Dear Readers: Although The Descent Series is finished, there still are a couple of stories I want to tell from James and Elise’s past. Death Scream is one of them. This takes place before they retired, back when they were traveling the world to fight evil. It’s a short story about the length of 3-4 chapters in one of my normal books (about 14000 words), and you can read it on my website for FREE! Just scroll down.
If you prefer to read on your e-reading device, you can also buy it from your preferred vendor for 99c. Happy reading! -Sara
Castle O’Reilly was the most boring castle in Ireland, which meant that Gregg McNamara, as the resident tour guide, had the most boring job in Ireland.
The castle hadn’t been involved in any cool battles. It had never hosted any political prisoners the average tourist would recognize. It also wasn’t haunted, unlike many other local castles. Gregg had been at Castle O’Reilly at all hours of the day and never heard so much as a disembodied footstep.
Crazy bastards,” Gregg muttered to himself.
What’s that you said?” asked Billie. She staffed the desk where tickets for their incredibly boring tours were sold.
Look at them.” He gestured at the tour group entering from the other side of the foyer. “A dozen people wasting their vacations at our castle. There are a million more interesting things to do in Dublin. Literally, a million.”
They’re probably here to see the ghost,” Billie said brightly.
Yes, “the ghost.”
The fictional ghost that didn’t haunt Castle O’Reilly.
Gregg had to admit that it was a pretty good marketing idea from Old Man O’Reilly, who owned the castle and signed Gregg’s paychecks. O’Reilly had been circulating stories about a spirit flinging objects around the grounds at night. The so-called ghost had also broken several antiques that had been insured. The old bloke had probably collected some decent money from that.
Aside from the insurance fraud, O’Reilly’s stupid stories had also gotten tourists to start visiting in larger groups. Too bad for Gregg, who got paid whether or not tourists showed up, but only had to endure retelling boring stories when they did.
Best get started.” Gregg donned a Castle O’Reilly polo over the t-shirt he’d already been wearing.
Just stay out of the dungeons today,” Billie said. “That’s where the ghost was rampaging last night.”
Don’t tell me you believe that crap.”
Well, Old Man O’Reilly—”
He’s insane,” Gregg said quietly enough that the tourists wouldn’t hear. “Don’t listen to a damn thing he says.”
Billie sighed. “Just stay out of the dungeons, all right?”
He ignored her and met the tour group in the center of the room. A second headcount showed him that he’d been wrong about the attendance—there were fifteen people there, not a dozen.
Fifteen people wanted to look at this terrible castle.
Good afternoon, and welcome to Castle O’Reilly,” Gregg said, unable to muster any enthusiasm.
Most of the group muttered various greetings back at him. Four lads in the front, however, cheered loudly and started punching each other in the arms. It was only nine in the morning and they smelled like they’d been drinking. Probably on vacation from uni.
Well, at least they’d be entertained by anything he told them.
Gregg wished he could have been drunk.
He led the tour group through the usual routine. They began on the first floor, admiring tapestries that hadn’t been woven by anyone remarkable. They also hadn’t withstood the test of time very well. The threads were discolored from sunlight and one had a stain from a previous lord wiping himself with it.
Then they moved on to the so-called museum, which was a tiny, boring room with a few placards about the castle’s tiny, boring history.
After exploring the “museum,” they moved into the gardens, which were probably the nicest part of the castle. The flowers were lovely and the hedges were very pleasant in that hedge-y sort of way, Gregg thought.
Unfortunately, the sky decided to start pouring rain right about then, so they had to cut that segment short.
The only segment Gregg actually enjoyed.
He really wished he could have been drunk.
All right, come inside,” Gregg said. “We’ll take a walk up the tower.”
Most of the group didn’t argue with him. They headed right inside.
One man lingered, though. All of the tourists had been given name badges when they checked in, and this bloke was named James.
He was quite tall—almost a foot taller than Gregg—with lean muscles and a shock of dark hair. He was so interested in studying the foundations of the castle that he didn’t seem to notice he was getting drenched.
All right, come inside,” Gregg said again, louder and more pointedly than before.
James finally looked up. “I’m sorry, did you say we were going to the dungeons?” His accent was American, like the way people in movies talked. No wonder he didn’t care about the rain. Americans were insane.
No, the dungeons are closed today. We’re going up the tower.”
I was really hoping to see the dungeons on this tour,” James said.
Gregg’s eyes narrowed as he studied the tourist. “You here because of the rumors?”
I’m just fascinated by dungeons,” he said lamely, which meant he was definitely there because of the ghost stories Old Man O’Reilly had gotten on the news.
Oh, what the hell? Billie didn’t want them downstairs, but they’d missed most of the gardens because of the rain and there wasn’t much else to the tour after that. They might as well have a little fun. “We’ll see if we have time.” Gregg ushered the man inside.
Now that the tourists were soaking wet and tracking mud everywhere, there was really no choice but to take them downstairs anyway. Gregg couldn’t have them messing up the non-priceless, rather unimpressive rugs woven by Great-Great-Grandmother O’Reilly.
This way,” he said loudly, leading the group out of sight of Billie’s desk before heading into the dungeons. What Billie and Old Man O’Reilly didn’t know couldn’t hurt them.
The mood of the entire tour group brightened when they realized where Gregg was taking them. Everyone loved a good dungeon.
Gregg decided to forget his usual speech for the dungeon area and roll with the new story.
I have to ask you all to stick close together for this portion of our tour,” he said. “We’ve had trouble in the dungeons and I don’t want anyone wandering off.”
Because of the ghosts?” asked one of the uni students, whose name tag said “Seamus AKA the Machine.” All of the students had gotten creative with their identification like that. Gregg didn’t know why Seamus would want to be called “the Machine,” but he suspected it was a story best left untold.
Lowering his voice to a conspiratorial stage whisper, Gregg said, “I’m not supposed to talk about the ghost.”
He was rewarded with excited murmurs.
Except from the American tourist, James. He didn’t look excited. He looked like he genuinely expected them to be attacked on the narrow stairs down to the dungeon. Maybe he was claustrophobic.
I’ve heard about these hauntings,” said an old lady. “Apparently the ghost is quite violent!”
Oh yes. It’s the, ah, ghost of Lord McNamara,” Gregg said. “He was a real beast. But I shouldn’t talk about that.”
Come on,” urged Walker, whose real name was written in tiny letters above his nickname, “CUNTPUNCHER.” All capital letters, just like that. Lovely. “Tell us all about the beast!”
Gregg scratched the back of his neck, pretending to vacillate. “I don’t know. The dungeons are scary enough without hearing about the villagers who died there.”
The students all laughed.
Nothing more hilarious than the fictitious slaughter of villagers.
They reached the dungeon, which was really just a narrow tunnel underneath the castle. It led through about a dozen cells, each of which was walled off by rusty iron bars—probably a relatively recent addition to the castle, though Gregg didn’t care enough to find out.
They’d wired a few electric lights throughout the tunnel, but it was still cramped and dark in the dungeon. The roof was too low for the tall American tourist to stand up straight.
Gregg weaved an increasingly ridiculous story of mayhem and murder as the tourists examined the first pair of cells. The unreal Lord McNamara was a villain on par with Vlad the Impaler or Countess Bathory, luring hapless people to his castle to devour their flesh. He’d speared hundreds of living men and watched them die while dancing a jig.
It was so stupid that Gregg didn’t think anyone would ever believe him, but the tour group hung onto his every word. It was spooky and quiet down there, and easy to imagine Lord McNamara could have been real.
And then his wife murdered him for all he’d done,” Gregg finished. He was out of creatively horrible sins to attribute to Lord McNamara. Might as well kill him off.
Women,” scoffed a middle-aged man.
His spouse elbowed him. “I’ll murder you if you’re not quiet, dear.” Then she turned to Gregg. “That was a fascinating story, but I thought you said the ghost was a lord.”
Gregg nodded gravely. “That I did.”
Then who is she? Is that the wife?”
The tourist was pointing behind him.
Gregg whirled in time to see a feminine figure at the end of the tunnel before she slipped into one of the cells. It was too dark to make out any details of her appearance. The tour didn’t usually go down that far, so they hadn’t wired that end of the hallway for light.
He was probably imagining the fact that it looked like she had no legs.
His heart leaped.
Hey!” he shouted. “You’re not allowed down here without a guide!”
Nobody emerged from the cell.
But he heard a loud crash—the sound of something large shattering against a wall.
Wait here,” Gregg said.
He raced down to the cell where the woman had disappeared, flinging the iron bars open.
There was nobody inside.
He immediately spotted what had caused the noise, though. Somehow, Billie’s computer had been dragged downstairs and hurled against the wall. The case was split open. Components were strewn across the stone floor.
Billie?” he whispered, feeling stupid. She wasn’t the one who had thrown her computer against the wall. For one, she wasn’t strong enough. For another, she wasn’t capable of walking through walls, so she couldn’t have vanished that quickly.
The only way in and out of the cell was through the door and he hadn’t taken his eyes off of it since the woman had gone inside.
So how had she escaped?
Acid fear flowed through Gregg’s veins. He wanted to get out of that dungeon. Now.
Despite his instructions, the tour group had joined him by the cell, and now they were all straining to see over his shoulder. He blocked the cell with his body. “Why don’t we go upstairs?” Gregg asked.
One of the young women broke away from the tour and tried to elbow past him. Gregg’s first ungenerous thought was that she wasn’t a girl blessed by genetics; her features were too strong to be pretty, her build too stocky to be feminine.
His second thought, which came to him embarrassingly slowly, was that she was carrying a golden chain of charms in one gloved hand and a very large knife in the other.
Or was that a short sword? It was hard to tell.
She has a knife, Gregg thought.
And then, Mother of God, she has a fucking knife!
He didn’t think. He just reacted.
Gregg stepped in front of her to protect the tour group. “What in the flaming hell are you doing?” His eyes flicked down to her name tag. She’d written her name in crude, blocky letters that looked as vicious and un-feminine as the rest of her. “Elise?”
Move,” Elise said, lifting the sword. Yes, it was definitely a sword. He’d never seen a knife longer than a woman’s forearm before. Its blade was curved, single-edged, and looked viciously sharp. There were strange marks engraved in the metal.
Are you fucking crazy?” he asked.
Elise only repeated herself: “Move.” She was another American. Further proof that Americans were all nuts.
You’ll move if you want to live,” added James, stepping up to join her. He didn’t have a weapon, but there was something decidedly threatening about a man that tall who spoke with so much conviction.
Gregg decided that the couple was definitely threatening him, and the Americans were definitely both crazy.
Run!” he shouted over his shoulder at the tour group. “I’ll hold them off!”
Some of the tourists ran—or waddled, rather, because it was all of the older people escaping up the stairs. They were the smart ones. But the students didn’t move except to flank Gregg protectively. “What’s the problem here?” asked Seamus, also known as the Machine.
You’re not haunted; you have a demonic infestation,” James said. He was flipping through a notebook with a five-pointed star on the cover. “My companion here is an exorcist and about to save your life.”
Elise strode into the dungeon with her sword uplifted and glared around the cell as though expecting to see something in the shadows.
Show yourself.” Her voice boomed.
A pale woman materialized in the corner. That was the only word for it—“materialized.” She didn’t walk through walls or emerge through a hidden door. She just appeared.
It was the figure Gregg had glimpsed from down the hall.
That’s a bloody ghost,” Seamus the Machine said.
Gregg was not paid enough to deal with this. “Fucking hell.”
He stripped the Castle O’Reilly shirt off, flung it to the floor, and bolted.
As Elise watched, the demon flashed across the dungeon cell, crossing from the corner to the door in the time it took a heart to beat. She twisted Gregg McNamara’s head from his neck, sliced her claws from belly to throat, and dropped his eviscerated body on the stone floor.
The demon could teleport. And she was fast. Fast enough that even Elise didn’t have time to save Gregg.
Going up against that kind of speed was going to be fun.
Elise launched herself at the demon, raising her sword in both hands. Elise had to jump high in order to reach the demon’s head—it was floating near the ceiling.
When Elise tried to plunge her sword into the demon’s skull, her foe simply wasn’t there.
Her knees cracked against the floor, splattering Gregg’s blood onto her jeans. The point of her falchion skittered against the stone without ever connecting with flesh. The demon had vanished and reappeared two feet away.
The demon’s head tipped back, her mouth opened, and she screamed.
That sound could have woken the dead. It was so shrill, so loud, that Elise’s entire skull vibrated. Hammers smashing into her temples would have hurt less.
James clapped his hands over his ears. He looked like he was screaming too, but Elise couldn’t hear anything over the preternatural shrieking.
The demon continued to wail as she rushed toward James.
Elise hurled the falchion. It spiraled through the air and connected with the demon’s back, sinking right into her spine. She went rigid. Collapsed to the floor of the dungeon.
But even as she fell, she kept screaming.
Damn. Elise had been aiming for a lung. She must have missed.
The shout was so quiet compared to the demon’s wail that Elise thought she’d imagined it at first. But then the students from the tour group rushed through the door and attacked. They swarmed the demon, stomping and punching and shouting like their favorite team had just lost a football match.
Get back!” Elise yelled. She couldn’t even hear herself—the men wouldn’t be able to, either. She jerked the second falchion out of the back sheath hidden underneath her raincoat and prepared to intervene. She’d have to save those dumbasses, too. They were seriously outmatched.
The demon’s pale hand lashed out at the man whose name tag said “Seamus.” Elise yanked him out of range just in time, bringing the falchion hacking down where he had been standing.
Its blade was sharp. It cleaved the demon’s entire hand clean off.
Demons tended to bleed black or red, but the fluid that gushed from this creature’s arm was jewel-bright, almost green in hue. Elise was so shocked to see green blood that she nearly dropped the sword.
The demon took the opportunity to leap free of the men attacking her and seize Elise. She screamed into Elise’s face, breath cold as the wind over the moors, the force like a fist through her forehead. Her vision blurred.
James grabbed the demon by the shoulders and tried to pry her off of Elise. Blood trickled out of his right ear, tracing a line to the stubble on his jaw.
During the struggle, Elise caught sight of motion out the corner of her eye.
One of the men was pointing wildly at Gregg’s body, shouting in silent horror as though the victim were somehow more horrifying than the demon itself.
Gregg was decaying rapidly. His skin bubbled, swelled, peeled away from his body. His exposed intestines were shriveling.
The demon screamed and screamed with no need to draw a breath.
His death was fueling her.
James!” Elise shouted, delivering a swift uppercut to the demon’s jaw. The blow was hard enough that it would have taken the head off of a human. The demon only slammed into the dungeon wall behind her.
James mouthed a word back. “What?”
Elise thrust a finger toward Gregg’s body. James understood instantly. He nodded.
Something hard struck Elise in the back of the knees. She hadn’t seen the demon coming, so she smashed into the ground face-first.
Flipping to her feet, Elise picked up her fallen falchions and drove both into the demon’s gut. She aimed up, hoping to hit the lungs.
Either she’d missed or the demon didn’t have lungs. The blades entered underneath the ribs and exited somewhere near the shoulder blades. And the demon kept fucking screaming.
But only for another moment.
Elise felt the faintest tug of James’s magic, and then the demon cut off.
Mary mother of God,” said Walker, one of the other students. He was crowded in a back corner with the other men, staring as Gregg’s body burned under the force of James’s spell. The tour guide went from rotting to ash within seconds.
Without the death to feed her, the demon couldn’t scream anymore.
She clawed at her own throat. Dry rasps rattled in her chest.
Some things really are better seen than heard.” James sounded like he was talking from the other side of a wall. It was going to be a long time before Elise could hear properly again.
She wrapped her fingers around the demon’s throat, pressing the golden chain against her flesh. The charms glowed with trapped fire.
“Crux sacra sit mihi lux,” she said, drawing deep on the strength within, the glory of God’s unwanted grace, and pushing it through the charms. “Non draco sit mihi dux.” The phrase meant, “let the Holy Cross be my light, let the dragon not lead me astray.” The English verse would probably have worked as well for the ritual, but Elise preferred the Latin matching the words on her pendant of St. Benedict.
The Latin words resonated with a power that was somewhere beyond magic. They were usually enough to wrack any demon with pain.
This creature didn’t react.
Her eyes connected with Elise’s. A strange light filled the sparkling jewels of the demon’s irises and her flesh shimmered.
She didn’t look like a creature that had crawled from Hell.
In fact, Elise had never seen anything that looked like her before—and she had seen many, many strange things throughout her life.
She continued the exorcism anyway.
“Vade retro, Satana, nunquam suade mihi vana.”
The blaze within the demon’s eyes brightened with fresh fury. It was a storm roiling over the ocean, an oncoming typhoon of energy. Her hands locked on Elise’s wrists, trying to pry the grip off of her throat. The charms burned hotter at the effort. Elise’s strength of will clashed with the demon’s.
Elise!” James shouted. “Something is wrong!”
She set her jaw and pushed harder. “Sunt mala quae libas.”
The demon’s hair was a hurricane around them, lashing their flesh, leaving red welts where it contacted. Elise’s bones ached. Her teeth felt like they were going to rip free of her jaw.
“Ipse venena bibas!” Elise finished with a roar. She closed her hand around the demon’s throat, crushing with all of the force her muscles could muster. The demon finally cried out, whether under the weight of the ritual or Elise’s sheer grip. “Return to the Hell from which you came. Begone!”
With a thunder crack, energy lashed through the dungeon. For an instant, Elise could see nothing but vast white light, filled with the sway of reeds, the calm of a murky pool, the whisper of wind.
And the demon vanished, leaving Elise ankle-deep in the tour guide’s remains with a half a dozen students gaping at her.
Even though one of his employees had died, Joseph O’Reilly was a very happy man. His cheeks were flushed with excitement as he counted euros into Elise’s hand. “Four twenty…four forty…four sixty…ah, here we go. Five hundred pounds for a job well done.” She could barely hear him talking. Her skull still vibrated from the demon’s scream.
She didn’t close her hand on the money. “Someone died before I could save him.”
Aye, that’s unfortunate,” O’Reilly said. “But you did your best. I won’t blame you for that.”
James didn’t pay much attention to their exchange. Normally, he was the one who handled client interactions, since Elise was too much of a loose cannon—though cannons tended to be more personable. James was better at talking to people. Or even being in the same room as them, really.
But James didn’t feel capable of keeping up with the conversation that day. He’d watched a man gutted by a demon and done nothing to save him.
Elise was quiet as she considered the money in her hand. Through their bond, James could feel that she was weighing whether or not she wanted to take that money. A pleasant surprise. He’d always assumed Elise would have happily led a life as a mercenary, taking payment for jobs regardless of ethics.
Finally, she separated the money into two stacks. “I didn’t perform the exorcism in time. You get a discount. Here.”
O’Reilly wouldn’t take what she offered to him. “The lad died because he didn’t run fast enough. That’s not your fault.”
Elise’s hand remained outstretched.
There were few tools of persuasion more powerful than awkward silence. After a few long moments, O’Reilly took back some of the money.
Call me if you have any other problems,” Elise said, and she left.
James tore himself away from the window and hurried to catch up with her.
She strode downstairs, hand hooked in her pocket. Probably discreetly holding a knife. At least she was being subtle about it for once. She’d even taken the time to conceal the hilts of her falchions underneath her scarf.
He trailed a few steps behind her, watching her curls bounce as she descended. He wanted to praise her for her kindness. Wanted to tell her she’d done the right thing. They didn’t need the money, as they still had more than enough stolen jewelry to fence—enough to last them for years, if they were careful. And it was right not to make O’Reilly pay when they hadn’t done their job properly.
But that praise would unintentionally double as criticism of Elise’s performance as exorcist.
She didn’t need to hear that.
They stepped out into the drizzly afternoon. The rain was cruel and cold, pelting them with hard fingers. Elise jerked a hood over her hair. Tilted her head back to look at the tower. James stood close enough that their shoulders brushed. “Does this job feel complete to you?”
No,” Elise said.
He flicked the lapels of his peacoat, shielding his jaw from the bite of the ocean breeze. “I don’t think this is the last we’ve seen of the castle.”
She turned to leave, but he knew that she was thinking the same thing.
They would be back soon.
James and Elise had been traveling for so long that the apartment they’d rented in Dublin almost looked like home. He barely remembered what it felt like to return to the same house every day after working. He wasn’t even sure that he’d preferred it.
This apartment was on the first floor of an old house. Elise preferred to rent rooms on the second floor, where they were safer from outside attack but could jump out a window without breaking any bones, but their rental options had been limited. They hadn’t even planned on coming to Ireland. O’Reilly had contacted them through a friend of a friend two days earlier while they were in Spain, so most rentals had already been occupied.
Elise had done her best to fortify their ground-floor apartment anyway. She’d caulked the bedroom windows shut—which James dreaded explaining to the owner—planted weapons near every entrance, and laid simple traps around the back garden.
She’d made herself at home in the only way she knew how.
James had made himself at home in a different way. He’d claimed the desk in the living room, and now it was covered in books and papers. Everything he’d needed to research the possession of Castle O’Reilly.
The fall of evening found James working at the desk while Elise changed clothes in the bedroom. She’d accidentally left the door cracked; he could hear the rustle of her arms threading through sleeves and the creak of leather as she slipped her feet into boots as clearly as though she were in the room with him.
He lifted the book to look at the classifieds hiding underneath. James wasn’t certain they’d be in Ireland much longer, but if they were, they’d need to find another apartment to rent.
Two bedrooms next time. He desperately needed two bedrooms. James needed to be able to put more doors between himself and Elise.
Hinges creaked. He dropped the book over the newspaper again, sliding his reading glasses back into place, grabbing the pen so he could take notes. He carefully didn’t look at his kopis. He didn’t want her to know that he’d been listening to her change.
I’m going out,” Elise said.
James highlighted a line in the book about legions, which were demons that followed violence. It was reasonable to think legions might possess a castle dungeon. “What are you going to do?”
Pub. Seamus invited me.”
Seamus. That redheaded boy who fancied himself a “Machine.” Handsome young man. James wouldn’t have expected Elise to notice, though.
Legions. Demons that follow violence.
He wrote the page number in his notebook and continued trying not to look at Elise.
She was silent moving across the room. She had a way of occupying space without seeming to touch the world around her. If James hadn’t known any better, he would have thought she walked an inch above the ground.
The window groaned open under her hands. Rainfall pattered on the lifted pane, drizzled off the edge of the roof. Raised voices echoed in the street. The students from the tour group must have walked by to pick Elise up on the way to the pub.
Dungeons. Legions. James was writing essentially the same note over and over, but Elise still hadn’t left.
Your new friends have already arrived,” he said. “You’d better get going.”
She sat on the edge of the desk. Even when James was focusing on the notebook, he couldn’t help but see her legs in the corner of his vision. She was wearing an A-line skirt—unusual for the girl who defaulted to jeans when she was on a job. When she balanced her toes on the leg of his chair, the hem of the skirt inched up her thighs, exposing the tops of her freckled kneecaps.
I don’t have to go out,” Elise said. “I wouldn’t mind helping you.”
The tip of James’s pen was still touching the page. He wasn’t writing anymore. “It’ll be rather dull here.”
She swung her feet, kicking the chair lightly. “That’s fine.”
James set down the pen with a sigh, pinching the bridge of his nose. “If there’s one demon around here, there’s likely to be more. Demons are rare outside of North America. This suggests some kind of open portal to Hell, or someone deliberately bringing them into the area. A master of some kind.”
The people outside were shouting louder now. There was one voice in particular that was clearer than the others, a male voice, and he was calling Elise’s name.
Elise said nothing. She also didn’t move.
It was impossible to have a conversation with Elise without making eye contact. She spoke so little that James relied on visual cues for half of their communication. Sometimes he thought that she often didn’t speak exactly for that reason—forcing James to give her the attention she wanted.
Finally, he relented. She was wearing a knitted sweater over the skirt with a leather jacket the color of butterscotch draped over one arm. A normal outfit like anything a normal young woman would have worn. She hadn’t picked it because it was good to fight in; she’d picked it because it accentuated the sharp lines of her collarbone, her slender waist, her muscular legs. Elise even wore her hair down, though the curls were a couple inches longer than she liked. Longer hair suited Elise. She looked lovely.
Aside from the injuries.
Though she wore long sleeves, there was no hiding the mottled bruising on her upper chest, cheekbone, and jaw. Doubtlessly, she’d a fractured bone or two. Were she anybody but Elise, she wouldn’t have been in any condition for drinking at a pub. She probably wouldn’t have been in any condition for leaving a hospital, in fact.
But this was Elise, and those bruises were already yellowing around the edges. The cracked bones would mend within days. She would be restored to her usual condition in no time, stronger than she had been before she was broken.
They’re waiting for you,” James said.
Her lips thinned. That could have meant anything from agreement to annoyance.
He drummed the pen on his thigh. “Nothing’s going to happen here tonight. Just research. I’m fully capable of researching without you.”
Yes,” Elise said.
What she didn’t say was that she would stay anyway.
It was tempting to tell Elise to stay with him. It was always tempting.
They’re getting loud out there,” James said, returning his attention to Hume’s Almanac. “You should join them before someone reports the noise to the cops.”
There was a conspicuous emptiness to Elise’s expression—a look that James had come to recognize as a shield, a way for her to keep her thoughts private. She always used to look like that. He thought their friendship had matured to the point where she didn’t need to wall herself off with him anymore, but apparently he’d set her off.
She opened the desk drawer, took out a knife, and tucked it into a wrist sheath. Once she pulled the butterscotch-colored leather jacket over it, the weapon was invisible.
Elise didn’t say goodbye. Arming herself was its own kind of goodbye.
She stepped out the door and the voices changed from shouts to cheers of greeting.
As soon as the door shut behind her, James rose from the desk and went to the window.
He watched his kopis join the others in the street through the rain drizzling down the glass. Seamus and his friends looked like they’d already been drinking. Elise would have trouble catching up with them. Kopides had impressively high alcohol tolerance. James could only hope that Seamus would knock himself out in another couple of hours so that his mates could drag him away and leave Elise alone.
James felt suddenly drained, as though he and Elise had been arguing before she left rather than having a short, quiet conversation. He couldn’t find the energy to return to his desk and focus.
He could only watch as Elise retreated down the street, carried along by the tide of happy university students. At that distance, she looked like one of them. Like she was living the life a nineteen-year-old girl should have gotten to live rather than the one Elise had been given.
They turned the corner and were gone.
It was dark, crowded, and small. Ideal for anonymity. Had Elise been searching for information, she would have looked for a pub just like this one, as it was obviously frequented by locals and dim enough that demons wouldn’t shy to visit.
However, there was only one public entrance. There was probably an exit through the kitchen as well, but that wasn’t easily accessible. One way in, one way out. If she were attacked, there would be a lot of collateral damage before she could reach safer ground.
Nightmare or dream—it was too early in the night to tell.
Elise tolerated the violation of her personal space as the boys pulled her up to the bar. They were already telling the bartender about what she’d done at the castle. The woman behind the bar laughed and kept polishing glasses. She wasn’t impressed with the story. Clearly, she’d heard more than her fair share of bullshit from young men just like these.
She’s not to buy a single drink tonight,” Seamus said, slinging an arm around Elise’s shoulders. “She’s a goddamn hero, you hear?”
Heroine!” corrected a blond girl who sidled up to the bar. She kissed one of Seamus’s friends, named Ryan. “You didn’t tell me you were coming here tonight! I didn’t even know you were in town!”
Other girls quickly emerged to talk to the men. They all clustered with Elise at the center, forced into a tight group by the weight of the crowd.
Even in the middle of it all, Elise felt detached, as though watching them socialize from a distance. She watched their lips move, the way their bodies tilted, the language of motion. There was no hint of menace in any of them. Elise was the only one thinking of violence. She was always thinking of violence.
Ryan bought a round and Elise drank her first Guinness in a few long gulps. The beer was pleasantly frothy and rich and she was thirsty.
When she set the glass down, she became aware that Seamus had stopped talking. He was staring.
Careful, Elise,” he said. “The night’s barely started! You don’t want to get trashed before we’ve had any fun.”
I can hold my alcohol,” she said.
How many Irishmen have you tried to drink with?” He was standing very close, his whole body pressed against her side. Elise decided not to tell him that he was hardly the first—or most charming—Irishman she’d visited pubs with before. “You’d be surprised what a real alcohol tolerance is like.”
She arched an eyebrow at him. “I can outdrink you.”
“You? Tiny little thing?” Seamus laughed. “You barely even come up to my chest.”
She was actually only three inches shorter than him. She suspected that he had at least eighteen percent body fat, too—hardly an athlete—whereas she was pure muscle and much heavier than she looked. There were no standards by which Elise could be called “tiny.”
Even if she hadn’t been a kopis, she would have bet that she could outdrink Seamus.
Since she was a kopis, with the amazing metabolism that went along with that, she thought she could do even better.
I’ll outdrink all of you,” she said, raising her voice so the other students could hear her. “Consecutively.”
Now all the men were laughing, and the girls, too. Elise couldn’t tell if they were meant to be laughing along with her or if they were laughing at her. It was impossible to tell the difference.
Either way, they weren’t taking her seriously.
She pulled out her wallet. Then she pulled out a few hundred euros and set them on the table. “I’ll give this to anyone who can keep drinking after I stop.”
That made the laughter stop.
And then one of the girls was ordering a round, and Seamus was shoving her into a chair, and the others were clustering around to watch. Elise slipped her jacket off, hung it on the corner of her chair.
Outdrinking almost a dozen Irishmen is a tall order,” Seamus said, giving her a kind of look she had come to recognize as sexual. He planned to have sex with Elise that night. The fact that she could tell meant that he wasn’t being subtle about it at all.
Her ex-boyfriend, Malcolm, had gotten the same expression when he thought he was about to get laid. He’d usually been right. There had been something exhilarating about his sexual adventurousness, his willingness to fuck against the wall of demon hives after burning them to the ground, and Elise felt a tingle of that similar exhilaration as Ryan’s girlfriend set a tray of drinks on the table between them. If Seamus remained conscious long enough, he’d definitely be getting lucky.
The girl had gotten enough Guinnesses to go around the entire group. Elise stopped the others from grabbing any. “I said I’d drink you all under the table consecutively.”
You mean you want to split these between the two of us,” Seamus said.
She responded by taking one glass.
James would never have approved of this game for multiple reasons. It was never wise to advertise the presence of a kopis, especially a female kopis. Her ability to demolish that much alcohol would be like advertising her presence to any local preternatural creatures. And once they started talking about her, rumors had a way of getting carried to dangerous ears on the wind.
Beyond that, James would warn her that this game could hurt the mundanes she was drinking against. Men were stupid when they got challenged. Elise might not be able to get drunk easily, but they could, and alcohol poisoning was a very real risk.
And Elise also thought James probably just didn’t want her to have fun.
That was the most irritating of all the reasons he would have tried to discourage her if he were there, controlling bastard that he was.
Seamus lifted the first glass in a silent toast.
Elise clinked glasses with Seamus and knocked back the first Guinness.
Books were ordinarily all the company he needed. Research was his hobby—what his ex-fiancée had called “a pretty lame hobby, James, have you thought about taking up stamp collection?”—and it was easy to lose himself in his favorite Books of Shadows, demoniacal hierarchies, and old diaries.
Now he couldn’t seem to take his eyes off the clock.
It was approaching eight o’clock. Elise would probably still be out drinking for a long time. But he wanted to speak with her more than he wanted to figure out what kind of demon they had exorcised, and it made focusing difficult.
Focus,” James muttered, shuffling through the newspapers he’d collected from a neighbor’s over-full garbage can. He had been poring over the local news ever since Elise left, searching for any indication of how a demon could have ended up in the city.
He hadn’t found anything.
Also, the clock said it was now nine minutes to eight.
James sat back, raking a hand through his hair.
It simply didn’t make sense for a demon to inhabit Castle O’Reilly. There was no other indicator of infernal activity in Ireland. Europe was nothing like North America, with all of the weak spots in the walls separating Earth from Hell; it took real effort—obvious effort—to bring demons over to the mortal worlds. There were also no undercities in Western Europe where demons could breed in secret.
If a witch had been summoning demons, there surely would have been news about it.
But there wasn’t.
There must be something else,” James said aloud, gazing at the ceiling. “Something I’m missing.”
If demons were geographically unlikely, then what kinds of creatures were likely?
He slammed his books shut, went into the bedroom, opened his suitcase. He traveled with very little of his library on hand, so most of his texts lived in Las Vegas with McIntyre, one of the few kopides that James and Elise considered to be a friend. When James needed something, he simply had McIntyre ship it to the nearest post office.
McIntyre had shipped a bestiary specific to Ireland to James at his request, and it had arrived just that morning. Ireland’s Secret Life was very rare, perhaps priceless; it had been written by a kopis in the 1960s, and fewer than a hundred copies were ever printed.
James’s copy was yellowed with age, its spine soft. It was butter in his hands when he opened it to the index.
Ireland wasn’t a big island, but the variety of creatures that had been sighted there over the years was impressive. The preternatural diversity easily rivaled that in America.
However, Ireland didn’t have demons. It had Earth spirits instead.
The kopis had logged sightings of some basandere that had traveled from northeastern Spain. He’d also noted a handful of brownies, which had been exterminated in the 1920s. He’d found one selkie the year prior to the book’s publication. The kopis who had written the book even claimed to have come across some kind of avian shapeshifter, although James thought that was probably a fish story since he’d only ever heard of wolf shifters before.
There was an entire chapter on a creature called the beansidhe, though. It was a rare subspecies of the sidhe spirits that was known for announcing death by shrieking.
Chills rolled down James’s spine when he read the word “shrieking.” He recalled the unearthly noise that creature had made as clearly as though it were still in the room beside him.
He was probably going to be nursing a migraine from that sound for the next month.
But that can’t be right,” he murmured.
The creature haunting Castle O’Reilly had vanished when Elise finished the exorcism rite. It had to be a demon—nothing else would have responded to the prayer of St. Benedict.
Unless it had been hiding deliberately, which would mean that the sidhe was still lurking at the castle.
And James and Elise had left it alive.
Considering how swiftly the sidhe had gutted Gregg McNamara, he could only imagine what else it might do now that it had been provoked. There was a chance it would do nothing at all—according to Joshua O’Reilly, it had been dormant at the castle for years.
James didn’t want to take that chance.
The Castle O’Reilly’s pamphlet said the ground would be open until nine o’clock that night.
The time was seven fifty-seven.
James drummed his fingertips on the spine of the bestiary. Elise was at the pub with her new friends. He could always find her—it wouldn’t take long, as there could only be so many pubs within walking distance. And she would probably leave a social event to make sure their job had been resolved neatly.
Elise’s reluctance to leave earlier nagged at him.
No, it was better if she stayed out having fun. He could check into the castle on his own.
James donned his peacoat, tucked the bestiary into his jacket beside the Book of Shadows, and went jogging into the rainy night.
She had only managed to get drunk a handful of times in her life, and never to a point where it was dangerous. It required truly vast amounts of alcohol to make her feel fuzzy. Now her vision was doubled, her fingers were tingling, and all the voices sounded distant.
People were still cheering her on. Their faces swirled around the table.
Seamus was slumped in a chair beside her, unconscious and incapable of keeping the promise his leers had made. She didn’t care at this point. Elise couldn’t even focus her eyes on him.
Nausea. That’s what Elise was feeling.
She thought she might throw up.
Still, she took the next Guinness, staring into its murky depths and running her thumb through the condensation on the outside. “Who’s next?” Her tongue fumbled on the simple words.
Two of the students got in a minor slap fight over it, punching each other in the shoulders, shoving back and forth until one finally sat. He was already red-cheeked and swaying. Halfway to blackout drunk. He wouldn’t remain conscious long enough to concede to Elise.
Of course, her chair was feeling pretty unstable underneath her. She wasn’t entirely certain she could outlast this one.
No. I’ve got this. I’m the fucking Godslayer. I can outdrink the whole bar.
Elise lifted the Guinness. It slopped over the rim and she sucked the beer off her wrist.
Ready?” she asked.
Let’s do this!” said her new opponent.
The bartender put a hand over Elise’s glass before she could drink.
She must have been ever drunker than she realized. She hadn’t noticed the bartender approaching. Her senses were dulling—if someone attacked her, she would be fucked.
I think you’ve had enough,” Haley said. “You’re going to kill yourself at this rate.”
Elise stood up on unsteady legs. Haley was taller than her, with exceptionally broad shoulders for a woman. She wasn’t threatening, though. Elise had taken down entire hordes of demons on her own. Hordes. And they hadn’t tried to get between her and a good Guinness. “You don’t tell me what to do.”
The bartender’s face, duplicated in Elise’s vision, looked entirely unimpressed. “You’re not having another drink.”
Who’s going to stop me?” Elise asked.
Someone get her out of here,” Haley called. “Walker? You want to grab her?”
He backed away with his hands lifted. “I’ve seen her with a sword. I’m not touching her.”
Come on.” Haley grabbed her by the elbow.
Elise swung a hard punch.
She had to guess which of Haley’s doubled heads was the real one, and Elise picked wrong. Her fist swooped right through the double vision of the bartender and connected with the man behind her. He was named Rocky, a friendly young guy, and Elise probably would have felt guilty about punching him if she’d had anything resembling a clear head.
The laughter swirled around her. The floor flipped upside down as Haley dragged Elise to the door, tossing her outside none too gently.
Elise hit cobblestone. Blood splattered down her chin.
She fingered her teeth. They were intact, but she’d bitten her lip when she fell. That was Haley’s fault. The bartender would pay.
It took two tries to get to her feet. Elise’s jacket was soaked from the puddle, so she shed it, baring muscular arms. Haley was standing in the doorway, dishrag tucked in her apron, still looking bored.
The boys were spilling out of the pub now. Seamus had regained consciousness, though Walker had to hold him upright. Several of her new friends were holding beers as they cheered her on. They looked delicious.
Haley wasn’t going to let her keep drinking, though.
Wavering, Elise lifted her fists in front of her face, squaring off against the bartender. “Come at me.”
Haley snorted. “You couldn’t punch the wall right now.”
That sounded like a challenge.
Haley wasn’t standing where she expected. Instead, Elise ran face-first into the door frame.
The bartender started laughing. She hadn’t magically teleported. She’d just stepped aside, which normally would not have made Elise miss.
If at first you don’t succeed…
Elise swung another blow, and Haley sidestepped that too. Then she planted her boot in Elise’s ass.
The legendary Godslayer landed in the muddy gutter.
Don’t come back,” Haley said, heading into the pub. She landed a few high-fives on the way. At least, Elise thought she did. It was hard to tell when everything was upside down and split into double and spinning in circles.
She had just lost against a human bartender. Not even a witch.
James could never, ever know what had happened.
The students made appropriately consoling noises as they helped Elise to her feet—consoling, teasing, and admiring noises. They couldn’t seem to decide if she was awesome or pitiable. At the moment, she felt a bit like both. “I just wanted more beer,” Elise grumbled, leaning heavily on Seamus, who leaned heavily on her too.
Haley’s not any fun. She tosses people out all the time,” Walker said. “Lucky for you, I’ve still got another drink.” He practically poured the Guinness down Elise’s throat, laughing the whole time. It was a party trick now. The woman who could take any amount of alcohol and keep standing.
Except Elise suddenly couldn’t keep standing.
Her stomach lurched. She vomited all over Seamus’s shoes.
Then she hit the ground and didn’t get up again.
Joseph O’Reilly always enjoyed a little orange pekoe tea before bed, but he relished it even more than usual that night. His castle had been exorcised. It was safe once more for tourists. And nobody would ever know what had happened to Gregg McNamara.
It was a shame that Gregg had died. Not that much of a shame—he wasn’t that good of a tour guide—but it was too bad for a man so young to have lost his life, even if he had been whiny, lazy, and terrible at making sales in the gift shop.
O’Reilly had rung a friend who owned a mortuary, who’d picked up the ashes and tossed them into the incinerator with the next body to be cremated. They’d swapped a fair share of favors over the years. Patrick wouldn’t tell anyone what he’d done.
It was impossible to explain a murderous haunt to the police. O’Reilly didn’t feel at all guilty about hiding the death.
Everything had ended as tidily as he could have hoped, and the orange pekoe tasted especially rich.
He sat in a wingback chair beside his window as he sipped it, all lights off in his room at the top of the castle’s tower. There were less drafty places he could have put a bedroom, but the tower was his favorite. It had a great view of Dublin’s lights on the horizon.
The reflection of a pale figure flashed across his window.
I told you to go home, Billie,” O’Reilly said. “I’ve no mind for company tonight.”
Billie didn’t reply.
He glanced at the door. It was closed and nobody was in the room with him. The clock said it wasn’t even closing time yet; Billie would still be staffing the front desk.
But O’Reilly hadn’t imagined the reflection. He was old, not delusional.
The teacup clinked as he set it on the saucer. “Billie?” he called, softer than before, as he plucked the rosary off of the lamp where it dangled. The beads felt cold against his fingers.
The temperature in the room was dropping. It could have been the wind through the cracks in the stones, but O’Reilly didn’t think so. Not with the way he felt it in his marrow.
That damn exorcist.
She’d taken his money without actually exorcising the haunt.
O’Reilly strode toward the door, fingers tight on the rosary.
And then the ghost appeared in front of him.
He didn’t even feel her claws sinking into his gut, nor was he conscious long enough to watch his intestines splattering the rug. The attack was mercifully swift, and so was his death.
The ghost’s scream shattered the night.
Elise woke up in the hospital with saline dripping into her vein, a throbbing headache, and a sticky mouth. She heard someone shuffling beside her but was too groggy to turn her head. Judging by how slow and heavy the footfalls were, she was certain it was a short, heavy human—probably not a threat.
What am I doing here?” Elise asked, smacking her tongue to loosen it.
A nurse stepped into view. He was barely five feet tall, very round, and not a threat, as Elise had suspected. “You have alcohol poisoning,” Nurse Leigh said. The picture on his ID badge was very unflattering. Made his head look like a basketball. “Don’t feel too bad. American tourists often drink too much here, especially ladies your age.”
She tried to focus on the wall clock. There were haloes around the hospital lights and trying to look at anything bright hurt. “What time is it?”
Almost ten o’clock in the evening.”
Elise had gone on nights-long benders with Malcolm without getting alcohol poisoning, but she’d succumbed in a matter of hours that night. Of course, she’d never attempted to knock back that much beer all at once, either. And she didn’t plan on doing it again. She felt like hell.
I need to make a call.” Elise lifted her hands to make sure they were still gloved. They weren’t. But she’d sliced one of her palms open when she’d fallen outside the pub, so her left hand was bandaged, shielding the mark on her palm. Small mercy. She clenched her other fist around the exposed mark to hide it.
Here you go.” The nurse moved the phone within her reach. “You’ll be out in the morning, if you want to schedule a cab for your pickup. Your friends abandoned you at the emergency room. I doubt you’ll be seeing them again.”
So much for hooking up with Seamus later.
Shading her eyes with a hand, Elise tried to relax into the bed. She didn’t want to wait until morning to leave. She’d walked out of hospitals right after they finished repairing internal hemorrhages, and Elise certainly didn’t need an entire night of intravenous fluid to get back on her feet this time.
But she wasn’t sure where she was, and she didn’t know how to get back to the apartment James had rented.
Elise was going to have to call him and ask for directions. Which meant she’d also have to admit to how she’d spent her evening.
She waited until Nurse Leigh shuffled out of the room before grabbing the phone. She squeezed her eyes shut as she dialed the number and pressed the receiver to her ear. As long as she didn’t move too much or open her eyes, her head was bearably painful.
The phone rang.
It rang ten times before the answering machine picked up, delivering a generic message in a robotic voice.
She’d memorized the number for the apartment days ago. She was certain she still had it right. Elise forced herself to look at the keypad as she dialed again, ensuring her fingers hadn’t slipped.
The phone rang another ten times and kicked over to the answering machine.
Slowly, Elise set down the receiver.
James wouldn’t have left the apartment at night, especially not when he was alone. He was much too smart—and much too boring—to go into the darkness of night on his own unless he needed to. There was no reason for him not to answer the phone unless he’d been attacked. Or kidnapped. Or killed.
Elise sat up. Her head pulsed hard, like her skull was going to crack in half.
She couldn’t see her clothes anywhere. There was no sign of her knife, either. Someone had taken it from her—probably Walker or one of those other idiots. There was no time to search, though. James was in danger. Elise knew it as surely as she knew she was never going to drink Guinness again.
She ripped the IV needle out of her arm, stole a pair of latex gloves, and climbed out of bed.
It took James about thirty seconds to realize he’d walked through a puddle of blood. Normally, he wasn’t so oblivious to the signs of violence; where Elise was numbed to bodies, blood, and pain, James remained excruciatingly sensitive. He could never watch a human being die and think of it as an unavoidable casualty, simply an addition to the grisly statistics surrounding demon hunting. Likewise, he’d never become nose-blind to the scents of death: rot and perforated intestines and bile.
But he walked through a puddle of blood and didn’t notice it for half a minute, which was more than slightly unusual.
The surrounding circumstances could never have been described as usual, though.
My God,” James whispered.
There were three dead tourists on the path leading to Castle O’Reilly, clearly identifiable by their novelty Stonehenge sweaters and expensive SLR cameras. All three had been gutted. Their intestines were strewn through the grass, rather like the remnants of a deer’s carcass after the wolves were done with it.
He covered his nose with a hand and stumbled through the front doors of Castle O’Reilly.
Only then did he notice that he was tracking blood behind him.
His first instinct was to grab the desk, trying to half-sit on it to get his feet off the ground. James wasn’t certain what he hoped to accomplish with that. Getting away from his own footprints? Wiping off his shoes?
While he was on the desk, another body hidden behind it caught his eye. It was Billie, the young lady who had sold tickets to them earlier. Her ginger hair was black with blood. Glassy eyes stared at the ceiling. Her large intestine was piled on her chest.
James fumbled in his jacket’s inner pocket, extracting the Book of Shadows. He’d rearranged the pages on the bus to the castle so that more fire spells were on top just in case he needed to burn more bodies.
Wind gusted through the castle’s entryway. It smelled like rain and copper.
The Book of Shadows slipped from his fingers and landed open-faced on the floor. Wind flipped through the pages, ripping them from their rings.
Damn it all!”
James lunged, stepping on a cluster of pages as they whipped past him. He left a bloody shoe print on the runes. Damn again. Muddying the runes rendered most of them useless, or unreliable at the very least. Human blood did strange things to magic.
He grabbed as many as he could. Some had already blown through the doorway and now fluttered on the wet lawn outside.
James raced to pick them up, too—and nearly ran into the so-called ghost of Castle O’Reilly.
He skidded to a stop before he crashed into her. She was taller than he remembered, her skin glowing brighter, raven-black hair floating around her shoulders. The semi-translucent legs of the spirit hovered just a few inches away from him. Being so close to the sidhe was like standing in waist-deep ice water.
The hand that Elise had severed earlier had grown back. This creature obviously had accelerated healing and regeneration, which were characteristic of some sidhe subspecies. His mind catalogued the attributes by habit as fear clawed at his chest.
Before he could flee, the spirit spoke.
Stop, human thing.
She didn’t open her mouth to speak. The words entered his mind directly.
James froze where he stood.
He was in a wildly terrible situation as the last person living in Castle O’Reilly. He was surrounded by death—three bodies outside, at least one behind the desk—and he’d already seen how intolerable the creature’s shrieking was when feeding off of a single body. With that many dead people around, she would be exponentially more powerful.
James really should have tracked Elise down at the pub before returning to the castle.
Please,” he said, hands extended, notebook in one hand and stray spells clutched in the other. “Let’s not fight, and—and no screaming. Let’s just talk about what you want.”
She swayed in the doorway. What I want? What makes you think I want anything? Her voice was pleasant. It reminded him of the patter of raindrops on leaves, the stirring of wind through damp tree branches.
Everyone wants something,” James said.
And what if I were to tell you that I want to kill you?
He stiffened. “I would be forced to burn this entire damn castle to the ground with you inside of it.”
Your kind are so cold, she said to him.
My kind? Humans? Witches?”
Do you think I don’t recognize you? It hasn’t been so very long since I faced down with creatures from above and below in the wars that came before. Her countenance shivered with fury. I remember the half-bloods. She drifted nearer and it took all of James’s strength to hold still. He’d seen how quickly she moved; trying to run away would do him no good at all.
I’m only a man,” he said carefully.
You’re a half-blood bound to the exorcist who would have killed me today. Her ghostly figure darkened around the edges, like a thunderstorm skimming over her flesh. This is my home. I’ve been here for millennia—well before your forefathers thought to rut with mortal women and plant their seeds in mortal wombs. And that girl, that product of mass genocide and the sins of your conspiring ancestors—she would kill me after all that!
You’ve been here how long, exactly?” he asked, diverting the conversation from revenge.
Since the Treaty. She massaged her temples as though she had a headache. It’s been so long. So many years to be trapped and alone… I once lived in a kingdom of a light with thousands like myself.
Other sidhe, you mean.” She must have truly gone insane from all her time alone. Sidhe had always been rare, a species of few.
Her eyes brightened to a vicious shade of green. I’m one of the last.
But there are others. Not many, but some. If company is what you want, we can find company for you.”
That was a lie. A terrible, painful lie. James’s shoes were coated in the blood of people this spirit had killed. Even if there had been millions of other sidhe to keep her company, this one was going to have to die sooner or later—preferably sooner.
But as long as she was talking to him, she wasn’t screaming. He needed to keep her talking.
If you’ll stay here, I can bring them to you,” James said, edging toward the door.
You’re not going anywhere. The exorcist will come for you.
He focused his energy on the papers in his hand. “I don’t think so.”
He flung several runes toward her at the same time, igniting them with a word of power that boomed through the walls, made the floor shiver, sent a bookshelf crashing to the blood-stained rug. The magic drew strength from inside of him. It sucked energy from the earth below, the sky above, and the circle of power he’d cast back at the apartment.
But before the magic could strike the sidhe, she opened her mouth and blasted a short scream at him.
The force of it knocked him off of his feet.
For an instant, he was without gravity or orientation. All he knew was that he was flying.
Then his back smashed into the admissions desk. The wood buckled under him. The desk flipped over backward, dumping James on top of Billie’s body.
Even as dazed as he was, he struggled to get up, hands slipping in the puddles of her blood. He fell twice before regaining his footing.
The sidhe had dodged his fire spells, which had gone awry with the taint of human blood. She floated in front of a wall of fire. All those antique tapestries—they were smoldering to ash, and the flames climbed the rafters.
She opened her mouth to scream again, so James dived behind the wreckage of the desk, shielding himself with its bulk. The force of the blast struck the wood. It shuddered against his back. But even though his head throbbed from the sheer volume of her attack, he didn’t go flying again.
He shuffled through the remnants of his Book of Shadows. Come on, come on…
The desk shattered. James gathered his papers and tried to run, but the sidhe was on him before he could escape. She spun him around, curving icy fingers around his throat. Her luminous eyes loomed in his vision. You’re burning my castle, she hissed into his mind.
Great, James had made her angrier.
Her mouth opened. From that close, he could see that she didn’t have an ordinary set of teeth and tongue inside her maw. There was nothing but a vast pit filled with fog and darkness, as though her mouth opened to another world.
He flinched in anticipation of the strike.
But then she jerked, her hands released him, and she dropped to the ground with a tiny wail of pain.
Behind her stood Elise, knuckles stained green with blood.
James was pleased—and relieved—to see his kopis at first. Bafflement followed quickly. Elise was wearing a hospital gown, a pair of latex gloves, and nothing else. The cold wind tugged the hem of her paper dress, exposing the freckled kneecaps he’d been trying not to stare at earlier that night. Her bare feet were caked in mud. She looked beautiful, exasperated, and ridiculous all at once.
It was enough that he momentarily forgot about the beansidhe. “What in the world happened to you?”
The sidhe sat up from where she had struck the floor, touching her fingers to the back of her head. The fingertips came away green. She glared her fury at Elise. I knew you would come back. I’m ready for you. In a flash, the damage was healed.
Rapid healing, regeneration, and weaponized screams.
James was glad that the sidhe were near extinction.
Elise had noted the same characteristics. She turned to James. “How do I kill her?”
I haven’t read that far in the bestiary yet,” he said, showing her the book he’d brought.
Get reading, James.”
The spirit opened her mouth and began to scream again.
As James had drawn energy from the surrounding earth for his magic, the sidhe drew energy from the dead. Billie’s body rapidly began to rot. The skin bubbled as though there were maggots underneath the surface, twitching as it was drained of matter.
The sidhe blasted all of that at Elise.
It was no short blow, like the spirit had been using against James. It was the full force of her bitter hatred for kopides.
Elise seized James by the collar and dived out of the way, dragging him behind her. The sidhe’s scream struck a display case against the wall. The panels shattered and showered glass to the floor.
They ran past the flaming tapestries and ducked into one of the bathrooms just in time for the sidhe to direct the force of her shriek at them again. Elise slammed the door shut. The bathroom walls groaned and dust showered onto the dirty stone tiles, dislodged from the aging ceiling.
She’s a beansidhe,” James said. “That’s why the exorcism didn’t work earlier.” The walls didn’t muffle the sidhe very well, so he couldn’t hear himself speak and wasn’t sure if Elise heard him, either.
She ducked into the stall, grabbed clean toilet paper, twisted it into plugs. “Take this,” she mouthed at him. She crammed the toilet paper into James’s ear canals.
Now he was even deafer. But the pain from the spirit’s cries alleviated fractionally, which was an improvement compared to the bleeding he’d experienced earlier.
He flipped to the page on the beansidhe and showed it to Elise as she fashioned earplugs for herself.
She poked a finger at the page. “Go find rowan. I’ll distract her.” When she spoke, he noticed that her breath smelled strongly of beer.
Rowan?” He wasn’t certain he’d read Elise’s lips properly. He turned the book to read it. Indeed, the text said that all subspecies of the sidhe were vulnerable to rowan. James had seen some trees on the property, but he wasn’t sure if they were the right kind. If that land had been housing a sidhe for centuries, then probably not.
Elise turned to leave, but the sidhe materialized in front of the door before she could open it. She phased into the bathroom just as effortlessly as she had into the dungeons that morning.
James shouted a warning at Elise.
The sidhe shouted back.
Waves of force slammed into them. Elise was knocked off her feet, striking James hard enough that they both crashed into the wall of the stall. It was an old, rickety installation, poorly anchored in the ancient stone walls, and it broke underneath their weight. James’s elbow slipped into the toilet. The chilly water soaking through his sleeve was only fractionally less horrifying than walking through a blood puddle.
His kopis was on her feet again in an instant, snapping a high kick at the sidhe. Her foot went right through the creature’s face.
I won’t let you touch me again, hissed the sidhe. She could talk and scream at the same time. Impressive. And painful. The toilet paper earplugs were pathetic against the volume of her wailing.
James flipped through the bestiary as Elise ducked around the sidhe, moving the fight back into the foyer. Elise was doing a great job of distracting the sidhe, dodging every one of her attacks with the kind of reflexes only a kopis possessed. But they wouldn’t be able to kill her until James figured out how.
Unfortunately, the section on the beansidhe only said that they were vulnerable to rowan.
There had to be something else. James didn’t have time to go outside, figure out what the hell a rowan looked like, and fashion a weapon out of its branches.
He walked out of the bathroom as he continued flipping through the pages—and nearly walked right into flames.
James leaped away from the fire with a cry. “Good Lord!”
His magicked fire had spread, though not of its own volition. Elise was wielding a half-burned tapestry, swinging it at the sidhe and flinging embers everywhere in the process.
He flapped his arms at her, trying to catch her attention. “Stop that! This place is full of antiques!” She was too distracted whipping the fire at the sidhe to notice his flailing.
The shattered admission desk, peppered with sparks, began to smolder. It was resting on a very old, probably priceless rug. James nearly had a heart attack at the sight of it. They were going to immolate the entire damn castle at this rate.
He ducked under the sidhe as she soared over him, clutching the book tightly to his chest. Once he was safely beyond the range of her claws again—she was fighting Elise and the burning tapestry on the staircase—he flipped back to the index, looking for other sidhe species. There were several. James picked one at random and went to that section, skimming for vulnerabilities. The book stated only one.
Rowan,” James said. “Goddamn rowan.”
But the next chapter—which was about brownies—listed a second vulnerability.
Elise went flying and smashed into the wall beside him, hard enough that he could actually hear her skull cracking against stone, even though the screaming hadn’t waned. The sidhe had thrown her again. There was no sign of the burning tapestry now.
She staggered, dazed, and James grabbed her arm to steady her.
Iron!” he shouted over the sidhe’s wailing, shoving the book in Elise face.
She blinked repeatedly, trying to focus on the page. Her eyes were nearly crossed. “What?”
Iron might kill her. Try iron!”
Elise shoved James to the floor. The sidhe’s claws swiped over his head as she rushed at them again. This time, their attacker had been anticipating that James would dodge; her blow came a lot closer to disemboweling him. Only Elise’s reflexes saved him. But those razor-sharp claws gave James a bit of a haircut in the process.
He touched the skin above his ear. He was going to have a bald patch for a while.
I really don’t like the sidhe,” he said to nobody in particular.
Even though he couldn’t hear himself, apparently the spirit could. Her eyes sparked with cold hatred. James could practically see her fantasizing about gutting him.
She didn’t make it two inches in his direction before Elise leaped between them. The kopis waved her arms over her head, attracting the spirit’s attention as she backed toward the dungeon’s stairs. The dungeon would be a terrible place to fight, narrow and dark with no alternative escape routes. It made no sense that Elise would try to lead the sidhe down there.
Unless she’d heard him telling her about iron after all.
There was iron in the dungeon, and plenty of it. The bars on the cells were made of iron.
Dropping the bestiary, James chased Elise and the sidhe into the dungeon. He almost tripped on more dead bodies at the bottom of the stairs. Another tour group had been killed by the sidhe on the same day that Gregg had been killed. Apparently Joseph O’Reilly didn’t consider an employee’s death good reason to shut down part of his castle.
The sidhe grinned at the sight of the bodies—fuel for her screams.
She had Elise cornered and she knew it.
Her smile vanished when Elise jerked a piece of iron bar off of one of the cell doors.
Elise swung the bar at the sidhe. It connected with sickeningly wet crunch. Greenish blood sprayed over the wall.
This time, the sidhe’s scream was one of pain, not one of fury. The iron left a shining welt across her face. It had burned on the briefest of contact, melting a layer of semi-corporeal flesh away.
Elise flinched away at the sound of that scream, pressing the heel of her hand to her temple. One of her makeshift earplugs had fallen out. She was vulnerable.
James ignited one of his few remaining fire spells and dropped it on the bodies at the bottom of the stairs. He focused all his frustration at the magic, fueling it with his anger—especially the anger at his mangled haircut.
The bodies were incinerated within seconds.
When the sidhe tried to scream again, nothing came out but a dry rasp.
Let’s banish you permanently this time,” Elise growled.
She jumped on the sidhe.
James didn’t watch his kopis beat her to death. It was as brutal as it was necessary, but that wasn’t his favorite part of the job.
It only took a minute.
By the time Elise was done, the bodies of the tour group were ash, the dungeon was slicked with green blood, and the rare and deadly creature known as the beansidhe was dead.
James found Elise sitting on a cluster of rocks outside the back door of Castle O’Reilly. The storm must have been dumping gallons of water directly on her head, but she didn’t look to be aware of the rain. She was picking at the residue that medical tape had left on her arm. Her bare back was exposed by the gapping hospital gown.
He shucked his jacket and settled it over her shoulders. Elise reacted to that as much as she did the rain. “What are you thinking about?” he asked, folding his arms tightly across his chest. It wasn’t much shield against the chill.
Guinness,” Elise said.
She wasn’t thinking about the exquisite rarity of the creature they had just killed, nor the ancient castle that was burning behind them.
She was thinking about Guinness.
Ah.” James tried to blink the rain out of his eyes. It didn’t help. “Should I ask why you’re in a hospital gown?”
Again, she said, “Guinness.”
Elise must have gotten in a drunken brawl and landed in the hospital. It wouldn’t have been the first time, either. “How many people are dead, how many of them are human, and how quickly should we plan on leaving the country?”
None, not applicable, whenever we feel like it.”
James hesitated before sitting on the rocks beside her. The chill of the stones seeped through his slacks.
If nobody had died, then it hadn’t been one of Elise’s usual scuffles. He wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not.
You didn’t get in another bar fight?”
She was being unusually uncommunicative, even for Elise. Sometimes it felt like they would have had better conversations if they’d performed them via physical gestures like a game of charades. James could mimic punching people, Elise would tell him he was getting colder, then he could mimic wielding a pair of falchions…
If you want to talk about it, you know I’m available,” James said. He didn’t expect her to take him up on the offer. She seldom did.
But Elise sighed and tipped her head back to glare up at the sky. Only then did he realize that her cheeks were pink, and not because of the fight they’d been in. “I drank too much. I blacked out.”
She’d gotten alcohol poisoning.
That was new.
James started to run the mental calculations on how much alcohol it would take to defeat her kopis metabolism. The numbers were scary, so he stopped immediately. “Well,” he said, choosing his words carefully, “it sounds like you must have had a lot of fun.”
She shot a sideways look at him. “Is that all?”
Do I need to say anything else?”
She shook her head and then groaned as though the gesture had hurt. She rested her forehead on the heels of her palms. “You were right. I shouldn’t have gone drinking. If I’d been with you, we’d have gone to the castle at the same time. The sidhe wouldn’t have almost gotten you.”
As I seem to recall, you were the one who offered to stay at the apartment. I was the one who told you to go on.”
Yeah, but you wanted me to stick around.”
When had Elise become psychic? Lord, he hoped she wasn’t psychic. “I didn’t say that.”
She went back to picking at the tape residue on her arm. “You could have been hurt without me.”
I survived almost thirty years without you, Elise. You’re hardly responsible for my sidhe-chasing whims.” She gazed sullenly at the needle mark left behind, presumably, by an IV. Elise was hunched over, diminishing herself in her shame, hair hanging over her face. She was one tucked tail away from whimpering. “We’re equally responsible for the deaths at Castle O’Reilly tonight. We knew your exorcism hadn’t worked and left anyway.”
She’d only killed once before,” Elise said. “We couldn’t have known what she’d do to everyone else.”
Exactly. We’re equally responsible in the sense that we’re not responsible at all. Don’t guilt yourself over it.” He stood up, scuffed his bloody shoes on the grass to clean them. “All right? No more guilt. Today’s over, so let’s move on and think about tomorrow.” James offered a hand to Elise to help her stand.
She gave it a leery look. “No more alcohol, James.”
That’s a shame,” he said, “because I’ve heard the best way to relieve a hangover is to drink more.”
The corner of Elise’s mouth twitched. It was almost a smile.
She took his hand, letting him pull her to her feet. “I stashed some tequila from our last visit to Mexico in my suitcase.”
Is that so?”
Let’s drink it all and get out of the country before the cops find our fingerprints on something,” Elise said.
James thought that sounded like an excellent plan, especially since the high-pitched wail of police sirens were approaching from the distance. Someone had heard the sidhe’s death screams and alerted the authorities. Or maybe they’d noticed the smoke pouring out of the castle windows. Either way, they were about to have company.
They slipped across the grassy moors in the darkness, avoiding the road. Trying to hurry on uneven ground without any light, James nearly broke his ankle twice. Elise laughed out loud during their clumsy escape. It was a very lovely sound—much lovelier than a screaming sidhe—and James enjoyed the exhilaration of it all.
Getting caught with multiple dead bodies and a burning castle would be awkward, to say the least.
Tequila would be far preferable.