This time, I didn’t walk out of the trees at the same starting point. Damp leaves rustled underfoot as we forged deeper into the forest. At first we followed a winding path, but as dusk deepened into twilight, I lost sight of the trail. Birds and squirrels and other critters flitted about, their constant clamor almost disguising how the Ghost made minimal noise as he walked. The crunchy footsteps were all mine and Nadine’s.
Oh, and the vargs? They made no sound at all. I couldn’t see them anymore, but I didn’t doubt they were nearby.
I cradled the potion bottles more tightly. I was a city girl. Give me dark alleys and catcalling sleazebags any day. This forest was creeping me out, and before I lost my cool entirely, I picked up my pace and fell into step beside Nadine.
“Have you ever been in the forest before?” I whispered. I didn’t need to whisper. It just seemed appropriate.
“No,” she murmured, her voice as hushed as mine. “We’re not supposed to leave the valley.”
“You’ve never tried?” I asked in surprise.
“Of course not,” she replied indignantly, then paused. “Have you?”
“Umm.” Maybe this wasn’t something I should admit in front of—
I started at the Ghost’s deep voice, then glared at the back of his hood. “Oh, so you witnessed that, did you?”
“I didn’t need to see you.”
Pressing my lips together, I considered all possible responses, then went with the obvious choice. “What the hell does that mean?”
He said nothing. Of course.
“You’re a real piece of work, you know that?”
The Ghost stopped dead, and I cursed my runaway tongue. The words weren’t too terrible, but I’d accidentally coated them in dripping disdain. Okay, not so accidentally.
He turned, his hidden gaze running over me. I could feel it—that calculating appraisal.
“I should’ve left you behind.”
I blinked, but that was all he said before resuming his trek. Nadine gave me a strange look, then hastened after him. Left me behind? Did he mean he should have left me in the valley, or he should have left me in the park when we met?
And why had his words sent an icy chill deep into my core?
Well, I wasn’t letting him intimidate me. Somewhere under those dark clothes and unnatural shadows was the mythic who’d earned a six-figure MagiPol bounty, yet he’d done no more than act mildly threatening—so far. Something wasn’t adding up with this guy, and I was going to figure it out.
Breaking into a trot, I zipped right past Nadine and matched strides with the Ghost. His shadowy hood angled toward me.
“So,” I drawled, adjusting my grip on the bottles, “where’re we going?”
“What’s all this stuff?”
Not a word.
“What happens if I drop a bottle?”
“You’d probably die.”
Aha! A reply. I squashed my grin. Was I playing with fire? Throwing knives? Shooting bullets straight into the air? Yes, I was. All at the same time.
“Would you kill me?” I asked lightly.
“The contents of the bottle would kill you.”
Oh. Okay, good to know. “What are you planning to do with these?”
“Are you really the best alchemist on the west coast?”
His stride faltered slightly. “Who said that?”
“Someone at the farm. So, are you?”
Not particularly modest, was he? “And you’re a druid too, right?” No response, but I supposed that answer was obvious. “Are you the best druid on the west coast?”
Oh yeah, real modest. “What are those runes tattooed all over your arm?” Nothing. “Are they related to alchemy? They looked very sorcerer-y to me, but I—”
“Sorcery,” he interrupted irritably. “Not sorcerer-y.”
“Yeah, that,” I replied, a cheerful bounce in my step. “So they’re sorcery runes? Like … cantrips? Wait, no, a reusable cantrip is called a hex, isn’t it? Can an Arcana mythic be a sorcerer and an alchemist? Does that count as being di-mythic?”
He stopped again and I took two more steps before halting. As I faced him, Nadine stumbled to a stop, her eyes wide.
“Sorcery and alchemy already overlap,” he said. “Any Arcaner can learn both with enough time, dedication, and drive.”
“So ‘di-mythic’ wouldn’t apply, then,” I guessed, “since it’s all the same class of magic.”
“I’m delighted to expand your knowledge of mythics and magic.” His flat tone contradicted the statement. “When we return, we can discuss where you learned about cantrips and di-mythics.”
Oh shit. He knew I was a human, and humans had no business knowing anything about Arcana. How would I explain where I’d learned about cantrips?
I smiled weakly, but before I could respond, his hood turned as he looked past me. “What do you want?”
Blank confusion fizzled through me at his question, then I peered over my shoulder.
We weren’t alone in the forest anymore.
A thing stood a dozen paces away, regarding us with solid black eyes that glittered eerily. Its head, shaped like an upside-down egg, had only the faintest contours for features. Spindly arms hung all the way to the ground and its body was rail thin, every rib showing beneath its shiny gray skin.
I swallowed hard and clutched the potion bottles, pretending my hands weren’t shaking. A real-life boogeyman, except it was probably a darkfae, which made it even scarier.
“Druid.” Its sibilant voice, rougher than sandpaper on stone, grated across my senses. “I come to bargain.”
“I won’t bargain with you,” the Ghost answered, his tone dangerously soft again. “I already told you that.”
It hissed. “You bargain with others. Why do you refuse me?”
“I told you why.”
“Many killers walk these forests. You treat with them.”
“I don’t have to explain myself. Go.”
The creature hissed again. “You bring gifts for Hindarfur?”
“I give gifts to no one.”
“Trade, then,” it snarled. “You trade with Hindarfur?”
“I told you to go.”
A long, thin tongue snaked out of its mouth. “I will trade for your humans.”
“I will not tell you again.”
The thing peeled back its lips, baring sharp teeth. It cackled quietly. “I asked. Now we will take.”
Its “we” would’ve confused me, but as it spoke, two more creatures stepped out of its shadow, identical down to the overlong arms and spider-like fingers tipped with claws. Still, I wasn’t completely terrified out of my mind—not until the Ghost muttered a curse. Did that mean we were in real trouble?
The middle creature whipped its elongated arm up and crackling green magic shot from its hand. I jumped back—but I’d forgotten the Ghost was behind me.
His arm was half raised, light sparking over his fingers, but whatever he’d been about to do, the impact of my body interrupted him. Then the creature’s magic hit us. We hurtled through the air, bottles flying from my grasp, and I slammed down on my back. Wheezing, I lurched into a sitting position.
The Ghost didn’t.
Crumpled beside me with green light sizzling over his body, he didn’t so much as twitch. Uh. Whoops.
Nadine screamed in terror. I sprang up as the three monsters stalked closer, the centermost one cackling, its leering black eyes fixed on the downed druid. It loomed over us, three feet taller than me. Green light filled its hand as it aimed the magic at the Ghost.
Jamming my fingers in my back pocket, I grabbed my Queen of Spades card and pointed it at the monster’s hand.
“Ori repercutio!” I shouted as its magic blasted outward.
With a silent boom, the green light rebounded and hit all three beasts. Black blood sprayed everywhere as slices opened across their chests. They shrieked, their high voices splitting my skull.
From out of the shadows, dark shapes tore into view. Four black wolves, teeth bared and snarls ripping from their throats, charged the three creatures. The darkfae yelped and hissed, retreating as blood snaked down their gray skin. The furious vargs herded them away.
Shoving my card back in my pocket, I whipped around. Nadine was tugging on the Ghost’s arm, trying to turn him over. The sizzling magic had died away, but he wasn’t moving.
Snarls echoed through the trees. The vargs had driven the darkfae away but I doubted they could defeat the trio of monsters. We needed the Ghost for that.
Crouching, I helped Nadine roll the limp druid onto his back. I wasn’t even sure he was alive. His hood had somehow stayed on despite our violent landing and his face was in complete shadow.
I could have felt his wrist for a pulse. I could have put my ear to his chest and listened for his heartbeat. I could have done any number of things.
Instead, I pushed his hood off.
The shadows tried to cling in place, but as the fabric fell away, they dissolved to nothing. I blinked. I stared. I blinked again. Then I looked up at Nadine, kneeling on his other side. Her eyes were huge, her face flushed, and she mouthed four words. I didn’t have any trouble interpreting them, because they echoed my thoughts perfectly.