Sample Sunday – Scheming Demon

You never know how much someone means to you until you need to travel to a different dimension and bail them out of jail. That’s exactly what my main character, Brittany does in Scheming Demon, the fourth book of the Brittany Meyer Novellas.

What would you do for a friend?

Brittany has befriended Tusks, the ghost of a demon. Their relationship has gone from wary to friendly to inseparable. But one day Tusks disappears, and Brittany learns that he’s been taken to a demon dimension for trial about a broken contract. She decides to save him.

But first, she has to figure out how to get to different dimensions. Her research takes her to Cassadaga, Florida. If you’ve never been to Cassadaga, I have a good description of it in Scheming Demon. But descriptions don’t do it justice. Cassadaga is truly a magical place.

Is Cassadaga for real?

Cassadaga, a small town in east-central Florida, is known as the Psychic Capital of the World. Yes, it’s a real place. Some people avoid it, saying it’s gotten too touristy, and I suppose it has in a way. It has ghost tours and historical tours which cater to tourists. But for me, it’s more than crowded streets and thrill-seekers. It is the embodiment of feminism, a last stand against oppression and overwhelming odds.

I remember seeing a photograph of the original town, row after row of tents with faces peering out from beneath the flaps. Most of the Cassadaga settlers were female. They were not witches with potions and spells. These were women who could speak with the dead or see the future. They came from all over the world seeking safety in numbers and freedom from persecution.

Just a little touristy.

Today the town is still predominately female. Nearly everyone is a psychic or a certified medium. The homes are historic, the sidewalks are cracked, and the trees are ancient. Where the tents once stood is now the tranquil Horseshoe Park and Fairy Trail. Okay, the Fairy Trail is a little touristy with its pretend fairy houses and the wishing trees draped with Mardi-Gras-style beads. It’s all in good fun though and well worth a trip to see it.

But I digress. The purpose of this post is to introduce you to Scheming Demon, the fourth book of my young adult urban fantasy series. So, without further ado, here is an excerpt.

CHAPTER ONE

2/17/2009 Loxahatchee, Florida

Tusks the Demon lay beside Brittany on the roof of her two-story house. His hands were behind his beefy neck, and his cloven feet were crossed in a disturbingly human manner. “Are you able to try again?” he asked.

Brittany sighed and looked up at the fading stars. What did it say about her that her mentor wasn’t human? Tusks was the ghost of a demon who became enamored of her when she accidentally dosed him with a love potion. However, that had been a week ago. It would be unusual for him to still be ensorcelled.

And yet, here he was.

A cool breeze drew goosebumps down her arms, and her back itched upon the gritty wood shake tiles. She yawned. “Tell me again why we have to be up here so early in the morning. I’m half asleep.”

“That is good, Miss,” he said. “Astral projection is often attained at dawn when the body is still in deep relaxation. Do you have your quartz crystal?”

She showed it to him.

“This time, place it on your stomach below your breastbone. Do you feel the weight?”

“Yes,” she whispered, although saying it had weight was an overstatement. It wasn’t a large crystal. It was teardrop shaped and spent most of its time hanging by fishing line at her bedroom window.

“Close your eyes and focus on the stone’s heaviness. Feel nothing but the crystal. Hear nothing but my voice. Do not fear. The crystal will protect you from negative energies because quartz has an elevated vibration rate. Anything negative has a lower frequency.”

Normally, his voice brayed like the squeal of a pig, too high-pitched for such a large creature. Now, he lowered it. Softened it. His voice became soothing. It flowed around her in waves—a stream keeping her afloat.

“You are connected to your body by a silver cord,” he crooned. “The cord cannot be weakened no matter how far you roam. It is pure energy, and energy cannot be removed. It cannot be broken. Time and distance are void in the astral plane. You can go where you wish. See what you wish.”

She bobbed and swirled in the current of his voice. Buoyant.

“With your eyes closed, visualize your hands. Use your mind to flex your fingers. Not physically. Flex them in your mind.”

She moved her fingers. They thrummed like a violin string—vibrating in the same frequency as the crystal.

“Shift your focus until you can move your arms, your legs, your head. Now, using only your mind, stand up.”

Brittany stood. The motion sent her gliding through the air. She looked down at her body. Her body.

Tusks rose to one elbow, gazing at her. A pale blue nimbus encased him. He smiled, and with his pig snout and broken tusks, he looked frightening. “I see you.”

Oh. My. God.

She snapped back into her body and wheezed in a breath.

“Miss?” Tusks asked. “Are you well?”

“I did it. I actually did it. I saw my body. And the silver cord. And you.” She stopped. “But you didn’t have a cord.”

His smile fell. “The tyrant queen destroyed my body, and when you freed me from bondage by disintegrating the remains of my tusk, I became… untethered.”

“Does that mean you can get lost in the astral plane?”

“Indeed. But do not concern yourself. I am very old. I know my way around.” The look he gave her was loving and protective. “Are you able to try again?”

She slipped the quartz crystal into the pocket of her shorts. “Instead of astral projection, can we practice controlling that white light that comes out of me?” The light that turns vampires to dust, that disintegrates magical talismans and the remains of tusks? She wanted to be able to call forth the light at will—and also block it at will.

“Of course. But remember what I said. You are made of star fire. The light of creation burns within you. I consist of hellfire.”

“Like matter and anti-matter. I get it.”

“Very well, Miss. Close your eyes. Deep breath. Your aura is shining bright. It is energy escaping. Draw that energy into yourself. Imagine it as a ball. Deep in your center. In the third chakra. Excellent. Now, channel a tiny portion through the chakra into your right hand.”

Brittany sensed the force within her—cool and calming, like moonlight. She nudged a glimmer of light from her stomach through her chest and down her arm.

“Open your eyes.”

Brittany looked. Swirling white fire filled her hand. She lifted her arm and stared at her fingers. They were encased in silver flame.

“Now, put it back.”

She sucked in the light like drawing breath through a straw. The flames extinguished. “I did it.” She sat up, holding out both hands to compare them. They looked normal. “I can’t believe I did it. I can’t wait to tell Ravyn.”

“Ravyn Crowe?” He frowned. “You wish to tell her because you are rivals?”

“No. Because she’s my friend. At least, I want her to be my friend.”

“Why?”

“She’s just as messed up as I am.” Brittany shrugged. “And it’s nice to have someone your age to talk to. Someone who won’t judge.”

“There is no one else here who is your age?”

“Not anymore. There was Cody. He said he would always be there, but he left. And there was Eileen, but she’s gone now, too.”

“She is deceased?”

“Worse. She got married. Every time I call her, she says she only has a minute to talk. Busy with this. Busy with that. Both my friends went on with their lives and left me.”

“So, you cling to your rival in the hope she will not leave?”

Was that what she was doing? “Aunt Lynette says Ravyn can’t be trusted.”

Tusks made a chuckling sound. “The only thing Ravyn Crowe can be trusted to do is serve herself.” He looked into the distance. “The sun is rising.”

Brittany followed his gaze. The sky was pink. Rays of sunlight peeked through the trees. “You’d better pop me back to my room before my aunt realizes I’m gone.”

“Very well.” He stood.

She frowned up at him. “How are you able to pop me here and there when we aren’t allowed to touch?”

“We do not touch. Like you, I have an aura.”

She squinted. She’d seen a blue nimbus around him when she was out-of-body, but now… “I don’t see your aura.”

“Nonetheless, it is there. A sphere of influence, as it were. When I… pop you to other places, I merely enclose you in my sphere before I travel.”

She stood beside him. “Do you ever include unwanted things? Passing butterflies? The dirt beneath your feet?”

“There are no butterflies up here.” He chuckled. “And I no longer stand upon Earth.” His hooves hovered above the rooftop.

“Because you’re dead.”

“Just so. However, when I was young, I sometimes carried unexpected substances across the planes. I am more experienced now.”

“I see.” She fished for something else to say. She was procrastinating, delaying the queasy sensation she always got when she traveled with him.

“Are you prepared?” Tusks moved closer, his huge red body towering over hers.

POP! She appeared in her bedroom. Head swimming. Stomach roiling.

Tusks stepped back. “You accomplished much today. I’m sure your next lesson will be even more productive. Until that time.” His semi-transparent image faded further.

“Wait!” she blurted. “Where do you go when you’re not with me?”

“I am always with you.”

“But don’t you have a place to rest? A home?”

He smiled, and his piggy snout twitched. “If ever you should call me and I do not appear, then know that something ill has befallen me.” He bowed his head and disappeared.

“Always with me. That’s not creepy at all,” she called after him. Then she muttered, “Keep out of my room.”

Brittany flopped onto her bed and squished a pillow beneath her neck. She yawned, but she knew she wouldn’t sleep. The recent lesson was too exciting. She actually had an out-of-body experience. Astral projection took her one step closer to seeing Cody, her ex-boyfriend.

Cody broke up with her—not because he didn’t love her, she always stressed to herself, but because he was trying to protect her from the government goons who were after him. Tusks promised to take her spectral body across the astral plane to the Artic Circle where Cody was hiding. Cody wouldn’t know she was there, but at least she could see him.

She dug into her pocket and pulled out the crystal. Her aunt taught her that quartz was about clarity, light, reflection, and amplification. Aunt Lynette, a bona fide Wiccan priestess, knew a lot about ritual magic. Tusks taught Brittany the metaphysical side.

Aunt Lynette was aware of Tusks, but she didn’t know he was giving Brittany lessons. She disliked the demon and would never approve. Fortunately, Brittany had the entire second floor to herself, allowing her some privacy. Her aunt stayed on the first floor with Myra, her partner. Brittany and Myra made up the coven under Aunt Lynette.

Brittany placed the crystal on her chest and concentrated the way Tusks had told her. She tried to make her arms feel both heavy and light like they had before, tried to move her spectral fingers. Once she felt a little dreamy, but perhaps she had just dozed off.

After a while, she heard movement in the kitchen below. The blessed aroma of coffee drifted through the air. Brittany set the crystal on her desk and bounded downstairs. “Good morning,” she said to her aunt.

“Well, ain’t you bright as the sunshine,” Aunt Lynette said. “What’re you doing up so early, sugar?”

“Studying.” It wasn’t a lie—she just didn’t specify what she was studying. On top of everything else, Brittany was taking online college courses for herbology.

“I’m making omelets,” her aunt said. “Want one?”

“Mmm, yes, please.” Brittany poured herself a cup of coffee and sat at the kitchen table.

Myra came out of the bedroom. “Morning, Brit. Did you sleep well? You look a little pale.” Myra was a healer, and she always noticed stuff like that.

Brittany sipped her cup. “I got up early to study. I have a test on medieval folk remedies this week.” Again, not a lie.

“If I can do anything to help, let me know.” Myra poured a cup and sat across from her.

“What do y’all want in your omelets?” Aunt Lynette asked. “Veggies or meat?”

“A little of both?” Brittany said.

“And don’t forget the fresh goat cheese we picked up at the market,” Myra said.

“Ah, yes.” Aunt Lynette retrieved ingredients from the refrigerator.

Soon three steaming omelets sat before them, golden brown and garnished with sliced tomatoes and sprigs of rosemary.

“I’ll say grace,” Aunt Lynette said, reaching for both their hands. “Lord and Lady, bless us as we eat. Bless this food, this bounty of Earth. So mote it be.”

They ate with smiles and silence.

When they finished, Aunt Lynette asked, “What’s in store for you today, Brit?”

Brittany took a last gulp of coffee. “After I straighten the kitchen, I’m going back to studying.”

“I’ll clean up,” Myra said.

“But, it’s my job.”

Myra shook her head. “Your job is to get good grades and graduate. Go ahead. I’ll take care of this.”

“In that case, please excuse me.” Brittany headed out of the kitchen. “Thanks, Myra. Love you.”

“Love you, too,” she called back.

Brittany carried her laptop to the front porch and sat in her favorite wicker chair. The screened-in porch was like an extra living room—filled with furniture and cushioned by a thick sisal rug. Two ceiling fans stirred the air into a gentle breeze.

She opened the laptop and pulled up her review pages. Online college courses were a godsend. She loved being able to study in her own home without having to people. However, the course syllabus didn’t warn her that she would have to memorize so many dates.

Her sanity was spared when, with a crackle of tires on gravel, a jade green Mercedes drove up the driveway. Brittany gasped with shock before realizing that it couldn’t be Queen Imogene. The queen was dead. This was Ravyn Crowe, the queen’s ward and protégée—and Brittany’s former rival.

Ravyn got out of the car. Her dark hair was twisted into thin locs. They draped her shoulders like a cape. Brittany set down her computer and went out to greet her.

Ravyn looked subdued.

“Is something wrong?” Brittany asked.

She shrugged. “I just came from having her cremated.”

“Oh.” Brittany looked away. “That must’ve been hard. I mean, I know you didn’t like the queen, but she was your mentor, and…” She hesitated. “I’m sorry I got your mentor killed.”

Ravyn scrunched her face. “You didn’t get her killed. All you did was destroy her fetishes and set her demons free. Trust me. If she hadn’t treated them like slaves, they wouldn’t have turned on her. Anyway, the official report says she had a heart attack. She died of fright.”

“Still. I feel responsible.”

“Well, don’t,” she said. “Listen, it will be two weeks before they’ll mail out the cremains. I was hoping I could have them sent here.”

“Why?”

“I thought the covens might want them. She was their queen, after all. They could have a ceremony and scatter her ashes to the wind. I don’t care what you do. I won’t be around to see it.”

Brittany went cold. “You’re leaving?”

Ravyn sighed. “She left everything to me. I shouldn’t be surprised. She didn’t have a family. Or friends. So, I got the condo on the beach, her stock holdings, her car.” She motioned at the Mercedes. “Of course, there’s a snag. There’s always a snag. The state is contesting the will because I don’t have a normal birth certificate. But it turns out that I have a midwife birth certificate. Who knew? The lawyers say that should be good enough.”

“You have lawyers?”

“Her lawyers. A whole team of them. They told me the money will probably go into a trust fund since I’m only seventeen. In the meantime, I thought I’d take what cash she had in the house and go to Texas. It feels more like home than this place.” She pulled a folded piece of paper from her pocket and held it out to Brittany. “I bequeath to you my dirt bike.”

“What?” Brittany looked at the title. “No, you don’t have to do that.”

“Want to. I won’t take no for an answer, either. And there’s more.” She moved toward the back of the car. “The queen had a whole wall filled with potions. I have no idea what most of them are. I can’t flush them down the toilet because I don’t know what’s in them. Can’t bury them for the same reason.” She opened the trunk to reveal two cardboard boxes filled with dozens of small decorative bottles. “I thought you’d like to have them. Maybe you can deconstruct them and figure out what she did.”

“Wow.” Brittany goggled at the treasure trove. “Thank you. I’d like that.”

“Good. I’ll help you carry them up to the porch, then I’ve got to go.”

“Don’t you want to come in for lemonade?”

“Nah. I’ve got a long drive ahead.”

Brittany picked up one box, and Ravyn picked up the other. They carried them inside to the wicker coffee table where Brittany had left her laptop.

“Well,” Ravyn said, “we’ve been through a lot together.”

Brittany didn’t know what to say. Another friend was leaving. She wanted to hug her.

But Ravyn turned and skipped down the porch steps. “Take care of yourself, monkey,” she called over her shoulder.

“Goodbye.” Brittany watched Ravyn drive away. And just like that, her good mood soured.

Brittany opened the front door and carried a box inside, setting it on the kitchen table with more force than was prudent. The bottles clinked and rattled.

Aunt Lynette and Myra came out of their bedroom.

“Was that Ravyn Crowe I heard?” Aunt Lynette asked.

“Don’t worry. She’s gone. Like gone to Texas.”

“Good riddance.”

Brittany swung her arm. “Why can’t I have friends?”

“We’re your friends, sweetie,” Myra said.

“You’re my guardians,” Brittany countered. “If I did something crazy, you’d get mad and send me to my room. A friend helps you do the crazy stuff.”

Aunt Lynette gave her the beady eye. “Are you saying you got something crazy cooked up?”

“See?”

Myra chuckled then turned her attention to the box. She picked up a cobalt blue bottle. “This is pretty.”

“Be careful not to get anything on your hands,” Brittany told her. “They belonged to Queen Imogene. I don’t know what’s in them.”

“The queen?” She set down the bottle like it was a bomb.

“I’ve got another box of them on the porch.”

“Glory be. You left the door wide open.” Aunt Lynette hurried out of the kitchen.

Myra smiled. “So, why Texas?”

“She used to live there.” Brittany groaned and plopped onto a chair. “Why does everyone leave me?”

“You’re thinking about Cody.”

“We were supposed to be planning our wedding.”

“Everything happens for a reason. Trust your path.”

The front door slammed, and Aunt Lynette carried in a box of bottles. She set it beside the first one. “Why would Ravyn give you all this?”

Brittany shrugged. “She also said she’s having the queen’s cremains sent here.”

“What?” Myra stiffened. “I don’t want her ashes. You know how I feel about that vile, evil—”

“That was right thoughtful of her,” Aunt Lynette said. “We’ll send Imogene off to a better place.”

“I doubt it.” Brittany scoffed. “I heard she was being tormented over a lake of fire.”

“Did your demon tell you that?” Aunt Lynette snapped. “You know how I feel about that vile, evil—”

“These bottles are so pretty,” Myra said. “All cut glass and sparkly. And look… Some of them are tagged with people’s names. Winifred. Chandrelle. And… Oh, no.” She looked up, stricken. “Lynnie, this one has your name.”

“Where?” Aunt Lynette stepped forward.

Myra lifted a bottle from the box. The glass was pink and cut into diamonds. A tag fluttered, tied to the stopper with a ribbon. Lynette.

Aunt Lynette cupped it in her hands. “It’s vibrating.”

Myra gasped. “Black magic.”

“But how would she get my blood? I would never. You know that.”

“Looks like she found a way,” Brittany murmured.

Her aunt stared at the bottle. “May I keep this? I just feel… I think I’m supposed to have it.”

“Of course,” Brittany said.

“There’s one here for Theodora,” Myra said.

Aunt Lynette held out a trembling hand. “I’ll see that she gets it.” She accepted the bottle then stumbled toward her room.

Brittany’s gaze followed her aunt’s departure. “Was she crying?” Aunt Lynette had been held hostage by the queen for three days. Did the memory still upset her?

“Even in death, Imogene hurts us.” Myra shook her head. “I’m glad you killed her.”

“I didn’t kill her. It was a heart attack. The coroner said so.”

Myra lifted another bottle. “I wonder if all these people would want their bottles back.”

Brittany nodded.

CHAPTER TWO

As Ravyn had promised, the box containing Imogene’s ashes came through Priority Mail two weeks later. Brittany carried it in from the mailbox and set it gingerly on the living room coffee table.

Myra looked up from her book. Her face fell. “Oh, no. Imogene’s here.”

“What should we do with her?” Brittany asked.

“I’ve decided on funeral rites,” Aunt Lynette said from the hallway.

“She doesn’t deserve it,” Myra said.

“No.” Aunt Lynette entered the room. “We do. All of us whose lives she touched. We need closure. We need to forgive.”

Brittany sat on the couch beside Myra. “That might be too much to expect.”

“I don’t expect anything. I’ll offer, and all who come are welcome. I’ve already contacted a park in the city of Hollywood. It’s off I95, so it’s easy to get to. They said I can scatter the ashes there without a permit.”

“You’ve given this some thought,” Myra said.

Aunt Lynette nodded. “I want to make this a joyous occasion. A get-together. We’ll have it on Wednesday for the first quarter moon. I’ll reserve a gazebo, and we can have a big barbecue.”

Brittany laughed. “A funeral barbecue.”

“I don’t know, Lynnie,” Myra said. “How can I forgive her for taking you from me? If it hadn’t been for Brittany—”

“And Ravyn,” Brittany said. “We wouldn’t have found the hostages without her.”

“And Ravyn.” Myra nodded.

“That’s why we need to come together,” Lynette said. “We need to vent. Or our anger and resentment will explode.”

“How will we reach the other covens?” Brittany asked.

Aunt Lynette tapped her nose. “I think Zoe might know how to get in touch with ‘em.”

For the next two days, Aunt Lynette and Myra planned the funeral. To Brittany, it sounded like they were planning a family reunion minus the volleyball game. But perhaps all funerals were family reunions. There was to be a ceremony, however, and Brittany recited her lines until she knew them by heart.

On Wednesday, the three of them hopped into Aunt Lynette’s Ford Fiesta hatchback and drove to Hollywood. The funeral food was in containers on the backseat with Brittany. Imogene’s ashes rode in the cargo area. Brittany wondered if Tusks hovered above them as they sped along the turnpike. She hadn’t seen him yet that day. He could become invisible, and she couldn’t always sense him. Despite her aunt’s misgivings about the demon, Brittany was glad he was her mentor. She was learning so much from him. And she enjoyed his company.

The public park Aunt Lynette had chosen was enormous. Brittany goggled out the window at multiple baseball fields, soccer fields, picnic areas, and playgrounds. It had a dog park, a water park, an RV campground, and a lake stocked with fish. Although the day was cool and blustery, there were plenty of joggers, cyclists, and even boaters.

Aunt Lynette pulled into a parking lot and motioned at a gazebo. “This one’s ours.”

The gazebo sheltered several picnic tables. To the side, three blackened grills stood in a row. Behind the grills was a large, flat field, the perfect size for an impromptu football game or, in this case, a funeral.

They got out of the car. Myra and Aunt Lynette walked around, happily appraising the area. Brittany hung back, glancing at the clear, blue sky. No Tusks. So much for always being with her.

While Aunt Lynette cleaned the grills and set the fires, Brittany and Myra lugged food from the car. Aunt Lynette had baked eight chickens—all they needed was a quick turn over the coals and a slathering of her spicy barbecue sauce. They also brought six packages of hot dogs and the accompanying buns, five bags of potato chips, and three tall stacks of heavy-duty paper plates.

Minutes later, Theodora arrived. She waved at Aunt Lynette. They had been close friends growing up and were renewing their friendship now that Aunt Lynette had moved back from Georgia. Theodora parked her van next to the Fiesta, and her coven of seven witches disembarked.

“Hi, Brittany,” one woman called.

Brittany was surprised at being singled out until she recognized her. Susie. She’d been at the battle for the hostages.

The troop carried Publix grocery bags. Brittany laughed at her aunt’s horrorstruck expression as they unpacked containers of store-bought potato salad, coleslaw, and baked beans. They also brought condiments in squeeze bottles.

Zoe came next. She and her coven of five brought two coolers on wheels—one filled with hamburger patties, buns, and sliced tomatoes, the other with soft drinks. They also brought large blankets.

Two women carried the blankets behind the gazebo to spread them on the soft grass.

“Hi, Brittany,” one called.

“Hello, Brit.” The other waved.

Brittany blushed, uncomfortable with the attention. They had also been at the battle. “Do you need any help?” she asked them.

“No, we’ve got it.” They both smiled at her.

Brittany smiled back then busied herself putting chicken on the grill.

A few minutes later, Aunt Lynette took over for her. It was four o’clock, the designated time for their barbecue, but no one else had come. Brittany walked down to the parking lot. Just as she began to fear the person that she most wanted to see would be a no-show, another van arrived.

Jenna drove up from Key West. As she parked, Brittany hurried over. Jenna’s gaze met Brittany’s, and she gave a curt nod. They’d met once before, and Brittany found her to be cold and unfriendly.

But Jenna wasn’t the person Brittany wanted to see. Jenna had a coven of nine witches, and they piled out of the back, laughing and chatting. The last woman to exit was Winnie, Jenna’s predecessor, who had been held hostage by the queen for over a year. Winnie looked up and smiled—and Brittany was struck by how frail she looked. Her hair had gone prematurely gray, and she was thin. Even thinner than when she had been rescued three weeks ago.

“Hi, Winnie. Do you remember me? My name is Brittany.”

Winnie gave a breathy “Oh,” and looked painfully embarrassed. “I should know you, of course. The girls told me what happened. But…”

“The Draught of Forgetfulness.” Brittany had concocted a potion for the hostages that would erase the memories of their imprisonment. Winnie had volunteered to take it first.

“It worked well. I don’t recall a queen or a battle, but I remember the rest of my life just fine.”

“That’s good. That’s what we wanted.” Brittany nodded. “I’ve been waiting to speak with you. Can you come over here for a minute? I’d like to show you something.”

“Anything for you.”

Brittany ushered her to the Fiesta and opened the hatchback. “This was found among the queen’s possessions. I think it’s yours.” She handed Winnie a small bottle—yellow with gold filigree. The tag held a single word: Winifred.

Winnie gasped as her fingers closed over the glass. “Yes. This is me.” She clasped the bottle to her heart, and a flush crept over her pale skin. “You saved me twice.”

Brittany’s face heated. Before she could think of something to say, yet another van pulled into the parking lot. The driver stopped behind them, honked, and waved through the open window.

Winnie grinned. “Well, if it isn’t Anna Marie from Fort Lauderdale. How’re you doing, darling?”

“Better now that I see you,” Anna Marie called back. She parked then hurried over to hug Winnie. “I’m so glad you’re all right.”

“I’m fine,” Winnie said. “Do you know Brittany?”

“I know of you,” Anna Marie said. “Bright blessings.” Behind her, six women climbed out of the van. They unloaded a sheet cake that took two people to carry.

A pair of cars rolled in, one after the other.

Anna Marie said, “Oh, that’s Trynn and Hilda. They both have covens down by Miami. Hi, Hilda. Bright blessings to you.”

“Bright blessings,” a woman answered as she jumped from the passenger seat. Her long, graying hair flew in wisps around her face. She dressed like an old-fashioned hippie in a paisley broomstick skirt and puka shell necklace. A black cat rode on her shoulder. “I’m Hilda, priestess of the Kendall coven.” She jutted out her hand as she approached.

“Brittany.” She shook with her.

“Ah, the woman of the hour. A hard burden to bear.”

Brittany liked her immediately.

“Hi, Trynn,” Anna Marie called to the driver of the second car.

Trynn smiled and waved. She led her coven of five to the gazebo.

Winnie, Anna Marie, and Hilda walked with Hilda’s two other coven members to where the growing group of witches milled about. They greeted each other like long-lost sisters. It was the noisiest funeral Brittany had ever attended. She closed the hatchback and circumvented the crowd, trying to keep out of the way—but Theodora snagged her arm and pulled her to one of the tables where Zoe, Aunt Lynette, and Myra were deep in conversation.

“Don’t be so shy,” Theodora whispered to Brittany.

“Everyone’s staring at me,” Brittany muttered.

“That’s silly. No one is staring.”

But Brittany imagined eyes upon her as she sat. After all, she was the one who organized the rescue of the hostages from the tyrant queen. She was also the one who lost control of her powers during the subsequent battle. A flash of light had exploded from her, incinerating the attacking ghouls as well as the vampires who had chosen to fight with her and the totem necklaces the queen wore as wards. At least, the witches were content with staring at her back instead of demanding answers as to how she could do such things.

The last priestess to arrive was Bella from Miami. Her coven of seven brought sliced Cuban sandwiches from a local restaurant and three cases of hard lemonade in cans. Aunt Lynette took the chicken and hot dogs off the grills, and Zoe moved in to cook the hamburgers. Moments later, a line formed around the designated serving table where the attendees grabbed a plate and hot food. There weren’t enough seats, so some people sat on Zoe’s blankets.

Halfway through the meal, Aunt Lynette stood up. “I want to thank y’all for coming today. It’s good to have everyone together. Only we ain’t all together, are we? I hear there are singles out there practicing in solitude without guidance or support. I’d like to bring them into the fold, so’s to speak. If any of you have names or phone numbers to help me contact these singles, I’d—”

“And how much is this going to cost us?” a woman called out.

Aunt Lynette looked flustered—which brought out her southern accent. “What’cha all mean?”

“You’re proposing driving all over South Florida. Gas isn’t cheap. And you’ll probably need a new car.”

There came nods, and a few people said, “Yeah.”

Aunt Lynette’s eyes flared. “Listen here. I don’t expect nobody to pay for my gas or my car. I am a Wiccan priestess. Have been for years. I took an oath to teach and support those what want to learn.”

“Then the smaller groups take the brunt of it,” Hilda called out. “I for one don’t want more people in our coven. Our rituals are set for three. We’d have to sit people out and rotate everyone.” She shook her head.

There was an uproar of conversation.

“These singles need covens in order to learn,” Aunt Lynette said over the noise. “But that don’t mean change to the existing covens. I aim to encourage them to coven up their own selves. Then I or someone else can oversee them, keep them moving in the right direction.”

“For how long?” someone asked.

She shrugged. “A year is tradition.”

Theodora leaned close to Brittany and whispered, “Those are a queen’s duties. She’ll be queen in everything but the name.”

“Does that bother you?”

“Not a bit. I love her like a sister, and I think she’d make one heck of a queen.”

“Then it’s settled.” Aunt Lynette raised her voice. “You give me your contacts, and I’ll take it from there.”

“Queen Lynette.” Brittany smiled. “I like the sound of that.” Maybe if her aunt was queen, she’d stop pushing so hard for Brittany to be a Queen Potential. Brittany didn’t want to be queen. But in the back of her mind, she heard Alyssum say Your coming was foretold. You will be queen.

“Thank y’all for your time,” Aunt Lynette called over the chatter. With a disgruntled huff, she sat beside Myra. “These ladies have the wrong impression of me.”

Myra hugged her arm. “They’ll come around.”

Aunt Lynette smiled and patted her hand. She nodded at Brittany. “Eat up. There’s work to be done.”

Brittany loaded her hot dog with store-bought coleslaw and took a bite.

When she finished her dinner, Brittany followed her aunt to the car. The sun was low, and the chilly breeze turned cold. Many of the joggers had gone, making it seem like the witches were the only group left in the park.

From the hatchback, Brittany and Aunt Lynette hauled out a wagon filled with fist-sized rocks and wheeled it into the field behind their picnic area. They stacked the rocks a foot high and a foot across forming a makeshift altar then placed a white votive candle and the box of ashes on top. Next, they wheeled out a fiberglass cauldron filled with potting soil and a dish of sunflower seeds. They set the cauldron fifteen paces northeast of the rocks.

The setting sun turned the clouds pink and blue. The moon shone high overhead, half of it light, half dark. It was called the first quarter because the moon had traveled a quarter of the way around Earth since the new moon.

Brittany and the rest of the funeral party returned to the parking lot to slip on their robes for the ceremony. Aunt Lynette was garbed in crimson. Zoe, Theodora, Myra, and Brittany wore black. They walked in single file onto the field.

Aunt Lynette poked a hole in a burlap sack of salt and used it to draw a large circle around the altar, all the while chanting, “This is a place which is not a place, a time which is not a time, halfway between the world of gods and mortals.”

The other witches streamed onto the field but remained outside the line of salt. Zoe, Theodora, Myra, and Brittany stood inside the circle on the compass points.

Facing west, Zoe called out, “As the sun sets, so has Imogene left us. Our tears, like the salt water of the sea, bless this circle.”

Standing south, Theodora said, “As life is a day, Imogene has passed into the night. The fire of her life and our memories of her bless this circle.”

On the easterly point, Myra said, “As all that falls shall rise again, Imogene will be reborn. The air we breathe and the compassion we give one another bless this circle.”

From the north, Brittany said, “As the Earth forms us, so shall Imogene return to the Earth. In the end, the Earth takes back our bodies. And the Earth blesses this circle.”

Aunt Lynette looked down at the box of ashes. “Imogene, you are dead. None should ever die alone. Although you had wronged me, I am here to help you with your death. For there is no resentment. There is only love. The love of the goddess gives birth to the universe. The love of our parents gives birth to us. The love of our friends and family sustains our life.” She ran her gaze over the onlookers. “Behold a woman who has been two women. First a girl full of hope and dreams. Then an elder, rich in knowledge and experience. Her journey is ended and a new one has begun. Let us bid her farewell. Please come up now and speak to Imogene. Tell her whatever you need to.”

Like a shot, Hilda was first in line. She strode across the circle and stood before the altar, hissing at Imogene’s ashes. She stood for a full minute, and Brittany wagered her words were not forgiving. Then she walked to the cauldron and planted a sunflower seed. Instead of exiting the circle, she stood there holding the dish to offer seeds to the other women. The line was long, although not everyone joined in.

As the witches paid their last respects, Zoe, Theodora, Myra, and Brittany chanted, “We all come from the goddess, and to her we shall return like a drop of rain falling to the ocean. Birth and death. Birth and death. All that falls shall rise again.”

When everyone who needed to had spoken to the departed queen, Aunt Lynette knelt, opened the plastic bag inside the box, and spilled the ashes in a layer on the grass.

As she did, she said, “Journey on now, sister. May you find the love you so desperately seek.”

Zoe said, “The sun will rise again.”

Theodora said, “Life continues.”

Myra said, “Love is all we can be sure of.”

Brittany said, “Only the mother is eternal.”

Aunt Lynette placed the altar stones over the ashes before they could blow away. She lit the white candle, dripped some wax onto a stone, and set the candle firmly in place. She stood and said, “I thank the Lords of Water, Fire, Air, and Earth for attending our rite. Go in peace.”

At that, Zoe, Theodora, Myra, and Brittany stepped off the compass points. With a small broom made of twigs, Brittany moved to sweep the salt, breaking the circle—but Hilda took the broom from her and finished the job.

The witches hugged one another. There were no tears for Imogene. But Brittany had a sense of camaraderie and a restored hope for the future. Anna Marie served the cake, and Aunt Lynette produced several bottles of wine.

The temperature dropped further with nightfall. The first quarter moon shone directly above them in the starry sky. Brittany frowned. Still no Tusks. Where could he be?

As the attendees said their final farewells and drifted toward their vehicles, several called goodbye to Brittany. It surprised her. She didn’t even know them.

Then Winnie appeared before Brittany and caught her in a fierce hug. “Thank you for my gift,” she whispered into Brittany’s ear. “I feel better already.” With a smile and a nod, she backed away then strode to her van. Brittany watched her leave.

 Aunt Lynette gave the area a final inspection for trash or forgotten items. Using the wagon to wheel the cauldron full of planted sunflower seeds, she led Brittany and Myra to the car. By the time they left, the candle they had lit for Imogene had gone out.

I hope you enjoyed this excerpt of Scheming Demon. You can find Scheming Demon and the rest of the series at Amazon. Or if you prefer audiobooks, look for it at your favorite audio bookstore.

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