Rain of Ash

Skydancer Book 1 – Available Now!

Briana turned her back on her heritage as a reincarnating witch to chase her dream of being a concert pianist. On the eve of her greatest success, a tragic accident calls her back to her small town island roots, and a spell cast in her grandmother’s dying moments opens her to Oracle powers she’s spent her whole life trying to blot out. An enemy of old has surfaced, hungry for vengeance…and her soul. Unprepared and untrained, Bri must harness the magic buried deep within her before the demon of her past hunts down everyone she holds dear.

“A compelling and exciting story that mixes urban fantasy with delightful dark angst and wring-your-heart-out romance.”
~Amazon Reviewer

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Rain of Ash Excerpt, Copyright 2015 © Gwen Mitchell
Warning: NC-17 for language and sexual situations.

Chapter One

Toulouse, France

1595

 

Vivianne tipped her head back to welcome the rain. The sky’s gift revived her parched throat and washed away the days of caked blood and grime from her body, though it could not cleanse the stains from her soul. Water ran over her bruised shoulders and down her gouged arms, stinging where it met skin rubbed raw by rope bindings.

Thunder roiled, inciting a murmur of anticipation from the jostling crowd. Fat droplets spattered the brick platform, stirring a haze that distorted their eager, hateful faces.

She closed her eyes, longing for the peace that would soon come.

Brule la!” someone shouted. Burn her.

Yes, she would burn. Fire was cleansing too. She had much to be cleansed of.

Madame Vivianne Regina Spurrier, Comtesse de la Feronique du Guard,” the herald began. The crowd hushed. The air thickened with a thirst for carnage and their fear of what she symbolized.

Witchcraft.

She had committed heinous, malicious acts against members of the French court, attempted to wile influential men to her bed for personal gain, bargained with the devil, and forsaken their Lord God. She’d been branded heretic and whore and a diseased piece of flesh to be cut from the arm of society. As the oration of her sins rang out, loathing seeped from the crowd into the rain-bloated sky and made her stomach churn like the clouds above.

For certain, she was a witch, but she had done none of those things. Zyne were not supposed to get involved with mundane affairs. But when she’d foreseen the plague, she could not stand by and let hundreds, mayhap thousands, die needlessly. She’d used her powers to try and help them, yet they hated her. The Synod would not come to her aide. They were more concerned with her trespass against Zyne writ. She had thought they would intervene rather than let the rest of her coven suffer, but no. They would leave her to face the justice of her accusers. And she would carry the cost of all their lives into her next.

The herald continued. For her crimes against God and the crown of France, to which she had given full, documented confession…

She searched the dais for the man who had taken said confession. Father Dolores oversaw the proceedings with a look of cold detachment. Vivianne’s heart throbbed with fury as she stared into his eyes and glimpsed the shadow floating in their depths. She had tested her mettle against the darkness consuming him, while he had delighted in watching the breaking of her flesh and repeated violations of her body. Still, she had emerged the victor. Unclaimed. Unbroken. The strength of her bond to Lucas — the very thing that made her an outcast among her own people — had helped her to withstand the Dark One’s treachery and keep her family’s secret safe. She had broken many rules, but her vow to protect the Legacy still held fast.

For that, she would burn.

The executioner lumbered forward as the herald rolled his damp parchment and scurried away. Villagers she’d known half her life vied for position to cast stones and putrid fruit. She reached inside herself, searching for the strength to forgive them.

They have only one turn on the Wheel.

Their journey was harder — a single lifetime spent un-awakened to the filaments of energy underlying the mundane world. Her tie to the Conduit had unraveled at some point in the long dark of the past days, along with her will to keep fighting. Her magic had drained, as if her soul had already released its hold on this body. She was ready to let go.

Her coven — all eight of them — dangled from the wall of the keep. Her daughter was safely out of reach of persecution, but her unborn child had been expelled from her womb by the abuses of her captors. Her lover…

Tears sprang forth at the thought of Lucas. Would he find her again? Even for an immortal, eternity was a long time to promise. Because of their union, the Synod would hunt him. She knew he would grieve, and fight. But he was also free to live. To forget. Perhaps even to find another. Their magical bond would never end, but would his love endure lifetimes of searching…alone?

The priest uttered the final prayer for Vivianne’s soul to be accepted into the Lord’s Kingdom. She let her head sink to her chest. Her soul would not be in the hands of their One True God for judgment or redemption. She had many lives yet to live. Endless lives.

However many it takes to find my way back to you…

The executioner tossed a bucket of tar at her feet.

She bit her lip and focused inward, forcing her body to relax. Cries of “Sorcière!” and “Putain!” chorused off the high walls. Raindrops fell harder.

Brule la! Brule la!” the people chanted in senseless fury.

Father Dolores smirked, the Dark One slithering over his face like the shadow of a passing cloud.

You will pay.

His last words echoed in her heart. Yes, she would pay.

Vivianne let out a slow, deep breath. The flames of the torch danced and sputtered as it neared. She gazed into them. This was the Fate she had chosen — the fire only a doorway. The pain would mark her passage into the next revolution of her journey.

The torch lowered.

A cloud of heavy black smoke choked the air from her lungs before she felt the heat. Flames licked her ankles, but she had no breath to cry out with. The scent of roasting flesh filled her nostrils. Searing pain surged through her veins. Her skin blistered. Her blood boiled.

Let me pass.

And then she felt nothing. She was ready. Another turn of the Wheel. Another chance to do things better. To pay the cost of the choices she had made in this life. She struggled against her bonds, but her flesh melted and fell away. Somewhere, there was a hoarse voice screaming.

Her vision narrowed to a pinprick. The last cry to escape her charred lips was softer than a whispered prayer… Lucas.

***

Sydney, Australia
Present Day

Briana shot awake and tossed off the covers. The sheets were drenched with sweat, and her nightgown clung to her skin, which had erupted in painful goose bumps. She ran her hands over her arms and legs, finding the skin smooth and unmarred. Her wrists tingled, but there were no marks on them.

Just a dream. It’s not real.

Her nightmares were usually just snapshots…blood, crying, pain. She hadn’t had a detailed one in years, and they were never so vivid. None of them had never clung so hard either, as if she’d brought a piece of it back to the waking world. She could still taste the smoke and singed flesh. Acid bathed her throat, and she stumbled to the bathroom. Not wanting to wake Eric, she closed the door before flicking on the light. Stars burst in her vision. She squeezed her eyes shut and felt her way to the sink, trying to breathe past the burning itch in her chest. She half-expected to cough up a wad of tar as she gagged into the sink.

She fumbled through her drawer looking for her anxiety meds. She hadn’t needed them in weeks. Doctor Stevens had even dialed back her dosages. Valium still got her to sleep most nights, but she was actually starting to believe her nightmares were going away.

Her hands trembled as she tried to wrench the safety cap off the bottle. It popped open and exploded all over the counter. “Dammit!”

What had set her off? The extra wine at dinner? Or maybe the argument they had before bed? She’d been doing better since returning from her recital tour. With a handful of pills down the hatch, she gulped a glass of water and splashed her cheeks. Her reflection was harrowed, a wispy ghost of herself, with a halo of wild auburn curls. Like always, the sight brought another ghost to fore: her mother’s face locked in a silent scream. Hair drifting softly in dark water.

Briana shucked her nightgown and stepped into the shower. The sluice of hot needles grounded her in the present, but then it reminded her of the sensation of melting and peeling skin, so she turned it to full cold and tried to scrub the sting away.

It was just a dream.

She was in her apartment in Sydney. Eric was sleeping peacefully in the next room. Life was normal. They were leaving for New York in four days to sign on her album. Maybe that was it? She hated flying. Her to-do list was a mile long. Not to mention a pivotal moment in her career…and life. That had to be it. When she started to shiver, she stepped out and toweled off.

Briana…

She whipped around with a gasp. A faint outline filled the mirror beside her reflection, with curly hair gone silver. The soft brown eyes that used to be her safe harbor in any storm were staring right through her.

Her heart plummeted to her feet.

Briana, her grandmother’s voice was clear as a bell in her head. The floor tilted. She lurched, grabbing the vanity for balance.

You have to see.

“Oh, no.” Tears spilled from her eyes. “No. No. No.” This couldn’t be happening now. Not Ce-Ce. Not again. This was not supposed to happen. Never. Again. “Ce-Ce…no.”

You have to see. Her grandmother’s face was so frightened and sad, pleading with her.

Briana clutched the sides of her head, willing with all her might for the vision to stop. It felt as if reality was catapulting around her while she held still, huddled on the cold tile of her bathroom floor. The last time this had happened, she’d felt her lungs filling with icy water as her mother gulped her last breath. She’d woken the next morning to a world that was forever changed.

Briana, daughter of my blood, you have to see, the voice tolled again, stronger.

Somewhere in the distance, there was a loud pounding, a deeper voice yelling her name over and over. But the yelling blended into the crashing of waves. All she saw when she closed her eyes was a froth of white pouring over jagged rocks, spinning, spinning… Glass cracked against water, and the world imploded.

See…

“Ce-Ce! NO!” She screamed until she ran out of air, and blackness took her.

When she woke, the bright Australian sun was beating against her eyelids, which felt paper thin. Eric was posted on the bed beside her, his normally serene face lined with worry. He held out a glass of cool water. Her throat was shredded. She took a long sip before collapsing back to the pillows.

“You scared the hell out of me.”

“I’m sorry.” She closed her eyes to the steady throbbing in her temples. She couldn’t remember how many pills she’d taken in her panic last night. Enough to suffer a wicked hangover.

“Why didn’t you wake me?”

She cracked an eye open at his accusatory tone. He meant well, but Eric would never understand. No mundane ever could. The best doctors and therapists and serenity retreats money could buy would never heal her. Not even her own people could help her beyond what had already been done. She had accepted years ago that she was too broken to be fixed. So, she had perfected the art of taking the beating and hiding the cracks. “It was only a nightmare. I thought I was fine.”

“Well, you’re not fine. I’m going to cancel our trip. I called Doctor Stevens. He’s on his way.”

She sat up at that. “Our trip? It’s my record deal. You know how important this is to me. I have to go.”

“You’re in no state to travel. I just found you in hysterics and practically catatonic.” His hand, gentle, yet firm, pressed her back. He took a calming breath. “This is my fault. I’ve been too focused on work and not spending enough time with you. Forget New York for now. Let’s take a pleasure trip instead.” He stroked her hair, then her cheek. “Belize?”

“Eric—” she started, bracing for another performance where she convinced him she was fine and life should go along as usual. Her phone buzzed on the bedside table, making the words catch in her throat. She let out an aggravated sigh and reached for it, but he snatched it up first.

“Hello? Yes, this is her number.”

Briana glared at him as she sat up. Then she noticed she was in a clean nightgown and tucked into fresh sheets. A tray of food sat at the foot of the bed. A vase of lilacs perched on the nightstand, permeating the room with their calming perfume. All of her frustration evaporated. He was only trying to take care of her. Maybe he also had a point. A week on the beach soaking up the sun and drinking mai-tais couldn’t hurt. Put everything on pause. Take a deep breath. Get her feet under her before embarking on this new path in her career.

“Who is this?”

She gave him a meek smile and held out her hand for the phone.

Eric’s expression locked-down into that unreadable politico mask as he handed it over. “Astrid?”

Her entire body went stiff, the smile withering. The fine hairs up her arms stood on end. Her hand felt leaden, moving in slow motion as she lifted the phone to her ear. Astrid was the best friend she’d ever had, but they only spoke a few times a year now, unless… Her lip trembled, but she steeled herself. “Hello?”

“Bri.” Astrid’s voice was small. She sounded as if she’d been crying. “It’s Ce-Ce and Tara.”

No…it wasn’t real! It couldn’t be. Not Tara too!

“There was an accident.”

Briana closed her eyes. That spinning feeling took hold again. She rubbed her breastbone as her body recalled the feeling of her insides being crushed with the pressure of tons of water. Ce-Ce’s words echoed in her bones. Her throat felt like it was full of gravel as she answered, “I’ll be on the next flight.”

Chapter Two

San Juan Islands, Washington

 

Through eight human centuries and countless hosts he’d hunted the relic. With Cecelia dead and the line of Spurrier witches finally ground to dust, only one hurdle remained. The key to the vault had to be hidden somewhere in the old crone’s house. He began his search in the downstairs study.

He’d thought the wily Oracle had foreseen his endgame and magically cached it away before he could reach her, but his tracking spell had pinpointed it to within a few hundred feet of where he was standing. She hadn’t had time to hide it.

A thrill shook his muscles as he tore books from their shelves with a flick of his wrist.
The study turned up nothing but useless Zyne trinkets.
He climbed the stairs to the attic and tossed through every box, even checked for loose boards and secret nooks. On his way to Cecelia’s bedroom, he contemplated razing the whole thing to the ground and sifting through the ashes.
As if in answer, the house’s blood wards flickered to life.
Cold lightning stampeded up his spine. His guts curdled. He doubled over and faded to the porch. Raw power rose from the earth, singeing his tongue as the wards strengthened to a steady hum, locking him out.
“Damn the old magics.” With a sneer, he called up an invisibility shield and faded to the woods at the edge of the property.
Active blood wards on the Spurrier estate could mean only one thing.
Briana had come home.

Chapter Three

Thirty hours and several tense conversations later, Briana was on a ferry chugging through Washington’s steely blue waters towards North Wake Island. Eric had insisted on coming with her at first, but luckily he’d had business to take care of that bought her an excuse to meet him in New York instead. She’d convinced him it was for her own protection, that she didn’t want the media peering in on her private family life and making a spectacle of her grief. That white lie had bought her three days. More than enough time to meet with Ce-Ce’s lawyer, collect the mementos she wanted to keep, and make arrangements for the rest. The bodies had already been cremated in a formal Zyne ritual she wasn’t sorry to miss. She never wanted to stand in front of a pyre again.

She’d made the first part of the journey on auto-pilot, but now that she was here, she couldn’t wait to get back to the steady routine she’d worked so hard to maintain in Sydney. Without that framework, she relied more on drugs to keep her nightmares and resulting insomnia in check. Then it would take weeks to get back on track. She loved Ce-Ce and Tara and had always missed them terribly, but if she was totally honest, she’d never intended to come back home.

Home…

She gripped the frigid metal rail until her hands ached. Could she even call this place home anymore? The only thing left here was heartache. It seemed like she’d spent her whole life picking up pieces. Here she was, doing it again. Only… there weren’t enough pieces to pick up anymore. All she could do was sweep the ashes under the rug and move on.

The sun was sinking into the western horizon, saturating the dull grey clouds with orange and pink watercolors. Wild, jagged islands climbed out of the choppy waves. Her teeth began to chatter. Forty-two degrees felt colder than she remembered. The thin cashmere sweater she was wearing was the warmest thing she’d packed, further proof her brain had gone numb after Astrid’s phone call. It was one of those moments that was etched into her history now as a before and after, a reality shift.

She’d run to the farthest corner of the globe to escape anything reminiscent of her Zyne heritage and her family’s tragic history. She’d thrown herself at her studies, and then her music. Then she’d met Eric — with his decadent lifestyle and his carefree charm, and a work ethic that actually rivaled hers. She found she fit into his world quite well. Smile for all the cameras. Put on a brave face. Fake it till you make it. She was a master at that. She projected the image of the successful artist girlfriend for all the auction dinners and charity events, and the rest of the time they gave each other plenty of space. It wasn’t the Happily Ever After painted in the tabloids, but it was the closest thing she would ever find. Despite everything, she’d managed to build something stable. Her nightmares had quieted, old wounds slowly scarring over.

Then that vision had struck out of the darkness like a whip and flayed her wide open again.

It was the first death omen she’d seen since her mother, since before her power had been bound. It felt as if something had snapped deep inside, left a fissure oozing ominous doubts into her psyche — a nagging thought that was getting harder and harder to ignore. The closer she got to the island, the more something felt wrong. It made her skin tingle and her shoulders cinch tight.

She could be strong for a few days, suffer through the signing of papers and the condolences one last time. But if she gave the past a foothold, she was afraid the walls of her fragile fortress would come crumbling down.

What then?

 

 

Downtown Evergreen Cove hadn’t changed much since Briana’s youth. She drove from the ferry dock and felt as though she’d passed through a time portal. The same art studios and bookshops lined the cobbled streets, as if they’d been preserved in a painting. A traffic light had been installed on Front Street, and a few of the businesses had closed in favor of more trendy shops and restaurants. The high school had a new gym, which dwarfed the original building. Beyond that, cow pastures and farms gave way to familiar winding roads that tunneled through the tall firs.

She pulled up to Ce-Ce’s just after four. The faded dove-white Victorian with its wrap-around porch and oak tree sentinels had once encapsulated everyone she held dear. Now it loomed like a thunderhead. Every muscle in her body coiled into a tight ball, starting with the one in her chest. The glossy green door with its polished brass handle mocked her. She would find no heartwarming greetings on the other side. The house was empty of life now, a hollow shell of the home it had been.

The windshield of her rented Lexus fogged up as she waited for her courage to kick in or her sense to take over — whichever came first. After ten paralyzed minutes, she decided to find a B&B.

A sharp rapping sounded on her window, making her jump in her seat. She let out a slow, calming breath as the opaque glass slid down.

“My goodness, Briana Celine, what are ye doing? Come get in the house.” Geraldine Cameron, her grandmother’s neighbor and oldest friend, stood beside the car with her hands on her hips. She’d gained a few wrinkles, but her tone was just as in-charge as ever. She yanked Briana out of the car and gave her a head-to-toe appraisal with eyes that had glassed over white.

Briana squirmed under her gaze, knowing the Oracle was looking through her Second Sight. Could she see the dark cloud bundled around the broken spirit within? The threads of pain that were the only thing holding her heart together?

“Hello, Mrs. Cameron.”

The old woman smiled softly, her grip tightening around Briana’s stiff fingers. Her eyes cleared, revealing a soft violet-grey that twinkled with fondness. “Have you forgotten yourself, child? It’s Aunt Geri to you, and well ye know it.”

She also knew arguing would be pointless. Briana let Geri usher her up the porch and through the front door. The light tick-tock of the grandfather clock echoed through the downstairs hall. The scents of orange oil and sweet herbs made it feel as if she’d been gone just a few days. She took in the pictures on the walls, the furniture perfectly in place. As they walked into the kitchen, she half-expected to find Ce-Ce standing at the sink staring into the backyard, as Briana had found her so many times. Her throat tightened. “I thought it would look different.”

“Ach, no. Things don’t change much in these parts.” The gas stove clicked as Geri turned it on. She moved comfortably around Ce-Ce’s kitchen, while Briana huddled in the far corner, arms wrapped tight around herself. Nothing had changed, except for her. She no longer belonged.

“Sit down, dearie.”

A fresh muffin appeared before her as she sat at the beat-up farm table in the nook. A piping hot cup of tea followed shortly after. She inhaled a deep breath of chamomile-mint steam, and some of her tight muscles softened. She sighed. “Thank you.”

“My Stars, ye look so much like your mother, child.” Geri stroked her hair before tucking Briana into the rose-scented folds of her knitted shawl. “I had forgotten. It’s good to have ye home.”

She smiled and patted the wrinkled hand on her shoulder. “I’m only staying a couple of days.”

“Aye. We’ll see.” Geri sat down. Her silver brows lifted as she blew over the top of her tea. “I suspect those friends of yours will have a might to say about that. Ye’ve been gone a long while.”

Briana studied the nicks in the knotted pine, frowning. It had been hard enough holding Eric at bay for three days. She’d avoided factoring her two oldest friends into the equation. Astrid would want to grieve and console each other. Briana could brace for that. But Kean? Thinking of him just fuzzed her thoughts, her memories smudged from years of trying to rub them out. A cowardly part of her hoped they wouldn’t cross paths at all. “I might not even get a chance to see them.”

“Oh, they’ll make sure you do.” Geri’s left eye winked, a seemingly unconscious gesture. “Especially that Fitzgerald boy. He was just by earlier today, askin’ when I expected ye. I told him I’m an Oracle, not a cuckoo clock. He’s a Taurus if ever there was one, the stubborn brute. All piss and no patience.”

Briana choked on a bite of muffin and had to force it down with a long swig of tea.

Geri chuckled as she got up to clear the table.

“What’s so funny?”

“Come lass, ye know damn well,” Geri scolded. “I told ye — things don’t change much around these parts.”

“That was ages ago.” Briana scooped her muffin crumbs into a neat pile on her napkin. She couldn’t imagine Kean wanted anything to do with her. She’d made sure of it the last time she’d come home after college. When he’d asked her to stay and marry him. Forgiveness wasn’t Kean’s strong suit.

“Dear child. When are you going to learn? Try as ye might, ye cannae outrun Fate?”

Briana opened her mouth to argue, but Geri cut her off with an impatient sigh. “Now then, I’ve stocked the cooler and put fresh sheets on all the beds. Come and collect the ashes when you’re ready. There’s something else of your Legacy we should speak of, but don’t worry on it now.”

Geri pinched her chin and stared into her face with hawk-like scrutiny, clicking her tongue in vague disapproval. “Get some rest, Briana Celene. You’ve a trial ahead yet. I’ll be right across the way if you need me.”

I won’t be here, Briana thought, watching her go. She couldn’t stay there alone.

“And get the thought outta your head about staying anywhere else. They’re all booked up.” Geri smiled sweetly and swung the front door closed behind her.

Briana shook her head, muttering to herself. She’d forgotten what a pain it was to have an Oracle around. She would have to mind her thoughts better. She stood there for several minutes, shivering in her flimsy sweater, afraid to disturb the air with her presence. A sharp breeze shook the trees outside, moaning as it passed over the steep-pitched roof.

The hair on her forearms prickled.

She crossed into the front sitting room, and confirmed that everything was in fact still in the exact place she remembered. Eventually, she made her way to the center of the room. Her fingers glided over the smooth cherry wood of the piano top. She slid onto the bench, remembering her first lessons, side by side with Ce-Ce for hours. She gently lifted the cover and hovered her fingers over the keys. Her hands shook so badly, she couldn’t bring herself to play. She swallowed back tears and slammed it closed.

A vase of Geri’s prize-winning silver roses sat in the middle of the dusty wood top. Glinting beside them in the late-afternoon sun was one of Ce-Ce’s crystals — a smooth, polished piece of rose quartz the size of her fist. As a child, Briana had inherently known they thrummed with magic, but didn’t know exactly how they were used. She’d never been allowed to touch them. Before she realized what she’d done, she was cradling it in her palms. It warmed.

The curtains fluttered.

Briana…

She gasped and turned around, but there was no one there. Just her, the grandfather clock, and the wind. What she wouldn’t give to speak to Ce-Ce one more time, to tell her how sorry she was. To tell her she’d always loved her. That she ached with missing her so much.

The crystal pulsed with a faint vibration.

“Oh, Ce-Ce.” She squeezed the crystal to her chest. How idiotic to think she could come back here and remain detached. Ce-Ce and Tara were gone. How could she not regret every minute she’d stayed away, no matter what it might have cost to come back?

A child giggled.

She turned to see a five year old Tara standing in the foyer, covered in mud and holding up a toad almost as big as she was. Black ringlets were plastered to her rosy cheeks. Her gap-toothed grin flashed with mischief.

Tears sprang out of Briana’s eyes. Her breath hitched.

“Tara Jade!” Ce-Ce’s voice called from the kitchen, “don’t you take one more step in this house soakin’ wet!”

Tara laughed again and lunged up the stairs. Briana leapt from the piano bench to follow, but paused on the bottom step. She was barely holding her nightmares at bay, now ghosts were running amok in her mind in waking hours — not a good sign. Doctor Stevens would say not to indulge in the hallucination. Even knowing it was more than a figment of her imagination, she was inclined to agree.

Tara stopped halfway up the stairs and looked over her shoulder. “I’m gonna put him in your bed, Bri!”

“Tara,” Briana whispered, helpless against the pull of the memory, “wait.”

Her little sister stuck out her tongue and disappeared around the corner. Footsteps echoed down the hall, and a door slammed upstairs. A shroud of quiet fell over the house.

The floorboards creaked as she approached her old room. The last time she’d visited, Tara had taken it over. The walls were covered with posters and graffiti, the floor littered with clothes and fashion magazines. Now the room was clean, painted a cool green, and tastefully decorated with some of Tara’s paintings. Their mother’s dressing table took up the far wall, laden with candles, perfume bottles, and jewelry. Pictures were tucked into the corners of the mirror, of Tara with friends Briana had never met.

Tara wasn’t a little girl anymore. She’d grown up… and Briana had missed it. She had never gotten to know the woman her baby sister had become.

Her gaze swept over her reflection in the mirror. She’d spent hours watching her mother sit at this very table, brushing her hair and singing softly. Now she saw an empty copy of that vibrant woman looking back. Makeup smeared, blouse stained and wrinkled, rebellious auburn curls springing loose. She’d been back a few hours and all the polish and poise she practiced was already melting away. Underneath was the image that had haunted her the last fifteen years — her mother’s forest green eyes, the smooth curve of her cheek, the pout of her lower lip.

Briana bit it until she tasted blood.

This is your baby sister, take care of her, her mother had said the first time she held the squirming Tara in her arms. She’d promised to. She’d failed. She wasn’t strong enough. She wasn’t brave enough. Tara was gone. They were all gone.

It’s your fault.

“I’m s-sorry.” She clenched her fist around the rose quartz, willing her message into the ether. “I’m so sorry.”

The reflection glared at her.

She would be so ashamed of you.

“I’m sorry!”

She threw the quartz, and the mirror erupted into a web of cracks. Her voice broke on a sob. She’d failed them all, and now they’d left her completely alone in a world that was either tortured with nightmares or drugged into numbness.

She sank to the floor, surrendering to the tears she’d managed to dam up the last day and a half. She cried until she lost her voice. Until she barely had the energy to climb onto Tara’s bed and curl into a ball. Exhaustion made her breaths deep and her eyelids heavy. She fought off sleep for as long as she could, afraid of what horrors awaited her on the other side, but eventually it caught up with her and pulled her under.

The first thing she noticed upon waking some-odd hours later was that night had fallen, and she was frozen through. The second thing was…doorbell.

Her body responded automatically. She tumbled from the bed and zombie-walked towards the hall, tripping on her cast-off shoes. The lopsided bun fell out of her hair as she slugged down the stairs, wiping under her puffy eyes. A few steps later, she remembered the last two days. It wasn’t all a nightmare she could write off. The worst part was real.

A third ring.

“Coming!”

She bounded down the last few steps, swung the door open, and forgot to breathe.

Kean Royce Fitzgerald was on the porch, about to knock.

Chapter Four

Bri looked spooked — not exactly the reaction Kean had hoped for. It had taken every ounce of his restraint to wait so long to see her, knowing how much she must be hurting. Yet after envisioning this moment for years, the reality of it stopped him in his tracks. He didn’t know her anymore, hadn’t known what to expect.

“Kean.” She sucked in a breath as if she would say more, but just stared at him.

He lowered his arm slowly, a nervous smile tugging at his lips. “Hullo, Bri.”

Seconds stretched into eons as they re-learned the lines of once familiar faces. She looked even better than in his dreams. Her mussed hair and the smudges under her pensive green eyes gave her a sultry edge, no matter how tightly she pressed those curvy lips. She had other curves too, all of them screaming for his attention. She’d left him a pretty young girl…she’d come back a heartbreaker. Desire slammed into him, backed up, and did it again, making it hard to form thoughts, much less words. He cleared his throat. “You look…good.”

Bri slanted a doubtful look at him, but her cheeks took on some color. “Do you always hang on the bell like that?”

“I didn’t ring the bell.” He tried not to scowl. He’d thought she’d be at least a little happy to see him, despite the circumstances.

“Yes, you did.” She sounded eager for an excuse to snap at him. She must have felt it too — that sizzle in the air that was making it hard for him to remember simple English.

“Nope. It’s busted. I just got here when you opened the door.”

“But—” Bri frowned and reached past him to press the button, which hadn’t worked in years.

“I heard it ring. Three times.” She kept pressing, a faint blush spreading across her face. “That’s weird.”

“Not really,” Kean said. “Ce-Ce did that all the time. She always had a place set for me when I came begging for scraps.” Bri’s gran had been the most renowned Oracle in the Northwest. She’d never needed a doorbell to tell her company was coming.

Bri scoffed as she backed into the hallway. He could tell the memory had touched her. Whether it softened her or just hit a tender spot remained to be seen. She blinked, giving no hint. “Did you want to come in?”

He stepped into the house, running his hand over his freshly cut hair. Bri stilled under his lingering gaze. Another awkward silence filled the foyer.

“You really do. Look good, I mean.” Damn. Here she was, a world-class woman, and the best he could come up with was good. He sounded like a backcountry hick and wanted to kick his own ass back onto the porch and start over.

She dropped her gaze to the floor before letting it drift up his body, darting glances at first, then with more cling. Kean’s heart gave a heavy thud when she bit her lip.

“You look…bigger.” Confusion flitted across her face, as if she hadn’t meant to say it out loud. Then she laughed — a delicate, musical sound. His shoulders relaxed.

“I missed that.” He’d sworn he wouldn’t come on too strong, even if this was the chance he’d begged the Universe for, but with Bri right in front of him, he didn’t care what had brought her back.

Just don’t screw it up.

“Missed what?” A hopeful lilt laced her question.

His plan to go easy sailed out the window.

“You.” To hell with trying to impress her. It wasn’t poetry, just the truth.

“I—” Bri’s eyes misted over. “I missed you too.”

Kean offered his hand, and the world froze for the heartbeat it took Bri to consider. She answered by wrapping her arms around him and tucking her head into his chest. He didn’t know what to say, so he just held her.

Much too soon, she let go, wiping her eyes. “Sorry. I don’t know where that came from. I guess I’m just glad to see a friendly face.”

“I’m glad you’re back.”

She shook her head and led him into the kitchen. “I’m not really back.”

He stalked in behind her and leaned against the counter, watching her sift through drawers. Her movements were jerky, nervous, not her usual fluid grace. Something was wrong, aside from being flustered by the sight of him.

She slammed another drawer closed and scratched her head.

“Third one down on your left.”

Bri clenched her jaw as she opened it, then set the tea out on the counter and turned on the kettle.

“Any other odd occurrences, besides the mysterious doorbell incident?” He leaned in her way and pulled two mugs down. Geri hadn’t given him any details, but she’d hinted that the tides of Fate were turning, that Bri would somehow come back into the fold. Her power had been bound since she chose her path at seventeen, but trauma could sometimes bring on a temporary flare of magic. The soul would tap into the grounding force of the Conduit without conscious knowledge. To the untrained, it could be unpredictable, even dangerous. That was one reason he wanted Bri where he could watch over her.

She circled her fingers around her wrist. That deer-in-the-headlights look came over her again. Spooked. “Well…”

“What is it?”

“I saw Ce-Ce and Tara earlier. Not like live spirits, I mean, they weren’t doing anything new…just an echo of my memories. But it was so real. Just stirred me up a bit I guess.”

“Sounds like a psychic echo.” The Oracle. It made sense that would be Bri’s power. Her bloodline was full of them.

“You know that’s not possible.” Bri’s calm-and-cool act was fully on, but the flash of fear in her eyes told a different story. The kettle whistled, buying her a small reprieve from his study while she poured.

“It’s rare, but it happens.” Kean leaned closer and turned her around to face him. He could still see plain as day when she was hiding something. “That’s not all, is it?”

A shudder gripped her body and she tried to slip away. “I really don’t want to talk about it.”

Kean rubbed her arms gently, holding her in place. He hated to see Bri suffer, but as far as he was concerned, she’d done enough running from Fate. If it had come to find her now, she had to face it. At least here he could protect her. “You need to tell me.”

“I had a regression. A strong one.” She looked at the floor between them. “They had been getting better before that.”

That figured, if her power was flaring. As young children, all Zyne had memories of past lives, but Bri’s nightmares had plagued her well into her teens. Something told him that wasn’t what had her on edge though. He lifted her chin and gazed into her face, but couldn’t see past the defenses she’d built there. “What else?”

She swallowed and looked away as tears filled her eyes. “Ce-Ce appeared to me. Right after she died, or right before…I don’t know.”

He let her go and eased back. Precognition, psychic echoes, regressions, and an astral visit? All with her powers bound.

Holy. Shit. “That’s…a lot to handle.”

He and Astrid had agreed to evaluate the situation once Bri was home and to tell her about their plan together. But Bri’s powers were already tipping the scales. There was no time to lose. If they were right about the accident, they were going to need Bri to uncover the truth, and she would need them more than ever.

Bri sat at the table and stared into her mug. “Yes. It is a lot. I can’t believe they’re gone. I think my brain is just refusing to accept it. I feel like I’m going crazy.”

Kean joined her, wondering how to ease into this as gently as possible. Subtlety was not his forte, but he gritted his teeth and tried. “You’re not crazy. Your power is flaring.”

She shook her head and sipped her tea. “It can’t be. It’s bound with blood magic.”

“How would you explain your visions then?”

She clenched her jaw. “Grief. Survivor’s guilt. Coming back here after so long just brought the memories to the surface.”

He crossed his arms over his chest. “And the regression?”

Bri laughed — not her normal laugh — a little too high and desperate. “Stress. Maybe my meds need to be tweaked. It happened before I even knew about the accident.” She paused for a thoughtful moment, and then nodded into her teacup.

Kean reached for her arm and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “It’s more than that, and you damn well know it. You can’t ignore this. Maybe if we release the binding—”

She set down her cup as if it were delicate crystal and narrowed a glare at him. “I don’t want it released. Haven’t you been paying attention all these years? I don’t want any part of this. I only came here to settle some business. I’m not staying.”

He stiffened at the thought of her abandoning them again. How could she ignore such an obvious message from the Universe? “You are a part of this whether you like it or not. This is your home, your heritage.”

She pulled her arm from his grip. “My heritage is gone. The last of my family is burned to ash. There’s nothing for me here.”

Nothing? He spread his hands on either side of his mug, forcing himself to relax. This wasn’t going how he’d envisioned at all. “What about me? Astrid? Geri? We need you. Don’t you think it’s high time we figure out what the hell is going on with your family? What if there really is a curse?”

She was already shaking her head before he got the words out. “Don’t you dare talk to me about curses.” She waved her hand in the air by her head as if clearing away cobwebs. “This whole damn thing is a curse. I never asked for it. I’m supposed to have a choice, and this is not the life I’ve chosen.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “I shouldn’t have even come back.”

Bri’s mug broke into shards, exploding from the inside. Hot tea cascaded off the table and into her lap.

Kean winced. Dammit. He should have better control, but that woman got under his skin like no other.

Bri leapt out of her chair to brush the beads of liquid from her skirt with shaky hands. “What the hell, Kean!”

“Sorry.” He took a deep breath and reined himself back in. “You may be too stubborn to see it right now, but you’re in danger, Bri. You need us as much as we need you. More. I can protect you.”

Bri put the kitchen counter between them, her eyes wide with shock. Astrid was right — as usual — he was the wrong person for this job. A bull in a china shop. His charm was obviously a little rusty. He stood and gulped the rest of his tea in one painful swallow.

“You’re not hearing me. I can’t do this.”

“It’s you who doesn’t understand, but that doesn’t change the truth. Your power is a wild card at this point, and if you’re not prepared, it could break you. You’ll have to face that eventually. One way or another.”

Bri hugged her arms around herself, her expression a thin façade about to crumble any second. His stomach sizzled with bitterness at the thought of how she would reject the comfort he wanted so badly to give her.

“You should go.”

He stared at her face, telling his legs to move, but his feet stayed rooted in place. Their gazes met and held, and Bri took in a shaky breath. Behind her tough mask he saw a well of sadness and fear. A phantom ache of her pain blossomed in his chest. Why was she always pushing him away when she needed him the most?

Kean leaned over the counter, letting the truth fill his eyes. “You turned your back on us, Briana, but no matter what you do, I won’t do the same. I can’t.”

I won’t let you go this time without a fight.

Bri’s mask started to crumple. Her face went ghost pale. “Get out.”

He clenched his jaw, already wishing that for once he’d kept his big mouth shut. He moved toward her, intent on making things right, but she spun away. Her reflection stared from the dark windowpane as she built an invisible wall between them. He had the sense to know pushing anymore tonight would only make it thicker.

Kean showed himself out, sighing as he stepped off the porch. He started his truck already hearing Astrid’s voice in his head: Way to go, jackass.

Chapter Five

You turned your back on us, Briana.

Kean’s words echoed through her thoughts as she swept up the shards of china from the kitchen and the broken mirror in the bedroom the next morning. She’d tossed and turned all night, too wired to sleep and too afraid to dream. At dawn, it was ten PM Sydney time. She was utterly exhausted, but had pulled herself out of bed. The upstairs bathroom needed scrubbing, the downstairs floors needed polishing, the curtains needed vacuuming. She rationalized that she was doing her part to make sure the house would sell quickly, but the reality was she needed something to channel her nervous energy into. She would normally work, but couldn’t bring herself to play music in her current state. She was still too raw. Damming her feelings up and mentally checking out with busy work seemed like a much better strategy.

There were dozens of unfinished craft projects scattered all over the house. She buzzed from room to room collecting a jumble of tarot cards, crystals, pendants, and half-burned candles to stow in Ce-Ce’s study. As a child, the small room tucked in the back corner of the house where her grandmother held readings had always fascinated Bri. She would linger in the hall, playing with her dolls, listening to the soft murmur of voices and summoning bells as the scents of sage and incense seeped out and cocooned her.

When she opened the door, she stumbled back, spilling everything in a heap in the doorway. All the books had been ripped from the shelves. Drawers were pulled out, their contents scattered across the hardwood. The furniture was toppled over. The antique Tiffany lamp broken into a hundred pieces. Shredded cushions and pillow stuffing littered the floor.

Either a tornado had hit the study, or…someone had torn through it.

A foreboding chill crept along her skin. She kicked the heap further into the room and slammed the door, then leaned against the opposite wall, trying to catch her breath. Her heart pounded down to her feet. Her vision went spotty.

Breathe. She focused all of her spinning thoughts on one thing: oxygen. After ten good breaths, she sat down in the kitchen to think through things rationally while the straps cinching her lungs slowly loosened.

This is nuts.

No way was she cut out to handle this. Insomnia, delusions, night terrors, and now panic attacks. She had not come pharmaceutically prepared to manage a breakdown of this magnitude. She had already been buckling under the pressure of her record deal and the proposal she was sure would follow soon after. Those problems seemed like a lifetime ago, squashed by the weight of the past and the uncertainty of the future. The thought that Kean could be right — that her power could be flaring beyond her control — was the most terrifying of all.

Just keep it together for two more days.

And then what? Kean said she was in danger.

What was going on here? Why would someone break into Ce-Ce’s house just to ransack one room? All the valuables and jewelry were untouched, as far as she could tell. It looked more like someone had been searching for something. Should she call the police? Had Ce-Ce gotten into some kind of trouble? Or…had she finally gone off the deep end?

You would be the last to know.

Kean was right about one thing. She had turned her back. On all of them.

What else was he right about?

When she’d first heard the rumors, Ce-Ce had assured her there was no curse on their family. Children are cruel and people — especially witches — are superstitious. If there was a curse, she would see it. Bri had believed her. According to the coroner, her mother’s death had been an accidental drowning. Still, in a small town, gossip takes root and spreads like weeds. The other story was that her mother had gone slowly crazy, lost her husband and her mind, and eventually took a long walk off a high cliff. Some rumors were easier to dismiss than others.

Ce-Ce had wanted her to see something. What? She couldn’t make herself recall the images from that night again, though she would never escape the echo of them. Her heart squeezed tight, refusing to beat for a moment.

Despite wanting to run as fast as she could back to her safe, predictable life two continents away, she trusted Kean. He wouldn’t lie, and he wouldn’t scare her for nothing. If he said she was in danger, he must have good reason to believe so. But he also clearly still had feelings for her, and therefore an ulterior motive for wanting her to stay. She needed hard facts. Luckily, she knew just the person to see for the no-holds-barred truth.

 

 

Even with its yard of overgrown sea grasses and thorny bushes, Astrid’s cliffside bungalow was hard to miss. The skull and crossbones flapping on the flagpole were a dead giveaway.

Briana did a quick make-up double-check in the visor mirror. Her belly was wound up tight with nerves. Astrid had once been the only person in the world whose opinion mattered. Until Briana’s decision to move to New York. The chasm between them as a result of that one choice had not been breached since. They’d written letters, talked on the phone, sent birthday cards…but it had never been the same. Their connection had slowly dwindled.

You turned your back on us. Kean’s words wouldn’t leave her alone. How would Astrid react to seeing her after all this time? Was she holding a grudge too?

When she stepped onto the porch, a Halloween witch lit up at her feet and cackled. The screeching, howling, and barking of what sounded like an entire zoo erupted inside. A few seconds later, the side curtains twitched, and the door swung open.

“Bri!” Astrid threw herself into Briana’s arms, and she was too stunned to do anything but catch her. For such a petite pixie of a woman, Astrid gave rib-crushing hugs. She squeezed, then held Bri at arm’s length. “Hot damn, girl! You look like the cover of Vanity Fair.”

“Umm…thanks?” Bri was at a loss for such an apt description of Astrid. Earth Muffin meets Punk Rock? Her white-blonde hair was chopped short and uneven and streaked with vibrant shades of blue and purple. She wore a pair of bright green leggings and a patchwork sweater that could fit around three people. Her youthful glow and rosy cheeks gave her an ageless quality, but she’d hardened her looks with a series of piercings in her eyebrows, nose, and the center of her chin.

“Don’t just stand there like you’re selling encyclopedias, come in!”

Astrid’s house smelled of potting soil and patchouli incense, which barely covered up the pungent animal musk. A sea of furry creatures sniffed at Bri’s feet as she stepped onto the shag carpeting. Tails wagged, curious cat-eyes stared, and a few heads of the rodent variety popped up from the crowd. The main part of the house was one large room with a woodstove in the middle, the chimney and exposed wood beams met at the central peak.

“I wish you’d told me you were coming,” Astrid said over her shoulder. She scooped up an Iguana perched on the back of a chair and put him into his habitat, right beside an aquarium full of hermit crabs.

Bri followed her to the gleaming stainless steel kitchen that took up half of the greatroom. The southern wall was made entirely of glass. Shelves full of plants, flowers, and cages spanned from floor to ceiling.

“I would have cleaned up.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” She shook her head, mesmerized by the sprawling view through the windows. Distant islands emerged from the fog, fringed by a golden halo of light. The scene warmed her to the core, like only the feeling of coming home could. Or maybe it was Astrid’s welcoming vibe. The tension she’d harbored inside about their meeting unfurled. “This is so beautiful.”

“It’s home. When I bought the property I lived in a tipi the first two years. I just finished building the house this past summer. I’m glad you got to see it finally.” Astrid stood beside her, a fat orange tabby cat cradled in the crook of her arm. “So. How are you, Bri?”

The question sounded so familiar, so steady, as if they’d seen each other only yesterday. Bri forced a smile and reached over to scratch behind the ginger cat’s ear, a million thoughts and questions whirling through her brain. “I’m really not sure.”

Astrid squeezed her hand, her expression grave, the hint of tears building behind her velvety blue eyes. She said more with that one look than anyone else could in a whole epitaph. Unfortunately, it made the loss that much more real, seeing it mirrored in Astrid’s sweet face. Bri braced for the inevitable condolences, the thought of which made her stomach flop around like a fish on dry land.

A sly grin broke over Astrid’s face. “This reunion calls for mojitos. They’ll knock you on your ass. I make my own rum.”

She let out a surprised laugh and wiped the tears from the corners of her eyes. “I thought you’d never ask.”

An hour later, they were lounging on the overstuffed sofa, and Bri was gazing into the swirling mint leaves of her second—third?—mojito. The chit-chat and banter between them flowed as easily as ever. She was thankful that Astrid somehow knew that she wasn’t ready to talk about their recent loss quite yet. It gave her time to soak in that elusive feeling of belonging that only your best friend can give you. It coated her with a warm, cozy feeling that she hadn’t known she’d been starving for. For the first time since returning to the island, she felt like she was home.

After the mandatory life catch-up, she wasn’t sure how to broach the subject occupying most of her thoughts. Seeing Kean had unsettled her deeply, and not just his accusation or the things he’d said about the curse. The passion just under the surface of every look he gave her had made her heart race. He’d left her confused, angry, remorseful.

Aroused.

Despite grief and exhaustion, her body had reacted to his smoldering hazel eyes, broad shoulders, and muscular thighs on a visceral level she’d forgotten even existed. How could he still have such a powerful effect on her?

The mint leaves swirled, very un-prophetically, and her next thought slipped out of her mouth without permission. “Why isn’t Kean married with five babies by now?”

Astrid snorted. “Have you ever seen Kean give up on anything? I don’t think there’s been a day since you left that he hasn’t found some way to bring you up. I’m actually kind of sick of you.”

She smiled in reply to Astrid’s barb. She’d always made fun of the mushy stuff. Bri and Kean called her their Prickly Pear. “Ha, ha. I’m serious. How is it even possible that he hasn’t been tagged and bagged?”

“Oh, they’ve tried. He had his party years where I didn’t bother to learn their names. Then he dated a few mundanes. They were nice girls, but no one he would ever get serious with. He had one girlfriend for a couple of years, Zyne, from a good family. She was a Ward too. They did all kinds of crazy shit together — total adrenaline junkies. He seemed ready to commit, but the family couldn’t stand her. Turned out they were right. She made a move for Drustan.”

Bri cringed. Drustan was the middle of Kean’s three older brothers. He ran the business side of their family vineyard in Eastern Washington out of his office in Seattle. Like all the Fitzgerald boys, he was total heartthrob material. And, like all the Fitzgerald boys, he put family before everything. “That must not have ended well.”

“Last I heard, she moved to North Dakota and married a mundane.”

“Ouch. I almost feel sorry for her.” Bri made no attempt to keep the sarcasm out of her voice. She was totally not an adrenaline junkie. And why was she getting jealous over a girl who wasn’t even in the picture anymore?

“You’re not fooling anybody, you know. Least of all Kean. There’s still unfinished business between you two.” Astrid said business like most people would say fellatio.

“So. What am I supposed to do about it?”

“If I were you, I’d opt for hot, sweaty consolation sex.” Astrid winked and bounced the cushions underneath them.

Bri tried to look scandalized, but couldn’t maintain it when one of the nearby dogs chose that moment to jump up and bury his wet nose in her crotch. She burst into a fit of giggles. It had to be the mojitos. Or maybe just the joy of learning she hadn’t lost her best friend. She hadn’t laughed so easily, or so hard since…she couldn’t remember. Recovering some composure, she clutched a pillow in her lap and cleared her throat. “Speaking of Kean, he came to see me last night.”

“I heard.” Astrid hopped up and pulled her apron back over her head. Since Bri had left for New York, she had been to culinary school, studied abroad in Europe, and returned to North Wake to open an incredibly successful gastropub. The smells emanating from the kitchen had been enough to tempt Bri to stay for dinner. That, and she didn’t really want to be alone in Ce-Ce’s house any more than she had to.

“He seems to think I’m in danger from my family curse and need his magical protection. Were you going to weigh in on that at some point?”

“I was warming up to it,” Astrid said, slicing into a filet of fish. “I should have known he would go charging in. I told him how it seemed like you already knew when I called.”

Bri shrugged. “Ce-Ce appeared to me, but that’s not so unusual, right? She was a powerful Oracle. She could have reached out to any Zyne. With our blood connection, I would be easy.”

She watched Astrid’s expression carefully for any sign of what the two of them were keeping from her. No luck. The Edgewoods were legendary for their poker faces. “That takes an enormous amount of will, even for a witch as powerful as Ce-Ce. What did she say?”

“Just my name. She wanted me to see…something. There might have been more. I was still reeling from the regression I’d just had.”

Astrid froze as she bent to place her platter in one of the double-ovens. “Interesting.”

Bri picked at the pillow in her lap. That was the reaction she’d been afraid of. Kean was probably right about the power flare too, dammit. The two probably were related somehow. She knew practically nothing about magic or her heritage. “I never wanted any of this.”

“I know,” Astrid replied with no inflection.

“But?”

She wiped her hands on her apron, appearing lost in thought. “But maybe Ce-Ce sent you that message as a warning.”

Bri rose and crossed the room to sit at the counter while Astrid mixed them another drink. “Whatever you guys aren’t telling me, spill it.”

The wheels were visibly turning as Astrid debated her best course. She finally sighed, dropping all pretense. “This was not just an accident. I can’t explain how, but I know it in my bones. It feels wrong.”

“I know. I feel it too.” Like the ground had crumbled underneath her and she was stuck in that terrifying moment of suspension before plummeting into the abyss. She knew the feeling intimately. “It never feels right to lose someone you love.”

Astrid scoffed. “You’ve been to too much therapy. I mean it feels Zyne kind of wrong. Ce-Ce was acting strange for days before the accident…stranger than usual. Like she saw something coming. There was a bag packed in the car, full of Tara’s clothes. Then there’s the little quandary of the unexplained storm and rockslide. Weather was clear everywhere else on the island that morning.”

The tiny hairs on the back of Bri’s neck stood on end, causing her to shiver. That definitely sounded supernatural. The more she heard, the more she knew that her first instinct had been right. Ce-Ce hadn’t gone crazy and torn her own study apart. She couldn’t have imagined a storm and rockslide into existence. “I can add to that list. Someone broke into the house.”

Astrid dropped her knife. The room went eerily quiet. “What? When?”

Bri told her about the study.

“Fuck.”

“But at least that means it’s not a curse, right?” She could really use some good news.

“A curse would be easier to counter. This means there’s a killer in our midst. We need to step carefully. We don’t want to alert our quarry of the trap we’re going to set for it.”

“Wait. That makes it sound like I’m going to be bait.”

“You’re not bait.” A hard glint glazed Astrid’s eyes. She tossed her knife into the air, end over end, caught it, and chopped a head of cabbage in half with one swipe. “You’re the secret weapon.”

“Okay…except I’m useless magically.”

“That’s bull. Ce-Ce reached out to you. She wouldn’t do that without a purpose. So, the next question is, what does she want you to see?”

Bri shook her head. “I didn’t see anything useful in the vision.”

“Not see—See—as in, use your gifts.”

“I don’t have any gifts.”

Astrid pinned her with her hardest no-bullshit look. “Just because you chose not to use them doesn’t mean they’re not there.”

“I made my choice. I thought there was no going back.” At seventeen, every Zyne chooses to either pursue the study and practice of the Threefold Path, or else have their magic bound. When her time had come, Bri couldn’t get away from the island — or her nightmares — fast enough. She sometimes regretted cutting herself off from a big part of her family, but she’d found comfort in chasing her dreams instead. They were about to come true, too…which was probably why her life was falling apart.

“If you want to go exactly by the book, yeah, but a binding is just a ritual. All magic has counter-magic. Nothing is irreversible.”

“So that’s what you want too? For me to unbind my power?” Bri had been haunted by memories that weren’t hers for as long as she could remember, and she had a feeling that was just a trickle. Did she really want to open the floodgates? What was the point if she ended up locked in a padded cell, or worse?

“It’s still your choice.” Astrid said, “but hell yeah! I want you safe, and I want to find whoever is responsible for this. Now I know you are the key. Ce-Ce never did magic without a reason.”

“Let’s say for a minute that I go along with everything you’re telling me. What about my life? Am I supposed to just put everything on hold? Drop my career? Tell my almost-fiancé, ‘Sorry, honey, I have a magical murderer hunting me. And by the way, I’m a witch’?”

“Well…yeah. This is bigger than just you.” Astrid’s eyes, the color of the night sky, twinkled with unshed tears. “Don’t you think you owe it to them? Don’t you want to know?”

“Of course I do!” But she’d also seen the strain of her mother’s powers. She’d watched it drive her father away, tear their family apart. Powerful Oracles were rare because it was the hardest of the Threefold Paths to master. It could drive you — quite literally — insane. Ce-Ce and Geri handled it better than most, and sometimes even they seemed to be talking nonsense to nobody. If only Astrid could see the blaring Vegas-style sign that said This Way Lies Crazy.

Everything was changing so fast. Her entire world felt unsteady, as if the tracks of destiny were uprooting under her feet and twisting into a new pattern. Now her best friend wanted her to open Pandora’s Box, bursting full with — quite literally — her worst nightmares. She didn’t have the courage to let her escape hatch close all the way. She had built a life in Sydney. A normal, settled, safe life.

But.

Whatever Ce-Ce was trying to tell her, it must be important. If a witch was hunting down her family members, running would do no good. She didn’t know anything about combating magic — she’d never worked a single spell. If other people got hurt because she was too afraid to do her part to uncover a murderer, she would never forgive herself.

“This is the only way to get justice,” Astrid said.

“I don’t understand why the Synod hasn’t gotten involved. Isn’t dispensing justice their job?” The Synod was responsible for guarding the Legacy from the mundane world and upholding the laws of magic use. Her father had left them when she was ten to take a Council position at the Arcanum on one of the nearby islands. Surely he’d heard about Ce-Ce and Tara’s accident. Didn’t he care about his youngest daughter’s sudden and unexplained death? She knew he was cold, but how could he just look the other way?

“The Council will only intervene if there’s firm evidence that magic was involved. As long as Gawain is cock-blocking us with his ‘open and shut case’ bullshit, there’s nothing we can do. But Ce-Ce’s message could be the smoking gun. If we can prove there’s someone behind this, they will have to act.”

Briana pulled herself from the mire of wretched feelings that came with thinking of her father and tried to catch up. “Wait…what does Gawain have to do with anything?”

“Oh, you didn’t know? Pesty Gawainey Waney is not only the town Sheriff, he’s also the coven Sigma. When the Synod speaks, he is their voice.” She mimicked gagging herself.

“Wow. That must really get under Kean’s skin.”

Astrid rolled her eyes. “History’s longest pissing contest continues — you have no idea. Most of the coven would follow Kean if he wanted to challenge for Sigma, but he refuses to be the Synod’s message boy. One thing I will say for Gawain is that he’s a good little stooge.”

“How were you planning to get around that?”

“Ideally? We would break off from the coven, so that he can’t stick his nose into what we’re doing anymore.”

“You can do that?”

“We could, but we need a third. Kean’s a Ward, I’m a Summoner, we need an Oracle.” Astrid gave her a pointed look.

Right. Back to this. “What about Geri?”

“I tried that angle. She said it’s not her place. We figured she knew something we didn’t…”

The rest of the thought hung in the air between them. That explained why Geri seemed confident she wasn’t leaving so soon. But as everyone was so adamant about pointing out — it was her choice to make.

“Well.” Bri shoved her empty glass aside. No matter what it was going to cost, she couldn’t turn her back now. She’d spend the rest of her life looking over her shoulder. “I can give you a couple of days to see if there’s more to Ce-Ce’s message. Maybe that will be enough to get the Synod to investigate. But we have to do it in a way that doesn’t require releasing my binding. Those are my terms. Take them or leave them.”

“Deal, but I reserve the right to renegotiate at a later date.” Astrid smiled as she washed her hands. It lit up her face, and the mood of the whole house seemed to lift. The birds started chirping happily. The plants rustled. “So, how did things go with you and Kean last night?”

Bri scooped up the black kitten batting at her toes and snuggled it under her chin. “Same as always.”

“Anything broken?”

“Just a teacup.” Maybe both of their hearts.

“Huh.” Astrid lifted her eyebrows. “He doesn’t lose control much anymore. You must have really pissed him off.”

Bri nodded. She still knew how to push Kean’s buttons, and once he went over that edge, he was incandescent in his fury. The thought made warmth pool in the center of her body. Not that she’d pushed him on purpose. Mostly not. She hadn’t considered what else had changed in the years she’d been away. He’d grown a half-foot and put on at least thirty pounds of muscle, but the deepest changes were invisible. Kean was a Ward, a Zyne warrior. He’d broken the cup with a tiny slip of unrestrained will. She couldn’t help wondering how much raw power was leashed inside him now.

“Well, I hope he’s over it, ’cause he’s gonna be here any minute.”

Bri hissed in a breath as the kitten sank his claws into her neck. She set him on the chair and rushed across the room to snatch up her purse and dig for her compact and lip gloss. “It was all part of your plan to get me liquored up before telling me that, wasn’t it?”

Astrid grinned, revving her food processor like an engine at a red light.

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