I batted at the curl of smoke drifting off the tip of my candle and tried not to sneeze. My heavy velvet cloak fell in oppressive, suffocating folds in the closed space of the ceremony chamber, the cowl trapping the annoying bits of puff I missed. I hated the way my eyes burned and teared, an almost constant distraction. Not that I didn’t welcome the distraction, to be honest. Anything to take my mind from what went on around me.
Being part of a demon raising is way less exciting than it sounds.
The bodies of the gathered coven pressed close, shrouded in the same black velvet, the physical weight of their presence making it hard to breathe. I struggled to censor my clichéd thoughts and focus on the task at hand. The glow of other candle flames floated around me, barely lighting faces, enough for a serious case of the creepies. A low hum sounded from every throat, filling the room with an almost physical presence. I participated half-heartedly, wishing I was anywhere but here, knowing despite my personal preferences I had no choice whatsoever.
The group swayed as one as the hum grew in volume. The first hint of power made its way around the half-circle. I felt my own power being drawn away, connected and shared despite my reflexive attempt to pull free. As much as I suppressed my magic from day to day and refused to use it at all, the draw of the coven and my attachment to it made it impossible to deny.
Totally crappy. Especially since anything to do with magic always made me feel slightly nauseated and off balance.
I wiped a smoke-laced tear from the corner of my eye and blinked at the pentagram etched in the stone at my feet. The lines of the star began to glow faintly blue, the candles at each point flaring as though with the heartbeat of the whole, the breath and life of each and every soul in the room. I wondered if anyone ever checked to see if our hearts really did beat in sync. Wouldn’t that be special?
I stifled a sigh as a tall, elegant form flowed forward from the circle to the center of the pentagram. She swept back the hood of her cloak, her long, thick and perfect black hair a flawless halo around her gorgeous face. Her eyes glowed with joy, cheeks flushed from the rush of energy coming from the coven, her coven. Miriam Hayle was everything every woman wanted to be. Beautiful, graceful, commanding, the perfect witch, the perfect leader, the perfect everything.
My luck? She was my mother.
I blew on the smoke from my candle as subtly as possible while barely managing to still the jiggle starting in my left knee. Somehow I always ended up in exactly the spot where a tiny little breeze pushed the white vapor the wrong way. A part of me was sure it was somehow contrived that way as an extra level of punishment piled on to my particular little corner of hell. And forget the sacrilege of blowing the candle out. It’s not a whole lot of fun being the center of the displeasure of fifty-odd witches of varying power, so I suffered.
Oh believe me, I suffered. Every day, every moment, every breath. I, Sydlynn Hayle, sixteen-year-old All-American girl, was a witch. My mom was a witch. My grandmother was a witch, if a crazy one. My sister, my mom’s best friend and every single other person in my life, much to my disappointment, fell in that category, with a couple of exceptions. Lucky me. Except I spent my entire life wanting nothing more than to be normal, average, ordinary and just like everyone else.
Hard to do in a family like mine.
So there I was, another Saturday night, no friends, no social life, just the stupid coven and another stupid coven ritual. Could one girl’s life really suck that much?
I glanced down at my little sister as she stared at our Mom, in rapt attention, beaming a smile. Meira glanced up at me, red-tinted skin and amber gaze aglow as the power in the room built, triggering her demon blood. In the ‘real world,’ Meira had to disguise her unusual coloring, her overlarge eyes and cute little horns peeking out of her silky black curls. Within the safety of the family she was free to be herself and I know she loved it.
I always envied my eight-year-old sister her eagerness to embrace her birthright while I simply did everything I could to ignore it. Easier for me, I suppose, with my plain, dark brown hair and ordinary blue eyes, my white skin and handful of freckles. I did what I could not to look the part, to forget our dad was a demon.
Meira grinned at me, her candle’s trail curling perfectly upward toward the ceiling in an endless swirl. I waved at my smoke again, the tickle in the back of my throat and nose getting worse. Meira watched me struggle like she always did. With laughter wrinkling her upturned nose, she waggled her fingers at my candle. I felt her power reach out, the thin film of it forming a delicate tube around the wick. My smoke immediately behaved. She winked before turning back to Mom.
I felt stupid. So that’s how they did it…! Sixteen years of this crap, and it took my little sister taking pity on me to finally get the joke. Of course, if I ever paid attention or agreed to do magic, maybe I’d have known about it a long time ago. But the fact my suspicions were so dead on, that Mom obviously instructed the others to let me figure it out on my own or continue to suffer, made me grind my teeth in frustration. She would do anything to get me to use my talent, short of putting me in danger, and I even wondered about that.
I tried to focus on the stupid ceremony and not my urge to throw the dumb candle in her flawless face.
Yeah, that would go over well.
Mom, either unaware or not caring about my present state of mind, raised her arms, robe falling into a perfect puddle at her feet, revealing her model’s figure in a black satin gown, polished silver jewelry at wrists and throat. She positively glowed with power, vivid blue eyes in rapture. How pathetically stereotypical. I wanted to throw up.
I felt the strength flow out of me in a rush and struggled as I always did to control the weakness in my knees and the slow roll in my stomach. I tried to catch my breath as secretly as possible, furious this always left me on the verge of passing out. Of course, no one else showed any discomfort, just little old me. I guess knowing how to use your magic and being willing to share made the whole transfer easier. That’s me, fight tooth and nail, even to the point of pain.
Sometimes I wondered why I was even invited.
At least I had the diversion of being responsible for my grandmother. She stood next to me, as usual, about as into the whole thing as me, but for different reasons. She hummed softly under her breath, her watery blue eyes crossing and recrossing as she studied the tip of her protruding tongue. She turned to me, wisps of white hair escaping from the edges of her black cloak, fanning back and forth with a life of their own. Her powder white skin fell in crumpled folds, but her expression was pure childishness. She cackled, winning me a silent warning from my mother. I rolled my eyes at Mom before sneaking a caramel out of my pocket and slipping it to Gram. She made a face. Chocolate was her favorite, but I hadn’t time to track some down. Okay, honestly, I forgot and raided the candy dish on the way. I prayed the offering would be sufficient.
Ethpeal Hayle had once been an influential witch. When I was just a baby, an evil coven challenged our family. She stood against them alone, cutting herself off to protect the rest of us. The Purity coven fell thanks to her, but the fight scrambled her sanity. So, I waited for the old woman to make up her mind about the candy and tried to be patient. It wasn’t her fault she was nuts.
I saw the flicker of rejection as her wrinkled old mouth puckered and knew if I didn’t act right then the scene she could create would probably level the house. The fight with the Purities may have left her one fortune cookie short of a combo plate but it did nothing to reduce her power. Knowing I only had one chance, I curled my fingers and started to pull away.
Her hand shot out, dagger-like nails brushing my palm as she snatched the sweet and stuffed it into her face. She grinned at me, nose wrinkling, eyes full of mischief. I tried not to react, knowing yet again we were saved by careful manipulation of my crazy grandmother.
I returned my attention to Mom with some relief as, oblivious to the disaster I averted, she turned slowly, pivoting on manicured toes. I made a face at her fuchsia piggies, just in time to catch her disapproving frown. I could practically hear her whole body screaming at me to pay attention, the little hairs on my arms vibrating from it. I flashed her a half-grimace, half-smile so she would stop. Her expression softened. She turned away. Thankfully. I wasn’t sure how long I could keep up the whole fake happy thing without bursting into flames.
She faced the altar at the back of the room and the life-sized stone effigy of an impossibly perfect and handsome man with large muscles and tiny horns on his smooth forehead. She pushed magical force toward it.
“Haralthazar,” she glided closer to the statue, “we summon you this third night of Power, nine days and nine nights from Samhain Eve, to tighten our bond with you and your realm.” She knelt at the foot of the altar, the picture of the submissive handmaiden. Could she be any more ridiculous? Seriously. “My love, come and be welcome.”
The blinding flash leaping from her to the statue continued to pour out of her in a deep blue rush of light. I turned my head slightly to the side, squinting against the glare, grateful for the edge of the cowl and the shadow it made. The whole room started to thrum, the floor vibrating with condensed magic as Mom used the energy we gave her to make the doorway permitting my father through to this plane.
When it happened we all felt it rather than seeing it. The power swirled around us, drawing us all closer, forming us into one entity, one spirit, a seamless conduit to the other dimension. I always hated this part, the total and utter lack of self that came with the opening of the door. Every time I went through it I tried to pull back, but my own demon blood wouldn’t allow it. Even more so than the other witches in the room, my being was tied completely and without choice to what was happening at the altar. I was always helpless, tapped into, taken, and ended up on my knees behind my mother, Meira at my side, as the effigy of my father came to life.
The blue flared to gold and Haralthazar, Demon Lord of the Seventh Plane of Demonicon, flushed and filled out. Still with the properties of stone but the appearance of flesh, he materialized from a burst of light as the gateway to his plane slammed open. For a heartbeat he stood there, haloed in the back glow of his dimension before the power propelled him the rest of the way forward and he stepped through and into his statue.
There was a certain presence to my father, a weight, a physical feeling to being around him that always made me uncomfortable, especially when the door first opened. I hated to admit it, but I think it made me feel that way because I was afraid it could be me someday traveling between worlds.
Haralthazar took the time to look over us. His chiseled face creased in a soft smile, gentle even, welcoming. Hard to believe, but true. My dad was a nice demon. Forget the whole pit of burning despair thing. Demons simply come from another plane, a different realm of existence. There are good guys and bad guys like here on Earth. Lucky for us, when my Mom decided to go unconventional even before the attack left her own mother crippled, she fell in love with Dad.
He raised one arm over Mom. She stiffened as the energy rippled out of her in visible strings of light, flowing over the pentagram and back into each of us. I flinched as the thread hit me, out of breath and more than a little dizzy. Dad always gave back more than he took, at least to me.
“My love, well met.” He bent and took my mother’s hand, helping her to her feet. “Miriam, rise and stand with me.”
She took her place beside him. Emotion swirled between them. Dad beamed at us.
“I am well pleased, my friends,” he said. “Our coven grows and is strong. I offer power to the bond and love and protection to you all.”
“Our thanks to you,” the crowd murmured, my voice joining slightly late.
He turned to me.
“Sydlynn Hayle,” he held out one hand, “come to your father.”
This part always made me feel like I was being dissected by all the eyes staring into my back. I despised being the center of attention. There was a definite slouch in my stance as I climbed to my feet and dragged myself unhappily to my parents.
“The first gift of our joining, welcome and my thanks for the sharing of power. With you, our light grows.”
“You bet.” My father frowned for an instant, enough to make me feel like a spoiled rotten little kid. How did he do that? I was happily cynical with my mother but Dad could reduce me to a child with one raised eyebrow. I guess he was mostly a great father and a really good guy and I hated disappointing him.
I drew a breath and tried harder.
“My light to you,” I said, louder.
He smiled secretly. I smiled back as he bent over me and touched his lips to my forehead.
“Hi, cupcake,” he whispered through the official kiss. “How’s soccer going?”
Seriously. Cupcake. “Fine, thanks,” I whispered back. “And you can stop calling me that.”
He grinned pure evil.
“Whatever you say. Cupcake.”
“Don’t piss off your mother,” he said.
“Doing my best.” I rolled my eyes.
Dad straightened up and addressed the group.
“This is my child, truly born, a member of this coven. Who speaks against her?”
In the silence that followed, I half-heartedly hoped someone would kick me out.
“All is well,” he said. “Our love to you, Sydlynn Hayle.”
I made a face at him for the whole stupid thing.
“Thanks,” I said. Dad dropped a small wink as I stepped back.
“Meira Hayle, come forward.”
My sister stepped up eagerly. I heard her soft giggle as our father repeated the kiss he gave me. I’d ask her later what he said to make her laugh. Not that I’d ever admit it, but we didn’t get to see our father all that often and I was a bit jealous of her time spent with him.
Dad straightened over her.
“This is my child, truly born, and a member of this coven. Who speaks against her?”
Meira must have said something cute because our dad struggled not to laugh in the silence.
“All is well,” he repeated. “Our love to you, Meira Hayle.”
Meira stepped back, her little hand slipping into mine. She grinned up at me as the ceremony continued.
I tried not to laugh when Gram, up next, planted a wet, sticky one on him. He had the good nature to hug her back and smile at her with real warmth and love. She tottered back to us, so pleased with herself she wriggled like a little girl.
I struggled with a case of the fidgets as the validation process continued but couldn’t help the impatient shift from sneaker to sneaker making its way through my defenses. Witch after witch, male and female alike, professed their undying love and loyalty to our family, etcetera, and so on, ad nausem. It took forever. And to think we had to go through this twice a year. According to Mom, with the dying of the summer at Samhain and its rebirth at Beltane, the connection between our plane and Dad’s was closest. It made the bonding easier and more powerful.
Blah, blah, blah.
The only problem? It was the epitome of boring. Besides, I had homework to do. I could hardly explain to my science teacher I didn’t get my chemistry done because I was helping my coven renew its bond with my demon father. Who knew? Maybe Mr. Sinclair would give me a better mark if he thought I packed that kind of firepower.
Finally, and I do mean finally, the ceremony ended with the last of them stepping back from Haralthazar. He turned to my mother. The love in their eyes as they gazed at each other was, if I have to be totally honest, sickening and way over the top.
“My love.” He held her hands to his chest, the top of her head reaching his chin, the flawless, perfect lovers, channeling a bad romance novel.
Meira poked me. I knew I was making faces in disgust. It was just so embarrassing. Normal people didn’t do that kind of thing in public. Meira and I exchanged a knowing smirk and I pretended to gag.
“My life,” Mom said with bated breath.
Another grimace. Meira giggled.
“Our circle is whole. Our power is renewed, and our love.” Even Dad was in on the nonsense.
“Yours always, my love.” Mom stretched up on her tiptoes.
I quickly found something else to look at, horrified by the open attraction my parents had no problem sharing with the rest of us. Didn’t they get public displays of affection were the height of icky? I’m sure if it were me, I’d be grounded.
Meira sniggered and made a little kissing noise. I choked on a laugh and had to struggle not to cough.
Dad winked at us.
“My people, my family, I embrace you with my love.” I felt the warmth flow through me as his presence wrapped around us all. It made me want to fidget again but this time I won.
“Love to you,” we all said at once. I hated this part, too, and did my best not to battle against the power flowing in a great circle from one witch to the next, passing between us like a hug, connecting us in ways too personal for my liking. I shuddered when it was done, skin crawling. Personal space meant nothing to them.
“Joy and peace to you all.”
“And to you,” I murmured along with the others. I glared at my candle and fought the urge to run away.
“We are one,” he said.
“And the same,” the coven answered.
“Power to blood.” Dad raised his arms.
“Blood to power.” The coven swayed.
“Family for eternity.” I scowled at him.
“Family forever,” I stared him down, but this time he wasn’t smiling. I didn’t like the serious expression on his face but shrugged at him. He finally looked away.
“Joined together, my soul to your soul, my heart to your heart, past, present and future, one and the same.”
The coven sighed as a whole as the warmth slowly left. Dad lowered his arms and embraced Mom. She turned, a light sheen of sweat on her cheeks and a huge smile on her face.
“Thank you all.”
The crowd murmured and started blowing out candles. My stomach slowly unclenched as I extinguished mine with relief and tossed it at Meira.
She blew delicately at her own, leaving behind a heart in her smoke. I poked it with my finger, but couldn’t break it. We looked up together at our parents and for a heartbeat the four of us connected, just us, in the remains of the power in the room.
I actually felt like I belonged.