“So what kind of, creatures can we look for around here? Being so close to Tamarak’s border?” Douglas asks two days later as he uses his daggers to block Luke’s iron claws. The morning is warm, but still a light coldness bites the air, easing his heated skin.
“You don’t want to be looking for them in the first place, frankly.” Luke says, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. The two of them collide, Douglas dodges a swipe of Luke’s claws to his abdomen, and they separate.
Douglas’ own smile curls his lips. “Is that a joke? I don’t think I’ve heard you make one before.”
From where she lounges in a chaise, the witch with eyes of meridian blue – Cedonia – snorts. “You should feel honored. He only tends to joke with people he likes.”
He learned her name thanks to Raven during breakfast. It didn’t take her long to think of the female with eyes that mimic twilight.
Cedonia has her hair wrapped atop her head and secured with a pin. Strands dangle from her ears, accentuating her long neck. She picks at her nails, cleaning them with a tiny bone – he realizes. She didn’t say anything when she first came out of the double glass doors, just a smile and plopped down. The skirt of her rose-pink gossamer gown pool over the lip of the cushion.
He and Luke clash and scrape and separate, sweat sliding down his body. The past two days of training have been physically demanding, and have done wonders as his excuse to not do anything for the rest of the day. His muscles have been a cacophony of ache since the first day – Ira focusing on every muscle in the body instead of dedicating one day to one muscle.
This morning when getting out of bed, his knees gave out beneath him. Though a part of him loves the soreness – as an indication of progress – when it hinders him using the restroom on his own, that’s when he calls a healer to help him get to walking again without wobbling like a newborn lamb.
Thankfully Keelie summoned Ira to a study somewhere in the manor and left Luke in charge of training.
Douglas blocks another swipe of Luke’s claws and sidesteps out of the next. “But how far can they come on the property. I can only imagine not too far, knowing Keelie and how much she cares about you all.”
After another clash, they push off and Luke signals him for a rest. “She has the house guarded by wards, yes, but it’s not a physical barrier. Instead it’s a heavy, odorous scent that keeps them away.”
He walks out of the ring and towards the low-lying table that holds an ice-cold pitcher of lemonade. Douglas follows, sheathing his daggers at his belt.
Luke has since removed his shirt, the muscles his back shifting and moving as he walks over to the table. Though he would never admit it to anyone, Douglas feels as puny as he did when he first met the male. But to see the full breadth of his shoulders, the way the muscles in his back ripple with the sweat, the scars that pepper across the skin . . .
Douglas shakes his head and sighs. He takes a seat across from Cedonia in a vacant chaise, accepting a glass from Luke. He downs the whole thing in a few gulps.
“Have any of you seen my family, or my friends? How are they, acclimating?”
Cedonia shrugs her shoulders. “They’re still trying their best to avoid us, and they’re still afraid of us. I ran into one of those siblings in the hallway, and when he saw me, he practically plastered himself against the wall just to allow me to pass.”
Douglas gives an apologetic cringe. “Forgive them. They’re still, adjusting.”
Cedonia doesn’t look up from her nails as she says, “As you’ve said.”
Douglas swallows nervously, but Luke nudges her shoulder with his elbow. She snarls at the Third before looking back to Douglas. “Of course I understand their caution, but one would think they’d figure out by now that we’re not going to maim them.”
“Because Keelie ordered it?” Douglas pushes.
Both of the witches look to him and blink. And it is Luke who answers, “Keelie has given us orders not to harm your family. But even if she didn’t, they haven’t given us a reason to kill them to begin with.”
“But you’ve been known to kill for sport.”
Luke’s snake eyes seem to shine with a predatory gleam when he says, “If you want the truth, then fine: if we didn’t know you, if we were to stumble across them at some random mention, chances of us attacking them are fifty-fifty.”
Douglas slouches back in the chaise, fiddling with a tassel at the corner of a pillow. “Most of it is my fault; I dragged them into this.”
“Keelie has been saying the same thing about you.” Cedonia says. Luke gives her a warning growl, but she only looks to him and gives a feline smile.
Douglas blinks. “What?”
“She’s been saying the same thing about you and your family since we swooped you from the castle. She’ll talk about how she should’ve just let you go, how it might’ve been stupid of her to wring you into a deal when she knew fully well of the consequences –”
“That’s enough, Cedonia.” Luke says with deathly calm. “We shouldn’t be gossiping about our Lady’s business, unless she deems it appropriate for Douglas to hear.”
“Am I not already permitted?”
Luke and Cedonia exchange a look that makes her sigh and slouch back against the cushions. Then Luke looks to him and says, “There are some things that are better left unsaid; even to you, Douglas. Keelie will tell you anything and everything when she’s ready.”
“You’re making the implication that she’s still scheming behind my back. She talks about how she wants us to continue what I had with Kelsey, but it was her scheming that makes me not trust her still.”
“Even when you know very well the reasons as to why she had to keep certain things from you, Douglas?”
“I do, but if she wants me to trust her now, with everything exposed, I’d appreciate it if she involved me about her plans. She better not expect me to just sit around on my ass all day.”
Cedonia closes her eyes as she tips back her head, sunning her sand colored skin. She rolls the tiny bone through her fingers. “Why do you think she’s letting you train?”
“To distract me, while she continues to plot.” He clutches the glass in his hand so hard that it groans.
Luke fills his second glass and sips half of it before he says, “I hope that you also understand that she’s doing it because she wants to protect you.”
“I don’t need any protection.”
“Up against immortal witches, you do.” Luke bites back. Douglas blinks, but doesn’t break his gaze with the male. Luke finishes his glass before he continues, “Keelie has already faced more death in her lifetime than any of us will. She’s suffered having everything and everyone she’s ever loved ripped away from her with merciless finality – so I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive her, Douglas, for trying to protect whatever – whomever – she has left.”
Douglas exhales through his nose before asking, “Has she tried to do the same for you?”
“Oh absolutely,” Cedonia says, eyes still closed. “Until we could prove to her that we could handle ourselves; especially in front of her grandmother. You can only imagine how difficult it was for her to try to protect us, when we’re the ones who need to protect her.”
“Did she tell you anything about what she could be “scheming?” Luke asks, downing and filling his glass for the fourth time.
Douglas pauses for a moment. “She didn’t tell you? You’re her Third.”
Luke shrugs. “As I said, there are some things that she can only confide to her Second.”
“And you’re okay with that?” Douglas says, making the wise decision to set down his glass. “Even after how hard you’ve had to work to get where you are? Doesn’t that make you feel like she doesn’t trust you?”
“Keelie has many reasons to keep things from us.” Cedonia chimes. “We trust her enough that she will tell us in time; especially if the information puts us at risk. Because with this whole civil war movement going on, the less we know, the better for us.”
“Have you ever tried telling her?”
“No,” says Luke. “But you never answered my question: has she told you anything about her plans, that is if she has any.”
Douglas gives another shrug of his shoulders. “All she told me is that she’s looking further back into my bloodline; to see where my magic might’ve originated from. As for why, well I wasn’t that lucky.”
“At least she told you something.” Luke says, with an all-too casual sip of his fifth glass.
Cedonia says, “An answer for an answer: We have tried to convince Keelie to tell us about her plans, but as I said, if things go to shit, the less the Matrons think we know, the better. Keeile would rather give her life then to let her grandmother lay an iron nail on us.”
“She would break herself apart for us.” Says Luke. Douglas looks to find the male staring blankly at the table, but his eyes have traveled far. Noticing Douglas, he blinks, bringing himself back and says, “Even more for you. I know what she would do for us, but I can’t – nor do I want – to imagine what she would put herself through for you.”
It takes every ounce of willpower for Douglas to steel his spine as Luke leans forward, resting his elbows to his knees.
His pupils become thin slits of black, lined with a deadly calm when he says with lethal quiet, “It would be in your best interest to appreciate everything she does for you, Douglas. Because there will come a day, when you will watch her shatter before your eyes; all to ensure that your life is completely out of reach of danger.”
Douglas chokes against the tightness in his throat as Luke turns his head and his eyes become vacant.
“They say love is pain. Love is blind. But love, can also be deadly.”
“It would seem Luke’s been hitting the alcohol too much,” a female voice chimes from the doors. All three of them look to find Raven strutting her way through, dressed in close fitting fighting leathers and matching black pants. She walks up and leans against the arm of Douglas’ chaise. “Looks like you two are much busier running your mouths than running laps.”
“We’re taking a well-earned break.” Luke defends, raising his glass.
“That lasts for about twenty minutes.” Cedonia says, poking the bone beneath her thumbnail.
“We were only here for six!” Douglas says as he leans back against the cushion.
“Doesn’t take away from the fact that you’re taking your sweet time getting back in the ring.”
Douglas pouts, but it’s Luke who says, “Bitch. How about I drag you into the ring and see just how much you’ve been keeping up with your training.”
Cedonia offers a smile that is far too sweet. “Touch me, Luke, and I’ll rip off your most valuable asset. Small as it may be.”
To Douglas’ surprise, instead of a feral growl, the Third merely chuckles as he sets down his glass. He rises in a smooth motion, his muscles rippling. As he’s about to order Douglas back in the ring, a sudden cry from behind has all of them turning their heads to the back doors.
The three immortals stand and Douglas inches his way past them as Deborah comes running through the doors, the look of fear on her face making his stomach rock. She nearly skids to a stop at the sight of the immortals surrounding him, guarding him, but she blinks and pushes past them.
She grips his arms, her baby-blue eyes hard with worry. “Have you seen father, or Derrick?”
“They went on a hunting party a couple hours ago, but they haven’t returned yet.”
“They didn’t take anyone with them?” Deborah knows what he means, but Douglas knows the answer. Of course they didn’t. His brother and father have the same ideals. They’d rather die to the creatures out here than to ask one of the witches for help. Douglas had only hoped his father would look at his options with common sense. He swears viciously.
He turns to Luke, “How far does the ward stretch around the property?”
“As far as the property itself, so you’re working with several hundred yards in every direction.”
“What kind of animals are brave enough to withstand the stench of the wards?”
“Only the really desperate ones, or the really dangerous ones.”
“Relax.” Cedonia says, still picking at her nails, looking the least bit concerned. “If something happened we would’ve heard them scream. They probably just got lost and are trying to find their way back.”
“That doesn’t mean they can’t be wandering farther off, or that they’re not being stalked by some of the creatures around here.” Douglas snaps.
Cedonia blinks at him.
Raven looks to the sky, her black hair billowing in the breeze. “Looks like there might be a storm coming in too. A passing shower, but they’re usually the heaviest.”
“Luke, can you scour from above and try to find them? Raven, I want you with me on the ground.”
To his surprise, but growing pride, the two of them don’t refuse. He’s not Keelie, and they are fiercely loyal to her, but thankfully they’re still their own persons. It doesn’t even feel like he’s ordering them around, more like asking for help from . . . friends.
Luke is gone in a ripple of light, soaring high on hawk wings. He looks to Deborah, “I need you to find Keelie and let her know where we’ve gone. And let all of the other coven members know too; in case you can’t.”
Deborah nods, and though she gives Raven a too-cold, too-long glare, she turns and heads back into the house.
“Cedonia, make yourself useful and help her.” Raven says. Cedonia gives her a snarl, and just to make sure Raven sees red, she takes her sweet time to stand, stretch and casually walk back into the manor. Douglas almost wants to aid Raven in ripping out the witch’s pretty, golden hair.
As he turns to Raven, he finds her suddenly holding some leather pads. “For reinforcement. I figured you didn’t want to waste time changing.” She clarifies as she begins to buckle them around his abdomen, his chest, his biceps and finally his thighs. To do so she kneels down and carefully wraps the strap around, ensuring a secure fit.
“I always knew you’d get on your knees for me.” Douglas says. Anything to fight the nausea in his stomach.
Raven obliges him with a fiendish grin. “Only because I know you love to feel taller.”
Unable to fight the blush blooming on his cheeks, he gives Raven the victory and says, “How well can you track their scent?”
“Well enough, but the storm winds make it hard to pinpoint. It might as well be pulling us in different directions.” Raven says as she walks over to a trunk perched in the corner of the deck. From it she retrieves a couple of cutlasses, short swords, a quiver filled with tied arrows, and a belt of hatchets. “But if I can’t smell them, then maybe we’ll hear their shouting.”
She divides the weapons amongst themselves, Douglas getting the short swords and hatchets. Raven quickly and expertly braids her hair over her shoulder, adjusting with the quiver, setting the rope to her belt.
“We can cut through the gardens. Hopefully they spoke to someone about staying east.”
He hopes so too. With Tamarak in the north, Welirya is no longer safe since the upper half of the kingdom had been sacked and conquered by the witches.
Douglas lets Raven lead as they jog through the cultivated gardens, across the wild, rolling grassy hills beyond them, over clear streams, and into the woods beyond.
The woods felt empty compared to the hustle of the manor, and it felt tight. But Douglas knew better than to think they weren’t being watched. He could’ve swore there are tiny eyes within the breaks of leaves, behind twining branches.
Though they come across the occasional glittering stream, or small meadow as a break between trees, there is no common trail that the coven might’ve taken. No signs of worn paths from travelers.
Oaks, elms, and beeches intertwine in a thick weave, almost strangling the trickle of sunlight that creeps in through the dense canopy. The moss-covered earth swallows any sound he makes.
Raven’s feet are silent as she scours ahead on the forest floor or hopping from branch to branch from the interlocking boughs. She doesn’t say anything, only signals. He can’t help but stare in awe as her leaps and landings barely rustle the branches. Not one leaf, acorn, or pinecone falls. She has only stopped once to relocate the scent and hasn’t stopped again.
Old — this forest is ancient. And alive, in a way that he can’t describe but can only feel, deep in the marrow of his bones. Perhaps he is the first human in five hundred years to walk beneath these heavy, dark branches, to inhale the freshness of spring leaves masking the damp, thick rot.
They don’t dare call out for his father or brother. Goddess knows who or what are prowling through these woods. High above the trees, an occasional shadow will fly low enough to catch his attention. Luke hasn’t sounded since they arrived, but he has banked hard left, and then right, possibly seeing something. Only when he returns in sight does Douglas assume it was nothing.
The only comfort he has is that they are heading east. He keeps his steps light, his eyes and ears open, and his heartbeat steady.
“I didn’t think my brother and father would wander this far.” He dares to say, his voice quiet, as if to mumble to himself.
He parts some foliage and steps through to a glen of young, birch trees. A stream flowing from an outcropping of rocks. Not deep, but so wide that he’d have to take a running leap to cross it. Raven drops from wherever she was above, Luke circling an area further ahead.
He thinks everything is coming to an end, until Raven swears.
“What?” he asks. “What is it?”
“If he’s circling where I think he is, we may be in trouble.”
Before she can answer, a powerful cry from Luke above has Raven yanking him against the outcropping. She covers his mouth with her hand, her free one quietly nocking an arrow in her bow. “Shit, not now.” She grumbles.
He’s about to ask what, when the silence makes him look all around. It’s more than just animals quieting at the sight of a predator. This silence feels like a ripple, because the sound comes and goes.
As if it is approaching.
The trees seemed to lean in, their entwined branches locking tighter, a living cage keeping even the smallest of birds from soaring out of the canopy.
He mentally tries to prepare himself for what he is about to see, excitement mingling with fear. Raven removes her hand and holds onto her bow, slowly looking over and around the rocks.
Closer and closer the silence creeps.
“Keep it down back there,” she hisses.
His scent. His heartbeat.
The fear. The excitement.
“Breathe.” Raven whispers.
Douglas obeys, inhaling through the nose and out through the mouth.
Then he hears it: a whisper, as if cloth is dragging over root and stone, a hungry, wheezing sniffing from the nearby clearing.
He listens while Raven watches: the sound of feet padding in mud. The sounds of fabric gathering sticks and pebbles. Then there’s a shift in the water, and a delicate slurping from a cupped hand.
Raven doesn’t say anything, but he can practically hear her mind swearing and grumbling. She grips him closer to her, her hair falling over his face. He wants to push her away, get some room to breathe, but her grip won’t lighten. And it isn’t until she gives him a quick, but firm shake does he realize: she’s masking his scent from whatever is by the stream.
Carefully wriggling and meandering, he tries to lean out to see what exactly has a Tamarak Witch on edge. Raven tries to hold him back, but when he insists, her grip loosens, her hair still falling around his head.
He knew he should expect anything and everything, yet the withered woman with tattered black skirts still surprises him. And makes his bowels go watery.
Her appearance strikes as intense after a glimpse of her haggard silhouette. Twisted and torn in unspeakable ways, with greyish dead skin stretches out over her emaciated body. Her arms are horrid deformities capable of slashing through flesh and bone alike, with a torn sash weaving around them.
Her very presence speaks of endless torture.
Her hunched, bare back facing them, he can count the hard knobs of her spine poking through the weatherworn skin. Her spindly, scabby gray arms scoop at the water with yellowed, cracked fingernails.
Run, some primal, intrinsically human part of him whispers. Begs. Run and run and never look back.
The tattered black skirts cling to the bones of her hips, floating and churning about like ink in water. Her long, greyish-black hair floats on a phantom wind, her lipless mouth exposing sharp, but yellowed teeth, her nose looking like it fell off from the exposed hole. Bits of skin dangle off her chin, as if something attempted to rip it off.
The silence is as thick as fog. Not one creature dares to make a sound in her presence.
Utterly terrified and entranced, Douglas presses deeper into Raven, his shaking prominent. Angling her bow, Raven stalks around the other side of the outcropping, one hand gripping her bow, the other his wrist.
She still doesn’t say anything, and Douglas follows without question. They’re going to creep around the woman-thing, whatever she was, and make a straight line towards the cover of the trees. They’ll only have a minute at best, seconds at worst –
The ghoul gives a satisfied sigh as she finishes drinking from the stream.
And then she speaks.
“You may come out. One mustn’t stare. It’s rude.” Her voice is at once one and many, old and young, beautiful and grotesque. “One might question your upbringing.”
Everything in Douglas’ body turns to ice, prickling with numbness. Raven swears aloud this time, the sound of defeat in her tone makes him want to run.
To his escalading fear, Raven relaxes herself and makes to stand up. Shaking, he follows her motions. His eyes look up.
The ghoul standing a few feet before them.
Douglas screams and presses himself against the rocks. Raven jerks her head up and her golden eyes widen in surprise. Perhaps even impressed.
The ghoul stands with her skirts and hair wavering this way and that. Calm, unhurried. Her arms dangle at her sides.
He didn’t even hear her move. He didn’t –
“Human,” she says. Eyes that are nothing more than swirling pits of milky white — the white of death, the white of sickness, the white of clean-picked corpses – stare at him. “I have not seen a human man for an age. Come closer so I might look upon my observers.”
He did no such thing. Run, run, run.
Standing beside him, Raven gives a guttural warning growl.
He stares at the ghoulish woman in awe. “What are you?” His words scarcely more than a ragged breath.
“Douglas.” Raven cautions.
The ghoul lets out a huffing, awful laugh. “I am nothing. My name is but a song on the wind, a whisper in the darkness. I am Dust and Blood and Bone. I am a form of faerie. I am the Shade.”
The Shade. That’s what she is. He’ll ask for clarification later. If he can even form words after this. But a faerie –?
“Impossible,” he breathes.
“Don’t be so surprised.” The faerie croons. “Not every faerie is young and beautiful.”
Her last words seem directed at Raven, so eternal and stunning and unbreakable compared to the hag before them.
She takes a step closer, and Raven brings up her bow, aimed at the ghoul’s heart. “Is it by luck, or a guided hand that I stumbled upon you this afternoon?” She cocks her head to the side, an erratic, sharp movement, the dark veil of her hair snapping with it.
“We weren’t intruding. We didn’t mean to come across you. We didn’t know you’d be . . . about.” Raven says with a leveled voice, still sharply edged with warning.
Click, click, click goes the ghoul’s fingers against each other. “That may be true, but then what are you doing here?”
Trespassing. They accidentally trespassed into her territory.
Raven’s eyes flick to him, and Douglas forces himself to stand, his legs gratefully sturdy beneath him. He doesn’t care draw a weapon. They all seem quite useless.
“We’re just out for an evening hunt.” His words are scarcely more than a ragged breath.
“Lies — I can smell the lies on your breath.” She seethes, and Douglas flinches. “Tell me the truth: why does the human and witch wander into the land of the Shade?”
He looks to Raven, but the witch only has her eyes on the Shade.
Douglas swallows hard. If she’s a creature based around truth . . . “Perhaps you can tell us.”
The Shade lets out another low laugh. “A test? A useless test, for if you foolishly wandered into my lands, then you must yearn for death.” Douglas says nothing, and the ghoul smiles with that lipless mouth, her yellowed teeth horrifically large. “You’d be wise to answer my question, human.”
While he doesn’t want to expose how vulnerable his father and brother can be, it’ll mean nothing if he dies at the hands of this, Shade.
“We’re looking for my family. My brother and my father. They wandered out for hunting, I believe, but we feared they may have gotten lost.”
The Shade lifts her chin in approval. “So that’s why I saw those dear, young things with blonde hair, just like yours . . .”
He wouldn’t have believed her with his father being out of his prime, but perhaps every creature in this world is young to her . . . even a five-hundred-year-old witch.
“But your eyes are different. Within theirs, I see the gems of sapphire, the shining steel of a blade. Yours is . . . different.” The Shade steps closer, her bony fingers rubbing the dangling skin of her chin, before pointing at him. “I see the cerulean coasts of the southern continent, yet, the open, endless sky of the north. I see flames of gold circling your feet. The kiss of fire on your lips. What, my dear human, are you?”
If she saw them – at least she didn’t hurt them. That’s a relief, but barely.
“You’re a creature of truth, and . . . of knowledge?”
The Shade tilts her head to the side. “A brilliant one. An observant one. But, a question for a question.”
“You tell me.” He says softly. Raven nudges him with her ankle.
The Shade sniffs. Once. Twice. And those milky-white eyes widen. “You are different. Old, and yet new.”
Douglas lifts his chin. “I am mortal, and immortal. I have the heart of a human, but the blood of a witch. A hybrid. A half-breed.”
The Shade observes him before humming in clarification. “Interesting.” Click, click, click. “You wish to ask something, little hybrid.”
“If I may, my lady.”
“I am no lady. I am no member to any Clan. I am older than the Iron Witches, older than Tamarak, older than the bones of this world.” A shrug of those bony shoulders. Another smile.
He takes the risk.
“Are my brother and father hurt?”
Click, click, click. “No.”
Raven’s arms don’t waver as she keeps her bow aimed at the Shade. “Where did they go?”
Click, click, click. “They seemed very oblivious to their surroundings. Something that can be very dangerous to them. They wanted to head west, but ended going east. They wanted to find water, but only found wheat. Poor things really can’t navigate well.”
They’re still heading east, to a field of wheat? Or at least an area. Surely that must ring a bell with Raven.
Which it does, seeing her reaction. He could’ve swore she turned even paler.
Douglas is about to ask, more, but a flash of light blinds them for a second, and Luke is standing in front of them, claws out, but his face a placid mask of boredom.
“We have to go.” He says.
The Shade straightens. “Yes. We are not alone.”
Raven draws her bow farther but keeps it pointed at the Shade as Douglas scans the trees. But everything had already gone silent in the presence of the Shade.
“Human, you must run,” She says, those death-filled eyes widening. “Run for the Witch Heir’s manor.”
“I’m not leaving without my family.” He snaps, finding strength in his legs to push off the rocks.
“Your human heart wishes to rescue them, but your instincts tell you to run. Listen to it.”
“To what? What is it?” If he knew what came, he could stand a better chance of—
“We need to get you back to the manor.” Luke says, turning his back to the Shade to grab Douglas.
“What is it?!” Douglas asks, stepping out of Luke’s reach.
The Shade turns to look behind her. Her skirt snapping to her form before puddling at her feet.
“The kuda — creatures made of shadow and hate and rot. They smell you, and they smelled your family. They will cage me if they catch me here. Free me and return to the High Lord’s side.”
“Shit.” Luke and Raven say in unison.
“I knew we should’ve turned around.” Raven sneers as she flexes her fingers.
“We’re taking you back to the manor. We well get your family out, but you need to get back.” Luke says, grabbing Douglas’ arm hard enough to hurt. The Third loosens his grip instantly.
Douglas looks over Luke’s shoulder to find the Shade snarl before her hair swoops around her and she’s gone in thin wisps of smoke.
“Let’s go.” Luke says.
Douglas nods and turns, ready to make a sprint back the direction he and Raven came from.
But four shadowy figures slip through the trees.
And Douglas knows he will never sleep again, because these creatures are forged from the darkest of nightmares.