It hit his inner barriers with enough force to make him gasp. It struck again and again, slicing through the sticky strands, charring the severed ends.

As sections of the tangled web fell away from him, little balls of psychic fire struck them, burning them to ash.

He endured the blows as Thera’s Green knife continued to hack at the tangled web.

Finally, enough had been cut away for him to be aware of something outside himself. Something that sounded like a roll of thunder, like the roar of a waterfall.

Like the sound of power gathering before it was unleashed.

*Leave it, Thera!* Jared shouted. *Get away from here!*

The Green knife paused.

*Mother Night,* Thera whispered, swiftly breaking contact with him.

Jared shook his head to clear it. His connection to his body still felt sluggish. Strands of the tangled web were clinging to his inner barriers, making him feel tainted, but he was no longer imprisoned.

Hands grabbed him. He stumbled.

“Jared!” Thera shouted. “There must have been another spell in those buttons. I can’t tell how strong it is. I don’t know if we can shield against it. We have to run.”

His legs just wouldn’t obey him. “Go,” he said. “I can’t run.”

Swearing, Thera tugged him away from the rock, toward the road. “Damn you to the bowels of Hell, you stupid man. RUN!”

She gave him a vicious clout. He couldn’t tell if it was physical or psychic, but it got his legs moving until he was running away from the rock, running up the road.

Feet pounded behind him. Two horses galloped toward him.

Seeing them burned away the last of the sluggishness.

He ran faster.

How dare she ride toward danger? How dare she risk herself? When they got out of here, he’d show her the sharp edge of his temper. Just see if he didn’t.

*Blaed!* Jared roared. *Protect Lia! Shield Lia!*

*Get down!* Thera yelled. *GET DOWN!*

He saw Blaed sweep Lia out of the gelding’s saddle, pull her to the ground, and cover her.

He tasted bitter jealousy that he was still too scrambled to use Craft, that he wasn’t the one shielding her, protecting her.

Thera knocked his legs out from under him. He went down hard, then tried to shake her off when she landed on his back. Wrapping her arms around his head, she buried her face against his neck, and enclosed them both in a Green shield.

The ground shook under him as the area around the flat rock exploded. Small stones and dirt rained down on them.

Thera pressed against him harder and kept muttering, “Mother Night, Mother Night, Mother Night.”

Moments later, years later, there was silence.

Thera rolled off him, quickly stood up, and moved a few feet away.

Shaken by everything that had happened, Jared moved more slowly. He noticed that Blaed, too, was slow getting to his feet.

Lia, on the other hand, strode toward Thera, her face tightened by anger. Her gray eyes looked stone hard.

“You stupid bitch,” Lia shouted. “I’ve been lenient about allowing you to use more than basic Craft, but Idid not give you leave to play around with spells you have no training to handle.”

“Nothing would have happened,Lady , if you hadn’t tried to block it,” Thera shouted back. “If anyone’s to blame for this, it’syou .”

Jared shook his head, as if that would clear away the confusion. What were they talking about?

“Who do you think you’re talking to?” Lia shrieked.

“A sexless bitch, that’s who! If you had any heat between your legs, you wouldn’t be wasting a male like him.” Thera jabbed a finger in Jared’s direction. “You would have ridden him for all he was worth long before now.”

Lia hissed. “How would you know what a normal woman feels? You’d sheath anything that was willing to get between your thighs!”

Letting out an outraged howl, Thera threw herself on Lia.

Jared watched them go down in a tangle of limbs just as he got to his feet. He watched them roll on the ground, hitting, shrieking, scratching, tearing at each other’s clothes and hair.

Shock locked him in place.

Witches didn’t fight. At least, not physically. Never physically. Witches fought with words, fought with Craft. But not physically.

Because something happened to witches when they crossed that line.

Blood males were fiercely aggressive and might engage in quarrels that ended in blows, but they never completely lost themselves in that kind of fight. Witches did. They became feral, cold-blooded, deadly. They became something even strong males feared because their savagery surpassed anything a male was capable of, and they had no mercy.

Thera and Lia rolled toward him. The shock cracked, shattered. A leg kicked out and hit him hard, knocking his feet out from under him.

He fell on top of them. His fear turned into white-hot anger.

He was only going to separate them, he assured himself as he tried to ram an arm between them. He wasn’t going to attack them, wasn’t going to hurt either one of them— especially because he wasn’t quite sure which body parts went with which woman.

One of them threw a punch that skimmed the side of his head.

Snarling, Jared tried to plant his palm on the bottom witch’s chin and give her head a good thump—and then yelled when two sets of teeth clamped down on his hand.

Hearing another male’s angry roar, Jared rolled, dragging Thera and Lia with him. He realized his mistake a moment later when he opened his mouth to try to draw a breath and inhaled a mouthful of long hair.

Another roar. A shriek as the weight on top of him suddenly lightened. Blaed yelling, “No, Garth! NO! That’s Lia! THAT’S LIA!”

One shove got Thera off him. Jared scrambled to his feet.

Garth held Lia over his head. Blaed stood in front of Garth, but not close enough to help if the big man flung Lia to the ground. Brock and Randolf were a careful distance up the road, breathing hard as if they’d come running to help but now were no longer sure of what to do.

“Put her down, Garth,” Jared said firmly.

Garth turned to face him. “P-p-protect!”

“You did protect Lia. You got her out of the fight.”

The angry flush that colored Garth’s face slowly changed to bewilderment.

Jared noticed the fresh blood darkening Garth’s left sleeve.

Probably something had cut him during the explosion— a sharp stone or even a small branch with enough force behind it to act like an arrow.

“You did well, Garth,” Jared said, walking toward the big man and hoping he looked far more sure of himself than he felt. “Stopping the fight was good. Prince Blaed and I will handle the rest.”

Anne Bishop Books | Science Fiction Books | The Black Jewels Series Books