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The Hour of Dust & Ashes Excerpt

Chapter One
 

“You mean to tell me every single exorcist in this city is gone?”

Perched on her crude stone chair like some ancient Greek actor shadowed in darkness and smoke, Alessandra rolled her luminous green eyes to the ceiling. “Why is it everyone who stands before me must repeat everything I say?”

Because you say the craziest things? I thought, keeping a straight face.

Under the bowl-shaped seat, a bundle of laurel leaves smoked in a copper basin wedged between thick tripod legs. The fine material she wore over her head and shoulders caught the sweet-smelling smoke rising from below, billowing the fabric and directing much of it toward her lungs. Her hand stroked the back of a python curled in her lap, its fat head resting over her forearm.

Stone, python, laurel leaves—all primitive, powerful things that enhanced the sight and gave Atlanta’s resident oracle a spot at the very top.

There was a time long ago when oracles were killed for being wrong, but Alessandra—with her pale, ageless skin and softly glowing eyes that never focused on anything for long—hadn’t stayed in business the last two thousand years by being wrong. Confusing, frustrating, pompous to a staggering degree? Abso-fucking-lutely. But never wrong.

The smoke hit the back of my throat, tasting of burnt leaves and bitter wood. I coughed, waving at the ghostly ribbons drifting my way and cursing the oracle’s refusal to install ventilation in her temple.

She called it a temple. I called it a decrepit forties-style theater in Underground Atlanta. There was one stage, mezzanine seating, and staggered seating in the pit. You got a number, waited your turn, and then walked onto the stage to face the hooded oracle seated above her burning leaves.

Alessandra also owned the club next door. She’d had it connected to her temple via a wide, arched tunnel that allowed the beat, the strobe lights, the smoke, and the club patrons to trickle through. Sandra loved an audience, and milking the drunks for every penny they had was an added bonus to an already lucrative career.

The smoke, the saccharine sweetness hanging in the air like jungle humidity, the unbelievably hard time Alessandra felt compelled to give me—not to mention the constant throbbing beat from the club next door—were all ingredients for The Perfect Migraine.  

And The Perfect Reason why I kept my visits few and far between.

“You waste my time, Charlie Madigan. As usual. Track them down if you want. Search until you expire for all I care. You’ve found how many in the last week? None. Nada. Zip. Zeroooo.” She sang the last word, making an O with her thumb and pointer finger. Her red nails flashed in the dim light. Such a small distraction, but one that made her musical note fade as she fanned out all five fingers in admiration. “Gods, I adore this shade. How can you not love a color called ‘Spanked Bottom’? You tell me.” She flashed her nails at me. “Pretty accurate, no?”

My brow lifted. “I wouldn’t know.  Sandra . . . can we cut the BS for once? I’ve spent the last few days tracking down every exorcist in this city. I have no one left to tell me. Is my sister possessed or not?”

“I see only what the leaves tell me. They tell me nothing about any spirit lurking in her belfry.”

“Of course not.” Alessandra could try the patience of a saint, but I swear she only did this cryptic shit to me. “And the exorcists leaving the city? I suppose that’s just a coincidence.”

“Well, they’re not stupid. They know when the danger is too great to stay. And who said they left willingly . . . or even alive?”

The fact that all the exorcists in the city had suddenly vanished didn’t bode well for Bryn. And there was no doubt in my mind the danger Alessandra spoke of was most likely attributed to one person: jinn tribal chief, organized crime boss, and Sons of Dawn cult member Grigori Tennin. He was the only one with a direct link to the off-world drug ash, the cult, and my sister’s possible possession.

“Why do you even question her possession?” Alessandra asked me. “Wishful thinking, no? And here I thought you were a lifelong pessimist.”

“I have to question it. Not a single mage in the League, not even the Elders, can sense another presence in her.”

“Yet, only a week ago she killed the warlock mage, the one she loves.”

Llyran killed Aaron. Bryn just . . .”

“Helped him.”

My heart sank. It was true. And even though we’d brought Aaron—my friend, my teacher, the man my sister loved—back from the dead, Bryn didn’t remember the part she played. And the only thing I knew for sure was that Bryn was there with Aaron, his blood on her hands, when he died.

“Well, I think we both agree she wasn’t in her right mind,” Alessandra said. “Her exposure to ash makes her the perfect vessel for possession, and she remains in an excellent position to help the cult recover what they lost during your fight atop Helios Tower. Surely you have considered this.”

“Of course I have—that’s why I’m here. I need solid proof before I go pulling a spirit from her without being certain there’s one to pull.”

“Otherwise you’d take hers, and that would leave her quite dead, wouldn’t it?”

I rubbed a hand down my face, letting out a tired breath. White tendrils of smoke drifted my way again, and my head was starting to pound. “C’mon, Sandra, you’ve got to give me something. Anything. Please.

She regarded me for a long, thoughtful moment. “There is another in the city,” she said slowly. “Drawn by the darkness, can see inside and do many things . . .”

Relief swept through me. “Great. Who?”

“The sylph.”

I blinked, questioning with a look.

“Creatures of mist, smoke, earth . . .” She leaned precariously to one side and then swayed to the other, eyelids fluttering. “Left Elysia . . . branched off . . . evolved into shifters of a different kind.” Her voice went deeper, breathier. “Been here, part of Earth, tied to Earth so long. Yes, yes. A different kind altogether.”

I was only familiar with one kind of shifter, a being that could alter its shape at will without the use of crafting—nymphs. The nature-loving beings from Elysia, and the inspiration for much of Celtic mythology (along with the darkling and sidhé fae), were born with the ability to shift into an animal form. But a creature that shifted into mist? “Never heard of them.”

“And why would you? They prefer to stay hidden, unknown. Why should they reveal themselves when Elysia and Charbydon were discovered? The sylphs were already here, long before the nymphs and fae even. They did not see the need to enlighten mankind.” Her voice dropped to a mutter. “And they’re not the only ones . . .”

That was comforting. “Where do I find the sylph?”

She waved an impatient hand, glancing at the entrance to the club. “Here and there. Above. Below. I’m an oracle, Charlie Madigan. The oracle. Not a map. I do not keep track.” She paused, eyeing me with open calculation. “I can, however, get you an introduction. You want one?”

Alessandra being helpful was a recipe for some kind of disaster. Nothing was cut and dry when it came to her information or her idea of help, but I had nothing else to go on at this point. “An introduction would be great, thanks.”

“Mmm,” she said, nodding and closing her eyes for a few seconds. “No need to thank me. You’ll be charged extra.”

Figures. My bank account was about to take a major hit.

“And where’s your partner tonight?” she asked. “As I recall, last time he was here with you, Tuni broke his nose.” She cast an admiring glance at the rogue jinn warrior standing off to the side of the stage.

Tuni stood with both feet apart, large arms crossed over his chest, his gray skin a near match for the darkness behind him. Only the light reflecting off his violet irises, smooth bald head, and ear piercings saved Alessandra’s Goliath of a guard from blending completely into the shadows. I knew for a fact that the guy had a fist the size of a grapefruit. A grapefruit made of steel as Hank told it.

The last time we were here, inquiring about the new off-world drug, ash, Tuni had indeed broken my partner’s nose. A minor scuffle. My fault, really. Hank’s face just happened to be in the way when I opened my big mouth and insulted the oracle.

I sighed, wondering where the hell she was going with this, but knowing it was part of her game, her ritual. Her boredom. “I don’t keep tabs on my partner, Sandra.”

“Mmm. Maybe you should. Now that he has full use of his siren abilities once more, I wonder how many potential mates will be crawling out of the woodwork. New Year’s Eve is coming. Time for kisses. I’ll be kissed. Will you?”

“You’re the oracle. You tell me.”

A genuine laugh breezed through her painted lips. “I think I’ll keep that one to myself, Charlie.” She leaned forward with a conspiring gleam in her eyes. “You want me to tell you what your siren will be doing tonight?”

My teeth ground together. He’s not my siren. “I’ll pass.” Because I knew exactly what my partner was doing tonight. Sleeping. Just like he'd done yesterday and the day before and the day before that.

When Hank had used his siren voice to issue a massive power word atop Helios Tower, it ended the battle between us and the war-obsessed cult Sons of Dawn. But there was a consequence for that kind of energy drain. Hank had held it together after the battle—long enough for us to find a hiding place for the cult’s most prized possession and to check on Aaron—but as soon as he walked away from me at the station, he’d gone straight home, crawled into bed, and sank into a near comatose state.

That was a week ago. He’d missed Christmas. And he might even miss New Year’s if he didn’t wake up soon. 

“So certain you know, eh?” A smug grin crawled across the oracle’s face.  “You of all people should know you can never truly know another. Trust. Faith. They are only hopes, not absolutes. Never absolutes. Thin hopes, at best, to ease the mind and heart.”

Me of all people. Nice. Hit me where it hurts, Sandra. 

I gave her the most annoyed expression in my arsenal even though she spoke the truth. My ex-husband Will and I had been together for eleven years. I would’ve sat across from the devil himself and bet my life on Will’s faithfulness and honesty. And the devil would’ve collected my soul, leaving me completely blindsided. Alessandra was right. You can never truly know another or what they’re capable of. Will and his secret life of black crafting had taught me that. It was a lesson I’d never forget.  

“There are limits on love and loyalty, Charlie. Everyone has a line, a truth, a sacrifice they are unwilling to make for another no matter how much devotion and love they have. Your siren has secrets just like you and everyone else. The only one who can truly know all is”—her white teeth flashed from within the darkness of her hood—“me.”

My expression went flat. She might know the future as it was tonight, but I firmly believed the future was fluid, changeable, affected by constantly varying factors.

Whatever.

No matter what Alessandra saw or knew about Hank and me, she wouldn’t get to me. Not this time. I gave myself enough hell as it was. Every time I thought about losing control and blatantly falling under the siren spell like your average groupie, and then getting that damn truth mark, I could barely breathe let alone think about Hank’s last words to me. You don’t stand a chance.

And what the hell did that mean anyway? Dating? A fling? Something more? The answer hinged on what happened next. Except the “next” had been put on hold while Hank recuperated.

“How long?” I asked tightly as her eerie green eyes laughed at me. “How long will it take to contact the sylph?”

Alessandra waved the smoke away as though just realizing it bothered her. “As long as it takes. Now leave your token at the altar.” Which was code for: We’re done; get the hell out of my temple. “And for Dione’s sake, get your Revenant out of my club.”

I turned, immediately finding the seat Rex had promised to stay in. Shit. Damned if he hadn’t gone into the club. I looked at my watch. Thirty minutes to gather Rex and get to the Mordecai House to pick up my kid from visiting with Bryn.

My token consisted of a credit card swiped through a conveniently placed machine (aka the altar) by the steps. Tuni and the twelve other bodyguards lurking around the theater made sure everyone paid and everyone treated Alessandra with the utmost respect.

I glanced down at the receipt and cringed. Three hundred bucks. Great. I shoved my card back into my wallet and then made for the steps.

“Oh, and Charlie?” Alessandra called. I turned on the steps and waited to be wowed by her next vital and coherent piece of information. “Do me a favor and don’t summon your power tonight, ’kay?”

I paused on the steps.

Number one hundred and twenty.” A booming voice called the next patron over the loudspeaker as I started back up the steps to ask her what the hell she meant.

Tuni blocked my path. “Move along.”

I leaned to the side. Alessandra wasn’t even looking my way anymore and I knew from past experience she wouldn’t elaborate once she was “done.” With a sigh, I left, making for the giant archway that led into the club.

The music grew louder as I approached. The blood vessels in my head pounded in time to the deep bass. Strobe lights flashed through the tunnel, making the smoky air light up in flashes that did nothing for my developing headache.

“Let me come with you. Don’t worry I’ll be good as gold,” Rex had said earlier.

Yeah. Good as gold my ass.

As I approached the two guards at the archway, one reached for the snap to the velvet rope as the other one went to step in front of me. I swore if he asked for a cover charge after I’d just spent three hundred bucks, I was going to blow. He pulled out a stamp, pressed it to the back of my hand, and allowed me to pass. Smart man.

Inside the tunnel, the music was louder, the smoke suffocating, the strobes brighter. The faintest hum of nausea spread from my gut to my throat. With every step farther down the tunnel, my desire to kill Rex mounted. Now I just had to hurry up and find the—

A record scratched. The music stopped. And a voice rang out loud and clear.

“Come and get it, muthafuckahhhs!!!”

Rex.

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