Descended from Shadows – D.G. Swank, Alessandra Thomas

M C H A P T E R O N E y sisters would hate me if we weren’t related,” Celeste complained. “They probably do anyway.” Her words were laced with anger, but her voice was soft. While our therapist considered this with a pitying expression, Celeste turned to us and said, “I’m different from you two. Always have been, always will be, and we all know it.” Tears sprang to my eyes, and I blinked against the burning. Celeste’s problem wasn’t with me, not really. It wasn’t about our sister Rowan either, but she still responded to Celeste’s comment with a dismissive huff. “Let’s unpack that a little bit, shall we?” Our counselor stretched back in his chair, emphasizing his long, slim torso and his unfortunate ensemble of a plaid collared shirt and pleated-front khakis. If I were a different woman, capable of dating normal men, I might have been inclined to help him improve his fashion sense and, in the process, find out what kind of muscles were under his clothes. However, I, Phoebe Whelan, daughter of one of the oldest magic-bearing families in the world, would not be dating anyone anytime soon. I had other things to worry about. My sisters and I had a job to do, a sacred commitment to keep that could fall to no one else. It bound our lives to our land and the book, which meant we’d all spent the last six years frozen in place. To me, it was annoying.

To my older sister Rowan, it was unfair. To my baby sister Celeste, it was the reason we were sitting side by side on a couch in this therapist’s office, talking about our family problems in coded language to make them sound anything close to normal. Because as hard as our family’s legacy could be on Rowan and me, it was slowly driving Celeste mad. “There’s nothing to ‘unpack,’” Rowan said, curling her index and middle fingers into air quotes around the therapist’s favorite buzzword, “if it’s not true. None of these issues have anything to do with whether we like you.” If Rowan was trying to disguise her absolute frustration at having to come to family therapy, it wasn’t working, a fact I tried—and failed—to convey with a look. “We love you, Celeste.” I reached to the side to wrap my fingers over hers. She stiffened at the gesture and my heart panged. As if programmed to sound at the most crucial moment of the session, the soft tone announcing the end of our time with Kevin, as he insisted we call him, went off.

He tilted his head and said, “Sadly, our time is up. For homework, I’d like Phoebe and Rowan to each consciously do one thing this week to show Celeste how much they appreciate her contributions to the household, okay?” A low grunt came from the far end of the couch where Rowan sat, offsetting my enthusiastic nod. Celeste’s expression remained slack, as she stared vacantly at the far end of the room. Her eyes looked watery now, and I gently tugged her to her feet while Rowan stalked to the exit without another word. “Thank you, Kevin,” I said, smiling apologetically for my hothead sister. “We’ll see you in a couple weeks.” I kept my arm around my sister’s back as we left the office, and suddenly I was reminded of one of the times my mom had taken us all to the park when we were little. Rowan and I had been playing on the slide when we’d noticed Celeste silently crying while two older girls ridiculed her for talking to rocks like they were real. Rowan was eight and I was seven, but we’d instantly come to her defense. After Rowan had chased the older girls away, I’d wrapped my arms around Celeste and told her that Rowan and I would always be there to take care of her.

Turned out I’d lied. There was no making this okay, and I was starting to become scared. How did we fix my baby sister? Celeste squinted when we stepped out into daylight, shielding her eyes from the admittedly blinding rays. She hated the sun, despite having the enviable appearance of sunshine itself, with a head full of bright blond curls and a beautiful pink flush that colored her cheeks at the slightest physical exertion. Keeping the Book of Sindal hidden from the world took a toll on all of us, but not in the physical ways it affected her. Celeste’s abilities were crucial to keeping the book safe, but they sucked the power out of her at every moment of every day, leaving her nerves frayed and fragile. And we were due to replenish the book’s protections this evening. Rowan had already lowered her sunglasses into place and was walking at a fast clip toward her brand-new car—last year’s hottest luxury SUV. She didn’t need something so nice, but Rowan had always loved her shiny things, as big and flashy as she could manage. She’d taken extra freelance writing assignments for a year to save enough for that car without having to ask the Council for a supplement to the small stipend they gave us, so I figured there were bigger battles to fight.

Celeste hadn’t commented on the car when it came home a few days ago either, but then, Celeste hardly commented on anything anymore. She was getting worse, and Rowan and I both knew it. Celeste climbed into the back seat and shut down. I took the passenger seat, glancing into the mirror on the visor for a glimpse at my little sister’s pale face. “When can we quit doing this pointless bullshit?” Rowan bit out after a few minutes of careening through the curved backroads that took us home. Okay, so she and I dealt with stress in different ways. “If by pointless bullshit you mean the therapy to help Celeste? We promised Mack three sessions. That means one more,” I reminded her with plenty of bite, stopping myself from saying more. Mack was the foreman of the auto parts factory where Celeste worked. Her job wasn’t ideal, but the repetitive nature of assembling engine parts gave her mind something ordered to focus on, to distract from the chaos that raged through it day in and day out.

Some days, she was able to control it better than others. A couple of months ago, the worst of those “other days” had resulted in a mangled assembly line belt—a fellow worker had tried to pinch Celeste’s ass and she’d lost control. It only took a second of intense thought or emotion from Celeste for the unpredictable, powerful magic that flowed through her to cause serious damage. Most witches, including Rowan and me, needed to draw upon the elements associated with our specific magic. Celeste’s expression magic came from nothing—she pulled it from the natural world around her. Out of thin air, basically. Many of our kind thought it was impossible. That a deal with the devil must be responsible. It wasn’t impossible, and the devil had nothing to do with it. But it cost Celeste dearly, and that day at the factory, her magic had almost cost a nonmagic human his life.

The guy was a prick, undoubtedly, but he didn’t deserve to die for it. Mack was a mage gifted at memory alteration, thank the gods. He ensured that all the nonmagical factory workers gave the same account of Celeste’s victim nearly dying as he blatantly ignored safety regulations. Mack had told us we could thank him by making sure Celeste never even got close to doing something similar ever again. We’d tried conventional psychiatric meds, but they were designed for normal human problems, and normal human needs. We were witches. Nothing about us was normal, even if every detail of our lives was carefully planned to make us fit in. If only. “I just don’t see how therapy can help if I can’t talk about my actual problem,” Celeste said softly from the back seat. I glanced in the rearview mirror and watched as she leaned her head back on the seat, looking exhausted from the effort of a simple talk therapy session.

“Even if you could, it’s not like that guy could help,” Rowan added, seeming to soften at this shared opinion between her and Celeste. It almost made me happy that they were ganging up on me. At least they were on the same side about something. “Yeah, Kevin,” Rowan continued in an exaggerated imitation of Celeste’s sweet voice. “My actual problem is that I promised to keep an ancient book of dark magic from falling into the wrong hands and it’s really fucking exhausting, you know? Any suggestions?” Celeste smiled for a second in response, a fleeting burst of sunshine so rare these days that a lump of emotion clogged my throat. It was gone in a heartbeat. Her shoulders slumped forward, and a long, heavy sigh filled the car. “It’s why I drink so much, you know. It’s not like I love vodka like some bony sixty-year-old socialite, but it’s the only way to shut my brain off. It’s either that or stop sleeping.

” “We know,” I assured her. “You can’t stop sleeping, obviously. That would just make things worse.” We’d discussed the pitfalls of that path at length. Without sleep, Celeste’s alreadyunpredictable power would likely become more uncontrollable—the way it did whenever she allowed her emotions to hold sway. She had to walk a precarious tightrope between letting go enough to rest but not so much that her body began unconsciously pulling energy from the world around her. Because of her commitment to guard the Book of Sindal, she had to be ready to draw on her expression magic at a moment’s notice. That was what had gotten us into this whole therapy situation to begin with. I snuck a glance at Rowan, worried. Celeste’s aptitude for expression magic was stronger than the Valerian Large Council had seen for decades—stronger than many of them had believed possible—and had been a large roadblock in getting them to agree to leave the Book of Sindal with the three of us.

In the end, it remained at our little farmhouse in the rolling, wooded hills of Ohio, but some members of the Valerian Small Council, the truly important magical representatives, had fought to move it somewhere more “stable.” Not that I didn’t appreciate their concern. The Book of Sindal—or the Book of Sin, as many witches liked to call it—was absolutely priceless and irreplaceable. In the late 1500s, a learned and respected Danish witch by the name of Marij Clais had spent the better part of her life transcribing ancient papyrus and linen scrolls to create the bound tome—a wealth of spells and stories about the history of witchcraft. The villagers in her town of Sindal, Denmark, had caught wind of her project and confronted her. Ultimately, they’d burned her house, the original scrolls, and even Marij herself for what they perceived to be her evil sins. However, the book, nearly complete, had escaped. After a journey to England, it had ended up in the hands of some of her descendants—my mother’s family—and made the move to America with them. It wasn’t the history of the book that prompted the Valerian Small Council to keep it hidden, however. It was the dark and dangerous spells it contained.

For most witches and mages, magic came as naturally as breathing, but in the Middle Ages, a small group of weak, jealous mages had experimented with combining their magic, organic components, and spells they’d found in ancient scrolls. The resulting spells and potions were as unnatural and grotesque as the offspring of wildlife exposed to radiation. Instead of their desired result—unparalleled power—the mages had created an arsenal of plagues and pestilence. Carnage and chaos. Death and destruction. Worse, perhaps, were the volatile, unwieldy spells that, if mastered, could let their caster control the minds and actions of other witches and mages. Marij had chronicled their work along with its history. Most witches and mages thought the Book of Sin was a fairy tale. A myth. After all, the capability to create something out of what had once been nothing could benefit the world as much as it could destroy it.

What few magicals knew, what our family was sworn to keep secret, was that the book was imbued with a very old, very dark form of blood magic. It was so ancient that no known witch had the power to wield such magic anymore. In the case of the book, though, that hardly mattered. This magic rendered anything created with blood to be indestructible as long as the smallest trace of that bloodline remained in the world. We, with Marij’s blood running through our veins, were its guardians in more ways than anyone else realized. There would likely be outrage and a full-on protest if it were known the evil tome still existed at all, let alone resided in our backyard. If it got into the wrong hands… No, the safest place for the book was hidden with us. Even though the Small Council took issue with Celeste’s mercurial nature, her magic was the reason the Book of Sin was impossible for other witches to find. The book gave off traces of magic, but her power concealed it completely, partially because of the nature of her magic, but also because Celeste, even more so than Rowan and me, was tied to our land. Her natural talent for expression magic manifested her emotional connection to our mother and the generations before her who had inhabited this piece of earth into raw power, tied to this location.

The ritual work Celeste did to hide the Book of Sin kept it largely hidden even from Rowan and me—that was the point. Our mother worked with each of us to create protection rituals particular to our strengths, which our other sisters didn’t share. In this way, an extra layer of checks and balances guarded the Book of Sin. We were sisters bound together by both blood and coven. Rowan and I would never leave Celeste to bear the burden alone Which meant none of us would ever leave our land. My particular form of magic ensured I likely never would have left anyway, but there was a difference between staying willingly and staying out of duty, with the knowledge that if you ever did leave, you’d be rolling out the red carpet for darkness itself to burst back into the world. None of this was Celeste’s fault. Our parents had died unexpectedly six years ago, forcing us to form our coven and step into our new roles practically overnight, in the thick of grief. Celeste had only been seventeen and with the death of our mother, had just lost the only witch who had ever been able to guide her in safely harnessing her expression magic. We had to figure out how to keep the book safe and stop it from killing Celeste in the process.

Therapy didn’t seem to be the answer, but at least we’d tried something. Silence filled the SUV as we pulled up to the house. After a moment, a weary Celeste let herself out of the car. “I have to start the fortification ritual,” she murmured. “I’m fixing some strong coffee first.” Rowan and I sat in the car, watching her trudge up the gravel driveway toward the house, her steps heavy and slow, as if she wore hundred-pound weights on her feet. It was a sad sight to see my sister so devoid of joy, making her way to a home so sadlooking. It had been years since our farmhouse had seen a fresh coat of paint, and now its exterior, which at one time was pearly white, appeared to be tobacco-stained and in decline, and by the look of those shingles, our roof would need replacing sooner rather than later. I’d given little thought to these things though. We had enough to worry about just keeping the bills paid.

We all knew we were pushing our luck with a heater approaching twenty years old, and the real estate tax on this much land was unreal. As if to attest to our home’s neglected state, the sun-faded porch creaked and groaned even under Celeste’s slight weight as she approached the front door. Nevertheless, it was home. Too bad guarding the Book of Sin didn’t pay better. Or much at all. Thank the gods we all had other jobs to help pay the bills.

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