Raven’s skin shivered like a racehorse at the gate, ready to bolt. The air around them changed when the woman had shown herself. There was a charge, and it was threatening to singe her.
Her fingers clawed into the rock behind her, and she wet her lips nervously, having to clear her throat before she spoke. “Do I know you?”
The woman clucked her tongue disapprovingly. “I should hope so, Poppet,” she said in a heavy British accent. “I’m your mother.”
Raven’s pulse ratcheted up a notch even as her blood ran cold. She’d been anticipating this confrontation for nearly a year, but with the new information they had from Ray about Azibel, she was thrown off guard.
Doing her best to mask her struggle, she curled her mouth into a sneer and forced herself to step away from the safety of the rock. “So you say.”
“Don’t test me, child. You’ve no idea what you’re dealing with.”
“Try me. Azibel.”
The small woman raised a brow and narrowed her eyes at Raven. “I gather you’ve spoken to Raymonde. That is unfortunate. I’ll have to have a little chat with my associates when I return.” She said “chat” the way normal folks would say “pulling teeth”.
“Good luck. They’re dead.”
Azibel shrugged a delicate shoulder and pouted. “Pity, that. Good help is so hard to find these days. Ah, well,” she waved a dismissive hand in the air, “c’est la vie, as they say.”
Raven was rapidly losing patience—a virtue she had blessed little of to begin with—so she decided to cut to the chase. “What do you want from me?”
Azibel stepped forward, then reached out and trailed a blood-red fingertip down a strand of Raven’s hair. “So pretty.”
Raven’s skin crawled with the need to back away, but she stood her ground, raised her face to meet her mother’s gaze.
Big mistake. Big. Huge. A thin but surprisingly strong hand snapped out and grabbed her by the wrist. Raven was helpless but to look on in horror as Azibel’s face began to change. Eyes that were once black turned completely clear, with shadows swirling hypnotically inside them, as if they were trying to reach out to her.
An image of a spider emerged on her forehead, and her canines lengthened into lethal-looking fangs. Explains the overbite, Raven thought. And it was the last thought of her own before Azibel firmly rooted herself into Raven’s mind.
“What I want…,” she purred, “is to take my rightful place in this world, with my daughter beside me. Imagine, Raven, joining together with me to lower, no, to destroy the barrier that keeps my people confined to the hell in which they are imprisoned.”
Raven tried to shake her head, to scream, but she couldn’t seem to get her brain to send the signals to her body. She felt her mouth go slack, and her breathing ease as she stared into those mesmerizing eyes.
“You can’t tell me you haven’t always felt…different. Like something was missing. Like you weren’t meant for this menial existence. Can you?” Obviously fully aware of Raven’s inability to answer, she plowed on. “Of course, you can’t. You would be a goddess among my people. They would revere and fear you—serve your every desire. Imagine it.”
And, with a nausea roiling in her belly, Raven did. She allowed herself a moment to feel what it would be like to have a mother, to really know who she was and where she came from, and be exalted for it.
Smiling a knowing smile as if she knew Raven’s thoughts, Azibel cupped her cheek with her free hand. Her skin was icy cold and shocked Raven a bit out of her stupor. “Say the word, pet. Everything I have is yours if you join with me. In fact, you don’t even have to speak. Just nod, my precious.”
While she fought the battle to stay conscious and regain control of her own mind, Raven had the absurd image of Tolkien’s Gollum salivating over a piece of jewelry like it could answer all the questions in the universe.
The utter ridiculousness of it, of Azibel for what she was asking, and of Raven for even allowing herself to consider it, snapped her right out of it. Without hesitating further, she summoned her power over space to swirl the air around Azibel, creating an invisible noose around her neck.
Azibel’s eyes widened in disbelief as she released Raven to claw at her own neck, and she scored bloody gashes into her delicate skin. She coughed and gasped for breath, then stumbled back. Somehow, she summoned enough power to send out a blast of energy to dislodge Raven’s hold.
“You bitch! I would have given you everything, but now? Now you’ll bleed like the rest of those insipid humans when I burn this world down around your ears!”
Before Raven even had time to process those threats, she felt herself being lifted bodily off the ground and hoisted into the pool behind her, though Azibel never moved an inch.
The first thing she registered was the mind-numbing cold of the water. In an Appalachian mountain pool in the fall, one could freeze to death in minutes. God, the cold. Like nothing she’d ever felt, it seeped into her skin and made her bones ache.
Survival instinct kicked in and she tried to struggle to the surface, but she was pushed back down and held by invisible hands. Then she was held by very real hands. More hands than she could count.
The hands came up from the dark depths of the pool. They groped and pulled, and grappled with her as if trying to climb their way to freedom. Opening her eyes, she could see them. Bodies in the water. With their gaping mouths and vacant, black eyes, they loomed in the murky pool. They reached for her, whether to pull her down or pull themselves up, she didn’t know.
Finally, her body registered the lack of air, the need to breathe. And everything whittled down to that one simple, life-giving function. Allowing her body to go still, she stopped her struggles and tried to conserve what little oxygen she had left.
As she calmed, an insidious voice floated through her mind. “You see what happens to those who defy me, Raven? I don’t just kill them, I torture them for eternity. I’ll destroy you for spurning me,” the voice said with an eerie calm, “you, and everything—everyone—you love.”
Spots began floating in her vision, and Raven knew the end was close. She sent out a desperate message and hoped to the gods that Isla or Brynna would somehow sense her distress.
The need to breathe became the center of her universe. Once again, she tried to claw her way to the surface, but it was useless. Invisible bands of steel encircled her, weighing her down, squeezing the life out of her. Her body began to convulse, and she involuntarily let go the breath she’d been holding.
Her vision dimmed, and her head pounded, her fight or flight response screaming in her ear. With the very last reserve of her strength, she pushed out against the water, against the very oxygen in its makeup.
Water exploded around her, and, just as suddenly, all the hands that held her down released. At the same time, two pairs of blessedly real hands latched onto her arms and pulled upward. She shot out of the water, flailing and gasping, and landed on two warm bodies.
Small but strong arms cradled her as she coughed and retched, until all the dreaded water had leeched out of her lungs. More hands smacked her back to help her expel what was left. She rolled onto her back on the cool stone, stared up at the sky and breathed in great heaves of air. Damn, she loved air. It was way underrated.
A shadow blocked out the sun as Isla leaned over her. “Raven? Sweeting, can you hear me?”
Raven tried to speak, but all that came out was a strangled croak, so she gave up and simply nodded.
Another shadow joined the first, except this one had a flaming red halo backlit by the sun. “What th’ bloody divil was that?” she squeaked, her brogue so thickened, she was almost unintelligible.
“Did you see her?” Raven managed to rasp the question out before dissolving in another fit of coughing.
“Azibel,” she ground out before promptly passing out.
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