Book Cover: In Mage We Trust
Part of the Of Mystics and Mayhem series:

A daughter who wants her family back…

Dragged into a magical realm, a sassy college student’s magic surfaces when an emotionally hardened demon gifts her part of his soul to save her life. Johnna longs for her family, but when a rogue mage goes on a killing spree, her internal alarms are buzzing—and not just because of her growing attraction to the demon.

A demon without hope…
When murders plague his realm, the head demon enforcer is ordered to stop them, but Niki can’t concentrate on tracking the rogue mage when the rebellious Johnna wreaks havoc during their hunt. She insists she can help, but it’s all he can do to avert destruction—and not kiss her senseless.

A tangled web of deceit, chaos, and murder…
Together they must learn to trust each other and work together or the realms of Dark World and their true mate bond won’t survive as this magical ‘Alice’ goes up against a demon queen of hearts.

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Excerpt:

Prologue

Present Day

Demon Realm, Dark World

Niki

For the hundredth time that morning, I tuned out the argument going on behind me between my boss Lucien, the current demon king, and his mage, Gerard. The two or three times I’d tried to interject a valid point—valid in my opinion, at least—I had been ignored, so I kept my mouth shut. For now.

I stared through the window separating the castle’s conference room and the Well of Souls. The white light on the other side of the window glowed brighter as several coconut-sized orbs floated to a stop. Hovering in the middle of the glass, the two pearlescent souls suddenly turned and floated away. As I watched them disappear into the mass of souls in the background, an idea formed.

“Lucien, Johnna’s my daughter,” Gerard pleaded. “I can’t just sit here and let him kill her.”

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The fear and frustration in his voice bored a hole into my thoughts.

Lucien shook his head. “This fight goes beyond just your child, Gerard, but you already know this. Too many demonkind have died already. We need to focus our energy in finding and trapping the dark mage before he kills anyone else—including Johnna.”

I turned to face the two men, my gaze drawn to Lucien’s hard expression. At the appearance of his horns on top of his head, I realized how frustrated he was. Lucien’s horns rarely showed.

“Before you took one step from this room, the mage would know you’re coming after him.” Lucien placed a heavy hand on Gerard’s shoulder, the small garnet ring on his finger blinking as the firelight flickered over the gem’s faceted surface. “I would never let any harm come to those you care about, but the killing must end. I’m telling you this as your king and your best friend.”

“Then let me go get her. I’ll bring her back here where I know she’ll be protected.”

I leaned forward in my chair and placed my elbows on my knees. “I’ll go.”

Both Lucien and Gerard turned to stare.

“If Gerard must remain here, I can go get his daughter,” I added.

“As I told Gerard—” Lucien began.

“Why, Niki? You’re as susceptible as I am,” Gerard interjected, his frustration drowning out Lucien’s objection.

I quirked one brow. “As head enforcer of Dark World, I had hoped centuries of experience would lend credence to my plan. Your faith in me is overwhelming, Gerard.”

Gerard glared, his silence oppressive.

“All realms in this multiverse are in danger, the longer the dark mage is allowed to live.” I quickly ran through the impromptu plan I’d devised and hoped they would think it as sound as I did. “I will go in disguise. And, if you ask me, it’s a perfect one.”

Gerard crossed his arms over his chest and sneered. “Fine, I’ll bite. What is this perfect disguise?”

“A zombie. I will use the zombie spell. It’s the only way we can get to your daughter in time without anyone but the three of us knowing I’ve even left this realm. The dark mage has stayed one step ahead of us because he can track our magic. While under the influence of the spell, my magic will seem as dead as, well . . . a zombie. If he can track me, both your daughter and I will die.”

I held Gerard’s worried gaze. “I will guard Johnna’s life with my own, old friend.”

Gerard’s face flushed and he let out a frustrated growl. “Neither of you understand how bad this is. Johnna doesn't come into her powers until she's twenty-five. Do we know for certain he's acting alone?”

“We'll figure everything out once we get her safely out of the Mortal Realm,” Lucien said. “You know as well as I, Niki would give his life to keep your daughter safe.” Lucien focused his sharp stare on Gerard. “Don’t lose faith in us now.”

Gerard let out an uneasy breath and nodded quickly. “I know you'll do whatever it takes to protect Johnna. And you're not wrong about getting caught. The dark mage will kill you too.”

I gave him a knowing smirk. “I’m not so easy to kill.”

With a stoic expression erasing his worry, Gerard straightened his shoulders. “As soon as you’ve retrieved my daughter from the Mortal Realm, I will join you here so we can retrieve the key and, hopefully, end this ridiculous war. Now go—save my daughter.”

Chapter One

Present day, Alexandria, Virginia

The Mortal Realm

Johnna

I raised the white disposable cup and glanced down to make sure I didn’t miss the small opening with my mouth. Spotting the name on the side of the cup, I let out an annoyed huff. Instead of ‘Johnna,’ the new barista had sloppily written in black marker the name ‘Jonah.’

Taking another sip of my latté, I swished the rich pumpkin-infused coffee around my aroused taste buds. Who knew a drink could be so life changing? Coffee was one of the few things I enjoyed. Life didn’t suck as bad when I had a cup in my hand.

School seemed to be my current problem. Well, it wasn’t my sole problem, but it was the only one I wanted to acknowledge at the moment.

My young life had been filled with problems. Strange things happened to me all the time. After my mother’s mysterious death ten years ago, they got worse. Growing up without a mom to guide me had been difficult, especially through my teenage years. But when my workaholic father forgot he had a daughter, it became the icing on the proverbial cake.

When good ol’ Dad did happen to make an appearance, my first standard question had always been where had he disappeared to. The second question was about the magical weirdness, like the way people popped in and out of his workroom or the bloated creatures floating around bringing him vials and whatever else he hollered for. Of course, he never gave me a truthful answer about any of it, so after a while, I quit asking.

I’d never been close to my father. But my mother . . . damn, I missed her. She made life fun and not the boring ho-hum it was now. Don’t get me wrong, I loved college and Virginia was a history lover’s dream, but it wasn’t the same.

For the last week or so, though, learning had been the last thing on my mind. A strange feeling had settled in me, like at any moment the bogeyman or something equally disturbing was going to jump out and grab me. I was damned tired of being so jumpy.

I continued sucking down my coffee and not paying attention to my surroundings. I didn’t need to. King Street, close to the Potomac, was my favorite place to be. I knew every dip and slope of each sidewalk brick and had window-shopped so often, the storeowners knew me by name. And I practically lived inside the coffee store, which back in colonial times had been George Washington’s favorite tavern. I loved this town.

I turned my thoughts back to my dad and had an epiphany. Maybe the reason he didn’t want to be around me much was because I resembled my mother. Even down to the flaming hair and temper. My figure wasn’t as curvy, but it was fine with me. The one thing I hadn’t inherited from my mother, though, was my sarcastic mouth. The mouth I got solely from my father, who made sarcasm an art form. It happened to be a good way to keep people away. And, believe me, I’d mastered it.

If no one got close, there would be no pain when they left. Because the people around me always left. The track record of my own life proved the point.

I took another sip and choked as something rammed into my back, pushing me a couple of steps forward. Coughing as the liquid cleaved my esophagus in two, I juggled my book bag and cup, trying without success not to spill the remaining coffee inside after what seemed like half the cup sloshed over the side and onto my shoe.

With an irritated scowl, I spun around to see who had bumped into me. There was no one there. I glanced up the street, confusion erasing my anger. The cool autumn afternoon had turned into perfect shopping weather; however, for some unknown reason, the brick-paved sidewalks were empty. Definitely not the norm for the touristy Old Town District.

A movement across the street caught my attention. The window dresser in a children’s boutique jumped up and down inside the narrow display window, frantically waving at me. I waved back, prompting her to begin a strange dance, which looked suspiciously like a pee dance. She slapped the window and pointed. I followed the direction of her finger, and my jaw dropped.

Hovering like a dark cloud beside me were the multi-colored, bulbous bodies of the creatures I’d seen helping my father when I was a child. I had two options: play dead or run for my life. I chose to run, but the extreme panic rushing like a tidal wave through my veins forced me to do something I would never have done before this moment. I pulled back my arm and threw my precious cup of coffee at whatever the flying jelly belly-looking things were, then took off in a dead sprint.

Another hard thud hit me between my shoulder blades and knocked me off-balance. My old soccer coach would’ve been proud at my quick footwork as I stayed upright, using the momentum to careen around the corner. Before I could congratulate myself for not falling on my face, I plowed into a green plastic trashcan. The force of my hit knocked the air out of my lungs, and I lay there a moment, catching my breath.

I raised my head and realized I’d landed in a trash-filled alley. The nauseating stench of rotting food burned my nose hairs.

A loud squawk pulled my attention back to the street. The fat, bat-like creatures charged, shoving me against the trashcan again. I raised my arms and, with a crazy yell, attacked them. A lot of good it did me as they dodged my flailing arms. Reaching down, I picked up a broken fence slat and added it to my weak arsenal. I missed several times but finally hit one, slamming the dark blue swollen body against the brick wall at the end of the alley. I waited until another creature flew into the piece of wood, hard enough to fling itself into the wall without any help from me.

I let out a loud whoop and turned to hit another, my stick raised above my head. Staring at what should have been the brick wall to my left, about one foot above the ground a thick black oil slick swirled, coating the red bricks as it made its way up the wall. A light gray mist poured into the alley and covered the trash and gunk lying on the broken concrete ground.

A movement in the center of the darkness held my gaze. As the patch grew, I retreated, uncaring I was still being dive bombed by the small flying ticks.

Suddenly, a black boot appeared, followed by a jean-clad leg, then the other leg. The edges of my vision blurred as the rest of him followed. My eyes widened as I stared into the swirling gold eyes of what looked like a zombie. Not even Hollywood’s best makeup artist could replicate the desiccated skin sloughing off his face or the thin strands of stringy hair hanging in patches from his scalp. As I watched, several strands dropped to the ground.

Seeing both my parents do a few bizarre things—magical things while I was growing up—I was a firm believer in the supernatural. However, the sight before me went way beyond that. I backed up, only to be stopped by a couple more shoves from those hateful pests behind me.

The zombie raised his hand and my world turned black as stupid me fainted.

* * *

I slowly came to, lying on wet brick pavers and trying to recall what had happened. A chill crept over me. Even with the clammy sheen of perspiration coating my skin, the fine hairs on my arms stood at attention, although I couldn’t remember where I was or why I should be afraid. My main concern at the moment was the fact I couldn’t see anything. With the world around me as black as the deepest cave in the world, I focused on staying positive and not panicking, failing as my heartbeat tripled into heart attack levels.

Ditching my microeconomics class this morning had been a no-brainer. Until now. Losing my coffee, fat bats, and now a zombie?

Karma bites.

I tried to sit up but couldn’t seem to make my arms or legs move. Was I dead? I didn’t think so, although with the way my luck seemed to be going today . . . I’d always figured the first thing I’d see when I died would be the legendary white light. But, me? Hell no. I got a zombie with a face resembling month-old, moldy, pockmarked cheese.

Like a mask had been torn from my face, my vision returned. I blinked several times, swirling my overworked eyeballs around in their sockets for an escape, without luck. In my current position, seemingly attached to the ground, fighting was not one of my options.

What had the zombie done to me? Why couldn’t I move or, at the very least, talk?

I gave myself brownie points, amazed at my calm demeanor in light of the situation. I glanced down to where the creature knelt beside me and noticed he wore a dark gray shirt tucked into tight-fitting black jeans. At least they looked tight in his current squatted position. His clothes were awfully clean for a zombie.

I watched the mesmerizing motion of his bobbing head. His gaze, however, seemed focused on my bare stomach. I now regretted my decision to wear my favorite midriff-revealing, pink tank. Panic welled inside my chest, my recently eaten honeybun helping it along.

I’d read the right stories growing up. Zombies ate people. I tried to recall more details from the tales my brain had purposely shelved under childhood fantasy and found nothing. My brain was empty. Wait a minute . . . Oh. My. God. He already ate my brains.

Now was as good a time as any to panic.

“You ate my brains, didn’t you? I’m brainless!” I now had something to be thankful for. I could speak again.

The zombie stared at me. The cold, dead sensation disappeared from my body, and in its place raged an inferno, burning through my veins and tightening my skin until it felt as if it were going to split apart in a thousand places. Great. Not only was I probably dead, I was internally combusting. Well, at least I could talk again.

“Could my day suck any worse?” I muttered.

A scratchy, snuffly noise dragged my attention back to my immediate problem; fixing to become a zombie appetizer. I refocused on his cheesy head sniffing around my stomach.

“I should warn you—when I’m stressed, I’m not nice.” I frowned, my thoughts drifting away though I forced my brain to refocus. “Or so I’ve been told. Just so you know, whatever you’re doing down there is starting to piss me off.”

I scowled, giving him my best badass look, but was more afraid I just looked constipated. His eyes never left my midsection as his withered hands moved in a strange pattern above me. The burning sting of my building frustration settled down, slowing to curiosity. I felt the same as I had before having my tonsils removed, weightless and relaxed. His movements reminded me of something I’d seen my workaholic, forgetful father do when I was a child, although I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was exactly.

And when I needed his help the most? Where was good ol’ Dad? Getting myself to school each day and making sure I had a place to sleep and enough to eat, I could handle. At least most days. This was my last day as a twenty-two-year-old, for gods’ sakes. Most of my college-aged friends still had parents paying for everything. Zombies playing with my insides wasn’t something I even wanted to try to handle by myself.

“Will you at least tell me why you’re picking on me?” I asked, not caring much either way. “What did I ever do to you—wait, don’t answer that.” No response. “Seriously, dude, there are two questions floating around you unanswered. I think I deserve to know why this is happening.”

My patience—what little I had—disappeared, and my lethargy morphed into something very different as I refocused my remaining panic into anger. I had no desire to find out if the zombie liked the way I tasted. From out of nowhere, the cover of the last romance novel I’d read popped into my mind and destroyed what anger I’d mustered. I glared into the zombie’s golden eyes.

As the dim light hovering in the alleyway faded, I wondered if this was the end. I tried to relax. I closed my eyes and imagined my personal happy place—my local coffee shop, of course—and waited. Several minutes ticked by, and my eyes popped back open. The filthy alley and my new cheeseheaded friend were not going away.

A fierce flush of heat screamed through my body, and a sharp prickling sensation tumbled inside my gut. Thankfully, the effects from whatever the zombie had used to numb my body hadn’t disappeared completely. The thought of feeling everything he did upgraded my nauseous level from merely uncomfortable to seriously severe. The twisting in my midsection made me wonder if he were tossing a salad as his hands dug and flipped my insides around.

Several of the flying bats dropped from above but bounced away before hitting the zombie’s head. A few minutes later more appeared as if hovering overhead. No matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t get to us. I let out a long sigh. At least something finally was going my way.

My thoughts turned back to dying. Didn’t people go numb as they died? Surely, my current discomfort was a sign death wasn’t in my immediate future. I also knew I should be in full-blown panic mode right now, but strangely, I felt almost tranquil.

“Would you please stop?” I moaned, not liking how my body jerked from side to side. My head fell sideways, and a warm glow surrounded everything lying about the alley floor. Tiny lights blinked behind the stinky garbage and boxes piled close to the brick walls. As my vision darkened, murky greens and blues fluctuated around the objects as the colors gradually intensified.

The bat things squealed. The zombie waved his arm, and they all fell to the ground. If they were dead, I couldn’t tell, nor did I care as I glanced back at the zombie. My wide eyes riveted on Cheesehead’s sudden aura, glowing brighter than anything else around us, covering him in golden light. Even though he appeared as if rats had gnawed on his body, overall, I was sort of shocked he didn’t look as bad as I’d first thought.

Wait a minute.

I continued to stare at him, my eyes narrowed. Zombies didn’t have heat, so he shouldn’t have an aura. They were cold and dead, hence the ooziness and holes where holes shouldn’t be. I narrowed my gaze, trying to get a closer look at the creature noodling inside me. For something with no muscle tone, he moved quite fast. His mouth made fishy noises, the swollen lips popping in and out like a guppy. I’d have puked if I could only make my body work right.

Whatever breath remained in my lungs hit a barrier somewhere near the middle of my throat. A heavy, miserable sensation hung over me, like a blanket snapped in the air, hovering for only a moment, then descending with an offering of safety. However, nothing about my current situation suggested a protective haven.

Cheesehead squeezed my hip. I met his gaze and found I could now lift my head a couple of inches from the ground. I might have to rethink my tormenter’s new nickname. The longer I stared at him, the holes in his face were more like pockmarks from bad acne than Swiss cheese. His glistening yellow eyes stared back.

I shivered from the sensation of being stalked by a wild animal. The trapped air burst through my clenched teeth as my head fell back onto the cold bricks. I tried to concentrate and failed at slowing my rapid breathing.

Alice’s rabbit hole had sucked me in . . . and I wanted out.

My head tilted to one side and I found myself staring at the building across the street. A sudden movement a few feet from the alley’s entrance caught my attention. The dirty bricks flew together and fell into a large swirling pattern in the wall, reminding me of a spinning pinwheel—something I’d loved making and playing with as a young girl. In seconds, the vortex grew into a circle covering most of the wall. At its center churned a foaming charcoal-colored mist.

My body shook as I tried to sit up, but the hand resting on my hipbone held me down. My eyes fastened on what now reminded me of a witch’s oblong cauldron, the thick, gray smoke billowing from its cryptic depth. Something wavered inside the surging hole and seemed to be coming toward us.

As the undulating figure drew closer, I made out a head and arms. Weirdly, the legs were covered by a dress . . . or maybe it was a robe. It was hard to tell in the dim light. The person’s quick, choppy walk seemed familiar, and my eyes ached from squinting as I tried in vain to see who it was. Holding my breath, ignoring my lungs as they screamed for relief, my eyes widened in alarm as one leg stepped through the hole followed by an entire body.

A knot formed in my throat. I couldn’t stop the painful gasp hiccupping through my compressed lips. Unfortunately for me, I recognized the man striding toward me. He seemed more put out than worried. Doesn’t bode well for me.

“Dad,” I squeaked. I stared at him wide-eyed, unable to blink; my eyelids had frozen open. “What’s going on? What have you done?”

My father stopped, towering above me. Deep in his black eyes lay an emotion I couldn’t decipher. His eyebrows bunched together, giving him a gruff, caveman look. His mouth twitched, and surprise flickered through me as the severity of his expression morphed into sadness.

His features softened. I’d almost forgotten how attractive my dad was. I hadn’t seen him in a while, but he hadn’t changed. At all. One would think by now he would have crows’ feet in the outer corners of his eyes and at least a few gray hairs. He had to be getting up there in years. This was the same face I had looked up to and worshiped when I was a young girl.

I hoped I inherited his genes. Seriously, what woman wanted gray hair?

I shook the notion off as I would an annoying fly. Yeah, the last few years hadn’t been easy, and I’d practically fended for myself. He hadn’t been around for school functions, proms, or anything else high schoolers did. Resentment? You bet. Losing Mom hadn’t been easy for either of us. From the look of things now, his job still came first—whatever his job was. Maybe one day I’d forgive him for practically abandoning me, but today wasn’t that day.

The tingling in my gut disappeared. I wanted to know what Cheesehead had done to me. I opened my mouth but hesitated. Something felt off. I sat in silence trying to figure out what had changed. The empty helplessness I’d carried inside me since my mom died was now gone. I frowned. My loneliness wasn’t it, though. Something else was different. No matter how hard I tried to discover what it was, the knowledge remained elusive. With my current luck, figuring it out probably wouldn’t be for the better.

In my very eventful life—all twenty-two years, eleven months, three weeks, and six days of it—I’d fought against the world, including myself. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. Made life hard and lonely. I never had many friends, and the few I did have had moved away to attend other colleges. I was lonely. Maybe with my birthday tomorrow, I’d turn over a new leaf. Snicker. Yeah, right. I continued to ignore my father and stared at the roiling clouds above me, wishing the calm autumn day would return, and I could erase everything that had just happened.

Cheesehead reached over and grabbed my elbow, but his slimy hand slipped off with each try. I jerked away from the gross appendage and forced my sore body to sit up. Gingerly, I reached down and lifted my torn, bloodstained shirt. My stomach looked normal. No gaping hole, no dangling guts. The only proof remaining of what the zombie had done was a faint, zigzagging line bisecting my middle, which seemed to disappear as I watched. Instant healing . . . how weird. Was I hallucinating? Hallucinations would explain the bizarre Walking Dead figure staring at me.

My father’s strained tone broke through my dazed and rambling thoughts. “Johnna, I’m . . . I’m not responsible for this.” He dragged his fingers through his rather longish black hair. “Well, this part, yeah. Though I had a good reason. I admit I haven’t been here for you much. In my defense, I thought I was protecting you. It wasn’t . . .” He stopped and threw the zombie a dark glare. “You were supposed to bring her to me so I could remove it, not you.”

Glancing back to me, he took a deep breath. “It was hard after your mom left.” His jaw clenched as he straightened his back. I stared at the way his fists bunched at his sides, the knuckles white.

Stubbornness was a bad trait to have, and I had it in spades. I wanted to prove myself to him, determined to show my father I could take care of myself and didn’t need his help, so I forced myself to stand, albeit on shaky legs, and wiped the dirt off my butt. My strength of will kept me upright.

“You know, you weren’t the only one affected by Mom’s death. And please quit saying she left. She died. She isn’t coming back. The sooner you accept it, the sooner you can get on with your—”

“Johnna, stop talking and, for once, just listen. Please. You have no clue what’s happening.” The words tumbled out of my father’s mouth so fast, it was hard to understand them, but his use of the word please got my attention.

“I don’t expect you to understand. For your own good, do what I tell you without arguing. We need to leave—”

“Here’s the issue, Dad. I don’t want to understand what you’re talking about. I’m perfectly content living my life as I have been.” My eyes narrowed. “The only thing I want you to explain right now is what those batty-looking things dive-bombing me were.” I jerked my thumb at the zombie still squatted near my feet. “Or, why Cheesehead the zombie here played doctor with me without asking first.”

The mottle-skinned creature rocked from his toes to his heels, yet everything remained solidly intact. Shouldn’t his dry, withered limbs break off? An ear or arm drop to the ground? Just how dead was this zombie? His kneecap pressed against the parchment-like gray skin peeking through the hole in his threadbare jeans, which still looked as tight as they had the first time I’d noticed. His leg bones should be poking right through his rotting skin about now.

I gave myself a mental slap. The last thing I should be worrying about was a dead man’s jean size. Maybe my school counselor was right, and I needed to find me a good psychiatrist. A wandering mind was such a pain, especially mine.

“I sent the imps.” Dad maintained an even tone and a great poker face.

“The what?” I stepped back, wrinkling my nose at him. “Why did you send them? They scared the shit out of me.” I wasn’t sure what made me angrier—the complacent way he told me or the fact he’d sent the little beasts in the first place. “The kamikaze routine they did on my back really hurt—”

“The why currently doesn’t matter. The only thing I cared about was Niki getting to you before the dark mage—sorry, Max—killed you.”

That stopped me. And my heart. What had I ever done to this Max fellow? Maybe I’d not always been the nicest person, but why would a total stranger want to kill me? An involuntarily shiver shook through me as a chill prickled over my skin. Eerie music—Twilight Zone theme, maybe?—went off inside my head.

“Excuse me? I don’t know who in the hell Max is. And who’s Niki?”

“Johnna, language.” My father leaned forward until his face loomed directly in front of mine. His once-chocolate-brown eyes were now black, which I chocked up to the dim light. “We have to go now.”

My jaw jutted out while I pointed my finger, knowing how much it irked him. “No. I’m not going anywhere until you explain why you left and what’s going on.” My temper now controlled the rational part of my mind. Leaving without a reasonable explanation wasn’t a possibility . . . maybe not even then, but I wasn’t going to tell him that. The magical world had always called to me, and now was my chance to find out more about it.

A small kernel of satisfaction filled me as Dad struggled to keep his emotions in check. The familiar tick of his cheek muscle almost made me smile. He stepped back a few paces and assumed a familiar, relaxed, military stance, legs spread wider than normal and muscled arms crossed over his chest.

A growling sound rumbled from his throat. “Make it fast. What do you want to know?”

Talk about a loaded question.

A hundred things raced through my mind. Why did Mom die? Where had my dad disappeared to? Why did he never play with me as a child? Did I have any other family?

I reluctantly focused on my immediate problem and met his gaze without trepidation. “Why did you leave after Mom died? Why is this man chasing me? Oh yeah, and why don’t you like me?”

The last question startled him. He was good, though, and masked the brief flicker of dismay flashing across his face.

“I don’t dislike you.” His frustration was palpable. “We don’t have time for this.” He expelled a huff of breath. “Johnna, we’re trying to save your life, so could you please try to cooperate? The plan had been to get here sooner . . . I’m sorry. We ran out of time and,” he glared at the zombie, “apparently, Niki had no choice but to remove the key.”

“For the second time, who’s Niki? And what key?” I rubbed the center of my forehead where the dull throb I’d ignored all morning found a new lease on life and made itself known again.

“The zombie’s name is Niki.”

“Cheesehead? Why?”

“Well, it’s customary for a person’s parents to name them when they’re born—”

“Dad, seriously? You know what I meant. What did he do to me?”

“He stopped your heart.”

I scrunched my face in confusion. “I’m dead then. Wait—how can I be dead if I’m talking to you?” I pinched my arm and winced. It hurt. “Do ghosts feel pain?” I knew I was acting more like a five-year-old child, but I couldn’t help it. Talking and dealing with my father always made me feel like a child. Throw in the strangeness of my current situation, and I was surprised I wasn’t sitting in a corner sucking my thumb too.

Dad chuckled. Wow, I hadn’t heard him laugh in years. “No, daughter. You are not a ghost. You are very much alive. Max is after you because of your mother’s diary key, and only a demon enforcer has the power to remove said key.”

I closed my gaping mouth and glanced at Niki, my gaze lingering longer than it should have, but I could have sworn I saw the hint of a grin. Shaking my head, I turned my attention back on my dad. “Wait a minute. What in God’s name is a demon enforcer?” I pointed at the zombie who tried to look invisible and failed miserably. “Let me get this straight. He killed me, yet I’m still alive?”

I was so confused. I recognized my dad’s tight-lipped expression. It meant he wasn’t going to answer. I ground my teeth together. “Fine. Explain the key.” I again stole a quick peek at Cheesehead . . . uh, Niki. The zombie, still squatting on the ground, looked uncommonly like a wingless gargoyle. Nope, the new name didn’t fit. I’d stick with Cheesehead.

“After your mother left, I put the key in the only safe place I could think of. Inside you.”

“Well, shit.”

My dad’s brow rose. “Not exactly.”

I growled. “What did you do, say a few words and poof, it magically disappeared inside of me?”

“Well, yes. Not quite like that, but yes. And since when do you know I could do magic?”

“Give me some credit for having brains. People were always appearing out of nowhere outside your workroom door, and you were always barking orders at those bat things.”

“Hmmm. Well, anyway, Niki combined his power with my magic, and the key became an extra rib. It’s a skeleton key—so to speak.”

I rolled my eyes. “Seriously? So pathetic. You’ve got nothing better than a corny pun?”

They blankly stared at each other then back at me. In unison they answered, “No.”

“Ooohhhh.” I groaned as my annoyance meter rose higher. I rubbed my eyes, thinking I would’ve much rather been in my nice warm bed, curled up with a good book.

Then it dawned on me. The zombie had said, “No.”

Zombies speak?

I glared at Niki. “You can talk?” He nodded but didn’t offer any other tidbit. Figures. “It would have been nice if you’d told me what you were doing instead of scaring the hell out of me.”

Dad leaned forward and tucked a stray strand of my wild hair behind one ear. “I’m sorry, Johnna. I’d hoped it would take Max longer to figure out where we’d hidden the key.”

For the first time in my life, I had no response. My usually stuffed head was empty. I studied their calm, stoic expressions, and for some strange reason relaxed. After a moment, I narrowed my eyes, sharing a glance between the two as an idea took root.

“Where’s the key now?” I asked my father.

Before he could respond, a quiet reply came from near my feet. “It is safe. Max will not find it—this time.”

I jumped at the silky voice melting through my senses like milk chocolate on a hot day. With tremendous effort, I lowered my head and met Cheesehead’s molten gaze. “You know, talking would have been a nice way to start our relationship.”

“You might have refused.”

My eyebrows rose high on my forehead. “Ya think? So . . . where’s the key?”

“Safe.”

“Are you always this talkative?”

He shrugged, unconcerned, his bony shoulders barely moving. I wanted to ask why I couldn’t see it or know where it was but hesitated, as a queasiness rushed through me. Did I really want to know?

The zombie’s head turned toward the spot in the wall where my dad had emerged, his sloppy face almost frowning. “He’s coming.”

I glanced at my dad as the color drained from his face. I saw the fear in his eyes. Realization dawned at just how serious our situation was. If my father was scared, I was in real trouble.

“Dad?” I whispered.

He had a wild look in the depths of his dark eyes. “Come with me.” Grabbing my hand, he pulled me back down, my body wedged between his and Cheesehead’s. The two men shared a quick glance—if I could honestly call the crater-faced, gray thing a man. The zombie reached across me, placing his hand on my dad’s knee. The moment his bony fingers gripped Dad’s kneecap, everything in the alley dimmed.

Thick air smothered me. A psychedelic mist swirled around us, each touch a caress. I laid my hand against the ground but jerked it back again. Instead of finding hard ground, this surface rolled and pitched, resembling a simmering soup, making us the vegetables.

I scrambled to my feet, testing my balance. Dad’s grip tightened around my hand as he held me close. My fingers pounded from the lack of blood. I stepped up and down a couple of times with one foot and cringed as the ground squished under my shoe. Other than the sparkling mist, I still couldn’t see much until a few seconds later when the thick soupy haze lightened to a gray mist.

Like a rollercoaster ride, my stomach traveled upward, levitated for a second, and rushed back down, reminding me how much I hated rollercoasters. Focused on not throwing up, I hadn’t noticed the bright light rushing toward us until just before we hurtled through the blinding whiteness.

Bracing myself, I expected to land in a heap. Instead, I hit the ground upright, feet first. Pulling my gaze away from my shoes, I took a good look at my new surroundings. My heart fell into what was left of my stomach, which wasn’t much.

They’d brought me to a graveyard.

In a total state of shock I stared at nothing and everything, forgetting the required first response of a girl—

Screaming.

Dad caught my wide-eyed gaze, a lopsided grin twisting his lips. “My home away from home.”

My anger flared then fizzled out, my body too tired to nurture the emotion. My gaze moved around the cemetery, the tombstones crowded together, quite a few tilted and broken. “Well. This is unexpected.” I ignored Cheesehead’s congested snort, now difficult to do since he was practically draped on top of me. I gave myself brownie points when I didn’t flinch. However, I made the mistake of looking at him and, much to my immediate surprise, his congealed, month–old gravy look, even up close and personal, didn’t bother me as much as it had in the alley. I should have felt totally sickened but I wasn’t.

There’s something about him not quite right . . .

Maybe it was my imagination, but his skin seemed smoother and not quite as sickly gray as before. In fact, there was a definite flush taking over.

Staring into his yellow eyes, I realized how little control I truly had of my life. I couldn’t stop the quick head-to-toe shiver when he turned and shuffled away. The few long strands of hair still stuck to his head hung down his mud-covered back. No way would I ever ask where the mud came from.

My pent-up irritation overflowed, and I whirled around, launching my rekindling anger at my father. “Where in the hell are we, and when did you move up in the world?” I shoved away the twinge of guilt at my scathing tone. I’d never considered myself petulant, but my inner child wanted to hurt him for casting me away like a piece of trash.

Dad’s black eyes caught mine, and a subtle warning skated down my spine. His eye color freaked me out too. The longer he held my gaze, the sensation of my body hanging over the side of a bottomless abyss increased. True to my nature, I didn’t retreat and pushed back instead. Irritation radiated off his stiff posture. Two could play this familiar game, and I straightened, stiffening my shoulders.

“Follow me.”

Well, some things hadn’t changed. His commanding attitude and two-word non-answers were familiar and very maddening. My anger ratcheted up another notch. I walked behind him as he darted through the tombs. He, at least, knew where they headed. I tried to keep up and not embarrass myself by running into any of the large granite boxes. The ground under my feet echoed with each step, as if hollow.

“Seriously, where are we?”

I glanced at some of the names in passing but made out only a few of the timeworn etchings. Most were old surnames with a few first names barely visible. What were their parents thinking? Who’d name a baby Atlas or Amun? I laughed when I read the next one—Mimir.

Puh-lease.

The next name, scrolled letters etched into the aged granite, caught my attention. My pace slowed. Drawing my eyebrows together, I pursed my lips in concentration as I tried to recall where I’d seen the name before. Finally, the light bulb in my brain popped on. Calypso played the goddess in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean.’ What woman hadn’t seen the movie and lusted over Johnny Depp?

Gaping at the etched markings of each letter, I struggled with comprehension. Surely there were probably many people throughout history with the name . . .

Looking up, I found myself staring into Cheesehead's yellow gaze. They freaked me out more than my dad’s black eyes. From the sparkles tumbling around in those cat-like depths, I could almost believe he was laughing at me. Again. I scowled at him, mentally daring him to laugh out loud.

His loud bark of laughter skittered up my arms and filled my stomach with a fluttery sensation. Oh, my gods. My eyes widened at the implication of what he’d done. “You can read my mind?” I whispered.

He threw a quick glance at my father, who stood at least three or four rows away. He turned back to me and nodded.

One-way mind reading wasn’t fair. Not that I wanted to see into a spongy zombie brain, but it was the principle of the matter. “Well, you can just stay out of my head.”

With a slow dip of his head seeming to say, ‘I understand,’ he moved out of my way.

I walked to the next tomb and read another name. Such a common, everyday name. A pesky kernel of doubt gnawed deep in my gut. The scrollwork belied the name’s simplicity. Jason. My steps slowed, stopping directly in front of the next tomb. I now faced a beautiful black marble crypt. White veins feathered across the obsidian surface, giving it depth and life.

The other tombs faded from my peripheral vision, and I focused on the simple block-letter inscription in front of me. Achilles. Holy shit. Breathing became difficult as the ability to make my lungs pull the air in and push it back out deteriorated. Heat burst inside my stomach as the bubble of doubt exploded. I became one with the statues scattered among the tombs, frozen in time as panic engulfed me.

A warm hand in the small of my back returned me to a semi-awareness. I concentrated on the warmth sinking into my clammy skin and invading my blood. The heat built as overwhelming sensations, throbbing and tingling, flooded my senses. My body rode the hot wave pumping through my veins. I drew in a deep breath and detected the barest hint of moisture in the air as it entered through my nose.

Crystalline colors surrounded me, the brilliance of so many tones and hues, each standing out from the next as if separated by a knife. Scurrying insects, burrowing deeper into the ground among the scant patches of weeds scattered among the tombs, sounded as loud as a subway train.

I didn’t understand what was happening to me, but this new world rocked. Now I knew why the Sixties had been so popular. I didn’t want to let the euphoria go. The exhilaration must have shown on my face, because as soon as I heard my dad shout Niki's name, the hand on my back jerked away. I mourned my loss as my new world returned to normal . . . sort of.

A bloated queasiness filled me as if my intestines were wiggling around for unconquered space like a prelude to a gas attack without the gas. I wasn’t sure whether I needed to worry or just embrace it.

For some strange reason, I needed to look at my new zombie friend. On the outside, he looked the same as he had a few minutes ago, still gross. Honestly, I couldn’t imagine anyone—much less me—willingly touching his putrefied skin. I swallowed my revulsion and focused, really seeing him.

The face staring back at me, however, had changed. His features were more defined and less oozy. The differences were subtle, and I clearly saw a shimmery opalescence hugging his ravaged form.

His swollen lips cracked open, showing the gleaming skeletal teeth associated with the dead. This time, however, I couldn’t suppress my shiver. The cadaverous smile grew. To avoid throwing up, I turned and practically sprinted to where my dad waited, impatience stamped on his face.

I wasn’t going to let him squirm out of an explanation easily. “Where exactly did you say we were?”

Dad’s face could have been one of those early pictures where everyone looks constipated. “I told you, I live here when I can. These catacombs have been here for centuries and are filled with protective magic.”

“Not an actual answer. Where are these catacombs, Dad?” I glanced over at Cheesehead who now stood beside my father. “And you brought me here to keep me safe? Or throw my sanity to the wolves?” I threw my father a pointed look. “I’m not stupid. I recognized the names on some of these tombs.”

“Good. Less explaining for me to do. These are the Catacombs of Hades. It’s a little-known place where the bodies of those souls bound for Elysium are buried.”

“Not quite the response I expected. I figured you were going to tell me we were somewhere below Rome. You know, the Christian Catacombs.” I let out a loud breath. “I need a drink.” I stood open-mouthed when a glass full of clear liquid appeared in front of me, floating in midair.

“All you had to do was ask.”

I took the glass and sniffed at the liquid. It had no scent. “What is it?”

“Water.”

“Not the type of drink I had in mind either.” My flippant response was rewarded by a glower. I kept my mouth shut and gulped the water anyway, amazed at how good it tasted. I must have been thirstier than I’d realized. Whatever Cheesehead did to me back in the alley took more out of me than I’d thought.

The strange thing was, I wasn’t hungry. My last meal had been yesterday at noon. I couldn’t help but think I should be worried, as the mental picture of thinner thighs squashed the thought from my brain.

“I thought Hades was a mythological person . . . you know, fictional?”

“Not at all. He’s an actual Greek god and actually lives near here. This is one of many Realms of Dark World.”

“Okay, you lost me again. What’s Dark World?”

Dad paused a moment, his telltale thinking expression on his face. “Do you know what a multiverse is?”

“It’s our solar system, isn’t it? A body of space with multiple universes?”

“Correct. Glad to see you paid attention in school.” He ignored my low growl and continued his explanation. “Dark World is a multiverse. Each ‘universe’ is a separate Realm and each Realm is inhibited by different species. The Mortal Realm has humans, the Blood Realm has vampyres, and the Demon Realm has, well, demons.”

“So, the fictional beings I read about in my romance books are actually real?”

He and Cheesehead snorted at the same time. “Yes and no. Yes, the beings are real. Normally, books get them wrong. Take demons, for instance. They are not wholly evil and never have been. They actually police most of the Realms and keep everyone in line. It’s when one is summoned the scary tales come true. Summoning is like slowly tearing the demon’s mind in two and they go crazy. Not a pretty sight.”

“Ewww.” I thought back to some of the stories I’d read and remembered my reaction in the alley with the zombie. Those memories brought to mind even more questions. “One thing at a time. Since whatever your holey compatriot here did to me, I don’t feel like me. Like something deep inside of me is different. It’s not wrong . . . just not right. Explain your cryptic comment earlier when you said I was dead but not.” I could feel my face pucker as if I’d eaten a sweet-sour candy. “Am I going to turn rotten like Cheesehead?”

I jumped at Dad’s bark of laughter. “No, Johnna. Your lovely face will not change. Others might. You, my girl, will stay as you are.”

I caught the mysterious tone lacing his words and didn’t much like it. The good advice from a favorite teacher meandered through my head. She’d told me to never ask too many questions, especially if I didn’t want to hear the answers. The problem was, I did want answers. “Sooo, I’m going to have a long life?”

“As long as the rest of us, which technically in our case is forever.”

I knew it. My father had escaped from an insane asylum. My first clue should’ve been the delusional rants about someone trying to kill me. Now he was telling me we were immortal. I stared into his face and saw the man I’d idolized. He looked the same, but looks were deceiving. The man standing in front of me was obviously a psychotic nutcase.

What had all those late-night shows about killers and crazy people said? Oh, right, play along. I could do that. “Okay, I can live with it. I’ve had about all the excitement I can handle in one day, so can I go home now?”

My spirits fell along with my stomach at my dad’s curt, “No,” as he moved away from the facing vault, maneuvering around me in the tight space until he stood between the two sarcophagi behind us.

Staring at the tomb in front of me, I couldn’t see anything special, other than the building was an aboveground crypt. Since I sucked at geometry, I guessed it was about the same size as our living room back in Virginia. Stone angels adorned the two front roof corners, and barely visible through the climbing ivy I made out a rambling ribbon design in the doorframe, also etched from stone. The gold placard in the center of the heavy wooden door caught and held my complete attention.

My lungs stopped, refusing to get rid of the toxic carbon inside of them. My vision wavered and blurred as I read the name stamped in simple letters across the plate. Sabine.

The steady drumming in my chest turned painful as my heartbeat quickened and my lungs stuttered back to life. Just as my vision darkened from lack of oxygen, I exhaled, gasping in the rich oxygen-laden air.

Damn and double damn. This was my mother’s tomb.

I couldn’t quite believe what I saw, nor did I want to deal with the emotional tidal wave building inside of me. I couldn’t look at my father, knowing he’d kept this from me, and my resentment toward him overflowed.

“How could you?” I whispered. I whirled to face him, my fists clenching at my sides as my anger boiled from me like a volcano. “Her body has been entombed here for the last ten years, and you’ve never once thought to bring me here or let me say goodbye? I’ve never even been able to give her flowers or sit beside her grave and talk to her.”

I took a shaky breath, and in a brief nanosecond had an adult epiphany. Like my dad, I’d held on to the belief my mom would one day come home, and I would be able to sit with her and laugh over silly memories or tell her my teenage boy problems. I didn’t have any, of course, since boys didn’t seem to like me much. Good thing I never cared.

Some of my anger dissolved as those little girl dreams crumbled away. He couldn’t accept her death because he would have to let go of his own dream.

“Johnna. I’m sorry.”

The last of my anger dissipated when I heard the anguish in his voice. I’d always known how much my father had loved her—he would have died for her. I turned, ignoring the tears running down my cheeks, and faced him. He wore his sorrow like a mask, as I probably did. The agony I’d held inside my heart for so long erupted, and the wall I’d built against my father broke.

“She had just tucked you in for the night.” He smiled at the memory. “It was her favorite time of day, curling up in the bed and humming her made-up songs—off-key of course—and telling you stories, along with other girl stuff. It didn’t matter to her you were getting too old. She’d always hoped she’d have more time.”

His eyes held so much pain. I bit the insides of my cheeks to keep from making a sound, thankful when his low whisper continued. “I’d gone to a meeting the day before. A group of us decided to band together, hoping to increase our powers of protection because, even then, Max searched for your mother’s power. Do you remember her ever getting angry?”

I frowned, confused at the abrupt question, and shook my head.

“After she had you, I don’t remember one single instance when your mother’s anger slipped. Not once. You see, anger was the key to her inherited power and made your mother almost invincible. And as with everything, there was a price. Her power, once unbound, was hard to control.”

“Really.” My tone was heavy with doubt and sarcasm. His story had almost overloaded my belief meter.

“I’m sorry we didn’t tell you sooner, but now isn’t the time for doubt. Your mother is one of the Erinyes. Her power is vengeance. The Erinyes are charged to make right the unfulfilled oaths sworn by people for whatever reason. They are charged to judge sins.”

He glanced behind me to the mausoleum, his face pensive. “Understand, Johnna, what an Erinys feels is many times more potent than our emotions. They are sometimes unmanageable. Even as a mortal, your mom had to fight its negative pull, especially around you. I love your mother for who she is, not what. Lucky for me, she returns the sentiment."

My mouth mimicked his twisted half smile as questions ping-ponged inside my head. “You’re describing a Roman Fury, aren’t you? Wait a minute—the three Erinyes in Greek mythology had snake hair.” I grabbed my messy ponytail and twisted it around my wrist. “Please, please don’t tell me she wore a disguise and had snake hair.”

He grimaced. “Well, I wouldn’t let your mother hear you say that—Greeks and Romans aren’t exactly friendly—and why would she have snake hair? You’re thinking of Medusa.”

I shook my head. “You need to reread a few of your own books. The Erinyes had snake hair too.”

"Your mother does not have snake hair—unless she goes to sleep with her hair wet, but I think it’s a fairly common problem females have. Suffice it to say, there is a reason these women don’t marry. Let’s just say the marriage rarely ends well.”

I cleared my throat, trying to sound as normal as possible, as several memories surfaced. “I know I was young, but I remember a few interesting fights you two had.”

Dad snorted. “Interesting would be putting it mildly. I remember those too, and the making up afterward.”

“Eewww.” I scrunched up my face in disgust. “Way too much info.” I thought about his story, analyzing every word, when my mind stumbled. My tongue felt like a wad of cotton lying inside my mouth. With everything he’d just told me, I almost didn’t want to ask the question pummeling my brain. “Dad, you keep saying Mom is . . .”

“Because there is definitely one giant plus about your mother being an Erinys. After we were first married, she wanted a baby so very badly. For whatever reason, she couldn’t conceive, so she consulted the Oracle, who told your mother to take a mortal soul. Johnna, she denied her immortality so you could have a normal life. To save you, she sacrificed her mortal soul.”

My father’s hands covered my shaking shoulders as he kissed my forehead. “Turn around, Daughter.”

Fear skittered over my skin like an electrical current, and my empty stomach rollercoastered under my pounding heart. I didn’t want to turn around, but the promise in my father’s eyes, the look of love on his face burst open the tiny kernel of hope growing in my chest. I breathed deeply and before I could chicken out, whirled around.

COLLAPSE
Reviews:Heidi M. wrote:

Fun, sexy, paranormal mystery!

A fun fast paced story, with great witty dialogue, funny and loving characters. The story flowed really well with a good plot. Johanna is super independent, smart, snarky and jumps right into the fray to right the wrongs after she discovered the shocking truth about her family and herself. Joanna meets her true mate, Niki, and their chemistry makes for a great couple. She is not afraid to get her hands dirty and take on the baddest of the bad. Joanna and Niki must learn to trust each other to figure out who is the traitor. She may be young and reckless, but in many ways mature, and she is willing to risk life and limb to save those she loves. The story is like a set of dominoes, as soon as she finds the answer to one thing, something else goes wrong and she has to figure out the next mystery. Great action packed twisting tale. Thoroughly enjoyed this book and looking forward to the next adventure in this series. I received this book for free and voluntarily reviewed.