Rhea came forward then and set Maisie’s wine by her hand. “Here you go!” Her tone was overly bright.
Ignoring Rhea, Maisie snorted, a harsh sound. “Sabina, believe it or not, everything that happens isn’t about you.”
I pulled back, stung. “That’s not what I meant. I—”
She lifted the wineglass and took a long drink. When she’d swallowed it, she glared at me. “You think the world revolves around you? Well, it doesn’t. My problems are just that—my problems. I don’t need you or anyone else to save me.”
Rhea, quiet as a ghost, came around the table and handed me a glass of wine. “Careful,” she whispered.
I looked up at her. Her eyes pleaded with me to let the matter drop. But I couldn’t. Not now. If Maisie woke up in a few hours and realized what we’d done, she might never speak to me again. This was my chance to lay it on the table. “Listen to me, Maisie,” I said. “Like it or not, I was involved with what happened to you. Lavinia kidnapped you to get to me. She unleashed you on Adam when you were blood crazed to punish me.”
“Stop,” Maisie whispered brokenly. “Stop it.”
“No. This has to be said.” I swallowed against the bitter guilt clogging my throat. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry that my coming here led to your being hurt. I’m sorry that I didn’t kill Lavinia in California when I had the chance. If I had, then none of this would have happened to you. I’m sorry that I didn’t find you sooner in New Orleans.” My voice cracked. “But most of all, I’m sorry that being my sister has caused you so much pain.”
“Enough!” Maisie roared. She stood so fast her chair crashed back into the sideboard. She opened her mouth to yell at me again, but her body swayed. She grabbed the tablecloth to steady herself.
“Maisie?” Rhea said.
“I—I feel weird.” She put a hand to her head.
I jumped up. “You said it would take longer than this,” I said to Rhea.
Maisie looked up sharply. “What?”
“She’s so weak it must have acted faster than I intended,” Rhea said. She moved quickly to Maisie’s side.
But my sister ignored the aid Rhea offered. Instead, she glared at me, her eyes hot despite being unfocused. “What have you done?”
With that, Maisie collapsed into Rhea’s arms.
I followed Rhea through the snow to a section of the mage grounds I’d never visited. Tree limbs tangled overhead, blocking out the almost-full moon’s light. We trudged through the stark landscape in silence for what felt like miles. When my toes went numb, I asked Rhea why she didn’t just flash us to our destination.
“It’s part of the ritual,” she said. “The extra effort signals our dedication to the outcome we desire.” Her boots crunched in the snow and her cheeks were pink with chill. “The gods are never impressed by those who take the path of least resistance.”
Ten minutes later, I wondered if the trek through the ankle-deep snow was really some sort of punishment. But then the moon’s rays sparked off a roof’s frosted peak.
“What is this place?” I wasn’t sure why I was whispering. But something about the dense trees and the deep cold and the weight of our mission demanded a respectful volume.
“The family who built the manor used it as a chapel,” Rhea said, stepping over a fallen branch jutting from the snow like a pleading skeletal hand. “When the Hekate Council bought the place, we deconsecrated it and turned it into a meditation retreat.”
The building itself was made of old stones. The arched windows were dark but shadows hinted at stained glass. A small spire rose from the roof, but instead of a Christian cross at the top, there was a simple spiral circle forged from black iron. From my studies with Rhea, I remembered the symbol represented the cycles of life and spiritual journeys. Fitting, I thought, for both the building and our purpose.
Rhea opened the large red doors with a large metal key. “Quickly.” She waved me in.
Hugging Maisie’s limp body to my chest, I ducked through the dark doorway. The air inside was stale and cold, hinting that the space was rarely used. Rhea whispered something behind me. The air shimmered and static crawled across my skin. An instant later, several torches around the room flared to life. I blinked against the sudden illumination.
Once my eyes adjusted, I caught my breath at the beauty of the chapel. Dozens of candle flames flickered in large, wrought-iron candelabras. Set high in three of the walls, large stained-glass windows sparkled in the candlelight. Patches of glass in blues, greens, and purples formed images of gods and magical symbols.
I generally avoided churches as a rule. It wasn’t that sacred spaces were dangerous or anything, no matter what mortal vampire lore claimed. It was just the principle of the matter, seeing as how the Big Dude turned his back on all the dark races in favor of his golden children, the mortals. But, like Rhea said, this place wasn’t a church anymore. All Christian symbolism had been stripped away and replaced with more familiar and comforting mage and pagan accessories.
Speaking of pagan things, a stone altar squatted under a huge wall sculpture of a snake wrapped around a staff. Rhea waved me toward a space next to the altar. As she spread a pelt of some sort on the ground, she explained the symbol.
“It’s the staff of Asclepius. Since he’s the god of medicine and healing, the mortals borrowed the symbol for their medical professionals.” She motioned me to lay Maisie on the pelt.
“Why aren’t we setting her on the altar?”
“We need her as close to the earth as possible for this to work,” she said vaguely. “Asclepius is a Chthonic deity, which means his energy is more powerful closer to the earth.”
I arranged Maisie on her back with her hands crossed on her chest. Then, looking down at her, I realized the position resembled that of a dead woman. I quickly lowered her hands to her sides. Then I brushed her hair back from her face. Her face had softened in sleep. Gone was the betrayed expression, the anger, she’d had just before the sedative took effect. My stomach cramped with guilt.
It’s for her own good.
Rhea set a large black bag on the altar and began removing items. Needing something to do, I went to look them over. Cakes of some sort wrapped in parchment came first.
“Honey cakes,” Rhea explained. “To sweeten the god’s disposition so he’ll listen to our pleas.”
She then removed some candles, wooden matches, and bundles of sage. “For cleansing,” Rhea explained.
“What can I do?” I said, lifting a smudge stick to my nose. The soothing scent of sage and lavender calmed my nerves.
“You’re going into the Liminal with her to make sure she’s safe.”
My skin went cold. “Jesus, Rhea.”
“Look, I know it’s scary. I know that you haven’t had time to figure out the Liminal or how your powers work there. But we’ve run out of time here.”
“How exactly am I supposed to protect her?”
“Just watch over her. Make sure she’s safe until Asclepius arrives to heal her.”
“Gods, I wish you had given me a little more warning.”
She looked up sharply. “Why? So you could have tried to talk me out of it?” She shrugged. “This way saved time. There’s no point in arguing now.”
Normally, I eventually came around to Rhea’s way of thinking on these matters. But this was some serious shit. The limited experience I’d had in the Liminal was enough to scare me. Add calling on gods and you had a recipe for a clusterfuck. All my experiences with the gods thus far had left me drained and a little freaked out.
“No dice. I’ve been to the Liminal only once. The only thing we know about it is from a decades-old journal. And that alone was enough to tell me it’s too dangerous. You said it yourself: Ameritat was afraid Tristan might not come back.” I raised my hands in a pleading gesture, hoping she’d see reason. “I want Maisie cured as much as you do, but toying with powers I can’t control yet all but insures disaster. I’ve failed Maisie too many times to fuck around anymore. There has to be another option besides me going in with her.”
Rhea sighed and chewed her lip. “The only other option is to make a larger sacrifice to Asclepius to ensure he’ll fulfill our request. More than just honey cakes and a few gold coins.”
“A blood sacrifice.”
“Why do I get the feeling you’re not talking about killing a chicken?”
“Because in this case, the blood sacrifice has to be from the one asking for aid. You’re going to have to shed blood on the altar.”
“Why me? Maisie’s the one doing the incubation.”
“Normally it would be her, but since she’s unconscious, we’re acting as her agents. And since you’re tied to her by blood, the offering will mean more coming from you.”
The idea of shedding a little blood for my sister didn’t bother me that much. After all, it’s not like the stuff made me squeamish. And a cut would heal almost as quickly as it split the skin. But I’d been around magic long enough to know there had to be a catch. “What aren’t you telling me?”
Rhea grimaced at how easily I’d figured that one out. “Gods are fickle beings, Sabina. If you offer him your blood, it’ll bind you to him.”
“Bind me how?”
“He’ll be able to call on you for a repayment of the favor whenever it suits him.”
I sighed. I didn’t exactly love the idea of being beholden to a god, but it beat another trip to that fucked-up in-between place. Besides, Asclepius was a god of healing. How bad could any favor he asked be? “I’ll do it.”
Rhea’s eyebrows went up. “You’re sure?”
I nodded resolutely. I was tired of talking. It was time to get this done.