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Descended from Shadows (Book of Sindal #1) Chapter One

Descended from Shadows

(Book of Sindal #1) 
May 28, 2019

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Chapter One

 

“My 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 already-unpredictable 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.”

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.

“I just don’t understand why we all have to go to therapy,” Rowan grumbled.

“Because we have a job to do, Ro. And if one of us slips, we all fall. If we fall…”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. The book is exposed, and the entire world of sorcery is endangered, and it’s all our fault because we failed our age-old calling, etcetera, etcetera, life as we all know it is over.” She folded her arms over her chest, sunglasses guarding her eyes even though the day was well into fading. “Did you ever think that maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing?”

My eyes set in a glare, a look I often assumed when I was actually scared. Better for the people around you to think you were angry than vulnerable.

Rowan cocked an eyebrow above her glasses. “Every two weeks we go in there, and she whines about how I don’t appreciate her. It’s starting to wear on me, Phoebe. That’s all.”

“I know it is, Ro.” I sighed. As the middle sister, my peacekeeper role was as automatic as breathing. “But have you stopped to think it’s wearing on her too? More than usual?”

Rowan bit her lip. For all of her posturing, she was as worried about our little sister as I was. Only her worry came out as irritation, while mine manifested as doting, both of which annoyed the hell out of our sister. “Well, what do you think we should do? Therapy is obviously not the answer.”

“Of course it’s not,” I bit out. “I only arranged it because I promised Mack.”

“Mack is worthless.”

“Well, Mack is the only reason she’s keeping her job, which is the only thing that is helping her cling to her sanity.”

“Besides the vodka.”

“Sometimes she drinks gin,” I quipped.

Rowan barked out a laugh. “Okay, sis. You win. I laughed. And I’m knee-deep in half-written articles, so…” She turned off the ignition and stepped out of the car.

I got out too, and walked by her side to the house. “Do you think we should, I don’t know… help her?”

“How are we gonna do that?” Rowan was exhausted too. We all were. And if we helped Celeste with her role, we would be doubly drained from having already played our own roles in the ritual. But there was no mistaking the interest in her voice—over the years, she’d paid less attention to Celeste’s magical gift than I had—partially out of fear, I suspected, and maybe a little bit out of jealously. Rowan considered herself to be the weakest of all of us, and her own talent of glamouring to be pointless.

While most witches and mages could perform rudimentary magic, like simple glamouring or turning lights on and off, we three were also gifted with a stronger talent. Celeste and I had been born with rarer magical skills—Celeste with expression magic and I with ancestral—but Rowan had been gifted with the simplest of magics, a talent even a five-year-old could perform with rough skill. Rowan was capable of casting highly detailed, complicated glamours, but she still found herself lacking compared to her two younger sisters.

Neither of us knew what Celeste did specifically. She had never offered to tell us, and we had never pressed her, knowing she was sensitive about her role. Besides, it was safer if we didn’t know exactly what was included in her fortification ritual. Our mother had always tried to impress that upon us—she wouldn’t even discuss what she did to protect the book with our father, much to his increasing frustration. It wasn’t until she died that we realized why it was safer if no one witch knew all kinds of secrets about the book’s protection—breaking all of its protective spells would require torturing information out of all three of us.

I shuddered at the thought.

“Well… how are you feeling? Strong?”

Rowan shrugged. She knew I meant magically. “As ever, I guess.”

“Me too,” I replied, chewing on my lip. “If we offer to help with her part, she can draw on our life energy, right, instead of using only her own?”

Rowan’s eyebrows arched up. “Neither of us really knows how it works, but we could offer, even if it means all three of us will be laid up for a few days.”

“I can call in sick to the library, and your editors barely know what you’re doing as it is.” I poked her. “The audience of your cooking vlog will miss you, though.”

My sister, usually so stoic, might have blushed. Celeste and I had both encouraged her to do something more with her talent for delicious vegetarian cooking, but none of us had expected our reserved, introverted sister would become a bit of an internet sensation.

She wasn’t the Pioneer Woman, but she was good, and people had noticed. People who, presumably, also refused to eat bacon because pigs were smart.

“Let’s go tell her before I change my mind,” Rowan grumbled, choosing to ignore my teasing.

I slung my arm around her shoulder and squeezed her close to me. She grumbled again, and I laughed. For a second, things felt sort of normal.

Just stepping foot inside our farmhouse tugged my taut muscles loose and shook a sigh of relief from my rib cage. It smelled like it had our whole lives, and despite the clutter, felt like home.

We found Celeste huddled in the breakfast nook in the corner of our kitchen, wrapped in a blanket. She tipped her head up to the remnants of light filtering in through the east-facing window. Steam rose from her mug, which she clutched with the desperation a drowning person would show a life preserver.

It wasn’t a cold day. In our little corner of Ohio, most mornings had an edge of damp chill to them, but the air conditioning would kick on just after high noon.

“Hey, honey,” I said, sliding onto the bench next to her. She looked so fragile, I was almost afraid to touch her lest she break. An odd thought, because I knew she was much, much stronger than that. Stronger, magically speaking, than Rowan and I put together. “Ro and I were just saying, we feel like we’ve been lazy this month. Can we tag along with you for your part of the ritual? Maybe help?”

Slowly, Celeste raised her eyes to stare at me, then shifted her gaze to Rowan before looking back to me. “Why?” she asked. The thick suspicion in her voice stabbed me like a knife. “What are you trying to do?”

I forced a laugh, to make it seem like it wasn’t a big deal at all. Rowan and I exchanged a glance, one that said this clearly wasn’t going the way we’d hoped.

I decided to try a different tactic, maybe explain that my worry for her well-being infected every moment of every day. That I was terrified our duty would kill us, or that the stupid book would continue to drive an immovable wedge into our sisterhood.

My biggest worry was too horrible to speak aloud. I feared that we might keep the world safe but, in the process, lose our baby sister, who was slowly wasting away to nothing while we watched.

Before I could react, Celeste pressed on, a storm building in her emerald green eyes. “Either you’re trying to learn how I do what I do to protect the Book of Sin because you expect something awful to happen to me and you’ll need to carry on in my place when I’m gone, or you think I need your help in some way.” She snarled the last part. “I know you think I’m weak, Rowan, and you can’t stand weakness because you think you’re weak yourself.”

I gaped at her in shock. “Celeste, that’s not true!”

“And you,” she spat out in disgust. “You’re playing us both, trying to make peace, but you’re wasting your time. Rowan hates me and there’s no changing that.”

Rowan’s eyes flashed in defiance. “Stop being dramatic, Celeste. I don’t hate you.”

“I know you blame me for Mom’s death.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Rowan demanded, and I was just as curious.

“It was my fault she died. My fault she was on the road that night. If she hadn’t—” She shook her head and the dishes on the shelves began to rattle.

“Celeste, honey…” I reached out to her on instinct, then pulled my hand back. I was afraid to touch her, afraid to set her off even more. “Neither one of us blames you. It was an accident. Nothing more, nothing less. How could it be your fault? You were miles away.”

“She’s right, Celeste,” Rowan said, her anger softening. “It’s never occurred to me to blame you. I swear.”

“It’s not easy,” she said with tear-filled eyes.

I couldn’t keep from touching her then, resting my hand on her upper arm. “I know your magic is difficult.” I flashed a glance at Rowan, then back to my baby sister. “Maybe we can approach Xenya on the Small Council. She’s sympathetic to us and was a friend of Mom’s. She might know of a healer who can help you.”

“I’m not talking about the book,” she said, her anger rising again. She slammed her mug down on the Formica tabletop. Hot coffee sloshed in the cup in slow motion, licking at the edges and threatening to spill over. “I’m talking about you two. Your special bond. It’s always been Rowan and Phoebe, and weird Celeste left on the outside watching.”

“No,” I protested. “We—”

“Stop this nonsense, Celeste,” Rowan said in a harsh tone. “You need to stop taking everything we say so personally. We were only trying to help.”

“Just like Mom tried to help, only I got her killed.”

I blinked, sure I’d misunderstood her. “What are you talking about?”

She shook her head again and the floor under my feet began to vibrate. “I’ve been doing this a long time without you. I’ve been struggling with it for years. And now, suddenly you care? Why? Because I screwed up once at work, and now you’re worried I’m going to go mental and make you look bad with the Small Council? Isn’t that what’s going on here?”

She tried to scoot away from me, but her blanket cocoon kept her trapped. The ensuing battle against cotton made her look ridiculous, and the thought crossed my mind that if she couldn’t get out of a blanket, she truly was in no shape to tackle the fortification ritual alone. She was in no shape to do anything besides sleep.

Halfheartedly, Rowan moved to block her from leaving the bench. But Celeste planted her feet and stood anyway, putting her face as close to Rowan’s as she could manage without the additional inches in height. My baby sister stared up into Rowan’s eyes without fear, anger radiating out of every pore, and spat, “You two have never, not once, wanted to know about my part of this ritual. You only cared that I made sure it was done, that the book was safe. If anything, you acted terrified to be anywhere close to me while I was doing it. Excuse me if now, after all this time, I’m the one who doesn’t give a shit about you.”

The blanket fell from her shoulders, and she stalked off, letting the blanket go like she was discarding a mantle she’d thought she needed but that was only weighing her down.

Rowan and I cringed, listening to her bang around her room, probably changing into warmer clothes for the next couple of hours outside.

“There’s some truth to what she said,” I whispered.

“Which part?” Rowan asked, sounding defeated. “It was all a bunch of crazy talk.”

“I’ve never heard her talk about Mom’s death like that before, but you have to admit a lot of the times it’s Team Rowan and Phoebe and Celeste is left to herself.”

“She’s always preferred it that way, Bee.”

“I know,” I said with a sigh, “but what if it’s her magic that keeps her distant from us? What if part of her really wants to be with us?”

Rowan was silent for a moment. “That’s too depressing to consider right now.” Her eyes shimmered with unshed tears. “I’ll try harder. I promise. And I think you’re right about approaching Xenya. Celeste is growing more unstable by the minute.”

When Celeste emerged seconds later, we were still in the same spots.

“We really do want to help you, CeCe,” I said. “Please don’t be upset with us.”

“You two can help me,” she seethed, “by doing what you’ve always done. Just make sure your own parts of the ritual are up to snuff and leave me the hell alone.”

With that, she was out the door, slamming it behind her.

My heart was sick with worry over our sister, but I had to put it aside so I could have a clear head for my part of the ritual.

“We’ve been through so much together already,” I said, making my way to the front hall closet for my coat. The early autumn chill was seeping back into the air as the sun went down. By the time I was done walking the perimeter of our property and headed back to the house from the graveyard, I’d be freezing and in need of it. “This is tearing us apart.”

“Nothing is ever going to tear us apart, Bee. We all know that. Even Celeste, even now. Thick or thin, coven bond or not. We’ll always be there for each other.”

I nodded, a thick lump pressing against my throat. “You want a sweater?”

“No, I won’t be long.”

Rowan had an impressive talent for glamouring. She could change the appearance of any object so flawlessly that no one but the strongest mage would guess at its true nature. Each month, she’d spend half an hour or so tweaking everything down to the smallest detail of her illusion’s shadow, making the book indistinguishable from a berry bush, the entrance to a rabbit’s warren, or a large rock.

Strange as it might have seemed to some, the book was safest outside our house, smack-dab in the center of a triangle-shaped tract of land that ran about a mile on each side, since that’s where Celeste’s expression was the strongest.

Celeste had been right about one thing: Neither of us had ever asked her why she was tied to that particular spot of land, or what she did out there to hold up her very heavy end of this bargain the three of us had made with the Small Council. We didn’t know what she did that sucked so much of her away. In some ways, we didn’t really want to know.

We Whelans protected the book at any and all costs, and we served at the pleasure of the Valerian Small Council.

It was that simple, and that difficult.

We just didn’t expect that Celeste being so very right would be the beginning of everything going so very, very wrong.

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