Hell’s Bell – Keri Arthur

  • I woke abruptly, my heart hammering and a scream dying on my lips. For several seconds, I did nothing more than stare into the darkness of my bedroom, trying to find a reason for the fear that pounded through my veins. Though I’d rather weirdly become prone to prophetic dreams of late, it wasn’t a dream that had woken me. The source of the fear was external, not internal. Aside from the usual creaks and groans of an old building, the apartment above the café I owned and ran with my best friend and fellow witch, Isabelle—or Belle, as she preferred to be called—was silent. Nor was there any noise coming from the street outside, but that wasn’t really surprising given this part of Castle Rock was mostly retail, and everything here had shut down by nine. I pulled my phone out from under my pillow and checked the time. 12.25. Which was almost smack bang in the middle of witching hour—a time when those on the spectral edge of the world were thought to gain substance and reality. As a witch—even if a somewhat underpowered one—I knew the truth lay not so much with the time, but rather the position of the moon. Midnight was when she reached her highest point in the sky, and was therefore at her most powerful. Did that mean some sort of supernatural activity had woken me? I seriously hoped not. Only a couple of weeks had passed since we’d gotten involved in the hunt for a vampire hell-bent on revenge, and I’d only just recovered from the injuries received in that final bloody battle. The last thing this reservation—or, indeed, Belle and I—needed was another force of darkness finding its way here.

    And yet, Castle Rock was a place filled with wild magic. While such a force was in itself neither good nor bad, without a proper, fully vetted witch here to protect and channel it, it would inevitably draw those who followed the darker paths—or those who coveted such unrestrained power. And the werewolf council was—as far as I could tell— willfully ignoring the danger it represented. Either that, or they simply didn’t believe in a force they were physically incapable of seeing. I scrubbed a hand across my eyes, then flicked the bedcovers off and got up. The night was cold despite the fact Christmas was now only three weeks away, and I shivered my way into track pants and a sweater before walking across to the door. There really wasn’t that much living space up here on the first floor. Belle and I each had our own bedroom, and there was a separate toilet and bathroom. Beyond that, there was a small kitchenette, and a living area that held a two-person sofa and a TV. At the far end of the room were glass sliding doors that led out to a balcony that extended out over the sidewalk.

    It provided us with much-needed extra space while giving weather protection to café patrons who preferred to use the sidewalk tables. I glanced to the left, studying the shadows that concealed the stairs leading down to the café. There was no sense of wrongness coming from that area, and the wards and spells I’d placed around the inside perimeter of the building were untouched and untroubled. I frowned and headed right, silently making my way across to the balcony door. The night air condensed my breath, and my shivering increased. I hugged my arms across my chest and walked to the railing, my gaze drifting over the silent street and the nearby buildings. Castle Rock was the capital of the Faelan Werewolf Reservation, one of only seven here in Australia. It had initially been the sole province of the O’Connor pack, but some long-ago human government had decided the three Victorian packs held too much land— and therefore too much wealth and power—between them, and had decided all three need to be on the one reservation—this one. Of course, the Marin and Sinclair packs had been as unimpressed with the idea as the O’Connors, and the resulting turmoil was the reason werewolves today were basically self-governing. Witches had been the driving force behind that peace deal, which was perhaps why some packs remained unhappy about a witch’s presence on their land.

    But there wasn’t much any of them could do about it—at least when it came to government-assigned witches. Aside from providing magical assistance when needed, reservation witches were also the government’s mouthpieces and rule enforcers. Which made this reservation’s lack of an assigned witch all the more surprising. Granted, Gabe Watson might have disappeared after apparently murdering his wife, but that didn’t explain why he hadn’t been replaced. No matter how hard the werewolves here might have protested, the High Witch council had the law behind them. And they surely knew—better than anyone—just how dangerous unguarded wild magic could be. And while I might have been born into a royal witch family, I’d never gone through the vetting system and I certainly didn’t have the power to protect the magic in this place. Even if the magic here seemed to have a strange affinity with me. I frowned and glanced up at the moon. Though a cloak of clouds hid her presence, her power nevertheless sang through the deeper recesses of my soul.

    It was a force often used to bolster the strength of spells, but I had no sense that anyone was using her to perform magic. At least not in the immediate surrounds, anyway. So what had woken me? I scanned the silent night for a few more minutes, then cursed softly and pushed away from the railing. Just as I did, I heard it. The distant ringing of a church bell. Once. Twice. Thrice. Then silence. A silence suddenly filled with an odd edge of malevolence.

    Trepidation stirred even as the need to track down the source of that ominous ringing hit. I didn’t question it; I simply turned and ran back inside, pausing long enough to lock the door before racing toward my bedroom. And almost collided with Belle as she came out of hers. It was only thanks to her jump back into her bedroom that we didn’t come to grief. For someone who was just over six feet tall with the physique of an Amazon, she was amazingly quick on her feet. “What’s wrong?” she asked, her voice sharp with concern. “I don’t know. Something.” “And apparently you’re in a hurry to investigate it.” She followed me into my bedroom.

    “Do you want company?” I hesitated. Belle wasn’t only a witch, but a spirit talker and a strong telepath. Of course, she was also my familiar—something that had apparently never happened before in all witch history. It had been the subject of much gossip amongst the six witch houses when we were children, and had caused more than a little shame to my blueblood parents. “Your parents have their noses stuck so far up their own asses,” Belle commented, obviously catching my thoughts, “that they wouldn’t know a good thing if it hit them in the face multiple times.” Belle’s tone was tart, and I chuckled softly, even if it was a rather sad truth. There were three so-called “royal” lines of witches, all of which were considerably more powerful than the other, more “common” lines. Over the centuries, the royal three had so ingratiated themselves with rule makers that they were now considered vital aides to governments across the world. Both my parents were high-ranking—and therefore highly sought after—members of the Council of Advisors. Or had been when Belle and I had fled Canberra and my family twelve years ago.

    For all I knew, my father might now be the head of the council; it wasn’t like I kept up-to-date on witch happenings, be they local or national. And although my family could probably have found me if they’d truly wanted to, I nevertheless preferred to keep my profile low, and did my best to avoid not only anything to do with the witch council but most things magic. Which had certainly become harder since we’d set up shop here in Castle Rock, as magic and we seemed to be on an unavoidable collision course. “It might be safer if you do come along,” I said. “I think there’s some sort of spectral presence out there, and that means I might need guidance from you and the spirit world.” She pushed away from the doorframe, a smile on her lips. “The spirit world just went into shock at hearing you say they might be useful rather than annoying.” “Hey, they do have a habit of dishing out dire warnings without actually providing a source or a reason.” I zipped up my jacket. “I’ll meet you downstairs.

    ” She nodded and disappeared into her bedroom. I switched on the hall light and clattered down to the café. The Christmas lights strung around the dining area filled the room with color and cheerfulness, and I couldn’t help smiling. Belle and I had opened— and closed—a few cafés over the years, but this was the first one that truly felt like home. I turned and headed into the small reading room at the rear of the building. The air sparked briefly as I entered, a clear indication the spells encircling and protecting the room were active. A simple wooden table sat in the center of the small space, along with four mismatched but comfortable chairs. A large rug covered the floor, and bright lengths of material were draped across the ceiling, both of which not only provided the otherwise drab room with some color, but also hid the ramped-up spellwork painted onto the floor and etched into the wooden ceiling. Only an entity of extreme power would ever get into this place. We might not have come to Castle Rock with the intention of doing much more than spiritual and psychic readings, but the advent of the vampire and the knowledge that we were all that stood between the wild magic and those who would use it for ill had made what most witches in our line of work would consider an overload of protections totally necessary.

    I walked across to the full-height bookcase that lined the right wall, moved a gorgeously ornate pottery fairy, and then I placed my hand against the bookcase’s wooden back. Energy immediately crawled across it, and a heartbeat later, the wooden panel slipped aside to reveal an eight-inch-deep compartment. It wasn’t the only hidden compartment in the bookcase—there was one behind every shelf. A witch could never be too careful when it came to protecting magical items and potions. I grabbed Belle’s silver knife, because mine was still being held at the ranger station, a couple of bottles of holy water, and my spell stones—or warding stones, as they were sometimes known. Once I’d secured them into a backpack, I opened another compartment to get a couple of ready-made potions to ward off evil, then slung the pack over my back and headed out. The faint caress of energy swirled around me again as I joined Belle outside. It wasn’t magic; it was the spirits, communing with her. Once I’d locked the door, I shoved my hands into my pockets and headed left. After a moment, she joined me.

    “I’m told there’s something rather odd happening near the botanical gardens.” “I don’t suppose they could define the term ‘odd.’” Her lips twitched. “Apparently, it’s not odd in the way you are.” “Which, as usual, clarifies things greatly.” “They do not wish to provide a clear answer because it would cause you great shock.” Her silvery eyes shone with amusement. “And they feel it’s better for you to remain capable of tackling whatever it is both you and they are sensing.” “Is there a reason behind their high form tonight?” I asked mildly. “Because it’s a little unusual for them to be this backchatty.

    ” “I think it’s the energy of this place. They like it.” She hesitated, eyes narrowing as she listened to the other side. “Dispensing the truth is not being backchatty, apparently. And they suggest we get a move on.” I snorted, but nevertheless increased my pace. I wasn’t foolish enough to ignore a suggestion from the spirit world—not when it meshed with my own need to investigate, anyway. We made our way down Mostyn Street until we reached the far end, and then swung right onto Kennedy. It probably would have been quicker to drive, but the nebulous part of me that had woken filled with fear wanted to be on foot. As we drew closer to Lyttleton Street, I couldn’t help but glance at the white weatherboard house across the road.

    Did Marjorie’s soul remain there, eternally locked in grief for the daughter who’d been turned by a revenge-seeking vampire? “Her grief will probably stain the atmosphere of that place for many years to come,” Belle said softly. “But her soul has moved on. The spirits say it was her time.” “Meaning we couldn’t have saved her no matter what we did?” “No.” Which at least went some way to easing the vague sense of guilt that had lingered since that horrible night—even though the logical part of me knew we’d done everything we possibly could. “And Karen?” “Has also moved on, but her path is not one of light.” I frowned. “But it wasn’t by choice that she murdered her mom—” “No, but it was her decision to share blood with a vampire. Gran’s book was very specific about that.” Belle’s grandmother Nellie might have been one of the so-called “common” Sarr witches, but she’d held a vast collection of books on magic and the supernatural.

    Belle had inherited a good percentage of that library, although we’d had no real cause to use them for anything more than an occasional charm spell until recently. “But Karen was still only sixteen,” I replied. “It’s hardly fair that she should suffer an eternity of hell for the unthinking selfishness of youth.” Belle shrugged. “You always pay for the choices you make, be it in life or in death.” “That might be true, but it doesn’t mean it’s always fair.” “Life is never fair—what happened to you after your sister’s death is evidence enough of that.” Another true statement, and a hurt that still festered in the deepest part of my soul. But then, it wasn’t often your parents held you responsible for the death of the sister you’d tried so desperately to save. We ran on, our footsteps making little impact on the hush that controlled the night.

    Fog appeared, thick patches that drifted along the street, masking the glow of some lights while leaving others free. But as we neared the park, all the lights became so heavily shrouded it plunged the entire area into foggy darkness. My trepidation increased; that masking—and maybe even the fog—wasn’t natural. And yet there was no sense of magic touching the air. “It might be too far away—or too faint—for either of us to detect,” Belle commented. “Maybe.” I paused briefly at Walker Street, glancing left and right before racing across. “I don’t suppose the spirits have any information yet on what might lie ahead?” “Only that it’s not a spirit, as such.” Which ruled out ghosts, but left the door wide open for all other manner of ghouls and demons—although it was rather hard to imagine a demon being paired with the sound of a church bell. I hauled myself over the old metal fence that surrounded the park, and ran on.

    Clammy fingers played across my face and swirled heavily around my body; it almost felt like the fog was trying to push me away. Ahead, on the ground and barely visible, lay something white. It wasn’t moving and appeared to have arms but no body or face. I slowed instinctively, my breath hitching in my throat. “What on earth is that?” Belle’s voice was little more than a croak of fear. “I don’t know.” The charm at my throat—one designed to ward off evil—wasn’t reacting, but that might simply be because we weren’t close enough. As I edged forward, I silently began the incantation for a repelling spell. Better to be safe than sorry…. The white thing became clearer, and amusement washed away the gathering dread.

    It was a shirt. We were scared of a damn shirt. Belle’s silent laughter bubbled through my mind. Although I wasn’t telepathic, the ability to share thoughts was one of the many benefits that came with her being my familiar. Your ranger would have a field day if he ever discovered we were both scared witless by an innocuous men’s shirt. Aiden is hardly my anything. We haven’t even gone out yet. I squatted next to the shirt and reached out—but didn’t quite touch the crisp material. I didn’t need to. Evil rolled off it.

    Evil and hunger. Whether the source was the owner of the shirt, or a companion was what we now needed to uncover. And fast. I hesitated a second longer, and then grabbed a fistful of the material and reached down to that place deep inside where my psychometry skill lay leashed and waiting. While it usually worked better with possessions worn close to the skin that weren’t washed—things like necklaces, rings, or watches rather than items of clothing—it was still possible to track someone through clothing if the item had only recently been discarded. This shirt had been—it was still damp with perspiration. But I didn’t open the door to my abilities very wide. Given the foulness emanating from the material, the last thing I needed was to slip into the mind of the stranger as I’d slipped into the mind of the teenager when the vampire had first killed her. I didn’t need to experience whatever hell was being inflicted on him. I just needed to find him.

    The shirt led us left, toward the lake and a barely visible strand of trees. You know, it might be wise at this point to ring Aiden, Belle said. And tell him what? That I’ve found an evil-feeling shirt? That’ll go down well at this hour of the night. Her grin flashed. If that man is asleep, I’ll eat my hat. You don’t wear them. Well no, because they mess with the hair. But the sentiment nevertheless applies. I snorted softly. If and when we find something to ring him about, I’ll do so.

    Not before. Besides, I was a little peeved at the man. Though he’d come into the café regularly for coffee, cake, and a chat, he’d yet to make any further moves when it came to us going out. He did say the date could wait until you’d fully recovered, Belle said mildly. It’s possible he’s simply waiting for you to say you are. Anyone can see that I am. He can’t be that daft.

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