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The Hoodoo Apprentice
By Lea Nolan, Robin Haseltine
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2015 Lea Nolan
All rights reserved.
The fog comes out of nowhere, thick and suffocating like a funeral shroud. A chill runs through me, and goose bumps rise on the back of my neck.
Cooper Beaumont slams his foot on the station wagon's brake, and we all lurch forward. "What the heck?" he rasps.
Impenetrable gray mist blocks the road like a wall. It's so dense I can't see the crossroads I know lie just beyond.
My twin brother, Jack, peers out the windshield. "I've never seen anything like that this far inland."
"Me neither." Cooper grabs hold of the gearshift, readying to throw the car into reverse.
"I don't think this is natural," I say as a buzzing sound grows in my ear, confirming my suspicions. Before I can utter another word, a dark figure approaches from inside the fog.
"Who the —"
"Claude Corbeau," I answer, as a short, middle-aged, rail-thin man with deep brown skin emerges from the roiling gray fog. He strides down the middle of the road, heading straight for us. Wearing a pitch-black suit and those irritating blue-lensed sunglasses, he hasn't changed a bit since the last time I saw him, the day he got the sheriff to throw my magical mentor, Delia Whittaker, in jail. About twenty feet from our car, he stops and stands motionless, his arms hanging at his sides, his face a careful blank. The murky mist behind him dissipates, rolling off the asphalt into the crops that line the road, revealing his old black Lincoln parked just before the crossroads.
"I'm getting us out of here," Cooper says.
Anger roils in my gut. Claude clearly wants to chat, but this isn't the way normal people go about these things. Oh, wait, Claude isn't normal. He's got magic powers. But then again, so do I. There's nothing for me to fear here, especially with the gris-gris bag filled with protective charms around my neck. "No, we're not running away from him," I say then yank open the door and exit the car.
"Not without us," Cooper says as he and Jack follow.
I spin around toward them. "Are you wearing your gris-gris bags?"
"Yup," Jack answers.
"Always," Cooper says.
"Good." I turn back toward Claude and utter a silent prayer that my spells are strong enough to protect us from any black magic he might cast.
As I approach, Claude grins, flashing his arctic white teeth. "Miss Emma Guthrie." He nods at Cooper and Jack. "Good day, boys. It's been far too long, has it not?" His southern accent is indiscriminate, definitely not from South Carolina, but maybe somewhere in the Deep South. As always, his speech is ultra proper, as if he's trying to act like someone important.
I cross my arms and choose my words carefully. I don't want Claude to know how worried I am for Miss Delia, who is ninety-seven and paralyzed, imprisoned for practicing medicine without a license. "Not nearly long enough. After you framed Miss Delia, I wouldn't have minded if we never met again."
I sense Jack's warning gaze boring its way through my temple, but I don't care if he thinks I'm going too far. I won't be intimidated by the likes of Claude Corbeau.
Claude clicks his tongue against the roof of his mouth. "Bold language for such a young girl." His lenses reflect the early morning sunshine and make him look like a freaky blue-eyed bug.
Cooper steps close, protecting my right side while Jack covers the left.
Keeping my eyes trained on Claude, I shrug. "The truth is the truth." Not that Claude cares about the truth. For the past couple months, he's been doing everything he can to ruin Miss Delia's life — getting between her and her great-granddaughter, Taneea Branson, teaching Taneea dark magic that helps her cheat and manipulate others' emotions, accusing Miss Delia of masterminding a theft at the local museum, and then getting her thrown in jail. I don't know what his problem is with Miss Delia, but I intend to find out.
One side of his mouth lifts into a sly grin. "It's not possible to frame a guilty person. She will pay for her crimes."
Crimes? What crimes? Claude practices magic, too. If Miss Delia deserves to be in jail, so does he. I shake my head. "That's for the judge to decide. But I'm guessing you didn't stop us out here to talk about Miss Delia's court case. What do you want?"
"Be careful what you assume, Miss Emma. In point of fact, I'm here to ask you and your friends to cease your assistance to Miss Whittaker and allow justice to take its course."
Abandon the woman who taught me everything I know about hoodoo magic? "Yeah, I don't think so."
He gives me a coy smile. "Yes, I can see now that isn't likely."
A laugh bursts from my lips. "Try impossible."
Jack nods. "We'd never give up on Miss D."
"You'd be surprised how easy it would be to persuade you otherwise," Claude says, his voice brimming with eerie self-assurance.
Cooper tilts his head. "Like you did with Taneea? What'd you give her to turn against her own great-grandmother — a few magic tricks? Sorry, we can't be bought that easily."
"Who said anything about buying your allegiance? If you refuse to comply when I ask nicely — "
Jack scoffs. "What are you going to do?"
Claude stares at us for a long moment, then stretches out his hands, throws his head back toward the sky, and speaks in a strange language I've never heard.
My stomach drops to my feet like an out-of-control elevator. Whatever is coming is bad. And worse, since I don't know what it is, I can't stop it.
Before I can scream to Cooper and Jack to race back to the car, the soybean plants in the fields along the road start to shake. A scratchy, rattling sound splits the air as their bright green leaves rub against each other. Claude's fingers spread wide as he repeats his foreign incantation, louder than before. Formless, shadowy gray figures rise from the neat soybean rows then fly at us, undulating like giant, floating worms before they skid to a stop, hovering in midair.
Spinning around to assess our situation, I gulp back the clammy wave of nausea that threatens to spill what's left of my breakfast. There have to be at least twenty of these diaphanous shapes encircling us like a misty gray Stonehenge. I don't know what they are, or what they want, but they're definitely not nice. A moist, rotten scent fills the air, reminding me of wet laundry left too long in the washer.
"Emma." Cooper's voice trembles.
"Em," Jack adds at the same time.
"Our mojo bags will project us," I answer, praying to the universe that's true.
Claude nods. "Your protective charms are very impressive." He tilts his nose in the air and sniffs a few times. "But fortunately for me, those bags do not contain the ingredients that could protect you from malevolent spirits. If I can't convince you to cease your assistance to Ms. Whittaker, perhaps my creeper demons will." A venomous laugh rolls up his throat then slips between his dark, thin lips. A ripple of movement pulses through the demons, like they're excited and eager to attack.
A shudder rocks my body because he's right. We're screwed. This was exactly what I've been afraid of, and why none of us have ventured off High Point Bluff plantation for the last two weeks.
My mind spins, seeking a solution. But there's only one thing we can do.
"Run!" I shriek, then spin around and bolt toward the car.
Cooper and Jack are way ahead of me, their long legs carrying them to the station wagon faster than my shorter ones bring me. But I'm right on their heels, sprinting like my life depends on it, because I think it actually does. Jack throws open the front passenger door, jumps in, then slams it shut. Cooper pauses, keeping his door open, watching as I approach, despite the encroaching creeper demons.
"What are you waiting for? Get in!" I yell then scramble toward the back passenger door.
He dives in and shuts it just as I reach mine. The locks click closed, refusing me access when I tug on the handle again and again. My pulse pounds as my gaze darts from the useless lever in my hand to Cooper and my brother inside.
"Unlock it!" I beat my fist on the window and cry, my frantic voice two octaves higher than normal. The creeper demons close in, blocking out the sun and casting me in oily shadows.
Cooper fumbles with the release buttons and strains to reopen his door, but no matter what he does, the locks stick tight. "Emma!" Cooper mouths but his voice is muffled through the glass. He crashes his shoulder against the door and window, but it doesn't budge.
Blood drains from my head to my feet as a cold realization sinks in. They're safe in the car, and I'm a sitting duck with a mostly useless mojo dangling from my neck.
"Are you ready to listen yet? To stop meddling where you don't belong?" Claude's voice is loud and close.
I whip around to face him, terrified but not willing to back down. He stands no more than three feet away, the demons surrounding him as if he's a general of his own spiritual army. Straightening my shoulders, I glare at him. "What part of 'I won't betray Miss Delia' do you not understand?"
Claude flashes a bright white smile. "I hoped you'd resist. So much more fun for me." He speaks in another foreign language — Latin? — then extends his arms straight in front of his body and draws his palms close together.
I don't know what this means, but I know it can't be good. My mind searches for some magic I can use to protect myself —
All at once, the creeper demons jump between his waiting hands, stacking themselves like a ghostly deck of cards. They crash together, their misty figures merging and elongating ... into the shape of a broadsword. Their form hardens until an onyx blade glints in the sunlight.
The air sucks from my lungs in a gush. He's created a sword. Out of spirits. This isn't any kind of hoodoo I've ever heard of.
With sweat trickling down the side of my head, I back away from the car, my hands up and palms facing out. "You don't have to do this."
Grinning, Claude advances, brandishing his magic weapon. "Oh, but I do." He swings his arms, slashing the air with the ghostly blade. The blade emits a high-pitched keen, as if its spirits are desperate to slice my flesh.
Continuing my retreat, my eyes dart around for something to use to defend myself — real or magical. But out here, in the middle of nowhere, there isn't much besides a whole lot of soybeans. A quick glance at the clouds tells me I could whip up a killer rainstorm or maybe even some hail, but they'll take a few minutes to conjure, and once they're here, I doubt they'd do much against a spirit sword. So all I've got left is my wits. I've got to stall him.
"So you're seriously going to kill me for hiring a lawyer for Miss Delia? Don't you think that's a little bit of overkill?" I ask.
"I'll settle for merely spilling some of your blood. For now." His lips twist with glee as he lunges at me.
I sidestep his advance, moving quick enough to miss the tip of his spear. "But she's just an old lady. Why are you so obsessed with keeping her in jail?"
Before he gets the chance to answer, a loud rumble echoes in the distance. As if hit with a frigid blast of air, Claude stiffens, then whips his head over his shoulder to see where it came from.
An old, faded blue farm truck rolls up to the crossroads on the opposite side of the street from us. But rather than turn or continue straight through the stop sign, it just sits there, as if it's waiting for something. Or watching us.
As my heartbeat rages, I squint and try to make out who's in the car, but it's too far away, and there's a glare on the front window.
Claude grumbles a curse then mutters something I can't make out. But that's fine with me. As long as he's distracted from hacking me in two, I'm good.
The truck's engine revs hard, but it idles in place.
Claude utters a few more words and, like the magic it is, the spirit sword dissipates into thin air. Then he turns his vicious, blue-lensed gaze on me. "You have been warned. Assist Miss Whittaker at your own peril." He slips a flask from his inside breast pocket, guzzles a few mouthfuls, then tucks it back into his jacket. Pivoting on the heels of his dress shoes, he strolls up the road to his Lincoln. The vintage black sedan roars to life then rolls up to the stop sign, facing the old truck that's still poised on the opposite side of the crossroads.
For a long, tense moment the two vehicles seem to stare each other down. But then the Lincoln bolts forward and veers right, its wheels screeching as it cuts around the corner. As if satisfied, the farm truck flashes its own turning signal, then rolls slowly up to the stop sign and turns in the opposite direction of Claude.
Cooper and Jack fall out of the station wagon, then race up to me.
"Are you okay?" Cooper asks, scanning me for any signs of damage. "We tried everything, but we couldn't get the door to open —"
"I know. It's okay. I'm fine." Except for the fact that my heart may actually be bruised from slamming against my rib cage.
"How'd you get him to stop?" Cooper asks.
"I didn't. It was the truck." Shock, and the realization of all that just happened, begins to set in. I reach to pull my hair up off my forehead and notice my hand is trembling faster than a leaf in a hurricane.
"Was it magic?" Jack asks.
I shake my head. "I don't know. The truck didn't do anything but sit there. But magic or not, it was enough to scare off Claude."
Jack nods. "He probably stopped because he didn't want any witnesses. What he was about to do was hard-core."
"Thank goodness he didn't have a chance. But unfortunately this ambush is going to make us late for school," Cooper says.
My heart thuds in my chest. Right. School. I'd completely forgotten it's our first day at Beaufort High. A building I've never been to before that's also unprotected from jinxes, demons, and whatever else our enemies may have waiting for us. There's no way I'm setting foot in there defenseless.
Jack sighs. "We'd better get going, then."
I shake my head. "We've got to back home first. These mojos need a few more ingredients."CHAPTER 2
My stomach squeezes as I peer at the redbrick building cloaked in creepy shadows cast by the surrounding live oaks. After surviving Claude's ambush and loading myself up with a boatload of protective charms, I shouldn't be afraid to walk into my brand-new school. But if past is prologue, I know Beaufort High could hold far worse horrors than a bunch of creeper demons.
Jack twists around in the station wagon's front passenger seat. "Em, I know you're freaked out and all, but we're already late. We've got to go inside."
Cooper catches my eye in the rearview mirror. "Your spells are going to keep us safe. Besides, we can't hide out at the Big House for the rest of our lives. We've got to be able to do something else besides visit Miss Delia in jail."
Jack's gaze softens. "I know you're not just worried about the hoodoo stuff. This doesn't have to be like our old school in D.C. It's your chance for a fresh start."
Easy for him to say. He's always been one of the popular kids, as athletic as he is smart. His easy sense of humor lets him fit in with any group. He doesn't have a clue what it's like to be invisible, or worse, intentionally ignored. And bonus, with his olive-colored skin, jet-black hair, and bright blue eyes, we're polar opposites, so he's never had to worry about being lumped in with an outcast like me.
A dark-colored bird soars high above the parking lot, then swoops low to perch on the Dumpster at the side of the building. I lean forward, squinting to get a closer look. Two weeks ago, a crow flew out of nowhere and attacked me, digging its talons into my flesh. The wound on my scalp was small and closed over after a week, but the scrape on my hand was deeper and took longer to heal. As weird and random as it is, it reminds me of all that I've survived this summer. I glance at the thin pink scar on the back of my hand that shines in the morning light.
Cooper reaches his wide, muscular hand between the front seats, drawing my attention. "If that's what you're worried about, we'll go in together. Trust me, no one will mess with you."
I pull away from his grasp. "I'll be fine."
"Okay." Hurt blooms behind his eyes, pricking my heart with a stabby pain that makes me feel like the single biggest jerkhole in the world.
I'd love to march in there on Cooper Beaumont's arm, have him walk me to my locker and then to each of my classes. With his square jaw, athletic build, and eyes that shift from green to blue depending on what he's wearing, he's the most gorgeous guy in all of South Carolina. Charming enough to disarm any mean girl who'd call me an art freak and strong enough to flatten any bully who got in his way, he's also the sole heir to a plantation, building company, and trustee of a ginormous bank account. Best of all, he loves me more than anything in the whole world. And I love him just as much.
So much that I broke up with him two weeks ago.
Excerpted from Illusion by Lea Nolan, Robin Haseltine. Copyright © 2015 Lea Nolan. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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