“And what’s that?”
“TMI.” She waggles her finger at me. “You are a beacon to any creature from the Spires. Spirits from dark lands will come for you. Maybe out of curiosity. Maybe for a taste of whatever shines so beautifully in midnight tones.”
I chew my lip. “I don’t like being seen. This place is scary enough without this glow that you’re talking about, making me a magnet for bad things.”
“Not bad. Evil.”
Exasperation doesn’t begin to cover what I’m feeling. If she knows so much, why won’t she just tell me instead of talking in riddles? But I can already tell that any direct questions will get me nowhere. Doesn’t stop me from trying. “Why do I glow for evil?”
“Didn’t say for evil. Just said you glow, and it’s a lure to dark ones like me.” She grabs the spoon again and reaches deep into the swirling, smoking cauldron. “There it is.” Straightening, she pulls a pea from the end of the spoon.
“What is it?”
“Eat it.” She hands it to me.
“What is it?” I take it from her and inspect it. It looks just like a pea. Green, round, and my least favorite vegetable.
“It’s like a—” She pulls a tattered hood over her hair. “Cloak. Hides your glow. Hides you until you are ready to no longer be hidden.”
“When’s that?” I hold up a hand. “TMI, I know.”
“T-M-I.” She nods. “Eat it.”
“It’s safe?” I peer at the little green thing. Seems harmless. But I’ve read enough fairytales to know you shouldn’t eat anything a witch gives you.
She clacks her teeth. “Eat it!”
I wish Leander were here to help me, to tell me if it’s poison or just a regular gross pea. But maybe this is a decision I can only make on my own.
I take a deep breath. “I trust you, Selene.” Popping it into my mouth, I give it a single chew, then swallow it down.
“Trust?” Her eyebrows rise, and her sharp teeth clack. “You should never trust. No one. Certainly not me, young one. Never trust a witch.”
My throat closes up, and I clutch it as my eyes begin to water. It must have been poisoned. Oh, god, what have I done? I can’t breathe.
The witch simply stares with a look of satisfaction as my vision darkens.
I’ve considered several different ways of torturing the witch, even voiced a few to Gareth as I’ve waited for Taylor. I was a fool to let her be alone with the witch. The blood loss must have dimmed my reason. For the hundredth time, I curse my weakness and continue pacing.
When she emerges from the shadowy wood a few moments later, I rush to her side. “Are you hurt?”
“No.” She rubs her eyes. “I’m fine. But I was shiny, apparently? And now I’m not.”
“Shiny?” I wrap my arm around her shoulders as the strange stillness caused by the witch evaporates. Fairies creep out from hiding, their bright lights flickering here and there amongst the trees.
“Yep.” She yawns. “She’s gone now. Back to her cave.”
“What boon did she give you?” I stop her and turn her toward me, searching her for any wounds. Each second she was gone was acute torture. And when the witch put up a barrier spell? I went wild with rage, cutting and hacking at the wall between us with all my might. But the witch’s power is ancient and runs far deeper than mine. I couldn’t get to my mate. It gutted me. “I will never leave you again, little one.”
“I was fine. She didn’t hurt me.” She shrugs. “I mean, I thought she did, but I guess the magic was a little hard to swallow.”
“I need you to explain.” I gently tilt her chin up.
“I ate a pea from her cauldron.”
I swallow hard. “Taking food from a witch is a bad idea.”
“I know. I guess some things are universal.” She gives me a tired smile. “But there was something about her. Something that made me trust her, even when she told me not to.”
I send a barrage of thanks to the Ancestors that Taylor is unharmed.
“Anyway, she said my aura has a weird glow to it, and that I wouldn’t last in this world unless she dampened it. So, she gave me a pea—I hate peas—and I ate it. Now, I’m not so shiny. But she said I can be shiny again when I want to be.” She rubs her eyes again. “I’m not really sure what that means. But at this point, I’m kind of just rolling with the punches.”
“Punches? She struck you?” A growl lofts from me, and I reach for my sword.
“No.” She presses her small hands to my chest, my shirt still spotted with blood. “It’s just a figure of speech. I just meant that I’m doing the best I can with all the weirdness. Honestly, I can’t even think right now. I’m so tired.”
I scoop her up. She doesn’t protest as I carry her back to camp, her eyes closed as her breathing slows.
Beth sits next to the fire, worry in her eyes as we approach. “Is she okay? Where’s the witch? What happened?”
“Everything’s all right, changeling. Rest.”
“Rest?” She throws her hands up. “I woke up to find Taylor gone, and then I got frozen to the ground! I can’t rest, not when there’s an Obsidian—”
“The witch is gone, and I have no reason to frost the ground again.” I sink to my knees on my bedroll and lay Taylor down as softly as I can. My wounds still burn, the witch’s claws perfect at slicing through skin and sinew. But, thanks to Gareth’s magic, I will be healed by morning. The next time we leave the High Mountain, I’ll be sure to bring Valen with us. His healing magic would go a long way to ease my mind when it comes to my mate’s safety. Not that I intend to expose her to danger any more than I already have. She will be safe in the winter realm.
She moves a hand to her side, clutching something in the folds of her dress. Her breathing is low and soft, her mind already wrapped in a comfortable dream.
Carefully, I ease my hand along hers. When my fingers graze something oddly warm to the touch, I know instinctively what it is.
“By the Ancestors.” I can’t stop my exclamation as I pull the obsidian blade from Taylor’s dress.
“Is that a …” Gareth kneels down next to me and touches the hewn black blade, the hilt rounded and small, perfect for Taylor’s hand.
“An obsidian shortsword.” I hold the blade up to the moon. It sucks in the glow around it, as if devouring the light.
“The witch did this for her.” Gareth rubs the scruff on his jaw. “I’ve never heard of an Obsidian willingly giving her hide for such a gift. Not even her promise of a boon could have encompassed this.”
I stare at the sword, a legend. It is said that a weapon forged from the flesh of an Obsidian witch can slay any creature—no small feat—and the obsidian blade will feast on the souls of its kills.
“Never have I seen such a blade.” Gareth peers at it with the same reverence I feel. “They say the last one ever made was lost in the Battle of the Spires eons ago.”
“She gave it to me.” Taylor’s sleepy eyes are open just enough for me to get a glimpse of their blue depths. “Not to fulfill her promise—that was a spell to dim my shine—but because she liked me. And maybe because I almost choked on her pea.” She rolls to her side and rests her face on her folded hands. “Selene’s not so bad. You should give her a chance.” With a light sigh, she goes back to sleep.
I don’t know what to make of any of it—neither the aura spell nor the blade. But one thing is certain, my mate is formidable enough to gain an ally from the darkest corner of our world. I stroke her hair.
“I’ll just—” Gareth hitches a thumb over his shoulder and returns to the fire.
I lie down next to Taylor and tenderly pull her into my arms. She doesn’t stir, simply melds into me, her body relaxed as her breath tickles along my throat. Again, my body reacts, demanding I claim her. But I tamp it down and simply enjoy holding her. Even with her safe in my arms, an oily feeling still slinks around inside me.
I sense Gareth prowling through the woods, making one final check of our perimeter. The threat of the witch is gone, her ominous presence lifted. Fairies flit here and there, and an owl hoots its approval high above us.
The unsettled feeling remains.
What will happen when the next threat arises? I must protect Taylor at all costs. I should never have left her with the witch—promise or no promise. I can’t put her in harm’s way again. For her sake … and for mine. It hits me then, what the feeling is. Fear. I didn’t recognize it. The wars I’ve been through, the things I’ve done for my realm—I stopped feeling fear centuries ago. It was a waste. No point fearing death, not when it was around every corner, waiting with a dagger between its teeth. But now, I have a real reason to worry. I kiss Taylor’s hair, and she snuggles closer.
There’s only one solution. I need to keep her so close that nothing can touch her without going through me first. I close my eyes and let myself go, my mind quieting with nothing left but thoughts of her.
I open my bleary eyes to find Beth close by and waving me toward her.
“Shh!” She presses a finger to her lips.
Leander slumbers beside me, one arm draped across my waist, his body tight against mine.
Beth beckons again.
“Fine,” I mouth and gently scoot away from Leander.
He pulls me back to him but doesn’t wake. Beth rolls her eyes.
I go slower this time, lifting his arm and easing away from him. Once I’m at the edge of the furs, I lay his arm down and roll away.
Beth helps me to my feet, and, with one finger still pressed to her lips, tiptoes past Gareth who is sitting against a nearby tree, his eyes closed. I follow, taking care not to make any wrong steps. They must have been exhausted from their duel with the witch, because neither of them wake as we creep from camp.