Without a word, the druid disappeared into the hall. I lay there for about ten seconds, hyperventilating, then flung the blankets off. Shanice was still hanging over the edge of her bunk when I flew out of the room. As I entered the hall, the front door latched quietly, and I pelted toward it. Flinging it open, I stumbled barefoot onto the porch.
The Ghost was striding down the path, his dark form lit by the near-full moon in a cloudless night sky. As the bang of the door echoed through the still air, he didn’t pause.
But the four wolves trotting alongside him glanced back. Their glowing red eyes fixed on me.
I opened my mouth to shout after him … then slowly closed it. Heart racing, I wondered if it was smart to remain silent—or just cowardly. If I called out, would he stop? If I ran after him, would he turn back? I’d never find out, because I was too afraid to try.
Standing on the porch, I watched as he and his fae wolves crossed the valley and disappeared into the forest. For a long time after, I stared into the night, waiting for the Ghost to return.
Faint light tinged the eastern horizon when I finally gave up. Exhausted, I stumbled back to the room and crawled into my bed. Eyes burning with tiredness, I buried my face into my pillow.
Thirty minutes later, I found out the hard way that labor on a farm begins at the ass-crack of dawn.
Ghost Captivity, Day Four.
Standing at the edge of the apple orchard, I gazed into the lush forest. The late afternoon breeze rustled my ponytail and the trees sighed softly as their leaves fluttered. No freaky silhouettes patrolled from the shadows and my fellow captives were busy with their chores.
Three steps in front of my toes, a path wound into the trees.
With a final, cautious scan of my surroundings, I jogged onto the trail. I didn’t know what I expected to find in the woods, but I was desperate to claw my way even an inch closer to escape. To something. Anything. A hint, a clue, a tip, a whisper of potential. I couldn’t stand it anymore. I needed out of this place.
The leafy trees closed over me as I ran into their cool shadows, feet pounding on the path. Branches slapped my arms, but I didn’t slow. Five minutes of monotonous greenery passed, then—light? Ahead, sunlight glowed through the branches—a clearing! Excitement flashed through me and I pushed harder.
I burst into the sun—and found myself back in the orchard.
Panting for air, I stared at the apple trees, then turned around. A trail stretched into the woods—the same trail I’d run down. I was standing in the exact same spot where I’d entered the forest, but the path hadn’t looped back. I’d run straight. I was sure of it.
How the hell did I end up back where I’d started?
Just in case I was going crazy, I launched up the trail once more, this time at a brisk walk. The path cut straight through the green forest gloom, and I concentrated on each step, ensuring I didn’t somehow get turned around.
Ten minutes later, the perfectly straight trail ended in the orchard, right where I’d started. How?
Magic, that was how. I rubbed my hands over my face, struggling to keep my composure. Did the Ghost have a spell that encompassed this entire valley, preventing anyone from leaving? That seemed impossible, but what did I know? His magic had stumped the Crow and Hammer mythics. When Aaron, Kai, and Ezra had tried to save me in the park, they couldn’t reach the gazebo. Had they found themselves running back out of the park from the same place they’d entered?
I was trapped in this valley. Even if I’d been willing to take my chances traversing the wilderness, I couldn’t.
Breathing deeply before I did something embarrassing like cry, I stomped back to the two big buckets half filled with rotten apples for the compost and got to work.
For four days, I’d toiled on the farm. I didn’t have a problem sleeping after the first night; every muscle aching with exhaustion, I’d passed out the moment my head hit the pillow. No late-night visits from a fae wolf had woken me, and the Ghost had made himself scarce.
Around the farm, the atmosphere was more relaxed, and once I’d proved I could work as hard as anyone else, the others lost some of their hostility. They weren’t friendly and no one liked questions, but the mood had improved. And, as they got used to me, they started talking. Not to me, but near me, and I learned more about them.
Morgan was a witch, and so were Shanice and Miesha, my two roommates. In the afternoons, they went with Morgan to train. Terrance, the other in-charge guy, was an alchemist and he was training Omar and a young man with buzzed hair and a constantly stony expression. Jasper, a seventeen-year-old with brown hair and a strong desire to be shirtless the moment he walked outside, had recently begun his apprenticeship as well. Everyone was getting trained in their magic.
Why train captives? I didn’t get it, but it had grown painfully obvious that I was missing something important—something that would explain what this place really was. “Prison” clearly didn’t apply.
Finishing in the orchard, I headed for the house. As I left the trees, the sun hit me and I tipped my face toward its warmth. The farm had felt colder for the last few hours—ever since the Ghost had returned from last night’s sojourn into the mountains. I’d seen him arrive from across the pasture, striding out of the forest with his black fae wolf at his heels. Like before, he’d gone straight into the house, probably to lock himself in his secret second-floor lair.
I cut onto the track that led from the barn to the cabin, absently wiping my hands on my pants. It was almost dinnertime and half the mythics were already inside, while the rest were either making their way to the house or lazily finishing their chores.
Nadine sat on a stack of firewood, observing Jasper as he raised an axe and brought it down on a log, splitting it clean in two. Of course, the seventeen-year-old boy had his shirt off, displaying his skinny teen muscles for his appreciative female audience. He balanced the split piece on the chopping block for a second hit, then paused as another teen jogged heavily past the house.
“Pick up the pace, Kayden!” Jasper called laughingly. “You won’t get in shape lumbering around like a bear.”
I’d noticed Kayden, a stout teenager with a mop of brown hair, jogging laps around the pasture every morning and afternoon since I’d arrived. Just watching him made my legs hurt in sympathy. Was the mandatory track and field a cruel and unusual punishment?
Drawing level with the woodpile where Nadine perched, Kayden stumbled to a halt and braced his hands on his knees. “Shut up, Jasper.”
“You can do it, Kayden,” Nadine said bracingly. “Mages have to be in great shape to strengthen their magic, so this will all be worth it.”
“I know,” he panted, his shirt sticking to his back and chest as he stepped into a leg stretch.
My eyebrows crept up. Huh. So not a punishment, but training? That mages needed to be in good shape was news to me, but it explained why all the ones I knew were in peak physical condition. I’d assumed the guys were just vain—not that I had a problem with it either way, since I enjoyed the view. And in Aaron’s case, more than the view.
As I drew nearer to the teenagers, Jasper frowned at Nadine, who was focused on Kayden as he stretched. Scowling, Jasper swung his axe down with excessive force. The log split and a piece flipped end over end before smashing into the woodpile a foot from Nadine’s knees.
“Hey!” she yelled angrily.
“Sorry!” Jasper took a step back. “I didn’t mean to—”
Nadine let out a blood-curdling scream and jerked her feet into the air.
I was running for her before my brain fully registered the terror in her voice. She fell off the woodpile, still screaming, and Jasper and Kayden ran toward her—then backpedaled, their eyes fixed on the ground, Jasper clutching the axe.
Nadine ran out of air and her scream broke just long enough for me to hear it: the telltale rattle.
I flew past the chopping block and ripped Jasper’s axe out of his hands. As I charged in, I saw the coiled snake, its rattle a blur. No idea how many feet long, but it was big, fat, and mean.
Skittering around it, I stuck out the axe head and the reptile’s focus snapped toward the new threat. It raised half its body, coiled in a tight S, ready to strike. I wiggled the axe head, drawing the snake’s attention away from Nadine. Its rattle filled the air with the distinctive hissing clamor, and its diamond-shaped head weaved.
“Pull Nadine away,” I ordered Jasper.
He gaped fearfully at the snake, unmoving.
“Pull Nadine away!” I shouted.
He jumped, then scrambled into motion. Grabbing her under the arms, he dragged her backward. The snake’s head darted toward her, and I sprang closer, waving the axe head.
The snake struck, fast as lightning. Its fangs hit the axe blade. As it recoiled, I shoved the top of the axe down on its head, pinning it to the ground. The thick body writhed and I pressed down harder.
Kayden joined Jasper and they dragged Nadine away. When they were clear, I dropped the axe and leaped backward. The snake coiled into a tighter ball, rattling furiously.
Kayden crouched beside Nadine’s leg, tugging ineffectually at her pants. I took one look at the blood-smeared punctures in her jeans, just above her ankle, then pushed Kayden aside. Heaving her into my arms, I sped toward the house with Kayden on my heels.