Read an EXCERPT
I pushed on the heavy wood door hanging awkwardly on its hinges, creaking back and forth as if drawn in and out by some great beast inside the cottage. Like the first time I’d been there, it was dark and dingy inside, lit only by a few candles and the glowing embers of a dying fire in the hearth.
Trophy heads still covered the walls: trolls, ogres, werewolves, and more Creach all killed by the witch over her many decades avenging the death of her son, Talib. The low, flickering light of the candles cast bizarre shadows about the room, making the heads seem somehow alive. But the witch had plucked the eyes out from each mount and tied the eyelids shut with thick string, ensuring they were dead. I touched my fingers to my own eyes, imagining my head on the wall. I swallowed hard but found my throat completely dry.
“Bella of the Woods,” I called. “You and I had an agreement. I am here to honor it. I expect you will do the same.”
A scratching sound came from the right side of the chimney where the stonework came out several feet from the wall, creating a corner of dark shadow. It took me a few seconds to realize the sound was actually a low, rasping laugh.
“Honor?” the voice said. “How dare you speak that word in my house? What honor has a hunter? What honor has a Creach?”
I slowly pulled my sword from my side. Against her magic, I didn’t suppose it would do much good, but it sure made me feel a lot better to have the cold steel in my hand.
“You call me both a hunter and Creach, so you know what I am,” I said, addressing the black shadow where the witch’s voice seemed to come from. “But you made the bargain with me nonetheless.”
“You come with the Jerusalem Stone from the Demon Lord himself?” the witch asked.
I reached into my front pocket and pulled out the smooth stone, so plain that it could have been any stone on the edge of a road or under the flowing waters of a mountain stream. Yet so many had fought and died over the centuries to possess the five of them. My own ancestor, Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, had been the last monster hunter to hold all five – and he had been burned at the stake as a heretic by those who wanted the Stones to themselves.
“Where’s the other?” the witch said.
“You have it,” I replied.
“No, you said you would return here with two stones.” A shadow moved from the black hole next to the chimney, somehow darker than what was around her. The witch’s voice rose higher, laced with bitter anger. “One from the Lord of the Demons and the other from the Lord of the Vampires. You promised to bring two.”
“I didn’t have –”
“YOU PROMISED!” she shouted, the inside of the cottage whipping up in a whirlwind all around me. Debris flew through the air. Dust shook from the collapsed part of the roof, and the walls creaked as if bending to the will of a great storm. The wind kicked up flames from the embers in the fireplace. The log roared to life, casting light on the witch now standing in front of me.
Gone was the young, beautiful woman who had faced me only two weeks earlier. Her hair, which had been so long that it dragged on the floor, was gone. Cuts and scabs crossed her scalp as if a knife had roughly scraped off her hair. Her face looked pinched, lips pressed together tight, cheeks caved in as if she was in pain. Eyes that had burned into me before now stared at me dully, lifeless and covered with phlegm.
“What happened to you?” I asked, the words out of my mouth before I could stop them.