Horngate Witches, Book One
Pocket Books (October 27, 2009)
SOMETIMES YOU CHOOSE YOUR BATTLES. AND SOMETIMES, THEY CHOOSE YOU…
Once, Max dreamed of a career, a home, a loving family. Now all she wants is freedom…and revenge. A witch named Giselle transformed Max into a warrior with extraordinary strength, speed, and endurance. Bound by spellcraft, Max has no choice but to fight as Giselle’s personal magic weapon — a Shadowblade — and she’s lethally good at it. But her skills are about to be put to the test as they never have before….
The ancient Guardians of the earth are preparing to unleash widespread destruction on the mortal world, and they want the witches to help them. If the witches refuse, their covens will be destroyed, including Horngate, the place Max has grudgingly come to think of as home. Max thinks she can find a way to help Horngate stand against the Guardians, but doing so will mean forging dangerous alliances — including one with a rival witch’s Shadowblade, who is as drawn to Max as she is to him — and standing with the witch she despises. Max will have to choose between the old life she still dreams of and the warrior she has become, and take her place on the side of right — if she survives long enough to figure out which side that is….
Praise for Bitter Night:
“High-energy, gritty…will keep action fans coming back for book after book.” —Publishers Weekly
“Ms. Francis sends urban fantasy on its head in this fast-paced, dynamic story. Loved it, could not put it down. Unusual and terrific.” —Patricia Briggs, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Hunting Ground
Max’s phone rang. It was set to a high-pitched tone that most humans couldn’t hear. But being human hadn’t been Max’s problem since 1979. She eyed the cell, then reluctantly picked it up out of the console. The caller ID said it was Giselle. Instantly Max’s body seized tight. All the Zen detachment she’d scraped together on the long drive from the covenstead in Montana shattered apart as craptastic reality returned in a shitflood.
She drew a deep breath. Her lungs felt like rocks. She exhaled slowly before flipping open her phone. “Yeah?”
“Where are you?”
Max grimaced. Just the sound of the witch’s voice ignited familiar hate in her gut. It was like a bottomless volcano. She swallowed the heat down, tasting its bitterness with determined satisfaction. She banked it like a campfire. It belonged to her — the only thing that did, and the witch-bitch could never take it away. “Coming into Barstow. Why?”
“I want you to go check out a nasty little murder near Julian. It tastes of both the Uncanny and the Divine.”
“Don’t you think that’s a little stupid? You can’t just go fucking around in another witch’s territory. It could mean war if I get caught. Are you ready for that?”
Giselle didn’t hesitate. “It’s a risk I have to take. Thevision was — ”
She broke off and Max wondered what it was she’d stopped herself from saying.
“It was too powerful to ignore,” Giselle continued. “I have to know what’s going on there. Just look around and get out.” She gave a pained sigh. “And, Max, I shouldn’t have to tell you this, but do not accidentally on purpose let anyone see you.”
“Why would I do that?” Max replied all too innocently. “I couldn’t anyhow. You tied me up in compulsion spells. They would never let me do anything you didn’t want me to do, right?” Except there were ways around the spells. And Max had made herself an expert at them. “Besides, you know how I feel about you. Your wish is my fondest command.”
Silence. “Then I wish you wouldn’t be such a pain in my ass all the time. Stop trying to sabotage everything I do. This is important, Max. Don’t screw it up.”
The tense uneasiness in Giselle’s voice triggered a cascade of alarms inside Max. It was like a switch was flipped inside her as her compulsion spells took over. Her anger cooled instantly and every one of her magically heightened senses strained to hard alertness. She sat up in her seat. If one thing was true about Giselle, it was that the witch-bitch didn’t get nervous. As far as Max knew, she didn’t have the gene. Just what had been in that vision? What sort of apocalypse was going down in Julian?
There wasn’t any point in asking. Giselle would already have told her if she was going to say anything. “Anything else I need to know?” Max asked, turning businesslike as she allowed the predator inside her to take over. Cold detachment slid over her like armor, and her mind focused into sharp, clear lines. It wasn’t that she couldn’t feel. She just didn’t want her emotions to interfere with what she might have to do. She gave a slight shake of her head. No, it was that her spells wouldn’t allow her feelings to get in the way, which only made doing what she had to do that much worse. Better to become ice and deal with the thaw later. Much later.
“There’s an orchard north of town,” Giselle said, interrupting her thoughts. “That’s where it’s going to happen.”
“In a couple of hours, give or take. It’s fixed, you can’t stop it. I’ll see you in San Diego tomorrow.” Giselle stopped, but didn’t hang up. Then: “Max — be careful. This might be ugly.”
The phone went dead. Max looked at it a moment, hesitating, then speed-dialed a number. Oz answered in one ring.
“Max? What’s wrong?”
“Does something have to be wrong for me to call you?” she asked, then winced. Ask a stupid question…
“I’ve been with Giselle almost as long as you have. In all that time, you’ve never called me except when the shit’s in the fire. So what is it?”
Max lowered her phone to her lap, thinking. Oz said her name impatiently. She stared down the freeway. Should she say anything? But the undiluted worry in Giselle’s voice prodded her. She lifted the phone back to her ear. “I’ve got a feeling something bad’s coming, and I can’t shake it. Just make sure you and your Sunspears stick tight to Giselle. Have my Blades do the same.”
She could almost hear his grin. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you actually cared about her.”
“Don’t make me kick your ass. I told you, if anybody gets to kill Giselle, it’s going to be me. In the meantime, keep her in one piece until I get there.”
“When is that?”
“By morning, if nothing goes wrong. I’ve got a stop to make first.”
Max didn’t give him the chance to answer or ask questions. She snapped her phone shut and dropped it back onto the console before swerving off onto the shoulder and grinding to a dusty halt in the desert darkness.
According to her atlas, Julian was about a hundred and fifty miles away in the mountains. The drive would take her almost three hours, but it didn’t matter when she got there. The murder was fixed. She closed her eyes, leaning her head back on the headrest, rubbing her fingers over the spot between her eyebrows. It wasn’t her job to help people. She was no one’s knight in shining armor. She was a killer, Giselle’s favorite weapon. Besides, even if she could get to Julian in time, nothing said that anyone there was worth saving. She swallowed hard. Giselle had said the murder tasted of the Uncanny and the Divine. So that meant that whoever was mixed up in this likely deserved it.
Her stomach didn’t believe it. She reached for the steering wheel again. Her stomach didn’t get a vote. Besides, she hadn’t eaten for hours. She was just hungry.
Max pulled back onto Highway 15 and hit the gas. It was nearing ten o’clock, and behind her lights beaded in the darkness coming down the hill from Las Vegas. In Victorville she pulled off and stopped at a McDonald’s.
In the parking lot, she considered going through the drive-through, but her bladder had other ideas. She glanced through the dark-tinted windshield, considering. It was a night short of the full moon and not a cloud in the sky. Grabbing her leather jacket from the backseat, she pulled it on and zipped it up to hide the .45 in the holster against her left ribs and the knife sheaths on her forearms. She had a .380 strapped to her right ankle and another double-bladed combat knife in the small of her back.
She yanked her Big Sky Brewing Company hat down low over her sunglasses and short silver-blond hair and pulled up the collar high on her coat.
Pocketing her keys, she opened the door of the Chevy Tahoe. Instantly she felt the burn as the brilliant moonlight bubbled her skin. The reflected sunlight seared the backs of her hands, a seam on her neck, and the unshadowed portion of her face. There was a faint sizzle and the nauseating smell of burning hair. She grimaced and strode quickly to the door, heading straight for the bathroom. There was no one in the dining area to notice the blisters, or that as she walked between the tables, her skin smoothed back into flawless marble. She ignored the unrelenting itchiness that followed after, a side effect of her healing spells.
Inside the bathroom she peed and splashed her face. The compulsion spells that required her to protect and obey Giselle sent pulsing aches down Max’s spine to her heels. They read her worry and wanted her to hustle off to the witch’s side to protect her. They didn’t care much about what Max’s orders were, only that Giselle be kept safe. She’s got plenty of protection, Max told herself. Oz and his Sunspears and all of my Shadowblades are with her. My absence won’t do any harm.
She returned to the dining room and ordered forty double cheeseburgers and a large Coke. Todd, the pimple-faced cashier, lifted his brows.
“You gonna eat all those yourself?”
Max laid a fifty and a twenty on the counter, her brows flicking up. “Do I look that hungry?”
“Naw. You don’t look like you eat much.”
His glance was admiring. Max could imagine what he saw. A pretty girl a few years older than him, looking sly and tough and wild like a biker chick or a metal band’s roadie. She was taboo and exotic — every high school boy’s wet dream. If only he knew what she really was — how many people she’d killed. He’d start running for the hills and wouldn’t stop until he hit Canada, and maybe not even then. She did her best to look sweet and harmless.
“So you going to a party or somethin’? I get off soon. Maybe you want to go together?” he asked hopefully.
Her gaze ran over him. He was maybe seventeen and cute beneath the ugly uniform and acne. His face was still curved with baby fat, but in a few years he was going to be a lady-killer. She felt her face hardening. In a few years, he’d be a tempting target for a witch. He blanched at the sudden violence in her expression and took a step back. She heard his heart start to race and smelled the sour scent of fear. In a minute he’d pee his pants.
Fuck. She grabbed her change and the Coke cup and went to fill it. She leaned her hip against a bolteddown chair and studied the floor until her burgers were ready. No danger here. No danger here. She repeated it to herself, hoping Todd would feel it and believe. When he plopped the two grocery-size sacks on the counter, she grabbed them without a word and strode out the door.
In a few minutes she was back on the freeway. With effort she put Todd from her mind and began eating. The burgers were hot, greasy, and tasty. She gobbled one after another. The magic in her body sped up her metabolism so that she required around twenty to thirty thousand calories on a normal day. That was if nothing tried to kill her, if she didn’t have to pick up a car and throw it, if she didn’t have to run fifty miles in a couple of hours…in short, if she didn’t have to use the spells that made her what she now was — a Shadowblade.
In forging a coven, a witch created warriors to serve and protect her. Some took their power from the sun, the dark poisoning them. Some took their power from shadows, the sun — even reflected from the moon — burning their flesh. Sunspears and Shadowblades. Max was Giselle’s Shadowblade Prime — leader of the thirteen Blades in her crew. Oz was her Sunspear counterpart.
She sighed, finishing the last of the burgers and fiddling with the stereo. Guns N’ Roses’s “Mr. Brownstone” began pumping through the speakers. Max turned it up so that she couldn’t hear anything else. She had a bad feeling that in the next few days, she was going to need a whole lot of calories. This trip was going to be nothing but trouble.
She pulled into Julian just before 2 a.m. It nestled in the desert mountains northeast of San Diego. It was small and dusty — there hadn’t been a lot of rain this year. The moon had gone down and Max had the windows open. In the distance she could smell the salt brine blowing up from the Pacific Ocean. Overlaying it were the scents of pine, juniper, and oak, along with the hot tang of apples and grapes from nearby orchards. Signs all over the small town invited visitors to come to Harvest Days and the Grape Stomp Fiesta.
Max had turned off her stereo and lights as she came to the city limits and began driving slowly through town. She sifted through the air and eventually found a hint of what she was looking for — the earthy, metallic flavor of the Uncanny, and the creamy, caustic flavor of the Divine. It’s not that the two couldn’t be found together — she was Uncanny and Giselle was Divine. The basic division between the two was that Uncanny beings lacked the ability to cast spells or share their magic in any way. The Divine could. The obvious conclusion was that a witch was here with her Shadowblades and whatever other pets she might have in tow. And they had killed someone. Why? was the question. And what did it have to do with Giselle?
She followed the trail to the other side of town. When she turned north on Farmer Road, the smell of magic billowed suddenly and her hackles rose, cold sliding like oil down her spine. Giselle was right. Something big had happened here — maybe was still happening.
It was time to get out and and go on foot. Max slowed and eased off onto a dirt lane, rolling across an irrigation creek and parking behind a mounding blackberry tangle on the fringe of an apple orchard. She killed the motor and donned her hat again before quietly lifting herself out the window. She reached for and grabbed her cell phone, thumbing it off before tucking it into a roomy thigh pocket on her black fatigues. Next she opened the back door and popped up the bench seat. Beneath it was a small armory of weapons and ammo that included guns and steel knives, flash bombs and grenades, bags of herbs and salt, knives of rowan, hazel, willow, and silver, and a collection of charms. Max ignored most of it, opting for the pistol-grip sawed-off shotgun. It was lousy for distances, but most fights were up close and personal, and it would make enemies of most stripes — magical or human — think twice. She loaded it and shoved a handful of shells into her front pocket before pushing the seat back down and shutting the door.
She turned, letting her senses unravel across the night like a gossamer spiderweb, collecting every last scent, sound, taste, and texture. Nightbirds sang and an owl hooted. She heard the yip of coyotes and the deep bark of angry dogs. A horse whinnied and a calf bawled. Somewhere close, something scritched in the dirt. She cataloged the sounds, sifting through them for anything that didn’t belong. But there was nothing. Max swiveled her head, sniffing. The stench of magic overwhelmed almost everything, even the tang of the orchard and the wet, green smell of the irrigation ditch.
Magic slid over her skin like a sticky web, stinging and caressing at once. It was like a runway beacon pointing the way. She slung her shotgun over her shoulder, her right hand wrapping the grip and holding it ready before her. Just in case. She glanced around one more time, then slid like a shadow under the orchard canopy, following the magic.
She broke into a ground-eating jog, zigzagging between the squat trees. Adrenaline pumped through her. Her arms flexed and her stomach tightened, her muscles rolling beneath her skin. She loved this feeling. She felt powerful — like she could pick up the world on her back, like there was nothing she couldn’t do. As much as she hated to admit it — and she’d die before she ever told Giselle — being a Shadowblade was better than any other high she could imagine. It was better than being the soft, weak human girl she’d been. Now she was fast, strong, and capable. She didn’t wander through her life scared of anything — not roller coasters, not jumping out of airplanes, not the big bad monster in the closet or under the bed. She’d met monsters; she’d killed them. If she could have this feeling of being the hunter and never having to cower helpless — if she could have that without Giselle and without the horrors that went with serving the witch-bitch, then Max would never want anything else. It would be every Christmas and birthday present wrapped into one.
She covered the sloping ground quickly, pausing hereand there to test the air and listen. About a mile along,she picked up the first scent of blood. She stopped anddropped to a crouch beside a knobby tree trunk. Thecoppery flavor marked the blood as human, and therewas a lot of it. Enough to cut through the stench ofmagic. There was Uncanny blood, too. The smell tingledat the back of her throat, tasting hot and corrosive.She didn’t recognize it. She scowled, something angryrising hot and hard in her. Suddenly she started running.Someone might be alive. Giselle could be wrong.
A mile farther in, she topped a rise. Between the trees she could glimpse a set of buildings on a hill beyond the orchard. Even from here she could see the lavender witchlight flickering through the trees. The smell of blood was stronger, and there was something else — something wet, cold, and bleak, like winter wind over a frozen lake. It was Divine.
Max crept closer, clinging close to the tree row. She paused every hundred yards to scan the trees and listen, but there was nothing. Everything was silent except for dogs barking some distance away. The din was unrelenting. Dogs knew the stench of magic when they smelled it.
She knew when she stepped into the chaos zone. They used to be called faery circles, but faeries weren’t the only cause. The zones were places where magic had exploded out of control. Maybe a spell ruptured, maybe a circle couldn’t contain the conjuring, or a ritual had gone haywire. It wouldn’t be safe until the magic dissipated, which could be a few seconds or a few centuries.
Max strode inside without hesitation. The protection spells Giselle had carved into her bones and flesh protected her from most malevolent magics. A little wild magic just cleared her sinuses.
Inside, there were no natural sounds: no nightbirds, no crickets, no mosquitoes, nothing. The barks of the dogs snuffed out like blown birthday candles. Currents of thorny magic twisted in the warm, still air. She jerked as a high shrieking sound wrapped her skull and sent darts of pain down her nerves. She shook her head, crouching low as she jogged forward. When she came to the treeline, she dropped and crawled beneath a John Deere tractor, concealing herself in the shadows of a massive tire.
A nimbus of lavender witchlight surrounded a twostory, red-steel-roofed farmhouse. A white, crushed-gravel drive led down to the road beween lofty, smooth-skinned English walnut trees. It circled the house, corralling a close-clipped lawn dotted with bushes and flowers and a large gazebo covered by climbing roses and grapevines. Behind it was a barn-style garage with a matching redsteel roof that looked big enough to hold six cars. On the other side of the house was a pool. Max could smell the chlorine. A brass-and-iron sign above the steps leading up to the rustic veranda said JULIAN SPRINGS ORCHARD.
From her vantage point, Max could see four human bodies sprawled on the white gravel. One woman, three men. Trails of blood on the ground indicated they’d been dragged there. There was nothing to say who had done it, nor was there any evidence of ritual in the killing.
A sudden squabbling gabbled up loudly from the other side of the house. Growls and whimpers were followed by a snarling and loud cursing. Max couldn’t make out the words. She was pretty sure they weren’t speaking any language she knew. Then suddenly the shrieking sound erupted again. It bored into Max’s eardrums, made hypersensitive by Giselle’s spells. Max pressed her palms against her ears until it stopped.
As soon as the noise died, she crawled out from under the tractor and ran down the low hill to the driveway. She carried the shotgun in front of her, her finger resting lightly on the trigger. She stopped at the first body. She wanted to be clinical and detached. She didn’t want to care for strangers who’d never even had a chance. She didn’t know them and she sure as hell couldn’t help them. But as she surveyed their wounds, anger and horror crashed together like locomotives inside her chest. Max gasped, hot tears burning in her eyes as an unexpected need to find them vengeance swamped her. She knuckled her eyes and examined the bodies, not letting herself look away.
The first corpse had been a young man, maybe in his early twenties. His chest had been ripped open. His ribs were a mangled mess, and his entrails were gone. There was a smell of shit and urine and rotting meat. His legs had been gnawed on and one of his arms was missing. His eyes were open and staring, his mouth wide-open, his tongue protruding. Around his neck he wore a gold chain with a peace sign pendant.
The other three victims were in much the same condition, although the woman had been chewed on more than the other two. Her legs were twisted and splintered, and most of the flesh had been chewed off them. Both her arms were gone.
Max’s fury flamed as she looked at the woman. She was wearing shreds of a pink nightgown, like she’d been snuggled in bed when she was attacked. She was hardly a woman — maybe just into college. On her wrist was a butterfly-tattoo bracelet in blues and purples.
The anger twisted and dug hard claws into Max. She drew a sharp breath. They were all so innocent and so horribly ruined. It made her want to kill someone — find them vengeance. Her mouth drew into a tense line. At least these four had been permitted to die. It could have been worse. She tried to take comfort in the thought, but it was elusive. She wiped more tears from her cheeks and ordered herself to be done with crying over crap she couldn’t change.
She stood slowly, her jaw hardening. Someone was going to pay, she promised herself.
She let the predator in her rise, animal instincts flattening human concerns. Her head dropped and turned as she searched the yard eagerly. It was time to hunt. She jogged to a corner of the house. Bushes provided her with cover as she edged into the backyard. There was no one here. She loped across the lawn, hunching down and staying close to the house. At the other corner she stopped and peered around.
A small swarm of wizened redcaps were milling around the edge of a charm circle, its boundary glowing lavender witchlight to match the nimbus above the house. There were thirteen of the creatures, or had been. Three lay dead. The remaining ones were growling and yipping at one another, pushing and shoving and tearing with their hooked claws and orange teeth. One was chewing on a human arm like it was a turkey leg. Others were garlanded with the intestines of the four murdered people on the driveway.
It took all that Max had not to blow the little beasts away with her shotgun. She wanted to — oh, how she wanted to make them suffer. Her hands clenched. But more was going on here than a simple murder, and it would be beyond stupid to rush in without knowing what. She gritted her teeth, her lips pulling back in a snarl, and scanned the scene again.
Inside the charm circle lay something human-size, though Max couldn’t make out what it was through the gyrating little bodies. The one thing she knew for sure was that the vicious little redcaps were Uncanny, and whatever was inside that circle was Divine.
She needed to get closer. She inched back out of the bushes, then skimmed back around the garage. She skirted the hedge dividing the orchard from the back of the yard, stooping to keep out of sight. The hedge intersected the weathered wood fence that hid the large swimming pool. Max vaulted silently over the five-foot fence, landing in a crouch amid the thickly perfumed camellias and geraniums on the other side.
The pool was a rectangle of inky black surrounded by a wide patio-walkway. Nothing moved here. Max picked her way out onto the sidewalk. She hurried up to the opposite end, careful not to knock into any of the tables or chairs littering the poolside. The charm circle was opposite the gate. Slowly she eased up the latch at the top, letting the gate drift open a bare inch.
The redcaps and their prey were only thirty feet away beneath the spreading branches of an oak tree. Now Max could see inside the circle. On the ground, huddled in on herself, was a bony, old woman. No, not a woman. A Hag. Her thin, angular face was almost cobalt, her long hair white as the grass that grows in darkness. She was dressed in rags, her long, thin limbs poking out at sharp angles. She was weeping black tears, and a sound like several mouths whispering came from her lips as she watched the snarling redcaps.
Max frowned, racking her memory. What did she know about Hags? There were a number of them, from all over the world. With her blue face and white hair, this one had to be…Max mentally flipped through the pages of the many books she’d studied on faery lore. Yes. Cailleach Bheur — a Blue Hag from the Scottish highlands. But what did the redcaps want with her? Her Divine blood would do nothing to feed them, and redcaps were walking stomachs.
One of the little beasts shouted and tossed a powdery handful of something at the Hag. It enveloped her in a cloud and she began to shriek again. Max pressed herself back against the fence, covering her ears as best she could as the scream went on and on. It cut into her bones like the ache of winter. Blood seeped from her nose and she pinched it. She was running out of time. They were going to smell her soon.
Suddenly the cry cut off. Max lowered her hands, firming her grip on the shotgun as she peered out through gap in the gate. The Hag lay flat on the ground. She was breathing, but barely. Her skin was raw and looked like she’d been flayed. The redcap who’d thrown the powder was muttering vehemently at the Hag, shaking his steel pike at her. She did not respond.
Max scowled. The biggest rule in warfare is, don’t get involved before you know which side is which. But sometimes you just didn’t have time to twiddle your thumbs and wait for the answers to appear. One thing she knew for sure was that the redcaps had murdered the people lying out on the driveway. As far as she was concerned, that was enough reason to return the favor, no matter what her orders were. As she watched, the redcap leader dug in his pouch for more of the powder. Max didn’t think. She pushed the gate open, holding her breath as it made a faint creak. None of the redcaps noticed. She eased out, sliding into the shadow of a walnut tree. Leaning around, she sighted in on the leader.
As she leaned around the tree, there was a sudden popping of small-caliber weapons. Max jerked back and the redcaps screeched and scattered — those who were left standing. The noise thundered in Max’s sensitive ears. She winced. She’d got so caught up in her hatred that she’d stupidly forgotten to look for anyone else. Selange — the witch who owned this territory — would have sent her own recon team once she got a reading that something was going down.
A pale-skinned Shadowblade with fiery orange hair to her shoulders emerged from around the pool enclosure, her gun held before her. She didn’t notice Max as she ran forward and dug to a stop at the edge of the charm circle.
Several more Blades streamed out of the darkness. One of them was clearly the Prime. He radiated authority, and Max could feel the others cowing, turning toward him like flowers to sunlight. He wasn’t physically imposing, topping out at around six feet tall, with short black hair and dark Mediterranean skin the color of bitter tea. His muscular frame was lean and compact, but compared to the two Incredible Hulks on either side of him, he was a pygmy.
All the same, Max couldn’t drag her eyes away from him. It wasn’t that he was handsome — though he was. No, something about him was mesmerizing. Every lithe movement spoke of confidence and barely restrained raw power. He radiated grace and an aloof magnetism that triggered something primal in Max. He was her equal in ways that most men — most Shadowblades — could never be. But there was more to her sudden lust than just that tangible power. For one thing, she hadn’t gotten laid in close to six months. And for another, the bastard was her type. In fact, he was the dictionary illustration of it — dark, lean, and dangerous. His thin face was chiseled and bleak, and his hooded, dark eyes swam with deadly purpose. He was the bad boy every girl dreamed of.
Max grimaced. He was also the enemy. If he caught her trespassing on his witch’s territory, one of them would die. She didn’t think the odds were in her favor.
“Mercury and Attila, go round up the rest of the redcaps. You have fifteen minutes,” he ordered in a soft, almost conversational voice. The two hulks obeyed instantly, peeling away and trotting off with a stealthy grace that belied their bulk.
Max smirked. Mercury? Attila? They sounded like rottweilers. But a lot of witches thought of their warrior creations that way and gave them what they thought were power names.
The Prime lifted his head, turning to scan the house and the yard with slow precision. Max pressed against the tree, hiding the telltale paleness of her face against the bark and hoping the stench of blood and magic would continue to disguise her smell. When he didn’t spot her, she eased around to watch again and froze as he stopped in midturn. He seemed to be looking right into her eyes, and the weight of it slammed Max like a Peterbilt truck. She suppressed the urge to leap to her feet. If he’d really seen her, he’d already be at her throat. Instead his attention slid away to the three dead redcaps and the five his Blades had shot, then to the Hag.
Max let go a silent breath.
“You going to paint a picture, Alexander?” the flamehaired woman asked snidely.
Max saw something ripple through the Prime. He didn’t acknowledge the question. She scowled. If one of her Blades had questioned her that way in the field, she’d have dropped her like a stone and the bitch wouldn’t have got up again. Not that it happened often. Apparently Alexander had more patience for fools than she did.
“Thor, move the bodies into the house, then rig the gas line. We will burn all the evidence. Tell the others to bring up the trucks. The Hag and the redcaps come with us. Selange will want them.”
The others hurried off, leaving Alexander and the orange-haired bitch.
“This is stupid,” she pushed. “We should just leave before the cops show up.”
“Selange would disagree” was his indifferent reply. And then seemingly tangentially: “Marcus is not strong enough to take me. Do not put all your money on a losing horse, Brynna. You could get hurt.”
He said it idly, as if he didn’t really care, as if he weren’t thinking about her at all. He was pacing back and forth over the ground, following a trail that Max couldn’t see. She eased herself to her feet for a better look.
Brynna laughed, a shrill sound. Max stared in disbelief. Brynna was clearly no match for Alexander in strength, cunning, or power. She was one of those women who depended on their big eyes and curvy bodies to pry them out of whatever trouble their mouths, got them into — even as a Shadowblade. And she was digging herself a deep hole. Alexander clearly had no interest in the bitch and she was too stupid to see it.
“You don’t get it, do you?” Brynna pushed. “Marcus is everything you’re not. He’s young and strong and he knows how to make Selange purr. She wants him. Not you. You’re way past your expiration date, and pretty soon she’s going to toss you out with the rest of the trash.”
“I know well enough that Marcus is not like me.”
Max grinned. It wasn’t a compliment. Her gaze ran irresistably over Alexander again. Shit. She really had to get laid. The trouble was, she didn’t like messing around in her own backyard. She liked to get far enough away from Horngate that her one-night stands didn’t come back to haunt her. But since Giselle liked to keep her on a short leash, Max tended to have long dry spells.
“You should be careful of Marcus. He is reckless. He will get you killed. As for Selange…who she sleeps with is her business. Does not seem to leave a lot of room for you, though. Are you going to sit by the bed like a hungry dog and beg for scraps?”
Alexander’s tone had not changed. He still sounded absent. He crouched and touched something on the ground, then lifted his fingers to taste. Brynna was spitting nails. But before she could say anything else, he stood up again. He sauntered over to her, his attention honing in so that he seemed to see nothing else. Max watched in delight as Brynna realized the shit was about to hit the fan. The flame-haired moron stepped back, the gun in her hand twitching like she desperately wanted to shove it in his gut. Alexander slid a gentle hand around the back of her neck, his thumb pressing against her throat as he leaned close. She shrank in on herself, her mouth twisting with fear.
“You should watch your mouth. I am losing patience with you. Straighten up or I will kill you,” he said softly.
“Selange would have your balls in a jar,” Brynna choked. She was shivering, the smell of her fear sharp.
Alexander smiled dangerously. His unruffled calm had turned menacing and angry — a volcano burned inside him. Max wondered if he ever lost control entirely. “Perhaps. Perhaps not. But that would do little to help you, would it?”
His thumb gouged deep into her neck, and Brynna wheezed as he picked her up off the ground with one hand. Her feet twitched and then stilled. Fighting back would surely make her punishment worse, if not fatal. Max watched the lesson with approval. The word of a Prime was law, to be obeyed instantly. Disobedient Shadowblades got people killed. It couldn’t be tolerated.
“I am done with your bitching and backstabbing. The next time I have to talk to you about it, I will not be talking, do you understand?”
Brynna gave a minuscule nod of her head, all she could manage. Alexander let go. She dropped to the ground and staggered, gasping. He looked at her a moment, as if waiting for her to start mouthing off, but apparently she wasn’t as stupid as Max thought because she didn’t say a word. Alexander nodded, his expression smoothing into the sort of surface calm that hides shark-infested waters beneath it.
“Stay here and watch the Hag. Careful of the redcaps. The five we shot will start waking before long.” With that, he walked away around the side of the house.
Max smiled as Brynna’s face silently contorted. Would the woman throw herself on the ground and have a really good tantrum? But disappointingly, she managed to suck it up and keep her mouth shut. The redhead sent a venomous glare after Alexander, then skirted around the spell circle to look over the redcaps. None were moving yet, but they would. Bullets were a human solution. They slowed down most magical critters, but they didn’t usually kill them.
Brynna kicked one with a booted foot, then turned and wandered over to look at the Hag. Max shook her head. She really was a moron. Redcaps were vicious and smart. As soon as they woke, they’d be on her. She should’ve taken up a stance with her back to the house where she could watch the redcaps, the Hag, and the yard at the same time without fearing someone creeping up behind her. Like Max was about to do.
She didn’t let herself think about why she wasn’t safely retreating and getting the hell out of Julian. Instead she leaped across the few yards separating her from Brynna and clubbed the other woman in the head with the shotgun. Brynna crumpled bonelessly to the ground. Max grappled her collar and dragged her into the pool enclosure. It took her ten seconds to strip away the other woman’s guns and drop them in the water before hurrying back to the charm circle.
The Hag breathed in short, sharp gasps that jerked her body. She was covered in the powder the redcap had thrown over her, and her skin looked like someone had drenched her in acid. The black tears on her blue skin made her look demonic.
“Mother of winter, can you hear me?” Max whispered, keeping one eye on the redcaps while she glanced around for the return of Alexander and his Blades.
The Hag made no response. She was close to death. Max grimaced, then stood, walking around to see what Alexander had found so interesting on the ground. She stopped first by the three redcaps who’d been dead before she arrived. They were stiff and desiccated. Their lips were pulled grotesquely from their pointed, orange teeth and their hats had crumbled to dust.
The lawn around the mummified trio was gouged up. Max followed their track back along the side of the house and found an incomplete salt circle. She squatted down, leaning her elbows on her knees. It looked as if the redcaps had tried to seal the Hag inside the circle but she’d fought her way out. That accounted for the wild magic over the house and the chaos zone. Blood was splattered about, belonging to both the Hag and the redcaps. Max frowned, swiping a hand over her mouth. What was the Hag doing here?
Her gaze snagged on a little grotto. It was a small pool surrounded by pungent rosemary, climbing roses, and gardenias. Lily pads floated on the water. Of course. Julian Springs Orchards. The spring. This was the Hag’s home. The redcaps had lured her out of the water and captured her. Straightening up, Max looked again at the incomplete salt circle. Except it wasn’t a circle. It was a barrier curving around the front of the grotto to keep the Hag from returning to safety in the spring.
A rumble of voices from inside the house spurred Max to return to the charm circle. She set her shotgun on the ground and slid one of her forearm knives free, then hesitated a fraction of a moment. Up until this moment she could justify what she was doing as reconnaissance. Giselle would want to know the redcaps had been hunting the Hag. Now that Max knew what had happened, she should walk away. Those were her orders. Even contemplating breaking them made agony blossom in her gut as the magic that demanded she obey Giselle clawed at her. She drew a steadying breath, firming her grip on the knife.
She wasn’t going to leave the Hag. She’d fought a good fight and she was helpless. She deserved a chance to escape. Alexander’s witch would imprison her and either enslave her or find a way to steal her magic. The image of the four tortured bodies on the other side of the house rose in Max’s mind’s eye. The sudden rage that erupted in her gut came without warning. Her fingers shook with the force of it. No one else was going to suffer tonight. Not if she could help it. She hauled back her anger and pushed it deep into the hollow place inside. Emotions only got in the way. She focused instead on confusing her compulsion spells. It wasn’t hard; she had plenty of practice.
It’s for the good of Giselle, she told the magic firmly. And that was true, as far as it went. It was definitely better for Giselle if a rival witch didn’t get ahold of the Hag. Max didn’t let herself think about what could go wrong — like getting caught. The agony flower inside her began to wilt, and she smiled with fierce triumph. There were always shades of gray in the interpretation of her orders. She’d learned she could make decisions for the good of Giselle that she knew damned well the witch-bitch wouldn’t like. The compulsion spells didn’t care how the witch felt, just that she was protected and served. Magic didn’t understand nuance.
Max didn’t wait any longer. She slashed downward through the lavender witchlight and into the salt circle. Power walloped her, throwing her backward. She landed hard, her head snapping against the ground, the air exploding from her lungs. Instantly she flung herself up onto her feet, gasping for breath. Her hand was scorched red and her arm ached fiercely. She didn’t know where her knife was. She shook her hand as if that would cool it and returned to the edge of the circle.
The witchlight was gone. On the ground was a ring of gray ash. Max scuffed a gap in it with her foot and went to kneel beside the Hag.
“Mother of winter, we must move you.”
The Hag opened her eyes. They were pale blue and cold, like glacier ice. Her lips peeled back from her stalactite teeth and she spat something in a language Max didn’t know.
“I don’t understand you. They’re coming back for you. Can you walk?”
Max offered the Hag her hand. The Hag twitched, her mouth twisting as she tried to move. She slumped, her eyes drifting closed, her breath rattling in her throat. Cold radiated from her. Max’s breath plumed in the air.
“What can I do?” Asking was risky. It implied a promise. Much could be made of that.
The eyes lifted slowly. “Feed.”
Max jerked back, then caught herself. What the hell am I doing? She should just kill the Hag and put her out of her misery. Cutting her heart out would do it. Max’s stomach churned. No. Not tonight. There had been enough deaths here. It wasn’t often that she could save lives. And she could spare the blood.
She didn’t let herself think about the stupidity of creating a blood bond with the Hag. She slid her other knife out of its sheath and slashed her wrist in one sharp motion. She cut deeply. Her healing spells would kick in too quickly otherwise.
She held her arm out and let the blood run into the Hag’s lipless mouth. Her blue tongue, pointed like a lizard’s tail, swept out and licked the drops from the air. The change was almost instantaneous. Her eyes burned neon and her body spasmed. She clutched at Max’s arm with her knotted fingers, pulling it down to her mouth with iron strength. The black, pointed nails drilled into Max’s skin.
Instinctively Max yanked back, but the Hag was too strong. Her mouth fastened on the wound as she licked Max’s flesh. Cold followed. It crept up Max’s arm with searing intensity, numbing her skin and turning it white. Max groped for her knife, knowing the Hag could drain her in a matter of minutes.
Instead of the knife, her fingers found the shotgun. She scrabbled for it even as the Hag let go. Max clutched her arm against her stomach, shivering. With her other hand she hefted the shotgun. The Hag sat up. With her long tongue, she licked the trickles of blood from her chin and cheeks.
“Can you move?” Max asked through stiff lips. “We’ve got to get out of here.”
The Hag twisted her head, tilting it as she examined Max. Her eyes still glowed brilliantly, and Max recoiled from the power swelling in them.
“What do you want?” the Hag whispered in a voice that sounded like gravel in a blender.
“To get out of here alive. Which we won’t do if we don’t get a move on.”
“No. What do you want?”
Max struggled to her feet, swaying. “Come on. They’ll be coming soon.” How long had it been? Eight minutes? Ten? She could hear the rumble of diesel engines and a faint crunch of gravel. The trucks were on the long, shaded drive.
The Hag stood jerkily, like she’d been pulled up with strings. She was almost a foot taller than Max, maybe six and a half feet. Her skeletal hands hung at her sides, the fingertips curled loosely.
Max stepped back, firming her grip on the shotgun. “I want to get going. Understand?”
The Hag shook her head, the long, ropy strands of her white hair moving as if alive. “You burn,” she said. A bony finger prodded the air near Max’s belly button. “Rage.” She drew the word out as if savoring it. “What do you want?”
Max whirled around, swinging up her shotgun. For a split second, she met Alexander’s piercing gaze as he sighted down his .45. Then with a motion too fast to comprehend, a flash of blue struck Alexander, wrapping him in a cocoon of blue witchlight.
“Stillness,” said the Hag.
It was, Max realized, a command. Alexander didn’t move, didn’t even blink. He was frozen. Slowly she lowered the nose of her shotgun and glanced sidelong at the Hag, who held a staff in her skeletal hand. It was made of black wood sheathed in ice. Spiky holly leaves twined around its length, and the top was carved in the shape of a crow.
The Hag looked at Max again. She tilted her head, pointing with her staff. “There will be war. It stands already on the threshold. Many, many will die. The world will be remade. Soon you will stand at a crossroads. You can choose fire” — the staff prodded Max in the stomach — “or you can choose blood.” The staff touched her wrist where the slash had already closed. “Be warned, either path will have a cost. Lives will be saved and lives will be lost.”
The Hag bent close so that her nose nearly touched Max’s. Max fought to stand still, though every instinct told her to run like hell.
“You gave blood. There is a debt owed. I give you this.” The Hag reached into a tattered pocket and withdrew a silvery white lump. She set it in Max’s hand. It burned with cold, but did not melt. A hailstone. “When the time is right, swallow it. Know what you want. You will have it.”
With that, the Hag skimmed over the grass to the pool in the grotto. In her wake, frost glittered on the grass and cold wind gusted, despite the August heat. She did not turn as she stepped into the water. In a blink she sank and was gone. The wind died.
Max pocketed the hailstone without looking at it again. Her mind reeled; she didn’t know what to think, and she didn’t have time to sort it out. She faced Alexander. The blue light that held him was dimming. A few more seconds, a half a minute maybe, and he’d be free. It didn’t matter if she got away before that. He’d seen her. They both would be at tomorrow night’s Conclave — every witch was required to bring her Shadowblade Prime. Now or then, there would be a showdown.
She raised the nose of the shotgun, pointing it at him as she thumbed the hammer back. At this range, the blast would take his head off. No one else would know she’d ever been here. She stared at him, her eyes locking with his, her finger hovering over the trigger. Her compulsion spells raked steel thorns through her, pushing her to kill him. She still hesitated. There was something about the way he looked at her — as if he recognized her. Maybe not who she was, but what she was. She felt like he could see all the way inside her, and the feeling was both deeply unsettling and strangely welcome. No one got close to her. After Giselle had turned her, she’d wrapped herself in emotional Kevlar, and that was the way she wanted it. When her body felt the need to be touched, she found strangers in bars and enjoyed a roll in the hay and then was on her way — no ties. She held everyone at arm’s length, even her Shadowblades, whom she’d come to care for despite herself. But Alexander’s gaze cut through to the core of her. Without even speaking a word to each other, she knew that he already understood her better than anybody else in her life. It was a gift she hadn’t known she wanted, and she couldn’t just blow it away.
Abruptly she lifted the gun and rested the barrel on her shoulder, easing the hammer back down.
“My name is Max,” she said, not sure he could actually hear her. “I’ll see you at the Conclave.”
With that, she ran past him, heading for her Tahoe. Tomorrow night was soon enough for them to try to kill each other.