A Novel of the Earth Witches
“On my seventeenth birthday, my mother’s last gift to me was a vision of death—and a curse…”
Madeline Corso can’t rest until she hunts down the three unknown assailants who killed her father and witch mother. Two of them are now dead by her hand. But the third eludes her while she serves time with the Sisters of Justice—a mysterious order of female warriors with ties to her mother.
The Sisters have tracked the last murderer to Duivel, Missouri, and the dark underworld of the Barrows. But Madeline’s release is contingent on her fulfillment of a mission for the Sisters. Madeline doesn’t question them, but once in the Barrows, she discovers that things aren’t what they seem.
Can she rely on Michael, a handsome and enigmatic local businessman, to help her navigate a world of men and beasts? Or will she lose her heart before the mission is complete?
June 18—New York
Sister Eunice tossed me over her head, slammed me on my back, and planted her size-twelve, highly polished combat boot on my stomach.
I gasped for breath. She pushed harder. Acute agony spread while she mashed my guts around my spine. An evil grin split her rugged face as she stood there in her camouflage fatigues. “Oh, poor, poor little Madeline.” She laughed at me. “Got you now, you nasty little scar-faced whore.”
Sister Eunice is five-eleven and weighs two hundred and forty pounds. She has the body of a weight lifter and the attitude of pit bull. I’m five-eight and barely make one thirty. I’m strong, exceptionally strong, but it would take serious steroids to make me her physical equal.
While she flattened my intestines with one foot, she had the other firmly planted on the foam-padded floor mat. Grab her ankle and snatch her off her feet? I knew better. That was action-movie special effects. I needed more leverage. I made a tight fist and slammed it into the knee of her supporting leg.
She grunted. The knee gave only a fraction of an inch, but she shifted her weight to compensate. I caught the foot jammed on my stomach with both hands and jerked. At the same time, I twisted my body toward her. She went down.
The vinyl mat hissed as she rolled to get on her feet.
I’m faster. Blade-sharp pains shot through abused muscles. I ignored them. I leaped up, made a fist, and punched her in the kidneys just as she stood to get up. My fist hit with a solid thump. She crashed facedown on the mat. Her breath whooshed out, and before she could draw it in I caught her right arm at the wrist. I twisted the arm across her back, then stomped my foot on her left hand.
I had her. Sort of. She wore boots and camouflage fatigues. I wore a tank top, sweatpants, and thick socks. Her fingers clawed at my sock; in minutes her nails would tear through fabric. Then she’d rake the skin and flesh off my bare foot.
I couldn’t knock her unconscious despite the fact that she punched me out on such a regular basis I marked time by it. The Sisters of Justice Correctional College frowned upon lowly students—aka prisoners—beating the crap out of the faculty, even if upon incredibly rare occasions they could. Secure in authority, Sister Eunice, alpha female and consummate she-devil, lived to teach and torture her unfortunate pupils.
I’d beaten her twice. I surprised her six years ago when I first came here. Only nineteen, but I’d been in jail long enough to learn a few tricks—and I’d taken martial arts lessons from Daddy since I was six years old. The second time I beat her, last year, I used the skills she herself had taught me. She would never forgive or forget.
Laughter sounded in her ragged breathing. I hadn’t beaten her this time either. Unwilling to tear her arm out of its socket and incapacitate her, I was unable to let her go because she would pound the holy shit out of me. Shit-pounding me is Sister Eunice’s favorite hobby. Shit-pounding hurts a lot more than a boot in the guts.
“Good morning, Madeline,” said a sweet voice from behind me. “What are you going to do now, dear?” Sister Lillian. Dark-skinned, petite, and graceful, Sister Lillian taught knife fighting. She’d immediately assessed my dilemma.
“Good morning, Sister Lillian,” I said. “I’m giving serious consideration to freeing Sister Eunice and running away.”
“You won’t,” Sister Eunice said. The mat muffled her words, but she was right. I’d stopped running years ago—and I had nowhere to go that she couldn’t find me.
Lillian nodded. “Please release her, Madeline.”
I let go and jumped away.
Sister Eunice rolled, leaped to her feet, and hurtled toward me. I kicked out and planted my foot in her chest. Flesh on flesh, bone against bone. She went down, smack on her ass. She rolled to come at me again. I drew a deep breath, planted my feet, and prepared to meet her. She stopped. She remained on the mat, panting like a winded dog after a futile chase.
Amazing. I’d taken her down. Taken her out.
“Oh, my,” Sister Lillian said. “That was well done.”
Sister Lillian’s praise delighted me. “Thank you, Sister.”
“Come with me, Madeline.” She turned and I followed her, but I walked sideways to watch behind and in front of me. Sister Eunice staggered to her feet. She glared at me until I left the room. Pride filled me at the win, even though she’d make my life hell next week—and the week after. A small price to pay for such a rare and precious victory.
I changed into shoes and pulled on a jacket before I followed Sister Lillian. They kept our hair cut brutally short, so I didn’t need a brush. My hair is white as mid-January snow. That hair, my pale blue eyes, and the scar on my face isolated me long before I arrived here. Sister Eunice wasn’t the only one who called me a freak.
I didn’t ask where we were going. The Sisters had taught me the futility of questions and defiance. I’d stopped asking questions. The defiance issue remained a work in progress.
We walked the brick path through the sculptured flower gardens to the administration office. Summer approached upstate New York and brought a multitude of blooms, red, yellow, and white, offering their pretty faces to the afternoon sun. Sometimes, in my few free hours, I’d come here to lose myself in the sweet fragrance of the growing season.
The two buildings of the Sisters of Justice Correctional College could pass for weathered stone medieval castles with incredible English gardens growing between them. Ivy covered the walls in some places and green algae grew at the foundation on others. I was intimately acquainted with the algae. I spent many hours with a bucket and brushes scrubbing at the damn stuff, only to have it grow back within days, sometimes hours. The smaller building housed the Sisters’ apartments and offices and the larger building held dorms, classes, and training rooms.
“The Mother has given us a lovely spring this year,” Lillian said. She drew a deep breath of the delightful scents.
The Earth Mother—the ancient goddess of men and superior of all witches and the Sisters of Justice—ruled their lives and directed their actions. I don’t know why, but she made her presence known to only those few she’d chosen, her special servants, and let the rest of humanity rule over and destroy everything—including my life. The earth witches, the ones she dealt with most, were keepers of the world’s magic: earth magic. My mother, a skilled earth witch, loved the Earth Mother, worshipped her even—and received a brutal death as her reward.
When I first came to Justice I thought the Sisters were nuns. Maybe they are, in a bizarre way. I don’t know what they wear outside this place, but in Justice they all wear black robes—except Sister Eunice, who dresses in fatigues like a soldier. They rarely speak without imparting some factual information. Some are kind but stern teachers. A few are ill-tempered hags.
The key word, “correctional,” went by me the first week. No wall or fence surrounded the grounds, and no bars covered the windows. No one had ever escaped, though. I tried twice. Each time, two Sisters met me and hauled me back before I made it to the property line. I’d never seen more than thirty young girls here at one time. Now there were only ten. I’d been here longer than most. The Sisters came and went, too. It seemed as if Justice were a sanctuary for them, but a prison for those like me.
Sister Lillian slowed to walk beside me. I straightened, uneasy at her action. She’d broken a firm rule. Students are supposed to walk behind the Sisters. The hem of her black robe brushed the stone path, giving the illusion that she floated rather than walked like a mere mortal.
“Do you remember when you first came here, Madeline?” Her voice usually carried soft laughter, but this time a more serious note crept in.
“I remember.” How could I forget? I’d expected state prison when they put me on the transport bus, not to be dropped off at a massive country estate.
“A powerful rage burned in you.” She spoke in a softer voice.
“I’m still angry.” I always told Sister Lillian the truth. She never judged me.
“And you learned . . . ?”
“I have a right to be angry.” I knew the mantra, the lessons they had pounded into me with complete indifference to my pain. “Bad things may happen. But I can, and will, control my emotions.”
“And why do you control them?”
“Control makes me stronger.” Again, I recited the mantra. “Control permits intelligent action rather than reckless disaster.”
She gave me a wonderful smile, angelic and genuine. I had to smile back. I loved this woman. Sister Lillian laid a hand on my arm and squeezed hard. The intensity surprised me. She then brushed her hand against my cheek. “Madeline, if we could have the scar removed, we would.”
“I know, Sister.”
Her compassion warmed me, but the scar, the smooth, flat, silver streak across my cheek, was created by magic, and far beyond the skill of the finest dermatological surgeon to remove. Other than Sister Eunice’s occasional taunting, the Sisters ignored it. In the world outside of Justice, however, it had caused problems.
I hated it because it bound me to a terrible duty. In other ways, though, it was my armor, my shield. My solitary nature and the scar kept my fellow inmates at a distance. I neither wanted nor needed friends. Whatever I endured here, I endured with only occasional comfort or counsel.
In my time there, the Sisters had never broken me, but they’d come close. For the last six years they’d beaten me down and raised me up again as a deadly weapon. Even now, I don’t know why. I was twenty-six years old and the State of New York criminal justice system had given me twenty-five-to-life.
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