Main Her Soul to Take
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Table of Contents Title Page Copyright 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 Epilogue Acknowledgements About the Author Also by Her Soul to Take (Souls Trilogy Book 1) Copyright © 2021 Harley Laroux All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, locations, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual events, locations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Editing: Zainab M. at Heart Full of Reads Editing Services Cover Design: Opulent Swag and Designs Formatting: TalkNerdy2me Content Warning This book contains graphic violence and sexual content. It is not intended for anyone under the age of legal adulthood. All characters depicted herein are over 18 years of age. This book is not to be used as a resource for sexual education, or as an informational guide to sex or BDSM. The activities depicted within this book are dangerous and the scenes within this book are not meant to depict realistic expectations of BDSM or fetish-related activities. Some contents within this book may be triggering or disturbing to some readers. Reader discretion is strongly advised. The Kinks/Fetishes Within This Book: Consensual non-consent (CNC), breathe play/choking, bloodplay, spit, swallowing bodily fluids, needle play (body modification fetish), pain play, fear play, public play, bondage, restraint, spanking/impact play, erotic humiliation/degradation, raw sex/sex without a condom. Dedication To; My Husband. My light in the darkness. “Blood has been spilled in Its name. It is awake.” I’d felt the stirring before he announced it. Damned mortals always stating the obvious, as if I couldn’t feel the ground trembling and the old roots tensing – tensing, like a body preparing to be hit. As if I couldn’t hear the whispers growing louder in the dark, tendrils of ancient, incomprehensible thought reaching out and prodding for vulnerabilities. The concrete surrounding me – burying me alive – couldn’t hide the disturbance. I didn’t need Kent’s pompous ass strutting in here, making declarations as if I was supposed to grovel at the news. Seated cross-legged in my wretched binding circle, sharpening my nails against the concrete floor, I barely gave him more than a glance when he came into the room with his cronies in tow. At his declaration, I merely grunted, and that hardly seemed to satisfy him. “Did you hear me, demon?” he snapped, and his fingers tightened upon the leather surface of his grimoire. That damned worn-out book was always in his grip, the hammer he had raised over my head. A non-magical man like Kent couldn’t control me without his little spell book. “I heard you.” I sighed heavily, and leaned back so I could tap my nails upon the floor. “Pardon me for not jumping in joy, Kenny-boy. The fact that you’re here to gloat about your old God stretching Its limbs only tells me It hasn’t woken up enough to give you all that delicious power you seek.” His expression darkened dangerously, and I knew I was walking the edge of enticing him to hurt me. Captivity was so endlessly boring that seeing how far I could push my master before pain resulted had become a real thrill. I shrugged. “So, you’re here with a task. Here to send me off on some petty errand before locking me in the dark again. Thrilling.” Kent’s knuckles had gone white. He had a certain aristocratic look about him; he would have been just as at home in Victorian London as he was mingling among Seattle’s business elite. Dark gray suit, a subtle pinstripe on his black tie, perfectly cut and combed gray hair. He was as muted as Washington’s cloudy skies, and about as unpredictable in his moods. “I would save your strength for the work ahead, demon,” he said, his voice tight, rage barely restrained. “Rather than wasting it on that petty tongue of yours. Unless you’d like me to rip it out again?” There was a snicker from one of the white-cloaked figures behind him, and I glowered but kept my mouth shut. Kent had them wear the cloaks and the stag skull masks, but I knew the two faceless beings that accompanied him down here were his adult spawns. Victoria, smelling of bitter artificial vanilla fragrance and all the chemicals in her makeup. And Jeremiah, reeking of cheap body spray and hair gel. “Tonight, at midnight, you will go to Westchurch Cemetery. You will go silently and ensure no one detects you along the way. There, find the grave of Marcus Kynes. Dig up his body, and refill the grave. Then bring his body to White Pine. Is that understood?” I rather liked my tongue in my mouth. Growing a new one was nasty business. “Understood.” There was no clock in that wretched little room, but I could feel midnight arrive nonetheless. The world changed slightly, moving just a little closer to the boundary separating it from Heaven and Hell. Midnight always made me feel good, as did finally stretching my legs and leaving the binding circle. Kent kept me in that circle so often he’d had it carved into the floor. Like his father, and his grandfather before him, Kent feared that if he released me from his service when he had no immediate need of me, I would somehow manage to escape from him forever. A lovely thought, but an unlikely outcome. Kent had the grimoire, the only remaining record of my name on the Earth. He alone could summon me because of it. I suppose he also feared that, in my considerable amount of hatred for him, I’d bend the rules and seek vengeance by murdering him and his entire family after being dismissed from his service. Again, a lovely thought, and a far more likely outcome. I’d risk the wrath of my superiors in Hell if it meant being able to demolish this whole family. But it had been over a century, and in all that time I’d been in service to the Hadleigh family. It was impressive, honestly — no one else had ever managed to keep me in captivity for so long without losing their lives. There was a good reason there was only one remaining record of my name. Summoners throughout the years had learned quickly that I wasn’t an easy one to command, and thought it best to discourage summoning me at all. I’d left a trail of dead magicians in my wake, and was eager to add a few more. The night was cold and foggy, the pines dripping with dew. Westchurch Cemetery was surrounded by trees, all but invisible from the quiet road that ran alongside it. Rows of headstones, some over a century old, lined the wide untrimmed lawn. It didn’t take me long to find Marcus. The plot of disturbed dirt gave him away, his grave freshly filled. A flat, simple headstone marked him. Marcus Kynes. Twenty-one years old. The “spilled blood” that had awakened Hadleigh’s God. Odd that Marcus had been buried at all. A sacrifice was meant to be done in the cathedral, with the corpse offered up immediately – or offered alive, if possible, for God to toy with at Its leisure. The fact that Marcus had been buried seemed messy. It didn’t take me long to dig down to him, using my bare hands and claws to wrench up the loose dirt. The coffin was a plain wooden box, utterly unadorned. The moment I tugged up the lid, the stench of formaldehyde rushed in my nose. Marcus had been buried in a cheap suit, his youthful face waxen with the amount of makeup that had been coated onto it. “Wakey, wakey.” I hauled him over my shoulder and crawled up from the grave, dumping him beside the pile of dirt I’d just dug out. “Just give me a minute here, buddy. Can’t have your mother knowing her son’s grave has been desecrated.” I quickly filled back in the grave, then, with the corpse over my shoulder, began to make my way toward White Pine. The area of forest, and the mine shaft that lay within it, was a quick enough run to make, but cumbersome with Marcus flopping over my back. Still, running through the trees with a corpse was preferable to my concrete prison. The witching hour neared as I reached White Pine. A misting rain had begun to fall, and Marcus was smelling worse by the second. But beyond his stench and the aroma of wet earth, I could smell smoke. A bonfire somewhere in the woods. Deep in the trees, and a little way up the hillside, I found Kent and his merry band awaiting me near the flames. They’d all donned their white cloaks and stag masks. There were at least two dozen of them scattered among the trees, speaking softly beneath black umbrellas. It was no wonder this little town was booming with cryptid sightings. Thanks to Kent’s little cult, who called themselves Libiri, nearly the entirety of Abelaum’s population had some fantastical story about seeing a monster in the woods. They weren’t exactly wrong. They were seeing monsters, but of the human variety. The only one not in uniform was Everly, Kent Hadleigh’s bastard daughter. A few months older than her half-siblings, Victoria and Jeremiah, Everly was blonde, willow-y, and garbed in her usual black ensemble. The fledgling witch looked absolutely petrified to be there, and when her blue eyes fell on me and the corpse I came bearing, she looked as if she would vomit. “Brothers, Sisters, the sacrifice comes,” Kent spoke in a bizarrely theatrical voice when he was in front of his band of zealots. Somewhere between a fire-and-brimstone Southern preacher and a Kindergarten teacher who had bodies buried in his garden. It grated on my nerves, that voice, as did the way he snapped his fingers at me and pointed to the ground at Everly’s feet. “Here. Put him down.” I let Marcus flop down unceremoniously at the young witch’s feet, and a flicker of pain went across her face. Had she known him? A fellow student at the university perhaps? Or had her heart gone suddenly tender when all her father’s preaching about the beauty of death became a very ugly reality? “Remove his clothes,” Kent said, and I promptly stripped the corpse down, ripping the cheap suit like paper. With his chest laid bare, I found the wounds that no amount of mortuary makeup could have covered: multiple stab wounds were gashed haphazardly across his chest, and scrawled among them were the lines and runes of the sacrificial offering. Messy. Very messy. Unplanned, if I had to guess. Spontaneous even. I tweaked an eyebrow at Kent, a silent question I knew he wouldn’t answer. He gave Everly a brisk nod, and the young witch, looking sickly pale, knelt and began to examine the marks across Marcus’s chest. “They’ll work,” she said at last. She hurriedly got to her feet and averted her eyes from the body. “The marks are crude but efficient.” Her eyes flickered among the crowd in a brief moment of worry. She thought what she’d said might offend, and offense could bring consequences. “Very good,” Kent said softly. Then, louder, all theatrics once more, “Long have we waited for this day, my children. Long has the Deep One waited for this, waited with utter patience and mercy. Today, the first of three go to Its depths. May two more follow.” “May two more follow,” the crowd murmured, save for Everly, whose lips were pressed into a thin, hard line on her pretty face. “Servant, bear the sacrifice up to the mine,” Kent said. Servant. Fucking hell. I wanted to gag him with his own tongue. “Jeremiah will accompany you. This sacrifice is his to offer.” A figure stepped forward, reeking of body spray. Jeremiah, of course. This messy, unplanned, absolute botchery of a sacrifice was all thanks to Kent’s dear son. I rolled my eyes, but hauled naked Marcus up off the ground and, without a word to Jeremiah, stalked away into the trees, away from the fire’s light. Jeremiah tried to make a point of walking ahead of me, but I kept my pace just fast enough that he couldn’t. The boy had even less patience than his father. “Slow the fuck down, Leon,” he said. “Or I swear I’ll have Dad rip your balls off next time.” “Temper, temper.” I shook my head, but slowed. I’d let the asshole lead, let him revel in his little power trip. Staring at the back of his head at least let me fantasize about cracking it open. “So, this one’s yours, eh? Have a little trouble with him?” “Bastard tried to run,” he said, then laughed darkly. “He didn’t get far. Squealed like a pig. I think I understand why you enjoy killing so much, Leon. It’s a fucking rush.” I grit my teeth. “Don’t think you understand death from one messy murder. Just wait until your God wakes up. It’ll teach you a thing or two about death.” I’m sure he would have loved to snap back at me, but we’d arrived. There, in the shadows of the trees, was the White Pine mine shaft. Boarded up for nearly a century, the stained wood framing of the entrance had been covered with numerous runes: some carved, some painted, some branded. A metal sign dangled from the wood on a broken chain, reading, CAUTION: OPEN MINE. DO NOT ENTER. The ground was mossy, and numerous white-capped mushrooms grew in thick clusters around the shaft’s opening. The ground itself was vibrating. The trees were restless. An odd smell, like deep water and rotting algae, permeated the air. Somewhere, deep in those flooded tunnels beneath our feet, an ancient God was stirring. I didn’t spook easily, but I still got a chill. “Well, here you go.” I shoved Marcus into Jeremiah’s arms, who leapt back with a yelp and let poor Marcus thump down into the mud. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” His voice shot up in pitch. He wasn’t sounding so cocky anymore. “I don’t want to touch that!” “It’s your sacrifice.” I shrugged. “You really want a demon to claim your offering to the Deep One by tossing him in?” Jeremiah wavered, his eyes flickering between the corpse and the mine. His throat clenched as he gulped. I really didn’t give a fuck how the damn body got down there, but if I had the opportunity to make Jeremiah squirm, I’d take it. Finally, with a groan of disgust, Jeremiah hauled Marcus up into his arms; no easy task, considering the dead man was nearly his same size. He trudged toward the mine, and stopped just outside the entrance, peering into the utter blackness beyond. How much would I suffer if I just shoved him in? Two sacrifices for the price of one. Kent should consider it a real bargain. But I resisted. Vengeance would come, someday. Or the Deep One would wake and kill me first. With a grunt, Jeremiah threw Marcus down into the darkness. His body hit the ground with a thud, there was a shuffle as he rolled, and then a splash as he hit the water in the flooded tunnel below. The smell of sea water intensified, and the wind picked up, rattling the pine needles above. My stomach lurched unpleasantly, and Jeremiah quickly stumbled back from the mine, wiping his hands on his cloak. He didn’t say a word to me, just marched back down the hill. I stayed for a moment, staring into the darkness. My toes curled at the rumbling below, my skull vibrating with the force of it. The tides would be high tomorrow. These trees would begin the long, slow process of trying to pull their roots up from the dirt, as if they could walk away from the thing below that felt so wrong. Then, from the darkness, there came a howl. Like the scream of a fox, but drawn out into such an agonized cry that it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It was time to leave. I didn’t feel like dealing with that now. Or ever. The God wasn’t the only thing waking up. There was something magical about going back to a place I hadn’t stepped foot in since childhood. Those early memories felt hazy, like a feverish dream, an entirely different world than what I’d gotten used to in Oceanside. Smoking joints and drinking Modelo on the beach had been my teen years, but when I was little? My world was those deep green forests that seemed to go on forever, full of fairies and unicorns, my little kid brain bursting with so much imagination that my dad thought I’d never manage to settle down and just exist in the real world. He wasn’t wrong. The real world was boring and involved office jobs, stiff collared blouses, and way too many uncomfortable shoes. It also involved getting to retire to Spain — hence why I was driving back to my childhood home, while my parents finished the process of selling their house in Southern California to retire luxuriously on the Spanish coast. I could have gone with them, sure. But choosing to stay and finish my last year at university was responsible and very adult, as my dad would say, which I needed to start acting like considering I was on the verge of no longer being a college student. It was a long drive up north. My butt was sore, my back hurt, and my chubby kitty, Cheesecake, was absolutely livid to be back in the car for the second day in a row. Not even the fries I kept tossing him from my fast food bag were keeping him placated any longer. I drove through a world awash in wet grays and soaked dark greens until, finally, I passed the Welcome sign for the town of Abelaum, population 6,223 — or 6,224 now, thanks to me. The downpour became a drizzle, and the watercolor world deepened its tones until the forest took shape: tall pines surrounded by a thick undergrowth of ferns and saplings, with mushroom caps sprouting pale and ghostly among their roots. I should have stayed at the house to unpack. Instead, after hurriedly hauling my boxes into the living room and making sure Cheesecake got his food and water, I got back into my car and made the short drive into town, to Main Street. Right in the corner shop of a three-story brick building, I met my best friend of nearly fifteen years, Inaya, in Golden Hour Books. Her Golden Hour Books. My best friend had made her dream a reality and was the proud owner of the cutest damn bookstore I’d ever seen. “Almost finished,” she said, her fingers flying over her laptop keys. Her hands were adorned with delicate gold rings that shone brightly against her deep brown skin, the rings bejeweled with little bees and flowers that matched the cute floral patches stitched on her pink jacket. She was the brightest ray of sunshine I’d seen since passing San Francisco, and I felt warmer just being in her presence. “No rush, girl, take your time.” We’d originally agreed to meet later that night, but I’d been too impatient to see her and too eager to shirk off the tedious task of unpacking my entire life from cardboard boxes to wait. I felt guilty now that I’d popped in on her when she was in the middle of cataloguing such a large new shipment of books. I picked up one of the stacks she’d finished inputting and balanced them carefully against my chest. “Should I take these to the back?” “That stack is as big as you!” She laughed. “You don’t have to do anything.” I couldn’t exactly see her around the book stack, and my glasses had slipped down my nose. But I insisted. “To the back?” “Yeah, there’s a yellow cart back there,” she said. “Thank you!” Unfortunately, gravity and I had always had a strained relationship — pretty toxic, actually. Between my untied boot laces, slipping glasses, and too-large book stack, I tripped over my own feet halfway to the back and sent the books flying. “Everything is fine!” I called as Inaya loudly burst out laughing. I scrambled on my hands and knees to collect the books — until my fingers brushed over the cracking leather-bound cover of a thin volume and I jerked back in shock. The book was cold. I turned it over curiously. The lettering and filigree design on the front looked as if it had been burned into the leather, and the words were foreign to me: Latin, if I had to guess. I pulled out my phone and typed in the search engine for a translation. It was Latin, and it read: Magical Work and Conjuring. “Find something good?” Inaya’s voice made me jump. There was a sound in my ears like the distant roar of waves through a long tunnel, and my stomach felt hollow, like the sensation of falling. “Yeah, check this out. This one looks really old.” I handed the book over to her, and there was a jolt as it left my fingers: a tiny rush of fear that made me want to snatch it back. Inaya opened it, frowning. “Wow.” Her eyes went wide as her fingers moved reverently over the page. “This isn’t a printed book. This is handwritten.” I got to my feet and leaned against her shoulder so I could see. She’d opened the book to the center. On one page was a sketch of a bizarre mutated zombie dog, ragged and skeletal. The other page was covered in rows of neat Latin text. It reminded me of an explorer’s journal, like something Charles Darwin would have carried around as he explored the Galápagos — if the Galápagos had been filled with monsters and magic. “I think it’s a grimoire,” I said softly. She glanced at me in confusion, so I explained. “A book of spells and rituals, like the Key of Solomon. An original like this is rare. Really, really rare.” Inaya shook her head as she shut the book carefully, a wry grin on her face. “Sounds like it’ll be right at home with you then. Do you want it?” “Inaya, that thing has to be priceless! I have to pay you something —” She ignored me as she carried the book toward the front counter. “Consider it part of your bridesmaid’s gift,” she said. Moving with the utmost care, she pulled out a roll of brown paper from beneath the counter and wrapped the book, finishing it with a bit of tape and a bow of twine. “All these books were donations from the Abelaum Historical Society, so don’t worry about money. These volumes had just been sitting in storage.” She held it out to me and I took it delicately into my hands, as if she’d gifted me a holy relic. “A creepy book for my favorite creepy girl. Now, I think we could both use a break. What do you say to some coffee?” “She just dumped you? The week before you move and she’s just like, peace out, good luck, bye?” Inaya shook her head, pink nails tapped irritably on her coffee mug. “You have a really bad habit of dating assholes, Rae.” I nodded with a heavy sigh. The sting of Rachel dumping me because I’d chosen to move out of state was still potent, needling into my side like a thorn. I hadn’t exactly thought we’d be together forever, but our shared interest in the paranormal and urban exploration had managed to gloss over our deeper issues for the six months we’d dated. Inaya added quickly, “I love the post-breakup haircut though! So mod. Very 60s. It suits you.” I brushed a hand over my hair, smiling widely at the compliment. It was a lot shorter and darker than the last time she’d seen me — I’d dyed my naturally reddish brown hair black and cut it into a blunt bob the same night Rachel broke it off. It felt good. Fresh. A clean slate. “I feel like I can call myself a Library Goth now,” I joked, pushing my black-rimmed glasses a little further up my nose. Inaya raised an eyebrow skeptically. “Nerd Goth, maybe?” “You’re still my Ghost Girl Goth, honey, no matter what you do with your hair,” she said with a giggle, and we sat in silence for a few moments as we sipped our coffees. The shop we sat in, La Petite Baie, was just next door to Golden Hour Books. The decor was a pleasantly eclectic mix of local artists’ work, odd bronze sculptures, and a variety of cushy chairs and upcycled tables. Inaya and I had taken two seats by the window, where we could look out and see the forest pressing close against the opposite side of the street. “How are you liking being back in the cabin?” Inaya said, taking a sip of her latte. “Have you seen your old ghost yet? What did we used to call him?” She thought for a moment. “Oh yeah, the Nighttime Cowboy!” I smiled at the nickname we’d given to my childhood ghost. I hadn’t thought of it in years. “I haven’t seen him yet, but we’ll see how the first night goes.” I tapped my chin thoughtfully. “Maybe I’ll set up a few thermal cameras, and see if I can finally get a full-body apparition recorded.” “How’s that going, by the way? The ghost vlog?” I giggled at Inaya’s apt description of my “ghost vlog,” even though the question made me wince internally. “Oh, you know. The channel is growing.” “You caught anything big lately? Apparitions, or…” “Caught some disembodied voices. Orbs.” “Oh. That’s cool.” That’s cool. Yeah, that underwhelmed response was exactly what was going to happen with my vlog audience soon too. The internet just wasn’t the place for genuine paranormal investigations; not when all the other “paranormal” channels were pretending to summon The Midnight Man and using special effects and mediocre acting to draw in an audience looking for instant gratification. In comparison, my lengthy recordings and vague electronic voice phenomena captures were boring. I needed something big. Something shocking. I needed something real. But spirits operated on their own time, not mine, and continually coming away from my investigations of “haunted” locales with nothing to show for it was frustrating. The time and effort I’d been dumping into my passion would soon have to go toward finding myself a “real” job. Ad revenue from the channel wasn’t going to bring in enough to keep me going on my own, not once my parents sold the cabin they’d given me a year to stay in while I finished school. “I’m sure you’ll be able to find some good places to record up here,” Inaya said, snapping me from my mental pit of despair. “All the legends in this town...girl, it must be a treasure trove for you.” I nodded. Growing up in Abelaum was like getting raised surrounded by ghosts; not real ones, necessarily, but ghosts of the past. Once one of the most lucrative mining towns of the Pacific Northwest, boarded-up mining shafts could still be found throughout Abelaum’s surrounding forests. Dozens of its original buildings were still standing, carefully restored and maintained by a passionately dedicated local historical society. There was a lot of history to be found here, and with history, came tragedy. “Oh shit, have you seen Mrs. Kathy yet? She still lives just down the street from your place,” Inaya said. “Remember how angry your dad was when she told us about the whole tragedy of ‘99 thing?” “Girl, that story got me addicted to horror, of course I remember! Honestly though, who goes and tells a story like that to their first-grade class?” I put on my best imitation of our former teacher, making my voice high-pitched as I wagged my finger at an imaginary room full of kids. “Oh, children! Do you want to hear about the miners who were trapped in the flooded mine and ate each other to survive? If cannibalism doesn’t give you brats nightmares, what if I tell you about the monster who lives down there too?” “The old God.” Inaya air-quoted with her fingers, shaking her head. “She believed it though. Mrs. Kathy was batty.” “She did not…” “Uh, yeah, she did. Don’t you remember all those fishbones and silver spoons she hung around her house? She told my mom it kept away the evil eye or some shit.” Inaya shrugged, finishing off the last of her latte. “I love this town, but people can get really weird when they live out in the woods for too long. Mrs. Kathy wasn’t the only person who believed those old legends.” “Speaking of legends…” I tapped my fingers on my cup, trying to look innocent. “Is that old church still up there? Near the shaft that they pulled the last three miners out of?” “St. Thaddeus? I think so.” Inaya frowned. “I doubt Mr. Hadleigh would let them demolish it. He’s really protective of those historical sites.” Seeing my look of confusion, she said, “Kent Hadleigh is the head of the Historical Society. Super nice, super wealthy. I’m in some of the same classes as his daughter, Victoria. I’ll introduce you on Monday.” I mouthed an “oh” at her explanation, my brain still focused on the fantastic potential of a hundred-year-old abandoned church with a tragic backstory. She didn’t miss it and narrowed her eyes. “It’s condemned, by the way,” she deadpanned. “The church is condemned. Like, not safe to go inside.” “Oh, sure, sure.” I nodded quickly. “Old, probably haunted, abandoned church? Wouldn’t even think of going inside it.” Inaya sighed. “You’re crazy, girl. You’re gonna get yourself into real trouble one of these days.” I laid my hand over my heart in mock offense. “Me? Get into trouble? Never.” My earliest memories were in this old cabin. The single bedroom house had been big enough for two newlyweds when my parents first bought it. But then I came along, and my dad’s corner office became my childhood bedroom. Eventually, we just outgrew the place, and my dad had been eager to escape the small town he’d spent his entire life in. We’d moved down to Southern California when I was seven, and I’d been there ever since. The cabin had become our vacation home, and Dad rented it out to other vacationers the rest of the year. Nostalgia clung to the wooden walls as bright as their glossy finish. Childhood memories held an entirely different feeling than my memories as a teen — they felt softer, richer, like streaks of acrylic paint across a canvas. The forest had been my fairy kingdom, the stairway that led up to the master bedroom was the grand path I’d lead my army of imaginary friends along. On one of the baseboards, hidden under the kitchen cabinets, was a little sketch of a dog I’d drawn with red pen when I was five. Mom had never found it, and it still brought me a little thrill to see it was there, my inner child convinced she’d pulled off a master crime of vandalization. The corner office-turned-bedroom held wild memories of its own. That was where I’d seen my first ghost. “The Nighttime Cowboy,” as I’d called him. Mom said I’d been only four when I first mentioned him. He’d appear through the wall, walk past the foot of my bed, pause, and then disappear just beside my window. A hazy figure, as if he was made of smoke, in boots, denim overalls, and a large-brimmed hat — hence why I called him a cowboy as a kid. He wasn’t scary, just interesting. And he started my life’s obsession. Classes didn’t start until Monday, so I had the whole weekend to try to reassemble my life from the stacks of cardboard boxes. The gray sky had darkened after I’d parted from Inaya at the coffee shop, and rain tapped against the windows in a sporadic shower. I lit the fireplace and pulled back all the curtains, basking in the pale natural light that made its way through the clouds. I couldn’t stay here forever. Sooner rather than later, I’d have to begin the search for an apartment, but the idea felt daunting. I fit my books onto the empty shelves, placed my collection of potted succulents in the kitchen window, and left my laptop and recording equipment scattered across the desk in the downstairs bedroom. Organizing was exhausting. I connected my Bluetooth to the portable speaker on the coffee table and put my playlist on shuffle, dancing through the tedious work to Monsters by All Time Low. Night had fallen, and the cloud cover made it pitch black outside. There was a pause as the next song buffered, leaving only the tapping of the rain on the glass, the soft wind, and the crickets chirping. The window panes had become one-way mirrors: my reflection stared back at me, glasses slipping down my nose, over-sized sweater draped over my hands. Outside, in the dark, I wouldn’t know if something was staring back. Someone could have stood right outside the glass, and I wouldn’t be able to see them. The next song began to play right as a chill went up my spine. The cabin seemed inconsequential in the night, as if its bare wooden walls and large windows could do nothing to hold back the dark. Instead of me observing from the inside, I felt like something out there was looking in. Observing me. I jumped as my phone buzzed on the coffee table. I snatched it up, my music paused, and smiled when I saw the caller ID. “Hey, Mom.” “Hi, sweetheart! How’re you settling in? Was the drive okay?” I could hear something sizzling in the background and my smile widened. Mom would be cooking dinner, Dad would be in the living room with his glass of scotch and his latest mystery novel. My parents had been, as they put it, “free range parents,” mostly leaving me to my own devices unless I was about to do something catastrophically dangerous or destructive. Mom was the epitome of a Woodstock hippie all grown up, while Dad had more of the quiet, studious thing going on. “Long drive,” I said, and snickered as a pan clattered and my mom swore softly. Mom and I shared a love for talking each other’s ears off when we probably should have been concentrating on other tasks, like cooking — or unpacking. “But it was really gorgeous.” We chattered on as she caught me up on all the gossip she’d gathered in the mere two days I’d been gone. Dad was, as usual, meticulously planning every aspect of their international move, while Mom remained far less concerned about having a perfect itinerary — yet more proof that I was truly my mother’s daughter. “I forgot how nice this town is,” I said, having abandoned unpacking altogether in favor of munching chips on the couch. “The people are friendly, there are no chain businesses. There’s cute little mom-and-pop shops everywhere. Why did we ever move anyway?” My mother chuckled, but lowered her voice a bit as she responded. “Oh, you know your father. All his superstitions, his...anxieties...small town life wasn’t for him. He felt like people were too up in our business, whatever that means. It got worse when you started grade school.” She paused, as if there was more she was about to say — but she seemed to think better of it. “California had more opportunities for his line of work.” “Ah, Dad’s good old superstitions.” I laughed. “The one trait I was lucky enough to inherit from him. Let me guess: he’s checked the history of every house you’ve looked at buying to make sure no one has died there?” I could practically hear my mother’s eye roll. “Naturally.” “Good call.” I nodded. “You don’t need your retirement interrupted by vengeful ghosts.” “Oh, don’t start.” I could hear the clink of plates, and knew she wouldn’t put down the phone to eat unless I forced her. “I’ll let you go, Mom. I love you. Miss you.” “Miss you too, sweetheart!” There was a murmur in the background, and she added, “Dad says to stay safe out there.” The house felt even emptier once I’d hung up the phone. I was grateful for Cheesecake, who sauntered over from the kitchen meowing loudly for his dinner. He was a bossy roommate, but he was so damn cute I had to forgive him. On my way back to the couch with some dip for my chips, the brown paper parcel poking out of my bag caught my eye. The book Inaya had gifted me, the grimoire. Excitement squeezed its fingers around my stomach, a feeling not unlike walking into a haunting investigation for the first time: a thrill, mingled with trepidation. I unwrapped the book on the coffee table. I probably should have worn gloves; the thing was so old it should have been in a museum. A signature was scrawled in the corner on the inside cover, but the calligraphy was too fancy for me to make out. I flipped through the pages, marveling at the detailed sketches and tiny, neat Latin. There were drawings of herbs and plants, and some quick use of an online translator told me that the text described the greenery’s magical properties. Then there were the sketches of monsters: the boney wolf zombie, a lean, faceless creature draped in seaweed with tentacle-like legs, a multi-limbed thing that looked like a spider with a bird’s beak made out of broken tree branches. The art was amazing, the kind of design that would have inspired Creepypastas and indie video game developers. There were pages on purifications, clothing, prayers, astrological events — I only had the patience to translate bits and pieces, but the sheer amount of information was mind-blowing. This grimoire was an absolute treasure. Every time I turned the page, my heart beat a little faster. Then I found a drawing unlike the others. It was a sketch of a man, around my own age I guessed. His hair lay in waves that curled around his ears, soft pencil strokes portraying a lightness to it. He was shirtless, the muscles of his lean chest starkly outlined but marred with what I could only think were meant to be scars and the vague outlines of tattoos. His lips were full, his chin dimpled. Beneath dark, heavily drawn brows, his eyes had been colored gold. It was the only spot of color I’d encountered in the book so far. It made his eyes look alive, as if they were watching me, and there was a texture to them as if they’d been formed with flakes of gold leaf. The adjoining page read, Operation for the Summoning and Binding of the Killer. The Killer...summoning and binding… These were instructions for summoning a demon. I leaned back from the book, the trepidation that had been lurking at the edge of my excitement taking center stage. I wasn’t sure if I believed in demons and magic. Ghosts were one thing: the remnants of departed souls, lingering energy, stranded spirits. But demons were something else entirely, one of the many creatures that had lurked in the shadows of human fears for centuries, for millennia. I didn’t deny the possibility they could exist — but like gods and angels, I usually assigned them to the realm of mythos. Demons were exciting, fascinating. The possibility of a place not being merely haunted, but possessed by demonic forces was the driving entertainment value behind numerous horror stories. They played perfectly on human fears: unexplained, terrifyingly powerful, tempting and seductive, representative of sin. I’d walked through places where demons were said to play. I’d found them no more frightening than anywhere else. I couldn’t get those eyes out of my head. Golden, glowing, piercing in the dark. I was still awake at nearly 2am, lying in bed with my laptop open, trying to use my body’s refusal to sleep as an opportunity to brainstorm new vlog ideas. My subscriber count was being swiftly surpassed by newer channels, channels that played up the drama rather than the science of careful investigations. WE USE A OUIJA BOARD IN MASSACHUSETTS’ MOST HAUNTED FOREST! ATTACKED BY A DEMON! Millions of views for this shitty clickbait. It had only been up a few days. Shot in the green lens of night vision, I watched the group pretend to be possessed. I watched them run through the woods shrieking, move a planchet around a Ouija board to form threatening messages they all gaped at. It was fake, all fake. I think the audience knew it was fake too, but judging from the comments, no one really cared. It was exciting, it was funny. It was entertaining. Dozens of channels pumped out content like this while mine wallowed behind on views because I insisted on authenticity. I snatched up my vape pen from the bedside table, inhaling irritably. If I didn’t turn something around soon, I wouldn’t be able to keep up the channel. Pretty soon I’d have to face reality, get the office job, and settle down. Every fiber of my being cringed away from that possibility, but I wasn’t a teenager anymore. I had bills to pay, and this adult thing seemed determined to crush every last dream down to a pulp. The Killer. Golden eyes in the dark. I’d bookmarked that page, and I wasn’t sure why yet. It became even harder to sleep knowing that downstairs on the coffee table, the grimoire sat closed — but within those pages, in the dark, those golden eyes still shone. Watching. Waiting. Monday morning brought more gray skies and drizzling rain. I walked to school under the black brim of my umbrella, boots splashing through the puddles along my narrow driveway to the road. As I reached the mailboxes, I caught sight of Mrs. Kathy grabbing her mail. As my first-grade teacher, nearly fourteen years ago, her blonde hair had been streaked with gray — now it had gone straight silver. “Hi, Mrs. Kathy!” I waved to her cheerfully from under my umbrella. She narrowed her eyes at me, blinked rapidly behind her large horn-rimmed glasses, and then hurriedly walked back toward her driveway. Well, damn. Okay then. It was only a fifteen-minute walk to campus, but the cold made it feel longer. Then Abelaum University’s Gothic peaks and tall windows loomed up behind the trees, cloaked with creeping vines and spackled with moss. It looked as if it should have been abandoned and decaying, not swarming with students carrying iPhones and Starbucks cups. Umbrellas definitely weren’t the thing here: the misting rain didn’t seem to bother anyone but me. Everyone else merely had hooded raincoats. Southern California didn’t require raincoats — there wasn’t a single one in my closet. I’d have to go shopping soon if I didn’t want to keep sticking out like a very cold sore thumb. I wandered down the wide stone hallways in search of my first class, squinting for the tiny gold numbers affixed beside every dark wooden door. The rain increased and drizzled in slow rivulets down the narrow windows that lined one side of the hall. The view was obscured by aspen and spruce, but beyond the needles I could still see the university’s tall, sharp spires. The temptation to stop every few yards and pull my camera from my bag was barely resistible, and when I finally made it to class on time, I considered it a massive achievement. Classes were the typical first day affair of going over the syllabus, but with one stark difference: both my morning professors addressed the recent “tragic loss of a student’s life.” There were reassurances of safety, of increased security, of local police doing “everything they could.” I was in the dark until I did a quick Google check. Student Found Dead on University Campus: Investigation On-going. Just before the semester started, a student’s body had been found brutally murdered in one of the university buildings. The true crime junkie in me kept searching for more, but there was little to go off. No suspects. No leads. No statements by local police. I was honestly stunned that a murder could occur in such a quiet small town and not result in an absolute explosion of press and speculation. The morning mist lingered, seeping between the old buildings and dampening the stones to a darker shade of gray. The mossy roots of the evergreens were enveloped like a slowly rolling tide. But despite the weather, ASB had set up booths all across the quad to greet new students, as had a few dozen of the campus clubs. The excitement of a new semester felt at odds with the dampening fog; as if nature was trying everything in her power to silence the loud, chattering students. With time to spare before my next class, I gave in and pulled out my camera. Everything from the bell tower above the library to the low, crooked stone walls that boxed in the hedges carried a pleasing aesthetic from behind my lens. The damp, the greenery, the Gothic drama of it all — I felt as if I had stepped into a Grimm fairytale, right back into my childhood fairy kingdom. But death had come to the kingdom, and it announced its presence with the sudden shock of yellow caution tape cordoning off the entrance to one of the northwest halls. I wandered closer. CALGARY was affixed in rusting letters above the building’s closed double doors, with an H and awkwardly spaced L following. The trees had grown close to it, their limbs snaking around the building’s steep roof as if slowly enfolding it in a living cocoon. I knew that name from the news articles I’d read that morning: this was the hall in which the student’s body had been found. I snapped another photo, capturing the juxtaposition of the glaring plastic tape against the old pockmarked stone. It was beautiful, in a dreadfully grim way. “Are you fucking lost?” Don’t judge me, but there was something about a mean voice that got me hot — and the voice that spoke from behind me was as mean as they come. I turned, to find a man standing at the foot of Calgary’s stairs, his arms folded and his light green eyes sliding over me. He couldn’t have been more than a few years older than me, dressed all in black, with a tight long-sleeved athletic shirt, cargo pants, and laced-up military boots. Shit. Exactly my type of too-pretty-for-their-own-good asshole. “Not lost,” I said, pinning my best please-fuck-off smile on my face. “It’s hard to miss the bright yellow tape pasted across the scene of a murder.” He answered my smile with one of his own; but where mine was bitchy, his was the kind of smile you could imagine seeing outside your window at night, with canines sharp enough to tear me apart. “Oh, good, you didn’t miss the tape. Then I’ll take it that you just can’t read, since you decided to hang around.” I had to force myself to keep my feet planted and not shuffle them. Something about his face looked off. His high cheekbones could cut a girl with their razor edge, if his piercing green eyes didn’t get her first. His full lips made him look boyish, almost innocent — but that innocence stopped at his eyes. They were deep-set below thick brows the same color as his honey blond hair, which was shaved short above his ears and long and messy on top. He was absurdly attractive. My stomach was already in knots, which meant my voice only got sharper as I said, “I’m pretty sure the tape says Caution, not Stay Back 20 Feet. I don’t see a sign telling me to stay away.” His smile faded. It melted away from his face like icicles shattering from a roof in winter, and he climbed the steps toward me. I folded my arms, regretting that I hadn’t just walked away as I spotted a logo stitched into his shirt: PNW Security Services. Damn it. I was mouthing off to a security guard. He towered over me. He had to lean down to get his face in mine. “What’s your name?” His voice was low, the words wrapping threateningly around my throat as surely as his big hands could have. I began to chew nervously on my lower lip, and pushed my glasses up my nose. “Alex,” I said. If he was going to report me to some authority figure, then there was no way I was going to risk getting a mark on my record the first day here. But he shook his head, with a languidly slow, patient blink. “No. It’s not.” That feeling of fingers wrapping around my throat intensified. I had to resist reaching my hand up to ensure nothing was squeezing me. What was this guy’s problem? Maybe if I’d just watched my attitude to begin with, then he wouldn’t be pissed off, but it was a little late for that now. My back was to Calgary’s closed doors, and this guy was entirely blocking my path down the stairs. As I hesitated to answer, he straightened up and leaned one hand above me against the door. Now it wasn’t just the feeling of a hand around my throat; it was also the sensation of a boot pressing down on my skull, pushing me against concrete, whispering incomprehensible threats in my ear — “It’s Raelynn,” I muttered hurriedly. Instantly the feeling vanished. What the hell? Did I have low blood sugar, or was this asshole really that intimidating? I tugged my book bag a little closer. “If you’re going to be such a dick about it, I’ll just leave then.” He sniffed harshly, something that easily could have been either amusement or disgust. His rock-hard expression was impossible to read, but having that much intensity fixated on me was uncomfortable. He pushed off the wall and stepped aside, clearing the way for my hurried escape. “Watch where you wander, girl,” he said, refusing to use my name even now that he’d gotten it out of me. “Curiosity can get you in trouble.” Part of me desperately wanted to know what kind of “trouble” he was talking about, because a man that beautiful could cause me a lot of trouble indeed. Embarrassing that a pair of bright eyes and a deep voice could make my vow to stop being attracted to assholes go flying out the window. I stalked away from the building onto the lawn, those light green eyes needling into the back of my skull. I tossed my hair back, trying to add some determination in my step to cover up how flustered he’d gotten me. But something strange happened. It felt like a rope snaking around my ankle, higher and higher, tighter and tighter — That toxic relationship of mine with gravity? Yeah, it was back to bite me in the ass. I tripped over my own feet, and at the same time, my old pin-covered book bag finally gave out. The frayed shoulder strap snapped and the bag fell open. My textbooks splayed themselves across the wet grass, loose papers drifted down into puddles, and my to-go cup of iced coffee that I’d wedged — foolishly — into the corner of the bag burst open and sent watered-down coffee splashing across my shoes. I had to take a moment of silence before I knelt and began to collect my things. I could feel the eyes of passing students, staring: torn between feeling guilty enough to help and awkward enough to just quicken their pace. Cheeks burning, I glanced back over my shoulder, and found the guard watching me. A small, crooked smile was on his face, and he glanced down at my sodden belongings in the grass as if to say, I told you so. That smile would have been charming if he wasn’t such a jerk. Who was I kidding? His smile was still charming and my traitorous body was getting tummy flutters from him staring at me. “Aw, Rae, what happened?” I looked up with a book half-way stuffed back into my useless bag. Inaya was jogging over the lawn toward me, her bright yellow raincoat a sharp contrast to the gloom. She made a sympathetic noise when she saw the state of me: trying to kneel in the grass without giving everyone a look up my skirt, the knees of my black leggings damp and muddy, glasses sliding down my nose. “It’s the First Day Curse, I swear,” she said. “Things always go wrong.” She knelt beside me, making quick work of collecting my books as I snatched up the ruined papers. She helped me to my feet, and I did my best to tie the bag’s shoulder strap back together. “It’ll be smooth sailing from here, don’t even worry about it.” I pouted up at her, but couldn’t keep up the expression and gave into laughter as she pulled me into a hug. I looped my arm through hers, walking with her across the quad. “I see you’ve already met our lovely new security guard, Leon,” she said, giving a slight glance back. “Oh, he’s a piece of work,” I grumbled, but I had more on my mind than just a disturbingly hot asshole. I gave her arm a playful slap. “Why didn’t you tell me there was a murder on campus, Inaya?” She groaned, rolling her eyes. “Because most people would get freaked out and I didn’t want to make your move any harder, you weirdo!” She shook her head at me. “It was pretty grim, girl. I’ve never heard of anything like that happening here.” We made our way toward a square of four stone benches sitting beneath some tall red alders. Several students were seated there, and Inaya waved to them excitedly as we approached. “I finally get to introduce you to everyone!” she whispered excitedly as a tall, familiar man in a gray peacoat rose up from his seat on the bench and extended his arms. “Miss Raelynn Lawson!” His big voice boomed, and he picked me up for a tight squeeze as Inaya laughed. “It’s been so long, I swear you’ve grown.” “Oh, ha-ha, very funny!” I smiled as he set me down. Trent, Inaya’s fiancé, had graduated two years ago from Abelaum University and — from what Inaya had told me — was already doing well for himself at an investment firm in Seattle. “It’s the boots, I wore them specifically so I could reach your waistline.” Trent chuckled and reached over to give Inaya a quick kiss on the forehead. Inaya motioned to the man and woman still seated beside us. “Rae, this is Jeremiah and Victoria Hadleigh.” They were obviously twins. Light brown hair, dark blue eyes, pale skin and freckled noses. They looked like they would have been the popular ones in high school. Victoria’s hair was perfectly straight, her black nails long and coffin-shaped, her lips glossed pale nude. Her brother seemed like a jock: muscular, tall, square-jawed, with a cocky smile that managed not to come off as annoying. “Their dad pretty much owns the school, so if you have any complaints, just go straight to them,” Inaya said, which got a groan out of Victoria, and a shake of the head from Jeremiah. "No, no, no," Jeremiah said. "We don't own the school." "Technically, Dad only owns three buildings," Victoria said, taking a drag from a slim silver vape she pulled from within her black raincoat. "And the only building that really matters is Hadleigh Library.” She motioned behind her, toward the large structure that occupied the entire east side of the quad. She gave me a wink. “If you have any book requests, you can totally bring that to us." “That’s awesome, thank you!” I made a mental note of that, as having a library’s worth of knowledge at my fingertips was extremely helpful for investigations. Not everything could be found on the internet, especially when it came to particularly old or rare texts. The library was lined with trees, and a massive arch of stained-glass windows crowned its entrance. “It’s gorgeous.” “Thanks.” Victoria shrugged, as if having your father’s library complimented was something she heard every day. “But enough about us. What about you, Miss California? What’s your sign, what do you like, what do you do?” “Oh, uh, Sagittarius,” I cleared my throat, fiddling with the knot in my bag’s strap. “I’m a Radio-TV-Film major, I like photography, uh…” “Film, huh?” said Jeremiah. “Need any actors for upcoming projects?” I laughed nervously, but Inaya spared me from answering as she said, “Tell them about your YouTube channel! Your investigations!” “Investigations?” Victoria rested her chin on her palm. “Are you, like, a detective?” I smiled tightly, bracing for the incoming weird looks. “Well, kind of. I do vlogs, talk about local legends, creepy stories...I do paranormal investigations.” “She’s a ghost hunter,” Inaya said. I was relieved to see both Jeremiah and Victoria look intrigued, instead of repulsed. "Oh, yeah?" Jeremiah leaned forward on the bench. "Have you caught stuff on camera? Ghosts?” "I mean, I've caught some weird voices. Orbs, shadows." I shrugged, and plopped down on the bench beside Inaya. “I’m still hoping for that big sighting: a full body apparition, or, shit, I’d take some vaguely human-shaped mist.” “Well, you’ve come to the right place for spooky shit.” Victoria narrowed her eyes as she looked at me, her nails tapping on her vape. “You were born around here, right? Like, your family is from here?” I nodded. “Yep. My dad’s side, the Lawsons. They’d lived here for, hell, probably a century.” “Just like our family.” Victoria smiled, but the expression seemed a little too tight to be real. Weird. “Then you probably already have an idea of just how interesting this place can be. Ghosts, poltergeists, demons, cryptids" — she glanced to the side, behind me, toward Calgary Hall — “even murders now, apparently." The five of us glanced back. Calgary Hall would have looked so normal if it wasn’t for all that caution tape, and the painfully hot asshole standing guard in front of it. I hurriedly turned back around. “Rumor is they’re just keeping the building closed because they can’t get all the bloodstains out of the stone,” Victoria said. “Some freshmen found the body and called the cops. He was a sophomore — ” “Junior,” Jeremiah corrected. “Marcus was a Junior.” “Okay, yeah, Junior, whatever," Victoria waved him off. "A guy named Marcus Kynes. He was stabbed eight times — " "Nine times," Jeremiah interjected. "Ugh, God, Jerry, would you let me say it? He was stabbed nine times. There was blood everywhere, the kid's body was just destroyed. Someone even got a video." "Of the murder?" I gasped. "Oh, no. No one knows who did it...or at least, they’re not giving names yet." She smirked. "No, they got a video of the body when it was found, before the cops showed up. It was so gross.” “I have it saved on my phone if you want to see it,” said Jeremiah, pulling out the device. “It’s crazy how much blood there is in people.” “Oh my God, you guys, don’t be so disgusting!” said Inaya, shoving Jeremiah’s phone away as he leaned forward to show me. “Too soon, okay, way too soon. The poor kid is barely in the ground.” Jeremiah sat back, staring at his phone in such a way that my morbid curiosity only increased. “He must’ve really pissed someone off,” he muttered. “Right in the middle of the hall.” I dared another glance back. Right there in that unassuming old building, someone’s life had come to its brutal end. Why? What could spur such a rage to stab a person nine times? I frowned. The security guard, Leon, was still standing at the foot of the building’s steps, and I noticed the students walking past gave him a wide berth. Even from all the way across the quad, as I pushed my glasses up my nose, I could have sworn he was looking at me. At that distance, his pale green eyes caught the light peeking through the clouds and flashed, like gold leaf caught in the sun. In French, there’s a phrase for the random urge to jump from high places, the irrational desire to swerve into traffic despite imminent destruction: l'appel du vide, the call of the void. Those sudden feral impulses tend to be shoved away immediately, but humans still experience them. What if you jumped? What if you touched the fire? What if? What if? When I looked at him, staring at me, the void called. What if? “Oh, shit. I gotta get to class.” Inaya jumped up, staring at the time on her phone. She gave me a quick hug, and Trent helped her gather her things before he took her hand to walk her to class. “I’ll see you guys later! Rae, text me, we gotta do something fun soon.” “Investigation!” I called after her. “We need to go somewhere haunted; I need content!” “Rae, what’s your number?” Victoria pulled out her phone, the sparkling blue case sporting a dangling silver crown charm. “That way I can give you a heads-up if there’s anything fun going on.” She gave me a sweet smile. “I know it can be intimidating making new friends.” I gave her my number, glad to see her so willing to be friendly. Out of the corner of my eye as I rattled off my digits, I noticed Jeremiah typing at the same time on his phone. I could have been wrong, but it seemed like he took my number too. When I turned to head for my next class, my eyes swept along the sidewalk in front of Calgary Hall, but this time, Leon was gone. There was only so long I could jack off in that vile concrete room before I began to feel more than a little feral. Demons have needs: the drive to hunt pleasure, to seek stimulation, is as necessary as food and water to a human. So as much as I hated the man, when Kent told me I was to guard the university campus when the semester started, I could have kissed his goddamn boots. Could have. I didn’t. But it had been far too many years since I’d felt so free. Kent’s sacrifice hadn’t just stirred his God. It had awakened the Eld, the ancient beasts of the forest who were sustained only by blood, magic, and pain. The God’s awakening was making them restless, and soon enough they would begin to creep from the darkest depths of the forest to hunt. Kent didn’t need panic sweeping through Abelaum. It was my duty to keep the Eld away from the students, away from town. I was to dispose of the beasts when I found them, which wasn’t an easy task, but it wasn’t as if I could refuse Kent’s orders. I’d gladly kill any Eld I laid eyes on if it meant having their hunting grounds for myself. The Eld would consume the flesh of humans if they could, but I would consume them in another way. Through pleasure, pain, and blood. Corruption. Temptation. Utterly perverse intoxication. Humans were the most pitifully willing prey. Too many of them lived such constrained lives, binding themselves to moralities that only served to limit their enjoyment of their short mortal existence. Offer one an easy path to perversion, tempt them with pleasure’s darkest desires, and they made for easy prey. A feast of curious college students had been put before me, and I intended to eat well. They were all wary, at first. Primal instinct told them what their eyes did not: I was dangerous. A predator. They kept their distance from me even when they couldn’t keep their eyes from roaming over me. It meant that the steps up to Calgary Hall’s closed doors, where I had set up my primary post to watch everyone milling across the quad, remained vacant. Until she skipped up the steps without a care in the world, wide-eyed, vibrating with energy, smelling of sage and mint and warm skin. She didn’t even glance in my direction, as if whatever primal instinct that drove her fellow students was utterly vacant from her, the feral guardian for self-preservation shrugging its shoulders and letting the little thing run wild. She was little — in stature but not in energy. She had a large camera held close beneath her chin, as if she was ready to lift it to her eye at any moment. Her black denim jacket looked too large, as did the leather boots on her feet and the stuffed book bag she carried. She wasn’t tall enough to reach my shoulder, but beneath her oversized jacket I spotted the pleasing curve of her breasts, her hips, thighs that begged to be gripped and left bruised. Heat flushed through me. If I wasn’t careful, if I let myself give in too quickly to that need to hunt, to pursue, to tempt, my human disguise would slip and these poor mortals wouldn’t just be giving me space — they’d be running, screaming. But I wasn’t about to let her simply walk away. “Are you fucking lost?” She turned slowly, wide brown eyes now narrowed, to look me over skeptically from behind thick-rimmed glasses. Her eyes lingered, her body’s sudden flood of nervous hormones turning the air pungently sweet. Perfect. “Not lost. It’s hard to miss the bright yellow tape pasted across the scene of a murder.” She’d tried to sound bothered, but her tone shot up in pitch and betrayed her lie. She was nervous, intrigued. Just frightened enough to be wary. The bitchy smile she plastered on those black-painted lips was yet another falsehood. I rather liked liars. It meant they were afraid of telling the truth, and I loved making humans face their fears. I smiled back, and it seemed to awaken that sleepy primal guardian of hers. Instinct finally kicked a bit more fear into her as she caught a glimpse of my teeth. She probably saw them a bit sharper than she should have, but I was excited, and maintaining a “normal” human appearance was difficult. “Oh, good, you didn’t miss the tape. Then I’ll take it that you just can’t read, since you decided to hang around.” Would she push back, despite that instinct to flee? There was something vicious in her stance, like a cornered cat prepared to fight. She was sizing me up, her eyes moving slowly over me. A bitchy attitude couldn’t mask fear, and it couldn’t mask desire. Her voice grew sharper, just a little bit more desperate. “I’m pretty sure the tape says Caution, not Stay Back 20 Feet. I don’t see a sign telling me to stay away.” There was a spark of hellfire in her. Bratty. Brave. Oh, I liked that. Have you ever wondered why humans buy their dogs toys that squeak? It’s because the squeak mimics the sound of an animal fighting for its life, and the dog gets excited. Sometimes those squeaky, desperate sounds of struggle just make a predator want to bite even more. Her face fell as I climbed the steps toward her. She folded her arms and shuffled her feet into a wider stance as I stood over her and leaned down. We demons couldn’t control the minds of humans, but we could nudge them. We could implant influences to stir feelings or sensations. Easy enough to ignore if a human tried, but not when they were so distracted as she was. Her eyes kept wandering, naughty little thing. I nudged her mind just enough to let her imagine a subtle squeeze around her neck. “What’s your name?” She was fidgeting now. Nervous, aroused, confused. If I’d touched her, she might have combusted, and that was exactly how I wanted it. The pursuit was no fun if the victim wasn’t willing, and the longer she lingered in the tease of it, the temptation, the more curious she’d be. “Alex.” Liar. “No. It’s not.” A little bit more of a squeeze, a little more of a nudge. I did love making brats quiver — certain former lovers would attest that it was because I was a brat myself, but those former lovers would be wrong. I only gave her mind a push, and her imagination did the rest. Confusion flickered across her face, and she gulped. A curious mind would begin to wander in the direction of dark lusts, the sins they’d tried to hide. What were hers? “It’s Raelynn,” she said, and this time, she wasn’t lying. “If you’re going to be such a dick about it, I’ll just leave then.” Raelynn. It suited her, felt right for her. Satisfied, I widened the gap between us and stepped aside, giving her an easy escape. She hurried down the steps, body tight and tense, her scent wafting over me again. “Watch where you wander, girl,” I said. “Curiosity can get you in trouble.” Her shoulders tensed even more. She flipped her short hair over her shoulder, stomping her boots across the grass as if I’d just ruined her morning. Brats need to learn their lessons somehow, don’t they? I didn’t push her. I just nudged her mind in the direction it was apt to go anyway. Unfortunately for her, she was already rather clumsy. Her feet tangled, and the jolt made the strap on her bag snap. Books tumbled across the grass and papers settled into lingering puddles, her coffee burst and sent its contents dribbling everywhere. I had to clench my jaw to hold back the laughter that wanted to come out. Posted up directly in front of the steps she’d just left, I folded my arms and watched her attempt to crouch down in her skirt, one hand awkwardly clutching the back of it to keep it down. Her head twitched back, curious eyes searching, and they met mine for only a brief moment before she looked away again. She looked even cuter with her freckled cheeks reddened in embarrassment. Her friend came to collect her, and they left together. I watched her walk across the quad, but my eyes narrowed as she reached her group and sat down. The Hadleighs — what in Lucifer’s name was she doing with the Hadleighs? I’d never seen her with them before. Did she even have any idea who they were? What they were capable of? It didn’t matter. It shouldn’t have mattered. She’d be my prey regardless. But the peculiar urge to warn her needled at the back of my mind. It was an urge I quickly shoved away. I hadn’t earned a reputation as a guardian, I was known only for one thing among human kind. I was a killer. A hunter. Not a protector. Not even for tiny mortal girls with no sense of self-preservation. It was evening when I found her again. I’d gotten away from the monotony of the quad for a while and walked through one of the far corners of the campus. Benches and tables were scattered under the trees, where students sat hunched over their laptops. I recognized her immediately, sitting cross-legged at a picnic table with her laptop open in front of her. There was now a massive knot in the strap of her book bag, and she had yet another coffee in her right hand. Did this girl run entirely on caffeine? No wonder her heart rate was so high. Maybe I’d make it a little higher. I lingered behind her, just out of her line of sight. Her internet browser was open to a webpage with the title Mass Deaths, Madness, and Cryptids: Abelaum’s Creepy History. She rubbed her eyes before she went back to reading and highlighted a passage that she copied and pasted into another document. Abelaum is host to a menagerie of haunted locales and historical monuments, it read. One such place is St Thaddeus Church, located one mile from the infamous White Pine mine shaft, where the survivors of the 1899 disaster were freed. What the hell was she looking into St. Thaddeus for? “History homework already?” She jumped at the sound of my voice, and turned her head to look up at me. That nervous glance, the uptick in her heart rate, the rapid blink before she looked away — it was enough to make me suck in my breath and hold it in an effort not to move in any closer. I’d been locked away far too long if a mere glance from a human was having me feel this way. But I’d had plenty of glances. Plenty of longing looks. It was her gaze. Her scent. Tempting me. I wasn’t usually the tempted one. “How do you know it’s for history?” she muttered. She turned the laptop slightly, as if to hide the screen from me, and her hand clenched on her lap. Maybe I’d get to see that little bit of hellfire come out in her again. Her hackles were already raised. I shrugged, sauntering over to the table to lean against it, my shadow looming over her. Fuck, she smelled good. Warm blood, mint and sage, coffee and something like granola. This girl was flat-out dangerous to be around. “Just a guess. Maybe you like researching condemned churches for fun.” She slammed her laptop shut. The glare she directed toward me brought a smile to my face. “Are you fucking lost?” she said, echoing my earlier words to her. So much sass in such a small body. “Unfriendly little thing, aren’t you?” I said. “I patrol the whole campus, doll. It’s my job to check secluded corners.” “Okay, well, patrol away. That way, preferably.” She made a show of pulling out her phone and turning her back to me, but she was just idly scrolling through text messages. As if she could dismiss me that easily. It was too fun to watch her squirm to leave now. But besides the fun of it, unease had grown in me to see her looking into that damned church. She was already spending time with the Hadleighs, which was bad enough, but something told me this woman didn’t have the slightest clue what she was meddling with. “You’re not from here, are you?” Even if they didn’t know the true nature of it, locals would steer clear of St. Thaddeus and White Pine. Too many legends. Too many stories. “Why do you say that?” she said suspiciously, slowly turning back to me. At least she was wary. She needed to turn that wariness on her little friend group. I shrugged, and tucked my hands into the pockets of my pants. “Oh, I don’t know. You smell different.” “I smell different? What does Southern California smell like, hmm? Brush fires and avocado toast?” She ended her outburst with a wince, as if she regretted giving that little bit of information away. Flustered, she shoved her laptop into her bag and got up, keeping her back turned to me. Her skirt brushed against her thighs and her movement flooded me not just with another whiff of her shampoo, but a faint and far more primal scent. I grinned wider. Stubborn little thing, resisting her own arousal. That was why she was trying so hard not to look at me. She stalked off, bag slung hurriedly over her shoulder, boots stomping. I lingered near the table, but called, “I can’t say St. Thaddeus makes for a good tourist attraction. I’d stay away from the church, if I were you.” That made her stop. She whirled back around, snapping, “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you were the campus guard. Are you the church guard too?” Goddamn, every time she snapped it had my mind spiraling into all the ways I could turn those snippy words into moans. I should have been more focused on that, rather than whatever white knight crusade had me saying bullshit like, “It’s a dangerous place. Condemned, locked. Any local would know better than to visit there.” Something about this unassuming new girl casually involving herself with the most dangerous parts of Abelaum just didn’t sit right with me. Victoria and Jeremiah were popular, certainly, but they rarely showed anyone special attention. What did they want with this girl? She was nodding, slowly. Her anger had moved into confusion, but there was a curious gleam in her eyes. “Thanks for the warning. I’ll keep that in mind.” She kicked at a pebble on the sidewalk, and added casually, “What else do you know about the church? What have you heard about it? Have you been there?” “I’ve heard it’s old, dirty, and not worth seeing.” And haunted by damned souls fed to a wicked God. But that was the last thing a curious woman like her needed to hear. “But what about the stories?” She pried, betraying her enthusiasm. “About the miners and — Hey! Where are you going?” I’d lingered there with her long enough, and I didn’t like the impulsive feelings that were poking against my ribs like sharp accusing fingers. I wanted her away from that church. I wanted her away from the Hadleighs. She was too ignorant, too curious for her own good. But goddammit, that was not my responsibility. “I’ve got a job to do, doll.” I gave her a little wave over my shoulder. Her boots stomped again, this time to rush after me and pop up at my side like an eager puppy. I fully halted in surprise, staring down at her. She’d pulled out her phone, and seemed to be recording. “Look, maybe I could just get a quick statement from you about the church. A spooky story you’ve heard, something!” she spoke rapidly, leaving her out of breath. Fucking hell, she was one of those: a social media attention chaser who wanted everything posted, everything live. Now I knew she’d be trouble. I snorted, side-stepping her to continue on my way. “I’m not interested in being in your little documentary, or whatever it is you’re doing. Stay away from St. Thaddeus.” “Oh, come on.” Her tone changed. She’d lightened it — she was attempting to sweet-talk me. “It’ll sound more authentic coming from a local. You seem like the kind of guy who would have some great stories.” It took no small amount of self-control not to grin. I had to hand it to her, she was determined. “Is that so? What kinds of stories do you think I have?” I stepped closer, and this time I couldn’t hold back the smile as her heart rate quickened. “Do you think I’ll tell stories of monsters in the woods? Mad old men who think they’re going to resurrect God? Ghosts of the long-dead and endlessly tormented?” She was hanging onto my every word, eyes wide, sweet lips just slightly parted. “Well, doll, I’m sorry to disappoint you,” I said softly. “But the only good story I have about that old church is about the last couple I took there.” She blinked rapidly. “About...what?” “If you’ve never been fucked bent over a pulpit with one man in your ass and another in your mouth, I’m sure the woman would highly recommend it. But if you’d like, I can tell you the story myself in graphic detail.” She blinked rapidly, her brain practically steaming as she processed how to react. Hot and bothered as hell, poor perverted little thing. “Is that so?” she said softly, and I was ready to see her erupt. Instead, she smiled smugly, and said, “Do tell. Sounds like a fascinating story.” I shook my head. Goddamn, the things I wanted to do to her were obscene. I stepped a little closer, challenging my own self-control as I leaned down and whispered roughly, “I don’t tell stories for free, doll.” Her face twitched, jaw clenched. “Yeah? What’s your price?” I grinned. “You, on your knees, begging for my cock down your throat.” There was a brief moment of hesitation before disgust contorted her face, and in that moment, I glimpsed all I needed to. Despite the fact that she shoved away her phone and glared at me with a scoff, I could smell her arousal. “Fuck off. Perv.” “Aww, what, I thought you wanted to hear the story?” She turned and stomped away, skirt swaying. But the desire was there. The need. She didn’t have to like me to want me. Hate sex was more fun anyway. The more these poor little humans despised you, the more they hated their desire for you, the more they would break when they finally gave in. “Hey, asshole, I’m not a tourist either!” She turned back and yelled at me, fists clenched at her sides. “I was born here!” She left, satisfied with having had the last word. Born here...interesting. That was very interesting. She had a greater connection to this damned little town than I’d thought. It didn’t make any real difference to me, but again, I was curious why the Hadleigh brats had an interest in her. Maybe she’d stay away from St. Thaddeus — not that I cared. I shouldn’t have even bothered to warn her. If she ended up running head-first into trouble, that wasn’t my business. Humans were only to be played with and nothing more. Steam filled the bathroom, the glass shower doors streaked with water droplets streaming through the condensation. I let the water cascade over my face and through my hair, trying to wash away my tense arousal. It wasn’t working. The walk home from campus after class, in the dark, hadn’t been as easy as the morning walk there. The rain had stopped, and the clouds had cleared just enough to let through a little moonlight, but the darkness of the forest at night was impenetrable. The road that took me home was narrow and quiet. I’d kept waiting for a car to go past, hoping for the comforting glow of headlights. None came. I’d walked alone, telling myself to remain calm despite the growing sensation of eyes watching the back of my head and the occasional snap of a twig from within the trees. I wasn’t one to scare easily, but when the darkness was that deep it was difficult not to feel uneasy. But by the time I got home, shed my clothes, and climbed into the hot shower, my thoughts had already turned back to Leon. That cocky, perverted asshole. I’d wanted to slap him for daring to say that shit to me. Then he’d had to go and put those thoughts in my head of getting on my knees for him. Ugh, what an absolute dick. It made me so mad. And it turned me on. I squeezed my eyes shut tight, but the darkness of my own mind was not a safe place from these thoughts. Leon was exactly my type, at least from the shallow first-impression side of things. Sarcastic, quick to bite back, with a sardonic smile that made my stomach quiver. I felt like I was in high school again, fawning over some unattainable rock star. I’d glimpsed the colorful lines of tattoos beneath his shirt collar, and he had multiple piercings in the cartilage of his ears and stretched lobes. He gave off a rebellious vibe, maybe even a little artistic. I sighed, and mentally scolded myself for romanticizing the douchebag’s looks. He was absurdly attractive, so what? If you’ve never been fucked bent over a pulpit with one man in your ass and another in your mouth… I took a slow breath. I shouldn’t have been thinking about him that way, not when I had to see him every day on campus, not when I’d promised myself that I was going to stay away from jumping into bed with assholes after what happened with Rachel. But it was just a fantasy, and that cold, creepy walk home had me needing a little comfort. I could imagine his hand stroking up my back, fingers tracing along my spine to the base of my neck and gripping me there. Gripping me like a little doll to be used and maneuvered. Doll. He’d seemed to like calling me that. I swallowed hard, my mouth dry. I couldn’t deny that my desires ran on the dark and kinky side. I sighed, a little whimper coming out with it as I wrapped my hands around my body and my fingers stroked over my hips. In the darkness behind my closed eyes, it was his fingers tracing over me. Something about him wasn’t safe; I couldn’t put my finger on it, but he set off alarm bells in my brain that told me to run. A rabbit knew instinctively to flee from a wolf. So why, instead of fleeing, was I fantasizing about being caught? I caressed my fingers down, moving slowly and softly around my navel before I stroked over my abdomen and between my legs. The hot water and my gentle touches sent a shiver up my back, and my arousal swelled. My inner thighs were sensitive, even to my own hands. I leaned against the shower wall, the steam rising around me, and my finger slipped between my labia to stroke over my clit. My breath caught in my throat. I stroked myself again, merciless to the shuddering it produced in my legs. I’d been rude to him, I knew I had. He easily could have responded to that rudeness by putting me in my place. I let the fantasy spiral as my fingers continued to play between my legs and my other hand caressed over my throat. I imagined Leon gripping me there, just tight enough to stifle my air, holding me still and helpless as he scolded me. I used to feel so guilty for fantasizing about being taken advantage of, as if that horrifying reality was something I would ever actually want outside the safety of my mind or a consensual role play. But I’d panic-read enough about the psychology of it that it no longer made me feel like a perverted hypocrite. There was something thrilling and cathartic in imagining being helpless. Helpless but pleasured. Helpless but desired. It wasn’t just in horror films and haunted places that I indulged my love for dark things. My fantasies, the ones that made my breath hitch and my heart beat faster, were inky black as well. “Did you really think I’d let you get away with speaking to me that way?” I imagined his eyes burning into me: bright and vicious, eager once he had me in his hands. “You should have tried to be a little more respectful.” My knees weakened as my fingers massaged roughly over my clit, my dripping arousal making me slick. I imagined Leon standing over me, I imagined him laughing at my half-hearted struggles as he pinned me down, and yanked my pants down to my ankles. “Curiosity will get you in trouble,” he snarled. Curiosity...yeah, he’d warned me about that. I could hear his scolding voice as surely as if he was there, hot in my ear. “Just look where it’s gotten you. This is what happens to perverted girls who don’t want to listen.” I sunk down to the shower floor, laying back and letting the water flow over me. I felt pathetically desperate, but I needed this. “Say you’re sorry, little Raelynn.” I groaned, arching back, my fingers pressing inside and stroking over my clit as I fingered myself. I could imagine his chuckle, the curve of his cruel smile. I thought of the way his lean muscles had tensed beneath his shirt as I’d snapped back at him. I imagined them tightening in the same way as he bent me over, whispering in my ear, “I think the belt is what’s needed to teach you a lesson. Sometimes little brats just need to be whipped until they cry, don’t they?” I shuddered all over, torn between holding my breath and gasping desperately. “You should have thought of this before you were bad. Now, apologize, and maybe I’ll make you feel good after I —” My orgasm gripped me, tensing every muscle until I shook and cried out, mouth agape. The fantasy was too much, it was wrong, it was dangerous. It was twisted to feel such a desire for a stranger to punish me, but I couldn’t deny the pleasure. My fingers curled back, unable to bear touching my sensitive clit for even another second. As the waves of ecstasy receded, I lay there dazed and trembling with the water flowing over me. I got up slowly and leaned against the shower wall, staring at the water as it swirled down the drain. It was raining again, pattering against the fogged-up window above the shower. I’d really screwed myself now. How the hell was I supposed to see that asshole on campus and not think of this? Hey giiiirl, the Main Street Art Fest starts tonight! Come with??? We’re gonna have beers and ganjaaaaa! The text was followed up by a string of wink-face, leaf, and smoke emojis. It took me a beat to realize the text was from Victoria; I’d forgotten to save her contact in my phone. Curled up on the couch with my morning coffee, I quickly texted her back. For sure! I’ll be there! It was a relief to already have a new friend willing to invite me out. Having Inaya had made the entire move easier, but if I was going to settle down here and get a long-term job, I needed more than just one friend, and Victoria had been nothing but sweet to me so far. I’d worried at first that she wouldn’t be, considering she had that Hot-Girl-Instagram-Influencer thing going on. It had only taken years of having people judge me by my appearance to finally start getting it through my head that I shouldn’t judge other people by theirs. An art festival sounded like a danger to my wallet, but I wasn’t about to miss it. I could walk to Main Street easily; it was only a little further from home than the university, just in the opposite direction. I arrived in late afternoon, bundled up in a cozy jacket, beanie, and comfortable sneakers. Main Street wound between Abelaum’s charming brick buildings, lined with cherry trees that shaded glass display windows for numerous cafes, bakeries, antique shops, and clothing boutiques. The street was bustling as Friday university classes ended and more students showed up to participate. “Rae!” Inaya’s voice cut through the crowd. Ahead, I could see her, Victoria, and Jeremiah crowded around the space reserved for the university’s art students. Inaya was waving her arms excitedly, and I jogged over to join them. As I got closer, I realized it wasn’t just those three familiar faces watching me arrive. An older man, in his 50s, if I were to guess, watched me approach with the ghost of a smile on his face. He was gray-haired, dressed in a perfectly fitted suit. Something in his face, the set of his eyes, reminded me of Jeremiah. “I’m so glad you came!” Inaya enfolded me in a hug. Victoria squeezed me after, and made sure to give me a glimpse into her oversized bag so I could see the little bottles of wine tucked within. “Rae, this is our dad,” Jeremiah said, motioning to the gray-haired man who was watching me with a smile. “Dad, Raelynn.” “Miss Raelynn!” Kent’s smile was warm, as were his hands as he grasped my outstretched one. He was handsome, carrying a certain sophisticated charm about him. He looked like he’d head a Historical Society, like he was the type to enjoy studying ancient texts by flickering candlelight. “A pleasure to meet you, my dear. I hope you’re feeling welcome in Abelaum so far?” “Very.” I smiled. “Victoria and Jeremiah have been wonderful. I’m glad to finally meet you. I’ve heard you practically own the town, Mr. Hadleigh.” Kent waved his hand dismissively. “Oh, ridiculous! Abelaum is home, full of family and friends. Whatever it needs from me, I’ll gladly give. And if you need anything, Miss Raelynn, just let me know...and please, you can call me Kent.” He paused a moment, as if something had crossed his mind that he wasn’t sure he wanted to give voice to. Then he said, “You know, I went to school with your father. High school, and then university. Richard, isn’t that right? Richard Lawson?” I nodded. “Yeah, my dad grew up here. How did you know I’m a Lawson? Family resemblance that strong, huh?” He chuckled and gave me a wink. “A lucky guess. The Lawsons lived in Abelaum a long time. It’s nice to have one of you back again. Anyway, don’t let an old man’s rambling keep you. Enjoy yourself! Have a look around.” Victoria seized onto my arm the moment her father’s attention dwindled, and with me on one side and Inaya on the other, we wound between the tables to explore. She popped out little pink bottles of Rosé, poured them into three empty water bottles and passed them around so we could enjoy the sparkling alcohol as we walked. “Should we wait for Jeremiah?” I said, noticing he hadn’t followed. Victoria just shook her head with a little roll of her eyes. “He’s playing Daddy’s Favorite today,” she said, and stuck out her tongue in a mock gag. “He always gets all high and mighty about drinking every time a new semester starts, and he’s under the soccer coach’s eye all the time. Suddenly, he’s devoted to health and wellness.” We wandered and sipped, until I got distracted with a table of hand-painted tarot decks and couldn’t resist stopping. The pretty girl sitting behind the table had long blonde hair, and wore a lacey black dress that reached over her boots. Her pointy, green-colored acrylics were spread over the cover of the book she was reading, a worn-out paperback with a lady swooning in the arms of a shirtless man on the cover. “Did you paint all these yourself?” I said, looking in awe at the attention to detail on each card in the sample deck. She nodded with a small smile, but before she could respond, Victoria interjected. “She paints every single one. It’s why she’s locked in her room all the time.” Victoria sighed heavily, half-sitting on the table. The blonde girl’s mouth shut, her smile fading slowly as she put down her book. Victoria went on, “Everly, this Raelynn. Raelynn Lawson.” Everly’s bright blue eyes widened slightly. For a moment, she looked at me as if she knew me, as if she was excited, as if — then it was gone. Nothing but a calm, gentle smile remained. “Nice to meet you, Raelynn.” “It’s nice to meet you t —” “You should pull some cards for her, Ev,” Victoria said, tossing the sample deck toward her. I glanced over at Inaya, to see if she was getting as peeved about Victoria’s suddenly bitchy attitude as I was, but she just shook her head and mouthed, I’ll tell you later. Everly didn’t look thrilled, but she began to slowly shuffle through the deck. I chewed at my lip, torn between wanting to move on and break whatever tension lay between Everly and Victoria, and staying so as not to be rude. But as I wavered, Everly smiled again and said in her soft voice, “Come a little closer, Raelynn.” I stepped up in front of her. She looked at me as she shuffled the cards, but her eyes were distant. She suddenly didn’t look so young anymore. “It’s Rae,” I said, then quickly clarified, “I mean, my friends call me Rae. You can call me Rae.” “Rae,” her lips curled around my name, like it was something sweet she wanted to eat. “I like that. Somewhere between masculine and feminine.” She set her cards face down on the table, took a deep breath, and pulled the first card. It depicted a stone tower standing tall among a forest, flames licking from its upper window as storm clouds gathered around it. Everly set the card down carefully and paused. “Change,” she said softly. “The life you knew, your strong tower, has been dramatically changed. It is no more.” Her lips parted again, only to close without a sound. Whatever she was going to say next, she’d changed her mind. Well, that felt far more ominous than it should have. I smiled, glancing with a little uncertainty at Victoria, who just shrugged her shoulders and took a long gulp from her “water” bottle. Everly lay down the next card. It depicted a man lying face down in the snow, his arm outstretched as if he’d been reaching for something. Numerous swords were pierced through his back, pinning him to the ground, blood staining the snow. Everly said nothing. She wasn’t looking at me anymore, but her eyes kept flickering to the side as if she was looking for someone. She pulled the last card, turned it to set it down — “Excuse me.” A woman had sidled up behind me, and I jumped at the sound of her voice. “How much do these cost?” Everly snatched up the cards, smiling brightly as she answered the woman. Victoria hopped down from the table with another sigh. “Let’s find a bar,” she said, finishing off the last of her Rosé. “I’m starving.” She led the way as Inaya put her arm around my shoulders and leaned close to whisper in my ear, “Everly is Victoria’s half-sister. Kent had an affair right before Victoria and Jeremiah were conceived. They’re only a few months apart.” My eyes widened, and I had to resist the urge to glance back. Everly definitely hadn’t inherited the Hadleigh family resemblance, but I could at least understand Victoria’s derision for her a little better, not that the situation was in any way Everly’s fault. Victoria had pulled further ahead, and seemed to have found a bar that was to her liking as she called back to us to hurry up. But my mind was still on the cards. I didn’t know much about tarot, but I think the last card I’d got a glimpse of would have been fairly obvious to anyone: a skeleton in a black cloak, carrying a large scythe as it rode a white horse across a barren field. Death. The bar was bustling with people, but we managed to get a table near the back. Victoria ordered a round of beer and appetizers, insisting she was going to pay for everything. I suddenly got the feeling she had started drinking long before I met up with her that day. She’d evidently extended an invitation to other friends too, because we’d only been there a few minutes when another group turned up: two women with their boyfriends, and two men who Victoria knew from one of her classes. She quickly clung onto one of them, and before long she was seated on his lap, another round of beers was ordered, and the conversation had grown to such a volume that no one could really tell what was being said, but none of us cared anyway. The bar was filling up, and I was feeling pretty good with two beers warming me and the high energy surrounding me. I wasn’t sure when he showed up. Maybe he’d been there the whole time and I just hadn’t noticed, but I doubted I could have overlooked him. I glanced across the table, laughing at something Inaya had said, and Leon’s gaze slammed into me, sharp and burning, those pale green eyes holding me captive for only the briefest of moments before snapping away. Leon was seated in the corner, his back to the wall, leaning back on his barstool with his arms folded and a grin on his face. His arms were bare tonight, allowing me to take a good look at his tattoos. Colorful swaths of ink, like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, marked him from his wrists to his shoulders. He wore tight black jeans, Converse, and red t-shirt with jagged lettering emblazoned across the front. He wasn’t sitting alone. I could only see his companion’s profile, but where Leon’s tattoos were bright, the other guy’s were dark, shadows and deep details inked across his biceps. Snakebites pierced his lower lip, and a black barbell was studded through his eyebrow above honey brown eyes. I considered it an unspoken rule of the universe that more than one absurdly hot person couldn’t exist in the same place at the same time, especially not in such close proximity to each other, and to me. But these two — muscular, grinning, dark enough to straddle the fine line between intriguing and terrifying — were not only sitting directly within my line of sight, but they kept looking at me. Leon was really staring, but his companion was stealing glances too, turning just enough to look at me over his shoulder before turning his attention away again. A blush was rising on my face, and for what? Just because they were looking at me? Or because I’d gotten off to the thought of Leon doing awful things to me, and now I had to sit here with his eyes on me and those thoughts prodding at my brain again? I tried to ignore them. Leon’s gaze was hot on my skin, as palpable as fingers stroking my flesh. My foot began to tap against the rung of my barstool, and the mozzarella sticks were suddenly too cloying in my mouth. I didn’t want food. I didn’t want more beer. I wanted to satisfy this insatiable curiosity that kept dragging my eyes back to that evil smirking dude in the corner. Leon and the other man were conversing, and it wasn’t easy, but I tried to focus on the noise from their corner instead of the noise surrounding me. There was a brief moment of quiet as Victoria got up to use the bathroom and one of the couples made their way to the bar to order a cocktail. Only then was I able to catch a few brief moments of what they were saying. “...finally let me out. Fuck, if that’s all he needs me to do, what’s a little…” I would have been able to understand more if I had dared to watch Leon’s lips move. But I knew that if I raised my eyes in his direction, I’d find him staring back. “...about you? Hunting again?” Now, his companion spoke. The man’s voice was deep, the kind of voice that balanced firmly on the edge of sarcasm, as if he’d laugh at any moment. “Yeah. I’m getting close….be fun...if she doesn’t kill me first…” I was distracted as Inaya got up to leave and hugged me good-bye. By the time I sat down again, the corner table was empty, and Leon and his friend walked past our table. His eyes met mine: a challenge, an invitation. There was a pre-roll clutched between his fingers, and his friend had an arm slung over his shoulders. Through the bar’s window, I watched the two of them round the corner of the building, likely going to smoke in the alleyway alongside it. I wasn’t the only one who’d watched them pass. Victoria had glared at them the whole way out, and with them gone, our gazes locked with each other instead. She smirked. “He’s hot, right?” Her boy toy of the night didn’t look pleased with her statement, but I couldn’t disagree. “Yeah, and a dick.” She shrugged. “Pretty things don’t need to be likeable, do they?” My foot kept tapping against the stool. I slipped my hand into the pocket of my jacket to grip my vape. “I’ll be right back.” I got up from the table. “Gonna go smoke real quick.” Outside, the air was crisply cold, my breath forming clouds of condensation as I exhaled. The music from the bar was muted, and the scent of weed was sour and sharp on the breeze. I stood near the corner of the building, the silhouettes of Leon and his friend dark in my peripheral vision down the alleyway. I took a drag on my vape, and the scent of strawberry cream mingled with the odor of weed. From behind me, the low murmur of the men’s voices sent a little chill up my spine. Then Leon’s voice called, “Are you just going to stand there and hope we bother you, Raelynn? Or are you going to come get what you want?” I whirled around, my free hand shoved in my pocket so they wouldn’t see my fingers clench. Leon leaned against the side of the building, passing the joint to his friend, who smirked at me before he took a drag. I didn’t appreciate him reading into my actions like that. I didn’t appreciate him being right. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” I said. Leon shrugged. “It’ll be easier for you to eavesdrop on our conversation if you come closer,” his friend said, exhaling smoke with his words. If I’d actually thought they were a threat to me, I wouldn’t have taken another step closer. But that was the weird thing. They should have been frightening, but instead, I felt this bizarre trust. This completely unfounded belief that they wouldn’t lay a hand on me unless I wanted them to. And fuck, I did want them to. I walked closer, standing next to them in the alley’s dim light. It was warmer down there — not only because of the building’s closeness, but because the two of them emanated heat. It was weird, but it stopped my shivering. Leon nodded at his friend. “That’s Zane.” Zane threw up a peace sign, joint at his lips. “Brothers?” I asked. Leon chuckled dryly. “I don’t think most people fuck their brothers.” “Some do,” Zane said quickly. “Bros with benefits.” “It’s frowned upon.” “As if you give a fuck what’s frowned upon.” Zane laughed and passed the joint back to him. Neither of them looked high, and the joint was nearly gone. The only noticeable difference was that Leon’s piercing gaze had slightly softened, making it almost bearable as he watched me take another drag from my vape. “What is that shit?” he said. “Strawberries and cream.” I offered it up for a hit. He shook his head. “Won’t do anything for me.” Leon took a long drag on the joint, the ember at the tip flaring brightly with his inhale. He blew the smoke in my face: piney, sour-sweet. "Better than that sweet vapor, isn't it? That shit you tell yourself is enough…” He shook his head. “Just doesn't satisfy." Zane leaned closer. "You need something harsher, with a little more bite." His teeth clipped together on the final word. Ignoring Zane, I glared up at Leon’s smug face. "You're a dick." "Oh, Rae." He stepped closer, closing the already small gap between us. My choices were to take a step back — and press my ass up against Zane — or stand my ground. I didn't move, and Leon's hips brushed up against mine. Inches from my face, he took another drag, and the smoke coiled from his lips as he said, "You have no idea just how much of a dick I can be." I gulped as the smoke caressed over my face. The touch of his body was hot, hard, and utterly tempting. Part of me wanted to grind up against him, really show him that I could be a tease right back. But another part of me wanted to slap him, leave him there in the alley without the satisfaction of knowing just how much he'd gotten in my head. Without ever knowing how much he'd made me want him. “Why did you come out here, Rae?” he said casually. But nothing could be casual when he was pressed that close. “To smoke,” I muttered. “No, no, no. Why did you come out here?” Zane was chuckling behind me. I wasn’t about to lose my courage. “I was curious.” Leon tweaked an eyebrow at me, expecting more, and I managed to get out, “About you. I was curious.” Leon nodded sagely, as if he’d just been told the secret to the universe and realized he’d known it all along. “Curiosity is dangerous,” Zane said softly. His voice was inches from my ear, enough to send a chill up my neck. “I’ve heard it kills pussies...Is that the phrase?” "Close enough.