Dedicated to my friend, Cathie Duvall,
the true Queen of All Hallows Eve.
“If it means battling the armies of Hades,
I will fight to the death for you.”
— Richelle E. Goodrich
— Richelle E. Goodrich
I could see Thaddeus mentally weighing his chances of getting near enough to snag the magic jewel from the chain around my neck. He was hesitant to act, aware that I would fight like a cornered animal to keep my memory fully awake. Taking advantage of his indecision, I scooped up a handful of items from off the table, unable to gather more than four lying nearest each other; it was all I could hold in one hand. I ended up with the pair of spectacles, the square cut of cloth, the dried flower, and a thin vial half-filled with unidentified contents. I was betting the objects might prove useful to me if they were indeed enchanted.
“Put those down, Catherine, they don’t belong to you.”
I wrinkled my nose at the futility of his command as well as the hideous name he insisted on using. I was no longer his puppet wife—every emotional string had been severed by whatever liberating power the indigo jewel possessed. I gestured at the various odds and ends scattered across the table, certain they were charms of sorts.
“Are these your mother’s?” I asked. “Are these what give her the power to inflict evil curses on others?”
Thaddeus managed a hint of smugness with his response. “These are mere toys compared to the innate powers possessed by a real witch....or warlock.”
He was reminding me of his true nature. He had inherent powers. I’d been subject to them before—unpleasant incidents I now recalled clearly. I tried to show no concern.
“Then you won’t mind if I borrow a few,” I retorted, “for nonmagical persons like myself.” As tempting as it was to grab a second handful of trinkets or vials or whatever was small enough to carry in my fist, I knew I would need a free hand to wield a weapon I was familiar with. My silver sword. I thought of the words the old witch had used to summon the sword on previous occasions. While stepping backwards with the intent of putting the table between Thaddeus and myself, I voiced the spell aloud.
“Grim dettarias, ee Duvalla swen areir!”
My trusted weapon appeared from out of nowhere, the hilt grasped tight within my fingers. Without delay, I pointed the tip of the blade at my enemy.
“Move away from the door and let me leave this place.”
“Don’t breathe that wicked name again!” I angrily ordered. Thaddeus closed his mouth, and his eyes scrunched the slightest bit, never shifting from me.
“I’ll cut out your tongue if you mutter that awful name one more time,” I threatened. I interpreted his frown as a sign that he believed I would make every effort to carry out that threat.
Using the sword as an extension of my arm, I gestured with a flick of the wrist, signaling for the swine standing between me and freedom to move aside and clear the exit. He failed to comply.
“Where will you go?” he asked, allowing no time for an answer. “Anywhere but here is unsafe. There’s no other sanctuary in which you can hide. My mother will sense the awakening of her gemstone; she will seek it out the moment you exit these walls. And if she and her loyal gargoyle slaves are not threat enough, then consider your cruel fairy godmother—the sorceress responsible for the violence that left you unconscious in a pool of your own blood. She will no doubt come after you again if you leave these shielding walls.”
His words made me shudder. I had to stop and think. “Are you implying that for some reason they can’t enter this house?”
Thaddeus shook his head, agitating his thick, curly mane. “No, no, anyone can enter if they dare, although few have ever found the place. It hasn't been disturbed in years. What they cannot do is sense your presence here, nor the life in that stone you wear. You are hidden from danger as long as you remain inside this house. Most importantly, our child is safe here. That alone should be reason enough to stay put.”
A wave of nausea shot through me, sickness brought on by the mention of my pregnancy and the understanding of how thoroughly I had been violated over recent months. I flashed a fierce look of loathing at the man who dared to use my unborn child as a pawn in his twisted game of manipulation. I spat my detest at the floor and growled at my enemy.
“Step aside or I will cut you down where you stand.”
Thaddeus looked shocked. He had apparently expected a very different reaction from me. “Cath…” he began until I swung my blade through the air fast enough to make it sing. He flinched the slightest bit but refrained from speaking that horrid name. “My dear,” he began again, “you are safe here.”
“I’m a prisoner here.”
“Not so, you are free to roam about the house. It’s my heart you hold captive, ever since you became my wife.”
This time, I was the one to appear shocked. The earnest, even desperate look about him was unsettling. I was beginning to think that maybe he too had been deluded by his mother’s charade. Did he actually believe what he was saying?
“I am not your wife,” I hissed.
“You are my wife, and you’re carrying our child. My child!”
“Conceived against my will!” The sword in my grasp became a pointing finger jabbed repeatedly at the lying, conniving opportunist. “You stole my memories and warped my sense of self to make me an imposter! You turned me against my true family! I am not your wife, and you are not my husband; what you are is a fiend! An unscrupulous fiend!”
“You didn’t feel that way earlier.”
“I was delusional!”
“You were happy. Admit it, you were perfectly happy…and you can be so again. Just take off that necklace. Set it aside. It’s a burden of troubles and sorrows and regrets you don’t need to carry. Let it go.”
I sliced my sword through the air, letting a shrill, spine-chilling ring be my answer.
“Get out of my way.”
Thaddeus sighed heavily. Disappointed. He didn’t budge.
“Get. Out. Of. My. Way.”
Refusing to move, he instead seemed to grow taller with confidence.
“My dear, I’m afraid you stand no chance of escaping this place.”
His challenge made me grip harder at the hilt of my sword. My courage wavered a degree. Though it was a well-known fact that I had beaten Thaddeus time and again in physical challenges within the walls of Tarishe, in each case he had held back, pretending to be a common man. There was no reason for him to restrain his powers now. Against all-out sorcery, I was uncertain if I could prevail. I would fight for my freedom nonetheless.
“If you won’t move, then I’ll move you,” I stated boldly. I caught a glimpse of humor in a brief smirk. It was his only response.
I was quick to consider my next move, concerned about the magic he would use to counter an attack. Glancing across the table in front of me, I scanned various items, clueless as to the enchantments they possessed—if any. My eyes landed on a taller jar, and I chose to act swiftly. In a single move, I skirted the table and swung my sword, hitting the jar. It flew toward Thaddeus, surprising us both with what happened next.
The glass container—filled to the top with dead, brown moths—poured out its contents while in motion, yet not a single moth fell to the floor. Instead, a hundred wings spread apart, colors bleeding across their tiny, overlapping scales. The moths increased in size and fluttered like mad, a kaleidoscope of brilliant wings that swarmed Thaddeus, covering his hair and face, effectively blinding him to me. He faltered on his feet, stumbling rearward, flailing his arms in an effort to swat at the many-colored wings. I stole past him, able to slip sideways through the doorway, and tore down the hall toward the spiral stairwell.
Midway descending the stairs I lost all source of light, but my feet fell on each step without error. At the lower portion of the stairwell, I encountered a faint, blue glow that reached from flickering torches lining both walls off the attached hallway. At the foot of the stairs I turned right. I knew the opposite direction would lead me to the room in which I had first awakened. Thaddeus had left me alone in that room, so I assumed it was central to the house, nowhere near an outer exit. He wouldn’t have wanted me wandering outside, which was now my primary goal.
I ran the torch-lit stretch of hallway, passing more than twenty closed doors. The house seemed to extend the length of a creek until finally veering at a sharp, right angle to the left, ending at a closed door directly ahead. This discovery was extremely disconcerting. I had expected to find a foyer or a lobby or some access to the outdoors since the other end of the house led to enclosed rooms with no discernible exit.
I reached for the knob and twisted, relieved when it rotated in my grip. I could see nothing beyond the door after shoving it open; the room was blacker than a moonless night. If any windows existed, they were entirely covered, edges and all.
Wasting no time, I tucked the handful of charms down the front of my shirt and grabbed the nearest torch mounted in the hallway. I then entered the room. It turned out to be a long, open space entirely windowless and empty of furniture. A few more steps inside made me wonder if it wasn’t actually a wide corridor.
I noticed right off that the walls were painted black, the ceiling and wood floor as well. There were cobwebs interwoven in every corner, both overhead and at the base. The air was musty and dry like an old, dirty attic that lacked adequate ventilation. Anxiety gnawed more intensely at my stomach, and for a moment I considered backtracking, but the thought of running into Thaddeus, who was surely not far behind, urged me to press forward. I hoped for the best and locked the door at my back, a simple act that caused the illusion of a shrinking room. At least I hoped it was only an illusion.
I hurried straight forward past three, dark outlets to the left, only to discover that the path ahead ended in a solid wall strung heavily with cobwebs. I swiveled around to return to the first outlet and stuck my torch inside. A solid barrier blocked it off after a few feet. It was the same with the second one. The third, however, led to an actual passageway that I quickly hurried through. After a short stretch, it veered sharply to the right and extended straight forward again. I found another barred outlet and then a second that I thought was a dead end until further inspection revealed an accessible curvature to the left. I followed it, fearful that reversing my course meant confronting Thaddeus. When the passage crooked around another corner, straight forward, and then around a further corner followed by a sharp bend, I began to feel like a rat in a maze. It didn’t take many more sharp turns and dead ends for me to understand that I was indeed a human rat stuck in a black, walled-off network of narrow corridors. What kind of sick mind created a dark, confining labyrinth in the heart of a house? For what purpose? A trap? A dungeon? A coffin? It felt like all three. I feared Thaddeus had anticipated I would end up in this place.
After following a curvy stretch of wall, certain I was futilely walking in circles, I tried to backtrack to the beginning of the maze with no luck. I had effectively lost my way, yet standing still seemed like a form of surrender; there was always a chance of stumbling upon an exit path. I turned to skirt a different wall that hooked in the opposite direction when I remembered the spectacles in my possession. Switching my sword into my other hand, somewhat clumsily gripping both the hilt and the torch as one, I dug the eyeglasses out of my shirt. I was about to slip the frames over my nose when I let out a little scream. Paying no attention to what was in front of me, I had nearly walked into the literal skeleton of a man, deceased for ages by the looks of his dust-coated clothing. Somehow, his skeletal remains were still standing, his shoulder and arm pressed against the wall together with two hands and a foot. He seemed stuck as if he were glued in place, his ragged clothing hanging off his bones. I froze for a moment, my mind racing with possible scenarios as to the history of his final days.
I was about to walk around the unfortunate fellow when a face appeared from out of the dark, this one more hideous than the hoary skull. It was Thaddeus. Where had he come from? How in the dark abyss of Tartarus had he found me?
In my haste to avoid him, I lunged rearward and knocked my arm against the wall. Up to that point, I had avoided contact with the channeling walls and their stringy veils of cobwebs. The moment my skin pressed against the cold surface, I suffered the strangest sensation, like thousands of minuscule hairs were fastening onto me, drawing my arm to the rock. It felt similar to suction holding fast to my skin. My fingers were free to wiggle, so I wrapped them around the spectacles, hoping Thaddeus would not notice. Despite constant attempts to yank free, my arm remained fixed to the wall. I was beginning to comprehend how miserably the poor man across the way had ended his days.
“I have a good mind to leave you right there,” Thaddeus threatened as he planted both hands on his hips. He apparently felt confident beyond the reach of my sword.
“Go ahead. Leave me,” I taunted, hoping he would do just that. At least my mind and memories would remain intact.
“Given your foul disposition, it’s tempting.” He smirked as if honestly considering my advice. “Oh, but what kind of husband would that make me?”
“A thoughtful one,” I quipped. I continued to fight the wall to no avail. Thaddeus took a step toward me, and I instinctively dropped the burning torch in order to raise my sword and prevent his approach. “I don’t want your help, pigeon.”
“I don’t intend to give it to you, mongrel.”
His insult stung, despite my loathing for the man.
“As soon as I have my wife, Catherine, back with me—which will be momentarily—I shall come to her immediate aid. And I assure you, she will be most grateful.”
“That pitiful creature is dead.”
“No, no, she is merely sleeping. And when she awakes, she will recall a most vivid and disturbing nightmare. I, of course, will assure her that it was nothing more than a terrible dream. One she will easily forget.”
Rage burned in my chest at the thought of being so easily duped. When my would-be master made a move at me, I slashed my sword crosswise, reaching to my full extent in the hopes of, at the very least, scarring his skin with the tip of the blade. The wall held securely to my arm. I barely kept from backing further into it when Thaddeus conjured up a small sphere of violet lightning that flashed and quivered between his hands. He made a sweeping gesture that shot a bolt of light at the face of my blade and ripped the hilt from my grasp. I heard the weapon clank against the floor and skid a short distance off.
Unwilling to succumb without a serious struggle, I curled my fingers into a fist. Thaddeus dodged a swing at him and forced my arm down with little effort. He then grabbed at the indigo jewel. My heart pounded wildly as my tense muscles screamed for a fair fight. Every cell in my body cried out in protest, trembling and afraid.
Fully aware of the miserable existence I would be compelled to embrace against my will, I went to kick at my attacker but discovered my legs had gone stiff. Things happened so fast after that, I had no time to make the slightest sound of objection. The jewel dangling from my neck came to life in a single pulse, emanating the most beautiful blue fire from within its core. The instant Thaddeus touched it, a swell of energy shot from the gemstone and threw him across the way where he crashed into the standing skeleton, breaking a few dry bones while entangling himself in others. When he tried to stand up, he could not. His hair, skin, and clothing were glued to the wall. My heart leapt, thrilled that for the moment, at least, I remained my true self.
Intent on getting away, I forcibly wiggled my arm, thinking I might manage to slide it along the wall and follow wherever it led. It failed to budge. Perceiving an increase of violet light in the dark space, I realized Thaddeus was attempting to free himself using sorcery. It occurred to me right then that I too possessed a type of magic inside the indigo jewel. But how could I draw it out?
Desperate, I grabbed the jewel and touched it to my shoulder, as close to my arm as the attached chain would reach. I tried to think of what to do, hoping by some miracle I might summon an ounce of useful magic. I rubbed the stone on my shoulder but nothing happened. Meanwhile, a surge of brightness made me squint, and I glimpsed across the way a glowing image of Thaddeus, his large form violet and sparking as he peeled himself off the sticky, fibrous resin covering the walls. His escape left fragments of skeleton bones hanging haphazardly like macabre artwork. I squeezed on the indigo stone in my hand, still alive with radiance, and brought it to my lips. In a whisper, I begged for the magic to work.
“Free me! Release me! Please, do something!”
To my great astonishment, the gemstone responded to my plea. Tiny sparkles traveled from the source, across my shoulder, and then down the length of my fastened arm. All at once I was loosed. I turned and ran, scooping up my silver sword on the way. Having brighter light from the jewel to illuminate my path, I forsook the torch. I was darting around corners, careful to avoid contact with walls, fearful of running into a dead end, when I remembered the spectacles in my hand. I put them up to my eyes and peered through them, discovering multiple walls between me and the outdoors in each direction. It appeared I was closest to the southeast side of the house, the path blocked by only three solid walls. Wondering if it was possible, I brought the indigo jewel to my lips and whispered to it once again. The blue fire inside amplified in brilliance, nearly blinding me. Blinking back the light, I realized it was sunshine in my eyes. I was standing outside in the exact spot I had viewed a moment earlier through the enchanted spectacles.
“Thank you,” I breathed in earnest before tearing into the surrounding woods as fast as I could run.
I raced past unfamiliar trees that grew much taller than the woodland timbers outside the Tarishe village. Thick, towering trunks were predominant. They smelled fragrant rather than mossy and seemed to prefer coiling their dense roots atop the soil, creating hurdles for me to either jump or sidestep every few feet. I hurried into the thicker woods, hoping to evade my pursuer, having not the slightest idea how far away or in what direction home lied. As soon as I reached a safe distance, I planned to stop and get my bearings. High above, the sun shone in a nearly cloudless sky, but its rays didn’t warm the air. Winter intended to dominate the weather for a few more weeks. I was lucky no snow coated the ground; my clothes were hardly winter attire.
“You need to go back.”
I skidded to a halt. Thaddeus stood directly in my path, proving that escaping him wasn’t going to be easy. His expression had lost the hint of smugness it wore earlier, now utterly determined.
“It is foolishness to be out here where you’re vulnerable; you put yourself and our child in danger. Cease this stubbornness and return to the house where it’s safe and warm.”
“Stop thinking you can tell me what to do. I’m not your puppet, and I will not go back to that death trap.”
“It’s not a death trap; it’s a sanctuary.”
“Ha! Is that the line you fed to the poor man who died glued to the wall?”
“That poor man was a thirsty vampire.”
I was momentarily speechless, repulsed by the mention of a vampire. Those few foolish bloodsuckers who had encroached upon my family in the past had suffered far worse fates at my own claws. The knowledge that I had unwittingly put my trust in Jovani under the influence of a mind-muddling curse sickened me. I would never have cooperated with the likes of a murderous vampire had I been myself. And I certainly wouldn’t peel one off an ensnaring wall if I found him stuck there.
“I brought you here to protect you, Catherine, can’t you see that?”
I glared daggers at Thaddeus for voicing that wretched name. “You brought me here to continue your sick charade.”
“No, love, you’re wrong.” His denial was too affectionate. Too adamant. My face screwed up with disgust, refusing his lie.
“Try to understand, there are forces combined against you. Mother is finished toying with the werewolves. That’s why she ordered Jovani to slaughter them, threatening Evadine’s life if he failed. She was preparing to end your life as well. If it were not for the fact that you are now carrying my child, she would have confronted you already.”
I wondered if his words were true. After fourteen years, had she grown weary of her game of retribution?
“Mother hates that I’ve developed feelings for you, that in the unlikeliest of places I actually found happiness. I don’t care how she feels about it. After grieving my family’s losses, contending with our enemies, retaliating against humans and werewolves in the name of justice for so many years….I've felt nothing but loathing for our pitiful lives. Mother’s pain and sorrow caused her to believe the world is void of pleasure or happiness, an outlook I adopted as well. But no longer. I've proven her wrong. I found it—real happiness. I found it with you, and I do not intend to lose it.”
Hearing him admit tender feelings toward me made my stomach roll. I was not about to accommodate his fantasy.
“Your happiness is based on a lie, Thaddeus. It’s pretend and it can’t continue.”
“Our child is neither pretend nor a lie. If you are harmed, our child will be harmed as well. That is reality.”
“I can take care of myself.” I stepped sidelong, attempting to get on my way. Thaddeus barred the path.
“Not if my mother or her henchmen find you. And what about Vallatrece? What if that sorceress comes at you with another brutal attack?
He was trying to scare me for his own selfish reasons. I refused his warnings.
“She won’t attack again.”
“You don’t know that.”
“How could you possibly know for certain?”
I attempted to walk off in a different direction but was blocked yet again. Thaddeus raised his voice, demanding my attention.
“Listen to me! I am the only one who wants you alive—the only one who hopes to protect you!”
I scoffed at the scheming warlock. “You are a far cry from a noble protector! My pack and my family are the ones who remain loyal to me, just as they have throughout all the miserable years you and your mother tortured us for the sake of revenge! Don’t you dare stand here now and try to play the compassionate hero!”
“Your pack is gone. There is no one left for you to return to.”
“Again, you lie. I know they live; I saw them in that misted orb inside the house.”
Thaddeus scrunched his eyes taking in news that was apparently surprising to hear.
“Jovani will see to it that they don’t live for long. Evadine means more to him than a village of werewolves. He will destroy your pack to protect her; you know how vampires are.”
“Then let me go so I can save my family before it’s too late.”
“Stay here and save your family yet to be born.”
I tried to set out in another direction only to have the way blocked.
“Is there no reasoning with you?”
Thaddeus locked his jaw at my definitive reply. I readied myself and endured a stretch of silence while he contemplated his next move. I only hoped the indigo jewel would continue to help me against his magic.
“You leave me very few options, my dear.”
“I’m leaving you no options at all. Just walk away and forget me.”
“I won’t do that.”
I considered the few items tucked in the front of my shirt: a square piece of cloth capable of autonomous dusting, spectacles that allowed the wearer to see through solid objects, a dried flower that had yet to produce any magic, and a vial of mysterious liquid. None seemed particularly useful for self-defense.
I barely felt the ground tremble as it caved in and I fell—not far, maybe five feet down. A pit formed when an area of oversized tree roots separated beneath me. I landed on my feet in a crouch and looked up where my sword had fallen, balanced on a ledge of interwoven roots. Glancing about at dirt walls, I gauged the likelihood of scrambling out without assistance. The soil appeared soft and loose, I feared it would give way easily. While scanning for any natural footholds, I noticed a length of rope fall from above, tossed into the hole. One end landed at my feet. I looked up but saw no one. Cautiously, I reached for the rope and gave it a firm tug. There was no give.
“Thaddeus?” I said, expecting an answer. I heard nothing. No response. No movement.
In a bold, decisive move, I pulled on the rope, giving it all my body weight. Hand over hand, I climbed out, breaking loose a landslide of dirt from the cavity wall. Thaddeus received me with a smirk as I crawled over the edge. I scrambled to get to my feet and was about to lung for my sword when both knees locked. Unbeknownst to me, the tail end of the rope had slithered up from behind to encircle my legs. It speedily worked its way upward, binding me from calves to shoulders. I couldn’t bend, afraid of falling over like a heavy log.
My captor wore a sly grin on his face as he regarded my predicament. When I tried wriggling an arm free, the ropes tightened around me. I groaned because of the discomfort.
“You’re hurting me,” I said.
“I am not.”
“You’re hurting the baby,” I amended—a desperate ploy. He seemed to consider the possibility for a split second.
“You force me to use drastic measures. If you would simply cooperate...”
I spoke over him with a growl. “I will never cooperate with you.”
Thaddeus frowned at me and then turned aside. He squatted to pick up my silver sword.
“Don’t touch that!” I barked. “It’s not yours! Put it down!”
He said nothing as he approached with my weapon. My heart sped up, anxious. The gears in my mind were whirring, worried about his intentions. When he tapped the tip of the sword against the enchanted gemstone and suffered no ill effects, I understood exactly what his plan was. Purposefully, I leaned over and fell to the ground. The hard landing made me grunt. Before Thaddeus could crouch down beside me, I rolled flat onto my stomach, protecting the indigo jewel beneath my chest.
A hand landed on my back and another on my hip. Thaddeus tried to turn me over, which meant the sword was no longer in his possession. Out of desperation, I voiced a string of magic words learned ages ago.
“Grim darrsa, ee Tarishe svellnarishe. Grim dettarias, ee Duvalla swen anon!”
The sword vanished.
Thaddeus groaned to communicate how pathetic he deemed my efforts to be. Again, I tried wriggling an arm free, only to feel the rope constrict even more.
“Ugh, this hurts!”
“It can’t hurt more than throwing yourself onto the ground.”
Grumbling under his breath about my stubborn nature, he went to the nearest tree and picked up a fallen branch. It was a narrow stick, dry of leaves. I rolled away when he went to touch the indigo jewel with it.
“Quit moving,” he demanded. With the sole of his boot, he shoved at my hip and pushed me onto my back. His stick went for the necklace. When his boot came down on my shoulder to keep me anchored in place, I screamed that he was causing me excessive pain even though the pressure he exerted hardly effected my shoulder at all. Nonetheless, he let up enough that I was able to roll over. This time I nearly choked because his stick caught in the necklace. He yanked up on the chain to slip it over my head, but I lowered my chin to my chest, hollering words of protest. Repeated tugs with the stick caused me to twist in the dirt, working to keep the chain about my neck.
“Hold still!” The heavy weight of a boot landed on my back.
“Stop it, Thaddeus! Get off me!”
He yanked hard on the chain again, making me gag. The jewel caught under my chin, and I clamped down on it. Desperate, I breathed a wish.
“Make him stop.”
All at once the necklace slackened, alleviating the sensation of choking. I heard a dull rat-a-tap as the stick fell and drummed against the ground. Rolling onto my side, I glanced up to see Thaddeus bent over, reclaiming the tool he had dropped. His eyes flickered my way, communicating a potent look of concern that affected me for the brief time we locked gazes.
“If you want to remain alive and safe, stop fighting me. Catherine, I’m the only one who can save you from certain death. All I want is to protect you and our child.”
I couldn’t allow myself to be deceived, no matter how convincing his performance was.
“Catherine…listen to me…”
A blue surge of light swelled so bright, my eyelids were forced to close. When they fluttered open, Thaddeus had vanished. His stick prattled against the ground and then lay still. I marveled at it, unable to fathom what had become of him. Was he alive, whisked away to some unknown place? Or had the last living son of the Tarishe witch been erased from existence? I feared that I had ignorantly used magic to destroy the man. Regardless, I was not about to regret acting in self-defense. The pigeon should have backed off.
With the warlock’s disappearance, his spell dispersed. The cord binding me fell slack, and I was able to wiggle free with no difficulty. After retrieving my silver sword for safety’s sake, I took a careful look at my surroundings, hoping to recognize a distant landmark that might point me in the direction of home. Every towering tree and snow-white mountain peak was entirely unfamiliar. I wondered how far away the werewolves were camped. I wondered what Kresh was doing. I imagined him with our children, holding Natasha and Nehemia in his arms, keeping them safe and loved. The thought was bittersweet. Kresh had seemed especially somber and discouraged at our last encounter. I worried how he would receive me, knowing I carried the child of another man.
With an anxious heart, I took the jewel in my hand and put my lips near its glowing crystalline face. I whispered a heartfelt desire.
“Take me home.”
The thick, lofty forest appeared to smear into shades of brown and green at my every side, transforming and rearranging shape before refocusing in my sight. I found myself surrounded by aspens, the slender trees coated in moss. I breathed in the smell like a drink of water and caught another familiar scent, that of werewolves. My pack was nearby.
Turning in the direction of camp, I hurried through the trees, driven by eagerness to make my presence known. My brothers and sisters would certainly be relieved to find that my mind and will were again my own. I was considering taking on werewolf form—knowing the natural identity of a wolf would be more readily received—when the wrist attached to my free hand turned cold, clamped by an icy fist. The force applied was almost crushing. I brought my blade around, but my striking arm was stopped mid-swing and each finger peeled from the hilt faster than I cold comprehend. At last, I recognized my captors.
Traïsean and Vada held me by each wrist while other members of their vampire clan stood as stock-still as ivory pillars planted in a half-circle facing me. Their burgundy eyes burned rays of hatred through linear slits, yet no one breathed a vile word. I was about to speak when an imposing laugh commanded our attention. I spoke the name of the woman to whom it belonged.
“I’m already here, wayward one. There’s no need to call for me now.”
I watched her approach, hips swaying shamelessly with each leisurely step that brushed her black skirts against low-lying shrubbery. Her dark lips were shaped in a mischievous grin that dimpled only one cheek. She came as close as the nearest tree and then flicked her pointed nails in a half-hearted gesture at Traïsean and Vada. The vampires released me but remained as immobile as fence posts at my sides. I rubbed my sore wrists; I could feel an onset of bruising. A tsking sound came from Vallatrece and drew my eyes to her humored smirk. Her head shook loosely back and forth in a discontented manner.
“You must be lost. Your quaint Tarishe village sits miles from this part of the forest.”
“I’m not lost, and I didn’t call for you.”
Vallatrece cocked her head the slightest bit. Flecks of gold twinkled in her chocolate eyes. I feared this woman, more than the several members of Jovani’s clan standing by her. That fact angered me. I gestured at her cold, pale henchmen.
“I think your friends here are the ones…”
“Servants,” the sorceress cut in to correct me. The demeaning term didn’t appear to bother any of the vampires.
“Your servants are lost,” I said. “They have no business in werewolf lands—especially in the daytime when blood-suckers normally wither under sunlight. Why are they not hiding in a cave somewhere?”
Vallatrece laughed loudly, throwing her head back as if something I’d said was exceptionally amusing. “These sensitive creatures were granted a wish from their fairy godmother. The sun no longer torments them.”
“Are you everyone’s fairy godmother?”
“Of course not, Catherine.”
“That is not my name,” I hissed.
A pair of chocolate eyes observed me sternly. “You know who you are. How is that possible?”
I swallowed back a wave of concern as her focus jumped from my face to the indigo jewel at my chest. The blue light in the heart of the jewel glowed only faintly. A yank on the braided chain made me lurch forward and I heard Vada cry out in pain. When I looked, the vampiress was cupping her hand as if it hurt. I then understood what had happened: she had attempted to grab the enchanted gemstone and it had shocked her in the process. I flashed an accusatory glare at Vallatrece.
“Do you mean to steal from me?”
“Apparently no. It seems the stone has chosen you.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I’m not surprised.”
“Well, it’s mine—that I do know. You can’t take it from me. No one can.”
“How many have tried?”
I refused an answer to the question. My silence was undaunting.
“Where did you get that pretty trinket anyway? Who gave it to you?”
“No one gave it to me; I found it.”
Vallatrece scrunched up her face, communicating that she didn’t believe me.
“And now that I have it,” I continued, “I no longer require your services.”
“You no longer require my services? Is that so?” Again, her cheeks dimpled with amusement at my words.
“Yes, it is so. And I want you to release the young werewolves who naïvely agreed to enlist in your growing army. The deal is off.”
“Oh, oh, is it now? How terribly independent and demanding you are!” Vallatrece clapped her hands, derisively applauding my performance. “I must say, I am impressed! Such tenacity! Indeed, you are a brave queen.”
“I am responsible for the young werewolves who were tricked into joining you. They belong to my pack. Release them.”
Vallatrece’s countenance turned dark in an instant. “You presumptuous ingrate.”
“The deal is off, you have no right to keep them,” I argued.
“The deal I made with your mongrels is in full force so long as I carry out my end of it, which means they remain in my service….now and forever.”
“We don’t need your help anymore.”
“Because you wear that precious trinket? Has its influence gone to your head and made you carelessly bold?”
I didn’t answer, uncertain if there was some truth to her statement.
“What do you think will happen when someone removes it from your neck? What will become of you and that wimpy pack of wolfhounds when a clever, powerful, determined soul claims that pretty gemstone? I’ll tell you what will happen: you’ll run back to Tarishe and cleave to your enemy because every shred of your identity will fade away to nothing.”
“No. That won’t happen.”
“You would take such a daring chance when the odds against you are obviously insurmountable?”
“Yes, I will take that chance.”
“Foolish werewolf! Your arrogance will land you back in the arms of that idiot warlock before the sun sets.”
I shook my head to the contrary. “He’s gone. I can never go back.”
Vallatrece raised a sharp eyebrow, acting highly curious about my meaning. “Why do you say he is gone?”
I failed to reply, wary of letting it be known that the blue jewel had performed significant magic for me. My self-appointed fairy godmother pressed harder for an answer.
“Where did he go? Is he dead? Did you kill him?”
“I don’t know. Not intentionally.”
My words made her brow line furrow, and she mumbled loud enough to be overheard. “The idiot is not so incompetent that he would permit a sword to touch him.” She looked straight into my eyes. “You will tell me exactly what happened.”
Locking my jaw, I refused. The next thing I knew, my mouth opened and my tongue began wagging, confessing the truth against my will. I blurted out how Thaddeus had been trying to reclaim the necklace in a physical struggle that ended with me uttering a desperate command that was followed by a dazzling reaction from the indigo jewel.
“And then he vanished into nothingness,” I confessed. “Gone.”
Vallatrece laughed mockingly. “He’s not gone for good! You assess too highly your abilities. Luck and only luck can be credited for what happened. You stumbled on words your stone responded to—that’s it. Tell me, what were you thinking when Thaddeus vanished?”
“I was thinking that I wanted him to leave.”
Vallatrece rolled her eyes at my apparent incompetence. “When you said the words ‘be gone,’ where did you picture him in your mind?”
I had to think back for a moment. I always pictured him in the same place, whining to his mother inside her hut in Tarishe. I told this to Vallatrece.
“Then that’s exactly where he is, which unfortunately is very bad news. I foresee terrible, frightful plans in the making. Now more than ever you need my help, Catherine.”
“I am not Catherine!”
“You will be….if you refuse my help.”
Without any consideration I rejected her offer, believing Kresh was right when he tried to warn the others that making a deal with Vallatrece was the same as trading one scheming curse for another.
“We will face whatever comes our way on our own. My pack has an advantage now with this stone, a powerful advantage we never had before. It will protect us from curses and dreadful magic like yours.” I pointed to the red gemstone she kept about her neck. It was impossible not to attribute similarities to our jewels. “Mine will do for me as yours does for you.”
Vallatrece laughed so boisterously at my assumption that a few vampires cracked a hint of a smile. She ended her cackle on an unattractive snort. “You haven’t the slightest clue what’s in your possession, nor is there time for you to learn. Without proper training, your enemies will overpower you in a heartbeat! Defeat is inevitable….unless you let me help you.”
Again, I refused. “Release my brothers and leave.”
“You are turning out to be a grave disappointment. Nothing like the sensible creature Jovani painted you to be.”
“Jovani isn’t exactly an authority on good sense.”
Vallatrece smirked wickedly and for the first time turned her eyes on the semicircle of vampires fixed like ivory posts. “Have you no pride, my warriors? Are you going to stand there and let this ill-bred mutt insult your comrade without consequence?”
My back hit the ground faster than lightning streaks across the sky. Instinct took over and transformed my body into a werewolf with fur as black as a moonless night. I swung my claws, ripping through the skin of multiple vampires, leaving gashes in those who had pinned me to the ground. With their recoiling, I was able to scramble onto all fours and flash my razor-sharp teeth. A growl swirled deep in my throat, but the bloodsuckers ignored the warning, bent on punishing me for my insult. An arm clamped onto my hind leg and held tight until my teeth sank into the attached wrist. Snarling, I looked right and left, unable to keep every vampire in view. I was outnumbered, but not powerless.
Unsure if I could coax any magic from the indigo jewel without speaking human words, I tried to focus on banishing the vampires using concentrated thought. I wished them gone, imagining their collective disappearance in my mind’s eye. Though I pictured them hunkered down inside a dark cavern far from werewolf lands, my enemy remained about me, taking daring grabs at my limbs while trying to avoid the sting of my claws and teeth. Afraid that I would soon be pinned down again, I looked for an escape. That’s when I caught sight of the square cut of cloth. It was lying limp on my discarded clothing. The other charms were buried within my garments; I could see the stem of the dried flower sticking out.
Using my snout, I tossed the square of fabric through the air at a vampire named Althea. The cloth snapped open before her eyes, startling the entire group for a split-second. That instant of guarded hesitation allowed me opportunity to duck into the trees while the enchanted cloth attempted to wash Althea’s face, whacking at hands grabbing for it. I might have laughed at the amusing scene if not for the horrific circumstances I was fleeing.
My paws skid across the ground when I put on the breaks, nearly slamming into my wicked fairy-godmother. She appeared from out of nowhere directly in my escape path. I bared my teeth and growled lowly, retreating just enough to keep out of reach. She watched me through a near-constant mask of amusement. It seemed everything was a game to her. A cruel, manipulating game.
Her hands rose, fingers together, and she performed a sudden twist of the wrist. It was accompanied by a red spark of light from the gem at her chest. The forest came alive with movement, scrub brush rustling behind the sorceress’ black skirts. I watched with wariness until I noticed familiar faces push through the brush. The young werewolves who had sworn themselves to Vallatrece gawked with wide-eyed wonder when they spied me, stunned to see their queen in wolf form and without a hair of silver on my paw. When they realized it was the queen of werefolk standing before them, my beloved brothers dropped onto their forelegs and bowed. This show of reverence ruffled the black crow feathers worn by Vallatrece. She snapped at the werewolves.
“Get up, you fools! You are my servants, and you will bow only to me.”
Each wolf turned his eyes on the sorceress, finding in her stare a bubbling lake of molten gold. The wolves stood up, glancing furtively at me. I understood their inner struggle as they comprehended the conflict of loyalties to which they had ignorantly committed themselves.
“Choose wisely, my children, or it will be the last choice you make.” Vallatrece was daring them to oppose her, threatening their lives if they did. She smirked her vile delight at a mortal game of manipulation. I reached out to the wolves telepathically.
(I understand the position you’re in. Don’t defy her unless there’s no other option.)
(Queen Duvalla, how can it be you? How did you manage to break the curse?)
(It’s a long story for another time.)
(But we were preparing to free you; we were ready to kill the Tarishe witch. Did you destroy her on your own?)
(No. And none of that matters right now. The bigger threat stands before us.)
(Vallatrece. She promised to help; she said she would free you.)
(We only followed her to save you—to save the pack.)
I could feel remorse press heavy on their hearts. They remained at the side of their new mistress, anxiously waiting. We all waited, vampires too, as the center of attention grinned wide, confident in her control. All I wanted was to be left alone with my pack, to be allowed to live our lives in simple seclusion. I was angry with Jovani for seeking out this arrogant witch who clearly showed more interest in entertaining herself than assisting anyone.
“Are you ready to admit you need my help?”
I made no agreeable gesture, though it was plain to see I would not be leaving without her forcing consent from me. I was outnumbered, and I feared for the lives of the young werewolves. It appeared I had very little choice.
Vallatrece uncurled her slender fingers and reached toward me with an open palm.
“Give me the stone, and all will be forgiven. I will keep my promise and kill the Tarishe witch, and you will forever be free of her curse. No one will come after you in search of the trouble that dangles like a beacon from your neck; they will seek me out instead. My offer is generous. Your consent would be wise.”
I didn’t agree. Relinquishing the enchanted jewel would transform me into the gullible werewolf-hunter, Catherine. I refused to voluntarily return to that hideous life for even a few minutes.
“Don’t give it to her.”
The command carried through the trees, loud and firm. The voice made my heart race. I would recognize it anywhere. Twisting my neck, I peered into the surrounding woods and spied Kresh, his tall, athletic, human form a daunting picture. He glared straight ahead at Vallatrece, his golden-brown eyes simmering detest. A flickered glance at me turned soft for only a moment.
“Leave our lands, witch. You have no business here.”
Vallatrece gave her full attention to my husband. She seemed pleased by his arrival, eager to involve a new player in her game.
“I have much business here, mongrel.”
Kresh stepped out from the darkness of the woods. His hair was longer than I remembered, his face more bearded than bristly.
“You are gravely mistaken. Go now. Leave us alone to care for our queen.”
Vallatrece opened her palm to him. “Hand over the gemstone and I will leave without argument.”
“No. You’ve taken enough from us. We won’t give up anything more. Now go away!”
The sorceress curled her sharp-nailed fingers and formed a fist. She stood silent for a moment, darting a glance at me before speaking up again.
“I will have that stone regardless, mongrel. I always get what I want.”
“Not this time.”
My attention jumped to the surrounding trees as an army of werewolves silently appeared from the shadows, making their presence and their numbers known. At last, there were more standing with me than against me. I hoped the sight was intimidating enough to cause our unwanted guest to be reasonable and back down. She didn’t even hesitate to consider the consequences of her actions when she shouted out a merciless command.
“Kill them all!”
The vampires swooped like vultures on the werewolves. Hisses and snarls intermingled with the sound of gnashing teeth. I heard an echoed snap followed closely by a pained yelp that made my heart ache with compassion.
A warm body bumped against me, covered in umber fur. Kresh had transformed while hastening to my side, ready to fight with me—to defend me. I yearned with every atom of my being to pause time and greet my mate tenderly, to hold him in possessive arms and feel his strong embrace receive me home. My heart had been too long deprived of its burning desire. I feared this desire would forever be denied me. My fear escalated when a drove of hideous trolls rained from the tree branches overhead, wielding wooden bludgeons covered in black, sticky tar. These repugnant creatures had been summoned by a red glow of sorcery. They stunk worse than vampires, but their characteristic slowness gave us an advantage of speed against crushing strength. A physical battle raged on, the numbers evened by the outpouring of trolls.
It was the strangest sensation standing in the midst of it all and yet finding ourselves spared from the conflict. Somehow, Kresh and I were within an inner circle untouched by violence. With us was Vallatrece and the young werewolves sworn to her. They seemed especially nervous, unsure of what to do, afraid to fight for either side. I sensed the witch’s eyes on me, waiting for my full attention. As soon as I met her gaze, she began a performance meant to shatter my heart.
Using her magic, she shoved the young werewolves in my direction and ordered them to attack. For the life of me, I couldn’t comprehend what was driving her to act so cruelly. Why torment those who would be loyal to her under most circumstances? I could see no reason for her malice other than assuming her delight was to taunt and persecute the vulnerable.
“Attack, you worthless mutts!”
The young werewolves looked to me without fear. Without enmity. Their eyes held only one emotion—shame.
They would not attack their queen.
I knew it.
Kresh knew it.
Vallatrece knew it.
I dreaded what she intended to do after seeing their refusal to carry out her command.
The deep, quiet rumble of a growl caught my ear. Kresh was crouched low. He meant to attack our tormentor. I couldn’t let him try alone. Encompassed by the beastly sounds of battle, we prepared to leap. Kresh was tossed aside like a rag doll in one direction while I flew off in the opposite, landing in a skid on my side. I was hopeful when a swell of light increased inside the indigo jewel. I anticipated it coming to life and saving us from the vile Vallatrece, but nothing magical or remotely helpful happened. Focusing once again on the sorceress, I watched the young werewolves come together in purpose to attack as a group. I was horrified when my silver sword appeared in the witch’s hand, and I screamed in protest, a sound that came out as a distressing howl. It stopped the young wolves in their tracks.
(Retreat! Retreat!) I cried, knowing one strike of the blade would prove deadly to them. (Run! Get away from her!)
As the wolves attempted to flee, Vallatrece swung my sword, making it sing with her swiftness. She cut down a wolf who was unfortunate to be within her reach.
“Traitor,” she hissed. “I have no use for you.”
Her sword came around again, this time extending from her fingers as though an invisible anchor kept it linked to her. The blade reached to slice through two more fleeing warriors. I yelped as if the blade had pierced my own body.
Kresh darted towards the evil enchantress, intent on sinking his teeth into some part of her, but he was once again cast aside like a leaf caught in the wind. He slid to a halt mere yards from me.
Meanwhile, the remaining young wolves were making their escape. For an instant, hope dangled a rabbit’s foot in front of me. Vallatrece was apparently aware of my thoughts because she caught my eye and flashed a smile as wicked as death.
“Should I let them live?” she asked. It was pure torment intended to cause me anguish of soul. I wanted to scream out “yes!” To plead and beg for her to spare their innocent lives. But I couldn’t. Even if I had been in human form possessing a voice capable of beseeching mercy, I was not allowed the time to speak.
The silver sword sang its piercing battle song as it left her fingers and flew at ridiculous speeds. I noticed the blade was coated in an aura of scarlet that matched the enchanted gemstone guiding it. As if the weapon were a trained huntsman, it circled the area and cut down every remaining warrior. Not just the young werewolves who had betrayed Vallatrece, but every other werewolf as well. The sword then turned on the vampires and trolls, spearing all who had fought loyally in the battle instigated by their mistress. The final life taken was my mate’s. Kresh lay in a pool of his own blood, staked to the ground by my blade. Vallatrece had done what Jovani had refused to do.
I hurried to my husband’s side, faltering on my paws, changing into human form as I tumbled in a grieving heap over his blood-soaked fur. I grabbed at his beautiful umber coat, sobbing the word “no” repeatedly. When Vallatrece approached and withdrew the sword from his chest, I didn’t care. My naked body spread like a blanket over my mate. I was prepared to die with him. I wanted it. Without Kresh, my fight was gone.
When the blade failed to fall on me, I twisted my neck enough to check for the presence of our slaughterer. She was standing at my back, regarding me with harsh eyes. My garments were in her hand, and she threw them at me.
“Put those on. Do it quickly, there isn’t time to waste.”
I pushed up from the body of Kresh enough to cast her an incredulous and dumbfounded expression.
“You would sooner be dead, is that what you’re thinking? Believe me, I’d accommodate you if I could.”
My arms instinctively rose like a shield when she swung my silver sword downward, aiming it to slice right through my torso. I expected to be cut up, but the blade was impeded by a barrier that didn’t appear to exist.
“That trinket you wear will not allow any weapon to touch you. If I wanted you dead, I would have to devise a creative plan to carry it out. Lucky for you, I could care less about your miserable life. All I want is that stone.”
Surrounded by fallen werewolves, part of me was tempted to strip off the necklace and hand it over in exchange for a swift death; however, I doubted the cruel woman would grant it to me.
“Why?” I asked. It was the only word my mouth would form.
“Because I can.” It was a demon’s reasoning. “And because I wanted you to see how vain your resistance is. You can’t defeat me. Surely, that is obvious to you now.”
I turned back to slump over the body of my love. Vallatrece kicked at my feet and demanded that I rise.
“Put on your clothes.”
I cringed, feeling her breath close to my ear.
“I am still your fairy godmother.”
“You are a—”
She cut me off with louder words. “I can grant your wish.”
Hatred consumed my broken heart. I detested her compulsion to inflict torture upon torment. No sorceress, no warlock, no magic spell could bring individuals back from the dead. I turned to glare at the monster, her face in mine.
“On many occasions, yes, but not now. Give me the stone, and your pack will live again.”
I looked down at the indigo jewel, staring at its inner glow. “Can this stone bring them back to life? Can it raise the dead?”
“No.” Vallatrece rolled her eyes and held out her hand impatiently.
“Then how can you bring them back?”
“Give me the gemstone.”
I continued to stare at the magic in my hand, wishing I knew how to summon its powers. “If I give it to you, you will kill me.”
I caught the sly rise of her eyebrow confessing the idea had crossed her mind.
“We are running out of time.”
“Why do you keep saying that?”
Vallatrece exhaled a gust of frustration. I got to my knees and picked up the garments she had tossed at me. “Bring them back and I will discuss relinquishing the stone.”
“To me.” Wisely, she demanded that clarification.
I slipped into my clothing and stood up. Caught within the material of my dress, I discovered the small, thin vial of liquid; I was careful to keep it hidden. The square of cloth, the spectacles, and the dried flower were all missing. When Vallatrece presented me with the shriveled flower, caution kept me at a distance. She was grinning from ear to ear as if her fingers held pinched between them the greatest secret in the world. I wondered what sort of magic she could draw from a dead flower.
“Place your fingers on either side of the stem,” she instructed. “Be sure not to let go—that is vitally important.”
Reluctantly, I obeyed.
“We must roll the stem between our fingers. Go slowly. It will only grant us the previous twenty minutes of time, so we should hurry.”
“Do as I say before it’s too late.”
On her command, we began to roll the dried flower between our fingers. I could feel something strange happening to the stem. With every tiny turn, it became a bit thicker, stronger, softer to the touch. I watched as the dullness of dead petals took on vivid color, deepening in shades of red until the whole was crimson. Each petal lost its crinkled, brittle texture. Layers came alive, soft and silken in full bloom. With an additional roll against my fingertips, the flower began to close up, folding its fragrant petals snug together. The marvel ended when the rose in our hold appeared as a new bud. The wonder was hardly worth noting compared to the real miracle perceived all around us. In mere seconds, the hell I had lived through rewound before my eyes. Like the undying flower, every tragic event reversed in time to twenty minutes prior. When the pace of life returned to normal, the trolls were gone—having yet to rain from the trees. Only the vampires and the young werewolves remained. When time started forward again, I heard Kresh repeat the same words he had growled at the sorceress twenty minutes earlier.
“…taken enough from us. We won’t give up anything more. Now go away!”
Vallatrece grabbed the flower before I thought to claim it. I noticed it was drying out rapidly, back to its dull and shriveled state. She tucked it in her garments and cheekily repeated the same words she had said to Kresh earlier.
“I always get what I want.”
“Not this time.”
I peered into the surrounding woods and saw an army of werewolves. They stepped out of the shadows making their presence and numbers known. It was déjà vu only for me and Vallatrece.
“Shall history repeat itself?”
Vallatrece observed me strongly, her confidence boiling over in a brazen smirk that dimpled only one cheek. I was being offered the opportunity to save the lives of my pack. Casting my eyes about, I experienced a powerful swell of gratitude for every living, breathing life renewed. My gaze landed on Kresh—my love, my soul mate, my world. His golden-brown eyes were swimming with concern for me.
“No,” I whispered to my evil fairy-godmother. “I wish to rewrite history.”
Copyright 2018 Richelle E. Goodrich