They had to die.
Palm trees waved in the tropical breeze, white sand sparkled in the sunlight and the coral sails of pleasure yachts dotted the turquoise horizon. The palette of pastels was marred by a single dark spot. The woman’s waist-length black hair fell down her back in a straight curtain, immune to the breeze. She lifted her face to the gentle sun, eyes slit and teeth bared. The air around her shuddered as she opened her mouth and screamed in rage. She threw out a hand, fingers stabbing toward the ships on the horizon. The depths of the ocean, places that knew no light, and little life save the sinking bones of those that died above, responded to her command. A great wave of water, the gaping maw of a terrible beast, rose and swallowed the ships, killing all aboard them.
She turned her attention to the ocean’s thriving shallows. She walked into the surf and death spread before her, staining the water as if with oil. The ocean recognized, and obeyed her. Fish bubbled to the surface, pale bellies turned up. Those animals that were large enough to fight thrashed in the water, churning up bubbly froth, but there was no escape. They threw themselves on the sand, choosing death by land rather than suffer under her touch. Carcasses of dolphins and seals desecrated the previously pristine beach.
The land would suffer next. Her feet left black impressions in the sand as she abandoned the ocean and walked towards the line of palms that framed the beach. He waited for her in the shadows of the trees. She could not see him. She could never see him, but she knew him. She smiled as she brushed her fingertips against the first palm, keeping her eyes on the shadowy figure, letting him know she did it for him. A wedding gift. The palm shriveled and blackened, ashes of fronds falling like rain around her.
As death spread to the other trees, sucking the life from both flora and fauna, he beckoned to her. He was not afraid of her, would not condemn her. He would welcome her touch. She could not hurt him. She would be free.
She walked into the dying forest and into his arms.
* * * *
No, no, no. The litany of denial woke Moira from her dream. She lay still, eyes closed and listened to the frantic thumping of her own heart. The dream lingered with her, refusing to fade as a dream should. She could taste ash, as if she’d opened her mouth to the rain of dying palm fronds.
Moira grabbed her jeans, bra and shirt from the floor beside her makeshift bed. It was nearly freezing in the abandoned house she was squatting in, so she wiggled into her clothes while still cocooned in warm blankets. Dressed, she slid out of bed and made her way to the bathroom. Luckily, there was running water, and she washed her face and hands, looking in the cracked mirror only long enough to confirm she was still blonde.
She was tired, but would not risk sleeping again. Folding a threadbare towel to use as a cushion, she sat on the floor with her back against the cold wall. It was a few hours before dawn, and a few hours more until her destination for the day opened. Sitting cross-legged, she absently opened and closed her right hand. Each time her fingers opened a small flame flickered to life in her palm. The action was absentminded, like a smoker toying with a lighter.
Had it been a dream, a product of her subconscious? Or had it been a vision, a message implanted in her sleeping mind? She didn’t have an answer.
Moira smiled, but not with joy or laughter. Lack of answers was a state of being for her. A year ago she’d been a happy twenty-something college student. So what if she was a witch? Everyone had secrets, and hers was more harmless than most, as her magic was entirely benign. She’d worked hard to make sure of that.
But her life had changed, become a cold place of fear and endless questions. She couldn’t go on like this. A year on the run had worn her down, whittled away the outer layers of who she was. She was not ashamed of what she’d become, because though she’d compromised some of her morals, the core of who she was remained.
But she was tired.
Tired of running, tired of not knowing, tired of living in the moment scared to dream of a future.
She was going to change that. It was time to fight back. She’d already begun to fight by gathering information. Soon she’d know exactly who was after her and why.
She shied away from that, not wanting to concentrate on the “why”. She’d be better off just focusing on her next step.
Moira opened her eyes. Pale light spilled across the floor from windows caked in grime. Time to go.
She used a colorful scarf to cover her hair and changed her sweatshirt for a white peasant blouse. Looking more the part of a young witch, she grabbed a patchwork purse and the bus schedule. She left the dilapidated house, sealed it behind her with a spell, and trudged to the bus stop, alert for any sign of her enemies.
* * * *
Moira examined a wind chime and waited for the other customer in the store to leave. The plump female patron was chatting with the storekeeper, going on and on about how she was trying to reduce her carbon footprint. Moira started flicking the wind chimes, hoping to remind both customer and owner she was there. After several minutes of this, and several dirty looks from the customer, Moira’s annoyance tactic worked and the plump woman gathered her bag of organic herbs and left.
Stilling the wind chimes, Moira headed for the counter. The shop was a combination garden and holistic medicine store. Jars of dried herbs lined the wall behind the counter, while their live counterparts grew in pretty ceramic pots on a long table.
“Hello, miss, what can I help you with today?” The shopkeeper was a pretty woman in her late fifties. There were laugh lines around her eyes, but her cheeks were smooth and her short bob of medium brown hair was glossy and unmarked by gray.
“I’m looking for some advice,” Moira said, using her best non-threatening smile.
“Of course, what ailment are you looking for help with?”
“I wouldn’t exactly call it an ailment, what I need is a…power boost.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed, but her smile remained. “Ginseng can help with energy levels.”
“I don’t think an herb is what I’m looking for.”
“Herbs are all I have to offer you.”
“Really? We have a mutual friend in Arizona who might disagree. She said you could help me.”
“Oh? I’m sorry, I don’t know anyone in Arizona. What did you say her name was?”
“I didn’t, and won’t, say her name. I think you know who I’m talking about.”
The woman’s hand twitched towards a slender piece of wood sticking out of the pen cup by the register. Moira grabbed the woman’s wrist before she could grab her wand, giving it a slight squeeze.
“I need help,” Moira said, pretense gone. “All I need is information. If you give it to me I’ll walk out of here, and you can pretend we never met.”
“Who are you?”
“No one. Now, is there someplace more private we could talk?”
The woman came out from behind the counter, lips pressed tight together, the frown forming brackets around her mouth. She locked the front door of the shop and motioned Moira to follow. The shopkeeper led her behind the counter and through a back door.
As Moira passed through the doorway a hiss sounded from her left. Whipping her head towards the noise she saw a fat gray cat perched on a table. The cat hissed again, and Moira returned the favor, pulling back her lips and hissing. The cat blinked smoke-colored eyes, leapt off the table and bounded over to rub against Moira’s ankles before flopping down on its back, fuzzy belly exposed.
“Sasha doesn’t like anyone,” the shopkeeper said accusingly.
“Lucky me. It’s nothing. Cats like me.”
“What do you want?” The woman folded her arms, radiating dislike.
Moira examined the room, keeping an eye on the woman in case she tried something. The room was a high-level magical workspace. Much like a good kitchen it had plenty of counter space, and a thoughtfully positioned sink, oven, and refrigerator. Framed prints of images from famous grimoires, the kind known to everyone in the magical community, hung on the walls.
“This is a beautiful room, it has a powerful aura.” Moira pressed her hand to the wall and felt a faint pulse of residual magic.
Her compliment softened the woman, as she’d known it would. “This is my dream workroom. It took me years to plan it out.”
“It shows.” Moira smiled then looked at the stove, where a teakettle waited.
“Would you like some tea?” the shopkeeper asked, succumbing to manners despite her wariness.
“I would, thank you.”
While the shopkeeper made tea Moira perched on a stool, watching her hostess work. It felt strange not to know the woman’s name, but a year of bitter experience had taught Moira that it was easier if they remained anonymous. The shopkeeper brought over two steaming mugs. Moira made a pretense of sipping, letting the hot liquid brush her lip, but didn’t swallow any. It smelled divine, and was probably perfectly balanced for a witch, but she couldn’t risk it. Not being able to drink that lovely cup of tea was just another small casualty in a long list of things her enemies had stolen from her.
“What do you need?” the shopkeeper asked again, stroking the gray cat, who’d jumped up on the counter to rub against Moira’s shoulder. The woman’s hand brushed Moira. She leaned away from the cat, removing herself from touching range.
“I need power. I’m in a…situation that requires a heavy spell load, and I need more power than I have.”
The woman frowned at her, rubbing her fingers together as if testing what she’d felt of Moira. “You are not magically weak.”
“No,” Moira said cautiously, “but I need more power, I need a way to draw more power from the earth than I get on a daily basis from normal activities.”
“If you need more power you should use more herbs in your spells. That is the best way to use the Earth’s power, use the power that plants naturally draw as they grow.”
“I don’t have the luxury of taking time to prepare potions. If plants are the best way, could I…drink a veggie smoothie or something?”
The shopkeeper blinked, blinked again and then burst out laughing. The tension that had hummed just under the surface wavered and broke under the laughter. The woman rubbed her cheeks and huffed out a final laugh. “It’s been a long time since I’ve laughed like that, so thank you. It amazes me what you young people think. No, you can’t make a smoothie.”
Moira smiled, not offended by the woman’s attitude. She’d rather be laughed at and get what she needed than act offended and leave empty handed.
“Now, to be serious,” the shopkeeper said, “I feel fear in you, not malice, so I will trust you do not need this power for offense. Do you hold by the witch’s creed to harm none?”
Moira looked the woman in the eye, and lied. “Yes.”
“Then there’s a way. Pure magic is too wild for us to draw directly from the earth. If you attempt it the magic will burn you from the inside out, and it would be a painful death. Magic must be filtered. Normally we filter it through plants, in our spells, but it can be filtered through a living being.” The shopkeeper had lapsed into a lecturing tone. Moira would have bet more money than she’d seen in a long time that the woman was a Mistress and apprenticed young witches.
“Do you mean a familiar?” Moira looked at the cat suspiciously.
“No, that would be cruel to the animal because it forces them to hold more magic than they are designed to, though it was done in the dark past. There is some debate among modern scholars as to whether it is ethical to use a familiar if that familiar chooses the witch—”
Moira cleared her throat and fiddled with her teacup. She didn’t need an entry-level magic lecture. She’d done her apprenticeship like every other witch.
The shopkeeper raised a brow and said, “I’m talking about a magical creature.” The woman looked at the wall behind Moira’s head. Moira twisted in her seat.
The back wall of the workroom was dominated by a framed picture showing a wild, tangled, forest. A faun played a flute in the foreground while fairies danced along branches, and goblins peeked out from under toadstools.
Archaic script beneath the illustration read “The Wild”.
Moira turned sharply back to the woman. “You mean the The Wild.”
“A witch can draw raw power directly through one of the creatures of The Wild?”
“It is old magic and not often used, but it can be done. I should warn you that not every witch can do it. The ability to do so depends on the will of the God and Goddess.”
“How would I find one of the creatures of The Wild? And if I did, how would I get it to agree to stay with me so I could draw on its power?” Moira’s mind was racing with the possibilities, but she knew the image of The Wild hanging on the wall was romanticized. The creatures of The Wild were not cute and benign, they were, well…wild.
“It is not a matter of asking them. You call them and bind them.”
Moira’s mouth dropped open in shock. “You enslave them?”
“Yes. That is why it is not often attempted.”
“But…a creature of The Wild would hate that. Wouldn’t they attack the witch who performed the spell?”
“The binding spell prevents them from doing so. The spell also forces the creature to stay by the witch’s side. If they get too far away the spell causes the creature, and the witch, great pain.”
Moira tapped her fingers along the rim of her mug. “I didn’t expect this.”
“Many witches condemn the practice. That is another reason it is not common knowledge.”
“It’s not against the witch’s creed?” Moira asked.
The woman tilted her head. “It depends on the intent of the witch. If they call The Wild to use the power for evil, it is. There is some minimal harm done to the creature, as they are forced to leave their own lives to become a part of the witch’s, but nothing lasting, and The Wild is considered a magical element. It is not against the creed to pluck juniper leaves, and The Wild is as much a magical resource as any plant.”
Moira wanted to believe the woman, but there was no getting around the fact that they were talking about a form of magical slavery.
“Have you ever done it?” she asked.
The shopkeeper pulled back. Tension sprang up between them. Moira had gone too far.
“It’s time you left,” the woman said, collecting Moira’s teacup.
“Please, I didn’t mean to offend you. I promise, I will leave. Tell me, what’s the spell?”
“Cast a circle in the heart of the darkest forest, use chalice and blade. Heat blood and wine, draw the smoke of both into a thread, use the thread to bind the creature.”
“What creature will it be?”
“You won’t know until they arrive, prepare for anything. Now, leave.”
Moira slid from her stool and left, feeling the weight of the woman’s dislike on her shoulders as she went. She unlocked the store’s front door and let herself out. Forcing herself not to look back, Moira headed for the bus stop. If she let herself think about what had just happened she would regret not forming a friendship with a witch that powerful and interesting. There’d been a time when Moira easily made, and kept, friends. But now her life was too dangerous. The bitter irony was that she’d met dozens of interesting people over the past year, but could call none of them friend. When—if—she was able to reclaim her life, she would look these people up again. She would once more be the friendly, smiling Moira.
She needed to think about the option the shopkeeper had given her. She needed help, there was no doubt of that, but she was not sure she could bring herself to enslave a member of The Wild. If she did do it, how would she house it, feed it? The logistics were daunting. There had to be another way.
Her contact in Phoenix, Crowa, was one of the few people she’d exchanged information with. Crowa seemed to know everything and everyone. She’d suggested Moira check at this shop, but only because Moira was already in the area. There may be another resource somewhere else in the country. Moira would find a pay phone and call Crowa. It was time to move on anyway, this was the longest she’d spent in one place.
A winged shadow passed over the sidewalk in front of her. Moira flattened herself against the building and looked up. There was nothing in the sky.
Had she imagined the shadow?
Moira curled her right hand into a fist and began chanting under her breath as she slid along the wall of the building. Focused on the sky, she didn’t see the four-foot ribbon of concrete peel up from the sidewalk. It slithered across the ground, heading for Moira’s ankle.
She checked the roofs of the buildings around her, sure the danger was coming from above. A twitch of the concrete snake’s tail caught her eye, and Moira looked down in time to leap sideways, avoiding the snake. It lunged, moving fast, and managed to snag her ankle. Moira yelped as the concrete tightened around her ankle, grinding down on her bones.
Teeth clenched with pain she tried to jerk her leg away. Another winged shadow glided across the sidewalk.
It was a trap. The snake was just holding her in place. The real enemy was above her, invisible but still casting shadows.
Moira bent and pressed her hand to the concrete snake, whispering the final words of her spell. The magic shot, weakly, from her hand into the concrete. The snake should have shattered, but she was too weak to operate the spell at full potential. The snake froze. That was progress, as it was no longer tightening around her ankle, preparing to snap the bones, but she was still trapped.
Cursing under her breath, Moira tried to pull her foot free. It was no use. The concrete was wrapped like a cuff around her ankle.
One, two, three shadows passed over the sidewalk. They were waiting, circling her until the time was ripe to swoop down and take her. She hadn’t evaded them this long only to be defeated by some stupid concrete snake. She stooped and scooted the body of the snake as close to the brick wall of the building as she could. Moira gritted her teeth and slammed her ankle against the wall. Her heel was bruised and bloody by the time the snake broke, but she was free.
Now, to deal with the others.
There was a coffee shop two blocks away. Moira could see café tables shaded by umbrellas perched on the sidewalk. The monsters rarely attacked if she was surrounded by humans. If she could make it to the coffee shop she’d be safe.
Moira took off at a run, limping slightly from her damaged heel. If she let herself think about what was happening fear would overwhelm her, so she didn’t think about it.
She ran in the shadow of her enemies.
As she crossed a side street, not stopping to look for oncoming traffic, something long and sharp brushed her back, and the force of it nearly knocked her down. She stumbled across the street, leaping onto the opposite sidewalk and ducked into a bus hut, pressing herself into a corner where it would be impossible for anything winged to get her. She heard the grind of concrete on concrete and looked down to see the sidewalk below her feet rippling like water. She leapt onto the bench as ten small ribbons of concrete separated from the sidewalk, leaving foot-long troughs. They swarmed around the bench, circling the metal legs.
Claws screeched over metal, and the roof of the bus hut buckled. Four long furrows pressed down as her invisible attackers raked their claws across the metal. Moira crouched on the bench, dividing her attention between the dangers from above and below. She curled her hand into a fist and cast again and again, but she was dry, empty of magic.
Running was the only option.
There was a single city block between her and safety. She could make that.
Grabbing one of the round metal columns that supported the now mangled roof, Moira swung herself out, crouching as she landed. The breeze from her attackers’ passage ruffled her hair. She looked back to see the concrete snakes slithering out from under the bench.
Moira pushed herself up and started running. She ran full tilt, head down, one hand holding her bag tight across her body. The air rushing past her ears masked any sounds her attackers might have made, and she couldn’t risk stopping to look back.
She was half a block away when a busboy carrying a tray of silverware came out of the café. He looked at her, raised a hand to his eyes to shield them from the sun and watched her approach. The sight of a pretty girl running for her life unburied a long-denied sense of chivalry. He rushed out to meet her, his ankle-length apron flapping around his legs.
There was a final hard knock against her back, the faintest hint of scraping against her shoulder. Moira stumbled, hit a crack in the sidewalk and fell on hands and knees. She flipped onto her back, checking the sky and sidewalk. There was no sign of her attackers. She squinted at the sidewalk ten feet back, where a few uneven bumps in the concrete marked what remained of the snakes.
She heard the pounding of footsteps. The busboy would be here any second. She’d need a convincing excuse as to why she’d been running.
The busboy dropped to his knee beside her, and Moira stammered out a story about a road-raged driver who’d chased her after she accidentally banged his car with her bag.
A voice, faint on the wind, whispered, “Why do you run from me?”
The spell was cast under a blood-black sky. Sleep was fitful and nightmare-plagued for those who acknowledged no magic. But for practitioners, the dark workers of man's oldest tool, sleep never came.
Her wards were strong, stronger than any she’d cast before, for the magic she worked was rich, rooted in the deep places of the Earth. She could not stop the world from knowing that old magic was being drawn, but she could hide the knowledge of who, and where.
Desperation lent her strength while determination fueled her skill.
“God and Goddess bless me for what I do this night.”
Moira cradled a chalice in one hand, gripping a sword in the other. Arm straining, she held the sword aloft, blade angled to the ground. Raising the chalice, she tipped it so the blood-laced wine slid down the blade, from hilt to tip. Drop by drop, the mixture landed in the cauldron at her feet. The spice of heated wine and the cloying copper scent of blood perfumed the night.
When nothing remained in the chalice and the blade was dry, she lowered her shaking arm and knelt, placing the sword and cup on the cold earth. Clad only in a homespun robe of purple cotton, cold leached into her body where her toes and knees rested against the unforgiving ground.
The blood and wine bubbled, turning to steam. As the first tendril rose, Moira reached out and curled her fingers around the smoky tendril. The cool steam solidified in her hand, forming strands of silver filament. She drew the steam from the air, spinning it to thread as a weaver would turn wool to yarn.
Drawing the steam with her right hand, she gathered the thread she created with her left. The steam continued to rise and she continued to spin it, turning vapor to thread, converting the magic from one physical form to another. Soon nothing remained but dried patches in the bottom of her cauldron.
Quickly now, she lifted the warm cauldron and set it to the side. The fire, which was burning cheerfully in the small pit she’d dug, she doused with dirt. Tilting her head back she raised her words to the black sky.
“My will is strong and my need is stronger. By my magic do I call The Wild. Bound to me by the call of my blood, by chalice and blade, by smoke and fire.” She lifted the hand that held the thread, baptizing it with moonlight.
“A being of The Wild into bondage I do call, mine to command while the need is here. God and Goddess hear my plea. Neither lightly nor with joy do I bind The Wild, but what is at stake is my life.” She blinked back tears. She would not weep.
Magic was a raw force, and working it stripped away defenses and façades. Panic, fear and anger, emotions Moira worked to suppress, bubbled to the surface as she cast. She told herself that if the spell failed she’d find another way, another solution. But she was tired of running, and fatigue was making her sloppy. If this didn’t work… she wouldn’t evade them long enough to find plan B.
“My will is strong and my need is great.” Her shouted words rang clear in the night. Taking the end of the string she wrapped it once around her right wrist and tied it in place, using her teeth to help form the knot. With her left hand she took the trailing thread and began to wrap it around her wrist, laying the string close on her skin so that she created an ever-widening bracelet of silver.
“Bind and weave,” she chanted. “Bind and weave.”
The air rippled. Outside her circle of protection the forest came alive. Those beasts that should sleep in the night took flight, a flock of crows rising and crying out dire warnings. Howls and yips echoed from the forest. Panic rose in her breast, though the night could not touch her. The only thing that could breach her circle would come at her bidding, and would not leave until she willed it.
“Bind and weave, bind and weave.” Her voice contained a tremble she could not still. She was reaching the end of the thread. The string now wrapped halfway up her forearm.
“Bind and weave, bind and weave.” She breathed the words, her voice growing quieter as the beasts around her grew louder. Something low to the ground darted across the edge of the clearing.
“Bind and weave.” With a final turn she finished, carefully tucking the end under so it was secure.
“I call you now to my command. Old magic made you and old magic will bind you.” The Earth shivered beneath her knees, but the witch was strong, and a child of power. Deep in the magma core of the Earth magic stretched awake, shooting tendrils through layers of granite, diamond, and coal, through the bones of creatures long dead and the ghosts of spells. Breaching the Earth’s surface, the spell spread like water, filling every crevice in search of a creature to fulfill the witch’s request.
“Bind by magic and blade. My will is strong and my need is great.” The Earth’s trembling escalated, twigs and leaves bouncing on the ground. “I call The Wild into bondage.” Trees creaked as they leaned towards the casting circle, dawn by the growing vortex of magic that swirled above Moira’s head. Arms of branches, tipped with knurled fingers, scraped against the impenetrable circle.
Moira looked to the sky, her eyes unfocused as the spell consumed her, “My will is strong and my need is great.”
On the last word she raised her right arm, the string armband glowing with dark light, like the luster of a black pearl. Pricks, as if from needles, stabbed into her arm where the band lay. Biting her lip against the pain, she remained steadfast in her resolve, her arm high. She would not yield.
With a final wrench the pain disappeared. A harsh blue light engulfed her arm, forcing her to turn her head away. When the light faded the string was gone.
* * * *
Deep in a forest, far from the one where the witch stood, a being of The Wild jerked to a stop as the scent of magic grew strong in the air. Blue light, dark against the bright daylight he stood in, surrounded his right arm.
* * * *
It hadn’t worked.
It had been over an hour since she completed the spell. The forest was quiet. Moira wrapped her arms around her chest. The night air was cold, too cold to be clad in nothing but a homespun robe. Both to ease the chill in her body, and to postpone the moment she would have to face her failure, she rose and walked across the circle, her toes curled against the cold earth. Her green and pink gym bag lay within the circle, the glaring neon at odds with the solemn forest. Smiling at the absurdity, she opened the bag and pulled out her jeans and a thick knit sweater.
She drew off the handmade robe. From spinning the wool, dying the thread and weaving the cloth, the garment was one entirely of her making, and at each step of the way she had worked magic into it. She could cast spells while wearing store-bought modern clothing, but they never had the potency of those cast while she wore this robe.
She drew the chilly jeans up her legs hissing out a breath. She fastened them before yanking the sweater on over her bare chest. The thick cotton instantly formed a warm cocoon around her upper body, even as her legs prickled with cold inside the denim. Balancing, brushing dirt from the sole of one chilled foot, she drew on a sock, switching feet and repeating the process before slipping into soft boots.
She began to pack her tools. Folding her robe she put it in a velvet pouch and then into her gym bag. She scooped up the chalice and wiped it clean, then sprinkled salt in the bottom of her cauldron to nullify any remaining magic. Occupied with her cleanup, she didn’t see the change in the darkness.
* * * *
The spell ripped him from the sunlit forest of his home. He fought it, fought the magic that pulled at him, with all he was. When he could not break the spell, he was more shocked than angry. It had been a long time since a witch had drawn enough magic to perform a spell that could bind one of The Wild. He was sucked into an endless night, a darkness where he was blind and deaf. Swirling in this ether, his anger grew as shock faded. A change in the density of the dark warned him of the end, that the origin of the spell was approaching.
Before the magic released him, as the darkness lifted, there was a shocking pain in his right arm.
* * * *
Sunk as she was in a brown study, Moira did not immediately notice the change. At the center of her circle the night condensed, darkness and shadow loomed in the vague outline of a massive beast.
The spell was complete.
The night shivered, and the darkness snapped into focus. The blurred outlines became sharp, the blackness drawing back to reveal the color and texture of the being it contained.
The quiet of the night was rent by an enraged bellow.
Moira sucked in a breath and whirled as the terrifying sound echoed in the clearing. Unsure what to do, she remained motionless at the edge of the circle, unsure if the creature, which she couldn’t yet identify, had seen her.
“Who has done this? Who?” The creature’s voice boomed like a tolled bell, anger lacing each syllable. It, no he, for the voice had been masculine, twisted his head side to side, but didn’t turn far enough to see Moira.
What was he? She couldn’t tell. His massive outline told her he was no sprite, and he had at least four legs, so he was not a faun. When he repeated the question, demanding to know who had cast the spell, Moira drew in a calming breath.
“I have,” she answered coolly.
He turned, and the ground shook from his weight. A space of ten feet separated them. Even at this distance he loomed over her, a full four or five feet taller than she.
“You have bound me?”
Without warning he charged her. Moira turned to run and tripped over her bag. Pounding foot beats slowed, then stopped, beside her. Moira looked at the massive hoof beside her face, then rolled to her back. Sprawled on the ground, braced on her elbows, Moira stared up at the enraged centaur.
He took a step, bringing his hoof within inches of her shoulder. She scrambled back. He kept coming, each of his pie-plate-sized hooves hitting the ground hard enough that she felt the vibrations through the earth.
He could not hurt her, that was part of the spell, but faced with the reality of a centaur, Moira didn’t trust it. If the shopkeeper had been wrong, and he could hurt her, it would only take a single stomp to snap her bones or crush the breath from her chest.
With her eyes focused on the huge hooves, she didn’t notice her sword until she put her hand on it. The hard column of the hilt dug into her palm.
Moira came up onto her knees and jumped to her feet, holding the blade out before her. Stretched out at shoulder height the blade was pointed at the beast’s front, directly below the place where his human torso joined his horse body.
“What do you think you are doing, human?”
She darted a glance at his face, and he ripped the sword from her hand, the slightest movement of his finger sending the blade whipping across the clearing where it hit the barrier of her circle and fell to the ground.
“You enslaved me.” The centaur held up his right arm. A dark metal cuff, covered in scrollwork and runes, inlaid in red, wrapped midway up his forearm.
“My spell,” Moira whispered, stunned to see what the thin string had become.
“Yes, human witch, your spell.” He loomed over her. Moira checked herself as she began to retreat, not wanting to show weakness. The centaur brought himself within inches of each other. Moira’s nose nearly brushed the defined muscles of his human stomach.
“Release me,” he purred, cajoling rather than demanding, his silk tone slipping over her like lover’s hands.
“Release…” she whispered, confused. She couldn’t think through the pleasure coursing through her as phantom hands brushed her breasts, cheek and back.
“Yes, release me.”
“Release The Wild… No!” Moira jerked back, putting space between them. She opened her right hand, a small ball of fire flicking to life. Moira held the fire against her chest, and the centaur’s magic flared green as she burned it away.
“I said release me,” he bellowed and reared up. His landing caused the earth to jolt beneath her.
“I need you,” Moira said. She couldn’t believe she’d been so easily seduced by a simple trick. Then again, it had been over a year, and she had needs. Sex, lots of good sex, was at the top of her to-do list when she regained control of her life.
“Your needs are so great that they are worth my slavery?”
Moira gritted her teeth as his words stabbed directly at her own reservations about what she’d just done. She wanted to apologize, wanted to make him understand why she’d done this, but she had nothing to give.
“I am a follower of the old ways, a believer,” she said, speaking in the archaic pattern of grimoires to give her words weight. She deliberately backed up, putting distance between them rather than retreating. “The God and Goddess granted my cast.”
His head cocked to the side at her words. Moira wished she could see his face, but it was hidden in shadow.
“The act of casting and success of a spell do not inherently make them right. I will not suffer to be bound.” His tone changed, losing the deep and terrifying resonance until it was simply a pleasant speaking voice, lower than most, tinted by a faint accent.
“I can’t release you,” she told him with genuine regret, speaking from her heart. “I need you.”
There was a beat of silence, a moment of settling, before he asked, “Why have you called me?”
Now was not the time to explain. “I’ll explain, but right now we have to go. This circle has been up for nearly twenty hours.”
“And where is it that you think we will go, witch?”
“Moira, my name is Moira.”
“Answer my question, witch.”
Abandoning that argument, Moira said, “I have a safe place.”
Moira retrieved the sword, slid it into the scabbard and slung the long strap across her chest. She hoisted the duffle bag over her shoulder and grabbed the cauldron in one arm. Weighted down like a pack animal, she looked over at the half-horse/half-man who was her new companion.
Her centaur stared at her, arms folded across his chest. Motionless he was massive, and when he moved his size was overwhelming. If not for the spell, Moira had no doubt he could easily kill her.
With her one free hand Moira drew out the bag of salt she’d tucked in her pocket. She awkwardly opened the bag and started walking the inside of her circle, sprinkling the salt and murmuring as she went.
“What is worked is done, magic called, magic released. No harm to this place and no memory left of the magic worker. Parted and done. Parted and done.”
When she reached the starting point she upended the bag, pouring out the last of the salt. With a sound like a struck gong, the circle fell. Wind whipped through the clearing as the atmosphere equalized. Moira closed her eyes as long tendrils of her hair lashed her face before the wind died.
The ground vibrated as the centaur came up beside her, standing on three legs and kicking at the ground with his right front hoof.
“The circle is down,” he said.
“Thank you,” she said, surprised and a bit wary of his help. It was dangerous to leave a partially open circle, and to have another magic worker check for remnants of power was a blessing few witches ever received.
“You are welcome, witch.”
Hitching the cauldron high on her hip she nodded to the centaur and started into the forest. When she was twenty feet away from the clearing breathing grew difficult. Thirty feet away there was an odd tightness around her chest. Moira stopped. The feeling didn’t go away, but did not worsen. She turned back to the clearing. The centaur had not moved. He still stood on the border of her grounded circle.
“Do you feel it?” he asked her.
“It feels like something is squeezing my chest,” she called out.
“Aye,” he said angrily. “It’s the spell.” With a leaping start, he galloped to her. Moira swallowed and stood her ground, though her instincts demanded she jump out of the way. She remembered the shopkeeper’s warning that the spell would require them to remain close, but she had not imagined it would have such a physical manifestation.
When he stopped beside her, Moira could see the cuff’s inlay glowing red. The closer he got to her, the dimmer it became, until the runes lay unlit within the metal as he stood next to her. Moira turned and started walking, the centaur falling in step behind her.
“How’d you know?” she asked as they made their way through the trees.
“That the spell would cause that? Have you been under this spell before?”
Moira looked over her shoulder. The centaur was bent forward, arms outstretched to push branches away from his face, struggling to negotiate his impressive form through the tight-knit trees.
“I’m sorry. This was the clearest path I could find,” Moira murmured.
Watching him struggle through the branches, the guilt she had been repressing surged up. She bit back a second apology. Every word she had said in the spell was true. Her need was great.
Without his help she would not survive.
* * * *
Kiron pushed one branch aside and ducked beneath another. He did not like this dank forest. The trees of his homeland were different, not so close together, better for a centaur. This dense, dark place he’d been kidnapped to was polluted. He sensed humans all around, their fetid byproducts leaching into the ground to kill the trees from the root up. The forest smelled wet, as if the sun shunned the forest floor, and the ground felt soft beneath his hooves, carpeted in a layer of dead leaves and decomposing animal matter.
Kiron stared at the witch’s back as she trudged through the undergrowth. Her apology had taken him by surprise. The words were meaningless, humans lied as easily as they drew breath, but her tone had been sincere.
She stopped. He halted, closer to her than he would have liked. Backing up was not an easy thing for him, so rather than attempt the ungainly process he remained where he was. A warm scent, dark and rich, rose in the air. He scanned the forest floor, looking for the source, wondering if there was true life struggling through the contaminated soil. There was nothing.
He looked again and the witch’s hair, a streak of blonde in the dark of the wood, caught his attention. Kiron drew a deep breath and snorted in surprise. The scent was coming from her, a scent that he couldn’t identify and was unlike any human’s he’d been in contact with before.
The witch’s head twisted side to side, her eyes closed. The hated cuff around his wrist began to glow again, the runes filling with murky red light. Kiron lifted his wrist to examine it. The dark metal band was fused to his skin at wrist and mid-forearm, but moved as he twisted his wrist. The metal was not static, but fluid, allowing him full range of motion.
The light in the cuff flared brighter. The witch was drawing on his power, the power of The Wild.
“What are you doing?” he asked, curious as to why she’d stopped to toy with the spell. He would have preferred to remain silent as an expression of his displeasure, but curiosity consumed him.
“They’re coming,” the witch whispered, a hollow desperation in her voice that caused the hair on his arms to stand on end.
She crouched and set down the cauldron, slipping the strap of the bag off her shoulder. When she straightened, she reached over her shoulder and grasped the sword handle.
* * * *
Moira struggled to breathe. Panic and fear swirled through her, making it hard to concentrate, and the magic she pulled from the centaur did not help. Like him, the magic was wild, pure Wild. His magic was pure as lightning, and that’s what it felt like, lightning in her veins.
“The…the magic.” She paused to breath, centering herself. “It’s strong.”
“How do I—”
The centaur snorted and stamped his hoof. “You enslave me and then expect me to advise you how best to use me?”
“I just… I need…” Deep breathing wasn’t working. The magic and her emotions combined to rob her of coherent thought. She felt like a glass full of swirling liquid, the contents coming dangerously close to the top.
Distracted as she was, Moira’s instincts were good, magic born, and those instincts had her turning away, dropping and rolling on the potent forest floor as a gargoyle swooped between the trees, claws spread and ready for her.
The centaur reared, front hooves pawing the air. “What is that?” he yelled.
The gargoyle made a second pass, stone wings breaking off whole branches as it dove between the trees. Moira rolled sideways, moisture from the ground soaking into her clothing. As the gargoyle rose out of its dive, Moira lifted one hand, palm facing the gargoyle.
“I call away the veneer of life. What was once stone is stone again.” She threw a punch of power behind the same spell she’d used on the snake. The spell leapt from her hand in a ball of atmosphere, winging, nearly invisible, through the night. The gargoyle was twenty feet in the air when the spell hit it. The gargoyle’s wings stopped moving. Moira held her breath.
The moment of suspension broke, and the gargoyle tumbled to the ground, a thousand pounds of stone crashing into the forest floor. Stone claws sank deep into the earth, rooting the inanimate sculpture there. The centaur reared back on his hind legs when the heavy thing hit the ground.
Moira jumped to her feet. “Yes! It worked. I knew it could. All I needed was more power.” Elated and slightly power-drunk, Moira turned and smiled at the centaur.
“Did you see that?” she demanded, pointing at the fallen gargoyle.
“Aye.” His gaze darted between her and the gargoyle, “What was that—”
She never saw the second one. This time her instincts failed her. One moment she was looking at the dark outline of the centaur, the next, pain seared through her shoulders. This gargoyle dug granite talons deep into her, hooking them around her collarbone and shoulder blades. A single beat of his stone wings lifted her from the ground.
Moira screamed, her legs kicking in the air. Pain and panic welled. She tried to turn her hand to direct the spell, but could not move her arms. Each beat of the monster’s wings took her further away from the safety of the Earth.
Focus, focus. She shouldn’t need to direct the spell. The monster was touching her. “I call…call…away the veneer of life. What was once stone is stone again.”
The beating wings faltered, but did not stop. She needed the same power level she’d used in the first casting. She drew against her spell with the centaur, pulling raw magic through him. The Wild’s magic flooded her, consumed her. She’d pulled too much. She couldn’t control it. The magic leached out into the night.
* * * *
Kiron watched the strange grey beast lift the witch into the air. He could feel her drawing on the spell. Her pull was uneven, panic driven. He saw the faint green glow of his power as it leached from her body, out of her control. There was no doubt in his mind that she needed power to use the spell that had felled the first beast. He was also sure that this time, she could not do it. The connection between them allowed him to feel her panic and fear. As she rose in the clutches of the unnatural beast his arm began to ache, the runes of his cuff flooding with angry red light.
He could withstand the pain in his arm. He could allow the beast to carry her away. Undoubtedly what was intended for her would break the spell, and he would be free of this enchantment. Free to return home. All he had to do was wait. Wait and do nothing.
“Goddess bless me,” he growled. Damning himself for being ten kinds of a fool, he reached up and snapped a large branch from the tree closest to him. At his touch the curved branch straightened. The limbs and leaves were stripped away until he held a six-foot lance. Tightening his grip, he transferred magic to the branch, filling it until the wood fibers crackled with white light.
Kiron planted his hooves and drew back his right arm, twisting his upper body. With a roar he threw the javelin. Straight and pure, it arched through the night, striking the beast forty feet in the air. There was a grating crack, and the beast split. The gray speckled wings separated from the massive body, each of the four limbs splintering, as the snarling head separated from the neck.
Kiron smiled in grim satisfaction as the pieces began to fall Earthward. Tumbling among the chunks of grey was another shape.
He had not saved her from the monster only to let her frail human body be broken by the impact. He darted between the trees, branches lashing at his bare chest and face. As he galloped, he threw up a shield around the place where she would land. A thin silver bubble arched up out of the forest floor. Making a hard right around a tree, hooves slipping slightly, he galloped into the bubble. Looking up, he saw large chunks of the beast falling fast. One particularly large piece was headed right for him. Kiron stood tall, searching for the witch among the tumbling debris.
There. He saw her. Moving forward and to the left, Kiron kept his eyes on the witch. The first chunk of rock beast fell and struck the dome of magic, bouncing off and thudding to the ground. Around the bubble the other pieces fell, ricocheting and slamming into the forest floor, some striking trees so that the trunks rattled and the sleeping beasts within set up a din of calls. Kiron noticed none of this. He held out his arms.
The witch passed through the dome and fell into his outstretched arms. With a grunt, Kiron caught her, pulling her in close against his chest, as the sky fell around them.
Moira turned her face into his chest, gasping for air and fighting down the terrified sobbing that welled in her chest. Her back and chest ached from the stone talons.
She’d come close to losing this time. If the centaur hadn’t been there…
“Can you walk?”
His words rumbled through her where she was held to his chest. His body heat scorched her even through the layers of damp clothing.
“Yes, I can walk,” Moira murmured, teeth chattering slightly.
The arm under her knees let go, swinging her legs free. With a man this might have meant her feet touched the floor, but with the centaur her toes dangled far above the ground. She sucked in a hard breath as his hold across her back transferred her body weight to her abused shoulders.
The centaur grunted, wrapping his free hand around her waist and lifted her, alleviating the pressure.
“How bad is the damage to your body?” he asked, tone cool and calm as that of an ER doctor.
“I…hurt, but I don’t think it’s too bad.”
Slipping his other hand to her waist, he lowered her to the ground. He held her for a moment as she steadied her legs. Tears welled along Moira’s lower lashes. It had been a long time since someone had offered her help or comfort with a touch.
This time the centaur led, picking between the trees and fallen chunks of stone. Moira let her aching arms hang limp at her side as she plodded along behind him, fighting to regain her composure. As they passed the severed stone head of the first gargoyle, its thick lips pulled back over long sharp teeth, the slitted, pupilless eyes seemed to stare at her.
Moira must have made some sound because the centaur flicked his tail at her, the course strands of hair whipping against her thigh.
“Do not look at it,” he commanded, and, worn out as she was, Moira just nodded, focusing on plodding behind him. They passed between two trees into a stream of moonlight, and Moira got her first clear look at her centaur.
Had he been a horse alone he would have been eighteen or nineteen hands, but with his human torso atop that he was over ten feet tall. His coat was glossy black, like liquid obsidian stretched thin and taught over bone and muscle. The tail he’d flicked her with was black as well, the strands dull when compared to the high gloss of his coat.
His human half, rising smoothly from the pool of obsidian, was golden. Hair, shoulder length and curled, was black, and as glossy as his coat, the ends brushing the top of his shoulders. Every inch of him, be it human or horse, was muscled and defined—without flaw.
The centaur stopped, and Moira moved up beside his shoulder. He’d led them back to the spot where she’d sloughed her bag and cauldron. Moira searched the underbrush for her fallen sword. When she located it tangled in a bush, the leather-wrapped handle peeking from between leaves, she pulled it free, her injured shoulder protesting the movement.
The scabbard still hung across her chest, waiting for the sword. Moira raised the blade, trying to lift it up and over her shoulder to slip it into the scabbard, but her arm shook, the sword wavering dangerously close to her face.
The centaur pulled the sword from her grasp, jerking the scabbard over her head and off. Moira let her arm fall.
She was both ashamed of her weakness and relieved to have him take the sword from her. Moira was exhausted, injured and more than willing to give up control for a few moments.
She turned to see the centaur shrug the scabbard over his shoulder. The rich dark leather emphasized the glow of his golden chest. He effortlessly swung the sword over his shoulder and slid it into place with one long smooth stroke. The moon was behind him, keeping his face in shadow. She had yet to see his features.
“It looks like you’ve done that before,” she commented.
His head turned, a few locks of hair swinging forward to dance against his jaw. “The Wild has known its share of human war.”
“I thought The Wild did not get involved in human matters.”
“Sometimes the humans give us no choice.” He lifted his arm and the dark cuff caught the moonlight.
Moira lowered her head, too tired to continue her protestation of need. The silence hung, heavy and dark, between them. The forest was quiet. Their still figures blended with the silence. Moira’s shoulders and head bowed under the burden she carried.
The silence broke when he moved away, the beat of his hooves more felt than heard. He moved to her bag and cauldron, bending his front legs forward, kneeling so he could pick them up.
Moira jumped forward. “I can carry them.”
“You cannot. You could not lift the sword.”
“I didn’t call you to be my servant.” Steeling herself, Moira reached out, placing her hand against his shoulder, which was nearly level with hers in his kneeling position. Heat soaked into her fingers. “You have no reason to believe me, but I’m telling you the truth when I say that I didn’t cast that spell lightly.”
“That I believe, for it is only when they are desperate that humans are so foolish as to call something they do not understand.”
He rose, her brightly colored gym bag and cauldron each clenched in a hand, her own hand sliding away from him. She curled her fingers into a fist, holding on to the last of his heat.
“We must go. Your enemies have located us. It is not safe to remain,” he said, motioning with his head for her to lead.
Moira nodded and turned away, leading them from the forest. It took almost twenty minutes of steady walking before the wood thinned, trees giving way to bushes, tangled undergrowth turning to grass.
A field bordered the forest. In the distance the wild tangle of grasses gave way to uniform green mowed grass and beyond that a parking lot intruded into nature, a lone vehicle the only occupant.
Moira moved to the centaur, tentatively gesturing at her gym bag. He grunted and held it out, half of the bag crushed in his massive fist. Moira unzipped one of the exterior pockets and pulled out a ring of keys and a chunk of crystal on a chain.
“What is that?” he pointed to the crystal.
“It’s a crystal, something I use to hold a spell. It’s late and no one should be around, but we can’t risk having some see you.”
“I don’t need it.”
“Please, we can’t risk—”
“When I say I do not need it, it is because I do not. I can make myself invisible to human eyes.”
“Fine.” Moira stuffed the crystal back into the bag, zipping it closed. “We’re headed for that truck over there, do you know what a truck is?”
“I am not completely ignorant of the polluting and lazy ways of humans. I know what a truck is.”
“Good.” Moira stepped back, jiggling the keys nervously, watching him.
The centaur stepped out of the trees, and for the first time Moira saw his face in full. He was beautiful, not the pale beauty of slender artistic men, or the overly polished beauty of the famous. High sharp cheekbones were matched by a strong jaw. It was a sculpted face, the hollows between cheek and jaw shadowed in the moonlight. His eyes were large and dark, glittering beneath straight black brows. He turned to her, feeling her gaze, and Moira was caught by his. His eyes were black, completely black, no white surrounding.
“Your eyes…they’re black.”
Those obsidian pools took her in, examining her head to toe.
“Yes, green-eyed witch, my eyes are black.”
“I’m sorry. It just…startled me.”
Moira realized she didn’t even know his name. She opened her mouth to ask, but he turned his gaze to the sky, tipping his head back, and a shower of pale sparks, like the fuzzy lights of a firework, spilled over him. The sparks lit up the night for a brief moment, as fleeting as the light of a falling star.
As the white sparks faded Moira could see that he was now a shadowy form, nothing more than tinted mist. She tilted her head to the side. As impressive as his spell was, he was still very noticeable. It would take completely invisibility to hide a ten-foot centaur.
“You need to be completely invisible, not just transparent.”
His head turned to her and Moira sucked in a breath when she saw that his eyes were still black, not transparent in the least.
“You can see me?”
“Yea. You kind of look like a ghost, but I can see you.”
“You should not be able to see me.”
“Sorry, but I can.”
He stepped forward, his ghostly form no less intimidating than when he was solid. Tilting his head, he examined her a second time.
“You…are not human.”
Moira turned away and started across the field. She would not respond to his comment, except with the frantic beating of her heart. Perhaps if she walked fast enough she could forget his words, wish them unspoken.
She walked until her chest ached, as if there was band around her lungs and heart. It was the spell, calling them together, wanting them close, so he could serve the purpose she’d called him for. Pride, and fear of what he might say, or questions he might ask, kept Moira moving, kept her walking despite the pain.
The ache lessened, the band in her chest loosening until it disappeared, just as his ghostly form, silent on the transparent hooves, galloped up beside her.
He didn’t mention her humanity.
Side by side they crossed from the wild meadow to manicured grass. Exposed as she was in the field, Moira’s other emotions faded in returning fear of the things that hunted her. Being out in the open did not make her more vulnerable—the gargoyles had found her in the middle of a dense forest—but she felt endangered.
Moira stepped over a low-slung chain, strung between two tilted wood supports, onto the asphalt of the parking lot. The centaur jumped gracefully over the chain.
Jiggling the keys, Moira winced in anticipation of his reaction to what she was about to say.
“I…uh…was not sure what creature the spell would call, so I…uh…just got a truck.” Moira motioned to the twelve-foot moving van she’d rented. She’d really hoped for something along the lines of a sprite, but had tried to prepare for any eventuality. Good thing she had.
“I am to ride… in that box on the back?”
“I didn’t know what I’d get, you’re lucky I didn’t get something smaller.” Moira’s explanation tumbled from her lips. Hopefully he would see that she did not mean this as an insult, it was just a matter of practicalities.
“I cannot ride around in an airless box.”
“It is not airless, just kinda…dark.”
He snorted and stamped one hoof, though there was no accompanying clomp.
“Can you transport yourself to the location I give you? Can you teleport?” she asked, not wanting to put the creature who had saved her in the back of a moving van.
“That is not how my magic works, and to do that would separate us.” He flexed his arm, drawing attention to the cuff.
Hoping his words indicated acceptance, she undid the padlock holding the big roll-up door closed. Pulling the padlock free, she pushed the lever out of its slot and shoved the door up, yelping as her forgotten shoulder injuries protested.
“There is a lock,” he noted as Moira pulled out the ramp and let it clatter onto the asphalt.
“Yea, just to hold the door closed.”
“Don’t lock it.”
“I need the lock to hold the door down.”
“I will ensure the door does not open. Do not put the lock on. I will not get in there if you do,” he said, jerking his head at the yawning dark maw of the van. His chin lifted to a stubborn angle, the muscles at the corners of his jawbone flexed.
“No lock,” she agreed.
She held out her hands for the cauldron and gym bag. He passed them to her and Moira hid her pain at accepting their weight. As they passed from his hands to her, and out of contact with his spell, the bag and cauldron changed from ghostly impressions to full color and opacity.
She knelt to set down the cauldron, tucking the bag inside. The centaur picked his way up the ramp, which groaned under his weight, the whole truck shifting. He ducked as he stepped onto the flat bed. Big as the moving van was, he was too tall for it.
“There’re some blankets if you want to, uh, lie down.”
He barely managed to turn around, being nearly as wide as the truck from chest to tail. Once he’d repositioned, he dissolved the spell and grunted at her. His human torso was bent forward, his head bowed to keep it away from the ceiling. The expression on his face was not too friendly.
Deciding speed was the better part of valor, Moira shoved the ramp in place and then jumped on the back bumper, grabbing the strap for the door.
“Don’t worry. This will only take about forty minutes.”
“Forty minutes?” Surprise had him jerking up, his head making painful contact with the metal roof. As the echoes of the impact faded, Moira slammed the door closed, considered breaking her word and locking it, but then deciding to not irritate him any further and slid the lever into place.
Tugging the cauldron and her gym bag to the cab of the truck, she hauled them up the high step with her and threw them on the passenger side of the long bench. Once the door was closed, she had to pause to let the needles of pain in both shoulders die down.
Wrapping her hand around a crystal that hung on the review mirror, a high-level cloaking spell trapped within, Moira drew on her connection to the centaur, transferring power until the crystal glowed with murky white light. For the first time the cloaking spell would function at its full potential.
Taking a moment, she laid her head back and allowed a single brief smile. She’d done it. She’d called The Wild. His power hummed through her body. Liquid lightning at full force, the small dose she’d just pulled bubbled in her blood like good champagne.
Throwing the truck into gear, she motored out of the parking lot.
* * * *
In the back of the van, hooves braced against the sway of the moving vehicle, Kiron hung his head to keep it from hitting the ceiling and let his anger at the witch build once more.
She was arrogant and foolish, trapping one of The Wild because she was too weak to survive on her own. Pitiful humans…
But she was not human, she could not be.
She’d seen through his spell in the way only another of magic blood could. When confronted, she had walked away, putting space between them until it felt like the flesh of his arm was being cleaved from the bone. Whatever she was, she had not admitted to being anything but human. Fascinating.
He struggled to hold his anger, but curiosity took its place.
Did she want to be human? He could not imagine that desire. Humans were weak and needy, frail, though she seemed less so than others he had known and heard about. She was strong. She’d stood up to him, refused to relent and grant him freedom despite his anger. He remembered how she’d looked, soft yet dangerous as she brandished her sword, strong and confident as she shot the first beast from the sky with her magic. Desire, clean and sharp, like summer rain, poured through him.
And then he remembered how she’d looked as she fell, that frail human body tumbling through the air. When he had caught her, held her to his chest, her frailty had not felt like a liability, instead he’d wanted to keep holding her, protect her. He’d shaken that off…most of it. The pain that had darted across her features as she tried to lift the sword had raised that need to protect once more.
Perhaps it was because she was a female. In times past, the greatest of his kind were worshipped as Gods and human women were offered up as tribute and sent naked into the wood to pleasure the centaurs. He’d believed the tales to be nothing more than colorful legends as he could not imagine finding a human female attractive.
But this one stirred him, this human witch, who was not human at all.
Curiosity, like a drug, coursed through him. He’d never seen the likes of the great stone beasts that attacked her, had believed the ability to bind The Wild a skill lost to witches. Most interesting of all was her denial of her lack of humanity.
Even if the spell had not bound him to her, his curiosity would have kept him at her side until he solved the puzzle. It was the nature of his kind, the centaur, to be both fierce warrior and intelligent, curious scholar. His own line was descended from Chiron, a great teacher, who had tutored many of the greatest heroes of mythology from Kiron’s homeland of Greece. That same mythology said that the centaurs died out, that their wild ways had driven them to extinction, but it was not so. Like so many of the magic blood races they’d faded into the woods, into the night and into myth.
A particularly rude turn had Kiron scrambling to keep his balance. When his left flank banged into the wall, he decided he’d had enough. Closing his eyes, Kiron called up his magic, sparks lighting the inside of the dingy box he rode in as his centaur form melted away. The light faded and Kiron stretched, not liking this form, but decided it was preferable to being bounced into walls. He seated himself comfortably on the stack of blankets and closed his eyes, waiting out the rest of the ride.
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