Sneaking through the dark streets in the Shade, Sophia followed Andreas, Edric, and Ezekiel. They stuck to the shadows, hoping to avoid detection from the guard that had increased their patrols in the past week. Winston had yet to blame them for the death of Headmistress Mittle, but with the rise in the number of guards, everyone in the group knew it was only a matter of time before they would come knocking down the door of Ezekiel’s estate.
Andreas had mentioned some of the abandoned buildings outside of the Shade that were left empty since the wraiths moved in. People of Nighthelm were still wary of the race, even after the king had given them citizenship, and they avoided the Shade at all costs.
That worked for them.
“Just there,” Andreas said, pointing to an old tavern and inn. “What do you think, Zeke?”
Zeke narrowed his eyes on the old building in disrepair. He nodded. “Yup. It’ll do.”
“Good,” Edric said. “Let’s get set up.”
Haris groaned. Sophia patted his side. The poor guy would be cramped, but it was a temporary fix. With all the hope she had within her, she knew they would find the heirs and get this whole mess cleared.
“We’ll have to go back and ensure the wards and traps are set at my place,” Ezekiel said. “And gather some supplies needed to keep the ones here going. It will take a lot of power to keep them active. Someone will take notice, but hopefully not before we can locate the heirs.”
Sophia nodded. “How long do you think we will have?”
Ezekiel shrugged. “One week. Two tops. But I can work on devising a way to keep the minimum power needed to make this work for as long as necessary.”
“Good,” Sophia said. “That should buy us enough time.” At least she hoped.
“Let’s get set up then,” Andreas said and continued forward. “The beds will probably smell, but I can see about getting some new linens from the Shade.”
“We’ll make do,” Sophia said.
Once inside, the smell of dust and rot filled their noses. Haris groaned his displeasure. The main room was cramped, and only simple stools were available for sitting. In the dining room portion of the building, there were a few booths in dire need of oil and a good polish, but they at least had solid tables.
“I’ll get started on the wards and traps here,” Ezekiel said and got to work.
“I’ll look for anything of use,” Andreas said.
Edric stood in the shadows in the corner of the room. “I’ll keep watch. Go find your room.”
Sophia nodded and motioned for Haris to stay put. He grunted but obeyed. With a pat on his snout, she turned and climbed up the stairs to locate her room. There were ten of them to choose from. She wanted one that overlooked the streets outside. If the guards were to ever find them, she wanted to make sure that she could see them before they could see her.
She took the first room she came to and dropped her bags on the bed. Must and mildew filled the air. Nothing opening the shutters couldn’t take care of. The small fireplace at the far wall would provide light and warmth during the chilly nights.
There wasn’t enough room for Haris. He would have to sleep on the main floor. He wouldn’t be happy about it, but it wasn’t safe anywhere else for him, and Sophia couldn’t stand the thought of being too far from him either.
With a sigh, she returned to the main floor to break the news to her yakshi friend. She could already imagine his reaction.
As she approached the final step on the staircase, Andreas shouted in glee. Sophia instantly went to find out what it was about.
Andreas stood behind the old bar, pulling out jugs of what she presumed was ale. The smile on his face was wide and there was a glint in his eyes. She shook her head and took a seat on the other side of the bar.
Edric joined them. “What’s all this racket about?”
“I found ale!” Andreas said, dragging out “ale” in a singsong voice. He found a few tin cups and rinsed them out with his skin full of water. “Come on, Zeke!”
“I’ll join you once I’m finished,” he said, voice sounding strained.
Sophia wondered if it took too much out of him to cast the wards and shield the place. In a previous discussion, they had talked about how the illusion would be that the building would appear uninhabited from the outside. It all seemed so intricate, but she never thought to ask if it drained him physically.
Meanwhile, Andreas passed along the cups between the three of them. He held his in the air and said, “Not a bad way to end the night, if I do say so myself.”
Ezekiel nodded and took a sip of his ale. “Indeed.”
Haris let out another long grumble. Sophia knew it was his way of voicing his displeasure with being cooped up inside the small inn. Poor thing. Sophia sympathized with him. She went to him and patted her friend’s muscular, green flank, assuring him that everything was okay. Though being stuck inside plaster and stone walls wasn’t ideal, it was the situation they had to deal with.
Ezekiel approached Sophia, careful of Haris’s antlers as he had just shaken them again. If they weren’t careful, they would probably get a good-sized hole in an arm or their side, getting too close to the creature when he shook himself. “He’s not thrilled, is he?” Zeke asked.
Sophia shook her head and continued to do her best to comfort her friend. “No. He’s used to the freedom of the woods.”
Haris snorted and stomped his hoof in agreement.
“Did the wards and traps go well?” she asked.
He nodded. “They’ll do for the night. I’ll strengthen and expand them tomorrow. But we are safely hidden for now.”
Though the inn was near the small side of things, Haris made that size smaller. He was large enough that his antlers scraped along the ceiling if he stood at his full height. As it was, he had to keep himself hunched over, head held lower than normal. He groaned again and lay on an old tattered rug near the fireplace along the far wall, trying his best to not bump into anything and growing more agitated at the cramped space he wasn’t accustomed to.
“Are you sure he’ll be all right here?” Ezekiel asked. The expression in his features let Sophia know he truly felt sorry for Haris, and that made her love him all the more.
She smiled and gave a short nod. “He will be. He’s just not used to being inside confining structures.”
“I was sure Howard would crap himself when we first opened the front door and smuggled Haris inside.” Ezekiel chuckled.
Sophia joined him in the short laugh as she recalled the moment as well. That was the second night they were at his estate, just before the increase in patrols could no longer be ignored. The sorcerer always made her feel lighter and contented, and she loved that he’d opened his home without question to her and to Edric and Andreas. Especially the last two, considering they had been something close to enemies growing up. Well, they wouldn’t mix company willingly, that was for sure. But all that had changed when Sophia came into the picture. She joined the men in a brotherhood stronger than she ever could imagine.
“I’ll get that fire going,” Ezekiel said as he slapped his hands together. Sparks formed in his palms, shinning bright blue and purple. He pointed to the fireplace, and sparks shot out from his fingertips and caught the wood. A warm orange glow and warmth filled the room. “Better?” he asked Haris.
Haris huffed and rested his head on his front legs. Ezekiel shrugged and rejoined Sophia’s side.
Edric approached them, handing both her and Ezekiel a cup of ale. “Haris will be fine.” He glanced at the large, green beast. “Won’t you boy?”
Haris huffed in response and turned his head away, which made Sophia giggle. Her yakshi friend still wasn’t quite sure of Edric or Ezekiel. Andreas, her wraith shifter and protector, Haris liked, probably because of his dual nature, but the other two of her men he still worked on warming up to.
She supposed they were all still getting used to each other. She looked at each of her men just hanging out and making the best of a sour situation and smiled. A month ago, the three of them would’ve been at each other’s throats, as they had been for the past twenty years, growing up in competition with each other atNighthelm Academy. Seeing them with her, united for her cause and so faithfully, filled her heart with joy.
She took a sip of her ale and sat in one of the booths next to Andreas. As she relished in the spices and warmth the drink gave, Andreas tapped his cup against hers and downed his ale in two big gulps.
As she finished the last of her drink, she sank back against the booth, letting her body relax. Well, as much as they could considering their circumstances. The heat from the fire washed over her and she sighed. Being with her protectors—her lovers—had filled Sophia with a happiness that had eluded her for the past eighteen years. She felt strong, capable, and more in tune with her magic than she’d ever been.
She flexed her hands, sensing her magic just below the surface, simmering, ready to be utilized at her command. But this time, it wasn’t perilous. Those around her weren’t in danger of her magic bursting out of her like a raging inferno, incinerating everything within a fifty-foot radius. Despite all his flaws, maybe Grindel had actually taught her to control it with discipline. Perhaps, all those years he pushed her through training had been worth it.
Her heart panged when she thought of him. His loss still stung anew with each thought of him that crossed her mind. Tears burned and nipped at her eyes.
Andreas shifted, drawing her attention as he took her hand. He squeezed, providing support and strength. He definitely seemed more in tune with her emotions than Edric and Ezekiel.
Edric circled the room, refilling their cups. Once finished, he lifted his cup into the air and said, “A toast.”
“What are we toasting?” Ezekiel asked, lifting his cup into the air, a huge, cheesy smile stretching his lips.
“Our victory.” Edric’s intense gaze met Sophia’s, and she melted a little. The heat of desire and love in them was relentless. “And to Sophia. For bringing all of us together.”
She lifted her cup, and Andreas did as well.
“Here, here!” they said in unison then tipped their cups to their mouths, taking in long pulls of the ale.
Ezekiel wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “You might rethink that last part after we’ve lived together for another few weeks.”
Edric chuckled. “Fair point.”
Shouts from outside drew Sophia’s attention. She stood from the booth and went to the window to look outside. Guards stood in formed ranks on the streets in front of the Shade, their superiors shouting orders, and all of them armed with swords and appearing ready to fight. They were likely looking for Andreas, which they probably hoped would lead to the rest of them.
Ezekiel came up behind her and set his hands on her shoulders. She leaned into him with a sigh.
“We’re safe, I promise,” he said. “They can’t see us. The cloaking spells will only allow them to see the building as an empty structure. No lights shine through the windows. It’s as if we were never here. No one in Nighthelm can break the enchantments.”
But Sophia knew Winston Kent had friends in high places, and sorcerers from other kingdoms were probably already summoned to Nighthelm to help him break Ezekiel’s powerful enchantments. Especially since the two parted on not-so-great terms. Winston wanted her, and Sophia wanted nothing to do with him. With Winston’s wounded pride, it was only a matter of time before someone who could break the enchantments showed.
Haris snorted behind them. She turned to her friend as he shifted nervously on the spot he’d claimed as his sleeping nest. He looked out of place in the small, cramped space, but it wasn’t safe for him—for any of them—out in the Witch Woods anymore. The city was dangerous for them as well. The entire city guard hunted them. And with the grimms that had threatened her life and attacked their group on several occasions within the woods, they had nowhere else to go.
Branded as fugitives, staying in Ezekiel’s ancestral home was not an option. At some point, they’d have to leave this dusty old inn as well.
Winston and the Nameless Master were after them. In order to survive and get through what they were bound to face sooner than later, they needed a plan for finding the heirs.
She turned from the window. “As much as I would love to loiter here and pretend like we are living normal lives, I still have a job to do.”
“Find the heirs to the throne,” Edric said, setting his cup on the table near the couch.
She nodded. “The oracles have tasked me to do this, and I won’t let them down.” She flexed her fingers and rolled her shoulders, eager to get back into action. “Besides, I’m sure when we find them, they will pardon us for our crimes. Then, Winston and the duchess won’t be able to touch us. They won’t have the power in Nighthelm to so much as even point a finger at us.”
“Let’s think… where else could we look to find information on the heirs?” Edric asked.
“Let’s figure out where we have been,” Andreas said. “Then we can explore where is left to look.”
Sophia smiled as she let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. Her men were with her regardless. Even so much as taking on a task that was appointed to her.
“We need to do some research in the castle archives about the royal family,” Edric suggested. “That would be the first place I would look. It’s supposed to hold all the information regarding them.”
“The last time I tried to get into the castle, the stone and brick rearranged itself and wouldn’t let me in.” Before that night, Sophia had no idea an inanimate stone structure could do that. But magic was powerful. She’d seen it do mystical things, especially at the command of someone capable and dynamic. Ezekiel had impressed her several times with the things he could do. She even surprised herself with how much control she had gained over her own powers.
“The ruler controls the castle,” Ezekiel said as he paced the room. “Perhaps the duchess had been made aware of your gifts by the headmistress and wanted to keep you out.”
“If that’s the case, then we can’t go anywhere near the castle or it will probably trap us inside, like rabbits in a snare,” Sophia said.
“Where else is there to look?” Andreas asked. “There has to be information somewhere.”
Ezekiel snapped his fingers and said, “What about this? We’ll go to the Metropolis Library and infiltrate the forbidden section. But we’ll have to be very careful.”
Andreas snorted from the sofa. “Oh yeah, nothing more dangerous than sneaking into a library.”
“Coming from someone who probably has never read a book.” Ezekiel made a face at Andreas.
Andreas looked appalled. “Hey, I’ve read a book.”
“When?” Ezekiel asked.
Andreas shrugged. “In the academy.”
“That was like, fifteen years ago, during our primary education.” Ezekiel shook his head, his lips twisted up into a wry grin.
“Yeah, but I have read a book. We can’t all engage in carnal relations with tomes on conjuring and spellcasting like you, Zeke.” Andreas snorted.
Edric crossed his arms and gave the other men a hard look. “Can we focus on the task at hand, please?”
Andreas shrugged and gestured to Edric to continue, as he leaned into the corner of the booth, draping his arm over the top.
“Do you know the workings of the library?” Edric asked Ezekiel.
“Yes.” He stood a bit taller. “I know every entrance and exit on every floor.”
“Good. Then you’ll lead us in,” Edric said.
Another loud shout and a bang filled the room, and Sophia looked out the window again.
“Are you sure they can’t get in?” she asked Ezekiel.
“If they try, they get a nice little zap. They don’t know we’re here, and they can’t come inside. If they manage to get through the initial wards, albeit painfully, alarms would sound here. I’ve laid traps throughout the house and on the grounds leading to the house. If the alarm sounds, we will have the time and chance to escape.”
She nodded. She trusted him and his abilities to ward and trap and provide them a means for at least temporary shelter. But the city would likely turn against them for killing the beloved Headmistress Mittle of the Nighthelm Academy. Though Winston hadn’t publicly announced the death of the headmistress, it was inevitable he would soon. Then every citizen of Nighthelm—every guard, every merchant, every noble person—would know what they had done and would hate them for it. But they didn’t truly understand what was going on inside the walls of their own city. Blind faith and all.
“Perfect,” she said. Haris groaned.
She approached him and pet his flank. “It’s okay, my friend. This won’t last forever.”
He nodded his head and snorted.
Edric moved to stand behind Sophia. She melted into him, breathing him in. In his arms, she felt safe. Protected. But she wasn’t sure she could return the gesture for him or the others. He was isolated, as were Andreas and Ezekiel, from their jobs and families. She knew that Edric’s post as commander of the city guard was part of who he was. And he pushed that aside… for her.
She vowed she would make it right for him and Andreas and Ezekiel. They had sacrificed everything for her, and she would be damned if she didn’t do the same thing. For twelve years she didn’t have a real family. Now she had one. The men were her team. And she loved them dearly and would go to the ends of the world and back for them. Considering what they were up against—the duchess, the city guards, and the sorcerers of Nighthelm Castle, grimms, and a Nameless Master with more power than she’d ever thought possible to exist within one person—she just might have to.