The long-forgotten tingle of magic registered on my fingertips as I pounded my fists against the solid steel door, a wash of light from a passing car barely penetrating the dark alley. Icy rain leaked into my shirt, but the watchful eyes I always imagined—or sensed—in the shadows chilled me more than anything.
“You can't just kick me out, Francis!” I could blast the puny lock into dust if I used my powers. But that would defeat the purpose of keeping a low profile, even in Chicago.
A rat scurried by the tips of my black Doc Marten boots to escape the nimble feline hot on its trail. Shivers tattooed my spine. I could relate to that unfortunate rodent, being hunted by something bigger and scarier than yourself.
“If you don’t leave, I’ll call the cops.” The same rough, phlegmy voice I’d endured for two months vibrated through the door.
I shoved my shoulder into the icy metal, ignoring the sharp jabs to my bone. “My jacket's in there. And my wallet!”
Shit. I’d need my ID to get another crappy job, and I couldn’t just run to the DMV for a replacement.
Twenty-one-year-old Thea Ross didn’t exist in their system; seventeen-year-old Thorn Rosalee did.
The door flew open, and the aroma of grease and sizzling meat barreled into the narrow alley behind Sam’s Diner. My stomach churned. Ugh. How could I work within ten feet of that bubbling vat of fat Francis called cooking oil?
Desperation, that was how.
“I told you if you messed up one more order, you’re out, Thea.” My boss—former boss—shoved my secondhand leather jacket into my arms, the meager weight of my wallet registering in my palm. He mopped beads of sweat off his bald head with the same rag he used to wipe the counter.
I yanked the gingham apron off, tossed it into his ruddy face, and threaded my arms through the jacket before rain completely soaked my tank top. “The woman at table thirty-seven asked for a Diet Coke, so that’s what I brought.”
Honestly, I had no idea what she had wanted. I could recite every spell in the grand witch’s Novicius Maleficae grimoire, but I couldn’t remember a simple drink order.
Francis peeled the apron off, narrowing his beady, dishwater-brown eyes. “Have fun walking home in the dark, little girl.” A sneer pulled at his thin lips as he leaned forward, mimicking a tubby version of the Big Bad Wolf.
With his stained, dingy T-shirt beginning to ride up his belly, he more accurately resembled a drunk Pillsbury Doughboy ready to devour an entire can of cinnamon rolls.
“Don’t let the East Side Slasher get you.” The diner manager yanked the heavy door closed with a vibrating thud of finality, leaving me in the alley. Alone.
Or was I alone?
Fat drops of rain battering the dumpster and drainpipes created a cacophony of eerie melodies while thick shadows crawled along the grimy walls. As Francis’s departing words played through my mind, I zipped my jacket to my neck, the click of the teeth joining the ominous symphony. I’d rather not run into the creep stabbing people and dropping them off in various alleys around the east side of the city.
Get it together, Thorn.
I shook my head and stomped through greasy puddles while dodging piles of soggy newspapers. I was a witch, for shit’s sake. I could protect myself from some sicko.
Of course, if that sicko was one of the many supernatural creatures residing in Chicago, I might have some trouble, depending on which type.
Sirens blared in the distance, muffled by the soaring high-rises blotting out the cloudy, nocturnal sky. I shoved my hands into my jacket pockets, avoiding the hole in the lining of the left one. I’d already sewed it three times. The thin fabric wouldn’t hold the stitch—kind of like my poor sanity. Escaping the hell my mother called home had stopped me from completely unraveling. For now anyway.
“Whoops. Excuse me.” A wealthy party girl with money to burn at the nightclubs downtown bobbled on her overpriced stilettos, her umbrella dumping a sheet of frigid water on my drenched head.
I rolled my eyes. “No worries. I’m already wet.”
She giggled and meandered by without a care in the world. She should care. Dressed like that—skyscraper heels, hair swept into a fancy updo, bare neck highlighted by the glittery collar on her scarlet jacket—rendered her the epitome of vampire bait.
“How many times do I have to tell you not to sit out here, begging for change?” The young owner of Orion, the fine dining restaurant, frantically waved his arm for the haggard homeless guy taking shelter under the burgundy awning to depart. “You’re providing my customers with an unsatisfactory view.”
What a pompous ass.
The elderly man grabbed his bookbag—filled with his few worldly possessions—and slowly ambled into the rain with a bowed head and stooped shoulders. My throat tightened as he disappeared from the safety of the streetlights. The poor guy was ripe for a demon attack. Like a shark smells blood in the water, demons could detect a tormented soul miles away.
I turned the corner and halted at the flashing blue and red lights across the street. Two E.M.T.s loaded a gurney into an ambulance, a tar-colored lump in place of an injured patient.
A body bag.
Damn. Had another victim been claimed by this mysterious slasher?
My nape prickled as a heavy presence materialized directly behind me. Holding my breath, I slowly turned, searching through the rain that had calmed to a drizzle. The soaked branches of planted dogwoods swayed in the cold wind cutting through Mason Street. A few people clutching umbrellas hurried along the sidewalk, hailing cabs or whizzing into buildings. Nothing out of the ordinary.
Then why did it feel like an invisible enemy loomed barely a foot away?
I clenched my jaw and faced forward. There’s nothing wrong. You’re overreacting.
Unless the grand witch sent one of her venators—witches skilled in the art of tracking—after me. Or worse, my mother finally discerned my location from months of scrying.
I pivoted and darted into an alley, the Grim Reaper’s icy blade skating along my spine. Death would be a gift compared to what Grand Witch Ellexia Scarlett would do if she found me.
The hurried scrape of my boots along the wet concrete mirrored the frantic pounding of blood through my veins. A ragged stray dog cut in front, nearly causing my chest to explode. His snout lifted into the air, sniffing. After deciding I wasn’t a threat, he ambled to the back door of Pauly’s Pizzeria and began rooting through an overflowing trash can.
Frantic puffs of steam blew from my mouth. Shit. I’d give myself a heart attack before anything had a chance to assault me.
I continued down the slim alley that felt more like a never-ending hallway in a haunted house. A monster or two would pop out at any moment. I wiped beads of moisture from my forehead. The rain had stopped, but water from the roofs pinged against fire escapes and splashed across a torn tarp covering old wooden pallets. A filthy tabby cat crawled out from under a damp, moldy cardboard box and hissed.
My pulse skyrocketed into the stratosphere. The feline wasn’t snarling at me, but rather something behind me.
After a blissful six months of freedom from my dark destiny, from my cursed gift, would it end tonight in a dirty side street full of trash and rodents? Would one of Ellexia’s venators drag me back to my home in Illyria?
My legs pumped hard as I ran. Whether a venator chased me, an otherworldly creature, or even the slasher, I had no plans of getting captured. Sweat dripped down the back of my neck, disappearing into my damp clothes. The chilly night had grown sweltering and thick like a rainforest after a downpour.
I veered to the left, fitting down a confined passage between buildings. Rough bricks tugged at my long hair and snagged my jeans. I didn’t give a damn if my clothes ripped off as long as I escaped my pursuer.
Several somethings scuttled above my head. My skin crawled. Oh hell. Roaches the size of my fist dispersed from their hiding spots.
Please don’t jump on me.
I slipped on a squishy substance, releasing the choking odor of rot and death. My gag reflexes went into overdrive. The plate of fries I scarfed down before my shift at the diner threatened to reappear.
My lungs inhaled slightly less putrid air as I spilled into another alley, stumbling against a rusted dumpster. The loud bang of hitting the hollow container ricocheted harshly through the night.
Great way to let your enemies know where you are.
Feeling trapped in the tight leather, I ripped the zipper of my jacket down and fanned myself.
“Well, I wasn’t expecting a food delivery service.”
I jerked around, finding a tall form cloaked in shadows. My heart crashed against my ribs hard enough to leave minuscule cracks in each one. A guy stepped forward, crimson flaring through the whites of his eyes. His pale cheeks shined like the moon on a cloudless night. I didn’t need to see the lethal fangs dropping from his mouth to know he was a vampire.
Sensing danger, magic flared in my veins. The tiniest of violet sparks crackled on my fingertips, awakening the power embedded in every cell of my body.
The vampire’s head tilted, throwing inky curls into his face. “My mistake, young mage.” He licked his lips as he studied my wildly bouncing jugular. “Is a vengeful foe chasing you? You can take shelter with me.” He opened his arms as if he expected me to swoon into them.
“No, thanks,” I muttered, clamping my fists closed to cut off my powers before resuming my mad dash.
His chuckle followed me like a threat. He could kill me if he was so inclined. Most fae wouldn’t give two shits if a vampire drained a witch in their territory. Sure, it broke the rules sanctioned by the Nightworld leaders sharing Chicago, but after the last bloody battle of the war, there was no love lost between fae and witches.
A dim streetlight blossomed ahead, and the echoes of a crowd saturated the night. A whoosh of air exited my mouth. I’d be safer on a busy road.
I glanced over my shoulder as a shadowy figure emerged from the other end of the alley, or it could have just been my imagination. Either way, I wasn’t sticking around to find out. Instead, I sprinted onto the street, turning the corner.
A long line of impeccably dressed twenty-somethings hugged the side of a gothic, castle-like structure that appeared slightly out of place among the rest of the modern architecture. Music and magic permeating from the popular nightclub had their bodies swaying, already generating the kind of energy fae loved. Shade flashed in vivid neon-green lights in the sign fixed to the stone facade.
The king of the Unseelie Court—the very fae responsible for forcing most witches out of Chicago—owned this nightclub.
I shifted around and surveyed the road beyond the bright lights, icy claws of unease prickling my scalp. Would a day ever come when I didn’t have to look over my shoulder?
I choked back the acid oozing up my throat and turned, catching my haggard reflection in one of the silver stanchions between the velvet ropes outlining the waiting masses. Oh, my gods. This was worse than the time I spent hours traipsing through a stinking bog for a nafastius mushroom plucked at midnight. My fingers threaded through my snarled hair to smooth the dark strands, the natural plum hue already beginning to bleed through the black dye.
My gaze traced the curling green letters of the sign again as a massive fist knotted my stomach. Son of a bitch. Was I really going to do this? Would the bouncer even let me in?
Only one way to find out.
With another shaky breath, I marched by the line, resisting the urge to check over my shoulder. No one from my former coven would step foot in Shade, not even the grand witch herself.
Of course, I might encounter a whole shit-ton of other problems entering this nightclub.
A tree trunk of a fae stood in front of thick steel doors, the black shirt sporting Security straining against his solid muscles so tightly the material threatened to tear. One platinum eyebrow arched as I approached, but his expression remained smooth and unreadable.
“We don’t get a lot of your kind crossing this threshold.” His rich voice tumbled out like melting chocolate. A pair of moss-green eyes searched me from head to toe, lingering on my chest. “Rough night?”
Heat blossomed in my cheeks as I glanced at the vibrant pink bra glaring through my soaked tank top. A sigh drifted out. Just perfect. I didn’t even want to know what the hell those oily spots were glistening on my jacket.
“You could say that.”
A grin twisted his lips—one that wasn’t entirely friendly—as he grabbed my hand and stamped the back of it with an iridescent lily. “No charge for new elite customers.” And by elite, he meant nightworlders.
“Thanks,” I muttered as magic made the lily shimmer on my skin. Humans definitely didn’t get this mark, and glamours kept them from seeing anything strange about it.
“Don’t thank me yet, sweetheart.” The bouncer grabbed the ivy-shaped handle and pulled the door open. The hypnotic clash of instruments booming from the speakers inside drowned out the protests of eager humans still awaiting their admission. “I hope your night doesn’t get any rougher in there.”
“Me too.” As soon as I stepped into the entrance, the bouncer slammed the door shut, plunging me into a blanket of darkness.
Pressure encapsulated my lungs until I began panting. I licked my suddenly dry lips. Hiding from the Maleor Suprema coven in fae territory was one thing, but stepping inside the Unseelie king’s home where witches hadn’t been welcomed in over eleven years was a whole new game.
One I might not survive.