Aurora shot upright in bed. The dark suffocated her, tight as a fist strangling her throat. The crushing sensation felt so real that Aurora clawed at her neck, certain she would pry away hands and that sweet air would fill her lungs.
Nothing. Just the sting on her neck from the bite of her nails. The darkness threatened to swallow her whole, sucking her back into the cold nothing of her prison.
As her consciousness faded, a yellow light gleamed in the distance. She clung to it, trying to tie her soul to the light that promised escape. If she could just hold onto it long enough...
Slowly, the lights grew larger. The gleam coalesced into two distinct points. Cat’s eyes.
Air rushed back into her lungs, cold and life affirming. Aurora drew her own magic into her, then flung it outward in a burst of light that illuminated the room.
“Mouse.” She reached out to the black cat whose golden eyes had pulled her back from the brink.
Her familiar launched herself at her chest and she gripped the warm body close, sinking her fingers into soft fur and focusing only on her cat. Mouse had been her comfort during those long years in the aether prison and still was, now that they were free.
“I am a badass,” she said to herself, her voice shaking only slightly. Just a nightmare.
Mouse meowed an agreement. Aurora repeated the mantra and tried to ignore how silly it made her feel. By the time the cold sweat had dried on her skin, she felt steady enough to stop.
Then the phone rang. She jumped so hard that Mouse leapt out of her arms and bounded across the bed, a sleek blur of black across the teal comforter.
“Damn it.” Aurora dragged a shaking hand through her hair and sucked in a deep breath. She wasn’t used to the harsh, unnatural tones of the phone. “Get it together, idiot.”
She leaned across the bed and grabbed the sleek little phone off the bedside table. Esha’s name flashed on the screen. It still amazed her that this little device allowed her to talk to anyone at any time. It rivaled her own magic.
“Hey, sis.” Aurora tried to banish any shakiness from her voice.
“Why the hell did you try to sleep with the lights off?” her sister demanded.
Aurora scowled. Esha must have seen the magical light in Aurora’s tower window.
An irritated meow echoed in the background on the other end of the line. Must be Chairman Meow. Her sister’s familiar would feel Esha’s irritation, as Esha felt Aurora’s own fear of the dark.
Because that’s all it was. Pathetic fear of the dark. It spurred the nightmares. Aurora flopped back on the bed, the phone gripped tightly in her fist.
“Did I wake you up?” Aurora asked.
“Of course you did. Felt like you were having a heart attack.”
“Good description.” Since she’d met her sister a year ago after escaping the aether prison, Aurora had begun to feel a hint of Esha’s strongest emotions and vice versa.
“Don’t dodge the question,” Esha said. “Why the hell are you suddenly an idiot? Sleep with the lights on, moron.”
At least Esha remembered she hated being handled with kid gloves. “Got a reputation to maintain. Can’t have everyone thinking I’m a wimp who leaves her lights on all the time.”
Aurora didn’t care if the rest of the residents of her new home at the Immortal University liked her, but she sure as hell wanted them to stay afraid of her. She and her sister Esha were soulceresses, a type of witch who could manifest her every desire. The only catch? She had to steal power from other Mytheans to fuel her magic. Her own soul couldn’t absorb magic from the aether, so she had to take power from Mytheans whose souls could.
They kind of hated that.
For centuries, they’d hunted soulceresses. Things were different now—more civilized—but Aurora still liked to use fear to keep them from even thinking of attacking her.
“Did you call just to see how I was?” Aurora appreciated it, but didn’t like the reminder of how different she was now from the woman she’d once been. Three hundred years alone in prison would do that to a girl. Before, Esha would never have needed to worry about her mental state.
I’m out. I’m free. She repeated the mantra in her mind. I’m out. I’m free.
“Yes,” Esha said. “But if you’re awake and don’t think you can sleep, there’s something I have to talk to you about. I was going to wait ’til morning, but if you want a distraction...”
Aurora jumped at it. “Yes.”
“You might not like it. But then, you don’t really have a choice.”
Aurora frowned for a second. Whatever it was, it was better than where she’d been. If it didn’t take Esha or her freedom away from her, whatever her sister had to tell her was no big deal.
“You’re not going to tell me I need therapy again, are you?” Aurora asked.
“No. You know I think you have PTSD, just like I know you won’t do anything about it.”
Duh. Aurora had only lived in modern time for a year. The last time she’d been a free woman, it’d been 1705. Therapists and post-traumatic stress whatever did not exist back then. She wasn’t going to start worrying about them now, no matter how a little darkness made her feel.
“So what did you want to talk to me about?” Aurora asked.
“Can I come over?”
“Sure.” Aurora hung up the phone and reverently placed the little device back on her bedside table. When she’d been rotting away in prison, she’d never imagined such a device. Hell, she’d never imagined indoor plumbing.
Now she lived amongst such amazing inventions.
Aurora climbed out of bed and threw on a silky robe. Over the year since her escape from prison, she’d been quick to adopt every convenience and luxury she could get her hands on. Mouse had done the same.
The cat looked at her with gleaming yellow eyes and meowed.
Food. No question. Mouse wanted her to open a specialty can of tuna. She’d been insatiable ever since they’d left the aether prison. Mouse didn’t need to eat to survive—familiars weren’t real cats—but she sure did enjoy it.
Her familiar’s sleek black fur glinted in the light of the magic Aurora had used to illuminate the bedroom. She flicked the light switch, then held out her hand. The ball of magic light she’d thrown toward the ceiling dispersed. She’d need to replenish her power soon, but she’d worry about that later.
“Time for noms?” Aurora asked Mouse. Esha had shown her the cats on her computer. So obviously, Aurora had adopted lolspeak, the language of the millions of cats who ruled the Internet.
Mouse meowed and followed Aurora out of the cluttered bedroom. Aurora strolled across the circular space of her tower home. Plush red furniture was scattered through the living room and the kitchen was an open space with an island counter.
She was the only resident of the tower that sat at the edge of the university campus. Outcast tower, she called it, and she’d taken it from her sister when Esha had moved in with her mate about ten months ago. Though being an outcast had bothered Esha—it was the only thing a soulceress could be, really—it didn’t faze Aurora.
She whistled a tune as she pulled open the refrigerator—another magical device she’d grown to love—and pulled out two bottles of beer, which were way better than the swill they’d brewed when she’d last been a free woman.
Mouse meowed again.
“Hold your horses,” she said to the cat, who danced impatiently on little paws. Aurora pulled a can of cat food from the cabinet near the sink. As she was dumping it onto a plate, there was a knock at the door.
“Come in!” she called, knowing it was Esha. If it hadn’t been, the wards she’d placed on her tower would have fried the intruder. She called it the Crispy Chicken spell. It wouldn’t kill the trespasser, but it would knock them out and fry them like the chicken strips she’d seen on TV. They’d get over it eventually, but it wasn’t pretty.
Only Esha was allowed through her wards without consequence. There were a few other people at the university she was growing to like—sort of—but even they hadn’t been put on the No Fry list. Whenever they came over, she temporarily dropped the wards.
Mouse was lying on the floor playing dead by the time Aurora set the plate beside her. She popped up immediately and began scarfing down her prize.
“Hey,” Aurora said as Esha came in. She handed her sister one of the beers she’d taken from the refrigerator.
“Thanks.” Esha popped the top off with her thumb and took a swig. Esha was her opposite—tall and pale with raven hair and red lips. Only their eyes—a weird gold color—indicated they were sisters. Likely half-sisters, though they weren’t sure, because neither had met their father.
“Want to sit on the roof?” Aurora asked.
Esha nodded, then glanced at her familiar, a scruffy black tomcat with a bruiser’s face. “You coming?”
He meowed without looking up at her. He sat half-hidden behind the counter and gazed longingly at Mouse. That was the only way Aurora could describe the look in his citrine eyes.
“Creeper,” Esha said. “He’s taken to lurking lately. I think he feels awkward around Mouse.”
“That, and Mouse has swatted him a few times.” Mouse was not interested in the Chairman’s affections. The normally stoic Chairman had lost any suaveness he’d had at his first sight of Mouse a year ago. Mouse was not impressed.
Aurora grabbed her beer and pictured the roof of her tower. The aether, that ephemeral substance connecting the earth and all the afterworlds, sucked her in and spat her out on the rooftop. The aether was like air, but full of magic. Most Mytheans, those creatures of myth and legend who kept themselves hidden from mortals, drew magical power from the aether with their souls. Though Aurora couldn’t do that, she could at least use it to travel. Esha appeared next to her a second later.
They sat on the tiles and sipped their beers. Since Aurora had joined Esha at the university a year ago, hanging out up on the roof together had become one of her favorite things to do.
“Why do we like it up here so much?” Aurora asked.
Esha shrugged. “Probably something about looking down on those who look down upon us.”
“Maybe.” Aurora sipped her beer as she gazed at the rolling hills, looming oaks, and stately stone buildings scattered across the campus of the Immortal University. Starlight sparkled down upon the scene that might have been enchanting if she hadn’t disliked the place so much. She had no idea how her sister had lived here for ten years. She was already chafing.
The Immortal University was more of a government organization than it was a learning institution, though it did teach a few classes. The university’s purpose was to keep the peace among the Mytheans of the United Kingdom and maintain their secrecy from mortals. A noble goal, until you ended up on the wrong side of it.
Aurora scowled. “What did you want to talk to me about?”
Esha sighed. “We have a problem at the soulceress city.”
Aurora’s whipped around to gawk at her. “In Iceland?”
“Know any other soulceress city?”
“Fair point.” There had only ever been one. Because soulceresses were nearly extinct, there was no one to build another. “We freed the souls that were haunting it. How could there be a problem?”
“Seems we weren’t completely successful. The portal you created when you were...”
“Insane?” There was no other word for it. It hadn’t been her best moment.
“Yes. The portal you created has gone haywire. You didn’t close it and I didn’t think to, because of everything that was happening. It’s created an imbalance of power at the city that’s making it glow. Mortals will notice soon.”
“Yep. Like there’s a rave in the middle of the glacier.”
“Shit.” A year ago, right after she’d escaped prison and when she’d still been insane, she’d created a portal to try to get Esha to come to her. She’d wanted to meet the sister she’d just learned she had. It had worked, and Esha had ultimately saved her from her insanity, but apparently forgetting to close the portal was a very bad thing. “I guess the university wants us to clean this up?”
Esha fiddled with her beer. “They want you to clean it up. The witches are lobbying for you to be thrown back in the aether prison and the university is listening. I got them to agree to let you live here, but you know you’re on probation. You did all that evil stuff because you were crazy, but they’re still wary of you even though you’re sane again. Fix the portal to prove you didn’t leave it in place for some evil reason, or they’ll throw you back in prison.”
A cold sweat broke out on her skin. “Shit.”
She’d been afraid of this—that the university’s generosity wouldn’t last. She’d done some truly terrible things. She was criminal number one at the university, but she wasn’t as reformed as they thought. She was still a little crazy. Even Esha didn’t know it. She’d kept it a secret. Did the university suspect that she still wanted to steal souls? Well, if they thought they were going to throw her back in that prison—
Her breath dragged in and out of her lungs. The hand around her throat tightened. Blackness crept in at the corners of her vision.
“Hey!” Esha grabbed her shoulders. “Hey. Chill out.”
Aurora blinked and shook her head. “I’m fine. Totally fine.” She didn’t let her guard down around anyone, even Esha. But lately, it was beginning to crack.
“Sure you are.” The skepticism was rich in Esha’s voice, but she let it pass. “You can do this. They don’t want me helping because they think I’ll just cover for you. But I’ll talk to them about getting you some local help. Someone who knows the glacier and the soulceress city well. Just fix it and you’re home free. You’ll be off probation and they’ll no longer think of putting you back in prison.”
Aurora nodded. She could do this. She’d fix the portal and keep her desperate desire to collect souls a secret. This weird half-life she was living was worth it to be near her sister, and she didn’t want to lose it. She’d been desperately trying to build a life here, though she still hated that she didn’t feel complete. But it was better than the aether prison and there was no way in hell she’d let them get her and throw her back in. “So what about this power imbalance? The glowing?”
“The glowing is the least of it. That’s just a symptom. If the power imbalance increases past the breaking point, the city could collapse in on itself, tearing a hole in Iceland.”
“A hole?” She guessed it made sense. When she’d been insane from possessing so many souls, her magic had been immensely strong.
“Yes. A blank space in the aether. It could devour the entire glacier.”
“Mortals will notice.”
“No kidding. Not to mention, destroying Iceland’s biggest glacier will wreak havoc on the environment.”
Aurora gulped her beer and stared out at the peaceful rolling hills of the campus. This was very bad. Keeping mortals from noticing Mytheans and magic was priority number one for the university and any Mythean who didn’t want to end up on their bad side.
“Of course I’ll do it,” she said. She had to kill their suspicions of her. Three hundred years ago, she’d been thrown in prison because she’d stolen hundreds of souls, which had in turn driven her mad. A year ago, she’d escaped. Esha had hunted her down and freed the souls, thereby returning her sanity.
Or so she’d thought.
Ever since then, she’d been plagued by a dark desire to steal the souls of other Mytheans. Like an addict, she was desperate for that high of immense power that didn’t fade. But it was so wrong. She’d been resisting, but it was getting harder.
“Great. That’s what I was thinking. I just heard about this from Warren and have a meeting tomorrow. If I can go to the rest of the university council and tell them that you’ve agreed to take care of it, it’ll go a long way toward earning their trust.”
Aurora met her sister’s gaze. It was so like her own and their mother’s. After her rough period, Esha had helped her get back on her feet. Found her a job and a place to live. More important, with the position here at the university, Esha had ensured Aurora’s protection from other Mytheans who would want to kill her for being a soulceress. Just being associated with the university provided her with protection. As long as they didn’t figure out she was having a hard time fighting her worst desires, things would be fine.
She nodded. “Get permission for me to go, and I’ll go.”
The next day, Aurora leaned against the bar in the Mythean pub, Mouse seated on a stool next to her. The light was dim, most of it provided by the copper lamps over the bar and the fire that crackled on the other side of the room.
The barkeep approached, a scowl on his face.
She raised a challenging brow. She’d just like to see him try to kick her out.
“What’ll it be?” he growled.
“Tennent’s for me and a bowl of cream for her.” She hiked a thumb at Mouse.
The cat gave the barkeep an equally challenging stare. He shuffled off to fill the order and Aurora turned around to lean on the bar and scan the room.
The Mythean to her left glowered at the feel of her siphoning the magical power off his soul. He said, “Watch it, leech.”
“What? I can’t control it, and I’m just taking a little. Your soul will suck the power right back out of the aether. Mine won’t. So what’s the big deal about sharing?” If she didn’t take it, she couldn’t fuel her own magic. She’d be as powerless as a mortal.
“You’re a damned parasite, that’s the big deal.”
“Bite me.” Parasite was one of many names she’d been called, none of which fazed her. Life was too cruel to worry about small insults from people you didn’t know. It bothered Esha a bit, and for that, Aurora was grateful. If Esha still had the ability to care what others thought, it meant that Esha’s life hadn’t been as hard as her own. Life hadn’t beaten the caring out of her.
She turned back to the bar. Perhaps she should be wary of the other Mytheans here. She’d spent the majority of her life fleeing persecution by Mytheans and mortals alike. But she wanted to pretend everything was fine.
The barkeep approached. “That’ll be six pounds.”
He set the lager and saucer of cream in front of her. She handed him cash and picked up her beer, turning back to survey the other patrons, studiously ignoring the man to her left. The feel of the power of their immortal souls washing over her was divine, fueling her with enough energy that she could blow up the room if she wanted to.
Gods, all this power felt good. Once she used it up, though, she’d have to replenish. Her chest ached to steal the soul of the Mythean next to her. It’d be so easy. All she’d have to do was reach out, touch his chest, and use her soulceress magic to call his soul to her. Then she’d have an unlimited source of power that didn’t fade as she used it, as was the case with borrowing. Sweat broke out on her skin and her hand shook as she forced herself to take another sip.
“Stop it!” she hissed at herself.
It was wrong. So wrong. And possessing souls turned you mad eventually. They tried to escape and your mind couldn’t handle the strain.
Aurora knew that all too well. She didn’t want to want to steal souls. She’d never wished for it before the tragic event that had set her off on her path. She’d been normal before her mother’s murder. But ever since she’d had the souls and the power, she’d wanted more. Even after her sister had freed the souls from her and saved her sanity, she’d been like an alcoholic on the wagon, desperate to drink again.
At least once a week, she found herself about one second from stealing someone’s soul. She’d have her hand almost on their chest and their soul about to join her. It was only a matter of time before she snapped again. Like an addict, she just couldn’t—
Her phone rang, startling her out of her panic spiral. She fumbled to pull it out of her pocket, her breath coming too fast.
“Sis?” Esha’s voice came through the line. “You’re going to Iceland. Let’s meet so I can give you the deets.”
“I’m at the Cheshire Cat.”
“Good. I could use a fuel-up. I’ll be there in a sec.”
Aurora snapped the phone closed. She swallowed hard and calmed her breathing. She’d fix this and they’d get off her back. Her sister appeared out of thin air, having aetherwalked from the university campus. Aurora forced away the last of the panic over her shite mental state as her sister ordered a Tennent’s too.
Esha turned to her and grinned. “We’ve got the go-ahead. You’re off to Iceland to clean up your mess.”
Esha punched her in the shoulder. “You’ll have fun. There’s a university contact there who can help you. A guy named Felix.”
Aurora froze. “Felix?” Her Felix? The love of her life whom she hadn’t seen in centuries?
“I know. Silly name. Anyway, he used to work for the university a few centuries ago. He lives near the soulceress city now and is the one who’s been reporting on the haywire portal. He knows how to get close to it safely, so you’ve got to work with him. He’s helped me out before.”
The chill that had begun to spread across Aurora’s skin enveloped her. Turned to heat.
It couldn’t be.
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