The Witch's Circle

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Chapter 9

The kuda look like a carcass left in a state of decomposition. A reminder how cruel and unforgiving Tamarak can be.

It’s a creature as tall as a carriage, with the head and back legs of a horse. Beady white, almond-shaped eyes stare at him as it saunters from the foliage. Its milk-white skin is pulled taught against its bones, gaping holes exposing muscle and tendons, some leaking yellow-tinted puss.

When it snarls, he tries to control his breathing as he finds needle-sharp teeth as long as his finger, ears flatten back. It’s long black hair falls and sways over its shoulders, trailing down to the bottom of its spine. A combination of a horse and a male humanoid body, its powerful arms end with hands enlarged with black-tipped, flesh-shredding claws.

No . . . not black, but, blood . . . its claws are stained with blood. Not fresh, but from years upon years of slaughter. As if it could never fully wash it away.

Rustling to the creature’s left, he finds another kuda crouched in a tree. With its long legs, its knees reach above its head as it grips the branch. He tries to contain his retching at the white bone peeking through the torn flesh of its shins. Then two more emerge behind the kuda up front.

Five.

A pack. They hunt in packs.

“Shit,” Raven swears, rippling her fingers still holding onto the string of her bow.

Luke draws the long blade from his back, palming a dagger in his other hand. “That’s what I was trying to warn you about.” He growls. “But the dumb bitch distracted us.”

She intentionally talked with us just to have us wait for our death? He wanted to ask it out loud, but seeing the creatures come towards them, all his words are lost. The growls they make is guttural, deep within the throat.

Here are the creatures of the blood-filled legends, the ones that parents use as ways to keep children from misbehaving. Their eyes greedily take in the witches and him.

“I saw your brother and father in one of their nests. They’re alive, but it looks like they gave the creatures one hell of a fight.” Luke whispers, standing his ground.

“We can’t leave them here.” Douglas whispers. The four kuda creep closer, as if savoring the slowness of the hunt, as if they already know how he tastes.

Palore had once said that the Witches of Tamarak are the most feared predator on the continent. Either these things don’t know, or they just don’t care; whether out of stupidity or arrogance. He has full confidence in Luke and Raven to take these things down, it’s getting to his father and brother – somewhere within the creatures’ nests – that will be the problem.

Numbers can overwhelm.

They have only a few heartbeats to figure out what to do. A few heartbeats to decide who will go where.

Raven draws her bowstring back farther, arm unwavering. Carefully, Douglas palms his short swords.

Then Douglas screams. Sharp and loud and with every bit of air he can squeeze out of his lungs.

With the kuda focused entirely on him, the one closest surges for him, the strong column of its rotted neck stretching out.

Raven fires her arrow.

The tip glints like a shooting star through the forest. He has all of a blink before it sticks home in the creature’s eye and blood sprays.

Douglas whirls out of the way as the kuda topples to the forest floor, blue blood leaking from its wound. He’s already gone.

Though his body screams to sprint, he doesn’t know this forest well, and the last thing he needs is to screw his momentum by tripping over a rock, or a twig. He runs opposite of where the kuda emerged, assuming their nest isn’t far behind them.

Keelie had to have been listening . . . someone of her coven had to be listening. She is on her way, he knows it. He just has to hold on, distract. Play the bait until they arrive.

He tries not to let his mortal body become a hindrance as he races. Branches and twigs snap behind him – too close – and snarls that sound like nothing he’s heard from any animal.

Then the scream.

Not human, not witch, but the kuda.

It sends chills down his spine, his blood running cold. Sounding like the combination of an owl’s screech, and the bellow of a demon, it leaves his ears ringing.

He tries to contain, but also manage his hope. All he has to do it outrun them long enough for Luke or Raven or Keelie or the rest of the coven to help him. But the manor feels so far away. He doesn’t let himself think about the hills he may have to climb once he cleared the forest itself.

Thankfully these creatures don’t seem intelligent. Just a mutated pack of wolves.

Douglas looks to his sides, fighting the nausea as he sees two figures closing in on him. They’re readying to cut him off. He careens through a thicket, and thorns rip at his cheeks. He barely feels the stinging kiss, or the warm blood sliding down his face.

Gods and goddesses damn it all. If only he had his immortal senses, he could easily predict where they’re going to go, smell how close they are, hear their steps behind him. Perhaps if he finds a place to hide for a minute –

The kuda to his right rushes at him, so fast he can only leap aside to avoid the chomping teeth.

He stumbles but stays upright just as the kuda to his left pounces. He hurls himself to a stop, swinging his short sword up at a wide arc. He revels in the twisting pain as it connects with the horse face, and bone crunches with a horrific screech. In an instant, he has one of the four hatchets in his hand and chops it into the chest of the kuda before hurdling over the enormous fallen body, not pausing to look for the others.

His knees groan as he pushes himself harder, focusing on the brightness of the wood’s end. He only makes it three feet before the third kuda skids out in front of him. Douglas swings his sword at its head. It dodges. The other two hiss as they come up behind him, and he grips his sword harder.

Surrounded.

Douglas turns in a circle, sword ready to strike. He palms another hatchet. One of them sniffs at him, those nostrils flaring. Its growl rumbles the ground beneath him.

He won’t go down without a fight, without taking some of them with him. He gives a sharp smile. “Come on,” he says, but it comes out in a gasp.

They step closer. Douglas swings his sword at the closest. It dodges it. Douglas grits his teeth as he swings again. He will not be hunted like a deer among wolves. He will find a way out of this; he would –

A black-tipped, clawed hand closes around the blade of his sword, and a resounding crack echoes through the too-silent woods. His left hand is already swinging the hatchet, and it slashes into the neck of the third kuda that was going to the death-bite to his neck.

He half turns and one of them grabs him by the throat and hurls him to the ground. He pounds Douglas’ arm so hard against the earth that his bones groan and his fingers splay, dropping the remnants of his sword.

The kuda breathes over his neck, the smell of carrion shoving down his throat. Douglas gags. He feels its teeth bite something around his waist, and he can only grunt as he’s lifted and being shaken like a dog’s rag toy.

He clenches his eyes shut, trying to ignore the feeling of his stomach flipping over itself as he’s shaken from side to side, or is it up and down? He only opens his eyes for a second to find the colors of the forest blending together. His hips begin to ache.

Something snaps, and he drops back to the ground, quickly rolling onto his back.

The kuda had bitten off his belt of remaining hatchets, and now it dangles in its jaws like a strangled snake. The fourth kuda tugs at the other end, the two ripping it to shreds, biting down on the metal heads of the hatchet like oats.

The fifth kuda pins him with its hooved foot, growling with a wet mouth. He grits his teeth as he feels bits of drool drip onto the back of his neck. He angles his head and sees the kuda’s teeth.

Blood-stained.

That could be his father’s blood. Or his brothers. If the kuda got their teeth into either one of them –

A white-hot flame goes through him. Rage or terror or wild instinct, he doesn’t know. He doesn’t think as he grabs his knife in his boot and slams it into the kuda’s leathery neck.

Blood rains down onto his face, into his mouth as he bellows his fury, his terror.

The kuda slumps back, its eyes rolling up and tongue slacking. Douglas scrambles up before the remaining two can pin him, but something rock hard hits his face. He tastes blood and soil and grass as he hits the earth. Stars and black dots dance in his vision, and he stumbles to his feet again out of instinct, grabbing for his other knife.

No, not like this. Fight. Fight. Fight.

One of them lunges for him, and he dodges aside. Its talons catch on his reinforced leather shoulder pad, snapping him back down to the forest ground and its companion pins him again with a clawed hand. His arms tear beneath those claws.

It growls, more than done watching him kill his companions. It lifts its right stained, clawed hand – perfect for deep, brutal cutting. It opens his mouth again, and a bone-shattering roar sounds through the clearing.

Only it didn’t come from the kuda.

The noise hadn’t finished echoing before the kuda goes flying off him, crashing into a tree so hard the wood breaks and the tree falls with a slow grace, cracking and snatching leaves with it. Douglas rolls to his stomach.

He makes out the ebony of her hair, the elegant swoop of her crimson cape, and the long, deadly iron nails before Keelie tears into the creature.

The remaining kuda shrieks and leaps for Keelie. With her right hand she stops its attack by gripping it by its neck, her iron nails sinking into its neck. With her left hand, she jabs them into the kuda’s eyes and through its mouth. Flesh and blood rip away. Its skin sags as she caves in its skull and twists its head from its neck. Bone cracks like a nut, a few strings of tendons holding.

The kuda that crashed into the tree leaps to its feet, shaking its head. It shrieks as Keelie’s nails shred through its companion.

Douglas keeps low to the ground, knife at the ready, waiting.

Keelie lets out another roar that makes the marrow of his bones go cold and reveals her iron teeth.

The last kuda darts for the woods.

It only gets a few steps before Keelie tackles it, pinning him to the earth. And disembowels the kuda in one deep, long swipe.

But that isn’t enough.

She tears open the creature’s chest cavity, cracking it open wide, exposing its heart and entrails. She doesn’t hesitate to crush the creature’s heart in her hands. Blue blood sprays across her face.

She takes the creature’s jaw, opening it wide, wider and wider until he hears the bone crack. Then, placing both her hands on the snout, she caves it in. A few teeth fall out.

Douglas remains where he lays, his face half buried in leaves and twigs and mud. He doesn’t try to rise. He is shaking so badly he thinks he will fall apart at the seams. It’s all he can do to keep holding his knife.

Keelie gets to her feet, wrenching her claws out of the creature’s abdomen. Blood and gore drip from her forearms, staining the brown and green forest floor.

This isn’t the Heir of the Scarletbloods. This is something different. Something more dangerous than even that.

Feral rage still smolders in her gaze, and Douglas flinches when her head jerks towards him. He has to fight the urge to curl away from her as she kneels beside him. She reaches out for him again, but he jerks back, away from the bloody nails that are still out. Keelie retracts, her eyes shifting to look like a wounded doe.

It unnerves him as he raises himself into a sitting position before the shaking resumes. He knows he can’t get to his feet.

“Douglas,” she says. The wrath fades from her eyes, and the iron slip back under her nails, but the roar still sounds in his ears. There had been nothing in that sound but primal fury.

“How?” It is all he can manage to say, but she understands.

“Cedonia informed me and the rest of the coven you went looking for your brother and father. And, I heard you scream.”

And she came – she came to help him.

She reaches a hand towards him, and she shudders as she runs cool, wet fingers down his stinging, aching cheek. Blood – that’s blood on them. And from the stickiness on his face, there is already enough of it splattered on him that it doesn’t make a difference.

The pain in his face and arms fade, then vanishes. Flinching to his left he finds Eartha with golden hands hovering around him. She pauses, her jade green eyes widening ever so slightly, but continues when he relaxes. Keelie’s eyes darken a bit at the bruise he knew has started blooming on his cheekbone, but the throbbing quickly lessens. The metallic scent of magic wraps around him, then floats away on a light breeze.

Slowly, one by one, Ira, Hunter, Arabella, and Vitrina emerge from the shadows, armed to the teeth, ready for a killing field despite the kuda being dead.

“I found one dead half a mile away,” she goes on, her hands leaving his face as she unbuckles her cape and shucks it off handing it to him. The front of his tunic had been ripped and torn by the claws of the kuda. “I saw one of Raven’s arrows in its throat, so I followed its tacks here. The others are catching up to them.”

He pulls on her cloak over himself, ignoring how easily he can see the cut of her muscles beneath her white shirt, the way the blood soaking it makes the curves of her breasts stand out even more.

A purebred predator, honed to kill without a second thought, without remorse.

Douglas shivers again and savors the warmth leaking from Eartha’s healing hands, and Keelie’s cloak. Heir of the Witch Clan.

He looks to her, only to find her studying him, assessing him. He doesn’t say anything for a moment as Eartha continues her work. Only when she’s done what she can, when the glow of her hands fades and she rises to her feet does he ask, “What about my family?”

“Deborah is still at the house upon orders,” That couldn’t have gone well, at least not without them having to intimidate his sister the best they could to get her to stay. “I haven’t checked on your brother and father.”

She had come straight for him – straight to him – without a second thought. Her concern and focus were solely on him.

“Here,” she says, rising to her feet and offering a bloodstained hand. Douglas doesn’t look to the slaughtered kuda as he grips her extended hand and she pulls him to his feet. His knees buckle embarrassingly, but he stays upright.

He stares at their linked hands, both coated in blood that isn’t their own.

He had once faulted her for killing like an animal, for killing without a second thought, but now . . . perhaps he’s come closer to understanding Keelie. To recognize when your life is on the line, when the ones you hold dear are in peril, there is no un-between. There’s only you or them, and the choice has to be made.

“I thought I told you all not to wander too far off the property.” Keelie says, dropping his hand.

“You said we weren’t confined to the house and garden. I’m sure they didn’t realize how far they’d wandered.” Douglas spits onto the grass, remembering whose blood covered his tongue.

The sound of cracking branches and rustling leaves has the members readying their weapons. Keelie takes a not-so-subtle step in front of Douglas. But a shadow leopard steps through the brush, its maw dripping red, and covered in dirt and leaves and blood. Keelie hurries towards him, petting his head and assessing his body, noticing his limping on one of his haunches. Raven and the rest of the coven emerge as well, his father and brother at their center.

A sob slips from him as he hurries for his brother and father. Both were bruised and scratched like they’d lost a fight with a house cat, but they are standing on their own feet, no limps, no spilling of entrails. Both of them, though, did swear profusely when they beheld the dead kuda, connecting the pieces when they saw the gore covering Keelie’s forearms.

Both of them had the good sense to look unnerved.

“On the days that I’m called away to deal with . . . trouble, stay close to the house.”

A pure command. No room for compromise.

Wisely, his brother and father nodded along with him, if a bit numbly.

“Thank you,” Derrick mumbles, fighting past the shaking racking his body. All of their bodies, and their minds.

The kuda’s blood on him becomes near unbearable. Douglas spits again. “Thank you,” he mimics. “Not – not just for saving my life, but theirs too.”

He wants to tell her how much that means to him – that the Heir of the Scarletblood Witch Clan thought that his family was worth saving – but he can’t find the words. And not here, when he can have a moment alone with her.

Keeile retracts her iron teeth. “Of course. They shouldn’t have gotten this far onto my lands.” She shakes her head, more at herself, her shoulders slumping. “Let’s go home.” She says, sparing his brother and father the effort of explaining why they’d been out here in the first place.

They walk back in silence, everyone blood-drenched, he and his family pale. Douglas can still sense the carnage they’d left behind – the blood-soaked ground and trees. The pieces of the kuda.

Raven seems mostly unscathed, more than likely firing arrows undercover, judging from her empty quiver, and from how beat Luke looks. He stays in shadow leopard form, his steps slow, but unfaltering. The other members who had been sent to help get his family back from the nest look like they had a fair share of a tumble through the dirt, but alive.

He doesn’t ask Keelie anything about the kuda, nothing at all, because he doesn’t see any trace of triumph in her, only a deep, unending sort of shame and defeat. The way she keeps her hands fisted by her sides, how she hangs her head, watching her steps.

The manor comes into view and they take a shortcut through the gardens towards the back porch.

Running steps approach, and then Deborah rounds the corner of the porch, skidding to a halt.

She lets out a sob at the sight of the three of them, beaten and bruised. He has never heard a sound like that from her. Not once.

“They’re not hurt,” Keelie says to her. Douglas would’ve said it himself, but words . . . he can’t form them.

Deborah breaks into another sprint. Douglas reaches for Keelie, her face taut as she stiffens upon Deborah’s approach —

But Douglas watches in astonishment as Deborah’s arms go around Keelie’s neck and she embraces the witch so hard he could tell it takes Keelie’s breath away.

Deborah’s body shakes — shakes as she sobs and says over and over and over, “Thank you.”

The witch is genuinely stunned for a moment before she inhales and wraps her arms around his sister, the blood dried. Deborah pulls back long enough to survey their father’s face first, then him, and then Derrick last.

Keelie left them with a mumbled excuse, the rest of the members following after. Ever the obedient soldiers. After Deborah is satisfied with her inspection, she takes the liberty of escorting their father inside. He doesn’t reject her offer.

Douglas and Derrick follow after them, Douglas quietly slipping away once they reached the entryway. He navigates his way upstairs and to his suite, where he shucks off his dirtied clothes and walks naked towards the bathroom. By the blessed Goddesses, there’s a full tub of warm water waiting.


After bathing and scrubbing very inch of himself thrice now with soap, Douglas finds himself constantly stirring as he lays stretched along the couch in front of the roaring fireplace of his living room. He savors the warmth more now that winter is finally settling upon the world, but he just can’t sit still.

He emerged from the bathroom to find his dirtied clothes gone, the fire fresh, and a silver tray with a couple of mugs of molten chocolate placed on the low-lying glass table. He finished one within seconds, then had switched out for water for a few cups, and has only sipped from his second. Luke had arrived probably around the same time as the chocolate, because he was lying stretched out before the fire when Douglas emerged from the bathing room. The Third didn’t say anything, just a list of his large head, then plopping it back down seconds later.

He looked better than when he emerged from the trees, the blood washed away, branches and twigs picked from his coat and any cuts and scrapes healed closed.

Douglas toes the velvet ear of the big cat as he stares at the fire. He hasn’t tried to do anything with it. His energy has long been spent, and the warm bath has only made him drowsy.

Perhaps now that everything is finished, now that he has nothing to distract – or stall – him from visiting Keelie, the anticipation is now as alive and crawling as a mass of spiders.

She’s probably more exhausted than he is. Maybe she’s already gone to bed for the night. Looking at the clock, it reads only four in the evening. Dinner is to be served soon. He wonders who will make an appearance?

He wants nothing more than to just order food to his room, and he has a high suspicion that the others will be doing the same. But there’s also the feeling that his family may want to have dinner together after what had happened. And he also still has to ask one of the coven members about the Shade, and who exactly she is.

Sighing to himself, he sets down the half-finished mug and rises to his feet. Luke’s ear perks up, his head following as Douglas pulls on a cotton robe and trudges out of his rooms.

As he’s about to close the door, the Third slips out and takes a long stretch on the hallway carpet. Douglas only smiles and lets the male lead him downstairs.

By the time he reaches the dining room, he’s stopped shaking, and some semblance of warmth has returned to his veins.

Keith, Ira, Arebella, Astrid and Vitrina are already sitting at the table, their plates half-eaten. Luke walks over to the fireplace by the table and resumes to lying in front of it. His family all walk in after him from the opposite doorway, Deborah hurrying over to him to give a quick peck on his cheek.

“Good evening,” Arabella says, pouring herself some tea and loading her plate for a second round. Peering as best as he can without being obvious, Douglas can see she’s wearing a two-piece attire instead of a gown, her hair swooped into a loose knot atop her head.

Her high-waisted turquoise pants are loose and billowing, gathered at the ankles with velvet cuffs of bright gold. The long sleeves of the matching top are made of gossamer, also gathered at the wrists, and the top itself hangs just to her navel, revealing a sliver of skin as she stands from her seat to walk over to the butler to pour herself some red wine.

Comfortable – easy to move in. Feminine. Exotic.

“Hello, hello,” Astrid chirps, her bright, golden hair is tied back in a casual braid, her clothes fashioned similar to Arabella’s. She rises from her seat to strode towards him. Each step assured and steady and grounded. Merry but alert. Within a blink, she’s enveloped Douglas in a bone-crushing hug. She smells like the flowers she had been planting in her garden this morning. “You must be hungry,” she tuts as she links elbows with him and guides him to the table.

Half the table is empty, but plates still cover its entire surface, as if expecting them to come later. His family follows, taking seats close to one another, leaving Douglas to take up the available space next to Astrid. Astrid grabs a plate from the center of the table and already plopping two muffins on his plate.

The theme of the food seems, muddled; a mixture of them all together. Plates of ham sandwiches and bowls of fruit, pancakes stacked alongside plates of bacon and hash browns. Poached salmon with dill and lemon, whipped potatoes, roast chicken with beets and turnips, and a casserole of egg, game meat, and leeks.

Ira, with her finished plate, had grabbed a crystal decanter of rum – half of it already gone – and sits relaxed as she pours a finger more of the amber-colored liquid. She knocks it back with a gulp and a sigh of pleasure before setting the glass down and filling it half-full this time. Her eyes remain clear and alert, underlined with a feline playfulness judging from her smile.

She wears a rose-pink negligée with lace and thin straps, her hair hanging in loose curls down her back.

As Astrid sets his plate down in front of him, he notices the many scars that trail up the Second’s arm, and the large one around her neck. Not a burn, despite the smeared look it has, but like a rope had been tied –

“Keelie and the others have retired for the evening.” Astrid says as she returns to her seat with a cup of water. She devours slices of tomato and pale cheese. “For obvious reasons, but that doesn’t mean this food should go to waist.”

Keith, whom has remained quiet throughout, nods along with the rest of the females. He keeps his eyes on his plate, his silver hair pulled back and tied with a piece of leather. His clothes are meant for sleeping, judging from their looseness. Douglas digs into his muffins, craving the chocolate and the blueberry flavors.

“You two look better. Nice to know our Eartha’s company didn’t ruin your moods as much as the kuda ruined your skin.” Ira says as she taps her glass with a nail.

Derrick and his father are kind – or perhaps smart – enough to give a smile and a soft chuckle. Deborah merely tucking some strands of hair behind her ear.

Ira turns her silver-stone eyes to Douglas. “But the real event of the night is one that Luke and Raven had refused to tell me.” She folds her fingers together, resting her chin on them. “I heard you three encountered a Shade.”

Douglas pauses with his forkful of salmon midair. “Is it supposed to be a rare thing?”

Ira shrugs her shoulders. “In terms of encountering, yes. In terms of survival, not really.”

“What are they, exactly? Unless I was being blinded by fear,” he says with a grin. Ira mimics it. “it had seemed that Luke and Raven were almost, afraid of it.”

Ira gives a breath of a laugh, Vitrina choking on her wine, Arabella and Astrid quickly covering their mouths to poorly hide their laughs. Luke gives a warning growl over from the fire. Ira gives a vulgar gesture in return.

“They’re not creatures that we want to cross. Caution is certainly needed, but no need for fear really. Deadly as they look, they only attacked when provoked.” Ira says as she reaches across the table for a slice of buttered toast.

“They’re old and wicked and hard to look at. If a person doesn’t vomit or feint from their appearance, the smell won’t be too far behind.” Keith adds. “They don’t fight often, as Ira had said, but they are crafty.”

His family all eat their meals in quiet, their utensils clinking against their plates.

“They’re a faerie of some kind?” Douglas asks, taking a sip of water.

“Yes. Creature’s of knowledge, if you may. They are as old, or older than life itself and know anything and everything. Some argue that they’re an oracle of some kind.” Says Keith.

“With such, capabilities, there had to have been a time when they were sought out. Perhaps hunted?” Douglas continued.

“At a point yes. During the time of the Red Dawn, humans and witches alike sought them out to gain knowledge of the other’s movements. Which could be reason why they’re so silent when traversing the woods. An adaptation to avoid unwanted visitors. Usually after soldiers gained the information they wanted, they would kill them. Loose ends and all.” Vitrina chimes.

Gods, that horrid woman-creature is as old as dirt.

“Personally, I don’t really see a point in hunting those things,” Vitrina continues. “Why spoil yourself by learning about your future? Isn’t that half the fun in living life?”

“Well with knowledge like that, it has to come at a price.” Douglas continues, nodding thanks to Arabella for passing some dressing in a sauce boat.

“For them it does.” Says Arabella. “As price for them having such vast knowledge, they are creatures of truth. They cannot lie. Their gift, and their curse.”

“Do they ever ask for something in return?”

The witches exchange glances between one another, Arabella and Vitrina shrugging their shoulders. Ira then speaks, “Not that any of us know of in today’s regards. Though, I wouldn’t be surprised if they did. Considering what their kind went through before, I consider it fair if they ask for something in return.”

“I have heard that some travelers have offered, or left gifts for them. Those who may have wandered too far from their path or looking for a town. A rather, peaceful, attendance compared to before. Most wouldn’t dare try to challenge them with their appearance.” Arabella says with a small giggle.

Derrick and even Deborah snicker along with the witch, their plates almost finished. Though he doesn’t like that it took the witches to save their lives for them to accept them, the same situation goes for him. He didn’t really trust Luke or Raven until they helped get him out of a tight situation.

Still, this dinner is better than before. Casual, regardless of the confrontation with the kuda. At least now his family are sure of the witch’s allegiance, and in turn are sure that their lives are protected by Keelie and her coven.

Douglas finishes his plate and takes a sip of water while he carefully asks his next question. “Is there a possibility of trapping the Shade?”

As expected, all eyes shift to him wearily. A lifting of a few brows, a few utensils paused, and a growl from Luke by the fire. Douglas ignored him and lifted his own brows, as if expecting someone to say something already.

Ira accommodates him and says, “If one was foolish enough to want to attempt to trap a Shade, it would be rather difficult. By now they have probably seen everything there is regarding trapping. Not to mention that no one really knows their food of choice, so even if you were place a freshly slaughtered chicken by a grove of young trees in the eastern woods, they would easily notice the double-loop snare rigged around the groove to pin their legs in place.”

No one says anything but Luke – another deep growl, even if he doesn’t lift his head – no one bold or sanctioned enough to challenge the Second of the Wind Riders.

“And if it were to escape, I would bring with you some weapons. Preferably a bow, and maybe a hunting knife. And I’d be prepared to run like hell.”

She finishes draining the decanter and pushes it to the center of the table. Tipping the glass to her lips, she angles her head back and drains the whole thing in one gulp. Even his father widens his eyes in astonishment.

“But of course, you’re not that stupid to do such things, are you Douglas?”

“Of course not. A mere curiosity.” He stuffs a deviled egg into his mouth.

“You mortals and your inquisitiveness.” Keith says with a smirk. He seemed ready to add something, but he closes his mouth and just shakes his head. His smirk stays as he takes a sip of tea.

Douglas wipes his mouth with a napkin and clears his throat. “Astrid, you said that Keelie has retired to her rooms for the night?” The pretty witch nods her head, her amber-gold eyes widened slightly. “Do you know whether she is accepting visitors?”

She shrugs her bony shoulders. “I cannot say. However, I am certain that if you were to stop by, I highly doubt she would turn away your company.”

The smile she offers is no less then fiendish. Douglas chuckles and rises from his seat, bidding everyone thanks for dinner and to have a good night. He spares Deborah a kiss on her temple before departing the dining room.

He heads up the stairs towards Keelie’s room, cognizant of certain furniture he uses as marks to know he’s heading in the right direction. When he comes upon the double oak doors, he’s perplexed to find them open. Upon peeking his head inside, he finds a servant mopping the wooden floors.

She looks up from her work, sensing his presence, smiles, and simply says, “She went to the library.”

Douglas gives a nod of his head before departing, not wanting to ask what exactly the servant is mopping up. Even if it could be nothing.

He debates asking another servant for direction to the library, when suddenly, there’s a poke at chest. He pauses and rubs the spot just over his heart, looking down his shirt to see if there had been something there, yet nothing.

When he feels it again, he massages the spot again, but there’s no pain. Not a muscle spasm, then or a twitch of the skin. As suddenly as it appeared, it lightens to a faint, quiet tug. This time reaching more from the middle, like pulling on a rib from the inside.

The tug yanks again in his mind, his gut — a guiding. Like some string leading to his destination. Blindly following the source of that tug, Douglas strides across the upper levels.

Within minutes of climbing another staircase to the third floor and two left turns, Douglas finds himself standing in front of double onyx doors. Looking around for leering eyes, unable to shake the feeling of trespassing, he places a hand on the braided, black knocker set in the mouth of a giant snake. He flinches at the memory of the creature he had encountered in his first visit to Tamarak.

He pulls open the door into a chamber of dark wood, beige furniture, and the smell of leather and parchment. The chamber isn’t as grand as he expected; instead, he finds the room rather cozy. Two plush armchairs and couches surround a low-lying table at the center of the room, all perched on an ornate rug in front of a grand, roaring fireplace with a black marble mantel and hearth. A small chandelier hangs overhead, casting a warm, buttery glow throughout. A spiral staircase leads to a second floor following the entire perimeter of the room, the shelves reaching the ceiling, and a couple more armchairs scattered throughout. A large window flanked by deep blue draperies sits on the back wall of the room, an oak desk sitting beneath it.

If anything, he gives credit to Keelie for making this place actually feel like a home. None of the rooms in this home are just for display, or for a place of business like in Tamarak. But a home where evidence of living is apparent, judging from the divots in the furniture, and the scattered papers across the desk.

And just like her room, Keelie has the shelves filled to their limits, having to resort to stacking them around the couches, on the desk, under a table supporting a lamp between the two armchairs, and just in front of the shelves. None by the fire, of course.

Taking a careful step inside, Douglas immediately spies Keelie curled in one of those armchairs before the fire, a book on her knees, looking – surprisingly – very un-witch-like. Casual. Perhaps relaxed.

Perfectly content to being alone.

The moment his shoes scuff against the wood floor, she shoots upright, back going stiff, closing her book with a muffled thud. Yet her hazel eyes widening ever-so-slightly as they behold him.

As he takes her in.

She’s in a satin, tangerine-orange robe that reaches to her knees, the wide sleeves stopping just below her elbows. Her hair is lazily twirled together behind her head, held in place with a pin fashioned like the stem of a rose, accentuating her pale neck and the angled features of her face.

Nothing could hide her ethereal grace as she takes a step, her throat bobbing as she swallows and says, “What are you doing here? Did you need something?”

Clearly, he caught her in a state he wasn’t supposed to, for her tone is rather icy. Guarded. He should’ve known: this place must be like her sanctuary. A place where she can forget who she is by simply opening a book and leafing through pages. A place where she can have some peace and quiet, and forget her duties, her acting, and her problems. This must be where she goes when she’s really upset.

Unsure of how to say his business, he simply states, “I wanted to see you, and you weren’t in your rooms.”

She blinks, and her eyes lighten, like a fog lifting from a lakefront. He could tell that some of that feral rage still lingers, if her posture is any indication. “How did you find this place?”

“A servant told me.” Not a lie, but not a truth. Whether she can scent it or not, it’s better then having to explain the odd tug he felt. He takes a step towards her, and she takes one back.

Yes, he definitely caught her at a bad time.

“If there’s nothing you need, I’d like to return to my book.”

“I wanted to see you,” he repeats quietly. “See how you were doing.”

Her features soften, her mouth twitching to either smile, or fight a sneer. Judging from the power swirling in her eyes, it would seem the instincts from before still have her on a leash.

Douglas saunters over to her, forcing a half smile to spread across his face. She stands stiffly while he picks up the book, reads the title and chuckles. “I wouldn’t have pegged you for a romance reader.”

Her stare is nothing short of icy.

“What I read at my own leisure is none of your business.” She snatches her book from him, but he remains standing at her side. Watching every breath, every blink. She whirls away, going to put the book back on the shelf, a slight color high on her cheeks.

“I’m sorry if I’ve intruded on you, but after what happened today, I wanted to see if you were alright.”

She pauses, her hands gripping the book in her hands.

A low, bitter laugh. But she turns to him, looks him over as if she is a queen on a throne, and then declares to him, “What do I care? Killing is nothing new to me, a few more wretched creatures mean nothing to me. If anything, I would’ve made them suffer longer just for my own amusement.” She chucks the book onto the desk, and Douglas flinches as it slaps and flutters before settling face down, the pages bending and creasing. Her voice rises, “After all Tamrak Witches are supposed to be heartless and cruel, why not enjoy torturing the creatures who nearly killed my –”

She clamps her lips together, stopping herself from finishing. She fists her hand, lifting it as if ready to smash the table into splinters, but exhales and lowers it.

“It doesn’t matter.” She whispers. “I don’t care.”

“What’s bothering you? Where is all of this coming from?” Douglas asks as he approaches, careful to watch his heartbeat.

Keelie snorts. She gestures a hand to him, and he nearly flinches. “The man that I had fallen in love with adored the bright and carefree bookworm Kelsey, had loved the impulsive and broken Thornheart Witch Marionette,” – she turns that same hand towards herself – “and after the brutal witch Keelie had so thoroughly ruined his life and dreams, I have been trying to make it up to you since. I have been trying to get you love me as Keelie, but all I have gotten in return are half-ass smiles and hollow attempts.”

He feels the blow like a punch to the gut, the words laced with as much venom as a viper. Worse when he sees Keelie’s eyes line with tears.

“You don’t look at me the way you looked at Marionette.” The hate she spits on that name makes him queasy. “I don’t feel you the way that I did when I was a ditzy bookkeeper, the way you looked at me with love and happiness in your eyes. You don’t hold me anymore, you don’t want to be with me anymore. Whenever you look at me: with that fear and hesitation, I want to die! I want to just wither and die because watching you love, and give your heart to another person, let along another witch, KILLS ME! It kills and tortures me in ways that my grandmother wishes she could accomplish!”

Her tears spill down her cheeks, the fire making her eyes lively like green fire. He steels his spine. It’s all he can do to keep his knees from collapsing, to keep his breathing steady as he watches Keelie’s face soften. As it collapses like a physical representation of her walls crumbling.

“All I want is for you to love me again.” She whimpers. “I just want you to hold me, to kiss me and to be there for me. But now I know that will never happen. Not after today.”

“That’s not true.” His voice is pathetically quiet.

“Is it?” she sniffs. “Can you truly look at me and still love me, after what you had seen?”

He believed he could, and he knows he still can, it’s just –

His silence is answer enough for her.

She snorts again, shaking her head, turning towards the chair and her book. She picks it up and heads towards the doors. Leaving him at the center of the room.

“I’m sorry, Keelie.” He says softly.

She doesn’t answer as she stiffly crosses the doorway, hugging her book to her chest.

As her feet breach the threshold, she pauses, and whispers. “It’s okay. I didn’t deserve you anyway. It was foolish of me to think I could attain such happiness, to believe that anyone could ever really fall in love with me.”

She leaves the library without looking back at him.

A heavy blow to the face would’ve been better.

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