Kingdom of the Wicked

By: Kerri Maniscalco

Prologue



Outside, wind rattled the wooden chimes in warning. In the distance, waves crashed against the shore; the frantic whispers of water growing louder as if the sea was a mage summoning violence. On this date—for nearly a decade now—the storm followed the same pattern. Next, thunder would roll in quicker than the tide with lightning cracking electric whips across an unforgiving sky. The devil demanded retribution. A blood sacrifice for power stolen.

It wasn’t the first time he’d be cursed by witches, nor would it be the last.

From her rocking chair near the fire, Nonna Maria monitored the twins while they chanted protection charms she’d taught them, a cornicello clutched tightly in each of their little fists. Pushing the howling gusts from her mind, she listened closely to the words Vittoria and Emilia whispered over the horn-shaped amulets, their matching dark heads bent in concentration.

“By earth, moon, and stone, bless this hearth, bless this home.”

It was the start of their eighth year and Nonna tried not to worry over how quickly they were growing. She pulled her shawl closer, unable to ward off chills in the small kitchen. It had little to do with the temperature outside. As much as she tried ignoring it, sulfur snuck in through the cracks along with the familiar plumeria-and-orange-scented breeze, raising the graying hair she’d swept up from her neck. Had she been alive, her own human grandmother would have called it an omen and spent the evening on her knees in the cathedral, rosary clutched close, praying to saints.

The devil was on the prowl. Or one of his wicked brothers was.

A sliver of worry slid in as quick and smooth as one of her paring knives, lodging itself near Nonna’s heart. It had been an age since the last sighting of the Malvagi. Hardly anyone spoke of the Wicked anymore, except in stories told to frighten children into staying in their beds at night.

Now adults laughed at the old folktales, all but forgetting the seven ruling princes of Hell. Nonna Maria never would; their legends were burned into her mind, branding her with a bone-deep sense of dread. The area between her shoulders prickled as if their midnight eyes were upon her, watching from the shadows. It was only a matter of time before they came looking.

If they hadn’t begun to already. One didn’t steal from the devil and go unpunished.

Her focus darted back to the twins. Like the churning Tyrrhenian Sea, there was a restlessness about them tonight. One that spoke of unseen trouble to come. Vittoria’s charms were rushed and Emilia stumbled over hers, trying to keep up.

A twig popped in the fire, quickly followed by another. The sound like wishbones snapping over their spell books; a warning in its own right. Nonna gripped the arms of her rocking chair, her knuckles turning the color of the blanched almonds lying on the counter.

“Calmati! Not so fast, Vittoria,” she scolded. “You’ll have to begin again if you don’t do it correctly. Do you want to gather grave dirt alone in the dark?”

Much to Nonna’s dismay, Vittoria didn’t appear as frightened as she should have. The thought of wandering around a graveyard under the light of a full moon and an angry storm seemed appealing to the child. She pursed her lips before offering a slight shake of her head.

It was Emilia who answered, though, giving her sister a warning look. “We’ll be more careful, Nonna.”

To prove her point, Emilia held up the vial of holy water they’d gotten from the monastery and tipped it over their amulets, allowing one drop to sizzle over each. Silver and gold. An offering of balance between light and dark. A gift for what had been stolen all those years ago.

As above, so below.

Pacified, Nonna watched as they finished their charm, relieved when white sparks rose in the flames before burning red again. Another year, another victory. They’d tricked the devil once more. Eventually there’d come a day when the charms wouldn’t work, but Nonna refused to think of that now. She glanced at the windowsill, pleased by the dried orange slices laid out in even rows.

Lavender sprigs hung to dry over the mantel, and the tiny stone island was covered with both flour and fragrant herbs waiting to be tied into neat bunches. Verbena, basil, oregano, parsley, and bay leaves. The scents mingled pleasantly. Some were for their celebratory dinner, and others for their charms. Now that the protection ritual was done, they might enjoy their meal.

Nonna looked at the clock on the mantel; her daughter and son-in-law would arrive from the family restaurant soon, bringing with them laughter and warmth.

Storms and omens or not, all would be well in the di Carlo home.

The flames settled and Emilia sat back, biting her nails. A nasty habit Nonna was determined to break. The child spit a nail clipping out and went to toss it on the floor.