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Untamed Night - Launch Sale & Preview!

We couldn't love this series more. It is dark, harrowing, full of female rage and action packed adventure.

Which is why if you are seeing this right now Book One - Shades of Night is absolutely free and book two - Untamed Night, is only .99!

But that isn't what this post is about. This is about giving you a three-chapter preview of what to expect in the next book. So without further adieu, here is Untamed Night by Rachael Boucker.

1: No Honour Among Rogues and Priests

“Forgive me, Father, for I was born.” My heart pounds with anticipation. The scent of wood and faded incense clinging to the curtain, aren’t masking the stench of fear pouring off the man in the adjoining confession booth. His chair creaks, the old priest clears his throat, and I lean closer to the thin lattice screen separating us. My smile broadens and my voice lilts. “Forgive me, Father, for I have hunted demons.”

I hear the swish of a curtain, followed by hasty steps. He can run all he wants. There’s no escaping me.

“I’ve slayed them by the hundreds.”

“Witch! Witch! Fetch the guards!” He squeals like a pre-pubescent boy, and I sneer in contempt.

Standing up, I whip back the curtain, and watch the priest backing away through the empty pews, his feet squeaking and sliding on the polished floor like it’s made of ice. “Killed on your orders! Killed for your gold!”

My battle axe—Death’s Breath—is the only backup I’ve ever needed; that, and a spell or two. As I take the axe in hand, feeling a surge of hunger for blood at its touch, the priest picks up speed. I chant under my breath, timing the activation of my trap with the priest’s steps, and grin as he smacks into an invisible wall I’ve crafted. He crashes down hard. The slap as he hits the floor echoes off the stone walls. I smile as he picks himself up and runs in another direction, only to hit another enchanted wall and fall once more.

“Look around you, priest. Did you think I’d come here unprepared?”

He appraises the circle of runes he’s stumbled into and gasps. “No such magic exists. I am no demon!”

I can’t help but shiver at the fear in his voice, almost losing myself to the euphoria of the hunt. The priest lets out a whimper as I step into the circle that imprisons him. It’s hard to tamp down my bloodlust when he plays the role of prey so well. I savour the moment, letting it fill with his whimpers and trembles.

Closing the invisible wall behind me, I take three slow, heavy strides, my footfalls echoing around the nave. “We crafted spells for demons alone, because it was forbidden to harm a human.” I crouch down and lean in close, feeling the man’s panted breaths mist on my cheek. “You changed the rules, Father. You and your kind.”

The air crackles behind me and a man screams as the spell thrusts him back. Eight men stand in the aisle. Two dressed in clergy robes, the other six are thugs for hire. A church as opulent as this must pay a handsome sum to drag innocents to the pyre.

I jerk the priest’s head to face the floor. “Can you read these runes?”

“Some,” the priest says, his whiskered chin trembling in my grasp.

“I suggest you call your choirboys off. Wouldn’t want any more of them getting hurt.”

With a grimace, the priest calls to the men surrounding us. “Stay away from the runes. While she’s inside, no one can get in or out of this circle.”

I hear the creak of a drawstring being pulled and find a bowman taking aim. His arrow speeds through the air, only to glance off the wall and clatter on the smooth marble.

“Waste all the arrows you want,” I say, and snap back around to the priest. “You’ve guessed why I’m here?”

“I cannot undo the decree. We must kill all witches. Your blood is unclean, and you are an abomination before God.”

I bring Death’s Breath to his throat. The axe hums at the prospect of spilling his blood over my carefully crafted runes. “We were the weapons of God before my sister wiped out the demons.”

“A means to an end. The only demon bloodline left is yours. Surely you must understand?”

My victimised ancestors and the demons that seeded them are the reason for my unclean blood. But we’re not monsters, and I’ve got to be more merciful than men if I’m to repair our reputation.

“The witches,” I yell. “The ones you plan to burn alive. They’re coming with me.” It takes all my strength not to decapitate him here and now, but I promised Saben I wouldn’t slaughter the town to get what I want.

“Their names are already logged. I cannot pardon them.”

On another day, I’d have given him credit for bravery. Piss snakes between his legs and my enchanted axe doesn’t need to touch his neck to slice it—yet he still argues. “I am Aramay Dellena. I hold the record for the most demon kills, and don’t think I won’t put those skills to use collecting clergy heads.”

“That kill record goes to your sister now,” one thug says with a chuckle.

My throwing knife is in my hand a breath later, grazing my ankle where I’ve pulled it so fast from the sheath in my boot. I reach outside the circle’s protection and launch it at him. The knife whizzes through the air, sticking him in the arm, as I scream, “The next one will be in your eye!” Perhaps I’m not the best daughter of the Night Order to change perceptions about witches.

The injured man shrieks, draws my blade from his arm, and tosses it to the ground. “We’ll find you, witch, no matter where you hide!”

“Find me at your peril.” I half hope he will. There’s so much fight in me, and in this demon-free world I’m forced to show restraint. Somehow, I rein it in—the rage, all that intoxicating heat and euphoria. I know killing them would push it further still, but I’m here to scare them, not murder them.

“Bring the condemned,” the priest commands.

I raise my hand. “That won’t be necessary.” The priest’s eyes widen, and he holds his breath as I lean into his ear. “I’m just here to give them a head start.”

I stamp my boot and all my runes evaporate into a fireless smoke. By the time it clears, I’m already gone.

There was a time those dazzling blue eyes looked at me with love and lust. Now they narrow with abject concern.

“Did you kill anyone?” Saben straightens against the tree he’s leaning on, folds his arms and looks my leather armour up and down—presumably searching for blood.

“No one died,” I say, with perhaps a little too much disappointment. A part of me hoped the thugs would catch up and force my willing hand, but I’ve made it far enough into the woods with no sign of them. My hate is justified. Lost count of how many witches they’ve burnt alive.

“So you hurt someone?”

“The priest voided his bladder, some idiot stood on a rune…and I gifted a deserving arm my knife.” I say that last part much quieter and try to walk past him.

“Dellena.” Saben grabs my shoulder and twists me to face him. “You promised.”

His grip is enough to send me into a frenzy. With the thrill of the hunt left unfulfilled at the church, all that frustration shifts to carnal lust. I grab a handful of my rogue’s sandy hair and pull him in close, teasing his bottom lip with my teeth.

“I kept my promise.” I push my lips on his before he can respond, only taking a breath to add, “No one died.” He’s the reason—the only reason—I haven’t killed a single human. Not on purpose, anyway.

He pulls away, holding me at arm’s length with a warning glare. “We’ll never change their minds if we keep partaking in their war.”

I smile weakly and follow him as he skulks through the trees. This isn’t a war we started. We weren’t the ones to break the truce, but Saben’s always been soft-hearted. Even with all they’ve done to us, he still sees the good in humanity. You’d think after all these years a little of my cynicism would’ve rubbed off on him.

You’d also think my lust for him would dim, but it’s as strong now as it was when we met. Same as my bloodlust when the hunt calls. My sister used to joke that I must be part animal, not demon. She’s wrong. Demons can be just as carnal and instinct driven. Could be. Were. All gone now. That thought sours my mood and I use my surroundings to dim my urges further, focusing on the bracken snapping under Saben’s boots, the squelch of an occasional puddle, and the smell of pine and rain-washed weeds.

It’s not long before chattering voices come at me on the breeze. They need to get all that noise out of their system. We’ve a long journey through unpaved woods, rife with bandits.

“Did you get them all?” I ask Saben, looking at the witches dotted between the trees, doing a mental head count. Twelve witches, some young, some old. Even the ones with meat still on their bones look malnourished. If we have to run, some will get left behind. If we have to fight, as formidable as some of these witches may be, I can’t see us being able to protect all the dead weight.

There’s a rogue with this lot, a boy no older than ten. Looks lost among the women. “What about him? I didn’t see any rogues on the list.” Rogues might’ve been as hunted as witches in those first chaotic months after the demons were gone, but they soon turned against us, joined the humans in their quest to exterminate us.

“They kept him in a separate cell, but he was no less a prisoner than the witches.”

“Might be young enough to join our coven. Might be old enough to stick a blade in us while we sleep.”

“I’ll take responsibility for him on the way back home.”

I’m not convinced. “If they kept him apart from the others, chances are they were using him. You know how effective their brainwashing methods are on the young. Humans say witches are bad and it becomes fact to them.”

Witch births are registered with the Night Order, making them easier to track. Rogue children are harder to pin down. Sired directly from demons, they’re a dying breed with no one left to father them. Every generation of witches started from rogues. The first generation born of demon and human is always male, each generation after is female.

“He’s a child, Dellena. A young child. He can learn, unlike you.” I toss him my fiercest scowl, but he’s undeterred. “You think you’re helping the situation by scaring priests until they piss themselves, and by throwing knives? When I said cause a distraction, I didn’t mean—”

“If after all this time together, you claim not to know what kind of distraction I’ll provide, then that is completely on you.”

The witches silence, all heads swivelling to face me and Saben. I take note of a few handling weapons concealed under cloaks, two others letting their hands dangle over their knees, casually, with booted knives within reach. Huh. This lot might make it after all.

Saben walks away, leaving me the last word, to go over and offer the boy his waterskin. Don’t like arguing with him, but we’ve almost lost our lives before trusting the wrong person, and I still mourn others who have. I know he doesn’t agree with me, know he’s desperate to prove rogues can be brought on side along with humans. Only this isn’t a war. No one’s ever extended an invitation to negotiate. We are being wiped out. One by one. Dead witch after dead witch.

Most of the witches are still poised to draw weapons.

I clear my throat, not that I need to draw their attention. “Listen well, daughters of the Night Order. I am Aramay Dellena, and I will lead you to safety, but the journey is hard and long. If you fall behind, you stay behind. We only have two days to reach our sanctuary.”

“Why? We’ve escaped. Can take as long as we need.” A gruff redhead stands to challenge me, but I have one word that will shut the towering witch up.


They’re whispering now: “The seer child”, “She has the sight”, “A legend”. Frightened looks pass from one witch to another. My stout challenger bows her head and sits back down.

“Camille’s foresight brought us here today. In every part of the realm, witches are being put to death. You’re the ones we could most likely save.” I’d say more, lie about how we won’t make it at all if we don’t make it in two days, but they seem to be filling in the blanks themselves. The truth is, my daughter’s at the sanctuary and so is our next mission. Every day we waste in travel with them is time we could spend saving others. Saben gives me a sideward glance but says nothing, as good as giving me permission to ride them hard all the way to the castle door.

One girl stands to the side of the rest drumming her fingers on her lips. Still staring into space, she stops drumming her fingers and says, “Camille, of Hayver’s Stay?”

I take a step closer to her. There’s nothing inconspicuous about this girl. Under the dirt and grime her clothes are white, a stark contrast to the dark woodland. She’s not the child I remember, just blossoming into womanhood, but it’s definitely her.

“Sandy?” Raised by Hayver Helen in a home for abandoned witches, she’s Camille’s adopted sister. Rage prickles heat under my skin. Success isn’t the real reason for this mission. “That little wench! We could’ve saved three or more groups in the time it took to journey here.”

Saben puts a hand on my shoulder. “Camille’s allowed to want to save her sister.”

His touch doesn’t arouse me this time. I’m still swimming in murderous thoughts. That angel-faced brat, that scheming little monster, when I get hold of her…Death’s Breath vibrates on my back. It’s always up for taking a swing at Camille.

“She still should have told us.” I shake off Saben’s hand and turn back to the group. “Get up and start walking. Sandy, you’re with me.” Camille has a lot to answer for when we get back, and I’m going to get there as swiftly as possible. This lot had better keep up.

Without waiting for them to gather themselves, I march into the trees with Sandy. I stare at this orphaned girl of Hayver’s Stay as she half jogs beside me, remembering the last time I saw her.

Iron Anvil was a graveyard, no longer the legendary town of mighty warriors. We’d travelled through the bodies and destruction to rescue Saben and gotten our first glimpse of the demon army. Pinned down in a house next to a trio of lover demons, and fifty or more skin-wearers and puppet-masters…I’d have gone out there, axe swinging, but I wanted to survive, for all of us to make it out of there.

Then from a distant rooftop I saw a flash of white. The distance kills that Sandy made with her slingshot would put any skilled bowmen to shame. Didn’t even aim; just took out demon after demon with those pointed stones of hers.

Sandy drums her lips, walking aimlessly, and I groan as she bumps into yet another tree. There are gaps, natural walkways that weave between the trees, but Sandy walks straight until something forces her course to change.

I don’t know these other witches. Could well be some decent fighters among them—it’s what we were bred for—but if there’s a scrap to be had, I would place my bets on Sandy.

2: Price on our heads

We’ve walked for some time and for the most part they’ve kept my pace. Grumbles about sore feet and empty bellies start up behind me.

“We should rest up for a while,” Saben calls over.

As expected, he’s kept the young rogue at his side. A natural father. This thought brings a stab of jealousy, motherhood not being something that’s come naturally to me.

“Let’s build a fire, hunt, and scavenge,” Saben continues. As the group spreads out, I keep an eye on the towering redhead. She’s stout, better fed than any other witch here. Looks like she’d been doing well on her own. I just can’t figure out whether that makes her formidable, or a traitor. I watch her take aim at a dead tree with her hammer. She strikes the tree with such force, it shatters into splinters, then she scoops up armfuls of wood and dumps it next to the fire pit another witch is digging.

The scar above my eyebrow tingles and I rub it, trying to increase the sensation, not dull it. The tall witch looks at me looking at her, then twirls her hammer, marching off into the trees. None of them have to come with us, could take their chances on the road. I suspect she’ll return though. If she is a spy, if the rogue boy’s a spy, they’ll want to reach our sanctuary before playing their hand.

My scar tingles again. Time to write Shade.

Reaching into the pouch strapped at my waist, I pull out an acorn soaked in tweeting potion. I test it on my tongue, the weak taste letting me know it’s only good for one more use. Need to mix another potion tomorrow.

Saben gives me a knowing look as I stalk past him. “You realise you’re going to extinct the world’s bird population?” he says.

I shrug and walk on, finding a dark place among the trees where I can be alone. “Parchment is running low,” I mumble to myself. And my charcoal stick is little more than a nub. I rip the parchment into four and write what I can on one quarter.

‘A successful rescue. Sandy among them. I miss you Shade.’

With the acorn under my tongue, I tweet and chirp to a woodpigeon until it becomes enchanted. Blue mists of magic swirl in its eyes, blanking its stare as it perches on my hand. I tie the parchment to its leg. “Take this to Aramay Shenade.” Can’t help but breathe a sigh as the bird flies off with my note.

It’s been five years, almost to the day, since my sister unleashed her fated power and exterminated all demon races. I’ve written to her every day since. Never received a reply, never met a soul who’s seen her alive after that day. The bird soars higher. She’s alive. We give our family name first. If Shade was dead, the bird would deliver the letter to her next of kin—me or my daughter, Aramay Zerra. And it’s not heading the right way to deliver to Zerra.

“She’s still alive then?” Saben comes up behind me and wraps me in his arms, placing a tender kiss on my temple. He never stays mad at me for long, but it’s been hard for both of us. Mission after mission, failures as well as successes. It takes its toll, and sometimes we take that out on each other. We both wish the world was different, wish the slaughter of our kind would stop. Only, changing the hearts of your enemies is a fantasy, and tends to be at odds with stealing back the lives they plan to burn.

“You didn’t tell the bird to wait for a reply, did you?” He wants a response, but I say nothing. “Dellena, you’ve sentenced that poor thing to death! Without a reply, it will wait until it starves.”

“One day she’ll write back.”

“What if she can’t? What if she’s lost her hands, or her faculties?”

I pull a worn piece of paper from my breast pocket. “You know what she wrote in her last message.”

“Yes, by heart. ‘My scars are healed, I am safe, and I am not alone’. But that was years ago. Doesn’t mean that there’s someone to write back for her now, does it?”

It’s hard to think of my sister alone, almost as unbearable as thinking she’s dead. “Someone’s with her, they just don’t want to be found.” I focus on the warmth of him seeping into my back, easing my muscles, stealing my tension. Thought I wanted to be alone, but his presence is just what I need in this moment. “I love you.”

“And I love you. Just stop killing innocent creatures. If Shade wants to write you, she’ll enchant her own damn bird.”

I don’t have an argument for that. Instead of responding, I sink to the ground. Saben follows, locking his legs around my waist and laying me against his chest. I close my eyes, feeling his heart beat against my cheek, and run through those last moments with Shade for the thousandth time.

What could I have said to make her forgive me? I need to find the words before I find her. Because I will find her, even after all this time apart—I believe that—and I need to make things right between us when I do.

Saben rests his chin on my head and holds me. His heart continues to beat next to my ear and I relax, letting the memory fade. Shade’s shrill screams slip from my mind, and I let go of that gut wrenching panic and fear. All that’s left is guilt and even that’s dimmed in Saben’s embrace.

When the sun’s slipped away, we walk back to the camp to find proceeds from a successful hunt cooking over roaring fires. Saben, of course, has already learnt all their names and is welcomed into their conversations. Looks like I have some catching up to do.

I don’t join him. Instead, I do another head count. They’re all here, including the redhead. That tall stout witch is sitting alone, bloodied hammer resting at her feet. I take a seat on a fallen tree, next to her. “Dellena,” I say, holding out my hand.

Her shake is crushing, but I don’t let it show. “Gertrude,” she says, and hands me a hunk of her meat.

I rip off a chunk. It’s charred on the outside, succulent in the middle. Juices dribble down my chin. I wipe them off and suck my fingers, savouring the taste. “Elk?”

“Yeah. Listen, did your sister really do this to us?”

The heat rises in my cheeks, and I swallow the mouthful of half-chewed meat. “My sister fulfilled her destiny. How could she know the clergy would turn on us?”

“I suppose.” Gertrude teases some of the elk apart with her fingers. “They kept us in a cell. Any trouble got us all doused with holy water.” Gertrude scowls and spits out a bit of gristle. “And they have the cheek to call us monsters.”

Holy water, relics of God and hallowed ground, were deadly to demons. For our kind, it drains and hurts, but takes a lot more to kill. Shade wouldn’t wish for the suffering of witches. She’s antisocial at the best of times but has a good heart.

Gertrude’s not the first to hurl all the blame at Shade. Some days I’m glad she’s been gone for so long, that she hasn’t had to hear all the hateful things said about her. They all judge her, and I judge them right back. Might’ve misjudged Gertrude, though. Yes, she’s stout, but there are some stretch marks peeking out under her cropped sleeves, skin on her toned biceps looking a little slacker than perhaps it should. She’s lost some weight, not as much as others, but some. Banned from towns, markets, traders, not even safe to hunt. We’re sat around fires, filling our bellies, but even in the wilderness we’re not safe.

“Heard stories about that axe of yours.” Gertrude points to the battle axe tied to my pack. “Had a bunch of witches studying how to imbue weapons with magic. They never could get it to last longer than a fight or two.”

I untie Death’s Breath. Delicate swirling patterns etched into its head shimmer in the firelight. “See the hex hidden in runes behind the swirls?”

Gertrude leans in closer and squints. “Hexing never was my thing. I’m pretty handy with a hammer, though.” Her grin reveals a missing front tooth, and I imagine a backswing gone wrong, knocking it from her mouth. Not getting any bad vibes from her at all anymore. I look at the other witches, gathered around Saben, laughing with him. Gertrude stuck out to me because of her size, but a half-starved witch could be swayed to help the clergy for a meal these days.

There’s a scuffing noise behind, and a shadow falls over me.

“It’s a blood ritual. Bonding, permanent, forbidden.” Sandy stares into space, drums her fingers on her lips again, and then glances back down, not quite at the axe, but near it. “Ancestrally bonded, bone in the handle, hair and blood in the metal before it was cast. The donor was alive when the axe was made.”

“One of your kin made it?” Gertrude leans in and runs her fingers over the engravings.

“Hundreds of years ago, if not more.” I can’t help but feel pride every time I look at the thing. “I’ve traced it back to the dark ages.”

“Then not forbidden,” Sandy says. “A sacrilege to make, not own.” She drifts away, bumps into a tree, and then seats herself among the roots.

Gertrude shakes her head. “She’s an odd one. In the cell she just bumped into walls, strumming her lips. Never said a word to any of us.”

“Looks can be deceiving. Sandy is one of the most skilled demon killers I’ve ever seen.”

Gertrude chokes so hard on a chuckle, masticated meat splatters the fire with a sizzle.

“Trust me. We want Sandy on our side. Still can’t fathom how someone caught her in the first place.”

“They ’ave their ways. Sometimes they sneak up on you, splash you in holy water, and tie you up before you regain your strength. They used Glen to capture me.” Gertrude points to the rogue boy. “He claimed they were gonna kill him. I tested his blood, and it was sweet, so he’s a rogue alright. Thought I was helping him, all the while he was leading me into a trap. Got a few of us that way.”

“That would explain why they kept him separate.” I watch Saben laugh and tussle the boy’s hair. “We’ll keep an eye on him.”

“You best do. Most of us would love to give that boy a hiding.”

We douse our torches with the rising sun. All through the night they’ve complained about the pace. One woman won’t stop whimpering. I’m not unsympathetic. The whimpering woman is bruised, limping, and she’s not the only one who’s taken a beating from the clergy’s merciful hand. I just need to get them all to safety.

“Here,” I say, digging out the last of my healing vials. “Neck that, and shut up.”

Saben shoots me a glare. He shouldn’t. Knows damn well fewer rescues end with getting everyone back than not.

A twig snaps in the distance and Sandy stops dead. “Six left, four right,” she says without even raising her head.

I knew it! Almost shoot Saben an “I told you so” look but think better of it. He’s right, I could be kinder, not that this life has much room for kindness these days.

Sandy whips out her slingshot and a handful of stones, then fires them between the trees at targets I still can’t put eyes on.

Tugging Death’s Breath free from its strap, I lunge between thick boughs. Every sense heightens. I get an impression of our would-be-attackers right before I see them—smell the musk of many days’ hard travel, judge the weight of them by crushing bracken under their feet. Bandits—well-fed, well-dressed, well-armed. Not your typical highwaymen.

“Wound, don’t kill!” Saben shouts from the back of the pack, but it’s hard to take advice like that when every fibre of you is already in the spring of a pounce.

Set my sights on the closest, a man in a wide stance with a dagger in each hand. This guy looks way too confident, like he hasn’t just signed his own death warrant. I meet his determined look with one of maniacal joy. Death’s Breath hums in tune with my rage, begging for his blood. Screaming, I charge at him. His resolve doesn’t waver. Must think I haven’t spotted the two men in the bushes.

My axe only grazes his arm, but its hexed edge tears a gash. Before his swinging dagger can meet my flank, I slap his chin with Death’s Breath’s handle. He staggers back and trips, crashing into the dirt. The poorly hidden two charge, and I toss my axe to the ground. Killing them by mistake would be too easy, and while rogues and witches can pick it up, no one outside of my bloodline can wield Death’s Breath. Reaching for the knife in my boot, I find it missing and a man’s scream jolts in my memory.

I left it in the church!

Never mind. I duck a knife as it hurtles towards my head, kick its lunging owner in the groin and help myself to the knife he threw. A second later I’m parrying the next man’s blow. I sweep his legs and grin as his head bounces off a rock.

“Damn it, Dellena. I told you not to kill anyone.”

“Hey, I didn’t kill him!” I hold Saben’s scowl until he looks away and sighs. Some have died, though. I roll a fresh corpse over, face frozen in desperation and misery. I dig the arrowhead-shaped stone from his mushed-up eye and hold it up to Saben. Any issues he has with these deaths, he can take up with Sandy.

“A necessity,” is all Sandy says, before returning to her drumming and daydreaming, causing Saben to pinch the bridge of his nose.

The group ventures closer and we scavenge from the dead and unconscious men. I pull a knife from one man’s belt to compare with the one I already stole, and spy folded paper tucked inside the sheath.

“What’s that?” Saben kneels beside me.

I hand him the surplus knife, hilt first, and tuck the better in my boot. “It’s a bounty, a coin list for local counties.”

“I know this man.” Saben gently turns the man’s head. “He’s a rogue.” He turns to the gathering group. “Salt the bodies and tie up the survivors.”

Turning dirt into salt is one of the first spells taught to our kind. Demon magic poisons the earth when no longer tethered to a soul, and though witches and rogues are only part demon, our corpses can be destructive if left unsalted.

Most rogues can’t wield magic, but Saben can do this spell. He raises his hung head and lets the handful of salt slip through his fingers onto the body. Mourning our enemies is a waste of sorrow in my opinion. Loving Saben isn’t a waste though, even when we don’t agree. I scoop up dirt, chant it into salt and let it go. Tiny white grains dance, mix, and settle with his. I wrap him up from behind, stretching my neck to rest my chin on his shoulder.

Saben’s the first to pull away. “We need to get moving. I doubt these will be the last, and I’d rather avoid them than have to salt any more bodies.”

Taking a closer look at the bounty, I bet he’s right about there being more. Our heads are worth more here than in any surrounding area. Five gold coins per witch. I’m saddened rogues have turned on us, but for that price, I’d do the same to them.

“Everyone, move out,” I shout. “No more slowing down or taking breaks!”

Rogues can hunt and track better than any man. Every one of these witches is a liability right now, and I can’t guarantee all of us will reach the sanctuary. I’ve had to cut dead weight before. Want to promise myself that will never happen again, but I can’t.

3: Sanctuary

Will this grumbling never cease? Even with the castle in view, they bicker and gripe. I’ve got Sandy daydreaming to my right, having to give her sleeve a sharp tug every time she veers off, and Gertrude blocking out the sun to my left. Thought Saben was tall, thought I was tall for a woman, but Gertrude is a walking tree.

I’m amazed we made it here at all. With the odds stacked so high against us, we should have lost some of them, but even the small rogue boy and injured witches managed to keep pace.

I’m still wary, pricking my ears, half expecting assassins to pour through the trees and cut us down before we make it inside. Either that, or linger and plot, having been led straight to our front door. Can’t hear anything other than griping, though, and shuffling weary feet.

“That thing’s falling apart!”

“I’m so sorry, Gertrude, did you prefer your cell? There’s space in the dungeon if that would be more homey?” I feel her glare burrowing into my skull.

Just ten more paces. On the other side of that wall, they’ll be someone else’s problem. I’m exhausted. We didn’t run into anymore rogues on the way, but crossed enough tracks to keep us alert and adrenaline-fuelled. Now I’m crashing.

The portcullis rises, scraping up the stone arch. I’m not waiting for the clunk. Ducking under the spiked grate, I speed away from the excited rabble into the castle grounds. Now they’re grateful, now they have awe. I tut and shake my head, but don’t get far before the witches of the sanctuary swarm me.

“Hello, Dellena”, “How was your trip?”, “Rescue anyone interesting?”, “How fares Saben?”, “Were there fights to be had along the way?”

It would be quicker to get to my child if everyone would stop greeting me and trying to siphon gossip.

I force my way through the gathering crowd and step into the training yard. Young daughters practice their fighting skills under Hayver Helen’s watchful eye. The walled yard is spacious, yet they stay crowded at one end, keeping their distance from the tiny, crouched girl in the corner.

“Dellena,” Helen barks. Despite her age, this witch has the posture of a warrior, ready to spring into action.

“Why is Zerra sitting alone?”

Helen huffs. “Go see for yourself.”

I stroll to my daughter, with Helen marching at my side. The earth around my girl is cracked and dry. Zerra wiggles her fingertips into the ground and luscious grass springs up all around. A seedling tree sprouts and grows. In mere seconds, it towers over the wall. Blossoms bud then bloom among its leaves. My little girl’s face is pale and gaunt, her tiny hands tremble in the mud—then she pulls it all back. The grass shrivels, dries, and disintegrates to dust. The tree withers. Its leaves curl and crack, flaking away. With a creak and a groan, the tree distends and crumbles, becoming ash before it hits the dirt. Zerra looks revitalised. All that energy she put into giving the tree life, returning to her upon its death.

“It’s not just flowers then? It’s spreading,” I say, watching the wind sweep the ash against the wall.

“Not spreading, growing. I’ve raised sixty-two witches over the years, including my own, but she’s got power beyond anything I’ve seen. Every day her reach is further.”

I hold my hand out to Zerra, but she scoots back, not even raising her face to greet me. “Never heard of any witch reaching their full potential until their seventeenth year.”

Helen puts a hand on my shoulder, a grip of warning not comfort. “I hope that’s not true in her case. Think of what she’d become? Capable of all this when she’s only four? The world would know its match in your girl.”

So few Night Order girls exhibit power before they come of age. Perhaps it’s the lack of demons that brought on her magic early. She was still in the womb when Shade destroyed them. That’s my hope, at least. Maybe she’s already reached the limit of her power.

Helen shakes her head and turns toward the castle, her frown deepening as she looks up at a high window. “Camille showed potential early, talking about things she had no business knowing. I thought I knew what kind of witch she’d grow into, the angelic face, the sweet voice…These last two years I’ve puzzled over how I could’ve raised her differently, what I could’ve done to stamp out that mean streak.”

“How’s Camille been since we left?”

“She’s as good as taken over. Every order comes from her. She won’t let me sit in the meetings anymore, and I doubt she’ll let you rest for long before sending you back out. Seems there’s a pressing mission every time a strong voiced witch returns from a hunt.”

“She’s never been one to listen to others.” That’s putting it mildly. Helen led our coven originally, but ever since her visions led us here Camille has been moving and manipulating us, like pieces on a war board. All of us disposable pieces.

“It’s a burden,” Helen says, “raising a child with so much power.” Lowering her voice so Zerra doesn’t hear, she continues, “Imagine if that girl of yours inherits the Aramay temper. The world would burn at her hands.”

I huff derisively, a half-smile turning to a grimace as I picture Zerra’s power in the wrong hands. How can I guide the mind behind the weapon, to make her enrich the world, not level it?

“Sandy’s here,” I say. “Wasn’t easy to get her to walk in a straight line, but she held her own and then some when we were ambushed.”

Helen’s eyes brighten. “Sandy’s alive? Thank the Lord! When they stormed Hayver’s Stay she was out in the woods.” She looks past the training yard, craning her neck to try and see her, but the witches are still swarming the new arrivals. “I looked for her for so long, but…” Helen grits her teeth, fighting back strong emotions. “I thought she was dead.”

“I’m pleased to say she’s very much alive and still bumping into trees.”

“Amelia! Feet spread, arms taut. You should know your stances by now.” Helen observes the training girls a moment longer then says, “Did you find any sign of Patrice?”

“No, I’m sorry. Still not had any word, but the way you talk about her, I’m guessing she’s out there handling herself just fine.”

“Camille won’t let me write her, won’t let anyone write. She says any replies would lead the clergy to us.”

I grunt. Camille told me I could write Shade all I want, that she’s never going to write back, so the carrier bird can’t be tracked. I get it, a sea of replies, birds with notes all swooping to the sanctuary could give away our location. But saying Shade was never going to write back? That earned the little whelp an up close and personal introduction to Death’s Breath.

“Write your letter, Helen. I’ll send it the next time I’m off grounds. Tell her it’s not safe to write back, but write her anyway.”

She’s dedicated her life to raising abandoned witches and has love for every one of them, even though she can be overbearing and strict. She looks once more to the high window and her eyes dim. I imagine she’s questioning whether Sandy’s truly safe here, or another pawn for Camille to use and discard.

“Janelle, that is not how we use a sword!” Helen barks at one of her sparring charges. She pats my shoulder and says as she moves off, “Best get back to training before she puts that blade through her foot.” She sighs and mumbles, “Again.”

Zerra’s ignored my presence, but the second Saben crosses the yard she jumps up from the ground and runs to him. He’s ready to catch her, and she leaps into his arms.

“Hello, my precious love. Have you been behaving yourself for Helen?” She nods into his shoulder, arms squeezing his neck.

I don’t see myself in Zerra. She has dark hair like all Aramay girls, but her features are more like Saben’s. Her eyes, though—one piercing blue, one muddy hazel—are the same as Shade’s, only reversed. If I hadn’t carried her, I would swear she’s my sister’s child.

“Camille wants to see you.” I startle. Sandy’s managed to sneak behind me while I was distracted. She loops her fingers through one of my leather straps and pulls me straight through the sparring girls.

I see Helen raise her hand toward Sandy, face drained like she’s seen a ghost, but she quickly composes herself and continues her lesson.

“Hey!” I yell at Sandy as much as to the girl whose flying dagger narrowly misses me on the way to its target. “Sandy, let go!” I try to rip her fingers from their hold, but she keeps pulling me out of the yard, and only releases me after we walk through the castle’s side door.

Sandy bumps and bounces off the stone walls all the way up the narrow, twisting stairs. At the top, she points to the door with one hand and drums her lips with the other. I rub my shoulder where the strap dug in and barge past her. Hearing her bump back down the stairs, I half fear for her safety, half hope she takes a tumble.

Candlelight spills through the open door. Waste of resources, especially in daylight. She’s burning oils too, scenting the room with remedies to calm and subdue. It’ll take more than that to calm me down. I walk through the door, clapping Camille in my glare and holding her there. My steps echo on the stone flags. In my peripheral I can see red drapes laid in a line, leading from the door to a throne-like chair in the room’s centre. Don’t need to look directly at them to avoid them, and I’m not taking my eyes off that brat for one second.

“Next you’ll be expecting me to kneel.” I growl at Camille, but she smiles.

“Another successful rescue. Well done.”

Can’t believe I have to answer to this petulant child. She’s seventeen, only just come of age, but she acts like she’s the greatest seer that ever lived. “You could have told us why you sent us there.”

“To rescue our witches, of course. You knew that.”

I wonder how long that smug grin would stay plastered on her face if I sliced her head off. “You sent us after Sandy because she’s a seer like you.”

Camille laughs so hard she snorts.

“What’s so funny?” I stop short of the throne, standing off to the side. I’m still not stepping on her damn makeshift red carpet. “Sandy knows about danger before she sees it, and hits targets she never lays eyes on. Divination is the only answer.”

Camille bends forward, leaning on her clasped hands. “Have you ever seen Sandy look someone in the eye? Ever wondered why she walks so aimlessly?” She pauses for an answer.

I shrug.

“Sandy is blind. Her gift has amplified her other senses beyond what we could hope to achieve. The beat she drums hones those senses. She’s always so focused on the wider world that she bumps into things, but that doesn’t slow her down.”

“You needed a watcher.” Once again, I picture drawing Death’s Breath across her neck. The head rolls. One revolution, still grinning. Second revolution, grin clings on. Third—

“My gift is wasted watching for enemies. The future needs my full attention if I am to decipher it.” She straightens and waves her hand in a circular motion. “Anyway, I didn’t bring you here to talk about Sandy. Zerra’s abilities are growing beyond Helen’s control. On your next mission, you must take her with you.”

There’s something more, something lurking behind those sparkling eyes and angelic face. “What mission?”

“I am tasking you with finding Shenade.”

“My sister doesn’t want to be found!” Heat rises throughout my body. I’ve tried every known spell to lead me to my sister, and invented some too. All failed.

“Ah, but you have always known how to find her.”

Death’s Breath is in my hand before I know I’ve reached for it. “Had I known how to find my sister”—I spit through clenched teeth—“I would’ve done so by now.”

“Follow the birds, Dellena.”

“They fly too fast,” I screech. “And they keep taking different courses. Flying one way one night, another the next.”

“You of all can find a solution to that.” She tosses me a roll of fresh parchment wrapped around a charcoal stick.

My mind whirs with the potential, new runes forming behind my eyes. I pick up the parcel and turn from Camille, but there’s one more thing I need from her, so I snap back round. “What do you know of Zerra’s future? Will she ever speak? No more riddles or refusals. You will answer me.”

“Such aggression. Anyone would think that enchanted axe of yours has possessed you.” Camille can tut and smirk all she wants, I’m holding my ground. “Fine, you win. Saben is one of a kind. The only rogue sired by an Innocri, and while you are not fated, you are of a fated family. It was inevitable your child would be special.”

“Special how?”

“Life and death slips between her fingers.” She smirks at her splayed hand. “No daughter of the Order has ever wielded such a gift, but her future is murky. There are too many branches at this age to make a good reading, but one thing is clear; the two of you must find Shenade together, or not at all.” She flicks her quaffed blonde hair over her shoulder and smooths her gilded robes.

I hate her. The all-knowing Camille, little more than a child herself. She knows more, I can sense it. I glare at her a little deeper. She’s not going to tell me. I repress a guttural growl and I stomp off toward the door.

“One more thing,” she calls after me. “Say hello to the lost sister of Hayver’s Stay when you meet her. She will not return to me while Helen lives.”

This is why I hate seers. Cryptic and smug. The fact they can’t see their own fate makes them vulnerable. Only oracles can do that. Wasn’t sure I believed in them before Shade’s prophecy. Last one died hundreds of years ago and we haven’t had one since. Camille is pretty adamant that’s what she is. I’m tempted to put that to the test. A well-placed arrow through that window behind the throne might reach her. The risk of it missing is the only thing to stop me grabbing a bow.

I slam the door behind me and bound down the stairs, grateful not to find Sandy piled at the bottom of them. Although, with the mood I’m in, I’d step over her and keep going.

There’s no peace in these crowded grounds, especially with the excitement of new arrivals. Gertrude was right. The castle and its walls are falling apart after decades of abandonment. I find a part of the wall that is more bush than stone and push my way through. The air seems lighter on the other side. I know it’s not, but freedom has a way of making everything seem less stifling.

A short walk from the castle, I find a rock to sit on. The parchment unfurls on my knees, and I grip the charcoal. I just need to adjust the tweeting potion. Certain spells are taught to all daughters of the Order, but I’ve been creating my own ever since I learnt how to write. My hand races over the page, barely keeping up with my thoughts. When I stop, the page is a creative mess, illegible to most. My writing scrawls up to down, left to right, addendums overlap…something is missing. I find a small blank space and craft another rune. I must etch this one onto the bird itself. On its beak or maybe its foot?

Forcing indefinite servitude is forbidden—hence Saben’s dislike of the wait for a reply clause I use with carrier birds—but this is a time-specific hex, the bird will regain its freewill. Never found a rule I couldn’t bend or twist.

I look at Death’s Breath. It’s a broken rule disguised as a bent one. If the Order knew the ancestor who created the axe was the demon who eventually sired my father, they’d have it destroyed. The beast carried it for hundreds of years, before my father took his head off and claimed the axe for himself. It’s drunk much blood since its creation, but its thirst is never quenched. I reach out and tentatively stroke the handle before opening my pack.

My herb pouch is well stocked after foraging on our journey here. I build a fire, placing herbs and water into a small cauldron. When it starts to boil, I pop in some acorns. They’ll need time to simmer and soak, so I lie in the grass and stare at the clouds through the trees.

Shade, my only sister. To think I will see her again after half a decade of crushing absence. It’s a reunion I crave, but also one I fear. Shade and I didn’t part on good terms—my fault as always, but my greatest fault to date. She walked into a demon army without me and walked away. But to where? Even the seers have found no sign of her.

I close my eyes and doze. When I open them, the patch of sunlight on the ground has shifted. It’s time to decant the acorns. There are many birds calling through the woods, but for a spell this potent I will need a strong host. I place the acorn under my tongue and caw. A large falcon answers my call and swoops down onto my arm. His eyes shimmer with blue mists, the spell working within him.

I lay him down, hold his beak, and scratch the rune onto it. The bird looks at me knowingly. I keep glancing at him, looking for discomfort, but he shows me none. When the rune is complete, I wiggle my fingers into the ground and chant. The rune bursts into colour, settling into a red glow. The bird staggers and perches nearby. “Fly to that branch.” The bird obeys. “Now back to me.” It lands on my outstretched arm.

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