Taming Demons for Beginners – Annette Marie

I stared into the demon’s obsidian eyes. Wet blood cooled on my skin, but I felt no pain. Not yet. I was sure I would feel it before I died. Sprawled on my stomach, one arm pinned under me, I craned my neck to keep my gaze on the demon. He crouched at the edge of the gleaming silver line set into the floor. That line had separated us since I’d first laid eyes on the summoning circle. It bound him to this realm —and protected the humans who had called him here. The ethereal barrier rippled as he shifted closer, his black stare fixed on me. Somewhere near my feet, the men who’d done this to me laughed. They laughed. If they’d been able to see the demon, bestial bloodlust rolling off him, they wouldn’t have dared utter a sound. But swirling darkness filled the dome, and only I could see him. A monster before me. Monsters of a different sort behind me.

I had seconds to choose my executioner. One would probably kill me. The other would definitely kill me. My arm trembled as I slid my palm across the blood-splattered floor toward the silver line. The barrier shuddered more violently as the demon pressed against it. The jeering men fell silent. My fingertips brushed the silver inlay. Voices burst out in protest and footsteps thudded—the men scrambling toward me. Their hands grabbed my legs to tear me away. I thrust my fingers through the barrier.

The air shimmered but offered no resistance; it was an impenetrable wall only to the creature trapped within. My human flesh passed right through it, entering his space, his prison. His gaze on mine didn’t shift, didn’t falter. His hand closed around my wrist, his skin cool and his grip like unforgiving steel. The demon wrenched me into the circle. CHAPTERTWO Seventeen Days Earlier Let’s get one thing straight: Magic is real. Cool, right? Wrong. Magic is trouble, turmoil, and life-threatening peril. Even when it’s none of those things, it’s still more hassle than it’s worth. Using magic, I should say.

All those fantastical sparks and glows and puffs of smoke come with never-ending inconveniences, but studying magic—that’s different. Magic has a way of attracting equal or greater mayhem, and my parents made it their lifelong mission to avoid all that nonsense. Stay away from magic, and it’ll stay away from you. From early childhood straight through to my first year of college, I’ve strictly followed that policy. Until now. Gripping the doorframe, I peered through a narrow gap into the room beyond. Sconce lights cast a soft yellow glow over the built-in bookshelves of the library, while the room’s open center was split into three distinct areas. On the right side, a dozen chairs hugged a long table stacked with leather-bound books and unmarred by a single speck of dust. On the room’s left side, two leather sofas faced each other across a low coffee table, so polished its dark surface reflected the coffered ceiling and crystal chandelier above, while matching end tables supported Tiffany lamps. In the middle of the room, between the sofas and the table … My fingers tightened on the jamb until my knuckles turned white.

Two men with their backs to me stood at a podium, an open book spilling over its edges. The shorter man slowly turned pages, his bald head gleaming in the dim light and his dress shirt stretching tight across a wide back pinched by the waist of his black slacks. The men murmured to each other, then the shorter one heaved the book shut. Turning, they started toward the door behind which I stood. I froze like a mouse caught in the cat’s shadow, panicking over which way to run. “Time is money, Claude. How long do you expect us to wait?” “As long as necessary. The creature will capitulate eventually, and if it doesn’t, we’ll try again.” Their voices were drawing closer. I broke out of my terrified trance and backpedaled down the hall on silent socked feet.

“We should try again now. The other one is ready. Let’s clear that circle and—” “Patience, Jack. Once we know what we have, this name could be worth—” The library door swung open and Claude broke off, eyebrows rising at the sight of me. Pretending I’d just descended the stairs, I paused as though surprised to see them. “Oh,” I said breathily. My heart jammed itself between two of my ribs. “Uncle Jack, I didn’t know you—” “What are you doing?” His wide jaw tightened, his short, bristling white beard contrasting with his tanned bald head. “You aren’t allowed down here.” I shrank back, my gaze fixed on the hardwood floor.

How was I supposed to know that? It would’ve been nice if someone had mentioned it. By the way, Robin, please stay out of the basement. We’d hate to implicate you in any crimes. After a second’s thought, I revised my mental script. No one in this house would say “please” to me. Uncle Jack murmured something to Claude, who chuckled dryly and replied, “I’ll leave you to it, then.” As he walked past me toward the stairs, he offered a surprisingly kind smile. A thin white scar ran up his chin to his mouth, creating an odd pucker in his lower lip. With his tall, broad-shouldered frame and penchant for plaid-patterned tweed jackets, he blended the scholarly air of a college professor with the weathered fitness of a retired athlete. “Robin.

” Uncle Jack’s voice cracked like a riding crop. “Come here.” I slunk to his side and resumed my inspection of the floor, my glasses sliding down my nose. I pushed them back into place. Uncle Jack wasn’t a tall man, but I was the opposite of a tall woman and his cold attention beat down on my shoulders, which were half the width of his. He cleared his throat. “How are you settling in?” My brow wrinkled at the odd high note in his voice and I snuck a quick appraisal of his face. His lips were turned up in a grimacing smile. It looked painful. “You’ve been here … a day now, haven’t you?” “Two days,” I mumbled.

Forty-five hours and twenty minutes, if I were counting. Which I wasn’t. Not constantly, at least. Okay, it was constantly. “And how are you doing?” he asked with forced friendliness. “I’m fine.” “Has Kathy shown you the ropes?” “Yes.” Minus the Stay Out of the Basement So You Don’t Discover Our Illegal Activities rule. He brushed his hands together like I was trash he was preparing to haul to the curb. “Well, it’s time to give you your final introduction.

I’d planned to wait, but since you’re already down here …” I wilted. “Kathy had mentioned a library and I just wanted to …” “Ah, yes, you like books, don’t you?” Had he phrased that so patronizingly on purpose? “I don’t need to see—” Deaf to my quiet protest, he waved at me to follow him into the library. I minced in his shadow, boring holes into the floor. I didn’t want to know what was going on in this room. I didn’t want to know about the magic. Stay away from magic and it’ll stay away from you. Uncle Jack stopped in front of the podium. “Do you know what this is?” Reluctantly, I lifted my eyes to the glaringly out-of-place feature in the elegant library. A flawless circle, ten feet across, had been carved into the beautiful hardwood floor and filled with silver inlay. Straight lines, sharp angles, and perfect curves intersected along the circle’s outer edge, but runes, sigils, and disturbing marks that twisted into unpleasant shapes interrupted the precise geometry.

Inside the circle, darkness formed a perfect dome that seamlessly matched its circumference. The half-orb sat on the library floor like a black igloo from hell, sucking light into its inky depths. “Do you know what this is?” he repeated with an impatient bite. I worked my tongue, wetting it enough to speak. “A summoning circle.” “Have you seen one before?” “No,” I whispered. He gave me an odd look, as though surprised I’d recognized a summoning circle with no prior exposure. But what else could it be? The circle on its own I might not have identified, but that dome of nothingness was not of this world. Gooseflesh prickled on my bare arms and I wished for a sweater. The library was uncomfortably cool, the leather-scented air chilling my nose, and shadows lurked in the room’s farthest corners.

“Why is it so black?” I asked before I could stop myself. “The demon is hiding itself,” Uncle Jack answered irritably. “Thus far, it hasn’t been interested in negotiation.” Demon. The word thudded into my skull. Each syllable, each sound, struck like a mallet against a gong. A demon in the circle. In the library. In the basement of the house I was now living in. I never should’ve come here.

“Your parents weren’t interested in the family business,” Uncle Jack went on, “but summoning is lucrative. It’s also … sensitive. A delicate process. We don’t need distractions.” I counted the floorboards between my sock-clad toes. Distractions like … an MPD investigation into their illegal activities? “I expect your full support, Robin.” He didn’t need to say, “Or else.” “Yes, Uncle Jack.” “For obvious reasons, this room is off-limits, but you should know the rules either way.” He grasped my elbow and pulled me toward the circle.

My socks slid across the polished hardwood as I tried to stop. I didn’t want to go any closer. “The circle is a barrier. It’s impenetrable to the demon, but only to the demon.” He gestured at the black dome. “You can pass through it just fine. You wouldn’t even feel it. One slip …” His hand tightened on my arm, then he shoved me toward the flimsy silver line. A terrified gasp seized my lungs and I flailed backward, even though I was several steps away. He laughed.

“So don’t get close. One toe over that line and the demon will haul you in and rip you apart. Don’t drop anything in there either. Even a coin can be deadly in a demon’s hands. It can’t get its magic through the barrier, so make sure you don’t hand it weapons.” I automatically checked my jeans pockets for change. I never carried change. “If it tries to get your attention or calls you over, don’t listen. And don’t ever speak to the demon. If it shows itself, get me or Claude immediately.

” He glowered at the impenetrable darkness. “Not that I expect it to. The most obstinate demon I’ve ever encountered. If it doesn’t respond soon …” He abruptly refocused on me. “You’re to stay out of this room, understood? I don’t want you in here alone.” “All right.” “Good.” Then, contradicting his words, he swept right past me and out of the library. Rooted to the spot, I mentally floundered. The open doorway beckoned, safety only steps away, but the inky dome drew my gaze.

Shivers rippled down my spine. It was so cold in here. A soft sound whispered on the edge of my senses and I sucked in a breath. In the silence, I could almost hear something. Something like … A low, husky laugh crawled out of the darkness inside the circle. My blood turned to ice and I bolted out of the library.


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