The Aria Knight Chronicles Book 1
By Alesha Escobar and Samantha Lafantasie
Genre: Fantasy, Paranormal
Aria Knight has an unusual set of skills: she will hold back the hounds of Hell so you can fly toward the Pearly Gates, and she will wipe your slate clean so that you don’t become karma’s bitch…for a price.
A Sin Eater has to make a living in today’s world somehow. But when she’s called in the dead of night to perform her rite for a recluse billionaire, she stumbles upon a murder scene, and the evidence points to her. In an attempt to clear her name and uncover the true culprit, Aria is forced to team up with a private investigator who’s possessed by three spirits, and a handsome wizard who would rather see all Sin Eaters like Aria go extinct. Aria knows her job is never easy, but now it’s become downright deadly. SIN EATER is the first book of the Aria Knight Chronicles by USA Today bestselling author Samantha LaFantasie and Alesha Escobar, author of the bestselling Gray Tower Trilogy.
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Aria would die tonight.
If Hessa didn’t unlock her damn door and let her in, that would certainly be the case. Aria’s back stiffened when she heard the faint but distinctive howls from the Hounds of Hell. Their shrieks always struck her as a cross between wolves wailing at the moon and jackals whining into the night.
Hessa finally opened the door and stood at the threshold, sizing her up and taking a long drag from her cigarette. A tear, mingled with ruined mascara, trailed down her cheek. “Thanks for coming, Aria. This was the last thing Mom asked for, so…”
“I understand. May I come in?” Aria nearly knocked her over trying to slip inside. The howling grew louder. They were down the street, and Aria’s time was running out.
“Yeah.” Hessa rolled her eyes at Aria’s terse attitude, but she’d do the same if she could hear what came their way.
“You should place a ward around the house.” Aria speed-walked down the hall.
“Okay…” Hessa’s voice trailed off.
She wished she had been called sooner. If the hellhounds made it to the dead woman before she did, then she’d have to watch them tear the old woman’s soul to shreds before dragging her off to the abyss.
Aria wrinkled her nose at the smell of wet fur and garbage. A small dog somewhere in the house barked a few times. As if drawn like a magnet to metal, she guided herself to the last room, toward the deceased. A short, white-haired woman in a long-sleeved gown lay in repose on a bed. Her arms were crossed just below her chest, with her hands meeting in a clasp.
Aria’s lips pressed into a thin line. She didn’t have time for this. She had told Hessa over the phone not to move or position the body. She quickly took the dead woman’s right hand and extended it, placing it to her right side. She did the same for the left hand, so that nothing sat on or near the deceased’s chest. She felt the moment Hessa cast her warding spell around the house. It felt like a stab of tension in her chest, the same type people felt when walking downstairs and missing a step.
“What was her name?” Aria asked, when Hessa joined her in the back room. She needed to know this in case she needed to grab the spirit’s attention.
“Beautiful name. Do you have the bread?” Aria grabbed a rickety stool from the left corner of the room and brought it over. She sat down next to the bed. The hellhounds circled the house, probably salivating over their prey. Aria could hear their gleeful snarls at the prospect of devouring another soul. If she weren’t careful, they would tear into her as well. It wasn’t unheard of for them to go after sin eaters.
Hessa jabbed her cigarette into an ashtray on the nightstand and then unraveled a fresh-baked loaf of bread. Steam rose from the bread, and Hessa used the towel that was covering the small loaf to protect her hands as she transferred it to her mother’s chest.
As a sign of respect, and also as a way to mark the beginning of the Final Rite, Aria inclined her head in a slight bow, mentally offering up an ancient prayer of blessing. She was the very last call, the end of the line for many. Probably in some ancient desert Monastery or buried in the Vatican archives, there was a dusty old manuscript with a footnote, speaking of the loophole offered by sin eaters. Most would ask for her if they couldn’t reach a priest, or as extra “insurance” after receiving Anointing of the Sick.
Aria raised her right hand, palm facing forward, revealing the birthmark that identified her as a sin eater. She lowered her hand, but kept it suspended in mid-air just above the bread. She already felt the pulsating power of the S-shaped mark on her hand that begged to let the flame emerge. It happened whenever she began a sin eating ritual, and the first time her birthmark erupted into a large flame, she fell on her ass and tried to smother it with a handkerchief. Not exactly a move that would instill confidence in a client entrusting their loved one’s soul to her.
The flame meant there were sins that needed to be ripped away from a penitent Lora and passed on to Aria instead. Lora’s soul would be free to throw off any shackles burdening her and find peace, and Aria would know that she helped guide someone to paradise. There were also the perks of increased longevity for Aria, youthful appearance, and extra cash. Witching families paid well for this gig.
“Once I begin,” Aria said, watching the flame on her palm subside, “don’t interrupt the process.” She decided not to mention that hellhounds would make their way in within the next few minutes, seeking Lora’s soul.
Aria turned her attention toward the bread resting on Lora’s chest. She reached over with her right hand and took the small loaf, biting off a large piece and chewing it. The bread was plain and slightly salty, but what really made an impression on Aria was the rush of mystical energy that filled her from head to toe. All of her physical senses were amplified in that moment. The lights in the room looked brighter, the color of Hessa’s green dress and auburn hair were more vibrant, and the scent of wet fur and garbage returned with a vengeance.
And so did the howls of the hellhounds.
Aria almost felt buzzed by the sensations, but she had been sin eating for a long time, so she knew when to shove them aside and get to work. She motioned toward the nightstand. “The wine, or beer, please.”
Hessa blinked a few times in astonishment, probably wondering if her mother’s final request was some elaborate practical joke. With a little hesitance, she leaned over and grabbed a cup. She handed it to Aria and backed away, conveniently close enough to the door just in case she didn’t like what would happen.
Aria held the cup with a steady hand just above Lora’s chest. Inclining her head in a gesture of respect once more, she brought the rim of the cup to her lips and drank.
The beer traveled down her throat; it was cool and spritzy, with a surprising richness in body and a malty flavor. Now Aria’s spiritual senses were heightened. A burst of light temporarily blinded her, and when her view came back into focus, she saw Lora’s soul standing next to Hessa. Silver speckles of light adorned the elderly woman’s white hair, and her face appeared thirty years younger than that of her corpse. Aria grinned when she saw that Lora chose to wear a yellow evening gown reminiscent of the starlets of Old Hollywood.
Lora made a sweeping gesture with her hand, showing off her lean frame. “If I have to go, why not in style?”
“Agreed.” Aria took a final swig from the cup and placed it aside.
Hessa raised an eyebrow, and her gaze went from Aria and then across from her, where from her perspective, she was talking to an invisible person. “Aria? Is it working?”
“Shhh.” Aria kept her gaze on Lora. The entire room quivered as the hellhounds broke through Hessa’s protective ward, but only Aria felt it.
Barking erupted in the hallway, but this wasn’t the yapping of the little dogs in the house. Hessa couldn’t hear it, but Lora and Aria did. Lora’s expression fell, and she floated across the room, through her bed and body, and stood next to Aria.
“I’ll make it, won’t I? I know I’ve done some things terribly wrong in my life, but I’m a believer. Would’ve told Hessa to fetch the Padre, if my lungs hadn’t given out on me, but she knew that I also wanted her to call for one of you when it was my time to go.”
Aria stood and placed her hand on Lora’s shoulder. After imbibing beer or wine in her ritual, she could see, hear, and touch souls. “Of course. I won’t let anything bad happen to you.”
“Shit.” Hessa chuckled as she slipped another cigarette into her mouth and lit it with a snap of her finger. “If I’m forking over five hundred big ones for a dramatic act, I’m gonna be pissed.”
A gray portal that looked like a whirlpool of storm clouds appeared right behind Hessa. Lora stepped behind Aria, grasping her shoulders with trembling hands.
“Please, don’t let them get me!”
Aria cleared her throat. “Hessa, you might want to step aside.”
The other woman turned around, and upon seeing nothing out of the ordinary behind her, faced Aria and shrugged. “Okay, are you for real?”
“Too late.” Aria raised her right hand, letting her birthmark bring forth the flame that had ignited earlier.
In an instant, two hellhounds burst through the portal and passed straight through Hessa. She went rigid and let out a shriek. The cigarette fell out of her mouth and onto the floor.
“Oh my God! What was that? What just happened?” Hessa frantically patted her chest and torso. When smoke began rising from the floor, she screamed again and grabbed a nearby towel which she used to smother the flames from the carpet where the cigarette fell.
Aria ignored Hessa’s plea to stop the ritual. She wouldn’t, and she couldn’t. Besides the fact that she promised to help Lora, she now had to deal with two large, black, salivating hellhounds bent on dragging Lora’s soul away.
Their red eyes glowed with malice as they circled Aria and Lora. They had come for souls many times, and most of those times, sin eaters like Aria had repelled them. She swore to herself that tonight would be another victory.
As if reading her thoughts, the hounds unleashed deafening barks that echoed throughout the room. Hessa couldn’t hear them, but she did gag at the pungent odor that filled the bedroom. Aria wanted to vomit in response to the smell, but she quelled the unease in her stomach and swept her flaming right hand in an arc. A fiery circle enclosed itself around Aria and Lora.
“This penitent is under my protection,” Aria said in a clear voice. “She will pass on to the light, and I will bear the darkness.”
One of the hellhounds blew an ice-cold breeze toward the fiery circle, while the other opened its mouth and made a sucking motion. Lora squealed when an invisible force lifted her and started pulling her toward the hellhound.
Aria grabbed hold of Lora. “Uh, I don’t want to rush your spiritual enlightenment, but now’s a good time to let go of those vices.” She doubted Lora wanted to be swept away because she kept the flaws that had entrenched themselves in the depths of her being.
Lora gritted her teeth. The icy wind whipped her white hair in different directions. “I…don’t know if I can!”
No shit. This wasn’t like giving up ice cream or chocolate for Lent. If Lora couldn’t, or rather wouldn’t, peel away the slivers of corruption that still clung to her, then the hellhounds would claim their right to her and clamp down with their hungry mouths and drag her away.
“Lora, whatever’s in there trying to stick around, don’t give in to the idea that you can’t defeat it. We’re weak, yes, but you know what’s stronger?”
Lora looked over at Hessa, her daughter, and her expression of fear softened. The old woman’s grey-blue eyes shined, and a sense of confidence took hold of her. She turned and met Aria’s gaze. “Love. True Love’s light.”
Aria used her flaming hand to brand the “S” symbol, the same as her birthmark, onto Lora’s forehead. In that moment, they were bound together, and small black specks, the remaining sins and darkness in Lora, floated out of her and went straight into Aria. The old woman had finally let go of what held her down.
The hellhounds let out disappointed howls. They backed away with indignant whines. With a few threatening snarls, they turned and jumped back into the gray portal and disappeared. Once the portal faded, Aria released Lora from her grasp. The elderly woman slowly faded, but she wore a grateful smile. She was finally moving on to her next journey–sans the hellhounds.
“Thank you, my dear,” Lora said right before she completely disappeared.
Aria nodded in response. Her throat was on fire and her hands felt numb.
“Can I come in now?” Hessa’s voice carried from just outside the room.
Aria rolled her eyes and sighed. “Yes. It’s done.”
Hessa stumbled back into the room, trying to hide her shaking hands by smoothing her green dress, which had now lost its vibrancy. She placed her hand over her heart and eyed her mother’s body. “Whatever passed through me,” she said, taking in a deep breath, “it was horrible. But I felt Mom’s presence, and I just knew she was here.”
“She was, and now she’s moved on. She’s fine now.”
Seeing Hessa’s affection for her mother ignited a twinge of jealousy in Aria. She wished she had something like that with her mother, but the woman gave her up when she was just a baby. She had been told that her father, whoever he was, had passed away before she was born. She had always wondered if her mother, a witch named Clare, didn’t want her because she was born with the mark of the sin eater, or, if there was more to the story.
Hessa shook her head, still in disbelief at what she just experienced. She reached into her ample cleavage and pulled out a wad of cash. “I felt Mom right next to me, I swear it. I guess you earned this, honey.”
Ew. Sweaty boob cash. Aria pinched the roll of money and slipped it into her leather jacket pocket. “Thanks. You can call and have the body picked up now.”
She nodded. “Will you do me when I die?”
“Yes, good night, Hessa.” She acquired most of her clients through word of mouth or by them sitting through a sin eating ritual as a witness. Most of the world had forgotten that her kind even existed.
She left the room and headed down the hallway, but paused when the other woman called out to her. “Does it hurt when you do that?”
Aria turned and shook her head, her long, dark, wavy hair moving back and forth. “Does it hurt when you do your type of magic?”
Hessa’s eyebrows rose together in an expression that told Aria that she understood. “But, how come there aren’t more like you?”
Aria shrugged and gave a confused look, though in truth, she’d known the answer for over sixty years. Most of her kind had decided that they would rather die than go on absorbing the sins of a mankind that thought throwing innocent people into death camps was a good idea, or slaughtering innocents by the millions was acceptable. There were a few hundred sin eaters in the world, and only a handful left in the United States. She was the only one she knew of in Miracle Falls, California.
“Goodnight,” she said again with a little more agitation in her voice. The Final Rite had exhausted her, and the last thing she wanted to do was recall memories of the 1940’s.
As she went down the steps of the front porch and headed toward her car, she slipped her hands into her leather jacket pocket. A biting chill hung in the November air, but what caused a tremor in her fingers and her body to shudder was the effect of the ritual. It tired her out, making her feel like an athlete who had just passed her peak and was about to head downhill. She knew of only one solution to that.
She shoved those thoughts aside and concentrated on what she could attain immediately. She wanted a big ass glass of wine. She needed her nice, warm bed. And then, she needed to magically be prepared in the morning to serve as nanny to a mind-reading ten year old, and her awkward older brother who probably knew more about human history and magic than most scholars in the world.
Curses were a funny thing.
They were like a chronic disease that just kept agitating you, breaking you down until it finally destroyed you. Truth be told, Harry would’ve preferred a quick death that night when he fought the wizard, Warren Bright. Instead of snapping his neck, the twisted bastard blasted him with an eerie force that seeped into his clothes, skin, and mind. Imperare, was what it’s called. To Harry, it was sheer hell.
Harry’s hands twitched as he let go of his steering wheel. He pulled his key out of the ignition and threw on his jacket. His stomach churned as he felt the familiar throb in his ears and as his eyesight blurred.
Not yet, he thought. I’m already here.
He got out and locked the door to his black ’77 Maverick. He didn’t like being out so late at night in this part of the city, but when the choice was between running into a few gang members and the occasional wino, versus loosing his damn mind and going on a killing spree, he’d gladly take his chances with the thugs. If he was lucky, maybe they’d put a bullet through his head.
He intentionally parked under the only available lamp light in the parking lot. He briskly made his way past the few cars occupying spaces, finding an odd solace in the gravel crunching beneath his feet. It made him feel like he was still in control of his body and mind, that he still had a physical connection to this world.
“You got an extra dollar, Harry?” Chad sat against the side of the building the parking lot was attached to. He probably hung out on this side instead of near the front because Mayra threatened to cure his alcoholism with an alchemical potion.
Harry’s hands trembled. Shit. He didn’t have time for this. “Not now, Chad. I’ve gotta see Mayra before she closes the shop.”
Chad flipped him off, his scraggly beard reeked of liquor and un-brushed teeth. “Harry…it’s only a buck! Come on!”
“Shut up, Chad.” He turned the corner and stepped onto the sidewalk, ignoring Chad’s insult that he was a selfish bastard.
He approached the front door of Gaia’s Apothecary and hammered on the door with a tight fist. The throbbing in his ears drowned out the sound of traffic from passing cars and the barking of a few dogs. He prayed Mayra had his potion ready. His nerves calmed a little when he saw the petite blonde woman approach and unlock the door. She flashed him a half-smile and ushered him in.
“I’ve got it ready for you, Harry. Don’t worry.”
He sighed. Good old Mayra. He could always count on her. Maybe if he found Warren, the wizard who cursed him, and forced him to undo it, he’d ask her out for coffee.
Mmmm…coffee sounds nice, a feminine voice purred in his head.
“Mayra, I can hear them! Give me the potion, now!” If he let it progress past this stage, the three spirits who swooped in and possessed him would overtake his will and assume command.
Coffee always gave me jitters and kept me up at night, a nerdy ass male voice commented.
Mayra nearly tripped as she scrambled to her counter and grabbed a small amber bottle with “Harry Storm” written on its white label.
“Stop talking, you hear me? All of you!” He snatched the bottle from Mayra.
You know what I want to do? a third voice, darker and deeper than the other two, asked.
“No!” Harry poured the contents of the bottle down his throat as if it were the elixir of life. He shut his eyes and gripped the bottle so tightly that his knuckles turned white. His entire body grew rigid, tensing up as if expecting a devastating blow.
Instead, the soft hand and lavender scent of Mayra’s perfume made contact with him and ignited his senses. His senses. He was still in control. The spirits did not overtake him.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I made you an extra bottle, in case of an emergency.”
Harry regained his composure, nodding slowly. “Thanks.”
She went back over behind her counter and grabbed an extra amber bottle from what must have been over a hundred filled potions. They were neatly organized on shelves by bottle color and size. She slipped the extra bottle into a paper bag, folded the top, and handed it to Harry with a worried expression.
“You should’ve come yesterday, Harry. If you push it this far again…”
He took out a wad of cash and offered it to her. Her touch lingered just a few seconds longer than usual as she took the money. She slipped it into her pocket.
“I’ll be okay, Mayra. Some snob hired me to keep tabs on the mayor’s chief of staff.”
“And?” She raised an eyebrow. When she wanted to, she could be intimidating. All five feet of her.
He shrugged. “I’ll follow the guy around, take some pictures, probably catch him with a whore…look, the point is, I’ll make enough money to buy some information. The right information I need to find Warren Bright.”
“Just be careful, Harry. And please, be here next Wednesday. Not Thursday.”
“I will. I have no choice.” He gave her a slight nod before turning on his heel and heading toward the exit. He breathed in the lavender scent of her perfume and glanced around the shop one last time, wondering if any of the medicines or potions could help lift the curse for good, and not just stave off its effects for a week.
He headed back outside to the parking lot, finally pausing to give Chad his weekly dollar. He knew the man would probably go buy wine, or something worse, if that was what he was into. He liked to think Chad maybe took it sometimes and got something off the dollar menu at a fast food joint. He bet it pissed these guys off that people didn’t think of giving a few extra cents to cover tax.
As he jumped into his Ford Maverick and started the engine, all he could think about was starting his new assignment. Make the money. Buy the information I want. Find Warren Bright. Rain hell down on him until he lifts the curse.
He’d work out the kinks and details as they came along, but it was as good a plan as any.
About the Author
I’m a caffeine addict and chocoholic who enjoys reading and writing engaging stories, loveable (and not-so loveable) characters, and expressing my creativity daily. I write fantasy with intriguing characters, action-packed scenes, and always throw in a good dash of humor and romance.
Science Fiction and Fantasy are my favorite genres, but I also adore the classics (Shakespeare, Dante Alighieri, etc.) and I have a soft spot in my heart for Victorian poetry. You can geek out with me all-day every day over these
Some of my favorite contemporary fantasy authors are George R.R. Martin, Robert Jordan (rest in peace), J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Jim Butcher (Dresden Files made me love Urban Fantasy), and Ilona Andrews among others. I enjoy movies and shows like Sleepy Hollow, Supernatural, Arrow, The Flash, The Avengers…there are too many to name!
I want to read more comics and graphic novels, please shoot a recommendation or two my way (I LOVE the Hellblazer comics, by the way).
Please don’t be a stranger–I want you to kick up your feet, sip your coffee (or tea) and join in on my weekly rants, discussions, and updates.
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