Length: 62,216 words
Cover Design: Aaron Anderson
Asheville Arcana Series
Will love mean rebirth… or death?
Vampire Julian Schaden has been warning the Asheville Paranormal Council of an impending demonic incursion for more than two decades. Over the past two years, he and his friends have fought as hard as they can with little help, since Micah Carter, the demon hunter who should have led them, shirked his responsibility and then perished.
Desperate for anything that might aid the fight, Julian enters the Carter property and finds something he never dared hope for: young Thomas Carter, the heir to a long line of demon hunters.
Thomas knows nothing about the supernatural world. But the prospect of a real life, outside the sheltered, isolated farm where he grew up, calls to him, and the idea of fighting the Unholy feels right.
Julian agrees to train Thomas, but he struggles against an unexpected, unwanted attraction. Thomas is too young and innocent to get involved with Julian, but opposites attract, and this is one battle Julian seems fated to lose. But a prophecy from a dying mage comes with a bleak warning: the upcoming battle will claim Thomas’s life. To keep his home and friends safe, Julian may have to sacrifice the only love he’s ever known.
WHEN JULIAN said they were going to a house where a mage and a werewolf lived, Thomas didn’t know what to expect, but it wasn’t something as normal as this. The house itself was a two-story Victorian style with a white picket fence and a wide front porch with rocking chairs on it. The front lawn was lush green and neatly tended, and the flower beds along the front of the house were bursting with azaleas in colors ranging from white to blush pink.
Inside, there were tasteful antiques without a single iron sconce containing a flickering torch to be seen, and a teakettle on the stove in the kitchen rather than a bubbling cauldron. Whimsy Hickes-Edgewood, the mage, was a dark-haired, slender man who looked as though he had a good bit of Cherokee in his heritage. He stood several inches shorter than Thomas, but the sheer force of his personality swept Thomas from the front door all the way back to the kitchen before he quite realized what was happening.
Now he was seated at the circular kitchen table with Julian and Whimsy along with the two werewolves, Eli Hammond and Harlan Hickes-Edgewood, and Arden Gilmarin, the half-elf. If Thomas didn’t know they were all connected to what Julian called the supernatural community, he never would have guessed they weren’t normal humans. The only one of them who looked at all unusual was Arden with his pointed ears.
But they were all friendly and welcoming, and Whimsy prepared a dinner consisting of a salad made with fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, and bell peppers from Harlan’s garden in the backyard, and spaghetti with a sauce made with herbs Whimsy grew himself. The meal was delicious, although Thomas was too overwhelmed to do more than pick at his food.
Even with only six people in the spacious kitchen, Thomas still felt crowded. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been around more than a couple of people, and he was accustomed to being in a quiet house with just Grandpa, as it had been for years before Grandpa died.
He was also still trying to wrap his mind around the idea that not only were the others not human, but he wasn’t either. Not fully. Julian had said that Grandpa knew what he was and had kept the information from him deliberately, but Julian seemed to think his ignorance could get him killed, although he wasn’t sure by whom—or perhaps, in this case, by what.
He sat quietly and sipped his iced tea, listening to the others laughing and chatting. Questions filled his brain, but he wasn’t sure where to begin, and he didn’t want to interrupt. They seemed relaxed and comfortable with one another, and a great deal of good-natured teasing flew back and forth. Thomas envied them. Grandma had tried to help him make friends when he’d been younger, but it was difficult to sustain a friendship when Grandpa refused to let him visit anyone and rarely let anyone visit him.
“You’re very quiet, Thomas,” Arden, who was on his right, said into a lull in the conversation. He smiled wryly and placed his warm hand over one of Thomas’s. “Please excuse us—we can get a little overwhelming, I’m sure. But you can ask us or tell us anything. If it helps, Harlan wasn’t born into the supernatural community at all, he was brought into it very suddenly and traumatically, sort of like you’re dealing with right now. Isn’t that right, Harlan?”
The big brown-haired man who sat across from Thomas smiled as well, then nodded. “I imagine we’ve got a lot in common. I was brought up as a Quaker three hundred years ago. Then one night I was bitten by a possessed werewolf and turned into a lycanthrope. I had no idea such creatures were real, and suddenly there I was, one of them. And finding out there were more things in the world than I’d ever dreamed possible.”
“Then you understand how strange and unreal this all seems to me right now,” Thomas said. “I don’t understand why Grandpa hid all this from me, but he went to great lengths to do it. My grandparents homeschooled me. The television broke when I was around eight, and Grandpa never bothered to repair or replace it. Grandpa had to approve anyone Grandma wanted to invite over first. He was particular about who he’d let into the house.”
“I think he believed that by keeping you ignorant, by limiting the people you knew, he could keep you safe,” Julian chimed in. He was sitting on Thomas’s other side, and he, too, had been fairly quiet during the meal, and he hadn’t touched the food. “Losing your father changed him. The Micah Carter I knew could be irascible, but he was basically a good man who wanted to use the abilities he had to protect others. Then, when your parents were killed so tragically young, he withdrew from the world. Somehow he must have come to believe that if you didn’t know about your heritage and never learned about the supernatural world, it could never hurt you.”
“He said they died in a car wreck,” Thomas said, glancing around the table. “Is that even true?”
“Unfortunately, yes,” Julian replied, as Arden and Harlan nodded in agreement. “To be honest, they were on their way to meet me when it happened. I was one of their contacts in a sort of informal network keeping an eye out for demonic incursions. I had reason to believe we were on the verge of a major incident, and I wanted James and Alicia to verify it for me. But they never made it.”
Thomas bowed his head, wishing his parents hadn’t died. Wishing he had any memory of them. “I don’t know what they look like. I don’t know anything about them. There were no pictures of them in the house, and Grandpa refused to talk about them. I think Grandma would have, but he wouldn’t let her.”
“Wait a moment,” Arden said. He stood, then motioned to Whimsy, who got up and followed him. “I need to use your computer. We’ll be right back.”
Julian raised a questioning brow but then turned his attention back to Thomas. “I know it doesn’t make sense, but sometimes when people lose the ones they love the most, they can’t bear to talk about them anymore because it hurts too much.”
“Then will you tell me about them?” Thomas asked. “I don’t understand what the heritage you keep talking about is. You called me a demon hunter. What does that mean?”
“If I may?” Harlan asked, looking at Julian. Then, at the vampire’s nod, he turned to Thomas. “According to the legend, hundreds of years ago an angel was sent to Earth on a mission. While he was here, he fell in love with a human woman. She gave birth to a child, who wasn’t an angel, but he wasn’t really human either. Kind of like Arden, he had traits of both. Angels always know when someone is good or evil. They can tell if someone is lying or hiding something. The legend says that this son could do so as well, plus he had the angel’s ability to fight demons. I did a lot of research after your grandfather was killed last year, because events in this area seem to indicate we could really use a demon hunter. I found stories of the Nephilim, children from the union of an angel and a human. Some thought they were giants, but always they were fierce warriors. Now there are lines of demon hunters around the world. They’re very rare, but the family groups all fight to keep demons away from the mortal world.”
As he was listening to Harlan, Thomas felt like he was hearing someone read a passage from a fantasy novel, and despite everything he’d seen and heard that day, he couldn’t connect what Harlan was saying to himself.
“How do you know I have any abilities at all?” Thomas shifted in his chair to face Julian. “What if I don’t, and that’s the reason Grandpa didn’t tell me anything? I’ve never done anything special in my life.”
“I can see your aura, for one thing,” Julian replied. “You’re definitely a demon hunter. I have no doubt you possess the abilities, and yours might be even stronger than your parents’ were. Your mother was a demon hunter too, you see, though she came from somewhere in West Virginia, as I recall. You have it from both sides of your family.”
“What abilities? How do I access them?” Thomas pushed his fingers through his hair and blew out a frustrated breath. He wasn’t even sure he wanted to know any of this, but if being a demon hunter was part of his heritage, he couldn’t ignore it now that he’d been made aware of it. It sounded like he had a responsibility to uphold. “I don’t know what to do.”
“Unfortunately, there ain’t another demon hunter around who could train you,” Eli said. “But I reckon we can figure out something.”
“Of course we can. We always do.” Arden walked back in the room, holding a stack of pictures. “But first, I think you need to see these. I’m on the Asheville Paranormal Council—so is Julian, but he’s new to it. Your parents were on the council too, and I have pictures of them. Council meetings, parties we threw… thank goodness for scanners and the cloud, because I could access them and print them for you.”
He handed the pictures to Thomas, then resumed his seat, scooting closer so he could look over Thomas’s shoulder. “That first picture is a bit formal, from a ‘get to know your council members’ thing we did maybe thirty years ago.”
Thomas stared at the photo, scarcely able to believe he was looking at his parents at last, and he touched the image reverently. He could see he’d gotten his father’s tall, broad-shouldered build and blue eyes and his mother’s curly blonde hair. They stood with their arms around each other’s waists, smiling at the camera, and they looked so young and happy that tears stung Thomas’s eyelids.
“I can keep this?” he asked.
“They’re all yours,” Arden assured him. “Those aren’t even as good as the originals, which I’m going to find at the council and have better copies made for you.” He grinned. “Look at the next one. It’s your parents and Julian at a Halloween party I had.”
Thomas flipped to the next photo, which showed his mother dressed in a cheerleader uniform and holding a wooden stake and his father wearing a trench coat and fedora. He glanced at Arden. “I assume these are costumes?”
“Yes. There was a movie that had come out shortly before this called Buffy the Vampire Slayer, about a high school girl and the guy who comes to train her because she’s destined to be the Slayer. See how put-upon Julian looks? They teased him all night about staking him.”
Next to him, Julian growled slightly, but Arden stuck out his tongue.
“They look happy,” Thomas murmured. He glanced between Julian and Arden, who seemed to be the only two of the group who’d known his parents. “What were they like?”
“Smart, tough, dedicated,” Julian said. “They could really fight.”
“They were fun. They knew how to have a good time and not take life too seriously,” Arden said, rolling his eyes at Julian. “They were very much in love too. You could feel it whenever you were close to them and see it in their auras. Humans don’t get mates like some supernaturals do, but they couldn’t have been much closer if they had had a mate bond.”
Regret and grief welled up within Thomas as he gazed at his parents. He wished he could have known them, wished he knew what they were like for himself, wished he’d had a more normal childhood. The tears that had been stinging his eyes since he started looking at the photos threatened to spill down his cheeks. He’d never realized what he’d missed out on before, and he longed for the parental love he’d never known.
Covering his face with one hand to muffle a sob, he turned to Julian. His instincts told him they were all good people and he could trust them, but he felt as though Julian had been his rescuer, and he intuitively sought comfort from him.
For a moment Julian was still. Then, slowly and rather hesitantly, Julian slid his strong arms around Thomas and held him gently, and Arden rested one hand on Thomas’s back, rubbing it comfortingly. Where Arden’s hand was warm, however, Julian’s body seemed to hold no heat whatsoever.
When the wave of grief passed at last, Thomas drew back and scrubbed at his eyes. “Sorry,” he said. He’d just met these people, and he’d already made a fool of himself.
Julian withdrew an immaculately white handkerchief from a pocket and held it out to him. “It’s all right,” he said quietly. “It’s understandable. I’m sorry you didn’t get to know them. They were special.”
Thomas accepted the handkerchief with murmured thanks and wiped the wetness from his face. “There’s so much I’ve missed out on. So much I don’t know. I didn’t even realize how much until today.”
“But the good thing is, you did realize it, right?” Arden asked. He still had a hand on Thomas’s back. “You’re young, and you’re a supernatural, so you have a long life ahead of you to catch up and learn everything you want and need to know. And you have friends now. We’re all here for you, okay? One of the first things I want to do is get you a cell phone so you can call any of us at any time.”
“That’s right,” Whimsy said, watching Thomas with sympathy in his dark eyes. “We’ll help you any way we can. You’re not alone anymore.”
Hearing that made Thomas want to cry again, but for a different reason. He swallowed hard and twisted the handkerchief as he fought to control his wayward emotions. “Thanks, I appreciate that.”
“You’re actually going to need us,” Julian said somberly. “I wasn’t kidding about the danger you could be in, Thomas. We need to teach you to defend yourself, but the more immediate concern is your farm. I don’t think you should stay there at night until we can see about getting some wards reestablished. It’s too dangerous.”
“You’re absolutely right, Julian,” Whimsy said, elbowing Arden. “He should stay with you. You’ve got the best-protected property of any of us. Nothing could get to him there. Right, Arden?”
“I agree completely.” Arden’s eyes seemed almost feline as he looked at Julian. “There isn’t a demon who could get through your defenses. Isn’t that what you’ve always claimed, Julian?”
Julian was looking between his two friends, a frown line cutting deeply between his eyes, but then he sighed. “Fine.”
Ari McKay is the professional pseudonym for Arionrhod and McKay, who have been writing together for over a decade. Their collaborations encompass a wide variety of romance genres, including contemporary, fantasy, science fiction, gothic, and action/adventure. Their work includes the Blood Bathory series of paranormal novels, the Herc’s Mercs series, as well as two historical Westerns: Heart of Stone and Finding Forgiveness. When not writing, they can often be found scheming over costume designs or binge watching TV shows together.
Arionrhod is a systems engineer by day who is eagerly looking forward to (hopefully) becoming a full time writer in the not-too-distant future. Now that she is an empty-nester, she has turned her attentions to finding the perfect piece of land to build a fortress in preparation for the zombie apocalypse, and baking (and eating) far too many cakes.
McKay is an English teacher who has been writing for one reason or another most of her life. She also enjoys knitting, reading, cooking, and playing video games. She has been known to knit in public. Given she has the survival skills of a gnat, she’s relying on Arionrhod to help her survive the zombie apocalypse.
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