Loading...
Menu

Jingle Spells

JINGLE SPELLS: A CyberWitch Press Short Fiction Anthology

Copyright © 2015 Heather Marie Adkins

Shakespir Edition

Published by CyberWitch Press LLC

Louisville, KY

cyberwitchpress.com

[email protected]

First edition, published January 2016

Individual copyrights retained by original authors: Solstice Flames © J. Laslie / A Midwinter Manifestation © Sammi Cox / The Witch’s Shoes © Sidonia Rose / Molly © Brittany White / Holiday Dreams © K. Laslie / The Witch’s Brew © Heather Marie Adkins

This book is protected under the copyright laws of the United States of America. In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the author. Any reproduction or other unauthorized use of the material or artwork herein is prohibited.

Disclaimer: The persons, places, things, and otherwise animate or inanimate objects mentioned in these stories are figments of the authors’ imaginations. Any resemblance to anything or anyone living (or dead) is unintentional.

Cover Art by CyberWitch Press LLC

Stock Photo Credit: “Christmas tree from light vector background (merry)” © ponomarenko13

Interior book design by CyberWitch Press LLC

Stories Included in Jingle Spells

Solstice Flames by J. Laslie

A Midwinter Manifestation by Sammi Cox

The Witch’s Shoes by Sidonia Rose

Molly by Brittany White

Holiday Dreams by K. Laslie

The Witch’s Brew by Heather Marie Adkins

A Note from the Editor

There is nothing quite so magical as the holiday season. Something about the crisp scent of winter in the air, mixed with heady cinnamon potpourri and Grandma’s cooking. Add a covering of snow and the winking of a thousand December stars, and you have the recipe for a real magical experience.

What could make it better but adding witches to the mix?

Jingle Spells is the inaugural book for CyberWitch Press Short Fiction Anthologies. Though shorter than the editor would have liked, it is nonetheless a feel-good collection of witchy tales set during the holidays. From a solstice witch hunt, to an imp ruining Christmas dinner; a sparkly pair of shoes holding one woman’s destiny, to a broken young woman unaware of the powers she possesses. Add a teenage boy who holds the fate of the world in his hands, and a nosy witch whose lattes solve a mystery, and you have Jingle Spells.

Sit back with a mug of steaming hot chocolate, light up the fireplace, and enjoy these six tales of magic, mayhem, and love.

Thanks for reading!

Heather Marie Adkins

Solstice Flames

J. Laslie

Present Day — December 20th

nya Sutherland wasn’t sure how her life had taken such a wrong turn.

She sat huddled in the corner of her dark cell. The frigidness from the stone wall she rested against seeped through her thin shirt, chilling her to the bone. There would be no trial, no jury. She was to be executed tomorrow morning before the first rays of morning light touched the stake of her funeral pyre.

Even though it was December, rain gently fell outside the high window, intensifying the dank smell that already permeated the air. Anya wrapped her arms tighter around herself to fend off the cold. A shiver wracked her just as a peal of thunder rang through the air.

She wiped at the tears silently trailing down her cheeks. Her tangled black hair clung to her face and neck. She’d spent three days in this cell with minimal food and jeers from the guard on duty. She’d been labeled a witch. Two police officers had shown up at her house, questioned her mother, and then knocked Anya out. She’d wound up here. She could still hear the insults and chants slamming around inside her head.

Witch

Devil Worshipper

Freak

Burn, burn, BURN!

The town of Meade Harbour, Massachusetts still seemed to be living in the past. They had several archaic laws. One such law included the burning of witches, even though this was the twenty-first century. The law didn’t apply to an everyday pagan. This one was for the truly magical variety. Meade Harbour hadn’t had a witch burning since 1842. No one suspected magic was real.

That was until Anya.

She wouldn’t get to spend Christmas with her family. Her parents hadn’t been allowed to visit her at all. The last time they would see her on this earth would be while she had flames licking up the length of her delicate flesh.

Her soft, quiet sobs turned to mournful wails as she imagined over and over how her pending fate would feel tomorrow and how it would affect those she loved. The horrific noises coming from her echoed off the walls and carried down the hall to the guard.

He was happy to hear her misery. He thought she deserved it. Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. She would burn for her crimes tomorrow, and the town would be free of her vileness. The town needed to be clean and pure before the holiday.

Two Weeks Ago

Anya woke to the sunrise peeking through her blinds. She cracked open one eyelid, greeted by hues of soft pinks and blues blending together. She immediately threw the covers aside and raced for her closet. Today was the day! Anya heard from Valerie, who heard it from Kim, that Heath Lockhart was going to ask her to the Holiday Dance on Friday.

Heath was, by far, the hottest guy in school, and he knew it. Anya had no idea why he would even remotely have her on his radar, but she wasn’t going to say no. It would be a dream come true, and every girl in school would be green with envy.

Every year, the school planned a huge, Christmas-themed dance before school let out for winter break. They strung green and red festive decorations. Christmas trees and candy canes littered the gymnasium. Meade Harbour High made more fuss out of this occasion than the homecoming dance.

Anya tossed clothes out of her closet haphazardly. Why did she not own anything cute enough to impress Heath? He would take one look at her and change his mind.

Her hands finally landed on a pair of skinny jeans in the back of her closet with the tags still on them. She yanked them from the hanger and gave them a once-over. She’d bought these over the summer when she went on a shopping spree with Valerie Hawthorne, her best friend, who clearly had better taste in clothing than she did. Valerie insisted Anya needed to buy them.

Anya wondered how that particular pair of jeans ended up in the back of the closet. She ripped the tags off and peeled the size sticker off the front, then pulled them on.

The jeans fit like a glove. She buttoned them up and let out a sigh of relief. The only thing she needed now was a fabulous top to wear. Recent days had been unseasonably warm, but the forecasted high today was only in the upper forties.

Venturing toward the front of her walk-in closet, she skimmed the sweaters that lined one side. Her hands hovered over a pale green, lightweight cardigan. Before she could change her mind, she yanked it off the hanger and pulled it on.

Satisfied with what she saw in the mirror, Anya grabbed a brush from her vanity and wandered into the bathroom to do damage control.

*

Anya had a unique relationship with her best friend. She provided Valerie with wild berry Pop-Tarts, and, in return, Valerie provided her with a ride to school. Anya’s parents couldn’t afford to get her a car just yet, so until then, she would hitch a ride.

“Sooo…” Valerie drawled out. “Are you ready for Heath to ask you to the Holiday Dance?” Valerie bounced in her seat at the stop light. Her eyes glanced from the stop light to Anya and back, waiting not-so-patiently for an answer.

Anya twisted her hands in her lap. “I don’t know. Are you sure he’s going to ask me out? Surely, he was talking about another Anya. He had to be.” She felt like such a plain-Jane with her long, straight, black hair and blue eyes. There wasn’t anything exotic or fascinating about her. She wasn’t ugly, but she wasn’t pretty like Valerie.

“Anya, you’re the only one I know at our school with that name. Duh! Of course he’s talking about you!” Valerie turned her blinker on and executed a right turn into the school parking lot. She weaved around until she pulled into her assigned parking spot.

Color spread across Anya’s cheeks. Sure, she wanted Heath to ask her out, but she could picture how clumsy she would be when he asked and how bad a fool she’d make of herself. She’d probably stutter, or maybe fall down for no reason. How had her excitement turned to trepidation?

Both girls gathered their backpacks from the backseat and hurried toward school. Their high school used to be a government building that had been repurposed long ago. Tall, marble stairs led to several sets of double doors behind large columns.

Despite the imposing face of the building, it was small inside. Meade Harbour had an approximate population of twelve hundred people. The town didn’t need a large high school. The inside held twenty rooms to divide amongst the four grade levels, which worked well for the small town.

A rush of warm air slammed into Anya and Valerie as they stepped inside the school. The faculty always thought it was a great idea to turn the heat on in the school when it got down into the forties and fifties outside, sometimes turning the heat up a little too much.

“Ugh, I’m going to start wearing tank tops under my jacket instead of sweaters when I come to school,” Valerie said as they made their way to homeroom.

“That’s not a bad idea, actually. We could wear a tank top, hoodie, and then our jacket over that when it gets really cold outside. We’ll dress in layers and peel them off as needed. I wonder what our teachers would think of that. Think we’d get written up for indecent exposure?” Anya laughed as they took their seats.

“Gah, I’m burning up!” Valerie peeled her hoodie off to reveal a gray sweatshirt with the school mascot: a huge, black raven with Meade Harbour Ravens emblazoned above it. She threw her hoodie over the back of her chair.

“Ditto. It’s going to be a sweltering winter for us while we’re in school.” Anya pulled her own hoodie off. She curled her fingers around the edge of the desk and used her other hand to fan herself.

A cold sensation crept under the palm laid on the edge of the desk, and Anya jerked her hand away, holding in a yelp.

Three tiny snowflake patterns rested on the desktop.

She put her finger to one of them, and the snowflake melted under her touch. The two surrounding snowflakes melted from the heat radiating from her fingertip.

How strange!

Anya glanced at Valerie, who was oblivious to the event. She had to be losing her mind! It was way too hot in here for snowflakes to appear on the desk. She shook her head to clear the cobwebs. Maybe she’d been studying too hard, and her brain had become delusional from the flood of knowledge. That had to be it.

From the seat next to her, Devlin gave her a weird look, continuing to glower. Anya gawked back. She couldn’t help herself. He was the nerdy kid in elementary school. Not anymore. He’d definitely grown up, but he’d never said two words to her. Had he seen what happened?

Yikes!

“Yo, space cadet! Earth to Anya!” Valerie waved her hand in front of Anya’s face.

“Wha’? Huh?” Anya snapped out of crazy town and looked at Valerie.

“You okay? You don’t seem yourself this morning. First off, you weren’t excited about the prospect of Heath asking you out. Yesterday, you were this bubble of energy when I told you. Now, you’re spacing out before Mr. Hammond has even walked in to take roll.”

Anya chewed on her bottom lip. Valerie would think she was crazy if she told her about the snowflakes on her desk. She sighed. “No, I’m good. I guess I’m just having an off day. I chalk it up to too much studying this weekend.”

Mr. Hammond came in, saving Anya from Valerie’s reply. They sat patiently while he took roll, and then listened to the school announcements. The principal reiterated that Friday was the Holiday Dance and reminded the student body tickets would be on sale in the cafeteria each day this week.

Valerie gave Anya a sly look and winked. She leaned over and whispered, “You’re going to have so much fun with Heath at the dance.”

Anya smacked Valerie on the arm. “Hush!”

Mr. Hammond glared her way. She slinked down into her seat and stayed quiet the rest of the class.

*

Anya remained scattered and unfocused as she waited for lunch time. Heath had her same lunch block, which meant it would be the perfect time for him to ask her out. The bell for her third period class rang, and she bolted to the bathroom to check her hair and straighten her clothes.

Valerie stalked in behind her. “You’re not bailing, are you?”

“No! I’m just making sure I look okay. I don’t want him to take one look at me and go running for the hills.” Anya pulled a mini brush out of a side pocket in her backpack and ran it through her straight locks to get any tangles out.

“Okay, good, because before I came in here, I saw Heath walk into the lunchroom. Deep breath! You’ve got this!” Valerie clapped her on the shoulder and exited the bathroom.

Anya gave herself a mental pep talk and then proceeded toward the cafeteria. She joined the lunch line and took a couple calming breaths while she picked up a tray and selected several food items. She stalled next to the desserts.

[_I will not freak out. _]She repeated this in her head like a mantra.

Heath gently slid his tray up against hers and gave her a megawatt smile. “Hey,” he drawled.

“Hey,” Anya said with a breathy sigh. Not exactly the response she was looking for. Total genius move, right? She placed a chocolate chip cookie onto her tray and proceeded to the register to pay for her lunch.

Heath pushed his tray down the line behind her and paid. He caught up with her while she walked to a table and fell in step beside her. “So, about the dance on Friday.” He cleared his throat, and an awkward pause hung thick between them.

Anya sat her tray down at an empty table. Valerie was nowhere in sight. Figures, thought Anya.

Heath plopped down in the chair next to her, finally finishing his thought. “Do you maybe wanna go with me on Friday?”

So the rumors Valerie heard from others were true. Heat crept up Anya’s neck, and she was sure the blush reached her cheeks. She shyly turned toward him, trying to think of a more educated response than the one she’d said moments ago.

“I would love to, Heath.” She could talk in complete sentences around him. It was a miracle.

“Great!” He seemed surprised by her answer. Was he nervous she would say no? Who wouldn’t want to go out with Heath? He couldn’t be the self-conscious type. He was always so self-assured and ready to take on the world.

Anya found herself at a loss for words. The oppressive air in the cafeteria clogged up her lungs. She hadn’t realized how hard she was clutching the lunch tray. She pulled her hands into her lap and gave Heath a smile. “So…”

“Soooo, I’ll see you on Friday? My shirt and tie are green if you’d like to wear something that matches. I’ll pick you up at seven o’clock that day, okay? Sound good?” Heath wiped his hands on his pants nervously, then reached for his tray.

“Sure thing! I think I might, um, have something that will match.”

“Good, good,” Heath said, more to himself. “See you then!” He stood and carried his tray over to the table where all of his friends sat.

Anya’s heart thudded heavily in her chest. She couldn’t believe Heath Lockhart actually asked her out. She’d had a crush on him since the third grade but never had the nerve to really talk to him. He appeared just as nervous as her. Maybe he wasn’t used to talking to girls? Anya had never seen him with a girlfriend around school. He hung out with the popular people but never with anyone.

She couldn’t hide the smile that spread across her face as she picked up her milk carton and opened it, taking a sip. She looked up as Valerie took the seat across from her.

Valerie leaned over conspiratorially, pitching her voice low. “How did it go? Did he ask you? I’d say by the smile that’s plastered across your face, it’s a yes!”

Anya nodded, and Valerie let out a squeal that could be heard two states over.

Anya covered her ears and shushed her. “You’re going to embarrass me! He’s only a couple tables over, and you’re making a scene. Calm down.” She gazed down in embarrassment, her cheeks blossoming to a lovely shade of red. That’s when she noticed a thumb print on the side of her tray in the same place she had gripped it while talking to Heath.

She leaned down to inspect the print closer. It looked like her finger had melted through the plastic of the lunch tray, but that couldn’t be possible. She ran her thumb over the indention identical to her fingerprint.

“What are you looking at?” Valerie questioned. Her eyebrows scrunched together, and she leaned closer.

“Nothing,” Anya quipped. “I just thought I saw some dirt on the side of my tray. I’m definitely not hungry after that.” The lie left her lips easily as she stood up and took her tray to the trash. Strange things were happening, and she wasn’t sure how to explain it.

As Anya turned to head toward the exit, she caught Devlin watching her intently. That was twice today. His gaze followed her all the way to the door.

*

The week flew by, and before Anya knew it, it was the day of the dance.

Her mom had taken her shopping on Wednesday to pick out a shimmery, green dress at one of the local shops. She wasn’t sure it would fit her, but her mom had insisted she try it on.

Once Anya had the dress on, and her mom stepped into the dressing room to zip up the back, she stared in awe at herself. She turned this way and that, checking out her reflection in the three mirrors angled around her. The material caught the light and made her seem otherworldly. The dress was perfect, as if made just for her. She’d exclaimed to her mom how amazing the dress was, and her mother didn’t think twice before buying it.

Now the day was finally here, and butterflies swarmed inside Anya. She’d caught sight of Heath several times in the hall that week, and his infectious smile spread to her. Could he genuinely like her? Today was going to be the best day ever!

She had so much to do when she got home. Her mother had promised to fix her hair and do her make-up. Anya loved feeling girly, but make-up was not her strong suit. Those details and more occupied her mind through all six periods. She could hardly pay attention to any of her classes.

After school, Valerie drove them both to Anya’s house. Valerie had packed everything she needed for the dance in her car that morning. They pulled into the driveway, and Anya helped Valerie carry her things inside.

“Mom! We’re home!” Anya yelled in the entryway as she set Valerie’s bag down.

Valerie squeezed by her and dropped her cargo unceremoniously onto the hardwood floors. “I have too much junk. Ugh!” She shook her arms out as if to get feeling back into her fingers.

“I’m in the kitchen, girls!” Julia called from the back of the house. The smell of Italian food wafted down the hall. They glanced at each other before they dashed down the hall and skidded to a stop on the linoleum floors.

“Mom, tell me you didn’t make your famous lasagna.” Anya’s mouth watered at the delicious smells swirling around her. Her mom only made lasagna for special occasions. Surely, a simple school dance wasn’t a special occasion.

Julia beamed. “Um, I didn’t make my famous lasagna. I can say that, but it would be a lie. I’m so excited for you, sweetie! You’re having your very first date!” Her mother pulled her into a heartwarming hug. “My baby is growing up so fast!”

“MOM!” Anya groaned but clung to her mother nonetheless.

“Don’t &mom’ me, young lady.” Julia released the death grip on her daughter and motioned her out of the kitchen. “Now, go upstairs, and I’ll be there in a minute. I’m just going to pull the lasagna out of the oven to cool. We’ll do both of your hair and make-up, then you two can eat before you put your dresses on. That way you won’t spill anything on them.”

Anya and Valerie headed back to the entryway and gathered up Valerie’s things, then thudded upstairs to Anya’s room. They got their dresses laid out just as Julia joined them.

“You girls ready to get dolled up?” Julia said, a mischievous glint in her eye.

For the next hour, they were a riot of hair and make-up as Julia made them look stunning. She made sure to emphasize their beauty with minimal makeup. She selected an up-do for Anya’s hair, leaving ringlets to frame her face. Valerie’s hair was naturally wavy, and she had chosen to wear it down. She secured a few strands on either side to keep her hair out of her face.

Anya hated her long boring hair, so with her hair up and curled, she felt like a princess. No, a queen! The snowflake and melted thumbprint had long been forgotten in the joy of a night of revelry with a cute boy.

*

Heath picked her up promptly at seven o’clock as promised. He knocked on the door, and Anya paused at the top of the stairs, listening as her mother opened the door and greeted him.

“Good evening, Heath,” Julia said kindly. “The girls are still upstairs, but they’ll be down in a minute. You can come sit in the living room and wait if you’d like.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Sutherland.”

“You’re welcome, young man. I’ll go get them for you, okay?”

Julia’s footsteps advanced on the stairs. Anya met her on the landing, her hands shaking.

“Good luck,” Julia whispered, kissing Anya on the forehead.

Anya tiptoed down the stairs, wanting a moment to look at him before he knew she was there. He stood in the middle of the living room, his eyes roaming over her mother’s tasteful holiday decorations: the white Christmas tree wrapped in red garland and covered in little star ornaments Anya had made as a child. Three stockings hung from the fireplace, and a tiny village decorated the mantel, complete with lights on the inside to make them glow. As Heath’s profile came into view, Anya could see he was smiling.

“Hey,” Anya whispered.

Heath spun around and sucked in a sharp breath. He stared wide-eyed at Anya as if he’d never seen her before.

“Anya, I… Well…you’re gorgeous!” He stuttered through his words while reaching out to take her hand. He kissed her knuckles, his lips warm.

“Thank you. You look really handsome. I like the pattern of your tie.” Anya fingered the material and watched the lights from her tree dance across the shiny strands interwoven throughout the satin.

“Yeah, my mom picked it out.” Heath smirked and averted his eyes like he’d said too much. “We better get going or we’re going to be late. Oh, I almost forgot!” He picked up the corsage he had brought with him. It was made up of three white roses and a sprinkle of baby’s breath.

“Oh, my goodness,” Anya whispered softly as he opened the clear plastic container and slipped the corsage onto her wrist. She stared at the beautiful arrangement before lifting her gaze to his.

Heath’s eyes were blue like hers, but a much deeper, richer color. They both grinned at each other like fools, and then Heath wove his fingers through hers and pulled her toward the hall.

Heath almost bowled Valerie over as he rounded the corner. “Whoa! I didn’t mean to…” Heath and Valerie both stepped back.

“It’s okay. No harm, no foul. Are we ready to go yet? I’m ready to dance!” Valerie shimmied in place.

Anya laughed. “Good grief, woman. Calm down. We’re not even there yet.”

“Get your coats on,” Valerie said as she shooed them out the front door and into her car.

Anya didn’t live too far from school. If she lived any closer, they probably could have walked, but the night was blustery. Dark clouds drifted over an almost full moon.

Valerie parked in one of the open spots, letting everyone get out before she locked the car.

“Brrr… It’s starting to get colder outside,” Valerie squeezed out through chattering teeth.

Anya lightly punched her in the shoulder. “You’re always cold, though. Maybe you need to eat a cheeseburger and gain some weight.” She laughed at her statement, looping her arm through Heath’s.

Heath remained silent through the whole exchange. They entered the gym and handed over their tickets to one of the teachers manning the entrance.

“You kids have fun,” called the teacher as they entered the dimly lit gym decorated in red and green. A Christmas tree sat in the far left corner with fake presents piled high underneath. A strobe light twirled slowly overhead, casting bright splashes of light all over the hardwood floor.

The three of them left their jackets with the teacher in charge of coat check. The teacher, in turn, handed them a ticket with a number on it.

Anya looked around, noting there were already a lot of people there. The DJ blared over the microphone about the next song, but no one was dancing yet. Students stood all around the perimeter, socializing.

“Let’s go get something to drink,” Heath said. He pulled her over to the right side where a long stretch of tables held various snacks and drinks. Several rows of cups and a large punch bowl adorned one table, with a sign proclaiming what each row contained in the cup.

Anya’s gaze swept over the different snacks and finger foods. She had gone back for seconds of her mother’s lasagna, and she was absolutely stuffed to the brim. A drink didn’t sound too bad, though.

Heath picked up the ladle and poured her a cup of punch. “Here you go, m’lady,” he stated with an air of chivalry.

Anya chuckled behind her hand, and reached out with the other to take the punch. It was nice to have someone else to hang out with who liked her. She still wasn’t sure why Heath had asked her out. He could have had his pick of any of the girls in her class.

“Do I get a cup of punch, too?” Valerie tapped the toe of her pointed shoe with her arms crossed. She had a look of frustration on her face, but Anya knew she was just toying with Heath.

“I’m starting to think I have more than one date tonight,” Heath mumbled as he poured another drink, but there was no bite behind his words. “And a glass of the finest punch in the gym for you, m’lady!”

Valerie loosened her stance and accepted the cup from him.

Anya tipped back her drink, drained it, handed her empty cup to Valerie, and tugged on Heath’s arm as she heard a slow song come on.

Heath let out a yelp of surprise as he was hauled onto the dance floor. “Are we eager to dance already? I thought Valerie was the one excited about dancing.”

“She is, but I’m scared she’s going to steal you away, and I want the first dance,” Anya confessed.

Heath wrapped his arms around her waist, being polite in the placement of his hands. Anya brought her arms up and wrapped them around his neck. A nervous lump formed in her throat as they swayed back and forth to the music the DJ piped through the speakers.

She’d never really had a boyfriend, so this was new territory. She’d tried to be bold by pulling him out here to dance, but to be honest, she wasn’t sure where the bravado came from. She hoped and prayed her palms weren’t getting all sweaty where they rested against his neck.

She could have sworn she felt her palms get hotter at the thought, and Heath stepped back out of her reach with a look of surprise.

“Ouch,” he exclaimed, rubbing his neck. “What was that?”

Confusion was written all over his face; the same look plastered to Anya’s. She had no idea what was going on. Memories of earlier this week came flooding back: the snowflakes, the thumbprint. She was a walking disaster, and she wasn’t sure how to explain anything to Heath. Heck, she didn’t even know how to explain it to herself.

“Heath.” She hesitated, “I… I don’t know what that was.”

“It felt like you burned me!” He finally dropped his hand and huffed out a breath. “C’mon, let’s finish our dance. The song is almost over.” He cautiously placed his hands on her waist.

This time, Anya put her hands on his shoulders over his suit jacket, avoiding the skin of his neck altogether. She couldn’t meet his eyes. Shame washed over her at the thought of what all of this could mean. Was she a freak of nature? At first, when the snowflakes and melting tray had happened, she’d chalked it up to hallucinations. She couldn’t after Heath just confirmed he had felt something, too.

The slow song came to an end but was followed by something a tad more upbeat.

“Let’s start over,” Heath said, tugging Anya back to him as she tried to walk off the dance floor. “One more dance. Let’s get to know each other better. You’re more beautiful than you realize.” He spoke the last in a much softer tone.

Anya grinned. “Okay. What do you want to talk about?”

“What’s your favorite color?”

“Hm, that’s an easy one. Green!” She tilted her head down to indicate her dress. “My turn! What’s your favorite movie?”

Heath glanced to the right as he considered. “That’s a tough one. I like a lot of movies. I’d have to say either Top Gun or The Fast and the Furious.”

“Really?” Anya pulled her lip between her teeth and worried the skin.

“Is that your next question for me?” He chuckled. “It’s my turn, anyways. Favorite food?”

Anya got lost in the moment as they swayed back and forth to the slow, melodic beat. Everyone else in the room seemed to melt away, and only the two of them remained, having their own private conversation. “I’d have to say, hands down, if the world came to an end, and I had to live off one food item, I’d say anything chicken.”

She was rewarded with a smirk. “Chicken? Really? I pegged you for a steak kinda girl.”

“Nope, I don’t like steak much at all.” She scrunched up her face.

“May I cut in?” a deep voice said from behind her. Goosebumps rose along her arms even though the room was rather warm from the heat, which was probably still turned up.

Heath said one clipped word to the stranger. “No.”

Anya glanced around and found Devlin standing there. His dark green eyes peered down at her through his perfectly mussed brown locks. Her eyes widened, but she tried to remain calm.

“It actually wasn’t a question. I’d like to cut in.” Devlin grabbed for Anya’s arm, and Heath smacked his hand away.

“Stop!” Anya protested. “That’s enough. There is nothing wrong with me dancing with Devlin. It’s just one song. I’ll come find you when I’m done. Go find Valerie, and make sure she hasn’t gotten into any trouble.”

“Fine.” Heath stormed off, and Anya could have sworn she felt the anger rolling off of him, even from far away.

“Why did you do that?” Anya questioned as Devlin wrapped his arms around her and pulled her closer than she was comfortable with. He was only in one of her classes. He’d barely spoken two words to her since she’d known him. He’d grown up in the same town, but it wasn’t like they were ever friends.

“You intrigue me. That’s all.” He studied her for a moment. “Your eyes are beautiful. Such a light, crisp blue color. Does your mom have blue eyes like that?”

“Actually, she has brown eyes. I get my blue eyes from my father.”

“I see.” Devlin grinned. A coolness radiated from him, banishing some of the heat that had started to suffocate her. Her goosebumps had finally gone away. Coldness seeped in from where his hands rested on her hips. That was odd.

“What do you see?” Anya asked, confused.

“Nothing.” He shook his head and started staring at something behind her. “Your boyfriend looks angry.”

“He’s probably angry because of how close you’re holding me.” Anya tried to loosen his grip on her but failed. If she had to admit it, she wasn’t repulsed by his touch at all. She was shocked at how right it felt to be in his arms. Her mind rebelled against the thought.

“Don’t go yet. The song isn’t over.” He held tight.

“No, I think we’re done.” She broke away from him and all but ran toward Heath, weaving in and out of the other couples littering the dance floor. She came to a screeching halt by Heath and tried to collect herself.

“You’re done with lover boy over there, so you decided to come running back to me?” He glared daggers at her.

“It’s not like that. I was just trying to be nice and he… and…” she stuttered.

“Save it. It wasn’t like you pushed him away. You all seemed pretty cozy.” Heath stormed away from her and disappeared in the crowd of people.

Anya stood there, dumbfounded. What the hell had just happened? She had been having such a great night with Heath, and Devlin had to ruin it. Why had she agreed to dance with him when he cut in? She was a fool.

Valerie walked up, her brows knitted in concern. “Are you okay, Anya? I saw Devlin cut in, and then Heath storm off. Is there anything I can do?” She wrapped her arms around her best friend to comfort her, and Anya broke down into tears.

“Val, I don’t know what’s going on. Devlin cut in, and I was just trying to avoid a fight between the two of them. I don’t even know Devlin. He never speaks to me, so I don’t know why, of all days, he decided to finally talk to me.” Anya started to ramble on, talking about how she was confused. How she decided she’d had enough and came back to stand with Heath, and the rejection he had thrown in her face.

Huge tears rolled down her cheeks, ruining the beautiful job her mom had done on her make-up. “I need some fresh air,” Anya squeaked through her tight throat. She pushed away from Valerie’s arms and ran for the gymnasium door.

Teachers called out from behind her, asking if everything was all right, but she kept running. She burst through the doors, sprinted through the parking lot, and went straight into the woods that bordered one side of the school.

The wind howled through the trees, whipping her hair out of its tight confines to come crashing against her face. She pulled the errant strands behind her ear and finally stopped running as she threw herself at the base of a tree and let all of her tears come tumbling down.

A light rain began to fall, making her dress cling to her body. She straightened and leaned against the tree. Anger boiled under her skin, and the wind seemed to pick up in response, howling with a fierceness she’d never heard before. It wrapped around her as if to comfort her.

After some time, Anya slowly relaxed against the tree and took a deep breath. The wind still blew, but now it was a light caress, and the rain died down.

That was strange. It hadn’t been forecasted to rain tonight.

She sat for a while longer, letting the beat of her heart fall within a normal rhythm. Her eyes closed of their own accord, and she remembered Valerie’s birthday was tomorrow. She’d brought a single candle, hoping the school would supply cupcakes like they normally did for this dance.

Here she was running away from her friend when she should have stayed and sucked it up. She stood and brushed leaves and dirt from her dress. Her hair she couldn’t fix, but hopefully she looked all right. She could always do her best to make it look reasonable in the school restroom.

She adjusted the small strap of her purse around herself and trudged back toward the school. She was thankful no one had come looking for her. She needed some time to herself. None of her problems had been solved, but she had at least calmed down. Plus, tears were therapeutic, right?

Heading back into the gym, she found Valerie near the entrance, pacing back and forth as she hugged herself. “Oh, thank God!” She threw her arms around Anya and squeezed the breath out of her.

“Val… Val. I need…to breathe!” She choked out.

“Don’t ever do that again! I was so scared! I would have run after you, but I have a confession. I’m still afraid of the dark.” Valerie whispered the last part.

Anya breathed in the clean scent of her friend and relaxed against her once she had loosened her death grip. “I’m sorry I worried you. I just needed a moment, is all.”

“Let’s go back in and forget about boys. Boys are yucky and not worth our time. We’ll go dance together and forget about everyone else. You’re my best friend, and I’ll do whatever it takes to put a smile back on your face, okay?” Valerie tugged Anya’s hand and pulled her onto the dance floor.

An upbeat pop song blared through the speakers, and bodies writhed around them in a frenzy of musical excitement. Anya and Valerie let the music move through them as they danced and lost themselves in the revelry.

As the song ended and some weird rap song came on, they walked over to the snack table.

“I have a surprise for you,” Anya confessed as she spotted the cupcakes. She slyly reached into her small purse and pulled out the one birthday candle and a lighter she had brought. She turned her back on Valerie and stuck the candle in the small confection and lit it.

She whirled around and presented her surprise. “Tada! Happy Birthday!”

Valerie choked the tears back. “You remembered!”

Anya had a tendency to forget people’s birthdays. For her to remember was a huge deal to Valerie.

“Yup! I actually remembered this time. Make a wish and blow out the candle. You just can’t tell anyone the wish, or it won’t come true,” Anya joked as she lifted the cupcake closer to Valerie.

“Wanna help me blow it out? We can both make a wish. How about it?”

“Sure, why not?” Anya and Valerie puckered their lips and leaned in to both blow out the candle. The air that left Anya’s lips was chilled. The flame sputtered once and then extinguished into thin air without so much as a puff of smoke. Small snowflakes formed over the fluffy, pink frosting where Anya’s breath touched it.

Frost clearly layered the top of the cupcake and around the base of the candle.

“What the…” Valerie’s eyes widened, and Anya yelped, dropping the cupcake on the hardwood floor of the gym. “Anya?”

Anya shook her head but didn’t say a word. She was too shocked.

Over Valerie’s shoulder, she thought she saw Heath hiding behind a heavily-decorated fake Christmas tree. His face looked hard and cold, and he looked right at her. Had he seen what happened?

“Anya?” Valerie said again.

Anya bent down and retrieved the cupcake before throwing it away in the nearby trash can. “You’re not to speak a word of this to anyone.” She whipped her head around the room, trying to see if anyone else had noticed her little stunt.

“I would never tell anyone. Come on.” Valerie pulled her past the Christmas tree where Heath had been hiding. By that time, he was no longer stationed behind the tree. They scrambled into a hallway lined with black lockers and made their way toward the end to lean against the window ledge. “Talk.”

“What’s there to say?” Anya fidgeted with her hands and fell silent.

“You’ve been acting strange lately, and now I know why. Spill it.”

Anya didn’t look up, but she could feel the glare being cast her way.

“Okay, okay. It started at the beginning of the week when we were complaining about how hot it was in homeroom. When I…” Anya paused, unsure if she should really divulge all of this, but Val was her best friend, and she always told her everything. It killed her to keep anything from her.

“Go on. I won’t judge.”

“I’m scared you might. Well, when I pulled my hand away from the desk, there were snowflakes on it. That room was burning up, and I had snowflakes under my hands. I don’t know how I did it!” Anya started to freak out and rushed on. “And then, during lunch when Heath had asked me out… I’d been clutching the lunch tray pretty tightly because of how nervous I was… and… and when I pulled my hand away, there was a thumb print melted into the plastic!”

“Shh. It’ll be okay, Anya.” Valerie hugged her and stroked her back soothingly.

“I’m a freak,” Anya choked out on a sob. “The town is going to come chasing after me with torches and pitchforks like in the old days. You know how crazy this town is. They’re so closed-minded that they can’t see straight!”

“I’m not going to tell anyone, so no one is going to know. I don’t think anyone saw you in the gym. We’ll be careful. Maybe you could practice whatever this is so you can learn to control it. I promise I will not let any harm come to you. So help me…” she trailed off, the anger wrapped tightly around each word. “No one touches my best friend.”

“Thank you,” Anya breathed into her hair. “You’re the best!”

“No problem. That’s what best friends are for. Let’s head home and call it a night. Sound like a plan?” Valerie leaned away, waiting for Anya to answer.

“Yes. Oh! What about Heath?” Anya’s eyes widened.

“What about him? That loser can find his own way home for the way he treated you!” Valerie scoffed.

“Let’s head outside. It was really windy earlier.” Anya paused and remembered how the wind had picked up with her anger.

“Anya? What’s wrong?” Valerie looped her arm through Anya’s as they meandered down the hall.

“Earlier, when I ran outside, I was angry…” Anya sniffed. With all of the crying she had done tonight, her nose was all runny.

“I would have been angry, too! What happened?” Valerie asked softly.

“I ran into the woods and fell down at the base of a tree to wallow in my own self-pity. Then my anger came back, and it was as if the wind knew I was angry, and it picked up, as well.” Valerie’s eyes widened in looked like disbelief. “I’m not making this up! It was like the wind was angry for me! I swear!”

“I believe you, Anya. After what I witnessed with the cupcake, I believe you.”

They picked up their pace, went back through the doors into the gym, and made their way to the exit. Anya kept an eye out for both guys. Heath was nowhere to be found, but Devlin was brooding in a corner, and as soon as they entered the gym, his eyes locked on hers.

A shiver ran down the length of her body. It had nothing to do with the gym itself, which was suffocating in its heat, and everything to do with Devlin.

Anya tore her gaze away from Devlin’s piercing green eyes and reluctantly allowed Valerie to pull her from the gym. Why did she not want to leave? Both guys had been jerks to her, but there was this pull she felt toward Devlin even though she kept trying to make herself hate him. He’d ruined her night. He’d made Heath mad, and now the dance was ruined, not only for her, but for Valerie, too.

Valerie pulled the car around. Anya slipped into the passenger seat while Valerie buckled up.

When they pulled into the driveway, Julia was peering out the front door.

“Where’s Heath?” she asked, as Anya and Valerie slipped inside.

“He got another ride home.” Anya crossed her arms over her chest and stared at the floor.

“Mrs. Sutherland, Heath was acting like an asshat,” Valerie blurted.

“Valerie! Language!” Julia scolded.

“I’m not sorry at all! He really was!” Valerie described what went down in great detail, while Anya stayed silent. She retold it from how she saw it and included the little tidbits Anya had provided for her. She only left out the magical incidents.

Valerie stayed the night, giving the reason that she didn’t want Anya to be alone. They both knew that if she was, she’d only dwell on all the negative that happened this past week.

Anya took comfort in her assurance they were going to get through this.

*

A week flew by without anything strange happening to Anya. Winter break arrived, so she didn’t have to worry about dealing with Heath or Devlin at school. No one came to her door crying witch, so she figured Valerie was right when she said no one had seen what happened with the cupcake.

On Friday, she and Valerie had plans to grab dinner at the Vanmere Bistro. They had the best bacon cheeseburgers in town, hands down. Afterward, they were going to hit up the theatre to see a new release they had both been dying to see all year long.

At four o’clock, Anya was still trying to figure out a top to wear when Valerie breezed into her room. “Hey, hot stuff! You gonna slum it in your jeans and bra, or are you going to pick out a shirt already?”

Anya grumbled and stomped back into her closet. She settled on a blue-striped sweater and shoved it over her head. Whenever she wore blue, it made her eyes pop, so she couldn’t go wrong with this choice.

“Your dad comes back tomorrow from his business trip, right?” Valerie asked as she gave two thumbs up on the sweater choice.

“Yup. Mom has a big dinner planned. You’re welcome to come over and eat with us.” Anya sat down on her bed and pulled her sneakers on, snatched up her jacket from the hook on the back of her bedroom door, and they ambled down the stairs.

The doorbell rang, and Anya paused on the bottom step, an uncomfortable feeling washing over her. She suddenly felt ill.

“Well, are you just going to stand there, or are you going to answer the door?” Her mom laughed as she walked past and opened the front door.

Two uniformed officers greeted her with the tip of their hats and a solemn, “Good evening, ma’am.”

“What’s the matter, officers?” Julia didn’t even return their greeting. Worry etched itself on her face, and she clutched the door as if resisting the urge to shut it on them.

“May we come in for a moment? We have a couple questions,” Officer Skaggs said. He was Lisa Skaggs’ dad. Anya remembered him coming to career day in elementary school.

“What is this about? I haven’t done anything wrong.” Julia still refused to open the door anymore.

Anya hugged herself, standing frozen on the bottom step beside Valerie.

Oh no!

They were there for her. She could feel that knowledge deep within her bones. Someone had seen her last Friday night, and they had finally found the courage to go to the authorities. The town’s laws were backwards; all the kids joked about the crazy legislation they had learned in elementary school. Witches could still be burned at the stake. That law hadn’t been changed in all the years since it had been created.

Anya snapped out of it. She’d missed a lot of the conversation while listening to her own thoughts race through her mind. She watched as her mother led the officers into the living room.

Moments later, the two officers strode out of the living room with her mother jerking on their arms.

“No! You leave her alone!” Julia pleaded. “She’s done nothing wrong! Run, Anya!”

Anya and Valerie took but a second to glance at each other, then yanked the front door open and dashed out into the crisp evening air. They both raced down the street toward the end of the road. If they could make it to the woods at the dead-end, they’d be home free. The trees were too close together, and there were tons of hiding spots.

Suddenly, a heavy weight tackled Anya from behind. Her head hit the sidewalk with a crack, and stars floated through her vision. She was too disoriented to even fight back. What was happening?

She must have been struggling more than she thought, because Officer Skaggs clipped the side of her head with the butt of his gun, and her whole world went black.

*

I’m dead.

Anya awoke with that thought in her cold, damp cell. She was sprawled on the concrete with her cheek pressed against the cold floor. She’d apparently drooled in her sleep, as well. Or maybe it was blood? She had hit the sidewalk pretty hard. That must have been what killed her.

So if she was dead, was this hell? Inky blackness surrounded her.

She groaned as she sat up and leaned against the wall. Her eyes fought to stay open. Sleep wanted to pull her back under, but she shook it off. She glanced up; she could see the moon just outside a window set high in the wall.

Hm, so I’m not dead?

She wasn’t sure how long she rested against that wall, waiting for someone to come rescue her. She was scared, cold, and hungry. She didn’t even get the chance to have dinner. Her head pounded from both the smack into the sidewalk and the officer’s gun.

She gave up the fight and finally let her eyes close, then slumped back down onto the unforgiving floor.

*

“Wake up, freak,” a gravelly voice snarled, echoing off the cell walls. “C’mon. I ain’t got all day. I’ve got stuff to do!”

Anya lolled her head to the side and squinted up from the floor. Her cell door was ajar and a rather large, portly man stood over her with a paper plate. A uniform shirt stretched over his large abdomen, and the buttons threatened to pop off.

She didn’t have the strength to sit up. Her head injury was now a dull ache, but still bothersome.

“Are you daft?” He kicked Anya in her side none-too-gently. “Get up! Now!”

Anya rolled to her belly with a grunt and willed her arms to push her to a sitting position. Dirt covered half her face where she had been pressed against the filthy floor. She was afraid to wipe the grit from her eyes with how grimy her hands were.

Outside her window, she could hear the cries of the town. They called her names and demanded she be burned. She cowered inward, scared.

“You must be mute, too,” he grumbled, as he tossed the paper plate onto the ground. The dry toast tumbled off the plate and landed in a pile of dust. “I brought you some water. It’s all you’re going to get, you witch!” He leaned over, setting a red Solo cup of water next to her empty plate, then hightailed it out of there. The cell door clicked shut with finality.

Anya realized the officer was afraid of her. He’d acted like an asshole, but it was out of fear. People always feared things they didn’t understand. She could somewhat comprehend that. She was scared for herself, since she didn’t know what was happening.

The next two days passed in much the same way. Guards brought toast and water, kicked her, degraded her, and made her feel worthless. She knew she wasn’t worthless, though. This town was full of closed-minded fools.

Maybe her lot in life was to open everyone’s eyes and make them realize different shouldn’t mean scary. She sat huddled in the corner as her tears cleaned silent paths down her grime-covered face.

The weather outside mimicked her emotions. Rain gently fell, trying to soothe her soul. If only she were warm. If she could control whatever these powers were, she could warm herself and fight off the chill. Her throat was sore from crying out for someone to help her.

Tomorrow morning was her last day on this earth. Even then, she wasn’t getting a full day, since the guard had proclaimed she’d die a horrifying death at the sun’s first rays of light. He’d boasted of how the news had been spread all over town, and everyone was required to be in attendance so she could be set as an example.

Anya finally eased herself down onto the floor of her barren cell and drifted into a fitful sleep. Nightmares greeted her of flames dancing over her body.

*

December 21st

The slam of her cell door opening awakened Anya. The sound reverberated off the stone walls. She cried out in alarm as two officers she hadn’t met before crowded into the room and hauled her to her feet.

“Today’s the day!” Officer Number One announced in a far too cheery voice.

“Oh yeah! It’s like a celebration outside!” Officer Number Two jeered at her. “It’s too bad we have to burn all of this pretty flesh. Kurt, you think we could maybe have a little fun before we drag her out?”

At least Anya knew Officer Number One’s name. She struggled in their grasps, not wanting to be their plaything. She would not go down without a fight.

“I dunno. Chief said we needed to bring her out right away. There’s a crowd already gathering, and they’re ready for the show. I think a few of the townsfolk even brought marshmallows.” He chuckled.

Great, now she was just going to be one big joke to them all. How had her life become this?

“I’ll make it quick. No one will ever know.” He pulled at Anya’s shirt, and she screamed.

“No! Don’t you dare!” Anya fought against their grip. “HELP!” she shouted down the hall.

Footsteps echoed from the front of the building, and another officer rounded the corner.

“What’s going on here?” he asked. He had bright red hair cut short against his head. Freckles dotted every available surface that could be seen.

Kurt fumbled with his words. “We… Well, we were just bringing the witch out. She was fighting against us. She’s going to be a difficult one.”

“Just get her out there now.”

“Yes, Chief,” both officers mumbled.

They resumed a grip on her arms and dragged her down the hall. Her feet couldn’t keep up with their pace, and she eventually gave up, letting her legs drag behind her.

Once outside, her hands were tethered behind her with her back to a large post surrounded by firewood. She raised her face to take in the eager eyes of those around her. Everyone in town was itching to see the show.

She sucked in a breath when she found Devlin in the crowd. With his disheveled hair and hollow eyes, he looked as if he hadn’t slept in days. Worry was etched into the lines of his face.

The chief of police approached her with a lighter in hand while another guard doused the firewood in kerosene.

“Please, don’t do this!” Anya struggled against her bonds.

Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. You know the law. You are an abomination to this town, and you will die today. Your death will cleanse this town of the evil you have brought upon it.” His eyes sparkled with glee.

He flicked the lid off his lighter and struck the wheel, bringing the flame to light. “Goodbye, Anya. May your soul burn in hell for all your evil deeds!” He tossed the lighter toward the split wood with a little too much haste.

Anya watched as the accelerant burst into flames, licking up and down the logs as it spread around her. She could feel the heat radiating toward her, and her fear spiked up another level.

The crowd cheered on the flames and threw more nasty insults her way. Insults that probably shouldn’t have been said with children present.

Anya tilted her head back against the post and sighed in defeat. This was the end. Her hope fizzled and winked out of existence.

She hadn’t spotted her family in the crowd. Where was Valerie? Had they all abandoned her, or were the guards keeping them away?

A super chilled wind blasted across her exposed skin, causing her teeth to chatter. She opened her eyes in surprise and saw Devlin running toward her. He leaped over the logs that were not engulfed and pulled out a pocket knife to cut at her bonds.

“Run!” He grabbed her wrist and tugged her in the opposite direction of the police officers. The crowd shrieked in fear and parted for them easily. No one wanted to come up against two witches.

“What are you doing?” Anya said between breaths as she pumped her legs.

“I’m saving your life!” He yanked open the door to a Jeep and pushed her inside. He ran around and jumped into the driver’s seat, started it up, and peeled out of there.

Anya glanced in the side mirror and saw the police screaming at the crowd to move so they could get in their squad cars.

“Where are we going?” Anya’s voice shook. She’d almost burned to death.

“New Haven, Connecticut. I have family there that will take us in. You’re the most powerful witch we’ve had in centuries. You can control all four elements. I’ve seen it. I’ve been watching you.” Devlin grinned over at her, and then looked back to the road as they merged onto I-95.

“I’m scared,” Anya confessed.

“Don’t worry. I won’t let anything happen to you.”

Author J. Laslie

J. Laslie lives in Louisville, KY with her wonderful husband, 2 kids, 4 dogs, 3 cats and mother-in-law. She has always been an avid reader. She loves Young Adult, Dystopian, and Paranormal Romance. Find her online at authorjlaslie.weebly.com.

If you enjoyed Solstice Flames,

check out UNTREATABLE

People are dying…

Tahlia and Quentin live in a world where the US population is starving to death one hundred years after a government-mandated “cure” for obesity. Tahlia’s ancestors escaped genetic mutation. Now she and her tribe must hide in the wilds of South Dakota to avoid being harvested for their untainted DNA. When Tahlia is captured on a supply run, she becomes a lab rat for the scientists searching for an antidote. The fate of humanity lies buried in Tahlia’s genetic code, and her own survival lies in the hands of Quentin — the only son of the very doctors who want to cut her open.

Harrowing and suspenseful, Untreatable transports readers to a dystopian future where everything is not as it seems and resilience of body — and spirit — is required to survive.

Available online where books are sold.

A Midwinter Manifestation

Sammi Cox

aeve Featherstone stared out of the frosty window of Appletree House at the winter scene on the other side of the pane of glass. It was almost picture perfect.

From her seat, she could see the eight-hundred-year-old church lit up against the indigo sky. St Mary’s, like the rest of the village of Wood End, currently sat beneath a few feet of snow. The parish Christmas tree, set in the middle of The Green, was lit up in red and yellow and blue; little yellow lanterns were strung from the Victorian-style lampposts around its edge. In a few evenings’ time, the people of Wood End would turn out and congregate in the heart of the village, wrapped up against the cold to sing carols before retreating to The Charcoal Burner, the public house which sat directly opposite St Mary’s, to celebrate the season.

Maeve looked up at the sky; the moon was nearly at its fullest. Tomorrow was the Winter Solstice, and to celebrate, she planned to venture out into the ancient woodlands that gave the village its name. King’s Wood backed onto the garden of Appletree House, and a wooden door in the red brick wall that encircled the property gave Maeve easy, not to mention secret, access to the woodland. Which, of course, was just what every modern-day sorceress required.

Maeve loved the woods. She and Ed, her recently deceased boyfriend, had once spent many long days out roaming its dozens of paths. Now, they had to walk them by night, in case anyone saw the ghost walking beside her. No one but Maeve knew about Ed’s post-death transformation, and they were planning on keeping it that way.

As with most things pertaining to Maeve’s existence, the less other people knew about it, the happier she was. Only a select few knew Maeve was a sorceress. She preferred this title to witch, though she accepted both and never took offense at being referred to by the latter. Mostly, those in the know were other magickal practitioners: some whom she had taught, some whom had taught her. But there were a handful of others, also.

However, not another soul knew that Ed’s ghostly form resided in Appletree House. It was their secret and that was how it would remain.

Her mind turned back to the forthcoming Winter Solstice. She knew she should begin her preparations, but she was content to sit quietly and look out of the window for the time being. There was something pure and serene about the snow-covered village, something that made her want to stop, rest, and reflect, rather than move, do, and act. And so she stayed where she was, giving in to the soothing, relaxing feeling that overwhelmed her, which she no doubt needed after her busy day at work.

Maeve allowed her head to rest against the freezing cold window as she contemplated the quiet Christmas she was planning to share with Ed when he returned. He had spent the last two days in the north country, checking that his family were doing all right, but she was expecting him home at any minute. Her thick, wavy, dark red tresses, that flowed half way down her slender back when she was standing, made a very good impromptu pillow, cushioning her from the worst of the frosty glass. Every now and then, she caught her pale reflection staring back at her. The darkness beneath her eyes had yet to disappear, she noted, and no amount of make-up seemed to be able to cover it completely. It had been a hard year, and she would be glad to see the back of it, although the prospect of a few quiet days with none but Ed for company would be a welcome respite.

An urgent banging on the front door broke Maeve’s silent, seasonal ponderings. She jumped from her window seat, where she had been happily curled up, and ran into the hall, wondering what on earth could have been so pressing as to drive someone from the warmth of their home on such an evening.

On opening the door, Maeve found the diminutive Eve Whitworth on her doorstep. Eve, or Evie as she was known to most of the village, lived just down the lane.

“Maeve, please help me. You must. Oh! What am I going to do?” Evie clasped a hand to her forehead as she marched up and down the front porch. In her festive-themed green coat and red hat, she looked more elf-like than ever.

Maeve sighed. “What’s happened now?” she asked, resigned to the fact that her evening of quiet had been completely and irrevocably disturbed.

“I didn’t mean to do it. _ I swear_.”

Maeve walked back through to the living room, leaving it up to Evie whether or not she followed. Evie was hard work, always, and she had a terrible reputation for doing things she shouldn’t and then expecting Maeve to fix them before anything serious could occur.

“What have you done now, Evie?” Maeve demanded, folding her arms across her chest as she turned to face her. It had been a long day, and Maeve could feel knots of tension causing havoc across her neck and shoulders. Rolling her head from side to side in an attempt to loosen her stiff muscles, she wondered whether she would actually have time to plan her Solstice celebration before she went to bed. It didn’t seem likely.

“I didn’t mean to. It was an accident,” said Evie defensively.

It was Maeve’s turn to clasp her hand to her forehead. She had at least some idea of what it was Evie had done. “You touched those books again, didn’t you?” Maeve hissed through gritted teeth. “Your mother’s books. I warned you… I told you… Why don’t you ever listen?”

Evie’s mother had been thoroughly fascinated by magick and the occult. As an avid collector of all sorts of books and paraphernalia associated with the mystical and paranormal, her home had become a library dedicated to the subject, although she was never much of a practitioner herself. Mrs Whitworth had died a few years previously, and for some reason Maeve had yet to understand, she had left all but a few of these items to Evie. Maeve and Mrs Whitworth had naturally got along very well. Nevertheless, the sorceress was unhappy to learn that the mother had shared Maeve’s secret with her daughter. And now every time Evie dabbled in witchcraft, she very quickly found herself at the door of Appletree House asking for help.

“I didn’t think it would work,” Evie replied hysterically.

“You always say that, and it always does!”

“I am really sorry —”

“Save it, Evie. Come on.” Maeve stormed out of the room, swapped her slippers for her boots in the hall, and donned her long, thick woolen coat.

In silence, they stepped outside, closing the front door behind them as they exited Appletree House. The freezing cold air immediately began attacking any exposed areas of skin it could find, and so, in an attempt to keep herself warm, Maeve marched off down the driveway, and turned right when she came to the lane.

Evie did her best to keep up. “I am sorry,” she called out, a few steps behind Maeve. “It was only that… well…”

“Evie, please, just be quiet. Wait until I ask a question before you speak again. I need to try and clear my mind if I am going to be able to undo whatever it is you have done.” Maeve tried not to snap at the woman, but she found her inability to take sound advice terribly frustrating. This routine was familiar to both of them, such was the level of Evie’s stupidity and Maeve’s reluctance to allow the woman the chance to try and sort out her magickal mess herself, and in so doing cause even more trouble.

Turning up the footpath at the bottom of the lane, Maeve walked up towards Evie’s house, which was set back from the road. The light in the front window flickered on and off. It was obvious to the sorceress that Evie had raised or conjured something.

Halfway up the driveway, she came to a sudden stop as the sound of something smashing floated out to greet them. “Now would be a good time to tell me what you did,” the witch said, trying to remain calm and collected, trying not to show her exasperation and annoyance.

“Well… you see… You were right… It was from one of the books Mummy left me —”

“The spell, Evie? What spell did you cast?”

“This afternoon, I noticed how things were starting to get on top of me. And I just felt so tired, and the chores seemed to be beyond my ability to complete, and tomorrow my sister — you remember Lilian, don’t you? She’s arriving with her husband and two girls…”

An awful feeling came over Maeve. “Please, no… no… no…” She ran the rest of the way up to the house.

Evie, who could not look at Maeve, unlocked the front door, and for once didn’t say a word.

The sight that welcomed the pair was one of utter destruction. It looked like a tornado had moved from room to room, destroying everything in its path.

“An imp? You summoned an imp?”

“I thought it would be helpful.”

Elves, Evie. Elves help with housework. Imps don’t fix things. They break things. They break everything.

“Oh. Oops. It’s an easy mistake to make. I’ll remember that for next time.”

“Evie, there shouldn’t be a next time. You shouldn’t do magick. Why don’t you understand that?” Maeve shouted to be heard over the stereo that had just turned up to full volume.

But Evie wasn’t listening. She never listened when she was supposed to. “So, about this imp… What are we going to do?”

Maeve could have screamed in frustration as she watched Evie go to turn the music off.

*

Although an imp was not the worst creature Evie could have summoned, neither was it the easiest to get rid of. Unlike the majority of other magickal creatures, you could not simply undo the spell or cast another to send it away. The banishing of an imp required you to actually be in possession of said imp before you could do anything with it. And imps were notoriously cunning demons who took a serious dislike to anyone who tried to curtail their bouts of destruction. Thus they were also considered quite dangerous.

“The first thing we must do is secure all the exits. We cannot allow the imp to get out of the house, Evie. Do you understand how important that is?” Evie nodded, but then she always nodded and agreed with anything Maeve said before going off and doing whatever she wanted.

The sorceress could suddenly see terrible images of a crazed imp on the rampage through Wood End. It would be a disaster. One house after another would be destroyed, spoiling Christmas for everyone. It would attract all sorts of attention. Questions would be asked. Answers would need to be given. The fact that she was a sorceress might be revealed, her secret a secret no longer. What would she say? What if someone found the imp? What if it hurt someone? This was the worst possible thing that could happen at this time of the year. An uncontrollable imp would certainly ruin the Christmas celebrations of the entire village, and perhaps further afield, if the little demon got the opportunity.

Maeve locked the door they had just walked through, whilst Evie ran through the house to check the back door was still shut.

“Now what?” she asked on her return.

“Well, obviously we need to find and capture the imp,” Maeve said, rolling her eyes.

“Capture it? How?”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. First, we need to locate it.”

“I’ll search upstairs, if you search down here?” Evie suggested, for once sounding sensible. And off she went, after being reminded to check all the first floor windows were closed.

Maeve decided to start the hunt in the kitchen. It was the room she most feared to find the creature in, as it would be surrounded by an arsenal of potential weapons, and so it was there it posed the greatest danger to anyone who sought to capture it.

Everywhere she looked as she followed the hallway through to the back of the house were the visible signs of a rampaging imp. Books and ornaments pulled from the sideboard covered the floor. Coats and jackets from the rack hung off the banister. Peering through the doorway of each room she passed, she could see all the drawers and cupboards had been emptied and left open, somberly devoid of their contents.

When she reached the kitchen, the scene was no less dramatic. The contents of the fridge lay strewn across the floor, and its door hung ajar, casting an eerie light in the otherwise dark room. The sound of rummaging from within told Maeve she had found the culprit.

Quietly, on the tips of her toes, she crept towards it. As she moved, she tried to hold her breath, concerned that her breathing would warn the imp of her approach. When she was a few feet away, she picked up speed, all caution gone out of the window as fear that the creature would escape played on her mind. On reaching the fridge, she tried to slam the door shut, but something was in the way, and the imp shrieked loudly, a high-pitched sound that went right through her.

As she tried again to close the door, the imp pushed against it, trying to get out. Maeve attempted to feel underneath it in the hope of finding what was preventing the door from closing, but when she inadvertently felt the hairy feet of the creature, she instinctively recoiled and stepped back. The door flew open, and in the light of the appliance, Maeve watched as the imp threw Evie’s Christmas turkey that had been defrosting in the fridge on to the floor, where it landed in a puddle of what appeared to be milk. Then it darted through her outstretched arms and out of the door.

Maeve had lost it.

Retracing her footsteps back to the hallway, Maeve wondered wryly how many witches it took to catch an imp. With a shake of the head, her quest continued.

She arrived first at the dining room door. As she stepped inside, the room was in utter darkness, and she could not see a thing. This made her wonder for a moment about the eyesight of imps. Could they see in the dark? Most magickal creatures could, for the majority of them were nocturnal, and so she concluded imps were, in all probability, the same. However, that did not help her; she was neither nocturnal nor gifted with night vision. Her only recourse was to switch on the light.

She felt along the wall close to the door where she knew the switch was located, pushing it downwards when she finally found it. On came the light in the faux-crystal chandelier. It was so bright compared to the darkness that Maeve went momentarily blind. With her eyes squinted shut, she waited for the imp to come hurtling towards her.

But nothing happened.

Slowly, she opened her eyes, first one and then the other. The room was a mess. The imp had clearly been in here, turning out boxes and tearing up rolls of Christmas wrapping paper. Nevertheless, it was the silence in the room that told her the imp was elsewhere in the house. A cursory glance over all the potential hiding places confirmed this, before Maeve switched off the light and closed the door behind her. She was going to have to keep on searching.

Opposite the dining room doorway was a smaller one that led to the little room beneath the stairs. Maeve tried the door, but it wouldn’t budge. She pulled and pulled at it, wondering why it wouldn’t open. Then, suddenly, it came free, and she realized it was stiff rather than being held closed by a strong little demon hiding behind it. It was, no doubt, thanks to its sticky hinges that this room alone remained unaffected by the arrival of the small monster. Compared to the rest of the house, it was pristine and everything was still to be found in its right and proper place.

Leaving the small room, ensuring that the door was once more shut tight, Maeve knew there was only one more place for her to look: the living room. The destruction in here was worse than in the other areas she had been in. The light overhead had stopped flickering (it was this that they had seen from the front window as she and Evie had walked up the driveway) and now shone brightly.

Instinctively, Maeve’s hand flew to her mouth as she gasped at the devastation. The Christmas tree rested on its side; glass from broken vintage ornaments littered the floor. The presents that had been sitting beneath it, awaiting the arrival of Christmas morning, had all been torn open and then discarded. The sofa lay on its back. A bookcase had been pushed over, and its contents spilled. The coffee table stood on its end. Magazines and newspapers had been ripped to pieces.

Although Maeve found Evie annoying, terribly so most of the time, she couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. No one deserved this a few days before Christmas.

A rustling sound caught the sorceress’s attention. Maeve slowly scanned the room, and finally spotted the demon hiding in the branches of the fallen Christmas tree. She did her best to try and pretend she hadn’t seen it; she was too tired to chase it around the house again. Carefully, she stared at the window, only now noticing there was a crack in the glass. She moved to stand near the tree and righted the floor lamp that had been knocked over, taking a moment to set straight the shade whose fixing had been bent at an odd angle.

Then with a speed even she didn’t know she was capable of, she pushed her hand into the dark green boughs of the Christmas tree and pulled out the destructive demon, holding it tightly by the scruff of its neck. The imp kicked and hissed as it tried to free itself, but Maeve’s grip was like a vice. She had no intentions of losing the creature again.

Now that she could get a good look at it, she could see the imp was about the size of a small dog and just as furry. It was covered from head to foot in thick brown hair, but its eyes were astonishingly bright blue in color. Its claws were sharp though not long, and its ears, which poked through the fur on the top of its head, were pointy like a cat’s.

This was the first time Maeve had come face-to-face with an imp, and she wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it. Gingerly, she edged to the door and called out to Evie.

“Aw, it’s so cute!” Evie beamed when she entered the room to see that the creature had been caught. Covered in tinsel and wearing a tiny Christmas stocking on one of its feet, Maeve acknowledged that it did almost look cute, but she knew better than to believe it.

“Don’t come too close,” Maeve warned. “Imps are notoriously unpredictable.”

But Evie either didn’t hear or chose not to. Instead of heeding the warning, instead of approaching the demon with caution like any sane person would do, Evie walked straight over to pet it like a harmless puppy.

The imp, who had sensed Evie’s weakness, had ceased struggling against its captor. Instead, it smiled as sweetly as it could at the new, careless arrival, fluttering its eyelids and pouting, probably in an attempt to hide its terribly sharp teeth, which it sunk into Evie’s outstretched hand as soon as it was within reach.

Evie howled as Maeve did her best to not lose hold of the demon. This, of course, was made harder by the fact that Evie was trying her utmost to pull her hand out of the creature’s mouth. Finally, the imp let go when Maeve pulled the red felt stocking off its hairy foot, and it was its turn to cry.

“Horrible thing!” Evie shouted at it as she cradled her bleeding hand. Maeve was thankful that Evie had received her tetanus booster not so long ago — but that was another story.

“I would take a few steps away from it, if I were you,” Maeve said, in an attempt to exercise her control over the situation. “Now. I think we need a box or something…” she mused, thinking out loud. “Something to contain it, while I sort out all the necessary particulars for the banishing ritual.”

“Gimme mince pie. Then I’ll go quietly,” it hissed. It had gone limp, the fight driven out of it when it had lost the Christmas stocking.

Maeve was not shocked by the revelation that the imp could speak, although it was something to which she had never given much thought. Neither did it seem to bother Evie; in fact, she seemed eager to talk back at it.

“We’re not giving you anything, you horrible rat!” Evie shouted. “You bit me and have destroyed my house.”

“Ah, but you invited me.” The imp grinned. “Your fault. Not mine.”

Maeve suppressed a laugh. The imp was right. The blame solely rested with Evie and her magickal ineptitude.

“Evie, for heaven’s sake, go and get it a mince pie or you will be explaining to your family how you are now the proud parent of an adopted, uncontrollable, destructive imp baby.”

Stomping her feet like a petulant child, Evie went off in search of the required mince pies.

The imp, pleased it was getting its own way, was smiling and giggling. “I like mince pies. Yes, I does. Yum yum.”

Evie returned carrying a partially-battered box of the festive foodstuff.

The imp became even more excited. “Want sock you stole from me,” the imp declared, trying to look over its shoulder at Maeve.

“It wasn’t yours, so I can’t have stolen it from you. However, if you ask Evie nicely, perhaps she will let you have it, as a reward for cooperating.

“Maeve!” Evie hissed. “What are you doing? Why are you negotiating with it?”

“Think of it as a Christmas present,” Maeve replied in a sing-song voice that told Evie if she didn’t do as she was told, Maeve would leave her alone with the imp to deal with in whatever way she thought best.

The hint was not lost on her. “Oh, right, a Christmas present.” Evie picked up the stocking from the floor where Maeve had earlier thrown it and placed it alongside the box of mince pies.

“Thank you, Miss Evie,” the imp said nicely, before adding, “I hope you don’t mind, but I’m keeping this gold, shiny garland, too.” It smiled and fluttered its eyelids again, as it pulled at the tinsel it wore.

“Whatever,” Evie replied, rolling her eyes.

Maeve looked about her, ignoring the child-like antics of both Evie and the imp, and noted that everything she could possibly need to work the required spell was already within arm’s reach. Candles sat next to the open fireplace, where logs were surprisingly still neatly stacked, awaiting lighting. A lipstick lay on the floor by her foot; with it, she could draw the banishing sigil that would open the portal, as long as it was inscribed on a flat surface. The coffee table, she thought, would work nicely.

“I think we are ready,” Maeve finally said, nodding to herself. “It’s time to send the little fella home.”

*

Maeve evicted Evie from her own living room so could work the spell that would allow the imp to return to where it belonged. Evie, naturally, had protested, arguing that she could help. The sorceress quickly put an end to any such notion, telling her in no uncertain terms that she would rather trust her safety to the imp.

As she shepherded Evie out of the room — Maeve was taking no chances — she could hear her muttering under her breath. “Is it any wonder that I make so many mistakes when no one will show me how it’s meant to be done?”

It had no effect on the sorceress whatsoever. She knew Evie should never be taught magick, should never work magick, and should never read about it. It was simply too dangerous in her unreliable hands. If she had shown a little more patience… If she had been able to keep her attention on one thing for more than a few minutes at a time, it would have been different. But Evie was Evie, and she would never change.

To make a point, Maeve charmed the door to ensure it stayed shut. Her concentration needed to be on the spell at hand and not worrying about whether Evie was about to walk into the room because her curiosity got the better of her.

*

Half an hour later, the rite was complete. Wood End was an imp-free village once more.

She exited the living room to find Evie sitting on the stairs. She had not started to put right any of the chaos the summoning of the imp had caused.

“All done,” Maeve said, doing up the buttons on her coat. Looking out through the small window in the front door, she could see that the sky had changed color, and it had started snowing again.

“I can’t believe you charmed the door,” Evie said, offended.

“I can’t believe you tried it after I told you not to.” Maeve sighed. “Anyway, I had better be off. I’ll probably see you at the carols on the green.”

Evie jumped to her feet. “Where are you going?” she asked, incredulous at the thought of Maeve leaving. “My family will be here in six hours, and my house looks like a disaster zone.”

“I’m going home. I’m tired. And anyway, don’t you think I have cleared up enough of your mess for one night? I think you can handle a few household chores.” Maeve went to walk away, but quickly turned about and added, “And I don’t recommend you try using any short-cuts this time. It will be quicker and safer if you just use a broom and duster.”

Maeve stepped out into the night, and pulled the front door closed behind her before Evie had the chance to voice any protest. As she walked through Wood End in the snow, retracing the path back to Appletree House, she wondered if Ed had returned and whether she might have time to plan her Winter Solstice celebration when she got home after all.

With the snow falling all about her, she smiled, the drama of the evening quickly fading to be replaced by thoughts of Ed waiting for her at home. Although he had only been gone a few days, she had missed him more than she could have ever imagined. In her mind’s eye, it was easy to visualise herself curled up on the sofa alongside her ghost boyfriend, her notepad on her lap, drinking a nice hot cup of cocoa.

And that, she mused dreamily, sounded like the perfect way to celebrate the season and another turn of The Wheel.

Author Sammi Cox

Sammi Cox is from the UK and spends her time writing and making things. She enjoys writing about magic and myth, fairy tales and witches, and is inspired by history and the natural world. You can keep up to date with what she’s working on by visiting sammicox.wix.com/sammicox.

The Witch’s Shoes

Sidonia Rose

CHAPTER 1

Arwen

sing my shoulder to fluff the pillow beneath my head, I shift, trying to find a comfortable spot. It’s too warm. I push at the blanket to cool off.

Settling in again, it becomes clear it wasn’t the pillow that was bothering me. It wasn’t even that it’s too warm. It’s the whooshing sound that doesn’t seem to stop.

Whoosh.

I wave my hand thinking it must be a bug that’s bothering me. The sound stops, and I rest again, ready to drift back to sleep.

Whoosh.

Opening a single eye, I see the dark brown comforter under my hand. It’s soft, but it seemed so much thicker when I landed on it last night. Thoughts of last night cause a flood of emotions to course through me.

A warm body is pressed against my back; the source of the heat that’s making me uncomfortable. Thoughts of his body bring visions of him falling on top of me last night. His dark eyes devoured me; my fingers ran through his inky black hair; and then his mouth covered mine, and I couldn’t form a coherent thought if my own mother was standing in the room.

The bane of my existence is remembering names. I can’t do it; I can’t remember names of people. It’s far easier to remember the ingredients needed for my favorite mixtures, but names have never worked out for me. If I give someone a nickname, I can usually remember it, but most people don’t like nicknames from someone they just met. Mr. Warm Body didn’t seem to mind; he was actually amused that I thought his name didn’t really fit him. He told me I could call him anything I wanted, and I wanted a sexy name for him. Something unique, unusual even, but definitely something sexy. I tried a few, but nothing really seemed to fit him. Well, until one name popped into my head.

Brogan.

After a drink together, we were dancing, and I told him he looked like a Brogan. He couldn’t keep his eyes off of me, and I couldn’t keep my hands to myself. It didn’t take long to learn that he spends a lot of hours in the gym.

He didn’t waste any time after I agreed to go home with him last night. As we left the bar, we found a cab out front. After giving his address to the driver, he thoroughly kissed me until the cab stopped again. A quick exchange of cash left us struggling from his door to the bedroom, wrestling clothes from each other.

Leaning back, I consider waking him for another round before I make my exit. It won’t be easy to forget about last night, or to find someone like Brogan again. Wiping at my eyes, I open both this time, trying to determine what the time is. The sun isn’t too bright yet, so it must still be early. The arm wrapped around me moves, and a hand cups my breast with a gentle massage. Mornings are the best time of day, and I’m not going to let a hasty decision last night mess up today.

Once again, the whooshing sound breaks through my thoughts. It’s too cold outside for it to be some type of bug; maybe my date from last night has an old bowl of fruit that has fruit flies. How depressing is that?

After a futile attempt to turn, the arm pulls me back, pressing me tighter to his warm body. Accepting his challenge, I try again to turn, with no luck. I give up and reach behind me to run my fingers up his torso, feeling tight muscles. His groan brings a smile to my face, and I turn, expecting to see him peek over my shoulder.

Looking up, I mutter a curse as feathers dance through the air above us. A few drop low, and the whoosh sound becomes more distinct. The arm around me no longer holds me in place; as I struggle to sit up, the hand falls, resting on my hip.

“What the…”

This, I didn’t do this.

Fear takes over as my heart races faster, and the motion of the feathers increases. A single feather falls to the bed in front of me, and I reach out to lift it as it levitates upwards.

This can’t be happening. Feathers don’t levitate unless… I stare down at the sleeping man beside me. Unless he’s not just a sleeping man; he has to be something else. I don’t want to think it.

He can’t be.

I can’t be here if he is.

Pushing at his arm is useless. He’s not letting go. The arm pulls, and instead of moving me closer to him, his nose presses into my side. He moans, or maybe it’s a growl, as his hand begins to roam across my now-chilled flesh. The only way to escape is to wake him. This can’t be happening.

Pushing at his shoulder, I urge him to get up. “Wake up. Wake up.”

My fears are rising as the room begins to buzz with motion, and the feathers dance lightly around the bed. I can’t enchant feathers on my own. I’ve tried; I can’t do it. The assignment was a month ago, and the feathers didn’t work. I was able to make a tincture that would allow the feathers to be enchanted, but I didn’t do that here. The most I’ve been able to do is to move small things on a table, but feathers? No way can I move feathers. Even I know only the most powerful sources can do such a thing.

It doesn’t matter that I don’t have a stitch of clothing on; I throw off the covers, wanting to get as far from the sleeping form next to me as possible. I push at him again. “You have to get up.”

The yawn is a good sign. “Arwen, stay a little longer.” He remembers my name; that might be a good thing. Another yawn. I can hear the smile in his voice. “Even four times is a little much for me.”

His ego is unbelievable. Rolling away, he takes his arm with him, and I feel the loss of his touch. I miss the warmth of his skin. Sprawled out on his back, the blankets covering most of his naked flesh, he falls back to sleep, snoring gently. There is an overwhelming need inside of me to throw myself on top of him. It pulls at me, almost as if a rope is winding us together.

With the loss of his touch, the temperature in the room cools, and at first, it looks like snow is falling around me. Hundreds of feathers fall, landing on every surface, blanketing the room in white wisps of fluff.

The panic is real, and I scream, even as I try to escape. “No!”

The door flies open, and I pull at the sheet, covering my naked chest. A woman about my age stands in the doorway, leering at us as feathers fall.

Beside me, he sits up, sputtering and pushing at the feathers falling across his face. He looks at the girl in the doorway and bellows, “What did you do?”

She doesn’t look amused, and I’m fearful that I’m in her bed. Staying perched at the door as if waiting for something, she grins like she’s the secret keeper and we’re clamoring for the reveal. With a grin, she responds to him, “This is all you. You must have found yourself a little wi-itch last night.”

She emphasizes the word “witch,” making it sound like a dirty four letter word. It’s never been an issue before, and I don’t disclose my true nature to anyone. If you aren’t in my circle, it’s dangerous for people to know. That’s how we lost my cousin Ruth last year.

His eyes are on me again. I can feel them just like I did last night. His fingers glide across my skin as he tugs at my arm. At his touch, the feathers around us rise into the air.

Gasping, he releases me and pulls at his comforter, now flat and certainly without the stuffing it once held. Around us, the feathers lose their momentum and once again fall to the floor. In amazement, I watch as he flicks his fingers and mutters under his breath. He obviously thinks the feathers will do something.

At the door, the girl is glaring at me. This isn’t my fault, but I fear the worst. I point to her, and she backs up, calling to the man beside me. “Why is she here?”

He doesn’t answer, but he points to the door and it closes, leaving her on the other side. I can hear her through the door as she calls out questions. I can’t be concerned with her; she’s out of the room, and I need to get myself out of here.

Beside me, Brogan mutters under his breath. He takes my hand and a flurry of activity happens as the feathers again begin to move. I lean closer, trying to hear what he’s saying, but he lowers his voice. The feathers swirl like a drain towards the comforter, and I watch as they slowly begin to disappear one by one.

I pull my hand away, and around us, the remaining feathers fall.

This is bad.

He’s remained silent through all of this, but I need answers. With my voice as steady as I can muster it, I ask him to tell me what’s happened. “How did you do this? You must be a fairy! Tell me you are a fairy.”

That’s the only answer I can accept. He must be a fairy. The alternative is too grisly. Only I would be foolish enough to go home with a man who could very well ruin me. I will lose my coven privileges, or worse.

His smooth voice is gone; replacing it is his accusatory tone. He begins to rapid-fire questions at me. “What do you know about fairies? Where did you say you’re from?”

His questions continue, but I don’t bother to answer him. He stops briefly to concentrate on the remaining feathers, giving me a moment to gather my thoughts. I still haven’t answered any of his questions when we hear the girl now yelling through the door. “You did it this time. Mother is on her way. Get that witch out of here!”

He jumps from the bed as if I’d burned him and holds out his hand, trying to keep me away. “You didn’t say you were a witch.”

“It’s fine. Just tell me you’re a fairy, and we can brush this away. It will only take a few minutes, and I’ll be cleared from your memory. There’s no need to bring your mother into this.”

The last thing we need is a mother to be involved in all of this. My own mother is usually fairly laid back; she doesn’t put up with any nonsense, but she tends to be more supportive than others. Of course with the holidays approaching, it will be harder to hide my error.

There’s a simple potion that can fix this, and I have all the ingredients at my house. I will just bring a dose back around for him, and by tonight, he will have forgotten I was here. That doesn’t really help me; I will still remember him, but he won’t seek me out again.

“Why do you keep asking if I’m a fairy?” He’s standing naked beside the bed, and I’m reminded exactly why I came home with him last night.

There was no indication he was a fairy when we met. I would have stayed clear of him had I known. Well, I think I would have tried to stay clear, but there is just something about this man. At the very least, I would have left in the darkness of night. If he is the alternative, and he is in fact a wizard, I’m not sure a potion will clear this up.

Through the door, the girl is still calling out what seems to be random thoughts or questions. I’m still not sure who she is exactly. She didn’t sleep in here last night so maybe she isn’t a girlfriend.

He doesn’t seem to be listening to her either, until she bangs on the door and yells, “Shoes!”

I’m still clutching the sheet to my chest. I haven’t even gotten my clothes on yet. It can’t be time to put on my shoes. That is, unless she’s yelling “shoes” for some other reason that isn’t obvious to me.

He has his boxers pulled in place. “You seem like a nice girl, Arwen.” It feels like he’s trying to distract me. He moves things around on the floor like he’s looking for something. His shoulders relax, but he doesn’t seem to have found what he needed.

Then I remember the stories. The shoes. First, they lure you in, and then before you know it, you can’t resist them or the shoes. This can’t happen to me. I will be ruined.

Dropping the sheet, I begin to search the floor as well. I’ve never gone looking for something in the hopes of not finding it. It’s a fruitless activity.

As he moves around, he begins to toss my clothes on the blankets. I move to get out of bed, but he calls out to me, “Stay on the bed. I haven’t finished checking yet.”

“Why?” It would be easier to get out of bed to get dressed; he’s really making no sense right now. “What are you looking for?” I pull my dress over my head and stand on the mattress, waiting for him to “finish checking.”

He lets out a sigh, and then yells over his shoulder, “False alarm, Meri. There’s nothing here.”

He hasn’t yet answered me, but I know for sure he’s not a fairy. Since he didn’t find shoes on the floor, he must not be a wizard either. I don’t know what that makes him. I’m ready to ask for my shoes; I kicked them off somewhere last night, but they might not be in this room.

Through the door, I hear the girl named Meri say, “They’re on her side.”

CHAPTER 2

Brogan

t’s a stupid mistake to have brought her here last night. The usual plan works, and I end up at their place. That way when we finish, I can leave. There was something about this girl that made me change all the rules, and now I’m going to pay for my mistake.

She didn’t let me get much sleep last night, and it seems too early to get up yet. She’s moving around a lot. I try pulling her closer in the hope she will go back to sleep. The mumbling is annoying this early in the morning, but the screeching is too much. She has my full attention, until I move away from her to see the feathers scattered around the room.

Occupational hazard is what this is. Settling in and pretending to fall back asleep is the only way I can get a minute to think about this. The feathers scattered around the room are going to be hard to explain; levitating feathers are a step too far.

It seems that the women in my life are determined to make this the worst morning for me. As if she was summoned, my sister makes her presence known. I may have forgotten to mention last night that I live with my sister.

Unlike most people, my sister, Meri, doesn’t have any boundaries. She’s always willing to offer up her opinion, even when it’s clearly not needed or wanted. This morning doesn’t seem to be any different. I needed a minute to collect my thoughts after Arwen screamed, but my time is cut short as my sister bursts through the door. Its takes me a few tries, but I have managed to keep her physically out of my room, unless I invite her in of course. If I could also keep her voice out, my life would be so much easier.

My only explanation is that a long night with Arwen has worn down my senses; it feels like I’ve been up all night casting spells. From the look of the place, I was up all night casting spells, as the feathers from my bedding dance through the air.

I quickly sit up, and a face full of feathers hits me as they begin to fall. It’s strange that the feathers would fall randomly. Normally, they should return to where they came from. Unless this isn’t my doing, which only means that Meri must have done this.

Tired of her antics, and without thinking of the consequences, I shout at her as she stands in the doorway. “What did you do?”

She leans on the door frame with a smug look on her face, as if she knows something and doesn’t want to share. She doesn’t hesitate to taunt me. “This is all you. You must have found yourself a little wi-itch last night.”

Hearing Meri call Arwen a witch gets my attention. The winter solstice is in just a few days, and this is the time of year to avoid the witch collective. The stories I’ve heard over the years are enough incentive for me to keep my distance, but this time of year is particularly tricky.

Looking her over, I can’t see any of the usual signs to signal she’s a witch. Even last night, she didn’t dress like a witch, and she was alone. Well, except that couple she was with. Witches never go out alone; they always have someone from their coven with them. I scan my gaze over her, but I still can’t see any sign that she is, in fact, a witch. Maybe Meri has an ulterior motive.

As a last resort, I run my finger along Arwen’s arm to find a sign that she is a witch. She seems unaffected by me until, finally, she can’t seem to hold herself together, and she shivers at my touch. I want that to be my confirmation, but then she sways towards me, as if we are pulled together. That still doesn’t prove anything; it could be just a reaction to me.

Wrapping my fingers around her arm, I expect something to happen. The feel of her skin under my fingers brings a calming to my very soul. It’s unsettling, but it makes me want to pull her closer. I pull my gaze from her to look back at Meri standing in the doorway, and see the feathers have started to once again ascend.

Releasing her is harder than I want it to be. I need to mend things before someone else notices, so I resolve to fix this. She has already seen too much. I mutter quietly so the feathers will go back to where they belong.

The feathers should be easy enough for me. From the doorway, my sister is projecting her thoughts on me. She obviously doesn’t approve of Arwen being here. Her biggest fear is echoing through her thoughts. She’s afraid to lose me. She should know better than anyone that there is no chance of me settling down with anyone, especially a witch.

Meri is finally able to vocalize her thoughts, but they come out as a simple question. “Why is she here?”

Needing space, I point to the door and it closes quickly, leaving Meri out of my room. She no longer holds back and calls out through the door. She’s wrong, but she will see that later.

With no other option, I take Arwen’s hand, once again setting the feathers on the right course. A swirl of activity and the feathers have started to return where they belong.

She must finally realize what’s happening around her, and she pulls her hand away. The last of the feathers fall around the room. It’s enough; I can fix this later.

Arwen breaks her silence, offering up insults, even after the night we have spent together.

“How do you do this? You must be a fairy! Tell me you are a fairy.”

“What do you know about fairies? Where did you say you’re from?”

Looking around the room, I survey any other damage that our night may have caused. The feathers are a sign. I know what they mean, but nothing else seems out of place. She must not be studying her craft or there would be other consequences. Maybe that’s why I didn’t notice it; she must be an inactive witch. Of course that would explain everything.

“Are you inactive? Do you know the power you possess?”

She doesn’t seem to be willing to answer any of my questions. Surely if she knows of fairies, she should have some idea of her own powers.

“Are you alone? Do you have others like you?”

Something about her makes me want to protect her. The last thing I need is a coven to come and find me. If she doesn’t have one, then she might need my protection. I could offer that to her, if I could just figure out what it is about her.

As if Meri’s voice could get any louder through the door, my sister gives out a final ultimatum. “You did it this time. Mother is on her way. Get that witch out of here!”

Cursing as I realize the truth, I jump from the bed and back away from her. “You didn’t say you were a witch.”

“It’s fine. Just tell me you’re a fairy, and we can brush this away. It will only take a few minutes, and I will be cleared from your memory. There’s no need to bring your mother into this.”

It’s almost as if she knows my mother. If she thinks she can brush me from her thoughts, she must be a practicing witch. So much for her being inactive. I really stepped in it this time. There is nothing that can brush or erase her from my memory. The best I could hope for is to remember her as the one that got away, but nothing ever seems to go the way I want.

She starts asking about me being a fairy, and I’ve finally had enough. “Why do you keep asking if I’m a fairy?”

Listening to Meri is distracting me from the witch still in my bed. I have no idea how long we have, but I need to get this girl out of here before my mother arrives. Knowing that she doesn’t have my attention, Meri bangs on the door three times and calls out, “Shoes!”

I look down again, but I don’t see anything. Stepping into my boxers, I pick up random pieces of clothes and throw them on the bed. If there are shoes here, I have to find them before she gets out of the bed. Maybe if I take them out of the room, we can escape and go our own ways.

I sift through my room, but I can’t find the shoes. They must not be here. But then why would my mother be on her way? Arwen gives up the sheet to look around the floor, as well. She must know about the shoes, too.

“Stay on the bed. I haven’t finished checking yet.”

They are here. I know they are here. There must be a way to undo the curse, and I will find it.

“Why? What are you looking for?”

Looking up, I see she’s putting her clothes on. That’s good; she’s one step closer to leaving.

Relief takes over, and I call out, “False alarm, Meri. There’s nothing here.”

Arwen pulls her dress down as she steps off the bed. We’re safe, and I can hurry her out the door, hopefully before my mother arrives. I should offer to help but instead I watch as she struggles with the zipper on the dress. I reach for my pants, as I hear Meri call through the door, “They’re on her side.”

CHAPTER 3

Arwen

verything is going wrong today. My car is still at the club from last night, and I’m late for my coven meeting. After the worst one-night stand in history, I barely had enough cash for a taxi. I exited the car as the driver was yelling at me. I thought I remembered to get gas yesterday, but of course I didn’t, so I had to stop and get gas before I finally got home this morning.

If I could just get Tillie to answer her phone, she would know I’m going to be late. Even after unlocking the door, it won’t open. I use my shoulder to push at it. Muttering under my breath, I fall through the doorway and land sprawled out in the entrance.

I shake off my coat and purse. My black cat, Ebone, comes to inspect me. She doesn’t usually offer me any attention if I’ve been out all night; she prefers to stay cuddled up in my bed without me. Like the rest of my day, nothing is as it should be, and she chooses today to hiss at me.

“Ebone!” I bend forward to scratch her ears, but she pulls away, hissing again.

I can’t smell that bad. Even after I come home from the gym, she doesn’t hiss at me. I can’t smell any worse today.

The kitchen clock begins to chime and I’m reminded again that the meeting is starting. I run up the stairs to shower as I count out each chime.

One. Two. Three. Four.

I gasp for breath as I pull more clothes from my body.

Five. Six.

Turning on the water, I can hear another chime. Seven.

Leaving the water on cold will make me hurry faster. Eight.

Soap is everywhere, and I’m scrubbing as I try to rinse and hear the final chime to signal the hour. Nine.

I’ve always been a morning person, so this is the first time I’ve ever been late for a meeting. I plug in my phone and hair appliances at the same time. I send another text to Tillie, but there’s still no response from her. She can’t be upset that I went out without her last night; she had other plans. She did warn me not to go alone, but I was with my cousin. That should have counted for something.

Replaying everything that has happened in the last twelve hours, I desperately shake my hair dryer over my long hair. My best friend, Tillie, couldn’t go out last night, and so I met my cousin, Tierry, and her new husband, Mark. We went to Club Zdrasti. It wasn’t my first choice, but it was busy for a Thursday night.

Brogan was at the bar and offered to buy me a drink. Did I accept his drink? I’m not even sure, but I did drink it. We talked until his friend arrived; I needed to get back to my friends, anyway.

As I sat watching my cousin dance, Brogan approached me again. It wasn’t unusual not to know his name. It’s easier not to ask someone their name, as I gave up trying to remember them long ago. Only people I see frequently do I even try to remember their names; a random guy on a night out doesn’t count.

It feels like my body is on automatic as I get ready for the day. Brogan invades my thoughts and doesn’t want me to move past him. Meeting him seemed so casual, accidental even. Leaving him this morning was anything but casual. I would have chosen to stay with him all day. Well, except I was supposed to be at my coven meeting.

Then, too, there was his sister. She was not pleasant. When she barged into his room, she started yelling. Even after he closed the door on her, she continued to yell. Of course, if it wasn’t for her, I might have missed the shoes by the bed. It was strange at first to see the shoes there, set perfectly as if I would get out of bed and step right into them. They really were beautiful. They sparkled green in the early morning light. The sparkle was enough to get my attention, but the detail on the sole, a thick black sole with a jagged design for the heel. The shoes were so impractical. Well, I would probably break my neck wearing them.

The real low point was the fact that my own shoes couldn’t be found. I had shoes last night; I thought I still had them when we got to his place. Looking for them this morning was taking too much time, and then their mother arrived. She wasn’t pleased to see me, and I knew I had to leave. When Meri started explaining things to her, I slipped out the door, without any shoes. I didn’t look back to see if they noticed. I was just grateful to have escaped.

My phone lights up with a new message. I check, hoping its Tillie finally getting back to me. My luck doesn’t seem to be changing, as it’s just my mother reminding me we are making holiday cookies today.

Giving up on Tillie, I gather my things to meet with her and the rest of our coven. She needs to check her phone more often; I hope she didn’t leave it at home today. Deep in thought, I miss the light changing until the car behind me blows their horn. I can see the driver waving his arms in my rear mirror; he’s probably yelling at me, too.

I pull into the old parking lot but don’t see anyone’s car here today. They couldn’t have finished this early. The empty lot allows me to park close to the door. I pull my bag from the backseat and flip through my keys just in case the door is locked. It looks dark inside; I pull on the door, but it doesn’t open.

After multiple failed attempts to use my key, I do the only thing left. I pound on the door hoping someone will open it.

A cold wind blows, I see something move behind me. I jump, expecting someone to be there. The only thing I see is some paper that hops along the sidewalk, letting the wind control it.

Great. Just great. Now I’m seeing things. It feels like someone is watching me. I look at the door, but there’s still no one there. Surveying the deserted parking lot one more time, I sigh, giving up.

I feel unsettled. I decide that getting to my mother’s early may help turn this day around. Usually a cup of tea with her and some of her advice is enough to set me right. This is the first time I’ve missed breakfast with the other girls, and something is leaving me feel off- kilter about this. My stomach grumbles, reminding me that I haven’t eaten. That must be my problem — hunger.

Even though there’s space in the driveway, I still park on the street. It’s impossible to predict if anyone else will show up, and I hate to be stuck here if too many of my mother’s friends stop over. They mean well, but they don’t always offer me the advice that’s right for me. Too often, they try to persuade me to do the things their own children are doing, or in some cases, they try to play match-maker with me. Even my own mother understands my choice to find my own partner. When the time is right, I will find him.

Ringing the bell at my parent’s house is a must. You never know what you might find inside and finding my parents in a compromising position isn’t something you want to do more than once. Lesson learned, I ring the bell when I arrive.

A brisk breeze blows past as I wait for the door to be answered. Feeling that someone is watching me, I turn to find Brogan standing behind me.

I peer out to the street, but I don’t see his car anywhere. It seems as if he has just appeared. I didn’t even hear him arrive. He seems as surprised to see me as I am to see him standing here. He’s not saying anything, so I break the silence first.

“Ah, Brogan, what are you doing here?”

CHAPTER 4

Brogan

aving my mother explain the family curse to me wasn’t how I wanted to start my day. She didn’t like that I called it the family curse, either. She liked to think of it as of an honor or even a gift. Some honor it’s turning into for me. My one-night stand is now the one and only girl that my family thinks I should spend my days with.

If that isn’t a bonus, I also get to tell her all about it, and she has to agree. If for some reason, the girl that I one-nighted doesn’t want to spend her days with me, then the honor changes to a curse. Just like I said, but there’s no escaping it.

I’ve been trying to catch her since she left this morning. It wasn’t easy trying to find her house. Since she wasn’t there, I had to rely on the shoes to find her.

Even to me that sounds ridiculous. Shoes finding girls — what is this, a fairy tale? Sure enough though, my mother told me all I had to do was wish for Arwen, and the shoes would take me to her. I found her a short time ago outside of what looked like an abandoned building. She seemed spooked and rushed to get in her car to leave. By the time I pulled myself together, she was already gone.

So I find myself here on a porch with her. It’s good that she’s out here; I can’t just appear in someone’s house, and I would have to ask for permission to enter. Looking up at the house, this is definitely a witch house if I ever saw one. As a kid, we were taught to recognize them and would drive around for hours making a game of finding the witch houses. It’s important to avoid the witches.

My situation is much different today. There is no avoiding the witches; instead, I have to convince this witch, Arwen, to spend her days with me. Mother used the “M” word, but really it’s a bit soon for that, even if she’s wearing the shoes. We won’t have a choice, though. With the holidays coming and solstice in particular, we won’t be able to avoid the joining ceremony that will definitely leave me wedded.

To get this out of the way, I hold out a shoe and watch as she backs away from me. “Arwen, you need to listen to me. These shoes!” This is going terribly; the shoes are even affecting me at this point. Using as much restraint as I can gather, I calm myself, and lower my voice, before I try again. “You need to accept them.”

I watch with a smile. She can’t take her eyes off of the shoes. They must be calling to her, because they have her full attention. Maybe this will be easier than I thought.

She doesn’t sound convincing as she tries to make her point. “I… really… I’m not sure, but you see… I can’t… but surely you must know. This isn’t… but what I mean… I can’t…”

In typical witch fashion, she’s as clear as swamp water. If I could get her to go with me, we could talk this out. I’m afraid that someone is going to answer that door, and I just know it’s going to be her mother.

I offer the shoes to her again. “They are for you. You have to accept them and put them on.”

She doesn’t seem convinced yet. Maybe if she knows why, that will help her decide.

“It was my great-grandmother many times over who first gifted this to my family. It didn’t happen to my father, you see, so I thought it was broken.”

I’ve been carrying these shoes around for a few hours. Only she can control the power the shoes possess. Even as strong as I am, the shoes are testing my strength. With these on her feet, she will become a perfect match for me.

She must see the power, because she says, “You’re trembling.”

Behind her, the door opens, and it’s easy to see that Arwen gets her looks from her mother. They both have the same long dark hair. It’s hard to tell, but I think her mother’s eyes are the same color of green.

She gazes at me cautiously. “Well, hello, Arwen. Did you bring a friend?”

She’s talking only to Arwen, but her eyes are on me. She can’t miss the shoes in my hands. Her eyes drop to the shoes, and I hear her sigh. She must know what’s about to happen. I just don’t know if she will try to stand in our way.

She’s nervous, and I need her to stay calm. I don’t want Arwen to be upset and run from me again. “I apologize, ma’am, but I’ve found myself here not of my own free will.” She’s being more obvious now; I can feel her power trying to move me. Luckily, I’m strong enough to deflect her. “I can feel you trying to move me, but it can’t be helped just yet.”

This needs to end before anyone else appears. I search Arwen for a sign that she knows what’s about to happen, but she still seems to be struggling. This wasn’t part of my plan, either, but it’s all happening for a reason. My gaze falls to her feet, and she shuffles, moving forward to me.

Making progress. I hold out my hand for her, keeping the shoes tucked into my chest. I need to know she trusts me. I can feel it, but does she recognize it?

Encouraging her, I ask, “Can we talk? I’d like to tell you a story.”

“Hold on right there, young man! Just who are you, and what are you doing with those shoes?”

Thinking I must have misjudged the woman, I turn and push Arwen behind me to shield her. She shoves at my arm, but I can’t let her go, not yet. She needs to hear me; she needs to make her choice while she still can.

“Please, just give me a moment.”

CHAPTER 5

Arwen

h, Brogan, what are you doing here?”

That sounded so much better in my head. Out loud, I sound like a scared little ninny or something. He doesn’t seem to be put off by my words, but he doesn’t seem happy to see me, either. After I left him this morning, I didn’t think we would see each other again. He didn’t ask for my number, though I’m sure he could find it if he wanted to. It was obvious that he had some powers.

Since he was standing in front of me, I guess he wanted to find me.

The warm feeling in my chest reminds me of heart-burn. I hope that’s my problem. With my luck, it probably goes along with the nervous chatter in my brain telling me to seize my chance and keep him. If he stays, I know he will ruin me.

He holds out a shoe to me, and I attempt to back away from him as he speaks. “Arwen, you need to listen to me. These shoes! You have to accept them.”

There in front of me, sparkling as bright as the vampires from that movie that made women lose their minds, are the shoes from this morning. If only women understood that vampires don’t possess the glitter; only a wizard can use its power. The movies left women enchanted; I could only shake my head, knowing the truth that those weren’t vampires. Wizards everywhere celebrated their hoax.

He never admitted to anything this morning. I wanted him to tell me, but he never did. I think I know what this means, but until he tells me, I still have hope. He would have to be a wizard for all of this to be happening.

The shoes, though, I keep looking at them as they sparkle green with large thick soles under the toes and a tall spike heel to match. I want to reach out and touch them, but something holds me back. They seem like the most desirable shoes I’ve ever seen, but they are green. Surely, it’s a mistake.

My voice falters as I look from the shoes to Brogan. As if mesmerized by their beauty, I can’t form a whole thought. “I… really… I’m not sure, but you see… I can’t… but surely you must know. This isn’t… but what I mean… I can’t…”

He advances on me, still clutching the shoes, but he doesn’t seem to have noticed I didn’t spit out a coherent thought. I examine his hands as he moves closer. I don’t see any glitter on them, but surely the shoes would give off something. These must be authentic; the glitter would be everywhere unless he could control it. That’s it! I gasp, knowing that it’s true: they can, in fact, control the glitter.

Extending a shoe to me, he starts talking slowly, as if he’s trying to lure me in. “They are for you. You have to accept them and put them on.” Like the feathers this morning, the shoes seem to vibrate before my eyes. “It was my great-grandmother many times over that first gifted this to my family. It didn’t happen to my father, you see, so I thought it was broken.”

It wasn’t obvious before, but now I can see that he’s trembling. He’s shaking as if he’s being restrained somehow. I can’t see where there is anything holding him; it’s just the shoes in his hand.

Without holding back, my thoughts pop out of my mouth before I can stop them. “You’re trembling.”

From behind me, I hear the door finally open, and then my mother speaks, taking away his attention. “Well, hello, Arwen. Did you bring a friend?”

He’s still clutching the shoes, almost like he’s guarding them. As a child, we were told stories about shoes and wizards. I always thought the stories were tales, or at least myth; admittedly they were my favorite stories. Like the fairy tales told to young girls, they tell of a prince charming looking for the fair maiden who fits the glass slipper. Surely that alone should caution girls about shoes, but it seems to do quite the opposite. It’s impossible to imagine how many shoe shopping adventures I’ve been on. If I can escape this one, I promise to follow my mother’s advice and shop only online for shoes. It is the safer method for witches like us.

He glances briefly at my mother to greet her, but he’s keeping his attention fully on me. In my attempt to keep away from him and the sparkly shoes, I’ve moved too far from the door. He’s now standing between me and the door. I wish I could cast a spell to move him away, but my studies haven’t given me that skill yet. Instead, I must rely upon my mother, and she doesn’t seem to want him to move.

With his eyes on me, he speaks to my mother. “I apologize, ma’am, but I have found myself here not of my own free will. I can feel you trying to move me, but it can’t be helped just yet.”

His eyes search me until they land on my feet. I look down, expecting to see something out of the ordinary, but nothing — just my feet in the shoes I put on before leaving this morning. Nervously, I shuffle my feet, and I’m surprised as they propel me forward. I wanted to back away, but it’s as if I can only move towards him.

Smiling at me, he holds out a single hand for me to take. I hesitate at first, but something inside of me encourages me to trust him. “Can we talk? I want to tell you a story.”

My mother looks cautious as she eyes the shoes still firmly in his grasp. “Hold on right there, young man! Just who are you, and what are you doing with those shoes?”

He takes a single arm and pushes me behind him; it almost looks as if he’s protecting me. I don’t need protection from my own mother. I try to move away from him, but he turns and tersely says, “Please, just give me a moment.”

Standing behind Brogan isn’t the worst place to be standing. I let my eyes rake over him, and I’m reminded of why I found myself dancing with him last night. Of course that also led to eventually going home with him, a fact that I hope he isn’t about to tell my mother.

The man in front of me, although most definitely nothing short of spectacular, is also the opposite of anyone I’ve dated before. I’m not prone to going home with someone I hardly know; there was just something about him. Something so alluring that I couldn’t say no to him.

Taking my time, I let my eyes roam from his boot-covered feet to the fitted jeans that hug him. I inch backwards and allow more space to settle between us.

At the club, it was his hair that first caught my attention: a slight curl and inky black, the same color as the soil in my garden at home that I like to run my fingers through. His pitch-black eyes almost match his hair. I got lost looking into his eyes on the dance floor, but they didn’t give anything away.

His stance is defensive, but it’s just my mother here with us. He should know that this can be worked out. With great effort, I reach my hand up to touch his shoulder. His body, at first, goes rigid to my touch. As if he’s transferring energy to me, a rush of heat travels from the very tip of my fingers, moving up my arm where it radiates through my body.

That heart-burn feeling is confirmed; it’s not heart-burn.

As if we had been choreographed to dance together, our bodies move as one until, with clasped hands, we are facing each another, just inches apart. Although I can hear my mother’s voice, her words can’t penetrate us in our embrace. Lost in his eyes, I foolishly stare, never realizing that our closeness is able to cause a glamour effect to take hold on us.

As the fog filtering through my thoughts begins to clear, I can hear his voice. “Your eyes are stunning.”

He leans in, offering only a quick kiss before our embrace is broken, and he steers me to a chair, encouraging me to sit. It’s rare to find me sitting on my mother’s porch. I want to go inside the house, but for some reason I don’t think Brogan is welcome inside. He doesn’t take the chair next to me; instead, he kneels at my feet.

Without his touch, I’m aware of my surroundings. Taking the chair next to me, my mother pushes him. “I don’t like this. Arwen, where did you find him?”

“Club Zdrasti.”

“That Tierry is going to hear about this. Taking you to that place! She should know better.”

There kneeling in front of me, Brogan is all I can see. Inside, it feels like I’m softening, as if too much exposure to Brogan has had some effect upon me.

He places his hand on my knee, and his eyes plead patience from me. Smiling softly, his voice wraps me in soothing comfort. “My name is Brogan Michaels…”

His name, that name, I remembered it or maybe I gave it to him. I’ve never known a Brogan before. Where would I have gotten that name?

I interrupt him, because I have to know. “How did I know to call you that? I never asked for your name, yet I heard someone call you, and it didn’t seem like the right name for you. I told you I would call you Brogan? How?”

He doesn’t hide his amusement, chuckling he says, “Sweet Arwen, that is what I wanted you to call me, so of course that was the only name you knew.”

CHAPTER 6

Brogan

t’s time to put an end to the distractions. The time is running out for the greatest gift to my family to become a curse upon me. Arwen won’t be the first witch in the family, but she is the first for many generations.

The history of my family is long. There have been countless stories created from the journals of those who have come before me. My story will be recorded and told for generations to come. Some would wish me luck, hopeful for the happy ending to finish off the story. Others would listen with greed, all the while cheering for my demise.

My story is up to me. It can only move forward if Arwen is by my side. Who knew one night could have such an effect on the rest of your life? Obviously, my mother did, as she took great pride in schooling me on the remainder of my days.

“As you asked, Arwen, I am a wizard. These shoes are just as the legend tells. They are made for you. With these, you and I will become a matched set, if you will.”

If only the vibration of her body could be mistaken. She doesn’t know, but the fear she feels is nothing more than the allure of the shoes. They’re calling to her, as close as they were to her in my room earlier, they are already a part of her. She just needs to accept it to make it be.

With her mother here, I expect to hear her protest. It’s natural, really. Instead, she sits back in her chair with a sly smile that tells me she knows more than she’s told her daughter.

“I’m sure, like most children in the witch collective, you have heard the stories. Even as a young wizard, we were taught to avoid your kind.”

Ending her silence beside us, her mother speaks out. “Our kind? We’re not the ones running around trying to change people. You would do well to remember that.”

Listening to her to prattle on, I begin the task of removing Arwen’s shoes. The laces are knotted in a way that is making it near impossible to untie them. It’s as if she knew to make this the most challenging task of my life. They are only shoe laces.

CHAPTER 7

Arwen

e hasn’t taken his hands away; the constant contact is leaving me conflicted. His touch is soothing to me, much like his voice. Yet something inside of me screams there’s danger ahead.

After my mother interrupts for at least the third time, he patiently waits until she has given her say. She’s not objecting to what’s about to happen. She’s just delaying it.

The realization that this is moving forward has begun to settle in my mind. There is a part of me that wants to throw myself at him and call for a cab to pick us up. A repeat of last night could set all of this right for me.

I hold myself back. He’s fiddling with the laces of my shoes. It’s not as if they are a complex knot; I didn’t even double knot them this morning.

He tells the story of the shoes. It doesn’t escape me that he leaves out some of the best parts of the stories we were told as children. Every story was steeped in layers of magic. There were the stories with dragons, others with a unicorn. All of them had a fair maiden and her prince charming. Some might have called her a siren, calling out to only the brave, requiring their service. The magical creatures were endless in the stories told to children. As we got older, the creatures would grow up with us, each one just a little more powerful. The wizards though, they were the most powerful. Even in the movies, they are known as the great and powerful, but their magic doesn’t always solve the problem. It was the witches who could fix things, whether that was to make things right or to use their power for evil — depended on the witch. Just like people, there are good and bad everywhere.

He heaves a final sigh before he finishes. “When the time is right and the wizard has found his match, the shoes make their appearance. The first time I saw these shoes was this morning.” He’s not looked away from me since he started talking. It’s easy to see the frustration on his face as he continues to fight the knot. “Mother pointed out to me that we don’t always get to choose when we find our match, but if we listen and follow the guidance we are given, then we will realize the power given to us.”

As if he’s given up on the knots, his fingers grip my ankle. There are so many questions swirling through my head. Surely, I should be able to ask a few questions. He can’t just expect to appear and have me follow him off. There’s no way to know if these are, in fact, my shoes, or if they were possibly left over from someone else he took home.

“Exactly what power are we talking about?”

Holding up a single finger as if he’s about to exclaim [_Eureka!, _]he offers up a dazzling smile.

“It’s the allure of the shoes. To most, they appear as just another pair of pretty shoes, something to accessorize your outfit. To us, however, the allure will bind us to each other and unlock a power that only we will understand. It’s different every time.”

Needing more, I continue to dig, “Your father didn’t have shoes for your mother?”

With a look of defeat, he hesitates at first, shaking his head. “It’s not available to everyone. My aunt said he didn’t wait and chose on his own. That could be true, but they’ve been happy together.”

“Why these shoes?”

That sounded ungrateful, but I need to know. If these shoes are to represent something, well, I should be told. If they’re just random or assigned somehow, maybe they will give me some understanding of what is expected.

I want to reach for the shoes as I look down at them on the floor below. The shoes glitter from the bright sunlight as if calling me, making me long to run a finger across the curves, to know the touch of them. As if I’ve developed a shoe fetish, my attraction grows to the shoes that are calling my name.

Brogan rattles off the facts on why these shoes like he’s reciting the days of the week. “It’s easy enough to understand, really. The power is held in the allure. They have to have something you desire to draw in your attention. It doesn’t matter the size. They will fit you perfectly from the day you put them on until your last. They will fit no one but you. They also can’t be borrowed. The coloring of the shoes is the most desirable to you; they won’t seem as appealing to anyone else.”

I smile as if I’ve found the release button. Then the laughter begins. He couldn’t have made me happier; I have found my way out of this. Inside, I feel a bit of sadness. Being with Brogan wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen to me. I might have even been secretly looking forward to it.

It doesn’t matter now. It’s easily confirmed that these are not my shoes.

As to offer my sympathy to him, I reach out, placing my hand flat on his shoulder. Our connection is instantly felt, and my traitorous insides offer up heart-burn for me again.

“I’m sorry to tell you, Brogan, that green isn’t the most desirable color to me. I’ve always loved…”

CHAPTER 8

Brogan

nterrupting her, I say it as she does. “Yellow.”

The look of astonishment on her face says it all. She thought a technicality like her favorite color would put a stop to all of this?

“Yes, your favorite color is yellow. That doesn’t mean your shoes would follow along.” I stare deep into her eyes, looking for the answer she needs. She hasn’t been told that I can read her thoughts or plant them in her mind, just like I did with my name. If there was anything I wanted last night, I wanted her to remember my name. I just wanted to hear my name from her lips.

I find the answer and push for more. There can be no doubts left over the fact that she is my witch.

Just like finding myself beside her here, not of my own free will, the words tumble from my lips. It’s all she will need to hear; it’s the final words that will draw us together.

“You like balance in your life. Dependability is important to you. If given the choice, your preferred way to spend time is in your garden. Even the inside of your house is filled with plants. With your hands in the soil tending to your plants, your soul is nourished. When you have a choice to make, most often you will choose the green option.”

Mesmerized, she listens as I tell her who she is. She nods as I continue to talk, agreeing with me. I see that hidden away is the truth she has known all along. It’s time to tell her that her worst fear is about to be realized. Only to be rewarded with something that she never thought possible.

She doesn’t need to be told; she knows it’s coming to her, and she turns to her mother. I offer her my strength as she takes a cruel blow even I can’t keep from her. As if she knows this is the time to tell her, Arwen’s mother plays her cards.

“The sisters of your coven have released you. You will no longer be able to meet with them. The shoes are a gift, and I hope that in time you will realize it.”

The realization of the news delivered by her own mother is devastating. Silently, tears fall down her face; this is her time to mourn.

Offering more strength to her, I squeeze her hands in mine. Someone else has joined us; I just can’t take my eyes off of her. I hear a voice and know that my own mother is here.

Just as fast as they appeared, Arwen’s tears dry up. She offers a final smile to her mother and pulls her hand from mine to pat her mother’s hand, quietly accepting all that she has been told. She offers a nod to my mother and then turns to me. For the first time, I have no idea what she’s about to do. There are so many thoughts in her head that I can’t clearly hear her desire.

Waiting for her decision takes an eternity, but she finally reaches down and slips off her shoes. Nothing could make me happier until she says, “I accept, Brogan.”

As is custom, the next solstice will be our joining. With only a few days to prepare, we will need both of our mothers together. Magically, we have everything we need.

Author Sidonia Rose

Sidonia has a long love affair with books. She started early by memorizing her Dr. Seuss books read to her, so she could read them to her parents instead. She is often found with a book in her hands or a couple of books so she can lend to a friend. You can catch up with Sidonia at www.sidoniarose.com for updates.

If you enjoyed The Witch’s Shoes,

check out LOVE SHOTS

Kyle Pierce used to know what she wanted. At the top of her list was the perfect boyfriend. She found him in Lance Making her senior year in high school. She was the head cheerleader and he was the new star quarterback. Even going to separate colleges was no problem for them.

It was perfect until the weekend it all changed for Kyle. She has new priorities that include her own education, making new friends and most importantly NO DATING!

That is until Nicholas Richards moves into her world. He’s not taking no for an answer. He’s her friend and he wants her to date him.

Kyle isn’t going to date Nick. She doesn’t mind hanging out or running errands. She tells him and everyone else they are friends.

Can they really be just friends?

Available online where books are sold.

Molly

Brittany White

olly Spring was a somewhat ordinary girl, made somewhat ordinary grades and had somewhat ordinary ideas. She loved playing in the dirt and mud, she loved being outside and she loved being alone.

That had a lot to do with her home life.

Her mother was mentally unsound and abusive, her father long dead in an auto accident. He had made sure Molly’s mother took her medications. After his death, no one remained to keep her in line, and she lashed out at her daughter.

One night when things got out of hand, Molly ran away and never looked back.

She took to the streets of New York and became involved in drugs. First, cocaine; then crack; and finally, heroin.

Four years after she left home, she lifted herself away from the drug habit that almost claimed her life. Despite that, she still spent most of her nights under bridges or in shelters.

One snowy evening, close to Christmas, she hadn’t made it back to the shelter before nightfall. Cold and hungry, she had been forced to a corner of an alleyway. At almost twenty years old, her body felt like it was ready to expire from the freezing temperatures and malnutrition. She found herself praying that her end would come quickly, and closed her eyes for what she was sure was the last time.

In the quiet of the night, two men approached, startling Molly awake. One man grabbed her roughly, holding a sharp blade to her neck as the other rifled through her pockets, looking for any cash or drugs. Molly had neither, so they began to beat her without mercy.

In that moment, a man appeared out of nowhere and scared off her attackers. His dark features and thick Spanish accent were all she could focus on as he scooped her up out of the rat-filled alley and carried her away.

*

Molly awoke warm, lying on a futon with a cup of hot broth by her side. Afraid, she attempted to sneak out, making her way to the door before she stumbled and hit the floor with a thud. Her legs shook so badly she couldn’t get out without help.

“I do hope you will at least try to eat something.”

The voice had an almost musical quality to it. She turned to face the stranger who had saved her. He was tall, with dark skin, dark eyes, and the smallest trace of a well-trimmed beard.

“I did go through the trouble of making you something to eat. Not to mention, I busted my knuckles punching those two guys who were trying to rob you, and carried you up to my apartment.”

He helped her off the floor and back onto the futon, which was soft and warm. At that moment, she didn’t care if he had nefarious plans for her; she was comfortable. Molly sipped the soup, which was surprisingly tasty, and looked around the room.

The walls needed a good coat of paint. Dead — or dying — plants crowded around the windows near faded curtains. She reached over and touched a dried leaf, thinking about how pretty it must have been once.

Molly glanced around. She thought the man seemed to be some sort of collector of weird figurines and books. Some of the statues looked Greek, and decorative crosses hung on the walls. All in all, it was odd. It wasn’t much in the way of an apartment, but she couldn’t complain, seeing as how the alternative was the street. Some sort of Hispanic song played on the radio, but she didn’t know enough Spanish to be able to say for sure what song.

The man returned cradling a mug in both hands.

“How did you know I wouldn’t steal your stuff or kill you or something?” Molly asked. He smiled, handing her something that looked like hot tea. She preferred cocoa but didn’t think it would be appropriate to say so. He was just some fool who took pity on her and felt like playing the hero. Heroes didn’t marry former addicts or homeless girls. She shook her head at that thought. She wouldn’t live to see her next birthday; she certainly wouldn’t live long enough to get married.

“I noticed you have a cut on your arm. It doesn’t look infected, but it does look deep. It must have happened when those guys tried to mug you. I have bandages, if you want them.”

He gestured to a box emblazoned with the classic red first aid symbol. She noticed what looked like a pair of scrubs folded up on a chair next to the door. A doctor then, she thought. Surely, he had to see the signs that she was just some homeless girl. She watched him stir something on the stove, seemingly unfazed by her presence. He wasn’t even watching her. She could steal something. Make a break for it. His stuff looked expensive, despite the appearance of his apartment, and she could use the money. She could pawn something. Her hands shook so much she had a hard time holding on to the tea cup. Her nerves proved too much, and she dropped it. The pearl white cup covered in blue violets crashed to the hardwood floor and shattered. She froze as he looked up.

Molly fell to her knees and tried to gather up the broken bits. “I’m so sorry. I swear it was an accident. I…I’ll pay you back! Please…”

He placed a hand over hers and waited until she had calmed down. The way he looked at her puzzled her — like she was a lost puppy he wanted to take in. She pushed such thoughts away. No one wanted her and no one ever would. Her own mother didn’t even want her, for crying out loud. Her eyes stung with tears she refused to shed when she thought of the hurtful things her mother had said to her on her last night at home.

He took the pieces out of her hands and threw them away. “It’s just a tea cup Miss…. uh…?”

“My name is Molly.”

“Miss Molly. My name is Jack, and you are welcome here for as long as you need somewhere to stay. Anyway, you shouldn’t handle broken pieces with your hands. You could cut yourself.” He cleared his throat. “I’m sure you would like to clean up. There are fresh towels and a shower down at the end of the hall. Take all the time you need. You may find that you have more of an appetite after. I also laid out something for you to wear. It’s just a pair of scrubs, but they should do.”

“Why are you doing all this? You don’t even know me.”

“I know you’re tired, hungry, and would probably like a hot shower. I don’t need to know anything more than that right now.”

*

Jack watched as Molly started down the hallway to the shower. After a few steps, she leaned heavily against the wall. Clearly, she was having a hard time walking.

Jack took her by the waist, which he noticed was abnormally small. He would wager she was more malnourished than he had thought.

After leaving Molly in the bathroom, Jack returned to the living room to straighten up. He retrieved the soup bowl, now cooled, and put it in the sink to be washed. As he did, he glanced at the lavender plant she had touched and stopped mid-stride, shocked to see it had been brought back to life.

The plant’s leaves were a deep green, and he could smell the scent from where he stood on the other side of the room. He had no talent with plants, but was persistent even in his failure. One touch from Molly, and suddenly, it was as if the lavender had never wilted.

This could only mean Molly was an elemental: a group of powerful witches who could manipulate the water, earth, fire, and air around them. There weren’t many of them left. The last one he had let himself get close to had been kidnapped and presumably murdered in an effort to save him. The guilt of that sacrifice haunted him still, though he held out hope she was alive.

Bounty hunters bent on destroying the elementals were always on the lookout for those just emerging into their powers. They believed the elementals to be dangerous and blamed the problems of the world on them — or at least natural disasters. He had to admit, even to himself, that it was possible, but he also knew the elementals on the council. The few he knew personally were not the sort to kill thousands in mudslides and twenty-foot walls of water.

Molly had to be an elemental. There was no other way she could have brought that plant back to life like that. She might not even be aware she had the power. He had to know for sure before he broached the subject with her. He only knew one person who could verify he was correct, but he rolled his eyes at the thought of that conversation.

He reached for his phone and dialed the number.

“Mom… yeah. Look I… I think I found her…the fourth one. Can you get over here? You’ve got the highest sense of any of us. I’m sure you will be able to tell… Trust me, it’s worth it.”

He heard the shower turn off and waited a bit to give Molly time to dry off and get dressed. He knocked on the door, letting her know that she could leave her clothes in the hamper, and he would have them washed. He thought he heard her mutter an okay.

“Are you all right? Oh, I’ve got a spare toothbrush under the sink. You… you can use it. Take your time and don’t push yourself. I don’t want you to get hurt. You still haven’t got your strength back.”

“Thanks.”

A few minutes later, he heard the door open. Molly padded barefoot into the living room, as he hadn’t thought to get her shoes or house socks.

Great, he thought, just let her feet get cold, you thoughtless oaf.

Her skin glowed and her cheeks were rosy from the heated water. Her long, wavy hair matched her mahogany eyes. He realized that she reminded him of her. The girl he had lost to the bounty hunters.

Molly was beautiful, in a way that made his heart skip a beat. He found himself staring longer than necessary. She starred back at him, her eyes wide. She was studying him, as much as he was her. It was surreal moment, the silence broken by her voice.

“I like your necklace,” Molly said. “Is that a Celtic knot?”

Jack touched the pendant that always hung around his neck and nodded. He could tell she had questions about the strange phrase engraved on it, but was too polite to ask. He didn’t offer an explanation. Not yet, in any case.

All he wanted in that moment was to take her in his arms and clear away anything that made her unhappy. He couldn’t resist tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. She blushed a shade of red he found adorable, but he reeled his emotions in. He had to maintain control and not lead them both into a situation he would regret later. She was frail, scared, and had likely suffered some form of abuse. He wouldn’t do anything to make her afraid of him. His clan had been looking everywhere for an elemental with her abilities. He couldn’t risk losing her. She was too important.

“I want you to take it easy for a few days,” Jack told her. “You’re certainly in no shape to be outside, and you need your rest. I’m a doctor, so that makes me your doctor for the time being. Have some tea and take a nap. Please.”

Molly nodded and laid down on the futon, closing her eyes. But not before Jack thought he saw a look of disappointment on her face.

*

Sylvia McKenny was a headstrong woman who had always gotten her way with most things. Like most headstrong people, she hated to have her plans interrupted, but today was different.

A call from her son about finding an earth elemental witch was important enough to throw all her plans right out the window. It irked her that Jack wasn’t taking the necessary precautions, like moving the girl to the safe house, especially considering that any scent of a new elemental would draw bounty hunters.

A fire element herself, Sylvia lit a cigarette as she drove her Lexus into the parking garage. She exited her vehicle, smoothed her pant suit, and slightly ruffled her long black tresses. Suddenly, the hair on the back of her neck stood on end. It was a warning sign.

She had been followed.

People like Sylvia were too powerful to be brought down, so hunters often watched those of the high order for any out-of-place behavior. Missing a press conference with the president of the United States was certainly out of place for her.

She cursed herself for being careless as she flung the half-smoked cigarette to the ground. She walked at a brisk pace, setting up barriers with her magic as she went. She may be an expert as an elemental, but it helped to have a hand in other magick as well. It would hold them off but only just. Jack had better damn well hope he was right about this girl or there would be hell to pay.

Sylvia rang the doorbell and knocked. Jack opened the door, a single finger to his lips to indicate she be silent. She moved past him and entered his apartment, which she found too shabby for her tastes.

“Mother, you have been smoking again.” Her son disapproved of the habit, despite the fact most fire elementals were guaranteed to be habitual smokers. It was in their nature.

She waved him off. “I only have a few minutes. I was followed, so you better be damn sure this is one of them.”

He gestured to the futon.

The girl’s power radiated from her so intensely, it nearly knocked Sylvia to the floor. She had rarely ever felt such strong power before, even from the other high orders such as herself. The earth vibrated beneath her feet. This young girl held so much power, the earth shifted slightly at the smallest breath from her. The child would need years of training to learn the extent of her own powers. The poor thing probably had no idea what sort of power she held, or how close it was to surfacing. Sylvia wondered if the girl knew she had this power, or if it had been forced beneath the surface by an uncaring parent.

“I think she is a runaway, or has been in some sort of trouble,” Jack spoke up. “I doubt she even knows what she is. But look, you know I can’t keep any plants alive. All she did was touch it, and it’s like it was never —”

“You can silence yourself, my son. I can tell you she is as you say. I feel the power coming off her in waves. It’s been bottled up so long; I’m surprised she hasn’t completely burst with the magick inside her yet. To have this much power, yet not be aware of it, is unimaginable. It is also very dangerous. The hunters will sense this. My spells can only hold them off for so long. Shake her and wake her up, or carry her, but we have to leave right now and take her to the safe house and the council. They can explain better than us what is happening to her and help her tap into this power. I sense them! Hurry, son, wake her!”

*

Molly awoke to the sound of an explosion.

Confused by the noise, she sat up to see two men staring at her from the splintered front door, while Jack and a woman she didn’t know lay on the ground. Neither of them moved. She noticed the two men were dressed as secret service agents from a bad 1980s movie, with the exception of what she assumed was some sort of flame thrower pointed at her. If she wasn’t so scared, she might have found the scene comical. She screamed for help as one man grabbed and hauled her to her feet.

“Jack, don’t let them take her!” The woman had gotten to her feet first. She lifted a hand and aimed a steady blaze of fire at one of the men.

Molly used the distraction to bite the arm of the man holding her and run to Jack, who was still trying to get up.

“Molly!” Jack’s face was covered in blood. His hands shook as he grabbed her shoulders and shoved her towards the door. “They’re after you! You have to get out of here! I will find you, but you have to run! Now!”

Molly didn’t wait to be told twice. She ran out the door with one of the men close behind her. She was still weak, so she didn’t get far before being caught. Though she kicked and screamed, they put a sweet smelling rag over her mouth and nose, dragging her into the parking garage. The wet cloth burned her face, and she struggled to breathe. Her legs gave out as they shoved her into a black van.

Her eyes closed.

*

Jack burst into the parking garage. Too disoriented to use his powers, he aimed a .45 at the van. He hit his target with accuracy, but the van was bulletproof. Sylvia pulled him to her car.

“If they get her back to their facility, they’ll use her powers for their own evil deeds. They’ll wait until she’s weak and kill her!” Jack yanked the passenger door open.

“I know that, Jack.” Sylvia slid into the driver’s seat, throwing the car into reverse. “Buckle up and hang on!”

Tires squealed as Sylvia chased the van into the street. The car lurched forward, leaving scorch marks behind them.

“I don’t suppose you thought you might hit her with one of those damn bullets, did you?”

“Now is not the time for a lecture, Mother!” Jack shouted, as he tried to summon enough strength to use his powers.

Just as they were catching up to the van, one of the men leaned out the window and shot out the driver side tire. Sylvia’s car spun out of control, and Jack watched helplessly as the van sped away with Molly.

In the silence after her car came to a stop, Sylvia said, “Don’t worry, Jack. We’ll find her. We will go to the council.”

Bounty hunters did more than steal power; they sold it to high bidders. Such bids rarely ever brought anything good.

“If they hurt her… I swear, I’ll…”

“Don’t, Jack. You went down that road once when Sarah disappeared. We will find her, and I will make sure they pay. I am the destroyer; you are the healer. It’s going to be fine. There’s no way they have had time to do a proper cloaking spell on her. We will find her.”

They hailed a cab and headed straight to the headquarters for the Council of the Elementals. The council had more resources than the two of them at present, and once briefed on the situation, all of their resources would be at their disposal.

Jack marched into the council room to face The Council of Four. The oldest living elementals passed the laws and creeds of his clan and the others. The council of four was established long before the Christians, or the Vikings. If there was trouble in the clans, they were the ones to go to.

Jack prayed to any God or Goddess within earshot that they weren’t too late. These hunters had taken many elementals from their families, their homes, and everything they had known. They had taken his only sister. Sarah had been an innocent girl kidnapped — and maybe tortured — for her power because he had failed to act. He would not make that mistake a second time.

He pulled himself to his full height and began to plead their case.

“Members of the council, you know that the bounty hunters have caused us to lose more and more elementals. These men and women could have been helping people. They have taken children from their homes, never to be seen or heard from again. Now the bounty hunters have kidnapped a new elemental whose powers nearly brought my own mother to her knees.”

Several of the council members exchanged serious glances. An elemental that could bring Sylvia McKenny to her knees was a valuable asset. That same asset could be a powerful enemy.

“They have taken this new elemental, but we believe she is strong enough to leave a signature for us to follow. I know Councilman Vel has the ability to track the unique signature left by an elemental, if it is strong enough. We are aware you are trying to disarm their protective shield so we can find others who are missing. The elemental, a girl named Molly, may have been taken to where the others are. Finding Molly may provide the location to their stronghold.”

His mother stepped forward to address the council. “My son speaks the truth. Before, they only took those just coming into their powers. Their signatures were not enough to leave a trail for very long. This girl is different. I have never sensed so much power in one person so new to it. If we can find her, it may lead us to the others who are missing.”

*

Molly woke up tied to a table and hooked up to a cable monitor. A jagged line throbbed across a scanner — her heartbeat, maybe. Only one window illuminated the dark, gray room. It was dim, but she thought she saw someone on a bed beside her. The air was foul, with a strange odor she couldn’t place. It made her gag the longer she breathed it. Her hands were strapped to a metal frame. The tight restraints turned her fingers a sickly shade of purple. She began pulling at her fetters, hoping for escape, but to no avail.

“Where am I?” she asked to no one in particular, but hoping to hear a voice, any voice.

“You’re their prisoner.” A soft yet scratchy answer arose from the bed.

Molly squinted through the darkness, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the lack of light. A head rose up off the bed, and she could’ve sworn she was looking at a female version of Jack, albeit much thinner and gaunt around the face. This girl wore the same pendant Jack had around his neck. Could they be related?

“I’m Molly. Who are you?”

“Sarah. Sarah McKenny. It’s no use trying to escape. Believe me, I’ve tried every way there is. They never let us go.”

“But… I’m nobody. Just a homeless girl they kidnapped. What would they want with me?”

“They want the same thing they are taking from me: your elemental powers. You’re older than most of the ones they take. You must not have come into your powers until recently.”

Molly told her she had no idea what the girl was talking about, and the more Sarah tried to explain, the more confusing it got.

“So you’re saying I have some sort of magical power, and these people want to drain it out of me?”

“That’s pretty much it, yeah. I take it you didn’t grow up knowing your powers. They might keep you alive longer then. It’s harder to get power out of those who don’t tap into it. I’ve been trying, but they have a barrier. I won’t last much longer.”

“How do I use this power? I’d rather go down fighting!”

“If you haven’t tapped into it at full strength by now, I’d say you can’t. It takes years of training. They rarely ever take people who have full control. You will only wear yourself out trying.”

They laid in silence, until Sarah began coughing. It was a deep, painful-sounding cough that shook her bed.

“I want my mom,” she sobbed. “I want to see my brother.”

Pity for the girl came over Molly. She wanted to get her out of here. She was just a child.

“Sarah, how long have you been here? I mean, chained up?”

“Eight years. They took me in the park when I was four. My brother was there, too, but they didn’t get him. I know he would never give up looking for me, but now it’s too late. My powers are almost gone. I hope I die quickly. They let the others starve.”

Just then the lights came on in a blinding flash, and Molly saw what Sarah had been saying. Beds filled the large room, containing the chained bodies of maybe forty to fifty people. The bed on the other side of Molly held a child no more than seven or eight years old. She must have been dead for days. Sarah had to have watched her die.

A male voice filled the room, but there was no speaker in sight.

“Welcome, honored guest. Let me introduce myself. My name is Saveen. You have been chosen to give your talents to a wonderful and prestigious glory that will transcend the very universe. Your sacrifice will be a jewel for all.”

The voice disappeared, and the room fell silent. Sarah began to sob, mumbling something like a prayer.

“They will be coming in soon,” Sarah said after a moment. “They’ll hook you up to a bunch of machines and drain any amount of energy or power you have. I hope they kill me this time.”

Though Molly wanted to be sympathetic, she was getting a little annoyed with Sarah and the fact she had resigned herself to death. Sure, she had been here eight years, which would have driven anyone to insanity, but she was alive, and if she was alive, it meant she still had a chance. She could fight back.

Anger over what was happening to her, and over the others who had died, began to boil inside her. Heat rose within her and took over her body. The ground shook and rumbled.

Sarah looked over, her eyes wide with surprise. The shaking intensified, and the concrete slab underneath them started to crack. A concrete pillar fell in front of the door as yells of alarm came from outside, but their captors couldn’t get in.

“This earthquake is going to kill us!” Molly yelled, terrified.

“It’s not an earthquake!” Sarah shouted over the sound of the earth shifting. “It’s you! Don’t fight it. Let the heat burning inside you take over! You can make it out of here!”

“I don’t know how to control it!”

Sarah yanked helplessly at the straps holding her down. By the gaunt look of her, Molly knew even if she had been able to get out of the bed, she couldn’t have stood up. The girl went still and slowed her breathing down, turning her face to Molly with an intense look of concentration.

“What are you doing?”

“Helping. I can lend you my energy.” Her eyes turned milky white, her body barely moving.

The earthquake still rumbled, but it began to calm down. A vine crept up from the earth and wound itself around her chains. Tighter and tighter it pulled until finally, with a loud snap, the chains gave way and she was free.

Struggling to keep her footing, she rushed to Sarah’s side. Sarah’s manacles were bigger than her wrist and slipped right off.

“I don’t think I can walk. Or even stand,” Sarah said weakly.

Molly picked her up as gently as she could, and made her way past the dead bodies to the window. It wasn’t locked. Her anger rose again. The bastards must have taunted these poor souls with the idea of freedom, just inches from their beds.

Outside, a courtyard opened onto the street.

The earth began to shake once more, but this time it dislodged the pillar keeping the door closed. A man with graying hair and a lined face hobbled in, a gun in his hand.

“Stop this! You are still mortal, despite your powers! I’ll kill you where you stand!”

Molly hesitated. The window was open, but she couldn’t heave Sarah through it, and herself, without getting shot. Sarah wouldn’t survive long on her own.

“What do you want with us?” Molly demanded.

“You elementals are vile, evil creatures. You swore your souls to Lucifer. Servants of the devil have no right to live! We will destroy you and end your tyranny. You caused that earthquake just now. There’s no telling how many innocent people lost their lives because of you. I don’t know who forgot to sedate you, but I guarantee you aren’t walking out of here alive.”

Molly hadn’t stopped to consider that. Had she inadvertently caused the death of hundreds if not thousands of people?

“It wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t kidnapped me! I wasn’t hurting anyone until you showed up. You should have left me alone.”

She flung her hand up, guided by some unseen force, and a wall of earth formed in front of them as he fired a shot. She slammed the earth into the man, causing him to hit the wall with a sickening thud.

She didn’t wait to ponder the fact that she had killed at least one person. Picking Sarah up, she pushed her through the window opening, crawling after her just as the roof caved in. She pulled Sarah up and found the girl’s side covered in blood.

Molly recoiled, staring at the wound. The bullet had gone into Sarah’s side, the blood flowing out like a river. Sarah had turned chalk white, her eyes losing focus. She sank against Molly, falling to the ground.

“No no no no no! You have to stay awake! I’m going to get you help!”

Snow had started to fall, and Molly could hear sirens in the distance. She was cold, but they had to keep moving. The men who grabbed her could be coming out of that building at any moment.

As she lifted Sarah up, an explosion sounded inside the building. She threw herself on top of Sarah in an effort to save her. The blast knocked the sense out of her and left her disoriented.

Molly rolled over on her back and starred up at the snow falling from the sky. Her ears rang from the force. She vaguely wondered how people in movies make walking away from a big explosion look so cool. There was nothing cool about how her entire body felt at that moment. She realized that she didn’t want to die. She didn’t want to lay there and wait for her life to end.

Before she could get up, she saw one of the men who had kidnapped her come down the alley, his gun pointed at her. She closed her eyes, her energy spent in the escape. She was going to die there, but it would be quick, and she hoped it would be painless.

As the man pulled back the hammer, she grabbed Sarah’s hand and opened her eyes to the white sky.

The shot never came. She looked to see the man gasping and clawing at his neck, the gun on the ground. His eyes were wide open, and he fought to breathe, before his body slammed into the side of a brick wall again and again. The snowflakes falling swirled around him as his face turned blue from lack of oxygen.

At the end of the alley, Jack stood in a long black leather coat and held his hand out at the man. The man hit the wall again, Jack’s hand following the movement. It took her a minute to realize he was causing this, the same way she had caused the earthquake.

Jack marched towards the barely-conscious man.

“You will never touch these girls again, you sick bastard.” His was voice low, and threatening.

Molly knew he meant to kill the man, but she also knew that she couldn’t let him. It wasn’t right. Yes, he was evil, and he should pay for his actions, but not like this. She was sure her actions had killed the old man in the building. It was sickening feeling. She didn’t want that for Jack.

She struggled to her feet and ran to his side. “You don’t want to do this, Jack. You don’t want to kill him.”

He turned to face her, but he seemed not to know who she was at first. Slowly, recognition came to him, and he let his hand drop, allowing the man to breathe. Jack wrapped his arms around her waist, pulling her to him protectively. His grip was tight, but she didn’t pull away.

“I thought… I thought I lost you.”

“I know. Listen… Jack, I need your help. There is a girl, she’s been shot…”

He looked past her. She felt his body go limp, and then he ran to the girl.

“Sarah! Oh Gods! What did they do to you?” He leaned over the girl and cried at the sight of her emaciated body.

Sarah’s lips moved, but Molly couldn’t hear the words. She turned her attention to the end of the alleyway where a woman walked towards them. Jack wasn’t alarmed by her presence, so she must have been an ally. As she got closer, Molly recognized her as the woman from Jack’s apartment. So focused was she on getting to them that she didn’t see someone come up behind her.

“Look out!” Molly screamed.

*

Too late, Sylvia heard Molly’s shout and realized she was in danger. She whipped around, prepared to fight, only to be laid flat by a hard knock to the face. Jumping back up, she forced a beam of fire that encased her assailant.

“Come now, Sylvia. You will have to do better than that.” A female voice rang out, clear as a bell.

The cold and snow was causing Sylvia to drain her powers faster as she tried to keep the fire around the woman.

“Who are you?” Sylvia snapped.

Fire surrounded the enemy, but it did not burn her. Sylvia squinted past the flames to see the fire wasn’t touching the woman’s skin. She had created fire herself to serve as a barrier, which meant she was an elemental. As the flames died down, a thin, older woman came into view. She had short blond hair cut close to her face. Cold, stern eyes glared from above lips set in a firm line. Recognition came over Sylvia as she realized who was standing in front of her.

“By the Gods. Anna. Is it really you?”

“Long time no see, little sister. I’ve waited for this day. Waited for the day I could bring you as much pain as you have brought me. You killed my husband, and now you will stand there and watch as I kill your children.”

Sylvia was beyond stunned to see her sister. Her mind drifted to nearly ten years before. Anna and Sylvia had been fighting a pack of hunters alongside Anna’s husband. They had been attempting to learn the location of a recently kidnapped elemental child, but their source turned out to be a trap. They had been outnumbered, but Sylvia refused to give in. She wouldn’t allow these monsters to take them, or her children, to their deaths. Unleashing her power to its full potential, she managed to burn the life out of all but one of the hunters. He begged for mercy and spoke of his own children. He claimed his desire to protect them, to make the world safe for them, drove him to kidnapping. Sylvia couldn’t bring herself to finish him off, being a mother herself, and let him go. As the man stepped away, he pulled a gun on her. Anna’s husband saw it, and took the bullet himself. With no healer or hospital nearby, they were unable to stop the bleeding, and he died in Anna’s arms. Grief-stricken, Anna left without a word to either Sylvia or the council and had not been seen or heard from since.

“Anna, what happened to your husband was not my fault. He died defending a fellow elemental. He would have done the same for you or for anyone else. You can’t expect me to believe you would align yourself with the hunters and kill your own kind.”

“Oh, but I would. They said they would let me have the shot that killed you, and I thought I wanted it. I longed for it, but when I found Sarah alone in the park, I decided the best revenge wasn’t taking your life. No, it was taking the life of someone you love. I was just going to let her die and put her body at your doorstep, but I think this is better. You can watch her die. Then you can watch your son die. I can tell their powers are spent, and you haven’t any more strength than they do. Say goodbye to your children.”

“You took Sarah? You tortured an innocent child for revenge on me for something I didn’t even do? For something that was never my fault? I didn’t tell your husband to get in the way. I would have taken that bullet, rather than let him die! Anna, think about this! There is still time to turn back. You do not have to be on the path to evil. Stop this, I beg you…”

Anna refused to listen and aimed the gun at Jack and Sarah.

But she had forgotten about Molly. A rock flew at Anna’s hand, hitting it hard, and knocked the gun to the ground.

It was enough of a distraction for Sylvia to gather her strength and build up a fire ball to shoot Anna. Though Anna was her sister, her heart was stained with evil, and Sylvia couldn’t allow such evil to live. As she began to unleash her power, Molly ran out in front of Anna to protect her.

“You don’t want to do this. She’s your sister!”

Sylvia tried to pull back, but it was too late. The fire that was meant for her sister hit Molly instead. The last thing Sylvia saw was the girl’s eyes wide with shock before the fire enveloped her.

*

Jack had managed to get Sarah to stop bleeding, though his power was now depleted, and looked up just as the fire hit Molly.

“No!” He stood to go to her, but he knew there was nothing he could do.

The snow fell furiously, and the wind had picked up, bringing in a storm. A heavy gust fueled the fire, and in moments, the spot where Molly had been standing was vacant except for the charred earth.

Jack’s heart stopped, and he fell to the ground. It was his fault, he reasoned, because he had not taken her to the council the moment he sensed she was an elemental. She would still be alive if he had bothered to think things through. Everything that had gone wrong for his family was his fault. Sarah had been kidnapped because he had insisted on going to the park without Mother, and Molly was dead because he had failed to protect her. She had done nothing to deserve this. She never asked to have powers, or to be put in the middle of a war.

Anna’s voice became shrill, cutting through the wind. “Well, this turned out better than I could hope. You managed to break your son’s heart before he dies. You energy is gone, sister. And now, you will watch as I kill Sarah, once and for all.”

Jack threw himself over Sarah in a desperate attempt to save her. There was no hope left, but he would spend his last moments protecting her.

“I’m sorry, Sarah. I’m so sorry.” He sobbed into her ear, as the flames came towards them.

He expected to feel his skin on fire, but nothing burned. He dared to open his eyes and looked up to see a figure of Molly, made of earth. She stood beside them, deflecting the fire. As he watched in awe, her eyes opened. They were not Molly’s brown eyes, but eyes of fire. Heat began to radiate from the figure as the earth dried and broke. Underneath was another figure of Molly, but this one forged of fire. She was absorbing the flames. Slowly, she lowered her hands to her sides and took firm deliberate steps towards Anna.

When the older elemental saw the burning figure coming at her, she attempted to run but the fire-Molly raised a hand to stop her. With a swift swirling motion, the air, earth, and snow wound around Anna, holding her firm. Snow that had built up on the ground burned away beneath the figure’s steps. She stopped inches from the captive. Sylvia ran to her children’s side, shocked at what she was seeing.

“You will never harm this family again. Your days of revenge are over. The crimes you committed, and the murders you assisted in, will stain your hands for all eternity. We will forever fight against those who come to slay us and commit wrongs against us. Your days are up, Anna. You are finished.” The voice was calm, yet dreadful.

Anna shook from the waves of power coming from fire-Molly.

The being put her hand on Anna’s face. Fire flared, completely surrounding them. Anna never had a moment to scream or to run. In a matter of seconds, her body was nothing but ash, carried away on the wind.

Molly lay beside the scorched earth, unharmed but unconscious.

*

Molly awoke to find herself in a room with white walls, a heart monitor, and what seemed to be a bouquet of flowers from every florist in the state of New York. She tried to sit up, but her body felt like it had left all its bones behind somewhere.

At first she remembered nothing, but slowly, the memories flooded back. She looked around again and saw Jack sleeping, his head resting at her bedside. She moved her hand over his hair, unsure of what to expect when he awoke. She knew she’d killed his aunt, and she didn’t expect forgiveness for that, no matter the reasons behind it.

She heaved a heavy sigh and tried to shift her body, which was aching all over. The movement woke him.

He looked up at her. His eyes went from worried, to relieved, to happy. He leaned forward and pulled her to him tightly.

“I could get used to this,” she said half-jokingly.

“Molly, we thought… When I saw you, you were on fire. But you…. Do you remember any of it?”

“I remember seeing the fire from Sylvia coming at me. I grew cold. But I found myself standing beside you and Sarah moments later, though I have no idea how.” Molly paused and took a breath for courage. “I remember killing your aunt. I understand if you wish me to go away. I never meant to kill her… I don’t know…”

She never got to finish her sentence. Jack’s lips on hers cut off her words. His mouth was soft and inviting. Part of her wondered if it was too soon for this; the other part didn’t care. Molly had never been kissed before, and if she had, it could never have felt like this. She welcomed it and returned what she hoped was a kiss that felt as good to him.

He broke the kiss after a long moment, resting his forehead on her shoulder.

“Don’t leave me, Molly. My heart couldn’t bear it.”

“I won’t. I want to stay. I want…”

She couldn’t find the words to say what she wanted, so she kissed him again. It was just as good, if not better, the second time.

Molly was the first to break contact, questions swimming in her mind. She settled for the easiest one to answer.

“How long have I been out?”

“Two weeks, almost three.”

Molly had a hard time with the idea of losing two weeks of her life. “And Sarah? Is she alright?”

“She is fine, or will be. She needs a lot of therapy, but she will be okay, thanks to you.”

He held her hand in his, watching as she fell asleep.

Molly spent two more days in the hospital. The news on the television showed the result of the earthquake, and the bodies they had found. It was labeled as the biggest human trafficking case in nearly a decade. Molly had a feeling Jack’s mother pulled strings to keep her, and them, out of the news.

Jack kept tabs on her health at the hospital, spending his time off by her side. On her last day, his mother and sister came to bring her home.

Sarah took her hand with a smile. “Since Jack’s apartment is pretty much in shambles, we moved him into Mother’s house, just outside the city. Your room will be next to his; since you will need a little more looking after when you leave the hospital. Mother and I will be there to take care of you as well. The council said that would be best. They were very impressed and eager to help you train in your new powers. I can’t believe you can use two elements! That’s unheard of! ”

Sarah seemed to have recovered from her eight-year ordeal, though she required a wheelchair and physical therapy due to the inability to use her legs during captivity.

Jack operated to remove the bullet, which thankfully hadn’t hit any major organs. With enough therapy, she could potentially regain full use of her body, but it was going to be a long road. Though she had been through so much pain, she couldn’t stop smiling or talking Molly’s ear off the entire ride to the house, and Molly was enjoying every moment of it.

As they pulled up and Molly got out, she saw a banner across the top of the door that read WELCOME HOME, MOLLY.

“Wow. You guys didn’t have to do that for me.”

“Are you kidding?” Sarah laughed. “We are making you dinner, and tomorrow we are going to take you shopping and get you out of those scrubs my brother gave you. You’re part of this family. Oh, and the best part is that you get to be here for Christmas!”

“Christmas?”

“Yep, and I got you a present and so did Momma and Jack. I told you, you are part of the family now.”

Molly’s eyes began to mist as she pushed Sarah up the ramp into the two story house. It was large with an open-concept downstairs with the sitting room, kitchen, and formal dining room immediately visible. Christmas lights hung all over the house, and the largest Christmas tree Molly had ever seen dominated the living room. The decorations and lights hung heavily from the branches, creating a warm glow, even in daylight. Underneath the tree, presents wrapped in every color piled high.

Molly could tell they had rescued some of the stuff from Jack’s apartment, even the plants, though the only one that seemed to be alive was the lavender one. She vaguely recalled the day she was brought to Jack’s apartment, when it had been just as bad off as the other ones.

“It was you, dear,” Sylvia murmured, squeezing Molly’s shoulder. “You will find plants respond better to you. It’s part of being an earth elemental. Why don’t you take Sarah outside while I start dinner? We have a lot to celebrate tonight.”

Sylvia opened the oven and the smell of a Christmas ham wafted throughout the kitchen. Molly rolled Sarah’s wheelchair outside and gasped as she saw a large stone wall surrounding a massive backyard. An in-ground pool sat off to the side, surrounded by a white deck for the summer time.

“Mom says there is enough ground here for you to be able to garden anything you want in the spring. There are paths all over we can walk through. Isn’t it wonderful, Molly?” Sarah’s brow crinkled. “Molly, what’s wrong?”

Molly hadn’t realized she was crying. The tears kept coming. “No one… No one has ever done anything like this for me. Not ever. It’s…wonderful, and I will…never be able to thank you.”

She put her arms around Sarah and hugged her as the tears fell.

“Molly, I owe you my life. I would never have gotten away from the hunters without you. It’s us who will never be able to repay you.”

*

Jack had come home to find his sister and Molly in the backyard. The snow covered most of the ground, but the fading light in the sky gave Molly’s skin a beautiful glow. He smiled at how she let his sister prattle on.

“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” His mother came up behind him and patted him on the back. “I see the way you look at her. It’s only a matter of time before I’ll be planning a hand-fasting.” Sylvia winked and smiled, ushering him out the door. “Jack, take it slow. That girl has been through much in such a short time. Make sure you give her room to breathe first.” She stepped out onto the porch, motioning to Sarah. “Can you come help me in the kitchen for a bit, honey?”

“Sure thing, Mom.”

Jack caught Sarah’s knowing wink, and Sylvia wheeled her back into the house. He took Molly’s hand as he looked out over the yard.

“I think Sarah is trying to say we really want you to consider this your home, for as long as you want it to be. It could be forever…if that’s what you want.”

“Nothing would make me happier, Jack.”

Jack couldn’t resist pulling her close to him. He knew he had strong feelings for her, and he was desperate to know if she was feeling it, too.

“I don’t want this to sound like a cliché, but I’m falling for you. Nothing makes me happier than seeing you and being with you. I don’t want to make you uncomfortable, and if you prefer we stay friends, I can do that.”

“Jack, shut up and kiss me.”

She smiled at him, and his heart lifted. He knew the hunters were still out there, but he felt that no matter what happened, they would face it together and be stronger for it. He also knew he would never, ever get tired of kissing her.

“Hey, I got something for you.” He reached in his pocket and pulled out a small box topped with a green bow. Inside was a Celtic knot necklace identical to his.

Molly lifted her hair so he could place it around her neck. “It’s beautiful, but what do the words mean?”

“It’s old Gaelic. A phrase passed down in my family for centuries. Chosaint go dtí go bás. Defend until death. The knot is called the five-fold knot. The four outer circles represent the four elements: earth, fire, water, and air. The middle circle unites them and reminds them to keep in balance.”

“I love it.”

“You’re one of us now, Molly. You’re home.”

“Those are the sweetest words I think I’ve ever heard,” Molly said, wrapping her arms around his neck.

Snow fell quietly around them as they lost themselves in another kiss.

*

Outside the stone wall, a pair of eyes watched the young couple’s happiness through binoculars.

“What do you think? Is she the one the hunters are looking for?”

A second pair of eyes answered. “Yes, I think she is, but if the rumors are true about how she destroyed Anna, it won’t be easy. We certainly can’t take her while she’s in the house. We will have to wait for an opportunity to grab her.”

“Are we sure she is the one?”

“No elemental can possess more than one element of power. She’s the one, and we are going to capture her.”

Author Brittany White

Brittany is a pagan writer who lives and works in Kentucky. She lives with her fiancé and pet. She loves stories of magick and love. This is her first attempt to write a story for other people to enjoy, and she hopes to write many more in the years to come. Find her on Facebook.

Holiday Dreams

K. Laslie

Prologue

tartling awake from a long and restless night, Ayden wiped sweat from his brow. His heart raced as if he had been running from a pack of angry lionesses, and the sheets were soaked through as if he had jumped into a pool of angry sharks. This was not the first instance he had been pulled from his slumber; in fact, it was becoming more the norm than not.

[_What in the hell was that? _]

Throughout his life, he’d had dreams that seemed familiar. He learned over time to know when a dream was more than just a dream: a déjà vu sensation when he awoke for some, while other dreams he would recall after the events played out in his life. Ayden pulled himself from his relative comfort to change the bedding once again. Terror rolled through his spine as if a percussionist were playing the Twilight Zone theme on a xylophone of his vertebrae.

He had no doubt that no single event of his life was as terrifying as what had occurred in his dream. The sinking sensation that this event was closer than he — or the world as a whole — was prepared for froze the sweat still dripping from his face. It was frightening how the bits and pieces he could remember played out in his mind like a movie or book, completely unbelievable that such a thing could actually occur. Most nights, he would remember the dreams in such vivid detail as to write them in his journal — the only way he finally confirmed he was dreaming events before they came to fruition — but this night, all of his dreams had been broken.

Never had he been able to find anyone to confide in of his talent without being ridiculed for his imagination. He often received polite responses telling him to channel the energy into stories for others to enjoy, as those same people hid behind their smiles and childish giggles, turning away to gossip more about him. But he also faced people who were more violent in their responses. Seeing Ayden as different, they used his oddities as a reason to pummel him, or so went their explanation when confronted by the proper authorities.

_We were just having a little fun. _

We didn’t mean anything by it.

In reality, they were most likely the ones who believed the truth in Ayden’s words more than anyone else, threatened by his power and incapable of knowing how to deal with something as incomprehensible as this.

A true hermit, or as true as a sixteen-year-old boy could be while living at home with his mother, Ayden faced his fears alone. When sleep caught hold on that particular stormy night, Ayden was able to discern more of what was occurring. Piece by piece, he unraveled the net that seemingly held him back, as if someone were trying to hide from him what was to be

[_Why do I have this power if I wasn’t meant to know? _]

The mystery of this night would not unravel completely, no matter how hard he tried.

His tortoise-shell kitten pounced onto the bed and curled up next to him, purring deeply as she nuzzled her way under his fingers to be petted. The comfort of Kiara’s adoration was the only thing that allowed him to close his eyes. Her actions told him she could protect him from anything that presented a physical danger while he slept. No matter how crazy it was, Kiara was the only one who listened to his ranting and curled up in his lap as he journaled, almost as if she understood the torture he endured.

Chapter 1

yden, dear. It’s time to get up. You need to have a good breakfast before your finals today.”

Ayden’s mother, Maria, was the typical stay-at-home mom. Caring for her home and raising children had been her plan from youth, which had been executed flawlessly until she lost Ayden’s twin sister in delivery. Abigail had been born first, but with her initial cry, her heart stopped and another breath would never pass through her lips. Moments later, Ayden had been born, strong and determined to avoid the same fate as his sister; his wails permeated the entire floor of the hospital. Abigail’s heart tried to start in that moment, but two beats later, it stopped once again.

Ayden rubbed at his heavy lids. The little sleep he had been able to grab had been far from restful. He quickly threw on some clothes and headed toward the kitchen. He could smell the aroma of his favorites as he opened the only barrier he was allowed from the world and stepped out of his room. Once in the kitchen, he quietly stopped behind his mother and wrapped his arms around her, his chin resting on the top of her head.

She turned to smack his chest with a pot holder. “I’ve told you not to do that, young man. You about startled another five years off my life.”

Despite her frustration, a smile filled his mother’s face as he planted a kiss in her hair. “Mom, I’ve told you before — you are going to live a long and healthy life.” Uncertainty ran through his veins, and a bout of lightheadedness hit him as the words slipped past his lips. He had never doubted his dreams before, but after the events of the previous night, he wasn’t sure of anything.

His mother immediately placed the back of her hand against his forehead. “Are you feeling all right? You can’t miss your finals today, and when you get home I thought we could go pick out a tree. You look pale, but you don’t feel warm at all. Maybe you’ll feel better once you eat.”

He sat down, and Maria slid a plate of food in front of him. His mother had always been a diehard celebrant of the holidays, but he only went along because he knew where the true roots of those traditions were planted. He had tried to explain them to her on multiple occasions, but she scolded him repeatedly. Finally, he decided that upsetting his mother wasn’t worth the trouble. She was entitled to her beliefs the same as he was.

The bacon was crisp, but not too crunchy, exactly how he liked it. With the first few bites, he lost himself in thought, trying to perceive the secrets hidden in his fitful night of terror. The dreams weren’t always blatantly obvious. However, on most occasions he was able to discern the meaning with little effort. This time, answers eluded him.

Before he knew what was happening, his mother handed him his backpack, took his empty plate away, and shooed him out the door so he wouldn’t be late to school.

Walking into school was a chore every day. The idle chatter of cliques assaulted him as friends reunited from only a few hours apart made it seem as though they hadn’t seen each other in weeks. No one ever greeted him. Not politely, anyway. The jocks shoved him through the hall, their girlfriends sneering at him for looking in their direction, and even the nerds made fun of him. He knew things were bad when they stopped turning away from him and joined in on the ridicule.

Ben, captain of the basketball team, was headed in Ayden’s direction. He tried to pick up his pace to get to class before Ben could catch up. Thankfully, English was the only class they had together, but it was unfortunately the first class of the day. Ayden made it to the doorway the same instant as Ben, and the basketball goon shoved him through. Ayden fell across the desk nearest the door, startling the desk’s occupant, Bethany.

Something unlike anything Ayden had ever felt stirred inside him. It rolled through him like a wave.

Ben’s hand tightened on the back of his neck and pulled him off the desk. “What in the hell do you think you’re doing, man? You better get away from my woman before I teach you some respect.” Ben winked at Bethany before turning his attention back to Ayden. “What, you didn’t know we were a thing? How about this, why don’t you stay away from all the girls in this school? Ain’t none of them want you anyway.”

The class erupted into laughter as Ayden moped to his chair.

Chapter 2

he rest of the day was rather uneventful, or at least when compared to most. The majority of his thoughts focused on the dreams, while the rest of his day seemed to go by on autopilot. Test-taking took up most of his classes, which left less time for him to be assaulted verbally and physically. He would have a couple new bruises before the end of the night, but at least it was cold out, so they would be covered by his clothing. He never enjoyed lying to his mother, but she had threatened to go to the school on more than one occasion when her baby had been hurt. No amount of explaining could convince her she would only make things worse.

True to her word, shortly after dinner, they were on their way out the door to find a tree to decorate. His father had started a tradition a few years prior to go looking for a live tree for the house. They always ended up at one of the stands in town, looking at a hopeless twig and the pile of needles on the ground below it.

Since his father had passed recently, Maria looked to Ayden as they buckled themselves in the car. “Where would you like to go? I drove by a place earlier this week that had some pretty trees.”

He turned in his seat to look at his mother and knew the next words out of his mouth were going to be a waste. Something was pulling at him, an unnatural feeling that wanted to go away from town. “Mom, do you mind if I drive? The roads aren’t that bad, and the snow isn’t supposed to get heavy for a few more hours.”

Maria bit her lower lip with the decision placed upon her.

Ayden waited patiently. His mom had been telling him for months that he was now the man of the house, but they had both lost so much. He knew she was worried something would happen to him; they were all each other had left in the world.

“If you’re careful, then I guess it would do you some good to get some practice in this weather with me here. No music though. I want you to be able to listen to me.”

Ayden couldn’t believe she’d agreed as she put the car back in park and opened the door to switch seats with him. He got out of the car and ran inside, ignoring his mother’s call of, “What are you doing?”

He came back with some twine and a bow saw, neither of which they would need at a tree stand.

“What in the world are we going to need those for?” Maria asked. “They’ll take care of everything for us.”

Ayden smiled brightly at his mother. A strange energy pulled him in a direction away from town. “I’m not sure, Mom, but I want to try something different tonight.”

*

Several miles and a few white-knuckled moments later, Ayden pulled over on the side of the road. His overbearing mother had driven him crazy frantically worrying about every move he did or didn’t make. At one point, he was sure she could see his frustration building as he drove, and she had made an attempt to back off on her guidance, but a mother worried. That was what they did.

Ayden swung the door open and walked out into a dusting of snow.

Maria gaped at him. “Ayden, what are you doing? Get back in the car. I’ll try to stay quiet. I only want you to be careful. You aren’t used to driving in this type of weather yet.”

He took a deep breath, leaning down into the car as he did. “We’re here. Can’t you smell it? We need to get over that hill.” He pulled the saw from the back seat and headed in that direction before his mother could even get out of the car.

The roads had been kept up well over the past couple weeks, but as soon as he stepped away from the asphalt, the drifts were much deeper. He glanced over his shoulder to see Maria trying to stay in his footprints, trudging through snow up to her knees. Her legs were not near as long as Ayden’s. He checked over his shoulder occasionally as he walked to make sure she was coming, but each time, he picked up his pace, pulled by an unseen force.

Ayden followed the energies that were pulling him, barely aware of the wind picking up around him. He wasn’t sure what was going on, only that it felt right. A voice whispered to him, but the words weren’t quite making sense. He walked up to a small but full spruce, and the smell filled his lungs with the same scent that had hung heavily outside the car. Tearing his gaze from the tree, he glanced down with disgust at the saw in his hand. There was no way he could damage this tree; it was of the earth, just as he was.

He dropped the saw to the ground and touched the tree, feeling the power that had been running through him run through the tree, as if it were completing a circuit. Ayden dropped to his knees and pulled away the weeds choking the base of the tree before he realized there was no snow. Finally noticing the blizzard swirling about him, he startled to his feet. Ayden backed away, searching for his mother.

Suddenly, his heart began to race as it had that morning. His breathing increased as he felt a rush of adrenaline course through his veins. He felt the warmth of a tear at the corner of his eye, but before it could drop, a voice spoke in his mind, as clear as if they were sitting beside him. The voice resonated deep within his soul, as if it had always been there, but the sound was muffled, as if they were speaking through a barrier.

“Ayden, please do not be frightened. I have done my best to prepare you throughout your life for this moment. The force blocking our communication is weakening so that I am able to communicate with you.”

Attempting to gather his senses, Ayden surveyed the scene before him. He feared this was another dream, but he found no comfort in knowing the dream would come true at some point. “What are you talking about? Prepare me…?”

The being seemed to understand his confusion, as he was interrupted politely. “We don’t have much time. Please, listen to me carefully. The visions you had in your youth were to validate the truth in your own eyes. The end is near, and your vision from last night is only the beginning.”

“I don’t even remember last night. Only flashes of things. What do you want me to do with what I know? I can’t stand up to that, that… whatever it was.”

Comfort flowed through the bond he felt with the voice. “I was not strong enough to stay in this world, but I have been by your side each day of your life. You are powerful in ways you can’t even imagine, but with that power, you must remember your true spirit. All will be clear to you soon.

“Beware the four. The white, the red, the black, and the ashen. They will try to stop you at whatever cost. Do not let their actions stop you from what is in your heart.”

The voice was fading, but Ayden needed more. He was more confused now than he had been in the beginning.

The wind slowed, the snow falling back to the ground, as he begged for more. “I don’t understand. What do you want from me? How will I know?”

The world went black as Ayden slipped into unconsciousness. As he drifted away, he heard the voice one last time. “Brother, remember — I am with you always.”

Chapter 3

yden woke in his bed, unsure of how he had returned home, but with a vigor he had never felt. Power flowed through him in a way he had only imagined possible in movies, but the knowledge he had gained through the night was near to overwhelming him. He could now remember every element of every dream he’d ever experienced, including the several from two nights before. Elves and dwarves, orcs and goblins… They were creatures from legends, but they were coming. How, and better yet why?

His fear stayed with him as he prepared for school, yet somehow it seemed to be held in check. He walked down the stairs to greet his mother and could see the relief in her eyes as she spotted him.

“Good grief, what are you doing out of bed? I don’t know what happened last night, but you should still be resting. I found you in the middle of that blizzard mumbling about Abigail, and you scared me half to death.”

Abigail… That would be why I felt so comfortable. “What?”

“The last I saw of you was your beanie disappearing over the hill. The wind picked up, and when I came over the hill, all I saw was a solid wall of white. And I was standing in a spring field surrounding a dome of blizzard! You were gone. So, since you’re up, would you care to explain to me what happened? Let me get you something to eat, but then you’re going right back to bed. No school for you today. You can start Christmas Break a day early.”

“Mom, I don’t really have time. Maybe after school, but I need to get going. I’ll try to explain later once I make a little more sense of it myself.” He leaned over and gave her a side hug with a kiss on the cheek before taking the piece of toast from her hand and rushing out the door before she could stop him.

The true snow storm had come through at some point in the night, but the cold didn’t bother him. Warmth flooded through his hands; his feet seemed to float on top of the snow and grip the icy walkways. Ayden replayed visions in his mind and realized a common theme. Almost every dream of late was of people at their worst: acts that destroyed the Earth or others around them, all repeating in various ways. Someone guided him through the visions, showing him what they wanted him to see. The nightmarish visions grew as he started to understand the connection. Man was destroying the world and mankind. The legendary races of elves and other such creatures were returning to save the Earth.

What am I supposed to do? I’m just a kid that no one pays attention to.

Passing a tree with some diseased growths on it, he reached out without thinking. Pain flared into him. The warmth that had been in his hands flowed into the tree, letting Ayden briefly feel the icy bite of the wind. The tree straightened from a slight lean that wasn’t quite noticeable before. The tree offered a rush of compassion and thanks before he let go.

In disbelief over what had occurred, Ayden proceeded to touch every tree he passed. When nothing else happened, he thought he had been imagining things, but there was still a connection. He could feel the tree growing in strength even now, sharing the strength with Ayden as he walked through the doors to the school.

Ben waited for him, reaching out to shove him into the lockers.

The scene had become a daily routine, so the entire hall erupted into laughter before anything could happen. But no matter how much Ben pushed and shoved, Ayden stayed rooted in place as strongly as the old tree. Everyone present fell silent, confused and almost terrified that Ayden was literally standing up to Ben instead of being knocked down.

Ayden was no less confused than the others, unsure of what was happening. He wasn’t even upset. There had always been a fire burning inside of him where Ben was involved, a desire to fight back. After reflecting on the actions of man on his walk to school, he saw the pain and destruction actions like that caused.

“Ben, give it up, man. Don’t you think we should start acting like the adults we are supposed to be becoming?” Ayden patted Ben on the shoulder and had a vision of the jock at home. He had no love or hope, only an abusive, alcoholic father destroying everything they had. Ben was the warrior who stood up and protected the family by placing himself in the line of fire repeatedly.

Ayden didn’t know what happened on Ben’s end of the exchange, but he watched as Ben turned and tripped as he tried to run. Things were definitely changing in the world, and he felt no relief in knowing the changes were much larger than what he was experiencing.

He did experience a small amount of relief as he started down the hall to class — he had been unsure if his feet were permanently rooted in place.

Grinning as he walked into English, Ayden noticed that all eyes averted from his, most noticeably Ben’s. He took his seat as the teacher walked into class.

The teacher did a double-take. Walking into a quiet class obviously threw him off, especially on a day where he expected total chaos going into the winter break. “Well, I didn’t plan on this. If you’re going to actually behave, then feel free to do whatever you like. I’d like to get these finals graded now instead of using my break to work while you all enjoy the vacation.”

The other students sitting near Ayden stood up and walked to other areas of the room. Everyone huddled close and whispered. Without a doubt, all conversation was in regards to the display earlier in the halls. Ben was starting to play it off, pretending that he was trying to be nice for the holiday and hadn’t really pushed Ayden, while also explaining the trip in the hall as slipping on a puddle of water from the melting snow someone had brought in.

Ayden was content to sit quietly for once, no one bothering him, as he pulled out his journal. He had never been much of an artist, but before he knew it, he had sketched out a scene from his dream.

Bethany sat down in the seat in front of him, turning to look at his notebook. “Wow, you’re really good. What is it?”

A few seconds passed before Ayden even realized someone was talking to him. He looked up to see Bethany’s cerulean eyes staring at his art. He instinctively started looking for Ben who was still avoiding all contact with Ayden. “Uh, just something I had a dream about. I probably shouldn’t be talking to you, though.” He shot a nervous glance at Ben and went back to work on his sketch.

Bethany brushed the blonde curls from her shoulder as she smiled at Ayden. “Don’t worry about him, silly. We aren’t really a thing. I thought maybe he wanted to be, but after class yesterday, he wouldn’t even talk to me. What an ass, right? I mean, I always knew he was for the way he treated you, but the way you stood up to him today… That was amazing!”

Ayden looked up once again, unsure if this was some sort of cruel joke or not. On several occasions, people had pretended to be his friend only to worm their way through his barriers to cause more pain. Holding out his hand, he looked her in the eyes. “Can I see your hand?”

“Sure, I guess. You aren’t going to do anything weird to me, are you?” She placed her hand in his.

Ayden wasn’t sure what he was expecting. The dry winter air caused a spark of static electricity to jump between their fingers, startling them both, but as her hand rested in his after the initial jump away, a very unsettling feeling washed over Ayden.

As he sat staring at her hand, Bethany quipped, “I think you’re supposed to look at my palm if you’re trying to read me.”

Ayden smirked at the comment and shook it off. He knew that normally he would have chalked that up to one more person trying to tease him, but with her hand in his, he felt a surge of that unknown energy. There wasn’t much strength through the connection, but as he had felt the tree grow from the nourishment he had fed it, he knew that this, too, had room to grow.

What is this? How am I supposed to know what to do if I can’t figure anything out?

Quietly in his mind, but much clearer than the night before, he heard his sister’s voice. “Friendship is there, if you are willing to open up. You cannot take on this task alone.”

Chapter 4

hough school passed with little hostility by Ayden’s normal standards, he still felt more exhausted than he had in quite a while. Few could understand how exhausting it was for someone who was uncomfortable socializing to actually take part in conversation, but somehow he had made it through the day with a few new friends made.

Bethany was in many of his classes, and they had spent the good majority of the day actually getting to know each other. Before the day was out, several others noticed that they wouldn’t be tarnished by talking to him and joined in on learning more about the guy who stood up to Ben. Not everyone was completely sincere in their actions, but he tried not to let that bother him.

Ayden smiled broadly as he walked in the front door with Bethany behind him. His mother was unaccustomed to him coming home with a smile on his face, let alone with a beautiful young woman.

“Hey, Mom. This is Bethany. Bethany, this is my mom. We’re going to go hang out upstairs.”

Stuttering slightly, Maria said, “Ayden… Umm… Can I talk to you for a… Can you help me in the kitchen?” She spun on her heel and walked stiffly toward the kitchen.

Ayden shrugged and looked at Bethany. “I’ll be right back.”

No sooner than he was through the door, Maria opened up on him. “Ayden, dear, please don’t take this the wrong way, but would you care to explain to me what is going on here? I still don’t have a clue what happened last night, and if I hadn’t had to drag you back to the car, I would have thought it was all a dream. Then this morning you were distant and elusive, but even stranger is you bringing someone home. Have you been hiding something from me?”

Ayden wrapped his arms around his mother. “Mom, you know I wouldn’t hide anything from you. I’m still a little confused myself, but that’s why Bethany’s here. We talked a lot today, and she’s going to help me figure this out. I just need someone I can talk to.”

Ayden leaned down to kiss her forehead, and then turned to head back to his company. Knowing the concerns a mother would have about her teenage son didn’t take any new special powers. Before she could argue the point, he looked over his shoulder. “Oh, and we’re friends, nothing more. No need to worry, Mom.”

Ayden’s steps had a little extra energy in them as he headed up the steps with Bethany in tow. Bethany glanced over the railing and waved sheepishly at his mother before following him down the hallway.

Ayden turned the knob and opened it slowly. “Um, please excuse the mess. I’m sure you can understand that I wasn’t expecting company.” His cheeks reddened slightly as he let the first person outside his family into his escape from the world.

Bethany giggled as Ayden rushed across the room, trying to pick up the few things that were out of place.

Bethany crossed to the wall and touched an anime poster from Tsubasa Chronicles. “I have this same poster. I didn’t think a typical teenage guy would be into this.”

Ayden shrugged. “Yeah, it’s one of my favorites.”

“Your room is a lot like mine,” Bethany went on. “I have a lot of books, too. How many books do you have? What’s your favorite genre to read?” She ran a finger across the spines on his shelf as she perused the selection. “I’ve read this one… and this one… Oh, this looks good, I’ll have to remember it.”

“I really like fantasy and dystopian, but I’ll read just about anything. I’ll let you borrow some if you’d like, but you have to be careful. A lot of them are signed.”

Bethany randomly pulled Mother of All from the shelf, her eyes wide. “Signed? Like by the author? Are you serious? How do you get them signed?” She carefully opened the book as if it were a rare artifact and gazed down at the inscription and signature.

“It’s not really that big of a deal. Most of them are indie authors who publish themselves. I find their stories refreshing compared to some of the bigger names. Don’t get me wrong, I love the other guys, too. I just… I don’t know, I feel like I can connect with the little guys a little more. She’s a great author. I even got to meet her at an author’s event when she signed that one.” Bethany looked entranced as Ayden went on to describe the different authors he had met at various events.

Before they could even notice the time, Maria knocked on the still-open door. “Dinner is about ready if the two of you are hungry.” Looking over at the stack of books lovingly held in Bethany’s hands, Maria smiled with satisfaction.

Ayden rolled his eyes. Obviously, she was just glad Bethany held books instead of him.

*

Dinner had been slightly awkward with his mother trying not to embarrass him, but now that the girls had bonded over the misery they caused him, he felt safe in his room again.

“Bethany, today has been amazing. I never would have thought that I could talk to someone about anything and everything like we have, but I have something else I want to talk about.” Walking across the room, he began to shut the door for privacy.

Color rose in her cheeks. Bethany shifted uncomfortably and licked her lips.

“I don’t want you to think any differently of me, though,” Ayden continued. “I haven’t been able to talk to anyone about this in the past, at least not someone that would take me seriously.”

Bethany visibly relaxed as if realizing the conversation was not going in the direction she originally thought. She sat back on the bed, crossing her legs beneath her, and nodded. “I’m open to whatever, as long as you don’t start planning mass murders or the end of the world or anything. I don’t want to be a part of that.”

Ayden didn’t immediately pick up on the sarcasm. His head dropped, and he deflated. He wasn’t sure if his dreams foretold the end of the world or not, but how could he tell her about them after that comment? How had she known?

“Ayden, I’m kidding.” Patting the bed beside her, she looked at him with a curious gaze. “I’ve really enjoyed talking with you today, too. I can’t help but regret not trying to be your friend earlier, so let me make that up by being here when you need me now.”

He wasn’t sure if he was ready to open up, but he knew it was his only chance. “This is going to really sound strange, so let me get most of it out before you start thinking I’m losing my mind. See, I have dreams at night…”

Tension hung heavily in the room. Bethany cocked her head, eyebrows furrowed. “Silly, most of us have dreams at night. Nothing strange about that.”

Ayden couldn’t help but smile. He subconsciously reached out and took her hand in his. She gently squeezed as he took a deep breath before continuing. “There’s more to it than that. The dreams I have… They come true. Nothing big at first, just something here or there that would happen days or weeks later. But then, the other night, they started getting really… strange. And scary.”

Ayden went into great detail of what had happened in the dreams, explaining everything from the return of the different mythological races, to the death and destruction that followed in their wake. Bethany sat, seemingly unaffected by the tale he was weaving.

When he fell silent, she smiled. “Wow, you really have a talent. I’d do anything to be able to tell a story like that. You should write a book, you know, become one of those indie authors.”

Frustration started to fill Ayden’s composure with disappointment. He thought Bethany would be different, that she would believe he wasn’t telling stories.

[_“Show her, don’t tell her. Take her to the tree.” _]

Standing up from the bed, he looked at the clock on his nightstand. “It’s getting late, why don’t I walk you home?” He reached for her jacket and held it out to help her into it.

Bethany looked at him with apology written on her face, but she didn’t speak. They walked out the door, both forgetting the books she was going to borrow, and silently took the sidewalk through the bitter cold toward her house.

Bethany led the way, since he wasn’t sure exactly where she lived. As they turned the corner to her street, she came to a stop and gasped. She ran to her front yard, not noticing the black ice on the sidewalk, and slid across the ice like Bambi until she landed firmly on her backside.

Ayden had no trouble walking across the ice and helped her to her feet, steadying her until she could stumble to the snow-covered grass.

Ayden followed her shocked gaze and noticed the tree he had connected with earlier in the day, standing much taller and fuller despite it being the beginning of winter with the solstice a few days away.

Bethany was smiling like a little girl who’d just found her misplaced favorite doll. “Do you see this? This morning, my dad told me he was going to have to cut it down because it was dying. He said that if he didn’t, then he was afraid it would spread some disease to the other trees in the area. I’ve loved this tree all my life, and now I don’t have to lose it.”

Looking around nervously, Ayden thought back to his sister’s voice earlier. He thought she had meant the tree in the forest, but now things were making a little more sense. He couldn’t help but smile back at her. “Would you like to hear a little more of my story? On my way to school this morning, I saw this tree. Sure, it was a little out of my way, but I was just following the path my feet were taking me.

“When I came around that corner, I saw this tree hanging low and reached up to touch the branches. I still don’t why I did, but when I did, I could feel the tree. Not like feeling the bark on my fingers, like I could feel what the tree was thinking. I felt something pass between me and the tree. I could tell that we both felt stronger. I touched every tree between here and school, hoping it would happen again, but nothing did. There was something special about this tree.”

“I mean, it definitely looks healthier, but…” Bethany trailed off, glancing at him with a wary look. “That story seems…” She paused again, searching his face for a long moment before she shook her head and shrugged. “Thank you?”

“Introduce yourself. Let her feel for herself.”

“Bethany, there’s one more thing I need to tell you. I lost my twin sister when we were born, but she still talks to me. Well, only recently, but I hear her sometimes.”

Bethany started to back away slowly, checking her footing as she walked toward the house. “Okay, look… You’re going a little far now. You see the future, you heal dying trees, and now you hear dead people? If you didn’t want to be friends, you could have said so. Why bother walking me home?”

“Introduce yourself.”

Ayden turned toward the tree, still feeling the connection from earlier in the day. “I am Ayden Walker, and meeting you this morning was a pleasure.”

Bethany turned to see who he was talking to, staring at him as if he had lost his mind. There was no breeze to blow the tree, yet somehow the tree seemed to bend, as if a gust had blown it half over in a bow.

Reaching out for the tree, Ayden held another hand toward Bethany. “Humor me one last time?”

Bethany hesitated, as if warring inwardly between the part of her that wanted to believe and the part of her that thought he was crazy. She finally inched forward and took his hand.

The initial contact with the tree made Bethany jump. Ayden figured she had touched the tree throughout her youth, playing hide and seek near it, climbing through its limbs, but now she could feel what he felt: a feeling of such warmth and compassion.

“Good evening, young persons. I am Adair of the Crann’arsa. Please don’t be frightened; we are a peaceful race. Several generations have passed since we have spoken to man, but strange times are upon us.

“I must thank you for your kind gesture of the morning, young Ayden. We Crann’arsa are more afflicted with the pains of the Goddess Eorpe, or Earth as you would call her, than our counterparts. I have not felt so young and nimble in a century or more. If only I could stretch my roots a little, but alas, I don’t think the neighborhood would care much to see a tree trampling through the street.”

Ayden didn’t expect the tree to speak to them, but after the past twenty-four hours, he was beginning to think anything was possible.

Bethany, on the other hand, squealed at the experience and looked to Ayden. “You weren’t lying, were you? Everything’s true? The dreams?”

Ayden nodded, giving her a moment to let that sink in. Some of the particulars he had given her were gruesome.

“But the way you painted the scene… I felt like I was in the middle of it. Now… I, and everyone else, truly will be in the middle of it all.”

Adair spoke again. “Ayden, have you seen the coming days, the return? I had no idea things were so near. Fear not for yourselves. The Archetypes’ sole reason for return is to save Eorpe, protecting her from the dangers man creates. Be kind to her, and they will be kind in return.”

Ayden was thirsting for more information in regards to what was happening to him. “What do you mean &the Archetypes’? Are they the elves and dwarves that I saw?”

“The Archetypes are many races, we Crann’arsa included. However, we were unable to travel to Aaru with them, as we were appointed to directly watch over Eorpe in their absence. Our sustenance is provided directly from her — evident by my ill state this morning. The world that you know will soon be changed in ways you could never imagine.

“Evidence of this flows through your veins even now. You are very special, Ayden Walker, and you have been given special gifts. I would surmise that you have only months to discover your potential. Failing to do so could result in tragedy for you and those you care for.”

The door to Bethany’s house opened, and her mother stuck her head out. “Bethany, it’s freezing out here, and we’ve been worried sick. Come inside, honey.”

“Remember, care for Eorpe and your fellow man. And for Eorpe’s sake, stop cutting trees down to decorate. You don’t want to be a part of that blasphemy.”

Bethany laughed and wrapped her arms around Ayden. “Did that really just happen? Wow! I can’t wait to tell my parents.”

“Bethany, you can’t tell anyone. Trust me, I know. Remember how you felt when I was telling you things earlier? They aren’t going to believe anything you tell them. We have to keep this between the two of us for now.”

Chapter 5

he next few days felt like a couple nerds playing “Dungeons & Dragons.” Several times, Bethany would get caught up in the details of Ayden’s dreams and add her own thoughts. Before they knew it, they had a journal full of true visions mixed with fantastical dreams, woven together in a tapestry that only the two of them would be able to decipher as events came to fruition.

Each night involved less rest and more dreams for Ayden. He found comfort in the fact he was able to control the fear by accepting faith in his knowledge to provide answers. A few of the answers left more questions than he had to begin with. He’d seen scenes of him hurtling fireballs, but he hadn’t the slightest idea how that was ever going to happen. They’d speculated for several hours over what powers he would have, how to use them, and if Ayden was the only person to have gained them. They had become very close in their recent time together.

Bethany had a difficulty hiding both her awe and jealousy of Ayden’s newfound ability. “Do you think I’ll ever get anything cool like you? I wouldn’t care if it was something small. I just don’t want to be boring Bethany, and you find someone more exciting.”

Ayden noticed Bethany’s flushed face and realized she had most likely said more than she wanted. They had walked downtown to pass time, and she looked about as if searching for a way to change the subject. The only thing nearby was Ben sitting on a bench near the coffee shop. Ayden reached over and took Bethany by the hand. He understood where she was coming from, since he was also starting to get rather attached to her.

He led Bethany toward Ben, wanting to put the past behind him and see if the guy needed any help. He hadn’t been able to get the visions of Ben’s home life out of his mind.

“Hey, Ben. How’s it going? You need help with anything?”

Before Ben could turn to see the two of them together, he recognized the voice and fell into his old ways. “What the hell do you want, and what makes you think I would want help from a pansy?” He turned and saw Bethany standing beside Ayden, and looked down to see that they were holding hands. “What, you think you’re big and bad because you got the girl? I didn’t ever want her, anyway.”

Bethany strode forward and raised her hand to slap Ben.

Ayden pulled her back, both physically and emotionally feeding her calm energy through their connection. “Hey, don’t let him get to you. He has a pretty tough life at home and feels he has to put on a front to get away from it all.”

Bethany stepped back next to Ayden and wrapped her hand around his upper arm, snuggling against him.

“What do you mean I have a pretty rough life? You don’t know anything about me. Why don’t you step off before I show you what rough is.” Watching Ben clinch his fists, Ayden could tell everything was an act now. Why couldn’t he have seen it before? Ben didn’t want to be like his father, but that was the only thing he had ever known. He was screaming for someone to help him.

Ayden let go of Bethany’s hand, moving away from her enough to give him clearance if this went wrong. “Do whatever you want. I want to help, and if knocking the crap out of me will help you feel better, then here I stand.”

Bethany tried to object, jumping between the two of them. “Ayden, no. What are you doing? You know what he’s capable of. I used to watch him pummel you in the halls and laugh like everyone else, but I’m not going to stand here and watch you put yourself in danger. I… I love you Ayden, please.” She turned to Ben, a tear rolling down her cheek as he grinned mischievously. “Please, Ben. Please don’t hurt him.”

Ben’s left hand jerked up to yank Bethany out of the way as his right swung for Ayden. Seeing that he couldn’t stop Bethany from falling, Ayden leapt forward to make sure Ben didn’t follow through and hit her after himself. Ben’s fist hit his jaw, and the momentum made him move with the fist, but there was no pain.

Ayden balled his hand into a fist and drew back to throw a punch of his own, but Bethany grabbed his wrist. Bethany yelped in sudden pain and cradled her hand against her chest. Ben, not knowing what had happened, laughed at the two of them until Ayden opened his fist and a small flame dispersed into a mist of steam on the cool breeze.

“What…?” Ben trailed off.

Ayden could almost see the gears turn in Ben’s mind. He was more intrigued than scared. “Whoa, what in the hell? Can you teach me to do that?”

Ayden ignored him. “I am so sorry, Bethany. Let me see it.”

When she finally let him near her, he pulled her hand away from her chest so he could look at it. Hairs on the back of Ayden’s neck rose as he felt energy swirling around him before flowing through his hand and into Bethany. As they all took their first look at the one small blister, it shrank as they watched. The blister stopped at only a quarter inch in diameter.

Bethany pulled away. “I… I don’t believe it. It doesn’t hurt as much anymore.”

“Holy shit, man!” Ben remarked. “How did you do that? I knew you were a freak and all, but I didn’t know you were a cool freak. You have to teach me.”

Ayden looked at Ben with contempt. He embodied everything that was wrong with man. His ultimate goal was to teach his father a lesson rather than trying to solve the problem in a more diplomatic way. Ayden wanted to help Ben. He wanted to help him and his younger siblings escape from the dangers of abuse, but he also wanted to help Ben be a better person. Destruction was all too often the first response to every situation, but when things were already destroyed, those were the moments you had to find a way to recreate and nourish.

“Look, this isn’t anything you can be taught. Heck, I’m still trying to figure everything out myself, but if you’re willing to go have a cup of coffee with us, then I’ll explain what I know.”

*

Over the next couple hours, Ayden and Bethany tried to explain to Ben the short version of the previous week’s events. Ben didn’t seem to be paying attention to much at first until Ayden grabbed his wrist to get his attention. The connection allowed Ayden to push Ben into seeing the truth behind their words.

Bethany kept Ayden focused on the current events and less on the Archetypes, expressing secretly that she was unsure how Ben would handle that type of information. Ben continued to question the validity of some of the claims they had, but after what he saw on the street and felt through the connection with Ayden, he seemed willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Impassive and hard to read, Ben’s face gave little away in regards to his thoughts. “Ayden, your dad passed a few months back, right? Do you think your mom would mind you having a sleepover? I mean, maybe me and the kids could come stay with you for a few days. Actually give them some peace and quiet for Christmas.”

Ayden was sure his mother wouldn’t care to have the company. She had enjoyed seeing Bethany each time she came to visit the last few days, but what would she think about this? “I’m sure she wouldn’t mind, but what about your dad? I wouldn’t think you would want to upset him. There has to be some way around you basically running away.”

Ben shook his head emphatically. “Dude, he isn’t even going to know we are gone. Please, I want them to have a good Christmas this year.”

“We’ll give it a shot, but there’s something that I don’t like about this.”

*

Ayden called and asked his mother if he could have a few friends over for the night. He didn’t give her any details, and she didn’t ask for any other than to clarify that he couldn’t have Bethany stay over. She was so ecstatic he was finally making friends, she didn’t care that it was Christmas Eve or anything else.

Bethany needed to get back home, so Ben and Ayden went to share the news with Carson and Olivia. They were still young enough at four and six that they weren’t truly aware of the situation they had been born into, but they were more than excited with the idea of a sleepover. As they hurried to get their belongings together, Ben heard his father pull into the driveway.

Turning on Olivia’s TV, he turned to Ayden. “You two go with Ayden out the back door. I’m going to let Dad know where we are going to be, and I’ll meet you all at Ayden’s house.”

Ayden could see the lie in Ben’s eyes, full of compassion to keep the kids safe and ignorant of the truth. Ayden knew that Ben would not leave this house without paying a heavy price to do so, but there was no time to argue. Olivia swayed in her Elsa dress as Ayden helped her with her jacket. “Tell Daddy I love him.”

As Ayden snuck out the back door with the kids, he could hear their father already yelling at Ben. “Dad, can you keep it down a little? I just got Carson down for a nap…”

He didn’t stop or slow down, hurrying to get the kids away before the ruse was discovered.

Chapter 6

everal hours had passed without any sign of Ben. Carson and Olivia didn’t notice his absence, as they were overwhelmed by the love Maria was showing them. It had been many years since she had been able to snuggle with little ones, and she had never been able to do the girly things with Abigail that she could with Olivia.

“I wish that could have been me. Maybe one day. Would you tell her that I love her?”

Ayden was still adjusting to having his sister’s voice pop into his mind randomly. He wondered if she ever gave him privacy when needed.

“Don’t worry, little brother. I don’t want to see those things any more than you want me to see them.”

The kids sat on the couch, each with a small cup of cocoa as they watched Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Ayden motioned for his mother to step into the kitchen and ended up with whipped cream on his nose as he took a drink of his own. He had already had to explain that Ben would be coming later, lying to say the kids were scared of the dark and that was why they came early. Now was the time to come clean and explain the entirety of the situation to her.

After a few minutes of quiet conversation, she beamed at him. “I’m astonished that you would go so far out of the way to help Ben after he treated you so badly. But I’m proud of you. Those poor little ones… having to grow up in such a situation….”

“I need to go make sure Ben is all right. We’ll be back soon.”

“Ayden, you don’t know what could have happened. What if it isn’t safe?”

“I promise I’ll be careful.”

As he put on his coat, Maria went to sit between the little ones and laid an arm on each of their shoulders.

Carson looked up at Maria, a tear starting to form in the corner of his eye. “Mrs. Walker… Do you think Santa will find us here? He always gets lost looking for our house. Ben said that maybe he would find us if we came over here for a few days.”

Ayden looked at his mother sadly. After the fiasco with the tree, neither of them had felt like putting up decorations. Ayden was at the age where he would rather sleep in than celebrate early, and since his dad had passed, they both had come to the realization that Christmas wasn’t going to be the same as it had been in years past.

He smiled at the look of determination on her face, probably revitalized by the innocence of the youth staring up at her. “Santa will have no problem finding you. I promise you that.”

*

Ayden walked up to the house, glad to see there was no screaming or signs that things had been bad after they left earlier. He was hopeful Ben had been able to talk to his dad, and maybe things had even been worked out for the kids to stay over for a couple days.

Stepping onto the porch, he noticed lights on, but there wasn’t any movement inside. With only Ben and his dad present, it shouldn’t have seemed odd, but something tugged at Ayden’s gut instincts. He knocked on the door and waited patiently for an answer. After a few moments, he left the porch to go toward the back of the house and look around.

A cold wind blew harshly against the side of the house, and a branch fell from a tree right in his path. Startled, Ayden looked but saw no one. Seconds before he stepped past the corner of the house, he heard a shotgun go off, and a body fell in front of him: blood poured out of the wound in his abdomen as the man stared at the stars above in disbelief. Ayden fought back the bile that tried to inch its way up his throat.

Surprised at his level of calm, Ayden crouched down to survey his surroundings. He wasn’t sure where the shot had come from, who had taken it, or if they were going to take another one at him. Carefully leaning around the corner, he saw Ben using the gun to hold himself upright.

Ayden rushed over to him and found that Ben had been stabbed. He knew the worst thing to do was to pull the knife out, but what if he could heal him as he had Adair and Bethany? Ben’s eyes were glazed from the pain, and he slipped out of consciousness.

There was no time to call for help, and in that instant, Ayden knew that he was Ben’s only chance. Gripping firmly, he pulled the knife from Ben’s chest. A gurgling sound emanated as blood flowed into Ben’s lung once the knife was gone. The pain was enough to bring him back to consciousness, and he repeatedly mumbled to Ayden, “Take care of them.”

Ayden flung his gloves to the ground and laid his hands on Ben’s chest, trying to heal the damage done, but Ben started to cough up blood. The light that had only recently started to shine from Ben’s eyes started to dim. Ayden felt no swirling of power as he had with Bethany, no transfer of energy flowing into Ben. Ayden struggled to find the switch within him, the method to heal Ben’s wounds.

Ben blinked as he struggled to breathe. His words were faint and difficult to hear as he grimaced with each labored breath. “Take care… of…”

Anger rushed into the center of Ayden’s core as tears ran down his face. For the first time since being given his gifts, he truly questioned himself. Why would he be allowed power to heal one, but not another?

Ayden stormed toward the man that lay on the ground. Blood continued to pool about him. The man could only be Ben’s father, with their faces looking near-identical in the grasp of death’s claws.

Fury boiled in the depths of Ayden’s soul. Flames erupted from his hands as he screamed at the lifeless body before him. “How could you kill your own son? Was beating him not enough?”

Not realizing his actions, the rage consumed Ayden as he pummeled flame after flame at Ben’s father. The flames continued to strengthen as the rage grew within him, turning blue and white from the intensity until there were no remains left.

Ayden panicked when he realized he had been responsible for the deaths of both Ben and his father. They had both been mortally wounded, but his effort to remove the blade to heal Ben hastened his demise. What would happen if they connected him to Ben’s body?

Fear replaced the anger that fueled the flames. Ayden knelt beside Ben, once again laying his bare hands across the body. “Please take him. Protect him the way he protected his siblings,” Ayden begged. “I only wanted to help him.”

The ground shifted beneath Ben. His body slowly sunk into a temporary pool of quicksand. The knife and gun sank with him. The only evidence left of the night’s events were a scorched circle where his father’s body had fallen and the blood on Ayden’s hands.

Would Ayden be prepared for what was to come?

*

Ayden stumbled through town, blood caked to his hands and face from where he had tried to wipe away his tears. He eventually found himself beneath Adair and dropped to the ground beneath him. Reaching out for the connection with the tree, he felt the familiar bond, and then a comforting compassion.

“You are strong, but your gift is only for the righteous. His heart was righteous, but his body and mind were not. Take comfort knowing you eased his pain.”

Ayden could feel the tears starting again as he screamed, “Take comfort? How am I supposed to take comfort in any of this? These aren’t gifts; they’re a curse!”

The front door swung open, and Bethany stepped out into the cold. She caught sight of Ayden laying on the ground and rushed to see what the commotion was about. When she noticed the streaks of blood on his hands and face, she frantically checked him for injury before sitting next to him and pulling his head into her lap. The thirty degree temperature affected neither of them as they sat in silence for minutes in the shelter and warmth the Crann’arsa provided them.

*

Ayden opened his eyes to Bethany shivering despite the smile on her face as she ran her fingers through his hair. “I better get home before my mother gets worried, and you need to go warm up anyway.” Sitting up, he leaned over and gave her a light kiss. “Thanks for being… you.”

Bethany’s smile faded as she looked upon Ayden’s face again. The dried blood flaked away as she brushed her hand across his face. “What happened Ayden? Whose blood is this?”

Ayden didn’t know how to recant the story to her. The adrenaline no longer rushed through him and the realization of all the details sunk in. He started to tell her everything, but something told him the specifics would overwhelm her. Closing his mouth on the empty words, he took a deep breath. “It’s Ben’s. He and his father are gone. He asked me to take after the little ones.”

Shock flooded Bethany’s face, her hand coming up to cover her mouth. She wrapped Ayden in a hug as she held him in silence.

“I really like her. Mom has the kids asleep, but she is going crazy trying to get decorations up. You may want to pick up the pace before she realizes how long you’ve been gone.”

He couldn’t believe his eyes when he walked in the door. He stayed in the shadows of the foyer, eyeing the boxes of decorations everywhere, more than he had seen in ages. “Mom, are you all right? Why all this?” His arms were outstretched as he glanced over the room.

“Do you know those kids have never had a visit from Santa Claus? That is downright unacceptable. I’m going to have to have a talk with their father, about several things, but for now I am going to make sure they have everything they deserve. Where is Ben? I was hoping the two of you could figure out that fake tree. I never was good at getting it put together.”

Ayden winced at the mention of Ben as memories from the night flooded through him again. He knew there was no way to broach that subject; he would need to divert his mother for now. Ayden headed toward his room as he unzipped his jacket. “Let me use the restroom real quick, and I’ll come help.”

He scrubbed his hands and face until the skin was pink. No blood remained, even though he could feel the warmth of it on his skin.

Back in the living room, Ayden reached out to take the stockings from her hand. “Mom, I’ve got this. Why don’t you go get some rest? You look exhausted, and you’re going to need to be up early to see their faces.”

Yawning before she could respond, Maria relented to the sage-like advice from her son. Ayden wasn’t sure how he would accomplish everything in time, or what he could find for presents, but he was bound and determined to bring the joy back to his mother that had been missing these past few months. He would have to tell her that Ben wouldn’t be coming, but tonight she needed rest. She was going to have her hands full with two little ones underfoot.

Nearly two hours later, mere moments before dawn, there was a light knock on the door.

Bethany stood on the porch with her arms full of dolls. “I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t spent so much time with you the last few days. I woke up to a voice telling me to grab some of my old dolls and bring them over here. I hope they’ll work.”

Ayden pulled her into the house, giving her a huge hug of relief. He left her staring at the lit Christmas tree and ran off toward the attic. Returning with several of his old toys, they laid them out before the tree, stuffed the stockings, and collapsed on the couch.

A slight chill hung in the air as Ayden wrapped one arm around Bethany to snuggle. He raised his other hand and blew across his palm; a spark floated across the room to the fireplace. The wood caught instantly, a gentle fire warming the room as they both nodded off.

“Merry Christmas, little brother.”

Author K. Laslie

K. Laslie resides in Louisville, KY with an amazing wife and two sons. While writing is only one of his methods of relaxation and escape from the real world, he was shocked to find that he enjoyed it so much once he began. His characters never cease to amaze him as they jump genres and any boundaries he may set for them. Find him online at Facebook.

The Witch’s Brew

Heather Marie Adkins

Chapter One

id you hear Cole Nolte’s wife left him last night?”

I looked up from the oven timer, more interested in what my best friend had just said than how much time the almond-butter crescent rolls had left to bake. “You’re not serious?”

Jasmine Keeler nodded, her kohl-lined gray eyes twinkling. She plopped onto a stool at the counter, her caramel-colored kinky curls bouncing around her heart-shaped face. “She did. I don’t know much beyond they had a big ol’ fight half the neighborhood could hear, and Crissy Nolte screeched away in a Porsche with some guy.”

“Oh, my goodness. Poor Cole.”

I’d known Cole since freshman year of high school, when his family moved to Tates Creek after his daddy took the police chief’s job. Our town is small, so even though we weren’t exactly buddy-buddy, Cole was always kind to me, even in my awkward stage. He’d driven me home from school during inclement weather, seein’ as his daddy lived real close to my mama. As a result, I’d harbored a schoolgirl crush on him in the fifteen years since.

The beep of the oven timer startled me from my thoughts, and I yanked open the door. Hot, buttery air flooded out, tossing my long strawberry-blonde hair away from my face. I reached a mittened hand inside and extracted the cookie sheet to rest on the counter while I put the next batch of goodies in — chocolate peppermint scones in honor of Yule next week.

I held a hand over the doughy scones, closed my eyes, and murmured under my breath, “Yuletide cheer and a blessed new year.” Intention sprinkled from my fingertips like powdered sugar, coating the scones in a layer visible only to my eye. I liked to think of my magic as an extra special ingredient to make someone’s day even better.

Jasmine picked up a snow globe from the counter and turned it over between her long-nailed fingers. She hit the switch to light up blue the snowy wonderland inside and cranked the knob. A tinkling version of “My Favorite Things” began to play. “I thought you’d like to know, since you’ve slobbered over him basically half our lives.”

“Hush your mouth.” I closed the oven door on the scones and set the timer for twenty minutes. “Put that down before you break it. My grandmama gave it to me.”

“Don’t act like she’s dead, and it’s some precious artifact,” Jasmine said, laughing. “Your ornery grandma is down the street at Bertie Mae’s eating her weight in eggs and bacon like she does every damn morning.”

I groaned, tossing my oven mitt to the counter before I crossed to fire up the espresso machine. “Don’t I know it. Mama gave her a what-for last week about her cholesterol and how much money she’s been spending there. We aren’t rich, you know.”

“Now you sound like your mother. You can’t lie to me, Daiya. The Witch’s Brew is the most popular place in this town. I know you’re doing just fine.”

She wasn’t just being nice, either. I opened my humble little coffee shop a year-and-a-half before with my daddy’s inheritance. I didn’t have any expectations, but boy, did it take off. Seemed I couldn’t make it through a day without running out of everything.

“But back to the original conversation,” I said, firmly steering Jasmine away from my kooky family. “Crissy Nolte was in here last night.”

“No way!”

“Right before I closed.” I took the steam pitcher of water down and grabbed my razor blade to clean the steam wand. It soaked overnight in an ice bath so it was good and ready for me to shave clean the next morning. “Crissy got a large Brewlatte with extra cinnamon and a crescent roll. She seemed normal as could be.”

I neglected to mention to Jasmine how I’d set an eensy-weensy hex on Crissy’s latte to make the woman’s hair fall out. Yes, a very juvenile thing to do, but I’d hated the woman since high school, where she’d tormented me in every way a popular girl could.

“Normal for Crissy is pretty bad.” Jasmine rolled her eyes. “Do you remember when she stole your clothes in gym class freshman year, and you had to wear your stinky gym shorts all day?”

I rolled my eyes. “How could I forget? That was my favorite shirt, and I never got it back.”

“I’m think I saw Crissy wearing it sophomore year.”

“Of course you did.” I sighed. “Well, Cole’s better off without her, in my opinion. He’s too good for her.”

Me-ow!” Jasmine teased. “Somebody already has her sights set on Cole Nolte, huh?”

“I do not.” I gestured to the espresso machine. “The Marzocco’s warm. What do you want to drink?”

I could deny it all I wanted, but the truth would out. Cole Nolte was back on the market. He may have been married to Crissy for almost ten years, but he had to get over her at [_some _]point, right? And I firmly intended to not miss my chance this time.

*

After Jasmine cut out to go to her job teaching kindergarten, I finished my opening duties and found Geena Smithton waiting outside the door when I turned on my glowing green Open sign.

“You’ll never believe!” she greeted me, rushing past as I held the door open. A gust of cold December air followed her in.

In the eighteen months my coffee shop had been open, Geena had always been my first customer of the day. She ran the antiques store next door to The Witch’s Brew. She was also my mama’s best friend, and as such, had been like a second mama to me. She also had the biggest mouth this side of the Mississippi.

I plugged in the string of multi-colored holiday lights that decorated my front window. “Cole Nolte’s wife left him?” I supplied.

“Aw, shucks, Daiya Jean. You take all the fun out of gossiping.”

“Nobody could take the fun out of gossiping for you, Geena.”

“You’re right.” She sat on a bar stool and cracked her knuckles. Today, she’d restrained her long salt-and-pepper hair with a colorful pair of chopsticks. Thick, full bangs covered her forehead and lightened sapphire eyes a decade younger than the crow’s feet suggested. “Lordy, I was up till ’bout near midnight decorating that damn tree. Lolly told me if we didn’t have that tree decorated by December 15th, then Santa wouldn’t bring her a Barbie Ford Mustang.”

“Is Santa really bringing a four-year-old a Barbie Ford Mustang?” I asked incredulously as I filled a steam pitcher with coconut milk and set it to steam. Geena liked her Brewlatte with coconut milk and hazelnut. I gently rotated the steam pitcher as it worked and silently chanted, Strength I give, for your gifts to receive. Living with her four-year-old granddaughter wore the old woman out.

“She sure is getting that damn Barbie Mustang.” Geena rolled her eyes, reaching over the counter to snag a crescent roll from the cooling tray. “I tried to tell my good-for-nothing daughter that was an outrageous gift, but does she listen? No. Too busy talking up that boy at the Walgreens.”

I pointed my long metal stirring spoon menacingly at her face. “That ’boy’ at the Walgreens is my cousin Jamie, and you know good and well he’d be a great match for Lucy.”

“Pish tosh.” Geena waved me away. “He egged my house once.”

“When he was twelve. Almost twenty years ago.”

“Well, he should have thought about his actions then if he wanted to date my daughter.”

“You are absurd,” I told her, sliding her finished latte across the counter.

“No more so than your mother.” Geena took an experimental sip and closed her eyes. “Good Lord, Daiya Pettigrew. I don’t know where I’d be without your coffee. It’s like magic.”

“You’d be picking up sixteen ounces of sludge at Bertie Mae’s.”

We both cringed and laughed.

“Anyway, listen to this,” Geena went on. “I know you already heard it happened, but Lucy actually witnessed what happened at the Noltes’ last night.”

I grabbed a paper bag from beneath the pastry case and deposited two more crescent rolls inside for her. “Oh, yeah?”

Geena cupped her latte and leaned forward, lowering her voice even though we were the only two in the shop. “Crissy Nolte has a boyfriend. Her and Cole had a huge fight that half the neighborhood heard! That boyfriend showed up in a damn fire engine red Porsche, tires squealing like some kind of movie, and Crissy come runnin’ out the house screaming profanities. Cole come followin’ her, throwing her clothes in the yard, and he barreled on past her. ’Bout the time the boyfriend stepped out the car, Cole knocked him flat! Punched him so hard his nose was bleeding!”

“Oh my stars,” I breathed, stunned that Cole had done such a thing.

Geena nodded. “Right? Cole’s such a sweetie. But Crissy and the boyfriend got in that Porsche, and they screeched out of there, leaving Cole in the street with his fists clenched like he wants to pummel ’em both.”

*

Geena’s daughter, Lucy, ran The Witch’s Brew in the evenings, Monday through Friday. She showed up ten minutes early for her shift and asked for three shots, as if I were her bartender.

I acknowledged the dark circles under her eyes and reached for an espresso mug. “Late night?”

“Bertie Mae called in sick this morning, so I had to stay and cover until Rico came in at ten. None of them other girls can cook like Bertie or Rico. Hell, I can’t either, but I’m the closest they got. I’ve had like four hours of sleep, and I haven’t seen Lolly in two days,” she finished sadly.

“Your mama came in this morning and said she and Lolly put up the tree last night.”

“Oh, did they? I didn’t even pay attention when I dragged my butt in this morning.” Lucy shook her head, her stunning black waves dancing around her shoulders. She wore it long, damn near to her bottom.

“Geena also called you good-for-nothing and said Jamie wasn’t good enough for you.”

Lucy giggled. “No boy is ever good enough for me, Daiya. You know that.”

“I also know she doesn’t actually think you’re good for nothing. She just worries.” I set three piping hot shots of espresso before her in a snowflake-covered mug. “Drink up. It should be a slow night. They’re calling for snow.”

“It’s about time. We haven’t had a white December around here in years.” Lucy dumped half a pound of sugar in her espresso, her crystal blue eyes on me. “You heard about Cole?”

“I mean, why does everyone in town think I need to know Cole’s separated from his wife?” I hit the button to rinse the Marzocco.

“Because everyone in town knows you’ve been in love with him since before you were born.”

“Now you’re just exaggerating.”

Lucy held up a palm. “Scout’s honor. Mama Pettigrew says it began in the womb.”

“Mama Pettigrew needs to mind her own business. Cole didn’t even move here till high school.” My mama made it her life’s goal to stick her nose in every aspect of my life. It was a wonder I even had a life. “Are you going to be okay? If you’re too tired, I can close up early.”

“No. I need the money for that cottage. I’m so close to a down payment.”

Lucy and Lolly had moved in with her mother after her divorce a year ago. The separation had been amicable — her ex-husband received a job offer overseas, and Lucy wasn’t interested in moving to a foreign country or having Lolly grow up anywhere but Tates Creek. They’d sold the house, and after four months living with her mother, Lucy picked up a job with me for extra income. She was ready to get out from under Geena’s thumb. Probably a good idea, seeing as how she and Jamie were getting hot and heavy, last I heard.

“All right. Well, if you need anything, just call me.” I untied my apron and hung it on a wooden wall peg next to all the others emblazoned with The Witch’s Brew logo. I shrugged on my wool pea coat and buttoned up tight against the winter air, then waved as I left.

In Tates Creek, Kentucky, five p.m. a week before the Winter Solstice meant dark as night. I shoved my hands deep in my pockets and picked up my pace, passing the lighted windows of the other shops on Central Avenue. To my right, the lake rippled beneath the gusty wind, mercury gray and empty of tourists this time of year. One end of Central looped around Town Circle, where the courthouse, the police department, the library, and the community center sat. The other dead-ended at the Tates Creek Forest Preserve, where a path wound through beautiful woods all the way to my mama’s house.

Most nights, I could make the trek by the light of the moon. But tonight, clouds built heavily above, bringing the promised snow, so I used the flashlight on my smartphone to light my way.

I shivered, wishing I had gloves for my exposed fingers. Or that I owned a car like a normal person. We Pettigrew women weren’t predisposed to modern living. Sometimes, I thought we were more suited for life two hundred years ago.

I was lost in thoughts of my fireplace and cuddling with my cat Skadi, when my flashlight bounced over a pair of legs laying across the dirt path.

I froze, gently lowering the light. Two black dress shoes lay pointed upright, and dark trousers disappeared into the undergrowth.

“Hello?” I called, my voice shaky. Tates Creek didn’t have much problem with crime, but we were off a major interstate and considered one of the most picturesque towns in Kentucky, so tourists came through all the time.

No answer.

I took two steps forward and called again: “Hello!”

Nothing.

Taking a deep breath, I skirted the exposed feet and lifted my flashlight into the undergrowth.

An unfamiliar face stared back at me with glassy, lifeless eyes, a swollen broken nose, and a gaping bullet wound in the middle of his forehead.

Chapter Two

choked on my scream for a moment, but then called the emergency line like I was a fully functioning adult. Lucky for me, my sister answered the line.

“Daiya, what’s wrong?” she said, a tad hysterically. The women in my family sensed things about one another. Devin knew it was me before she answered the phone, and she knew I was freaking out.

“I found a dead body. On the path through the Preserve.”

“Oh my stars. Are you okay? Are you sure the person is dead?”

“Oh, yeah. Definitely dead. Bullet-through-the-brain dead.”

“Holy Freya. Okay, hang tight, let me call Cole.”

I listened to the comforting drone of her voice on the radio and resolutely ignored the body. I’d never in my life seen a murdered body. I couldn’t get the image of the hole in his head out of my mind, or the blood that had dried in rivulets on his face. At least he was a stranger. If it had been someone I’d known… I couldn’t even imagine.

“Die, he’s on his way. Are you safe? Is there anyone else around you?”

I jerked. “Oh, gods, I didn’t even think of that. Do you think the killer could still be here?” Now [_my _]voice was hysterical.

“Shh, calm down. I’m sorry, I’m just checking. If you haven’t seen anybody, you’re fine. Hang tight. Cole’s close by.”

The two minutes I waited for Cole were the two longest of my life. Every rustle and crack in the forest put me on edge. I hugged my coat tighter, warming my fingertips in my armpits as I hid in the trees across from the body.

I heard running footsteps, and then, “Daiya? Where are you?”

His thick Southern drawl set my heart a’racing. I left the shelter of the tree line and waved both hands above my head as Cole’s flashlight bounced over my face. “Here.”

Cole slowed in front of me, the beam from his flashlight settling on the trail beneath my feet. I could barely see him in the ambient glow — his strong jaw, a nose broken one-too-many times in high school football, and his dark hair shorn into a cap of black on his head, just the hint of a cowlick above his forehead. Those uniform blues sure fit him nice, too.

Cole’s mahogany gaze danced over me as if checking for injuries. He holstered his gun. “Are you all right? Devin made it sound like you were hurt.”

“She’s my sister. She worries.” I shrugged. “I’m okay, except, you know. Dead body.” I pointed at the brush beside us.

Cole turned his flashlight on the up-turned loafers, and I turned my back on him. I wasn’t in the mood for another up-close-and-personal look at violent death.

Seconds later, Cole swore loudly and creatively. His radio beeped as he keyed up and said, “Dispatch, get me another car and call to Bowling Green for the CST unit. 10-80.”

Cole rubbed his brow as he drew up next to me, Devin’s voice answering affirmatively through his speaker.

“What’s a 10-80?” I asked.

“Dead body.”

“Stating the obvious, huh?” I teased.

He stared at me, clearly not amused.

I cringed. “Sorry. I know you’re having a tough twenty-four hours. I’m so sorry about Crissy.”

“I’m not. But it’s about to get tougher.” He cast a glance back at the body. “That’s her boyfriend.”

*

Sergeant Amelia Dieke graduated with me, two years behind Cole. She was a no-nonsense woman with a blonde, pixie cut and shrewd sapphire eyes, like Tinkerbell with a gun. Mel showed up, took stock of the situation, and sent me and Cole packing to the station after confiscating my shoes.

I followed Cole silently through the woods, my toes freezing with every step. We passed my mama’s house on the lake with its warm, glowing windows. My own little cottage behind it was dark, and Skadi probably wondered where I’d gotten lost.

Cole’s unmarked police cruiser sat behind my daddy’s old rusted-out Ford pickup in Mama’s driveway. The horn beeped as he unlocked the police car, and I reached for the passenger side handle to get in but paused, my intuition tickling my ears. Mama was coming.

“Daiya?” Cole looked over the car at me curiously.

“One minute.” I held up a finger and trudged up the front sidewalk.

My mama’s house was near two hundred years old with three floors and a widow’s walk up top. The weathered white shingles had turned gray over the years, and more green shutters were crooked than not, but I loved the old place. It had been in the Pettigrew family for generations.

Mama opened the front door before I got to the steps. “Daiya Jean, what on earth is going on?”

My mama was a gorgeous woman. She had Irish red hair — speckled gray — in a messy braid hanging to her curvy behind, and a face-full of ginger freckles. Her layered black dress hung to her ankles above bare feet and a jingling ankle bracelet made of sleigh bells. She held out a pair of gleaming white Keds sneakers.

I accepted them gratefully, standing on one leg like a flamingo to put them on. “It’s fine, Mama. I found a body in the woods, is all.”

Mama gasped, her ring-bedazzled hand fluttering to her heart. “How on earth is that fine, girl?”

“Della? What’s wrong?” My aunt Delphine appeared over Mama’s shoulder. Two dragon-shaped combs held her chocolate brown hair away from her round face. She tiptoed to see over Mama’s shoulder. “Daiya Jean. You look as if you’ve seen a ghost!”

“A dead body,” Mama corrected. “She’s seen a dead body.”

“Oh, dear. I’ve seen a couple of those in my day. Oh, Della, do you remember that boy in the summer of, what was it, ’87?”

Mama nodded thoughtfully. “I do. Drowned in the lake, washed right up on our doorstep.”

“Such a shame. Only ten years old,” Delphine addressed this last to me with a low cluck.

“Mama, Aunt Delphine, I need to go with Cole to the station to give my statement. I just came up here to tell you I’m fine. Mama, can you go feed Skadi so she isn’t quite so mad at me when I get home?”

“Of course, dear. Run along and behave yourself.” She winked.

“Mama, it’s not a date. It’s official police business.”

“Sounds kinky,” Delphine said sweetly.

I rolled my eyes and returned to Cole’s car.

As we turned out of my mama’s driveway, I said, “You’re awful quiet.”

“Thinking.”

I glanced over to study his profile. Sometimes, I was good at reading people. Call it gut instincts, or an innate understanding of social cues. But right now, I couldn’t tell what Cole was thinking or feeling, what with his jaw all set and his eyes hooded like he held back secrets.

“What did you mean when you said it was gonna get tougher?”

Cole looked at me in the passing headlights of another car. “Crissy’s boyfriend turned up dead in the woods after everyone in my damn neighborhood saw me punch him last night.”

“Is that why Mel sent you away even though you outrank her?”

“Rank has nothing to do with it when it’s personal.”

“Surely, nobody would think you killed him.”

Cole clenched the steering wheel, his knuckles turning white. “Anybody is capable of anything, Daiya. Human nature.”

I could understand his point, even if I didn’t quite agree with him. I liked to see the good in people before I assumed the bad.

My heart fluttered like a bird inside me as I reached across the console, littered with food receipts, handwritten notes in Cole’s chicken scratch, and a half-eaten bag of Lay’s BBQ chips, and squeezed his arm. “It’s going to be okay.”

Cole grimaced and avoided my eye. “No, it’s not.”

*

Before I knew it, I’d given my statement to one of the beat officers at the station, and me and my Keds headed through flurrying snow back down Central Avenue. Cole had shut himself up tight in his office, visible through the cracked, yellowing blinds that tried in vain to close out the world. I hadn’t wanted to bother him; he had enough on his mind without me begging for a ride home.

I paused outside The Witch’s Brew and smiled. Lucy danced about the cafe wiping down tables as she chatted with the smattering of customers. Her bright, genuine smile was what I loved most about having her on my team. I pushed open the heavy wooden door, the wind chime singing my arrival.

“Welcome to The Witch’s — Daiya!” Lucy looked up mid-greeting and smiled. “What are you doing here? You left two hours ago!”

“I got waylaid. Long story.” I waved at a couple of regulars and circled the counter to pick up the phone to call my sister for a ride home. The trail was sure to be shut down for the investigation, and walking a huge circle around the town and down the highway did not sound like fun. Especially as the snow fell heavier.

Devin’s shift didn’t end till ten, so I sent a bedraggled, sleepy-eyed Lucy home and closed up shop. I had just enough time to do all the cleaning and get the count done for the night — another great day for sales — before Devin honked her horn in front of the shop.

I cut the lights and locked the door behind me, joining Devin in Grandmama’s ancient pink Cadillac.

“Cole has been suspended without pay pending the investigation,” my sister greeted me.

I gaped at her. “No! You’re joking.”

“Not joking. He’s the prime suspect. I mean, he knew that before they even suspended him.” Devin threw the car into park, and the thing shuddered as if it were too much work to move its wheels.

Devin looked a lot like me with her heart-shaped face, thick lips, and even thicker eyebrows, but she’d gotten Grandmama’s creamy complexion and dark chocolate hair — like Aunt Delphine — whereas I’d gotten a softer, blonder shade of Mama’s red and her freckles. Right now, my sister’s chocolate hair perched in a bun at the apex of her head and the faux-fur lining of her coat cradled her face, making her look like a delicate ballerina.

Totally superficial. She was loud, crazy, and as foul-mouthed as a woman could be. It drove our mama batty, which gave no end to Grandmama’s pleasure.

“I can’t even believe that,” I said. “There’s no way he killed that man. Not Cole. What do they know about the boyfriend?”

“Not much. He was a real estate agent from Atlanta. Crissy’s mama said she met him in Louisville at a conference last year, and apparently they’ve been meeting ever since.”

My heart broke for Cole. “Goodness. That means it was going on for some time.”

“Unfortunately. And the Loot is taking it hard. I never understood what he saw in that dumb bitch, personally.”

I laughed. “I wouldn’t put it quite so eloquently, but I agree. What does Crissy have to say about any of this?”

“Nothing, right now. Nobody can find her.”

I swiveled in my seat to stare at Devin. “Why aren’t they pinning the blame on her? She killed him and ran, right?”

“He was killed by blunt force trauma. Over and over,” my sister said pointedly. “She weighs as much as a bag of sticks, so there’s no way she did it.”

“But the bullet hole — ”

“Obviously, we don’t have the autopsy back yet, but the Coroner is pretty certain the bullet was an afterthought. Dude was already dead. Beat like a slab of beef on a butcher’s block.”

I gazed out the window, watching the snow fall heavy, a vortex of white as we sped down the lake highway towards home. “So the question is… where is Crissy?”

Chapter Three

said goodbye to Devin at the car. She lived in the lake house, a tiny log cabin by our family’s boatless, weather-beaten dock, while Mama, Grandmama, and Aunt Delphine lived in the main house, a clutch of bickering old hens who probably shouldn’t go so unsupervised.

My Daiya-sized cottage sat behind Mama’s house, closer to the woods but still with a gorgeous view of the lake. When Daddy was alive, him and Mama raised us girls in the main house while Delphine and Grandmama lived in the cottage. But Mama got lonely after he died. All she wanted was her own mama and her sister, so I took over the cottage and Devin moved down to the lake house to spread her wings.

Skadi waited for me on the other side of the door with her angry face on. My twenty-pound white-and-black Maine Coon hated when her schedule got switched up. Miss Priss turned her nose up when Mama came in to feed her, I’m sure.

“It isn’t my fault someone killed a guy in the woods,” I told her.

She flicked her tail and walked away. Clearly, I wasn’t worth the effort.

I set a fire in the fireplace — an act that earned me immediate feline forgiveness — then I poured a glass of wine and opened my laptop on the couch.

Devin had given me Crissy’s boyfriend’s name: Lars Kendrick. I ran a Google search on him, which rewarded me with an out-of-date real estate website and several newspaper articles out of Atlanta: LOCAL REALTOR FACING CHARGES IN DOGFIGHTING RING; DOGFIGHTING REALTOR LOSES LICENSE TO SELL; and DOGFIGHT REAL ESTATE AGENT DECLARED MISTRIAL.

I opened the first article, horrified.

November 1 — Local real estate agent Lars Kendrick was arrested on charges of illegal dogfighting in downtown Atlanta yesterday. Sources say Kendrick utilized empty listings from his agency to arrange and conduct dogfights for a six month period in 2015. Any attempts to reach Kendrick’s agency for comment have been denied. Kendrick will face arraignment this Friday.

The next article confirmed he lost his real estate license in mid-November, and his case went to court in early December but was declared a mistrial. Prosecutors planned on pursuing another course of action. Kendrick’s boss at the listing agency remained silent and unhelpful for either Lars or the media.

“Can’t mete out justice now. He’s dead,” I murmured.

Skadi sleepily rowred at me from her cat bed in front of the fire.

I couldn’t believe Crissy dated this guy. The very public trial couldn’t have been a secret from her, unless she lived in some kind of fantasy world. Why on earth would she want to date someone who organized dogfights?

I didn’t know much about crime in general. Tates Creek, despite the tourism, remained a safe place to live. Our height of crime consisted of pick pockets, the occasional burglary, and teenagers getting drunk on the lake. So my exposure to heavy crime was limited before tonight, when I saw my first murder scene.

I knew dogfighting was illegal. I knew the people involved often placed bets on the fights, like in horse racing, and goodness knows things could go south in gambling.

So with my limited knowledge, I also knew it was a possibility Lars Kendrick died because of his little hobby.

*

Next morning, The Witch’s Brew bustled with holiday energy. Half the town was out and about, picking up gifts and Brewlattes. I loved this time of year, with the promise of family and good food hanging in the air and frost on the windowpanes. The storm had dusted six inches around town, making Tates Creek look festive.

Around ten a.m., the hectic pace settled. I smiled as I handed out a mocha Brewlatte, then looked up as another customer tinkled past the door chime. Even in a Wildcats ball cap and aviator sunglasses that reflected the entire cafe, I recognized Cole Nolte.

“Hey, Daiya,” he said at the register, his voice pitched low. “Can I get an Americano?”

“Of course. Have a seat. I’ll bring it over when it’s done.”

Cole pulled his wallet out of his blue jean pocket, but I waved him away.

“On the house. Be right up.”

I ground the beans and tamped them in the portafilter, then set a cup beneath the gasket. I watched the overflowing cafe as I repeated movements I’d done thousands of times. Even Cole noticed the way people stared and whispered, though he tried to pretend he didn’t by swiping through his phone and studiously ignoring everyone around him.

I knew in my heart of hearts, Cole didn’t kill Lars Kendrick. I couldn’t deny that people weren’t always what they seemed, but my gut told me Cole didn’t do it, and I trusted my gut more than my brain.

As his four shots poured heady, amber liquid, I encircled the cup with my hands and chanted, Voice be bold, truth be told.

Cole liked heavy cream and a tablespoon of sugar in his coffee. I’d made it for him more times than I could count. I grabbed today’s special — a cherry tart — and his finished drink, and joined him at a table in the corner.

“How you feelin’ today?” I asked, sitting his treat and drink in front of him before I took the chair across the small, round table.

“Like shit.” Cole took a drink of his Americano and groaned, finally removing his sunglasses. His mahogany eyes sparkled in the crisp winter sunlight filtering through the windows.

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

He drank a long slug of coffee and stared down into the cup. “Nobody knows where Crissy is. Not even her mother.”

“Do you think something happened to her?”

“No.” He took a deep breath, his shoulders heaving. “Jesus, I don’t know. The last anybody saw of her, she was with him. And now he’s dead.”

Cole looked up and caught my gaze, sending flutters through my stomach. I couldn’t recall a time he’d looked so serious and oh, so sexy. That ball cap made his jaw seem sharper, stronger. Or it could have been his frustration.

“Do you think I did it?” he asked.

“I don’t know. Did you kill Lars Kendrick?” I asked. He’d had enough to drink for my truth spell to kick in.

Cole sat back and ran a hand back over his closely shaven head. “No, of course not. I’m not going to pretend I don’t hate the guy. I would have been happy to hear he got hit by a train or eaten by coyotes. But I didn’t kill him. I like my job a lot more than I hate him.”

I let out an imperceptible breath. He didn’t do it.

“I believe you,” I assured him. “Where do you think she is?”

His thick brows drew together. “I don’t know. But I’m worried about her.”

I found that sweet, considering she’d been sharing her body with another man for a year. Cole really was a good guy.

“Are the police looking for her?” I asked, realizing he was the police, and he was suspended, so the question probably hurt.

He nodded. “Kendrick was found in the woods. They’re searching for her. Just in case.”

“Do you think she killed him?”

Cole chuckled bitterly. “I’ve thought that. And to tell you the truth, I’d rather she be a murderer than… ”

He didn’t finish his thought, but I knew what he meant. Crissy being a murderer was a preferable outcome to her being dead.

“I don’t know what you put in your coffee, Daiya, but it always makes me feel better.” Cole smiled, the first real smile I’d seen on his face since Lars Kendrick was found murdered.

I winked. “Just a little magic.”

*

Later that afternoon, Lucy came in to relieve me, followed closely by her high-heeled mother. Lucy, in her blue jeans, off-the-shoulder snowflake sweatshirt, and Chuck Taylor sneakers, was a far cry from Geena’s skirt suit and hose. Both women had ebony hair and natural tanned skin, but Geena wore her graying hair in a no-nonsense bun, while Lucy’s waves hung wild and free.

Geena slapped a ten dollar bill on the counter. “Give me the usual, Die. And listen up — Crissy Nolte is dead.”

Lucy froze in the act of putting on her Witch’s Brew apron, and I paused, my hand hovering over Geena’s money. Jasmine sat at the counter, a spoon of my squash soup halfway to her red-lined lips. We exchanged glances, and I picked up the ten dollar bill.

“Was she in the woods, too?” I asked, ringing up Geena’s drink.

“Sure was. They found her buried.”

“So the killer just left the boyfriend in plain sight but buried Crissy?” Jasmine shook her head and returned to her soup. “People are crazy.”

“Sociopaths are crazy,” Lucy corrected, tying her apron around her slim waist. “You’re assuming, however, that all murderers are sociopaths.”

“Are they not?”

Lucy, Jasmine, and Geena fell into a good-natured conversation about the qualities of sociopaths while I made Geena’s Brewlatte.

On Monday night, Crissy had tapped into The Witch’s Brew in sky-high red stilettos and a black miniskirt, a designer briefcase hanging from one shoulder.

“A large Brewlatte, Daiya. Extra cinnamon.” She pronounced my name “Day-a,” knowing full well it irritated the fire out of me. “Oh, and let’s do a crescent roll. I’m celebrating.”

I rang the items up and ignored her dig for me to ask what she was celebrating. “Card reader is ready when you are,” I told her, moving to the Marzocco.

Crissy swiped her card. “I’m celebrating because I just sold the old Johnston farmstead.”

“That’s great,” I said, in a tone that indicated I really didn’t care.

“It’s a grand payday, Daiya.” Day-ah.

“I’m sure.”

“Daiya, didn’t you want to do something else with your life than run a coffee shop?” Crissy leaned on the hand-off table, her cleavage spilling over the deep V-neck of her red sweater.

I gritted my teeth and lifted her cup, swirling it three times widdershins — counter clockwise. I set the hex to make her hair fall out with more intention than I usually did.

“No, Crissy. I love this shop.” I shoved her Brewlatte over the counter, spilling a little in the process.

She jumped back, wrinkling her nose. “You’re not very good at it.”

I wanted to tell her she wasn’t very good at being a human being, but she wouldn’t have understood what I meant.

“Daiya! What do you think?”

Jasmine’s voice — and the blessed correct pronunciation of Die-ya — tore through my thoughts.

“Huh?” I asked, finishing Geena’s latte with a dollop of homemade whip cream.

“Are all killers sociopaths?” Jasmine repeated, as if I were slow.

“No. I don’t think so. Just like I don’t think all sociopaths are killers. Some are just assholes.” I smiled and slid Geena’s latte across the hand-off plain, not spilling a drop.

Chapter Four

rissy Nolte had a crescent roll and a cinnamon Brewlatte the night before she died,” I greeted my sister.

Devin sat on her front porch as the sun set over the lake, wrapped in a giant floral comforter and comfy pink socks. She sipped from a steaming mug that said “Live by the Sun, Love by the Moon.” I’d given it to her for her 28th birthday last year.

“So?”

So if she drank the latte and ate the roll, my magic would still be inside her.”

“That sounds naughty.” Devin wiggled her eyebrows.

I rolled my eyes. “You’re worse than Aunt Delphine. Would you listen to what I’m saying? Crissy should still hold my magic. I can do a Last Moments spell on her.”

Devin nodded slowly. “I’m listening.”

“Did she die when Lars Kendrick died?”

“As far as I know. I’m off today, so I haven’t gotten any of the usual workplace updates.”

“If she died with Lars Kendrick, I have to get to her yesterday or the spell will bomb.”

“As her decaying body slowly eats your magic?” Devin took another sip, looking serene against a backdrop of log cabin, her messy dark hair piled atop her head.

“That’s a lovely image. Thank you.”

“What do you want from me?”

“I need the keys to Grandmama’s car.”

Devin burst out laughing, sloshing tea on her blankets. “You’re kidding, right? You don’t even have a driver’s license.”

“I have to get to the morgue. What else am I going to do? I can’t ride my bike to the edge of the county.”

She sat up and put her socked feet to the porch floorboards. “You’re going to get in the car, and we’ll go together. With me as a legal licensed driver.”

“When did that stop you in Daddy’s truck in middle school?”

Devin pointed at me. “Don’t make me zap you.”

She’d do it, too. Devin’s power lay in pulling electricity from her surroundings. And that stuff hurt.

*

The morgue was housed in the basement of the county hospital, half an hour down the interstate from Tates Creek. Devin picked a parking spot, and we walked into the emergency room waiting area. Several people in various states of disarray sat against the wall including a teenager with a bloody towel around one hand and a middle-aged woman clutching a swollen, most-likely-broken arm.

Devin picked up a magazine and plopped into a chair by the door.

“What are you doing?” I hissed.

“Waiting. The idea of dead bodies freaks me out.”

“You’re a police dispatcher,” I reminded her.

“Exactly. There’s always airwaves between me and the dead bodies.” She winked and opened the magazine.

I sighed. Obviously, I was on my own for this one.

I walked for the desk, inwardly weaving a cloaking spell so that I disappeared little by little. The effect was physical as much as psychological. By the time the nurse at the station looked up from her paperwork — having seen me coming for her in her peripheral vision — I’d vanished. She looked around, confused, but shrugged and went back to her chart.

Nobody else in the waiting room had noticed a thing. The mind was incredibly easy to trick, even when you didn’t have magic on your side.

I’d been to the morgue once before in my life: the night Daddy died.

My daddy was a good man. But like all good men, he had his vices, and his big one was drinking. Mama fought with him for near on thirty-two years, scooting him in and out of sobriety. He’d been one year sober the day he lost his job and ended up at a bar the next county over. When he didn’t come home, and didn’t call, Mama sent the police after him. They found his car embedded in a cliff wall on the highway.

Me and Grandmama drove Mama to the hospital and stayed right by her side to identify Daddy. They’d cleaned him up, and you couldn’t even tell his neck was broken. He simply looked… asleep.

I followed the same path we took that day two years ago, dodging nurses and orderlies doing their nightly duties. Visiting hours had ended, so a sleepy hush fell over everything. Workers spoke in low voices, and the usual canned laughter of televisions had been quieted for the night.

The elevator deposited me in the dim main foyer of the morgue. Nobody sat behind the desk; the hospital’s logo bounced gently across the computer screen. I shook the mouse to wake it up, but it was password protected.

Which meant I’d be doing it the hard way. The hospital catered to the whole county, so I’d just have to hunt for Crissy’s body.

I began a systematic search of the examining rooms. The first room was empty, the tables clean and the lights off. My heart beat in my ears as I opened each of the four fridge drawers, but they were unoccupied.

A second sterile, empty room housed two refrigerated occupants. The first body gave me a shock as I tugged open the metal drawer, even though I expected bodies. Neither drawer held Crissy.

The third room was dim, though a small desk lamp illuminated an empty table in the corner. I turned to look for the light switch but froze at the unfamiliar, but very recognizable click of a gun.

I threw my hands in the air and squeaked.

“Daiya?” Light flooded the room, and Cole stared at me in astonishment, one hand on the light switch as he lowered his gun to his side. “What are you doing here?”

“Uh.” I had no good response. I hadn’t expected anyone to be here this late, much less for Cole to be hiding in the shadows, looking entirely too rumpled and scrumptious for my heart. Lacking an answer, I turned it around on him. “What are you doing here?”

“Sitting watch with my wife. So I have a little more authority to be here than you.”

I flushed, caught red-handed. Mama always said honesty was the best policy. Time to test her theory. “Do you trust me?”

Cole raised an eyebrow. “You’ve never given me reason not to.”

“Can I see her?”

His eyebrows tucked into his hairline, but he crossed the room to a drawer marked 2. “It’s not pretty. They did a number on her.”

“Are you okay?”

He shrugged and turned the handle. “I don’t know.”

I managed to hold back my gasp when he gently pulled the sheet from her face. Crissy’d been battered, her face swollen black and blue and almost unrecognizable. “Oh, no. Who would do this to her?”

A muscle clenched in his jaw. “A monster.”

“Sitting watch, huh? Very Irish.” I smoothed an errant blonde hair from Crissy’s forehead, suddenly sorry I’d spent so much of her life hating her. But death could do that, I think: make you regret all the choices you did or didn’t make when the person was alive.

Cole smiled sadly. “I didn’t want her to be alone.”

“You’re a good husband.”

“Too bad she didn’t think the same thing.”

I reached over Crissy to squeeze his shoulder. “I think she did, Cole. She just got a little lost in the end.” When his eyes began to sparkle with unshed tears, I let go and turned my gaze back to Crissy. I spread my hands above her chest. “I need you to trust me, okay? And… don’t freak out.”

Cole stared at me but gave me a single nod.

I reached for my magic stored deep inside Crissy. It was still there — which was good news. The power danced happily at my touch, like a puppy pleased to see its owner after a long day. “Show me the end.”

Energy rose from Crissy’s body, maintaining her facial features — pre-beating. A perfect duplicate of her in repose floated only an inch above her skin. After a silent moment, the energy opened its eyes.

“What the — ” Cole stumbled away, hitting the open door of the freezer drawer.

Crissy’s face twisted into concern. “Babe, is that Lonnie’s — What are you — Jesus. Is that a baseball bat?” Her eyes blinked rapidly, and her lips moved, the energy superimposed over her dead body in a macabre reenactment.

Energy Crissy jerked and screamed, her gaze watching something happening beside her. A moment later, she threw her hands up in front of her face and squeezed her eyes shut. Then the energy disappeared.

In the wake of her absence, the room seemed darker. I removed my hands and knelt, touching the floor beneath my feet to ground from the rush of power.

“Daiya!” Cole barked, appearing around the open drawer. He gripped my bicep and yanked me to my feet. “What the actual fuck?”

“Calm down.” I gently pried his hand from my arm. “What I’m about to say has to stay between us. You can’t tell anybody.”

Cole’s breath heaved in his chest. My display had creeped him out. I guess that was to be expected when a ghostly image of one’s dead wife played out her last moments alive.

I took a deep breath and spoke a secret no one outside the Pettigrew family had ever been told — though some might have guessed. “I’m a witch.”

Cole’s eye twitched. “A witch.”

“Yes, a real witch. Potions and spells and magical powers.” I fluttered my fingers ineffectually, as if that would help to explain rather than make me look even more like a crazy person. “What you just saw was a ’Last Moments’ spell. Crissy drank a latte and ate a crescent roll from The Witch’s Brew the night she disappeared. My residual magic in her system let me conjure what she said and did in her last moments alive.”

Cole backed up and sank heavily onto a folding chair. “How long have you… ”

“My whole life. My mama’s a witch, too. And my sister. And Aunt Delphine and Grandmama, and both of Delphine’s girls. The women in my family are pretty powerful. Bless the men who put up with us.” I smiled, trying to relieve some of the tension.

“There’s magic _]in your [_lattes.

“Just a little bit.” I held up my forefinger and thumb, barely apart, and grinned.

Cole laughed. “I guess that explains why everyone in town is addicted to your coffee.”

Chapter Five

evin stood and dropped the magazine she’d been reading as Cole and I walked up to her. “Lieutenant! What are you doing here?”

“That question seems to be going around,” Cole said wryly.

“He was with Crissy,” I explained. “He saw the spell.”

Devin’s jaw dropped, and she looked at Cole. “Loot… I — ”

“It’s okay. So my best dispatcher is a witch. Whatever.” He threw up his hands and closed his eyes. I saw an inkling of the high school drama captain in that motion. “As long as no one tells me the world is ending tomorrow, everything will be all right. Look, I’m going to drive your sister home so we can chat. Go ahead and take off.”

“Ten-four, Loot. See you tomorrow.” Devin waggled her brows at me — Gods, I hated when she did that — and left.

Cole’s cruiser was parked in a police spot by the door, an Official Business sign sitting on the dashboard.

“They didn’t take your car away?” I asked as I buckled my seatbelt.

He turned over the ignition and hit the button to kill the radio, which had burst to life wailing country music. “It’s my only vehicle.”

“Guess it’s nice having your dad as your boss.”

He made a face. “Sometimes. Not often. You’ve met my dad, right?”

I laughed, glad he’d seemed to get past his shock over my spell. “Devin could have taken me home. You didn’t have to leave Crissy.”

“I had a couple hours alone with her,” Cole told me quietly as he circled the lot and signaled to exit. “I said my goodbyes.”

“I’m so sorry, Cole.”

He glanced at me. He was only two years older than me, barely past his thirties, but he looked aged. Wearied. “I know.”

“The good news is we have a name.”

Cole glanced at me blankly.

“Lonnie?” I prompted.

“Oh. Right.” Cole shook his head — shaking away cobwebs, maybe. “And we know ’Lonnie’ had a bat.”

“That doesn’t really help us though. The Slugger factory is less than two hours away. The county high school sends their sophomores there every year. People all over Tates Creek have Louisville Sluggers.”

“That may be true,” Cole agreed, “but we know Lars died first. He was the intended victim.”

“So Crissy was an innocent bystander pulled into his drama.” I shook my head. “I feel so bad for her.”

“Me, too. But she made her bed.”

The bite to his tone left me no room for interpretation. He loved her, he grieved her, but he blamed her entirely. I suppose that wasn’t a bad thing; the guilt over a loved one’s death could often be the hardest part of grieving to overcome.

“Find out more about the boyfriend’s dirty laundry, we’ll find out why.” Cole slammed a hand to the steering wheel, and I jumped. “God dammit. I can’t even do anything because of my suspension.”

“I don’t know. Seems to me you could do a lot more because of it.”

“Huh?”

“As a cop, you’re held to certain standards. Laws,” I said, though he already knew that. “You’re not a cop right now. You will be again, I guarantee it, but right now… you kinda have free reign to investigate this, don’t you?”

Cole rolled to a stop at the end of the off-ramp to Tates Creek and chuckled, looking over at me. “Daiya Pettigrew, there’s a lot more to you than I realized. You toe the line.”

“The line is only in your imagination,” I said sagely. “You know about the dogfighting ring?”

He shook his head. “I’m in the dark. Dad isn’t telling me anything.”

I recapped what I’d read about Lars’s dogfighting ring based out of his empty listings in Atlanta. I finished up with the recent results of his court case, and losing his real estate license. “Do you think Lonnie could be someone in dogfighting?”

Cole nodded slowly. “It’s a possibility. I have a contact at Atlanta PD. I’ll call him up. Make a trip down.”

“I’ll go with you.”

“No, you won’t.”

“I’m going with you,” I said firmly. “You’re the prime suspect, Cole. How are you going to leave town without all of your coworkers knowing? Without your dad, the Chief of Police, knowing?”

He looked stricken at the thought. “I can’t leave town.”

“You can if I glamour the car.”

“Like, put make-up on it?” Cole asked, wary.

I laughed. “No, silly. A glamour is magic that camouflages the car. Nobody would see us leave. We could even take Grandmama’s car and leave yours at home, so if anybody passed your house, they’d think you were home grieving.”

“I probably should be home grieving.” He sighed.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

He went quiet so long, I figured he didn’t want to talk about it. We pulled into the driveway at Mama’s, and Cole went right on past the main house, taking the dirt drive to my cottage.

“How’d you know I lived in the cottage?” I asked.

Cole shrugged. “I know things.” He took a breath. “I’m still angrier than anything else. Crissy played me for a year. We’ve been fighting longer than that. I should have ended it ages ago. Maybe I wouldn’t be in this situation.”

“Even if you had, you wouldn’t necessarily be free from the situation. Ex-husbands are obvious suspects, too.”

He punched me in the arm like he did when we were teenagers. “Not helping.”

“If things were bad for that long, you were headed for a blow out,” I said simply. “Whether it was a public fight — ”

“Check.”

“ — or Crissy’s murder, things were going bad, anyway. We don’t have control over everything in our lives.”

“I do. I want to,” Cole said, his gaze on the front window where Skadi sat illuminated by his headlights, eerie green eyes staring and fluffy white tail flicking.

“Well, you can’t.” I took his hand and squeezed. “You’ll be all right. Meet me at The Witch’s Brew before we open?”

He nodded. “Atlanta, here we come: A witch and an ex-cop.”

“Still a cop,” I corrected, “with a witch on his side.”

Chapter Six

he sun hid over the horizon, still making its decision to rise, when Cole knocked on the door at The Witch’s Brew.

Lucy wolf-whistled and laid a freshly baked tray of blueberry-honey muffins on the counter. “I’d take a ride with Cole Nolte any day.”

I untied my apron and threw it at her. “His wife just died. Hush.”

She laughed, tugging my floury apron off her head. “I could say the same of you, Miss ’We’re just taking a drive.’ ”

“It’s strictly as friends. Don’t be putting words in my mouth.” I zigzagged through the tables, smiling at Cole through the all-glass door as I unlocked it and let him in.

He did look awful cute today in tight, soft-looking blue jeans and a red flannel shirt under his Carhartt jacket. A faux-fur cap with ear flaps perched atop his head. “Mornin’,” he said with a grin. “You got an Americano with my name on it?”

After fueling him up with an Americano and half-a-dozen morning buns, I thanked Lucy for covering for me, and we left the warmth of The Witch’s Brew for the frosty December morning.

“I can’t believe you didn’t want to take the pink Cadillac,” I teased him as I slid into the passenger’s seat in his police cruiser.

“You will never catch me dead in that monstrosity.”

“I’ll keep that in mind if anything were to ever happen to you. I’ll be sure to let Chief Nolte know you requested the pink Cadillac as a hearse.”

“You’re a regular comedienne, you know that?” Cole remarked, signaling to pull away from the curb.

As he drove through downtown Tates Creek, I closed my eyes and worked on weaving the glamour for the car. My magic was powered by liquids — water-based liquids worked the best, but I could work with gasoline and oil, too. After a few moments, I opened my eyes, pleased to see the shiny texture of my magic coating the car.

“We’re in business,” I said.

“The cruiser’s invisible?” Cole looked around. “I still see it.”

“That’s because you’re inside it, dork. Do we have a plan?”

“Yeah, we do.” Cole reached into his shirt pocket and retrieved his phone. “My contact in Atlanta PD said Lonnie is the head agent at Lars Kendrick’s real estate firm.”

I gasped. “His boss?”

“Looks that way.” He pocketed his phone and glanced at me. It thrilled me to see interest on his face: excitement for the investigation, like a wolf ready for the chase. That look was the Cole I knew before his world turned upside down. “Guess we’ll see what ol’ Lonnie has to say.”

It was four hours to Atlanta, but we made it in three-and-a-half thanks to Cole’s lead foot. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t fear for my life; I just reminded myself he was a trained law enforcement professional, which helped. Slightly.

We pulled into a small side lot by Kendrick’s real estate agency before ten a.m. I shrugged into my black pea coat and removed a few stray Skadi hairs before I joined Cole on the sidewalk. By the time I stood by his side, I realized I should have left my coat in the car.

“Holy Hades, this is what winter in Georgia is like?” I gagged, unbuttoning my coat.

Cole laughed. “Welcome to the south.”

“Kentucky is the south. Sort of.” I stared up at the peach Victorian that sat on a well-traveled street corner. I’d never been to Atlanta before, but we seemed to be in a nice area of the city. A wrought iron sign hung in the lawn declaring Prater & Prater Realtors. “Cute building.”

“Probably housing a murderer,” Cole said gruffly, motioning for me to follow him.

Shiny gray steps led to a large wrap-around porch. I eyeballed a fancy iron chandelier light hanging above the door, and ran smack into a woman coming out of the house.

I stumbled backwards, feeling as if I’d run into a brick wall. “I’m so sorry! Please excuse me.”

The woman caught my wrist with a low laugh. “No, I’m sorry. Are you all right?”

She was a lovely woman with chestnut curls, thick eyebrows, and a curvy, muscular body beneath her skirt suit, as if she spent every hour of every day lifting weights. But she held the muscles well — feminine-like, though my chest still stung from running into that wall of muscle.

“I’m fine, thank you for asking. Sorry, again!” I called as Cole took my arm and escorted me past her with a curt nod.

The house was just as gorgeous inside as it was out. Dark wood wainscoting covered the walls beneath rich Victorian wallpaper. The foyer spilled into a large room that had probably once been a living area, where a tiny receptionist beamed at us from behind the front desk.

Cole announced himself as a lieutenant with the Tates Creek Police Department. The young woman behind the desk stared at him wide-eyed for a brief moment before she shot to her feet and ran down the hall. Cole and I exchanged glances.

She appeared a minute later from the recesses of the house and beckoned to us. “Mr. Prater will see you now.”

Lonnie Prater stood as we entered his office, unfolding a willow-thin body well over six feet tall. He offered a hand to Cole, his kind green eyes flickering to me. “Welcome, Lieutenant. Tates Creek? Where Lars died.”

“That’s right, Mr. Prater.” Cole shook his hand. Cole was no small man, but Lonnie’s long fingers and large palm nearly enveloped his. “This is my… associate. Miss Pettigrew.”

“Always a pleasure to meet a woman so fair of face,” Lonnie clasped my hand in both of his and bowed gently. “Welcome, Miss Pettigrew. Please, have a seat.”

I could admit my experiences with crime were few. Nil, to be exact, unless you counted the time I wrote “DP + CN” on the girl’s bathroom stall at the Tates Creek Watering Hole on my drunken 21st birthday. But Lonnie Prater didn’t strike me as a murderer. His mention of Lars’ name had been followed by a sincere grimace of pain, his lined green eyes saddening. His handshake had been firm and kind. My gut intuition told me he was a good man. A kind man.

But as he took his chair behind the desk, I locked my gaze on the Louisville Slugger mounted on the wall above him.

From the chair beside me, Cole excused himself to tap a message on his phone. He put the slim Android away and locked eyes with Lonnie Prater. “Louisville Slugger, eh? Do you play?”

Lonnie smiled. “I did. Many moons ago. All-Star senior year. Loved it. Injured my shoulder sliding into home my first year of college. Never played again. My wife bought me that bat several years ago. Had my name inscribed upon it.”

Cole leaned back in his chair, looking for all intents and purposes unconcerned. “What a coincidence, then, that Lars Kendrick died beneath the blunt force of a baseball bat.”

Lonnie’s face drained of color. “Dear God. The autopsy results are back?”

I glanced at Cole. He carried on without a flinch. The man was good.

“The crime scene technicians are flawless,” Cole responded smoothly, not answering the question but sure sounding like he had.

“Poor Lars… ” Lonnie shook his head. “Are there any leads?”

Cole sat forward, his face hardening. “There weren’t. At first. But in just a moment, Atlanta’s finest will have a warrant to confiscate that bat and any others you may have in your possession.”

*

Sunset over Atlanta brought a stream of heavy thunderstorms through the city.

I waited in an empty interrogation room at the precinct, a long-emptied coffee cup on the table beside my dying cell phone. Thunder rattled the single, barred window at my back, and the soothing thrum of rain echoed off the walls.

I couldn’t stop thinking about Lonnie’s staunch insistence he hadn’t murdered Lars Kendrick. I [_believed _]him. Even when the lab rushed the bat through forensics and found blood spatter on the wood — cleaned, but there nonetheless. I still believed him. He’d insisted Lars was like a son to him, despite the bad press from the dogfighting. Lonnie Prater didn’t kill Lars.

But neither did Cole.

So who did?

A uniformed officer opened the door to check on me. “Miss Pettigrew? Can I refill your coffee?”

I laughed. “It’s a shame you people think [_this _]is coffee.”

He chuckled, his coiffed black hair flopping on his broad forehead. “I absolutely agree. Unfortunately, that, and a glorious selection of vending machine junk food, is all I have to offer you.”

“Is Cole still tied up in questioning?”

“He is. Not for too much longer, though.” The officer glanced over his shoulder, and then gently eased into the room, shutting the door behind him. Atlanta PD wore uniforms similar to Tates Creek PD, but black instead of dark blue. This particular officer was young and new to the game, but he was sharp. He’d been tasked with my safekeeping, and we’d developed a camaraderie I blamed for his next statement. “Between me and you, I don’t think the guy did it.”

“I don’t either, but all I’m going off is instinct. You have anything more than that?”

He leaned against the wall and lowered his voice. “Guy’s got an old injury. Can’t lift his right arm higher than his freaking nipples. How’s he gonna bash some dude’s head in?”

I nodded, recalling Lonnie’s innocent statement regarding that old college injury. “That leaves us back at square one.”

The officer shook his head. “They’re still pushing him. That blood’s gonna come back positive for Lars Kendrick and Crissy Nolte.”

“You’re sure?”

He shrugged. “I’m mostly sure. Would be quite a coincidence if it wasn’t.”

I sighed, shoving the empty cup away. I could smell the dying dredges of precinct octane, and it made my stomach turn. “Do you mind if I get out for a while? Maybe go grab some food and real coffee?”

He laughed, motioning for the door. “Yeah. You’re not a prisoner here.”

He led me through a maze of dimly lit corridors that smelled of Pine Sol and gun cleaner. We ascended a wide staircase covered in rubber safety strips, and exited near the front entrance.

A woman sat on the bench in the foyer, her elbows resting on her knees. She stood at the sound of us approaching. She wore cropped black workout pants and a skin-tight sports tank, as if she’d just come from the gym. She’d slicked her chestnut hair into a tight ponytail.

“No word yet, Mrs. Prater. I promise as soon as I know something, I’ll tell you,” the officer assured her.

I stared at the woman, trying to place her. Her gaze glanced off me before she sat back down, but she registered no recognition. Her arms were more defined than most men I knew back home.

“There’s a deli about two blocks over,” my guide offered. “Take a right on the sidewalk and keep going. You’ll see the sign. Gardelli’s. Better coffee than this place, let me tell ya.”

“Thanks.” I paused, my hand on the door handle. “Hey, have you mentioned to anybody what you think? That Lonnie didn’t do it?”

He nodded. “Of course.”

“Anybody looking into coworkers at the firm? Family? Somebody who has access to Lonnie’s office?”

“Yeah, ’course. We’ll find who murdered Lars Kendrick. It’s what we do.”

*

I ate a turkey sandwich and pickle chips sitting in the chilly cafe at the deli. I called my mother and asked her to feed Skadi, then texted my sister for an update on her end.

Chief Nolte should be down there by now. Atlanta PD working with TCPD.

I cringed for Cole — his daddy was going to be none-too-happy about him running away to investigate on his own, especially being on forced leave.

I threw away my trash and thanked the wizened old woman behind the counter before heading into the night.

It might have been warmer in Atlanta during December, but the sun liked to hide away early, just the same. I cradled my umbrella in both hands as I splashed through puddles on the sidewalk. I glanced up, eyeballing the gunpowder gray clouds. Even though the rain had slowed to a trickle, it looked like more trouble was about to roll through. I wanted to be safely back in the precinct before that happened.

No sooner had the thought occurred to me than strong arms encircled me from behind and dragged me into an alley.

Instincts kicked in. I screamed bloody murder until an arm tightened over my throat and choked me silent. I jabbed backwards with the open umbrella, my boots dragging across the concrete as my assailant took me into the shadows behind a dumpster.

The umbrella was ripped from my hand, and I dropped like a sack of potatoes. I landed on my back in a puddle.

The woman in workout clothes stood over me, a small, feminine pink gun pointed at my head.

Chapter Seven

ou’re Lonnie Prater’s wife,” I said, recalling the young officer’s formal address to her back at the precinct. “And I ran into you this morning at the real estate agency.”

“Too bad I didn’t know what the hell you and your cop boyfriend were doing here, or I would have ended you both then,” she snapped. And then she fired the gun.

No warning. No villainy monologue before taking my life. Just an almost imperceptible straightening of her arm before the sharp, deafening crack of gunfire in close quarters.

But I saw the arm movement. When you work with people every day, closely watching them for clues to how you can spell their favorite beverages to make them feel better, you get used to how they move. Prater telegraphed the shot by shifting her gaze from my eyes to my forehead and straightening her elbow.

Thank all the gods in all the heavens and worlds she did.

I rolled, pain blossoming from the side of my head as the bullet grazed my skull and hit the concrete behind me, spitting chips of broken rock my way. I slapped both palms to the massive puddle of rainwater beneath me and spelled it to burn like acid.

Then I splashed it in her face.

She screamed, the gun firing off another shot but too wide to come anywhere near me. The pink handgun hit the ground nearby, and Prater fell to her knees, clawing at her red, steaming face. Skin tugged away beneath her fingernails.

I was a good witch, and I used my powers for good. That didn’t mean my power couldn’t destroy, given the right circumstances.

I grabbed her gun and stumbled to my feet, my heart pounding so hard I thought I was having a heart attack. Blood ran warm down my neck, mingling with rain as it began to fall steadily from the sky.

Prater fell forward, grabbing my knees even as she couldn’t open her swollen eyes. Her muscular weight drove me down, and I landed on my butt in the puddle. I clocked her on the side of the head with her own gun, and Prater fell dead weight on my legs.

I breathed heavily, an ache spreading from what was probably just a superficial bullet wound near my temple. My body ached all over from hitting the ground — twice. I gripped the gun tightly, scooting out from underneath the woman’s unconscious body.

Fishing my phone from my front pocket, I searched for Cole’s number.

*

Five days later, I closed up The Witch’s Brew an hour early on the Winter Solstice. Lucy was home with a sick toddler, so I’d been on my own all day, and it had been a great one. Tiring, sure, but another fulfilling day in a place I loved.

Mama, Devin, Delphine, and Grandmama, as well as Delphine’s two girls, waited for me back at Mama’s house so we could do our annual Solstice all-nighter. Tonight, we’d eat a feast prepared by the old biddies. We’d decorate the Yule log, and sing Yule carols over mulled cider and Solstice cookies. We’d watch Practical Magic, fashion new ornaments for the tree out of found items from the Forest Preserve, and just before dawn, we’d traipse down to the lake with Irish coffee and greet the sunrise with a beautiful solstice fire ritual.

It was my favorite holiday, and I was so thankful to be alive for it. If it hadn’t been for the storms passing through Atlanta, I might have died in that alley.

Alana Prater was a thirty-five year old Crossfit instructor, which explained her physique. She’d murdered Lars Kendrick in cold blood. She’d been having an affair with Kendrick — who’d been having an affair with Crissy. Prater discovered he was two-timing her when Crissy came to Atlanta several weeks ago. When he broke plans with her to come steal Crissy away from her marriage, Prater followed him north.

Lonnie, as I’d suspected, was a gentle man, twenty years his wife’s senior. Lacking a real weapon in their home, she’d stolen the Louisville Slugger off her husband’s office wall and used it in Tates Creek to bash Lars’s head in. And Crissy’s.

Then Alana Prater stole a prissy pink gun from Crissy Nolte’s purse, shot Lars out of pure spite, and waited to see if she’d get away with it.

A knock sounded at the front door, startling me as I was wiping off the base of a cafe table where someone had dumped what seemed an entire large Brewlatte. I stood, banging my head on the underside of the table.

I groaned, putting a hand to my hat. They’d cut my hair and stitched my bullet wound that day in Atlanta. I still had two more days before my general doc would take the stitches out, and my head was finally starting to feel normal. Thank goodness I’d been wearing a thick knitted wool cap over it while working, or else that knock to the noggin would have hurt even more.

Cole Nolte stood on the other side of the glass front door, cringing. As I unlocked and opened the door, he said, “Sorry, Daiya. I didn’t mean to startle you. How’s your head?”

“It was feeling better,” I said pointedly, but winked to show I held no ill will.

On the contrary, this was the first I’d seen him since Atlanta, and I sure was glad to see him. He wore those butter-soft jeans I liked so much, and a long-sleeved Wildcats t-shirt that hugged his thick chest and shoulders beneath his ever-present Carhartt jacket.

“Can I come in?”

“Sure. You want an Americano?” I walked towards the Marzocco.

“No, thanks. I came to talk to you.”

I paused and turned. “Oh?”

“Sit.” He motioned to a table — the table where we’d sat the day after Crissy died and he told me he didn’t kill her. I’d heard they buried Crissy yesterday. I left a Thermos of Americano, a bag of cinnamon buns, and a sympathy card on Cole’s front porch before the birds even sang that morning. I spelled the Americano for strength and healing.

Cole sat across from me, wiping his palms on his thighs as he avoided my eye.

I waited patiently.

“Thanks for breakfast yesterday. And the card.”

I nodded. “How you doing?”

“Much better than I expected,” he said truthfully. He took a deep breath, and then reached over the table to take my hand. “I wanted to thank you. Properly. For helping solve Crissy’s murder.”

“I didn’t do anything your own boys wouldn’t have done,” I said. “TCPD would have gotten there with or without my Last Moments spell. Good always triumphs over evil.”

“Not always,” Cole objected. He squeezed my hand. “But it sure did help to have a witch on our side for this one.”

I blushed. “I was happy to help. I’m always here to help.”

“I was wondering, too, if you wanna hang out sometime?” Cole asked softly. “I mean, as friends. We could go see a movie, or play putt-putt. Or something.”

My traitorous little heart pitter-pattered in my chest. Sure, Cole Nolte was just asking me to hang out as friends. We’d worked well together on his investigation. We made each other laugh. We could be friends and do friend-ly things.

“I’d like that,” I told him, smiling ear to ear. “Let’s start tomorrow. Indoor putt-putt. You and me. I’m gonna win.”

“Oh, you are, are you?” Cole laughed. “We’ll just see about that. I think I’ve changed my mind — how about an Americano? You know exactly how to make ’em taste like heaven. Grab yourself something, too, and we’ll chat. If you’re not busy?”

“I am most definitely not busy,” I assured him.

I crossed the silent, gleaming cafe of The Witch’s Brew and posted up behind the Marzocco. I hit the rinse button, and set my beans to grind. Within moments, the soul-strengthening scent of brewing espresso filled my shop. Cole watched thoughtfully from his spot at our table as I added heavy cream and a tablespoon of sugar, just the way he liked it.

As my mama always says, all great relationships start off on a solid foundation of friendship.

Author Heather Marie Adkins

Heather Marie Adkins loves magick and words, but not necessarily in that order. She worships the moon and stars, and revels in the feel of grass beneath her bare feet. She is the author of numerous titles including Abigail (Witch Faery, Book One); Mother of All (Hedgewitch Mysteries, Book One); and Wiccan Wars, the first book in an occult bestselling trilogy. Heather lives in north-central Kentucky with the love of her life and a house full of cats. Find out more about her at heathermarieadkins.com.

If you enjoyed The Witch’s Brew,

check out Mother Of All

Life is good for modern-day witch, Mena McGinty. After an abusive past, she sought refuge in a small Maine town and established her dream life. Her small off-the-grid cottage is thriving under an herb and craft business, and she’s content with her happily-ever-after.

Idyllic Waterford is shattered by the first murder in years — a pregnant woman, whose battered body is sans her unborn child. This act of violence kicks off a string of similar murders, and all signs point to Mena’s best friend as the next victim.

Mena will do anything it takes to protect the woman who saved her from her awful past, even if it means butting heads with the sexy Chief of Police or putting herself in danger to search for the killer. The only problem is, she suspects it may be the mysterious Irish stranger sleeping on her couch.

A man who arrives in town only days before the first murder.

Available online where books are sold.

About CyberWitch Press

CyberWitch Press is a licensed LLC in the state of Kentucky. Owner Heather Adkins has been operating as a freelance ebook and print interior designer since July 2011.

Heather is an author from Louisville, Kentucky with nearly twenty published novels across the major platforms, as well as stories in numerous short story anthologies. She has been an active part of the indie publishing community since May 2011.

Her experiences joining other anthologies paved the way for CyberWitch Press Short Fiction Anthologies. Jingle Spells is the inaugural book for this series, and she hopes each anthology she publishes through CyberWitch Press will only be better.

If you are interested in hiring Heather for interior book design, visit her website at cyberwitchpress.com.

To submit your own short story for future anthologies, visit the submissions page at cyberwitchpress.com.

CyberWitch Press welcomes any questions or feedback at [email protected]


Jingle Spells

Jingle Spells is a feel-good collection of witch-themed tales set during the holiday season. From a solstice witch hunt, to an imp ruining Christmas dinner; a sparkly pair of shoes holding one woman’s destiny, to a broken young woman unaware of the powers she possesses. Add a teenage boy who holds the fate of the world in his hands, and a nosy witch whose lattes solve a mystery, and you have a recipe for magic. Featuring short stories from beloved veteran authors J. Laslie, Sidonia Rose, and Heather Marie Adkins, and introducing authors Sammi Cox, Brittany White, and K. Laslie, sit back with a steaming mug, light up the fireplace, and enjoy these six tales of magic, mayhem, and love. Solstice Flames by J. Laslie A Midwinter Manifestation by Sammi Cox The Witch’s Shoes by Sidonia Rose Molly by Brittany White Holiday Dreams by K. Laslie The Witch’s Brew by Heather Marie Adkins

  • ISBN: 9781311823915
  • Author: CyberWitch Press
  • Published: 2016-01-02 04:40:16
  • Words: 57728
Jingle Spells Jingle Spells