I don’t know what to say so I don’t say anything. Something tells me there’s no word in the English language that can suit this situation. I don’t see Sam, or Megan, but the rest are sat at the table chewing on legs of chicken.
“That looks delicious,” Sophia says, pulling me along the side of the table as the others stare at me. “Theresa, do you like chicken?”
“Yes,” I say.
“Since when did we start feeding it?” the slayer, Milasia, hisses. “This is our food.”
“Last I checked, Theresa is half-human and humans eat food, Milasia,” Sophia hisses back, while diving into a giant bowl and plucking chicken legs from it. “How many do you want? Three, four, five?”
I’m speechless. This is the most awkward position I’ve ever been put in and I’ve experienced a few bad ones. Sophia doesn’t wait for my answer, she takes a handful of chicken and places them on metal plates. Everyone still stares at me, as though they’re waiting for me to attack so they can have an excuse to kill me.
She ties the end of the rope around her wrist as she balances walking with both plates full of chicken. I follow her out of the kitchen, sensing the eyes boring into the back of my head until I’m out of there. When the door closes, I hear them continue eating.
Sophia takes me under the archway and into the library hall, as though she’s hiding me away. The room is empty apart from a boy with frizzy hair who sits reading a book. The boy, Curtis I think, greets us with a nod as we take our seats. Sophia unlocks my shackle and passes me a plate.
“It’ll get better with time,” she mutters, biting into a chicken leg. “Hopefully.”
“I don’t think it’ll ever get better,” I say.
“What are you reading?” Sophia asks Curtis. He lifts the front of the book higher so we can read the title. It reads ‘Cross-species breeding biology.’
I stare at it for a few moments before I ask. “Isn’t that impossible?”
“If it were impossible then how are you and I sat here having this conversation?” he says, so confidently that I forget his age. “Demons and humans, angels and humans, gods and humans. Can you tell me how that happened?”
“Basically,” Sophia mutters to me. “he’s saying that it is impossible but the existence of us bugs the hell out of him.”
“It is possible as long as the hosts are genetically similar or related,” Curtis says. “I am struggling to figure out how demons qualify as closely similar to humans.”
“I never really thought about it,” I admit.
“You regard us as different species, correct?” Curtis says.
“What if we’re not? What if the demons and angels were once part of one species that separated over time?”
“It would solve one issue,” I say. “But you’d still have to work out where the humans fit into it.”
“Yes,” he sighs, glancing back down at the book. “And no amount of human biology will give me the answer to that.” He closes the book and places it beside him. “How are you doing?”
“Me?” I say, glancing between him and Sophia. “I’m fine, I guess.”
“I warned Sam what to expect if he tried to keep a Harmon witch prisoner, let alone the last. That dot in your symbol, it gives you power that you can’t imagine.”
I rub my wrist slowly, peering down at my brand. “What do you know about my power? Or my coven’s power?”
“I know that the Harmons were feared by slayers for centuries. But for some reason, they always left us alone. As each Elder ordered them to fight us, the Harmons refused. And no Elder was ever strong enough to punish them for it. They saw the bigger picture, Theresa, they saw the good in us, the good that no other coven could see. They saw that no matter what created us, we were just as human as the rest of the world. That this was our home too. When Amara turned rogue five years ago, I had my suspicions that something bad had happened to them because they wouldn’t have allowed it. I just never actually imagined it would have been that bad.”
“That she would have wiped them all out with a blink of an eye?” I say quietly. “Yeah.”
“How did she get that powerful?” he says in wonder. “What changed?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “But she did. And then she went on to kill the remainder of my coven too and collect their magic. If she gets mine, nothing will stop her. That is why I wish to fight her, why I need to prepare. All I need is my mother’s spell book to do that.”
“I already told you,” Sophia grumbles. “Sam’s the one you need to ask.”
“Sam will never allow you to practise active magic here,” Curtis says. “The rest are already paranoid that you’re going to kill them in their sleep.”
I laugh as I bite into a chicken leg. It shouldn’t be funny but the way Curtis speaks, so matter of fact, makes it so. I understand why I’m restricted and I understand their reasons to fear me, but time is still running out.
“I’m useful,” I say. “I know the wiccans better than any of you. I know how they think, how they hunt, I know their weaknesses. I am your biggest advantage in centuries, but all you’re worried about is that I’ll sneak into your bedrooms in the middle of the night?”
“They might never trust you,” he whispers. “Not in a month, not in a year, maybe not ever. It doesn’t matter how useful you are, or nice you are, or human you are, they will never work with a witch.”
“And what about you?” I say. “Would you work with me?”
“Maybe.” He grins wildly, stretching his dimples across his cheeks. “If you allowed me to take a blood sample.”
“Convince Sam to give me my book back and we’ve got a deal.”
“Unfortunately, I don’t have your kind’s ability of casting spells on someone.”
Sophia bursts out into laughter, followed by Curtis. It’s strange to hear them laugh, as though they shouldn’t be capable of it. After my mother was killed and Amara became victorious in her domination of the planet, I was forced into wiccan school. In wiccan school, they taught us that slayers were emotionless, soulless monsters. They said that they couldn’t feel joy or happiness or love, that they were merely mercenaries sent on killing sprees. I never believed them, not completely, but there was always a part of me that stayed vigilant of the possibility that it could be true. Maybe for some slayers it is, maybe for others there is something more to this life than misery.
“How old are you?” I ask Curtis once the laughter has drowned out.
“Sixteen,” he says. “Why?”
“You’re so young,” I say. “Where are your parents?”
At my question, the tension rises by a dangerous degree. Sophia ducks her head down, as though she hates that question just as much as Curtis.
“They’re dead,” he says. “Most of our parents are.”
“Because of our lifestyle, most slayers don’t live past thirty,” Sophia explains. “We’re known to have children quite young and to teach them the basics until they’re ready to be out in the world on their own and then eventually find their unit.”
“That’s so sad,” I whisper.
“It’s just our way, Theresa,” she says. “We take care of each other, no matter if we’re blood related or not. I’m lucky to have Megan, Clara and Jo in the same unit as me, but they can choose to move to another if they wanted. We don’t regard blood relations as family, as slayers, we are all family.”
I want to believe her, but then why does Curtis look so sad and fragile at the thought of losing his parents? How is that in any way fair or natural? If slayers are destined to die before thirty, then that only gives most of them a few years left alive. If they have children before then, then who takes care of them? How can a child growing up without their mother or father ever be considered normal?
“How old were you?” I say.
“Ten,” he says. “But it’s our way. It happens.”
“I don’t think it-”
“I wonder what ghastly tasks we have to do tomorrow,” Sophia says, rather loudly, rather purposely loudly. “Megan’s been sending me just about everywhere lately. Yesterday, I had to go to Romania to try to convince a unit of disinterested jerks that the world was about to end and we needed their help. They didn’t care one bit.”
“Wait, is Sam recruiting an army?” I demand.
“Wouldn’t you? It’s happening slowly, but that is the idea. We need numbers, as many units as possible. They’ve been waiting impatiently for five years to get this news, well most of them have, avoid Romania.”
“It won’t work,” Curtis says. “Sam is deluding himself. He can recruit every unit in the world into his army and storm Arizona, but she’ll still win. An attack like this is what she’s expecting, she’s been expecting it since the moment she declared herself a god.”
“Then what do you suggest, genius?”
Curtis stares at me. “We have the one thing she wants more than anything. Sooner or later, she’s going to come get it. All we have to do is wait and she’ll be in our territory, we’ll have the advantage.”
“Using me as bait,” I say, nodding at his plan. It’s smart. “That’ll work. And when she does come here, I’ll face her on my own.”
“That wasn’t what I was suggesting,” Curtis says. “Although I admire your courage. But, facing her on your own is a suicide mission. We have to be smarter than that.”
“Her manifestation is limitless,” Sophia sighs, turning to frown at me. “She can will your death the moment she sees you, she could probably do it from a country away if you step outside the forcefield again. Our forcefields remain to be the only thing her manifestation can’t breach, and that is our lifeline. It’s your lifeline.”
“What if she brought a thousand covens to your door? Would it still stand then?” I demand. “No matter how strong this castle is, magic is stronger and if you remain naïve to that then you’re going to be in for a shock. I’ve seen magic destroy a city, I’ve seen it kill and I’ve seen it misused to breaking point, and that was only a fraction of the collective power of the covens.”
“Then how do we stop them, Theresa?” Curtis asks. “What is their weakness?”
I swallow. Revealing this is almost like a betrayal, but I can’t work with slayers and keep things from them. I suppose this is the start of many choices like that.
“Like all beings, wiccans tire when they use too much energy. Even in covens, the bigger the spell the more likely it will weaken them. But our greatest moment of weakness is when we’re casting it. To cast a spell we need focus, it’s almost like a veil coming over our minds, it blocks out our reactions and our defences. Our magic is borrowed to us from our ancestors, we have to connect with them during the spell, feel them, even listen to them sometimes, during that time there is a four second gap that we call the danger zone. If you can interrupt that wiccan within those four seconds, then they can’t hurt you. It has to be before they start chanting. Even in the beginning of the chant, a wiccan can paralyse you until the spell is complete.”
“Bloody hell, I never knew that,” Sophia says in amazement. “Four seconds?”
“Yes,” I say.
Curtis reaches behind him and grabs something, I watch in confusion as he places an unlit candle stick on the coffee table between us.
“Can you show us?” he says.
“I-I don’t know,” I say nervously. “I haven’t cast a spell like this in a long time, it can go wrong.”
“Don’t be a wuss!” Sophia chirps. “We have fire extinguishers anyway. Please show us.”
I stare at the candle and I take a deep breath. “Okay.”
Sophia is too excited by that, and she claps her hand like a child as she leans forwards in her seat. My eyes remain on the candle stick, as though it’s the only object in the room. I have to connect with it, know it, understand it.
I squint my eyes as I tap into my ancestral magic, the magic that I haven’t felt in days, the magic that I assumed had left me. The last time I cast a spell was in Amara’s library with Joey’s help, before that, I can’t even remember. Since the new power arrived, spells seemed insignificant and weak to me. I should know better. Once I secure the connection with my ancestors, I close my eyes and I chant the spell. A wave of light wind gently rocks against my face, and I am terrified of opening my eyes to see flames engulfing the room.
“Theresa, look.” Sophia’s hand nudges against my leg dramatically.
My eyes slide open slowly, and I glimpse the ferocious light from the flame of the candle. It flickers and moves, but it holds. I smile.
“That was amazing,” Curtis says. “I’ve never been able to admire magic up close without fearing for my life before.”
“Same,” Sophia agrees. “Most slayers can create fires, but it isn’t interesting like that. It isn’t beautiful like that.” She hovers her hand above the flame, grinning to herself. “I wish I could do it.”
“All I did was light a candle,” I mutter, reaching for another piece of chicken. “It was nothing.”
“Nothing compared to breaking through a wall you mean,” Curtis says. “I know that you’re forbidden from practising magic, but we want you to know that around us we will never stop you from doing what you were born to do.”
“We will probably actively encourage it,” Sophia says. “And one day, Sam will too.”
“One day,” I repeat quietly.