Brooklyn Ray © 2018
All Rights Reserved
The ocean swept around Liam’s ankles. Night hovered over the water, turning what was left of the day into a washboard of dusty rose and deep violet. Sea foam dampened his calves. He rolled a smooth, gray stone in his palm.
Magic made itself known, a current wound tight in his core, churning blood and flexing bone. Uncertainty misted his cheeks, stung his eyes, and even when he willed it away, it clung to him. All magic was different—Fire, Earth, Air—but Water was something else entirely. It waited for no one. When it took, it took completely. When it gave, it gave until it hurt. Liam wasn’t used to being volatile, but tonight his magic thrashed within him, whispering lies about power and promises about the deep.
Storm Wielder, the ocean said. Come closer.
Port Lewis was a beautiful, awful place full of beautiful, awful things—the ocean and beaches, the unyielding storms, and wet weather-beaten sidewalks. Liam Montgomery often wondered if he was one of those beautiful, awful things too. Full of rage and antiquity; powerful and unknowable.
Warm fingertips followed the ridge of his knuckles and slid over the stone he kept worrying in his right hand. Ryder’s energy blistered and taunted. Its darkness had an unmistakable heartbeat, a tantalizing, insidious taste that Liam still wasn’t quite used to. A hot breath hit Liam’s neck and he closed his eyes.
“You’re still out here,” Ryder said. His lips touched the shell of Liam’s ear and Liam was reminded that unknowable was a useless label with Ryder Wolfe, who knew him like clouds knew rain and foxes knew forests.
Ryder was one of those beautiful, awful things. He might’ve been the most beautiful. The most awful.
Liam leaned back until his spine met Ryder’s torso. “Where else would I be?”
“I can think of a few places.” Ryder’s lips curved into a smile against Liam’s neck. A long, pale index finger traced the veins in his wrist to his thumb, over his knuckles and back again. “Labradorite.” He touched the smooth surface of the stone and hummed appreciatively when Liam let him pluck it from his palm. “The stone of transformation?”
“Yeah, figured it might be worth a try.” Liam tilted his head until Ryder’s lips were close enough to catch. He kissed him gently, a soft press and nothing more. “How’s Jordan?”
“Ruthless,” Ryder said through a groan. “I didn’t think being a necromancer would be this difficult or require a fuck-ton of studying. How’s the ocean?”
Liam smirked. He flicked his gaze to the sea and said, “It’s ruthless too.”
“Anything new out here?” Ryder’s chin settled on Liam’s shoulder. “Merfolk stealing babies in the night?” he mused playfully. “Selkies and sirens arguing over meals?”
“Selkies don’t eat people,” Liam corrected. “And no, there’s nothing new out here. Not yet, at least.”
“Not yet,” Ryder teased. His mouth dusted Liam’s jaw, following the line of it to his cheek. “C’mon, Water witch, we’ve got a circle meeting.”
“Joy.” Liam would’ve stayed at the beach with Ryder and the ocean for hours if he could’ve. He would’ve stripped down to nothing and dragged Ryder into the water with him, touched and been touched, let moonlight drape over their skin. But the ocean sang too loudly tonight, and if Liam let it have him, he might not make it back to shore. “Are we at least eating?”
“Yeah, of course. You think I’d agree to a circle meeting after training with my sister if Tyler didn’t promise to bring pizza?” Ryder stepped in front of him, the fine angles of his face sharp and pronounced. His shaved head was covered by a beanie that slouched over the back of his neck, and a black peacoat was snug over his broad shoulders.
It had been weeks since Ryder decided to become a necromancer. Since his Fire magic battled with the darkness inside him, since a King of hell took residence in his body, since he died and came back as this—a powerful, wicked darkling. It’d been weeks since Liam and Ryder cut through the red tape wrapped around their friendship and fell into bed together.
Everything still felt new, somehow.
“Are we going to the house?” Liam asked.
Ryder laced their fingers and tugged. His palm radiated heat. “The barn, actually. But yeah, we’re going to Tyler’s.”
They walked toward the banks at the edge of the beach. Roots sprouted from the dirt, tickling the sand. Giant trees that had fallen years and years ago littered the place between beach and forest, home to crabs and critters, overgrown with odd teal moss and sprinkled with beige mushrooms.
Somewhere far off, an owl hooted. Somewhere closer, a creature screamed.
It echoed from the water, a gurgled, awful howl, torn and pained, as if it’d ridden the backs of waves for miles and miles. The sound looped through gusts of wind, splintering around them.
Liam had heard it before. Once. He whipped around at the same time Ryder did, fingers buckled in Ryder’s iron grip. Ryder’s magic surged. Heat blistered the air, lashing out at the unknown.
“What the fuck was that?” Ryder shifted in front of Liam. Black tendrils snaked over the ground beneath his heavy combat boots.
“A kelpie,” Liam whispered. He watched Ryder carefully, the way his jaw tightened, the way black drifted over his eyes like ink on a canvas. “Chill out, Ry. Put that shit away.”
“Fuck off,” Ryder hissed. “I don’t need some water horse biting a chunk out of my neck tonight, all right? Since when have they come this close to shore?”
The shrill, sudden call of the kelpie echoed until it faded, replaced by waves crashing, wind careening through tree branches, and Ryder’s steady breath beside him.
“They don’t—they haven’t in a long time,” Liam said. He squeezed the heel of his shoes in his free hand. “It’s unusual. It means…”
“It means we’re leaving,” Ryder snapped. He tugged Liam’s hand until Liam stumbled along, glancing over his shoulder as he went.
The ocean looked back at him, whispering, wanting.
The kelpie’s call meant something was coming for him.
Liam swallowed hard. He kept hold of Ryder’s hand and listened for another scream, for the sound of hooves, but they never came. He climbed into the driver’s seat of his old Subaru and stared out the windshield, hand tight around the steering wheel.
Mist clouded the glass, but he could still see the black ocean yards away, the white foam on dark sand and the moon’s smile rippling on the water.
Ryder climbed into the passenger seat. “Hey,” he rasped. “Princess.”
Liam tore his gaze from the sea. Ryder’s sharp eyes melted back to their jungle green and picked him apart, long eyelashes sweeping up and down. His lips thinned, and he reached over to brush his knuckles over Liam’s thigh.
“Don’t call me that,” Liam mumbled. “I’m fine. It’s just the moon.”
Ryder scoffed. His hand stayed put on Liam’s thigh, and Liam was grateful. “It’s just the moon,” Ryder parroted sarcastically.
The car rumbled to life. The headlights cut a path through the darkness as they drove to the canyon outside the Port Lewis woods.
Liam watched the ocean disappear in the rearview mirror, but he knew it would follow him.
Tyler’s family lived in a large, one-story house in the middle of the woods. They’d been there for three generations, cooking up spells, talking to the dead, hosting full-moon parties once a month, and Liam had spent days, weeks even, exploring the property.
The barn on the outskirts of the empty pasture had been plucked out of a horror movie. It was typical and haunting, painted dark, earthy brown, with a sturdy roof and two giant doors. Their circle of young witches had gathered there for the last few years—calling spirits, doing readings, inviting creatures from other realms to join them.
Tonight was no different.
Ryder walked through the door, coat open and billowing around him. Liam kept hold of his hand, even when Tyler’s jaw tightened at the sight of them. No matter how many weeks went by, no matter how many circle meetings they attended, Tyler was still unnerved by Ryder’s necromancy, and even more frightened of what it might do to Liam.
Liam squeezed Ryder’s fingers when they slackened in his grasp. “Ignore him,” he whispered.
Ryder snorted and rolled his eyes.
The barn was lit by strings of white lights looped over eaves and wrapped around pillars. A couple of lanterns hung on braided ropes and blankets were strewn on the ground amidst hay bales. Tyler filled a kettle with water, his long, lean frame covered in a tight navy sweater and blue jeans.
Christy’s dark hair hung over her shoulders, tickling her grimoire. She flipped a page and sighed. “Sorry, Donovan. No luck on the unearthing Earth magic front.”
Donovan frowned. He was perched atop a hay bale across from her. His ginger hair caught the light, along with his orange freckles and petite, pink mouth. “Hi, Liam.” He nodded to Liam and Ryder. “Eaten any souls lately, darkling?”
Ryder snickered. “Fuck off, baby witch.”
Liam plopped down beside Christy.
“Oh, hi,” she cooed. She tucked her hair behind her ears and glanced at him. Necklaces weighed down by crystal pendants ringed her neck over a loose white top. “How was the water?”
Ryder’s magic bristled, crackling the air. Liam’s jaw flexed.
“A…” Christy’s breath caught. The tickle of her magic prodded his thoughts. “A kelpie? That’s—”
“I could’ve just told you,” Liam said. Sometimes having a psychic in their circle was bothersome. “No mind-reading necessary, Christy.”
Her violet lips pulled down in a grimace. “Sorry, bad habit. But that’s what it was? You’re sure?”
“I heard it too.” Ryder strode toward Tyler and snapped his fingers. The kettle started whistling at the touch of his Fire magic, spewing steam, and vibrating in Tyler’s hand. “Careful, don’t get burned.”
It was a good thing Tyler held the kettle by the handle. He glared at Ryder and shook his head but went to work filling short, round teacups rather than scolding him.
“Kelpies don’t come to shore anymore,” Tyler said. “They haven’t in years.”
“I don’t know what else it could’ve been,” Liam said. His eyes fluttered to Ryder, tracking each movement as Ryder slipped off his coat.
“The tea might have something to say,” Donovan said. His lips twitched into a half smile and he shrugged. “Or maybe it was a fluke thing.”
It wasn’t. Liam still wore chills from the sound of the kelpie’s scream. The echo of it had stayed with him, cutting cold and merciless through his skin. He smiled back at Donovan anyway and nodded. “Yeah, maybe.”
Tyler passed out the cups and sat cross-legged on the ground with his back against Donovan’s hay bale. Christy straightened her back, shoulders pulled tight and chest elevated. Ryder leaned against one of the wood pillars, stirring his hot tea with his pinky finger. Liam stared into his own cup, watching, waiting.
Christy’s lips moved quickly. Her frenzied whispers came on long, winded breaths, fading into each other until her voice was one layered chant. She waved her hand over her cup, slender fingers stretched toward the steam. She opened her eyes and they were ghostly white.
“Drink,” she said.
Liam gulped his tea—clean, green jasmine—and covered the top of his cup once he was done.
Tyler did the same. Donovan sipped his until it was gone. Ryder tossed his back like a shot and settled his pitch-black eyes on Liam, closing one in a wink. Liam glanced away before he made a fool of himself.
“All right,” Christy chirped. She grinned at her cup and wiggled restlessly in place. “One by one, please. Donovan, you first.”
Donovan slid off the bale and handed Christy his cup.
“Hmmm…” She squinted and cocked her head. “Two mountains. A journey is ahead. The first one is small and…” She traced the shape of the leaves with her index finger. “Predictable, maybe? But the second will be hard. Harder than you think.”
“That sucks,” Donovan said through a laugh.
Christy wrinkled her nose and grinned. “It doesn’t! Journeys are good for the spirit. Tyler, c’mon. Your turn.”
Tyler scooted forward and handed the cup over.
“Your leaves are as stubborn as you,” she said. Her eyes narrowed. Concentration furrowed her brow. “Pain,” she whispered. “Something… Someone is going to hurt you soon.” Christy’s gaze flicked to Tyler. “Is everything all right?”
“Yeah,” Tyler blurted. His elegant, sharp features morphed into confusion a little too late. Liam had seen it, the acceptance, the knowing, before Tyler had smothered it. “I don’t… It’s probably just something stupid. I bet I’ll fall down the stairs tomorrow.”
Tyler attempted a laugh, but no one else joined him.
Ryder cleared his throat. “Or maybe you’ll get another gift from your old man.”
Liam closed his eyes. His chest tightened. Tension filled the room like smoke, dipping in and out of their magic in clumsy, fast jolts. When Liam looked at Ryder, his hard gaze was unapologetically fixed on Tyler.
“Tyler…” Christy touched Tyler’s hand.
“Get out of my head,” Tyler snapped.
The tension shattered. Christy’s magic flared: A crisp, protective bubble.
“Ty, c’mon,” Donovan whispered. “It’s fine.”
“Bring up my dad again.” Tyler slid his attention to Ryder. “And you’ll have to resurrect yourself.”
“Don’t fight,” Christy whimpered. “C’mon, please.”
Ryder hummed. His smile was mean and distant, and he traced the line of it with his reaver, scraping the tip across his bottom lip. Despite the challenge in his eyes, Ryder wasn’t wrong. They all knew it. Tyler’s father had never been kind, and the bruises Tyler brought back with him after fights at home were enough to solidify the circle’s suspicion.
Still, Tyler never admitted it.
“Oh yeah, Wind witch?” Ryder smirked.
“Ryder,” Liam growled—a warning.
Donovan cleared his throat. “Tyler, enough.”
“Listen to your lovers,” Christy mumbled. She raised her brows at Tyler and Ryder. “They’re both pulling on your collars for good reason. Ryder…” She nodded to him. “Stop pushing. Tyler…” She handed him his cup back. “Be nice.”
Liam sighed through his nose. They didn’t talk about certain things—Liam and Ryder. Tyler and Donovan. It would end in an argument, jabs at each other over Tyler’s insistence that no one in the circle should date while he’d been sleeping with Donovan for weeks without telling them. The whole thing was ridiculous, but it was sore and new, an unspoken secret that lingered just beneath the surface.
Tyler’s father, though. That was a wound that kept festering.
“Your turn, Ryder.” Christy held out her hand expectantly.
Ryder tapped his reaver against his cheek, glaring at Tyler.
“Ry,” Christy snapped. Ryder pushed off the pillar and walked past Tyler to hand Christy his cup. “Okay, let’s see.” Christy jumped into her usual self, upbeat and charming, wearing a smile that was half-faked and half-true. Slowly, the thick, syrupy tension dwindled. “Transformation, maybe? Or—wait… Yes, that’s it. Transformation through trials.”
“Lovely,” Ryder droned.
Liam handed Christy his cup. “And last but not least,” she said and offered him a smile before turning toward his tea leaves.
A choked, sharp gasp cut through the barn. It was shrill and warped, a noise that usually accompanied bad news. She clutched Liam’s cup between both hands and heaved in great, pained breaths. Her head whipped around, glancing from each of them before she looked back into Liam’s cup.
Everything was still. Everything was quiet.
Liam heard his blood running fast through his veins.
“What is it?” Ryder said, voice clipped and serious.
Christy opened one hand and tipped Liam’s cup over. A cluster of leaves fell into her palm.
“Dry leaves,” Christy whispered.
Liam swallowed hard. He stared at the leaves, dry as they’d been before they were brewed, and remembered the sound of the kelpie’s scream. “Murder… Conquest.” The words felt alien in his mouth. He ran his tongue stud across the back of his teeth, chasing them away. “That’s… I don’t understand.”
Footsteps hit the ground close to Liam’s legs. Ryder knelt beside him and clasped a hand over Liam’s knee. He didn’t speak, but his presence alone was comforting.
“You heard a kelpie tonight,” Donovan said softly.
“And your leaves are dry…”
Liam nodded again.
“Something is coming for you. Something is coming to…”
“Kill me,” Liam said.
“We don’t know if it was a kelpie.” Tyler shook his head, feigning confidence. “And dry leaves don’t just mean murder—conquest could be defeat; it could be annihilation. This reading might be pointing at something else, okay? Everyone calm down.”
Christy curled her fingers around the leaves. “Yeah, you’re right… It’s probably just… We shouldn’t jump to conclusions. Witch 101: Don’t overreact.”
Ryder’s hand was steady on Liam’s knee. “Doesn’t matter if it’s true,” he said, voice rough and low, close to Liam’s ear. “You know that.”
“We should…eat, or something. We should do literally anything else besides this,” Donovan said.
Christy placed Liam’s dry tea leaves in a drawstring pouch. She cleared her throat and nodded. “Donovan’s right. Let’s eat. We’ll consult the cards later and go from there.”
A tiny, white mouse scampered across the barn and into Christy’s lap. Willow, Christy’s familiar, blinked red eyes at Liam, translucent whiskers twitching next to her nose.
A second later, talons curled over Liam’s shoulder. Opal, a barn owl who had been with Liam since his magic manifested years and years ago, nudged his cheek with her beak. Their familiars must have sensed the unrest and came to investigate.
“Hey, Opal,” Liam whispered. He craned his neck to make room for her and didn’t brush her away when she nibbled on his jaw.
Tyler cleared his throat. He stood and walked to the other end of the barn where the pizza was. Donovan trailed after him. Their voices were low and quick, words hissed and sighed in hopes that Liam wouldn’t hear them. They walked on eggshells, careful not to be too loud, but Liam still caught a few words. Kelpie. Water. Murder. Ryder. Demon.
“We should go,” Liam said.
Ryder’s eyes had faded back to their bright, forest green. His nostrils flared, and he nodded.
“No, Liam, please stay,” Christy said. She scrambled for his ankle, but he pulled away. “They don’t mean it—guys, would you stop!” She aimed the last bit at Donovan and Tyler. “We need to figure this out and we can’t if we don’t stay together…”
Liam walked away. His chest ached. Tyler’s words stung, whether he’d meant for them to or not. “I need to sleep on this, okay?”
Ryder snatched his coat from one of the hooks on the wall.
“Liam, wait!” Christy called.
“Let him go,” Tyler said.
Opal clung to Liam’s shoulder until they got to the car. As soon as he opened the driver’s side door, she took off into the sky. Ryder slid into the passenger’s seat. His eyes were hard and unwavering, fixed on the dark forest outside the pasture. Liam couldn’t tell if Ryder was hurt or worried or thoughtful or scared.
Liam was all those things, though. He was everything at once.
“They think I’m gonna kill you,” Ryder said.
Liam turned the key in the ignition. “It doesn’t matter what they think.”
“Then why’d we leave?”
A heavy, lucid quiet slipped into the car with them. The night watched, starless and black, until Liam turned the headlights on and drove toward the sea.