A Lying Witch Book One
The storm raged overhead, pounding through the yard, shaking the trees that stood sentinel by the house, and rattling the windows.
Joan sat at her kitchen table facing Max. She stared down the barrel of his gun and didn't flinch.
Max sneered, his lips curling up hard, accentuating his strong jaw. “It’s time to pay your dues. Joan, you turned from your power. For that, you will die.”
Joan didn't react as the man lifted the gun, as a massive bolt of lightning struck the street outside and lit up the kitchen in a blast of iridescent light. As it spilled through the room, it lit up the man’s massive form. Just as the light receded, it highlighted the shadow behind his left shoulder. A shadow from the past.
She shifted her gaze from Max and locked it on his shadow. As her eyes readjusted to the gloom, she picked out the long broadsword slung at the shadow’s side, the tanned leather hides strung across his back, the glint of power and domination in his eyes.
“Yes, I turned from the future,” she replied. “But only so I could create a better one. You cannot understand that, McCane, but trust me – it’s far more important.”
The real man – Max – stood, pushing up from his chair, his perfectly formed shadow following him – pulling him up, in fact, as it kept a dark hand locked against Max’s shoulder.
Max’s camel-colored leather boots ground into the polished floorboards, his bones creaking with a sound no normal human would make, as his shadow – McCane – smiled mirthlessly.
Joan stared from McCane’s enraged gaze to the muzzle of the gun.
“I'll come for your granddaughter. And mark my words,” McCane controlled Max’s mouth, “she will fall to me.”
“And mark my words,” Joan pressed her old, stiff hands into the edge of her table and rose, “she will not. She will realize what you are. She'll realize what these powers cost. She won't allow you to turn her into a husk so you can finally end your loneliness, McCane. Not my granddaughter. She will not see your future – she will create her own.”
“No. She’ll be mine. I will finally have my perfect seer. I will force her to use her powers until they consume her.”
“No,” Joan’s voice punched high and rattled with a blast. “She will break your curse and save what’s left of you.” Joan’s eyes shifted off the shadow and locked on the real man as he stood opposite her.
And that real man? He fired.
The bullet ripped from the gun and plunged through the center of her chest, disappearing in a flash of light.
Joan was dead before her lifeless old body struck the polished floorboards of her kitchen.
The shadow remained for several seconds, sneering at the old woman’s lifeless, dead body. But McCane could not remain forever. The past would call him back. He would not be capable of remaining in this time until she opened his door.
In the time that remained, he turned and stared upon his other self. Max. The scrap of McCane’s soul that was not locked in the past – his only hope that the future would finally be his.
In a flash of light, McCane disappeared, his shadow shattering apart like a mirror dropping onto flagstones.
Max rocked back on his feet, confusion swamping his body, tearing at his fragile memories like wild animals to flesh.
He dropped the gun as a haze flooded through his mind. The gun struck the polished, blood-stained black and white tile with a clatter, immediately disappearing in a curling wisp of black smoke.
He staggered towards the open French doors and fled into the night.
He would return, for McCane was not done using him yet.
It was windy. Wet. Wild. The biggest, most violent, ugliest storm I'd ever seen tore down the street, the meteorological equivalent of the apocalypse.
I lifted my head up, fringe scattering madly over my forehead as I tried but failed to shelter under the protection of my collar.
I'd made the mistake of parking on the opposite side of the street. Now I fought against the gale as I rushed over and threw myself onto the pavement.
The weather was so damn violent that it must have taken out the electricity along the entire block. I jerked my head up and cast my nervous gaze over the swaying trees. I heard their branches creak with such ominous force it sounded as if they were seconds from flying off and pinning me to the ground.
I didn’t like storms. Never had.
Call it a stupid phobia, but I’d always assumed storms were out to get me. Punishment for when I did something wrong.
And little Chi always did wrong.
Not on purpose. And only ever to make a living.
I hadn’t always been like this. As a kid, I’d been the kind of irritating moral upstart to tell on the other first-graders for swearing.
Now? Now I pulled my phone from my pocket, protecting it with my sleeve as I checked for any messages.
Yep – another fortune request. As soon as I got somewhere dry, I’d have to respond to it.
I instantly began rehearsing the crap I’d spout this time.
You should stay away from people whose name starts with K. You should stay indoors on Friday – otherwise you’ll suffer a terrible accident. If you join a local dating site, you’ll finally find your dream man.
It was always the same stuff.
I shoved the phone back in my pocket, noting the battery was almost empty.
Great. Or as my mom – who always preferred to swear in Chinese – would say, aiya!
Huddling even further under the protection of my large woolen jacket, I reached the right gate.
Despite the fact the night was dark, and cast even darker by the eerie lack of streetlights, I could still see the house before me. It was pushed back from the road, a generous yard leading up to a three-story Victorian style house.
I could barely see it, just make out the shape of its pointed roof and the sweet framed windows. Still, I'd seen it in photos from the will. The thing looked like it was right out of colonial history. That, or some fantasy book.
“Crap, it’s cold,” I muttered to myself as I finally gathered the gumption to shift forward, hand slipping over the chipped paint of the gate. After a few sharp tugs, the thing opened. It was old, and it creaked. And for some damn reason, I heard that creak even over the roar that was the storm.
I felt something crawl up my back, too. The kind of biting, sharp sensation I'd always get if I rode the bus late at night or headed down the wrong alleyway only to hear distant footsteps following me.
The kind of feeling that told me my time was up.
“You're making it up, as usual,” I told myself tersely as I walked with as much determination as I could down the cracked flagstones that led to the house.
A sudden gust of wind snapped a branch in one of the gnarled, old oaks in the yard. There was a god almighty creak and groan as the branch snapped in half and fell several meters behind me. The creak couldn't match my scream. It pitched from my throat as I bucked forward, letting go of the flaps of my jacket as the wind took them and sent them slapping around my arms and legs.
After a few heart-tearing seconds I realized I wasn't dead. I forced my sopping wet shoes to twist on the broken flagstones, and I pushed forward. Another few steps and I made it to the porch. It was old, and every step I took, the wooden boards creaked and protested under my weight.
I winced. The last thing I needed was for this house to require urgent repairs.
I couldn't afford repairs. Hell, I couldn't afford to pay the rates.
So I was going to sell the place, right?
That's what I’d decided on the plane trip over here.
This place meant nothing to me. My grandma had meant nothing to me. I’d met her once when I was five, and then once again when my grandfather had died.
My dad had always told me grandma was impossible to live with. A woman with crippling expectations who pushed everyone away. Of the brief interactions I'd had with her, I'd been able to confirm my dad’s assessments.
I could still remember how my grandmother had stared at me during grandad’s funeral. The way her eyes had ticked disapprovingly over the black shirt and trousers I'd worn. How her eyebrows had descended in a flick as I’d paid my breathy, mumbling, stumbling respects to my grandad.
She barely said two words to me. She’d ignored my dad, too, only acknowledging me once when she’d muttered, “Her father’s daughter then? Such little promise.”
Such little promise.
I'd barely known the woman, and ostensibly she’d had no effect on my life, but that refrain had always stuck in my head.
When I dropped out of college, it had been there – such little promise.
When I'd lost my 10th job in a year, it had been there – such little promise.
And when I turned my hand to fortune-telling, following in my mother's footsteps, it had been louder than ever – such little promise, such little promise.
Now I grit my teeth, reached the door, and fumbled for the keys in my pocket. I pared my lips back. “Such little promise,” I said pointedly to the house as the door unlocked and scraped open.
“Such little promise,” I heard something whisper from behind me.
I spun on my foot, eyes bulging as I searched for someone skulking through the shadows.
Except, there was no one there. Because my mind had made it up, right?
A combination of the nerves still scattering up and down my back and that godawful screeching wind.
“Pull yourself together,” I snapped as I brought a hand up, searched under the sodden collar of my shirt, and drew out the necklace from my mother.
It was a circle with blue, white, and gold enamel. On one side it depicted a golden arrowana, on the other, a tiger with its paw stretched forward. The fish symbolized gold. Prosperity. The tiger, among other things, protection.
While my father was of Scottish descent, my mother was Chinese. It was a weird mix, and left me with the smooth skin of my mother and yet the freckles of my father. And the gritty determination of both.
My necklace, while categorically being the most expensive thing I owned, was also a handy barometer of my mood. If I was trying to attract cash, out came the fish.
If things were going stupidly wrong as they were now? Out came the tiger.
You know in the oval office how there’s meant to be a big circular carpet depicting a bald eagle looking at a quiver of arrows or an olive leaf depending if the US is at war? Yeah, my necklace is like that.
Except for me, not so much the peace – more the money.
I held onto my necklace for a second then let it go, flipping the tiger forward deftly.
Don’t ask me why, but heading into this house felt like breaching the first line of a battle.
Steeling my nerves, I fumbled for the light switch, finding it after bumping into several side tables. Rubbing my knee, I flicked the switch several times only to remind myself that the power wasn't on along the entire street.
“Shit,” I swore under my breath.
I hadn't brought a torch, and I was sure the hire car wouldn't have one. Plus, my phone was almost out of charge.
I could head back out to the car and wait for the power to come on, but who knew how long that would take? On a night as wild and windy as this one, I wouldn't be surprised if the power stayed out until the morning.
But I was a big girl, wasn’t I? All I had to do was stumble my way to a couch or a bed and ride this out. Then, in the morning, I'd explore this place a little and call the real estate agent. The quicker I was out of here, the better.
Even as I thought that, I rolled my eyes. “Why, Chi? What exactly do you have to go back to? A shitty sliver of an apartment and a crappy fortune-telling job at the local Italian bistro?”
Yes. That was my life – hopeless, going nowhere, and essentially worthless.
Such little hope, my grandma’s disembodied voice repeated in my mind once more.
“Piss off,” I snarled at the memory as I stalked forward.
Mistake. I kneed something and plowed headfirst onto the carpet. I didn't roll, but rather ground my face into the rug, chafing my cheek and tearing my jacket.
“Goddammit,” I spat as I reached a hand out, found the wall, and pulled myself up.
Hobbling, I pressed forward, about as pissed off as a girl could be.
Though I told myself I should be thankful that my grandmother had given me this house, the will hadn’t gone to probate yet, and for all I knew, dear old grandma Joan probably had debts as high as the Empire State building. This house would be sold, and I'd be left with nothing but a bruised knee and a bill for flying halfway across the country.
Feeling petulant, I kicked the wall as I felt my way into a room.
The room seemed large, and as I widened my eyes to let in as much light as I could, I figured out it had to be some kind of sitting room. There was the shape of a sofa, a bay window around the front, curtains, and other paraphernalia.
All I cared about was the sofa.
“Bingo,” I muttered as I carefully made my way towards it, knee still smarting. I would kick myself if I’d done anything to it. The last thing I could afford right now was a medical bill.
I managed to reach the couch without further incident and flopped down onto it.
Another big mistake.
Something hissed and squirmed out from underneath me, scratching me right across the thigh.
I shrieked and jerked back as I saw the unmistakable shape of a frazzled cat skitter across the room. It stopped in front of the bay windows, jumped up onto the window ledge, and pressed itself against the glass before turning to me and hissing again with extreme disapproval.
“Aiya, grandma had a cat. Why did no one bother to tell me that grandma had a frigging cat?” I spat as I clutched the scratch along my thigh. Pressing my fingers together, I felt blood. The little prick had gotten me good.
Baring my teeth and hissing back at it, even though I usually liked cats, I felt around the couch and this time checked it meticulously before I allowed myself to sit.
An enormous bolt of lightning suddenly flashed in the street outside, illumination spilling through the bay window and blasting into the room like a shot from a flash gun.
Immediately afterward the largest clap of thunder I'd ever heard hurtled through the room, shaking the walls, shuddering up the floor, even jittering my teeth in my skull.
Unashamedly, I clapped my hands over my ears and screamed again.
I expected the cat to bolt from where it was sitting, to skitter across the floor, and to throw itself into the hallway to find some nice bed to hide under.
It didn't. It just sat there. And as the illumination abated, I saw a flash of its eyes.
It was watching me.
“All right, you creepy prick, I'm sorry I sat on you,” I muttered at it, not caring that my voice shook with nerves – after all, it wasn't like the cat could judge me and there was no-one else to witness my fear.
Still rubbing the spot where it had scratched me, I settled back against the sofa.
At least it was comfortable.
Pushing around with prying fingers, I found a cushion and curled up.
“Oh crap, you’ve got to work,” I reminded myself with a groan.
I plucked my phone from my pocket, the bling pink-and-white Hello Kitty case scratching against the sopping wet fabric of my jeans.
I rubbed my head and groaned again, fingers pausing for a single second before I unlocked my phone.
I needed the money, right?
Yeah, I’d ostensibly just inherited this place, but I still needed liquid cash.
So I crumpled forward, pinned my elbow on my knee, and started furiously texting.
Though the method of fortune-telling had changed in recent years, the content was still the same.
While I worked for an Italian bistro reading palms and cards, I got supplemental work from online fortune-telling sites.
I had a profile on all the major social networking sites. My online profile was Madam Veritas. And I liked to think I was getting a name for myself.
“Alright, what have we got here?” I thumbed along the automated message. “Looking to find love, ha? Aren’t we all.”
Same old stuff. Some poor soul going through troubles turns to a fortune teller to figure out what happens next.
My ma had a tried-and-true method.
Every fortune consisted of three things – the general, the specific, and the common sense.
“Dear Anna,” I texted, “you will find luck on Tuesdays. Be on the lookout for any opportunities. You must avoid traveling on public transport for a week. And you need to join Fetch Me a Heart – a dating site where your dream man is just waiting for you.”
I always sent clients to Fetch Me a Heart – we had a financial agreement. They ran our ads – we referred business back to them.
I hesitated before sending the text. Did I really need this job? It would get me like three bucks. And to be honest, this wasn’t the best fortune I’d ever written. Not to say it wasn’t true – it was totally false. I couldn’t read the future. I could, however, spin a very convincing statistical lie.
I rubbed my closed lips over my teeth as I battled with my tiny scrap of a conscience.
I looked up as I still pondered whether to ignore the fortune request, let alone send this abysmal reply, and I noticed the outline of the cat.
It was still watching me.
“Christ, you’re creepy,” I admonished.
I hit send.
Three bucks in the bank.
I turned my phone off just as the battery died.
I stuck it securely under the couch, tugged the cushion back up, and tried to close my eyes.
Just before I did, there was another flash of lightning.
It lit up the cat.
It was still sitting there and staring at me.
Maybe it was just my overactive imagination, but I swore it shook its head like it was disappointed in me.
Such little promise.
Those three words jumped into my head and lodged between my eyes like a blow from a cricket bat.
I squeezed my eyes closed and tried to ignore that repeating refrain.
But it, like the storm, beat on in my head.
I woke the next morning to a loud, insistent knock on the door.
It took me several seconds to remember where I was. The room wasn't at all recognizable now it was day.
For a few startled seconds, I took in the pleasant décor. There was a nice plush cream carpet throughout the large room. There were several wooden dressers and tables, and a TV stand with a modern flat screen TV that was a heck of a lot larger and better than the crappy CRT in my apartment back home.
Trinkets lined the mantelpiece. Carved gemstones, inlaid abalone boxes, painted china. There were a few artful western oil paintings on the walls and the prettiest silk rug I’d ever seen – a green, blue, and pale red cherry blossom pattern that somehow didn’t clutter the room with all its detail.
There was one glaring omission, though. While there were plenty of pictures and plenty of decorative objects, there were no photos of family.
Whoever was outside knocked again.
“Yeah, yeah, hold on,” I grumbled as I staggered off the couch.
I instantly pressed a hand against my upper thigh where the cat had scratched me.
And that… that's when I realized the cat was in exactly the same position it had retreated to last night. It was sitting there on the window sill in the bay window, propped up on the artful French provincial style white and blue cushions. And it was staring at me. Intently. It looked as if it hadn't moved a muscle.
“Well that's creepy,” I muttered to myself as I hooked a right out of the sitting room door, walked down the hall, and reached the door.
I opened it without any attempt to make myself neat and presentable. Because, hey, there was no chance. Not only had I spent the whole night curled up on the couch, but my hair was wet and matted from the storm, and my pants were torn in several places.
I figured it would just be some neighbor here to pay their condolences.
I opened the door and was greeted by a tall, handsome guy frowning down at me. He was handsome in that unconventional way you got sometimes. I'd seen bigger guys, better proportioned, with sparkling eyes and the kind of smiles that could sell everything from underpants to toothpaste.
I'd seen guys with better jaws and stronger features. But there was something about the sheer force of this man’s gaze that was more compelling than any movie star could muster.
I blinked in complete confusion as the guy almost growled at me. “Who the hell are you?”
“My name is Chi,” I answered, suitably startled.
“Where's Joan?” The guy's brows knotted together as he continued to shoot me the kind of look that told me while I found him intriguing and attractive, he thought I was something the cat had dragged in.
I frowned. “Ah… you don't know?” I said carefully. Despite the fact this guy had been a rude prick so far, he clearly didn't know my grandmother was dead.
I was good with surprisingly few situations. Telling a complete stranger a friend was dead was up there with being able to fly a plane.
“Ah… she’s… she’s….”
I continued to fumble over my words, and the guy continued to shoot me the kind of look that told me I had no place invading his field of vision.
He half shoved past me. “Joan? It’s Detective Coulson.”
I stiffened, shoulders riding up high near my ears.
The guy saw it. His gaze darted over and locked on my obvious tension. “Where is Joan?” he asked through a suspicious growl.
I could hardly keep the truth from him any longer. So I cleared my throat and used my most diplomatic voice. “Dead. She's dead.”
You should have seen his eyes – they practically exploded from his head as his suspicion turned to outright rage. “What the hell did you do to her?” He started reaching for something by his hip, and I didn't need to be a genius to figure out it was probably a gun.
I snapped my hands up and flushed so brightly it looked like my cheeks had changed into neon signs. “She died two weeks ago, heart attack. I’m her granddaughter. She left the house to me in the will. I’m meant to go through her stuff.”
“I think I'd know if Joan had died,” the guy snapped.
My hands still in the air, my heart still racing at one million miles an hour, I shook my head. “She really is dead. If you don't believe me, just look up her obituary on your phone. I think there was even a piece about it in your local news.”
Either there was something about my tone, or the sheer look of non-murderous panic in my gaze, because the detective reached a hand into his pocket and plucked out his phone. He did, however, keep his other hand hovering close to the holster strap around his side.
I stood there in total crazy fear as I waited for him to a) find the news piece on his phone, or b) grow bored and shoot me.
Fortunately, he didn't have an itchy trigger finger today.
I watched his features pale in shock as he obviously found the news piece. He even brought a hand up and clamped it over his mouth.
The guy had been nothing but brutal and rude up till this point, but my heart still went out to him.
“Oh… god… I’m… sorry, I had no idea. I've been out of town for a month.”
I still had my hands in the air and shrugged through an empathetic wince. “It's okay.”
With his hand still locked over his mouth in that familiar move all tough guys do when they're trying to swallow their emotions, he offered me a distracted nod again, then frowned at my arms. “You can put them down, ma’am. I'm sorry for the confusion.” He pushed a hand out. “My name is Detective Dave Coulson. I didn't mean to startle you like that. I'm sorry for your loss,” he added in the kind of tone that told anyone he wasn't lying.
My hands dropped, and I tried to look as if I'd lost something too.
An overbearing grandmother who thought my mom and I were frauds and who’d probably given me this house so that I could watch it slip away as I paid her bills?
Yeah. Not a lot of disappointment there.
Just as I caught myself thinking that, I winced.
Never think ill of the dead. That was one of my rules – one of the few moral laws I hadn’t whittled away over the past few years.
The guy obviously couldn't pick up my expression, because he continued shaking his head in sad commiseration. “Your grandmother was an incredible woman.”
“She was?” I asked before I could shut my stupid mouth. “Ah – how did you know her?” I quickly changed the subject as I brought my hand up and rubbed my arm distractedly.
Aiya, I was cold. To the bone. That's what happens when you spend the night sopping wet on a couch. As soon as I was finished with this guy, I had every intention of finding the bath in this megalithic house and crawling into it for the rest of the day.
“I was a client of hers,” the detective said.
My brow scrunched into a confused line. “Client?”
I had no idea what my grandmother had done for a living. My father had never told me.
It was Coulson’s turn to look at me with a scrunched brow. “You don't… ah… know what your grandma did?”
There was something hesitant about the way he said it. The first thing that popped into my mind was that old Joan was a madam of some description. Then again, I doubted a well-kempt detective would admit that to some stranger on the porch.
I shook my head. “I'll be honest with you – it came as a complete surprise to me that she left this house to me. She hated me.”
Crap – overshare! Complete and utter overshare. I'd already told myself on the plane trip over that if I met any of Joan’s friends, I’d pretend to be the dutiful grandchild. I wouldn't let on that she'd been one of the hardest women I'd ever met. I wouldn't let on that she’d pushed my parents away.
But here I was, the first guy I met in town – a guy who happened to be a detective – and I was blowing my deepest secret.
His brow knotted and his eyes glimmered with a hint of suspicion again. “Really?”
I brought my hands up and wafted them around my face as if I were trying to ward off my stupidity. “I mean, I’d only met her a couple of times as a kid,” I clarified with a messy gulp that saw my throat push against my still-damp collar. “She didn't get on with my mother, so I never really had that much to do with her.”
The guy relaxed a little. “Still, sorry to hear of your loss. How long are you planning on staying in town for?”
I had every intention of packing up this house, selling all the contents, and putting it on the market as soon as I could, but I didn't really want to tell the earnest detective that. I pressed a smile over my lips. “I'm not really sure yet.”
“Give the town a chance to grow on you; you'll be surprised,” he said. Then he nodded and smiled. And there it was again. That attractiveness I'd seen when I opened the door on him.
It drew me in as I offered a wide smile of my own. “Thanks. And sorry again. Sorry you had to find out from me.”
“Yeah.” He dropped his gaze, locked a hand on the back of his head, and stared at his polished shoes for a few seconds before offering one final nod. “See you around,” he said, offering a pause for me to fill in my name.
His lip half-kinked in confusion. “Chi? That’s curious.”
“Ah, it is?”
“It's the name of her cat,” he clarified as he pointed behind me.
I shifted over my shoulder to see that goddamn cat. There it was again, staring at me. Though I usually got along well with cats, I'd never been able to see any great intelligence in them. Sure, they always seemed to know when it was time to be fed, and they were heat-seeking missiles. But the look in this small black cat’s eyes was something else entirely.
Then it struck me – my grandmother had named her cat after me. Did that mean she’d actually known who I was?
I shook my head. As if. My grandmother had probably named her cat after me to piss off my mother.
I offered the detective another smile. “I'm sorry again.”
He turned to go but stopped. He shifted towards me again, his lips pressed flat in a curious smile. “What did you say you did again?”
“Ah, I didn't say. I'm a…” I trailed off.
My mother was proud of her fortune-telling ways. Proud that she'd introduced me to kau cim, or chi chi sticks, at the tender age of four. Proud I’d fallen back on it after I'd lost my jobs. But I knew full well the majority of people thought fortune tellers were complete fakes.
And hey, we were.
I knew some fortune tellers who honestly thought they were helping their patients. Maybe they really could tell the future – or maybe they were just so attuned to people’s emotions that they could offer common-sense advice that their client would otherwise dismiss.
I was one of those fortune tellers who knew full well I was screwing my client over. That’s why I referred to them by the transactional term of client, not patient.
Coulson looked at me pointedly as he waited for me to answer, and I realized with itching disappointment that I had to say something.
“So what do you do?”
“Ah, I am… I am… I'm a fortune teller. You know, cards and palms and things. I work in a restaurant. As kind of an attraction, I suppose…” I started weakly and ended even weaker, my voice garbled and all stuck in my throat.
I expected the stiff-lipped detective to laugh his ass off at me. That, or roll his eyes and walk away. He didn't. He offered me another one of those curious smiles. The kind of smile that drew me all the way in and made me wonder what on earth he was thinking.
“Fortune teller, ha? Just like your grandmother. In that case…” he trailed off as he fumbled with something in his pocket. He drew it out and handed it to me.
It was his card. I accepted it and looked from it to him with a totally justified confused expression. “Ah….”
He gestured towards the card. “I used to hire your grandmother regularly. She helped me with a lot of major cases.” He offered a sad smile. “I’m kind of hoping you can do the same. What’s your number?”
I stood there and blinked at him.
My mother always cautioned that opportunity flies past on the wings of a crane. Catch it, or some other lucky soul will.
He cleared his throat when my pause became far too drawn out and uncomfortable.
“Oh, ah, sorry. Yeah, my number—” I pushed a hand into my pocket to retrieve my card.
For so many reasons.
Firstly, my card would be sopping wet, and the 10-year old inkjet printer I’d used with recycled paper would mean my card would be nothing more than a soggy blob of faded ink.
Oh, I also paused because this guy was a friggin detective, for crying out loud. My business card had a clipart cartoon of a woman staring into a crystal ball, that, on closer inspection was too small and looked more like a marble.
“Ah sorry, I got soaked by the rain last night, so my cards got wet. If you have a pen, I can write my number down—”
Before I could finish asking, he plucked a pen from his pocket and handed it to me.
I turned his card over and wrote on the back.
I handed it back to him, and he plucked out another card to give to me.
“Thanks for that. I know your grandmother died recently, and I’m so sorry to hear about your loss. But I…” he winced in that polite way people do when they know they have to ask you something uncomfortable, “I have a case that’s proving impossible to crack. If you’re feeling up to it – and only if you’re feeling up to it,” he stressed seriously, “I’d sure appreciate your help.”
My mind wasn’t working quickly enough, and my hands kept slipping off that proverbial crane’s tail. “Ha? You want me to work for you?”
He paled, obviously thinking I was indignant that he’d asked the question. He put his hands up. “Look, I’m so sorry. It’s too soon. I wouldn’t have asked, but the case is serious—”
“No, no it’s not too soon. You can employ me,” my mother answered. Her words. Her sentiment.
Never turn down work. Especially work that pays.
He relaxed. “Well, how about I give you a chance to settle in? I’ll call you in a couple of days?”
“Great.” With that, Detective Coulson turned away.
I watched him until he walked the down the garden path to the gate and disappeared into a car on the opposite side of the street.
It took until I turned and closed the door before I realized something.
Something seriously important.
“Crap!” I crammed a hand over my mouth. “What did I just agree to?”
That detective wanted me to help him with a case.
This wasn’t some $3 text where I’d tell him to join a dating site and watch out for the color red.
This would have real implications. Mainly for me.
I slapped a hand on my head, and the whiplash sound echoed down the long corridor.
I’d been way too quick to accept his offer.
I yanked up his card and looked at his number, memorizing it as I muttered it under my breath.
If his number came up on my phone, I wouldn’t answer.
It was as easy as that.
And if he came to the house? Ah, heck, I’d just pretend I was too overcome by my grandma’s death to take up the job.
“Sorted,” I told myself firmly.
Now that little drama was managed, my mind turned to something far more shocking.
Joan had been a fortuneteller?
If you believed my father, the reason for their split was that Joan didn't agree with ma’s fortune-telling. She thought it was for charlatans. Snake oil sellers.
People who meddled in other’s destinies for nothing more than money.
Heck, she was right. But she was wrong about one thing – that didn’t make us bad people. I wasn’t solely responsible for fortune-telling. It had existed long before I’d been born and would continue to exist long after I died.
Fortune-telling was a fact of life. Of the economy. It was human nature that people wanted to find out what would happen next without having to wait around for the future to happen.
Me? I just provided that service, even if that service wasn’t technically fit for purpose. It still provided people with a feeling that they were okay and that everything would work out.
And that? That wasn’t a bad thing.
Which meant I wasn’t a bad person.
Still, Joan had hated fortunetellers, so unless Detective Coulson was playing some cruel game, Joan had been a damn hypocrite.
I went to shove Detective Coulson’s card back in my pocket but shrugged and discarded it in a wastepaper basket instead.
Almost immediately, I felt a prickle crawl up the back of my neck.
I turned to see the cat on the stairs.
It was watching me intently.
Its brow was furrowed, and its almond eyes elongated in a very human expression of withering disappointment.
Cats couldn’t show withering disappointment, though – so it had to be hungry.
“Yeah, yeah – I’ll head to the store after I check out the house.”
I felt its eyes follow me as I pushed past to explore the house.
… I'd never inherited anything. Especially nothing as large as a house. A couple of my friends back in the city had told me that I should stay here. If the house was nice and well-appointed, why not just live in it rent-free and save some money until I figured out what to do with my life?
“Yeah, that's never going to happen,” I told the disembodied voices of my friends as I walked down the long corridor and found the kitchen.
It was pretty, large, too, with an island bench, new appliances, a massive stainless steel fridge, pots and pans arrayed on hooks above the cooker, and a beautiful French-style dresser. Little teapots and cups and hand-painted plates were arranged on the dresser, drawing the eye to their intricate detail.
The whole place was artful, tasteful. And exactly 100 billion miles away from my tiny, scrap of an apartment back in the city, furnished with second hand stuff.
I shifted forward and opened the nearest cupboard, surprised to find it full of baking goods. Back in the way, far distant past, I’d once had a dream of starting up my own bakery. As I methodically shifted through the cupboards, I realized my grandmother had some great gear. Heavy cast-iron Dutch ovens, expensive copper-plated pans, a massive wok that could feed an army, and the best baking gear I'd ever seen.
Once I was finished with the kitchen, I went on to explore the rest of the house. It was just the same. Artful, expensive, decent. I could almost fool myself into thinking she was a nice lady simply from looking through her stuff. Except there was still one massive omission. No family photos. Not one. And as for any photos of me – her only grandchild – it might as well have been that I didn't exist.
I made it through the rest of the house. The three-story building was generous enough that there were ample bedrooms, a massive master bedroom, several bathrooms, a huge library, and quite a few storerooms.
It was around mid-morning when I found the attic. I can't really tell you why I found it. Though I academically understood that all old large Victorian buildings like this had attics because of their steepled roofs, that wasn't the reason I found it. The cat was.
I was standing on the top floor mulling over some trinkets artfully arranged on a credenza when the cat came trotting past. Though it had kept a close watch on me the whole day, as though I was a criminal intent on looting the place, when I'd stopped under the attic, it had started meowing like I’d stepped on its tail. It only stopped meowing after my head jerked back and I saw the opening to the attic. It was one of those built-in ladder ones that you could pull down with a hook. It wasn't properly closed and was open just a bit. There must've been a light on in the attic or something, because a faint glow was filtering out through the gap.
“And what have we here?” I muttered under my breath as I searched around for a pole to pull the stairs down with. I found it in one of the spare bedrooms propped against the wall.
The cat now watched me quietly and intently. Seriously intently. Either the little guy thought I was food, or he wanted me to find out whatever the heck was up there.
“Don't go down that road again,” I admonished myself with a huff. “The cat is just hungry.”
I don't know why, but a knot of nerves formed in my gut as I muscled the hook up to the attic stairs, inserted the pole into the hook and pulled them down.
A loud grating creak echoed through the hallway.
I swear the cat was looking at me with an approving glint in its eye. Hey, maybe this was all a setup, and it planned on locking me up in the attic so it could get revenge for me body-slamming it last night.
Those knots continued to twist around my gut as the stairs clunked to the floor.
“Pull yourself together,” I admonished myself as I took to the stairs lightly.
My mom used to tell me that if you were attuned to the world, you could feel things. Sense histories whenever you entered a new building or traveled to a new city. The strongest energies of all either corresponded to great or terrible things. The more monumental some incident, the more energy surrounded it.
So why the hell did I suddenly get the feeling that this attic would be the most important room I would ever enter in my entire life?
“You're making it up,” I said firmly as I reached the top of the stairs.
… The attic was empty. Or mostly empty. It wasn't full of treasure, wasn't full of heirlooms or old suitcases or stacks of old books. It had a nice enough looking rug, a pretty comfortable leather chair, and an antique table with a wobbly leg.
There was a book on the table. Out of everything in the room, it was the book that caught my attention. It riveted me to the spot as if it had suddenly locked two hands around my cheeks and snapped me into place.
I heard a creak on the stairs and shunted around, heart pounding in my chest as I expected everything from murderers to demons. What I got was the cat. Of course, it was the cat. It rested on the final step and stared at me, its gleaming intelligent eyes locked on mine.
“Man, it's just you. You almost gave me a heart attack,” I muttered, then I admonished myself quickly as I realized that’s exactly what old Joan had died of.
Never joke about the dead.
I turned around, attention settling back on the book. I couldn't help myself. I was compelled by something – some sense that welled up in my gut, spread through my heart, and reached towards the book—
I… couldn’t describe it. It was as if the book called to some part of me that had never been touched before. Some unreachable corner buried deep within my soul.
My heartbeat didn’t quicken, but somehow it became harder, like a drum being pounded with ever-growing force.
Suddenly, I remembered something Joan had said to me once. Maybe it had been at my granddad’s funeral, or maybe I’d just heard it from my mother.
The point was – the saying echoed through my mind with the force of a bellowing blast.
“Follow the path laid out by your heart. Weave together the strands of emotion that grow from your soul and follow them to your greatest destiny.”
You see, according to Joan, each of us has a different set of possible destinies, ranging from good to bad. We get to choose where our life will end up.
You want to be the best possible you? Easy. You don’t have to think. Don’t have to strive. Just follow your heart.
My problem with that? Yeah, your heart beats blood. It doesn’t weave together strands of your destiny. It kind of underpins your circulatory system, so you don’t, you know, die.
Plus, living is about surviving. It’s about making sacrifices. Trading off the good against the bad and getting something in between.
So I fought. Aiya, did I fight that growing compulsion that pulled me towards the book, that told me wrapped up in the fiber of each page was my destiny.
I fought so hard, in fact, I swore I heard something cracking. Like a muscle under strain snapping, or some metal chain clanking.
Suddenly, someone knocked on the front door.
Don’t ask me how I heard it, considering I was way up in the attic, but I did.
I heard it because I felt every knock on the door. Felt it as if somebody had balled their hand into a fist and drummed it against the center of my forehead.
It was so unexpected that I let out a ridiculously loud yelp.
Whoever was knocking paused. “Everything okay in there?” A loud, husky male voice called out.
A jolt of something shot up my spine. It was almost as if I’d swallowed an explosion. It fired across my back, charged up my arms, powered over my legs, and sank into my heart.
My reaction was so powerful, I crammed a hand over my pounding heart.
… All the good fortune tellers always told their clients that you could feel your future changing. You could sense the moment your life would turn down a radical new path. It was a priming technique. In reality, your future was changing every moment. But if you primed a client to be constantly on the lookout for change, it meant they’d be more attuned to opportunities. They’d start to look at things they’d once glossed over.
I told my clients you could even hear change. Maybe a disembodied voice would echo in your mind. Maybe you’d hear the faint tinkling of a bell.
Me? I heard something growling. “Hey, are you alright in there?” the voice repeated.
Again that electric shock of recognition burst through me.
I don’t know why, but I felt like I knew that voice.
Before the guy could growl again, I took a startled breath, realizing I had to answer. “Ah… I'm fine. Just coming.”
I fumbled forward and threw myself down the stairs. Though the book still had its hooks in me, the voice did, too. In fact, I felt like I was being pulled between them. A puppet suddenly tugged between two puppeteers.
I reached the front door just as somebody was opening it. They slammed it right into me, and the heavy door smacked into my nose.
I spluttered, cramming my hands over my face.
Though I was a downtrodden, out-of-luck, crappy fortune-teller, I wasn’t meek.
So I opened my mouth to shout at the guy.
I froze – my body grinding to a stop as every single muscle locked into place with a twang.
No, it wasn't the pain pulsing down my nose from where the door had hit me. Nor was it the fact this guy had a seriously long shadow that suddenly cut out the sunshine beyond.
It was the man himself.
In a single second, my mind took him in. Every detail. From his height to his broad shoulders, to his shoulder-length brown hair and his piercing brown gaze.
But that didn’t actually come close to describing how he really looked. Even a photo couldn’t do his presence justice.
He felt like a god. He looked like one, too.
My suddenly confused mind told me that I knew this man. Or at least some part of me did.
I'd never met him – because, hello, I'd remember encountering a demi-god in the flesh. But there was something about him. Something that set off a visceral, powerful reaction that shot through my body and sent biting tingles cascading into my hands and feet as though they were on fire.
The second he saw me was the second a pronounced frown spread his lips and jutted hard into that gorgeous, gorgeous jaw. “Who the hell are you?” he asked in a voice thick with a strong Scottish accent.
Still surprised and with my nose and cheeks smarting, I replied with my hand crammed over my face. “Hmlili.”
The guy frowned all the harder. “No, seriously, who are you?” he demanded. “Where's Joan?”
Oh god. It was happening again. Another weirdly handsome guy had popped up at my front door demanding to see my grandmother.
Except this was different. Powerfully different. About as different in scale as an ant compared to the whole frigging galaxy.
Detective Coulson had been hot, sure.
I couldn’t begin to understand what my body was doing in his presence. I had no idea if my heart was leaping or shuddering, if my mouth wanted to snap into a smile or a grimace, if the chills racing up and down my back were the first sign of sickness or anticipation.
“Where is Joan?” he demanded.
Though his voice was a growl, there was a distinctly worried edge to it that caught my attention.
And sank my heart.
Despite the insane effect this guy was having on me, I realized what I had to do. Slowly, reverently, I let my hands drop from my face. “Look, I’m very sorry to be the one to tell you this, but Joan McLane is dead—”
At first, the guy didn’t react. Then confusion crumpled his brow as he took a step forward, his shadow somehow growing even longer. “I would know if my future had died.”
Though the guy had a thick accent, he spoke English well. I just couldn’t understand what he was saying.
My grandmother had been his future? It didn’t compute.
Before I could react, he thrust towards me, hooked a strong hand around my arm, and yanked me inside.
I didn’t even have time to scream before he shoved the door closed with the toe of his camel- colored leather boot.
“What-what are you doing? Let me go!” I spluttered, trying to wriggle out of his grip.
Though I bucked and shoved against his fingers, they were unnaturally strong, even taking into account his size.
A wave of dread sank into my stomach, chilling my spine and sinking so hard into my heart it felt like it would explode. “Look, just let me go, please. There’s been some misunderstanding. My grandmother really is dead. She died of a heart attack. They found her in her kitchen. Please, just look it up on your phone.”
The guy suddenly ticked his head to the side, his eyes narrowing and his brow peaking. He looked confused, powerfully confused.
But if I thought his confusion would slow his relentless attack, I was wrong.
He dragged me forward. As he did, he walked past the open sitting room door, and I saw his shadow flit across the rug. For some reason, it seemed longer than an ordinary shadow, broader-chested, better formed. And somehow – some impossible how – I swore I saw a sword at his hip, even though there was nothing there.
My bare feet snagged against the hallway runner, and I stumbled hard against the wall.
The guy didn’t seem to notice or care as we reached the kitchen.
He pulled out one of the chairs with his boot and shoved me into it.
Before I could scuttle forward, sweaty fingers slipping against the edge of the table, he shoved a hand in the back pocket of his chinos and grabbed out a round of electrical tape.
My stomach bottomed out as my heart exploded.
I doubted this guy was an electrician or a handyman.
Which left two other options: he just happened to have gaffer tape on him, or he’d planned this.
He yanked back the tape with his teeth, and in a seriously quick, practiced set of movements, tied my wrists and ankles to the chair.
I was way beyond reasoning with him.
I was way beyond anything other than screaming.
“No one can hear you. These walls are too thick,” he mentioned as he yanked off a short piece of tape and crammed it over my mouth, sticking a few scraps of my fringe in front of my eyes.
I jerked back and forth on the chair, trying to get free, the chair legs screeching over the polished floorboards.
My whole body shook, my fingers and brow were slicked with sweat, and my heart was shuddering so badly I thought I’d die.
I watched as the guy backed up against the island bench and crossed his considerable arms in front of his chest. “Where’s Joan?” His words were choppy, quick, a line of sweat collecting across his brow. He still looked confused, but that didn’t detract from his anger – not one little bit.
I shook my head, tears trailing down my cheeks and slipping over the smooth gray surface of the gaffer tape.
I knew my eyes were already wider than they’d ever been. And yet, they grew wider still as the guy swung his arms down and pushed away from the bench, taking a loud step towards me. “Either you tell me where Joan is now, or I start to play mean.”
I screamed behind the tape, the desperate cry completely muffled. More tears cascaded down my pale cheeks as I tried to jerk back on the chair.
“Who do you work for? Fagen? The Lonely King?” He shifted close and slowly got down on one knee, his arm resting on it as he stared up at me. “Coming here was a stupid mistake, fairy.”
… Though there was so much going wrong – though my mind was splitting itself apart with fear – I still did a double take.
This guy had called my grandma his future. Now he thought I was a fictional creature.
What the hell was going on?
He paused, obviously waiting for me to answer. But, just as obviously, I couldn’t answer: I was still gagged, after all.
Did he think I could talk through electrical tape?
I shifted as far back from him as the chair would allow, the muscles of my neck straining and the tape around my wrists catching the fine hairs along my forearms.
He waited there a few more moments then shook his head. It had such definite finality that it was clear he’d just come to some decision.
He rose and loomed above me.
I’d been mugged once. And I’d been followed down alleys a couple of times.
Payback for all my sins, ha?
But this? I’d never faced anything remotely like this.
My heart didn’t just shudder with fear – it felt like it tore itself to shreds.
I watched in horror as he reached a hand towards me.
My brain told me this was it.
My life was over.
This creep would wring my neck and leave me on the cold kitchen floor.
I saw his fingers reach towards my neck. Saw his short nails catching the midday light streaming in through the windows behind the table. Saw the muscles tense and tighten up his wrist and into his large shoulder.
And I snapped.
Or something in me snapped.
It was literally as if something shattered before my eyes.
I saw sparks cascade through my field of vision. Darting, pulsing, bright pricks of white-blue and yellow-gold dancing around the corners of my eyes.
There. Right in the center of my eyes. Right in the middle of my field of vision.
I saw something else.
Something overlaid right on the top of this scene. Like a picture painted over a photo.
I saw the guy reaching for a flip knife in his left pocket.
I didn’t have time to notice that the blade was covered in glowing runes. I didn’t have time to notice the light lick of flame that danced around his fingers and down his palm.
All I could do was react.
In a snap, the image over my vision stopped.
And, in real life, I saw the man reach for something in his pocket.
Don’t ask me how I did it, but I bucked at just the right moment. Something moved through me, controlling me, saving me. I shifted so hard to the side that the chair lost its balance and slammed into the edge of the table, upending it.
It caught the guy’s side, and he slipped, jerking backward.
The knife slipped out of his grip and arced through the air.
I watched it with a frozen heart as it landed on its side and slid down the table.
I used all my strength to haul myself and the chair to the left, aligning myself with the table.
Just at the right moment, I shifted back a little and somehow caught the knife.
I caught the knife because I could see myself doing it. And as I watched, I could do nothing but follow.
Again, in a flash of dancing sparks, I saw an image over reality.
And I followed it. I followed it until the hilt of that glowing knife slipped into my grip.
The guy was picking himself up from behind the table just as I twisted the knife around and cut through the tape tightly wrapped around my wrists. There was the unmistakable ripping sound of tearing plastic. Then my hands were free, and in a deft movement I ripped the tape from my mouth.
I lurched off the chair, throwing my torso free and grabbing the edge of the table just as the guy punched to his feet.
I shoved the table with all my might, and one of its upturned legs caught him right on the knee cap.
His knee buckled and he fell backward, slamming into the floor with a rattling thump that shook every pot and pan arranged above the cooker.
Screaming, breathing with such an erratic, chest-shredding pace it felt like my lungs would explode, I twisted around and slashed at the tape binding my legs.
Then I ran.
Though I wanted to make it to the front door, something told me to head for the stairs instead.
There was a coat rack by the base of the stairs, and I grabbed it as I swung past, shoving it behind me.
The man growled as he caught it and elbowed it aside.
I stumbled up to the second floor.
God did I scream. I screamed at the top of my lungs with every ounce of vocal strength I could muster.
But he was still right behind me.
Still right behind me.
Though I could have headed to any number of rooms on the second floor, I swung around and headed up to the third floor instead.
Only one thing was going through my mind – get to the attic.
If I were fast enough, I’d be able to retract the stairs and lock them somehow.
I could almost see myself reaching the attic. I could almost hear my feet pounding up the steps. I could even smell the slightly musty scent of the air up there….
“Stop,” the guy bellowed from behind.
I screamed in reply.
Finally, finally I reached the third floor. I threw myself at the open attic steps with all my strength. I stumbled but managed to right myself as I reached the bottom step.
“Don’t be an idiot,” the guy snapped.
Maybe he could sense what I was about to do, because I heard him put on a burst of speed.
Desperate – the kind of desperate that scours your chest and leaves you as nothing more than a hollow pulsing ball of adrenaline – I shunted out a hand and snatched a few trinkets off the sideboard beside me. I lobbed them over my shoulder at him.
I heard a few strike him with satisfying thumps, but he did not slow down.
Reaching the stairs, I threw myself up, the old wood creaking as if it was being beaten by an avalanche.
I did it. I reached the top.
I fell to the side, sweat-slicked fingers hooking over the lever beside the stairs that would retract them.
I pulled it. I yanked it with all my might.
But he reached the base of the stairs.
And he was stronger than me.
I kicked around on my back, tugging on the lever as hard as I could, muscles straining deep into my chest and down my legs.
With an echoing twang, the mechanism that retracted the stairs broke.
I had seconds to roll over and push to my feet.
He threw himself into the attic, those camel-colored boots kicking up the dust.
I stumbled over the chair, slammed into the table, and grabbed the only thing I could – the book.
I jerked around and brandished the extraordinarily light book.
Despite the fact my mind was exploding in fear, I noticed the book weighed nothing more than a feather.
It looked heavier than a cast-iron pot. And yet, I brandished it with the ease of a pen.
The guy’s eyes bulged as they locked on the book. “What the hell? How can you pick that up? That’s the family contract – only a seer can pick that up.”
I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t speak. My throat was filled with the metallic taste of fear. I still managed to jerk my lips open. “Get back. Get back or I’ll—”
I couldn’t finish my sentence.
I had no weapon other than this deceptively light tome.
I was dead.
Just as true excruciating terror punched through my heart and echoed like a scream in my mind, he put his hands up.
Gone was the anger and hatred from his crystalline brown eyes. His angular jaw wasn’t locked with terrifying tension anymore.
He looked completely thrown. He kept staring from me to the book. “Only Joan could pick that book up—”
“I said get back,” I shrieked, voice so cracked and broken I could barely understand myself.
He put his hands up. “Whoa, calm down.”
“Calm down?!” I screamed, words all cracked and hissing. “You attacked me. Now get out, get out, get out!”
He kept his hands up, his fingers spread wide as his eyes opened to match them.
Every scrap of anger was gone from his expression. Only complete wonder and confusion remained. “You… you’re the next McLane seer.”
“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. Now just get out. Get out!” I continued to hold the book high, fingers so stiff against the leather cover, I could have bored holes through it to the yellowed pages beneath.
He didn’t shift his hands from the surrender-position. Nor did he tear his eyes off me. “If you can pick up that book, then the curse has transferred to you. So Joan must be….” He didn’t finish. He couldn’t. A wash of genuine sadness fell down his face until his lips drooped, his cheeks slackened, and his eyes were touched with tears.
Yes, this guy had just chased me around with a knife. Yes, my body was still frazzled by the adrenaline of the fight. But no, I couldn’t stop my usually hardened heart from suddenly softening with compassion.
Though he kept one hand raised, the other trembled as he locked it against his brow. “I forgot that, too,” he mumbled to himself.
He shook his head and returned his attention to me. Slowly he let his hands drop. “I’m not here to hurt you, Miss McLane.”
“Bullshit,” I replied, holding the book even higher.
But a strange thing was happening. The longer I held that deceptively light tome, the lighter I began to feel. For something invisible and indescribable was shifting through it and into me.
My destiny, in fact.
I blinked my eyes as they suddenly felt heavy like someone had tied rocks to my eyelashes.
Far in the distance, I heard something. It didn’t come from the room. Not from the floor below, not from the yard outside.
No, it came from beyond that.
I heard wind rustling through leaves, felt someone standing beside me. They reached out a hand, and I saw a flash of their palm – bloodied, carved with an eye in the middle.
They pressed it against my forehead.
And I, Chi McLane, blacked out.
Just as my body crumpled, and I fell backward towards the desk, the man moved.
I felt him wrap his arms around me, felt him yank me back before I could hit my head on the corner of the desk.
I had just one second to realize one fact – the man’s arms were reassuringly warm and strong as they closed around me.
I lost consciousness.
I would be a different person when I awoke. For this was the moment when I, Chi McLane, serial liar and fake fortune-teller, would change forever.
I awoke on the couch in the lounge room. There was a thick crochet blanket on me, and as I swiveled my sleepy gaze to the side, I saw a roaring fire crackling in the hearth.
I heard footsteps from the other room.
My memories came back to me with a crash and a bang.
The knife. The man. The gaffer tape. The book in the attic.
I jerked up, the blanket tumbling off my prone body and crumpling into a pile on the floor. My pillow sailed out from underneath me, and I tripped on it as I jumped off the couch.
I straightened, locked a hand on the armrest of the sofa, and used it for stability as I propelled myself towards the door that led into the hallway.
I had to get to my car. Had to get to the police.
“You’re up, then?” the guy said as he crossed his arms and leaned against the door.
As my eyes pulsed wide, I lurched back, scanning the room for escape.
The guy simply continued to lean against the wall, looking as casual as it was possible to be. “The front door is locked, so is the back. You could try one of the upstairs windows.” His gaze flicked down my body, his expression totally unmoved. “Somehow I doubt you’d be limber enough to open a window, let alone climb out without killing yourself. Why don’t you just sit back down and rest on the couch, love?”
Though there was something electric about the way he said love, I couldn’t exactly ignore the disdainful look in his eyes.
Still facing him, I began to back away. I couldn’t even begin to describe how hard my heart hammered in my chest. My whole body shuddered from it.
He never shifted his gaze off me, his cheeks smooth and relaxed, his lips thin.
I kept backing off.
“Keep doing that,” he began.
I struck something.
“And you’ll trip over,” he finished.
I tumbled over, collecting the edge of a coffee table. I fell against the usually soft, plush carpet, my back cracking. “Ah!” I screamed.
I heard him let out a disdainful sigh. Then he shifted. The sound of his muscles creaking, of his jeans and shirt rumpling – it was like a gun cocking by my head.
I screamed, this time putting my whole throat into it. I swore my lungs rattled as I gasped for air.
Though I’d collected the coffee table and it had tumbled over beside me, I now crawled over it in my haste to get the hell away. The legs of the table dug into my ribs and thighs, but I didn’t care.
God, I had to get away.
I finally freed myself from the table and punched to my feet. Fortunately, this lounge room had another entry, a door which led to the kitchen. I threw myself towards it with every ounce of energy I had.
Just when I locked the open doorway in my sights, he appeared. Don’t ask me how, but he took one slow step in front of me, blocking the doorway. He’d been behind me half a second ago – several meters behind me. Yet in the blink of an eye, he was right there.
I didn’t have time to stop. He, however, had time to cross his arms.
I slammed into his hard, unyielding chest. He had time to catch me, but instead he snorted as I bounced right off that rock-solid chest and slammed into the floor. Again.
“There’s nowhere to run, love. So why don’t you sit back down before you fall down?”
“Get the hell away from me!” I spat, turning on my foot and running for the other door.
Again, I didn’t make it. Because again he suddenly appeared right in front of me.
I took a staggering step back, eyes bulging wide. I hadn’t heard him sprint up behind me, nor had I felt him brush past. Nope. He’d simply gone from being behind me to blocking my path in the blink of an eye.
“H-how are you doing that?”
He leaned against the doorway and crossed his arms again. He’d looked disdainful before, but now he appeared to be putting more effort into the move. “I still can’t believe you’re Joan’s granddaughter,” he said offhand. “I can’t believe her powers have transferred to you.”
“Just let me leave, please.”
“That would be a very bad idea. Trust me, love, you’re better off in here with me than out there on your own. Especially considering your predilection for lying.”
I blinked, kind of like I’d just been slapped. Was that just an offhand comment, or had this Scottish home invader been talking to my grandmother? My dead grandmother.
Suddenly, I remembered the book in the attic.
I felt pale, so pale it was a surprise my face didn’t drop off from blood loss. “Wh-what happened back there?”
He tilted his head to the side, his arms still crossed. “You mean up there?” He extended a finger and pointed to the ceiling. “In the attic? When you picked up your family’s contract?”
“Aye. A sanctified magical document documenting the details of your curse.” His brogue became thick and hard on the word curse.
I blinked. It wasn’t a normal move; it was more like my eyelids were shuddering. “Sorry? Ma-ma-magical contract?” I couldn’t say the word magical. It became stuck in my throat every time I tried.
He nodded. “Aye, love – magical contract. The hard copy of the McLane curse that has existed for the past, oh, 500 odd years.”
My head felt as if it were full of fog. No, scratch that. It felt like it was full of wool, crammed right in there until every thought ground to a stop.
Somehow, I still managed to shake my head.
So what did he do? He nodded his head slowly. Really slowly. The kind of slow move that showed off his strong neck and chest.
“Curse. I guess your grandma never told you about it. I guess you don’t know that 500 odd years ago Mary McLane, your forbear, lied and turned from her powers,” his tone changed on that word. It became punchy, like a burst of air or a slice of a sword.
I shuddered back.
“Mary McLane refused to use her powers to read the future and lied, that she did. And in doing so, hundreds of people lost their lives. For that, she was cursed. And that curse,” he unlocked his arms then stretched a hand, index finger jutting towards me, “has now transferred to you.”
I shook my head again. It was all I could do.
He just nodded. “Aye. Now Joan has succumbed to it, you, Chi McLane, will shoulder the burden.”
“This is mad. Stupid,” I spat, “totally frigging impossible. Now get the hell out—”
He snorted softly, reached up a hand, and scratched behind his ear. He looked thoughtfully around the room before crossing his arms again.
“… What are you doing?” I asked after he descended into protracted silence.
“I’m looking for something to convince you that this ain’t mad and this ain’t stupid.”
I didn’t have a chance to tell the creep not to bother.
Because a second later he shrugged, unhooked an arm, brought it up, spread his hand, and then….
I jerked back as light spread over his fingers, down his wrist, and along his arm. It looked like those luminous blue flames you get with a blow torch. The only problem was, this guy’s fingers weren’t superheated jets of flame.
“Oh god. Oh god!” I gasped as I jerked all the way back. My knees banged against the couch, and I unceremoniously fell on top of it.
The guy stood there for several seconds, inspecting the flame like you might a nifty drawing you’d just done.
When he shot his piercing gaze back to me and appeared satisfied with my reaction, he smiled, clicked his fingers, and shrugged. “That’s magic, love,” he pointed out as he scratched at the ray of stubble covering his jaw.
I shook my head. Boy did I shake it. It felt like it would fall off and tumble into my lap. “No, no, no. This isn’t possible. It isn’t possible!”
The guy just rolled his eyes at my hysterics. “Calm down, Chi. If you act like this at finding out magic’s real, I hate to imagine what you’ll do when you find out what the curse is. And,” he took a rather ominous step forward, his large, broad back somehow blocking most of the light streaming in from the equally large and broad bay window, “more importantly,” he continued, voice dropping even lower, “what the curse will do to you if you break the contract.”
I was frozen to the spot. Absolutely 150% frozen. I simply couldn’t move a muscle, let alone call the police and try to defend myself from this madman.
… A madman who could produce blue flame and make it dance over his arm as if it were nothing more than playful light.
I swallowed. Or at least I tried to. My throat simply wouldn’t comply – it was too dry, too contracted.
The guy must have taken my silence as interest, because he cleared his throat. “You come from a long line of seers, Chi. Your grandmother Joan was one, as was her grandmother, and her grandmother before that. Only the female line of the McLanes possess true second sight. And only they have a history of abusing it,” his voice bottomed out so low it could have punched through the floor, shattered the house’s foundations, and buried me alive.
Seriously incapable of doing anything else, I just sat there and shook my head. It was almost as if my addled mind thought I was in a dream, and if I only shook my head hard enough, I’d wake up to reality. Trouble was, this reality took another ominous step towards me as the guy now loomed a few steps before the couch. “Wh-what are you doing?”
“Now you are the McLane seer, you need to understand this.”
“Aye, when your grandmother was killed, her powers as a seer transferred to you. Now you’ll be able to see the future and travel into people’s minds.”
I was way beyond shaking my head now. The only thing I could do was sit there, staring at him agape.
Then something struck me. My previously smooth and sweaty brow crinkled with a snap. “Killed? My grandmother wasn’t killed. She died of a heart attack.”
He tilted his head to the other side, a flash of confusion crumpling his brow, but he did not answer.
“None of this makes sense. M-magic and curses! T-th—”
“Is happening, love. And the sooner you accept that and move on, the easier my life will be.”
If there was something – anything at all – that could pull my mind off the stupid unreality of this situation, it was this guy’s overbearing personality. He was beyond irritating. From his disdain to the fact he kept calling me love – all I wanted to do was reach up and hit him.
But then the situation hit me again. From the magic, to the book, I sat back, head reeling. “I don’t understand any of this.” I brought a hand up and locked it over my forehead.
“Really? Have you not been paying any attention whatsoever, lass? Fine, I’ll recap. Your forbearer Mary McLane misused her abilities as a seer, and in doing so, cost hundreds of people their lives. For her crimes, her family was cursed. Every subsequent female seer was fated to carry that curse. The curse prevents them from turning from their powers. For, if they do, if they lie about the future – they will die.”
Bam. The fog had started to drift back into my mind, but suddenly and violently it was swept away with that promise.
I’d die if I told a lie….
Hold on, I lied all the time. My whole job was lying—
I didn’t get the opportunity to finish that thought, because the guy snorted. “I know what you’re thinking – it’s plastered over your face. You’re thinking – why, I lie all the time. Aye, you do,” his voice dropped low in an ominous warning, and that disdainful look returned to his gaze, “but it’s going to be different now, Chi.”
“Different?” I could barely push the word out.
He nodded low. “Aye. For now, the curse has switched to you. And so has the ability.” His tone did a funny thing on the word ability – somehow, it lengthened, as if it weren’t so much sound but more a chain that stretched towards me and wrapped around my throat.
I found myself shivering, violently. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I tried valiantly.
He snorted, clearly amused. “Yes, you do. You used the ability when you escaped from me this morning.”
Suddenly, I kind of remembered the fact this guy had tied me to a chair. And then… I remembered that I’d escaped him by seeing a version of reality superimposed over my sight.
I was still seated on the couch, and I jerked back, shoulders hitting the backrest, dislodging several cushions and sending them tumbling to the floor.
He watched me, intently. In fact, he tilted his head down and let his eyebrows flatten in that way dogs do when they spot prey smaller than them.
“I don’t have any ability,” I tried. “None of this makes any sense!”
“It makes perfect sense,” he said with a frustrated sigh. “And if you’d stop being hysterical for a second, you’d see that.”
“Oh, it makes perfect sense, does it? Who the hell are you, anyway? And how… how can… how can you do that thing with your hand?”
He smiled. It was a stupidly electrifying move. It was stupid, because this guy was a home invader, and we very much were not out on a date.
“I’m going to do you the dignity of assuming you’re talking about my magic,” he said through half a cheeky grin.
Why, what else could he do with his hands? I thought. Fortunately, however, I didn’t say it out loud.
Again he brought his hand up, spread his fingers wide, and sent licking flecks of blue flame dancing all up and down his palm and wrist.
It was a stunning sight, mesmerizing, even. Almost impossible, in fact. No, scratch that – it was impossible. This couldn’t be magic. It had to be some kind of trick. Maybe it was some kind of new technology… an amazing technology that could produce cold flame without the assistance of any visible devices at all….
I reached up a shaking hand and locked it over my mouth.
Finally, my doubt gave way. In its place, I simply froze again.
Though a moment ago, he’d been smiling in victory, suddenly his brow crumpled with confusion again. His eyes darted to the side. “Now where was I again?” he trailed off, confusion obvious as if he’d somehow genuinely forgotten that he was standing here, haranguing me and showing off his magic.
I had to wait almost half a minute until he appeared to remember what he was doing. He shook his head and finally continued, “Anyhow, love, I can do magic, because I’m a fairy. I’ve been contracted to the McLanes… for some time,” he added after a significant pause, one where I couldn’t tell if he was deciding what to tell me, or whether he’d genuinely forgotten when he’d started working for my family.
He shook his head again. As he did, I swear I saw something. A shadow. A big one. It was right over his shoulder, so defined, it almost looked like a perfect version of the man rather than the result of his body blocking out the light.
The man cleared his throat. “I protected Joan from most of the curse. I couldn’t, however, protect her from it in the end. She made a fatal error – turned away from her powers, chose not to see the future, and lied for her own benefit. And in doing so, the curse managed to access its magic in full.” He seemed saddened, truly saddened. It wasn’t just the way his eyebrows flattened, wasn’t just the way his jaw loosened. It was the look in his eyes, the fact his usually strong stance became weak.
“My… grandmother was killed? No, but… she died of a heart attack,” I tried valiantly, although my voice became progressively weaker as my reason gave way to doubt.
He shook his head, that somber look still drooping his eyes. “She was killed. She made a fatal mistake – made a big lie. In doing so, she released the full power of the curse, and it killed her.”
“But – but how are you telling me this? A few hours ago I opened the door to you, and you had no idea that she was dead—”
Before I could accuse the guy of lying, his shoulders deflated. A truly weary look passed through his deep, soulful eyes. “Aye,” he answered slowly, “that’s because I… forgot.”
I stared at him, dumbfounded. “You what? None of this makes any sense!”
He put up a hand before I could launch into hysteria. “It does when you realize use of my powers leads to memory loss,” he answered quietly.
Though a new wave of adrenaline was pumping through my body, suddenly it stopped.
I stared at him.
Anyone would be able to see the genuine sorrow and shame crumpling his features.
My brows clicked together. “What? Your – your powers make you lose your memory?”
He nodded morosely, incapable of making eye contact. “Aye. The first thing you’ll learn in this magical world is that magic costs. It don’t come for free. Nothing comes for free. For me, strong displays of magic cost me my memories. That’s why…” he closed his eyes briefly, “why I forgot Joan’s death. I must have fought to save her, but used too much magic and forgot everything.” He shook his head and paused until finally continuing. “Magic costs all practitioners something. For some, it costs them injuries, for others, it demands more and more of their blood. For you,” he ticked his gaze up and locked it on me, “technically, your magic comes for free,” he said.
Or, at least his lips moved.
For some reason, it didn’t quite sound as if he was speaking. No, as impossible as it seemed, my crazy mind told me his voice issued from the shadow behind his shoulder and not his own stiff lips.
“Everyone else’s comes at a price. Well,” he tipped his head down and stared at me with eyes that seemed to blaze like pits of fire, “thanks to the curse, yours comes at a price, too. Seeing the future and accessing people’s minds won't cost you your memory, it won’t take your blood. But not using your power – turning from it, lying, it’ll cost you your life. For if you act against the curse, you will be claimed, Chi McLane.” Again, it didn’t sound like it was him speaking, but his shadow. Heck, I swore it even grew sharper, almost as if—
Suddenly what he was saying struck me. The magic, the curse, the cost.
I sat there, blinking. Except this time my eyes weren’t shuddering from the sheer break-neck impossibility of this situation. No. Instead, they were filling with tears.
I shook my head. No. No. No! This was still impossible—
“Now, where was I? Oh, aye. If I were you, Chi McLane, I’d stop lying. Today. And do exactly as I tell you.”
I looked at him, incapable of saying anything.
“This is where you ask why.”
“Ask what will happen if you use your abilities to lie?”
“Ask the question,” he insisted in a gruff tone.
I jumped. “What will happen?”
“If you use your abilities as a seer to lie or you turn from them and fail to tell the future, you too will die.”
I blinked. “You mean… if I use that power I used this morning?”
He nodded gravely.
“And what if I don’t? You know… if I just lie…?” I trailed off. I trailed off because his expression became deadly.
He dropped his head in that move that reminded me of a wolf leaning down to stare the lil’ rabbit in the eye before gobbling it up. “This is where you change, Chi McLane. Right here, today,” he stabbed a finger at the floor, “is where you turn a new leaf.”
He hadn’t answered me. Which told me the answer was no – the curse wouldn’t affect me if I told ordinary lies.
Maybe he could see that I was calculating that, because he took another dramatic step forward. Any more of those, and he’d walk all over me.
I shifted back even further.
“You turn over a new leaf, here, now, today. You got that?”
I forced myself to nod.
“My life’s hard enough as it is without the added pressure of cleaning up after your dumb lies,” he added, sounding as browbeaten as an overworked housewife.
I frowned. Suddenly, I realized what he was saying. It was my turn to tilt my head to the side. “Hold on, what do you mean? You… you’re not planning on sticking around, are you? You’ve told me about,” I swallowed, “magic,” I stuttered, “and the curse. So… so you can leave now,” I made my voice more forceful.
He snorted. It was a slow move and rattled his nostrils entirely too much. “I’m not going anywhere, princess. From now until the day you inevitably break the contract and die horribly, I’ll be by your side, protecting you from… shall we say, the unsavory side effects of being a seer.”
I had exactly zero idea what the “unsavory side effects of being a seer” entailed. I concentrated on one fact – one super important fact: this Scottish brute was here to stay.
I paled. “No – you can’t stay! I don’t even know who you are!” I protested as if the fact I hadn’t been formally introduced was the most pertinent fact here.
He snorted again. Somehow, he managed to make the move charming, not vile. “Max.”
I blinked. “That’s your name?”
“Aye. Max. I’m contracted to protect you from the magical world while you use your abilities as a seer to protect people. You see, if you don’t satisfy the terms of the curse and use your powers for good, monsters will come after you, lass. Horrible ones. But me? I can keep most of ‘em back, because I’m a fairy,” he added proudly as he patted a large hand to his large chest.
I cleared my throat. I blinked. I frowned.
My every interaction with this massive Scottish magician up until now had filled me with equal parts awe and fear. Now? Now I kind of got stuck on the fact this brute was a fairy.
“Ah, hold on,” I could barely push my words out; they felt lodged in my throat as if I’d tried to swallow a stone, “you're a fairy?”
He shot me a look. A very specific kind of look. The kind of look that told me I was an idiot for taking that fact alone out of what he’d just revealed to me.
Then he went and crossed his arms again. His incredibly impressive, boulder-like arms with biceps that looked as if they'd been carved out of marble.
“Yeah, I'm a fairy. But I think maybe you should go back to the part where you’re cursed and if you don't satisfy the terms of that contract,” his voice bottomed out low and shook with that unmistakable brogue, “you will be killed. Violently. By monsters.”
I’d been doing a seriously good job of ignoring that fact until now. But there was something about the combination of his crossed arms and that very specific, kind of hateful, judgmental look in his eye that made it impossible for me to turn away now.
I actually yelped, cramming a hand over my chest and pressing my fingers hard against my sternum. “This is insane. This can't be happening.”
He uncrossed his arms and flicked a hand towards me. “Getting upset isn't going to change anything.”
“Upset?” My voice shook with indignation. Which was kind of nice, because at least it wasn't belly-shaking fear.
Still, indignation didn't last. It gave way rather sharply and violently to a sinking feeling that felt as if it would take my stomach through the very center of the Earth.
I sat there, right on the edge of the couch, one hand locked over my stomach as if I were afraid it would split open and spill my nerves all over the ground.
Max continued to look at me as if I were the worst example of humanity he'd ever come across. “Well, at least you're taking this seriously now,” he commented under his breath.
Again, I felt a flare of indignation at his cold, cold words. What an absolute prick. He had the bedside manner of a brick to the head.
I plucked a hand off my stomach, and now it was my turn to cross my arms. Slowly. Angrily. “Just who the hell do you think you are, anyway?”
He snorted. I thought I'd plumbed the depths of his derisive moves, but clearly I hadn't. This one honestly made his nostrils rattle. Which shouldn't have been an attractive move, but somehow on the great big lug, with his half charming smile, he could pull even that off. Which made me even more pissed off.
My shock was passing. And the only reason it could was my natural fight. I was my mother’s daughter, after all, and Mayli never ever backed down from confrontation. If she’d suddenly found out that she was the heir to a magical curse and she’d inherited the true powers of a seer, she would have just sat on the couch, crossed her arms, pressed her bottom lip in, and snapped at this Max to get her some tea.
Okay, so my world had literally been pulled out from under my feet only to be replaced with magic, fairies, and the lying mistakes of my forbearers – but I had to stop letting this situation control me. No, scratch that – I had to stop letting this Max control the conversation.
For the first time since this harrowing conversation had begun, I pushed to my feet. “Well I don't care who you are and what you say – I'm not scared. I don't believe in this curse—”
I didn't get a chance to finish my sentence, because he was upon me.
He’d drifted back towards the fire, but suddenly that didn’t matter. Don't ask me how he crossed the space in between. But somehow, in the blink of a freaking eye, he went from standing across the other side of the room, to standing right in front of the couch. I fell back against it, breath rattling in my chest as I sucked in a wheeze. “What… what are you going to do?” I went straight back into fear mode, forgetting everything my mother had ever taught me. Because, hello, I couldn’t forget that this guy had chased me around my house with a knife!
For a fraction of a second, his hardened expression softened. But not by much. Enough to tell my brain he wasn't about to reach for the fire poker and skewer me. But not enough to promise that he'd drop this.
He seemed to take several seconds to figure out how he should reply. That, or he was enjoying every single moment of my fear. It was probably the latter, considering how much of a right royal prick this fellow was.
Still, while I could insult him in my head, that was the furthest thing from what I could do in real life. I was suddenly struck by the fact that until last night, I'd never experienced true fear. Now it goaded at my heart, plucked at my spine, and threatened to make me black out.
I held on, though.
Just enough for him to slowly, oh so slowly unwrap his arms. He got down on one knee, right in front of me. No, I didn't think he was about to propose. The exact tension crumpling his brow and digging hard into his jaw could not be associated with anything other than blazing indignation. “Your grandmother would have wanted me to protect you. She… tried to save me,” he said, an odd, hesitant pause between his words.
Despite the fact he was still right there in front of me, and despite the fact my mind was still battling the full effects of fear, I had just enough reason left over to appreciate that hesitant pause meant something. Maybe the Scottish fairy had a heart in there, after all. A heart he quickly hid away as he reached forward and locked a hand on the armrest beside me.
He was right there – I mean right there. It wasn’t just that he was close enough to touch (or kiss, if you believed my suddenly tingling lips). Nope. It was that for the first time I was treated to an up-close look of his face. The lines, the scars, the flecks in his otherwise perfect eyes.
It distracted me as I opened my mouth.
He got there first. “I’ve explained everything now,” he controlled his tone, leaned back, smoothed an unaffected look over his face, and cleared his throat. “So now it’s time to get to work.”
It took me a long time to lock on to what he’d said – my mind was far too distracted by the scars along his jaw, down his neck, flecked across his thick eyebrows.
Then something clicked. “Ah, work?”
He nodded, returning to his default position of crossing his arms over his chest. “Work.”
“Ah, I just moved here, I don’t have a job,” I stumbled over my words as I gestured ineffectively.
“Yes, you do. You got one this morning.” Without another word and without any attempt to explain that opaque statement, he turned hard on his boot, retreated from the room, and promptly returned.
He was back way before my mind could tell me to run.
He held a crumpled up piece of thin cardboard in his hand. Standing over me and looming like a pissed off storm cloud he held his hand out, the card still crumpled in it.
I looked from his outstretched hand to his face. It was obvious he wanted me to reach forward and accept the card. I just stared at him.
So he, demonstrating just how rude he could be, leaned forward, plucked up my hand, and pushed something into it.
I jerked my hand back from his large grip, and he made no attempt to stop me.
Then I saw what the crumpled up paper was. A card – Detective Dave Coulson’s card, to be exact.
Max just looked on with a steady expression. “Detective Coulson needs your help to solve a heinous crime. And you’re going to give him your help.”
I shook my head, violently. “No. No, there’s no way.”
He simply nodded slowly. “Oh, there’s every way. Now get your coat.”
“Wait, what? You want to do this now?”
“No, love, we’re going to go tomorrow morning – you need some time to adjust so you don’t scream at passing police officers. I just thought you should get your coat because you look cold.”
I blinked, confused. “I….”
“Also, you should probably start reading through your grandma’s journals. It’ll help you get on your feet. And considering you can barely stand,” he shot me a judgmental look, “I think that’s in order.”
I rested back into the couch. No, it was kind of more like I was a once-soufflé that was suddenly sagging.
All my fight left me in a great big sigh.
Max watched me, and I was struck by the fact that I had absolutely no idea what he was thinking. Which was strange, as I was usually pretty good at reading people. Then again, Max wasn’t a person, was he? Oh no, he was a fairy.
You know when you think you’ve processed something, when you think you’re over some great shock? Yeah, well that was me up until now. Because suddenly it hit me again, right between the eyes.
Magic existed, and I was in a whole world of trouble.
But there was something even worse, way worse. Since a kid, I’d always lied my way out of trouble. But now, if I believed Max, that would kill me….
Max was true to his word. He didn’t drag me out of the house for the rest of that day. Nope, he let me relax (if you could call being under house arrest imposed by a fairy relaxing).
The next morning, though?
Oh, the next morning, he bundled me into the car. Literally. When I tried to clutch hold of the front door, he simply plucked me up and carried me to his car. Somehow, there hadn’t been a soul on the street so no one to hear me scream.
Max drove in silence, ignoring my protestations as if my voice was nothing more than white noise.
“It's not going to happen. Listen to me: it's not going to happen. I'm not a real clairvoyant. I’m a fricking fake. And I'm okay with that. But there is no way I'm gonna go to the police station and help investigate a murder.” My voice cracked on the word murder. Oh boy, did it crack. It shook so badly it could have rattled my throat to pieces.
Max did that thing manly men do whenever they're driving. He didn't turn to look at me despite the fact I was right there beside him. He tilted his head at an angle and looked at me out of the corner of his eye, instead. I could have balled up a hand and punched him. And I would have if I weren't so incapacitated by the idea of what would be waiting for me at the police station.
Last night, I’d managed to come to terms with what was happening to me. Almost. Grandma’s journals had helped a little. They corroborated what Max had already told me, confirming everything from the mendacious Mary McLane to the fact I now had to use my so-called abilities for good or I’d pay the price.
Still, there was no way I was going to help investigate a murder.
“I can’t do this!” I whined once more.
“You can, and you will,” he said, that rich brogue of his bottoming out on the word will.
Now, I’ll admit I’ve known plenty of men in my time. But I have never, ever come across somebody who had such fine control of their baritone. When Max wanted to, he could make his voice sound like a clap of thunder.
I gritted my teeth, balled my hands into fists, and thought about kicking the dash.
Thought about it, that was, until he shot me another one of those truly disapproving looks. Maybe I should have chosen that exact moment to shut the hell up and mentally prepare myself for what would be waiting for me at the police station. Instead, I tilted my head to the side and bared my teeth. “Where exactly do you get off with this, anyway? Why are you taking so much pleasure—”
Despite the fact he was driving, and we were currently negotiating a fairly tricky congested intersection, he tilted his head and turned all the way towards me. It was the slowest, scariest, most damn intimidating move I'd ever seen.
“Ah, the traffic. Pay attention to the traffic,” I gulped through my words.
“You think I need half a mind to negotiate this traffic, let alone deal with you?”
The look in his eyes was way past sanctimonious now. It achieved some pure level of indignation mixed with spite. And it made my blood boil. I clenched my teeth until I thought I would lose all circulation to my lips.
Maybe I wasn’t okay with magic and my so-called abilities yet. But there was one thing I was getting a handle on pretty quickly – Max.
I didn’t honestly think he’d try to attack me like he had when we’d first met. If you believed him, it had been an honest mistake. He’d forgotten about Joan’s death – and the costs of protecting her in her final fight had sent him into a daze for weeks. When he’d seen me at the door, he’d thought I was another fairy muscling in on his turf.
And now I didn’t think he’d actually physically attack me, the proverbial verbal gloves were off. “I repeat, where exactly do you get off? And don't give me that bullshit explanation about you being contracted to protect my grandmother and following through with her final wish to protect me. You wouldn't be here unless you had to be.” It was my turn to act intimidating as I leaned over and sneered right in his face. “So,” I asked once more, “Where exactly do you get off?” I had my mother to thank for my ballsiness. For a little Chinese woman, she never backed down from a fight. Heck, she created most of them, but that was an irrelevant point at the moment. Point was, you never showed weakness.
Well, in the real world. When you were dealing with humans and not jacked up Scottish fairies with biceps that could tear off mountain caps.
Suddenly, we came to a screeching stop. Which was kind of inconvenient, considering I'd been leaning right over to sneer into his face. As he slammed on the brakes, I tumbled forward, and somehow, some freaking how – despite the laws of physics – I ended up with my head in his lap.
“You can find out how I get off,” he said, tone shaking through his body and shifting into me until I finally found the balance to jolt out of his lap.
I pressed myself against the far window, hoping like hell my cheeks didn't turn neon red. Hope, however, was dashed as I felt a fresh new supply of blood blossom over my face and down my neck. Though I couldn't see myself, I could appreciate I would be brighter than the sun.
And no, it hadn't exactly escaped my attention that he’d used the words get off while my head had been buried in his lap. Realizing that, my cheeks became even redder. But, like I’d said, I was my mother's daughter, and I was never one to back down from a fight. I pressed my lips together. “You think you're so smart. You think you're holding all the cards. Well, you’re nothing more than a prick—” I began.
He leaned past me and pointed out the window. He came close enough that his arm all but brushed against the underside of my less-than-considerable bust.
I jerked backward, even though some stupid, mutinous little part of my mind suddenly wondered what it would feel like to touch that rigid, taut bicep.
He didn't point past me for long. Just tapped the window. “You get off here,” he said.
Hello, blush. Move over and meet total complete mortification.
Because yeah, I couldn’t deny the thrill that escaped down my stomach and charged hard through my pelvis as I felt his arm brush against my shoulder. It took me all of several more seconds to actually twist my head and look through the window. Because he wasn't talking about getting off in that sense, was he? Nope.
“The police station is here,” he proffered in that deep brogue.
When I didn't move quickly enough, he leaned past me again, opened my door, and shoved it with a hard move.
My door swung open, and my stomach bottomed out. In my head, I'd kind of been hoping that I'd be able to get out of this some way. I’d be able to state a compelling enough argument about my total lack of ability to psychically find a killer. But hey, in between arguing with this numbskull and convincing myself I couldn't feel anything for him, we’d already arrived at the police station.
My gut did its best version of an Olympic pole-vaulter as it somersaulted and twisted in my torso.
My mouth became so dry, I swore I would retch, and as I shifted my attention and saw the satisfied glint in his eye, I simultaneously wanted to throw up on him and punch him.
I, of course, did neither. A sense of foreboding building in my stomach, I turned and shifted my full attention to the police station.
Snap – I felt the threads of my destiny unraveling. Or maybe they weren’t unraveling – maybe they were tying themselves around my throat so they could strangle me. Because I knew full well that if I stepped foot in that station and pretended I could solve this murder, my life would end. Violently. It wasn’t just that I had no stomach for brutality, it was that I was a frickin’ fake fortune teller. Yes, I’d been able to tell the future for an itty bitty fraction of a second when Max had attacked me, but I had no clue how to extend that ability, nor did I want to. It had been the most sickening, awful experience of my life.
Though all I wanted to do was run away, Max didn't give me the opportunity. Before I knew what he was doing, he marched up onto the pavement beside me and hooked an arm through mine. No, he wasn't proposing an impromptu dance on the pavement. He turned his head down to me, and I appreciated just how stiff his lips were, just how severe and hard his expression had become.
“No turning back, witch,” he said. And though every other word he’d uttered sounded pejorative, witch ticked off his tongue with a quaint, rhythmic quality. “And no lying,” he suddenly added as he shifted towards me and whispered in my ear.
His harsh whisper sent a shiver twisting and jerking down my spine, and only half of it was at the implicit threat. The other half was at his kind of distracting presence.
As soon as I caught my mind thinking that, I wrestled it into a headlock. Get a grip on yourself, girl, I thought sneeringly, this Scottish fairy is a total prick.
Feeling a little better at that rebellious thought, I let him pull me all the way into the police station.
He didn't keep an arm hooked through mine for long. As soon as we made it through the doors, he took a respectful step back. That did not, however, mean he didn't take the opportunity to shoot me another one of those truly fearsome looks.
I wondered if he'd always been this way, or if it was just me. Heck, maybe it was years of working for my acerbic grandmother that had caused his perpetual foul mood.
Then again, I had no idea how old he was. He was a fairy, not a man – even though you couldn’t convince my body of that.
Those thoughts completely distracted me until he brought me to a stop right in front of the counter. He cleared his throat. “We’re here to see Detective Coulson.”
There was a woman behind the counter, and though she was discreet, I could tell she was checking Max out. Any normal person wouldn’t be able to help checking out the fine Scottish specimen. Well, until he opened his mouth and revealed his fatal personality, that was.
I suddenly got the urge to turn to this lady, lean over the counter, and tell her he absolutely wasn't worth it. Oh, and he was also a fairy. Rather than point that out, the woman muttered something to Max that I didn't pick up.
Before I knew what was happening, he flattened a hand on my back, pushed me away from the counter, and led me towards the stairway to our left.
Several detectives walked past us. As soon as they were out of earshot, I twisted and faced Max. “I’m not doing this,” I said through a sharp breath. “There is absolutely no way I can do this. I'm not a freaking clairvoyant,” I snapped, suddenly lowering my tone so no one could pick it up.
He snorted. “You managed to get away from me, didn't you?”
“That was different,” I snapped right back. I trailed off as a memory of that moment slammed into my mind.
For half a second, I swear his expression softened. Maybe a pang of guilt for almost killing me sliced through his heart. But Max did not soften for long. He leaned in and sneered once more. “I don't really care if you think you can do this or not. You will find a way to access your power. I can’t tell you how to do it, because I don’t know. But you will figure it out on your own,” his voice bottomed out, hit the kind of pitching note that didn't just shake through my stomach but threatened to completely destroy the building, let alone my precious little remaining nerve. And again, just for a flash, I saw his shadow elongate.
I turned from him sharply, wanting to hide the effect he had on me.
Before I knew it, we’d already mounted the stairs. Funnily enough, I’d never been to a police station, though I'd received plenty of parking fines. Still, I expected something more modern, something slightly more up-to-date. What I got, was a building fresh out of the 60s that was all concrete, drab brown brick and seriously hideous carpet. I almost blanched as I focused on the truly awful pattern. It was some hideous mix of orange brown and green faux-paisley. Maybe it was meant to distract criminals or have some psychedelic effect on their minds to trick them into telling the truth.
“Here we go,” Max muttered beside me, pointing towards a nondescript door to our left.
“How do you know this is the right place?” I said with a sneer. “Been to the police station a lot?” I snarled.
He twisted his head down and offered me a stiff smile that was about as far away from a smile as you could get. Though his lips were curled, there was zero mirth in the move, just a deep warning look flickering in his gaze. “Yeah, I've been to the police station a lot, but it's not what you think. Us fairies know the difference between right and wrong,” he admonished.
“Then why have you been here so often?” I pushed.
“I came here with your grandmother, following her work as a seer,” he said. As he spoke, he looked right at me. He made zero attempt to hide the fact he was trying to gauge my reaction. And though I had a pretty darn good poker face, considering my job, his direct gaze undid me.
I felt a slight flush take to my cheeks. I jerked my head away again, and he just chuckled. Goddamn him. At the first chance I got, I was going to ditch this fairy and… and what? He’d promised me that there were things out there – dark things – looking for me. Monsters, creatures no ordinary human could face on their own. Though I really didn't want to believe him, I couldn't forget the display of magic he'd demonstrated in my living room.
By the time he reached forward and knocked on the door, I think I was as pale as a snow drift.
“Come on,” he growled.
The door suddenly opened and standing there was Detective Coulson. He got a confused look as he faced Max, but that confusion shifted into outright joy as he saw me. “God, you're here. Thank god,” he said, and he sounded completely genuine. “I thought you’d need a chance to settle in. But I gotta say, I can't thank you enough for coming quickly. This case….” He broke eye contact and shook his head. There was something unmistakably sad about his expression, a little terrified too. And that? Oh, that just made me feel like I wanted to lurch over to the window, open it, and hurl my guts up.
I grimaced and bit my lip. “Look, I don't know how much help I can be,” I began.
Both men completely ignored me as Detective Coulson waved us in.
We entered an open plan office crammed with desks and old carpeted partitions. Again I was struck by how dingy and ancient everything seemed to be.
Detective Coulson waved us over and commandeered a seat for me. He sat me down, and then warily he shifted his attention to Max. “I didn't know you knew Chi?” he said off-hand. And the way he said it – the measure of familiarity – told me that these two gentlemen had met before.
Max shrugged. “I don't know her.”
Coulson frowned. “Then why are you here?”
“Because Joan would have wanted it this way.”
Both men appeared to share a moment and something crossed between their gazes.
I frowned. Before I knew it, Coulson turned away and began to leaf through something in a drawer. Just before I could hope that his case had somehow been eaten up by the paperwork monster on his desk, he found something. He plucked out a manila folder kind of reverentially and set it down on a smaller mound of papers.
There was no denying how tight his chest was, no denying how stiffly he held his jaw as he searched through the folder for something. “I guess I don't need to explain this,” he said. “I imagine, just like your grandmother, you've done plenty of cases like this before. So I'll just give you the photos and give you some time. And as soon as you’ve got any information on the murderer,” his voice became tight, “You let me know, okay? We’re thinking he’s killed at least three other people, maybe up to six. We have to stop this guy as soon as possible before he can murder again.”
I had no idea how terrified my expression was. From the exact feel of my cheeks and lips, I imagined I looked like Detective Coulson had just suggested the impossible. Because hey, he had just suggested the impossible. “Um, look I don't really know—” I began.
“She will do fine,” Max said through a stiff smile as he leaned forward and clamped a hand on my shoulder. It absolutely was not for support. The exact way his fingers weighed down into my muscles was kind of like an anchor locking me in place.
Though my fright had been on the simmer until now, suddenly it hit the boil. “Look, Detective Coulson, I really don't think I have time to—” I began.
Max’s fingers weighed down all the harder until it felt like he was going to push me through the very floor.
“Show us those photos,” he suggested, his thick brogue echoing right by my ear.
Now, I was no expert when it came to these things, but I was the one Detective Coulson had invited to help in this case, not Max. So why did Coulson compliantly leaf through the file, grab some photos and hand them to Max?
Max looked at the photos, his expression grim.
Then he handed them to me.
I screwed my eyes shut, thank you very much. Because there was no way in hell I was going to stare at some photos of a real murder. I didn’t need fresh blood and body bags kicking around in my subconscious.
Still, before I managed to close my eyes and jerk my head to the side, I caught a glimpse of the photo on the top of the pile. I saw a thick grove of pine trees, trampled grass and dirt, and, off amongst the broken branches on a bed of pine needles, a body….
I clenched my teeth and hissed as if I’d just been struck.
“Um, look, Detective Coulson,” I stuttered through my words, but at least I was pushing them out, “I'm really… ah, thankful for your offer,” I tried, “but—” I didn't even get the chance to finish my sentence.
Max leaned forward and clamped a rather heavy, rather pointed hand on my shoulder again. “What Chi is trying to say,” he said as he cleared his throat with all the resonant power of someone blasting on a horn, “is that she’ll look over these files and have an answer for you by the morning.”
With that, Max leaned forward, gathered the contents of the file, popped them back in the Manila folder, tucked them neatly under his arm, and rose to leave.
Detective Coulson looked mildly confused, but rather than take a stand and point out to the brutish Scottish fairy that he wasn't the one being employed here, Coulson shrugged his shoulders. Then he turned a smile on me. “That would be great. Because this murderer,” he shook his head as he trailed off, obviously too overcome by the brutality of the killing to string a sentence together.
I felt cold. Okay, cold was an understatement. I felt like some prick had dragged me into the Arctic, dug a tomb for me, and shoved me under the ice forever more. And which prick had it been? Oh, I only had to swivel my gaze to the left to see him.
In between feeling completely terrified over what was happening, I somehow managed to shoot Max a sneer. He simply smiled back.
Then he gestured to me with a rather rude and dismissive flick of his hand. “Come on, Chi – it's rude to keep the detective waiting,” he said pointedly.
Rude, ha? I’d give him rude. There was absolutely no way under the sun that I was ever going to help out with this murder. It wasn't just that the idea of violent crime made me squeamish. It was that, hello, I was a completely fake fortune teller. Okay… there'd been that weird incident with Max when he’d tried to attack me, but I had no idea how to replicate that experience, nor did I wish to. It had been the most frightening episode of my life. And yet, even though I knew in my heart there was absolutely no way I was going to help out with this murder, I didn't suddenly point that out. If I mentioned that, dear old Max would probably take me home and tie me to a chair again. Because, hey, it wasn't like he had any problems tying women to chairs. Nope, if I wanted out of this situation – and I desperately, desperately did – I would have to be smart.
In other words, it was time to run away from Max, run away from Detective Coulson, and run away from dear old grandmother McLane’s house. I'd had enough of this life already.
I let Max lead me out of the door and back to the waiting car. I didn't say a word to him as he drove me home. Instead, I planned my escape.
He’d told me not to run. So what was I doing? Of course I was running.
Hello, what choice did I have?
There was no way in hell I was going to help with that murder. Because there was no way in hell I was a real clairvoyant. I didn't care what Max said, I didn't care what that book said – I was just an ordinary fortuneteller. And by ordinary, I meant fake.
I won't deny that there was a slight shake to my hand as I ran down the street. I’d decided to ditch my car. Though it would have been quicker than running away on foot, the car was parked right outside of the house, and though Max wasn't technically in, somehow I just knew the fairy would have attached some kind of magical locator to it.
No, it was safer on foot.
That word kept echoing through my mind like a drum beat. And every time it repeated, I felt heavier and heavier.
Because this was the right decision, right?
God, I was covered in sweat. It was early evening, and for some reason, it was goddamn dark already. Point was, though, it was cool, with a brisk breeze whistling down the street. I should not be covered in sweat. But I felt like I was drowning in the stuff. And my heart? Oh, god, I won't even bother describing that to you. It felt like I was seconds away from a cardiac arrest.
With one hand squeezed against my chest, fingers hooking over my collar for support, I continued to run down the road.
I still knew absolutely nothing about this town. Hello, I'd only arrived here several days ago. And for most of those days, I'd been trying to desperately hide from the fact my grandmother had been a true clairvoyant who had a fairy for a bodyguard.
Now I found myself wholeheartedly wishing that I'd planned this escape better. My phone wasn’t even properly charged. The damn thing barely had enough battery to send texts these days, let alone access Google Maps.
I swore to myself under my breath over and over again, sounding like a seriously pissed off puttering engine.
The plan was to find some nice out-of-the-way bus stop, get on said nice out-of-the-way bus, then head back to the airport. From there, I'd scrape together my meager savings and hightail it out of this town, never to return again. I’d put grandma’s house on the market remotely, and I'd slam the door in Max’s face if he ever tracked me down.
I tried to smile at that thought, because it was a pretty good plan, right?
Well, as long as you forgot his dire warning about monsters. I could still see how stretched his face had been when he’d leaned in, that tight frown pressing hard across his face. “They’ll track you down and tear you apart, Chi,” he’d promised.
Tear me apart. God, did that bring up pretty images.
I suddenly shook my head in such a frantic move, I almost gave myself whiplash. I did not, however, stop throwing myself down the street.
Seriously, though, it was freaking dark. For some reason, it felt as if even the streetlights I passed were dimmed. As I flitted past them, I realized their light barely penetrated the shadows. In fact, if I had a paranoid mind – and let's face it, right now I did – I'd say that the shadows were somehow growing. Billowing like storm clouds.
I gritted my teeth so hard I could have fractured them into shards.
I suddenly came to a fork in the road. One option led down a narrow, tightly pressed, winding alley. The other along what appeared to be a wide main street.
I snorted as I took one look at the creepy alley and pushed along the main road instead. I wasn’t an idiot. Run down an alleyway on a night as dark as this, and I sure would be attacked. Not by monsters, mind you, but by the thrifty who prefer to steal other's fortunes than make their own.
I sped forward and reached the main road.
It took me about 10 meters down the wider avenue until I realized one seriously important fact: there were no cars. Heck, as I swiveled my head from left-to-right and I looked at the various houses and buildings that lined the street, I realized they were all dark. No lights on, anywhere. What made it worse – what made it far worse – was that the streetlights dotted along the road were all starting to dim. One to my left suddenly flickered and turned off completely. One across the road turned off with a pop as the globe shattered, sending a fine dusting of glass all over the pavement beneath it.
I ground to a stop. Seriously, it was like I was trying to dig my shoes into the pavement.
My heart sped up to a million miles an hour, my breath lodged in my throat as if it were two hands trying to choke me.
I took a staggering step back, turned hard on my heel, and sprang back towards the mouth of the street.
No, I didn't honestly believe that monsters were about to pop out of the darkness and attack me. But I was an ordinary girl, and any ordinary girl would be seriously freaked out about this suddenly dark and deserted street.
There was a problem. Though I threw myself towards the mouth of the alley, I never reached it. The last streetlight above me exploded. It didn't turn off with a flick, didn't dim with a light hum. Oh no, it exploded like someone had shot it with a Gatling gun.
I screamed, jerking to the side, throwing my hands over my head, and bumping into the lamppost. My shoulder slammed against the metal, sending even more glass showering down from above and covering my hair, exposed hands, and cheeks.
The smell of burnt metal and heated glass filled the air. A second later, it was replaced with something else. Something so strong, it scoured the inside of my nostrils.
It smelt like sulfur. The only reason I knew this, was because I'd visited a volcano in New Zealand once. The smell was unmistakable. It was as if a hole down to the center of the Earth had just opened up behind me.
I kept my shaking, jittering shoulders pressed against the lamppost, because it was the only landmark I had left in this pitch-black street.
The sanity I'd been desperately trying to hold onto violently gave way. With a crash, I realized this wasn’t normal. Normal? Hell no. This was magical. It had to be.
My eyes pulsed as wide as they could, so wide I was terrified my eyeballs would drop out of my skull and fall onto the ground by my feet.
But that wasn't because I calmed down. I heard footsteps. If you could call them footsteps. They were methodical, rhythmic, one thump after another that grew louder as if something were moving closer. I couldn’t say they belonged to an ordinary human. It sounded 10 times heavier than that. To make matters worse, between the stifling beat of my heart, I swore I heard the sound of a metal chain being dragged across the street.
I did not do well in scary situations. Okay, I was pretty good at confrontation – you had to be if you were from my family. I was good at faking it and lying, too. I was not, however, good when I was this shit scared. And I was completely and utterly terrified. My entire body had seized up, my shoulders felt like metal rods, my back like an immovable tree trunk, and my cheeks were so stiff I was certain they'd been replaced by plaster.
Thump, thump, thump. Rattle, rattle, rattle. Whoever was behind me, they were getting closer.
I still couldn't see a damn thing. But then I remembered my phone.
With a shaking gasp, I plunged a hand into my pocket, drew it out, and thumbed the screen on. The light it emitted was disappointingly small. In fact, the only things it could illuminate were my shaky, sweaty hands. I felt a few puffs of my breath shift across the screen, but that was it. Because, yeah, that was the other thing – suddenly it was cold. And I mean fricking freezing. While before a light breeze had been marching down the street, it was absolutely nothing to the almost arctic gale that now furiously chased its way down the road.
I pushed myself even harder into the unyielding support of the lamppost. But what could it do?
I heard something breathe. If, in fact, it was breathing. It was this strange, rattling, wheezing, heavy noise. Kind of like a giant trying to catch its breath through a straw.
“What… what’s out there. What's out there?” I screamed. Maybe it would have been smarter to stay quiet, but I was no idiot – that thing knew exactly where I was because it was coming right towards me.
“Whoever you are, stay back. I’m armed,” I lied. Sure, I had a phone that could barely project its light, but—
I had a phone!
Sure, I was almost out of credit, but emergency calls were free.
Though I could barely control my sweaty hands, I clenched my teeth and used all my determination to control my fingers as I dialed the number.
I drew my phone back and crammed it against my ear, trying to stifle the sound of my terrified breath.
A second later, there was a click as the call went through. “Oh my god, help me,” I began.
“I am sorry. Your call could not be connected. You have broken your contract and will be punished. Goodbye.”
What the hell?
I didn't get a chance to dial the number again.
That thing behind me? It finally caught up.
I heard something. It was kind of like a cross between a door creaking on its hinges and a bird of prey. It was categorically one of the most terrifying noises I had ever experienced, let alone imagined. It tore through me, shaking through that last reserve of my courage and turning me into jelly.
It did do one good thing, though. It broke the spell holding me in place.
Despite the fact I could not see the street and everything was pitch black, I threw myself forward. I stumbled as my foot twisted towards the gutter, and I fell down to one knee. Though pain slammed into my leg and up into my hip, I still threw myself to my feet and staggered away. “Help. Somebody help me. Please, help!”
Even if there were any other people in this magically dark street, I doubted they could come to my aid. For, at that exact moment, the cross between the creaking door and the hawk moved. I felt a flutter of something past my shoulder then a massive resounding thump as something landed right in front of me.
I screeched and pitched backward, stumbling and falling on my ass. I scooted along on my hands and butt, shifting to the side just in time.
Something sliced past my cheek, whistling through the air before it slammed into the pavement a centimeter away from my right arm.
Chunks of asphalt scattered over my jeans, arms, and face, plastering my hair against my neck.
I brought an arm up, tried to hide behind it, but that wasted precious time.
Because the creature attacked again.
There was another whistle of air and something sliced towards me. This time, I didn't have the opportunity nor the luck to duck away. Something slammed against my wrist, wrapped around it, and yanked me forward. Pain shot up my arm, sliced into my shoulder, burnt through my wrist.
I screamed, but there was nothing I could do to fight against the force as it dragged me forward.
The unmistakable heavy metal loops of a chain were wrapped around my hand as the creature dragged me forward through the dark street.
I was way beyond screaming for help now. In fact, my terrified mind realized there was only one thing I could do.
I still somehow had my phone in my other hand.
Calling the emergency services hadn't worked, but what about Max?
I didn't have the mental energy to question the idea, didn't have the foresight to realize he’d be pretty pissed that I'd run away from him.
None of that mattered. Only living did.
Somehow… somehow I managed it. With the last of my energy, I dialed Max.
I didn't even wait for him to pick up. I started screaming. Over and over again.
A second later, the creature dragged me over a particularly rough patch of street, and the phone – my only hope – jolted out of my hand. “No, god, no, please,” I choked as I desperately scraped a hand over the pavement beside me, trying to find it. It wasn't there. It was gone. And, likewise, I was a goner too.
Everything became a blur. A blur of pain. A blur of pure fear. My mind felt cold. So cold it felt like my thoughts had turned into snowflakes whirling through my mind like a blizzard. I had no idea how much time had passed. Seconds? Minutes? Hours? I didn't know where the creature was dragging me to, either. Maybe it wasn’t dragging me anywhere. Maybe this was the monster version of drawing and quartering. Perhaps it would just drag me along until my arm was wrenched right out of my socket or my flesh was dragged from my bone.
I was crying, of course I was crying. But it was erratic. Just hot messy tears streaming down my cheeks as I battled for breath.
I had no hope. No hope at all. There was nothing that could save me now.
Yet, even as I thought that defeated thought, something happened. A flash. Right at the edge of consciousness – right at the very edge of my mind. A bare flash of light. It was like looking up on a starless night to see a shooting star blaze across the sky.
Just when I thought that flash of light was nothing but my imagination, I saw it again. Right there, right at the edge of my awareness. It brought with it that same sensation of splitting up. Suddenly, overlaying the scene, I saw another image. Just as had happened when Max had attacked me in the kitchen, I saw a flash of what was going to happen next. A crack opened up just a few feet in front of me. One that appeared to lead straight down to hell. That, or a place equally as foreboding and fiery.
I watched as the creature dragged me towards that hole with nothing more than a light tug of the chain.
Reality sped up again. It was so quick, so impossibly fast that my head tugged back as if I’d just been in a car crash.
Just as I had seen in my previous vision, something opened up before me. An earsplitting crack echoed through the air, louder and more piercing than anything I had ever heard. It felt like it ruptured my eardrums. And the smell? Oh, the smell was deadly. 10 times worse than the overpowering sulfur still wafting through the street. But none of that, none of that was as bad as the heat. It buffeted against me, slammed against my cheeks, ate into any exposed flesh. I tried to shift back from it, but there was absolutely nothing I could do. Nothing I could do….
Just before I could give up all hope, I saw an opportunity. I saw it play through my mind. And I followed, for I had no option.
There was a latch on one of my chains. Nothing more than a link that had become slightly loose. If I were 10 times as strong, maybe I’d be able to wrap my fingers around it and pull the link apart completely. But I wasn't 10 times stronger. And I didn't need to pull the link apart completely. All I needed to do was snag it on something.
Just as this fell creature dragged me towards that gaping hot hole in the pavement, I saw something. Just along the lip of the hole. A pipe that had been chopped in half. It was strong, it was jutting upwards, and if I was just quick enough….
With another one of those awful creaking hisses, the creature pulled me through the hole. I had a split second. No, who was I kidding? I had the tiniest micro fraction of a second.
I wasn’t usually a lucky girl. I believed wholeheartedly that you made your own luck. Luck wasn't about hanging around and waiting for good things to happen to you. Luck was about getting out there and forcing the world to give you what you wanted. Right now, I had to change my opinion. Because somehow, just at the last moment, I managed to reach up, to shift around, and to push the weak link in the chain over that lip of metal.
Time slowed down. To a crawl. I felt as if I could see every single atom draw to a standstill before my frightened mind.
I saw that loose chain link snag against the hole. I felt the monster tug at me one last time. And as it did, he broke the chain.
The monster let out a rattling shriek as it fell.
Just before I could lose hold and be tugged down with the broken chain, I reached up and wrapped a hand over the metal pipe the chain had snagged against. I got a good enough grip that I managed to keep myself from being tugged down to hell. However, the pipe, like the hole around me, was superheated. As soon as I wrapped my hand around it, blistering pain powered through my palm and ate through my fingers. I shrieked, god knows I shrieked. But I did not for the life of me let go. I reached up with all my strength and wrapped a hand around the edge of the pavement. Then, finding strength I absolutely did not have, I pulled myself up onto the road.
I didn't lie on the pavement, catching my breath. I twisted forward, pushed to my feet, cradled my hand against my chest, and I ran. It was still dark. And I didn't get far. Nope. I smacked into something hard and unyielding. Something that hesitated a moment before it wrapped strong arms around me.
I screamed, trying to push back. That's when I heard an unmistakable brogue rumbling by my ear. “You're safe. It's just me.”
… You're safe… it's just me.
Those words were like a light illuminating the darkness. Max. God, it was Max.
Despite the fact I’d just met this guy. Despite the fact I truly hated him and this entire incident had been about running away from him, I crumpled forward. Unashamedly, I nuzzled the big Scottish fairy’s chest. And, surprisingly, he didn't push me back. Showing the blessed strength of his form, he pulled me up and carried me away.
To be honest, it was all a bit of a blur until we got back home. Though I really didn't want to admit this, the second we returned to my grandmother's house, was the second I truly began to relax. There was something about this place that made me feel safe. Even if this place had been the start of all my troubles.
Max didn't say a word to me in the car. Not a word. He didn’t ask me what had happened, how I'd escaped. Instead, he paid only a scrap of attention to the road as he used the rest to watch me.
I cradled my blistered hand and tried to let my terror wash over me.
Though I was in no state to appreciate this, this changed everything. Even a scientific skeptic wouldn't be able to deny what I’d just faced. Some kind of fiendish monster had tried to drag me down to Hell. And my nascent ability to see the future had been the only force to save me.
Though I was kind of okay to walk, Max wouldn’t let me. As soon as we pulled up in front of the house, he reached around, plucked me out of the passenger seat, and carried me in.
And, no, I was certainly not the kind of girl who preferred to be carried when she could walk. Or at least, on any day but today.
I settled into the reassuring feel of his arms around me, the subtle beat of his breath across my cheek, the rumple of his t-shirt against my arms.
Slowly, I started to appreciate the fight was over.
Or was it just beginning?
Max took me into the lounge room and, hesitating a single second, rested me down on the couch.
He took a step back and crossed his arms. He'd been all sweetness and light up until now, all caring and chivalrous. But now? Oh, that changed in a snap. “I warned you,” he said, brogue dipping down low like far-off thunder.
Instantly, my hackles rose. “I was just—” I couldn't find my words, couldn't find my voice. It felt like it was lodged down in my trembling heart.
“Attacked. By a pixie,” he explained.
Though a second ago I'd been determined to scream at him, that little gem derailed me entirely.
I blinked my eyes and shook my head. “What? Pixie? No way. It couldn’t have been a pixie. It sounded like a hawk, had this chain, was dragging me down to Hell—”
Max snorted. Snorted! I'd almost been killed, and this prick thought it was funny?
You’d think being pissed off would be the last thing my body could manage right now. It was still overcome from the fight for survival, my hand still burnt to a crisp. That, however, didn't stop the bile from rising through my throat.
Max simply raised an eyebrow at this. “It was a pixie. And it wasn't taking you down to Hell.” His accent became thicker on the word Hell.
I opened my mouth. He didn't give me the chance to object.
“It was taking you back to face punishment for your family's crimes.” As soon as he mentioned my family's crimes, it happened again. I swore his shadow elongated, became more intense, more real somehow.
I found myself swallowing.
“What exactly is it going to take for you to take this situation seriously?” he asked, somehow managing to squeeze his arms even tighter across his chest. I swore if he managed to clutch them any harder, he’d squeeze his head right off, and his indignant frown would roll all over the carpet.
Though that was a mildly amusing thought, I stifled it. Any smart girl would. Just as a smart girl would turn, shove off the couch, and run a mile.
I didn’t exactly have that option. I shrunk back, the cushions squeaking behind me as I continued to cradle my hand.
God did it hurt. I usually had a pretty good pain threshold, but, hello, I’d burnt my palm and fingers on the superheated tunnel of a pixie.
In my mind, pixies were tiny little mischievous creatures, kind of like garden gnomes. But the thing that had attacked me? I hadn’t gotten a good look at it, but I’d heard it. It had been massive, heavy, and had carried around a huge metal chain.
Though my mind kept flitting from thought to thought, Max never shifted. Nor did he let up on his grip as he clamped his arms even tighter around his middle. “So, Chi, you taking this seriously yet?”
I jerked my gaze up to his. “You’re an asshole, you know that, don’t you? Do you have any idea how much pain I’m in? Do you have any idea what I just went through?” Though my voice cracked on the word idea, I still managed to push my words out. And it was a good thing, because this – the anger welling through my gut – it was the only thing that could counteract the fear.
“Sure, I know exactly what you went through. I saw most of it,” he revealed.
I… stopped. Kind of froze. It wasn’t the same immobilizing sensation I’d experienced when I’d heard the pixie dragging its chain towards me through the dark. Nope, this was completely different. This was pausing as reality shot you in the head. “You watched? You stood there and watched? You stood there as—” I couldn’t take it anymore. I reached behind me, and even though all I could grab was a cushion, it didn’t matter. I chucked it right at Max’s head.
Though I knew full well Max had the reflexes to get out of the way, he didn’t bother. The cushion thumped against his face, tumbled down his crossed arms, and fell against his camel-colored leather shoes.
“You total freaking asshole,” I screamed as I reached for another cushion and chucked it at him.
Again, he didn’t move. He watched me with the kind of disappointed look that told me I was a complete waste of space.
I didn’t stop throwing things at him. When I ran out of cushions, I reached towards the coffee table. I clutched at the remote and threw it right at that sanctimonious frown.
This time, he reached up, and with lightning skills, caught it.
That didn’t mean I stopped.
“You total bastard,” I shrieked, finally jumping to my feet. “Now get the hell out of my house.” I pointed towards the door.
He didn’t move. He just watched me. Somehow, when he wanted to, he could make his eyes glitter. Now I swore they glinted like light running along a freshly forged blade.
I kept my arm held out, one long, stiff, bloodless finger pointed at the door. “I said get out,” I shrieked.
“I’m not going anywhere, Chi. Neither are you,” he said as he took a step to the side, positioning himself roughly in the middle of the lounge room, giving himself all the time he would need to obstruct either door.
I stiffened again. A burst of adrenaline rushed through me. Except, it was completely different to the fear that had seen me save myself from that pixie. Nope, this adrenaline just led to more blistering anger.
I stood there, facing him, shoulders as stiff as an A-frame as I curled my hands into fists. It didn’t matter that one of my palms was so damaged it felt like it would have permanent scarring. “Where the hell do you get off? It this amusing to you? You left me there to die. Why, to make some stupid point? That I need you to protect me? Well, don’t know if you noticed, jerk, but I got out of that situation on my own.”
… I got out of that situation on my own.
What I was saying struck me.
I’d seen the future again, and it had saved me.
Though that thought was powerful, I kept my expression even. And, by even, I mean totally pissed. I wasn’t going to let this jerk know what I was thinking.
“You think you don’t need me?” he said after a considerable pause. The kind of pause that brought attention to just how stiffly he was standing, to just how angrily he was gazing my way. “And you think I would have let you die? I was there. Waiting. If you hadn’t used your ability to save yourself, I would have stepped in. You have my word on that.”
There was something about the way he said word, something about the way his voice shook. And, more than anything, something about the way he suddenly made direct eye contact. The kind of direct eye contact ordinary people don’t make. Because ordinary people are too full of themselves, too distracted, or too damn polite to stare you right in the eye like they were going to walk through the doors of your soul.
I was ashamed to say that look derailed me. For like half a second.
I spluttered, indignation still shaking through me like a violent storm. “Oh, that sure is reassuring. You would have stepped in if I’d needed it. When, exactly? When I’d been dragged down to Hell to burn to a crisp?”
“I would have stepped in if you’d needed me,” he repeated once more, using one of those infuriating calm tones that told me I was overreacting. Problem was, I wasn’t overreacting.
This jerk had left me to die.
Though I was usually pretty good with confrontation, all I wanted to do was either force Max out of the house, or run away myself.
Yet, as I turned hard on my foot and jerked towards the kitchen door, he was there. Right in front of me. Don’t ask me how he did it. It was magic, of course.
He was close enough that all I had to do was reach a hand out, ball it into a fist, and strike it on his chest.
I usually didn’t strike out. With my words, maybe. With my intelligence, definitely. With my fists? Hello, I was better than that.
As a pang of anger and the leftover dregs of fear spiraled through me, I snapped. I pushed forward and struck him right on that wall of a chest.
He did nothing.
His arms were crossed again, and he didn’t even bother to unhook them to catch my wrist.
He just stared at me, gaze deadly even.
Which just made me all the more pissed off.
“You bastard,” I spat again as I struck him once more.
It did nothing.
So I struck again. I cried, tears streaming down my cheeks, dribbling down my neck, touching my collar. My shirt was all rumpled, torn in places, covered in grit and dirt. I’d been dragged down the street, after all.
And this guy? He didn’t care.
So, as the tears streamed even harder, I balled up my other hand – the one that was badly burnt – and I thumped it against his chest. Except, this time, he reacted. Showing that god-given speed once more, he reached forward and grabbed my wrist. He closed his fingers around it, locking it in place with that large, rough thumb. It was not, however, a violent move. It was almost like he was trying to contain my wrist, not break it.
“Stop,” he said, that brogue shaking through the room. “You’re injured, remember?”
For the first time, that dead-even expression cracked. Just a glimmer of actual concern parted his lips, softened his jaw, and flickered in his gaze.
Which made me all the more pissed off.
How dare he act concerned for me now. He stood there and watched as a terrifying monster dragged me down a darkened street. I didn’t care if it was some pixie, I didn’t care if Max thought he’d been in control – no one should have to go through a terrifying experience like that.
The tears completely soaked my cheeks now. I was surprised I still had that many to cry – I thought I’d gone dry after all the bawling I’d done when the pixie had attacked me.
I tried to yank my hand back, but Max wouldn’t let me. As I took several steps back to gain the purchase I’d need to pull my wrist out of his delicate grip, he just walked with me until he was standing there – right in front of me, leg pressed up against mine, chest a bare half centimeter from my own, and face right there – close enough to kiss.
Close enough to kiss. With any other guy, in any other moment, that would have been an appropriate thought. Now? It should be the last thing on my mind.
“Chi, you’re injured. And let me repeat once more – I would have stepped in if you’d needed it. You didn’t. Because you saw the future, right? And you acted on it, right?”
I wanted to jerk back and hit him again. Instead, I was kind of stuck there, staring up at his face. No, I wasn’t stuck because of his perfect jaw, because of his high cheekbones, because of those glittering eyes. I was stuck because of something far deeper. That same connection I’d felt when he’d first arrived on my doorstep.
“Just calm down,” he added in a low, quiet tone. “And realize what you just did. You used the same ability you did to stop me. You saved yourself from that pixie, Chi. And let me tell you, that’s quite a feat.”
“I… I don’t care,” I said, trying to hold onto my anger. My anger? It was slipping away like water through parted fingers.
“Yes, you do. Though you’re a liar, I think you’ve always wanted to tell the future, right? There was a time you actually believed it was possible, wasn’t there?”
I shook my head vigorously. “Absolutely not—”
He snorted. “You’re like an open book, Chi McLane. You may think you’ve got a good poker face, but not against a fairy.”
I clenched my teeth, deliberately letting my gaze darken. “I do not care what you think about me. Now let me go.”
“Why? So you can storm out of the house and get into more trouble? Haven’t you even asked yourself why that pixie was after you?”
I opened my mouth. I stopped.
Like it or not, that was a seriously good point.
Though I didn’t want to show any sign of weakness around him, I couldn’t stop myself from swallowing.
Though momentarily his gaze looked victorious, that expression shifted to one of controlled concern. “It was the curse, Chi. I told you this would happen.”
I shook my head, but it was a weak move. “You’re lying. That pixie…” I trailed off.
What? Just saw me walking along the street and thought I looked like a pretty good target?
I didn’t know how pixies operated, because I didn’t have any idea what a pixie was.
I started to feel overwhelmed. At first, it was slow. Just a cold sensation spreading through my chest. Just a few prickles at the base of my spine, just my heartbeat quickening. Then? It hit me. I had no idea what was going on.
I started to shake, I felt sweat slick across my brow, and all at once, I felt just how damaged my hand was.
My mother would be disappointed in me if she could see me now. To her, you never showed weakness. You saved face no matter the situation, because face was the most important thing in the world.
Right now, I lost it, as I literally broke down.
Though a second before my knees had been standing just fine, now they buckled as if I’d aged a hundred years.
I did not, however, fall flat on my face. Instead, showing that same other-wordly speed, Max the fairy pushed in, wrapped a hand around my back, and pinned me there. Sure, it meant I didn’t fall over. It also meant he was practically embracing me.
Usually, I didn’t go for men like Max. I didn’t go for those big, burly types. I went for personality. Who cared if a guy could pump iron – could he actually hold a conversation?
But like I’d already said – from the day dot, I’d always had this type in my mind. This perfect guy. And, like it or not, Max fitted him to a T. And right now? I was pressed flat against that perfect man. His chest pushed up against mine, torn flaps of fabric and scraps of buttons snagging against the smooth fabric of his gray T-shirt. But hey, what did I care about the fabric of my top, or his, for that matter? What struck me were the bodies beneath. The curve of his chest, the hard angle of his pelvis. All of it. It all slammed into my mind, pulsed through my veins until I felt my cheeks redden and my fingertips and lips tingle.
The moment – if this was a moment – didn’t last. Though I swore Max took the time to stare right into my eyes, he then pressed forward, looped an arm underneath my knees, and picked me up for the second time in half an hour.
He walked over to the couch and unceremoniously dumped me on it.
Any lingering tingles dancing across my lips extinguished like sparks thrown into the ocean.
“Hey,” I protested.
“You’re safer on the couch,” he responded as he took a step back and crossed his arms. Why did he cross his arms so much? Was he trying to keep his heart from bursting out of his chest? Was he worried I’d see right through him if he didn’t take up that default defensive position?
Though a second before I’d been completely distracted by Max’s perfect, sculpted body, now I scowled. “You don’t get to control the conversation by picking me up and throwing me on the couch.”
“Oh, we’re having a conversation now, are we? How refreshing. Ready to start asking questions rather than running?”
I stiffened. “Yeah, I ran. Because any sane person would run. I have no idea what’s going on. Murderers and monsters and fricking clairvoyants? None of this makes sense—”
“I told you this would happen,” his voice dropped again, and that unmistakable disappointed look flitted through his dark gaze.
Again, it forced me to take a swallow. A hard one. One that distracted me from my anger long enough for me to realize just how disappointed he looked. And no, though my mind wanted to tell me his disappointment was coming from hatred, it seemed to be coming from something far softer.
“You have any idea what would have happened if that pixie had kidnapped you? Do you have any idea where it would have taken you?” he asked.
I parted my lips to scream at him once more that he could have saved me rather than standing around watching, but I didn’t.
Because I started to feel overcome again. I felt sweat slick across my brow, felt the beat of my heart rev up.
“I should have seen this coming. One look at you and it’s obvious you aren’t willing to accept responsibility.”
“Responsibility?” I stuttered. “Why exactly is this my responsibility? Why should I be responsible for the sins of my forefathers? I don’t care if one of my great great great grandmother’s did something wrong and got cursed. Why exactly should it affect me?”
“You’re such a child,” he commented. “You’re not going to argue your way out of the situation. Saying it isn’t fair isn’t going to change anything. Only accepting responsibility for the curse will.”
“Piss off,” I answered, showing just how much of a child I was.
He scowled. “You can fight me all you want, but you cannot disappoint Detective Coulson. He requires your assistance with this murder, and you will give it to him. For, if you don’t, not only will you aggravate the curse and more monsters will come after you – but you will let a murderer ago. And he will murder again. How much blood do you want on your hands until you take this seriously?”
My lips were open, but I couldn’t move them. I couldn’t speak. Heck, I couldn’t breathe. Because what he’d just said had burrowed through my heart.
Blood on my hands. A murderer who would kill again….
I was seriously good at dodging responsibility. I’d been doing it my entire life.
But there were small responsibilities like not taking out the trash or handing out little white lies to desperate people for cash. Then there were big responsibilities – like ensuring someone didn’t get murdered.
My head started to spin. “I… I don’t even know how to find this murderer. I’m not a clairvoyant—”
“You saw the future when that pixie attacked you. It’s the only reason you’re alive.”
“I thought you said you’d step in…” I said as I took a rattling breath, as the situation began to mount and mount and crush me.
“I would have,” he said, voice achieving that same shaking note of certainty that could convince even the most dedicated of doubters. “But the point remains. You saw the future and saved yourself. And you will do the same again. You will use your abilities to find that murderer.”
I crammed a hand on my chest, tried to push my fingers right through my torso so I could clutch my heart and still it. “Or?”
He didn’t answer at once. And goddamn, it was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life.
“Or?” I pushed again, voice still rattling like the chain of that pixie.
“There is only so much I can do for you. If you turn away from your responsibility and go against the curse, you will….” He didn’t finish.
“What?” My voice was far-off, strangely calm. It wasn’t because I was calm – it was because I was starting to disassociate. My brain had finally had enough. Too much stress, too much pain, too much crazy.
“If the curse activates in full, your ability will not be able to save you. You will die. It will be painful. It will be excruciating. And you won’t deserve it,” he added.
And I won’t deserve it…. Those little words were like a hook. A hook that snagged under my chin, pulled it up, and made me stare right into Max’s gaze.
Though my first knee-jerk reaction was to label the guy a brute or a monster, I couldn’t do that now. Not when I was staring into his eyes. For a fraction of a second, I swore we aligned. I swore I reached right in and touched—
He suddenly unhooked his arms from around his middle and took a rather dramatic step back. “You’re injured,” he commented, breath kind of short as he turned hard on his foot and headed towards the kitchen. “I will retrieve medicine. You will remain on the couch. It is not suggested that you use this opportunity to run. Because there’s nowhere left to go, Chi McLane.” With that, he walked out of the room.
And me? Though maybe I should have ignored his ominous warning and run, I just lay there. In fact, I repositioned myself, plucked one of the cushions off the floor, and closed my eyes.
It didn’t help with the spinning. My thoughts continued to twist around as if they’d been plunged into a vortex.
I was a witch. I could tell the future. And if I didn’t solve this murder? Apparently, I’d be next.
It took Max a while to rustle up the medication, as he put it. I expected him to lug back some kind of first-aid kit. You know, with bandages, ointments – sensible kinds of things.
It’s not what I got. He came in, trailing mud over the carpet, a bunch of random plants in his arms.
I frowned so hard, my lips could have dropped off my face. “Ah, what is that stuff? Where’s the first-aid kit?”
“Here,” he said, lips curling into a shadow of a grin.
I narrowed my eyes and stared at him cautiously. “Have you been mucking about in the garden? Do you know how much pain I’m in? Plus, now I pause to think about it, shouldn’t I go to the hospital? These are definitely third-degree burns.”
Max arched an eyebrow. “They are relatively superficial, and once I’ve finished, you will heal quickly.”
“Once you’re finished?” My stomach gave a kick. It wasn’t the promise – it was the fact that he slowly walked towards me, got down on one knee, and arranged the muddy herbs at the base of a couch.
“Ah, what are you doing?”
“Isn’t it obvious?”
“Unless you’re taking this opportunity to learn flower arrangement, then no, it isn’t obvious.”
He shot me that look – that one that told me he wasn’t amused. It brought entirely too much attention to that perfect, chiseled jaw. “Perhaps you should lie back,” he suggested.
My stomach kicked again. This time, it was a surprise it didn’t kick all the way out of my torso. “Why?” I gulped.
“The magic works easier when you’re horizontal,” he said, tone neutral, expression giving nothing away.
The magic works better when I’m horizontal? Oh boy.
Before my imagination could become too active, Max began chanting something. It was low, it was rumbling, and I couldn’t catch a word. His voice dipped in and out, almost as if he were in a car driving away from me only to turn and speed back.
He arranged the plants neatly all the way around the couch. Then, using the mud that was still trapped in the tracks of his boots, he dug two fingers into the tread, liberated some dirt, and started tracking it in a great big dirty circle around the couch.
“Hey, that’s going to be a nightmare to clean—” I began.
“Relax,” he commanded.
“What? This carpet is cream, and that mud—”
“Is less important than your hand. Now, for the first time in your life, Chi McLane, shut it.”
A surge of indignation climbed my throat, and yet, for some reason, I pressed my lips closed.
That’s when I started to hear it. The weirdest noise. It was kind of like a radio that had been switched to the wrong channel. Static, but static that half sounded like it was a crackling fire, too.
Once Max was done dirtying the carpet, he stopped, right in front of me.
“Close your eyes,” he commanded.
I complied. For like half a second. Then I blinked one of my eyes a fraction of the way open.
“Close your eyes,” he demanded once more.
“All right, all right.” I closed my eyes.
Suddenly, I could hear it louder. That static. I started to be able to discern voices amongst it, too. It was honestly like a radio station, now. One we were tuning into until we got a better signal.
Though Max was still chanting, I became less and less aware of it as I concentrated on those indistinct voices.
I started to smell things, too. Incense, burning candles, melting wax, roaring fires, a clean hearth, chopped grass, driving rain.
It was such an assault on my senses, I wanted to spring from the couch.
Max didn’t exactly give me that opportunity. He weighed a hand gently on my shoulder. “Keep your eyes closed,” he warned.
I didn’t bother to snap at him this time. Because I swore I couldn’t feel the couch underneath me, anymore. It felt like I was lying down in pastureland. There was long grass beneath me, soft, slightly damp with dew. And the air smelt of fresh rain. I could even feel sunshine playing across my feet and hands and cheeks. “What… what is this—”
“Keep still,” Max snapped once more.
“No, wait, what's happening?” I couldn't deny the sensations anymore. I wasn't in the lounge room. I was on some pastureland, in full sunshine.
Problem was, I didn’t remember walking here.
Fear started to twist its way around my gut once more.
“Calm down, Chi,” Max's voice changed – becoming soft, becoming genuine.
I let myself be led along by his voice, let it soothe me, calm me like a gentle caress running from my shoulders down my back.
It must have distracted me long enough, because a second later, I started to hear crackles. That indistinct static sharpened, and I heard a voice – deep, rumbling, powerful. It took me a second to realize it was Max's voice. But Max was still chanting. Yet somehow, there were now two of him.
I seriously wanted to open my eyes now, but Max did not give me that chance. Suddenly, I felt him leap forward and clap a hand over my eyes. The move wasn't exactly hard, and yet his determined grip gave me the distinct impression that he had no intention of removing his hand until this was done.
“What are you—” I began.
“Just trust me,” he said.
… Trust, ha? That was a hell of an ask coming from him. Or at least, that's what my cynical mind pointed out. The rest of me? It allowed itself to be lulled by that rumbling tone, by that soft pressure around my face and forehead.
I started to feel magic. Which was saying something, as before several days ago, I hadn't known magic existed. But the distinct sensations now rushing through my body could not be mistaken for anything else. They were wholly different to ordinary feelings. Hotter, faster, more powerful. And so goddamn invigorating. They pressed down from Max's hand, darting into my jaw, rushing over my lips, gushing down my throat, and sinking through my chest until they made it to my shoulder and poured down my arm to my hand.
If Max hadn't been there, I would have sprung to my feet. Heck, I would have rocketed into the air.
Instead, I shunted back against the cushion, overwhelmed by what I was feeling.
And yet, I could not be distracted from the distinct sense of a grassy meadow beneath me, a beautiful blue sky above.
So this was Max's magic, ha? His home?
Far away on the edge of hearing, I swear I heard something – hoof beats. Someone calling. Someone shouting. Someone—
Suddenly, Max jerked his hand back. He cleared his throat, and I heard him take several steps back.
I didn't dare opened my eyes.
In fact, I waited there until I heard him clear his throat. “It's done, you can open your eyes now. Get up, go have a shower, change your clothes, get something to eat,” he added.
Wow. What a difference. He’d gone from gently placing his hand on my face, to snapping at me like I was an unruly teenager who needed to be brought into line.
I opened my eyes and swiveled them towards him.
Of course, he had his arms crossed. And of course, his expression was completely neutral with just a hint of mean. “I healed you,” he said.
I was about to snap, “well done,” in a sarcastic voice, when I brought up my hand.
My jaw dropped open. No, I hadn't suddenly transformed into one of those cartoon characters from the 50s. But yes, my jaw still did drop open.
Because my hand? It was healed. I had caught several glances of it before I lay down. It had been completely blistered, red, charred. A sickening mess.
Now? Sure, it was still a bit red, and there were still a few blisters, but as I experimentally opened and closed a fist, I realized it was almost completely healed.
I was not the kind of person you could surprise easily. Because even if you managed to surprise me, I always kept my poker face. But my poker-faced suddenly took a back seat to my utter shock.
“How,” I tried to struggle through a dry throat, “how the hell did you do that?”
For a fraction of a second, a satisfied smile spread across Max's face – then he controlled it. “Magic. Do I really have to state the obvious?”
I didn't snap back. Couldn't. Because, hello, I’d just been transported to some grassy pasture somewhere while the Scottish fairy had healed my third-degree burns.
I sat there, staring at him.
It took a while for it to become uncomfortable, took a while for him to snort. “What? This is all it takes to make you speechless. I'll have to remember that.”
I’d never paused long enough around Max to assess his reactions. Even though my job as a fake fortuneteller pretty much required me to read people day in, day out.
Now as I struggled to find the breath to put my surprised thoughts into words, I watched. And I realized he was being defensive. Not rude – okay, he was being rude. But he was only being rude because he was trying to hide something from me.
I felt my eyebrows knot together and press hard on my eyes. “Just what are you exactly? What kind of magic was that? And what was with the pasture and hooves?”
His eyes pulsed wide. He tried to hide it – and he managed to do it quickly. But it wasn’t quick enough.
My eyebrows pressed even harder over my eyes. “It was kind of like,” I paused as I tried to ascertain what I was thinking, “It was kind of like I was back somewhere,” I said. Why I’d said the word back, I didn’t know. It wasn’t as if pastures and horses only existed in the past, and yet I had the impression that the scene I’d just felt had been old. Very old.
If Max had looked defensive before, it was absolutely nothing to what happened to his face now. It stiffened, his lips drawing in until it looked as if he would swallow them. “You saw that?”
“No, I felt it, heard it…. But what was it?” It was a testament to how surprised I was that I was checking my indignation and anger at the door.
I suddenly blinked, the move so pronounced, it was like I was a theatrical actor.
How the heck had I known that I’d just been transported back to Scotland? And I did know it – it wasn't some wild assumption, some ridiculous fantasy. Nope, that had been Scotland.
“Max, where was that place?” I pressed once more.
He put a hand up to his head. “I can’t remember what you’re talking about,” he answered in a flat tone.
I stared at him, trying to gauge if Max really had forgotten – an apparent consequence of using his magic to heal me.
He simply held my gaze.
He still hadn’t explained how his so-called forgetting worked. What exactly did he forget if he practiced magic, the immediate past? Or did it randomly take chunks out of his memory like a bird pecking at scattered grain?
“How's your hand?” Max asked after a considerable pause where it was clear he was catching his cool once more.
I wouldn’t be distracted. “I could hear horse hooves, someone shouting. They sounded angry,” I continued, not willing to let this go.
Max cleared his throat, and by god did he clear it. It sounded like he was trying to cough himself a hole right through his trachea. “You're healed now. Go and have a shower. You smell,” he said, without pulling punches.
On any other day, I would have retorted that he smelled worse. Instead, I cast my mind back to that strange scene. “That was your home. It was Scotland, wasn’t it? Why do I get the impression it's from the past, though?”
His expression – which had only just become controlled – practically shattered. For the shortest fraction of a second, I thought I saw somebody. Somebody I'd never seen before. The Max who wasn't a fairy, the Max who wasn't a friggin’ nuisance.
For the shortest, shortest fraction of time, I thought I saw the real Max.
And maybe the real Max appreciated what I was doing, because he suddenly turned so hard, he dislodged a great clod of mud from the tread of his shoes right onto the carpet. He strode towards the kitchen door without another word.
I twisted around on the couch, locking a hand on the back and rising to my feet. I was steady. In fact, I felt great. Though my hand still kind of smarted and was a little burnt, the rest of me felt fantastic. It was as if I was fresh from a sunny holiday.
I pushed up to follow him into the kitchen, incapable of letting go of this conversation.
I heard his gruff growl from somewhere near the kitchen door that led out onto the patio. “Go and have a shower. I have things to do. You'll be safe here,” he added after a thoughtful pause. Then he closed the door. No, okay, he slammed the door, loud enough that it echoed right through the house.
I placed a hand on the door frame and craned my head into the kitchen.
It was just in time to see his departing form striding across the backyard.
… What the hell had just happened?
Again I brought up my burnt hand, but this time, I didn't focus on the burn. I focused on the barely discernible charge of magic that still pulsed through my veins. That magic – its fiery embrace – had been the most thrilling experience of my life.
I kind of waited there, lingering by the door, hoping he would come back and reveal to me exactly what had happened.
He didn't. In fact, it was soon clear that he would be out for the night.
I let my hand drop, and that's when I noticed just how dirty and torn my clothes were. “Crap, I look like a mess.” I made the mistake of leaning forward and smelling my blouse experimentally. I jerked my head back and winced. “I smell worse.” Which made sense, as I’d been dragged through the gutter.
Still, Max was right. It was time for a shower, a change of clothes, time for a snack. And then? I would just have to wait and see.
It was when I was in the bath that something happened.
I was relaxing under the bubbles – of which there was a mountain, as I’d accidentally tipped in half of the bubble bath.
I sighed and reached for the glass of water I’d rested on the ledge. I wasn’t looking where I was reaching, and instead of clutching the glass, my fingers brushed against something else.
I frowned as I picked it up.
… It was a photo of a body bag, a tousle of blood-caked hair visible through a gap in the zip.
My stomach kicked as I threw the photo onto the floor.
I jerked back, water sloshing around me as my eyes pulsed wide with fear.
And that’s when the sparks started.
I brought a hand up and waved it in front of my face. It didn't stop the sparks. Another one appeared just above my eyes, then one down near my lips.
“Ah, what the hell is going on?” I stuttered.
There was no one to tell me.
The sparks kept bursting into life, covering my field of view until the bath disappeared.
I screamed, still capable of feeling the bath beneath me, still capable of feeling the water sloshing around my body. But that? That was starting to wane.
As the sparks converged, everything changed. I wasn't in the bath anymore. Instead, I was in a field. It was dusk, or maybe it was dawn – it was hard to tell. It was hard to tell, because my body was aching as if I'd just run a marathon. My breath was choppy, my heart pelting so hard I was just waiting for it to pop.
The field I was in was adjacent to a sparse forest – spruces, birches, closely knit pines.
I… I was running. Desperately. I felt my head twist over my shoulder as I tried to spy something behind me.
But there was nothing.
Suddenly, I saw a shadow. Flitting towards me, fast, so goddamn fast.
My heart sped up, pumping so hard, it felt as if the muscle would tear.
Nowhere to escape to.
God, there was nowhere to escape to!
“Help, help!” I screamed. There was no one to hear me.
Whoever was behind me, he chased me deep into the forest. The further I ran, the thicker it became. The sparse pine trees and spruces that had been dotted around the field became dense. I could feel the knotted roots beneath me, feel the pine needles as they scratched across my face and arms.
God, no, he was going to find me. I had to escape, had to escape!
I was no longer aware of the bath beneath me. Hell, I was no longer aware of who I was. The only thing that consumed me was the drive to get the hell out of here while I still could.
I could hear his breath, it was more even than mine, practiced, calm. Mine? It tore out of my throat like a wild animal trying to escape my body before it could die.
I ran desperately through the trees, but it was getting darker, and the trees were now so cram packed together that the canopy was impenetrable.
I threw myself against branches, and they cut my skin, tearing across my arms, hands, and cheeks.
I was slowing down. My body couldn't take any more.
He was right behind me now. Right behind me.
I screamed, words incomprehensible – voice nothing more than raw, pitching, primal sound.
I felt something behind me, and he reached out a hand. He clasped it around my wrist, and he pulled me around.
The move was so sudden, it cut my momentum, and I swung hard to the left, arm smashing into a trunk beside me.
I heard a crunch as something gave way in my shoulder.
The pain was nothing whatsoever compared to the fear as he loomed above me.
There was barely any light in this dense forest, but as I shifted to the left, as he drew something out of his pocket, his face tilted towards a thin line of illumination that made it through the dense canopy above.
I saw his face. Saw his eyes, his nose, his jaw, saw his slack lips pressed into an easy smile.
Then I saw the knife in his hands.
He let my wrist go. Before I could double back, draw up a foot, and kick him, he clutched a hand around my throat. He twisted me around, dug a knee into the small of my back, and pushed me forward just as he used his arm to reveal the long line of my throat.
There was nothing I could do. The fear gave way to one last final burst of adrenaline-fueled desperation.
Then the guy leaned in to slit my throat.
I woke up screaming. Which was a bad idea – as I'd slipped into the water of the bath.
Before I could drown, two strong arms reached in, wrapped around me, and pulled me out.
My mind was frozen. It couldn't spin, it couldn't move – it was stuck on the fact that my throat had just been slit.
I wasn’t usually a frantic kind of girl. Even if something truly bad happened to me, I tended to hold my composure. Pixies aside, at least. But right now, I became hysterical.
I thrashed at the arms that held me, tried to jerk back, tried to look for a weapon. Or at least, until I heard his unmistakable voice by my ear. “It's fine. It was a vision. You're not dead. It's fine. I'm here.”
His words were like lights leading me out of the darkness.
Slowly, achingly slowly, I stopped thrashing, my body started to still, my arms fell limp, and I managed to suck in a much-needed breath. Though I choked from the water still lodged in my throat, I opened my eyes.
There I was, wrapped in Max's tight embrace.
I had been in a bath, after all.
I was usually a private kind of girl. There was a time and place for getting naked, and it sure as hell wasn't now.
But at the moment I didn't care. I couldn't process the fact that I should be embarrassed. All I could do was wrap my shuddering, shaking arms around Max as I tried to convince myself that my throat had not been slit.
“It was a vision. You saw the murderer, didn't you? It was probably not a good idea to access your skills while you were bathing,” he added, voice controlled.
“You're the one who told me to wash,” I managed, which was quite a feat considering how addled I was. But apparently, my brain could never pass up the opportunity to react to Max.
He didn't push me back, not for a long time. When it became obvious that I wasn’t going to lose my balance, fall back, and bang my head on the taps, he took a discreet, careful step away. And, surprisingly, he kept his eyes on me. Or maybe it wasn't surprising – I was as flat as a brick wall. Sure, I had a great stomach, and I was super slim, but there was nothing going on up top, if you know what I mean.
Nonetheless, Max never let his eyes slip. He reached around, grabbed a towel, and furled it around my shoulders.
As soon as the soft fabric touched my skin, I huddled against it, grasping it as tightly as my stiff white fingers could.
“Dress. I’ll stand right outside the door.” With that, he turned, those camel-colored leather boots sloshing through the water that absolutely covered the bathroom.
It was a complete mess. There were suds up the walls, water in the sink. Hell, somehow I'd even managed to get some on the windowsill.
Still shaking, but not about to fall over, I managed to make my way out of the bath. And I stood there shivering on the bath mat.
… What had just happened?
What the hell had just happened?
I’d been running through a forest, then some guy had—
“Don't think about it, yet. Just get dressed. I'll tell you what happened,” Max promised.
He’d tell me what happened, ha?
I let that promise distract me as I dried and dressed. I didn't do a thing with my sopping wet hair, just let it trail over my sweatshirt. Now was not the time for neatness.
Eventually, I mustered the courage to reach forward, twist the door handle, and open it.
There he was, leaning against the wall, head tilted my way. His expression? Well, I couldn’t quite make it out. Was it concern? Anger? Some messy combination of the two?
Maybe I should have blushed at the fact that minutes before this guy had plucked me naked out of the bath. I didn’t. I reached up a hand and protectively clutched it over my throat.
I swore I could still feel the knife going in.
“It was nothing but a vision,” he said as he pushed off the wall. Then, for the first time ever, he dropped his arms. He didn’t cross them defensively – he let them rest by his sides. Sure, the move was kind of awkward, and I could tell his arms would far prefer to be tightly wrapped around his chest. And yet, it seemed there was nothing for the fairy to be defensive over at the moment.
Concerned? Sure. Because that really was concern flickering in his gaze. I could see it now I was closer.
I kept a hand pressed over my throat, pushing my fingers against the skin, almost as if I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t been slit from ear-to-ear.
“It was just a vision,” he said in a far clearer tone, speaking with a slow kind of certainty you would use on a child.
I shook my head. “It was so real. I was there. I felt this guy—”
Before I knew what was happening, Max reached forward and gently pried my hand back from my throat. Though I shivered, it wasn’t out of fear – just the thrill of his touch.
I looked up into his gaze.
“It was just a dream,” he said once more with the kind of certainty you could not deny. “But it was also a clue,” he added.
“… A clue?”
“To the murderer. Am I correct in assuming that you momentarily possessed the victim’s body?”
Slam. I hadn’t thought about it like that until now. Suddenly, I realized what had happened. And that just made the situation all the more horrible.
I clamped a hand over my mouth as I threatened to retch.
“Oh god, oh god,” I said through my stiff, wet fingers. “I was in the victim’s head? Oh god. But that doesn’t make sense – she’s dead. Dead. I saw her body in that photo. Wait, how did that photo get there? What-what—”
“It got there because I put it there,” he revealed. “But that’s not important. What’s important is that you accessed the victim’s mind. And before you ask, yes, you can do that. It’s an extension of your ability to see the future. You saw her being killed, right?”
I usually had a cast-iron stomach. I was the kind of girl who could eat two-week-old Chinese take away from the back of her fridge. I would just brush off the mold or chew around it.
Well, right now, that cast-iron stomach did a flip. I lurched backward, headed straight back into the bathroom, and unceremoniously threw up in the sink.
When I’d evacuated the contents of my stomach, I looked up and caught sight of myself in the mirror.
I was a mess. A total mess. My bedraggled, wet hair hung around my face. My eyes were sunken in, and my cheeks were as white as snow.
I heard Max clear his throat from the doorway. “The effects will wane.”
“Effects?” I asked in a shaky voice as I washed my mouth and locked my fingers over my lips.
“The directness of the murder will pass with time. But now, while it’s fresh, you must take advantage of this fact. What do you remember?” He took a direct step into the room.
I sliced my gaze to the side and watched him in the edge of the mirror.
Though this morning all I’d wanted to do was run from this murder, now I couldn’t. Because I’d experienced it. It was locked in my body, in my hands, in my throat.
Without bothering to dry my hand, I clutched my neck once more, almost as if I were trying to keep it whole.
“Chi, I know this is hard, but it is imperative that we catch this fiend. He will murder again. Do you want that—” he began. But he stopped.
I ticked my gaze towards him once more, eyes narrowing. I knew what he’d just been about to say – did I want that kind of blood on my hands. The old Max – the brutish, arrogant prick I was so very used to now – he wouldn’t have hesitated to insult me. The guy standing in my doorway? He had to be someone else, because there wasn’t a hint of anger crumpling his brow, just concern.
It distracted me enough that I managed to straighten, pat my mouth dry after rinsing it with water, and turn. I knew I looked awful, I didn’t care.
I twisted around, walked over to the bath, and sat on the edge.
“Careful,” he snapped as he reached a hand out, “the floor is still wet.”
Wet? That was an understatement. The floor was inundated. It was like a tropical island that had been swallowed by climate change.
“I’ll be fine,” I said as I proved my point by not falling and cracking my head.
I let my eyes drop, let my gaze lock on the sodden bath mat. I watched the remnants of the bubble bath pop and turn to scum. “He chased me through some kind of forest. There were… pine trees, spruces, birches. It was close-knit. I tried to run away, but…” I suddenly stopped, incapable of saying another word as my throat seized up. I could feel it – I could feel it again. The knife going in.
I squeezed my eyes shut as I clamped a hand so tightly around my throat, I started to choke myself.
Suddenly, Max was there, right by my side, hand weighing down into my shoulder. “It's not real,” he said once more, his brogue thicker than usual. I swore it shuddered down his arm and rattled the bath.
Still, with a hand over my throat, I tightened my grip and swallowed. “I tried to get away. I couldn't—”
“It's not you,” he said with a soft voice. “It was the victim.”
I opened my mouth and hesitated before I said, “She… she tried to get away,” I said, trying the word she on for size. But it didn't fit. Yes, maybe technically I'd been possessing the victim’s mind momentarily, but it didn't feel that way. It felt as if I had been chased through that forest as if I had been split from ear-to-ear.
I squeezed my eyes so tightly shut, I started to see stars spread across my vision.
It reminded me how dark it had been in that forest. How thick the canopy was.
“Any details, do you remember any more details?” I heard him crouch down beside me, felt his hand lift slowly off my shoulder.
I almost wanted to reach forward, grab his hand back, and place it exactly where it had been on my arm. Because there was something so reassuring about his touch, about the pressure, about the heat shifting through my already sodden sweatshirt.
“Chi,” he prompted when my silence went on too long.
“The canopy – it was dark. The trees were thick. It was night, but none of the light could make it through. I was running into trees, kept snagging my arms on the branches—”
“Chi,” I heard his brogue by my air once more, “it wasn't you. It was the victim. Now quickly, before the sensations dwindle, what do you remember of your attacker?”
He’d just said I wasn't the victim, then he turned around and said your. I didn't bother to correct him. I screwed up my face, and I concentrated. Even though it was categorically the most awful thing I had ever done in my life, I tried to remember who had killed me.
But my body was locked on the moment of death, on the flash of steel, on the feel of it slicing through my throat, on the warm blood that spilled down my neck, on my heart beating so desperately in my chest….
“Chi,” Max said one final time.
And I heard it… the hooves, someone shouting Max's name. For a fraction of a second, I swore I almost felt the grass beneath my form and the sun on my cheek.
It didn't last. I caught a flash of my attacker.
“He had a long nose, it was… broken. It had been broken to the side,” I brought up a hand, clutched it on my nose, and twisted it to the left. I did not, however, open my eyes.
“Good,” Max said, tone tight. “What else?”
“He had eyes,” I managed. Which was hardly a detailed observation – most people had eyes.
“What color were they?”
“They were… brown…. But one… it was… it had red—”
“It was bloodshot?”
I shook my head. “No, it was like he’d been punched in the face.”
Max paused, crossed his arms, and looked to the side.
“It’s likely his magic costs him injuries,” Max revealed. “But what else? Do you remember anything else?”
I pushed my mind into the task, but despite how tightly I was holding onto the image of my attacker, it was starting to drift. The fear of the moment was starting to wash away, too. As I listened to the gentle lap of water in the bath behind me, the gentle pop of the bubbles bursting, everything seemed to… calm. It wasn't Max's mere presence as he crouched beside me. Nope, it was time. It was as if every second was washing away what had just happened to me. No – I suddenly corrected. Not what had happened to me – what had happened to her: the victim.
I opened my eyes, frowning. “I can't… I can't really remember it anymore.”
Max sighed. It was a heavy, sorrowful move. “The memories are already fading. Is there anything,” his gaze flashed up to mine and locked me in place, “anything at all that you can add to your account?”
I clutched my hands on the edge of the bath, drawing my bottom lip up and pinning it in place with my teeth. “I… I think he was in his 40s?”
“I… there’s something else. Something important.” I brought a hand up and pressed my fingers into my brow, massaging it as if I were trying to squeeze the thoughts out of my brain. “He had something.” I let my hand drop and started to clutch my neck.
“Chi, you were not the victim,” Max said in a reassuring tone.
I shook my head, wet hair slapping across my shoulders. “No, it wasn't that. He had something on his neck.… Kind of a tattoo. It was black, it was…” I opened my eyes once more.
“It was what? Do you remember the shape?”
I sat there and frowned. Frowned super hard, because the image I’d just locked in my mind had disappeared in a flash.
“Chi?” Max insisted. “What did that tattoo look like?
“There was a tattoo?” I asked, confused.
Max's shoulders deflated. “The memory is gone, isn't it?”
I scrunched my brow up, trying to force myself to remember more details, but I couldn't. I nodded my head. “I can barely,” I brought my hands up and stared at them, “remember anything anymore.” I shifted back, which was a mistake, as I was sitting on the edge of a very slippery bath.
And, sure enough, I slipped.
Before I could fall backward and smash my head on the taps, Max moved. He wrapped one reassuring arm around my back and propped me up.
Unlike when I'd thrashed out of the bath after remembering somebody else's murder, I wasn’t distracted here. I was also wet. My top was soaked through because of my hair. And the thing about wet clothes is they stick to other people.
I may have been treated to the feel of Max’s perfect body before, but this time, as the water from my hair and top transferred to his tight T-shirt, I was treated to a full view of his torso, too.
Before we had the opportunity to have a moment, Max cleared his throat and took a step back.
Now, to-date, I’d never seen Max be anything other than amazing. Sure, he was an arrogant git, but he was also a fairy. He could use magic, he was seriously strong, and he had god-given speed and balance.
Except, apparently that balance didn’t hold out as he took a quick, skidding step backward.
His boot collected a particularly sudsy section of tiles, and he tilted back.
I pushed to my feet, trying to clutch his arm to steady him. But I collected the bath mat, and this time, there was no stopping me. One leg went one way, and I fell backward. Problem was, I took Max with me.
Now, I know in romantic movies it's always pretty special when the hero falls on top of the heroine. In the real world? It's like being hit by a battering ram.
He knocked the wind out of my chest, and I sure as hell didn't have the chance to notice just how chiseled his torso was.
Instead, I made a suitable, “Oomph.”
Max tried to push to his feet, but as he did, he clearly caught the end of that treacherous bath mat, and he fell on top of me once more. This time was softer. Because this time he didn’t fall from such a massive height. And this time? This time, his face pressed right up close to my own.
Now, I'd been close to Max plenty of times. But not like this. I didn't just feel the entirety of his firm, taut body. I caught his body heat, too. And I could smell him. He didn't wear cologne or anything, but I just caught a whiff of his scent. It reminded me of that grassy plain, of that sunny sky.
Max had no reason to linger. And yet, he didn't snap to his feet as quickly as he could have.
I wasn't confused about my looks. I was somewhere roughly in the middle between plain and gorgeous. That made me normal. And men like Max don't find reasons to linger over normal.
Except he did linger. Linger as he looked into my eyes with confusion, mind you. Not attraction – confusion. Like he was suddenly coming to the conclusion that this situation was ridiculous.
… Or was it something more?
He cleared his throat, pushed up, and this time didn't fall. No more comedy of errors for him, thank you very much. He stood, showing his god-given balance once more. He took a step back. He did not lean down to one knee and offer me a hand – apparently, he wasn't willing to test his luck just yet.
Slowly, I drew my feet up, scooted over to the bath, caught the edge, and stood. Then I faced him. For some reason, I was out of breath. And my cheeks? They’d gone from ghostly, pale white to apple red.
“I think I need to dry again,” I said.
He nodded, turned, walked out, and closed the door.
Apparently, he wasn’t willing to hang around in case I fell again. No more gallant acts for him. If I slipped and cracked my head, he wouldn’t be there to pick me up.
Somehow, I kept my balance. I kept my balance because I was completely distracted. No, not by him – okay, mostly by him – but my mind also ticked back to the murder.
It was almost gone from my body now. It had transformed from this raw, gut-wrenching memory into nothing more than a fact, like I'd read about it or seen it in a movie. Not like I'd experienced it.
This time, I put a towel on my hair, and luckily found a stash of clothes in the cupboard that were dry.
I even found a mop and gave the tiles a quick once over so there could be no more hilarious mistakes.
When I was done, I opened the door. I expected to see him. He wasn't there.
I trudged down the stairs.
That's when I heard him on the phone. I didn't know who he was speaking to, but when I heard the words broken nose and bloodied eye, I froze.
It had to be Detective Coulson.
Or so I thought. Because he suddenly switched from English to a language I didn’t recognize. It almost sounded like Celtic.
I paused on one of the stairs, and suddenly it creaked as I shifted my weight.
Max stopped abruptly.
He’d been in the lounge room, but now I heard him walk out. Though he’d been on the phone before, he turned it off and pocketed it before he faced me. “How are you?” he asked after a significant pause; a pause where I swore he was trying to figure out if I’d heard anything.
I forced myself to shrug. “I have no idea how I am,” I answered honestly.
Surprise, surprise, he drew his arms up, crossed them, and stared at me. “Are you sure you can’t remember any other details?”
I brought a hand up, latched it onto my shoulder, and pulled the muscle. Then I shook my head.
He sighed, his shoulders deflating, but he never dropped his arms.
“… What happens now?”
“Now, the police do their job.”
I frowned. “So that’s it? I don’t have to do anything else?”
He made eye contact. “That’s up to you.”
A tight shiver raced down my spine. “What do you mean it’s up to me?”
“I mean it’s up to you. Only you know if you’ve told me all you can.”
I blinked, my cheeks cold. “S-sorry?” Suddenly the penny dropped, and my cheeks went from cold to totally friggin’ frozen. “You think I’m lying?” There was a seriously careful edge to my voice.
He let his gaze slip down to the floor then ticked it back up as his lips stiffened. “Only you can answer that.”
The indignation slammed into me like I’d been slapped by a giant hand. “Are you serious? Are you accusing me of lying about what just happened?”
“Do you blame me? You have a history of lying, Chi McLane. You also have a history of dodging responsibility.”
I’d felt indignant around this asshole before. I’d hit the roof around him before, too. This was different. This was colder. This was me suddenly realizing that all the compassion he’d shown upstairs in the bathroom was just for show.
This – the prick staring me down and doubting my story – this was the real Max.
“You absolute bastard,” I said as I turned hard on my foot and stalked up the stairs.
He snorted. “You can insult me all you want. But understand this – there is a murderer out there, and if you’ve left anything out—”
“Go to hell,” I spat as I made it to the top of the split staircases, stalked down the hallway, reached the right door, and yanked it open.
I threw myself into my room, slammed the door, and, just for good measure, pushed a chest of drawers in front of it. Though it took me a hell of a lot of grunt to shift it, once I was done, and had successfully barricaded myself in, I turned. I walked over to my bed, grabbed up my pillow, crammed it over my face, and screamed.
A second later, I started to tear up. Then I just screamed again.
This was so unbelievably unfair.
I’d gone from experiencing a murder first-hand to being snapped at that I was a lying witch.
What a day.
I expected to hear Max’s less than soft footfall out on the landing. Heck, I expected him to try to ram into the door with his shoulder. Nope, nothing.
Nothing, that was, until I heard a tap at my window.
At first, I thought it was a bird. Maybe something had been blown against the glass.
Nope. I didn’t have a chance to do anything by the time I realized the window was opening.
A second later, I watched Max the Scottish fairy climb in.
Don’t ask me how he did it – my bedroom was on the third floor.
I snapped up from my bed and stared at him agape. “How the hell? What? How the hell did you get in here?”
“I opened the window.”
“We’re on the third floor!”
“Aye, I climbed the tree.” He reached out of the window, grabbed the end of a branch, and pulled it in.
The branch, despite the fact it was a hefty one, couldn’t protest – not against Max’s cast-iron grip. Which was kind of funny, when I thought about it. Because here Max was showing his inhuman strength and agility by climbing up a frigging tree and jumping in the window. So why exactly had he fallen on top of me in the bathroom?
I didn’t have the opportunity to assess that thought – Max cleared his throat, took up position in the middle of the room, and immediately crossed his arms. Were they attached by a spring or something? Did his arms recharge when they were attached to his chest like it was some kind of docking station?
Suddenly, I reminded myself that Max was very much still in the room.
“Barricading yourself in,” he shrugged towards the chest of drawers, “is stupid. Have you forgotten why I’m here?”
I deliberately let my jaw drop open as slowly as it could. “And why are you here, exactly? To make my life hell?”
He snorted. Somehow he could make even that move attractive. “I’m here to keep you safe, to stave off the curse so you can fulfill your end of the bargain.”
“Really? Because so far you’ve just insulted me and chased me around with a knife.”
He met my gaze and locked his jaw tightly.
“And now you’ve broken into my room. Do you mind leaving?”
“Why? So you can cry into your pillow?”
Bam. He’d gone too far.
I pushed up from my bed, real slow. The kind of slow that cannot be mistaken for friendly. “You know, I don’t understand you. Sometimes you’re like this – a total frigging asshole. And sometimes you’re like that—” I gestured fruitlessly in the direction of the bathroom.
“Like—” I kept gesturing stupidly towards the wall. “You know, like the bathroom.”
“Sometimes I’m like an asshole, and sometimes I’m like a bathroom. Ha. I can’t say I understand you, Chi McLane.”
I kind of paled and kind of flushed at the same time. “You know what I mean. You run hot—” I stopped myself just in time. Because this was absolutely the wrong analogy. I cleared my throat. “Look, just go away.”
He didn’t pause this time. “No.”
I spluttered. “I told you to leave, now leave. This is my bedroom.”
“I know it’s your bedroom, but I’m not leaving. Not when you’re like this.”
“Like what – pissed off? Unbelievably angry at what you said? Look, I know that I’ve… bent the truth in the past, but those were little white lies. I would never—”
“What? Dodge responsibility? Run away? Lie now so you don’t have to face something in the future?”
I just stopped myself from throwing my pillow at him. It was much more satisfying to hug it to my chest and hide behind it. “You are such a horrible man. What exactly were you back in Scotland, some kind of warlord? I bet you were some brutal marauder who went from village to village—”
“You know nothing of my past,” he spat. His whole countenance changed, morphed, became angry. I’d seen Max irritated before, but nothing like this.
I receded, suddenly extremely thankful for my pillow as I wrapped my arms around it as tightly as I could.
Silence. He didn’t say a word, and neither did I.
… But he was wrong. I did know something about his past, or his magic at least. Every time I was close to him – which seemed to be frustratingly often – I heard those hooves, felt that grass, caught that far-off angry shout.
We continued to face each other in angry silence, neither willing to start the argument again. He just stood there, simmering, those dark eyes even choppier than they usually were.
Me? I hugged my pillow like I really meant it, like I wanted to chop the damn thing in half and crush the stuffing within.
It took him to make the first move. He took a step forward then a step back. He drew in a deep breath and let his shoulders deflate. Then he tilted his head up and faced me once more. “None of this matters,” his voice was softer now.
I was struck by how much I liked that voice. It drew me in, kind of like the vocal equivalent of a soft grip around my wrist or an even softer embrace around my middle.
Though I desperately tried to tell my stupid mind to stop – as Max was a total asshole – I was starting to doubt that. Max, though obviously a jerk, wasn’t just a jerk. He obviously had a history, a prickly one. One prickly enough that the mere mention of it changed his personality and countenance at once.
I was nosy. I knew this. My friends knew this. Heck, anyone who managed to stand me long enough and hang around me for more than a few hours soon picked up that I was inquisitive. It came with the territory. Whenever I had the time, I always googled my clients, trying to find as much about their lives on social media so I could tailor their fortunes to them and make them sound more legit.
But I’d never faced a mystery like this. I really doubted that a quick google of Max the Fairy would bring much up.
Nope. The only way to figure out who Max really was was to see this through.
Slowly, hesitantly, I let go of my pillow. Though a part of me still wanted to throw it at his head considering what he’d said to me, I restrained myself.
“So… what happens now?” I finally asked.
Max looked at me evenly. Or was it an even expression? There was an edge to it, wasn’t there? A curious one. Was Max the brute suddenly pausing to reevaluate me? Perhaps I was turning out to be less of a brat than he’d imagined.
He briefly looked at his camel-colored leather boots, then turned his head up to face me. He nodded. “Now we wait.”
I scrunched my nose up. “Sorry, we wait? Isn’t there a murderer out there? What if he kills again?” My voice kicked up uncontrollably, showing the choppy emotion that still swelled through my heart. Sure, Max had been a distraction – a heck of an irritating distraction – but I couldn’t forget what had happened in the bath.
I tried to swallow my fear as I waited for Max to answer.
“The police will track him down.”
My brow crinkled into a scrunched up line. “Sorry? It’s just that easy? But I’ve barely given them a description—”
His eyes flashed, and I knew exactly what he was thinking.
I hardened my jaw and brought up a hand, using my everything not to snap at him, I kept my tone even, “I have told you everything I remember. But surely it’s not enough?”
“Just go to bed, sleep it off, and we’ll talk in the morning.” With that, he turned on his foot and walked, not towards the chest of drawers blocking the door, but towards the window.
“Ah,” I spluttered, “You can use the door.”
“The window is fine,” he muttered as he was half way out. “Plus, you moved that heavy chest of drawers, and you can move it back.” With that less-than-chivalrous statement, Max the fairy jumped out of the window.
Before my heart could explode at the prospect that he would hurtle down to his death and crack his head on the pavement below, I heard the sound of boots on wood.
I rushed over to the window to see him confidently walking down a large branch that brushed up close to the window.
The night was dark, and soon he was out of sight as he climbed down the tree.
I wanted to lean out of the window and shake my fist at him. Instead, I simply gaped at his retreating form then slowly drew myself back into the room.
I rested my hand on the chipped windowsill for several seconds before I found the concentration to close it.
Then I locked it, paying special attention to the tarnished brass clasp to ensure it was fastened as tightly as it could be.
Then I just stood there.
With nothing much else to do, I walked over to my bed, climbed inside, and tried to close my eyes.
Every time I did, I swore I saw a few of those latent sparks buzzing through the blackness.
I knew if I followed them, they’d lead to a vision again.
They beckoned me, pulled me on as if they were waving me into the darkness.
I just screwed my eyes shut and ignored them.
Which would prove to be a mistake. A big one.
It was when I was lying in bed that I heard something. Faint at first, I tried to ignore it as I pulled the pillow further under my face and nuzzled it.
But soon the noise became too loud to ignore.
It sounded like something scratching at the window.
Though I was sleepy, I rolled my eyes as I realized what it must be.
“Max, why do you have to insist on using the window?” I roared as I snapped out of bed.
It was dark and had to be the middle of the night.
There were no lights on in my room, and for some reason there didn’t appear to be any functioning lights on the street outside, either.
Stomping, I made my way over to the window.
I jerked back the corner of the curtain to reveal the window.
I expected to see Max tapping on the glass like a giant Scottish bird.
I screamed and jerked back.
All I saw were two red eyes. Two red glowing eyes. Then four glowing eyes. Then six. They kept popping out of the impenetrable darkness beyond the window like daisies appearing in a field after rain.
I felt backward, struck the carpet, and scooted along on my back.
My whole body shook with convulsions of fear as more and more red eyes appeared just beyond the glass.
Then the rattling began.
Black, formless hands started to pound on the glass, trying to break through.
I screamed, using every ounce of vocal strength I had to let it pitch and rattle through the room.
Suddenly I heard thundering footsteps from downstairs. They mounted the stairs, growing louder and louder until I heard an equally insistent pounding on the door to my room.
“Chi?” Max bellowed.
I screamed hysterically as the window practically buckled.
“Open the door!” Max insisted.
I didn't have time to punch to my feet and sail towards the chest of drawers that were still blocking entry into the room. Instead, I just sat there in total fear as those things outside continued to pound on the glass as if it were a blacksmith's anvil.
When I didn't respond, I heard a boom from the other side of the door.
Suddenly the chest of drawers was blasted from its barricading position and toppled forward, spewing its contents all through the room. I had to duck and roll out of the way not to be pinned by one of the drawers.
A second later, Max came barreling into the room.
At first, he locked his eyes on my cowering form in the corner. Then he swiveled his attention to the window.
The eyes had disappeared. And for a single, gut-shaking second I wondered if it had all been in my head – if I'd imagined everything.
Suddenly the eyes appeared once more, and I even saw black-clad fists reach forward and pound the glass like a hammer to a nail.
“Move,” Max suddenly spat as he twisted on the spot, shoved down to one knee, locked a hand around my wrist, and pulled me to my feet.
I was a cowering mess, and yet I managed to find enough balance to follow him out of the room. I had to pick my way through the mounds of clothes and the drawers that were spilled everywhere.
When I didn't move fast enough, Max scooped me up from behind with such a smooth move it was like we were figure skaters.
He leaped over the remnants of the chest of drawers and landed outside in the hallway with a heavy move that shook the very walls.
From behind us, I finally heard the sound of glass shattering.
I screamed. But my scream wasn't nearly as loud as theirs. For suddenly I heard ten or more screeching bellows pierce the air and rattle my bones.
“Shit,” Max swore under his breath as he indulged in looking over his shoulder for a brief second before snapping around and powering down the corridor.
I was shaking, all over. Heck, I was shaking on the insides, too. It felt like I would dislodge my internal organs and squeeze them out of my mouth.
Though that was a truly sickening image, it wasn't nearly as sickening as the sounds of the chase from behind.
Whatever foul magical creatures were after us, they sounded like hell itself. Their screams and hissing breaths were so otherworldly, all I could do was turn my head and press it against Max's chest.
Before today, I'd never been the kind of girl who would run from a fight. But before today, my fights had been fair.
Max reached the stairs and hesitated, head jerking upwards. It was clear he wanted to take me up to the attic. But as the sound of chase became louder from behind, it was just as clear that we didn't have the time.
With another loud expletive, he shoved hard on his foot and pushed down the stairs, somehow taking two at a time.
I made no attempt whatsoever to pull myself from his grip. For one, I would need a crowbar and a blowtorch. For another, I didn't fancy my chances of being able to outrun our attackers.
Our attackers… they'd gotten into the house, found me in the middle of the night. Though we were still in the middle of a chase for our lives, that fact struck me as if someone had written it on a placard and slapped me across the face with it.
This was real. It. Was. Real. There was no more hiding from this magical world, because it seemed intent on hunting me down at every opportunity.
Max threw himself down the stairs so quickly, I was sure he'd lose his balance and we'd end up breaking our necks. He didn't, though. But neither did he turn around and start using that magic of his. The magic that smelt like grass and felt like sun on my cheeks and sounded like far-off horse hooves.
He reached the bottom of the stairs and jumped onto the first-floor landing. His boots pounded out with rattling shakes, sounding like jackhammers that shook the house with every blow.
His breath was remarkably regulated, even if he did waste it every few seconds to turn over his shoulder and swear at our attackers.
So I concentrated on his breath – deep and regular – as it was the only damn thing I could hold onto now.
I didn't get the chance to ask Max where we were going. Though I was totally freaked out, and my body was shaking like a flag in a gale, I still appreciated that it wouldn't be a good idea to take this fight out onto the city street. Maybe we'd have more of a chance out there, but it would be too public.
I didn't have time to appreciate that that was almost a good thought – and certainly not the kind of suggestion my twisted morality usually offered.
Nope, I didn't have the time, because Max reached the lounge room. He skidded in, moving so fast that he had to shove his shoulder into the door frame with a rattling thump in order to control his speed.
The fire was on, crackling in the hearth.
It was an open fire, a fact I noted as Max sped towards it.
My mind told me he was aiming for one of the heavy boxes on the mantelpiece. That, or he wanted the fire poker.
That's not what he wanted, though.
We reached the fire, and a thrill of pure terror jolted through my heart as he didn't stop.
Muttering the strangest words under his breath, he let go of me.
Max the fairy threw me on the fire.
The hearth was wide, the fireplace more than large enough to take my crumpled up form.
I didn't even have the chance to scream. Pure, pure terror pulsed through me with such power, it felt like I would explode.
I landed on the crackling logs and blistering hot coals.
… But they did not burn me.
Instead, I felt energy charge through me, crackling over my arms and legs and face until it covered me in full.
Behind me, I felt Max plow into the fire, too.
And that's when his magic took hold.
Suddenly, everything changed. Just as my fear exploded and threatened to take the last scraps of my mind with it, the flame licking over my body disappeared. The burning logs beneath my hands and legs disappeared, too. As did the blistering hot coals.
In a rush of energy, everything changed.
I landed on something cold, hard, and wet.
It took me several terrifying seconds to realize it was asphalt. It took my broken mind even longer to jerk my head back and realize I was in a darkened laneway.
… No…. No. This wasn't possible—
I didn't have time to doubt anything. Max appeared right behind me in a wave of magic and fire. He shoved down, caught my arm, and pulled me to my feet.
I couldn't stand. My mind was telling me I was back in that fire, about to burn to death in the most horrible way possible. My body was telling me I wasn't burning – it was raining.
Max picked me up once more, the move so easy for him he might as well have been picking up a kitten.
He proceeded to run through the rain-soaked streets.
He kept turning his head over his shoulder as if he expected an attack.
I could barely breathe, but finally, I found the strength and coordination to jerk my lips open to scream.
Max wouldn't let me. He could hardly spare a hand, as he was using both to lock me to his chest. He still leaned in, though, made sudden and unmistakable eye contact. “Make no noise – you'll draw them out of the darkness,” he said, quick breath breaking against my cheeks.
I lay still in his arms, immobilized by fear.
I couldn't catch up, just didn't have the skills to figure out what was happening.
Max continued to run through the streets, never striking a main road. He would stop at the mouth of any laneways, listening for something before choosing the darkest, most secluded path forward.
The pounding drone of his heavy footfall started to lull me, started to calm me as the drenching rain finally convinced my body that I couldn't be burning.
I squeezed my eyes closed and tried to figure out what the hell could be happening, hell being the operative word.
Those eyes in the dark, those pitching, inhuman screams. They had to come from monsters.
Max had warned me they'd come, but I'd ignored him, hadn't I?
Worse… I'd brought this on myself.
If it were possible, I suddenly froze all the more, muscles seizing up with such finality it was as if I were going into rigor mortis.
Before I'd gone to sleep – though that memory was now far off – I'd ignored something, hadn't I? I'd turned away from those sparks, from the future….
The rain started to pound down even heavier than before. As I squeezed open one eye, I watched it sail down in vertical sheets. I was soaked, and as I darted my gaze to the side, I appreciated that Max was, too. His cropped hair was slicked, his face marked by lines of water that drained off his face and darted off his jaw in splashing waves. His usually tight gray T-shirt now clung to him, revealing every single line of his body.
As we darted past a flickering streetlight and caught the reflected illumination of a headlight from the end of the street, I saw Max's expression. Appreciated the sheer determination crumpling his brow and angling his jaw hard.
It… distracted me.
It reminded me that he was saving me, again.
To be honest, I hadn't picked up the sounds of chase since we'd left the house. Somehow – I still couldn't reconcile the fact that we were now out here on the city streets.
That wasn't the point, though. The point was, surely it was safe now.
“Ma-” I began.
He crumpled forward, pressing me closer to his chest, trying to stifle my words. “Shh,” he said under his breath, whispering so low that I could only pick it up because I was a precious few centimeters from his lips. Again I felt his warm, gentle breath break against my cheeks, and again, it calmed me despite this break-neck situation.
“But they're gone,” I whispered back.
“No, they aren't,” he responded in that same gentle whisper.
My back became electrified with nerves. I shifted my head back, reluctantly plucking it from his chest as I tried to peer through the darkness.
I searched the shadow – every shadow – for a sign of attack.
Once upon a time, I would have labeled Chi McLane as a brave woman. After all, I had zero problem with confrontation, and I was a pretty independent person.
Clearly, I'd simply never been tested.
Because suddenly I heard it. Or maybe I felt it. Or maybe some far off part of my mind told me it had to be there.
Point was, I became convinced that there was something right behind the van to our left.
Max had taken us down a winding side street. It was lined with old, dilapidated three-story brick buildings and broken, long, metal warehouses.
The gutters gushed with rain, trailing Styrofoam cups, wrappers, and cardboard burger cases into the storm drains.
Not once did Max skid in those distinctive camel-colored leather boots. He had the balance of a gymnast.
So why had he fallen on me in the bathroom? Some part of me suddenly wondered. A part that should really be paying more attention to the fact we were in a race for our lives.
I felt it again. Those sparks. They didn’t quite explode over my vision like I was getting accustomed to. They didn’t squirm in front of my eyes like dying fireflies. Instead, I caught the barest hint of them. It was almost like a visual echo.
My eyes tracked them until I locked on something beside one of the truly run-down factories.
There was a small gap between the side of the factory and a broken four-story brick building beside it. There was an old, overflowing dumpster, and behind it….
I jolted, twisting hard into Max, practically climbing him as I tried to get away from the creature in the dark.
“Chi.” He struggled to pull me off.
“There’s something behind the dumpster!” I roared.
He came to a screeching stop, his boots dislodging a line of water that splashed across the van to our side.
I felt every single one of Max’s muscles harden, which was saying something. His shoulders suddenly felt as if they’d been carved from marble, his back and arm and biceps and chin nothing more than cast steel.
If you’d asked me a few days ago, I would have told you that I would have a level head in a critical situation. Okay, as I’d previously mentioned – I wasn’t good with certain things like violent crime, flying planes, or telling complete strangers that my grandma was dead.
Still, I’d been around the block, as it were, and theoretically, I could keep my nerve.
Not today. God, not today.
I was climbing Max like he was some kind of tree as if I was a scared cat trying to get away from a dog.
He pulled me back but didn’t let go of me as he stiffly angled his head towards the dumpster.
I saw something shift in the deep, dark shadows behind it.
My breath caught in my throat, and I felt my heart grind to a standstill.
Again, I caught a glimpse of those magical pricks of light flitting through my vision.
Though my brain told me to stare at that dumpster, the pricks of light played to my left until I jerked my head to the side, following them.
That’s when I saw a long shadow flitting behind the van to our side.
Acting on complete, pure instinct, I shoved into Max. “Move!” I screamed at the top of my lungs.
Though the rain still pounded down from above, I knew how to scream, and boy did my shrill voice split the air like a blast from a horn.
Max didn’t need to be told (or screamed at) twice. He shifted to the side revealing his true magical reflexes as he moved with all the speed and grace of a cheetah.
It was just in time.
Something sailed down from the top of the van. It sliced into the pavement, literally splitting it in half. The most godawful sound filled the air as something screamed right behind Max.
He jolted forward, pushing into a roll. Problem was, I was still in his arms. And yet, don’t ask me how, but the Scottish fairy managed it. It happened so quickly that I didn’t have a second to appreciate the feel of his body crumpling around me, only the sound of battle behind.
Another one of those ear-splitting screams split the air, sounding like some dinosaur from some film.
A certain smell filled the air, too – a hot one.
Though the rain still drove down from above, drenching the streets, that didn’t matter.
I started to feel heat buffet out from something behind Max.
It played along my arms and cheeks, sinking easily through the once cold rain to my exposed flesh beneath.
“Shit,” Max bellowed as he threw himself away from the van and that strange heat.
He seemed to hesitate for half a second before he threw himself at the warehouse before us.
It wasn’t just run down – even from the outside, I could tell it was likely to fall down any second now.
Along the top of the tall, long building were a row of windows. Or at least a row where windows had once been. Now there was nothing more than shards of broken glass, random scraps of fabric and plastic skewered on them and flapping in the storm.
The building itself was made from some amalgam of steel sheets and wood. It looked cheap, and it obviously hadn’t stood the test of time as the sheets that constituted the walls were all bent and warped, thin, yellowed, torn insulation puffing out from the gaps.
There was a barricaded door, two large, heavy wooden beams slung across the front, held in place with a seriously mean looking chain and lock.
Max didn’t hesitate. He didn’t have time, after all. That heat was now ten times worse. It felt like we’d walked out of the storm and right into a sauna. No, scratch that – a volcano.
I grit my teeth, trying to fight against the pain. Max just moved.
As soon as we reached the door, he whispered something under his breath. His body lit up with light. Power charged down his torso and into his shoulder.
He twisted on his foot, his boot squeaking as he plowed shoulder-first into the locked and barricaded door.
I winced as I expected us to fly backward, rebuffed by the steel and wood.
We weren’t rebuffed.
There was a great snap, and the wood splintered, shards blasting out in a great arc as if the poles had been struck by a cannon ball and not a Scotsman’s shoulder.
The chain shattered, too. Max’s magic appeared to do something to it. Eat into it, weaken it in a cascade of light and crackles.
With a roar splitting from his lips, Max managed to push his way in.
Instantly the musty scent of the warehouse met my already seared nostrils. It smelt like this place hadn’t been opened in years.
Though the terror of the chase still filled me to the point of popping, I managed to perceive enough through the darkness to contemplate what the hell had been stored in this warehouse.
There were plastic sheets everywhere. And I do mean everywhere. There were upturned milk crates and old 44-gallon drums. And covering them were old, moldering sheets of thick white translucent plastic.
The plastic was stained in places with some dried up red liquid that looked suspiciously like blood.
No… it didn’t look like blood; it was blood. That’s what that awful metallic smell was.
I didn’t have time to draw a hand up and cram it over my face to block out that godawful realization – Max abruptly and violently screeched to a standstill.
“Shit, this is a trap!” he bellowed.
My stomach sank so far and hard I could have retched.
I could no longer hear that awful, ear-splitting screeching from outside. Instead, I heard silence. Total eerie silence. The kind of silence that felt like it was ticking down to something.
“Max, what's going on?” I stuttered, barely able to push the words out.
Max didn't answer. He turned hard on his foot, swinging around as he appeared to search for something. It couldn't be a way out – as there was one right behind us: the doorway he'd just crafted with his shoulder.
Yet, a second later, that doorway no longer existed.
Something rammed into it, closing it shut. Except it wasn't the actual doors that slammed to. Oh no – it was some enormous gelatinous black mass.
I screamed as soon as I saw it, shuddering further back into Max's tight embrace.
I didn't have to point out that I'd never seen anything like it. Because it was completely impossible. The wet sound of it was the most awful thing I'd ever heard – a cross between someone plunging a drain and some old codger clearing his throat.
It also stank to high heaven, a cross between cloying sulfur and burning nails.
I crammed a hand over my mouth and tried to breathe through my sweaty fingers.
Max swore again, his brogue shaking down his chest and into my arm.
With wide-open eyes, I stared at the underside of his face.
It was half dark in this warehouse. Though it was a dark, raining night, somehow there was still enough light making it in from the broken windows high above that I could make out the side of Max's face. In fact, as he twisted on the spot and tilted his head back, I suddenly realized that the roof was broken in several places, massive gaping holes letting in the wind.
But not the rain.
The holes in the roof weren't just tiny cracks. Oh no. It looked as if someone had plunged a wrecking ball through the steel and tin.
So there should be rain all over the floor. Massive pools of it. There wasn't, though. Just that blood-soaked plastic.
I had zero experience with magic. Absolutely zilch. Apart from the sparks that sometimes invaded my vision and the grass-and-sunshine magic of Max, magic was nothing but an enigma to me.
Well, now I felt it.
Faint, but there. It was like tiny electrified pins plucking at my skin and stabbing at the base of my spine.
Max swore once more, his powerful brogue shaking through the room until I swore the roof shook.
“W-where are we? What's happening?” I managed.
Max didn't answer. He warily moved into the middle of the room, constantly darting his head from left-to-right as he obviously searched for a way out.
But there was no way out.
I caught sight of the side of his face once more. I'd seen Max act tough, and god knows I'd seen him act indignant. Now? Now he looked terrified.
“You – you can put me down,” I managed in the world's highest falsetto.
He didn't answer.
“Max,” I forced myself to say, “you need your arms.”
He jerked his head down to me and made eye contact for the briefest fraction of a second. I looked right up at him, making no attempt to hide the tears of fear touching my cheeks, and yet making no attempt to retract my offer, either.
“Aye,” he muttered, word snapped like a sapling suddenly buckling under excess weight.
He put me down. It was a quick and yet gentle move. My mind wanted to suggest that that summed up Max completely, yet my reason couldn't forget his anger and arrogance.
Or could it? Because right now Max was the only force capable of keeping me safe.
I had to use all my balance and strength not to fall over the moment he put me down. It wasn't because the floor was covered in that sickly stained plastic. It was that I felt so weak my muscles may as well have been dried up jelly.
“Keep close,” Max warned, voice shaking through me.
I pushed into his back. He probably hadn't meant that close, but I couldn't help myself. He didn't push me away, either, just kept spinning on the spot as he desperately searched for a way out.
But a way out didn't come.
I saw several sparks collect to the right of my vision. I jerked my head up just in time to see some indistinct form climbing along the broken windows.
“Max.” I latched a hand on his arm and jerked him backward, pointing towards the windows.
Despite the distance, I saw the eyes. The red eyes that reminded me of those devilish glowing pinpricks I'd seen outside of my bedroom window.
“Shit!” Max roared. “Darklings.”
My back seized up on that word, on the terrifying way he said it.
Again I caught sight of the side of his face, and again I was almost bowled over by how terrified he seemed. And if Max the strong magical fairy was terrified, then I was a goner.
I kept a hand pressed into his hard back, feeling his muscles practically twang under my sweaty fingers.
I… had to do something. But I didn't get the chance to finish that thought.
I saw more of those fiendish red eyes appear near the windows. Then I heard the unmistakable sounds of climbing: scrabbling feet, plucking fingers, creaking bones.
“Chi, first chance you get, you run,” Max demanded, his accent thicker than I'd ever heard it.
I didn't reply.
“Chi!” he screamed.
“I run,” I managed through a choked gasp as I watched more and more of those darklings climb through the shattered window. I heard the unmistakable sound of fabric tearing over the remaining shards of glass, but it didn't even appear to slow them down.
Though my fear-filled mind should have been beyond counting, I managed to figure out that there were ten of them. Ten darklings. Max had been terrified at the prospect of one darkling. Now there were ten.
Something suddenly struck me. It felt like a baseball bat to the face.
I wasn't going to make it out of here, was I?
I was going to die tonight. Violently.
The tears suddenly dried up. So did the terror. In its place, I didn't suddenly grow a set of balls.
Nope, I became a cold, frozen, numb lump.
Max, however, didn't give me the option to remain frozen for long. He struck out with his hand.
A blast of his magic sailed towards the closest darkling. The thing jerked to the side, but it wasn't quick enough. The magic sliced into its black arm.
No – that wasn’t right. Its arm wasn’t black. Its arm was pure, crystalline white as if the flesh had never seen the light of day. It was just wearing black clothes. Clothes that seemed to cover its entire body right up to those pinprick red eyes.
The scent of burnt flesh filled the air, cloying at my nostrils and raking at my throat.
Two of the darklings circled towards us from behind. Before I could point this out to Max, he roared, pivoted on his foot, and threw himself towards them, a scream bellowing and pitching from his throat.
With two snapped words, the magic pulsed over his form, covering it entirely until all I could make out was his sneering face.
He pelted towards the two darklings, throwing his arms wide in a rugby tackle. They didn’t have the time to dodge out of the way, and there was a sickening crunch as he brought them to the ground. There was more than a crunch, too, as a splitting hissing filled the air. I quickly realized it was the sound of Max’s magic burning through the darkling’s defenses. They screeched, but as he pinned them to the floor with his massive arms, they could not escape.
“Chi, run,” Max bellowed.
His snapped word sent a thunderbolt sailing through my gut, and I spun on the spot.
I did not, however, run. I didn’t get the chance.
Suddenly two of those darklings sailed down from above. I hadn’t heard them climbing through the windows, but they must have scaled them and clambered over the walls. Now they dropped down around me like two silent spiders descending on threads of web.
I jolted back, sweat slicking my brow until I thought I’d drown under it.
“Chi!” Max screamed.
I couldn’t respond.
The darklings seemed to be half human, half animal. The way they moved was like a cross between a monkey and a snake. Their heads twisted to the side in jerking fashions as they hugged the ground with their bodies, their legs bent low and their arms hanging close to their knees.
I shook with pure terror.
“Chi!” Max managed, but his voice was muffled, choppy.
I didn’t need to turn my head to realize he was occupied in a fight.
Which left me alone.
Though I now knew what these creatures were, a name was hardly a weapon. I had no clue at all what they were capable of, let alone how to fight them.
As the desperation powered through me and shook hard down my back, I begged for the sparks to come back. After my disastrous bath, I’d pushed them away, terrified of what they could bring. Now I prayed for their return with every scrap of energy I had.
But praying would get me nowhere.
I heard another light thump behind me, and I twisted my head sharply to the side to see another darkling drop down from above.
There could be no doubt that they were after me.
I heard Max try to scream my name a few times, heard the unmistakable sound of his heavy boots squeaking against the floor. But it was obvious he could not come to my aid.
I was on my own.
The three darklings circled me, all on their haunches, all with their heads tilting and snapping to the sides with quick, sickening moves.
I shook so violently I could barely remain standing. My bare feet kept slipping against the blood-soaked plastic.
The only thing running through my mind was that I was about to die – die like whatever creatures had offered up their blood to cover this floor.
Max didn’t get the chance to scream at me again. The darklings pounced.
I slipped as I jerked backward, slamming hard onto the concrete floor, the move jolting painfully through my hips and down my leg.
I didn’t have time to let out a scream – the first darkling was upon me. I heard its scattering claws slip and slice through the plastic as it leaped high and landed on my back.
Its black-clad fingers snaked out and locked around my mouth, pulling my head violently to the side.
A pulse of fear sailed through me, obliterating the last of my hope as I realized this was it.
This was it.
Yet rather than snap my neck, I felt another darkling leap towards me, heard the scattering of its claws as it tore up the plastic beside me and came to a shuddering stop by my side. It locked its sinewy fingers around my left wrist and pinned me in place. From the other side, I heard the remaining darkling pounce. He did the same – coming to a shuddering stop by my side and clamping his rope-like fingers around my wrist to lock me in place.
The darkling on my back pushed me into the floor with all its weight. And though I bucked and fought, I didn't have the strength to throw it off. All I could do was shudder as I felt its thin, strong fingers wrap tighter and tighter around my mouth as its weight and magic pushed me harder and harder into the floor.
I started to feel more than the thing's strength. I started to feel its magic, too. It ate into me like thousands of mouths trying to tear through my very cells.
A new blast of panic shot through me as I tried to shove it off with the last of my strength. It didn't work.
I felt the darkling on my back suddenly yank my head up. My shuddering heart told me it was about to bash my head against the plastic-covered floor.
And that's exactly what it did. With a soft hissing sound like air escaping a high-pressure pipe, it yanked my head back then slammed it against the floor.
Pain exploded through my forehead and nose as blood started to drip over my lips. Then the stars started to swim through my vision. These were not the bursts of light that indicated a vision. No, these were the last sparks of consciousness before I blacked out.
I had time enough to hear Max scream my name before the darkling yanked my head back one last time and slammed it against the moldered-plastic-covered floor.
I lost consciousness with a blast.
I didn't wake up straight away. My awareness returned to me in flashes.
I felt myself being carried, heard the patter of quick feet, felt sinewy arms wrapped around my back.
My eyes were caked with blood, and I could barely move them, but I saw bursts of rooftops, of chimneys, of faint flickering lights, heard the pound of rain.
I tried to hold onto my attention, but it flitted in and out like an indecisive insect on the wing.
I heard cars, the putter of engines, the screech of tires negotiating wet asphalt.
I couldn't smell, though. My nose felt as if it had been wrapped in pure pain. I could feel it was clogged with blood, and that same blood felt like a dried mess down my cheek and neck.
… I started to black out again….
The next thing I knew, I was lying on the floor. It took me so long to be able to wink an eye open, even then, I had to fight against the dried up blood covering my face and making me feel like I had a plaster mask on.
I heard something, right by my face. As I winked and I open, I saw an amplifier.
It took my broken mind a long time to realize what it was, but as my eyes ticked over the speaker and saw the smudged brand name painted across the top, I frowned. Or at least I tried to frown. I had absolutely no muscle control whatsoever.
The amplifier was on, and a low, thrumming hum filled the air, vibrating the floor beneath me.
Finally, I heard voices.
Sharp and quick with a warning. Footsteps, too.
I fought against my fatigued body, trying to move it. But it would not be moved.
I felt the footsteps shudder up something, and I realized they were climbing stairs.
I had to be on some kind of stage.
Though I squeezed my eyes shut at the footsteps’ approach, I caught just enough of a glimpse of the room around me to realize I was in some kind of bar. It wasn’t just the low, sultry lighting – I could feel sticky alcohol under my cheeks, smell the left-over musty scent of sweat and sweet cocktails.
I felt someone draw to a standstill behind me. If I had to guess, there were two or three men. Suddenly, one reached out and pushed me in the back with his boot. “She up, yet?”
I squeezed my eyes tightly closed and tried hard not to move a muscle.
“Doesn’t look like it,” one of them commented.
There was a pause. I felt somebody lean down beside me. My hair was a loose mess around my body, and as they shifted forward, the tread of their shoes snagged my long fringe. I couldn’t help but wince with pain.
Someone grunted, locked an arm around my throat, and pulled me up.
I fought. Pushed out, jerked my arms and legs in every direction, but there was no use.
The guy was stronger, so strong, it was as if I were fighting a pro wrestler.
As he jerked me around, I got a better glimpse of the room and realized I was right – this was definitely some kind of bar. I was right about another fact, too – there were three men up on the stage with me. One was dressed in an impeccable silver and gray suit with a neat black shirt and tie underneath. The other two were nowhere near as smart. One was in torn blue jeans, heavy boots, and a dark shirt.
The other? The other one was the guy that held me, and as I twisted around, using all my strength to fight him off, I caught sight of his chest. Of his neck, too. And twisting along his throat was a tattoo. A strange diagram of geometrical shapes, almost like a close-up of a snowflake.
The memory slammed into me like a freight train. I’d seen this specific tattoo before. And as the guy twisted me around and my gaze sliced across his broken nose and bloodied eyes, I realized I knew just who he was.
I screamed, the noise gurgling from my bruised throat.
“Shut her up, Farley,” the man in the suit commented.
Farley jolted forward, and I had just enough time to see the sneer spreading his pale blue-white lips before he locked me in a headlock and shoved me forward. He crumpled me in half, grinding my cheek into the sticky, alcohol-covered floor.
I pulsed with fear, almost as if my blood had been replaced by pure adrenaline. But that pure adrenaline could do nothing.
I heard one of the men take several steps towards me and saw two polished expensive shoes several inches from my nose.
There was the creak of fabric as the man knelt down. “You sure it’s her? Doesn’t seem magical,” he commented.
Farley, the man who held me – the murderer I’d seen in the woods – grunted. The move was strong enough that it shook through my shoulders as he held me there, crumpled on the floor. One of his knees pinned my long hair, pulling my head painfully to the side.
“It’s her,” he didn’t even pause. “Saw the whole thing. Felt her invade my mind.”
“Are you sure she saw everything?”
Farley paused. “Don’t matter. I’m certain she saw enough to identify me.”
I had no idea what was going on. Their words washed over me as the fear continued to pulse and tear through me.
I was crying, and yet I wasn’t sobbing. The tears were simply draining from my eyes, a prelude to the blood that would undoubtedly follow.
“What do you want to do with her, Fagan?” The other man asked. “Could she be useful?” he asked in an offhand manner.
There was a long pause. “Yeah, she could probably be useful. But right now we need to ensure this operation is a success. And if we’ve got a functioning seer in the city, there’s no way that’s going to happen. So, Farley, you know what to do.” With that, Fagan turned on his heel and strode away, the neat clip clop of his expensive shoes the last thing I would ever hear.
The other guy commented under his breath that he thought this would be a waste then strode away too.
That meant I was alone with Farley.
All I could hear was his breath. It was choppy, not rhythmic, not calm like Max’s. It was the equivalent of being on a violent ocean in a tiny dingy as you waited for the swell to swallow you up.
He still had his arm locked around my throat, still had my head ground into the floor. I was way beyond being disgusted by the musty smell of alcohol, by the grime and grit being pressed into the blood that still caked my cheek.
I waited. Every part of my body waited – every muscle, every organ, every cell.
This would be it, I would die.
I had just enough time to beg those sparks to return. I turned my back on them before, but now I needed them more than ever. For without them – without a glimpse of the future – I would die. Horribly and violently.
I was suddenly possessed with the vision I’d seen of the woman being chased through the woods, of this Farley slicing her from ear-to-ear with his knife.
I shuddered, and this brought a light laugh to his white-blue lips. “You made a mistake entering my mind, future witch.”
I hadn’t said a word to him up until now, just cried softly at his feet. But obviously, he wanted an answer, because he shoved my face even harder into the ground. “What do you say?” He growled.
Sobbing, I managed to part my lips. “I… I didn’t enter your mind.”
He snarled right by my ear. “Yes, you did. Felt a spark of your magic take hold. Plus, Fagan’s contacts on the force confirmed you gave them my description. So you have to go, girly. There is no other way.” He chuckled right by my ear.
“I…” I swallowed hard, and it was a constricted, tight move as my neck was at such an uncomfortable angle. It sounded like I was a gaping fish. “I didn’t enter your mind. I… I saw her die. Through her eyes. Your victim,” I said, voice shuddering as a jolt of fear and yet anger sliced through me.
This guy was a murderer. A murderer. He chased that woman through the forest in cold blood. And now he was about to do the same to me.
I had a fire personality as my mother always put it. Which was quite a statement coming from her, as her personality was volcanic. Point was, Chi McLane never ran from a fight – she would stay and finish one, even start a few herself.
So I grit my teeth as a wave of anger took hold, and yet my common sense told me there was still nothing I could do. This guy was stronger, and somehow he knew about magic.
I did have one chance, though, didn’t I? He clearly wanted to talk.
He laughed, sounding like a puttering engine. “Didn’t invade my mind, ha? Just the victim. Well, it was still a mistake. We’re connected, see? I ate half her heart, consumed the last scrap of her magic. It’s the only way to practice consequence-free magic, see. And me,” he leaned close and shifted his jaw to the side, drawing attention to the pattern of bruises that covered it, “my magic beats the shit out of me. So I never pass up an opportunity to eat someone else’s.” He licked his lips, his tongue like a snake darting its head out from a dark recess. “But you still entered my mind, girly. By consuming her heart, I gained access to some of her final memories. So when you entered her mind, you entered mine.”
So much information, I felt overwhelmed. But one fact struck me. God did it strike me. It was worse than a slap, worse than a blow to my head. He ate her heart to consume the last scraps of her magic.
Up until now, I’d known that I was in trouble, but suddenly I appreciated just how vile this murderer was. Just exactly what he would do to me.
I heard him clench his teeth, heard the unmistakable clink of tooth against tooth. “Fagan will probably want your heart for himself, but I reckon I can have a taste. You won’t mind that, will you? Plus, if I get the power of a seer—” He pursed his lips and whistled.
Seconds before, I’d found my fleeting courage. Now, it flit away once more as I shuddered so badly, I could have snapped my muscles.
This man was going to eat my heart, tear it out, taste it for himself.
Max had warned me that horrible, unspeakable things would happen if I turned away from my power. I was now getting my comeuppance, wasn’t I? I’d relied on lying my entire life, but now… now it would kill me.
I sobbed even louder, relinquishing to the total fear that was consuming me.
There was no hope.
Fagan released me, pushing backward.
I remained exactly where I was, face crumpled on the sticky floor, one eye open as it pulsed wide with terror, as it waited for him to jerk forward, draw a knife from his pocket, and slice it down my middle.
I caught sight of half of his form, saw him shove a hand into his pocket and take a casual step backward. “I suppose it would be a waste to kill you right away. Boss is right – we can’t have you running around interrupting the operation, not when we’ve got a deal going down on the docks tonight. Still,” he leaned against one of the large banks of amplifiers behind him, his sinewy form like a folded up rope. “You could help us out with that, couldn’t you? Seer,” I watched him jerk his lips wider in a strange, peculiar move as he uttered that word. It was almost like it was a drug to him. “Not every day you come across a seer. Not every day you feel one digging around in your thoughts.” He drew one of his lean hands from his pocket and tapped an equally lean, strong finger against his head. The resounding beat, beat of it echoed through the quiet room. “What do you say? You get a couple more hours, and maybe your death won’t be so violent. In return?” he asked, voice going up in an unmistakable question.
I didn’t reply.
He pushed hard off the amplifiers, shoving into them with such force, they threatened to topple over. “Ask what you do in return,” he snapped, sneering around his words.
I jolted with fear. “What will I do in return?” I pushed the stuttering words out.
“In return, you’re going to do a little digging for me, seer. I want to know,” Farley suddenly tilted his head from left to right as he looked around the room, “what Fagan’s got in store for me. Can I trust the bastard?”
I shook my head. It was a surprise I could manage the move. “I… I can’t control my powers.”
He let out a rattling, gasping laugh that sounded like the last breath of a long-time smoker. “Sure you can. I felt you, remember,” he said as he brought that same finger up and tapped it to his head like a woodpecker trying to make a new home for itself in an old, hollowed tree trunk.
I shook my head again, grinding my bloodied face even harder into the alcohol covered floor. “I can’t tell the future like that. I can’t just turn the ability on,” I protested.
I watched him lick his teeth, saw his long, saliva-coated tongue run across his chipped, yellowed stumps. “Just discovered your powers, have you? Interesting. Unlucky for you that you chose to lock them on me first. If I were you, I would have stayed away from that sap Detective Coulson. He handed you your death on a plate. Now, repeat after me,” he walked all the way up to me, got down on one knee, and faced me, “show me Fagan’s plans. Show me Fagan’s plans. Show me Fagan’s plans.” There was a mesmerizing quality behind his words. As he spoke, he slowed himself down until he sounded like the hum of the amplifiers behind me.
I shook my head. “I can’t—”
“You can.” He reached forward, jammed a thumb into the point where my jaw connected, and spread his other fingers onto my left eye.
I tried to pull back, with all my might, with every scrap of strength I had. It wasn’t enough. For, as he ground his fingers harder into my face, I started to see something. Sparks, but they were different to the ones that usually filled my vision when I saw the future. These were quicker, brighter, hotter.
I tried to shake my head and break his grip, but there was nothing I could do.
“What does Fagan have planned for me?” Farley asked, a considerable pause between each word. Though his voice was usually a raspy monotone, now it sounded as smooth as someone teaching meditation or inducting you into a hypnotic trance.
I tried to fight… I tried to fight… until I just couldn’t fight anymore.
I started to see things. Unbidden, rising from the depths of my unconsciousness like stars appearing on a dark night.
I caught a glimpse of Fagan’s black shirt, his silver suit, his shiny shoes. I saw him walking through a hall, the building looking remarkably like this one.
I watched him plunge a hand into his pocket, draw out a phone, and push it against his ear.
“The deal is still going down next week,” he said, smiling around his words.
I couldn’t quite make out the person on the other end of the line, but I heard one of their words and it shook me to the core. “Heart.”
Fagan laughed, the move jolting his shoulders as they rested perfectly in his suit. “Don’t you worry – I’ll get you more hearts. Though I think I’ll have to switch assassins.”
Fagan paused as he appeared to listen to the man on the other end of the line. “Don’t get me wrong, Farley’s been good – but he’s also been compromised. Allowed some stupid future witch access to his thoughts. Got greedy, ate that other witch’s heart, and in doing so, opened up a door right into his mind. Well, it’s time to slam it shut.”
As I watched the vision, I lost all track of where I was, and yet, I knew that my lips were moving, knew I was speaking out loud as I recounted everything I saw.
“That bastard,” Farley roared, and he jerked his fingers off my face. As soon as he did, I could no longer see Fagan. I was only aware of Farley as he loomed above me.
Though the lights were still at the same dim illumination, it felt as if they could not penetrate the room any longer. For suddenly it felt as if Farley became the darkest thing I’d ever seen – a violent storm blocking out the sun for good.
He loomed above me for another second, and then he acted. He plunged down to one knee, scooped an arm forward, and locked it around my back. He yanked me to my feet. I tried to scream, but I didn’t get the chance. He wrapped a foul-smelling hand over my mouth and hissed in my ear, “Come with me.”
It wasn’t an offer – just an order. I had absolutely no hope as he pulled me down the short steps to the stage and through the darkened bar.
I caught sight of the neatly arranged bottles of liquor behind the bar, of several glasses drying on a cloth just beyond my reach. Everything was beyond my reach. From the chairs to the tables – there were no weapons. No chance to fight.
“That bastard,” Farley kept repeating to himself, voice like blasts from a cannon, “that lying, backstabbing bastard. I’ll show Fagan. Time to get me the powers of a seer,” he added. His voice achieved such an ominous note that my entire back felt as if it shattered with fear.
I didn’t have a chance to scream, and I could barely breathe as he kept his hand so tightly clamped over my broken nose and bloodied lips.
We walked past the bar, reaching a door towards the back. He stiffened, and I realized he was inclining his head to the left, trying to listen for footsteps beyond. When he was satisfied, he bolted forward, loosened a hand from my mouth, and yanked the door open.
I didn’t get a chance to scream. My lips felt heavy, almost as if someone had sewn them together.
There was now no doubt in my mind that Farley had magic. I could feel it on him, smell it on him. Plus, out of nowhere, his nose started to bleed, almost as if some invisible hand had smashed into it.
The consequence of his magic, ha?
I was suddenly struck by what I’d learned – that he’d eaten the heart of a witch to absorb her magic consequence-free. No broken noses, no bloodied eyes. Just the last scraps of someone else’s magic before it ebbed away. And he was going to do the same to me, wasn’t he? He was going to drag me off somewhere quiet, draw that powerful glinting blade from his pocket, and slice me through.
All I could think about was Max. Though a part of me feared for his safety, the rest was confident enough in his strength that it knew he would have fought off those darklings. He would be out there, somewhere. My only hope was that he was trying to track me down.
… Or would he bother? Because I’d brought this on myself, hadn’t I? I had turned from my abilities, and now I was here being dragged into the darkness by a murderer. A murderer who, if I’d acted sooner, I could have stopped. For, for all I knew, if I’d followed the sparks when they’d appeared in my bed, they would have led me to some new all-important clue about Farley.
I could have prevented this. But I’d chosen to run. Now I would die.
That conclusion shook through we with such unmistakable certainty, I gave into it.
Farley led me through the darkened, narrow corridors behind the bar. I caught glimpses of rooms stacked with alcohol, spare chairs, tables lying on their sides. But I also caught glances of rooms stacked with plastic – the same plastic I’d seen in that god-awful factory.
I longed to know what the hell was happening – who Fagan was, what deal was going down at the docks.
Which was crazy. Now wasn’t the time to be inquisitive about anything, unless it was finding a way to escape.
Farley was relentless. He didn’t bother to say another word, didn’t bother to taunt me as he tugged me down that hallway. I got used to the feel of his hand on my lips. It was locked there so tightly, it was like it was trying to meld with my lips and teeth.
Though my eyes kept darting from left-to-right, almost as if they alone had the hope Max would find me, no one came to my aid.
Finally, Farley managed to make it all the way to the door out back of the bar.
He hesitated when we reached the back door. I could hear the sound of cars beyond, of people. A thrill of hope exploded through my heart. If someone saw me, they could call the police, do something.
But no one saw me.
Because Farley didn’t open the door to the street.
He tore that musty hand from over my mouth and reached through the collar of his shirt. I felt him fumble around, knuckles dragging across my back as he searched for something on a chain around his neck. Though I tried to scream, again it felt as if my lips were sewn shut. As I concentrated, I swore I could feel the stitches locking them in place. They were not made out of string, but rather out of charges of prickling magic.
As Farley searched, I felt a few specks of blood from his nose drip against my neck.
I shivered and gagged.
Farley let out a hiss of satisfaction as he obviously found what he was looking for.
He yanked something off the chain around his neck, and I heard it tinkle by my ear.
Suddenly, from back towards the bar, I heard angry shouts. Desperate footfall, too.
Farley yanked his head hard to the left, and with his front pressed up against mine, I felt the unmistakable pound of his frantic heart.
As the angry shouts drew closer, I caught several words.
It was Fagan’s men, and they were looking for us.
Farley swore under his breath, but he did not pause. He shoved a large, ornate key into the lock of the door before us. The key was larger than the lock, and yet, somehow, as Farley pushed it towards the lock, the key became smaller, shrinking in size until it fitted perfectly.
Charges of invisible magic filled the air, covering the door and crackling with such force it was as if they were a waterfall pounding down all around me.
Just before the pounding footfall behind could reach us, Farley bolted forward and opened the door.
It did not open onto the street beyond with all the cars and people. Instead?
Instead, it opened onto a forest.
I felt the grass beneath me, the dew-covered blades soft and cold beneath my bare, chafed feet.
Around me, I caught the scent of pine needles, of disturbed dirt.
And yet, I could still hear the angry footfall from behind, still hear the desperate shouts.
But a second later, Farley slammed the door shut. Then we were alone. In the forest.
I felt Farley take an enormous, relieved breath that pushed his chest against my back. “Finally. Time to get this done, ha?” He leaned in close by my cheek and said the word ha, his breath brushing my messy hair across my cheek.
My eyes pulsed wide.
I felt him reach around to something in his pocket. Heard the unmistakable sound of metal being withdrawn from a sheath.
I… was going to die.
I. Was. Going. To. Die.
Just as the true horror of the situation took hold and the last of my hope departed me, I felt something. An opportunity. A shadow of a chance.
Those sparks. I did not see them explode through my vision as they had before. They did not rush to my rescue, ready to show me the future and save my life. Instead, it was as if I heard an echo of them. Just a hint that they were still there, somewhere, just beyond my reach.
I screamed in my mind, begged them to return to me. Told them I would do anything, anything if only they would save my life.
… I’d done this. I’d lied, and now the curse was going to get me, wasn’t it?
Max’s warning was the only thing I could hear echoing in my mind as I felt Farley draw a knife around, as I saw its glinting tip in a slice of moonlight.
I was a liar, and yet I didn’t think I was a bad person. Maybe Max did, maybe my grandmother had thought so. Maybe that didn’t matter.
I was not a bad person. A little white lie here and there wouldn’t kill you.
But a big one apparently would slit you from ear-to-ear.
I squeezed my eyes shut as I realized just how unfair this was.
I felt Farley bring the knife around, felt the tip slice into the soft skin just below the left ear, at the junction of my jaw.
And time, time slowed down. The fraction of a second – the same fraction of a second it would have taken him to drag the knife across my throat – spread out. It spread out before me like a maze, like a chess board of choices. So many options, so many directions. But only one could save me.
I was not a bad person. But I wasn’t a particularly good person, was I?
I wasn’t a particularly selfless person; I wasn’t a particularly kind person. I didn’t go out of my way to help others.
These self-defeating thoughts would be my last.
Or so I thought, because the moment dragged on. Just as I could feel the blade shift across my skin, moving a millimeter to the right, I felt it. Another opportunity to change.
When I died, when Farley ate my heart, he would gain my powers for however long. I knew what he would do with them – knew what devious horrors he would achieve.
Murder, assault, violence.
Other people would die. Because of me. Because I couldn’t save myself.
And that, that was unimaginable.
That was unforgivable.
This was unforgivable!
Even if my power would not return to me – even if I could not see the future – it didn’t matter. I would go out fighting. For I, Chi McLane, would make my own future.
Suddenly, time sped up. It was not accompanied by a crackle of sparks that told me what to do.
Instead, I decided what to do myself.
I saw an opportunity, felt his grip slacken as he jerked his knife over the thick chain that held my tiger-and-fish pendant.
As he did, I bucked forward. Not back, mind you – forward. I let the knife slice across my cheek, felt a splatter of blood escape onto the soft, dew-covered grass below me.
In doing so, I broke Farley’s grip.
I swung around, elbowed him in the ribs, and pushed forward.
The move was sudden enough that I broke his grip, broke his balance too as he stumbled backward.
I pushed into a run. I wasn’t wearing any shoes, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t care about the rough stones and pine needles and rocks beneath me. Nothing freaking mattered except escaping.
But I did not tear towards the dense forest to my left.
Because, I Chi McLane, despite what Max thought, was not an idiot.
I pivoted on my foot, pushed down to my side, and picked up a discarded branch to my left.
I had no illusions that I could fight Farley – not only was he twice my size, but he had his own magic and that of the dead witch.
But I wasn’t going to fight him.
Just as he got up, I swung the branch down. I didn’t strike the hand that held the knife. I aimed for his right hand – the one still holding that key.
Behind me, though it was disappearing by every second, was the faint remains of that lock. I just knew if I grabbed that key and shoved it into the disappearing image of the lock, I too would be able to open the door. A door that would lead anywhere but here.
I pushed forward with all my strength, with all my goddamn strength, pivoting hard on my hip, drawing the branch up high. I swung it down.
Farley was obviously expecting me to aim for the hand that held the knife. So he didn’t protect himself in time. I struck his right arm and delivered such a devastating blow that he had no option but to drop the key.
Then I swung the branch into his face as I plunged down and scooped the key up.
My mother had this theory about the world. The world was always waiting for you to take something from it. It never gave you things. Or, at least, the things it gave you were just free samples. If you wanted the stuff that mattered – a meaningful life, love, goddamn survival – you had to reach out and snatch it yourself. So you never gave up your anger, your fire, your determination.
And right now, I let mine pulse through me. It gave me just the courage I needed to clutch the key and shove it to the side.
Though I could hear Farley jumping to his feet behind me, though I could hear the knife slicing through the air several inches behind my back, I shoved forward, plunging that key into the now de-materializing lock.
For half a pulsing second I thought it wouldn’t work. For half a pulsing second I thought I’d sacrificed my last chance.
Then? Then something unlocked. A door formed in front of me in a blast of sparks. I did not pause, just shifted forward, locked a hand around the handle, and shoved the door inwards.
I spilled inside.
I pivoted on my foot, ready to slam the door in Farley’s face, but I wasn’t quick enough. He got an arm through it, the same arm that held the knife. He slashed at me and managed to catch the tip of my shoulder as I pushed into the door with all my might.
I screamed, bellowed as my blood splashed across the door. I pounded on the door, trying to shove it closed. He kept slashing at me, twisting the knife wildly through the air as he shrieked and bellowed at me.
I didn’t ask the sparks to return to me. I was done begging them to come to my aid. I embraced the fire within, instead, embraced the kind of destiny you carved out with your own hands, not the one you waited for to fall into your lap.
That didn’t matter, for the sparks returned. In a blaze. They didn’t swarm across my vision in a confusing mass of color. Instead, they were ordered, patterned, almost as if I could control them.
I saw Farley shoving a shoulder against the door with all his might, managing to open it.
So I acted. I followed that vision of the future, let it control my every action. Just before Farley could shove into the door, I let go of the handle and jerked back.
The result was he hit the door with too much force and slipped as he clattered into the room.
I still had absolutely no idea where this door had opened to, but as I turned on my foot, I realized I was in a warehouse. The blood-covered, moldered plastic covering the floor was unmistakable.
Before I could turn my head and desperately search for Max, Farley got to his feet, swinging his knife.
I jolted backward, showing reflexes I didn’t know I had.
I was still bleeding. From my neck, from my shoulder, from my cheek. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was the adrenaline and fire that charged through my blood.
Farley swung towards me once more, and I saw his clenched, stubby teeth glinting in the feeble light making it in through the broken roof above.
I bolted backward but shifted to the side just in time as I caught a vision of myself dodging a crumpled up darkling on the floor.
“Max? Max! Where are you?” I bellowed into the semi darkness.
My heart resounded in my throat as I waited for him to reply.
I barely knew the guy, and so far he’d proved himself to be little more than an arrogant prick. But right now I needed that arrogant prick. I needed his strong arms, his reassuring grip, his grasp and his sunshine magic.
But if he was out there, he didn’t respond.
My heart sank, and Farley saw an opportunity.
Rather than slash towards me once more, he jerked down to his knee, clutched the large sheet of plastic I was standing on, and pulled.
I didn’t react in time.
I fell sharply, slamming onto my hip and shuddering from the painful impact.
Farley was upon me.
This time, he didn’t wait, didn’t lock an arm around my throat, tip my head back, and try to slash me from ear-to-ear.
I felt him drive the blade into the back of my right shoulder.
Finally, in my darkest moment, I saw a flash of light. And that flash of light? It belonged to my Scottish fairy.
Out of the darkness, sprang Max. He was absolutely covered in blue light, and his face erupted with anger as he blasted a bellow of rage.
I felt Max slam into Farley, wrapping an arm around the murderer’s chest and pulling him off me.
For a shuddering second, I could do nothing as the pain from my shoulder ate through my back. But then my fire returned.
Despite the pain, I clutched my hands around the moldy plastic, pushed, and jerked my feet.
Max was grappling with Farley. Though Max was completely covered in light, with a few hissed snaps, so was Farley. But his light was far more erratic. It blinked in and out, surging and pulsing only to ebb. And the light was a musty brown, a dead gray, almost like decaying flesh.
It also saw bruises and blooded marks scatter over his cheeks and neck and arms, almost as if he’d just been whipped.
His magic was taking its toll.
Yet, if I had the hope that Farley would burn through his power and succumb to Max’s attack, I was sorely mistaken.
Farley still held the knife, and suddenly he chanted something.
Droplets of my blood were still peppered along the blade, and as Farley spat out his words, they blazed like supernovas.
Max tried to jerk back, but he wasn’t quick enough.
Farley screamed, spittle flying over his cheeks and chin as he thrust the knife into Max’s arm.
Max could do nothing to defend himself from the blow. The knife sailed easily through his magic defenses and lodged high into Max’s bicep.
Blood dribbled and gushed from the wound, and Max jerked his head back, an aching scream filling the warehouse.
I didn’t pause. I bolted forward. I had no weapon. I was injured, could barely move, but that didn’t matter.
That didn’t freaking matter.
Farley was going down.
Once upon a time, I’d been a fake fortune-teller. But I hadn’t really been a fake. I’d helped people. Even if I hadn’t been able to tell them their future, I’d given them hope that the future could change.
And right now, I gave myself that hope as I skidded down to my knees and elbowed Farley in the arm.
The move wasn’t strong, but it was sudden enough to change the direction of his blow. Rather than plunge his glowing knife through Max’s stomach, the knife sliced harmlessly through the air.
I could have waited for Max to thrust himself forward, I didn’t. Instead, I finally went for Farley’s knife.
I didn’t wait for the sparks to tell me what to do – I saw an opportunity without them. The plastic by Farley’s feet was all crumpled, but it was still thick.
I dropped to my knee, kicked at his ankle, grabbed the plastic, and shoved forward.
It was just as Farley slashed towards me with the knife.
Time didn’t have to slow down this time. Nor did I need the sparks.
I thrust forward with the plastic, putting my shoulder into it just as Farley stabbed his knife into my arm.
Though pain punched through me, it didn’t matter. I pushed forward with the plastic, switched my grip, jerked back, and twisted. His knife was still in the plastic, and as I twisted the plastic to the side, it wrenched the knife out of his grip.
Somehow removing the knife from Farley’s grip obliterated the dark, sickly gray magical light that covered his form.
He went out like a guttering candle which had consumed the last of the wick.
And Max jumped to his feet and thrust forward. He balled his hand into a fist, one that shone with that unmistakable magic, and swung it right into Farley’s head. There was a sickening click, Farley’s eyes rolled into the back of his head, and he fell backward.
And then there was silence. Silence save for the drip of blood from my wounds. Silence save for my shuddering breath and Max’s far more measured inhalations.
He was the first to act, because I was the first to fall.
Suddenly the fact I was very injured struck me. I only had a chance to teeter backward, and Max moved in smoothly and plucked me up.
I didn’t protest. Boy did I not protest. I let myself half shut down as I felt his reassuring grip wrap around me. I might have even let out a satisfied sigh.
“Just hold on,” he muttered under his breath. “You’re very injured. Just stay still.”
I didn’t ask what I was staying still for. I knew.
Because I could feel it already. The soft grass, the sunshine. And this time, I concentrated, concentrated with all my might as I tried to listen for those hoofbeats, that screaming voice.
I felt my eyes softly close, and as they did, I heard Max’s unmistakable chanting, felt his magic twist through my form. He didn’t have access to the same herbs from my grandmother’s garden, so this time, the healing process seemed to drift on and on. And, as it did, I became more and more aware of that soft grass, those stampeding hoofs.
I almost caught what the screaming voice was saying. It was calling to someone. McCane or McClaran or someone like that. Screaming at them, voice so desperate….
I could still hear Max’s soft chanting, and suddenly it stopped.
As it did, the vision around me gave way. Not before I finally caught hold of that name. McCane.
Reluctantly, I opened my eyes.
There was Max, staring down at me, his lips pressed into half a smile. “You’re awake, then?”
I managed a muffled laugh. “Shouldn’t you be asking me if I’m alive?”
We made eye contact. The kind of eye contact that sucked you in. Being hugged by this man was one thing, but staring into his eyes? Oh, that was something else entirely. I felt something igniting in my heart. Something that told me Max was way, way more than an irritating good for nothing fairy.
He leaned back and crossed his arms. The move wasn’t defensive. Anything but. “That was amazing, Chi,” he said. There wasn’t a hint of dismissiveness in his tone. He wasn’t joking. He meant it. “Did you use your powers?” he added.
I shook my head, a grin spreading across my face. “A little. But in the end, I just… kind of did it on my own,” I said, and I couldn’t be prouder of myself. A grin split me from ear-to-ear, which was a heck of a lot nicer than a knife doing the same.
Max’s smile stiffened, and for the briefest flash of a second, I swore I saw his shadow shift, convulse almost.
I frowned. “Max?”
It took him awhile, but he shook his head.
“How did you manage to dispatch all those darklings, anyway?”
I blinked. I pointed behind him at the darklings crumpled on the floor. “The darklings, you must have defeated them all, unless they ran away?”
Max shook his head. “I don’t really… remember,” he conceded.
My stomach sunk and my shoulders fell. “Do you… do you remember who I am?” I asked tentatively.
Though Max had been looking fragile and weak seconds before, now he crossed his arms and shot me a withering look. “Do you think I could forget?”
“I may have forgotten how I defeated the darklings, Chi, but you’re another matter.”
I blushed. It was only subtle and hopefully wasn’t visible under this dim light. But it was still there.
We descended into silence.
I felt myself smile. Then my smile froze. “What… what happens now?”
Max nodded to the prone form of Farley. “Prison. For life.”
“But,” I stuttered as I suddenly remembered the interaction I’d had in the bar, “there’s more. I came across a man called Fagan.”
Max stiffened. “What happened?” The words blasted out of him.
“Nothing. I was taken to some kind of bar. Farley was working for Fagan. I overheard Fagan on the phone to somebody – they were talking about some kind of deal that would go down at the docks.” I spoke so quickly I could barely breathe.
Max drew up a hand and spread his fingers wide. “The details can wait.”
“They can?” I stuttered. “But this Fagan, he has to be stopped. Farley was working for him, taking,” my lips stiffened as I tried to force my words out, “hearts from witches. They were eating them,” my voice dropped to a harsh, husky whisper.
Max paled, his gaze darkening. “They were consuming their magic,” he explained. “When you eat the heart of a practitioner, you gain access to their magic for a time and the usual consequences for practicing magic are removed.”
I managed to control my neck long enough to nod. “I know. But Fagan was talking to someone on the phone – and whoever it was, he needed more hearts. God, Max….” I shoved a hand over my mouth, incapable of finishing the thought.
Max nodded. “I know. But that can wait. Fagan won’t move again anytime soon – not now we’ve got Farley. He will go underground. We have time.”
I looked up at Max. “Time for what?”
“Time to get you home. Time to fix your wounds.”
I winced as I remembered what had happened to the house. But then I remembered something else. I paled, dropping my gaze to my hands.
I watched him narrow his eyes.
“What is it, Chi McLane? You did good tonight. Great, in fact,” his voice shook with unmistakable pride.
I paused. I felt like I was on a precipice, squeezed between two choices. Should I tell the truth, or should I turn from it?
… The truth won out.
I tipped my head back and looked him in the eye. “I caused this. I ignored my power. Did exactly what you told me not to do. Then… those darklings,” I cut my gaze to the left and locked it on one of those crumpled forms, “they attacked. I caused this,” my voice shook as tears streamed down my cheeks.
At first, Max didn’t say anything. At first, he was nothing more than a looming shadow beside me. It took a heck of a lot of courage to shift my gaze up and stare into his eyes.
I did not, however, see hatred flickering within.
Just resignation. And that resignation? It quickly spread into a smile. “I know. But it doesn’t matter.”
He shook his head with some finality. “No, Chi McLane. It doesn’t.” He reached a hand out to me.
“Why? Why doesn’t it matter?”
“Because you’re finally starting to tell the truth.”
With that, I accepted Max’s hand. Yet, when it became all too clear that I could hardly stand considering the night I’d had, he stepped in and picked me up.
My heart soared as his arms wrapped around me.
I felt reassured, and yet I knew this wasn’t the end.
For now, though? For now, I felt safe and secure.
We’d just have to wait and see.
I was now a future witch, and who knew what would happen tomorrow?
So this was it, ha? I was a future witch. A lying future witch.
I was up in the attic, pressed over one of my grandmother’s journals as Chi the cat sat purring in my lap. The little thing had kept insisting I come up here, had kept pawing at the piles of my grandma’s journals until I’d plucked them up.
I was taking this world seriously now, wasn’t I? I’d learned my lesson at the hands of Farley and the darklings. I had now turned over the proverbial leaf.
I frowned as I leafed over a page.
It was torn in half.
In fact, there was a lot missing from her journals. Either she’d been ashamed of what she’d written, or someone had come along and redacted them afterward.
I scratched my head, leaning forward as I stared at the torn page.
… There was something written along the margin, something that was so faint, I could only just pick it up as I pushed the book closer towards the light.
Whoever had torn the page in half, had torn off half the sentence, but enough remained. Enough for my heart to suddenly kick, enough for a lick of sweat to spread across my brow.
The sentence read: “Watch out for Max, he isn’t what—”
“What the hell?” I whispered as I pressed closer to the book, running a finger over the page.
I read the sentence out again, subvocalizing it as I spread my lips softly.
Watch out for Max, he isn’t what….
He isn’t what he seems? He isn’t a friend? Isn’t a fairy?
As my mind cast through those possibilities, I shook my head. It was a defiant move. It was defiant, because my heart suddenly told me I couldn’t doubt him.
He’d saved my life, come charging to my aid.
And yet, these mysterious words remained on the page, taunting me.
I looked from them to the doorway down to the floor below.
I could hear Max downstairs cooking.
Max the fairy. Max the pain in the ass. Max my doorway into this crazy world. Max who kept me safe.
Max, the guy whose mere presence set my heart aflutter.
I trusted him, right? I believed that he’d once been my grandmother’s bodyguard, that he’d lost his memories in her final battle. More than that, I believed he was the only man – or fairy – who could get me out of this.
“Right,” I answered my own question. I closed the book and pushed back from the chair.
I walked away.
One day, I would return.
The end of A Lying Witch Book One. This series is complete. The other three books can be bought from most ebook retailers who stock my work. There is also a boxed set available.