see a flash out of the corner of my eye. Then thunk! The knife stabs the wood floor just next to my right hand. My eyes rest in amazement on my beautiful weapon with its sapphire-encrusted hilt still vibrating to and fro from the force of its landing.

A mischievous smile flits across Dragomira’s face. “Remember this, Illustrissima. Names have power.”

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Chapter 07: Circle of Fire


01 2.0 The Light Who Binds2Bluebell Kildare

July 9, 2022, Red Ages

As Jack drives us home, I reflect on all I’ve learned over the past two days. I feel a fool for not calling my knife while struggling with Blackwater, but I had no idea it would come.

I lean against the window, and the cool glass presses against my forehead as I watch downtown Crimson Hollow pass us by. There are no protests to be seen, thank goodness. The Dilectus Deo are a religious hate group who believe that Norms are the true Beloved of God and are known for protesting anything to do with Gifted people or Vampires. In fact, it’s become far too commonplace to see them waving their hate signs every day of the week.

The dark streets are alight with firefly lamp posts, and glow stones illuminate the scattered benches. Banners hang across intersections, announcing the upcoming Sun Flare Celebration. A balloon vendor situated outside Comet Park packs up his truck. They’ve been handing them out to children to build excitement for the festival, I suppose.

It’s become so commercial now. When I was younger, artists, street performers, and the Gifted filled the area with mischievous tricks, dazzling spectacles, and exuberant laughter, but I don’t recall this level of build-up. It seems they’re trying to draw a large crowd to make as much money as possible.

It used to be a more relaxed affair, put on solely for the enjoyment of the residents and most of the talent was volunteered by the residents themselves. I remember street mimes, jugglers, acrobats, fire performers, and even stilt walkers. My favorite was an artist who used his gift to fashion colored smoke into the shape of different animals, making children squeal with delight. The dragon was the best; it even breathed fire. Now the whole event seems to be a money-making scheme with everything designed to make a profit for the city businesses. I must remember to check with the Internal Investigations Officer for city corruption.

My memories are interrupted by the sound of Jack’s phone ringing. He answers it quickly, never hesitating in his driving.

I hear some mumbling on the other side, but I can’t quite make it out. It seems my heightened senses don’t extend to the original five everyone is born with. The voice sounds like Ernesto, but I can’t be sure. I wish I could hear the conversation because Jack exudes so much tension and worry that my heart starts to race.

“I’ll be right there.” He clicks his phone shut, curt as always.

“Is there a problem?”

He frowns, “That was Ernesto. He’s tracking four Dark Vampires in a dense residential area, and the other exterminators are otherwise occupied. His oak stake fell down a sewer grate, and he can’t retrieve it without tearing apart the sidewalk. Do you have holy water on you?”

“Of course. Three vials.”

His frown deepens. “From now on, carry no less than ten vials, but three will have to do for today. I’m going to assist him, and you’re going to stay in the car.”

“I can certainly help, and don’t you think you should just commission a Hallowed Hazer for me if you think I need that much holy water?”

A Hallowed Hazer is a gun that shoots a mist of holy water. I cringe at the thought of carrying one around, though I know I can’t depend on the other Holy elements to kill Dark Vampires. The sun’s destructive rays are on their own schedule, and Holy ground isn’t always in close proximity—and I’m certainly not fast enough to kill them with an oak stake. Holy water is the only reliable way I have to ensure their death.

Jack tightens his jaw and commands through tight lips, “You are in no way a match for Dark Vampires. Your only defense is holy water, and it should be used as just that: defense. If you have any issues with following this order—and make no mistake, it is an order—then I won’t bring you to the scene, and Ernesto will be fighting four Dark Vampires on his own without an oak stake. So what will it be?”

Livid, both at him and the truth of my limitations, I respond through clenched teeth. “I’ll stay in the car.”

His anxiety eases, which mollifies me slightly, and I do mean slightly.

I soften a little more as he explains himself further. “There’s a reason that Ernesto is our exterminator at the Supernatural Investigation Bureau. If you recall, Norms and the Gifted were near extinction before the Great Pact was made, and Daylight Vampires agreed to exterminate Dark Vampires. Only Daylight Vampires can match a Dark Vampire’s speed and strength. If I allow you to hunt them, it would be like signing your death warrant.”

His concern is touching, but never one to let an opportunity go, I prompt, “And the Hallowed Hazer? It would be far more accurate than throwing a vial of holy water on them. If I were in a defensive situation, I mean.”

Jack’s jaw clenches. “I’ll see about getting one for you, but only if you promise to use it just as a defense weapon.” With that said, he takes a hard and fast turn. The next few blocks speed past, and then we pull over to the side of the road. We’re in a residential area adjacent to the city center, crowded by apartment buildings.

Jack’s phone rings again. “Yes,” he answers.

Relief and a sense of perplexity coils off him as he listens intently. “They just gave up the hunt and took off?”

He listens for a second. “We’re at the corner of Boss Hardy and Hog Mountain Road. Which direction did they go?”

Jack stays on the phone this time and pulls back onto the street. He turns his attention to me and explains, “They’re moving away from us. We’ll swing around west and try to intercept them from the north.”

He takes a hard left, drives a few blocks, then makes a quick right. He moves as fast as is safe in such a populated area, quickly maneuvering through downtown.

Ernesto says something again, and Jack mutters, “Shit.”

He speaks over the phone to me. “Now that we’re heading east, they’re heading east too, at a dead run.”

This puzzles me. Dark Vampires are more than a bit crazy, what with being soulless and, well, dead. For them to operate in such an organized manner is unheard of.

He speaks into his phone as he takes a hard left again. “We’ll head a few blocks, go east until we pass them, and then try to cut them off by heading south.”

He makes a quick right, turning so hard that I have to put my hand down to keep my balance. Jack’s jaw tenses and the steering wheel groans at the force of his grip. Oh! I realize I’m holding onto his thigh. I pull my arm back like I’ve been burned. But it’s a good burn.

After a minute he says to the phone, “We’ve reached Soul View Drive. Have we passed you yet?”

A pause, then he spits, “By how much?”

He jerks the wheel in frustration. “Okay, we just turned right. For Christ’s sake!”

He speaks to me again. “They just turned south.”

“Jack,” I say, “That’s three times they’ve turned when we turned. Twice might be chance, but three times? They know where we are, and they’re trying to get away from us. If you want to catch them, you have to trap them.”

Jack scowls but must agree with me as he shares my theory with Ernesto, and a string of curses sounds through the phone.

Jack says, “I’ll corral them toward Eagles Point and try to trap them at the cliff. Stick with them until the junction of Heavenly Heights and Demon’s Pass. Then take Demon’s Pass and situate yourself at the bottom of the cliff.”

A feeling of savagery grows behind me. I check Varg in the back seat. He’s sitting erect, his nostrils and ears working feverishly.

Jack whips us left again, and we move into the suburbs at an astounding speed. The odometer climbs past eighty when I finally turn away from it to save my sanity. I hold on to the safety strap so I don’t end up in Jack’s lap on the next turn. Soon the suburbs become small farms, and still we race on. While it’s entirely possible for Vampires to go this fast, they can usually only do so for short periods of time. Ernesto will be starving when he’s done.

Both Varg’s and Jack’s excitement increases. It seems Jack’s anticipation of the hunt has eclipsed his tension, but he’s keeping it under tight rein. His jaw is clenched, and his brows furrow in concentration. He keeps up an occasional monosyllabic conversation with Ernesto. I imagine it must be difficult for Ernesto to talk at this pace.

I suggest, “Slow down before we get to the cliff to give Ernesto a chance to recover a bit.”

I settle back in my seat and try to relax until he says to Ernesto, “I’ve just passed the fork of Heavenly Heights and Demon’s Pass. Why don’t we disconnect. There’s nowhere for them to go now but up.” A pause, and then he snaps his phone shut.

Jack says, “Get your vials ready. I’m driving to the lookout now.”

Good thinking, considering it’s going to be Jack against four. That’s worrying, but I know Ernesto has to stay at the bottom to finish them off. I unsnap the cover of the vial case I keep on my holster.

The road has turned to dirt, a sign that we’ve almost arrived at our destination. Suddenly I can see only what is in the path of his headlights since this road has no street lamps. Jack takes a jog in the road at top speed and the car fishtails slightly. When he gets it under control, it’s a straight shot up to the top.

I make out four Vampires, barely discernible in the darkness, heading toward the cliff. Jack slows the car and shines the headlights on the figures. I suck my breath in, they’re near the edge. Three of the Vampires stop in time, but the fourth one jumps right over.

I hope Ernesto finishes him at the bottom. Even a drop that far won’t kill a Vampire, but it may crush its bones. Vampires can regenerate limbs and even survive decapitation if they manage to find their head and place it back on their neck. They’re virtually immortal until they turn Dark. Even then it takes one of the Holy elements to destroy them.

Jack pulls the car to a stop, leaving it running, and hops out in a flash. I unroll the window so I can hear what’s happening. A wave of ferocious anger comes from the back seat, followed shortly by a fierce howl. Varg’s not at all happy with Dark Vampires being this close.

Jack takes off and I watch, breathless, as he rushes toward the edge. My fear that he’s going to fly right over the cliff drives deep into my gut. I lean forward, my knuckles turning white as I grip the dash. At the last second, Jack jumps up and dropkicks one of the Dark Vampires off the cliff. An unearthly scream shatters the peace of the mountains as the creature tumbles three hundred feet to the ground.

With a roll and a jump, Jack is on his feet again in an instant. The two remaining vile creatures come at him, one from each side, but curiously, they keep glancing back at the car and snarling. Varg snarls right back.

While one of them is fixated on the car, Jack gives it a roundhouse kick off the cliff. The Night-Crawler moans as it flies through the air, but the sounds stop abruptly as soon as it’s out of view.

The last Dark Vampire jumps on Jack’s back and sinks its fangs into Jack’s neck. Jack reaches behind his head and grabs the Night-Crawler’s chin. He squeezes it in his hand, crushing the beast’s jaw beneath his grasp and mangling its face into a bloody pulp. A shrill scream cuts the night. The creature releases its teeth, and a spout of blood shoots out of Jack’s neck.

Jack grabs the monster’s head, and with a quick jerk and a sharp crunch, he breaks its neck. Relentless, it clings to Jack like a tick on a hound. He rolls with the creature, getting dangerously close to the cliff’s edge.

“Please don’t go over. Please don’t go over,” I whisper.

They spin round and round to the very brink of the drop-off. My heart thunders in my breast. Just inches away, they come to a stop. Jack grabs its hands and pulverizes the fingers that grasp him.

The windshield fogs from my heavy breath. I wipe frantically at it to clear the view.

The head of the soulless beast lolls uselessly, but it manages to hang on to Jack with one arm and both legs. Jack clutches one of its legs and throws himself flat on the ground, slamming the beast’s knee into a rock. Jack’s soft grunt of exertion is eclipsed by the creature’s shrill whine. It now hangs by just one hand like a limp marionette. Jack twists around and releases the final hand.

The Dark Vampire, scrabbling in the dirt, still reaches for Jack, but it can’t get leverage with its broken knee and hand. Planting his foot against the Night-Crawler’s side, Jack shoves it over the brink. He turns around and starts heading back to the car, a bloody mess.

Tension leaves my body, and I collapse back in my seat. Jack pauses on the way to the car to rip off his destroyed shirt and use it to put pressure on his neck wound. The blood has already slowed. I’m entranced by the broad expanse of Jack’s chest, golden muscles rippling in rays of moonlight. It’s such a gorgeous display, and my breath catches for a different reason this time.

Then something catches my attention from beyond my hunky muscle-bound warrior, and Varg growls savagely yet again. Behind Jack, the silhouette of an arm and head appear over the edge of the cliff. Then a leg, and the Vampire that Jack had drop-kicked, stands. It starts limping toward Jack.

I jump out of the car. “Behind you!”

Jack spins around and promptly closes the distance between himself and the last Dark Vampire. With a great leap, he latches his legs around the vile creature’s waist. The Night-Crawler grasps Jack’s head as though to twist it. My heart stops in horror and I instinctively step forward.

Jack’s neck strains with the effort of keeping the Dark Vampire from twisting his head off. At the same time, he tightens his leg hold on the Night-Crawler and pushes its head backwards with one hand. The monster bends back at the waist under the force of Jack’s strength. It flails wildly, trying to keep hold of Jack’s head as Jack pushes it out of reach. The Night-Crawler’s hands eventually release their grasp. A whoosh of relief escapes my lips.

Jack grasps the creature’s head firmly. He pushes down on it with his thighs and simultaneously pulls up and twists the Dark Vampire’s head. A sickening crunch fills the air as skin and sinew shred. Jack leaps back from the Vampire with its head still in his hands. Blood gushes. He drops the head, and it lands with a soft thud and a small roll. The body teeters over on its side, squirming and reaching. The earth is drenched with scarlet.

Jack turns to me, and I stumble back, startled. I’ve never seen him like this before, fangs extended and face twisted in a murderous rage. Fear, no matter how irrational, churns in my gut. Jack must see it in my eyes because he flinches and turns his head away from me.

I smash the fear down. This is Jack, I remind myself. I won’t let myself be afraid of him.

With that, I rush forward to hand him my vial of holy water, but the Dark Vampire’s body has already started smoking. Then its flesh blisters. It blackens.

Jack steps back. He looks at me strangely and positions himself between me and the creature. “Come here, slowly.”

I creep up to Jack, and with every step forward, the Vampire’s loathsome body chars even more. Suddenly it catches fire and poofs into ash.

Jack and I stand, stunned. “You really can kill Vampires with your light.”

I shake my head. “No, the other one didn’t die in Shroud Valley until I threw holy water on it. Something else must have caused this.”

“But the spell wasn’t lifted then.” He grabs my hand and pulls me to the car. “Let’s go see if any are alive at the bottom.”

Jack floors it down to the fork, then takes a hairpin left. A few minutes later we’re at the foot of the cliff, and Jack parks the car with the headlights shining directly on Ernesto Ramos-Delgado. He sits on a boulder surrounded by three headless Vampire bodies and three small piles of ash that I can only assume are the heads.

Ernesto stands as soon as we arrive, ever the gentleman. He was turned in his fifties several hundred years ago, and he holds fast to traditional etiquette. He wears his typical hunting outfit, a loose black linen pant-suit that looks dashing with his sweeping mustache. The sprinkling of grey in his dark brown hair frames his face, accenting his light brown skin

The beheaded bodies thrash around weakly as the blood drains from their necks. I rush out of the car to hand Ernesto my vials of holy water. As I near him, these bodies also start to smoke and burn. Ernesto studies the Vampire carnage as it smolders, then catches fire. He looks at Jack, who is looking at me. I cover my mouth in dismay. The flames surge, blasting the night air with their heat. Then one after the other, the Dark Vampire bodies puff into piles of ash.

Ernesto dusts off his pants and grins, appearing quite amused by the exploding Vampires. Then with a formal bow, he says “Señor and Señorita. So good of you to come and help me clean up this mess.” His eyes drop hungrily to my neck for a brief moment, and I give a little shudder. He’s never done that before, but then again, I’ve never been near him after such an exertion.

Jack immediately places himself between Ernesto and I, remaining calm but deliberate about his intentions. His bare back in front of me ripples with tension.

Ernesto turns away, embarrassed, then says, “Perhaps you can fill me in on the way back.”

Jack replies smoothly, “Of course, my friend. But first, let me share some of the blood from the cooler in my trunk.”

Ernesto smiles gratefully and precedes Jack to the back of the car. Meanwhile, I stand awkwardly in the beam of the headlights, between the car and the Vampire dust, waiting until they’ve slaked their thirst.

A few minutes later we’re headed back to town, and Jack is trying to explain the unexplainable. “It appears Blue had a spell cast on her when she was young that subdued the effect of her light. Dragomira unraveled the enchantment today, and we seem to have found another of her gifts. Her light shines so strongly that it repels Dark Vampires, and that’s how they knew to run from us. Somehow her light acts like one of the Holy elements that will burn them.”

Ernesto is silent for a moment, then says simply, “So the circle of light that surrounds her is also a circle of fire.”

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Chapter 08: Speculative Case


01 2.0 The Light Who Binds2Bluebell Kildare

July 10, 2022, Red Ages

Rubalia Devonshire raises one rigid finger at me, asking me to wait a moment while she finishes chewing out the maintenance department for not fixing the vent issue in Xavier’s office. As Special Assistant, Rubalia fills the role of research assistant, office manager, and magnificent reception commander. She rules the department with an iron fist, or a rigid finger, depending on the day. Right now, her gold-tipped, wavy brown hair bounces as her head moves in accord with her agitation.

Rubalia sits behind a reception counter in our lobby. It’s a warm space, decorated with beige carpet and flooded with natural light from the same floor to ceiling windows that line our offices. I let my eyes rove the space and they snag over the brown leather furniture in the seating area. I notice Rubalia’s brought in another bright piece of artwork, making the space even cheerier. As always, her taste is impeccable.

When she snaps the phone down, she lifts her glittering ruby cat-eyed specs off her deep brown eyes and flicks through her organizer. She finds my tab and hands me a stack of memos.

“Thank you, Rubalia.”

I’m inspired by her decorating, and when I reach my office, I give it a critical eye. It’s sparsely furnished with my comfortable office chair, two guest chairs, a sturdy oak desk, and two matching file cabinets. Besides that, there’s only the brown leather bed Rubalia made for Varg that sits by the wall of windows and my lush fern in the corner. The space really could use some personal touches and color, but that will have to wait for another day.

I sit down and rifle through my messages. One slips out of my hand and falls in the crack between my desk and my filing cabinet. With a shove, I push the file cabinet to the side and see the message lying on the carpet next to another slip of paper. I wonder what that is. I grab both memos and move the filing cabinet back in place.

The second piece of paper is a note in Rubalia’s elegant handwriting where she’s listed the name and number of the Internal Investigations Officer with the City of Crimson Hollow. I’d asked her for this contact during the Blackwater case, so the note must have slipped into that spot some time ago. It would never take Rubalia months to finish a piece of research like this. Her entire deportment screams perfectionist, which anyone can see from her sleek skirt suits and the deathly stilettos on her tiny feet, but it’s most obvious in her running of the office.

I drum my fingers on my desk as I read the name: Rita Hardgrave. Well, Rita, let’s have a chat.

Someone picks up after half a ring. “Hello, may I please speak with Rita Hardgrave?”

An assertive, professional voice answers, “This is she.”

“Rita, this is Inspector Bluebell Kildare from the Supernatural Investigation Bureau, Homicide Unit. I understand you’re in charge of Internal Investigations with the city. Is that correct?”

She says, “That’s correct. How can I help you?”

“I’d like to stop by your office tomorrow. I don’t have anything to report. I just have some questions.”

“Sure, stop on by,” she says. “I’m pretty open tomorrow.”

“Thanks, Rita. I’ll speak with you soon.”

I flip through the rest of the messages and find one that I was hoping never to see. The young man I tried to rescue outside of the Glenwood mansion had made it through surgery, but had some bleeding in his brain from a concussion. When I visited him, he was in a coma. His name was Matthew Pruit, and he was only twenty-three years old. The message says he passed away early this morning.

I lean my head on my hands and fight the tears prickling my eyes. It’s so senseless. Why are we fighting amongst ourselves? My mind drifts back to the prophecy. “When man wrongs man . . . ”

A tap on my door interrupts my grieving. Jack stands in the doorway with furrowed eyebrows. “Are you okay?”

I shake the memo at him. “Matthew Pruit. It sucks.”

Jack scans the memo briefly; then his eyes soften slightly at the corners. “It does suck. Do you need a minute?”

“No, come on in.”

Jack remains where he is, and frowns. “Actually, we have a woman here reporting her husband’s gone missing. He’s a Gifted forest ranger. I’d like you to sit in on the interview.”

The thrill of a new case rushes through me. Great, a chance to be useful! “Okay, let’s do this.”

Varg follows us into the interview room and lounges in the corner, taking up far too much of the small space, while I settle down in a chrome-wheeled chair and await our next mystery. The door pushes open and Jack is preceded by a petite brunette woman sporting a sleek angled bob. An infant clings to her hip, and a young girl clutches her skirt. Even so burdened, she stands with rigid determination.

After Jack introduces Brigid to me, he holds out a chair for her. Instead of taking it, Brigid pats it, “Becky, You sit here, right by Mama.”

Becky is all of five years old, a shy girl with long, dark hair pinned in pink plastic barrettes. With a lot of effort and wiggling, she manages to climb in the chair and sits on her knees with her elbows on the table. When she’s settled, she notices Varg in the corner. With a little squeak of surprise, she says, “That’s a big doggy!”

I answer, “Yes, he’s a protector. He protects people, so he has to be big.”

Her adorable mouth makes an O-shape in wonder.

When Brigid is seated, she shows her resourcefulness by pulling a pad of paper and crayons out of her bag. Becky starts drawing immediately with an endearingly tilted head and tiny eyebrows scrunched in concentration.

“Brigid,” Jack starts, “why don’t you tell us what happened.”

Brigid shakes her hair out of her face and bounces her baby boy on her knee gently as she starts her story. “My husband is missing. He was supposed to be home by six o’clock this morning and he never arrived. He worked third shift last night, and it isn’t like him to be late. By the time he gets home, he’s exhausted and falls asleep right away. Now it’s past four o’clock in the afternoon, and I know something must have happened to him.” Her sharp energy saturates the air; she’s tired, worried, and more than a little scared, but her resolve wins.

I ask gently, “What does your husband do for a living?”

A gleam of pride shines from her eyes. “He’s a forest ranger for the Western Blue Ridge District. He fights forest fires. I called his work and spoke to his boss, and he left work at five in the morning as usual.”

“Who did you speak with?”

“Randy. He’s the Station Supervisor.”

I jot some quick notes down as I go through my questions. “What’s your husband’s name and date of birth?”

“Joe Powers. He was born January 20th, 1992”

I puzzle a moment, bouncing the eraser off of my notepad. “That name sounds familiar. Was your husband a prominent political person?”

Brigid scowls. “No, he always kept a low profile, until yesterday that is.”

“What happened yesterday?”

I feel her irritation and fear spike. “He did an interview for the local jazz station. He’s a fire control expert.” She pinches her lips. “I told him not to do it, but he insisted it was an important public awareness piece.”

That’s where I heard the name. They must have announced his interview on the radio when Jack and I were listening to the news yesterday. “Why didn’t you want him doing the interview?”

Brigid indicates Becky. “I think my daughter may be Gifted, and with so much craziness about the Gifted lately, I don’t think it’s smart to advertise gifts in the family.”

Becky is clearly Gifted. I can feel the vibration of her magic humming far louder than I’d expect from a child her age. If it were a bit more developed, I might even be able to tell what the gift is. However, her mother seems to still be struggling with the fact that her daughter is Gifted, so I keep my curiosity to myself.

“What is your husband’s gift?”

She hesitates a moment, her reticence obvious. “He controls fires. He’s in charge of all the controlled burns in the region.”

“Exactly how does he control the fires?”

An expression of pride and admiration gleams from Brigid’s eyes. “He can start fires and regulate their consumption of energy to stop them. That’s why the Western Division of the Blue Ridge Forest Service hasn’t had any deaths in the last five years. Joe supervises all the controlled burnings and can stop any forest fire. He recently won an award at the station for saving a local family, so his department has been pressuring him to do some publicity.”

Brigid’s feelings of pride quickly transform into resentment.

“You’re angry with him about it. Did you two fight?”

Brigid stiffens in her chair as she clarifies, “We argued. We disagreed. We did not fight.”

Her baby takes this moment to pat her cheek and slip his fingers into her mouth, tugging at her lip. She takes his hand out of her mouth and gives his palm a quick kiss before turning back to me.

My heart softens at her touching display of maternal love. “Brigid, is there any chance he’s mad, and just staying at a family member or friend’s house?”

Brigid’s lips tighten. “He would never do that. I told him how I felt about it and my reasons why. He’s free to make his own decisions. I’m not a shrew.”

I sympathize, but these questions are necessary. “I have to follow every angle. I mean no offense. Is there anything else important that has happened in the last week?”

She thinks for a moment and shakes her head.

“Was anyone angry with him? Does he have any enemies? Work competitors, perhaps?”

She shakes her head vigorously this time. “No, his work buddies are practically extended family. They’re all worried about him too. This isn’t like him at all. He isn’t answering his chimerator or work phone either.” The baby starts to fuss, wiggling anxiously, obviously bored with this interview.

I give her a reassuring smile. “I believe you. But I have to ask a few other questions that are going to be uncomfortable. They’re just standard procedure, though.”

“Okay,” she consents.

Then little Becky asks in a timid voice, “Mama, can I have a red crayon?”

Brigid fishes a red one out of the bag for her, then entertains the little one by playing itsy-bitsy spider on his back as I go through my list of questions. I ask about substance abuse, mental or physical illness, financial stress, extramarital affairs, and recent insurance policies, the whole nine yards. She answers negatively to them all.

When I’m done, Jack clears his throat. “Brigid. As far as we can see there’s no clear sign of foul play. Sometimes adults just decide to leave, and by law, it’s their right. I’m not saying that’s the case with your husband. However, our laws are designed to balance an individual’s right to leave with the concern of the people who notice them missing.

“There are things we can do, like check credit card usage, cell phone records, and his phone’s GPS. But we can’t do any of those things until we can officially list him as missing. When there’s no clear sign of foul play, the law requires we wait forty-eight hours before we officially declare him missing and start invading his privacy. You’ll need to bring in your marriage certificate, financial records, and credit card numbers and sign some forms at that time.”

Panic fills Brigid’s eyes. “But he could be stranded on the side of the road somewhere, dying!”

Jack’s face fills with empathy. “If you know his regular route, we can send a car to scout it out, just to make sure there wasn’t an accident. That’s something we can do now.”

Some small measure of relief fills Brigid.

Jack straightens his papers. “Aside from that, I think you should head home and be there in case he comes back. If he doesn’t, then come here in about thirty-six hours and we’ll finish the paperwork.”

Jack turns to me. “Have Ernesto run that route ASAP.”

He turns to her again. “Ernesto is a Vampire, so he can track scent and see further than a regular agent. He’s my best man for this.”

Brigid sits stiffly, and Jack leaves me to gather the route information from her. When I’m done and she starts gathering her things together, Becky pushes her drawing across the table toward me, staring at me with worried eyes.

I pull it close and am astounded at the extraordinary detail for a five-year-old. It’s a picture of a burning church with fire shooting from the windows.

Becky asks in a small voice, “Do you like it? I made it for you.”

I smile at her. “Yes Becky. I love it. In fact, I’m going to hang it in my office.”

Becky’s face breaks into a smile, revealing one charming gap from a missing front tooth. Oh, I just want to squeeze her up. “You really are quite talented, and I hope you keep practicing.”

Becky scoots down from her chair. “I will.” Then her expression grows serious. “You’re a nice lady. Please find my daddy. He needs help.”

Oh how my heart breaks at her grave, little face. I glance at Brigid as a thick cloud of worry crowds the office.

She squeezes her daughter’s hand. “Come along, Becky. They’ll do everything they can, I’m sure.”

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Chapter 09: A Diseased Tree


01 2.0 The Light Who Binds2Jack Tanner

July 10, 2022, Red Ages

Determined to solve the mystery of the housemother who spelled Blue, I approach the Green Tree Orphanage, ready to use my influence here for the first time in many years. The orphanage is a sprawling three-story mansion, freshly painted in a soft green and accented with white trim. A large covered porch stretches the length of the front, and the backyard is fenced in and filled with shiny new playground equipment. Everything has been well maintained. I’m glad to see my donations are being put to good use, but that doesn’t quite pacify me. I should have been informed about the spell.

I tap the brass knocker and let the sounds of small feet pattering through the home calm my anger. A sharp click of heels precedes the opening of the door, and a tall, matronly woman with steel gray hair tied tightly in a bun assesses me.

“Jack,” she says brusquely as recognition shows in the pinched corners of her eyes.

“Good evening, Matilda. May we speak for a moment in private?”

She swings the door wide. “Of course. I’m always pleased to meet with a benefactor.”

I close the door behind me and follow her into her tidy office. She gestures toward the chair. “Have a seat, please. What can I do for you?”

I sit uncomfortably on the edge of a rose velvet armchair meant for daintier frames. “When Blue was in your charge, you caught one of the mothers performing a spell on her in the forest.”

Matilda’s eyes widen in remembrance, and then she grows cautious. I scent fear.

“Matilda, why was this not in my reports?”

She pinches her thin lips together. “I was asked to provide you with reports on anything that might affect her welfare, and in this instance it didn’t appear to be affected.”

My rage grows, but I hold it in tight control. “Regardless, I need to contact this housemother. I assume you still have her employee file?”

Matilda straightens her back. “Of course.” She stands stiffly and marches over to a wooden cabinet. Using a key that hangs around her neck, she opens the drawer and hands me the folder.

I open it and read the first page. It’s Anna Marie’s termination sheet. The reason for termination simply reads “Gifted.” It doesn’t say “cast unknown spell on Bluebell Kildare,” which would actually be a decent reason for termination. But what bothers me the most is that the word Gifted is underlined three times, heavily. The page is actually indented and torn along one of those lines, as though it was written with deep hatred.

I examine the signature and see it’s Matilda’s. My intuition tells me I’m dealing with a breedist, and more specifically, a breedist who was in charge of Blue for fifteen years.

As casually as I can, I say, “While you’re at it, Matilda, I’d like to see Blue’s file as well. Her complete file.”

Matilda’s mouth pinches again, and her lined face creases tightly. “Well, that’s confidential.”

My control slips, and my fangs descend. My senses sharpen, and the smell of this hateful woman’s blood calls to me like a vengeful dream. I breathe evenly for a few moments to curb my fury and allow her to think she’s won as she sits back down. When she taps her fingers on the desk impatiently, I slowly say, “Matilda, I expect the file to be in my hands within two minutes, or I’ll disassemble your file cabinet and take it myself.”

She huffs and quickly stands to retrieve the file.

Once I have both files in my hand, I order her, “Go tend to the children or something. I have some reading to do. I won’t touch any other files, and I’ll leave a copy of these neatly on your desk when I’m done.”

She’s obviously frightened and begins to protest.

I release a fraction of my rage in a low-pitched command. “Now!”

Matilda squeaks as she runs from the room, slamming the door behind her.

After copying the material, I start reading and easily find what I wanted in Anna Marie’s file. Her real name is Maev Dermot, but it’s her emergency contact that shocks me.

I move quickly on to Blue’s file.

After a minute, my fangs start throbbing again with the desire to sink into Matilda’s flesh. The edge of the solid oak desk crumbles to sawdust beneath my fingers as I restrain myself from hunting her. Damn it! I should have known Blue wouldn’t tell me the worst of it. After fifteen minutes of reading, I carefully place the copies on the desk, taking the originals. With a quick tug, I open the window and slip out. Right now, avoiding Matilda is the only way she’ll live.

I drive down the road until my bloodlust cools, and call Mrs. Glenwood. When her butler puts her on the phone, I say, “Valerie, I just reviewed Blue’s file at the Green Tree Orphanage. Our esteemed head housemother appears to have a hatred for the Gifted. Can you please meet with the board of directors and let them know that I’m willing to quadruple my annual donation this year? In exchange, I require Matilda’s immediate termination and a complete psychological review of every staff member currently in position and forevermore in the future. I’ll pay for the reviews by a doctor of my choosing. And I want a copy of the results.”

“Are you serious? Quadruple? Do you know how that would help us expand and improve the orphanage?”

“Yes, of course I’m serious. But I want her out of the orphanage by midnight tonight. I won’t have another Gifted child being punished the way Blue was. Call an emergency meeting and give me a call to confirm their approval.”

“I’ve no doubt they’ll approve. I’ve never cared for Matilda myself, but she’s kept things in excellent order.”

I cut in. “She’s a breedist, and a rather ill one. Whenever Blue showed signs of her gift and Matilda was the only mother there, she was punished in sickening ways: locked in closets, tied to her bed, starved, humiliated in front of the other children. She outlined the punishments in detail, as if she was trying to exorcise a demon. She’s out. If it weren’t past the statute of limitations, I’d be arresting her.”

Valerie gasps.

“And any other Gifted children who are still housed there need a psychological examination and their files reviewed as well. In fact, review all the files.”

“I understand. I’ll make sure it happens. I’ll call an emergency meeting now.”

I hang up the phone and proceed to the second, equally challenging task of the evening.

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Chapter 10: Difficult Explanations


01 2.0 The Light Who Binds2Bluebell Kildare

July 10, 2022, Red Ages

We trot up the zinnia-lined walk and smile a greeting to Maud and Harry who sit on the covered front porch, beverages in hand. Thank goodness the zinnias are back. The marigolds were hideous.

Maud’s hair is a beautiful frosted lilac today, pinned away from her face in sparkly gray barrettes that complement her light green eyes. Her purple and gray color scheme continues to the paisley maxi dress she wears. As I approach, she gathers her skirt and stands.

“Blue! How wonderful of you to stop by. I was hoping to see you soon. Let me introduce you to my neighbor Harry. Harry, this is my dear friend Blue.”

All six foot three of Harry unfolds from the rocking chair as he stands to greet me. He smiles widely and pumps my hand. “Good to finally meet you. I’ve heard plenty about you.”

I grin in return, taking in his multicolored striped shorts and pink polo shirt. He’s as colorful as Maud is.

“The pleasure is mine.”

“Hold on now,” Maud says, “I’ll grab you a beverage.” She slips into the house before I have a chance to protest, so I take a seat while Varg lounges in the cool grass, keeping an eye on the road.

I lean toward Harry and say in a low tone, “She made you replace the marigolds with zinnias?”

Harry chuckles. “Yes, I’m afraid so.”

I sigh, “Yeah, I don’t think she can handle all that monotone for an extended period of time.”

Harry seems to contemplate that seriously. “I hadn’t thought of that, but I suppose you’re right.”

“I recommend to go bright and varied when it comes to colors.”

He smiles in return. “A good tip. I’ll keep it in mind.”

I lean back and relax, satisfied in my Cupid machinations.

Maud comes out holding a cold, orange drink. “It’s shoo-fly punch, and it has a bit of a kick, so be careful.”

I take a taste, and it hits me hard. After sputtering and gasping, I manage to ask, “What’s in here?”

She winks and starts listing the ingredients. “Bitters, mint, orange, lemon, sugar, plus a dash of ginger liquor, ginger beer, and bourbon.”


“Small sips, dear,” she advises wisely. “It’s a beverage to be savored.”

“I see.”

I relax in the wicker rocker and as I’m about to take another sip, Jack’s car pulls up to the house.

I stand, holding onto the banister, and call out as he approaches, “Is there a work issue?”

Jack shakes his head.

I sit back down, relieved but confused.

“Good evening Maud,” he says.

Then he says apologetically. “Harry, I’m sorry to interrupt your evening, but I have something personal to discuss with Maud and Blue. Would you mind excusing us?”

How does he know Harry? Oh, right. Maud and Harry were helping search for me when I was abducted by Blackwater.

Maud seems troubled. Harry declares, “Well, Maud, then I’ll just head home and stop in to say hello in the morning. If you need me, give me a ring.”

She stands and kisses him on the cheek. “Thank you for being so understanding.” She pats his arm. “It’ll be fine.” Then she regally walks into the house before us.

What in the world could Jack have to talk to Maud about? Is he going to tell her about the prophecy? I haven’t yet, but I was going to bring it up tonight.

We settle in the living room, which seems a strangely formal place because I’m used to sitting in the kitchen.

Jack’s eyes soften toward me, his obvious compassion only deepening my concern, and then he directs his attention to Maud. “What is your maiden name?”

A huge wave of sadness flows out of Maud as she answers softly, “It’s Dermot.”

“Is Maud your real name?”

“Of course!” With that statement I feel a small strain of surprise coming from her.

“And you’re related to Maev?”

Her lips lift in a sad smile. “Yes, I am.”

I ask, “Who’s Maev?”

Maud turns and pats my hand. “She’s my sister, deary. You may remember her from the Green Tree Orphanage by the name of Anna Marie.”

I suck in my breath.

Jack asks, “Where’s Maev right now?”

Maud shakes her head. “I haven’t seen her for fifteen years. I haven’t a clue.”

She turns to me. “Maev came to me before she left and asked me to watch out for your welfare. So I started going to the orphanage and reading to the children. I couldn’t think of any other way to stay close to you.”

Confusion and pain clutches my heart. “So all this time, our relationship . . . Has it just been about you doing your sister’s bidding?”

Tears glisten in Maud’s eyes. “No, Blue! Of course not. I came to love you exactly as I would a daughter. Never doubt that.”

The relief that rushes through me is tremendous. I can tell she’s speaking the truth.

“But why didn’t you ever tell me?”

Her tears overflow, and her hands clench into small white fists. “At first you were too young. You might have given me away to the other housemothers. When you became old enough, the original request my sister made didn’t amount to a hill of beans compared to how much I care about you. It didn’t seem important.” A massive rush of fear and sadness surge from her as she speaks.

I grasp her hand. “I believe you, Maud. I wish you’d told me sooner, but I do believe you.”

When I tell her that, her fear fades away. I pull some tissues from the side table so she can mop her eyes. Meanwhile, I glare at Jack for making her cry. Unfortunately, he isn’t done yet.

“Maud, Maev put a spell on Blue, a powerful enchantment that kept her light in check. The other mothers caught her, and that’s why she was cast out. Can you tell me why she did that?”

She turns toward me, genuine concern in her still-teary eyes, “No, I didn’t know anything about that.”

Jack appears a bit skeptical. “What was Maev’s gift?”

“She was Gifted in the use of magic. She was a first-level sorceress.”

A small gasp slips out from between my lips. Very few have the gift of general magic, the heightened ability to do any spell or charm. First level is as high as you can get.

Jack asks softly, “What was such a powerful sorceress doing watching over Blue?”

I must admit that’s a good question.

Maud looks back at Jack with her chin quivering slightly. But her crisp voice carries sharply through the room. “Back at the beginning of the Red Ages, one of Blue’s ancestors gave her baby to one of my ancestors for safekeeping.”

“Mor,” I breathe.

Maud’s surprise is crystal clear on her face. “You know this story?”

“Yes, I was going to tell you about it today. There’s a prophecy . . . ”

Her eyes widen. “You know about that too?”

“Yes, Dragomira told me about it two days ago.” I scrutinize her. “But why didn’t you tell me?”

Maud shakes her head. “Try to understand; it’s been two thousand years, and we didn’t tell any of the children because they would have thought we were nuts.”

With a twinkling laugh, she covers her mouth. “Maybe we are crazy, but we believe the Bright One will emerge from your line, and Maev was sure that it was you because of your light.”

Jack looks as taken aback as I feel.

She continues, “We’re called the Watchers. Maev is, anyway; I’m not really important. In each generation, one of us is strongly Gifted, and that person takes on the task of watching over Shaina’s scion. Maev was the strongest yet. It was unheard of for her to leave you, but she said she had other urgent business she had to attend to back in our homeland.”

“Where is your homeland?” I ask.

Maud’s eyes grow wistful. “We come from the same place your ancestors do, the Isle of Erin. I wish I could visit there someday.”

“Are you Gifted too, like Maev?”

“I have a very small gift, but it seems rather more like a curse. It’s my hair,” she admits sheepishly. As she says this she absently fluffs her hair. “I really do go to the beauty parlor to get it styled, but they don’t color it. Every morning when I wake up, my hair is simply a different color.”

“How come I don’t sense your magic?”

Maud looks at me fondly. “Remember when you were a teenager and you tried to dye your blue streak brown to hide your gift? I knew it wouldn’t work, but I bought you the dye so you could see for yourself. When I was young, I tried the same thing. In the end I decided to pretend I dyed it on purpose and asked my sister to hide my gift. She did, sort of. She performed a spell so others wouldn’t guess it was my mark. I think it was a sort of diversion spell so people wouldn’t be curious about it.”

Jack interjects, “So what are the Watchers supposed to do?”

Maud turns to him. “Why, help the lineage anyway they can. It’s their job to protect the family line while we wait for the Bright One.”

Then she turns to me and squeezes my hand. “Maev nearly flipped when your parents died, and we came so close to losing you. You’re the last of the line, and you’re the first one with the gift of light, so she was sure you were the one.”

I lean forward eagerly. “You knew my parents?”

She rubs my hand. “No, dear. Maev was the Watcher, but even she didn’t really know them. She just kept an eye on them, made sure they were okay, left food by their door when they were struggling, things like that. In the old days, the Watcher could befriend the family, but it’s pretty hard in modern times. It would be weird if your good friend followed you from town to town as you moved to different places throughout your life. So she had to stay on the outskirts of your life, observing from afar. But when your parents died, she joined up with the orphanage right quick.”

Maud turns to Jack. “Did you have any more questions?”

“Yes, what do you think Maev’s been doing all this time when she was supposed to be watching Blue? You haven’t heard from her at all?”

She shakes her head sadly. “You know the wilderness Christendom has been since the Deconstruction Era. We kept in touch for a few years via chimerator, but then I stopped hearing from her. The last I heard she was preparing for the coming of the Bright One. And that was it.”

Jack stands up. “Thank you for being so forthright.”

Maud stands shakily and absently smoothes her dress. “Well, if you two would excuse me, I need to call Harry to put him at ease and get my beauty rest.”

With a tentative and frail hope in her eyes, she asks, “You’ll visit me again soon, won’t you chicky?”

I give her a hug, “Of course I will.”

Then we take our cue to leave.

Jack and I step onto the veranda of her pretty house to see the sun’s gone down. Fireflies flit merrily through the lawn, and the whip-poor-wills have begun their evening song. Jack walks me to my car and catches my arm before I slip inside. He steps in close, his body heat searing compared to the cool evening air.

His face, hidden to me in the dusky light except for the faint edges of his features, frowns deeply. He reaches out a hand and tucks a stray strand of my hair behind my ear. His voice cracks as he says, “I’m so sorry, Blue.”

He must be talking about Maud, but somehow his voice seems far more serious than the situation warrants. “It’s all right, Jack.”

Jack leans into me, and I think he’s going to kiss me. Just as I feel his breath on my lips, he curses and turns away.

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The Light Who Binds – Excerpt

Audible in the works!

The Light Who Binds

Bluebell Kildare Series, Book 2.0

by Lilo Abernathy

This excerpt includes chapters 1 – 10 of 87.

August 23rd, 2015|Excerpt|Comments Off on The Light Who Binds – Excerpt