It’s only ONE WEEK until Bruja is released into the wild. So, why not give everyone a sneak peak?!
Hope you like it! :::crosses fingers and toes:::
“Cloud. Wake up!”
My brother’s voice called from beyond the haze, yanking me from my dreams.
“Cloud! You’re having a nightmare. Wake up. Now.” He shook my shoulder.
A sharp inhale rang out. I didn’t realize it was me until a second gasp wracked my chest. This has to stop. I swallowed down the fear and panic that were drowning me.
“Claudia?” He finally used my real name, worry thick in his voice.
I blinked as the dream faded and reality set in. “I’m fine.” I didn’t dare tell him that my body felt like lead, and I was more than a little nauseated. I swallowed and took a deep, steadying breath. It was dark and the floor was cold under my feet. “Where am I?”
“The hallway. I was up reading and heard you crying.”
I wiped my face and felt the tears wetting my cheeks. I’d been crying?
“Come on. This way.”
He turned me around, and I followed clumsily. My body wasn’t reacting right.
Luciana. Just thinking her name caused goose bumps to break out over my skin. The oath I’d taken still bound us together. The other members of the coven had each taken one too, but Luciana had threatened my family—my mother—until I agreed to a more invasive one. It allowed her to draw on my ability to strengthen others’ magic. Any time she wanted, she could suck me dry for a power boost. Even though I’d left, the oath was still there, and I had to focus—and be awake—in order to stop her from using it.
I stumbled into my temporary room—one of the guest rooms reserved for visiting wolves on the floor above St. Ailbe’s infirmary. My vision blurred as I tried to imagine what Luciana had been doing with my power just then. How tainted was my soul now?
I sank down on my bed before I could faint. Since I left the coven three days ago, Luciana took control of me every time I fell asleep. She no longer cared about getting my consent before using me for her black magic—not that I’d given much consent to begin with. But now…
I’d been trying to stay awake by reading spell books from the wolves’ library, but I’d obviously failed. The dim bedside lamp was still on, but I needed it to be brighter in here. “Do me a favor and turn on the overhead light?” I asked Raphael.
Light filled the room, revealing the tiny, twin-sized mattress with clean, white sheets. There wasn’t anything to complain about, but still, the room felt utilitarian. The house we grew up in was a bit more…colorful. Filled with different scents and textures. At the very least, Mom was always burning sage for protection. I’d kept that going after she left. Without the scent, I found it hard to settle down at night.
St. Ailbe’s was only a few miles from home, but it felt infinitely farther. The werewolves didn’t like scents. I could understand that with their sensitive noses, but some accent pillows or art on the walls wouldn’t kill anyone.
It wasn’t just the lack of decor in the guest rooms. The differences between the wolves and the coven seemed vast. Although there were times I really felt connected to my cousin, Teresa. Sure, she was only half witch now, but she seemed to understand me, too. I was glad I’d gotten to know her better these last few weeks, even if it had happened under the worst of circumstances. The wolves and witches were going to war, and I’d turned my back on my coven—on everything I knew—to stop Luciana, the evil woman who’d changed our Aquelarre into something so dark that remembering the role I’d played in her rise to power made my chest ache.
I wanted to make amends, but now I was in Teresa’s territory and everything seemed a little out of my control. Even my own body. I ached for something familiar. Something more than just my twin brother.
I brushed my sweat-soaked hair back from my face as I tried to regain some sense of composure.
Raphael settled down beside me, and I scooted over to make room for him. “This is the third night she’s drained you,” he said. His deep voice was a contrast to my higher one. Just like everything else, we were the yin to each other’s yang. The balance. It made sense. We were twins. Although he liked to make it known that he was older. By minutes. But that was what counted to him—specifics. He was an exacting kind of guy.
And he was right.
A few of us had turned against Luciana and she’d never let go of that betrayal. Especially not mine. Luciana wanted me back. She didn’t care as much about the others, even though they’d taken their own oaths. As far as I knew, they weren’t getting the nightmares. Luciana wasn’t using them for their abilities. But she was haunting me. Draining me. I feared that no matter how far I ran, no matter how fast, she’d never stop.
Every time she did a spell, she drew on my power to make it stronger. To make her stronger. My leaving had left her in a power deficit. The second I was asleep, my consciousness relaxed, and she could use my powers to boost her own. It was causing nightmares, making me sleepwalk and cry out into the night as she siphoned away my energy, but I wasn’t about to go back to the coven. Not even to put an end to this.
I’d find a way to break the link. If I didn’t, it wouldn’t matter anyway. Because I’d be dead. Either way, Luciana wouldn’t be getting what she wanted.
The stiff sheets crinkled as I lay back against my single pillow. “I’ll be okay. It’s just a few bad dreams.” We didn’t have total ESP, but we knew each other well. Ridiculously well. We finished each other’s sentences, knew when the other was hurt, and definitely couldn’t lie to each other. It never worked.
“Whatever she made you say in your oath, it’s obviously much stronger than what’s standard. We’re working on breaking ours—hell, Shane’s is already broken just by the force of his counter-oath—but yours… It isn’t normal. She shouldn’t be able to do this to you, and it’s scaring me.” He paused. “You have to break this oath before it kills you.”
I rolled my eyes, trying to act as exasperated as possible. “I’m not going to die.” I tried to make it sound like a ridiculous idea, but my brother was always too smart for his own good.
Raphael shifted just enough to look down at me. His black hair was sticking up at odd angles, which meant he’d been asleep. He always knew when I was having a bad dream. Our twindar was strong, no matter what else was going on.
“Your skin is pale and the bags under your eyes have gotten darker every day. You’re losing weight. She’s sucking you dry. Don’t think I haven’t noticed.”
I suppressed another eye roll. “I wouldn’t dare call you anything but observant.”
“Don’t get sarcastic with me. This is serious.”
“I know.” If anything, I was more aware of that fact than he was.
“She’s using your oath for more than she should. The bitch will bleed you dry if we don’t stop her.”
Please, Raphael, tell me something I’m not fully aware of.
I looked into his eyes. They were the same dark brown, almost black, as mine and nearly the same shape. Mine were a little more round, giving me an innocent look. The kind of look that no longer fit me. “I know better than you what Luciana is capable of doing.” I’d even betrayed my own cousin’s trust trying to stop her.
“I think you should consider this trip to Peru. Putting some distance between you could weaken her hold.”
I shrugged. “I’m not convinced that distance will help.”
“It can’t hurt, that’s for sure.”
I couldn’t help the little smile that came out at his nickname for me. He used to make fun of mom with it. She hated when people called me Claw-dia. She’d say, “Cloud-ia. Like a cloud.” I didn’t really care how people pronounced my name. There were bigger things in life to worry about.
“And what about Mathieu?”
I groaned. “What about Matt?” He hated being called Matt. It was petty, but I refused to call him anything else.
“He’s been calling my cell.”
The guy was such a jerk.
“He’s a jerk,” Raphael said, and I snorted. Twindar alert. “But if he knew what Luciana was doing to you, he might help. As far as he knows, you’re going to marry him.”
The thought of asking him for help made me want to throw up. Besides being too young for marriage at only twenty years old and not loving—or liking—him at all, he was the kind of guy who truly thought that a woman’s place was barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. I wouldn’t survive a marriage like that.
Or maybe he wouldn’t survive it.
Either way, it was another thing I’d given up to keep my family safe from Luciana, and another thing I had to free myself from. “I think you’re forgetting that I’m trying to get out of marrying him. Asking him a favor would be a horrible idea. He’d take it as confirmation of our engagement.”
“I know you don’t want to marry him, and I don’t want you to. Just tell him you need help, and I bet he’ll come through.”
Nope. Not going to happen. The situation with Matt was complicated enough already. I’d been an idiot and agreed to the match that Luciana wanted. But, in my defense, I’d met him four years ago, when I was young and naive. I’d been unhappy with my situation, and he knew it. He swept in like he was going to save me. He was going to take me away from the Wicked Witch and bring me to live with his coven just outside of Windham, New York, when he became their leader. For all of about five minutes, everything seemed perfect. We even had the same interests.
Then I found out Matt was full of lies. He didn’t like classical music. He didn’t like classic literature. He wasn’t saving me from anything. I’d been set up. And when I tried to get out of the agreement, he’d really shown his true colors. Douche extraordinaire.
But hate was too tame a word to explain how Raphael felt about Matt. When he found out about the engagement, he just about lost his mind. That he was telling me to go to Matt now was a true sign of how worried he was.
“If you’re not leaving and you’re not going to ask Matt for help, what are you going to do?” Raphael paused, but not long enough for me to answer. “Because you can’t go on like this. You won’t survive it.”
“I’ll figure something out. You know me. I always do.”
Raphael pinched the bridge of his nose as he squeezed his eyes shut. He only did that when he was so frustrated he wanted to strangle me.
“Look. They have different books here. And Tia Rosa will help, too. I bet she knows how to get away from Luciana. I’ll find a way. Don’t doubt me now. I can’t do this without you.”
After a moment he dropped his hand. “You’re probably right.”
“Probably?” I didn’t really matter which part I was right about. Just that I was right.
“We’ll go see Tia Rosa tomorrow, but if she says you should go far away, then I think you should reconsider Muraco’s offer on Peru.”
No way, big brother. “That wolf is old and insane. You heard him. He wants me to go to Peru alone and find some sort of mages that haven’t been heard from in a century. Me? Hiking through the woods? Alone. In Peru. Is it just me or does that sound like a disaster waiting to happen?”
Raphael snorted. “When you put it like that…” He paused. “But how can we defeat Luciana if she starts summoning demons again? Especially if she’s using your abilities to boost her spells? We don’t have the knowledge or power to kill that kind of evil and neither do the wolves. She’ll slaughter us all.”
I suppressed the shudder that wanted to roll down my spine. “We’ll find a way. We don’t have any other options.” To be honest, I wasn’t sure what we were going to do, but I’d gone my whole life following other people. Doing what they wanted. Trying to save everyone and only hurting people in the process.
I was done with that.
Yes, we needed to stop Luciana, but I wasn’t convinced that rushing off to Peru because Muraco said so would solve our problems. I couldn’t take his offer seriously unless he had a more concrete goal, like a weapon he knew where to find or a source of white battle magic that was free for the taking. But wandering through the mountains to find mages who may or may not exist and may or may not deign to help? I just didn’t have time to fool around like that. None of us did.
Raphael stood up. “Fine. I’m going back to bed.” He started for the door but paused. “Are you going to be able to sleep?”
Not a chance. “Sure.”
I threw my pillow at him. “Go already.” I paused. “But actually give that back first. That’s my only pillow.”
Raphael shook his head and tossed it gently back to me. “Night, Cloud.”
He shook his head again as he closed the door. He didn’t like being reminded about his former obsession with a certain quad of human-like turtles.
Once he was gone, it was quiet again, and I wished he hadn’t left. I knew Raphael was just in the room next door, but the walls were so thick that being here was like being in a tomb.
I guess that makes having horrible, screaming bloody-terror nightmares not so embarrassing.
I huffed and the sound echoed against the walls. I wanted to sleep. Exhaustion pulled at my body like a ten-ton weight, but I was afraid of what Luciana would do with my powers when I slept. I didn’t dare let myself close my eyes, but no matter how hard I tried to keep them open, they grew heavy. Sleep tugged and I barely managed to shake free from the next nightmare before it swallowed me whole.
I threw the covers off, walked to the tiny window, and slid it open. Sticking my head out, I breathed in the familiar scent of the forest. We might be miles away from the compound, but it was the same forest. It had the same cedar trees. The same sounds of night.
Two floors below me, wolves prowled through the St. Ailbe’s campus. I’d never been here until a few days ago. The campus was bigger than I’d expected, but completely hidden from the road. It had to be. The werewolves liked their privacy. That’s one thing we have in common.
One of the wolves circling the quad below noticed me leaning out the window and headed my way. I was breaking the rules. The campus was on total lockdown, with patrols going night and day as the wolves waited for the next attack from Luciana, but I couldn’t help myself. I would’ve liked to go out and sit in the quad in the moonlight—maybe even do a cleansing ritual—but the wolves wouldn’t let me outside. Not at night. I’d found out the hard way that leaning out an open window was enough to upset them, but I’d suffocate if I didn’t get one clear breath.
The wolf stopped at the bottom of my window and looked up at me, tongue lolling out the side of his mouth. A bright yellow aura of power surrounded him, marking him as a werewolf. All wolves glowed yellow to me. Some so pale the color was almost white. Others so deep and dark it was nearly brown. If I was right, this was one of Teresa’s friends. Christopher? I couldn’t tell one wolf from another, but his aura… the coloring seemed right. He howled up at me, and I waved.
As if on cue, Christopher yipped at me. I started drawing a protection knot in the air in front of the window. I moved my finger through the air, drawing a complicated pattern as I willed the magic to work.
Thick as glass and strong as steel. Nothing shall pass through this seal.
The words didn’t really matter, but I needed them to focus my will. I wasn’t sure why I liked to rhyme with my incantations—I wasn’t a fantastic rhymer—but it made the words feel important, which made them stronger.
I stopped the knot in the same place I’d started it. That was the one thing that I couldn’t mess up. The ends had to align or it wouldn’t work. The knot glowed brightly in the air for a second before dimming.
There. It was done. “All safe now. No need to worry about me,” I said.
Christopher tilted his wolf-y head to the side and yipped again before starting away.
At least he trusted me enough to let me use my magic. I rested my arms on the windowsill. I had a lot to accomplish in the coming weeks—at least I hoped I had weeks… I couldn’t predict how fast Luciana would work against us.
The pressure would get to me if I let it. Instead, I tried to breathe through the stress. Being away from Luciana was a good thing. The first step to getting everything put right.
Thank God Teresa had shown up when she did. She’d been a little later than I would’ve liked, but that was better than not coming at all—which had been a real possibility after she got bitten and turned from our future coven leader to a full-time werewolf.
To be honest, I was a little jealous. She’d gotten to live a normal life until a few months ago, while I’d been struggling with the Wicked Witch. I didn’t begrudge her that…much. I wanted what she had. A life. Real friends—not coven members who were trying to suck me dry. A boyfriend who would do anything for me instead of Mathieu le Douche.
My shoulders were so tense that I could barely roll them back. So much for breathing through the stress.
The one thing I couldn’t forget—that I couldn’t let myself forget—was what I’d done to get here. Taking that stupid oath in the first place so that Mom could leave the coven. Doing Luciana’s bidding until my soul was blackened. Then, manipulating my cousin so that she’d be forced to stay at the compound. She’d been stripped of her powers—tortured—because of me. And getting David killed…
I owed both of them. And no matter what—by the time this all ended—I would repay the debt. So help me God, I would settle it or die trying.