Call me loco—and Gran no doubt would—but I love the forest at night. The sweet tang of rain on the air. The musk of earth and leaf litter. The peace of returning and connecting with a landscape I'd grown up in. And no-one else around to witness the nocturnal beauty but me. Bliss.
But tonight, icy wind snuck around my legs. The branches of the gum trees towering above me creaked and cracked. I rubbed my hands together, and my gold ring, warm and smooth on my right hand, rubbed reassuringly against my fingers.
I always cut through the bush on my way home from the bus stop, found comfort in the sounds of the forest as it lived and breathed around me. Though today I hefted my backpack higher and picked up my pace.
With my following stride, the wind whipped up, darts of rain scolded my skin. The trees cracked sharper, louder. High above me, unseen leaves rustled and swooshed.
One by one, the fine hairs on the back of my neck rose. Prick, prick, prick.
A whisper sounded inside me.
But I resisted the urge to pick up my feet and fly. Instead, I turned, unheeding of the warning of the forest.
Long, dark hair, gleaming under the moon, formed before the rest of an ashen body took shape between the trees.
I knew that hair—that face.
A whoosh of air escaped me. My heart stopped. Then started again at pace, thudded harder, faster, with every moment the figure came into being.
I raised a shaking hand—almost touched her. But more and more figures appeared on the wind. And then on silent feet, as one they walked steadfastly toward me.
A blast of icy wind hit the front of my legs. Leaves and branches crashed and smashed against each other.
A shout inside me now. Run.
I turned and ran.
The howl of the wind sprinted with me, but I was fast, nimble, through the scrub and the brush I’d grown up in, knew like the back of my hand.
The rise of the hill loomed out of the darkness before me. I poured more energy into my legs, ignored the burn of my calves, the seizing of my thighs.
The incline steepened.
But I couldn’t stop. Because behind me, the Folk were coming. Their faces were stark, their eyes unseeing except for those they came for.
Never stand between the Folk and their mark. That was the eerie cautionary tale told to children. But I knew the tale’s truth. And the reason behind the warning. And that was why I couldn’t stop—because, please, please, don’t let them be coming for Gran.
Not Gran. Not Gran. The words turned over and over in my mind, a constant prayer in cadence with my legs as I flew up that hill.
My heart feared—knew—differently.
The hill rounded off, and I dragged more air into my lungs to get me home. And there it was, the little weatherboard house, sitting on the side of the hill, looking out over the Gippsland valley below.
Welcoming light spilled from the windows.
Normally a sight that filled my heart with warmth, with the remembered happiness of childhood—Gran making scones, cartoons on frosty mornings before school, the heater on full, hugs and laughs and love. Home.
I risked one glance behind me.
The Folk marched silently. Their sepia faces and bodies moved almost as one over the crest of the hill.
I swerved around the outbuildings, hit the back door of the house hard. The slippery handle fumbled in my grasp. I finally opened it with a jerk and the timber door swung open with a long, thin creak.
“Gran?” I ran through the house, shrugging my backpack off as I skidded to a halt in Gran's bedroom.
Please no. Please no. I dropped to my knees, my heart dropping beside me.
Her eyes were closed, and if not for the utter stillness, she might just have been sleeping. Pillows stacked high at her back; reading glasses dipped low over her nose. Her soft white hair—once a beautiful dark mane—rested over her shoulders.
The bed dipped beneath my weight. Gran slipped, and I caught her in my arms, drew her little body into mine, cradled her gently to me, even as I raised one hand, my fingers trembling, to feel for some sign of life.
Gran’s spell book lay open on her lap. I pushed it aside, and as I did, the pages fell open, handwritten invocations and symbols filling up page after page.
But then my hand was at Gran’s neck; her cool skin papery beneath my rushed touch. I took a breath, forced my heart to settle, tried so, so hard to feel for anything—anything at all other than that awful thud of my pulse as it hammered in my ears.
I wanted to shake her, wanted to yell and cry and tell her no, don’t leave me. I don’t want to be alone. But the time had come. I ran a hand over her soft hair, smoothed it away from her forehead. Pressed a kiss to her soft skin. Whispered my love for her, for the woman who had raised her granddaughter as her own.
“Gran, I’m so sorry I wasn’t home. Wasn’t here sooner.”
The lights dimmed once, the pressure of the air deepened—enough of a change that I looked up.
They were here.
Those Folk who had come inside filled the doorway, their gazes unblinking.
A recollection hit me from the first time I had seen them—their ranks had encircled the cottage back then, ensuring no soul escaped who was to travel with them. They had come that night for my grandfather. That had been the first time I learned of the Folk, and learned that having the sight of them was considered a rare curse; even among the witches in our community.
I hugged Gran to me harder, unwisely tried to keep her tucked into me. The one with the long, thick dark hair, her eyes a brown so dark they were almost black, stepped forward.
Her fingers brushed over my arm.
A glacial, freezing spider-webbed through my veins. The air sucked out of my lungs. I tried to gasp a breath, but as I looked into her dark, dark gaze, only the long cold of the gray between night and day existed. This was why you never stood between the Folk and their mark.
And then her gaze moved past me to Gran.
Maybe because I was in contact with her, maybe because we were blood, maybe because we were witches, and that’s the way of things. Or maybe it was my curse. But as the ice receded, and breath wheezed back into my lungs, in that moment when Gran’s soul connected with the Folk, I was with her.
We are here to take you home.
Tears ran over my cheeks, but I refused to look away as Gran’s soul took flight. Her energy breathed over me in the softest sigh; and for the rest of my days, I’ll swear her hand ran over my hair.
And then she stood before me, a shade of herself, and her warm eyes held mine for one moment before their focus shifted, their recognition waned.
The Folk turned, and Gran went with them.
“Wait. Gran, don’t leave—” I reached out one hand, but the Folk walked, their silent steps leaving nothing but cold air in their wake.
A sob escaped me, and with the shudder of my body, the book shifted, and a photo of two women, one of them holding a baby, slipped out. The colours washed through age. I picked it up, studied the image closely through my tears.
I knew the babe was me, and the older woman was clearly Gran, her dark hair greying. The third woman had her head tilted to the babe in her arms, dark hair caught up, even darker eyes turned to the camera.
I twisted the gold ring around and around my finger. My mother’s ring. My mother, who had just come to take Gran home. Who would one day come for me.
I riffled through the book, came to the last page, and to a spell I’d never seen before.
A soul killing hex. My breath whooshed out. A forbidden spell.
And scribbled at an angle across the bottom of the page, details of who requested the hex, and the intended target.
My blood chilled as I reread the entry.
The first name was the man who’d gotten my mother pregnant. The second I didn’t recognize.
Fear roiled through me. Followed by the swift rise of a current of anger. Hot. Heavy.
Hugging Gran to me one last time, I caught my breath, then purposefully closed the pages of the book over.
With the cadence of my pounding heart filling my ears, I opened the front door to my cottage.
Two men, one holding a sleek black briefcase, stood framed by the sweeping vista of the valley behind them. Distant hilltops glinted gold in the late afternoon sun.
Briefcase stepped forward. Piercing blue eyes surveyed me quickly. They tightened for a fraction of a second before glancing around. “Are you alone?”
“Hello to you, too. Mr. Jones, I presume?”
“This isn’t a social visit.” His gaze coolly returned to mine.
“Now, now. Just because you’re trying to buy me off doesn’t mean we can’t be nice, does it?”
“Trying? This is a done deal, Ms. Shearer.”
“That just proves my father hasn’t heard a word I’ve said. And where is he? Your last email said you’d both be here.”
Wide shoulders, clothed in a deep rich fabric—a hue that set off his eyes perfectly, shrugged. “He changed his mind. Now, are you going to let me in? As quaint as the countryside’s pungent … perfume is, I’d prefer to take care of this inside.”
My gut dropped. But my heart picked up pace again; the familiar tug of war between simply wanting to see the bastard—just once—and never wanting to blight my eyes with the sight of him.
A gust of winter air blew in around Jones, sent an icy shiver to trickle over me, even in my woollen jumper.
The wind also carried a tang of musk and male, and my stomach tightened with an unwelcome warmth. I crossed my arms over my chest.
“If my father’s not here, we have nothing to talk about.”
Jones’s jaw clenched. Then he looked over the old weatherboards. He lifted the briefcase. “Trust me, you want to know what’s on the table.”
Another gust of wind shoved against me, as if it wanted the man inside. I shrugged. What the wind wanted, the wind would get. I nodded once and stepped back from the door.
The man stalked past me; his musky warmth rubbing hot fingers over my skin as he passed me by.
The second man stepped forward. I rolled my eyes at him and jerked the door a fraction. A smile pulled the wrinkled corners of his mouth up, and he slid quickly inside just in time.
Jones took himself into my living room and sat on the chair closest to the flickering fire. The crackling warmth normally soothed my mood, but I refused to let it—not today. I stayed standing; took the power the position gave me.
“So, Jones. What do you for daddy-dearest?”
“I’m the fixer.” Jones flicked open his briefcase, the thick black top hiding the contents from me. “I’m here to fix the problem you pose to Mr. Northcott.”
The second man had moved to the fire, but he stepped forward now. I sent him a warning glance, even as my heart picked up pace.
The man swivelled the case toward me. Wads of cash filled its interior. “This is yours—for the book.”
My blood iced over. “What book?”
“Ms. Shearer, the book is what this is all about.”
A bitter laugh escaped me. “The book’s not here.”
The man with the wrinkled face winked at me. I battled back the smile that threatened as I looked back at Jones. “And money doesn’t mean the same thing to me as it does my … father.”
“You can clearly use the money, Ms. Shearer.” Jones sighed, closed the briefcase. “I’m heading back to the city tonight, but will be back tomorrow, lunchtime. Mr. Northcott is … determined to regain the book. I’m here to make that happen. One way or another.”
The front door crashed open. Wind roared through the cottage.
“What’s that?” Jones sprung to his feet. Surprisingly fast and smooth, given his size.
Through the window, voluminous purple and charcoal clouds steamed across at the valley sky, driving a sheet of hazy rain. Straight for us.
“A winter storm.” Out of nowhere. I glanced at Jones. How much did he know about the book? “Looks like you’re staying for a while. The track down the hill will be unpassable.”
Then the man with the wrinkled face stepped towards Jones. The wind roared again, rattling glass panes all around the cottage.
It also looked like it was up to me to get Jones off the hill alive.
“How much longer will the storm last?” Jones stood at the window, the night sky beyond him lighting up with giant purple and silver shards.
“No idea. Best guess, at least for the night.” Without pause, I put the last of the dinner dishes away. Jones had washed up, and had offered to pack away too, but I had to place everything back in the correct draw or cupboard. My little OCD.
With the kitchen clean, I nabbed a bottle of red wine and took down two glasses. Fact was, the storm wasn’t normal. And I didn’t have to glance at the ghost in the corner of the room—still glaring at Jones—to know what had caused the tumultuous weather.
“I swear I see faces out there.” Jones turned away from the window. “Has to be my imagination, right, Ms. Shearer?”
“Think you can call me Gigi now. And yeah, sure.” I slid a glance at the corner of the room. The ghost rolled his eyes, but a smile tilted the corners of his mouth. I shook my head at him. Incorrigible old codger. But I’d learned better than to try to change his mind over the years.
“You don’t mind me staying here?”
“Not like I have a choice.” If Jones died on my hill, I’d lose the only link I had to my father, after all. And I’d worked my butt off for years to get this close. I wasn’t losing this fight now. I forced a casual shrug and sipped my wine. “Don’t worry, though. I’ve got a spare room you can sleep in.”
Jones’ shoulders would take up the entire width of the little bed, though, and no way would his long legs fit. What other parts of him would be … lengthy? Warmth pooled low in my belly.
Damn, guess it had been too long since I’d had a hot man in my cottage if I was getting hot over a man like Jones.
“Enjoying the view?” Jones stalked across the room and picked up his wine.
Shit. Busted. But I refused to give into the urge to look away and instead gave him a smirk.
“Hey, you’re an attractive man in my cottage. I’m just checking out the view.”
“And am I allowed to check you out back?”
“Don’t think I didn’t notice you staring when we were eating dinner.”
“Well, you do have a stunning face. All that dark hair. Your eyes.” He shrugged those massive shoulders again. “Plus, the way you ate those—sausages, you said?”
“Yep, that’s what I called them.” I sipped my wine and pretended to stare into my glass. How did he not know what sausages were?
“So, Jones.” I swirled my wine around as if I was making casual conversation. “How long did you say you’d worked for my father?”
His eyes sharpened, then he placed his glass on the table and stepped closer.
“So, you think I’m attractive?” he all but purred. “Perhaps we can make the most of the night, since we’re stuck together, here on your hill, and all. The storm raging outside. The fire, you and me, inside.” His caramel voice rolled over me, coated me in a rich, decadent haze.
But I was made of sturdier stuff than my hormones and I pulled myself together.
“Even sharks are beautiful. Doesn’t mean I’m getting close enough to be bitten.”
“Oh, why not though? My bite doesn’t hurt. In fact …” He trailed a finger up my arm. Goosebumps prickled in its wake. “When you know where to nip …”
He leaned in. His breath heated my neck. More of that delicious heat pooled lower. I tilted my head—
A face appeared in the window. Eyes sunken but glowing with a feral red light. Jaws hollow. Bones showing.
“Fuck!” I jumped back. “What—what is that?”
Jones whirled, and a surge of electricity flew through the room. The hairs on the back of my neck pricked.
“Hellhound. It must have followed me here.” He strode to his briefcase.
Snap. Snap. The case opened, and in a flash he rose to his feet in one fluid motion. Two wickedly pointed daggers spun in his hands.
“What are you doing? Why do you have those?”
“What protections do you have? How have you warded the house?”
“The old man, and the other ghosts. Do they listen to you?
Holy shit. My breath punched from me. “You can see the Folk?”
Of course. A chill cut through me. “Jones, just who in the hell are you?”
“I’m the person who’s going to keep that hellhound out of this house. Do you have any salt?”
Was he for real? “That’s it? I meant, how can you see them?” I waved a hand at my grandfather.
“Let’s deal with the hellhound first. I’ll tell you the rest after.”
“Yes, you will.” I had a truth potion ready and waiting, in fact. I ran into the kitchen and grabbed my saltshaker. “Here.”
“That’s all you have?”
“It’s for cooking—not swimming in.”
“Shit. What about the old guy—can he call more of the Folk to help keep the hound out?”
I whirled around. My grandfather’s lips turned down, and he shook his head even as he rolled up his ghostly sleeves.
“Yeah, we’re not getting more help.” My mouth dried up, and I turned back to Jones. “He’s it.”
Jones sighed like we’d let him down. “Fine. Old-fashioned way, then. What offensive magic do you have?”
“I make potions.”
“What? What about elemental magic weapons—shit like that?”
I stared at Jones. Was magic like that even possible?
He looked up at the ceiling and cursed before turning back to me. “Then what was your plan if your father hadturned up?”
“I was going to hold him at gunpoint until he …” Shit. Couldn’t tell Jones about the truth potion. “Until he confessed to killing my mother.”
Jones stilled. “You have a gun?”
“Of course, I live alone on a rural property with farm animals and—”
“Get it. Will the old man listen to me?”
I flicked my grandfather a look. His expression said it all. “Nope.”
I ran into my bedroom, wrenched the wardrobe open, unlocked my gun safe and took out my .22 air rifle. I threw the ammunition container on the bed, grabbed two bullets, and ran back to the lounge room.
Jones had poured the salt in a tight circle near the far wall.
“Stand inside here,” he said. “The hound can’t cross the salt. Keep your rifle ready.”
“What about you?”
“It can’t hurt me, and the old man’s energy can slow it down. So which ever door it comes through, then either you or I take it out. Aim for the heart. Don’t shoot me, though.”
“Then stay out of my line of sight.”
“Send the old man to the kitchen door. I’ll take the front.”
Hands shaking, I loaded the bullets into the rifle. Shit, shit, shit. How in the hell—okay, wrong word—had this all happened?
“Jones, you good?” I called out.
The lounge room window exploded. As shards of glass cascaded onto the floor, I screamed in terror as the behemoth of a creature bellowed through the broken window. Its six blood-red eyes seething with hatred cast a menacing glare, and its sharp claws scraped with determined menace against the frame as it lumbered into the room.
I lifted the gun, pulled the trigger.
The creature kept coming. All six eyes locked on me.
My breath rasped in. Oh goddess, oh shit. I tried to scream for Jones—for my grandfather—but my throat locked. Nothing in. Nothing out. What—
Two blurred shapes whistled through the room in front of me. They hit the beast. The thing howled, then dropped to the floor.
Before I could draw a breath, Jones raced to the hound and knelt at its side. He whispered a tangle of unfamiliar words and withdrew his knives from its chest.
“Is it dead?” I gasped when I could breathe again.
“Yes.” He laid a hand upon the grisly head—almost tenderly. “But only in this world. Its soul will return to Hell.
“The hound came through the window.” And now I had a giant ass hole in the middle of my lounge room. As if the wind had noticed the opening, an icy gust whipped into the room. I shivered under its freezing lash.
“I thought it might. The hound has magic all its own.”
“What? Then why did you go to the front door—holy goddess.” I rocked back on my heels. “You used me as bait.”
“It was the only option. The hound was hunting you, Gigi. It had to think it had a simple path to get to you. I stood right there, ready to take it out.”
“And my rifle? It did nothing to stop it.”
“You can leave the circle now.” He nodded at my feet. “The gun was for your comfort—human weapons can’t stop a hellhound.”
“So what? You isolated me, left me defenseless—”
“The salt protected you from the hound.”
“That tiny circle? What if I’d stumbled and fell over?” I saw red and flew at him. Jabbed a finger into his chest. “Get out. Now. The Folk can take your soul for all I care.”
“I can’t leave.”
“Yes, you can.” I strode to my front door and yanked it open. The storm still howled around the cottage. “Doorway. Open. You. Out.”
Jones prowled toward me—and damn if the play of his lean hips and that glow in his eyes didn’t make my body wish he were staying.
He stopped at the doorway. So close his body heat brushed me with invisible fingers. I suppressed a shiver.
“There are two reasons I can’t leave. And one I don’t want to leave for.” His gaze dropped to my lips, and I licked them even as heat bloomed low in my belly.
“I don’t care,” I whispered.
“You should. Reason one: hellhounds travel in a pack. One found you. The others will, too. And they must be here for the same reason as me—which is the second reason I can’t leave. The book.”
“You want to know who I am? I’m the dark that holds the magic of the underworld. And someone stole from me. A spell that belongs on my side of the veil.”
My breath punched from me.
“The soul hex.” The spell that tore soul from body. Only the worst spell I had ever heard of.
“Correct.” His hooded eyes lifted to mine. “I am here to retrieve my property. Have you read it?”
“Then that’s why the hounds are after you, too. You know the spell, Gigi. You are in mortal danger—maybe for the rest of your life. And no amount of ghosts or potions can keep you safe. Only these.” He held out the knives. “And me.”
Oh no. I was no victim. I lifted my chin. “Then show me how to use them. I’ll save myself.”
“You really are a warrior, aren’t you?” He shook his head and stepped closer. “And now for the reason I want to stay.”
The look in his eyes made my heart pound and that warmth steal back through my belly. But I was pissed off with Jones, damn it. I lifted my chin. “Don’t you dare—”