Ghost Captivity, Day Eight.

A solid week had gone by, and I was ready to enact my brilliant escape plan, so masterful and unexpected the Ghost would immediately surrender out of respect for my genius. Haha … yeah right. I was in so far over my head I could see the sharks circling above me.

“So there’s Miesha,” Nadine chattered animatedly as we folded towels on the dining room table, “absolutely cowering in front of this darkfae. I mean, I would’ve been scared too—that thing was free-kay—but all fae scare her, even pixies. Honestly, I don’t know how she’ll ever be a proper witch.”

Adding a folded towel to the stack and pulling another one off the pile, I asked curiously, “What’s a darkfae?”

“Type of spirit.” She flicked her bangs out of her eyes. “Don’t quote me on this, because I only learned about them after coming here, but the scary fae are divided into wyldfae and darkfae. Wyldfae are, like … neutral? Mostly neutral? … toward humans. While darkfae are nasty psychos that go out of their way to hurt people.”

“And a nasty psycho fae just wandered onto the farm?”

She nodded energetically. “So Miesha is practically peeing her pants, but Shanice strolls right up, gives the fae this look, and tells it not to take another step or the druid will skin it alive.”

“Shanice said that?” Little twelve-year-old Shanice?

“Right? She’s totally fearless.” Nadine snapped the wrinkles out of a towel and folded it. “I heard she came from a black witch coven. Morgan mentioned once that Shanice kept trying to sacrifice chickens in her rituals until he had a talk with her. She’s doing better now.”

No one in this place called the Ghost by anything other than “he” or “the druid” and it rubbed me the wrong way. In Nadine’s case, she probably didn’t know his reputation, but did none of the others call him by a real name?

I’d been considering a few different monikers. My top choice was Bugly—as in busted-ass ugly. Since he kept his face hidden with stupid magic-shadow hoods, I was going on the assumption that he was too hideous for the light of day.

That wasn’t a thought I planned to share with Nadine, though. After I’d gone face-to-fangs with a rattlesnake for her, she warmed up to me in a big way, and I didn’t want to ruin our new rapport.

“So what happened with the darkfae?” I prompted.

“He came out of the house two minutes later and the fae went with him into the forest. I bet the darkfae regretted breaking his rules. Aside from the vargs—the big black wolves, you know?—he doesn’t allow fae into the valley so we don’t get hurt.”

Whenever she spoke of the Ghost, her eyes shone with an obvious case of hero-worship. Hoo boy. This was a tricky situation for sure.

As she chatted about her fellow captives—or should I say devotees?—my thoughts wandered. I’d gone into my meeting with the Ghost aware of his reputation and prepared to take him down. Nadine, and presumably the others, had gone to him in search of a rescuer. They’d wanted a new life, and he’d given them a safe place for lost mythics to start over.

Remembering Gregory Stern’s pitch at the youth shelter, I had to reassess his sincerity. How much did he know about this place? Maybe he really believed he was sending mythic kids to a secure, if unorthodox, safe house and not into the clutches of a vicious rogue.

As much as I hated to admit it, the Ghost was living up to his end of the deal. Yeah, life here was painfully simple, but their needs were met, they could train in their magic, and they enjoyed perfectly reasonable amounts of free time. No one hurt them. No one abused them. They didn’t have to sleep on the streets or scrounge for food. They were safe.

But it was still wrong. They were isolated, brainwashed, and convinced the sun shone out of the Ghost’s ass. They were completely at his mercy, but no one realized it. And my questions about the others who’d disappeared from the ranch were still unanswered.

I rubbed a hand over my face. This wasn’t a happy little mythic cult where the Ghost kept a posse of admirers to stroke his ego. He dealt in the dark arts, bought and sold black magic, and associated with darkfae. He was a known killer, a rogue that MagiPol wanted dead or alive, and he was universally feared by the local mythic community.

Whatever he was hiding here, he was hiding it very well.

“You okay, Tori?”

Startled out of my thoughts, I gave Nadine a quick smile. “Just a headache. I got a lot of sun yesterday.”

“Ugh, yeah, I hate weeding the garden too.”

I watched her fold the last couple towels, aching inside. I desperately wanted to save her, but how did I convince her she needed saving?

Morgan stuck her head into the room. “Are you finished yet? Once you put those away, help Nekhii collect eggs from the henhouse.”

Like all my days here, the afternoon passed quickly. I stuck with Nadine, and we breezed through our chores with lots of time to chat. She must have been choking on her tongue to keep so quiet during the first few days, because the floodgates had opened. Without intending it, she had revealed a lot about herself and the others here.

For example, I found out she would be training with Terrance next month—basic sorcery and alchemy. Aaron, Kai, and Ezra had guessed correctly; Nadine did have a mythic bloodline. They’d also guessed correctly that she hadn’t been aware of her heritage. Everything she knew about magic and mythics she’d learned after arriving here.

“Have you talked to Morgan about training?” she asked as we walked through the dusky shadows after dinner, each carrying an empty bucket that had recently held apple peelings. We’d thrown them to the pigs for an after-dinner snack, and as we headed back to the house, the windows glowed invitingly.

“Me?” I’d told the Ghost I wasn’t a mythic, but it seemed he hadn’t shared that tidbit. Though, even if I were one, I wouldn’t have asked Morgan about anything. Her civility hadn’t improved much since our unpleasant first meeting. “Not yet.”

“You should,” Nadine said brightly. “Morgan and Terrance can only do so much for mages and psychics, but they know some tricks and …”

She trailed off, her steps slowing. In the deepening shadows, a figure in black rose to his full height and stepped over the alchemy garden’s fence. The Ghost. He did a lot of nighttime wandering, sometimes gone for a few hours, sometimes vanishing for days. Maybe he hid his secrets outside the valley.

Determination burned through me and I walked off the path. I wanted to see what he was up to. If I could prove he was a nasty piece of work, I could convince his worshippers of the same.

Nadine hesitated, then hurried after me, clutching her bucket. As we drew nearer, movement on my flanks brought me up short. Two giant wolves—vargs—stalked out of the shadows, their red eyes glowing. Damn it. Foiled already.

The Ghost whistled quietly. The wolves released me from their cutting glares and trotted toward him. Taking that as permission, I ambled after the beasts, putting all my acting ability into feigning nonchalance.

Not bothering to acknowledge our approach, the Ghost finished tying a bundle of fresh-cut stems together. Stacked at his feet were two more bundles of twigs and four repurposed wine bottles that held bizarre liquids—one violently pink, one pitch black, one with glowing green bubbles, and one that was yellow with a red blob suspended in the middle.

He considered his pile of stuff, then reached over and plucked the bucket from my grasp. He dumped the plant bundles into the bucket, but unless he could sprout a third hand, he would have a hell of a time carrying everything himself. Folding my arms, I waited to see how he would manage it.

“Um,” Nadine said, almost whispering with sudden shyness. “Would you like some help?”

I’m not sure why, but something about the way his shoulders shifted suggested the question surprised him. He hesitated, then held his bucket out. Excitedly, she set hers down and took the new one.

Lifting the four wine bottles by their necks, two in each hand, he turned to me. I didn’t uncross my arms, debating with myself. I wanted to see what he got up to around here, but I didn’t want to volunteer to be his pack mule.

“Tori,” Nadine hissed out of the corner of her mouth, shooting me a pleading stare.

Ugh. Fine. I would help, but only so as not to ruin her special moment with her hero. I took the bottles from him and tucked them under my arms. Now he was carrying nothing. Lazy ass.

“Let’s go,” he said.

Go where? I didn’t get a chance to ask as he strode away from the garden, his coat flapping behind him. Grumbling under my breath, I followed Nadine as she skipped after him with the bucket of plant trimmings. The two vargs sped ahead of us, their noses to the ground, and I glimpsed two more dark shadows farther out. The fifth one was probably guarding the pasture or something.

The Ghost led the way, but he wasn’t heading toward the house. Not even the barn. He was walking straight toward the tree line, a forested slope rising in our path. I gulped back my apprehension. This was what I’d wanted, right? A chance to see what the Ghost was hiding beyond the valley limits. A chance to see where he went at night.

The forest shadows engulfed us, and the Ghost’s dark silhouette was even more unnerving surrounded by towering trees and crawling roots. He was back in full “bad guy” gear, with his long coat, deep hood, and dark pants. I eyed his gloved hands, remembering the runes tattooed on his forearms and palms.