Black Friday is here and we’re discussing the season with Sabrina Benulis’s Nina Annabelle Willis from Archon.
Angels and demons do battle for a girl possessed by the spirit of a powerful, dead angel in this fabulous paranormal debut by Sabrina Benulis. Archon is the first of the Books of Raziel, a truly fantastic and very hip new take on heaven’s warriors that readers of the angelic novels of Danielle Trussoni, Lauren Kate, Becca Fitzpatrick, and Alexandra Adornetto are sure to adore. Archon is new wave urban fantasy, a tale of the supernatural that brilliantly blends passion, obsession, horror, and suspense in a way that will appeal to dark fantasy fans and paranormal romance readers equally. Sabrina Benulis’s angels are creepy, sexy, and totally awesome—and, like Anne Rice’s amoral, ambiguous, and addicting vampires, they will seduce and terrify you at the same time.
Shopping and Stars
If our island suffers from fog and rain most of the year, in the winter it at least has candles dotting every window, turning each and every rickety building into a glowing star. I’ve always loved the tinsel, the imported pine garland, the heavy red velvet bows and foil-wrapped chocolates. What I do not love is the shopping. The reasons for this are very many, but I have to say–I can’t stand lines.
My name is Nina Annabelle Willis.
A freshman at the Vatican’s super-prestigious West Wood Academy in Luz, I’m also what you might call a social misfit. People should look their best heading into town for holiday shopping. Well, even on my best days I tend to look rather scruffy.
It’s all the dreams. They tire me out night after night, yet I’m still forced to listen to the dead who walk in and out of my awareness just like the ghosts they are. After that it’s hard to avoid bloodshot eyes or roll out of bed awake enough to comb my hair. Ordinarily, I ignore the ghosts if I can. But for at least a week there had been a young girl rather insistent on being noticed. She must have died in her sleep. There wasn’t a mark on her astral body to signify otherwise.
Very, very early this morning I’d turned over in bed to face her at last, my dream eyes focusing on her bluish form. She was wearing a dress with old-fashioned ruffles at the hem.
“What is it?” I’d said with a sigh.
The girl brightened at my attention. “Finally! Um,” she was suddenly shy, “I–I need a star.”
I blinked back at her and then plopped back into my pillow. “Sorry, I can’t help you there, kiddo.”
“No, no, a Christmas star,” she said peevishly.
“I still don’t think I’ll be much help,” I said into the dream pillow, my voice muffled.
She came up beside me and tapped my shoulders. Tapped and tapped like a blue woodpecker.
“Stop that!” I batted her away.
“Please,” she was whining, “I can’t go on to the Netherworld if you don’t help. Just go to a store and find a star for me. Then leave it here.”
“Fine,” I whispered, still facing away from her. “But once I do, for God’s sake let me sleep.”
The tapping ceased and I awakened, this time to my real bed and my real dormitory room, and a window glossed over by chill winter rain. Groggily as ever, I puttered out of bed and toward my closet, slapping on an old blouse and a wool skirt, barely running the comb through my hair before I stomped out of the room, down the drafty hallway, and out of the dormitory mansion into the streets. This would be quick, no hassle, no lines. The morning had barely started, and with time to spare I could run back to the dorm and spend the rest of my weekend asleep.
And it takes this moment, as I stand at the corner of a busy street, for me to realize my huge mistake.
Oh, I’ve completely forgotten what day it is.
Granted, I’d slept through Thanksgiving dinner. Now, the busiest shopping day of the year finds me in the thick of too many people, most of them Academy students milling around with fur muffs and red or green baskets. The rain continues on in torrents, but nobody really cares amid the bustle, candlelight, and pastry-sweet scents.
Moving in direct opposition to pedestrian traffic, I head for a cobblestone-faced shop with a sign advertising ‘Curiosities.’ There is no line, and I find myself attracted to that immediately.
People curse as I bump into them.
“Yeah, yeah, Merry Christmas to you too,” I mumble under my breath.
When I finally reach the door, I yank it open and throw myself inside, jumping slightly as it crashes shut behind me. I stand there for a while, drinking in the close darkness of a room overflowing with clutter. There are coat racks strung with loop after loop of heavy beads, volumes of books with worn leather covers stacked in corners, old metal birdcages, chipped vases, Vatican jewelry behind a glass case, and even real stuffed animals, some that I don’t even recognize.
Across from me is an enormous mirror with a huge crack around the frame.
I stare into it, frowning slightly at my frazzled hair and the heavy circles under my eyes.
“Can I help you?” a rich but scratchy voice says.
There is a woman standing behind me with a cigarette in her hand, the rest of her body disguised behind a shawl. Her hair is red–an infamous color in Luz.
“Ah, Nina Willis,” she says sweetly. “I thought you might come here, my dear.”
“You knew I was coming here?”
“I saw you . . . from the window,” she adds, her eyes strange and intense. “I’m Mother Cassel and this is my Curiosity Shop. Welcome. You’ll find what you’re looking for right over there on that table.” And she gestures at a round little side-table covered in glittering junk. “Isn’t that wonderful? No lines, no hassle. We have everything and anything here. I always make sure my customers are happy.”
I walk over to the table pointed out to me, and I rifle through layers of old jewelry.
Like a miracle, I pull it up out of the pile: a silver chain with a large star pendant.
Arching an eyebrow, I scan Mother Cassel up and down suspiciously. It isn’t until I notice that defining tiredness in her eyes that it all blurts out of me at once. “You’re a psychic–a fortune teller.”
“As are you,” she whispers, taking a drag from her cigarette. “Going to tattle on me to the priests, dear?”
“What do you want for this star?” I say, tossing it at her, ignoring her question.
She catches the necklace with one hand, smiling. “You know, Nina, this necklace once belonged to someone in my family. Let’s just say that your payment will be doing what I cannot, and returning it to its rightful owner. I can ‘see’ but not ‘communicate’ with them. Understand? I’ve been waiting a while for someone like you . . .”
I nodded. She could see the dead, but not interact.
“Did you send her to me? The little girl?” I ask.
“Tell her,” she whispers, “that big sissie says Merry Christmas.”
She tosses the star back to me and waltzes away behind the same curtain she’d pushed aside to enter. My nose is stuffy from the smell of incense, not to mention years’ worth of dust. Without calling her back I walk to the door and leave the shop, stepping back onto a street that is now just damp and cold. The rain has stopped, and I whistle cheerily as I brush past the crowds, halting only to buy a chocolate cookie from a street vendor.
I don’t like being in crowds like these, but perhaps I can’t complain. Christmas means more than fighting lines of shoppers, after all.
I brush back my wet hair.
There are times when you’ll make yourself uncomfortable for that perfect gift.
When I at last arrive back at my dormitory, I tromp upstairs and kick off my muddy boots, husk off my clothes and toss on a nightshirt before slipping back into my warm bed. The sun is hidden behind gray clouds, but like a fire wrapped up in a blanket. Somehow, winter’s dark sky can be so comforting. Then, with a sudden shout of frustration at my own forgetfulness, I unclasp the chain from around my neck and set the Christmas star down on my end table.
The candle flames flicker as I shift back into sleep.
She is there waiting for me as I enter my dream world, bluish but smiling happily.
Already her hands clasp the star pendant to her heart. “I knew it! I knew you’d help me! Thank you!” The little girl leans in close, her ghostly curls drooping over her forehead. “Did she say anything?”
“Merry Christmas,” I answer her briskly.
But despite how tired I am, there’s my very warm and spreading smile.
Meet Sabrina Benulis!
Sabrina Benulis lives in Pennsylvania with a small family consisting of a husband and a tomboy cockatiel. Most of her time is spent either writing, or thinking of what to write next, but if she has the spare time you can find her shopping, watching anime, or playing an old-school video game. Archon, the first installment of a trilogy called The Books of Raziel, is her debut novel.