No sooner than the heavy door closed—cla-thump—did the world go vacant and black. No light. No color. No sound.
No shit! “I don’t like this,” Miranda Kane whispered to her sister, Tabitha, who clutched her hand. She took one small step back.
“But you’re here because you love me. And you were just going to be studying.”
Tabitha said it as if studying wasn’t all that important. Easy for her to say. She’d already scored high enough on the SAT and she wasn’t the one who was dyslexic …
“Please,” Tabitha whispered. “I’d do this for you.”
So true. “I do love you, but I—”
“Shh, she might hear you.” Tabitha’s shaky voice came out so low it faded into the shadows. She took a step, drawing Miranda closer. “I think we go this way.”
“Think?” Miranda’s heart slowed down to the eerie beat of music in a scary movie. “I thought you’d done this before?”
“I did. But for some reason it’s darker in here this time.” Tabitha’s grip tightened with confidence, but her palm, slick with fear, told a different story. Still, she pulled Miranda into a tomb-like obscurity, a hallway perhaps, leading her to the place where an old fortune-teller waited.
Tabitha must have stopped walking, because Miranda bumped right into her. “Let’s just leave.” She gave Tabitha’s hand a come-on tug.
Her sister tugged back. “No. I really need this.”
Those words brushed against the side of Miranda’s cheek. They stood that close, but her eyes hadn’t adjusted and only blackness filled her vision. She blinked and finally made out her sister’s silhouette. They stood at the same height. Same weight. Looked enough alike to be twins, but Tabitha, five months older, was only her half sister.
Yup, that meant their father had been a bad boy. The dirty little secret had remained buried until nine months ago. Growing up an only child had been lonely for both of them. Neither Miranda nor Tabitha had stopped resenting the missed time.
“There.” Tabitha’s one word tiptoed through the darkness.
Miranda blinked and saw the fire-like radiance that called them forward.
“Okay, we do this and leave. Fast.” Her last word came out laced with determination. Being here felt like a bad idea. And it wasn’t because they were going to be late to their dinner date.
The soft clip clop of their footsteps was swallowed by blackness as they inched down the hall. Soon they moved through a doorway into a glow. The air thickened with the scent of burnt herbs. Through flickering light Miranda saw the old woman, sitting at a scarred wooden table that held eight candles and one crystal ball.
She didn’t move.
Did her heart even beat?
Miranda held what little oxygen she had in her lungs. Unfocusing her gaze, she studied the woman’s forehead, where patterns told one’s species but were readable only by other supernaturals. Was the woman even Wiccan? Her scroll-like markings labeled her as a witch like Miranda and Tabitha. The lack of color in that design characterized her as one with questionable morals. And her overall appearance portrayed her as battier than bat shit.
Her thick gray hair stood up in knots, as if a rat had taken up residence in the unkempt mess. Her clothes, all black, hung loose and ragged as if she’d not only stopped caring, but stopped eating. Her skin, a map of wrinkles, clung to her skull.
She looked … older than dirt. Dirty. Dead tired. Ready to leave this world that apparently hadn’t been kind to her. The question was: was she a victim or a culprit in her own demise?
“You…” The witch’s scratchy voice clawed at the air. “You go first.” Her faded gray gaze eased away from her crystal ball and stalled on Miranda.
Stayed on her in a way that made Miranda’s breath catch. Warning chills slithered up and down her spine and she cupped her hand to keep from sending the woman the finger. Not the middle one, where insults arose, but her pinky, from where magic and forewarnings ensued.
She almost choked on the smoky air as the shadows in the room inched closer, ready to pounce.
Miranda moved a cautionary gaze left then right. Everything felt haunted—possessed.
Heavy drapes, blood-red in color, clung to the entire back wall as if a living, breathing entity. The thick claustrophobic fabric blocked the sunlight from entering while trapping the shadowy darkness within. The room felt like a …
No, not just the room—the entire house—felt like a prison.
The ambience and sinister décor was not the norm for a witch who followed the do-no-harm policy. Then again, all of this could simply be for show to entertain her human clients—clients who without eerie ambience didn’t believe in magic. Still, the woman could have at least combed her hair.
Maybe even used a little moisturizer on her face.
Why in Hades had Miranda allowed Tabitha to talk her into this?
It was nuts.
“Why not you?” the old witch taunted.
Miranda stiffened her spine with false bravado. “My sister’s the high priestess. She should go first.” She gave Tabitha a nudge. And as soon as the fortune spilled from the old woman’s lips, Miranda planned to get the hell out of here. She’d agreed to accompany her sister, not to participate.
“I know who she is,” the old witch said. “I do not know who you are. And your fear feeds my curiosity.” She cocked her head and continued to stare. “It isn’t me you fear, is it? Are you frightened of what you will learn? Afraid my words will break your heart?”
Afraid? Hell yeah! Was Miranda the only one who understood the ol’ adage: ignorance is bliss? Especially when it comes to love. And that was this witch’s specialty. Supposedly humans paid big bucks for her to forecast their love lives and expose unfaithful lovers. For her fellow witches, she gave discounts. She was dubbed the reader of love, lust, and longings.
Right now, all Miranda longed to do was to get the hell out of here.
“Should I be afraid?” Miranda asked, hoping the fear rattling her soul didn’t sound in her voice. But right then Miranda felt it. A new kind of fear. Her skin began to crawl, her heart felt overly heavy. This was not just fear, but a forewarning of impending doom. Was the witch causing it? This place? Or something altogether different?
Maybe the latter, since this feeling had hit yesterday as well. Impending doom didn’t always mean immediate.
Miranda glanced at Tabitha. Was she feeling it, too? Was something terrible about to happen? In spite of being only half sisters, they shared the talent of premonition. Not of good things to come, mind you, just crappy stuff.
To Miranda’s relief, Tabitha didn’t look concerned. Which could mean that the foreboding might just be an overreaction on Miranda’s part. Or was her sister not reacting because her heart remained preoccupied with Anthony Bastin?
“This was a silly idea,” Miranda spoke up. They were witches for Goddess’ sake. They sure as heck didn’t need another witch, one who mostly did theatrical tricks for humans, to give them a look-see into their so-called love lives. Besides, she had Ernie, her real magic eight ball, to offer advice. Not that he was always reliable, but again, maybe she didn’t need to know everything.
“Not silly,” Tabitha said. “If she wants you to go first, just do it. Pleeeease.” The last word came out soft and pulled on Miranda’s heartstrings. And with that tug, the foreboding faded.
Shifting her focus away from her sister’s imploring expression, Miranda caught two gold eyes staring at her—with the same look—from the shadows in the corner of the room. She wasn’t sure, but those piercing eyes appeared to belong to an armadillo. Did the scaly creature live here? Was it the woman’s pet? Or worse? Her prisoner? Maybe even a human turned into a rodent-like beast?
And if the latter, that could be bad. Good witches knew the penalties for imprisoning a soul. To not heed the rules could lead to dire consequences.
The animal shifted back and the slightest sound of metal on metal rattled. Blinking, Miranda spotted the small chain around the ugly creature’s leg. Her breath caught. This was so not good.
She cut her eyes to her sister. “I really think we should just—”
“No. Just a few more minutes.” Tabitha grabbed Miranda’s hand. “I need to know what she says about Anthony. And I don’t want to do it alone.”
Anthony was a French vampire she and her sister had met while in Paris. He’d come to Texas about three weeks ago and he and Tabitha had been dating secretly behind her mother’s back, because her mom insisted she only date warlocks. While Miranda’s mom didn’t apply quite the same pressure, she often reminded Miranda how pleased she was to have her now dating someone of her own kind. “It’s just easier to make a relationship work when there are no culture issues,” her mom had said.
Just because something was easier, didn’t mean it was right.
Nevertheless, her mom’s unappreciated words of wisdom were just enough to make Miranda worry. Worry that if things didn’t work out between her and Shawn she’d be disappointing her mom once again. And that seemed to be something Miranda excelled at lately.
“You promised,” Tabitha pleaded.
Yeah, Miranda had promised, and letting Tabitha down felt wrong, too. They were sisters after all.
“Fine. But we’re going to be late meeting Shawn and Anthony.” Miranda glanced back at the witch. “Go ahead.” She pushed her feelings aside, determined not to believe a damn thing the witch said.
Rising on skinny legs, the old woman reached out. Before Miranda knew her intent, her deed was done.
“Ouch!” She glared at the woman and rubbed her scalp where the old witch had yanked out her hair. The witch dropped Miranda’s strawberry blond strands into an old stone bowl that looked blackened from fire.
The old sorceress slowly raised her arms. Her creaky and almost crippled body danced as if that could add power to her spell. Complete theatrics. Every witch knew all she really needed to move was her pinky.
Yet, Miranda took advantage of the woman’s dog and pony show and pointed her own pinky toward the hidden animal in the shadows. The light clink of the chain falling away was barely audible but told Miranda she’d accomplished her objective.
Now to figure out how to accomplish her other objective—getting the hell out of here.
The witch stopped dancing and started to chant. “Two strands of a fair maiden’s hair, a tip of a raven’s feather.” She picked up a feather and used the sharpened edge of a long fingernail to cut off the very end of the feather. The tiny ink-black clippings floated down, disappearing into the bowl.
She raised her gaze and her voice up, as if speaking to a greater power. “A scraping of a cat’s claw, the breath of pure magic, and the fire from the devil himself!”
Okay. That last ingredient gave Miranda’s nerves another hit. Was the witch well acquainted with the devil? Did she partner with evil to accomplish her magic? Or was this just part of a well-practiced act?
Pushing back the urge to panic, Miranda noted that the woman didn’t look as evil as she did demented. Not that both couldn’t be dangerous.
Then the witch used another fingernail, talon-like in appearance, to scratch away a few tiny particles from the feline claw. The mere specks of dust cascaded down to the bowl as if they knew their path and dared not detour. She lifted her face, pursed her lips, and breathed into the air. A plume of fire burst forth and she reached up. Catching one of the red embers between her gnarled fingers, she dropped it into the bowl.
Flames rose from the brew and the recognizable stench of burnt hair filled the room.
Miranda put her hand over her nose and cut her eyes to the door. Okay, now it looked a little more like black magic than an act. Would it be cowardly of her to run? Probably.
Did she care?
No. Not about appearing like a coward—bravery wasn’t her forte—that was Kylie and Della’s cup of tea. Her roommates were badass. But Miranda did care … about Tabitha.
As if reading her mind, Tabitha’s hand came out and gripped Miranda’s arm.
Inhaling a deep gulp of singed air, she resigned herself to carry through. After all, this wasn’t the first time she’d come face-to-face with black magic.
Chin held high, she turned to the woman again, the flames from the bowl flickered in the witch’s eyes and made their gray color brighten to a cold hue of silver.
“Can we get this show on the road? We’ve got a double date to be at in fifteen minutes.” Miranda forced a calm in her voice that she didn’t feel.
Are you afraid of what you will learn? Afraid my words will tear your soul apart?
The witch’s questions echoed inside Miranda’s head and registered as truth. Her heart admitted it wasn’t just the possibility of black magic that sent her pulse dancing. She was afraid of hearing she’d made a mistake. That she shouldn’t have turned her back on Perry, a shape-shifter she’d loved, to turn her sights on Shawn Hanson, a hot warlock FRU agent. Maybe her heart wasn’t ready.
And that next weekend might be the biggest mistake of all. Going away a few days with Shawn pretty much said they were taking the relationship up a notch. A notch that meant getting naked, getting naughty, and knocking out her whole still-a-virgin-at-almost-eighteen issue.
Not that she was ashamed of that. Face it, she could’ve found a volunteer to help change her status. But call her old-fashioned, she believed sex should be special, and with someone special.
Shawn was special.
She cared about him. He was … wonderful, kind, and patient. He had the looks that had girls staring—kisses as sweet as cotton candy. He had the attributes that not only made him hot boyfriend material, but life-mate material.
But it wasn’t what he was or had that made her question her decision. It was what he wasn’t and didn’t have.
He didn’t have that sneak-up-on-you effect that made her stop paying attention in class just to write his name over and over again. His smile, while sweet as soft rain, didn’t have that melt-me quality that made her feel shaky, silly, and slightly dizzy. His presence, as fulfilling as it was when he was there, wasn’t making her feel devastatingly empty when he wasn’t. While his qualities were perfect life-mate material, her heart wasn’t screaming soul mate.
He wasn’t making her feel what a certain shape-shifter had made her feel not so long ago.
Was it because it was new? Did her feelings for Shawn just need time to grow? Was it because she was older and adult love felt less consuming? Or was she just scared to let herself care that deeply again?
She had a thousand reasons why this relationship building with Shawn would feel different from what she’d had with Perry—even more reasons to put her trust in Shawn. And that was what she had to remember.
The witch waved the smoky fumes up into her face and inhaled, then she put her hand over the bowl and smothered the flames.
“Hand me your palm.” The witch’s gnarled hand reached for Miranda’s wrist.
“Why?” Miranda’s one-word question hung in the air.
“Just do it,” Tabitha said. “It won’t hurt, I’ve had it done numerous times. This is how I knew Brady was cheating on me.”
Shawn wasn’t cheating on her. Miranda knew that with all her heart. He was the most loyal guy she’d ever met.
The witch looked up at Tabitha and frowned. “And if you’d come to me before you got with him, I would have warned you of him and the death of that relationship before it ever started. The guy was a weasel.”
“I wanted to trust my heart,” Tabitha said.
Her sister’s words gave Miranda’s own reservations more merit. Wasn’t that what Miranda wanted? She didn’t need an old witch’s answer to confuse her. Her heart was confused enough.
“Never trust that fickle organ,” the witch said. “It beats merely to lead you wrong, just so you feel it break and know it’s there.” The witch looked back at Miranda. “Now, give me your hand!”
Feeling optionless, Miranda did as ordered. The witch placed Miranda’s hand on top of the bowl then turned it over. The warm ashes fell against her skin but didn’t burn. Quite the opposite actually. A cold unnatural shiver ran up her arm and down her spine, leaving footprints on her very soul.
The witch continued to hold Miranda’s wrist, but removed the bowl. Miranda felt it then. The power, the undeniable sensation of magic. Whatever the woman said would be the truth. Black magic or not. This woman’s words would not be a lie.
And then what? Her heart thumped out the question. Would she walk away from Shawn? Would she completely give up on Perry? Was she really ready to hear this?
She glanced down. The ashes had created a pattern on her palm, almost like a henna tattoo. She watched as it spread up her wrist and midway to her forearm.
The armadillo rushed across the witch’s feet, his tiny paws and overgrown claws tapping against the old wood floor. Miranda heard the old witch gasp. She dropped Miranda’s hand and lurched back.
Tabitha reached for Miranda’s arm. “Why did her marks spread like that and mine never have?”
The witch stumbled a few more steps back and looked first at the freed creature, then back to Miranda’s arm. The white of her eyes grew larger. But from what? Fear? Shock? Anger that her armadillo was free? What was she thinking?
“You should go!” Her gravelly voice rang in the dark, followed by a sound of distant thunder.
“Go?” Tabitha asked, the single-word question punctuated with a low back-of-the-throat sound of disapproval. “Not until you read me. I need to know about Anthony. My mom hates him, but I think he might be my life mate.”
“Go. Now!” The witch’s gaze shot back to Miranda. Fear and something else flickered in her eyes.
Was she pissed because Miranda had freed the animal, or were … were Miranda’s markings making the witch panic?
Before Miranda could decide which it was, encroaching thunder shattered the silence. The walls, the drapes, the table, everything in the room started trembling. The approaching storm drew closer as if something in this very room called it.
The candles on the table shook, their flames reaching up higher and higher. Miranda held out her pinky to calm the chaos, but no magic came out.
She saw Tabitha attempt and fail with the same calming spell.
The armadillo made a hissing noise. It scurried closer to the door, stopping at the threshhold. Its glowing golden eyes seemed to suggest they follow. Smart armadillo.
The sensation of a premonition restarted low in her gut and began to grow.
“Everyone should leave.” Miranda looked at the witch and knew it was true. The heart and pulse of the storm was aimed right for them. Thunder shook the foundation of the house. The smell and sting of its power filled the air.
Devastation hung seconds away. “Out everyone!” Miranda waved for the witch to move.
She didn’t move. Could she not feel this? Hear this? Or was she the one causing it?
The roar of impending calamity rang louder in Miranda’s ears. Lightning hit the table and the crystal ball exploded. The sizzle and crack of it sent shards of glass through the air.
Several of those shards pricked Miranda’s skin. Blood trickled down her arm, streaking the marks the witch had put on her.
“We’ve gotta go! Come on,” Miranda screamed, but the witch remained frozen in an odd kind of stillness. A few rivulets of blood snaked down the old lady’s face, getting trapped in her deep wrinkles. Miranda reached for her but she jerked back as if Miranda was the evil one.
The sound of the storm screamed louder. Miranda grabbed her sister’s arm and pulled her out of the room, down the dark hall, and hurried in the direction of the door. Hitting a wall, she brushed her hand around searching for … Finding the doorknob, she swung it open.
Sunlight blasted inside, but left her blind. She kept moving. Her clasp tightened on her sister’s hand.
They’d barely escaped to the porch when the loud ka-boom sounded behind them. “Mother crackers!” Miranda screamed as the force of the explosion threw both her and her sister across the yard. The last thing registering in Miranda’s brain was her sister’s fingers sliding from her grip.
She tried to hang on.
She tried with all her heart. With all her strength. But her sister was gone. Nothing but charcoal-colored smoke filled Miranda’s vision.
Everything went black.
Copyright © 2016 by Christie Craig