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The great horned owl sat in the oak.
I could see the bird from my window as it huddled in the sparse branches, trying to protect itself from the snow. I longed to join it, to strip off my clothes and turn into my owl self, to fly free under the haunting winter moon, but the weather was harsh and cold. And Myst was out there, hiding in the forest with her people, waiting.
And somewhere, hidden in her mists and shadows, Grieve is there, captive, caught in Myst’s web. Can he still possibly love me? Can he still be saved from the blood that flows through his veins? How can I let him go, now that we’ve found each other again?
I opened the window and leaned out, glancing down at the yard below. The snow gleamed under the nearly full moon, a crystal blanket of white flooding the lawn. The Golden Wood—or Spider’s Wood, as I called it—was aglow as usual, with a sickly green light that I’d seen every night since returning home to New Forest. A thousand miles and years seemed to separate me from my former existence, although it had been only a couple of weeks since I arrived back in town. But in that short time, my life had turned upside down, in every possible way.
The wind called to me to come and play and I closed my eyes, reveling in the feel of the breezes lashing against my skin. My owls shifted, urging me to fly. The tattoos—a pair of blackwork owls flying over a silver moon impaled on a dagger—banded both arms.
Slipping on my leather jacket and gloves, I cautiously climbed out on the shingles, making sure that the snow that had built up didn’t slip, sending me sliding to the ground, but it had turned to ice. I scooted until my back rested against the window, then brought my knees up, circling them with my arms, and nestled as best as I could against the cold.
As I stared up into the oak, the great horned owl let out a soft hoot, stirring my blood. Over the past month, he’d taught me to shake off the fear of falling, to soar through the unending night turning on a wing, catching mice in the yard, while always, always, keeping an eye on the forest.
You are Uwilahsidhe. You are magic-born. You must keep watch for Myst, he constantly reminded me. The Queen of the Indigo Court seeks to destroy you.
I raised one hand in salute, the snowflakes softly kissing my skin, and he hooted again, a warning in his tone.
“What is it?” I whispered. “What are you trying to tell me?”
Ulean, my Wind Elemental, swept around me like a cloak, answering for him.He fears for you. There are ghosts riding the wind tonight, and the Shadow Hunters are out and about. There will be death before the morning.
More death. More blood. My stomach churned as I thought about the four killings reported over the past two days. One had been a child. All had been torn to bits, eaten to the bone.
I gazed at the forest. What were Myst and her people up to tonight? Who were they hunting? The bitch-queen was ravenous and without mercy.
There has been so much death over the past few days. They are terrorizing the town and now everyone fears them, even though they don’t know from whom they run. I leaned against the gentle current that signaled Ulean was embracing me. She had been my guardian since I was six years old, bonded to me through ritual, a gift from Lainule, the Fae Queen of Rivers and Rushes.
And they should fear. Myst won’t just go away. She is here to make her mark and conquer. She is here to destroy. Ulean caught up a skiff of snow and sent it into the air, spiraling around me.
I glanced back inside at the clock. Seven P.M. Another two hours before we were to meet with Geoffrey. Finally, after five days of silence, the Northwest Regent of the Vampire Nation had summoned us. Five days after we had rescued our friend Peyton from Myst. Five days after I’d lost Grieve. Five days during which the Indigo Court had rained hell on the town, killing eight people.
The owl hooted again and as I glanced in his direction, a shadow of movement caught my eye from below, over near the herb gardens.
Crap—something was rooting around down there. Not an animal, so what was it? Another glance over at the Spider’s Wood showed nothing amiss, but we couldn’t take any chances.
Ulean, do you know what that thing is?
A moment passed and then she drifted gently around me again. Not one of the Shadow Hunters, but I have no doubt it belongs to the Indigo Court. Myst is attracting the sinister Fae.
I leaned forward, trying to keep it within my sight.
I need to know what it is. We can’t take a chance on letting it prowl around our land.
Scrambling back through the window, I paused just long enough to slip on my wrist sheath and make sure my switchblade was firmly affixed. Grabbing my fan from the dresser, I slipped back out on the roof and edged my way to the overhang.
The two-story drop was problematic, but a couple of days ago I’d installed a roll-up ladder. I’d been out flying and landed back on the roof, only to discover that somebody in the house had thought I was off shopping and had shut my window and locked it. I’d been stuck out in the snow, naked, too tired to change back into owl form to fly down to the ground and come through the front door. Now, I had the option of climbing down, which was a whole lot easier than shapeshifting when I was exhausted.
I rolled the ladder over the edge and was about to swing onto the rungs when Kaylin stuck his head through the window.
“What are you doing?”
“Goblin dog or something of the sort in the backyard. I was going to check it out.”
“Give me ten secs and I’ll come with you.” He ducked back through the window as I headed down to the ground. A moment later, Kaylin was shimmying down the ladder to land next to me. The dreamwalker was far older than his looks belied, and he was far more skilled in fighting than I was. Having him at my back made me feel much more secure.
“Where are the others?” I hadn’t seen my cousin Rhiannon all day.
“Rhiannon is out shopping, and Leo is on a last-minute run for Geoffrey.”
Leo was a day-runner for the vampires. More specifically, he worked for the Regent, running errands that Geoffrey and his wife couldn’t do during the daylight hours.
“What about Chatter?”
“He’s in the basement, working on charms against the Indigo Court.”
“I thought the house seemed quiet.” I moved forward, cautiously.
The backyard of the Veil House was more like the back-forty. Filled with herb gardens, stone circles, and fruit trees, it lay blanketed in a thick layer of snow, and the rising moon set off a bluish tinge to everything around. We stopped, listening to the owl as he hooted again, his warnings echoing through the yard.
We were as quiet as possible, but at one point I stepped on a fallen branch, buried by the snow. It snapped in two. The creature, which had apparently been working its way toward the house, heard us and froze.
This way, Kaylin mouthed, circling around it.
I followed his lead, edging closer to whatever it was. We managed to slip behind a nearby bush before it could back away. There didn’t appear to be more than one, and we were able to get a good look at it.
The creature was about four feet tall, with a bloated stomach and long bony arms that dragged along the ground. Its head was distorted, elongated and elliptical, with longish ears. The eyes were wide-set and cunning. As it drew back its lips into a grimace, drool dripped from between its needle-sharp teeth.
“Have any idea what it is?” I whispered to Kaylin, wishing he could talk on the slipstream. It was much easier to avoid being overheard when sending messages along with the currents of air.
Kaylin cocked his head, his ponytail shifting slightly. “Goblin. One of Myst’s toadies, no doubt. If we let it live, I guarantee it will bring others. The dark Fae can get through our wards where Myst’s Shadow Hunters can’t, so she’s probably testing how far she can push into our land using her allies.”
“Kill or wound as a message?”
“Go in for the kill. If we just wound it, we’ll have yet another nasty enemy on our hands.”
I gave him a short nod, saving my breath as we burst out of the bushes and poured on the speed. As we caught up to the thing—the goblin was terribly quick—I pulled out my fan, whispered “Strong Gust,” and snapped the fan open, waving it twice.
A quick blast of air slammed against us—and the goblin. Startled, the creature skidded to a halt at the edge of the forest, looking confused. Kaylin dove forward, rolling to come up in fighting stance. He kicked it in the chin. As the goblin lurched back, I slipped through on the left side and brought my switchblade down on its arm, stabbing it deeply.
Kaylin fumbled for his shurikens as an icy gust of wind came whistling from the direction of the forest, and a shadow figure loomed at the border dividing the woods from the magical barrier we’d constructed. A glimpse of pale skin with a cerulean cast to it told us all we needed to know. One of the Vampiric Fae. A Shadow Hunter.
“Shit,” I muttered, steeling myself as the goblin launched itself at me.
The Shadow Hunter raised a bow, his sight intent on Kaylin. He might not be able to set foot on our land, but his weaponry could. I shouted a warning to Kaylin and waved my fan in the direction of the Vampiric Fae, whispering, “Strong Gust.” The arrow came zinging our way, but missed by inches.
The goblin landed on me and we both went down, rolling into the snow. I couldn’t use my fan in such close quarters, so I struggled to catch the creature by the throat. I was bigger than the goblin, but not as tough. After thrashing against his leathery skin, I finally managed to get one hand on his neck.
Gnashing his teeth, the goblin lashed at my hand and I pulled away just in time. Even if I didn’t lose any fingers, chances were good he had some nasty bacteria in that mouth and I wanted no part of any infection he might be carrying. We wrestled, me trying to force back his hands as he scrabbled to reach my face. One swipe of those clawlike nails could take out an eye. The stench of the creature was putrid, like a combination of gas and vomit, and his eyes were round and lidless.
I sucked in a deep breath and heaved, pushing with both hands and feet, and managed to roll on top, trapping him between my knees. I squeezed my thighs together, trying to keep the goblin from slipping away from me. At that moment, Kaylin let out a shout and I jerked around. A muscle pulled in my neck.
“Fuck!” The Shadow Hunter’s second arrow had grazed his arm.
The bolt had penetrated the heavy leather he was wearing but looked like it hadn’t gone too deep. Kaylin yanked the arrow out, tossing it to the ground, and dashed over the boundary line. The Shadow Hunter hadn’t been prepared for him to go on the offensive and went down, Kaylin atop him in the snow, a flurry of fists flying.
I turned my attention back to the goblin. If I let this thing get away, he’d be back, with reinforcements. I flipped the blade on my switchblade and paused. Killing creatures—even our enemies—was still new and did not come easy to me. I sucked in a deep breath.
You can do it. Steady. Aim for the forehead. Goblins are vulnerable in the third eye area. Ulean flurried around me, trying to keep the snow from blinding my vision.
With a surge in the pit of my stomach, I brought the blade down, wincing as it slid through the goblin’s head. New Forest had become a town of kill or be killed. We no longer had the luxury of allowing our enemies to live in peace.
I drove the blade in to the hilt. The goblin screeched, loud and jagged through the twilight, and then fell limp as a fountain of blood stained the snow red, diluting into petal pink. The scent of the creature lingered, joined by that of blood. I withdrew my blade, yanking when it resisted.
Another shout. I looked up to realize that—in my fight—I’d also passed the boundary line and the Shadow Hunter was on the run, aiming directly for me. I froze, but he merely shoved me aside and fell to the side of the goblin’s body, his face pressed against the creature’s wound.
As I backed away, horrified, he lapped at the blood, and then began to transform, his mouth unhinging like that of a snake as he shifted into a doglike monster, his jaws lined with spiny teeth. With ravenous fury, he bit off the head, chewing it, spattering bits of brain matter every which way.
Kaylin brushed his fingers to his lips and slowly edged up on the Shadow Hunter. He brought out a short dagger, serrated and coated in a magical oil. As he plunged the knife into the side of the Vampiric Fae, aiming for the heart, the oil encouraged the blood to flow and the crimson liquid stained the snow still further.
The Shadow Hunter turned, but I was quicker, stabbing his haunch with my blade and dragging it through his tough hide. Then Kaylin and I lightly danced backward, out of reach of those deadly teeth.
A voice echoed from behind us and I turned to see my cousin Rhiannon, panting as she stretched out her hands, a small red charm in the palm of her right. She whispered, just loud enough for us to hear, “Flame to flame, bolt to bolt, fire to fire, jolt to jolt. Lightning, let me be thy rod.”
All hell broke loose as a bolt of snow lightning came forking out of the gathering clouds, ripping to the ground to shatter the Shadow Hunter into a thousand pieces, as if he were a glass dish smashed on concrete.
As soon as the spell sang out of her body, Rhiannon collapsed and Kaylin raced over to catch her. I stared at the remains of the Shadow Hunter and the goblin. Not much left. Nothing to take home with us, except two more notches on our belt, and the hope that we’d be able to sleep soundly, knowing there was one less member of Myst’s court in the world. One less toady of hers to slip onto our land.
Kaylin shivered. He was bleeding through the rent in his jacket from the arrow. At that moment, I noticed a trickle running down my own shoulder. I glanced down. A puncture wound had penetrated my jacket. I slipped it off to see blood saturating my top. The goblin must have stabbed me with its claw. I hadn’t even noticed.
“We’re growing numb to our pain,” I said as we turned away from the carnage we’d just inflicted.
“We have to,” Kaylin said. “We have to learn to weather the battles because there will be far more to come before things get back to normal. If there even is such a thing as ‘normal‘ anymore.”
I nodded and looked at Rhiannon. “You saved the day.” The thank you was implied.
She slipped her arm around my waist and leaned down to kiss my forehead. “I just got home and saw the commotion from the car. Leo’s still in town and I don’t know where Chatter is.”
“In the basement, working with the charms.”
“Ah. Good. We’ll need them.”
“I guess we’d better get back on our land, before anything else comes out of the woods. We need to tend to our wounds and make sure they don’t get infected.” I wearily turned back to the house.
As we crossed the demarcation line that magically divided the Golden Wood from the Veil House, I couldn’t help but shudder. Like it or not, we were pawns in a war between two powerful enemies—Geoffrey and Myst—and we were doing our best just to stay alive.