A shudder ran through me but I clamped down on my simmering fear. I couldn’t break down, no matter how hopeless it seemed.
I’d thought the Ghost’s home base would be in the city—somewhere I’d stand a chance of escaping. But the middle of nowhere? A small ranch in a remote valley without a road? The farm was mostly self-sufficient, from the huge gardens to the solar panels on the cabin roof. But it wasn’t large enough to grow feed for all the livestock. Someone had delivered the hay bales.
I’d find a way to escape that didn’t involve trekking through the mountain wilderness. Shoveling shit was better than being eaten by a bear … though not by much.
My eyes darted to the pasture where I’d seen the pair of fae wolves, but they were gone. As the shadows stretched across the lush grass, I wiped sweat from my forehead. I’d figure this out. I’d make it back.
I jumped, my shovel tumbling out of my hands and clattering on the floor. Nadine had appeared around the barn’s corner, an empty bucket in one hand.
“It’s almost dinnertime,” she told me flatly. “Put your stuff away and head back to the house.”
She disappeared into the shadowy barn. I returned the shovel to its place and waited on the sunny path, watching the others make their way to the house.
A minute later, Nadine came out and paused. “What are you doing?”
“Waiting for you?”
Her eyes narrowed. “We aren’t friends.”
Wow, harsh. “Am I that unpleasant?”
“You’re new,” she said accusingly.
“So? I’m here, same as you.”
She folded her arms and gave me that same assessing look—the cold, unfriendly one. “When he asked why you came to him, what did you say?”
“I said … I wanted a new life.”
“And then he gave you a choice.”
I nodded, surprised the Ghost followed the same script for every abduction. “Did you know this is what you were signing up for?”
“You asked for a new life, just like everyone else, and you got one. If you don’t like it, you won’t be around for long.”
Despite the sunlight, a chill whispered through me. I wasn’t sure how to interpret her tone, but the words rang with warning. Maybe I should feign more enthusiasm for shit shoveling.
Chin high, she marched past me. Trailing after her, I chewed on my lower lip. The Ghost went after vulnerable young mythics with nowhere to go, and he brought them here to … work hard labor on his farm? Why did a dark arts druid even need a farm? Surely there were easier ways to feed himself.
What especially bothered me was why the Ghost would need to continue kidnapping people. The house was almost fully stocked with workers. If they were prisoners who couldn’t leave, the Ghost should be set. What happened to the workers that he’d need to keep replacing them?
Nervous questions were still spinning through my mind when Nadine stopped. I slowed, scanning the path ahead. The last few stragglers heading to the house had also paused, and everyone was gazing across the valley toward the shadowy eastern slope.
“What is it?” I asked.
Nadine pointed. “He’s back.”
My skin prickled, and I looked again.
He came out of the shadows that stretched from the forest—a dark figure in the same long coat he’d worn for my abduction, the hood pulled up. Four black wolves trotted on his heels, a fifth one at his side. Even from across the valley, I could tell he had a hand on its shoulders.
Yeah, it was so huge that he, a tall man, could casually rest his hand on its back.
Nadine pushed into motion, her steps urgent. I hastened after her, my stomach twisting. Would he punish us if he reached the house first? I didn’t understand how any of this was supposed to work. No one had explained anything.
We reached the cabin first. Nadine toed off her shoes and shoved them onto the shelf by the door. I tugged off the rubber boots I’d worn for shit-shoveling duty, relieved that my running shoes had been spared. I should have put them to good use last night by running the hell away from the Ghost.
As I straightened, the door swung open. The Ghost stood in the threshold. His wolves were gone, but fear still skittered down my spine. Though shadows filled his hood, hiding his face, I could feel his eyes on me and my heart leaped.
He closed the distance between us—then swept right past me. Striding across the front landing, he ascended the staircase, vanished into the room at the top, and closed the door with a soft click.
Wrapping my arms around myself, I bent my head and hurried to the bathroom to wash up before dinner. The Ghost was in the house, and I could feel the difference in the air.
The master was home.
That night, I lay awake on the bottom bunk, a light blanket covering my bare legs. Thoughts churned in my head, chasing away sleep.
What was I doing here?
How would I escape?
Was there a way to save Nadine and the other captives?
So far, Nadine had shown no signs of wanting to be saved, but I wasn’t fooled. Fear clung to this place, and everyone was terrified of the Ghost. He held them in his sway, the mere threat of his attention keeping them obedient.
He hadn’t joined his workers for the evening meal. Of course not. He’d disappeared upstairs, and Morgan had carried a covered platter to his room before dinner. We’d feasted on salad, buns, baked potatoes, and roast chicken. Again, I couldn’t complain about the food.
After eating, several people stayed in the kitchen to do the dishes, and the rest of us … I’d figured we’d be put back to work, slaving until late in the night. But nope.
Nadine and two boys played a board game in the lounge room. Omar and another mid-twenties guy studied ancient-looking textbooks at the dinner table. Two young women retreated to their rooms with paperback novels from the bookshelf, and the youngest girl sat in the corner, drawing. Either the Ghost was crazy lax or crazy smart, but he allowed his captives near unrestricted free time in the evenings to do whatever they pleased.
Too restless to pretend to read a book, I’d explored the cabin’s main floor and basement. No phones, computers, laptops, tablets—no technology beyond the kitchen appliances. Not even a TV. No way to connect with the outside world.
Eventually, I found myself in the front entryway, glaring up the staircase. Behind that closed door was the Ghost. What was he doing? What did he have hidden in there? If I planned to escape, I’d probably have to find out.
Morgan noticed me loitering by the stairs and took me to a storage room in the basement where I picked out a few outfits from bins of spare clothes. Nothing fit great but it was better than wearing my stinky thrift-store outfit.
With nothing else to do, I went to bed early. My roommates soon followed: Nadine, the young tween Shanice, and Miesha, an unhealthily thin girl around my age with short stringy hair and a nose piercing. She didn’t talk to me at all.
Unhappy, unhealthy teens and young adults, isolated on this farm and forced to work. Free time in the evenings changed nothing. Even if I didn’t understand the specifics yet, the Ghost was using them, abusing them, and I would bring him down.
As my roommates drifted off to sleep, my thoughts meandered to the people I’d left behind. Aaron would be freaking out. Kai would be planning his next move with quiet urgency. And Ezra … when an enemy guild had threatened Aaron, Ezra hadn’t handled it well. I’d glimpsed his dangerous temper, normally hidden beneath his unassuming calm. How would he react to my capture?
Tears pricked my eyes and I squeezed them shut. What had I done? In my desperation to save Nadine, I’d put them in a worse position—having to save me. My stomach dropped sickeningly, and I thought it was anxiety over the unfair suffering I was causing the guys. But the fear spiraled even deeper, and I snapped my eyes open.
A black wolf stood beside my bed.
Its nose twitched as it inhaled my scent. Up close, it was even bigger than it had looked in the pasture, shaggy fur adding to its bulk. Unnatural eyes, sharp with cunning, studied me—vibrant red, devoid of pupils. Eerie. Uncanny.
I pressed into the mattress, scarcely daring to breathe as the creature examined me. Its lips lifted, displaying monstrous white canines.
Blankets rustled in the bunk above me and a head appeared over the edge. Young Shanice peered sleepily at the fae wolf.
“Grenior?” she mumbled.
Oh thank god, she would help me.
“Are you going to bite her?”
My stomach dropped further. There was no concern in the girl’s question—only curiosity, like I was a particularly tasty cake about to be sampled.
Grenior the wolf opened its long muzzle, snout wrinkling into a silent snarl as its hackles rose. Its red eyes, locked on me, blazed with magical light. The snarl shifted from silent to audible, rumbling through the small room.
A loud snap broke the silence.
The Ghost stood in the bedroom doorway, dressed in his long coat with the shadowy hood, one hand lifted. He snapped his fingers a second time and Grenior huffed irritably. Its snarl faded and it turned, nails clicking on the floor as it padded past the Ghost out of the room.
My heart didn’t slow its panicked laps through my ribcage, convinced I was about to be eaten.