My first instinct- reach inside the harness. A short, disappointing journey it was, my fingertips grazing the vacant spot on my back. Of course, I didn’t bring my sword to a birthday party. I’d deemed it unnecessary the two seconds it crosses my mind before I leave the house. I wish for those two seconds back now.
But I don’t dwell on the missed opportunity. I run towards the edge of the woods, my claws and canines elongating.
It feels like time is playing against me, making the distance stretch longer, forcing the winds to push harder, and twisting seconds into eternity. Each second it takes me, her screams get louder and louder and LOUDER. His moves become quicker, more calculated, and more violent.
Clumps of flesh and blood decorate the ground, her lower half torn to pieces. You would never know she was pregnant after this vile man reconstructed her body.
The trees shake with the force of my growl, and my bones snap and re-shape themselves, auburn fur replacing my human skin. My wolf shows no mercy. I snap and claw at his limbs. Though he is like me, he doesn’t call upon his wolf. He seems to be confident enough to take me on in his human form- alpha to alpha.
When he’s down, I get the upper hand and bite a chunk of his rib. Except no trace of humane evidence comes along with it. I taste no blood on my tongue, and the sound of my canines clashing together confirms the absence of bones. It’s the first time I realize I can’t see my opponent.
A strange black haze covers his face. Red glowing eyes are the only indication that he even has a face. And I’ve spent too much time staring because he abruptly knocks me to the ground with a swift kick. He digs his claws into my side before I can stand up.
I’m choking from the grip of his hands around my neck. I shift back in his grasp, but he remains strong in position. I’m dangling in the air and scratching his arms, but it’s no use. It’s as if he is made of evil and wind, a man in disguise of darkness.
“You’re supposed to be dead,” He growls as his hands grow tighter on my throat, “I’ve killed you many times, but you keep coming back, infesting the prophecy with poison like the vermin you are.”
My vision is blurry, and my body feels numb. All I can do is stare into those red eyes as the darkness takes over me.
“We won’t let you win,” He whispers close to my ear and then drops me like a weightless feather. The whooshing passes through my entire body, and I reach out my hands, desperate for something, anything to catch me. But it seems he has dropped me into a never-ending black hole. I’m falling-
“Astrid!” A hand comes down on my shoulder and wraps around my waist before the hole swallows me further down. I blink, and suddenly I’m standing at the back of Blair’s car, gripping the door, the towels hallway spread across the backseat.
Confusion clouds my mind before I realize…I never left this spot. What the fuck just happened?
I look into Carson’s worried silver eyes as he holds my waist, and they remind me so much of Arlo’s. It makes me wish he were here holding me instead.
“It felt so real,” I whisper, scanning the edge of the woods and pressing my feet firmly on the ground.
“Are you feeling sick?” His hand comes up to my forehead, and it feels cold against my skin.
I’m sweating profusely, and my head spins, the memory of that wolf’s hands still on my neck. I brush my fingers against the red, sensitive skin. I can still hear his voice- “I’ve killed you many times” and the woman’s screams ringing in my ears.
Did I imagine it?
“Nick, how much did you give the girls?” Carson growls at Nicolas as he carefully places my unconscious friend in the backseat.
He shuts the door and runs a hand over his face. “Nicole was pretty wasted, but Astrid seemed okay. She was dancing and singing a minute ago…she looked fine. I don’t know what happened,” Nicolas stammers. I know by the look on his face, he feels responsible for us. But it wasn’t his fault.
I must be drunker than I thought.
“I’m fine,” I lie, “I think I tripped and hit my head. I need to lay down.”
Carson looks uneasy as I try to sit down. He takes my hands and makes me lean my weight on him for support until I’m seated and then slips in the driver’s seat.
The drive home is long and quiet. Nicolas constantly checks the backseat, eyes glued to me and Nicole, who’s passed out on my shoulder. I rest my aching head on hers and manage a small smile, but he doesn’t look convinced. He offers me water, and when I keep my lips closed, he practically shoves the water down my throat.
“Take Nicole to her room. I’m gonna stay with Astrid for a while, make sure she doesn’t have a concussion,” Carson says to Nicolas when he parks the car into Blair’s driveway. Nicolas nods and carries Nicole back to her room. I’m sure she won’t remember a thing tomorrow.
I try to tell him I’ll be okay walking alone, but he glares at me in the rearview mirror. I don’t argue with him because my head hurts, and I’m still dizzy. And honestly, after witnessing that gruesome scene, or delusion, or whatever the hell that was, I don’t want to be alone. Ever.
“Alright,” I shrug, reaching for the door handle. Within seconds, Carson is by my side and guiding me out of the car before I can fall flat on my ass.
“Walk slowly,” He demands as he holds my hand and guides my waist with the other.
We both tiptoe through the main house, careful not to wake Blair, and by the time we reach the guest house, I’m completely exhausted. I just want to lay down and forget about what I saw. But Carson turns on the tv, volume raised loudly, and sits next to me on the bed.
“You have to stay awake for at least 3 hours. If you hit your head hard enough, then you could suffer from a concussion. I’m not going to get burned alive for neglecting my brother’s mate. I need to monitor your symptoms.”
“Not up for discussion, princess. Now scoot your ass over and stop hogging the blanket.”
I slowly lift on my hands and scoot over, reluctant and so freaking exhausted. But I know this demon won’t change his mind, so there’s no point in trying to close my eyes.
It begins to sprinkle outside, and I focus my attention on the window, tuning out some comedy that’s playing on the television. Carson seems amused, though. At least one of us is entertained. Some time passes, and his words finally dawn on me.
“How could he burn you?”
Mid-laugh, Carson turns down the volume and looks at me, confused. “Huh?”
“Earlier, you said Arlo would burn you alive for not watching me. Aren’t you like immune?”
“No,” Carson chuckles, turning off the television. “I’m telekinetic. Kane and I can move things with our minds like Arlo, but we cannot enforce hellfire like him.”
“But you have the same genes?”
“Doesn’t matter. Only the strongest of demons can possess that power. The fire chooses you.”
“Interesting.” Why does that fact oddly make Arlo ten times sexier?
“You’re immune, though,” Carson shrugs, nonchalant. As if his confession isn’t a big deal at all.
“Umm…wha…how?” I manage to spit out.
“Maybe he’ll show you one day,” Carson smiles and reaches for his coat, leaving me hanging. “Lights out, princess.” According to the time on my phone, he’s right. I made it past 3 hours.
I shift uncomfortably in the bed when he turns off the light and walks towards the door. Darkness. Red eyes. The pregnant woman screams. “Carson, wait!” He stops, alerted by the fear in my tone.
“I hope this doesn’t seem weird, but…could you possibly stay here for tonight. With Arlo gone and the dark witches lingering, I just feel more comfortable-“
The door shuts, and Carson pulls the folding bed out of the closet. He kicks off his shoes, pointing a finger at me. “I snore louder than a freight train, so be warned.”
Any noise is better than silence. I sink deeper into the mattress as he disappears behind the bathroom door, feeling more at ease. But Carson’s presence only brings me into a deep slumber, which turns out to be a night of torture. I dream of red eyes, blood, and the red door.
“Ughh,” Nicole groans as she supports her head with her hand, slouching over the kitchen table. “Who the fuck let me drink so much?”
“I tried to tell you multiple times, Nicole Leanne.”
“Bullshit. You’re the worst friend ever.”
“Oh, really,” I give her a sideways look, my hands on my hips. “Well, then maybe you should call Derek or Liam and see if they’ll come take better care of you.”
I take away the water, medicine, and other necessities I prepared for her killer hangover. Nicole surrenders, sitting up straight, “Okay, you’re right. I take it back. Now please make my headache go away,” she pleads, giving me her best pup eyes.
“You’re lucky I love you, Nicole Leanne.”
“Okay, mom, enough with the serious middle name-calling,” she huffs, retreating to her room for the rest of the day.
I’d promised Ms. Hattie I’d watch over the gift shop since she’d be meeting a client so, I head there right after breakfast. It’s quiet and slow per usual on Monday, and Nicolas isn’t in the study room today. I’m alone.
Main lights, desk lights, the bathroom lights, any working light comes on while I’m here. I blame it all on stress, my overloaded mind playing cruel tricks on me. The ghosts aren’t real. The voices aren’t real. The woman and the wolf weren’t real. I’m being paranoid. But I’ll be damned if those lights don’t stay on all morning and all afternoon.
Ms. Hattie wrote out a complete checklist. I stack the new spell books on the shelves, sanitize the healing crystals, and print out some paperwork. The latter consumes most of my time. I might as well become a full-time employee while I’m at it.
The doorbell chimes as I gather the thick stack of papers. I usually greet each guest that visits, but I must not be in the mood today because my lips remain shut. Footsteps wander throughout the main floor, the click sound of heels echoing.
I try to listen carefully while I read over the paperwork, but goddess knows I’ve never been good at multitasking. I sense the other person is up to no good when the footsteps become faint, and then pin-drop silence.
I abandon the work and peek my head outside of the door, watching as she sneaks past the first floor. She thinks she is alone.
Wait- Cotton candy perfume and pink highlights. I’ve seen this girl. I follow close behind her like a lion stalking its prey as she walks into Ms. Hattie’s office and opens the desk drawer.
“Find what you’re looking for?” Caught red-handed.
At the sound of my voice, the girl freezes with a set of keys in her hand.