"Don't get me wrong, Dad, I'm all for skipping school every now and then," Viola Ashwood said, slumping in the passenger seat of her father's sedan and propping her booted feet on the dashboard. "I just wish you had given me a little warning. I actually did my last piece of Chem homework."
"It's not every day my princess turns sixteen."
"It's not every day I do my homework, either. You could've at least let me give it to Aaron to turn in. Now it just feels like I wasted two hours of my life I'll never get back. Never."
Gerard Ashwood patted his daughter's knee before returning his hand to the steering wheel and flicking on his blinker. "You do not need Chemistry, Viola."
"Funny how my guidance counselor and the state of Texas don't agree with you on that one." Viola frowned as they exited the freeway and continued along the feeder. It'd been years since they'd been to Burkeholt, her paternal grandparents' private hunting camp. "Why are we going to Burkeholt? Dad, if this is one of those bonding-type camping trips, I swear it's not necessary. I'm not drinking, smoking, or having sex. Okay, I do sneak out every now and then, but I can explain."
"We are not going to Burkeholt."
"Oh. Where are we going then?"
Gerard's lips twisted in a half-smile. "You take the fun out of surprise parties, darling."
"I don't like surprises." Her nose crinkled. "Surprises and Tracking don't mix. Tobias says it's like Network rule numero dos."
Gerard didn't like how much influence the Duke boy, and the Duke family in general, had over his daughter, but he had no one to blame but himself. He'd wanted Viola trained by the best and, despite his youth, Tobias Duke was one of the best in the Network. That the boy was Sebastian Ashwood's best friend and Viola's hero only strengthened the ties between the two families.
"What is rule number one, dare I ask?"
"Always have your partner's back." Viola tilted her head to get a better look out of the window. The area was familiar, but if they weren't headed for Burkeholt, she had no clue where they were going. "Are Mom and Bas and Livy going to be there?"
"No, darling. It will just be the two of us and Aunt Hattie."
Viola shrugged with feigned nonchalance. It stung, but it wasn't unexpected. She and her mother had never been close. Alicia Ashwood doted on Sebastian and Olivia, Viola's older siblings, but ignored Viola whenever possible. It was almost as if Gerard and Alicia had picked their favorites and split up the parenting. Not that Viola really minded. Dad was the cool parent, after all.
She wouldn't have minded having her brother and sister there. Sebastian was fun when he wasn't being a condescending jerk. She and Olivia were nothing alike, but Viola gave her sister points for trying to bridge the gap. They'd never be best friends, but they got along well enough.
The car turned onto a narrow, bumpy road. After nearly a mile, they turned again. The road was unpaved; thick-trunked, looming pine trees lined the grassy path. The sound of pine needles scraping along the windows and sides of the sedan was like fingernails on a chalkboard. Apprehension slithered down her spine.
She sat straight up, gripped the straps of her blue backpack with white knuckles. "Dad? Seriously. Where are we going? I didn't exactly dress for a day in the sticks." Her black cargo pants were thick enough to protect her from the bitter winter wind, but having anticipated a day spent in stuffy classrooms she wore only a purple tank top and black hoodie.
"You'll be fine, darling." Gerard eased the car to a halt in front of a small brick and wood pavilion. He popped the latch on his seatbelt. "Here we are."
Viola's heart hammered in her chest. There were no streamers tied to the poles, no balloons dancing in the breeze. No "Happy Birthday" banner. Nothing but a pavilion with what looked like an altar in the center. She couldn't hear birds singing or squirrels scampering. The pavilion seemed to exist in some sort of vacuum.
She forced brittle laughter past the lump in her throat. "Ha ha. Very funny, Dad. Where's the real party at?"
Gerard pressed the button on her seatbelt. The metal clasp whizzed by her chin as it retracted. "Get out of the car, Viola."
Viola searched his eyes but found only somber rigidity. She nodded, swallowed, and opened her door. Her knees trembled, but she kept her chin high and swung her backpack onto a shoulder. She rounded the front of the car, but an iron-tight grip on her bicep stopped her mid-step.
"Your necklace, Viola." Gerard held his other hand palm up.
She wrapped her chilly fingers around the silver amulet he'd given her the previous birthday. "It's my protection charm. You told me to never take it off."
"You don't need it anymore." The smile stretched across his handsome face made her stomach twist. It was a smile she'd only seen in horror movies and her worst nightmares. His dark chuckle sent her heartbeat into overdrive. "Give me the necklace. Now!"
He shook her so hard her teeth rattled. Tears stung the corners of her eyes. It was as if she was standing in front of a stranger. He'd lectured her dozens of times, but he'd never hit her. Never so much as raised his hand against her. Despite her shaking fingers, she managed to get the necklace unclasped and dropped it in his waiting palm. Something hot and potent slammed into her stomach like a fist. She gasped, gagged.
"Good girl." Hand still gripping her arm, he leaned forward to kiss her forehead. "Now let's move to the pavilion."
At the faint tinkle of metal, Viola glanced down in time to see her necklace fall from her father's hand and pool on the grass. She didn't want to go to the pavilion. She wanted to be snug in her bed or running laps around the gym with Aaron or, sweet mercy, in Chemistry class bored out of her skull.
The closer they got the pavilion, the more apparent it became that the pavilion was old. Really old. The edges of the stones were worn smooth by the elements and the wood looked nearly petrified. The altar, glistening white marble and red gemstones, looked to be just as old. She shivered at the rust-colored stains on the surface of the altar.
"Daddy." She sniffled, blinked back the tears before they could spill down her cheeks. "Daddy, I want to go home."
His grasp on her arm tightened. "Don't whine. I raised you better than that." He forced her to her knees in front of the altar. Her backpack was ripped off her shoulder. Thick, silver cuffs circled her thin wrists. The snap of the locks was like twin gunshots in the unearthly silence.
Anger rushed through her. She struggled for freedom, but the cuffs were too tight. She craned her neck to glare at her father over her shoulder. "What the hell, Dad?"
Her lips curled back in a sneer. "Really? You're going to lecture me about my language now?"
Gerard unlocked the silver box on the other side of the altar. With slow, reverent movements he extracted a slender, silver knife, a blood-stained yellowed cloth, and a tied bunch of dried herbs. "Do you remember when I told you that you were going to rule the world, darling?"
"Yes," she snapped.
"I meant it."
"No you didn't. It's something fathers say to their daughters. I'm sure you said it to Livy once or twice."
Gerard chuckled. "Olivia? Rule the world? She couldn't handle being Student Council President. She doesn't have your strength, your power."
Whatever had slammed into her earlier was filling her veins with blazing heat. She feared her blood would boil and her skin would melt. She fought the urge to laugh. She was on the verge of spontaneous combustion and her father was talking nonsense. "What are you talking about? I'm not powerful. I'm cold and I'm a little pissed off." 'And scared,' she added silently.
"Is the girl ready, Gerard?" Hattie Burke, Gerard's aunt and the first ghost Viola had ever seen, floated into view beside her nephew. She wriggled her fingers at Viola in a cheery wave. "Happy Birthday, dearest Viola."
"What's going on, Aunt Hat? Is this some kind of joke?" Viola jerked her wrists, but the cuffs held firm.
Hattie clucked her tongue at Gerard. "You haven't told her anything? I thought you were going to prepare her."
Gerard's lips thinned. "I just got her in the restraints, Aunt Henrietta. She's proving to be unexpectedly obstinate."
"Tell you what, guys, let me out of here, and I'll listen to whatever stories you want to tell," Viola said. She shivered when two sets of dark, fathomless eyes turned on her. She wished one of her hands was free so she could pinch herself. This was a dream. It had to be.
"Finish setting up," Hattie instructed Gerard, "I'll relate the good news."
Viola listened with growing horror as Hattie spun a story about a power-hungry ancestor, a bargain with the demon lord Elrachaim, and blood sacrifices. All the Burke family power, her power, was courtesy of a demon itching to make a foothold in their dimension. The Burke family, her father and aunt included, paid tribute to the demon. Her father, it seemed, was currently preparing to make the final tribute.
Gerard had married Alicia Ashwood and bowed to years of Ashwood tradition and adopted her name because an Ashwood would be strong enough to contain Elrachaim's full power. Viola's conception had been perfectly planned, and, through a ritual Hattie refused to explain, Gerard had been gradually turning his youngest child into a demon-human hybrid.
"You are the vessel. You will play host to our Great and Mighty Lord." Hattie beamed at Viola. She clasped her hands under her chin and spun on her toes. "Isn't it marvelous?"
"I would have rather had the Mustang." Fear clawing at her insides, Viola fought to maintain an outward calm. "I can't believe all this time I though Mom was the crazy one. I'll give you two credit for playing it close to the vest."
Gerard looked up at the rapidly darkening sky. Impossibly black clouds rolled in and obscured the sun. The breeze kicked up fallen leaves and bit at Viola's shoulders through her thin hoodie.
"It's almost time," Gerard said, holding out a hand to Hattie.
Viola heard the whisp of a match being lit. The smoky tang of burning herbs wrapped around her and filled her nostrils. She opened her mouth to suck in fresh air only to choke on the acrid smoke. Before she could recover, the tip of the knife slid into the flesh at the base of her throat. Hot blood trickled down her chest and onto the altar.
"Daddy?" She tilted her head back to plead with him, but Gerard and Hattie ignored her. They joined hands and began chanting in a language Viola had only heard once or twice. As blood continued to puddle on the white stone below her, she yanked her arms back so hard her shoulders popped. Her struggling only seemed to make the cuffs bite deeper into her wrists. "Daddy! Let me go!"
The chanting stopped abruptly. A circle of blinding white light appeared directly across from Viola. She felt the saltwater tingle of a breach being opened. A long tendril of inky blackness slithered through the circle and twined around her shaking shoulders.
Through the pounding of her heart, Viola heard footsteps walking away and the chill she associated with Aunt Hattie faded. No! They were leaving her!
"Daddy! Daddy, no!" Her voice cracked. Fat tears poured down her cheeks and mingled with the blood on the altar. "Daddy, come back!"
The black tendril hovered over the cut in her neck, paused for a long moment, then dove into the bleeding wound. White-hot pain filled every nook and cranny. She tried to scream, but her mouth wouldn't move.
The deep tenor resonating from somewhere inside her own mind was the last thing Viola heard before the world went black.