Book 4, Ignited by Ashes, Now Available!
“Bless you!” I finished belting the robe my bondmate Jake had just settled around me. “You are my very favorite sister!”
Dia grinned as she snagged a piece of ooey-gooey manna smothered in provel cheese, sausage, and bacon from the table near the center of the room where I had just awakened. “That compliment means a lot more now that we have another sister who’s not a complete witch.”
We exchanged smirks as I settled upon a chair and tore into the pizza. Dying and being reborn in fire took a major toll on my body.
I swallowed and arched a brow in my sister’s direction. “Dia, you’ve got a lot of ‘splainin to do.”
“Me?” she said with much batting of lashes.
“Okay, let me rephrase that. Your bio mom has a lot of ‘splainin to do. Speaking of which, where is she?”
Dia’s teasing expression sobered as Jake settled on a chair next to me and answered. “She’s fielding questions from the Firsts and Seconds in the living room. They came as soon as they learned that Imani was still alive. And to make sure you were okay.”
With the worst of my hunger satisfied, I glanced around the unfamiliar magical workroom where I’d just awakened. “Whose living room would that be?”
Jake grabbed a piece of pizza and gestured toward Dia. “Her mother’s, evidently.”
That had me turning back to Dia with a raised eyebrow. “Soooo…you’re the daughter of the first Mindbender trying to conquer the world in centuries and one of the most powerful and revered liegelords in millennia. Quite the lineage, baby sister.”
She pursed her lips. “Don’t forget that I have this generation’s most powerful and revered liegelord as my sister.”
“I’m this generation’s only liegelord.”
“The winner by default!” Dia smirked as she grabbed a can of Dr. Pepper. “And believe you me, I’m just as surprised to learn that Imani of the Blessed Breath is my biological mother. And that she maintains a part-time home here just to check on me…” She shook her head. “It’s a lot to take in.”
I reached across the table and patted her hand. “I bet. I assume she had excellent reasons to give you up for adoption.”
My tone made that into a statement rather than question, but she addressed it anyway.
“Yeah. As much as she hated leaving me behind, she knew that taking me with her would ultimately prove more dangerous. After she escaped Garrett’s clutches following my birth, she made sure my foster home placement was with someone loving who would take good care of me and then disappeared for years. Both to avoid putting me in danger should Garrett track her down again, and because she alone had the best chance of thwarting one of his biggest goals toward achieving world domination.”
My eyes widened. “Hiding Imani’s Breath?”
Dia nodded. “Obtaining that book was the whole reason he captured Mom in the first place. He had no clue she was actually the Imani; to everyone else she just appeared to be the eighth Guardian of the book chosen by what used to be Hikaru’s Own. Only Riku and Ju Hai knew her true identity.”
I opened my mouth to ask another question, but the room’s door suddenly swung open. The three of us tensed as we looked over, only to relax at the sight of Nic and Liam.
Nic stepped over to hug me tightly. That had a goofy grin splitting my lips. Thank God one of our brothers had a good heart and soul. “So glad to see you back on your feet already.” He held out a hand toward Jake’s brother.
Liam rolled his eyes and handed over a $20 bill. “That’s what I get for continuing to underestimate your fortitude.”
Nic grinned smugly. “Yep. I said it’d be less than 10 hours, since as my sister you obviously kick ass. He said it would take you at least 24 hours to revive.”
“Because normally that’s how long it takes!” Liam said in his own defense.
“True for most Elementals,” said a new voice behind him. “But not for a liegelord, especially as they begin to bond more liegesworn.”
The deep, melodious voice was unfamiliar, but I did recognize the statuesque woman who strode into the room. Imani of the Blessed Breath, former liegelord and current protector of her own dangerous spellbook. Hazardous to the health of so many not by its mere existence, but because of those who would misuse it.
Like my father. Not for the first time I wondered why she had created it in the first place. Or at the very least, why she didn’t destroy it now.
Imani’s lips curved slightly as her piercing brown eyes met my own. Her long black hair was styled the same as before I died, in myriad cornrows decorated with multicolored beads and silver filigree ornaments. She wore modern dark-washed jeans and a sapphire blue sleeveless tank top, but somehow I could sense the vastness of the millennia she had witnessed.
((I created the book to help the liegelords who would come after me protect themselves when next a power-hungry Mindbender arose. Never did I anticipate living this long myself. It would have been your birthright, had things not gone so awry. And the reason I do not destroy it now is for the sheer fact that I cannot.))
I met her gaze unflinchingly. ((So, serving as Guardian of that book should have become my duty?))
As if I didn’t have enough things to worry about…
Either she was even more skilled in telepathy than my evil sister, Zoe Stevens (which seemed likely given that she had shielded some of my thoughts from Zoe just yesterday), or I hadn’t hidden that thought as well as intended.
((Oh my sweet Fire child, your worries have only begun.))
I blinked and tilted my head. ((Did you just make a Game of Thrones reference?))
A sardonic smile spread across her face. ((What? Do you think I’m too old to keep up with popular culture?))
((Um, no. I’m just impressed that someone who’s been alive since before the Middle Ages wants to pass time reading fiction set in a land without indoor plumbing. Wasn’t living through that once bad enough?))
We burst into laughter at the same time, earning strange glances from everyone else. Dia planted hands on hips and glared. “Listen, you two better start including the entire class in your mental conversations or else talk out loud.”
I reached over to poke her lightly. “Jealous we didn’t let you in on the joke?”
“Hell yes!” she retorted. “If anyone’s going to joke around with my newfound mother and sister, they better include me, too.”
Imani shot Dia an indulgent smile, and the flash of affection that passed between them had warm fuzzies dancing in my belly. Seeing Dia bonding with her biological mother thrilled me. I was eager to hear more about their reunion, but that would have to wait.
“I asked your mother why she created such a dangerous spellbook, and why she didn’t destroy it rather than risk it falling into the wrong hands. Which it very nearly did yesterday.”
Dia frowned and glanced at her mother. “Much as I hate to pile on, Mom, I gotta agree with Cass. Zoe damned near gave it to them yesterday. Thank God Lily ended up being on Team Good rather than Evil.”
I nodded vigorously. “Yeah, I’ve never been so grateful to jump to the wrong conclusion.”
Imani addressed my original questions. “Imani’s Breath was intended to help train future successors, given how much Hikaru and I each struggled to master our Spirit-based abilities on our own. It would have passed directly to Cassidy had she been found and raised by Hikaru’s Own in childhood as intended.”
She took a deep breath. “I spelled Imani’s Breath to be nearly indestructible. I’m not even entirely sure it can be destroyed. Neither the monks have or I have discovered such a method.”
I absorbed her words and arched a brow toward everyone else. “And Lily? Did she make it to the monastery like I suggested?”
Stark silence met that statement, making panic bloom and my hands clench. “Please tell me she’s okay. That she got the book to the monastery.”
Another voice sounded from the doorway, and I spun to meet the grim gaze of my other non-evil sister. “I am okay, and I did get the book to the monastery. Just in time to discover that Garrett led a force against the monastery while we were occupied here in St. Louis.” Anguish colored her voice. “They destroyed parts of the monastery and took several hostages who couldn’t escape in time.”
My breath caught as my gaze flashed to Jake. By the grim set of his lips, I knew I wouldn’t like where this was headed. His voice was gentle when he delivered the news. “Including Keith and Bianca.”
I staggered against the table as tears filled my eyes. If we couldn’t save Bianca—and our two unborn siblings—from Garrett, the entire world could be doomed. Especially if he also managed to gain control over me.
“Oh, holy hell,” I swore. “He wants me to come after them.”
And everyone knew I couldn’t afford to, just as we all knew I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t…
* * *
An hour later saw me clothed in jeans and a T-shirt, seated between Jake and Dia on a sectional sofa in Imani’s living room that opened into her spacious, modern kitchen. One I might enjoy exploring to test out the fancy gadgets I didn’t recognize, under other circumstances. Bright colors and bold African prints dominated most of the décor.
A dozen people—mostly Clanmates but also Theo, Miranda, Isaac, Avani, and two of their loyal St. Louis Freeholders—surrounded us. Isaac had been kind enough to use his technical expertise to set up the little presentation we were about to hold.
A presentation for the spell-protected corpse on the kitchen floor.
Slimy-Ass Dorian Garcia, as I liked to call him. The Dragon who was an inconsistent ally of my father Elijah Garrett.
Jake caught my scowl as I stared at Garcia’s body, and he grinned. “Good thing he’s already dead.”
Dia hip-bumped me. “If anyone deserves us reviving him just so we can kill him again, it’s the Prick.”
“I’m not opposed to the thought of killing him again,” I started, earning cheers from half the room. “But first we need answers to a few questions.” My glance went to Lily on the loveseat next to Rhianne. “Especially now that we know Daddy Dearest took Bianca and Keith.”
On the plus side, both Riku (the true leader of Cassidy’s Own, since I was a literal figurehead) and Colin had escaped Garrett’s clutches. They had taken the survivors of the attack to an undisclosed safe house somewhere in the vicinity of Greener Pastures.
Lily nodded and followed my gaze to where Garcia’s body lay. “Good thing I didn’t go with my instinct to behead him.”
A smile crossed my lips. “Good thing indeed. I don’t think I could revive him from that.”
Imani let out a dry chuckle. “Not even the two of us together could manage that.”
“Duly noted,” I replied with a smile. “Nobody go getting beheaded anytime soon.”
Laughter filled the room. I nodded to Jake’s mother Breena, who stood next to Garcia’s body along with the other members of her Quatrain. Their magical bond buffered them from the magical wildness that would otherwise drive them quite literally insane.
The way it had my birth mother—until birthing me alone without a Quatrain’s protection sent her to an early fiery grave…
I embraced Elemental vision to distract myself before that old wound could reopen.
Breena and her bondmates encircled Garcia’s body and embraced their respective elements. Wen summoned a large quantity of Earth energy and sent it flooding into the corpse, at which point the quartet erected a barrier around the body so Garcia would be both physically and magically restrained. We were taking no chances with his treacherous ass.
Several moments passed before their spell accelerating his resurrection kicked in. Garcia’s body trembled violently before he struggled to his feet, expression panicked as he glanced around wildly. He flinched when he met one hostile glance after another, until his gaze finally settled upon me. And then the bastard had the audacity to smile.
Jake growled and shifted as if to leap across the magical barrier, but I placed a restraining hand upon his arm. ((Don’t let him bait you, love.)) Jake’s body relaxed slightly, and he shot his nemesis a tight-lipped smile of his own; one that actually had Garcia flinching again.
I folded my arms across my chest and forced a cheerful grin. “Well, hello there, Mr. Garcia. My, how the tables have turned.”
He struck a nonchalant pose. “Hola, querida. I’m…delighted to see that you escaped your pendejo of a father’s clutches. And grateful you saved me from your sister’s. Not that I knew Zoe was your sister until very recently.”
I rolled my eyes. “Yes, I’m sure you’re happy I escaped your number one ally’s trap.”
Garcia’s lips quirked slightly. “I think we know each other well enough that you realize I don’t have a number one ally. Least of all your father.”
“We prefer the term sperm donor,” Dia cut in with a twist of her own lips.
Lily grinned from the loveseat, and I couldn’t help but smile as well.
The Prick inclined his head graciously. “Even so. He is not truly my ally. More of a sometime business partner.”
I tilted my head. “If you want to call a man who regularly Mindbends you into compliance, much the way we saw Zoe doing to you yesterday, a partner.”
Garcia recoiled, fury lighting in his eyes. “Now you’re just trying to upset me enough that I cooperate.”
“Why on earth would I need to do that when we have actual surveillance video footage?”
I nodded at Isaac, who grinned as he pressed a button on his laptop to play a video on the large flat screen mounted to the nearest wall. Garcia stared at Zoe, an adoring expression his only response when she ordered him to drag Lily (magically disguised as Rhianne) out of Isaac’s back office at his store and headquarters, Untamed Elements.
Garcia’s lips narrowed into a furious line. I could almost see steam rising from his ears as he considered the videotaped scene. The screen faded to black, and he turned to face me with rage etched onto his every feature.
For once, I wasn’t the cause of someone else’s fury. Just like I hadn’t been the one to kill him. This time.
“Your father, for all his ruthlessness, too often turns a blind eye to his children’s faults. But just because Zoe used Mindbending to manipulate me doesn’t mean that Garrett has.”
I let out a burst of laughter. “Are you kidding me right now? Who do you think she learned it from? By watching him! Assuming he didn’t teach her in the first place.”
Lily’s lips curved as she broke in. “You just said it yourself, Garcia. Our father is ruthless. He regularly uses Spirit to influence those around him. Look at you with Bianca. Why do you think you so quickly agreed to impregnate her with Garrett’s children instead of your own? Why did you suddenly decide to go after the Stewardship of the St. Louis Freeholders when you have far higher aspirations? I once heard you say you would rather be stripped and join the Stalkers rather than become a Freeholder. And yet…a few weeks later, you did just that.”
Garcia’s eyes widened as he processed her words, and rage lit anew. “Ask your questions!” he suddenly barked.
Imani rose smoothly and crossed to a spot near Breena, remaining outside the magical circle. She quirked a brow at me, and I nodded. I appreciated her showing respect for me being this generation’s liegelord, because heaven knew she was way more qualified in all things magical.
Cords of black energy studded with glittering shards surrounded her and passed through the barrier to spread around Garcia’s body. His spine stiffened as he realized Imani had just cast a Mindbending spell upon him. One that would detect when he said anything untrue.
As if we would just take his word for anything.
I smiled sweetly. “Did you know Garrett planned to attack the monastery while I was preoccupied here?”
“Of course. That was the entire purpose of our drawing you here.” He clapped a hand over his mouth with a look of horror.
Holy shit…Imani’s spell doesn’t just detect lies, it forces him to tell the truth.
A spell I was definitely gonna need her to teach me later.
“So was Garrett aware that Drew agreed to exchange Imani’s Breath with Zoe for me?” I’d gotten the impression that Drew’s actions had disappointed our sperm donor, but that could have been a ruse.
Sweat broke out on Garcia’s brow as he fought against Imani’s spell, but then he shuddered as he lost the battle. “Drew thought he’d fooled his father, but Zoe believed that Garrett knew all along. Drew apparently believed all would be forgiven once he handed you over on a silver platter. Then Drew planned to double-cross Zoe and reclaim the book.”
“Of course,” Lily, Dia, and I muttered in unison before exchanging amused grins.
I chewed on Garcia’s words for a moment and then glanced at Imani. “So when and how did Garrett and Drew steal the book from you?”
She hesitated, gaze settling on Garcia in a clear indication she didn’t want to give him any more information than he already had. Magic flared again, and Garcia’s eyes fluttered shut as he appeared to lose consciousness without falling to the floor.
“Garrett and Drew hired those Springfield Freeholders for multiple reasons. The most talented mercenaries were sent after me and the book. Garrett guessed correctly that I had been keeping watch over Dia from afar. And he used that against me.”
Dia winced, drawing my attention momentarily. ((Don’t feel guilty, you!)) I telepathically chastised. ((Garrett’s to blame! Your mother loves you, so of course she looked out for you.)) She relaxed slightly and shot me a small smile.
I glanced back at Imani. “What happened?”
“He figured out I was getting inside info from Saint Gabriel and passed along fake information with a video showing him take Dia back into custody. A fake video, I now know. But he was waiting when I showed up to rescue her. One of my supposedly loyal liegesworn had been somehow corrupted, and she helped Garrett ambush me before revealing where I had Imani’s Breath stashed here in St. Louis. She didn’t know where it was—a failsafe I had in place—but she guessed based on my past patterns and some new information Garrett miraculously managed to pluck from my dreams.”
“That was most likely Drew,” I corrected. “Apparently manipulating dreams is his personal talent. One of the few.”
We three sisters were joined in our snickers by Nic, who shared that extremely low opinion of our Baby Brother.
Nic pursed his lips once our laughter died. “It sounds to me like Garrett’s Mindbending abilities are now allowing him to interfere with liegesworn oaths.”
Dia nodded thoughtfully. “I wonder whether we can come up with a way around that.”
I glanced at Imani. “I thought that being liegesworn grants resistance toward Mindbending. Do you know any way to prevent our liegesworn from being unwillingly corrupted?”
Imani tilted her head. “My mother, Kamili, was both straightforward and brutal. She never tried to corrupt any of my liegesworn as spies. She simply murdered them and sent back their heads to taunt me. That’s not to say such protection is impossible; I simply had no reason to work it out.”
Dia winked at her mother. “I’d say you have plenty of reasons now. Both to help your own liegesworn and to keep your loving daughter safe.”
Imani’s expression softened when she nodded. “Fair enough.” She looked back at me. “Perhaps the two of us can develop such a protection before whatever rescue attempt you decide to mount.”
Breena let out an angry sound. “That’s exactly what Garrett is counting on. Cass charging in headlong to save those fools he captured so he can control both her and the twins. Meaning doom for us all.”
Rhianne shot her mother a sardonic look. “This fool he captured is exceedingly grateful Cass charged in headlong to save her all those months ago.”
Breena scowled. “That’s not what I meant.”
“It’s what you said, though,” Dia jumped in with a saccharine tone.
Man, having people jump to my defense would never get old. For so many years before college, where I met both Si Si and Keith, I’d felt so alone.
Breena opened her mouth to angrily retort—it was pretty much knit into her DNA—but I held up a hand. “Breena is right to urge caution. We will consider all potential options before proceeding.” Her eyes widened when I agreed with her.
My voice became laced with steel. “But make no mistake. He can’t be allowed to keep Bianca and our youngest siblings. Many of the disastrous futures Ju Hai foresaw required only them to fall under his control. It was only the worst futures where he controlled all three of us. However, I will not allow him even a chance at controlling me. I will go kamikaze before that.”
Angry glares settled upon me, and I returned a glare of my own.
“That’s not my first choice, but it will always be on the table. This. Is. War. Those of you who’ve been in this situation before know how dire the stakes are.”
Ju Hai, who had taken to keeping mostly quiet since Breena was still understandably furious with her, nodded. “Cassidy is right. While we all are dedicated to seeing her safely through this war, the truth is that there are no guarantees. And if Cassidy is called upon by Fate to make the same sacrifice as my father, we owe her all our loyalty and support.”
Jake, who normally treated his aunt with the utmost respect, turned an angry expression her way. “Cass has had my loyalty and support far longer than anyone else here has demonstrated them. Especially those in this Clan.”
Surprisingly, his mother, once my harshest critic next to Liam, nodded. “Nobody questions the strength of your bond or how hard you fought for her. Long before any of us knew she was the next liegelord.”
Imani broke in, speaking with utmost calm and authority. “Cassidy certainly has my full support in her quest to stop her Mindbending father. Up to and including sacrificing my own life if that’s what it takes to stop his egomaniacal thirst for power. Are the rest of you willing to do any less than us in the name of freedom?”
Those powerful words hung in the air for long, tense moments. When someone finally broke the silence, everyone spoke and moved with renewed determination and purpose. We would all do whatever it took to stop Garrett’s dark plans for our future from coming to pass…