“So this is the new addition?”
The sharp voice cut through my daze, and I finally noticed the people scattered around the property—two guys walking out of the barn, a woman kneeling in the garden, more distant figures in the pasture where horses, goats, sheep, and a handful of cows grazed.
A woman stopped in front of me, an herb basket under one arm. Mid-thirties, blond hair in a short faux-hawk, and the tanned skin and lean body of someone who spent all day working outside. Her stern scrutiny swept over me from head to toe.
“Scrawny,” she commented. “Expect to put on muscle, Victoria. Lifting hay bales for a few weeks will tone you right up.”
“Uh.” I didn’t know what to say. Not a word popped into my head. Normally, speechlessness was a non-issue for me, but right now? I was speechless.
“She goes by Tori,” Nadine informed the woman. “Tori, this is Morgan. She’s in charge whenever he’s not here, so do what she says or she’ll kick your ass.”
As a connoisseur of smartassery, I almost smiled—except Nadine wasn’t smiling. Neither was Morgan. They were dead serious.
I coughed awkwardly. “Who is ‘he’?”
Morgan’s eyes narrowed. “He is the one who brought you here. If you want to stay, then you’ll do your share of the work. Don’t, and you’ll answer to him.”
There was that word again. Work. What was this place? A hand-picked slave camp?
Drawing myself up, I met Morgan’s flinty stare with my own. “Look, I don’t know how the rest of you got here, but I don’t have a freaking clue where I am, what this place is, or who he is aside from a creepy dude in black. So how about you give me an actual explanation instead of all this vague hostility?”
Morgan handed her basket to Nadine, then got in my face. “If you want answers, you’ll have to earn them. Maybe you didn’t hear Nadine, but I’m in charge here and you will speak to me with respect.”
“If you want respect,” I shot back, holding my ground, “you’ll have to earn it.”
She grabbed my wrist, yanking me forward as she twisted my arm—a basic throw-down martial arts maneuver. My old taekwondo training kicked in and I broke her hold, my fist snapping out for a strike to her sternum.
She caught my wrist again, and this time I didn’t have a chance to defend before she flipped me over her shoulder. I slammed into the ground, wheezing.
The air shimmered, then a shape manifested above me—bared fangs in a feline snout. A huge white cat crouched over me, snarling in my face. I choked on a gasp, paralyzed.
Morgan stepped closer, leaning over me and the giant cat. “Tori, meet Niari, my familiar. She doesn’t like it when people try to hit me.”
The cat’s curved canines snapped inches from my nose. Morgan clucked her tongue and the cat raised its head. With sleek nonchalance, the feline beast hopped off me and sat beside its master. Its yellow eyes, devoid of pupils, glittered like crystals.
I slowly sat up, my attention fixed on the cat as my monkey brain screamed at me to run. The creature looked like a white panther, and I might’ve believed it was an exotic albino if not for the unnatural eyes and its two tails, the tips glowing faintly with magic. Was it a fae?
“Are you a druid?” I asked warily.
“I’m a witch,” Morgan corrected. “However, your new master is a druid, so expect to encounter a lot of fae around here. And fair warning, girl. You’d better respect them, or you won’t live to learn from your mistakes.”
Revulsion rose through me and I had to fight to keep it off my face. Your new master.
Screw. That. Bullshit.
No one was my master, not even a dark arts druid who’d outsmarted Kai and evaded the Crow and Hammer’s best mythics. My mind spun as I tried to recall everything Kaveri, Ezra, and Aaron had mentioned about druids. Not much except witches didn’t like them, and Morgan appeared to be an exception to that rule.
As for the Ghost, all I knew about him was that he was a teen-abducting rogue whose victims were never seen again. Well, I was about to ruin his perfect track record.
I rose to my feet and dusted myself off, ready for round two. “So?”
Morgan’s lip curled. “Nadine will show you around so you know where everything is. After lunch, you can start in the barn. You may find the experience enlightening.” With a final sneer, she strode away, the fae panther following in a smooth prowl.
As instructed, Nadine gave me a tour. And if I’d been afraid before, now I was afraid and completely flummoxed.
There were no dungeons. No torture devices. No death pits filled with the corpses of the Ghost’s victims. No moaning slaves chained to walls with their eyes cut out of their heads. Okay, so maybe my imagination had run away with me, but nothing about this place suggested it belonged to a notorious dark arts rogue.
Well, almost nothing.
Strange black shapes lurked in the trees, their eyes catching the light whenever they strayed too close to the sunny meadow. A pair of enormous, shaggy wolves lounged in the pasture, keeping watch over the livestock with crystal-bright red eyes. The shelving in the kitchen was stacked with potions, powders, and eerily glowing poisons.
There was also the “alchemy garden,” which I was forbidden to enter—though Nadine told me I could go ahead and disobey that order if I wanted to die a horrific death. Some plants were lethal to the touch.
My tour guide barely acknowledged that stuff, though. Nadine showed me the vegetable garden, the apple orchard, and the berry bushes near the trees’ edge. I got a rundown of the farm—a stable for livestock, pens with fat pigs laying in the mud, and a chicken coop coated in feathers. Inside the house, she showed me the bathroom, the kitchen, the dining hall, and a small lounge room with a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf. The basement held another few rooms with bunk beds and two more bathrooms.
She also pointed out the stairs to the second level, with a closed door at the top, and told me to stay away. The second level was his private floor and if I went up there, I’d return to the main level as a corpse.
I listened silently to her descriptions. At first, I’d tried to engage her in conversation—tried to feel out her real thoughts about this place. Until I knew she wouldn’t immediately run to the Ghost and tattle on me, I couldn’t reveal my status as her possible rescuer. But with every question I’d asked, Nadine had grown more hostile until I gave up.
The other workers on the Ghost’s weird farm were equally standoffish. I met a few teenage boys around Nadine’s age, a few young adults like me, and Terrance, an older man with dark skin, gold-framed glasses, and a quiet frown. He was third-in-command after Morgan and the Ghost. Last but not least, we passed a thin girl with curly black hair no older than twelve. The Ghost had zero compunctions about stealing little kids, either. The child’s thousand-yard stare had chilled me to the bone.
All in all, there were ten abductees like me, two older adults who kept them in line, and the mysterious “master” of the house.
Lunch was a somber affair. A giant salad, hardboiled eggs, and soft buns served with homemade butter were laid out on a long wooden dining table. I filled my plate and sat on a bench, eleven mythics surrounding the table as they ate silently. I saw no sign of the Ghost.
I wanted to hate my meal. I wanted to rant about slave food and abuse and starving defenseless prisoners. But … damn it, it was way too good. The salad could only be fresh-picked vegetables from the garden, eggs from the hens in the coops, the buns and butter made from scratch in this very kitchen. I scarfed down my plate, waited until most everyone was done eating, then loaded my plate again.
No one said anything about my second helping. In fact, no one said anything at all, and feeling suspicious eyes all over me, I figured my presence was the cause of the silence. They didn’t want to talk in front of me. They were afraid to talk. I could taste the fear and hostility in the air.
What exactly did they fear? That I would attack them? Or that I would get them in trouble with the Ghost? Had he forbidden them from speaking with me? Whatever it was, I could see that, even absent, the Ghost ruled them with an iron fist forged by terror.
After lunch, I got my first taste of indentured servitude. And it tasted like shit. Literally.
Every animal on the farm pooped. Copiously. And my first job was cleaning it up. Cow crap. Horse crap. Goat and sheep crap. Pig, chicken, and for some dumbass reason, rabbit crap. Why rabbits? Did the Ghost sacrifice their fluffy adorableness in his dark arts rituals?
I snarled as I shoveled reeking manure out of the barn. This was stupid. Sooooo stupid. I was an abducted prisoner! Where was my damp underground cell? Why couldn’t I mope in chains instead of wading through shit in a barn?
Back aching and hands blistering, I paused in the shadowy doorway of the barn to catch my breath. The low sun blazed over the western peaks, and I squinted longingly at it. This valley could be anywhere from an hour outside the city to hundreds of miles, and all I knew for sure was that the ocean lay to the west. Home was that way.
Home. To my surprise, the word didn’t summon thoughts of Justin’s apartment or my new basement unit. It called up an image of the dimly lit Crow and Hammer pub. My bar, lined with stools, the liquor bottles arranged just the way I liked them.