Carnival of SoulsMelissa Marr
Carnival of Souls
this one wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t
married a Marine/comic-book addict/film junkie.
About the Author
Also by Melissa Marr
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THE MAN—WITCH—WHO’D summoned Selah was nothing like what she’d expected. In truth, he looked no different than many daimons she’d met: implacable expression and a musculature that would serve him well in one of Marchosias’ fighting competitions. It was only his eerie blue-and-gold witch eyes that revealed his true nature—and those eyes were fixed on her.
Selah uncovered the face of the still-sleeping child in her arms. A tiny stone pendant was woven to the edge of the blanket that she’d wrapped around her baby when they’d fled. When she’d become pregnant, she’d sold most everything she had to procure the stone for her child. The rest of her coin she’d used for this audience.
She stared into the eyes of the witch who stood before her as she admitted, “Stoneleigh said you might help.”
Sudden displeasure on his face made her pause, but she’d come too far to hesitate now. “I am not ruling class, but I’ll find a way to pay. Information. Pleasure. Blood. I’ll do whatever you want if you protect my daughter.”
“Marchosias is her sire? You swear on it?”
“I do.” Even if she wanted to lie, she couldn’t: she was a daimon held in a witch’s summoning circle. Adam was one of the oldest witches; he’d been one of the witch children who escaped several centuries ago when the wars ended. He could probably compel her without a circle, but he’d been given her name to summon her into his world and into a binding circle—at her request.
Adam continued to watch her with his unnatural witch’s eyes, and Selah couldn’t decide if bowing her head submissively or holding his gaze was wiser. Witches might look like daimons, but they were a different species, tolerated in her world only if they were weak or under Marchosias’ control. Here in the human world they might hide from the other mortal creatures, but every daimon knew that they were terrifyingly powerful. She opted for kneeling and holding his gaze.
“What’s her name?”
“Mallory,” Selah whispered.
“Swear that Mallory is given freely into my care, that if I accept your offer you will obey me in all things.” Adam paused and stepped as close to the circle as he could without breaking it. “Swear that you will accept death before endangering her or me.”
Selah’s arms tightened around her daughter. “Bound by this circle and my vow, I so swear.”
He nodded. “Your bargain is accepted.”
At his word of acceptance, the tension that had grown during pregnancy and intensified in the first few weeks of her daughter’s life abated. Marchosias would have killed her when her daughter was born if he’d known she was seeking the aid of a witch, but the risk had been worth it. Now, at least, she could stay in Mallory’s life—for as long as the witch allowed it.
Selah had traded one cage for another. The difference was that this cage would allow her daughter to survive. In the two centuries Selah had lived, every one of Marchosias’ heirs had died before they reached adulthood. When he’d chosen her that unlucky day in the Carnival of Souls, she’d prayed that it was only for pleasure, not for breeding. Briefly, she glanced at her still-sleeping daughter. Now that she’d given birth, Selah could only pray that her child would live. That meant leaving The City; it meant leaving the only world she’d known and coming here—where witches and humans lived.
Adam spoke again, drawing her gaze to him. “I’m guessing Evelyn already expects us if she sent you to me.”
“To arrive at her office. Even Marchosias can’t send anyone to retrieve you or the child if we’re wed. The Witches’ Council won’t allow it.” He lifted one hand and swept it to the side, dropping the circle that had contained her. “Mallory is mine now. No one—not even you—will have authority over her before me. I can hide what she is, protect her here, until she is eighteen. You are welcome to stay if it’s in her best interest, but if your presence ever threatens her safety, you will leave.”
He reached out, and for a moment Selah thought he was going to help her to her feet. Instead, he took Mallory. With her daughter in his arms, he walked away, leaving her kneeling in the now-defunct daimon circle, hoping that she hadn’t entered into a bargain worse than the one she was escaping.
Almost seventeen years later
MALLORY HAD AN HOUR to herself after school before she had to be at practice, so she’d ducked into the only independent coffee shop in Smithfield for some overpriced, oversweetened coffee. Admittedly, she’d spent more of the hour thinking about Kaleb than doing her homework, but AP Physics wasn’t nearly as interesting as the first boy she’d felt at ease around. She’d even told him the names of a couple of the towns where she’d lived over the years—and talked about her family. And the moment she’d done that, she’d realized she needed to stay away from him. Anyone who made her let her guard down that much was dangerous.
As she returned her empty mug to the counter, she looked out the large front window and saw Kaleb standing across the street from Java Junkies as if she’d conjured him with her thoughts. Admittedly, Smithfield was a tiny town, so she bumped into Kaleb every time he was home from school, which seemed to be a lot lately. Still, Mallory felt the same warm flush of excitement she did every time she saw him and then quashed it.
Bad idea. Very, very bad.
She lowered her gaze, suddenly finding the words painted on the door fascinating, and stepped onto the sidewalk with her eyes still downcast. She should be scanning the area for danger, but all she wanted to do was look at Kaleb. She stole a glance at him and debated going over to at least say hello. Nothing could come of it. She knew it—but she couldn’t bring herself to tell him that. It was foolishness, but she wanted something to come of it. She’d never felt so instantly at ease or so embarrassingly attracted to anyone. Telling him to go away wasn’t something she could bring herself to do—despite how inevitable it was. Instead, she walked away, forcing herself not to look at him. She let her gaze wander over the flowers in planters along the street, the man in the rumpled suit playing his cello for change, the debris that accumulated in gutters . . . anything but the boy who had occupied all of her free thoughts the past month.
She hadn’t gone more than a few steps when Kaleb caught up with her. “Are you ignoring me?”
“No,” she lied.
His voice always mad
e her want to shiver. Kaleb’s voice was like dark chocolate, so rich that she felt strangely sinful listening to him talk about the most mundane things. She resisted the temptation to close her eyes.
He stepped closer to her. “So you didn’t just see me and walk away?”
“Maybe,” Mallory half admitted.
If she needed to, she could put him on the ground, but Kaleb wasn’t an enemy. He was just a guy. She stole another glance at him. Just a guy? He was six feet of lean muscle, perpetually unruly hair, and eyes that were too dark to be called brown. To add to his allure, he had a ferocity to him that slipped out when he looked around the street. He’d only ever been sweet to her, but he had an attitude that hinted at an ability to wade into trouble; it gave her a foolish hope that he could handle the world she knew, even as logic warned her that she was clinging to illusions.
Until she’d met Kaleb, she’d actually worried that something was wrong with her. Her classmates had started talking about boys—or girls—a few years ago, but she was almost seventeen and, until the past month, she’d never had the sort of reactions they all talked about. The forget-your-name nervousness, the racing heart, the why-did-I-say-that—it was as foreign to her as a life without witches . . . until Kaleb. He made her wish for things that were impossible, for a life that she could never have.
The sound of the cars on the street drew her attention, and her gaze slipped away to check the shadows for threats.
“Yes?” Her hand went to the pendant she wore under her blouse. The reasons she shouldn’t see him, the need to see him, the way she’d had to lie to him—thinking about all of that made her feel horrible inside.
“I’m glad I found you,” he said.
He moved in so he stood just a shade closer than could be considered polite, and she wondered what he’d do if she thanked him for evoking the blushworthy thoughts she was having.
She realized that he was watching her expectantly, but she wasn’t able to admit that she was happy to see him too. Instead, she said, “I didn’t expect you.”
“I just got into town,” he said.
She started, “I need to go—”
“Do you want to go somewhere?” he asked at the same time.
They both stopped. She shifted the bag on her shoulder, surreptitiously adjusting the hilt of the knife she wore hidden under her arm. Her jacket concealed it, but sometimes the top of the hilt poked the underside of her bra. That was one of the many things she didn’t want to discuss. So, why are you wearing a knife? She smiled at Kaleb, continuing the imaginary discussion in her mind. In case I need to protect us from monsters . . . not that I’ve had to fight them yet, but, you know, just in case.
“Mallory?” Kaleb stared at her in that too-intense-for-comfort way he had done since they’d first met a little over a month ago. Everything about him seemed intense though. When he listened to her talk, he acted like what she was saying was really important, even when it was just meaningless chatter about a show she’d watched on television or an article she’d read online. The thrill of being the center of his attention made her want to linger longer, even when she knew that she couldn’t truly date him. Still, she suspected that even a small friendship with Kaleb would be better than dating any other boy.
He gestured away from the tiny downtown where the coffee shop was. “Do you want to walk or something? Even if you only have a few minutes, we could—”
“I can’t,” she interrupted and then silently added, I need to go practice killing things.
The temptation to skip practice crossed her mind, but that would lead to questions from her father, and those would lead to either admitting she’d met someone who interested her enough to skip practice or it would mean lying to her father. Neither of those seemed like very good ideas. But as Kaleb stared at her, frowning in frustration or maybe in confusion, she wished rather desperately that she could lie to her father—or tell Kaleb everything.
Instead, she admitted, “I have practice, and I’m already going to be late. Maybe next time we could do something. If you want to, I mean. I’m not sure if I can then either, but I want to.”
“I’ll ask again,” he promised.
And then she turned and walked away from Kaleb as quickly as she could without seeming like she was running. She hadn’t exactly mentioned that she couldn’t date him, but that was just because there was no way to say it without sounding weird. It wasn’t because she harbored a tiny hope of something more. Really. She smiled to herself. Kaleb wants to see me again.
A SHORT WHILE LATER, Mallory had temporarily forced away thoughts of the beautiful human boy she shouldn’t date and concentrated on the task at hand: proving to her father that she was making progress with the semiautomatic.
“You need to get over it, Mals.” Adam didn’t scowl at her, but the censure was there all the same. “The revolver only has six rounds. Sometimes six won’t be enough.”
She accepted the gun, but it felt wrong in her hands. It always felt wrong. The weight of it didn’t comfort her the way the heavier revolver did.
“They aren’t like humans,” Adam reminded her—unnecessarily. He’d spent most of her life teaching her how to defend herself against daimons. She knew that they were stronger and faster than any human could hope to be. Witches stood more than a fair chance against them, but Mallory wasn’t a witch.
She sighted down on her target, inhaled, held her breath, and squeezed. “Just like taking a picture.”
She’d learned the inverse though: she’d applied firearms lessons to photography, not the other way around. Daimons weren’t scared away by a 35mm camera. A steady aim with a 9mm pistol, on the other hand, could—hopefully—save her life someday. No matter how ready she felt, fear crept over her every time she thought about facing daimons.
“Again,” Adam prompted. “You need to focus. By the time you realize what they are, you’ll need to act fast. They look like us . . . and like you.”
The pause was slight, but she heard it. Us and you. Her mother wasn’t a witch, and Adam wasn’t her bio-dad, so she wasn’t an us. She also wasn’t really able to be a them. She might be human, but Adam was a witch. That meant she was caught living among the witches, preparing to fight daimons with only a human’s defenses. Sometimes, guiltily, she admitted to herself that this wasn’t the life she wanted. A stray thought of Kaleb flitted through her mind, but she knew without asking her father that he’d never agree to her changing her training or workout schedules so she had time to date.
Steadily, she sighted, fired, and moved to the next target. Then once she reached the end of the row, she worked her way back. Mallory hated the ease with which the semiautomatic discharged bullets. It felt like everything went too quickly, but if the paper targets in front of her were daimons, she knew she’d appreciate that extra speed.
Adam began calling numbers. “Target three, eight, two, one, eight, six.”
As he called them, she aimed and fired. It was an exercise that required reaction and focus. Admittedly, it was easier with the 9mm in her hand, but she still felt tense.
She switched guns, sliding the 9mm into an under-the-arm holster and transitioning to the .357 that she wore in a thigh holster. The familiar weight of it was all she needed to summon that meditative space where the world was reduced to hand-gun-target. She had learned hand-to-hand skills, but her father insisted that most daimons had superior training and more physical strength than a human could counter. She had to be proficient with weapons too. Witches had magic; daimons had physicality; and humans had guns.
She emptied the last chamber in the revolver and glanced at her father. The furrow in his brow said what he didn’t: he wasn’t happy about her switching guns.
“I’m more comfortable with this.” She lowered the barrel so it aimed at the ground.
Adam said nothing as she opened the cylinder and discharged the empty casings. He remained quiet as she pulled six bullets from her jeans pocket and reloa
ded. When Mallory closed the cylinder, he said, “I should never have bought you that gun. If I’d started you with the nine mil, you wouldn’t use this as a crutch. The revolver was to be a starter, like training wheels.”
She gestured at the targets. “I’m capable with both guns. I just like this one better.”
When he didn’t reply, she walked over to the targets. Using the barrel as a pointer, she tapped the first target. “Not one outside the ‘preferred zone.’ Tight.” She went down the line, tapping each paper in the row. “I can use the nine; I just don’t like it as well.”
Adam sighed. “If you knew what they were like, Mals . . .” He shook his head. “I hope you never have to face them alone, but if you do, you’ll be grateful for a clip, and hopefully you’ll be packing an extended clip.”
She softened at his worried look. “I know, and I will be prepared. Promise.” For a brief moment she considered asking him questions she had never verbalized, but like every other time she’d considered it, the questions skittered away before she could speak them. She wanted to know why she’d never met daimons, why she couldn’t go to his office, why they couldn’t find a way to live a different life, but her tongue wouldn’t form the words. A band seemed to tighten around her chest.
Good daughters don’t question. They obey.
Her father held her gaze, and when she didn’t speak, he nodded once. “I need you to be prepared.”
Mallory straightened her shoulders and met her father’s gaze. “I won’t let you down.”
He ejected the clip from the 9mm and replaced it with an extended clip. “Notice that it took a moment to reload this. Sometimes a single moment makes a difference. Daimons aren’t like witches or humans, Mallory. You can’t forget that.”
“I won’t,” she promised. The pressure around her chest faded.
He held the 9mm pistol out to her.
Lips pursed, she accepted it. Daimons might be more capable at hand-to-hand, but she wasn’t planning on allowing any of them close enough for that to matter.