“Who are you?” I croaked. My heart was thudding so loud in my chest I was surprised the other kids didn’t jump out of their beds, terrified.
This can’t be happening.
The shadowed figure above me shifted slightly, using a gloved hand to cover my mouth and force me up into a sitting position. I struggled fiercely, but soon gave up when the dark cloak pulled a dagger on me, the cool metal of its blade kissed my throat.
“The quieter you come, the less blood will be spilled. Deal?”
A dam broke inside of me, spilling red fury through my veins at an alarming rate. Who the hell was this guy to follow me to my home, break in, and then attempt to kidnap me? Just because I was poor and probably smelt like a barn didn’t mean I deserved any less respect than anyone else with more money than I.
I shook my head furiously, attempting to bite the hand of my captor... It didn’t work. Instead I felt the sharp teeth of his blade nip into my skin, and soon a warm stream of blood slid down my neck like a slithery snake, pooling in the hollow of my throat.
Panic laced itself in my heart, biting and ripping apart any sane thought that may have resided in my brain. The only word that pounded in my skull now was: Survive.
“Shit,” he mumbled. “Hold still!”
But I couldn’t think, I just acted. I thrashed and jolted, determined to throw him off.
“God dammit, don’t you listen?” he hissed, his grip on my face tightening. “You’re giving me no choice,” he grunted.
I had no idea what he meant, but soon a soothing scent flitted into my nostrils; sweet like a dozen roses.
Why was I fighting again? I couldn’t recall. I didn’t need to fight. I just needed to sleep... I was so tired... My whole body seemed to shift, and soon I was floating. No, not floating. I was being carried away by my knight in shining armor.
Lazily I lifted my eyes, trying to identify who my prince charming was. The light from the full moon illuminated a strong, square jaw covered in prickly stubble and a small but jagged scar on his chin. Smooth lips parted into a lazy half smile, framing perfectly straight teeth that gleamed. “You’re much heavier than you look,” he whispered as he carried me through the threshold and into the night.
The cold breeze from the October air seemed to wake my sleeping limbs a little, and I struggled weakly against the arms holding me.
“How are you not sleeping yet? That was enough to put a three hundred pound man under...”
I struggled more profusly against the arms cradling me against a firm, warm chest. I knew soon the mysterious, sweet smelling aroma would float through the air again and taunt me with sleep. I didn’t want to sleep. I wanted to stay awake to witness what was bound to happen next.
The delicious smell of roses tickled my nose for a second time, and this time I didn’t have any fight left within myself to stay awake. Darkness pulled me under and I didn’t put up an ounce of struggle as I fell into a dreamless sleep.
I floated in and out of conscience; diving head first into darkness before resurfacing to the light, only to drown in the gloom once more seconds later. I didn’t count how many times I woke up, cracked my eyes to glare into the shadows of the hood, and then let my head lull to the side before I crashed again. It was a pattern: Wake up, glare at the hooded man through my lashes, and then be involuntarily whisked away by sleep.
When my wits were finally within reach, I latched onto them like a ravenous wolf on a dead carcass, refusing to let go. I had to stay alert if I wanted to have a fighting chance. But dammit...The succulent aroma of roses and other sweet treats tickled my nose, practically telling me to fall back asleep in soft, innocent little whispers.
I wouldn’t bow down. Not again.
Voices and a pumping heartbeat pushed against my ears, and I could finally feel my limbs as they hung loosely in a cradle of strong arms. My nostrils picked up something other than the crazy sleep gas; something crisper, sharper. That second scent was like a knife shattering the hazy lull clouding my senses.
All of a sudden the hooded boy stopped, but I didn’t dare open my eyes. He grunted weakly as he repositioned me in his arms, and I allowed my head to ease to the side as it would if I were in a deep sleep.
A quiet buzzer went off.
“I have her,” that fierce, silky voice grunted. “Open the gate.”
The gate? The only gate I knew of was the one separating the village from the...
The Core was where the witches built their large academies and houses; where the witches lived and thrived. No human was allowed past the gate unless they were either 1) an apprentice, or 2) he signed up for the Order -to be sent away to fight the faeries.
If it was this easy for him to get into the Core, that only meant he was a... witch.
I thought back to that morning, to the ebony cloak standing in the back of the dueling room. How he’d nodded his head no when Benny asked if he was interested in dueling. I thought back to my icy arrows levitating off the ground, their frozen tips ready to sink into Lucinda’s flesh if I gave the silent command. I’d exposed myself.
I practiced ice magic in front of a witch in an illegal underground duel.
Benny was right. I should have been more careful.
I should have seen the signs... I should have went with my instincts and fled that morning and snuggled back under my ratty blanket in my bunk. I should have realized it was odd that a random stranger was in the Strip, soaking up Kevin’s hospitality and alcohol. I should have found it weird that someone who obviously had more money than any of the dulers combined in that small room, had made an appearance. And didn’t even attempt to fight.
There could be only one logical explination on why he was down there that day.
He somehow must’ve heard about a little orphan girl who could wield the wicked power of ice, and it was too good to resist.
God, why didn’t I listen to Benny?
Creaking my eyelids open slightly, I attempted to get a look at my surroundings, but my vision was too distorted by my lashes and I was too scared to try to open my eyes any further.
A buzzer went off, loud this time, followed by the loud click of metal rubbing on metal. A staticy voice filled the air. “Preseed, Count Sebastian.”
My stomach clenched, and a shock of surprise froze my muscles in place. If my eyes weren’t closed, I could have sworn I would have upchucked the badger I’d just had for supper.
I never went to school growing up, but I still craved any knowledge I could wrap my brain around. So when Benny offered to teach me basic math and literature skills - skills that were only reserved for the High Witches and their families - I couldn’t resist. But Benny didn’t just teach me how to add two plus two, or how the letter C makes the “ka” sound as in cat. He also taught me the hierarchy within the Core - how the Witches placed themselves and their offspring into society.
The system was simple. Sages, the highest of all witches, ruled over their own element with a steel fist. They were pretty much monarchs in their own right, just with a different label.
Mages came second, and they mostly made up the Order’s council. They helped the Sages make big decisions - like whether or not to send more divisions of soldiers and witches onto the front line to fight the murderous fae, or what to do if one is found in the outskirts of the village circling their small city.
The Master class was pretty much anyone who either had money to buy the label or had ties within the “royal” families. Benny had told me they were equivalent to a duke or duchess in ancient times. Whatever that means.
Now Apprentices were the everyday witches that wobbled around the clean streets of the Core with the Order’s symbol sewn onto their clothes. Apprentices were the ones you would most likely find in shops and taverns, offering their “magical” services in exchange for coin.
And then there were the basic users. Thats what I was - nothing but scum. Illegal. Dirty. A rat. Basic users were humans who dabbled in the elements, wishing one day we could sign up for the Order to learn more about the power of magic, but too scared to pick up the pen and sign our names.
Signing up for the war guaranteed small wages for our families, but the witches could never guarantee our lives. If we were sent outside the small wall pinning us here like cattle, there was a good chance a faerie would paint the ground crimson with our blood.
But Counts... Counts were like princes and princess. Children of the Sages themselves. And if my captor was a Count... that meant he had one of the seven High Witches blood pumping through his veins.
He was one of the most powerful witches, and here I was wrapped in his arms like a newborn babe.
Soon the swaying motion of his walk rocked my body once more, and I forced the muscles in my shoulders to relax. Could he feel me tensing, untensing? Could he feel the muscles coiling under my tunic like springs ready to release?
“I know you’re awake,” he said.
It took me a moment to realize he was talking to me. And when I did, I promise you my heart actually stopped.
Reluctantly, I opened my eyes.
The hood was still up, of course, and I couldn’t see past the shadows to get a good look at the top half of his face. The sky was clear above our heads - the stars winking down at me, as if laughing at me incapability to do a damn thing about my situation.
“There’s those pretty eyes.”
Ass. I grunted as I struggled in his arms, but I might as well have been trying to fight my way through steel bars. His arms were a prison. A warm, strong prison. I was trapped.
“Let me go!” I hissed as I bucked.
His arms tightened around me, constricting the air from my lungs like an anaconda. I felt like a damp washcloth and he was wringing me dry. “No can do, sweetheart. You’re stuck with me.”
“Stop calling me that,” I snapped, glaring as hard as I could into the empty space where I assumed his eyes were.
“Then stop struggling. You’re only going to hurt yourself.”
Okay, so he was a contemptuous ass.
I sucked on the inner sides of me cheeks, trying to create as much moisture in my mouth as possible. When I felt as if the amount of saliva would do, I cocked my head back and let the loogie fly.
The mixture of snot and spit flew through the air and disappeared under the shadows of that damned leather hood.
The boy flinches and a low growl rumbled in his chest, but he didn’t even use a hand to wipe my spit from his face. Instead, his voice took a dangerous note. “Watch yourself. They said I was supposed to deliver you alive. They didn’t say you had to be intact.”
Fear made me cringe back, but my temper had control of my tongue.
“You won’t touch me.”
He went deadly still, stopping mid step. Tilting his head back, he let his leather hood fall backwards to reveal his face, and I think I gasped.
He was the most gorgeous man I’d ever seen. And I mean gorgeous.
Strong jaw, hooked nose, high cheekbones and eyes as golden as the moon hanging low over our head. Lashes framed those bright yellow eyes, so dark I almost thought he was wearing the makeup I was too poor to afford. Thick, glossy hair fell to his shoulder in small waves, black as the cloak clinging to his muscles.
Lord have mercy.
A small mark hung under his right eye, and for a moment I thought perhaps he had a birthmark. But with closer inspection I realized it was a tattoo the size of the pad on my pinky finger; in the shape of a crescent. A moon.
Suddenly his fingers under my thigh tightened. “I’m already touching you.”
Okay, so I practically wiped drool off my chin to glare up at him.
Don’t be fooled, Eve. Pretty face. Ugly intentions.
I growled. “You’ll be missing those fingers in less than twenty-four hours.”
Throaty laughter filled the air. “Feisty kitty. I like it.”
I bucked hard within his arms but it was useless. I was trapped. The direness of my situation started to dawn on me, and suddenly I couldn’t breath. This boy was the son of a Sage. And by my educated guess, thanks to the small tattoo under his eye, I guessed he was the son of Night.
What did the Count of Night want with me? Why me? What could I, a scrawny, starved girl from the village outlining his mighty city, have that he could possibly desire?
Images of Lucy floated across my vision. Her stained nightgown, dark hair in a mess, and sapphire eyes staring up at me. Who would feed her? And what about Buddy, Emma, Milly, and Steevy? The youngest of the seven had no idea how to scavenge, how to deul. I refused to let anyone of them learn magic because I always thought with me there, they wouldn’t need to learn.
Maybe, just maybe Jack and Lucas would step up to take my place. I snorted, causing my captor’s yellow eyes to narrow in question. I ignored him, allowing myself to jump headfirst into my thoughts once more.
Lucas would be no help. He barely did anything as it was because he was too busy trying to woo a girl two alleys down. After three years you would think he would throw in the towel and call it quits. I guess I should have told him girls don’t like dead toads and old ratty sneakers for presents. Whoops.
Now Jack on the other hand... He was growing up. I could see the maturity soaking into his eyes every day. He looked older, wiser, and he was more willing to help. And on some rare occasions he would do things around the house without me asking. So if Jack would just step up, the little ones might just have a chance.
I felt sick to my stomach otherwise.
As the minutes passed, a tight knot formed inside my stomach due to the looming gate in the distance that grew closer with every step.
How many gates would I have to go through? How many walls were going to separate me from my family?
When the giant gate was merely yards away, I felt myself begin tremble in his arms. I so didn’t want to go past those giant iron doors.
Now you may be asking, why iron? Why couldn’t we use steel, or titanium? The simple answer is, fae hate iron. Yes, a steel door would be harder to bust down, but would it burn a faerie on contact? Would it poison it’s bloodstream and kill it slowly? No. But iron would.
“If I set you down, will you promise not to run? You’re getting heavy.”
There was no way a man like him couldn’t carry me across the continent, and then probably back again without complaining about my weight. Hell, Milly probably weighed more than me, and she was only twelve. The mockery in his eyes told me he was teasing; that there was another reason why he had to set me down. But none the less, my heart sped up at the proposal. He was offering freedom. He continued to stare down at me, his slightly slitted pupils dilating. He was waiting for an answer.
I bit down a growl of frustration. “Yes, I promise I won’t run,” I managed to get out through gritted teeth.
As if pleased with himself that he got me to “surrender”, he set me down beside him, a smug smile on his face. “Remember, you promised.” The smile melted from his mouth, leaving behind only a stern glare in place. The glare was terrifying enough to make me almost rethink what I was about to do. Almost.
“I keep my word,” I snapped, putting my hands on my hips. For the first time, I realised I was still in my own tattered nightgown, gaping holes littered across the fabric. Heated rushed to my cheeks, and I instantly crossed my arms over my chest.
Sebastian nodded in my direction as if really taking my word. “Very well.” He turned then, taking a few steps up to a large silver box hanging on the gate’s wall.
When he turned his back on me, I turned my back on my promise, sprinting in the opposite direction as fast as my legs would carry me. I may have been small, but running was something I was good at. I guess years of running away from angry clerks because you stole some of their produce pays off.
My bare feet slapped against the frozen path, the cold now nipping at my heels. Looking around at my surrounding, at the small houses and fire lanterns, I so wished that I’d payed more attention when the Count had carried me here, instead of lulling off into my not so pleasant thoughts.
My heart pounded in my chest, hammering against my ribs as my feet continued to beat the ground. The muscles in my calves screamed a protest as I turned around a corner, desperate to get into the shadows of an alley, or maybe even a bush. Somewhere I could hide.
Glancing behind me, there was no sign of my captor and I almost burst out in giddy laughter. I just ran away from a Count. A Count. I needed a medal.
There, a few yards ahead between two houses that sat closely together, was a perfect hiding place. The dark gloom between the two houses was practically calling my name.
I dove into the darkness, letting it fold around me like a favorite blanket. There was no way he followed me. I was gone before he even turned around.
My throat burned as I gulped down, cold, frigid air.
I poked my head out for a moment, my eyes scanning the landscape laid out before me. A few houses sat around a well, and I was instantly shocked not to see debris and trash thrown amuck. The dusty path that I’d just ran down had no dead animals laying on it, and it wasn’t covered in potholes like the ones in my village.
I laid my palms on one of the brick buildings. Were the people inside starving like my kids at home? Did these people even know hardship?
“You know, when people give their word, it normally means they’re going to keep it,” called a voice behind me, and my veins turned to ice.
Slowly, I turned, as if any fast movement would shatter my bones on the spot. Golden eyes glowed in the darkness, inches from my own, staring down at me with a searing glare. I couldn’t breathe if I tried.
“How did you find me?” I choked out. Was he going to kill me? No, he said someone had sent him after me, and that they wanted me alive. He couldn’t kill me... But that probably didn’t mean he didn’t want to.
“It’s never hard to find rats,” he said. “Just follow the breadcrumbs.” And before I could utter another word, roses filled my nose, taunting me with blissful sleep. I was out before I even hit the ground.
The first thing I noticed when I awoke was there was no chill. That, and my cot was surprisingly comfortable this morning. Maybe Maggie started the fire in the hearth, and maybe covered me with another blanket. I snuggled my face into my pillow, amazed by its fluffiness willingness to devour my skull.
Hollow, booted footsteps sounded in the corner, and when I sat up to glare at Lucas for wearing his boots in the house, I froze.
It wasn’t Lucas, and this wasn’t my house.
I lay in giant bed, mattress nearing swallowing me whole, though as small as I was it probably wouldn’t have been hard. There was no windows, so it was impossible to know whether it was morning, noon, or night. The only light came from electrified lights on the wall, and two lamps on countering sides of my bed. The bed itself nearly took up the entire room, giving only a few feet of space on either side to walk around. A dark dresser sat at the foot of the bed, its wood glossy and black, and for a moment I wondered what riches might lay within, waiting to be discovered.
A hooded figure I recognized all too well stood in the corner, looking like he did down in the Strip, clinging to the walls and shadows like a life line.
“You sleep like the dead,” he chucked, gripping his hood and letting it fall onto his back.
Images, memories flooded back. “I guess its a rat thing,” I snarled back. I knew it was stupid, that I should be asking where I was, and why he brought me here, but I couldn’t tame my anger. How dare he call me that, like I was shit under his fat leather boots?
His smirk disappeared. “I assume so.”
I guess I shouldn’t have been hoping for a big fat apology served with a side of his pride and dignity on a silver platter.
It was silent for a few moments - long enough for me to question where I really was - and I decided to break the thickening silence.
“Where am I?” I asked, toying with the hem of the crimson quilt laying across my legs.
The Count, Sebastian, smiled. “Why, sweetheart, you’re in the Witch Academy, and you’re about to become a student here.”