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Mysterious ways, p.1

Mysterious Ways, page 1

 

Mysterious Ways
 


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Mysterious Ways


  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, places, organizations, or persons, whether living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

  MYSTERIOUS WAYS

  Copyright © 2018 by Christine Pope

  Published by Dark Valentine Press

  Cover design by Lou Harper

  Ebook formatting by Indie Author Services

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems — except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews — without permission in writing from its publisher, Dark Valentine Press.

  Don’t miss out on any of Christine’s new releases — sign up for her newsletter today!

  Contents

  1. Partings

  2. Plotting

  3. Protection

  4. Connection

  5. A New Day

  6. Undercurrents

  7. Targets

  8. Army of Darkness

  9. Left Behind

  10. Gilded Cage

  11. Reaching Out

  12. A Summoning

  13. Whispers in the Dark

  14. Daring to Fly

  15. Awakenings

  16. Changing of the Guard

  17. Showdown

  18. Homecoming

  Also by Christine Pope

  About the Author

  1

  Partings

  Miranda McAllister

  Rafe wouldn’t let me drive him over to his parents’ house. Just as well, probably, since I didn’t have my I.D., no way of proving that I even had a license. But with both of us reeling from the shocking news of his mother’s death, a death most certainly caused by some very nasty dark magic, I’d wanted to do at least one small thing for Rafe, wanted to help however I could. He still wore the same cold, stony expression that had settled on his features as soon as we heard the news, an expression that betrayed nothing of what he might be feeling.

  His mother is dead, I thought. How the hell do you think he’s feeling?

  That question was a lot more complicated than it might have been for most people, however. My fiancé and Genoveva Castillo hadn’t exactly shared what you would call a warm and loving relationship. All his life, she’d tried to control him, and he’d fought back every way he knew how. And a large part of their fractious interactions had to do with me.

  Well, not because of anything I’d personally done. No, it was more that Rafe had hated being saddled with an arranged marriage, no matter who he was being forced to marry. I couldn’t really blame him for feeling that way; I’d had my own rebellious thoughts on the subject as well, although most of the time, I’d done what I could to look at the whole thing as an adventure. We had gotten off to a rocky start, but we’d both come to realize that we were just as intended for one another as a prima — a clan’s head witch — and her consort, even though I certainly wasn’t the prima of the Castillo clan.

  No, that would be Rafe’s older sister, Louisa, now that Genoveva was gone.

  The reality of her death hadn’t truly sunk in yet. Maybe it would all start to feel real once I was surrounded by Rafe’s family, could share in their loss. The horrible thing was that — well, all of it was horrible, but the circumstances just provided an additional dollop of irony — from what Cat, Rafe’s younger sister, had told us, it sounded as though Genoveva had basically dropped dead in the middle of the wake for their cousin Marco, right in front of more than a hundred Castillo relatives.

  I knew Simon Gutierrez was behind all this.

  No, Simon Escobar, I reminded myself. Gutierrez was his mother’s last name, and for all I knew, it was the name Simon used most of the time — I didn’t know for sure, since he’d told me so many lies — but his true lineage came from the dark warlock who’d been his father, Joaquin Escobar. Even twenty-plus years after Joaquin’s death, that name was powerful enough to evoke a shudder in most of Arizona’s witches and warlocks.

  The Castillos hadn’t suffered much at his hands, although Rafe’s grandmother had given her life to ensure that my parents would triumph over Escobar in the end. Now, though, Joaquin Escobar’s son had brought the fight to their territory.

  How he’d managed this particular bit of mayhem, I didn’t know. Genoveva Castillo was the prima of her clan, a woman who commanded formidable powers. But Simon’s magic was at an entirely different level than hers, since he was the son of a prima and a primus, the male equivalent of a prima. Yes, I was also the offspring of two clan leaders, but neither one of them was as strong as Joaquin Escobar had been, and I knew my powers weren’t equal to Simon’s.

  Up until a week ago, I hadn’t known that I possessed any real powers at all.

  I glanced over at Rafe. His jaw was set, his gaze fully fixed on the road — probably because that way, he wouldn’t have to look at me. Honestly, I didn’t even know what to say to him. I had a feeling that any condolences I offered would have fallen dreadfully flat.

  And past all of that, I couldn’t help but think this was all my fault. If Simon hadn’t developed an unhealthy obsession with me, then he wouldn’t have seen Rafe as a rival, wouldn’t have used his powers to strike out at the Castillo clan to get revenge on Rafe for helping me to escape the estate where I’d been staying with Simon.

  If Simon could kill Genoveva — a terrible stratagem I knew had been deployed to throw the Castillos into chaos — then no one was truly safe. I’d cast a spell of protection over Rafe’s house, and I intended to do the same when we got to the enormous hacienda-style mansion that had been Genoveva’s home, but I didn’t think I could protect everyone. The Castillos would have to pitch in and deploy their own measures to defend themselves against Simon Escobar’s dark magic, or else…well, I didn’t want to think what might happen if their defenses weren’t up to the task.

  Rafe pulled up to the house, but cars blocked the driveway and circled the block. The vehicles were here because of all the Castillo relatives who had come to attend their cousin Marco’s wake, Marco, who had also died by Simon’s hand, if indirectly. I supposed I should have thought of how everyone would still be lingering at the house, but clearly I wasn’t the only one who’d been blindsided, because Rafe cursed under his breath and went around the block again so he could cut over to the next street and park there.

  We both got out of the car. Instinctively, I went to him and took his hand in mine. His fingers felt cold, and for a second he didn’t respond. Then his grip tightened, hanging on to me like a drowning man reaching for salvation.

  I didn’t tell him it was going to be okay, because that was probably a lie. But I did look up at him and say, “I’m here, Rafe.”

  He didn’t quite smile, but one corner of his mouth lifted slightly. “I know, Miranda. And thank God for you. I don’t — ” The words broke off there, and I could see his jaw clench. “I’m not sure how I’m supposed to do this.”

  What could I say? So far, I’d never experienced any real loss, no real grief. Oh, of course there had been older members of the McAllister and Wilcox clans who’d passed on during my lifetime, but I hadn’t been close to any of them. I still had both my parents, had my Great-Aunt Rachel and her husband Tobias, had Cousin Lucas and Margot and so many others. Of course, most of Rafe’s family was also still alive, but the loss of a mother had to hit far too close to home, even a mother who’d done her best to be as prickly and difficult as possible.

  We went up the walk to the wide front door, which was ancient oak barred with dark iron. A funeral wreath hung on it; Genoveva Castillo had always been someone to fol
low the conventions. Looking at it, I had to remind myself that the wreath had been placed there for Rafe’s cousin Marco, and not for Genoveva herself. That time of mourning would come next — if Simon Escobar allowed us that time. I worried that Genoveva’s murder was only the opening salvo, and what was to come next might even be worse. How much worse, I didn’t know, but if Simon was good at anything, it was at leaving death and destruction in his wake.

  Rafe didn’t bother to knock, only opened the door so we could both enter. Of course there was no point in standing on ceremony, since this was the house he’d grown up in, the place that had been his home until a few years ago. The large entry with its formal round table in the center — now topped by an arrangement of white lilies and palm fronds — was empty, but I could hear a murmur of voices coming from the living room.

  We’d barely stepped inside before Cat and Rafe’s middle sister, Malena, came up to him, sobbing, her dark eyes wet and bloodshot, sleek black hair starting to come loose from the low knot she wore at the back of her neck. He didn’t say anything, only awkwardly folded them both in his arms while I stood quietly to one side and took a quick glance around the room. All of the Castillos present were understandably subdued, most of them damp-eyed and solemn. Past Rafe and Cat and Malena, I saw Louisa coming toward us, her head held high and still perfectly coiffed, even as her eyes gleamed bright with unshed tears.

  “Rafe,” she said quietly, and Cat and Malena stepped away so the new prima could approach her brother.

  He reached out to take Louisa’s hands. “What happened?”

  She pulled in a breath. I could tell she was trying hard to remain dignified and in command of herself, even though she must have wanted to dissolve into tears like her sisters. The weight of her new mantle as prima had to weigh so very heavy.

  “We don’t know,” she said, speaking in an undertone that I had to strain to follow. “She was in the sitting room with Marco’s mother and Cousin Geraldo, and then — then she just collapsed. Dad went running to her, and at first we all thought that the stress had gotten to her and she’d fainted, but — ” Louisa paused there, pressing her lips together. Even from a few feet away, I saw how her slender body in its black dress was shivering, as though she’d been taken by a chill.

  Well, I could understand that. If I somehow lost my own mother so horribly and unexpectedly, I’d probably be trembling from reaction, too.

  Rafe nodded, handsome features still and cold. “Where is she?”

  “In her bedroom. We laid her down on the bed. We — we didn’t know what else to do. Dad’s with her.”

  “But the prima powers passed to you?”

  “Yes.” Louisa pulled in a hiccupy little breath. “I have them, but Rafe, I don’t know what to do with them!”

  “You don’t have to do anything,” he told her, his voice almost too calm, as if he knew he had to be the one to hold things together until Louisa could calm herself. “Except be prima.” He glanced over at me. For one horrible moment, I worried that he was going to excuse himself, say that he and his sisters needed time alone with their mother, and I’d have to wait out here.

  I should have known better.

  “Please come with me, Miranda,” he said quietly. “All of us — the immediate family — need to talk in private.”

  He reached out a hand and I took it, let him lead me through the house, past the ranks of sorrowful Castillos, all of whom looked more bewildered than anything else. I could tell they were all wondering how in the world this could have happened.

  And I didn’t know whether I could ever begin to explain how this evil had reached out and taken their prima from them. Guilt tore at me, even though I knew this was not my fault. No, this crime could be laid directly at Simon Escobar’s feet.

  We climbed the stairs to the second floor, Rafe and me in the lead, his sisters immediately behind us. That felt strange to me; I thought that Louisa, as the new prima, should have been at the head of our sad little procession. But even though Rafe and I had reconciled, I still felt very much the outsider here, and so I didn’t make any protest, didn’t say anything as we walked down the upstairs hall to the master suite.

  I had never been up here before. My previous visits to this house had been confined to the more public areas downstairs — the living room, the dining room. This level of the house had the same dark beams overhead, the same white plaster walls. Those walls were nearly a foot thick, heavy and unyielding. I didn’t know for sure when this house had been built, but I thought it must be at least two hundred years old, possibly more. And, like the ground floor, this upper level felt just as weighty, just as dark and ponderous. The air was chilly, and I shivered in my thin sweater.

  A pair of doors made of age-darkened oak stood at the end of the hallway. Rafe went up to them and knocked softly. “Dad? It’s Rafe. We’d all like to come in.”

  No reply, but after a moment, one of the doors opened, and Rafe’s father Eduardo looked out at us. His dark eyes were reddened from sorrow, although he now appeared composed enough, his handsome, patrician features calm and still. Without speaking, he pulled his son into a quick, fierce embrace, then stepped out of the way so we all could enter.

  Now I almost wished Rafe had left me downstairs, although that would have been awkward, considering that I’d been among the missing for most of the past week, hidden away at the estate Simon had borrowed…or stolen…I still wasn’t sure. The last thing I would have wanted to do was launch into an explanation for my absence, especially when I still didn’t know what Simon was up to. That was a matter which should be discussed with Louisa, now that she was prima, and anyone else she wanted to take into her confidence — most likely Rafe and her sisters, and their father.

  Well, we were all here now.

  The room was large, the ceiling white plaster with dark beams — what they called vigas — overhead, the walls painted a surprising deep red. At the far end of the space was a large oak four-poster bed, simple in construction, the wood pale in contrast to the blood-hued walls. On that bed lay Genoveva Castillo.

  Or rather, her body. I really didn’t want to go any closer, but I knew I couldn’t hang back while the rest of the family approached that bed, ranged themselves around it. Rafe held me by the hand, some warmth now returning to his fingers. Maybe now that he’d confronted the worst of it — had actually seen his mother lying dead on her bed — he felt as though he was in a better position to handle whatever might come next.

  She looked like she was asleep. That was a relief, because my mind had conjured several horrible images of a gruesome death, even though Louisa had said that everyone thought she had fainted at first. Her eyes were shut, profile still proud and elegant, even in death. Someone had folded her hands on her breast, and the large diamond on the ring finger of her left hand sparkled in the sunlight coming through the window off to one side.

  Sunlight. It was hard to believe it was still only the middle of the day, that Rafe’s battle with Simon had taken place only an hour or so earlier. With everything that had happened, I thought we should now be buried in the deepest darkness.

  That image sent a shiver through me, and for a brief moment I closed my eyes and recalled the bubble of protection I had cast around Rafe’s house less than an hour earlier. I cast that same spell of protection around the prima’s house now. It would be so like Simon to try something else dreadful while everyone was gathered here to mourn, and I wasn’t about to allow that.

  Rafe spoke first. His voice was tight and strained, but calm enough. “Did Daniel tell you who Simon really is?”

  Cat nodded, her face pale, fear showing in her dark eyes. “He did. He came and found me, showed me the information his assistant had sent him. I was about to go warn Mom when — when this happened. And afterward, I told Dad and Louisa and Malena.”

  “We know what we’re up against,” Louisa said. She also sounded calm, but I could tell she was scared — her hands shook slightly, and she looked pale under h
er olive skin.

  “I’m not sure you do,” I said, and they all turned to look at me. Faced by those combined stares, I swallowed, and wondered whether I should have waited for a more opportune moment to speak. Well, since I’d already put my foot in it, I decided to forge ahead. “Simon is — well, he’s the most powerful warlock I’ve ever encountered. We’re not talking about someone who’s confined to one particular talent. As far as I can tell, he can do pretty much whatever he wants.”

  “All magic has its limits,” Louisa said, although something in her tone made me think she was only saying that because she wanted to believe it, not because she necessarily thought it was true.

  “We don’t know that for sure,” I replied. “We have our traditions, and we know what witches and warlocks generally can do, but Simon…Simon is different.”

  As was I, but I didn’t feel like going into all that right now. For one thing, Simon had helped to awaken my powers, had taught me how to use them, but I still didn’t know exactly how far they extended. The exercises he’d had me perform appeared to prove that I could do just about anything I set my mind to, and yet that didn’t necessarily mean a lot when contrasted with the magic Simon seemed to command. Already I’d bumped into several instances where he easily brushed my efforts aside. The last thing I wanted to do was allow the Castillos to think I might be the answer to their problems.

  More like the cause of them, as far as I could tell.

  “Different how?” Eduardo asked. His voice was rough with grief. Genoveva Castillo had been a difficult, prickly woman, but Eduardo had appeared to love her unreservedly. To lose her like this must have been as painful as it was shocking.

 
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