2010 – Oregon (Clatsop State Forest)
Ears ringing through rushing blood and clipped voices, Agro paced between two western red cedars, their trunks as thick as storage sheds and creeping with neon moss. Impatience slithered in Agro’s stomach while chaos reigned around him – unorganized soldiers rushing to extinguish fires, dress and don their cloaks. Only a handful stood in a line nearby, ready to fly to the Conn/Kavanagh coven.
The turmoil took Agro back sixty-three years, when he was young and naïve and had no idea how to control the will of an army.
More soldiers fell in line, and Agro looked over, laying eyes on a boy no taller than his waist.
Stepping from the trees, Agro grabbed the boy by his collar and lifted his feet from the ground. “What’s this?” he demanded, scanning the line as he shook the child. He tossed the boy aside then moved to a young girl, pushing her out of formation as well. “Why are there children in this unit?”
“You said you wanted everyone in camp ready to fly, sir,” a few soldiers murmured.
Agro growled as he shoved another kid out of line. “Obviously not the useless piss-ants who can’t take care of themselves. Get them out of here.”
Adult soldiers rushed to obey, and Agro’s nostrils flared as he watched the pandemonium. He needed to replace Farriss, but he didn’t have time to nominate and test loyal candidates. Who knew his missing brute held such value?
He studied the nearby wizards, pinpointing one who’d kept calm, dismissed the chaos, and lined up in an orderly fashion. “You,” Agro said, stepping toward him.
The man tucked his right fingers into his left sleeve. Then he straightened and lowered his arms to his sides. He had a polished bald head and tattoos running from his shoulders to his neck. “Yes, sir.”
“Your name,” Agro demanded.
“What’s up your sleeve, Guthrie?”
“Silestra,” he answered, raising his left hand, and a small coral snake poked her black and yellow head from his crimson sleeve, smelling the moist air with her ebony tongue.
Agro cocked his head at the serpent then found Guthrie’s gray eyes. “How long have you been a member of the Dark Elite?”
“How old were you when you joined?”
“That will have to do,” Agro mumbled. “You’re my new lieutenant. Get these imbeciles organized. When we approach the community, I want half of them to enter the trees and fly ahead of the rest. They’re to take up post behind the houses while we make our way to the lawn. If any of the coven members try to sneak out, I want them apprehended and brought to me. But no one is to harm the family without my say so, or they’ll find themselves digging their own graves. You have one minute to gather the unit and prove yourself worthy, or I’ll kill you and find another deputy. Got it?”
“Yes, sir,” Guthrie agreed, ushering Silestra into his sleeve.
“Then what are you waiting for?” Agro barked “Go.”
Guthrie hustled away, and Agro huffed as he resumed his pacing.
Patience was vital in his quest, but his nerves had never been so thin. “I will not butcher her family until the witch is in my hands,” he vowed. But the fire in his eyes threatened to burn everything around him to the ground.
Oregon (Conn/Kavanagh coven)
A rainbow of shiny mist dazzled Quin’s retinas as he awoke in the middle of the night, his mind oddly alert. His head lay on his left bicep, and his right arm cuddled Layla to his chest, her rhythmic breaths pulsing over his pecs. Though her aura flowed peacefully, Quin’s spine straightened under the sting of agitated nerve endings.
He raised his head and looked around the dark bedroom, searching for the cause of his unease. A quiet shuffle echoed in the hallway, and Quin flipped his gaze to the open door, where a faint glow illuminated the dark wood. Finley.
Quin threw the comforter over Layla’s top half and soared from the bed, landing toe to toe with the intruder. “What in the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Layla jolted awake and rolled over, finding Quin and Finley locked in each other’s line of sight, their crimson auras bulging from their tense and feral frames.
“Cool it,” Finley hissed, sucking his blazing haze back in. “Agro’s here and he’s going to search the houses.”
The tension between them snapped as Quin shot to the bed. With a flick of his left wrist and a wave of his right hand, Layla’s luggage vanished and the comforter rolled her into a cocoon. Quin scooped her into one arm as he grabbed his bag and her cell phone from the nightstand. Then he bypassed Finley and flew toward the back door.
“Conceal us,” he whispered, magically tethering the satchel to his waistband.
Layla’s aura retracted as her body and the blanket disappeared, and Quin secured his hold while making sure she’d concealed him as well.
He swung open the kitchen door with his elbow then leapt over the table, but when he reached the back door, he slid to a stop. He closed his eyes and waved a hand, expanding his mind beyond the deck to the dense forest. He didn’t sense the enemy, but he had no way of knowing for sure.
He took two steps back, used magic to open the door. Then he counted to five before shooting from the house. By the time the door clicked shut, they were surrounded by timber.
He strained his senses, trying to hear if they were being followed as he zigzagged around tree trunks. He didn’t hear any voices or cloaks, but he felt a foreign presence.
His dad’s panicked voice broke his concentration as it echoed in his head. ‘Get out of here, Quinlan! Now!’
Quin furrowed his eyebrows as he responded, wondering why the warning was so delayed. ‘We’re gone.’
A snap echoed through the forest, and Quin sealed his mind as he turned his attention to the west. Tree branches creaked and moaned. Then a flock of birds burst from the foliage, cawing as they soared southeast. The Unforgivables were moving through the timber.
Quin shifted his course, staying low as he followed the path of the winged creatures, but once he reached the edge of the property, he veered south, confident the Unforgivables were far behind him. The foreign presence that had followed him from the house, however, lingered. Quin assumed by the speed, silence and invisibility it was Finley, and he wasn’t sure which was worse – Agro, or the most powerful wizard on earth. Both would do anything to get their hands on Layla.
In a matter of minutes, Quin had put fifteen miles between him and his home. It was his fastest time yet, and he’d never done it carrying someone. Of course, she wasn’t just someone; she was his motivation.
He slowed and called over his shoulder. “Is that you, Finley?”
Quin recognized the voice and slowed a little more. Damn, Finley was clever. There probably wasn’t another soul in the world who could keep up with a bonded child who’d been concealed by a twice-bonded child.
Quin flipped upright and descended, straining his eyes and ears. The earth rustled five feet to his left, so he turned. “Reveal yourself, Finley.”
Finely sighed as his body appeared, but his aura stayed hidden. “Stop being so damn paranoid. I just saved your witch’s ass for the second time in twelve hours.”
“She has a name.”
“Whatever,” Finley mumbled, taking a seat on the forest floor. He leaned against a tree trunk and pulled a flask from his bag. “Are you going to just stand there all night?”
Quin watched Finley casually drink. Then he tucked his chin in and found Layla’s ear. “Lift your spells, love.”
She obeyed, and Finley smirked. “You know, Layla, I would have been able to dress you before carrying you away. Guess something like that isn’t in Quin’s arsenal.”
“Shut up,” she shouted, keeping her face in Quin’s neck.
Quin ran a hand down her onyx spirals and moved a few yards away, sitting so he could keep an eye on Finley. He gently pried Layla from his neck and found her moist emerald gaze. Then he brushed her hair from her face and loosened the blanket around her shoulders. “Breathe,” he instructed, laying a hand on her heaving clavicle. “Deep, slow breaths.”
Layla found Quin’s eyes, trying to draw strength their dark depths, but all she could think about was her family. “Alana,” she sobbed, imagining the toddler’s peaceful slumber interrupted by wicked witches and wizards. “She must be so scared right now.”
“The coven will protect her,” Quin assured. “They’ll keep her safe.”
“Who’s going to protect them?”
“They’re a capable group of magicians. We did our part by getting out of there. Now try to calm your breathing. If you keep gasping and shaking like this, you’ll crack a rib. The healed bones are still susceptible to injury.”
“I hate this,” she objected.
“I know,” he whispered, touching his lips to her forehead.
His magical warmth soothed her trembling muscles, but only their family’s safety would ease her aching heart.
Agro gestured toward his army while watching Caitrin’s eyes. The Conn patriarch was once again accompanied by a member of the Kavanagh family, but it wasn’t Catigern. This one called himself Cadman and claimed to be Catigern’s eldest son.
Guthrie remained at Agro’s side, but the rest of the unit split into smaller groups and headed for the houses.
“What are they doing?” Caitrin demanded.
Agro raised his eyebrows, delighting in Caitrin’s fear as doors flew open around them. “They’re searching your homes.”
“Shit,” Caitrin hissed, anxiously watching one house in particular. “Don’t hurt them. They’ll come peacefully.”
“So they are here,” Agro approved, following Caitrin’s gaze. “Shame on you for lying, Mr. Conn. Now I can’t trust a word you say.”
Two soldiers ushered Caitrin’s mate from their house, and Agro smiled as he looked to the house next door, finding another couple being herded onto the porch. Coven members were pouring from nine of the eleven houses, followed by obedient pets of various sorts.
While the family and animals were collected in the middle of the lawn, Agro flipped his gaze between the two houses that hadn’t yielded fruit. They were located on opposite sides of the lawn, one to the east and one to the west. Soldiers eventually walked onto the porches and shook their heads at their boss, indicating the houses were empty.
Agro grabbed Caitrin’s collar and yanked him from his mate’s embrace, pulling him toward the house to the east. They were halfway there when two soldiers emerged from the shadows, shoving a witch and wizard in front of them. Each captive hugged a small child to their chest, doing their best to shield innocent eyes and ears.
“We found them trying to sneak out the back,” one of the soldiers revealed.
“There’s always at least one runner,” Agro mused, looking in the opposite direction. “Anyone sneaking out the back of that one?”
One of the wizards charged with searching the two-story Victorian passed the question on, then listened for an answer. “No, sir.”
“Interesting,” Agro murmured, returning his gaze to the witch and wizard who’d attempted escape. “Shall we interrogate the rebellious family first? Kids do tend to have loose lips.”
“No,” the coven objected.
Still stuck in Agro’s grasp, Caitrin quietly spoke. “Leave the children out of this.”
Agro chuckled. “Now why would I do that when they’re such a rich source of information?” He motioned toward the soldiers surrounding the family of four, and they moved to take the kids from their parents.
“No,” several people yelled.
Agro glanced over his shoulder as a shuffle ensued – crimson cloaks tackling insubordinate coven members. Then he called to the soldiers reaching for the children. “Wait.”
Caitrin’s held breath whooshed from his lungs as his shoulders sagged, and Agro pulled him closer, aiming him toward the kids. “You know what I want from you. Let’s make a deal.”
“Let the children and their parents leave,” Caitrin stipulated, “without being followed.”
“And what will I get in return?”
“The rest of us will reveal our auras to their full extent.”
“We’ll offer no resistance as you search our homes,” Caitrin added, “and we’ll ensure our pets’ obedience. You’re getting a good deal here. The children know nothing of what you seek, so there’s no reason to involve them.”
“Perhaps,” Agro mumbled, noting the efforts being made to shield the children from their surroundings. “Very well, the kids and their mother may go, but the father stays.”
The coven sighed as the mom and dad sadly looked at each other. Then the father whispered in his son’s ear before passing him to his fair-haired mate. “Don’t come back until you hear from us,” he instructed, touching his forehead to hers.
She nodded, tears streaming from her pale-yellow eyes. Then the man kissed the backs of his kids’ heads and motioned for the mom to go.
Agro kept his word, letting her leave without a tail, so the dad tensely looked away from the sky and joined the rest of the coven.
“Now,” Agro said, pulling Caitrin to the others, “time to keep your end of the bargain. Release your auras.”
While the family exposed their souls, soldiers ushered them into a line, and Guthrie organized a thorough search of the homes.
With the hunt underway, Agro slowly walked down the line of coven members, scrutinizing the emerald-green ribbons swimming through their bright hazes. The evidence was mounting, his case growing stronger with every aura he examined… until he reached a man with a familiar emerald gaze.
“You,” Agro whispered, glancing at the woman tucked under the man’s arm. Then he turned and found Guthrie. “Which house did these two come from?”
“There,” Guthrie answered, pointing at Caitrin’s house.
Agro grinned as he returned his attention to the emerald-eyed wizard. “You’re the witch’s paternal grandparents.”
The mates glanced at each other then released their golden mist.
“That’s more like it,” Agro approved. “Don’t you live in Virginia?”
“Yes,” the man answered.
“Am I to believe your presence here is merely a coincidence?” Agro pressed.
“No,” the man confessed. “We arrived a few hours ago, after receiving word of your visit.”
“Am I so popular,” Agro mused, “that you must rush across the country to greet me?”
“You opened old wounds Caitrin and I share. Does it not make sense for us to heal them together?”
“You flew all this way to offer Caitrin a shoulder to cry on?”
“Caitrin and I stand on common ground, anchored by ties that defy distance.”
“Right,” Agro smirked, moving down the line. “I’ll come back to you two.”
Though the coven was obviously scared, they retained a unity and bravery Agro had to respect. Even the youngest members kept their heads up and their shoulders back.
Agro reached a couple in their forties – a man with dark hair and dark eyes, and a woman with platinum hair and pale-purple eyes. Both had a tinge of gold swirling close to their forms.
“What have we here?” Agro hummed, reaching for the elusive shimmers clinging to the woman’s face. “Another bonded couple?”
The male slid his hand over his woman’s cheek, blocking Agro’s touch. “Yes.”
“This family does impress,” Agro commended. “I’ll give you that. No sense in hiding now. Release your lights.”
Their golden hazes flowed free, and Agro clucked his tongue as he took them in. “Which house did these two come from?”
A soldier answered from a house to the northeast. “This one, sir.”
“Do they have kids?”
The soldier conferred with those searching the house then shouted across the lawn. “Looks like they have a son.”
“Bring me a photo,” Agro demanded, moving further down the line. “Catigern,” he greeted, slapping the old man’s shoulder. “Good to see you’re still breathing.”
Catigern’s jaw flexed, but he didn’t respond, so Agro moved on, stepping in front of a young man with blond hair and blue eyes. “Are you the bonded child?”
“That’s not him,” a soldier interrupted, approaching with a photo.
Agro glanced at the bonded couple on the other side of Catigern, smiling at the terror in their eyes as he reached for a photo of their child. He immediately recognized the young man – dark hair, dark eyes and a dimpled smile. It was the wizard Catigern couldn’t stop thinking about during their previous encounter.
“So this is the young man you were so worried about,” Agro noted, flashing the picture at the Kavanagh patriarch.
“Naturally,” Catigern confessed. “He’s my great grandson.”
“And a bonded child.”
“Yes,” Catigern whispered.
“Where is he?” Agro pressed.
“Gone,” the bonded couple claimed.
“Heard that before,” Agro replied. “Right, Caitrin?”
“They speak the truth,” Caitrin insisted. “They sent him away after your first visit.”
“Far removed from you,” the mother snapped.
Her mate pulled her to his side as he evenly met Agro’s stare. “We sent our son abroad, to stay with distant relatives. I’m sure you understand why.”
Guthrie approached to quietly relay a message, and Agro leaned in to listen. When he returned his gaze to the bonded couple, he raised his eyebrows and smiled. “It would seem your son left behind nearly everything he owns. Will you be sticking to your story?”
“Yes,” the man answered. “Material objects hold no value to my son.”
“The lies,” Agro simmered, sweeping his gaze down the line. “They spew forth like Niagara. I’m going to ask this one time. If I don’t get an answer, we’ll do this the hard way. Where is Aedan and Rhosewen’s child?”
The coven remained quiet, so Agro motioned to his army. “Separate the men and women.”
A few murmurs echoed across the lawn as the men were herded several yards away and forced to their knees. Bravery waned as several witches sobbed and bowed their heads, but Agro told his soldiers to force their gazes back up.
“Guthrie,” he called.
“Yes, sir,” the lieutenant replied.
“Let’s see what you can do,” Agro suggested. “What’s your specialty?”
“Air child, eh?”
“Very well, but remember, we don’t want them dead. Why don’t you start with the wizard who claims his son is abroad?”
“Yes, sir,” Guthrie agreed, heading for the dark-haired man who looked so much like the son he aimed to protect.
“What’s your name?” Guthrie asked, moving him away from the others.
The wizard’s expression remained stoic as he answered. “Kemble.”
Guthrie vanished Kemble’s t-shirt, then walked behind him. “Do you have anything to tell my boss before I start?”
“No,” Kemble refused, meeting his mate’s fearful stare.
Guthrie looked at Agro, who gave a nod.
An electrical charge lifted the hair on Agro’s neck as Guthrie raised his right arm, his wrist bent, his fingers curled into a fist. His hand reached its apex, and a string of lightning unfurled – slender, beautiful and deadly. Guthrie flicked his wrist, and the mystical whip gracefully slithered through energized air, lashing Kemble’s back.
Kemble vibrated, his teeth clenched, his eyes squeezed shut, but he stayed silent and upright.
Without missing a beat, Guthrie flipped the sizzling whip around and struck again, marking Kemble’s back with a burning X.
Kemble’s mate choked on a scream, and Agro laughed as Guthrie’s whip glided down his victim’s spine. “Impressive,” Agro commended, “but unproductive.”
“I’ve just begun,” Guthrie noted, moving in front of Kemble, who withstood several more strikes before falling to the ground.
“Is he conscious?” Agro asked.
A soldier knelt and gave Kemble’s face a slap. “Barely.”
Kemble’s mate wailed, and Agro narrowed his eyes on her. “Somebody shut that bitch up.”
Her cries muffled into a wizard’s hand as it closed over her mouth, and her knees gave out, dropping her into the soldier’s arms.
Agro rolled his eyes and turned toward the coven’s men. Surely one of them would crack, so he picked four more and ordered their torture.
Shouts, sobs, curses and prayers echoed through the clearing as the army followed orders, but not one person uttered the name Layla. And when Agro went down the line, tapping into the wizards’ minds, he found nothing but jumbled and useless information.
Agro’s thin patience neared a snapping point. If he didn’t get answers soon, the entire coven would wind up dead, and his only link to the witch would go up in smoke.
“You,” he ordered, pointing at a young witch with inky-blue eyes. “Come here.”
The witch cowered and looked to the women beside her, who protectively wrapped their arms around her.
“Pick someone else,” one of the women insisted.
“I want her,” Agro fumed, approaching the feminine line.
The women braced themselves, prepared to stop him whatever the cost, but Agro motioned to his nearby soldiers, who quickly secured every witch save for the one in his line of sight.
“Your name,” he demanded, taking the young witch by the arm.
“Sky,” she meekly answered.
Agro turned, steering her toward the two-story Victorian. “You’re coming with me, Sky.”
“The hell she is,” a wizard objected.
Agro kept walking, barely glancing over as the rebellious wizard – one who’d already been tortured with searing, mystical chains – was tackled by five crimson cloaks.
“No,” the wizard bellowed.
But Agro ignored him as he spoke to Sky. “Whose house is this?”
“It’s empty,” she answered.
“Then why is there food in the fridge?” he asked.
The rebellious coven member shouted again. “No! Stop!”
Sky tried to look over, but Agro tightened his grip. “Who’s staying in this house?”
She swallowed as tears skated down her red cheeks. “I think Morrigan stocked it for Serafin and Daleen.”
“Serafin and Daleen,” Agro repeated. “Aedan’s parents?”
“Not Aedan’s daughter?”
“No,” Sky whispered, eyes growing huge as they reached the rose garden.
The struggling wizard shouted once more, his hysteria mounting. “No!”
Agro halted and turned, rotating Sky with him. “Who is that man?”
“My dad,” she squeaked, lips quivering. “Belinos.”
“Do you have something to say, Belinos?” Agro called. “Before your daughter takes me on a tour of this empty house?”
Blood trickled down Belinos’ face as he huffed and puffed, a knee in his back while four more soldiers anchored his appendages. He looked to his right, making eye contact with Caitrin. Then he turned his bloodshot gaze on his daughter. “Yes.”
“Belinos,” Caitrin hissed.
“Go to hell,” Belinos shouted back. “That’s my daughter.”
Agro grinned as he pulled Sky to her father. “You make a wise decision, Belinos. Tell me what you know.”
“She’s alive,” Belinos confessed. “Layla’s alive.”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” Agro seethed, “or your daughter will give me a tour of her tight little ass as well.”
Sky flinched, and Belinos nodded, flinging blood from his broken face. “After your last visit, we looked into it and learned you spoke the truth.”
“She’s not here,” Caitrin interrupted, “and never has been. Tell him, Belinos.”
But Belinos shook his head, unable to look Caitrin in the eye. Instead, he met Agro’s stare. “Layla isn’t here, but she’s close. We tracked her to a hotel in Portland.”
Agro’s chest expanded as a chill slid down his spine. He was finally getting answers.
“We were there,” Belinos added, “yesterday, but she’d already checked out.”
Agro’s chest deflated as his nostrils flared. “You waste my time on that? Come on, Sky.”
“No,” Belinos panicked, “there’s more.”
“Damn it,” Caitrin scorned.
“What do you want from me, Caitrin?” Belinos countered. “He’s holding the cards.”
Caitrin bowed his head, and Belinos looked at Agro. “We found out where Layla was headed, so we sent Kemble’s son to track her down. I’ll give you the same information we gave him.”
“Which is?” Agro pressed.
“Seattle,” Belinos answered, “where her adopted mother grew up.”
“Her adopted mother haled from Ketchum, Idaho.”
“No,” Belinos disagreed, “she grew up in Seattle, and we know that’s where Layla went, because she told a waitress her plans before checking out of her hotel Sunday. The front desk will corroborate my story.”
“Let my daughter go, and I’ll give you the address.”
Agro looked at Sky, somewhat disappointed he wouldn’t get a private tour from her. Then he shoved her aside and ordered his men to lift Belinos from the ground. “You just saved your coven from slaughter, Belinos. They should praise you for it.”
“I doubt that’s the reaction I face,” Belinos muttered, motioning for Sky to move away.
Agro produced a pen and paper and handed it over. “Name and address of the hotel.”
While Belinos jotted down the information, Agro walked along the line of wizards, delivering his final warning. “I’m going to follow this lead, and if it takes me to Layla, this coven will be rid of me.” He paused, nudging Kemble’s limp body with his foot. “If I get this one’s son in the process, even better. But if I follow this lead only to find the trail goes cold, I’ll be back, and this is the last time I’ll leave this coven breathing. Next time you see my face, you will either deliver my witch, or you’ll die a painful death after watching my men have their way with your women. There will be no more warnings, no more friendly visits. This is the last time you’ll see me fly away empty-handed. Got that address, Belinos?”
Belinos held up a folded piece of paper, and Agro smiled as he snatched it from his hand. “Excellent.”
He motioned to his soldiers while scanning the hotel information. Then he turned to the defeated coven and waved farewell. “Let’s hope there won’t be a next time.”
Quin spent half an hour filling Layla with heat and counting the seconds between her shaking spells. Tears continued to stream from her eyes as she shivered, but her sobs had quieted and her lungs had calmed.
Eventually, to Quin’s much needed relief, her quaking episodes ceased altogether, and he sighed as he glanced at Finley, just as he’d done thirty seconds before, and he’d do it again half a minute later.
“That’s much better,” Quin approved, returning his gaze to Layla. “How are your bones? Anything feel out of place?”
“I wouldn’t know,” she answered, “and I don’t care. I’m so scared for them. How long do we have to wait? I don’t know how long I can do this. I have to know if they’re okay.”
“We have to give them time to search the houses, question the coven, and clear the area.”
“What if they figure out I’m staying in the house? They might kill someone. Or they might not leave.”
“We aren’t going to think about the what ifs. We can’t do that to ourselves. We’ll wait and deal with things when we know the facts.”
“I can’t, Quin. The what ifs haunt me.”
“I know, but I need you to stay calm, or I’ll be healing more bones.”
Finley got to his feet, and Quin whipped his head up. “Where are you going?”
“To take a piss,” Finley answered. “Would you like a play-by-play?” He smiled and raised his eyebrows. “Layla might be interested in some of it.”
The comment went ignored, so Finley turned and walked away. Quin waited for his pale aura to disappear behind a tree trunk. Then he quickly moved the blanket from Layla’s torso and ran a hand along her ribs.
“I think they’re okay,” she mumbled.
He found nothing out of place, so he covered her up and pulled her into a hug. “I’m sorry you had to wake up to this.”
“I don’t care about that, Quin. I just want to know our family’s safe.”
“We’ll head back soon,” he assured, watching Finley return.
Finley rolled his eyes as he sat and reached for a redwood needle. “You’re an arrogant man, Quin. One would think you’d be humbled by the fact that someone else has been saving your woman’s life left and right.”
“Shut up,” Layla snapped.
“It’s okay,” Quin whispered. He’d just calmed her down and didn’t want to start over. “His attempt to upset me isn’t working.”
“He’s upsetting me,” she countered.
“Did you hear that?” Quin asked, looking at Finley.
“That’s fine,” Finley smirked. “It’s par for the course. I save the day, and you become the hero, because you cater to her like a slave. You know, Layla, you should consider cutting your servant loose. Relationships like that never work.”
“What do you know about relationships?” she returned. “As far as I can tell, you have no one.”
Finley’s face fell as he narrowed his eyes, and his burning aura momentarily slipped free.
“Looks like you hit a nerve,” Quin noted.
“Well I feel sorry for you, Finley,” Layla added. “Apparently you’ve had a shitty life.”
“I don’t need your pity,” Finley seethed.
“You need something,” she countered. “There has to be a reason you’re so hateful.”
“I’m not,” he disagreed, smoothing his expression. “I just don’t like your boyfriend.”
“Quin’s more than my boyfriend, and there’s no reason for you to dislike him. He hasn’t done anything to you.”
“I don’t like his attitude.”
“You’re one to talk. You have the worst attitude of anyone I know. You weren’t like this when I met you. If you’d acted this way Tuesday, I would have told you to get lost.”
“If I remember correctly, you were sitting alone that day because your precious Quin broke your heart.”
“You don’t know anything about that situation, so keep your judgments to yourself.”
“I saw enough to know he hurt you. You tried to hide it by concealing your aura, but your red cheeks and swollen eyes exposed his betrayal.”
“Enough,” Quin interjected.
Finley flashed an indulgent smile. “Now I’ve hit a nerve.”
“Why are you so hateful?” Quin asked. “I’ve never met a bonded child with so much hostility. Most of us have loving families. What’s yours like?”
“That’s none of your business.”
“Did they abandon you?”
“Drop it, Quin.”
“Are they dead?”
Finley jumped to his feet, and Quin flexed as Layla jolted.
“I said drop it,” Finley repeated. “It’s none of your business who or where I come from.”
“You’ve been prying into our business like it’s your full time job,” Quin replied, “so it shouldn’t come as a surprise when we question yours. It’s suspicious how much effort you put into hiding the truth.”
“The world doesn’t need to know me, Quin. You should understand why considering you keep Layla locked in your community.”
“Layla’s hiding because she’s been targeted, but you’re not on anyone’s radar. You wander out in the open, letting all the locals see you, but you don’t let anyone know you. Even now that our coven knows your status, you remain hidden. What is it about your past you don’t want people to know? Or is it your future you’re hiding?”
“My past and future are nobody’s business.”
“That might be true if you weren’t sticking your nose in our business. You have ulterior motives concerning your move into our community, and it’s obvious they’re not honorable. You claim you want to help Layla, but you’re more worried about getting your hands on her.”
“You know, Quin, if you hadn’t gotten to her first, she might not mind my hands on her.”
“Blah,” Layla mumbled, laying her head on Quin’s shoulder.
“Don’t be so naive,” Finley argued. “Quin slapped a blindfold on you before giving you a chance to see he’s not the god you think he is. You wouldn’t be so wrapped up in him if you’d been given options.”
“I’m not interested,” she dismissed.
“Because you don’t know any better,” Finley insisted. “Quin’s replaceable and lacks the means to provide the life you deserve, a life only I can give you.”
Tired of his theories, Layla raised her head and looked over. “So why don’t you tell me, Finley, what exactly you can offer me that Quin can’t?”
Finley watched her with calculating eyes and a thin mouth, and Quin knew what was coming. Finley was about to lay his offer on the table. Layla had handed him the floor, and he was going to take it, presenting her with unimaginable opportunities.
Quin carefully curled his fingers in her hair and hugged her as tightly as he dared, struggling with the urge to hold his breath.
“I’m waiting,” she fumed. “You’re so sure you have more than he does, so let’s hear it, big shot. What makes you so damn special?”
Finley began pacing, but his eyes stayed on Layla as he calmly delivered his spiel. “You and I are more special than anyone. We’re the only two of our kind, which should mean something to you, but that damn blindfold keeps you from seeing the possibilities. All the experiences you’ve had with Quin would be a thousand times better with me. All the magic Quin’s impressed you with is shit compared to the magic I can show you. Every connection you’ve made with him would pale next to the connections we’d make. The world would be at our fingertips. If you wanted it, you’d get it. If you needed it, you’d receive it. Even our children would thrive beyond all others. They’d be able to do and have anything they want. We would be the closest thing to royalty the magical world has ever known, and we would reap nothing but benefits from the unique position. Above all, Layla, this danger you’re fretting over, this helplessness you’re feeling, would melt away. No more running, no more broken bones, and no – more – hiding. If you and I joined forces, nothing could touch us, and you’d be rid of your fears and cleansed of your worries. No more shackles, just absolute freedom.” He paused, running a hand through his wavy, blonde hair as he faced them. “That’s what I can offer you. Quin can’t touch those things. He’s below average compared to me, and if you stick with him, you’ll be running scared for the rest of your short life.”
Layla shifted, straightening her back as she trained her narrow eyes on him. “Now it’s your turn to listen, so pay attention. You and I are no more special than the next person. Our powers may be stronger, but that’s not what makes a person special. Three of the greatest blessings in my life have been non-magical people, including the woman who raised me, and I’d forfeit all my powers to have her back. Furthermore, the experiences I’ve shared with Quin were wonderful because of who he is, not what he can do, and the connections we’ve made are strong because we care about each other, not because he’s powerful. If I want it, all I have to do is ask and he’ll give it to me, and he pays more attention to my needs than I do. As for your comment about children, it’s the most ignorant argument I’ve ever heard, and it proves you know nothing about family. My child will be perfect no matter who fathers it, and I don’t need a powerful wizard on my arm to provide my baby with what babies really need – a loving home. I would never pick a man because he could give me a stronger offspring; the mere idea disgusts me. As for the danger, it will always be there. If not from Agro, from somebody else. Even you and I can’t rid the world of evil. Maybe we could remain safe together, but the rest of the world would still suffer, and that will always concern me, no matter how far removed from it I am, so there’s no such thing as being rid of my fears and cleansed of my worries.” She paused, taking a deep breath before calmly going on. “Regarding your comment about Quin being below average, that’s just blindness on your part. You can’t even claim ignorance on that one, because I’ve only known him for six days and can already testify that he possesses more love and kindness than any other man I’ve known. I’ve never felt more cared for than I do when I’m in his arms. He’s never touched me with anything other than a tender hand, and he’s never sent a harsh or hateful word my way. He’s respectful and considerate, and it’s not an act meant to manipulate. He’s generous because he’s a good man, and if you weren’t so blinded by jealousy, you’d recognize it, too. So you see, you have nothing to offer me, and what I have to offer isn’t yours. It’s Quin’s, and all the magic in the world isn’t going to change that. You and your fancy aura don’t stand a chance.”
Quin had watched the words tumble from her lips, submersing himself in every syllable, and his heart swelled as it thumped her name, each palpitation venerating a woman far more special than she believed. But it wasn’t her powers that made it so. Only her extraordinary soul could claim the credit for the way she glittered brighter than the rest. Many witches would have taken Finley’s offer and run with it, ready to fulfill worldly desires; and even more would have contemplated the offer, tempted by power and security. But not Layla – her heart ever pure. She was the epitome of goodness, a conveyer of compassion, and a paragon of selflessness. Her words were the most beautiful Quin had ever heard, and she’d said them with strength and honesty. She believed what she said with her whole heart, and that made his heart soar.
“Hey,” he whispered.
She turned and found his stare. “Hey back.”
“You are special,” he insisted, “but your magic has nothing to do with it. Your words were beautiful and true, and you have no idea how much they mean to me. Thank you.” He was so overwhelmingly touched by her sincere and unwavering commitment to him, he felt it wouldn’t be too inappropriate to rip out his heart and place it in her palm. “I love you, Layla, and I’ll take care of you forever.”
“I love you, too,” she returned, “and we’ll take care of each other.”
A snarl rolled from Finley’s throat as he threw his hands up. “You guys make me sick. You’re both fools.”
Layla narrowed her eyes on him. “Comments like those are just one reason you’ll never get your hands on me, Finley. You’re rude and hateful, and you don’t seem to understand the word love at all.”
Finley slowly shook his head. “You’re passing up a life of unlimited magic, power and safety for your precious Quin. That’s not love. It’s stupidity.” He paused, shifting his disdainful gaze to Quin. “And you’re letting her do it. That’s not love. It’s selfishness. You’re a thief leading a blind and naïve millionaire down a doomed path.”
“You’ve made your point,” Quin returned, “and Layla told you how she feels. You need to accept her rejection and move on, maybe learn some manners along the way.”
Finley’s blue and green eyes churned like a stormy sea as he curled his fingers into vibrating fists. “You’re more foolish than I thought, Quin. You’re taunting the most powerful wizard in the world.”
“You enjoy reminding me of your power,” Quin observed, “but it does nothing but betray your insecurities. It’s no secret your magical limits exceed mine, but I have dozens of people willing to face my enemies as if they were their own. You have no one.”
Finley tilted his head, his angry aura seeping from his rigid frame. “Everyone finds themselves alone, Quin. You must know you’d be fighting a losing battle.”
“You’ll stay away from him,” Layla snapped. “Or you’ll deal with me.”
Her aura swelled, drowning Quin in a rippling river of dark and ominous colors, and he flipped his gaze to her face, finding a temper he’d never seen before. His chest and throat tightened as he watched her jaw flex, and it strengthened her delicate visage. An untapped well of anger bubbled beneath the surface, awakened by Finley’s threats.
Quin cleared his throat and tightened his hold, lifting her with him as he stood. “Conceal us, love. We’re leaving.”
“Thank you,” she sighed, turning her face into his neck.
Quin kept his eyes on Finley as Layla worked her magic. Then he shot toward the sky, hoping Finley wouldn’t follow.
Taking an entirely different route back, Quin often dipped into the forest and flew several miles out of his way, so it took him more than half an hour to reach the northeast side of the community.
He landed two miles outside their property line then floated through the forest, straining his eyes and ears for danger, but all he sensed was nature, its serenity conflicting with his mood. He dug Layla’s cell from his bag, contemplating the risks of calling home. Then a screech pierced the silence, drawing his attention to the treetops. Zenith – his great grandpa’s hawk.
Quin searched for her, but couldn’t find her until she squawked again, this time from a nearby limb. “Clever girl,” he commended.
Zenith chirped and shook her feathers. Then Caitrin’s worried voice echoed in Quin’s head.
‘Are you okay? Is Layla okay?’
‘Yes,’ Quin answered. ‘Is it safe to return?’
‘As safe as it’s going to get.’
‘We’ll be there shortly.’