“Either she has a score of her own to settle or she was sent by the king beyond the mountain.” I grit my teeth as clouds pass across the sun, turning the woods sullen and gloomy.
“What is going on?” Taylor turns and meets my gaze, her peculiar blue eyes open wide.
“We’re about to get flayed to the bone while still alive, and then have our marrow sucked out.” The other changeling shivers.
“What?” Taylor shakes her head.
“An Obsidian witch hunts us.” Lenetia hugs herself. “We’re dead.”
“Leander?” Taylor says my name, uncertainty in her tone, and I know that I will die to save her should it come to that.
“She will not harm you.” I stroke her soft hair, then pull her even tighter against me. “Kyrin, run as if the master of the twelve dark Spires chases us.”
The beast snorts, his body going taut as a faint cackle floats through the darkening trees. With a slight rearing back, he takes off over the moss-strewn ground and plunges ahead. I hold on to Taylor and the saddle, pushing her forward so that she is bent over his mane and safe from the stray branches.
Even Kyrin’s thundering hooves can’t cover the sound of her heartbeat. A wild thing, it rampages against her ribs as we tear through the greenery and flowers.
I throw up a barrier behind us, one that camouflages our sight and sound, but I’m not foolish enough to believe that an Obsidian wouldn’t be able to see through it. The last one I fought almost took me with her to the Spires, but I killed her with the help of Gareth and the fighters that would become my honor guard in the northern realm. Even now, members of the Phalanx wait for us at the border, but if the Obsidian catches us, we may never make it. The thought of what the creature would do to Taylor turns my insides into an inferno of aggression, but stopping to fight now would only put her in more danger.
So, we run. We run until Kyrin begins to flag, his jumps barely clearing fallen trees and low-lying brush, his breathing coming in too-fast bursts.
“Slower, my friend.” I lean back, pulling Taylor to an upright position as Kyrin eases off somewhat.
The dreariness of the witch’s presence is gone, the woods back to their dreamlike perfection. But the hair on the back of my neck still stands on end. She’s on our trail, and an Obsidian will not stop until she draws blood.
“We can’t delay.” Gareth’s horse Sabre is huffing out hard breaths, his fatigue matching Kyrin’s.
“We can’t keep running them like this either.” I pat Kyrin.
“I know, and this waif is already exhausted just from hanging on.” He scowls at the changeling, but I notice he grips her tightly to him.
“She needs a break.” Taylor reaches toward the changeling. “Beth, are you okay?”
“Fine,” she mumbles.
“We can’t stop now. Not with the witch at our backs.” Gareth shakes his head.
“We have to. Beth can’t take much more. She was far worse off in the dungeon than I was.” Taylor puts her small hand over mine. “Please? Can we just stop for a minute so I can check on her?”
“Of course.” I am powerless to deny her anything, especially when she shares her touch with me. She deserves safety and happiness as my queen, not danger from all corners.
Gareth frowns. “This is a bad idea.”
“I hear a stream up ahead. The horses need a drink and a little rest. I’ll keep my glamour up while we stop, and we’ll be moving again before the sun begins its descent.”
“I don’t like it.” He casts a glance behind us.
“I don’t like it, either, but we can’t let the horses get past the point of usefulness. And Taylor is right, your changeling is pale.”
“She’s not mine,” Gareth grumbles but relents with a sigh. “Just for a moment, then.” He pulls up next to the glistening stream and climbs down, then gently hoists Lenetia to the ground.
“Thank you.” Taylor squeezes my hand, and the bond between us snaps even tighter. My everything, my entire future is right in front of me.
The witch wants to sever that link, but she’ll have a hell of a fight on her hands before she can even come close. I’ve killed her kind once before. I can do it again.
The bed roll isn’t as warm without Leander in it. But he and Gareth prowl the edges of the camp, their weapons strapped tightly to their bodies.
“Isn’t this fun?” Beth rolls onto her back and throws one arm over her eyes. “I doubt we’ll survive the night.”
We’d stopped only briefly at midday so I could tend to Beth and the horses could have a rest. Then we rode again, so far and so fast that I wondered if my ass would ever stop aching. The answer, I find, is no. No, it won’t.
I roll over and face Beth. “What’s an Obsidian witch? When I asked Leander, he pretended he didn’t know the English words to tell me.”
Though her color is better, and I managed to give her an extra helping of some strange vegetables, she still sounds weak. Whatever her master did to her isn’t something that will fade quickly. She needs rest.
Her teeth chatter. “Obsidian. Ugh.”
“Kind of the worst creature in all of Arin.” She bobbles her head a little back and forth. “Well, no, the worst of all is a necromancer. But an Obsidian witch is up there.”
She sighs. “Imagine a creature spawned from the Spires that—”
“What are the Spires?”
“You really are a brand new exchange.”
I shrug, though she can’t see it.
“The Spires are like, like … hmmm. On earth there was talk of a place called hell, right?”
“They are hell, but a real place with real evil and sometimes the evil manages to crawl out of it and torment the rest of us. That’s where the Obsidian witches come from.”
“Sure.” She splays her fingers and counts off on one hand. “Demon, succubus, child-eating, spell-casting, death-bringing harlots from the Spires. They’re more powerful than most fae can ever dream of. Can even bend reality, so they say. And now one of them hunts us. Perfect.”
Though the air is still warm, I pull a fur over my shoulders. “But Gareth and Leander can defeat it, right?”
She snorts. “I sure hope so. Otherwise, you’re going to learn pretty quickly all the things the Obsidian is capable of. And I have no doubt you’ll be a fine meal for her.”
“You said they eat children.”
She turns and peers at me with one eye. “They’ll eat whatever flesh they can find. Yours and mine included.”
“Jesus.” I pull the fur tighter and try to find Leander through the trees. I can’t see him. Panic rises in my gut, but I tamp it down and scoot a little closer to Beth. She needs a bath even worse than I do, but having her near is still a comfort.
“If she attacks, maybe these two can slow her down while we escape.”
Leave Leander behind? I rub my chest, something like heartburn setting in there.
She laughs, though it’s more of a gallows sound. “Calm down. I’m certain he would never leave you unless absolutely necessary.”
“It’s not that.”
“It is. You’re his mate. Somewhere inside you, you can feel the pull.”
“How do you know all this?”
“I’ve been around enough mated fae.”
“But I’m not fae.”
“No. But you are mated. I can’t imagine it’s much different for a human. Besides, I see the way you look at him.”
I feel my cheeks heating, but I can’t deny what she’s said. Leander is still a mystery to me, but I’ve found a safety in his arms that seemed impossible when I first woke in the dungeon.
“Don’t worry about it.” She settles in with a large yawn. “We’ll probably all be dead soon anyway.”
“Thanks.” I turn to say more, but she’s already snoring. Apparently, mortal danger doesn’t faze her.
I’m not so lucky. I toss and turn, each sound in the trees drawing my attention as my imagination runs wild. By the time I finally close my eyes, the fire is burning low and it’s been hours since I’ve seen Gareth or Leander.
I fall into an uneasy sleep, my mind refusing to shut down entirely. But when it does, I try to shake myself awake. It doesn’t work. In my dream, I’m rising from my bedroll and walking into the dark woods. I know I shouldn’t leave the safety of the camp, but I can’t stop.
My footfalls are silent, and I can’t scream, can’t make a sound. It’s as if I’m being pulled forward by a rope around my middle while an ice-cold hand clamps down on my mouth. I struggle against its hold and try to shake my head, to do anything that would wake me.
Onward I walk, stumbling over underbrush, tree branches scratching at my face.
“Leander!” I call his name over and over in my mind, but he doesn’t appear. There are only trees and the growing darkness that seems to muffle every bit of faint starlight through the leaves.
A shadow flits through the trees and comes ever closer. It says something in fae, but I can’t understand. A hot, streaking pain cuts through my mind, so much pain that tears well in my eyes.
“I said, ‘He can’t hear you, dearie.’” A low snort. “But I’ve fixed you so we can talk.”
“Let me go.” I … I just spoke fae. How did I speak fae, in my mind?
“Because I taught you. Can’t have a conversation unless you speak the same language, eh? And my changeling hasn’t been worth two drops of fairy blood in ages.”
The fae words come easily to my mind, but I’m too preoccupied with the situation to linger on my newfound language. “Please just let me go.”
The shadow darts around me. “I would, but I’m hungry, you see.”