Authors: Jennifer Quintenz
“Upstairs, girls. Enjoy the service.” The herbalist waved us past. I shouldn’t have worried; she didn’t give any of us more than a passing glance.
A small metal staircase climbed the side of the building, leading up to a rooftop patio. Carrie and I followed her friends up the stairs. The patio, though old and in need of some repairs, was gorgeous. Bowls of floating candles edged the patio. Narrow, vine-covered pergolas lined the space, creating the illusion of walls but leaving the center of the patio open. The floor was covered with white- and cream-colored wool blankets, muting the sound of the crowd’s footsteps to a whisper. Stars dusted the sky above, crisp and twinkling against the black New Mexico night. The almost-new moon—barely a sliver of white—did little to compete with the light of the stars.
Young women mingled across the patio, embracing friends and making new acquaintances. But the overall feeling was one of anticipation. Everyone here was waiting.
Carrie gave my hand one last squeeze. “I’m so excited for you. Nothing is going to feel the same after tonight.” She waved at some friends and gave me a quick smile. “I’ve got to sit up front with the others, but I’ll catch up with you after the service?”
“Sure.” I bit my lip as Carrie headed into the crowd.
“So. This is the super secret Lilith Cult meeting?” Gretchen slid up next to me, frowning. “It feels more like a DIY wedding.”
“I’m going to tell Dad we’re here.” I pulled my cell phone out and started a text, when a wizened hand covered my screen. “Hey—” I looked up, irritated.
Idris smiled at me. “Leave the trappings of this physical world behind you tonight, daughter. They deafen us to the truth of our nature. To hear that truth, you must listen with your full mind and heart.”
The assembled young women fell silent, watching Idris with adoration. Blushing hotly, I pocketed my phone. Idris rewarded me with a beautiful smile, and then turned toward the crowd. I felt myself smiling back—until I saw Gretchen eyeing me with disgust.
“They don’t call it a cult for nothing,” Gretchen murmured in my ear. “Stay sharp, Braedyn. I don’t have time to add getting you deprogrammed to my list of things to do this week.”
I blushed again, then scowled when Gretchen’s lips twitched in amusement.
Idris glided through the gathering. People moved out of her way, reorienting themselves to face her as she took her place at the head of the gathering.
“Good evening,” she said, raising her hands. “Open your hearts and feel the power of the first mother rising up through you.” Idris raised her arms, lifting her face to the night sky and closing her eyes. The assembled young women mimicked her, lifting their faces and closing their eyes.
Gretchen made a small sound of irritation in the back of her throat. I was the only one close enough to hear. “Well, this was a waste of time. I only see human idiots. No Lilitu present. You?”
I glanced around, searching for the telltale hints of shadow that marked a Lilitu in hiding. Nothing. I shook my head.
“Great. Just a bunch of flower-children playing a delusional game and dragging Lilith’s name into it to make it themselves feel mysterious and powerful.” Gretchen glanced at her watch. “I’m missing my favorite show for this crap.”
“Welcome, daughters.” Idris lowered her hands and opened her eyes. As one, the assembled young women sat, cross-legged on the patio. Gretchen and I were forced to stand out or follow suit. Reluctantly, we walked forward to an available spot on the wool blankets and sat.
Before us, Idris stood, surveying the eager faces of the women waiting for her words. The service was about to begin.
The wool blanket was surprisingly warm. It kept the chill from the patio floor at bay, taking my body heat and reflecting it back. It was actually pretty comfortable, sitting like this. I looked up at Idris. Behind her, I had a beautiful view of the night sky. The glow of the candles rose up around us, bathing the patio in a soft glow. The overall effect was peaceful, almost reverential.
“I am Idris, a humble servant of the First Woman, Lilith.” Idris bowed her head, looking genuinely deferential. “You are here, because you seek the truth. I am here, to share that truth with you. But we have a greater purpose, and that is to rekindle the spirit of Lilith in our lives, and in the world.”
I leaned in, suddenly alert. Beside me, Gretchen’s gaze sharpened, too.
“In the beginning, God created Adam and Lilith, giving them equal dominion over this earth. Adam, unsatisfied with his share, took Lilith’s also. And for millennia, the Sons of Adam have used and abused this world, mining it for profit, stripping it of its vitality, spoiling its natural beauty. It is time for us to take the world back in her name, to fight the destruction of the established order. This is a mission for young, strong women. Women like you. And if you take up this cause, you will have the strength of Lilith behind you. We will rebuild her Temple together.” Idris raised her face to the night sky and breathed in deeply. “This land is sacred,” she said. “It has been touched by her hand.”
I reached out and gripped Gretchen’s hand. Gretchen and I exchanged a tense look. Could Idris be talking about the Seal?
“There is a story, a myth, a legend—it has been told and retold in a thousand varieties, but the heart of the story remains the same. Long ago, the First Woman, banished from her world, struggled day and night until she had fashioned a door that could lead her home.”
“I don’t believe it,” Gretchen whispered. “We have to tell the others.”
“And even though she was considered lower than a beggar, lower than a thief in her homeland, the First Woman treasured the time she could spend walking this earth, feeling the sun on her skin, tending the vines.” Idris smiled again, and more than one of the young women in her audience sighed wistfully. “So grateful was she, she built a Temple that—according to myth—endures to this day. It became the center of her power—”
A commotion stirred in the heart of the gathering. Idris paused, surprised.
I sought out the source of the disturbance, and my heart leapt into my throat.
“I’m sorry, but no.” Amber shrugged off another young woman, trying to silence her.
“What troubles you, daughter?”
“Look, I’m all for saving the trees and crap, but then you had to go and throw Lilith into the mix.”
“Lilith is the mother of storms, who—” Idris started.
” Amber stood, glaring at the gathering. “I get that you want some strong female role model to look up to, but trust me, Lilith is not it.”
Idris tilted her head to the side, regarding Amber with sympathy. “You are parroting propaganda spread by established Judeo-Christian hierarchy to frighten—”
“We shouldn’t need propaganda to be frightened of Lilith and her daughters,” Amber snapped.
Idris didn’t look flustered in the least. “You are misinformed, child. I have felt the love of mother Lilith, enfolding me like a blanket of warmth. I know it to be true.”
one of her daughters in the flesh, and I’ve seen the damage they can do to real people. I think that trumps a hot flash.”
Idris’s eyes sharpened on Amber. But there was no flash of surprise or shock; instead, Idris seemed… angry. The expression was gone almost as quickly as it had appeared on her face—but once I’d seen it, I suddenly knew. This
whatever she might say, knew Lilitu were real. So what was the deal with this charade? Idris smiled, her face once more composed with tender concern.
Gretchen, sitting next to me, was still fixated on Amber. “Who is this girl?” she whispered, leaning closer to me. “I think I love her.”
I let out a soft groan. So much for keeping Amber secret from the Guard.
“Given your feelings, perhaps this isn’t the right place for you, dear.” Idris gestured. I heard a stir of movement at the edges of the room. I turned my head and froze. The hairs along the back of my neck prickled painfully. I grabbed Gretchen’s hand. She looked at me sharply then, seeing the look on my face, followed my gaze.
Three forms walked forward from the shadows. To human eyes, they would appear as beautiful young women, not unlike the women assembled here. But Gretchen and I could see beneath their masks, to the black eyes and glittering metallic teeth beneath.
Gretchen and I watched, helpless, as the Lilitu walked toward Amber.
“You can’t seriously believe this stuff?” Amber glanced around at the crowd, irritated. But when she saw the first Lilitu, she stumbled back, falling into the seated crowd. Women lurched to their feet angrily. Amber rose to her feet again, pointing at the Lilitu.
“That’s one of them!” Her eyes rolled to the side and she saw another Lilitu. And then she saw me. “You!” Amber’s lips peeled back from her teeth in a grimace of pure hatred. “I should have known you’d be here.”
“Oh crap.” Gretchen grabbed me and pulled me to my feet.
The other Lilitu were already turning toward us. As the closest one turned to face me, I froze. The Lilitu with the long brown hair—the one who’d attacked me at the mission—she was here.
The beautiful demon’s face twisted with a growl of rage.
“Meeting’s over,” Gretchen hissed into my ear. “Run!”
The brown-haired Lilitu sliced through the gathering with a dancer’s precision, angling her body into a powerful attack. Gretchen and I split, racing for opposite ends of the rooftop patio. Gretchen’s dash took her straight for the stairs. She was halfway there before she realized I wasn’t close on her heels.
“Braedyn!” Gretchen’s voice, thin and high with panic, cut across the murmurs of the crowd. I whipped my head around, taking a mental snapshot. Two of the Lilitu were closing in on Amber. The brown-haired Lilitu was just steps behind me. I grabbed one of the pergola supports as I passed it, running full speed. My momentum spun me around the post but I held on, careening to a stop. The brown-haired Lilitu overshot me, colliding with the roof’s railing before she could regain her footing. I had two seconds to decide; escape with Gretchen, or keep the Lilitu from gutting Amber. My eyes sought her out. Amber had given me plenty of reasons to turn my back on her. But Dad had spent his life teaching me compassion and empathy; I couldn’t just switch them off when it was inconvenient.
“Damn it, Amber.” I pushed off the pergola and darted forward.
The gathering was in chaos. Nearly everyone was on their feet now, pooling into tight groups, unsure what was happening or what they were supposed to do. I dodged through the crowd, reaching Amber as the first Lilitu grabbed hold of her arm.
I tackled Amber, wrenching her free of the Lilitu’s grasp. We hit the floor and rolled to the edge of the patio, knocking over two bowls of candles in the process. One of the candles came to rest at the base of a pergola support post. The flame teased the dry stem of a vine that had grown up around it like vertical kindling. Fire licked up the vine, spreading faster than I would have thought possible. Someone screamed, and the crowd scattered, buying us a few moments before the Lilitu could disentangle themselves from the panic.
“Get up!” I rolled to my feet. Amber glared at me, refusing to budge. “Amber, this isn’t a game. Get up!” I hauled Amber to her feet beside me. Before the chaos could subside, I willed my shadowy wings to manifest. They snapped around us both, cloaking us from human vision—not that it would do much to protect us from the Lilitu. We were trapped together, tightly bound beneath my wings, like two caterpillars in a cocoon.
“Let me out,” Amber hissed, fighting me with all her strength.
“We have to get away from here.” I tightened my grip on her arm. The two Lilitu who’d been closing in on Amber broke free from the crowd. Their eyes latched onto us. “Crap.” Our path forward was blocked—several women had jumped toward the fire and were trying to beat it out with some of the smaller wool rugs. I cast a quick glance over the side of the building. The drop wasn’t welcoming, but it was our best bet.
Amber’s eyes bulged. “What are you doing? Braedyn?!”
I looked up at Amber. Whatever she read in my expression freaked her out. She turned, trying to push through my wings to escape.
The Lilitu surged forward, cloaking themselves with their own dark wings.
“Hold on.” I grabbed Amber in a bear hug from the back. She sank her teeth into my arm. Shooting pain lanced across my skin, but I didn’t release her.
With all the strength I could muster, I kicked us backwards, over the edge of the building. I hit the sturdy awning beneath us back first, feeling a flash of relief when the thick canvas fabric held. Amber crashed down on top of me. My grip weakened, and we rolled apart. Amber grabbed the edge of the awning as she slid over, managing to control her drop the last ten feet to the ground. I wasn’t so lucky—still recovering from breaking Amber’s fall, I wasn’t fast enough to grab the edge of the awning. I slipped off and fell ten feet to the ground, landing on my side on the pavement below. Amber dropped to her feet beside me, eyes blazing with fury and adrenaline. I glanced around. We were alone in the little side street between buildings.