JUST GO. Puka’s voice echoed with frustration. I looked down at the white fox and hissed, “I’m trying, okay?” The little devil arched a brow, clearly unimpressed. YOU’VE BEEN HIDING IN THE KITCHEN for three whole minutes. It’s getting weird. I clenched my jaw. “This is the least of what’s weird about me.” But damn it, it was weird. This was insane. This was my own freaking bar, for fate’s sake! I should be able to walk through it. Instead, I stood in the narrow kitchen of Potions & Pastilles, my hand pressed to the swinging door. On the other side of the door, Connor was in the main part of the bar, chatting with Nix, Cass, and Del. I could imagine him now, leaning over the bar as the four of them talked. It had been less than twenty-four hours since I’d temporarily defeated the darkness at the Tor of the Ancients, and my FireSoul friends had come to hear the story of my victory. Hell, Connor was still waiting to hear the story of my victory.
Only there was no victory to share. I’d driven the darkness from the land, but the evil had crept inside me instead. I could feel it even now, the dark mist twisting around my insides, seeping into my soul. Go! Puka’s words propelled me forth, and I strode from the kitchen. I could have gone around back, but I had to tell Connor where I was going. The last thing I needed was for him to worry about me. “Claire!” Cass’s eyes lit up and she stood, her red hair glinting in the light. Del and Nix stood, grinning. It was still early, so each clutched a coffee cup. There were a few other patrons in the bar—which was a coffee shop at this hour—but they were all bent over newspapers or cell phones, completely oblivious.
Connor turned to me, his keen eyes searching. He could tell I was different. I opened my mouth, wanting to blurt it all out—I’M POSSESSED BY EVIL, HELP! —but something tightened around my throat, strangling the words. “How are you doing, sis?” Connor’s dark eyes glinted with concern, his brow creased. “Good.” The word came out as a croak. I tried to force myself to elaborate, but nothing came from my throat. “So…” Del leaned over the bar, her blue eyes bright with keen interest as her midnight hair swung over her shoulder. “Tell us all the details.” “I love a good fight story.
” Nix grinned, the cartoon cat on her T-shirt smiling just as widely as it played a piano. I actually lost! My mind screamed the words, but nothing escaped. All four of them frowned at me, their expressions darkening with concern. “I’ve got to go,” I blurted. They watched anxiously as I pushed by them, racing from the bar. Patrons turned to look at me, but I ignored them, nearly sprinting as I reached the door. Puka kept up with me, shouting encouraging words. Keep going! You’ve got this! Puka and I knew that the darkness inside me could control what I was allowed to say —but we weren’t sure how much control it had over my actions. The darkness had only been with me twenty-four hours, and I’d spend a lot of that recovery-sleeping. I could speak to Puka since we could use our minds, but everyone else… Nope.
Not a word could escape my throat, which tightened every time I tried to tell someone that the amorphous, unidentified evil had polluted me. And worse, half the time I didn’t even W ANT to tell them anything. That was the terrifying part. It was like the darkness was manipulating my emotions and desires, not just my ability to speak. It would get stronger, too. In my gut, I knew it. I’d tried writing everything down to give to Connor a note, but my hand hadn’t so much as twitched. I couldn’t even move the pen. I just prayed the darkness wouldn’t stop me from reaching Aethelred as well. The old seer was my only hope.
The morning sun was bright as I raced out onto the sidewalk. Birds chirped and a fresh breeze blew. I turned left, heading toward the alley where I stashed my bike. Puka trotted alongside. We reached the old Harley and Puka hopped onto the back of the seat. I climbed on, and the fox grumbled and scooted backward. I started the engine, and it roared to life, sputtering only a bit. Hurry. They’ve followed you. I can hear them.
I could hear nothing over the engine’s rumble, but as I pulled out onto the street, I caught sight of Connor and the FireSouls, all staring after me. I waved, trying to pretend that everything was totally normal. They just scowled, clearly confused. Yeah, they weren’t buying this for shit. But it didn’t matter. Right now, I had one goal to focus on—get to Aethelred. The old seer was able to read a situation by touching someone, and he had the gift of foresight. If I couldn’t tell my friends and family what was wrong, maybe Aethelred could get the information out of my head and do it for me. I just had to reach him. I bent low over the bike and revved the engine, speeding down Factory Row toward Darklane, where the old seer lived.
As I pulled onto the main road, the back of my neck prickled. “We’re being watched,” I said to Puka. I feel it, too. I looked around, trying to catch a glimpse of the spy. I didn’t spot him and couldn’t keep trying—not as long as I needed to keep my attention on the road. Anyway, I had a pretty damn good idea who was watching me. Iain. My fated mate had said he’d come for me. Twenty-four hours ago, after the fight at the Tor of the Ancients, I’d tried to drive him away. As long as the darkness was inside me, it was too dangerous for us to be together.
Of course he wouldn’t listen. I drove faster, determined to reach Aethelred before anyone tried to stop me. The sun shone brightly, a sharp contrast to the darkness inside me. As I reached the Business District, the darkness inside me started to vibrate, trying to take control of my muscles. I forced it down, gritting my teeth as I pulled into the Historic District. Almost there. My muscles began to ache as the darkness tried harder to stop me from completing my goal. It knew what I was doing, of course. How the fates was I supposed to stop an evil that was inside myself? I felt polluted, with no way to cleanse myself. Finally, I turned onto Darklane.
Immediately, the sun disappeared behind clouds that hadn’t been there a moment earlier. The entire sky turned dim, and shadows crept across the ground despite the lack of sun. It was always like this in Darklane, as if the dark magic influenced the atmosphere itself here. This dark magic was nothing like the insidious evil that had infiltrated me, however. It was questionable magic—sure. But it wasn’t necessarily evil. The thing that controlled me was. I slowed the bike as I drove down the main street. On either side, soot-covered Victorian buildings stood silent in the early morning light. Oliver Twistian glass lamps flickered on the sidewalk, lending an old-fashioned feel to the place.
The dark magic smelled a bit iffy here, but not totally terrible. A bit like rotten fruit— too sweet, but not nearly as bad as rotten fish. Still, I breathed more shallowly, not wanting to excite the evil within me. I passed the Apothecary’s Jungle, spotting Mordaca and Aerdeca unlocking their front door. As usual, they were dressed in their signature black and white, respectively. The two blood sorceresses turned to me, waving. Why the heck was Mordaca awake at this hour? Ah, it had to be Friday. The clue came from her attire. Her black dress had been replaced by slim-fitting pants and a top. Friday was the day she walked the beach with Aethelred—bribed with bacon sandwiches to get out of bed.
I’d completely lost track of the days. I waved back at them, slowing the bike in front of Aethelred’s narrow Victorian. It had once been blue, and little patches of paint peeked through the grime. I parked the Harley and quickly climbed off, my muscles aching as I forced myself toward the door. Keep fighting, Puka said. I looked down at the fox. “You can tell?” You look like hell, so yes. “Thanks, dude.” Actually, I’m a girl today. “Cool.
” It was impossible to tell what Puka would be on any given day—boy, girl, white fox, russet fox. Even an owl. I hadn’t realized it when I first met Puka, but she could change gender, color, and species at will. She was more magic than animal, and I couldn’t have asked for a better sidekick. Which I needed right now, because I was in rough shape. I turned back toward the door, fighting my way up the stairs, sweat popping up on my brow. I gasped, feeling the eyes still watching me. Iain had followed me here. I didn’t so much as turn to find him. He didn’t have Aethelred’s power to read into my mind, and that was what I needed right now.
Someone to see what was wrong with me. With a shaking hand, I knocked on the door. “Come on,” I muttered. I can break in. “You might have to.” It had only been a few seconds, but my anxiety grew with every moment. I had no idea if this darkness would overtake my will entirely, and I wanted to stop it ASAP in case it tried. I knocked again, this time harder. Someone is coming. I heard the footsteps too, followed by a faint voice.
“I’m coming, I’m coming. Don’t get your knickers in a twist.” A moment later, Aethelred swung open the door. The little old man stared up at me with watery blue eyes that matched his velour track suit. His long beard reached his belt, bright white and wispy. Cass often said he looked like Gandalf on his way to aerobics. “Help.” The word came out in such a faint croak that I wasn’t sure if he could even understand it. He frowned, confusion glinting in his eyes. “What’s wrong?” “I—” The evil inside me tightened my throat, stopping the words.
Puka moved behind me, then I felt her paws on my butt as she pushed me inside the house. Aethelred stumbled back, flashing alarm. “What’s wrong, Claire?” Puka trotted inside, then kicked the door shut with her back foot, as if not wanting me to escape. “Thanks, pal,” I croaked at her. I turned back to Aethelred and tried to speak again, but my throat tightened. My mouth opened, but all I could do was wheeze. “Come on.” Aethelred grabbed my hand. “This way.” His hand was frail but his grip tight.
He pulled me through the narrow, dark front hall to the room on the right. It was cluttered with old furniture and hundreds of little objects. Sunlight glittered on dust motes, and he directed me to the couch. I sat, and he followed, gripping my hands tight. I could feel his magic surge inside me, and I nearly collapsed with relief. He could help me. I tried to think of everything that had happened, hoping he could read my mind. I wasn’t sure how his power worked exactly, but I wanted to do everything I could to help. “Oh my,” he murmured, his blue eyes widening. Inside me, the darkness began to thrash.
I could feel it expanding, like spiders crawling beneath my skin. Shaking, I bit back a scream. I wanted to tear my own flesh off my bones to make it stop, but Aethelred gripped my hands tight. “Fight it,” he said. “Fight it.” “How?” The word was a strained whisper, and I nearly collapsed on the couch as the darkness twisted inside my mind, feeling like a black mist filling every crevice of my brain. I felt like I was drowning. “Fight it in your mind.” I had no idea what he meant by that, but it didn’t matter, because I fell backward on the sofa, my consciousness retreating. The dim room disappeared as my vision blackened, and the last thing I felt was Puka’s warm form leaping onto my stomach and Aethelred’s tight grip on my hands.
Fight it. I sucked in a breath and opened my eyes. I was no longer in Aethelred’s living room. Instead, I stood in an endless open space that gleamed white and empty. Was I inside my mind? I could feel the darkness here. “Come out!” I screamed. “Fight me!” It came quickly, a dark mist that crept along the ground toward me. “Show yourself,” I hissed. Puka was nowhere to be found, but in the back of my mind, I could still feel her weight on my belly. I was fighting inside my mind, just like Aethelred had said.
But since the evil was here, polluting me, it made perfect sense. The dark mist coalesced to form a human body, featureless and terrifying. The figure was a dark, endless gray color. Like ash after a fire. BURN THE MOOR. It spoke directly to me, igniting something within my soul that screamed, “Yes!” “No,” I hissed. “I won’t.” The figure moved gracefully toward me, and I shuddered at the feel of its magic growing closer. I tried to call a sword from the ether, but it didn’t work. Of course it didn’t.
I couldn’t draw a sword into my mind. I needed to fight with something else. But what? My arm burned, and I looked down. My new tattoo glowed golden and bright, magic swirling around my arm. Use it. It was my only weapon here. I raised my arm, calling upon the magic within me. The light magic. The good magic. Everything that I’d gained from the Soul Stone.
You can’t fight me. The figure spoke in my mind. “I can and I will.” The magic sparked along my arm, and I screamed as I forced it toward the misty figure. The light burst from me, blasting the creature back. It exploded in a poof of dark mist, dissipating in the bright white space inside my mind. Gasping, I opened my eyes and shot upright. Puka jumped off my belly and I drew a labored breath, taking in my surroundings. The room was still shadowed, with beams of sunlight glinting off the dust motes that hung in the air. Aethelred gripped my hands and leaned forward.
“Are you all right?” “Yes,” I croaked, catching my breath. “I got rid of it.” “Not for good.” His eyes darkened with concern, and I knew he was right. I’d driven the evil back for now, but it still lurked within my soul, ready to rise again when it was strong enough. “You have new power,” Aethelred said. “I have a lot of new things.” I felt a bitter smile twist my lips. “Like wings I haven’t figured out how to use, even though I used to know. And a dark magic parasite hitching a ride inside my soul.
” “Yes, I feel that.” “What else can you feel?” I asked. “Until now, I couldn’t so much as speak of this.” “You’ll lose the ability to speak of it soon,” he said. “You’ve driven off the darkness for now, but it will be quick to return.” “And throttle my vocal cords.” I could feel it inside me still—weaker than it had been, but waiting to creep to the surface. He nodded. “It doesn’t want you to tell anyone what’s happening.” “What IS happening?” Desperation tinged my voice.
“This darkness… It has no real form. It’s just evil—a mist that snakes along the land, stealing the control of the Fae so that their magic turns against them.” I’d seen it curse the Sea Fae so that they froze from the inside. Iain and I had stopped it, but the darkness had turned its attention to the Fire Fae next, suppressing their control until they burned from within. “What does it want?” I demanded. “I drove it from the land, but now it is inside me.” Aethelred shook his head slowly. “You didn’t drive it from the land.” “What?” “You drove it deeper underground, but it is still out there.” He dropped his grip and raised his hand, moving it in a half circle.
A globe appeared, blue and green. A transparent model of the earth. Deep within the core, a dark mist swirled. “See? It is still there.” Oh fates, this was bad. “And it’s inside me?” He nodded. “You are part of its final goal.” “Which is?” “To steal all of the natural power from the earth. Every living thing has magic—not the kind that we Magica have. But a unique magic tied to its life force.
When everything dies, the darkness will reap the power from its ashes.” “That’s why it wants me to burn the moor,” I said. “To turn it to ash so that it may feed.” Aethelred nodded. “This is what I see in my visions. You are meant to start it all. The Great Burning.” “And once my world is burned, the darkness will reap power from the ash.” “I believe this is correct.” “How do I stop it?”