Dire Blood (#5) (The Descent Series)

T
HE
D
ESCENT
S
ERIES

SUGGESTED READING ORDER

Death’s Hand

The Darkest Gate

Dark Union

Damnation Marked

Dire Blood

Paradise Damned

S
ERIES BY
SM
R
EINE

The Descent Series

Seasons of the Moon

Cain Chronicles

C
ONTENTS

Glossary

 

Part One: Four Adepts

Part Two: High Trial

Part Three: Secrets and Mistakes

Part Four: Disestablishment

 

A Note from the Author

G
LOSSARY

kopis
: A person with improved strength and healing that polices relations between Heaven, Hell, and Earth—often violently. The word is Greek for “sword.”

aspis
: A witch that has sworn a magical oath to protect a kopis. The word is Greek for “shield.”

P
ART
O
NE

Four Adepts

AUGUST 1979

T
he three witches
standing in front of Pamela Faulkner were young, nervous, and possessed zero self-control. Their energies fluctuated wildly even as they stood, frozen, in front of her desk. She wouldn’t have entrusted a single one of them with a spell that lit candles, much less allowed them to join her in a circle of power.

Pamela drummed her pen on the desk, studying each girl in turn.

The first was Ariane Garin, a petite girl from the south of France with masses of curly brown hair. She was supposedly a healer, although her violently lashing aura was a shade of gold more commonly associated with protection magic. She gnawed on a fingernail and clung to the side of the second adept, Hannah Pritchard, who had a frosty complexion and a glare to match. Pamela felt nothing from her.

The third girl, Christine—well, of course she was powerful. She was Pamela’s niece. Their relationship didn’t seem to make her any less nervous to be in her aunt’s workspace, which was usually off-limits to visitors. It was filled with valuable books, crystals gathering the moonlight’s energy, and a hundred delicate spells in progress.

Yet Pamela was going to have to let these three hormonal, completely untried, preadolescent witches in her office five days a week for the next year.

What fun.

Pamela’s mouth twisted. “Well, Landon certainly has a sense of humor.” She returned her attention to drawing a line in blue ink. “It’s my responsibility to teach you how to control your abilities as witches. If you don’t learn control in the next twelve months, you’ll likely find yourselves dead in the twelve months after that.”

Hannah stiffened. “Dead? Are you threatening us?”

“I don’t need to.” Pamela drew a whorl. “If your capacity for magic wasn’t potentially deadly, you wouldn’t have been given to me. An akashic witch who fails to learn control always dies young, typically because of accidental suicide. It’s a statistical fact.”

“I already have control,” Hannah said.

Pamela shot a look at the adept over her spectacles. The girl’s responding stare could have turned a bonfire into an ice sculpture. “I have two spare bedrooms. The three of you can work out sleeping arrangements among yourselves.”

“This house has four bedrooms in addition to this study,” Hannah said, gesturing toward the cracked door, which was framed by drying herbs. The hinges gave a faint creak, as if stirred by a draft.

“You can count. Congratulations.”

“Then why are any of us sharing?”

“Two of the rooms are occupied,” Christine said, fidgeting with a bejeweled hairclip that shimmered with hints of pink magic. The idiot was already trying to enchant objects? A year was probably too optimistic. Pamela gave her niece a month before she killed herself.

“I already have one adept, and he keeps me very busy,” Pamela said. “He’s already much more powerful than any of you will be as adults—combined—and requires an isolated room to practice his art. He’ll join you for the occasional lesson. Otherwise, none of you are to disturb his studies.”

The French girl spoke up. “Why is he so special?”

“I don’t think I invited you to ask questions, did I?” Pamela finished drawing the rune in glistening ink. She waved the page in the air to dry it. “Consider this your first lesson. Magic is the practice of manipulating the energy intrinsic to everything on Earth. It requires meditation, ritual, and focus.”

Pamela lifted the page she had drawn so her adepts could see the intricate pattern that she had designed. Christine took a step back.

“You three are fortunate. In addition to serving as your coven’s high priestess, I am regarded as the most powerful witch alive, and I have developed ways to channel ritual into an offensive weapon. If you prove yourselves to be more useful than you appear, I may teach you to use this ability.

“In the meantime, you are not permitted to cast magic—or possess enchanted objects—until I’ve given you explicit permission to do so. That is the number one rule of my house. Do you all understand?” The girls nodded, though they seemed somewhat less than enthusiastic about it. “Excellent.”

The priestess spoke a word of power. It fell silently from her lips and resonated off the page.

The room flooded with light, which washed over the girls and then faded. Only pinpricks of starlight remained. They hovered over the crown of each girl and chased away the shadows in the empty hall. Ariane exclaimed and tried to swat the lights out of her hair, but there was nothing to touch.

Hannah’s eyes blazed. “What was that?”

“That was a test of my new detection spell,” Pamela said. “It says that there are five witches here.” She raised her voice. “James, please join us.” After a pause, a slender young boy stepped around the corner. He had brown eyes, black hair, and a bashful expression. “You were listening in, weren’t you?”

He said nothing.

Pamela went on. “These girls are your fellow adepts. You’ll treat them with courtesy and stay out of their rooms.”

James still said nothing. It was Hannah who spoke up. “
That’s
your other adept? He’s the one that needs his own room? He’s a boy! He can’t be any older than…what, seven?”

She discarded the detection spell, folded her hands, and addressed the new witches again. “Go unpack. Dinner is in an hour.”

They filed out, leaving the high priestess alone with James.

“I’m nine years old,” he said the instant the door closed.

The formal exterior that Pamela used to intimidate her adepts melted away at the sight of James’s pout. She patted her leg, and he came to stand beside her chair. She squeezed his arm. “We’ll whip them into shape yet, sweetheart. Landon tells me that he has big plans for these girls. What do you think of them?”

“They’re weak and uncontrolled. None of them are strong enough to be in the coven,” he said. “Especially Christine.”

“Is that what you think, or are you being mean because she’s your sister?”

His mouth took on a stubborn slant. “I mean it.”

“I hope you’re right,” Pamela said. “I really hope you are.”

NOVEMBER 1979

J
ames was trying
to teach the other adepts how to invoke watchtower guardians for a powerful circle of magic, but nobody was listening to him. He had laid out four bowls of ingredients, but they had been pushed aside to make room for Ariane, who was painting Christine’s toenails.

“The guardian of the east likes sea salt,” James said, reaching around her to grab one of the bowls. “Your offering should be made in a glass vessel.”

“I think we should go snow-shoeing once my nails dry. I found some in the shed the other day,” Christine replied, blowing on her spread fingers. Her feet, with painted toenails, were propped up on a floor cushion intended to make lengthy rituals more comfortable.

The boy blinked. “Would that help you learn?”

Nobody responded. The girls seated in his makeshift circle of power were thoroughly ignoring him. Even Hannah, who sat at the window, was gazing dreamily at the gray sky instead of listening. It was snowing, and the forest outside Pamela’s house was a wonderland of flocked trees and icicles.

“This color doesn’t suit you, Christine,” Ariane said. “Let me do the other hand in pink.”

“Aunt Pamela wants us to study,” James protested.

Christine and Ariane exchanged looks—the kind that clearly meant “stupid little boy” without having to say it out loud.

“She’s back,” Hannah said suddenly. “There are two guys with her. They’re heading this way.”

Ariane gasped and almost dropped the bottle of nail polish. “Quick!”

The girls hurried to clean up the living room. By the time Pamela came through the front door, all three of them were sitting in front of James as though they had been listening all along, and he was pouting again.

Pamela was followed by Landon and a man that James had never seen before. The newcomer was willowy, with a hooked nose, cold blue eyes, and brown hair. He wore a plain t-shirt and jeans that fit as though they had been tailored, but no jacket. His impassive stare made James’s blood run cold.

“We were just studying,” Ariane said, even though nobody had asked her.

The adults ignored her.

“Which one?” Landon asked.

The other man scanned the four adepts. “It doesn’t matter.”

“James is the strongest,” Pamela said, peeling off her scarf and jacket and hanging them on the hook. “He’s young, but his potential is remarkable.”

“No. A boy won’t do.” The man glared at James. “Especially
that
boy. It must be a female.”

“What is this?” Hannah asked, getting to her feet.

Landon addressed the newcomer. “You’ll have to decide, Metaraon. I don’t know what you need.”

“Tell me their names, ages, and what types of magic they cast,” said Metaraon.

The high priestess moved through the room, pointing at each girl in turn. “Hannah turned twelve last month. She has no specialty yet.” Pamela pushed Hannah’s shoulder, forcing her to sit on a cushion again. “Ariane and Christine are thirteen. Ariane, the one with the curls—she shows signs of being a versatile defensive witch. Christine is my niece. She does best with enchantments, despite my best efforts to stop her.”

“They’re all very young,” Metaraon said. “Isaac is eighteen.”

“Young as they are, Christine and Ariane are the best that our coven has to offer. Or, at least, they
will
be, as long as they mind me in their studies. Given a few years to mature, few witches will match their knowledge and skill,” Pamela said.

Ariane beamed at the rare praise. Christine elbowed her.

The man called Metaraon studied them for a long time in silence. Finally, he nodded to Ariane. “That one will have to do.” He kneeled in front of her, resting his elbows on his bony knees. As he passed James, the summery smell of grass and sunshine wafted through the room. “Tell me what you know of kopides, girl.”

At Pamela’s encouraging nod, she said, “A kopis is a…” Ariane searched for the words in English. “A hunter. A policeman. A diplomat. He is responsible for controlling the balance between humans, angels, and—”

Metaraon cut Ariane off by taking her wrist. “Fine. Come with me.”

She got to her feet and followed him to the door with a stunned expression. Landon patted her on the shoulder. “Good lass.”

“Wait,” Christine said. “Where are you going?”

Ariane put on her jacket. Pamela and Metaraon led her outside.

As soon as the door shut behind them, Landon sank to the couch, covered his face with his hands, and shuddered.

Later, James would learn that it was the first time he had met an archangel.

JULY 1980

I
t had been
almost a year since Pamela had begun working with her three young adepts, and they were all graduating from her program. They stood under the tangled boughs of oak trees to accept their ceremonial athames, encircled by their peers in the coven. James stood among the adult witches, though he was too young to be a member.

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