Keelie hurries to her rooms on feet as quick as she can make without running. She clamps her lips tight to fight back the sobs that threaten to wreck her body.
Even after bathing and washing and scrubbing her hands and body until she was raw, she still feels the kudas’ blood up her arms, under her nails, on her tongue, and staining her skin. She didn’t feel clean. She couldn’t sit still. She didn’t even feel hungry despite her stomach growling like a wild dog.
She couldn’t face Douglas at dinner; not with the fear she saw in his eyes after the way she slaughtered those kuda. Or the way he shrank from her touch, avoided looking in her eyes.
Not that she could blame him.
She had intended to kill the creatures quickly, but after seeing the one ready to swipe Douglas’ throat . . . her control had ceased to be.
She had ceased to be.
There was nothing mortal or immortal in her, only instinct. Only a drive to kill whatever stood between her and Douglas, whatever threatened his life.
She’s a coward. She’s nothing more than a coward.
She ruined everything, immensely. And now she’s suffering for it.
If she had any hope of getting Douglas to love and accept her, it had been, by her own hand, obliterated.
It was foolish of her believe that he could ever fall in love with her. Not when Marionette had claim to his heart so long ago. If the witch wasn’t dead, she would kill her again.
True, she did let her emotions get the best of her – and still is letting them – but she didn’t expect him to come walking in. Not when the library was supposed to be hers.
Not even Ira knew where the library was, only that is existed somewhere in the house. And if Keelie is there, the servants keep the mention vague, and everyone is supposed to leave her the hell alone until she emerges; whether that was hours, or days later.
So how in the burning, rutting hell in Douglas manage to find her? To guess that of all there was in the manor, did he find the onyx doors in the secluded hallway in the eastern wing of the house?
She rubs her chest, still feeling the phantom sensation that felt like someone tickling her chest with flower petals. It happened only a minute before Douglas walked through, so she didn’t get a chance to see if she had developed a rash, or perhaps something bit her. And it still doesn’t look red; no welts anywhere.
She’s so lost in her thoughts that she yelps when a hand clamps down on her shoulder. Whirling around, her eyes widen when she finds Douglas behind her, his eyes fiery, and his hand gripping her bicep. She tries to pull away, but his hand is like a vice.
“What the hell was that about?!” he says, his voice hard, but leveled. “You think you can just scream at me and walk away? What is your problem?”
Keelie hugs the book closer to her chest, taking one step away. “I wanted to be alone.”
Douglas calms his breathing, knowing an argument is the last thing they both need or want. Well, another one at least. “Okay. So why not just tell me that, instead of screaming in my face.”
She tightened her grip on the book. “I let me emotions get the best of me.” She turns away from him to continue down the hallway. Douglas lets her, and he follows by her side. “I was, and still am, upset.”
“From what?” He sneers, and Keelie digs deep to suppress her flinch.
Keelie keeps her stare at her feet. Left, right. Left, right. Left, right. “I already said it.” Her lips quiver, and she folds her lips in. She quickly takes a deep, quiet breath and continues. “I don’t see you look at me the same way you do with Marionette, or when I was Kelsey. I want you to continue to love me as you did before. I thought that after you saw Marionette, after she gave you the answers you wanted, it would have helped you move on. But still, there’s this distance, and I didn’t mind; I thought it could be worked on.” She turns a corner and heads down the staircase, setting a hand on the oakwood banister. “But after today, after I saw the fear in your eyes, from looking at me . . . After seeing you flinch from my touch, I had ruined everything.”
Tears sting her eyes as she pauses on the stairs, the red carpet warming her bare feet. She rests her hip against the banister. Douglas steps close to her side, his heat warming her. She didn’t realize how cold she was until he was standing an inch from her.
She can see his loose pants are a deep grey, like thunderclouds, and his pale-blue shirt clings to his torso in every right way. He sets his hand behind her on the banister and stuffs the other his pocket.
He leans closer and she stiffens, almost crushing the book. Still, she tries not to dig her nails into the cover. His breath tickles the bare nape of her neck.
For the first time in her immortal existence, she feels . . . small, compared to the breadth of his shoulders.
When he doesn’t say anything, she looks up to him, uncaring of the tears as they spill from her eyes. The shadows of the chandelier hanging above casts along the panes of his face, sharpening his jaw, and making the blue of his eyes vibrant, setting the gold glittering.
When he speaks, it’s with a gentleness that makes Keelie’s knees wobble. “You think I’m afraid of you, after you saved the lives of me and my family?”
“The way you looked at me, how you shied away from my grasp. It’s not that I’d blame you; apart from obvious reasons, after seeing how I acted, I thought I ruined things. I didn’t want you to see that part of me, but . . .” She trails off, clamping her lips to keep them from quivering.
Douglas adjusts his stance to lean his hip against the banister. “I wasn’t afraid of you, Keelie.” He states. “I was in shock from everything, yes, but the overall fact is that you came to rescue me and my family. And I appreciate that. I appreciate you.”
“But you don’t look at me the way you did with Kelsey, or Marionette. I can understand if you had fallen in love with Marionette. You spent more time with her, got to know her, she didn’t lie to you or hide her weaknesses.” She licks her lips and sighs. She tucks a strand of her hair behind her ear. “I just thought we could try and start over. I thought it would be easy.”
“Nothing is easy. And I have been having trouble opening back up to you because you still keep things from me. Important things nonetheless. All I ask is that you tell me what you’re planning so that I could help. If you want me to trust you, I need something that shows that you trust me.”
Keelie looks to him, up through her lashes, itching one ankle with the other. After blinking, she releases her book, her arms stiff from the imprint, and takes Douglas’ hand.
“Come with me.”
She keeps her back to Douglas as she leads him down through the halls towards the study. He keeps a healthy ten steps behind her, respecting her space, when actually she wants him next to her, letting that continual warmth seep through the cracks of her fractured heart.
He didn’t bother asking where they are going, and frankly, Keelie feels too drained to explain as she leads him up, up – until they enter the room sporting vaulted ceilings to make it feel much grander.
Set towards the rear of the estate, and unlike the library, the study is open to the members. Though the only other person who ever bothers to visit is Eartha, thanks to the bookshelf taking up the entirety of the far-left wall.
The other wall has windows that open up to show the sweeping mountains and starry night sky. There’s a rectangular oakwood table occupying the center, while two lush couches sit poised on either end.
Eartha, as she expected, is curled in one of the couches, a book on her blanketed knees. She doesn’t even lift her cheek from her hand as they enter. She merely looks up at them and offers a ghost of a smile before returning to her read.
Lanterns enclosed in intricate iron castings hang from the ceiling, spaced to stretch the entirety of the room. Their yellow painted panels cast the room in a golden glow. The wooden floor goes almost unnoticed thanks to the carpets set under the furniture, leaving little visual of the woodwork.
Set for thirteen, she leads Douglas towards it, swallowing back her nerves as she finds the stacks of books and spread of paper has been left untouched. The massive map of the entire continent sits at the center of the table, marked and flagged and pinned. Nothing having changed for days.
Keelie stalks to the table, where the other map is spread next to it, figurines dotting the surface. A map of both Tamarak, and the human lands. She and her coven personally marked every court in their land and in the human lands; along with the villages and cities and rivers and mountain passes.
Every court and kingdom in the land has been marked, even in Tamarak. They’ve outlined every mountain and glen, every street, shop, sewer line and district of the city and of course, the opal castle. Douglas walks up to the table, stopping a few feet away, as if it contained a venomous snake. Keelie gives a ghost of a smile and motions him to approach.
“What is this?” he asks quietly. Even when he is close enough to the table, he doesn’t place his hand on it.
She does, palms flat as she hovers over the map, the stacks of books flanking her sides.
“There’s so much to tell you. I don’t even know where to start.”
He gives a gentle smile. “How about from the beginning?”
“Are you sure you’re ready?”
“As I will ever be.”
Keelie swallows past the tightness in her throat and takes a deep breath. “Everyone knows the story of how my mother died. Killed, by her own mother. Does anyone ever talk about what happened to the other sisters?”
Douglas sways from one foot to the other before he realizes she’s asking for an answer. “No. Not that I know of. Nothing past some vague details, then others take the liberty of spinning the story with their own words. Most of witches’ history was taken back to Tamarak. Burned so that we wouldn’t have some form of, advantage on them.”
“Exactly. Because the Goddesses’ ordered it. Because they didn’t want to be found.” Her heart pinches as she watches Douglas’ skin pale ever so slightly, but she continues. “After the death of my mother – my family – Verdona, Amita and Hellga found out they were all with child. They wanted – needed – to get away: from the Matrons, from the life, everything. But they couldn’t leave the humans to the Matrons. So Amita sent some of her shape-shifter-soldiers around the city, informing the citizens to gather only their necessities. Anyone willing to fight had full permission. The rest were to sneak out of the city during the chaos.” She pauses, stirring, her gut twisting. “The number of volunteers was . . . stagnating. Most of the women and children were able to escape thanks to Verdona’s strategy and planning. It also helped that she altered the weather to ensure a heavy rain and fog.”
No one really knew Verdona’s abilities. She rarely ever showed them, even to Serana. It was always a mystery; but perhaps that was another part of her strategy. How could anyone defeat her if they didn’t know what could weaken her?
“Within the ranks of the Matrons’ covens, they hid spies that were supposed to convince the Matrons to destroy all knowledge regarding the witches and their abilities. So that they wouldn’t figure out where the other sisters had fled to. A paper only means so much when it’s burned to ash.”
“Was the rouse successful?” Douglas asks, his voice quiet.
“Almost too successful,” Keelie says roughly. “The Matrons burned everything. Including the Labyrinth of Parchment, the grand library located in the heart of Tamarak’s capitol. Verdona had set up her generals, Amita had routed the exits. The Matrons wouldn’t notice a few ‘out of control’ carts rolling through the streets during their genocidal campaign. The chaos would be the perfect escape, even if not one of the more, humane.”
“What about Hellga? Did she help at all?”
Keelie pauses, swallowing.
“Hellga, was the leading role in being the distraction; while the Matrons’ soldiers slaughtered to drive the humans out of Tamarak’s lands, she led Verdona’s soldiers. She had already given birth to her child and entrusted the baby to her first lady. Hellga was so consumed by her rage from Serana’s death that she didn’t care. She wanted to burn the city to ash. The sisters wanted her to flee with them. After Serana, Hellga was the second strongest of the sisters; in terms of raw power. She slaughtered all three covens, with her nails and teeth. Her fire she wanted to save for the Matrons. Once she knew most of the citizens were out, she just . . . released. Fueled by her rage, her fire took on a life of its own. It consumed her body, her soul, her mind until she was a living spawn of the sun. A firebird whose cry shook the core of the earth. Her fire a living, breathing thing.”
Douglas slides into one of the chairs, hardly able to keep upright.
“She floated up to the opal castle, ready for her killing blow.” She lifts her eyes to Douglas, knowing the haunted gleam in them. “But my grandmother expected her. She had a trap ready.”
Keelie isn’t sure Douglas is breathing as he doesn’t break her stare.
“Blinded by her rage, Hellga fell for it. Foolishly, she fell for it.” Keelie says through grit teeth. She fists her hands to keep them from shaking. “Details are vague, but it was a work of some very ancient magic, far older than even my grandmother. And powerful enough to force Hellga back to her immortal form. Her magic having been snuffed out, as if it had been doused.” Keeile lowers her head. “Hellga was taken prisoner. Each Matron took a piece: ripping off her finger, ripping out an eye, and severing an ear. And when she was prone, they whipped her, and then chained her everywhere: her neck, her wrists, her ankles, even clasping an iron mask over her face, etched with details of the sun. A mockery of her power, all while her back looked no more than a raw piece of meat. Then, they finally dragged her back to the castle. Then they slowly, over days and days, tore her apart. One of the spies said her screaming was endless. Only the roaring of the dragons filled the gaps of her screaming.
“But Hellga didn’t break. She didn’t tell them what they wanted to know. No matter how loud she screamed, how many bones they snapped. They were too stupid to know that all they had to do to get her to yield would have been to hint they knew about her child.”
Keeile clamps her quivering lip. Silver gleams in Douglas’ eyes, and he blinks it away.
“The Matrons always kept her guessing; always kept being creative. One day she was chained to a stone altar, the next she was dangling from a hook in the ceiling, then after strung up between whipping posts. Her blood never stopped flowing. Then one day, people say it just, stopped. The whole city fell quiet, palpable and suffocating. Some claim the sun never shined as brightly as it used to after that. None of the sisters went back for her, upon Hellga’s final request. To this day no one knows where they fled to. Or what happened to Hellga. They never found her body, never had a funeral; not even smoke, if they even bothered to burn her.”
Keelie looks to Douglas, whom has fisted his hands in his lap, their knuckles white. His skin is indeed paler than before. Even the gold of his eyes has dulled. When he speaks, his voice is thin, scratchy. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because rumors have surfaced about the heirs of the Goddesses’ being alive. Alive, and gathering forces to end the Matrons, and restore Tamrak to how my mother envisioned it.” Douglas straightens in his seat. Keelie rounds the table towards him. “Over the course of the following years, once my grandmother and her sisters usurped the throne – and gained new coven members – there has been speculation that all of the sisters’ births were successful, and that to this day, there is a rebellion against the Matrons that is growing and continuing to rise. Unfortunately, due to the course of those years, as well as the longevity of immortality skipping a few generations here and there, the bloodline was scattered, so the identity of the heirs have been lost.”
“Was that something planned?”
“Even if it was, I’m not mad at it. The names of their group have changed, but one that keeps circulating is ‘The Goddess’ Circle.’” Douglas snorts, and Keelie tries now to join him. Though the corners of her mouth do twitch. “In it are the supposed heirs of Amita and Verdona, and they are allegedly out there, right now, looking for the other descendants.”
“And you are Serana’s only living child. Her daughter, making you a direct descendant.” Douglas finishes. Keeile nods, an excitement sparking in her heart that quickly expels the horrors from her mind. “So, what does this have to do with Tamarak’s civil war?”
“I’ve been having my members keeping track of some attacks on the witches all across Tamarak, and most recently in Tundir, where we sacked the city not too long ago.” Keelie gestures to the map and the figurines. More specifically the red X that sit scattered in a random fashion. “They’ve been getting stronger and we’ve been losing numbers. Which only means my grandmother could be catching onto them. And that won’t help while I’m in trying to rally my own forces within the clans. But if the Goddess’ Circle is real, then they can turn the tide of this war. They could change everything. With their power, I may stand a chance. And if they’re out there right now looking for me, then I have to be ready.”
Douglas rises from his seat. “But you are aware that you’re basing this purely on speculation.”
“Who else would have the gall, and strength, to attack Tamarak Witches and walk away as the ones who survived?” She turns to a stack of books and opens it to a marked page. “I don’t know who the other descendants are, but I’m close to figuring it out. As of now, Hellga is the only Goddess whom no one knows about. And I’m hoping that if I could find them, perhaps it could be beneficial for me in convincing the rebels I’m on their side.”
Because growing up in Tamarak under the tutelage of her grandmother is going to be a fact that will be very hard to battle.
“The only leading evidence that we have are codes that the rebels have, invented, in an attempt to discover the heirs. Each Goddess was given a new human name when indoctrinated into the pantheon, so if their original names are said, then that’s how we gain their trust.”
Keelie shows the book to Douglas, circled texts and folded corners of pages, and papers with sloppy writing sit at the center. “Amita’s Arrow; Verdona’s Shield; Hellga’s Flame; and Serana’s Light.”
“Can’t you just track them by their magic, or abilities?” Douglas asks.
“No. it would be too risky for them. Their original magic was lost through the years. Not that anyone knew exactly what the goddesses’ original magic was anyways. What was one thing, can now be a thousand more. No one ever really knew what Verdona’s magic was; Amita’s abilities branch across the spans of nature and animals; and my mother’s magic was unique in ways that I can’t describe. Only Hellga’s fire is something that never faltered. Though it has skipped a generation or two, her flames never yielded to anything else. Which is why fire magic is rare, but near forbidden in Tamarak. Most of the fire-wielders were slaughtered by my grandmother in an attempt to stomp out whatever remanence there was of Hellga.”
She doesn’t have say her next thoughts, as she feels Douglas already piecing it together as he shifts uncomfortably.
“So what about me?” he finally asks.
Keelie sighs deeply, relieving the ache in her chest ever so slightly. “I don’t know.” Simply that. “It’s different among the human lands where fire magic is common, thanks to the breeding of the elves. So I’m not making any assumptions, but it’s also why I need you to master your magic. If something were to happen and you suddenly set the forest on fire again, my grandmother is going to notice.”
Douglas nods stiffly.
“You wanted to know everything, and that is all I have. I’m trying to find the lost descendants of the Goddesses’ Circle in hopes that they’ll help me win this war against the Matrons. Then hopefully we can find ways to negotiate with the humans about, the future.”
She watches his throat bob, a delicate lick of his lips. “I guess I never really . . . believed, that war was something that was plausible; something that was indeed actually happening right now.”
Keelie can only nod. Every time she thinks about it, her stomach shrinks a little more.
When Douglas doesn’t say anything else, she’s ready to dismiss herself, until he stands, rounding the table towards her. Keelie suddenly becomes all too aware of her heartbeat, her breathing. As Eartha probably is too.
Without a word, the witch leaves the study, wrapping the blanket about her shoulders.
“I, really appreciate this, Keelie. I do. And perhaps maybe in can help you, in any way I can.”
“I’m not too keen on the idea, but I know better than to tell you know.” She near whispers.
“You don’t want my help?”
“Not if it’ll put your life in danger.”
“You know, part of the rules about being a couple means that we do things together. You never do anything alone.”
“Why put your life at risk? Why add more worry to the person you truly . . . truly love?”
A shrug of his shoulders. And then a smug. “Support?”
“Douglas.” Keelie bites, though her lips are turning upwards as well.
He chuckles softly. “It’s true. To be there for each other, to know you always have someone at your back, being supportive means more than I can even explain. It means they believe in you, and what you’re doing. When nobody believes in you, then things get complicated, to say the least.”
Keelie nods, looking down at their feet. Her bare, painted toes an inch away from his feet warm in slippers. She stiffens as she feels his arm wrap around her waist. When Keelie looks up, her hand naturally lifts to place her palm on his chest. To feel his heartbeat beneath. The same way he had held her that night they danced endlessly during the Autumn Festival.
“Do you believe in me?” she asks.
With the softness of a flower petal, Douglas leans his head down and kisses her. In an instant, every tension in her body uncoils. Her muscles relax as she near melts into him. Pressing her chest to his, she has to suppress a moan in her throat.
“With every fiber of my being.” He takes her hands in his own. They nearly devoured hers. “I’m sorry for the way I’ve been acting and treating you. Trust when I say that I was unaware.”
“Not like I blame you. I was just wondering what I was doing wrong.”
“I doubt anything. You were doing everything right. I mean you even gave me the chance to see Marionette again. How could I hate someone who puts me so far ahead of herself? You need to make sure you’re alright. Try putting yourself before me.”
“I don’t care what happens to me.”
Keelie leans her forehead against his chest, feeling the warmth radiate from him like a living hearth. “Thank you.” She mumbles.
Douglas arms wrap around her and she has to fight a moan. She can’t think of anything else to follow that. Only that she wants more. She wants the hardness of his body crushing against hers; she wants his mouth and teeth and tongue on her bare skin, on her breasts, between her legs. Everywhere – she wants him everywhere. She is drowning in that need.
Thank the Goddesses Eartha left the room.
By the pull of fate, the clock on the mantel of the fireplace chimes nine o’clock at night. Keelie seizes the chance. “You should get some sleep. It’s been another long day.”
“You know sleeping isn’t the answer to everything.” Douglas teases with a grin.
“But it does help.”
With a chuckle, Douglas kisses her forehead and releases her hands. “I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“Sure. Breakfast. Yes.” Keelie says, nodding, folding her hands in front of her.
Another chuckle and Douglas turns to leave the study, the muscles of his back shifting beneath his shirt.
As he leaves, Eartha passes by him in the doorway. They exchange a nod, and when he’s gone, Eartha closes the door. Keelie approaches the couch and plops back down next to the witch who tosses half of her blanket over Keelie’s knees. Keelie settles into the fluffy pillows and Eartha returns her book to her knees.
“If I can make a request, My Lady. Please reel in that scent of yours. You’re going to make me vomit.”