Kitty hissed. She hated this place.
The entrance point to the High Witches’ afterworld was freaking creepy. It was always night, the sky black and ominous. A sickly orange moon illuminated the haunted forest ahead of her and reflected off the eyes of black owls who sat in the trees, watching.
“Are we in an afterworld?” Malcolm’s rough murmur drifted over her. His accent was the same as she remembered—that of a refined English gentleman. But he wasn’t one.
The owls shifted nervously at the sound of Malcolm’s voice. As if they sensed his power. She glanced toward him. His dark sweater and trousers blended well with the forest, but it was his golden eyes and almost cruel handsomeness that most suited this place.
No, he wasn’t the man she remembered. But she wanted him all the same. The desire thrummed within her like a living thing, unwilling to be stifled by her anger or fear. Not even by the memory of their past. He’d made her feel like her heart had been torn out of her chest, but the worst of her pain was buried by the years.
One by one, the owls began to take off, their wings beating the air, as if they feared remaining in his presence. Magical beings were good at sensing a threat. She was no exception. The way that Malcolm blended so well with this evil place made her heart race. Combined with his height and the muscled power of his body—not to mention the immense magic that radiated from him—she couldn’t help but take a step backward.
If he noticed, he said nothing.
“Yes,” she said. “The High Witches are too conspicuous to live on earth. They destroyed the souls who lived on this afterworld long ago and took it for themselves.”
She’d been raised on the terrifying stories of the High Witches’ attack on this afterworld. The nightmarish tales spun by her mother for as long as she could remember kept her fearful and in line. If the High Witches could destroy all the souls who’d come here after death—Sofia had no idea what religion had created this afterworld—then they would have no trouble destroying her village.
“Where are they?” Malcolm asked.
“We’re at the edge of the haunted forest. Their stronghold is on the other side. This is the only place I’m allowed to aetherwalk to.”
“Why the hell don’t they just let you enter through the garden?”
“They like to play with me.”
He scowled. There was something odd in his gaze. Concern? Had he not realized how dangerous her role was? What she risked to save her village?
Welcome to my life, jerk.
She turned back to the forest, swallowing hard. Part of the game was that they filled the forest with nightmares. Or perhaps the forest did that itself. She’d never known if this afterworld had been a heaven or a hell, but if she had to put money on it, she’d say hell. Though mortals weren’t aware of the fact that the heavens and hells of their religions existed, Mytheans were. Some could even travel to them.
Sofia reached out a hand for Kitty, who had turned into smoke and now hovered at her side. Nothing could touch Kitty in that form. Sofia wished she could do the same.
“We’d better get started.” She set off toward the forest, wincing at the eerie sponginess of the ground. Once, it had wept blood. After that, she’d stopped looking down.
Malcolm joined her as she picked her way between the trees. Something slithered in the distance. She drew her wand from the aether and gripped it tight.
“What have you been doing these past centuries?” Malcolm’s voice broke the silence.
“Why do you want to know?”
“Pass the time.”
“I’m not here to entertain you. That time has passed.”
“You were never merely entertainment to me.”
“Whatever.” She couldn’t even look at him. His voice sounded too good. Smooth and dark. And she still liked it. Fates, she hated her weakness. She’d held her anger close for centuries. It had protected her. It would protect her now. She focused on the forest ahead, choosing the path that stayed farther from the trees lest they reach out and grab her.
“I want to know about you because I’m interested.”
Hot rage flared within her. “After all these years? You gave up your right to know when you chose magic over me.”
“It was necessary,” Malcolm said.
Sofia looked at his face then. Really looked, for the first time since she’d seen him last. They didn’t really have the time to argue, but she couldn’t help herself. So little of the young man she’d known remained. This Malcolm was harsher. Darker. Nearly unrecognizable.
“No it wasn’t. You simply wanted the power more than you wanted me.” Despite the years that had passed, the words made her throat tighten, and tears threatened. She swallowed hard and forced them away.
“I wanted both.”
“Not possible.” She turned her attention back to the forest path and began walking again. This was her least favorite part. Tree roots climbed out of the ground, eerily white. They looked almost like bones.
She quickened her pace, trying to ignore him. He was a shadow at her side, so big and present that it was damn near impossible. When a tree root ripped out of the ground and lashed at her, she barely managed to lunge aside. She fell to the dirt on her knees, cursing. This is what she got for letting her guard down.
Malcolm threw out a hand and sent a blast of flame at the root. It turned to ash instantly.
“Why didn’t you use your magic?” he asked.
“The High Witches block it. I’m powerless here.” She glanced at him. He towered over her, his hand still outstretched and glowing. He looked like a wild god, tall and strong, his dark hair flowing back from the masculine beauty of his face and golden eyes. He was part wulver. That strength and wildness was so clear when she saw him like this. It made her want him, and she hated herself for it.
He lowered his hand to help her to her feet. She ignored it and stood on her own, then set off along the path again. Tree roots stretched up to grab at her, but Malcolm stopped them every time. Normally, she’d be exhausted and dirty by the time she reached the edge of the forest. The High Witches liked to see her bedraggled and miserable from clawing her way through. Each year, a new set of obstacles blocked her path.
But apparently Malcolm’s magic wasn’t affected by this place. Either because of his strength or because the High Witches didn’t know to expect him and therefore had not crafted a block for his magic.
Either way, she tried not to appreciate how much easier it was to make her way through the forest with him at her side.
“Is that it?” Malcolm asked after a while.
She glanced up. The High Witches’ enormous stronghold loomed on the horizon, standing guard over the dark moors that surrounded it. It looked like the worst haunted house a mortal could dream up, only ten times as big. Lightning cracked overhead, making the window glass flash like winking eyes.
“Yes.” She didn’t know why the lightning always boomed and the place smelled of sulfur, but her mother had theorized that it was the dark magic.
They made their way across the moor, her feet occasionally sinking into the boggy ground. Kitty stayed well away from the wet muck in her ghostly form, but Sofia wasn’t so lucky. The pervasive cold in the air soaked into her bones. A fine mist hovered unnaturally over the ground, slowly seeping into her shoes and freezing her toes. She’d once gotten frostbite here. It’d taken her almost a full day to recover.
She was shivering by the time they reached the enormous front doors. The black wood was studded with dull metal spikes.
With an ominous creak, they swung open to reveal the vestibule. Her heart began to pound as she stepped into the dark room and let her eyes adjust to the dim light of the flickering candles.
“We wait here to be called,” she said.
A yellow light caught her eye and she glanced over to see Malcolm’s hand glowing with power. He held it at his side, directed at her feet. Warmth enveloped her toes as the icy water from the moor dried.
It calmed her—the knowledge that his power worked here—but she didn’t like it. She couldn’t rely on him. Not after the choices he’d made.
She had too much riding on this to be placing any kind of faith in him. She didn’t know why her line had been given the task of paying off the High Witches, but they had. Perhaps it was because they were the strongest Bruxas in Bruxa’s Eye.
But she didn’t feel very strong when standing in the High Witches’ stronghold.
“Enter!” The voice boomed through the vestibule. Sofia shuddered. She stepped forward, but Malcolm swept in front of her and pushed open the door. She frowned in confusion, but followed.
The great hall loomed ahead of her, nearly as big as a football field. The ceiling soared high overhead, snow falling to disappear right before it hit the floor. A faint glow emanated from the ceiling, lighting the way but leaving the room dim and threatening. Towering, leafless oaks lined either side of the space, their great trunks surging up through the stone-slab floor.
Even Malcolm was dwarfed by the space, though he didn’t look the least bit uncomfortable. His powerful stride ate up the ground as they approached the platform at the far end. Thirteen figures stood on the platform, all dressed in white. Sofia had always thought the color an odd choice.
“You brought someone,” the High Witch said. Her sparkling white robes fell from her shoulders, emphasizing her height. She was over six feet tall and slender as a reed. Her eyes were like black marbles in her otherwise pale and perfect face.
Sofia stopped a dozen feet in front of the dais, grateful for Malcolm’s looming presence beside her. She hated relying on anyone—especially him—but she needed all the help she could get here.
“Malcolm the warlock.” The witch on the far right stepped forward, her brow creased.
There was a murmur from the rest the witches, then they stepped forward, drawing their eerie ivory wands.
“Your reputation precedes you, Malcolm,” the High Witch said, her gaze suddenly much more wary.
Sofia had been right to bring him.
Malcolm inclined his head, then held out the Demon Blade. “I believe this is what you want?”
Sofia started to bristle at the way he took over, but then she remembered that she really didn’t want to talk to the High Witches at all. If she could just disappear now, that would be perfect.
“It’s late.” The High Witch’s voice cracked across the room, sharp as thunder.
Sofia couldn’t stop herself from staring as the High Witch rubbed her wand with her thumb. Outright fear replaced her apprehension.
“There are penalties when one is late. Punishment!” Her wand hand struck out, sending a jolt of bright blue lightning at Sofia.
One second Sofia was staring at the lightning streaking toward them, and the next, Malcolm was in front of her, his body lit by the electric glow. His back arched and his limbs stiffened, but he made no sound.
An enraged shriek tore through the room. The High Witch waved her arm and the rest of the witches lifted their wands, directing them at Malcolm. Twelve more bolts of lightning shot toward him, lifting him off the ground. He roared in pain, his bellow echoing off the stone walls. One bolt hadn’t been enough for someone as powerful as he, but thirteen could break him.
“Stop!” Sofia raced forward. “Stop it!”
The High Witch’s head swung toward her, her black eyes blazed. “You dare to give orders?” She jerked her wand toward Sofia, sending a bolt of lightning her way.
White hot pain enveloped Sofia, stiffening bone and tearing muscle. She shrieked, held aloft by the lightning, unable to collapse. It went on for an eternity, ripping her apart until she felt like a shell.
Finally, she dropped. She gasped, trying to force her thoughts away from the pain. Her skin was so hot that the snowflakes that fell from the ceiling evaporated when they hit her skin.
What had just happened? She’d brought Malcolm here to take the hit for her lateness. He was the reason, after all. But she hadn’t expected him to throw himself in front of the danger. For her.
She couldn’t wrap her mind around it. Not that she had time to.
Once she could move her muscles, she struggled to her knees. Her entire body ached. She glanced over at Malcolm, who was on his knees beside her. His great chest heaved with breath, and his head was bowed. Disheveled dark hair shielded his face.
After a moment, he shook himself and rose to his feet. She had a distinct feeling that he wasn’t used to being overpowered.
Kitty pressed her shadowy form against Sofia’s side. Warmth and power flowed through her from her familiar, just enough that she could stumble to her feet.
“You’re even stronger than we thought,” the High Witch said to Malcolm. “Tales of your power are well known of course, but to survive thirteen lightning whips? My, my. It seems that selling your loyalty does result in great power.”
He sneered at her but didn’t speak. He was probably biting his tongue pretty hard right now. Though he could take a few of them, all the High Witches combined could overpower him. Power such as theirs was exceedingly rare, however, and it was likely he’d never come across a Mythean stronger than himself.
“I assume you’ll be more cooperative now?” the High Witch asked.
The High Witch narrowed her eyes. “See to it that you are. Sofia, we still need to decide on a suitable punishment for your tardiness. Now that you have a partner of such extraordinary power…”
Shock hit Sofia like a bat to the face. That agonizing pain hadn’t been the punishment? And what did they mean, partner? “Malcolm isn’t my partner.”
The High Witch’s brow rose. “No? He threw himself in front of a bolt of lightning for you.”
“A momentary lapse in good judgment.” Malcolm’s voice was so cold that it chilled her lightning-heated skin. It also made her believe him.
“Perhaps.” The High Witch’s gaze met Sofia’s. “Either way, you’re the first person she’s ever brought here. And that changes things.”
Sofia held her gaze, wondering if she’d get zapped again. “Changes things?”
“Indeed. Enjoy the dungeon while we discuss.” The High Witch waved her ivory wand and Sofia felt pressure envelop her. She gasped, her air cut off, and fought to break free. The world around her faded to black and she came crashing to the ground a moment later.
She scrambled to her feet and gazed around wildly. Hundreds of skulls grinned back at her, lit by a cold glow that came from the ceiling. Her heart threatened to jump out of her chest. Every wall of the small room was covered in skulls, ivory and yellow and all featuring gaping black eye sockets.
She was alone.
“What the fuck?” This had never happened before. She raised her wand and held it out toward one of the walls, searching for a hidden door, but her wand’s magic was blocked. She could see no exits.
And where the hell was Malcolm?
She made her way around the walls, pressing on the skulls to see if any would give way and reveal a secret door. The feel of them under her fingers made her shudder, as if their souls were still trapped inside.
The air changed suddenly, tingling with magic, and she whirled around.
A hulking golden wolf loomed in the corner. It was huge and wild, all muscles and teeth and so bright a gold that it seemed to glow. Unnatural. Not a real wolf. One sent by the High Witches?
Sofia stumbled back. Without her magic, it’d be just her against the wolf and she didn’t have the strength—or the teeth or claws—necessary to protect herself.
Fear strangled her, stealing her breath, as the wolf approached, its stride powerful. Kitty leapt in front of her, back arched and hissing like mad, determined to protect her.
Kitty was fierce, but too small to fight the wolf, no matter her enhanced familiar strength and speed.
Sofia was about to reach out and grab Kitty when the wolf stopped, looming over Kitty. He leaned down and sniffed Kitty’s head.
Sofia jerked back.
What the hell?
The wolf was snuffling at Kitty—like he was getting to know her—and Kitty had flattened out her back and stopped hissing. She was even nuzzling him back.
When Kitty suddenly turned into smoke, Sofia realized that the wolf was partially transparent. Not a real wolf, but a ghost or an apparition. It explained its unnatural color. In her panic, she hadn’t noticed. Had Kitty changed to be more like the wolf?
Fear still vibrated along her nerve endings, but confusion was quickly replacing it. A crazy thought jumped into her head. But no, this couldn’t be Malcolm. Wulvers turned into wolves. She’d never heard of golden apparitions.
The wolf sat down, front legs stretched out so that it was low enough that Kitty could sniff his neck and head. Purring, Kitty put her ghostly front paws on the wolf’s big shoulder and began to kneed. Like a weird cat massage. Sofia glanced at the wolf’s face.
It looked… happy?
This was too weird. Menace still thrummed in the air, but it wasn’t the wolf, she now realized. It was just the place. The wolf was something different.
What the hell was going on?
Suddenly, the wolf gave Kitty one big lick—which made her hiss in annoyance—then stood and approached Sofia. She tensed, but wasn’t as terrified as she had been before Kitty had decided the wolf wasn’t a threat.
The wolf sniffed her, then rubbed his head against her hip. When the big animal pressed its side against her front, an image blasted into her mind.
Malcolm, leaning back against a wall of skulls. He was in a room that looked identical to hers. It was an eerie sight—such a vital, handsome man surrounded by grinning death.
The vision faded when a voice interrupted her thoughts.
“Sofia? What took so long?”
Sofia jerked. Malcolm’s voice was in her head. And there was a feeling of connection. As if they were touching.
“Malcolm?” she asked.
“Yes. Are you all right? Why did it take my wolf so long to reach you?”
“Your wolf?” She’d been right. It was him. But how?
“Part of my soul. The wulver side. I’m locked in this skull dungeon, but I sent it to you.”
Of course. He wasn’t a normal, full-blood wulver.
“Are you all right?” he demanded.
“Fine, besides being trapped in here. How are we speaking like this?”
“My wolf connects us. If he stops touching you, the connection breaks.”
“All right. Do you have any idea how to get out of here? Can you aetherwalk?”
“I can’t. I already tried. The cell dampens my other magic as well.”
“But not the wolf?”
“It’s not magic in the way they think of it. It’s just my soul. They didn’t block me from moving, so my wolf is free to move as well. But we’re trapped here until they let us out.”
Sofia nodded and began to pace, her mind racing. This was bad. In all the history of her line, she’d never heard of anything like this happening. Were they destroying her village even now?
No. No, they couldn’t be. They’d give her another chance. She was good at hunting tributes. She could bring them the best magical antiquities, most powerful amulets, and rarest potions. They’d want to keep that gravy train going.
But they’d reap so much power by destroying her village.
“They aren’t destroying your village.” Malcolm’s voice broke through her reverie.
“How do you know? How did you even know that’s what I was thinking? You can’t read my mind, right?”
“No. But you got silent all of a sudden, and of course you’re worried about your village.”
“You can’t be sure.” She clung to the feel of him in her mind, trying not to find comfort in his presence.
But fates, she was glad she wasn’t alone. Had he sent his wolf to her to check that she was safe? To comfort her?
Hope fluttered in her chest. Stupid hope that he still cared for her, even though she was done with him. She had to be done with him. She couldn’t take the pain again. And it didn’t even make sense that he’d care about how she felt. He’d chosen magic over her centuries ago, and now he’d gotten her into this mess.
“You’re such a bastard,” she said. “This is all your—”
Sofia’s words were strangled when she felt the familiar tightness squeezing her whole body. The High Witches were calling them back.
A second later, they stood in the creepy great hall. The space loomed even larger after their confinement in the dungeon.
The High Witches still stood in a line, watching her.
“We’ve thought of suitable recompense for your lateness,” the High Witch said. Her voice was colder than the snowflakes that still fell from the ceiling. “The Salem Coven is in possession of a Grimoire. Their Grimoire. The most valuable of its kind. It possesses secrets that even we don’t know. We want it. You’ll bring it to us.”
Sofia’s stomach dropped. The Salem Coven? She’d never met them, but tales of their viciousness and power were legendary. They’d had nothing to do with the silly witch trials that were so famous amongst mortals—that ridiculousness had been all about mortal greed and evil. The innocents who’d lost their lives in the trials were as far from the Salem Coven as bunnies were from tigers.
And like tigers, the Salem Coven had a reputation for devouring their opponents. “For next year’s tribute?”
“Within the week. It shouldn’t be so hard for the two of you. True, it’s guarded heavily. And the Salem Coven is nearly as powerful as we are. But you might manage the task.” Her grin was malicious as her gaze swept between them.
“I owe you nothing,” Malcolm said. “And I’ve little interest in tangling with the Salem Coven. Like your own coven, their numbers are great enough to be an issue.”
“True. You could abandon Sofia to her attempts. Perhaps you will. To us, it doesn’t matter. We’d like the Grimoire. But we’d also like to destroy Sofia’s village and reap all that delicious power.” The High Witch turned to her companions, her eyes bright. “Think of it, brethren. The burning. The screaming. Buildings collapsing and lives being sucked away. All that destruction, all that power.”
Sofia shuddered. The High Witch’s desire was all too evident. The picture she painted too real.
“So you see, Malcolm,” the High Witch said. “We win either way.”
Sofia swallowed hard. That was the crux of it. There was no escape. She either did it, or the witches would destroy her and everything she loved. Their dark magic was fueled by destruction. Not only did they draw power from the aether like normal Mytheans, they reaped great power from the dark magical energy given off by mass destruction. As the only all-Mythean village in South America, the destruction of her village and its inhabitants would provide immense magical energy.
“Is that all?” Malcolm asked, his tone bored.
“A week.” The High Witch waved her hands in a shooing motion. “Now go. Back to where you came from!”
The aether pulled at Sofia, and she had no choice but to let it take her. When she opened her eyes, she and Kitty stood on the main street in Bruxa’s eye. Sultry heat enveloped her.
Home. And it was still standing, safe and sound, lit by a nearly full moon. Even better, Malcolm wasn’t here. He must have been sent back to Scotland.
Good. She ignored the strange sense of loss, as if there were an empty place inside of her now. Being with him again had been too complex. Anger, desire, longing—it was so hard to sort through the feelings that crashed through her.
She took a moment to absorb the essence of the place she loved, trying to ground herself. To get away from the chaos Malcolm wreaked on her mind.
The smell of rain on the horizon competed with the earthy tones of the jungle. The ramshackle wooden buildings of Bruxa’s Eye crouched at the edge of the Amazon River. The screeching and cawing of jungle animals was a welcome sound, one that was replaced by the distant shouts of a crowd.
Of course. It was Saturday night and the fight ring was the place to be. The match must be in full swing and Mytheans loved a good fight.
Bruxa’s Eye was one of the few all-Mythean towns in the world. Creatures of all species could walk freely without fear of being discovered by mortals because that lowly species had no idea the town was there—or that its strange inhabitants existed outside of their imaginations.
Fear and a sense of failure crawled up her spine.
They counted on her. She protected them from the High Witches, paying off their version of a mythical mob. If people needed something, they came to her. If there were problems, they came to her. It’d been that way with her mother and grandmother as well, and the women before them. Over two thousand of years of protecting Bruxa’s Eye.
And it crushed her beneath the weight of duty and expectation. It was exhausting—she was always on the hunt for new tributes or going to pay the High Witches off.
If she couldn’t get the Grimoire and pay off the High Witches, she’d fail these people—her friends, family, and everyone she held dear.
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