When we got back to Pagan's house, we once again went our separate ways. Sleep was out of the question, so I spent the rest of the afternoon holed up in Pagan's bedroom, pacing the floor, my thoughts full of terrifying images of banshees and the undead. I now regretted every scary movie I had ever watched.

I wasn't sure what Luke was up to, but at some point he pounded on the bedroom door, and when I answered, he shoved a plate and a mug into my hands. The plate held a ham and cheese sandwich and a large portion of potato salad, and the mug was full of hot chocolate. I wasn't hungry but knew I needed to eat. It would be foolish of me to face whatever challenges the night would bring on an empty stomach. I choked down the food and barely noticed the taste as I finished off the hot chocolate.

As the afternoon went on, the room became chilly, cut off from the main source of heat. I went through Pagan's closet and borrowed a heavy gray sweater. And then I began to pace again.

I walked, lost in my thoughts as shadows slid across the wood floor. Soon the room became so dark I had to switch on a light. I looked over at the clock and realized in a moment of panic that it was almost eleven o'clock at night.

I would be doing another terrifying ritual soon.

I made my way to the bathroom and splashed cold water on my face. I stared in the mirror; I could see the edges of dark bruises peeking above the sweater's high neckline. I pulled back the collar and studied my neck. Most of the soreness was fading, but dark purple and red marks still lingered at the base of my throat. I looked closer and realized they were in the shape of fingers. Luke's fingers. Marks from where his hands had encircled my neck and squeezed.

I closed my eyes and tried to quash the panic rising from the pit of my stomach. In the first ritual, he killed me. Strangled me. And now we were about to embark on the second ritual. What horrors would this trial bring? My hand moved across the surface of my neck. I flinched in pain.

Possession. Communicating with the spirits. Darla had said each ritual was worse than the last. Each one was a terror that caused her brother nightmares for months.

How bad is it going to get?

The old gypsy had warned me. She'd told me that the protection pouch would help me. Where was it? Had I brought it with me, or did I leave it back at the magic shop? I scrambled to the closet and pulled out Darla's suitcase. I rummaged through the case until my fingers brushed across velvet material. There it was, at the bottom. Relief filled my body as I pulled it out. I untied the leather wrapped several times around the top of the pouch and looped it around my neck, tying the ends together so the pouch hung down against my chest. It would protect me. I felt more at ease.

I physically jumped when the door suddenly burst open. Luke stood in the doorway, a grim expression on his face. He held up a white dress. "It's time. You need to put this on."

I stood, arching an eyebrow at the garment in his hand. "You want me to wear that?"

"Yes, you need to wear this for the ritual." His eyes went to my neck. He pointed at the pouch. "You can't wear that."

My hands wrapped protectively around it. "Why not? The gypsy gave it to me. She said it would keep me safe."

"It's blessed in a way that protects you, yes. You can still hear the spirits and communicate with them, but it gives you a layer of defense against them."

"Defense against the spirits sounds like a good idea."

"To truly communicate with the dead, you have to be wide open. You have to be vulnerable. The whole point of this next ritual is to blow all those doors that are normally closed in your mind wide open. Doors that most people want to stay closed."

I nodded, and with trembling hands, untied the pouch and let it drop to the bed.

Luke looked at me, his expression full of regret. "I'm sorry. You know this isn't easy for either one of us. I understand if you've changed your mind."

I couldn't back out now that I was aware of the spirits but unable to control them. Spending the rest of my life at their mercy was not an option.

I held out my hand. "I haven't. Let's get this over with."

He handed me the dress. "I'll be in the living room. Everything is just about ready."

"I won't take long. I'll be out soon. And Luke"—I straightened my shoulders and met his gaze square on—"I'm ready, I truly am. I'm ready for whatever comes next."

He jerked his chin down in semblance of a nod and left.

I stood, staring at the closed door. I am ready.

          But was I really?  

****


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