Poison Malice Twisted
Aisling is the last witch standing. She guards her family home and the source of their power from the fae eager to devour it. Grief and loneliness mark her days, twisting her up inside until the night she opens her door to a dark stranger...
His malice threatens to undo them both
Even among the fae, Niall is considered broken. War has stoked his lust for blood, for cruelty, for control. All he knows is death and depravity, until the day he steps inside Aisling's home and finds everything he's ever wanted...
A forbidden attraction so strong, so twisted, they cannot resist
But Niall's vow requires that he sacrifice it all.
Every day that Niall and Aisling give in to their twisted desires, the house moves closer to ruin. Corrupted magic seeps from every crack, the walls draw closer, and the house is torn apart between the fae and human worlds.
If the house falls, both their worlds fall with it. But the only way to save it will force Aisling and Niall apart for all of eternity.
Poison Malice Twisted is a standalone dark paranormal romance novel of love, sacrifice, and weird architecture by USA Today bestselling author Steffanie Holmes. This story of a clever witch, a wicked fae prince, and a house with a mind of its own contains scenes that may disturb and delight.
Release date: April 30, 2021
Publisher: Bacchanalia House
Print pages: 406
Reader says this book is...: action-packed (1) creative magic (1) family issues (1) profanity-laced (1) satisfying ending (1) sex scenes (1) strong chemistry (1)
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Poison Malice Twisted
CHAPTER ONE: AISLING
It all started with the crack.
Aisling noticed it at breakfast; a jagged fissure snaking its way across the dining room wall, splitting apart the faded wallpaper. She walked over and peered inside the crack, searching the blackness within for some clue, some sense of what lay on the other side. She longed to thrust her fingers into those black depths and probe their secrets.
She itched to poke the bear. And by bear, she meant the unfathomable darkness that yearned to swallow her.
Aisling cupped her hands behind her back, fighting against the urge. She knew if she stuck her hand inside, all she’d be left with was a bloodless stub.
And what’ll that do to my chances of becoming a world-famous juggler?
Even inside her head, Aisling was a mouthy bitch.
This particular crack was low on the wall, and it must’ve been growing for some time. It was quite long and wide, and had already begun pulling in the furniture. It had taken a corner of the armoire already. Around the fissure, the walls were blackened, rotting away as the void gnawed at the house.
Cracks in the walls of old houses weren’t that uncommon. When Hollythorn House had been just a house, a lattice of cracks marred several of its once pristine walls, causing Aisling’s father great concern over the house’s structural integrity. Grandmother June had brushed off her son-in-law’s protests. “These cracks are like the lines on my face.” She had rubbed her withered cheeks. “They’re part of the history of this house, the wisdom of its twilight years, the natural decay of its life. Let her grow old gracefully, just like me.”
Of course, Hollythorn wasn’t just a house anymore.
The crack’s presence was a bitter end to a beautiful moment, one of the first they’d shared together in months. Bethany – the younger by six years – was barely talking to Aisling anymore. Call it teenage hormones or post-apocalypse depression, I’m calling it ‘my kid sister is a pain-in-my-ass.’ Before the war, they had always shared everything. Bethany would take the train into the city to stay with Aisling for the weekend, and Aisling would sneak her into clubs and fill her teenage head with strawberry daiquiris and big dreams for the future.
Now, Bethany spent hours sitting in the blue drawing room in the east wing, watching out the bay window as the house swayed over the edge of the precipice, eyes unblinking as lightning snaked from the swirling miasma below and crashed against the icy sky. Aisling knew she had to do something to bring her back from the edge. Bethany was the only family she had left.
That morning, Aisling found just the thing – a jar of strawberry jam hidden behind the beans in the pantry. She thought they’d used up the last of the jams two months ago, and it was supposed to be several months before another jar appeared. Grandmother June’s pantry enchantment had been slowing down over the last year. Food now took months to replenish, and Bethany’s gardening experiments in the frozen greenhouse attached to the kitchen garden had been a failure. You couldn’t grow strawberries in sub-zero temperatures without sunlight, so their dreams of daiquiris in the drawing room remained only dreams.
Aisling clutched the jar to her chest, stroking the lid as though it were a precious jewel.
She set the dining table with the nice china and collected some fabric flowers from Grandmother June’s sewing room – which today contained an ornate staircase that had never been there before – to place in a vase in the center. She even opened one of their few remaining bottles of grape juice and poured them each a glass. Widdershins – their grandmother’s soot-black kitten with white socks who’d survived in the house as long as they had – crept inside and curled up on the rug under the table.
Everything looked perfect, like a scene from their childhood – one of Grandmother June’s make-believe fairy picnics. Aisling fingered the jam jar and had to bite her lip to resist throwing it across the room.
I want cocktails and dancing. I want friends with mundane problems – cheating partners, bosses making lewd comments, secret drug addictions. I want a mortgage and a vacation to the beach and fucking student loan payments. I want to go back to the club and have my Dom spank me until I’m crying. I want little white pills to transport me somewhere else.
I want out of this house.
Instead, our world has shrunk so small that I’m excited about a jar of jam.
Bethany entered the dining room just as Aisling was folding the napkins. She tossed her brown ringlets over her shoulder. Bethany had their mother’s unruly hair and petite build, her heart-shaped face and pixie features, whereas Aisling took more after Grandmother June – olive skin, narrow nose, huge brown eyes, long everything; long face, long legs, long fingers good for scratching down her Dom’s back…
No. Don’t start thinking about kink, or you’ll be excusing yourself for the bathroom, and Bethany needs you.
“What’s all this?” Bethany peered at the table. “Is that jam? I didn’t think we had any jam.”
“I found some at the back of the pantry. I thought we’d have a celebration.”
“What are we celebrating?” Bethany pulled out her chair and started spreading a thick layer of jam across her cracker. Aisling wanted to tell her to use less, to ration the jam so it would stretch further, but she didn’t have the heart. Not when Bethany was smiling her first real smile in months.
Instead, Aisling sat down opposite her sister, spread an even thicker layer on her own cracker, and took a big bite.
The jam was almost thick enough to disguise the stale taste of the cracker. Aisling took a swig of juice. Oh, it was heavenly, like swallowing a rainbow. Maybe she didn’t need little white pills after all. Maybe she just needed to count her fucking blessings.
Jam, check. Sister, check. Cat, check. Two available hands to flick the bean as much as I like. Check and check.
Aisling glanced up at the calendar she had pinned to the wall. She’d made it from pages torn from a book on butterflies she found in the library. It was a pretty crude tally, just numbered boxes with crosses through them over pictures of red admirals and holly blues. She didn’t even bother with the days of the week anymore. What was the point?
“We’re celebrating survival.” Aisling made a quick calculation in her head. “For thirteen hundred and twenty-two days, we’ve kept this house safe.”
“What good is survival without life?” Bethany set down her cracker. She stared at a spot behind Aisling’s head. “We have nothing inside these walls but a library full of books about things we’ll never experience.”
“The world in those books doesn’t exist anymore,” Aisling said.
“I don’t care!” Bethany slammed down her glass so hard, grape juice splashed across the tablecloth. Widdershins sprung to his feet in alarm and darted from the room. “I want to swim in the ocean again, or feel grass between my toes, or fall in love. At least you got to leave home and get a job and a boyfriend. I never got those things, and now I never will.”
“Be grateful for small mercies.” Aisling squeezed her knees together as she thought of Guy leading her around on a chain at the club with his long black coat swishing, and his snakebite piercings bobbing as his mouth curled up in a wicked smirk. Guy, who refused to leave the city with her because he wanted one last party before the end of the world. “It’s more to miss.”
“I can’t stand seeing the same walls day in and day out. We’re prisoners here, Aisling, as surely as we would be if they got in and took us. We might as well be dead.”
“Don’t say that.” Aisling’s heart hammered. The jam on her tongue tasted too sugary, too sticky. She tried to swallow, but it wouldn’t go down.
Bethany’s thoughts were too similar to hers.
We have each other.
“Why not? It’s true. Grandmother June has trapped us here, and for what? To save this house? She loved Hollythorn House more than she loved us—oh, no…” Bethany’s gaze landed on the wall behind Aisling. Without turning around, Aisling knew from her sister’s stricken expression what she would see: the dark fissure slowly opening across the wall.
“Bethany, I’m sorry.” Aisling squeezed her eyes shut, fighting back the urge to cry.
“I’ll get some boards.” Bethany rose from the table, pushing her half-eaten cracker away. Aisling reached for her, but Bethany ducked around her outstretched fingers. As she swung open the heavy door to the hallway, Aisling glimpsed her sister’s eyes – they were empty. If Bethany didn’t feel anything about the crack…
Her own eyes pricking with tears, Aisling cleared away the dishes and ate the rest of her sister’s cracker. It tasted like cardboard. She pushed the dining table closer to the door, away from the crack. Bethany returned a few minutes later, carrying several pieces of a mahogany bookshelf they’d chopped up last month.
“This is the last of it.” Bethany dropped the wood in front of the crack and pulled out her hammer, all business now. Her cheeks were dry of tears, her eyes dead. Her no-nonsense demeanor frightened Aisling more than her outburst of emotion. Bethany had been morose for weeks now, but this was different. This was as cold as the winter outside.
“Let me help.” Aisling picked up one of the wooden boards. Bethany snatched it from her hands.
“I’ll take care of this. You get the sealing stones.” Bethany held the wood up to the wall and started nailing it in place, her strikes cool, efficient, the sound jolting through Aisling like thunder.
Not wanting to upset her sister again, Aisling ran from the room. She found the sealing stones in Grandmother June’s desk in the blue drawing room, alongside other magical implements she didn’t know how to use. The drawing room was toward the front of the house, overlooking what would have been the front yard but was now a barren, icy field between the house and the iron fence encircling the property. They’d chosen this room as their safe store, as it was furthest from the known locations of the void, and would be one of the last rooms to crack. Aisling grabbed the velvet bag of stones from the desk drawer and ran back to the dining room.
“Bethany, I’ve got them—”
Aisling’s heart stopped beating. Bethany wasn’t standing behind the table. Instead, she lay facedown on the floor in front of the wall. Her face was turned toward the doorway, frozen in a look of such intense horror that Aisling’s stomach turned.
Her sister’s left arm had been completely torn away.
Bethany wasn’t bleeding. The burning darkness of the void had staunched the wound.
Her severed arm was nowhere to be seen.
Aisling turned from her sister and threw up on the rug.
“Bethany?” Her sister’s name dragged against her raw throat. Aisling dropped to her knees and pressed her fingers to her sister’s wrist. Bethany’s skin felt clammy. She had no pulse. Aisling rolled Bethany over and tilted her head back, trying to remember everything she’d learned about mouth-to-mouth on that first-aid course she’d taken for work. But it was a lifetime ago now and she couldn’t exactly get a refresher course.
Bethany’s glassy eyes stared back at her, open but no longer seeing, and Aisling knew it was too late. Whether she was dead from the shock of losing her arm or from making contact with the void, Aisling would never be able to ask.
Behind Bethany, the fissure had opened even further along the wall – a gaping black tear all the way from the gilded portrait of their grandfather above the fireplace to the small cameo of a cat along the right edge of the wall. The gap at the midpoint was the breadth of Aisling’s outstretched hands, and it tapered to a point at the ends – like a pair of black lips curling up in a mocking grin. The two boards Bethany had nailed up were its crooked teeth.
On the edges of the crack, inky black tendrils curled outward, giving off an acrid, smoky stench.
Bethany’s hammer lay on the thick carpet in front of her, a single nail poking from the board above it, only half nailed in. One of her shoes had rolled off under the table. A thin trail of black smoke rose from the insole.
Did she accidentally touch the void, or did she throw herself into it?
Both answers sucked.
Aisling sank to her knees in front of the wall, her heart breaking inside her chest. The pain of her loss was physical – a searing heat burning through her body, as though she’d been set on fire. She pounded her fists against the floor, her cries of desperation echoing through the heavy, silent house.
Seconds, minutes or hours later, Aisling rolled over, her eyelids drooping, her nose stinging and her face sticky with tears. The grief ebbed, still sitting beneath her skin but no longer burning her alive. She rubbed her eyes, and her gaze fell on her sister’s shoe, sitting empty and lonely where she’d left it under the dining table.
Now I’m the only one left.
CHAPTER TWO: AISLING
Aisling hadn’t known war was coming for her until the bombs started dropping.
She had been your typical twenty-two-year-old. She had an architecture job she loved in the city, an apartment, a boyfriend, a sex club, a latex bodysuit, a penchant for loud music and an even louder laugh after a few drinks.
She was too busy drinking cocktails at trendy speakeasy pop-ups and trialing paleo recipes to pay much attention to news headlines. World Wars were things that happened in the distant past, something to feel sad about during history documentaries. Even when friends at the club talked about joining up, she didn’t realize how up-close-and-personal this war had become.
If she had known, it would’ve meant sweet fuck-all. What could she have done? Joined the thousands of protesters clogging the streets? Written letters to politicians? Made spellcakes for peace and protection with Grandmother June to burn over a bonfire?
None of it had made any difference in the end.
In a twisted way, Aisling was grateful for those final months of her normal life lived in ignorance, writhing on a St. Andrew’s Cross at her sex club like she alone knew the meaning of ‘pain.’
Those were the memories she clung to now.
Her beloved city was burned. Her boyfriend was crushed in the rubble. The air itself became poison. The act of living was pain. Aisling fled to the only place she thought might be safe – Hollythorn House, where she spent her childhood summers with crazy Grandmother June and her witchy potions and stories of the fae. Grandmother June said she’d placed so many magical protections around the house it could literally withstand a nuclear holocaust. Aisling didn’t believe in fairies and magic, but she definitely believed in Hollythorn’s isolation and Grandmother June’s fully-stocked root cellar.
I’ll hide at Hollythorn until we win the war.
Until things can go back to normal.
Then, the fae came.
Fairies, fey-folk, pixies, darklings, the wild hunt, the Sidhe. Creatures Aisling knew only from her grandmother’s storybooks swept over the Earth – not adorable little sprites, but vicious warriors with swords of bone and hearts carved in stone. They emerged from the irradiated forests and the charred meadows – a race lain hidden from human eyes until the poison of human war had seeped into their realm. They had left humans in peace for centuries, but now, they came for vengeance, for survival.
And nothing would ever go back to normal.
It turned out, Grandmother June’s stories were true.
She was a witch, and all her crazy hippy friends were witches, and she passed down her powers to her daughter Alice, who supposedly passed them down to Bethany and Aisling – not that the sisters knew how to use them. Thanks for nothing, Mom. A whole family of witches hid under Hollythorn’s roof from the end of the world – with all the power the fae needed to restore their realm, if only they could get inside.
The day the fae attacked Hollythorn House, Grandmother June hid Aisling and Bethany in the pantry while she and their mother and father and the other witches in June’s coven fought against the fairy host that marched across the countryside to lay siege to their stronghold. Aisling held a trembling Bethany as the house shuddered around them from the force of spells being hurled back and forth. The air crackled and sizzled with restless energy, like a thunderstorm building up indoors. Cans and jars of preserves toppled from the shelves, their sharp edges raising bruises and cuts on their skin. Aisling’s chest tightened with fear when she heard her father screaming.
The fae battled with Grandmother June and the coven for days. One by one, June’s witches fell. The fae tore out their hearts to take back to their queen. Aisling’s father took a sword to the abdomen and died of his injuries. The fae were breaking down the door.
With the assistance of Alice and June’s two sisters – what remained of their coven – June bound herself to the house so the fae could not take her and her magic. She hid her magic in Hollythorn’s walls and floors and moldings, but the spell killed her. It was supposed to stop the fae from seizing her power. They couldn’t bleed magic from walls like they could from veins.
Instead, the fae dragged Hollythorn House – walls and doors and furniture and iron gates and witches and all – to the very edge of their realm, to the place where the frozen wasteland of the fae world met the boiling earth and the nothingness of space between them. This edge-place kept the house preserved while the fae figured out how they could get inside it, like a particularly recalcitrant nut they needed to crack.
But Hollythorn wouldn’t crack. Instead, it fought back.
The house now teetered on the edge of a great cliff overlooking the void of space that divided the two realms. It defied logic – the entire east wing was suspended in midair hundreds of feet above the vast, bottomless chasm from which a great storm constantly churned. The frog-pond in the corner of the front yard glowed green from radiation, and the ground around it burned so hot they could lay down a frying pan to cook eggs. Winds wailed through the chimneys and dark clouds crashed against each other, battering the house from all sides and often completely obscuring the view of the fae mounds through the windows.
Over the years, the house had succumbed to the incredible forces exerted upon it. Rooms stretched and distorted. The ballroom was now larger on the inside than it was on the outside. Staircases descended into nowhere, and doorways into strange new rooms appeared randomly. The iron fence that surrounded the property grew in height – now it was taller than the gabled roof. The house kept adding and changing as it strived to protect its secrets from the fae.
Cracks formed in the walls as the house was pulled in both directions. Between those cracks, an unholy darkness lurked. If the void took you, you didn’t come back. That was how Aisling had lost her mother three years ago, and her sister today.
Aisling was now twenty-five years old, and she was the last witch left alive. She would protect Hollythorn House from fae attacks and repair what she could. But she knew the cracks would grow bigger, the rooms would refuse to obey the laws of physics, and the house would one day swallow her up.
CHAPTER THREE: NIALL
Niall bent over the body of the witch and yanked his blade from her back. Blood spurted from the wound. A few drops sprinkled over Niall's boots, scenting the air with the sweetest smell in the world – the acrid tang of a dead witch’s blood.
Niall wished he could take a bath in the stuff, but it was too precious for that. He settled for rolling her over, slicing the skin of her breast to swing her ribs open like the wings of an eagle unfurling before flight, and tearing out her heart.
Blood caked his forearms as he held up his prize. It quivered in his fingers as a crimson fountain spurted from a severed artery down the front of his tunic. Niall could barely make out the haze of blue light glowing faintly around the edges.
“There’s barely anything left of her,” he growled.
“Who cares? We need all of it.” Odiana held out a sack made of woven grass, and Niall tossed the heart inside. Odiana threw the sack over her shoulder and grabbed the witch under the arms. She left a crimson trail across the linoleum as she dragged the body to the waiting wheelbarrow. The fae kept every witch carcass they could find. They gave the hearts to their Summer Queen and made their bones into talismans to ward against the encroaching ice and the evils that dwelt within it. “Are there any more?”
Niall glanced around the shop. The aura could sometimes be difficult to see, especially with all this human junk crowded together. The presence of so much iron made his head spin and clouded his vision.
Focus. Lay aside your hatred and bloodlust. Your brother needs you.
He squinted into a dark corner, where several carved walking sticks had been stacked alongside some old shovels and farm implements – the metal components now caked with rust. He ignored his body’s urge to shy away from the metal and walked around the shovels, careful not to touch them as nausea clenched at his stomach. Decades of raiding expeditions into the human realm had hardened him against the effects of iron.
As he moved, Niall caught the blue glimmer of an aura near the back of the pile. He pulled out a beautifully polished stick – its handle inlaid with a shimmering moonstone. It thrummed in his fingers, giving off its own energy even through his thick gloves. In the light, the aura was much clearer – a blue shimmer extending down the length of the shaft.
“Here.” Niall tossed the stick to Odiana. “This one.”
Without any regard for the beauty of the craftsmanship, Odiana tossed the wooden stick into their wheelbarrow, on top of the witch’s carcass and a pile of other blue-tinged human objects. Like Niall, she wore gloves pulled up to her elbows for handling the objects, made of the pelt of a selkie and stitched with rows of human teeth to protect their skin against iron. Even so, she didn’t have Niall’s tolerance for the objects, and she bent double over the wheelbarrow, clutching her stomach as her face twisted in agony.
Normally, only the warriors of the Slaugh had their queen’s permission to cross into the human realm, but Niall had insisted on working with Odiana, and not even the queen herself would risk pissing Niall off. The fae didn’t quite know what to do with Odiana – unlike other court-born fairies of her beauty – ice-white hair, porcelain skin, cheekbones that could carve up a man, eyes like faceted crystal – she had no care for dancing and song and possessing beautiful objects. To her, real beauty was in the orbit of a planet, the reaction of chemicals, the perfection of a mathematical equation. Her potions could create glamours and changelings and gift temporary invisibility, not because she was a skilled herbalist but because she understood how fae magic worked more than anyone. She might have been called a scientist, if that wasn’t a human word the fae abhorred.
Niall had known her, and trusted her, long enough to know that if anyone could save the fae, it would be Odiana. He needed her by his side, to see, to know.
And he needed her not to see. She trusted him, and that meant he could exploit her.
“I’ll stuff huffing this up the hill,” Odiana said in her breathy voice. “You hunt for more imbued junk.” Niall often teased Odiana that she pronounced every syllable as though she were whispering in a lover’s ear. The fae were sexual beings, capable of fierce seductions when the mood so took them, but Odiana was a walking erotic manifestation who tempted him at every turn. But Niall would never give in to that particular impulse, not when he knew how much his brother loved her. Niall’s profligate ways were reserved for the lesser fae.
A few minutes later Odiana returned, sans wheelbarrow, looking puffed and sickly. Niall handed her a battered toaster and a small carved wooden duck. Odiana held the bird up to the light. “This thing?” she asked, scorn dripping from her words.
“Oh yeah, it’s humming with magic.”
Odiana wrinkled her nose. “I’ll never understand what would possess a witch to deposit their sacred magic into such grotesque objects.”
“I think it’s clever.” Niall watched the edges of the blue aura pulse against the yellow aura of Odiana’s fingers. “If you were a witch and fae broke into your house to take your magic, the last place they’d expect you to hide it is inside a hideous duck.”
“Not so clever,” Odiana grinned as she pocketed the duck. “We have you.”
“The witches didn’t exactly know about my abilities when they did this.” His whole life, Niall hid the fact he could see the aura of an object or person who wields magic. To him, the whole world glowed with different shades of shimmering blue and yellow, but that was not a kind of magic known to the fae. Fae could cast glamour and heal wounds and influence luck and resist pain. Slaugh like Niall had heightened senses for stealth in battle. But seeing magic itself? It was the kind of power they reviled. The first blood Niall spilled had been to protect his secret. And now he was the future of his race. His queen’s blessing chafed at him, making him restless, more thirsty for blood.
“All the better for us.” Odiana grinned her enchanting smile. “Maybe one day soon I’ll actually be able to extract the magic from all this junk, and your love for dusty human crap will be justified.”
Niall punched her playfully in the arm. Their friendship was forged in their youth, built on a foundation of competitiveness and seasoned liberally with insults. They knew more secrets about each other than fae were usually willing to share, and that knowledge gave Niall a sense of calm when he was with Odiana. Calmness was a rare gift. The rage that burned inside him – the blaze of white-hot fury that could usually only be sated by human blood or fae depravity – quieted in Odiana’s presence.
Back in the glory days, Niall relished every ride of the Slaugh upon the Earth, every chance to slash and maim and hurt. The Slaugh were the only fae allowed into the human realm – they had the queen’s blessing to ride across the land, searching out witches for the queen’s pleasure – sometimes replacing them with changelings and dragging them back to the fae realm for the queen to enslave or torture, sometimes cutting them to pieces and sucking their magic from the marrow of their bones.
When the humans aimed their nuclear weapons at each other and scarred the Earth with poison fire, the witches died along with the humans. Without their magic to sustain the Summer Queen, her grip over their realm faded and the Endless Winter crept in. The ice edged down from the mountains and never retreated. On the other side of the mountains, they knew the Winter Queen and her court grew stronger in their rule, but even she too would fade if the balance could not be restored.
Niall could no longer remember the feeling of grass rustling against his ankles or warm sun touching his skin. All he knew now was ice that matched his heart.
The fae hadn’t known that witches had been protecting their magic for years, siphoning it off into objects so that if the fae took them, they would never give the queen enough power to dominate both realms. But Niall knew. He’d seen the objects in their homes glowing with the delicious blue aura. Now that only a few witches were left alive in the irradiated wasteland, those objects were the fae’s only hope.
If Odiana could figure out how to extract magic from a wooden duck, she could extract it from Hollythorn House. And the Summer Queen would have what she needed to thaw the ice.
Niall had been watching this tiny village for weeks, observing nine humans and one witch sleeping in a protective huddle on the floor of the pub and attempting to grow potatoes in the poisoned fields. Niall had seen the witch enter this shop on numerous occasions to take tools, but yesterday he’d watched through the window as she picked up a small necklace from a cabinet and clasped it in her palm. Her eyes closed. The witch swayed gently, holding the necklace to her heart. The necklace glowed with bright blue light.
Niall rode on the village with five Slaugh warriors. They left no survivors.
He hadn’t mentioned the necklace to Odiana.
While she struggled outside with the full wheelbarrow, Niall pawed through decades of carefully collected artifacts from the broken earth, searching for his own gold.
He found the necklace tucked behind a display of trinket boxes and spice jars. The metal burned his fingers even through his tooth-mail gloves. He placed the necklace inside a box lined with witch-bones and slid the box into his pocket just as Odiana came up behind him, a dusty book gripped in her hands.
“Find anything else?” Her voice was hoarse from the iron exposure.
Niall shook his head, brushing his hands on his green trousers. He kept his voice hard – the voice he used to command his men. “Let’s go.”
“You read my mind.” Odiana sniffed, her perfect nose twitching. “This place reeks of humans.”
Niall followed her to the top of the street, where she’d left the wheelbarrow. She dropped the book on top of the corpse, staining its cover with the witch’s blood. Niall shoved the barrow through a doorway in a stone garden wall into a deserted street. His boots kicked fresh snow, its surface puckered only by their previous footprints and the rut from the wheelbarrow. Odiana elbowed him aside to pick up the handles of the wheelbarrow and shove it into the recalcitrant snow.
The box in Niall’s pocket dragged like a lead weight.
Odiana followed the rut from their earlier journey back down the hill, but even so it was slow going in the unrelenting snow. Niall lifted his head as they rounded the crest. The skyline of the Summer City rose before his eyes – once beautiful spires of gnarled wood and clover-dusted mounds pierced the turbid sky, turned white and misshapen by the unceasing blizzards. Icicles lined dead tree branches and clung to the stems of once-living flowers – jagged teeth that bite by bite had devoured their green lands.
Behind the valley, Niall could see the outline of Hollythorn House high upon the hill. The gothic-style mansion towered over the blackened fields and charred forest that surrounded it. Twin turrets flanked the main wing, high round windows glaring at him like two beady eyes. A low porch shaded the front door, the broken arches like a row of sharpened fangs. The iron fence that had grown twenty-foot high surrounded it like a cage.
His throat closed.
The house glowed with a fierce blue light only Niall could see, a light so intense it warmed his skin even through the unrelenting cold.
A shiver ran through Niall’s body as he stared at that strange house. Niall had been on the battlefield the day the witch fused her magic to the house. He’d seen his Slaugh brothers fall under an onslaught of magic as the walls glowed with blue light so bright he’d had to turn away. He’d nearly died himself as he carved into his own chest with his knife for one final fae-spell. But even ten-score Slaugh warriors spilling their blood for their queen was not enough, or was too much, and ever since, Hollythorn stood sentinel on the hill, straddling the two worlds – a terrifying specter that loomed over the abandoned city, beguiling in its promise as a conduit of unlimited power.
Hollythorn was a place of mystery and superstition to the fae. No human could have survived inside for all these years, and yet lights went on and off in the manor’s windows. Sometimes, smoke could be seen pouring from the chimney, and once or twice the front door even creaked open a crack. Niall and his brother Eamon used to dare each other to run up the scorched hill and peer through their iron bars for as long as their stomachs could stand it.
Once, Niall saw a dark-cloaked figure float slowly across the upstairs window. He couldn’t make out a face or even the color of her hair, but he knew he was looking at the most powerful witch that ever lived. He pressed his face so close to the bars he burned two vertical scars over his cheeks.
The image of the shadow gliding with inhuman, impossible slowness haunted Niall's dreams ever since.
He’d been seeing it a lot since his father’s death. Niall’s language was blood and violence, not omens and portents, but even he knew the dreams were a message.
Although the skies were always cold and grey – the same broken sky since the Endless Winter began – above Hollythorn, black clouds swirled, raging and crashing against each other as the energy of the void collided with the two realms. As Niall watched, lightning arced down from the sky and struck the iron fence surrounding the house. The fence crackled loudly, but did not break.
Odiana shuddered, placing her hand over Niall’s. “It’s not natural,” she said. “That much raw power. It’s no wonder it’s still standing after all this time.”
“We should burn it down.” Niall’s words were harsher than he intended. Hollythorn House held a special place of hatred within his black heart. If it wasn’t for that house, he wouldn’t be standing there with guilt clutching his chest and a magical necklace gnawing a hole in his pocket.
“Don’t you dare. I’m so close to figuring out how to extract its magic, and then this whole shitshow will be over. We’ll have our green fields back.” Odiana kicked a snowdrift.
“You are?” Niall’s fingers skimmed the edge of the box. His leg throbbed from being in such close contact with the metal necklace, but he welcomed the pain. Pain drowned out everything, even Odiana with her voice of velvet. Maybe it would drown out Niall’s guilt.
Guilt. Who would have thought? Niall had never felt guilty before. Everything he’d ever done had been with complete malice aforethought. Niall had never experienced this constricting in his chest or the nauseous tumble of his stomach before, and he hoped he’d soon be rid of it. He fingered the box again.
Niall jerked his head up. Odiana was talking at him, and he wasn’t even listening. Niall removed his hand from his pocket and focused on what she was saying.
“—we know witch magic is housed in their hearts, and it travels around their bodies in the bloodstream, right? Well, I think these objects have a heart, too. We find the heart, we get the magic. It’s that simple.”
Niall thought of the wooden duck. “I think you need to see a healer, because you’ve got a fruit bat loose in that skull of yours.”
“Not a physical heart, obviously. Something that binds the witch to the object – something personal to her, like a song or a story or a particular piece. If the witch’s lover gave her that duck, then the heart is in the memory of the giving, stored within the object. We get that, we get the magic.” Odiana caressed the bloodstained grimoire. “It’s a pity we can’t keep a witch alive so we can extract these stories from her. I know you’d have fun with that. But the queen forbids it. I found this book that’s part diary, part magical grimoire. I’m hoping it will contain the memories we need.”
Niall looked to Hollythorn again. “What kind of heart do you think that house has?”
“One as black and twisted as yours. Let’s get out of this cold.” Odiana gave the wheelbarrow a defiant shove, heading toward the withered rowan bushes that led to the underground tunnels where the fae now lived. “Come meet me in the circle after I deliver these? I need a few glasses of nectar wine to put the color back in my cheeks.”
Niall shook his head, resting his hand on his sword, the hilt stained wine-dark with dried human blood. “I need to sharpen this.”
Odiana made a face. “Gross. Sometimes I don’t know how we’re friends.”
“Because it’s better to be friends with the sword-wielding maniac than get on his bad side?” Niall lifted an eyebrow.
“True.” She stood on her toes to lightly brush her lips across his cheek. “Tomorrow, then.”
He watched her descend the carved steps into the gloom of the lower tunnels. He didn’t know if there would be a tomorrow. The fae had once used these passages for storing food or as a hiding place when their kingdom was attacked by other creatures, the kinds of creatures who now roamed freely, emboldened by the ice.
Odiana didn’t see Niall cast a final glance over his shoulder at the house.
She’s right – you do have a heart. I left mine behind when you took my only family from me. You sucked it up into your blackened depths and you fed on my malice until you became malice yourself. You and I are the perfect enemies.
I promise you this, house – before I leave this broken earth, I will see your walls crumble to dust for what you’ve done.
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