A Curse in Darkness – Sherilee Gray

I didn’t scream when Azel made the final slice in my back. After hours of torture, I had nothing left to give—until the sick, twisted fallen angel began broadcasting horrific images of my family directly into my mind. I screamed then, and something inside me shattered so thoroughly I knew that if I survived this, I’d never be the same again. He leaned over me. “Do you see, witch, what I will do to them if you don’t let me into that fucking compound.” My body was jostled roughly as the grasping hands of his demon followers carried me to the warded gates of the knight’s compound. A ward that I’d created. The knights of Hell protected this city from the demons who resided here, and their compound sheltered those most vulnerable to attack. They’d trusted me to help them do that. Azel had held my friend Luna and her brother Ronan captive most of their lives, but they’d gotten away. Now Luna was here, finally safe and mated to one of the knights. But Azel wanted Luna back, and I was currently the thing standing in his way. The demons dropped me. I hit the ground hard, and stared blankly at the massive iron gates blocking our path. Azel crouched beside me, his mind twisting deeper into mine, attacking, stabbing, breaking me from the inside out now.

He’d found my weakness, my family. And I wasn’t sure how much longer I could withstand this torture. Everything went dark. He’d taken my sight, so all I could see were those images; my family, bleeding, screaming. Suffering. I cried out, suddenly not sure what was real and what wasn’t, if it was actually happening or just a horror show of his own making playing in my head. “You can make it stop, witch,” he said, his hot breath on my neck. “Drop the ward or I will tear the skin from their flesh, starting with your sisters.” I couldn’t think—the pain, my family…I couldn’t let him hurt them, I couldn’t… “Now!” he roared. Tears stung my eyes as their blood-covered faces contorted in agony in my mind, as he continued his relentless onslaught. I wouldn’t let him hurt them, I couldn’t. He would kill them if I didn’t do this, and he would make them suffer when he did it. A sob was torn from my raw throat as I held out a trembling hand, palm down, fingers spread, and I choked out the words that would drop the ward. Azel laughed, the chilling sound, lifting goosebumps all over my battered body. Still blind, I could only hear what followed, the gate exploding open, fighting, yelling, screaming, the heat of flames on my skin, until consciousness was too much of a struggle —then there was nothing.

When I woke next, my sight had returned, and Grace, one of the knight’s mates, was crouched beside me. I struggled, trying to get up, to search for the rest of my friends. “It’s okay. Azel’s dead, he can’t hurt you now,” Grace said as her mate Chaos, and leader of the knights, strode toward us. I couldn’t face him, I couldn’t face any of them. I’d failed them all. But before Chaos could reach us, Warrick, alpha of the hellhounds was beside me. The huge male growled, raw violence and molten rage radiating from him as he carefully lifted me and held me protectively to him. “I’ve got her,” he snarled at Chaos. “Willow?” Grace said, asking me if going with the alpha was what I wanted. “Warrick will take care of me,” I rasped. We weren’t friends, he and I, I didn’t really know what we were, but he made me feel safe. And I desperately needed to feel safe. My gaze slid to Chaos. “I’m sorry.

I tried to stop him. He was…he was just too strong.” “You did nothing wrong,” Chaos said. “Jesus, we should have done more to protect you.” “No shit,” Warrick barked, then he turned and carried me away. I squeezed my eyes closed and focused on the heavy beat of his heart, and tried to force those awful images from my mind. Warrick pressed his mouth to the top of my head. “No one will ever hurt you again, dove, I promise you that.” Chapter 1 Willow An icy breeze brushed over my bare skin, and I shivered as a steady stream of blood ran from my thigh, down my leg, to soak into the soil where I’d dug my bare foot. An owl hooted in the distance, and I searched the shadows surrounding me. Oldwood Forest was at the southernmost end of the larger Roxburgh State Forest, just beyond the city itself, and a hangout for all manner of creatures, mainly the unpleasant kind. So, standing here, completely naked, wasn’t my idea of a good time. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a choice. Reluctantly, I tossed my dagger onto the pile of clothes I’d recently shed, drew in a deep breath, and closed my eyes. Clearing my mind, I allowed the warmth of the soil to soak in, heating the soles of my feet.

It vibrated, like the earth was humming softly beneath me. The autumn breeze grew stronger, shifting my long, out-of-control red hair against my bare shoulders. Closing my eyes, I lifted my arms, tilting my head to the moonlight, its glow a welcome caress. “Guide me, old ones. I am your servant, the Keeper chosen to fulfill the rite of Coven Thornheart.” The wind blew around me faster, dried leaves brushing past, small twigs and sticks scraping my skin as they whipped around my naked body. “I’m here to accept my task. Whatever you ask, I will undertake.” The air suddenly stilled, and cold, dark dread arrowed up my spine, shooting into the base of my skull. I gasped as silence engulfed the wood. Even the owl was silenced, not wanting to draw notice from the creature I’d summoned from its slumber. Something oily scraped my leg, the tickle of a forked tongue tasting my blood. Then it came, the rattle, like a plastic bottle filled with dried beans. I opened my eyes and the enormous serpent lifted its massive head, its glossy black eyes staring into mine. Dark and light, terrifying magic flowed from her, surrounding me.

The magic of my coven, of others like it. Mother Nature, the Great Goddess, the Creatress of all life—or Mother, as she liked to be called by the witches who worshipped her—was not some beautiful maiden; she had no corporeal form at all. But when she needed one, she chose to inhabit her pet serpent. At least thirty yards long and as thick as the ancient oak behind my aunt Else’s house, she was a terror to behold. I held my ground. Any sudden movement would prove I was unworthy, and my life would more than likely come to a brutal and swift end. The Goddess didn’t play. She may create life, but she wasn’t averse to taking it either. Being the Keeper of one’s coven was an incredible honor. If I were given a choice, though, it would have been a hard pass from me. But we didn’t get a choice. And I’d rather it be me than someone else I loved, especially one of my sisters. The mother’s voice filled my head with the same words she’d spoken to me the first time I came here, around a year ago. No, this was not my first rodeo, but the mother didn’t like to rush things. Instead, she left you hanging for twelve months, worrying and waiting for this to finally be over.

Each coven needed to complete two tasks to receive the mother’s gifts. This was my second and final. I will grant you your gifts, witch, if you complete your task by the time the vines meet. If you fail, you will be unworthy of trial, and gifts past will be returned to the mother. If you complete your task yet fail to win your trial, again, your gifts will be returned to the mother. She always referred to herself in the third person, it was odd. But then everything about this was freaking odd. “I understand.” I barely had time to brace before she struck, her massive fangs sinking deep into my waist, her venom pumping into my body. Her jaw unhinged, and she finally released me. Gasping, I dropped to my knees, then she was gone, vanishing into the shadowy night. Covering the massive puncture wounds just below my ribs with my hand, I snatched up my phone with the other and turned on the flashlight to get a better look. She’d gone deeper than the last time, and her venom spread quickly, creating black, thorny vines snaking across my skin and winding together, some just below my breast and some curving around my hip. A black shoot extended an inch farther down my ribs as the puncture wounds rapidly closed. Whatever my next task was, I had to complete it before the inky vines reached out and met in the middle.

This, of course, wasn’t the first time she’d permanently decorated my skin; the other went from my elbow down, covering my hand and two of my fingers. Only now it was a multitude of colors, something that happened when you passed both task and trial, solidifying your new powers. Powers that would be taken back if you failed. At least this one could be hidden. I stumbled, the strength in my limbs draining away, dizziness hitting me hard, faster than last time, and I reached for my clothes as my sight flickered from black to flashing white light. Shit. There hadn’t been as much venom last time. I’d had time to get dressed before its full effects had hit me. Right now, I wasn’t even capable of lifting a protection ward, let alone get to my dagger. I fell heavily to my side, unable to move as the mother’s magic worked its way through my body. Magic, that had left me paralyzed, while naked, and utterly defenseless. The earth was icy and damp, and I lay there blinking at the shadowy tree line. My family was going to be so pissed if I got eaten by a demon or some feral shifter. Something moved in the distance. Awesome.

Just freaking wonderful. There’s that saying that life is what happens to us while we’re making other plans. In my case, life had kicked me in the crotch, spat on me, then ground my humble plans to dust. I thought I had it all figured out. It was a simple plan: run my store, look after my family, use my powers to help others, and enjoy a variety of energetic and highly skilled lovers. But most importantly, my plan was to avoid drama at all costs. Growing up in a house with my grandmother, great aunt, mother, and three sisters, I’d had more than my fair share. The Thornheart women were not only powerful witches, they were strongwilled and extremely volatile. So that last one was easier said than done. But I loved them more than anything in this world.


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Updated: 24 November 2021 — 02:28

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