The Witch's Circle

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Chapter 4

The rest of the coven members exit the dining room without so much as goodbye, safe for Raven who mumbles, “Thank you for joining us for dinner.” Then she trots off with the rest of the coven members, following behind Keelie. Once he’s certain they have all left, leaving only him and his company, he leans forward, resting his elbows on the table and sets his face in his hands. He takes a deep breath, but when he exhales, it rattles. Hitches.

There’s a whisper of fabric at his left and Deborah is at his side. Her warm arm slides across his shoulders, resting her chin on his head.

The disappointment in Keelie’s eyes hurt more than a knife in the gut. Yet despite that, he could see understanding in her eyes. But there was something deeper within – a deeper form of, pleading that he can’t decipher. She wanted him to become immortal, but she wouldn’t force him.

By him not agreeing, he doesn’t doubt that he might’ve thwarted whatever scheme she might have been planning. Perhaps he would be more willing if she just explained herself to him.

No. . . . not explained.

He wants her to expose herself to him.

That is his asking price, and he knew Keelie can sense it. But it would seem she is not willing to meet it. Not yet.

Lowering his hands from his face, focusing solely on Deborah’s hand smoothing circles across his back, he takes a deep breath.

“Do you think it’s true, what she said?” Derrick then asks, his voice quiet. Douglas and Deborah look up to him. “That we may also have immortal blood?”

Douglas looks to his father. His steel-blue eyes are as hard as the metal they mimic. “You all bear the blood of your mother as much as my own. Yet I don’t recall neither of you showing any signs of powers. I assumed it was a miracle, given what your mother had hidden from me. There were small slivers of her power within each of you. Derrick with your strength and muscle, Deborah with intelligence that would put a master scholar to shame. Your ideas and strategy in battle is unmatchable.” Those eyes look to Douglas once again. “And it would seem you got the full brunt of it, I’m afraid.”

“Please don’t be afraid. It doesn’t help.”

His father nods. “I apologize.” After another moment of constricting silence, his father sighs and scrubs his face with his hands. “Look Douglas, I agree with Keelie that mastering your magic is impertinent. The last thing we need is you burning this house to the ground in the middle of the night. Arrange with some of the witches to train you. No doubt one of them must share your abilities. As for your shifting . . .”

“What do I do?” Douglas asks, feeling like a little child. Deborah enhances her comforting circles.

“I don’t know. It’s an opportunity I never had. I was hoping everyone would take after my side of the family, but . . . I want you to be happy. To be safe. So I won’t stand in your way.”

Douglas’ lip wobbles. “You won’t?”

“There’s nothing that I can teach you, in regard to your magic. I’ve taught you everything I know, for all of you.” He says, gesturing to his brother and sister. “It’s your decision, Douglas. If Keelie can give you an opportunity that I can’t, I won’t hold you back. Nor should you hold yourself back.”

“It’s more than that. I enjoy having magic, but I like my life better. I like the idea of growing old with everyone. I like the idea of spending my days training and guarding and visiting each of you at your own homes, and watching you get married. Maybe even getting married myself. If I accept my immortality, all of that will be gone. If not, delayed.” He’s crying before he realizes it. “I don’t want to be alone.”

Enhard and the siblings wipe tears from their eyes, Arin blinking and trying to nonchalantly wipe his nose.

“Why don’t we have one of the members do some research? See if we have it too?” Derrick asks. “Would that make it better?”

“I don’t know. But I don’t want you going out of your way for me.”

“It’s not really going out of our way, more like, confirming a theory. Father said you had the full inheritance of our mother’s blood, and we received some small token. But what if that token is, enhanced?”

Douglas looks to Deborah, who isn’t sold at all on Derrick’s idea. She levels him with an icy glare, but he only shrugs his shoulders, unwilling to give up so easily.

“Well, it’s a plan, but it’s not exactly ethical.” Douglas says, rubbing Deborah’s fingers, as if it would keep her from using them to claw out Derrick’s eyes.

“I just don’t want you to not do this because of us, Douglas.” Derrick continues. “There’s clearly something more going on here that we don’t know; that Keelie won’t tell us. If keeping your magic in check will help keep you safe, then who are we to hold you back from that?”

This isn’t what he expected. He understands why his family is being like this. But after giving his decision, he’s surprised to find them . . . disappointed. He only has his sister left, the only tether that will help to clarify he’s made the right decision. Besides, training with his magic in his human form may be more beneficial with the iron incorperated tightening its leash. Right?

He looks to Deborah. His sister’s eyes find him and her expression softens. He can’t help the small smile. She’ll always have a soft spot for her little brother. Looking back at their father and brother, she closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. “I’ll go along with whatever you think is right.”

Not the answer he was expecting, but it’s better than nothing. He gives her a dip of his chin and says, “Thank you.” He gives a sigh before rising from his seat. “Well, I think I’ll head to bed then. I hope the rest of your will be able to get comfortable.”

He spares Deborah a kiss on her cheek before leaving the dining room. He manages to pass by one servant girl, sparing her a nod and mumbling his thanks for their service. The smile she returns is genuine as she readies to wipe the table, and he has to bite back the ache in his chest. When was the last time he really, truly smiled?

Heading up the grand staircase, he attempts to locate Keelie’s room himself, figuring it to be on the second floor. But after three failed attempts, and the fourth ending up with him walking in on Ira as she was stripping out of her gown, he resorts to asking a passing servant. He can only thank the gods and goddesses that Ira didn’t claw out his eyes. Instead, she gave him a playful wink as she just swaggered over into her dressing room. The ends of her wine-red hair tickled her perfectly sculpted bum.

Keelie’s rooms have double oak doors, an immediate stand out from the rest of the white around the estate. He takes a deep breath and knocks twice. Through the wood, her voice filters, “Come in.”

Opening the doors, he finds himself in a room of pearl and lavender. The floor is carpeted here as well, the far wall replaced with large windows that reach the ceiling. Windows of which the drapes have been pulled open, allowing so much natural daylight. Two thick columns support the ceiling by the window before it opens up, arching over the large bed before flattening again. Another chandelier hangs at the epicenter of the room, winking like the dust of faeries.

The bed is as large as his own, set with a ruffled comforter and pillows for days. Two lamps flank the head of the bed, set against the right wall, while plush furniture sits tastefully by the windows. Parallel to the bed is the bathing room, and then against the left wall are bookshelves. Many bookshelves filled to the brim. So many books, he realizes – on the shelves, on the tables by the couch and chairs, stacked in front of the windows spanning the entire length of the great room.

As he steps further into her room, he takes the moment to realize this may be his chance to peek into the life of Keelie when she’s . . . being herself. Not the frail, piping acolyte of the bookstore; not the brutal, unyielding heir of the witch clan, but Keelie.

A woman who would rather live in a world of writing than her own. A woman who uses books as an escape; as a chance to be someone else entirely.

Keelie sits at her vanity in an attached dressing room. She brushes out her hair, dressed down to a teal-blue dressing robe of silk. He tries to ignore how open the robe falls, exposing the smooth pane between her breasts.

Her hazel eyes look to him and she offers a friendly smile. It doesn’t reach her eyes. She continues to brush her hair without a word. He tries to bite back a smile as he watches her nipples peak and show through the thin fabric of her robe.

Douglas leans against the doorway, putting his hands in his pockets. “Let me just say that, I do feel the need to apologize, but I won’t.”

“You shouldn’t have to. It’s your decision.” Keelie says, putting down the brush and starting to remove her jewelry. “And I’m not going to force you into something you don’t want.”

“Your reaction would suggest otherwise.”

“Did you really expect me not to act disappointed? But I can learn to live with it. I can learn to deal with it and work around it.” Keelie places her earrings and rings into her jewelry box.

“Maybe I wouldn’t be so inclined to deny your offer if you just told me what it is you’re trying to scheme.”

Keelie whirls to him, her nostrils flaring. He can feel a current in the air chill instantly. “You really think it’s a smart idea to just spew a whole bunch of information on you, right after you were just taken from your home? You need to adjust. The information that I know, it can and will shatter you, Douglas. You’re not ready to hear that.”

Douglas pushes off of the threshold, taking two bold steps in her direction. “And who are you to decide what is best for me? You think you know me better than I know myself?”

Keelie rises from her upholstered seat before the vanity, meeting his challenge. She even takes a couple steps towards him. “Believe me Douglas, there are many things that I want to tell you. So many things that I know you deserve to know. But you fail to see how weak you have become.”

She walks past him and Douglas follows her, trying to ignore the way the robe stops at the middle of her thighs.

“What the hell do you mean that I’ve become wea–!”

Keelie whirls around, the robe billowing enough to show the curve of her bum. “Don’t act like you don’t know it either, Douglas. I see the way Marionette’s name still tightens your throat. The way you immediately shut down.”

And just as she says it, he does. His mouth clamps shut, his throat becomes tight.

Her voice and face softens. She takes a step closer, only a step. “You still feel guilt and grief. About what you had to do. It was the beginning of the end for you.”

Not knowing how to counter it, Douglas folds his lips in. He sighs and steps aside, scrubbing his hands over his face.

“I know you’ve tried to make amends with her death, tried to accept it but you can’t. You argue with yourself that you had to, but also that maybe there might’ve been a way to save her.”

“Stop it,” he warns, his voice trembling with anger, and fear.

“Not until you face it! Not until you admit it to yourself, Douglas! Marionette is gone!”

“Shut your mouth!” Douglas says, his face twisting with rage and anguish. The wound she’s touching, it burns . . . deeply. Both he and Keelie know fully well she is treading a line that will push him away from her, if not over the edge he is dangling on. She wouldn’t break him. Not like this.

She wouldn’t . . .

“Marionette is dead!”

Be quiet!” The world explodes around him. For a second, he fears he might set the entire room on fire. For a second, he’s hoping that he sets Keelie on fire.

But he doesn’t do either of those things.

There is the sound of thunder cracking, and an explosion of flame forms around him.

The windows shatter.

The furniture splinters.

A ring of flames sparks around him throwing themselves forward at Keelie.

She stands like a pillar of steel, staring at him with brutal strength as the flames rush past her, as her robe billows furiously in the wake of the fire. Her hair halos around her head like a veil of black.

As quickly as the fire is there, it’s gone, and Douglas is breathing heavy.

His knees buckle beneath him and the soft carpet cushions the impact. He can feel the warmth of tears sliding down his cheeks. He covers his mouth, his throat like sandpaper. He could’ve sworn the hole in his heart cleaved even deeper.

He’s shaking so hard he thought his bones will splinter as the furniture had.

Around him sits a ring of black, yet the rest of the room remains untouched, unburned. Whatever magic is holding his estate together, he is grateful.

He hasn’t said the words ’She’s dead’ since Marionette; hasn’t been able to say the words, not willing to give the truth its recognition; its power. Denial is an enormous part of it, some part of him still unable to accept the fact the Marionette, the former Heir of the Thornheart Witch Clan is dead.

Dead, by his own hands.

Keelie having snuffed out whatever strength he thought he had, Douglas doubles over his knees, forehead touching the cool, wood floor, he begins to cry.

He ends up tipping over on his side, closing into himself. He wants nothing more than to huddle himself in a cocoon of fire. Let its warmth coil around him and block out the cruel world.

Gods, what happened to the warrior back in the autumn? What happened to the young man ready to take on the Royal Guard, take on the world with a shield and spear?

He died along with Marionette. Then whatever remnants of him remained shriveled and died when Kelsey – his only tether to that former life – turned into the beautiful but wicked heir of the Scarletblood Witch Clan.

There is nothing left of that man.

Soft feet pad towards him, and a cool hand slithers across his shoulder. Fingertips of ice brush his chin and he flinches, despite moaning with relief as the touch sends a trail of cold through his limbs.

Keeile kneels down next to him and she pulls him to her chest. He doesn’t have the energy to fight it.

He feels her chest quake as her hand gently pets his head. “I’m sorry,” she whispers.

He can’t stop trembling.

How? How can someone who was so cold mere moments ago suddenly be so compassionate? He almost wants to shove her away out of . . . fear. But perhaps letting her smell it on his skin is enough to cleave her heart. Or whatever she may have that’s keeping her physical body alive.

“I’m sorry, I just, I hate seeing you in such pain.” She whimpers.

“So you try to break me further?” he nearly snarls.

“I’m trying to help you face it. Acceptance is the key to be truly free.”

He shoves against her, or at least attempts to, but his weakened arms betray him, and he sobs more. Keelie just rubs his back and kisses his temple.

“You need to face it, Douglas. And I can help you. Then we can look to helping you with your magic.”

She goes for another kiss, but he manages to turn his head away. He feels her pause, then continue to rub his back.

“I’m sorry,” she repeats, but it means nothing. She hugs him tighter, as if that will help make things better. As if her strength will be absorbed into his skin. “Look, I can help you. I know a way to help you feel better.”

“And what makes you think I’ll want anything from you?” he snaps, wiping his nose. He leans away, pulling out of her arms for added emphasis.

Keelie looks to him with an expression that he would’ve seen on Kelsey. Something lined with hurt. He ignores it.

Douglas forces himself to stand, steeling as much self-respect as he can when he trips over his own foot. He grabs a tissue, sloppily wiping his nose.

“I can help you, Douglas, if only you trust me.” Keelie says behind him as she rises.

Douglas shakes his head as he discards the tissue. He braces his palms on a console table, taking deep breaths. Loosening a cold chuckle, he glances over his shoulder to her. She’s wrapped her arms around herself, her nipples still visibly hard through her robe. “How,” he whispers.

“I’m a witch. I have magic.” Is all she says.

“I meant, how do you expect me to trust you?” He bites.

Looking to her, he watches her blink, the only indication of her taking the verbal slap. She then lifts her chin.

“Come with me.”

Even with the magic thrumming in his veins, he takes a deep breath and follows.

She leads him down, down, down beneath the manor through a series of stone tunnels similar to that of the castle. Only these are more illuminated with torches bracketed to the walls every five feet.

Once they slipped through a hidden door beneath one of the staircases, Keelie guided him without a word, still dressed in her dressing robe. Except at her side she wears a satchel. He didn’t see what she put inside, but he can hear the contents clinking against one another.

“I allow my coven and the servants to experiment down here. The stones are enchanted with runes to absorb any and all magic. So whether there’s an explosion, or if they want to throw a tantrum, they can do it down here without fear of harming anyone or of collapsing the entire home.” She says, running her fingertips along the wall as they descend the stone steps. In their wake, lines of soft glowing purple trail after, as if the stones are thrilled at her touch.

He can’t help but feel like her mentioning is just as much for him as well.

They reach the landing of the stairs and to their left is an open room with a high ceiling and its bricks chipped and broken. The remnants are just left scattered across the floor, yet the epicenter of the room remains clean, dusted.

“Stay there.” She orders, pointing to the threshold of the archway into the room.

He obeys and watches as she walks towards the center. He knows she has to be cold all the way down here, especially with that silk robe. He can see his own breath puffing in front of his face. Either Keelie does a good job at now showing it, or her magic is warming her veins.

Once at the center, she digs through the satchel and pulls out a small piece of chalk. He tires – and fails – not to look at her ass while she bends over and begins to draw along the floor.

His heart is already singing at the anticipation and expectation of why she’s brought him down here. Yet he’s trying not to get his hopes up, or perhaps he’s just in denial that such a thing can still happen.

Keelie doesn’t say anything as she’s soon enthralled in an elegant dance around the room, Tamarak’s Ancient Runes following after her feet. It is complex, a weave of loops and angles. So much so that Douglas knew she is far advanced in the language, and its understanding.

These runes can warp things. Warp reality. And possibly warp those who couldn’t – or didn’t – know how to control its powers.

It might’ve been the constant hum through his bones, or to just break the awkward silence, but Douglas asks, “What does it read?”

Keeile continues to turn and trace her way around the room. Without stumble, and without pause, she says, “Marionette.”

Douglas’ throat tightens, his stomach flipping over itself.

Marionette’s name in a form of the Ancient Runes.

Keelie clears her throat and begins to speak as she continues creating the circle. Douglas doesn’t recognize the words, but to hear them is like a venomous song in his veins. He has to take a calming breath as he can feel the string of magic latch onto his finger, snaking across his arms and down beneath the pool of his stomach, licking his magic with temptation.

He bites his bottom lip, trapping his hands beneath his folded arm as Keelie finishes the final mark, the words following.

The symbols begin to glow green, one after another, until the whole floor is a circle of light. The stones within its borders darken, darken, darken, then disappear.

The blackness within the green circle seems to reach out for him.

Holy gods, it had worked.

Seeing the runes fulfill their purpose before his very eyes . . . wait, is this truly the first time he’s seen them work?

Is that what waits for him when he dies? Marionette had gone here?

Keelie claps off her hands and adjusts the satchel at her shoulder. She walks over to Douglas and . . . and just stands there.

He looks to her as she folds her arms and waits. When she turns to look at him, she merely gestures towards the churning darkness.

“What do I do?” he asks.

“Just walk up to it and say who you want to see.”

Douglas pauses to look at the portal, the darkness near whispering to him, then looking back at Keelie. She only raises her brows, then whispers with heartbreaking gentleness. “Go on.”

Taking one more look at her, he takes a deep breath as he approaches the darkness. He could’ve sworn that light briefly flashes around the rim of the circle in time with his footsteps.

Once he’s in front of the portal, he can feel it leeching the energy from his bones. Even seeing very, very faint wisps of . . . energy floating form him towards the portal. He swallows, taking a deep breath.

“Marionette?” he whispers, his throat raw.

There is nothing. Nothing there—just a void.

Douglas looks to Keelie, who only nods her head in encouragement. She had done this spell before, she knows she did it right. “Marionette?” he whispers toward that endless dark.

There is no response.

Perhaps it needs time. Maybe Marionette had to travel through whatever this realm is.

So Douglas waits.

The longer he stares into that endless void, the more it seems to stare back.

“Please,” Douglas whispers into the dark, closing his eyes and trying to picture the witch in his mind’s third eye. Maybe the magic would sense it and know who to bring.

Then there’s another flash, brighter than the last even from behind his closed lids.

Opening his eyes, Douglas watches as the blackness suddenly fades away, like a pile of ash being brushed by the wind. Rays of sunlight spike up from the floor; gossamer-looking, like The Aurora’s Waltz, Tamarak’s northern lights.

Beneath it, sits an endless surface of pale gold and ivory. There’s still a thin fog-like material undulating around, but unlike the black fog, this seems, content. There is no rush for it to go this way or that, or even perhaps to being stationary.

This world feels calmer, warmer . . . like a fresh day in spring. He can feel the beauty, the welcome and the tender touch like a moth’s wing. The tendrils he saw before are now flowing towards him, their touch soft like rose petals along his skin.

He looks to Keelie, whose eyes seem to be, gleaming at the sight of the beautiful world. Her expression of solemn and freedom is gone as quickly as he notices it and she blinks rapidly to dismiss the moisture of her eyes. They then flick to over his shoulder, her body growing stiff.

Douglas looks towards the portal at the same moment Keelie gently sighs.

And then everything stops as he beholds the shimmering figure standing just at the center of the portal.

The edges of Marionette’s body ripple and blur, fracturing with some sort of inner light. But her face is clear—her face is . . . it is her face.

Her hair slowly undulates around her head, as though she is underwater and the current is playing with her moonlight locks.

Her face is downcast, her expression calm, as though something else has her attention. Unaware of the opening before her. Her dress is a mint-green color with two gold broaches clasping the fabric to her shoulders, and the long-slit openings for the sleeves drape to her wrists, tucked into gold cuffs. The front dips low to the pane between her breasts, then belted at her waist. There’s no extravagant design, no whorls of glitter or beads sewn along it; it’s simple, but elegant. The skirt flows and churns like her hair, enveloping the rest of her form. She wears no jewelry, but with her billowing hair, any other ornamentation seems useless.

Finally, she looks up, and her amethyst eyes widen and blink quickly in surprise, eyebrows high in disbelief. “Douglas?” she gently whispers, her voice echoing from one world to the next.

Douglas sinks to his knees.

He feels the warmth of his tears before he realizes he is crying. “I’m sorry,” is all he can say. “I’m so sorry.”

But Marionette’s attention scans behind him, to Keelie leaning against the stone threshold. Her tone shifts, and he knew she is now staring at Keelie. “What is the meaning of this? What have you done to him?”

“It’s what I’m doing for him. Now be nice and give him your attention.”

There’s just enough bite that Douglas can sense jealousy, but also enough play that he can see Keelie attempting to smile. It doesn’t reach her eyes.

“I’ll leave you two alone.” And that was that. She walks out without another word.

Douglas looks up. The light radiating off the witch seems to reach only to the rims of the circle, as if there truly is some sort of line — some final boundary. She’s keeping her eyes on the threshold for some time, and just as he’s about to beg for her attention, she looks to him and her face softens.

“I’m sorry,” Douglas whispers again. “I just — I’ve been so miserable, and the things that I said to you . . .”

Marionette presses a finger to her rose-pink lips. He ceases talking immediately. “I know you carry grief with you, thinking you deserved it. Deserved to let it crush you, eat you alive, hold you back from being happy. But you don’t. You shouldn’t think like that. You did what you had to do, as did I. I couldn’t control what was in my mind. So believe me when I say, that what you did for me is a blessing.”

What you did for me. Not what you did to me.

He didn’t know, didn’t think . . .

He’s trembling again, but still he lifts his hand and reaches out to her. She looks to it, then to him. When she smiles, her white teeth shine through, no iron in sight. His breathing begins to quicken.

She takes a step towards him, the skirt of her dress blooming wide before snapping back to cling to her beautifully curved legs. The ground illuminates beneath her every step.

Marionette reaches out her own hand. Her nails are long, and shaped, but no claws, her skin looking so smooth, so soft. Douglas gathers enough sense to make himself stand up.

He nearly gasps when he feels Maroinette’s cold hand slide into his warm one. Still his eyes are locked onto her as he slowly folds his fingers over hers. He wants to step closer, wrap his arms around her and hug her, bury into her shoulder, but he worries she will just pass through him.

A chill sweeps over him as Marionette slowly approaches. Though her skin feels like ice, it doesn’t burn, nor does it make his fingers grow numb. It’s a cold that dawdles, but is soft like midnight-velvet.

And it feels whole.

The moment feels real. She feels real.

She raises her other hand and drifts it agonizingly slow towards Douglas’ face. He shivers, loose strands of her hair tickling his cheek in spiderweb wisps. Though it dies away, dissipating like a sigh, it leaves him frigid in its wake. He lets the tears stream from his eyes as he buries into her palm.

“You are destined for such great things, yet you continue to pummel yourself into the ground, when you desperately need to pick yourself up.” She says, her voice like a disembodied melody.

“I just – I don’t know what to do with myself. You were the only witch I could trust.”

Marionette’s phantom hand somehow manages to wipe away his tears. “You don’t trust Keelie?”

“You did?”

Her lips press into a line, her dark lashes contrasting with her ethereal self, her inner light. “When my mother casted me out, I became as hopeless as you feel. I know what you’re going through, and I know it hurts. I know it is tough.”

Douglas almost wants to laugh. She may understand his pain, but he probably hasn’t even come close to understanding a fathom of what Marionette had endured. And yet . . . whether by a goddess with a cruel sense of humor, or by a goddess who sought better for her, Marionette survived.

“Keelie found me at my worst. She took me in and helped me; she shared with me stories and ideas of a better world for the witches of Tamarak. I thought that it was mere stories to keep me entertained while I fevered in bed; something to make conversation while she healed my wounds – physical, mental, and emotional – and while she trained me to get strong again. But when I saw how she treated her coven, not just her Riders, but the lesser covens of the clan, I saw it . . .” Her own eyes water and she clamps her lips together to keep them from trembling. “I saw that glimpse of what our world could be. What it can be like. So I swore my life to her, and to her cause. And even now I still hope.” With a gentle finger, she traces his hairline to the shell of his ear. “Keelie gave me a reason to keep fighting. To keep moving. And it helped that a handsome, blue-eyed knight came to me with the same ideas.”

His hands have slipped to caress her waist. He didn’t even realize. Everything just felt so, relaxed.

He doesn’t know what to say. Words seem inadequate now. But . . .

“You loved me.” The words are out before he can stop himself. Both a question and a statement.

Marionette pauses, withdrawing her hand in surprise. But then she blinks and lowers her head, almost in shame. She traces lazy circles along his knuckles.

“Yes, I did. I still do.” She breathes. “I never told you – how I felt. I was, afraid. But I loved you, and I think a part of me will always love you.”

She will not apologize, nor say that she should have. Because her death was unexpected, and it was her decision to tell him.

“I miss you,” Douglas says, his throat tightening. “Every day, I miss you. And I wonder what you would have made of all this. Made of me.” He stares down at his open palms, imagining the fire tipping his fingers with clawed flames. “I think I was falling in love with you for a while, but I just figured it was, expected. And when I came close to knowing, I became so scared of it that I didn’t want to look closer. I was a coward. Maybe we were meant to be and neither of us knew it. Maybe if I see you again in the next life, I’ll know for sure. But until then . . . until then I’ll miss you, and I’ll wish you were here.”

“Don’t close your heart, Douglas. You had every reason. I don’t blame you for that. I hold nothing against you. I just want you to know that Keelie can be trusted. Even if she can irritatingly cryptic.”

Douglas chuckles, his chest feeling heavy at the motion, but suddenly lighter as he feels his lips stretch into a smile.

He feels her hand again touch his cheek. Cold, but physical. At least . . . by magic it is. He nearly freezes when she steps close and stands on her toes to place a kiss on his cheek.

Soft, like the touch of a snowflake, and gone even quicker.

“Good-bye, my love,” Marionette said to him, and begins walking into the light. When she slips away, he feels colder without her touch.

Douglas just stands there, unable to move or think. His throat burns with more pent-up words, the words that now choke the life out of him.

“Douglas.” Marionette pauses to look back at him. The void seems to be swirling, swallowing her up bit by bit. “You will not understand yet, but . . . I knew what my fate was to be, and I embraced it. I ran towards it. Because it was the only way for things to begin changing, for events to be set in motion. But no matter what I did, Douglas, I want you to know that in the darkness of my miserable existence, you were one of the bright lights for me. Please share that light with the world. And leave it a better place than how you found it.”

And before he can reply, the witch is gone.

There is nothing in the dark. As though Marionette had never been. As though he made it all up.

“Come back,” he whispers. “Please – please come back.”

But the darkness remains the same. And Marionette is gone.

There is a scrape of footsteps – but not from the portal. Rather, it comes from behind him.

From Keelie, who is back to leaning her shoulder against the threshold of stone, arms crossed. Her gaze is to the floor, as if still waiting for permission to speak, or to fully enter the chamber.

Douglas just stares at her. She has one side of hair tucked behind her ear, the rest gathered to fall over one shoulder. without having to say a word, she speaks, “My original assignment was to live in Rarenth to learn ways to infiltrate it. What was supposed to last a couple of months turned into years.” She looks to Douglas when she speaks next. “I used my magic to cleave into the minds of the bookstore keepers; make them think I was their daughter. I had overhead how they wanted children, but the woman couldn’t handle childbirth. And then a small part of me wanted a family again, so badly. I used that as justification, but it barely helped. Over the years, I glamoured their minds so they wouldn’t notice anything, unusual from me. Used it to make them give me freedom and not ask questions. I could roam freely between the two homes and not be asked questions. My grandmother didn’t think to ask questions, especially when I brought her some Witch Hunters heads as excuses as to why my assignment was taking so long.”

Douglas begins to take steps towards her as the portal begins to slowly dim behind him.

“And then one day you just so happened to walk into the bookstore, and I just –” She seems to stop herself short, biting her bottom lip. She doesn’t seem to notice Douglas’ approach, even when she looks to him when she says, “You changed everything for me. I guess in a way I was just living in a constant state of, reiteration. It felt good to be a part of a family again. To live a normal life. But I became selfish. And in turn it made you suffer, and for that, I am deeply sorry. I’m sorry I lied to you. I’m sorry I ruined your life.” Her lip quivers. “I’m sorry I made you hate me. Distrust me, but goddesses know I deserve it. But please understand that everything we had, it was real. I know I used you, I manipulated you, but the feelings I had for you – the nights we shared, the kisses we exchanged, it was one of the best things to happen to me in my existence and I –”

She barely finishes her last word as he takes her face in his hands. She looks at him for a moment, her eyes gleaming. She doesn’t fight as he slides his arms around her, tucking her in tightly enough that her warmth soaks through him. He buries his face in her neck and says into her nape, “Thank you.”

He murmurs it over and over. There could be a handful of reasons as to why she did this, but he doesn’t care. What she had done for him, what she had done for Marionette . . .

This gift, it will mean more to him than she will ever realize, even if she had planned it. He can understand why she did everything she did, truly he can, and she can bring herself to see why he’s broken the way he is.

What he’d said to Marionette, he had spoken with his heart. Or what is left of it. He can see now that despite how twisted her plans may be, it comes from a place of understanding.

There is still so much more she needs to tell him, but after what she had just babbled . . . It’s not the words that mattered, it’s what he saw beneath.

The fear.

The jealousy.

The worry.

The agony of having to watch the man she cared about, claim his heart to another woman. Another witch.

A part of him will always belong to Marionette, just as pieces belong to his family.

There is still much they need to work out. A bit of a path they must walk, but . . . there is a path.

There is something left of what he had for Kelsey, what he adored. Perhaps he can learn to give it to Keelie, an immortal witch with the heart of a human.

Douglas holds Keelie tighter, and she returns it, nestling her head against his shoulder.

Perhaps he can share another piece of his heart with Keelie.

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