The underworld is stirring. And it’s calling out my name.
One kill. One life. One snap of a demon’s neck and I will be marked with a sphere. It will not only give me purpose and strength but it will also bind me and my sister to a demon lord, Aseret.
He’s killed our kin, disturbed the underworld’s resting souls and now he’s preparing to strike at the humans and vampires. If we don’t stop him, another genocide will ensue.
Gifted with abilities from our ancestors, we are the last shifters. Except my sister believes that our destiny is to bear the water mark instead.
Fortunately for me, every marking comes with a price. For me, her name is Xela. The sinfully sexy dark witch with secrets flips my world upside down. She takes hold of my heart, opening the door to the underworld.
After all, there’s something good about being bad.
“Wolves howled, bears roared, and eagles fell from the sky.
‘Hold your ground!’ Clifford ordered, as one after another, bones broke and animals collapsed on the frontlines. Their shifter souls were spared at a cost. A great cost.”
“That’s where we come in, Mama, isn’t it?”
“Not yet, darling. Now close your eyes and listen like your brother.”
“Because that’s my favorite part.”
Mira’s eager eyes always remained on my journal. The thick book full of history and spells had run out of space a long time ago, and I’d read through the pages, from one to thirteen hundred and sixty nine, every night since the day I’d brought the twins home. Mira waited patiently, and now that her brother’s eyes had opened, I knew I had their full attention.
“By first calculations, the shifters thought they were outnumbered five to one, which wasn’t a small task, but not an impossible one. They discovered they were wrong as dozens upon dozens of orange-eyed creatures, crafted out of resting bones from deep within the underworld's caves, descended. Aseret, a demon whose strength and determination to overtake all creatures had been sorely misjudged, led them in a fight.
‘Where are the twins?’ asked Castall, one of the four Keepers.
‘According to Harlow, five miles south of here.’
‘Hanna’s on her way.’
Clifford glanced up to the sky at the circling falcon overhead. The bird relayed information to the shifter leader, who then said, ‘She won't make it in time.’
Clifford worried about the incoming wave of seekers and the front line of shifters who were being slaughtered. They fought with more bravery than he’d ever witnessed before, but they were blindsided and overtaken. The newborn shifter twins had a different path now, and their sacrifice would be great as they absorbed all shifter abilities from their dying kin. But time had its own dimensions, and so their new path would simply need to be stretched as Clifford ensured that not all light was dimmed.”
“That part is confusing, Mama.”
“Xander, if we always understood everything, the mystery of life wouldn’t be a mystery anymore. You remember what I said last night and the night before, don’t you, sweetheart?”
His eyes darkened for a split second, time not long enough for a human to catch, but it was long enough for a witch. Those rare moments confirmed that my twins would have a complicated relationship. I’d never seen the underworld’s reflection in Mira’s eyes, and she loved her brother deeply. Their futures worried me.
“We were supposed to be someone else. I just don't understand who.”
“You are exactly who you were supposed to be, but your destiny has changed. Shall I continue?”
Mira placed her forefinger to her lips to shush her brother, and I flipped to the next page.
“An echo of breaking bones and bloody cries circled the forest. The stench of spoiled eggs killed every breath. The ground shook as thousands of seekers approached and thousands of shifters fell to their deaths.
‘Where is Gabriel?’ Clifford asked
‘Unavailable. Performing his holy duties,’ Castall replied.
If Clifford remained on the battlegrounds, the last newborn twin shifters would die as well. The attack had spread too quickly. He had no choice but to leave. He turned to Castall, saying, ‘There’s nothing more that can be done. You need to be with Hanna right now. She’s your wife. Take her to safety. I will protect the twins for as long as necessary.’
‘And the others?’
‘I will save a piece of each one. I promise.’
“We’re like a puzzle, Mama. We’re made out of pieces.”
“Yes you are, sweetheart.” I swept my hand over Mira’s head, smoothing back her locks.
“Mama, I think if we’re going to Destiny, you should stop calling us sweetheart.”
I chuckled, but didn’t bother correcting my boy. One day he’d realize that destiny didn’t have a location, and that was one of the best mysteries of life.
“Why don’t you want me calling you sweetheart?”
“Cuz shifters are badass.”
“Badass? Where did you learn that word?”
“From Harlow. He’s my favorite bird.”
I returned Xander’s grin and said, “I guess understanding animals is pretty badass.”
“What happened next, Mama?” Mira nudged her brother to lie back down, and so I turned to the last inscription for that day.
Clifford dove inside a vortex, and seconds later, just before thousands of seekers reached the twins, he let go of his body and used his soul as a shield to protect them.
“And we became invisible!” Mira screamed out.
“Yes, you did.” I gave her a sterner look than I’d intended until she settled down. “He kept you hidden until all the seekers left and all the shifter powers were gifted to you.”
“We should thank him one day.”
“Maybe one day you will.”
I shut the book and Xander tugged at my arm.
“You need to finish, Mama.”
I sighed. I didn’t like reading this last part and couldn’t wait to fill my new journal with happier histories. I then opened the book and read the last paragraph of that day’s entry.
“Once they were safe, he vanished, never to be seen again, leaving the babies with gifts beyond measure. Gifts of pleasure and gifts of pain. As they shift and their body changes, their pain will crush through every bone. It will sear through their muscles and tissues, until all they feel is the need to shift.”
I stopped and kissed each one on the forehead before blowing out the candles. The room fell dark, and the same way I did every evening at bedtime, I left to my quarters wondering why the siblings always insisted on reading that paragraph last, especially since it wasn’t where their story ended. That day, their story began.
One more inch and his neck would snap.
I tightened my hold on the demon, and the orange glow faded from his eyes. His white skin dulled to a semi-translucent shade and his jugular vein swelled underneath the pressure of my fingers. The rush of energy and adrenaline feeding me had spread through my muscles. He would pay for luring my sister to the underworld with his death. But he wasn’t the only one who would bear the price of his lost soul.
A mark on my left wrist glowed as the sphere began to appear. The more tightly I squeezed my arm around the demon’s neck, the more brightly the sphere shone. A jolt of apprehension zapped from the mark up to my chest as darkness forced its way up to my heart, testing its grounds. I pushed the tightening sensation aside. This was it. This was what I wanted. I’d been waiting to be marked for decades. Finally, we’d know which side we could serve; and serving the underworld didn’t seem so bad when you could kill demons any time you wanted to. Turns out there was something good about being bad.
My twin sister, Mira, disagreed. “Xander, you’re making a decision for the both of us.” My fate sealed hers, and hers, mine – and she should have known better than to climb inside a demon cave on her own. But my sister didn’t know how to listen. Well, neither did I.
“A marking will stop the void we’re living in. I’m capable of so much more, and I’m done with this non-threatening state we’ve been stuck in. I want to know who I am and why I’m here, and I know you want that as well.”
Be careful what you ask for, I heard in my mind as Mira’s eyes softened. She could feel my pain not only because she was my sister, but also because we were special. Ma told us so, and Ma was… Ma was extremely special, and most importantly, she was wise so she wouldn’t have said so if it weren’t true. Besides, Ma’s words were more than a compliment. They were truth, spoken by a wise witch who’d found us as babes lying side by side on the forest floor, staring into the dense crisscross of tree branches overhead, healing from the torment of broken bones and chaos.
Ma brought us home and raised us. But even within the safety of our home, we’d always known that danger lurked beyond the other side of the door. We’d listened to her wise words for years, but the time had come to end the violence. It was time to put all that testosterone I’d been blessed with to good use, and what better use than snapping a demon’s neck?
I clenched my jaw with determination. “I can feel you want this, Mira. I can feel it in my veins and in my chest.”
The demon’s shimmering light-ropes bound my sister to the cave’s back wall. Death scattered across the floor — a mix of bones and the remains of rotting flesh. I could taste the stench of decay in my mouth. It made me want to gag, but I’d smelled worse. I focused on my sister’s bindings, trying to think of clever ways to remove the light-light-powered ropes. If I snapped the demon’s neck, he’d die, the ropes would dim, she’d be freed, and we’d be marked.
“Not this way, brother. The underworld is not the answer.” The skin singed on Mira’s wrists and around her ankles where the burning light rope touched her. The demon must have tricked her to come here. His powers seemed stronger than the others’, though he still stank like rotten eggs and dirty socks.
“We have a choice, Xander.” Mira reassured.
The orange sparks on my imprint faded and brightened like flickering ends of fire. Each time I thought about my sister’s fate, my wrist burnt less. The path had always been clear to her, but not to me. And then when I closed my eyes, when I felt that heat travel from my wrist straight into my heart with a purpose, the pull I’d been waiting for grasped me by my chest and gave me just enough strength to finish the job. The sphere would define us forever, and there’d be no doubt where our alliance lay: with the underworld. From now on, I could freely kill every scum-eating demon that came my way. The Keepers wanted the world fixed, and I would do it if they wanted me to – but on my terms.
“And this is our choice.” I flexed, feeling the oval’s burn travel from my wrist upward in preparation to imprint its powers inside my heart. The sphere’s heat wrapped itself around the pounding muscle like barbed wire. It dug into the tissue, piercing and cutting off my breath. At the thought of losing control, a flash of anxiety spread through me. This wasn’t the way I’d imagined we’d go, but being marked with the sphere was better than living in a motionless world, waiting for our destiny to be revealed. I was done with the useless existence.
“You know I’ll follow you wherever you go, but the sphere is not the answer. The underworld has grown too powerful.” Mira’s soothing coo reached me again, along with an odd need to hum to Ricky Nelson. My sister was working every angle our twin-connection permitted, or so I thought. We’d been living without purpose for decades, and I was tired of waiting for the Keepers to decide our fate. I wanted to feel and live free, even if feeling meant an agonizing burn that incinerated me from the inside out as the glow on my wrist materialized into a brighter and stronger mark. There was nothing my sister could say to sway me. It was time to make my own path.
Come on, Xander.
Get out of my head!
“I don’t want to be stuck in this void any longer. It’s time. I can feel it. I know you can feel it too.”
As if hearing my plea, energy flowed from my wrist to my heart like acid, poisoning me with the sphere’s power. It wouldn’t take long now. In a few moments, the demon in my grip would give out the last breath he held; and once I killed him, the sphere would define us forever. Our alliance would be sealed to the underworld.
“Come on, Xander. This is not the way. You would have killed him already if it were, you know you would. Can’t you feel the doubt? What’s stopping you?”
Wanting to prove her wrong, I flexed to constrict the demon’s air flow. Ready to snap his neck, I lifted my head with pride for one last time as an unmarked man. I took what I thought would be my final breath as an unmarked man and as if on cue, the cave filled with a purple mist filling my lungs with the scent of lilac and lavender. Its fragrant aroma stunned me, forcing me to pause. From within the fog of mist, the man who would one day want to take away from me everything that I loved, appeared.
Who the hell is that?
With his feet parted and arms at his sides, he stood facing me. A purple glow swirled around his palms where it condensed into round balls of power. He lifted his chin, and I couldn’t peel my focus away from his purple shining eyes. “This is not your calling, Xander,” he whispered. “Let the demon go.”
Adjusting my hold, I hesitated, and then brushed off the new wave of doubt that assailed me from this warlock’s lips. The demon I held on to would soon be unconscious. I looked back at the man with the purple eyes. Was he a warlock?
Let him go, his hushed voice said in my mind. My grip loosened of its own accord, my arm listening to his request. The strength of that power caught me off guard.
“Get the fuck out of my head, asshole,” I spat back at him, keeping my steady stance and grip. He appeared unfazed, and the energy he held in his palms glowed more brightly.
“I know what you’re struggling with. I’ve been there.”
“And you are… ?”
“I’m Eryk. They call me the Evil-Bender.” He curled at the elbows until the bright spheres of light rested on his palms. Their electricity sizzled and sparked outward. The flickers flew far out, which was pretty cool, but not as cool as when his fingers twirled the lights. His sleeves slipped back, and I felt my breath freeze when I saw waved tattoo on his left wrist. My grip loosened on the demon.
He has the water mark.
Eryk the Evil-who-the-fuck-cares-Bender had been sent by the Keepers. He embodied everything that the awaiting sphere on my wrist didn’t, and once I was marked, he’d be my enemy.
“Mind your own business, Bender.” I heard my teeth grind until it pained me and felt the demon go limp in my hold. I let go of his body. It fell to the floor with a thump, and I’d lost my chance. I had taken too long. “This is all your fault.” The energy I’d wasted on the demon’s stinking ass gathered into balls of fury in my fists, and I focused on the soon-to-be purple-shitting warlock.
The sphere vanished from my wrist. I lifted my gaze to meet Eryk’s and spread my legs for support. With my knees bent for attack, I extended my fangs.
“If I can’t kill the demon, you’ll have to do.”
I launched forward.
It was a mistake.
I wished I’d sensed my sister’s warning sooner, but I was too pre-occupied with those deceptively shiny beams of light in the bender’s palms. If I had just listened to that annoying little voice of hers, which I tried to block out more often than I should have, my stupidity would have never joined the adrenaline train ride. Rage spread through my chest. Darkness blinded me, and I launched at the evil-bender only to be stopped in my tracks by a force I couldn’t fight. With my feet frozen to the spot, the momentum carried my body forward until my nose touched the ground, and then I sprang back, swaying back and forth like a bowling pin on a spring, sputtering, “In the name of everything that’s sacred, what the fuck is that?”
The soil glowed purple and held me firmly, cementing my feet. My lips drew into a snarl and my face contorted as the green shade of fury on my skin shifted into a surprise, stunning me.
“Take the bond off, asshole!” I growled, my gaze darted from Eryk to the glow beneath me. My ears flattened against my head, and I tightened my jaw until one of my molars cracked—something I instantly regretted; I hated tooth pain.
“You didn’t want to do it the easy way, so we’ll have to do it the hard way. I don’t usually mind bindings.” His focus moved back to my sister, who was biting her lip. Eryk smirked in approval and looked her over as if she were a piece of meat. I saw her squirm, and then felt the skip of her heartbeat in my chest. That part wasn’t just a shifter or a twin connection — this was our thing. As individual as we were, we also shared more than any humans could. Like right now, for example, my sister was trying to hide the fact that she’d met the bender before, and she was doing a pretty good job at it. But she couldn’t hide it well enough. Not from me, at least. We were two halves of a whole. I could feel the energy flowing through her veins and her emotions, the same way she could feel mine. Adrenaline and lust drove us insane. It forced us to extremes. And wondering whether our choices truly belonged to us was exhausting. It was all because we weren’t marked.
I knew my sister was hiding a secret the moment her heart skipped a beat. Now, her mellow eyes, accelerated pulse, and bitten lower lip made me want to puke. She might as well have said, “Here I am. Have your way with me.”
Women! I rolled my eyes. She’d been swayed by Eryk’s charm the minute he appeared. The suave bender in a tight turtleneck and with abs of steel was into her as well, and that’s when it hit me – if I had killed the limp demon behind me, my sister would have become Eryk’s enemy as well. It was just another one of those great fucking benefits of being a one-of-a-kind shifter with no purpose. This decision to kill the demon had had a purpose. It was supposed to bind us to the underworld. It would have given meaning to our lives.
But then I connected my gaze with hers once more, and I knew that she was right. My decision would have destroyed Mira, and judging by that swell in her chest I would desperately deny I ever noticed, she clearly wanted to see Eryk again. It angered me that she’d been keeping a secret. Actually, it pissed me off, because I didn’t know how she’d managed to do so.
A taste of their hormones floating in the air swirled in my mouth, and it made me want to gag.
“Gah!” I gagged like a dog.
“What’s wrong whoof-yuh?” Mira barked out, literally, like, whoof-whoof, and I bent in half laughing. Lesson number one in being my twin was not to lower your guard, and she had, letting me into her head.
“It’s all right, sugar.” Eryk shook his head.
Immature! she said in my mind.
I tried to move my legs again, but they were still bound to the floor.
“Are you afraid to fight like a man? You need magic light to hold me down?”
He twirled his finger and the light disappeared, but I still couldn’t move. One side of Eryk’s mouth lifted in a smirk, partly to annoy me, but apparently at the same time to send my sister on a trip to the Promised Land between her legs.
“Calm down, Xander.” Eryk beamed with swagger as he walked toward Mira, each of his steps bringing him closer to satisfy all the wrong shifter urges she displayed with her body language. Wrong for me, but right for her. I wanted to smack her over the head so that she’d wake up from whatever fantasy she was lost in.
“How are you doing this? Why can’t I move?”
“You’re not marked yet, you little monster, which means I hold power over you,” he gloated.
“Take off the bindings.” My ears flattened against my head once more.
“Stop that anger or more seekers will sense you. You should know the rules by now, Xander.”
Rules, my ass.
“Hold still,” Eryk whispered to Mira, as he removed one strand of the magical light off her wrist, then another.
“How did you…” My jaw dropped open. When I’d tried to remove the bindings before the demon showed up, they burned me.
“Years of practice.”
Even though I couldn’t see his face, I felt his triumph boast through the room. And again, that smirk I saw from the side. It was like his fucking trademark; that and the dimple. Mira loved every minute of the show he put on. Her tank would rip at the seams if she shifted her boobs to be any larger.
“You all right, sugar?” he asked, and her chest deflated.
“I’d be better if you stopped calling me sugar.”
There’s my sister!
She ripped her hand out of his, massaging her other wrist as soon as he single-handedly freed that one as well.
I stood taller, squaring my shoulders.
Ha! She’s not as easy as she looks, is she?
Mira would have smacked me if she heard my thoughts. Then I caught her dirty look.
“All right, what do you want me to call you?” Eryk asked her.
“Mira. Just Mira.” She fluttered her lashes.
“Oh, please, spare me the cheesy acting, sis. It’s obvious you two know each other.” I pointed between her and lover-boy as he lowered himself to a crouch, his breath so close to her pussy she could probably feel it.
And why the fuck was I thinking about my sister’s pussy?
Argh, Xander! Gross! Stop it! I heard her voice in my head, and remembering our predicament, shook the thought off. That’s when I noticed I’d been freed.
“What’s your business here, Evil-Bender? Why did you interrupt our marking?” Curious, I walked over to the duo and watched as he freed Mira’s other leg from the binding light.
“Your place is with the Keepers.” He stood up and stroked his thumb over her cheek, and for a single moment I wasn’t sure whether he was talking to me or her, then realized that he was talking to the both of us.
“How do you know that?” I asked.
It would only take one kill for us to join the underworld. We could then do the job we were meant to, and kill the demons who terrorized humans. How else were we supposed to stop Aseret and his army? My plan made sense. If we joined him, we could work undercover, from the inside, twisting the necks of every single last demon we found. Our alternative – the water mark, the mark of the three Keepers of humans, warlocks and vampires – seemed not only impossible to get, but sort of useless. Well, except for that cool trick the Evil-Bender had pulled off with the light. That was neat.
Eryk slowly turned around to face me. “Because I was unmarked once.”
And I couldn’t avoid this annoyingly vulnerable gasp that came out of my lungs. “Then you can tell us how to get the mark.”
He laughed. “That’s a more complicated matter to predict. Everyone’s marking is unique. But all your questions can be answered by the Keepers. They have sensed a great shift in energy. Seeker senses are stronger than ever. Burn off that energy, or you’ll continue attracting them.”
He smoothed his hand up and down Mira’s arm.
Eryk must have been burning up my sister’s energy day and night, which explained her absence from home. Not that I wanted to know the details. I didn’t. I wouldn't have admitted this out loud, but deep down I was glad that at least one of us was getting some.
The enticing thought of burning my own energy between a woman’s legs sounded more compelling than running for months without end. Endless energy was another shifter quality. Our quality, since there were only the two of us left — hence another special check mark on a never-to-be-used shifter résumé.
But if my sister could do it, why couldn’t I catch an evil little woman for myself as well?
Eryk is not a woman, I heard her groan.
That’s not what I meant. Get out of my head.
“Why the hell would you think killing a demon was a good idea? I had this covered.” Mira shoved me in the center of my chest and sent me flying across the cave. My back smashed into the wall, and then I bounced off and fell forward. I landed in a graceful lunge, balancing myself with the tips of my fingers, and focused on Mira.
“Right. You fucking had this. Were you going to sweet talk your way out of the light-ropes?” I tilted my head to the side with an audible crack.
“No. We had a plan. You think I’m stupid enough to get myself all tied up, brother?”
She had a point. She wasn’t stupid at all, and I’d been surprised to see her bound.
“You two need to stop this insignificant argument right now. The summer solstice is almost here. Change is coming. Planets are aligning, and powers are shifting. Aseret’s already sensed your petty energy.” Eryk’s voice sounded so much like my father’s that it creeped me out. I watched as the same reaction washed over Mira’s face.
The bender’s caution was too late. The small glow near the entrance darkened, and heat spiked. I blinked, and Aseret, the demon lord, stood as if he’d always been there.
“Are you meddling in my business, evil-bender?” Aseret’s slow slur circled the cave’s perimeter twice. His words had a way of hanging in the air well after he’d said them.
“Your business is my business, Aseret.” Purple spheres of light reappeared in Eryk’s palms.
“Xander.” Aseret ignored the warlock and instead turned his attention to me, and suddenly it felt as if we were the only two creatures in the cave. The walls retreated, taking me underground to his grand hall in the underworld.
Could he do that? Could I be done that quickly? My attention was drawn to the roaring fire in the center of the hall. It rose high, sparked, and fucking crackled so perfectly, it was mesmerizing. As it intensified, feeding me its lord’s power, the urge to listen to every word Aseret had to say, grew.
“You can own the power you feel.” His monotone voice became hypnotic. “And you will do as you please with it all. You don’t have to be bound, nor do the bidding of others.” He paused long enough to ensure that his enticing offer had my full attention. “Join me, Xander. Join me and that power can be yours.”
“Don’t listen to him, Xander. Let this choice be as it should, and it will be right.” Mira’s voice came from far behind me, so distant she seemed to be talking from another planet, but her tone was strong enough to penetrate whatever barrier Aseret was trying to wedge between us. Her scrambled words were difficult to hear, but her voice held force and determination. It must had taken all her energy to reach me, and I was beginning to feel its tug deep in my belly. Though I wished she wouldn’t speak in fucking riddles.
“Xander, you would have killed him already if this were the right choice. It’s not.”
Well, finally something that made sense.
Aseret cocked his head to the side, his nose twitching. “You can kill as many demons as you please,” he coaxed, drawing the words out and pausing between each. “The confusion will be gone. You will know exactly what to do with all that power. One perfect strike, and it will be done.” He kicked the unconscious demon’s arm, and it flopped on the rocky ground. I stared at the pale, wrinkly hand, his tempting offer bating me. That’s when I noticed that I was back in the cave.
“He will be awake and ready for round number two in a minute.” Aseret beckoned me with his twig-like fingers, the movement slow and compelling. His cloak sleeves slid back, revealing pallid, wrinkled flesh that resembled the ends of an oversized sweater sleeve. For the first time since he’d appeared, I thought I saw an orange glow in his eyes, fierce yet barely visible, almost like a perpetual spark fed by undetectable energy. I wanted to go with him. I wanted to understand that power. I wanted it under my control, and so without any control, I took a step forward.
“Xander, turn around. Now!” Eryk’s voice boomed from somewhere deep inside my head. Had I known what the evil-bender was up to, perhaps I would have kept my eyes locked with Aseret’s. I turned toward Eryk on reflex. His purple stare pierced mine, and the room spun. Black and brown earth blended into mud, then changed to a mixture of greens. When the rotation finally stopped, my body uncoiled and I found myself standing in front of our hill home. Ma’s shell chimes clattered in the gentle breeze in a welcoming sound.
I shivered like a wet dog as my body shed Aseret’s spell that had held me captive. The need to stay in the underworld remained inside me, tugging on my guts, sending a hint of an acidic taste to my mouth. Why was I so drawn there? My place was here with my sister, not there; yet there sounded and felt more familiar than anything I had ever known and believed in, and I didn’t understand why. The heat of it all penetrated my soul, making me feel like I would always have a place in the underworld. It had welcomed me into its fiery gates before I’d even tried to pass them. Or was all of that part of Aseret’s spell?
“Why did you bring us home, Evil-Bender? It wasn’t your decision to make.”
“There, there, little one. Settle down,” Eryk mocked me.
“Next time you want to send us through a vortex, ask us first,” I growled. Anger vibrated deep in my chest, right near my heart. A new shift worked itself into my body. The sphere’s power and heat returned as soon as I thought about putting Eryk in his place. He had no right to decide for us. No one had the right to tell us what to do. Just who did he think he was?
What should I shift to, to beat up this smart-ass boy?
A memory of Eryk’s purple powers flashed through my mind, and a hint of my common sense kicked in, stopping me from shifting into a grizzly. My sister was right. If I didn’t burn off my excess strength, something would give. At this moment, Eryk’s head looked like the perfect target to get that frustration out, yet it didn’t feel like it’d be enough. Besides, I wasn’t taking a chance on living with a pissed-off shifter sister.
“Xander, don’t,” Mira cautioned. She held Eryk’s hand, cupping it with her other palm. The lovebirds appeared smitten, and as much as I wanted to be right, I knew I wasn’t.
As much as I wanted to kill that demon, I was wrong to try.
I’m sorry. I heard my sister’s voice. I’m sorry that you’re hurting so much.
I lifted my head and focused on Eryk. “You better have a plan, bender. You better have a good fucking reason for stopping our marking.”
He glanced at Mira, and I stopped mid-step. Something passed between them, and I realized their connection was unbreakable. My threat had washed over him as if he hadn’t even heard it. And as I came closer, for the first time in my life, I saw a spark in my sister’s eyes I hadn’t seen before. I felt it in her heart, too. She had found her other half, and I could never stand in the way of her happiness.
And so, as I stood in front of them, I lowered my shoulders and let my head fall in defeat.
“I didn’t want to be helped. I wanted the mark. I wanted to know what to do. I’m tired of being a nobody. It’s impossible to get the water mark. Killing a demon, that’s easy. And isn’t that our ultimate goal? To get rid of the bad guys?”
“If you kill a demon, Aseret uses that energy to create five more,” Eryk explained.
“I didn’t know that.”
“There’s lots you don’t know. That’s why the Keepers have called for you.”
“Really? Because I didn’t hear my cell phone ring.”
My sister let out a breath at my obnoxious reply. We’d never had a need for a cell phone because we had each other, and so neither one of us owned one.
“I thought I already said I need to take you to the Keepers. ”
“No, you said that our place is with the Keepers. And if you’re supposed to take us to see them, then why haven’t you?”
He glanced at my sister with that famous smirk, saying, “I got distracted. And now they’re busy, so we need to wait.”
My shoulders lowered even further. “I’m just some puppet. We both are, aren’t we?”
“The wrong choices always seem to be the easy ones, Xander.”
“Don’t lecture me, lover boy.”
“Xander, please,” Mira urged. “I know you’re angry with me; it’s my fault we didn’t include you in the plan, but we were hoping to get a lead. Whatever’s going on, you know I will always be at your side. Wherever you go, I go – but right now, that instinct is telling me that you need to be here, with me.”
The doubt that kept its talons around my heart let go by a fraction, and then I saw Eryk wrap his arm around my sister’s shoulder. She leaned into him slightly, her hip brushing against his side, his fingers firming their hold on her skin, and suddenly I wanted to have what she had. I wanted to have the kind of connection they shared.
“I don’t think so, Mira. I don’t think the answers I’m looking for are here,” I said.
Silence. I loved the 4.3-second hum in my head before the bender opened his mouth. “What are you looking for?”
“I’m not sure, but I’ll let you know when I find it.”
“You could use the time to burn off that energy you’re storing. It shouldn’t take long before they call on you again.”
A jolt of that force I’d been yearning to shake off, passed through me. He was right. I worried if I didn’t gain control of my body, I would self-combust. I turned toward the forest.
“Tell Father that if his decision to mark us is that difficult, then we should have been left in the woods.”
I sprang up. My skin sprouted feathers in that leap as I shifted into an eagle. I focused on the clear sky above me, soaring higher and higher, wanting nothing less than to feel lost just so that I could be found. I knew of only one way to clear my mind: height and solitude.
Below me, Mira and Eryk stood with their heads tilted back. I heard my sister’s voice inside my head, Come back to me, Brother. I cannot lose you.
You won’t. I need time.
That was a twin thing.
I cut through the temperate wind, and its flow brought warmth and peace to my body. With my wings spread out, gliding on a current, I searched for my favorite spot on the face of Mount Owen. I landed on the edge of a cliff and shifted into my human form. Stray pebbles dug into my ass as I sat on the cold stone and pressed my back against the rock. Morning fog wrapped its wisps around the treetops blanketing the Grand Teton Mountains. I inhaled the crisp air and closed my eyes, letting the sun glow orange behind my eyelids.
The long breath released deep from my lungs sounded like a perpetual whistle. I relaxed my jaw and emptied my chest of air. Concentrating on the forest below, I listened as the leaves shuffled against one another and the trees gently swayed in the breeze, old trunks squeaking and branches grazing. My attention shifted west to a barren field three hundred feet below. The buzzing sound of a hovering bumblebee above a dandelion was distinct but calming. A trickle from a spring at the field’s end made my mouth water. It would have felt good to jump into the river now. The shuffle of pebble against pebble, pushed by the current, reminded me of Ma’s shell chimes, which I’d broken a few years back when Mira tackled me.
Feeling the first sign of relief, I sighed. High off the ground, in this exact spot, was the only place where I heard that same calming sound. Out in the distance, Harlow, my beloved falcon, circled over the forest. As much as I didn’t know where I belonged, I’d always known that home would be home. Ma loved us, and Castall, our father and one of the three Keepers, has always had our best interests at heart.
Then why was I questioning myself so much?
I rolled my eyes and let out a sigh of frustration. No matter which way I turned, it felt like I didn’t have a choice. Something had to shift, and it certainly wasn’t me this time. But I couldn’t do nothing, either, because this senseless emptiness in my chest was growing out of control and driving me insane, which wasn’t in my nature. Sort of. To a human, a shifter capable of breaking his body so it could reform into a different mammal in the blink of an eye, maybe two, was the definition of insane.
“I’m not allowed to kill a stupid demon,” I huffed to myself.
A pretty senseless existence for a powerful shape-shifter, if you asked my opinion. I stood up and stretched my arms out to the sides. The wind swam over my body, brushing and bending every single hair on my skin, cooling me and feeding me at the same time. I drew on its strength and let out a loud yelp of defeat that lasted for over a minute. And right after, I promised to never wallow in self-pity or wimp out like that again.
“I will be marked!”
The echo of my scream took its sweet time, and when it settled, my ears picked up a rustle in the bushes underneath the canopy. It overpowered the hypnotizing chime of millions of leaves and drew my focus to the ground. I closed my eyes. The cracking of dry branches was distinct. The feet that crunched them were delicate. Lucky twigs, I thought, surprised at my sudden need to see whose feet they were. And why in the world was she barefoot?
Then the overpowering scent of red roses hit my nostrils, and without another thought, I dove off the cliff as if I were diving into a pool of water, except the liquid I swam in was air. Halfway down I shifted into an eagle, spreading my wings to slow my momentum. I aimed my landing near a rock. As my wings folded in, I shifted into my human form before reaching the forest floor. I crouched down gently, listening again. Hunched over, I scanned the bushes, then straightened my back with confidence and inhaled a powerful breath of lovely red roses, the source of which I couldn’t locate. A ghost would have been louder than me, yet I had a feeling she’d spot me first. The pull to this woman I sensed was undeniable and held that familiar need I had to fulfill.
Where are you?
I perked my ears like a cougar on a hunt, completely devoted to finding the feet that had brought me to ground level. She remained quiet. I let go of that first sating breath and inhaled again, letting my nostrils flare as I got drunk on the rosy aroma.
That way. I whirled.
The woman was hiding behind a spruce. The wind picked up, and pine needles sprinkled onto my head. “Who are you?” What I’d meant to be a command came out not only as a question but also a caring whisper, catching me off guard.
She stepped out from behind the tree with her hands crossed over her chest.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” I whispered, though looking over that damn figure, with its gorgeously toned arms and legs, I could imagine she’d be able to hurt me quite nicely. I wouldn’t mind if she were the one who dimmed my endless energy a little.
Though her presence intoxicated me, she stood too far away for my liking. I sneezed. Annoyed at the sudden lack of poise, I wrinkled my nose. She tilted her hip to the side, and I forgot all about that itch.
Maybe she likes it a little rougher?
Obviously because I found a new spot she could soothe. My dick was aching more by the second. All of a sudden, taking her by any means possible became a priority. This witch was making me crazy, and I knew that no matter what kink she was into, my answer would be yes.
Black hair spilled down her chest in curls, contrasting with her white, sun-shy skin. The wind gusted as if summoned by her, and the smell of roses intensified; I pictured them blooming around her, but I couldn’t see any.
“Are you all right?” I tried again.
“Are you?” she spoke. Part of me wanted to believe that her words would sing in my ears to the tune of beautiful strings of a violin, but thankfully that shit didn’t happen. It was just a voice. A nice voice, natural and honest and definitely captivating.
“Me? I’m fine, but what are you doing out here in the forest?”
“Ahm, well, I’m a witch. I live in the forest.”
I tilted my head to the other side, and she rolled her eyes playfully.
“Fine; I live in the underworld, but I don’t have a choice. Listen, that’s not why I sought you out.”
“You sought me out?”
“Well, yes. To warn you. You have to stay away from me.”
“And wouldn’t you have already solved your problem if you had just stayed away from me?”
“Ahm, I guess you’re right. It’s not really a problem. I don’t want it to be a problem. It’s… it’s… hey, I’m not the one wandering naked in the woods.”
Now I knew why her eyes had been darting around me, landing on my dick every few blinks. Her cheeks flushed a beautiful red at those moments, like an SOS signal. The blush held the same red I imagined her potent roses to be.
“Sorry, it’s a job hazard.”
“You’re a shifter.”
I sneezed again.
“Thank you. I am a shifter, but this” – I pointed down to my hard wood which showed unapologetic interest. “This is all real. No shifting there. Ever.” I licked my lips and wondered about the hum I could create over her cleavage when I pressed her breasts together. They were one of the most voluptuous pairs I’d ever seen.
“Eyes up here, shifter!” She pointed to her eyes, then smirked, looking down. “Is boob ogling another job hazard?”
“I’m hoping to find the answer to that tomorrow morning… in your bed.”
“Cocky. I was afraid I’d like you.” She lowered her arms and my focus fell to the oval scar on her left wrist.
“That looks like—”
“—A sphere? Yes, it used to be.”
“You’re a dark witch.” The thought did nothing to satiate the craving swimming in my veins. “Wait, did you say you like me?”
After a soft chuckle, she crossed a few steps to the right, then picked a daisy. The flower disintegrated in her hand, falling to the ground as dark ashes, and her smile faded.
“That’s my job hazard. I’m not the kind of dark witch your mamma told you stories about, Xander.”
She knew my name. I shook the lust off long enough to let a clear thought pass through my mind. I was afraid our meeting wasn’t a coincidence, though the fear quickly turned into excitement.
“What’s your name, witch?”
I grinned as she sauntered toward me. That long, lacey see-through skirt was meant to be ripped off, but her sexy thigh-high black boots? Those could stay. I licked the oncoming drool as I glanced over her defined thighs, partially exposed from underneath the neatly ripped pieces of fabric that made up her dress. I scanned her from one hip to the other, over her breasts, then back down to her button-shaped nipples and pierced navel, visible thanks to her see-through black tank, and then down to her muscular legs. They were strong. Strong and beautiful. Strong enough that she could hold herself up around my hips.
“Are you gonna stand there and get harder until you explode or are you going to do something about that?” She pointed to my dick standing at full mast. Actually, she never stopped pointing, and I was beginning to hurt and ache in discomfort. Was she right? Could all that pent-up energy I’d stored blow my cock off?
I shoved the frightening image aside. Another thought like that and I’d go limp, and that would be simply embarrassing. But my pride didn’t disappoint. The invisible roses bloomed again, their perfume settling on my tongue, making my blood pump all the harder.
“Are you doing that?” I asked.
“That aphrodisiac thing witches do to make men crazy. Like mermaids singing to sailors, luring them out to the sea.”
“You believe in mermaids?”
“I’m a shifter and you’re a witch. Let’s talk about the reality of this world some other time. And that wasn’t my question. Are you stoning me with that rosy scent of yours?”
“Stoning you?” She laughed. “No. I’m not. Do you not like it?”
Actually, I liked it a lot, though I didn’t appreciate the sneezing. Xela broke a twig off a branch and lifted her arms to gather the hair at her shoulders into a bun, which was an extremely sexy move. Standing there naked, I felt a little bit like an asshole because I wanted her to see me in a positive light. Then again, she was seeing the best of me right this moment, so things couldn’t be that bad. Judging from the smile on her face, they weren’t.
I grinned, looked down with pride, and then my focus returned to her hands as she carefully twirled her hair and pierced the bun with the twig. I followed the movement of each finger. Her exposed neck was longer than I had first perceived, and the low-cut fitted tank top seemed smaller than before. A stray curl caressed her face. Bracelets dangled from her left wrist. They slid down her arm from her elbow toward her wrist, chiming hypnotically, falling over her oval scar.
“Are you afraid of this?” she asked.
“No. I’ve never been afraid of the mark.”
That was true. Though I’d never truly considered a situation where I wouldn’t want to kill a dark witch, I certainly didn’t want to kill Xela, and I didn’t know why as I wondered how she managed to sear the sphere’s mark. I took a step closer. Her full lips pouted, riveting my eyes to her hazel ones.
“Are you just going to stand here all naked?” she asked.
“Considering we’re most likely going to end up without any clothes, this is a good thing, I assure you. It saves us a few steps.”
She was standing just inches from me now, and that was the moment I realized that my destiny was with her. I didn’t know how, but I could feel it in my gut. It wasn’t even her scent or her beauty; it was her entire presence. It was that same feeling of fulfillment I’d experienced when I’d been drawn to the underworld. I was drawn to Xela just as strongly, but at a completely higher level. I didn’t know how I knew this, but she was the one I’d been waiting for. She held power over my body and my mind, and I liked it. She would be my oblivion from now on, and she would help me be marked. I reached out to her, twirled my finger into a single loose strand of her hair, then pulled at the twig that held the locks together on top of her head. The curls tumbled to her shoulders and bosom.
“I’d say you’re being cocky again, but you already know that.”
“One of my best qualities.” I winked, and she chuckled again. “You look beautiful with your hair down.”
“Come with me.” She took my hand. “I think I may be able to find a shirt that fits you.”
The heat pulsing from underneath her scar almost burned my wrist at our touch. My fingers intertwined with hers, as if in cahoots with the obvious mistake I was making. An overwhelming lure of strength and belonging filled my insides. The heat from her palm flowed straight to my heart, sending comfort through my body, and I knew that no matter which side marked me, Xela belonged with me. She squeezed my hand harder and turned to face me.
“Where are we going?” I asked, though I didn’t care where she took me. She could drag me all the way to Hell if she wanted to, and I would follow.
“To my lair.”
The forest swirled, and the earthy scents of pine needles and moss mixed with her rosy aroma. I held Xela’s hypnotizing stare through the vortex. Her palms rested in my hands, then snaked up and around my arms as she pressed her body against mine. All of her lovely curves against all of my nakedness, beautifully squeezing my throbbing dick between us. Nature blended as a slight nausea swirled through my empty stomach. She rested her head on my chest, and I wrapped my arms around her, closing my eyes. The time hole lasted a few seconds though it felt like hours, whizzing us through space, light blending with darkness. Her breasts felt more defined, and her pebbled nipples poked against my chest. As her warm fingertips languorously raked over my back, I tried desperately to concentrate on anything other than the growing craving in my body. The sweet aroma of her rosy spell lingered around my nose, and my need for her heightened. When the spinning stopped, the sweet taste of euphoria in my mouth morphed into bitterness.
“Give it a moment to settle. Every vortex is different.” She passed me a bottle of water off a mantle, then a blanket, which I wrapped around my waist. Xela’s long look of approval at the tented fabric did nothing to tame my longing for her.
The fire rose higher, crackling loud enough to echo through the cave, its flickers spitting flamed tongues. The first bead of sweat rolled underneath my armpit, and I hoped the aroma I caught from a simmering pot of stew that hung on a metal hook above the fire would camouflage the inevitable odor. This shapeshifter job had some perks, but perspiration wasn’t one of them. I took another whiff and felt my stomach tighten with hunger. I tilted the bottle of water to my mouth, gulping it down in one swig.
“Where do you recycle?” I joked.
She took the empty bottle from my hand and threw it into to fire. “Everything will burn in Hell.”
Flames melted the plastic in an instant, and seconds later, nothing remained. Not even a stench. I inhaled the fire’s woodsy scent. A hint of rose still hung in the air. When I turned around, I saw the flowers blooming in one corner of the rough-hewn room. Xela twirled her finger and the blossoms released their aroma, intoxicating me again. She was playing with my head like a true witch, keeping my focus on her, and I liked it.
“You don’t have to sway me to stay,” I said. “I won’t leave. Do people often leave?”
She lifted her hand, palm toward the bushes, and the perfume disappeared, though the flowers remained. She turned around to face me again, keeping silent. I reached for another blanket off an armchair and spread it over the floor by the fireplace, then threw down a couple of pillows.
“No one’s ever been here before, have they?” I asked.
It was silly, asking a question I already knew the answer to, and she knew it the moment she placed her hands on her hips and sighed. Giving me an answer as to why would be even sillier; after all, we were in the underworld.
“I’m trying to keep a low profile.”
I paced toward the couch, and my head bounced against one of the hanging pots on a ceiling rack. I massaged the spot as if it really hurt.
“You all right?”
“Hope the place is not too stereotypical for you?” she asked.
“No. Of course it’s not. I get it. You’re a witch. You’re a witch with secrets.”
The corner of her mouth lifted with a tempting smile.
“You understand me because of Hanna.”
“How do you know about my mother?”
“Everyone knows about Hanna. She’s a strong witch, and she’s married to a Keeper. She’s also one of the few witches with a water mark.”
My mother was not only strong but also gifted, smart, and significant. One of last good witches remaining. For the first time since coming to Xela’s lair, I wondered whether I should have talked to Ma before leaping off that cliff. The thought vanished quickly, though. The remnants of Xela’s rosy aroma continued to make my head spin. Concentrating on anything other than the silky glow on her warm skin was impossible. If I was going to clear my mind, I’d better get rid of the toxic lust swimming in my veins. My focus shifted yet again, and as I scanned her body, my eyes rested on her wrist, where the bracelets were covering her scar.
“Do you know anything about my marking?” I asked.
“I heard your scream up in the mountains. You better sit down, Xander. Isn’t your head still spinning?”
It was, and so I took her advice. I sat, sinking into the comfortable sofa.
“What did you do to me? Is it the roses?”
“No, silly. It’s not the roses.” She sauntered over to the fire and added a log to the pit before returning to stand in front of me. Watching her stare from above with undeniable power was exhilarating. She wanted control, and I would give it to her – for now. Xela slowly crouched to the floor and reached underneath the blanket, near my ankle. Her fingers tickled their way up my shin and to my knee, which she cupped and waited. The heat of her palm worked its magic as it meandered from there up to my crotch, nicely warming my balls.
“You know I’m a witch, and you know I’m not a good one, yet you’re not afraid.”
“You like a bad witch?” she asked.
“I like a very, very bad witch.” I grinned. “I’m not afraid of you, Xela. You’re… different. I’m not stupid either. I know our meeting in the forest wasn’t a coincidence.”
The upper half of her breasts lifted as she took a deep breath and closed her eyes, and I forgot my words again. When she opened them, I instantly recognized the promise of truth there. My focus shifted to the need on her lips. It was mixed with something naughty I couldn’t wait to explore. I’d been hard since the moment I saw her, and ignoring the urgent salute of my dick was more impossible every second. Judging by the pressure of her hand on my knee, she was just as ready for me. The only problem I saw was that she was taking her sweet time. Her deceivingly beautiful eyes sent my pulse racing, and there was no turning back now. There had been no turning back since the moment I dove off that cliff.
She grasped the blanket’s tucked edge from around my waist and pulled it free. It folded to the sides, exposing my delirious excitement. Focused, she licked her lips, then looked up from underneath her lashes. Jesus, was she ever beautiful.
“Why do I feel like you’re reading my mind?” I asked.
“I would never do that without your permission.”
I tilted my head to the side. “Wait – you can actually do that?”
“There’s lots I can do, but there’s much more that we can do together.”
“Then how about we discuss politics and how delicious your lips taste after I’m through with you?”
“But you haven’t kissed me yet.” Her lashes fluttered. She had that look in her eyes, where you knew someone was about to go for a kill, and nothing could stop them. I couldn’t wait to feel all her wrath. There was a possibility that she’d drive that knife so gently into my heart that I’d never feel its pain until it was too late.
Funny thing was, I was willing to take that chance.
“And I would much rather be the one to kiss you.” Her voice brought me back to her persuasive mouth I’d been dying to taste — a mouth that seemed to be inching closer and closer to my groin.
Xela lifted to her knees, resting at the edge of the thick rug at the foot of the couch. Her hands slid up along my thighs and to the swell around my balls. She moved higher and I watched as she took me in her palm and stroked up and down, and up and down in a deviously torturing slow motion, pulling my skin all the way to the tip, then down to the root again. And it felt so good. Too good. After a few perfectly executed tugs, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to hold on for long. She gave me a long look of appreciation and skimmed her finger over the pearl-sized drop of pre-cum on my crown, then licked it off with her tongue. I shuddered, nearly loosing my composure. This woman was going to be the end of me. Just before her glowing lips landed on the tip, I reached for her, lifting her upward.
“Not like this, my witch.”
I couldn’t come in her mouth. Not right now. I was a selfish prick who didn’t want to spill in under five seconds. I was a greedy asshole who wanted to have her the only way I knew a man should have a woman: deep and hard, with just enough of tender foreplay to ensure she was soaked when I took her.
She parted her legs, kneeling one to each side of my thigh, straddling me and positioning herself above me, her breasts in my face and breath over my head. I scrunched up her laced skirt and reached underneath, right up to her pussy, ignoring the arousing fact that she wasn’t wearing any panties. She was shaved and dripping, and so I slid two fingers inside her, watching as she bit her lip and gasped.
“You’re tight, my witch.” I looked down between us to where my cock was waiting, lack of patience glistening with another drop of pre-cum balancing on its tip.
I withdrew my fingers from inside her and held myself steady. Xela sank onto me with perfect aim. She rolled her hips, back and forth, back and forth, and I was lost. I was lost inside her, and for the first time in my life, I felt like I was exactly where I needed to be. I didn’t notice when my mouth took hers. The moment our lips touched felt like Hell opened and released its hot fire. It burned in my lungs and scorched the back of my throat in the most delicious way possible. The skies didn’t burst and angels didn’t sing. In fact, somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought I heard a devious demonic laugh, but when Xela’s tongue stroked against mine, licking all that heat away and turning it into tickling pleasure, I was lost again. The merge of unanimous energy that held us together overwhelmed me. Two confused souls, finally connected into one, morphing into something…. something sparkly. I took a little whiff and sneezed, pulling away. “Are you putting me under a spell or something?”
Xela laughed. “No, I’m just happy. I can’t help it.”
I threw my hips forward and watched as she jerked up, gasping with a wide smile on her face. That was not happiness – that was pure ecstasy, released in the form of a rosy scent she had no control over. I grasped the rim of her tank and pulled it over her head, freeing her ample breasts, sneezing right into the fabric before throwing it down to the floor.
“You’re lying, witch. Tell me the truth.” I thrust harder, grasping both her breasts in my palms and pinching one of her darkly rimmed nipples.
“But I really like where this is going.” She threw her head back in beautiful laughter, and I paused my pumping rhythm.
She urged me with her hips, but I didn’t budge.
“Okay, okay. I’m aroused. I’m so aroused that it’s not even funny. Just don’t stop. Please don’t stop. Can’t you see how crazy you make me feel?”
I could feel the level of her crazy on my drenched thighs, and I could taste her flowery essence in my mouth. Her whiny voice did something funny to my balls. I never thought I’d like a woman begging for my dick. Not that they didn’t appreciate its girth, but they never begged. Xela begged with so much need that it was making me want to break my rule and shift by a tiny fraction just for her, just so that I could give her more. But I didn’t.
“You’re bad for me,” I said between gritted teeth. She was making it impossible to concentrate. Her warmth, the bounce of her heavy breasts above me, and the scent that made me want to sneeze until my lungs burst were driving me over the edge too quickly.
“There’s something good about being bad,” She purred the words in my ear, and I lost it. That final contraction surged through me as I stilled inside her, spilling, grinding my teeth, nearly cracking my aching molar in half.
But I couldn’t stop. My thighs seized, and I waited until that final spasm was released so I could rest my head back against the couch.
When I finally came to, I felt her lifting off me. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“I’m going to add some wood to the fireplace. You’re not in a hurry, are you?”
“Yes? No? I’m just hoping we’re not done.”
She laughed. “Relax, Xander. We have all night. I’m not going anywhere just yet.”
We have all night.
We weren’t done.
This wasn’t the end.
It was just the beginning.
It was the beginning of the end.
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