To reclaim his souls, they’ll risk everything.
For six long years, Elora has been confined to an island with the Ice Witch, Niobe. When her captor dies, Elora flees across the ice bridge back to Mason, the man she’s kept in her heart all these years. But Mason isn’t the same man she left behind. In his place is a cold and emotionless stranger.
Mason will never forget the day Elora disappeared over the ice bridge. It was the day the Ice Witch tore out his soul. He has settled into his life as a Guard, protecting the small inlet at the northern edge of the sector from Ravagers. But with Elora’s return, he has an opportunity to reclaim his soul and the life he thought lost forever.
It’s a dangerous task that will lead Mason and Elora into the heart of Ravager territory and to the depths of the Underworld. It’s a journey none have ever returned from.
Many years ago, the Original Sixteen witches contained an outbreak of demon-like creatures from overtaking the earth. But doing so came at a cost. For the human race to survive, the world was divided into sixteen sectors, trapping the Ravagers to the Outlands beyond, and trapping the humans in.
But what happens when your sector is the one to fail? What happens when the world inside your walls is just as bad as the one outside them? In this collection of dystopian paranormal romance tales, each and every one of the sectors is about to find out.
Elora peeked through a small gap between the pieces of weather-beaten driftwood holding the cabin together. Dried mud meant to seal the logs and trap the warmth inside flaked with age. She carefully dug her finger into the hole, brushing aside the dirt to get a better look.
Inside, Niobe stood at the table mixing herbs into a large wooden bowl, working on a summoning spell. The dish sat in the middle of a circle of unlit candles atop a Grand Pentacle drawn in white paint.
For the last few weeks, Niobe had gathered the ingredients that littered the table. There were few Elora could identify, but the hemlock and gold ore were enough to make her nervous.
“Get in here.” The urgency in Niobe’s scratchy voice sending fear surging through Elora.
When Niobe yelled again, Elora ran to the rickety outhouse. Confined in the small space, breathing in the vile odor, she cowered, pressing her hands to the door, and squeezed her eyes shut. Most women of twenty-two wouldn’t dare hide from the Ice Witch, but experience had taught Elora to never hand herself over willingly.
“Shroud me if by darkest skies. Blind be the searching eyes.” The concealment spell tumbled from her trembling lips. Yet, without a putsi bag or charm, the incantation was simply words.
Hiding from Niobe was impossible. With only the cabin and the outhouse on the island, it took Niobe only seconds to find her. The door flew open, and she cringed away from the withered hands reaching for her. Despite her screams, Niobe snatched a handful of Elora’s ebony hair and dragged her back to the cabin.
Niobe shoved Elora forward and pushed her to her knees. Her worn wool dress did little to cushion the impact with the hard-packed floor. She tried to stand, but Niobe gripped the back of her neck. The bite of fingernails stilled her even as she silently screamed.
Blood was a common ingredient for spells. Many called for the caster to give of their own. Others only needed blood – any blood. Those were the ones Elora feared most because they brought darkness to the world and it was her blood used to call it forth.
The Ice Witch grasped one of Elora’s pale wrists and placed the knife against it. The harsh pinch made her wince.
“Invoco mortem redderet debitum,” Niobe recited, and the candles flickered to life. “Da quod debetur.”
Unlike any spell Elora heard before, the words sent a terrible feeling through her. This spell would be the death of her. She wasn’t ready to go yet.
With her free hand, she reached behind her and tangled her fingers in Niobe’s hair. She yanked, pulling Niobe forward and smashing her head on the table. Niobe’s head bounced up. A slash of scarlet blood appeared on her forehead and slid down her face in a gushing river. She lifted her hand to touch the wound.
Elora’s eyes widened at what she’d done. Fighting back never ended well. The last time she tried, she’d been unable to walk for a week. This was far worse than the small scratch she’d left then. There would be no mercy for her. Only death. The thought propelled her off the ground.
She swung her arm out, swiping Niobi’s face and smearing blood across her palm. Then she scraped her hand across the edge of the bowl. Niobe’s blood coated the rim before gravity pulled it down the side.
“No!” Niobe screamed as she lunged for the bowl.
But she was too late. The blood hit the herbs, and the contents burst into a bright yellow flame. The force of the combustion threw Elora and Niobe backward.
Elora gasped as she raised herself up on her elbows. She looked for Niobe and found the older woman lying on her side a few feet away, eyes wide and lifeless.
A dark figure hovered over Niobe’s body. Its pitch black skin hung like a tattered sheet. It reached out a thin, skeletal hand to turn Niobe onto her back then burrowed into the center of her chest. Elora watched Death’s Reaper pull Niobe’s soul from her body. The white light shimmered in a tight ball, with trailing waves of particles drifting behind.
The Reaper moved back and sank into the floor, its flowing skin creating a black pit. A loud rumbling echoed through the cabin, and Elora covered her ears as the anguished moans of trapped souls surrounded her. Niobe’s soul strained against the hold of the Reaper as it dragged her down into the depths of the underworld. The portal closed, and Elora collapsed on her cot.
She stared at the lifeless body. Perhaps, she should have felt something. She wanted to experience joy or even relief, yet the sight brought nothing other than the realization that she was still trapped.
She made her way to the table to blow out the candles, and the yellow flame within the bowl sizzled out. The magic gone, she dumped everything in the waste bin beside the wood burning stove. Avoiding looking at Niobe had been so much easier when she was still alive.
Elora wiped her hands along the front of her dress before reaching for one of the small leather pouches dangling from the wall. The ingredients she needed were harmless, and the magic so basic, she wouldn’t hurt herself. Yet, the very act of mixing the items together caused her mouth to go dry.
Peppermint, honeysuckle, and blue vervain, each a traditional herb for calling for protection. An iron nail went into the pouch next to ward off spirits and to symbolize her determination to complete her mission. A strand of her hair completed the charm.
She pulled the drawstring closed, sealing the bag shut then looped it around her neck. After grabbing Niobe’s caribou parka, she went to the door. As she stepped out, she hesitated, glancing back at Niobe one final time.
The body needed to be salted and burned. Yet the idea of touching it left her sick to her stomach. Besides night would soon fall and she couldn’t spare the time.
Snowflakes, heavy with moisture drifted from the clouds, frosting the shoreline with the first slushy coating of winter. The push of the tide swept the snow from the farthest reaches of the rock-strewn beach, washing it from the driftwood strew across the edges of the island.
Elora rubbed her hands together then shoved them into the pockets of the parka. Common sense told her to turn back, to return to the safety of the cabin, but this was her chance. The thought of going back to the ramshackle structure settled within her like a boulder.
She took a deep breath and slowly exhaled, the gentle gust of warmth condensing as it hit the frigid air. Twenty yards away stood the ice bridge. The entry was wide enough for four men to walk side by side, and to the unknowing soul, it appeared an easy passage. Those who dared go farther than the edge knew how deceptive it was. A few feet over the water, the path narrowed to only a foot across as it spanned the four miles to the mainland. With no rails, there was nothing to catch yourself on. One slip plunged you into the bitterly cold water of Ravager infested Norton Bay. A guaranteed death.
As a child, she listened to countless tales of the Ice Witch, Niobe, who tore open the shield and cast a spell that lifted the water from the sea, freezing a path to the small island from the mainland. The witch demanded solitude, threatening worse than death for any who crossed over. Elora never believed the tale until worse than death became her very existence.
Elora had crossed the bridge once years ago and only because Niobe refused to let her fall, dragging Elora along despite her resistance. In the early days of her time on the island, Elora tried daily to get back across. Each time, Niobe either caught her or pulled her from the water before it claimed her. The weeks became months, and months turned to years until finally her struggle to cross gave way to resignation. There was no escaping the barren island.
Time there passed differently. Days blurred together, a monotonous blend of chores and suffering. Other than Elora and Niobe, nothing else lived on the island. Only the changing weather of the passing seasons marked time.
The crystal clear path beckoned her, teasing her with the promise of what remained on the other side. Home. Mason.
It was a freedom Elora gave up on long ago. That day’s snowfall marked six years. Six years of isolation, of fear, of Niobe.
But Niobe was dead.
As Elora faced the one obstacle still ahead of her, she questioned whether it was worth the risk. Was she willing to die for what lay on the other side?
For so long the idea of going home to Mason had kept her from begging for death. Yet, the girl of sixteen she’d been when Niobe dragged her from the mainland was as dead as Niobe. Elora no longer held hope that home even existed or that Mason would be there to gather her in his arms and banish her fears.
As a young girl, she loved him more than anything. He had been everything her father raised her to expect from a man – hard working, generous, caring. She could still remember the way his eyes would sparkle anytime he gave one of his deep chuckles. Mason never let the harsh life they endured in the northern tip of the Sector erode his faith in the Regent.
Then Elora gave into a childish whim, and everything fell apart.
She accepted long ago that there was nothing left for her at home. Her father was dead, and Mason didn’t come for her. She couldn’t fault him for that. She had no one but herself to blame for the destruction of everything and everyone she loved.
The ice sparkled as the sun rose to its highest point, calling to her, and she walked across the rocky ground until her moccasin-clad feet stood toe to ice. A gust of wind rushed by, and ebony hair swirled up and around her, snagging snowflakes is its wild curls. Her wool skirt fluttered against her ankles letting the cold seeped up over the top of her moccasins and along her legs.
A shaky sigh escaped her as she glanced back at the cabin. No loving memories tied her there – only the nightmares of the pain she endured at Niobe’s hands. Ahead, over the bridge, perhaps she could escape those. Maybe Mason would be waiting for her.
She closed her eyes and squeezed the putsi bag tied around her neck. The charm contained in the small pouch possessed only enough strength to conceal her from the Ravagers lurking in within the water. If she fell into the water, its magic would do little to keep her from freezing to death.
Her magic was weak, faded from the lack of use. Even if Elora had been allowed to practice, Niobe would never have taught her how to strengthen her bond to Mother. The putsi bag was all she could create with the scraps of ingredients contained in various charm and hex bags Niobe had stashed away.
“Mother of All, guide my feet. Hold me to this world,” Elora muttered in prayer.
A terrible screech pierced the air, and her eyes flew open. She spun around to see two Ravagers test the invisible barrier protecting the island. With only their razor sharp talons visible, they touched the shield, and a jagged streak of blue light burst forth, and they let loose more shrieks.
They left their mark, though. The light retracted and pulsed in a soft haze around the scar on the barrier.
Elora’s time was up. Even if she wanted to hide in the cabin, the boundary wouldn’t hold without Niobe. A descendant of the First Regent, Niobe’s magic had been stronger than any other Elora witnessed. What happened to Mason and her father was proof enough of the witch’s power.
One of the Ravagers struck out again, but this time, its talons broke through, tearing at the shield. The blue light flashed, but it was weaker as the shield tried to heal itself. The evidence of the fading protection spurred her onto the ice.
Her first steps were shaky as she adjusted to the slick surface. Her moccasins gave enough traction that she stayed standing and, for a few steps, she moved confidently. As the path she walked narrowed, her confidence waned. She no longer remembered how many times she tumbled from the bridge, coming face to face with Ravagers.
Eyes focused into the distance, she almost fooled herself into forgetting the danger around her. Then she faltered, looking down into the water which seemed to rush up to her.
Fifteen feet below, Ravagers circled, sensing some sort of presence. With no eyes, they couldn’t see her and the putsi bag prevented them from locating her. Yet, it’s strength wasn’t enough to completely mask her presence.
Elora swallowed around the thick lump in her throat, and a wave of dizziness overwhelmed her. Arms spread out, she lowered to a crouch and frantically grasped the ice in front of her. She straddled the bridge, shivering as her bare thighs made contact with the frozen structure.
Despite the cold, she took a moment, doubts assailing her. She could try scooting along, but it would take hours to cross, and already her warmth was draining. A sob threatened to burst forth as she recognized the futility of what she was attempting.
Rising to her knees, she concentrated on keeping herself steady. While kneeling felt more comfortable, the bridge wasn’t wide enough.
She murmured a chant to Mother, using it to center herself, and stood. Continuing to chant, she gingerly stepped forward. Step after step, she became more sure of her footing, moving more swiftly.
The sun was behind her when she noticed the slightest downward slope to the bridge. She had reached the mid-point. As she continued, the distant mountains and rooftops crept closer, and she dared to search the horizon for signs of the shore.
When she caught a glimpse of the beach, she stumbled forward. Her feet slipped out from under her, and she slammed into the bridge. She wrapped her arms around it, gripping tightly as she slid to the side. Face pressed to the ice, she could feel the water coating the surface.
The bridge was melting.
Just as the magic of the barrier faded with Niobe’s death so was that of the bridge.
A Ravager broke the surface, its grotesque face contorted in hunger. Its mouth opened wide, letting out a screech and baring its jagged teeth. Even in the water its fangs were stained with blood.
Panic pushed Elora to her feet, and she surged ahead. Arms out for balance, she threw her fear away and ran, the fear of falling moot in the face of a melting bridge.
She could see the Regent’sprotective shield glittering in the sun, a sheet of diamonds encasing Sector Ten, gating the region from the Ravagers. On the other side, the village stood, the fortress of the North. Designed to be translucent from a distance, the closer you were to the shield, the harder it became to see through as the individual particles strengthened in reaction to the presence of a living being, tightening their bond in anticipation of an attempted breach.
“Help!” she screamed and sent a prayer to Mother of All that one of the guards at the post would hear.
Even if they did hear or see her, there was no guarantee they’d breach the only protection they had. If they didn’t, she wouldn’t need to worry about the Ravagers ripping her apart; the force of her collision with the protection spell would obliterate her.
“Open the shield!” she cried as a massive crack followed by a splash sounded behind her.
Only a few feet separated her from the shimmering curtain when it began to part, revealing the tall figure of the guard standing at the end of the bridge. She ran through the small opening and let herself slow in relief as the shore rested only a few yards away.
It was a mistake Elora came to regret as the ice crumbled beneath her feet, dropping her into the water below.
Safe behind the veil of the Regent’s spell, no Ravagers trolled the water, but the temperature was the same. As she sank into its depths, her body contracted in shock.
She popped back up and gasped, clutching at her chest, then forced her arms and legs to propel her forward until her feet skimmed the bottom. Emerging from the icy depths, she crawled up the rocky shore until she escaped the incoming waves.
Curled into a ball, her trembling hands encompassed the dripping putsi bag, and she squeezed her eyes closed.
“Return what I have taken to whence it came. Warm my flesh and release its claim,” Elora whispered in a plea to Mother of All.
It took a moment before the warmth built up inside her. The intensity grew, and she rolled over, flinging her arms out to the side as she attempted to release the heat.
A scream ripped from her, and her back arched, lifting her upper body off the ground. She was burning alive from the inside out. How fitting it would be if she survived freezing only to die from spontaneous combustion brought on by a poorly worded incantation.
Then suddenly the fire coursing through her vanished, and she stared up at the snowflakes dancing through the darkening sky. A flake landed on her nose, and she brushed it away.
She paused as she saw her sleeve was dry and realized she was no longer wet and cold. As excruciatingly painful as the process had been, her spell worked, pulling the sea water from her clothing and body.
A shadow passed over her, and she looked at the guard who came to check on her. With the evening sun behind him, his face was silhouetted by the bright rays.
She squinted and sat up, smoothing her skirt over her legs. She rose from the ground and winced at the tenderness of her chest. She would carry a bruise from where she’d landed on the bridge.
“Thank you,” she said and turned to stare up at the man who saved her life.
Anything else she might have said lodged in her throat as she was thrown back six years. He was older, broader, harder, but none of that did anything to conceal him.
Elora flung herself at him, desperate for the press of his body against hers. The contact consumed her, throwing her back to the last time he held her in his arms moments before Niobe pulled her from him.
Lost in the memory, it was a moment before Elora recognized how different his hold was now. Gone was the warm and comforting embrace. Instead, his hands patted her back, lacking even the slightest hint of genuine emotion.
She cupped his face in her hands, gently tugging his head lower until his eyes met hers. Her soul screamed in rejection at what she found staring back at her. Whatever magic Niobe used on him was still there.
The Mason she knew was gone.