I stared at the man in the booth adjacent to me, wondering if he could be a supernatural. He looked the part. Dark hair, brooding eyes, hands clasping a steaming mug so tightly, he might break it. He definitely had some pent-up anger.
May laughed out loud near the front of the diner as she paid for our meal. I loved hearing her laugh. She did that a lot lately, something I didn’t know I had missed until it was gone.
“Hey, Llona!” she called to me. “Come meet this guy. He’s hilarious.”
This part I didn’t love so much. May had become friendly with everyone. We couldn’t go anywhere these days without May chatting up someone. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it had gotten us into a few quarrels with those who would rather not have conversations. Most of those types were found in subways or elevators.
I slid out of the booth and joined May at the cash register, eyeing the employee behind the counter. He looked our age, maybe early twenties. He flipped his head to the left, making a mop of dark hair whip out of his vibrant green eyes.
May motioned between us. “Llona this is Hudson. Hudson this is my best friend, Llona.”
“Nice to meet you.” I didn’t extend my hand. Unlike May, I tended to be much more reserved with strangers.
“You, too.” He grinned at me, the smile much too large for my liking, and added, “I was just telling May about a small party me and my buddies were having after work. You two should come. There will be other ladies there too, students from IC.”
“IC?” I glanced from May to Hudson.
“Irondale College,” May clarified. “That’s where Hudson goes to school during the day. He’s studying to be an engineer.”
“How long have you two been in town?” he asked us.
“Just a couple of weeks.” I glanced behind me. My supernatural suspect was gone, leaving us alone in the diner except for a cook in the kitchen. I could hear him scraping off his grill.
May leaned against the counter toward him, possibly in an attempt to show off her cleavage, something her favorite low-cut red shirt accomplished well. “We were in Wildemoor before this for almost two months visiting friends and family. It’s a nice place but doesn’t have the same cool vibe as Irondale.”
“I know exactly what you’re talking about.” Hudson’s gaze lowered to her breasts. “It’s the town’s history. Did you know it was one of the first settlements?”
I wrinkled my brow. “That can’t be right. We’re too far inland.”
His eyes darted to mine. “But we’re by the river. Early settlers from Spain sailed up the river nearly fifty miles until they stopped here. It was such a great place that they didn’t tell others, and it became their own little paradise where they could do whatever the hell they wanted.”
May giggled, but I shifted my weight uncomfortably. Something felt off.
“Where’s your party at?” May asked him.
“Not far. I’m off in ten minutes. Wait here, and I’ll take you over.” He disappeared into the kitchen.
May pulled me back to our booth. “We’re going, right?”
I searched her golden eyes, so full of excitement. They didn’t used to look that way, especially after Aaron had died, but with every day that passed and miles and miles between us and Lucent Academy, May had slowly come back to life. I just wasn’t sure exactly who she was anymore.
“We can go but not too late, okay?”
“Sure, of course.” She sighed, and her eyes wandered to the kitchen. “He’s pretty hot, right?”
“He’s cute,” I agreed, “but let’s not lose our focus. We came here to find a Red Tree Witch.”
“We’ve been here for weeks and haven’t even met a supernatural.”
“That’s because we don’t know where to find them. We need to start asking around or something.”
May snorted. “But how awkward is that? People will think we’re crazy if we ask about witches.”
I sunk into the cushioned bench. She was right. The majority of the population didn’t know anything about supernaturals, and both May and I had no idea how to go about finding them. I could sense Vykens, but that didn’t help us when it came to finding other supernatural creatures.
Speaking of Vykens, I hadn’t sensed a single one since I’d left Lucent. I knew they were a rare supernatural species but still. Plenty of them had escaped after we killed Sophie and the Shadow. Where had they gone?
“There has to be a way,” I finally said. “The Deific has ways of finding them. Maybe I’ll call Charlie later and ask him.”
“You do that. In the meantime, let’s have some fun and party like normal nineteen-year-olds.”
I nodded, but I didn’t feel like partying. The more time we wasted in finding the cure, the longer Christian remained locked up at the Deific as a Vyken. But more importantly, the longer Liam suffered.
The thought of him had me rubbing my fist against my sternum as if I could ease the pain in my heart. It had been weeks since I’d mentally talked to him, and even longer since I’d heard his voice. It had become too painful to do so and not see him. Eventually, I had to make a choice. May or Liam. For now, I chose to continue to help May heal.
Hudson came to our table while wadding up his apron. “I’m ready to go.”
“Great!” May jumped from the table and linked her arm through his, a move that bothered me. “Lead the way.”
I trailed behind them out the door and into the night while they chatted about some rock band that had recently become popular. Lately, May had become increasingly reckless in her behavior. She’d started drinking, nothing too excessive, but it still worried me. As long as I’d known her, she’d always sworn she wouldn’t touch the stuff since her adopted father had been an alcoholic.
May glanced back at me over her shoulder. “Don’t you think so, Llona?”
“Sure,” I agreed, even though I had no idea what she was talking about.
I glanced both directions as we crossed the street to another block. There was still quite a bit of traffic for it being almost midnight in Irondale. I swore this city never slept. Part of me wished we would’ve found a hotel near the airport instead of the middle of downtown.
May continued talking to Hudson. He seemed like a nice enough guy, friendly and chatty while also letting May talk about herself. And yet, he had a weird vibe about him I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
“I’m really glad you guys are staying in Irondale for a while,” he said to May. “We need fresh blood to liven this city up again.”
“How much further?” I asked. Already we were several blocks from our hotel. I didn’t want a long walk home as it was already late enough.
“It’s just up here.” He pointed down the sidewalk. “See that lit up yellow sign that says Toad Stool?”
“We’re going beneath it.”
While they continued to talk, I rubbed at my arms. The temperature had dropped drastically from this afternoon. Even though it was early spring, and we were down south, nights were still cold.
We walked beneath a burnt-out street light. A violent shiver shook my body, taking me off guard. Normally, I liked darkness, especially my Vyken half, but what I’d just felt had nothing to do with the sudden lack of light or the cold. This shiver had felt like a warning.
As we approached the Toad Stool, music blared into the street. May let go of Hudson and danced to its beat, laughing and smiling, her feet gliding, hips swaying.
She motioned me forward. “Dance with me, Llona. The night is beautiful, and we are young and untouchable!”
I laughed with her and took her hand. Her energy was contagious, and even though it scared me sometimes, I also felt it’s exactly what I needed. Unrestrained, wild, carefree freedom.
She spun me into her arms, then dipped me.
“I want in on this action,” Hudson said, also moving his body in time to a deep bass drum echoing out from the bar.
May spun me out and together we danced around Hudson, our arms swaying into the air, our hips bumping into him. He laughed and watched us closely, his eyes twinkling with an emotion that felt familiar.
May stopped in front of the window to Toad Stool and stared inside, her chest heaving for air. “Why don’t we duck in here for a bit for a quick drink?”
Hudson took hold of her hand and pulled her past the door. “We have plenty of drinks if that’s what you want. Come on. You too, Llona. We’re almost there.”
I was about to say let’s do May’s idea, despite the fact that I hated it when she drank, but before I could, Hudson led her into an alley between two tall brick buildings. I hurried to catch up.
Rounding the corner, I skidded to a stop. Hudson was unlocking a side entrance door next to a large dumpster. Opposite of it stood two men speaking quietly to each other. One of them kept glancing toward Hudson’s and May’s direction. Something about them made my heart skip a beat, then two. It was almost as if I’d met them before but that was impossible. I’d never been to Irondale before.
Hudson opened a heavy iron door and bowed to May. “After you, lovely lady.”
She giggled and rushed inside, not even glancing back at me to see if I was coming. She disappeared down a long, darkened staircase.
“Llona?” Hudson asked, his eyebrows raised. He must’ve seen my reluctance because he added, “It’s just a few close friends. You can leave any time.”
No longer able to see May, I didn’t hesitate going after her. I was half-way down the stairs when I heard him say to someone other than me, “We’re good to go.”
I turned around. The two men I’d seen in the alleyway appeared at the entrance. s**t. I hurried after May, my heart thundering against my ribcage. Something was seriously off. I felt the warning in my blood, and my bones. Even my Light surged within me, igniting a fire in my veins.
I reached the bottom of the stairs and pivoted. I expected to see an apartment or maybe another bar like up above, but the large space barely lit by a single hanging lightbulb, revealed a space that took far too many seconds to process.
May was there, standing in the middle of an empty room, with her mouth open. She was surrounded by at least five men … were they men? They were breathing, but by the rise and fall of their chests in uneven patterns, I doubted they were human.
The door at the top of the stairs slammed, making me jump. Hudson and the two men from the alleyway descended the steps toward me. Every one of their footfalls held a threatening note.
I darted over to May and grabbed her arm. Her skin was ice cold. “I don’t think this is a party we want to attend.”
Hudson and the two others completed the circle around us in a single fluid movement almost as if he’d floated there. And his eyes were no longer friendly. They held a predatory glare to them, the kind that made every muscle in my body feel like bolting.
Thankfully, my brain was smarter than my muscles. It knew that’s exactly what they wanted. The thrill of the chase. Finally, I could recognize them for what they really were.
“Why are you laughing right now?” May whispered at me.
I didn’t bother lowering my voice. “Because May. We’ve faced worse than these blood-sucking losers.”
She met my gaze and lifted her eyebrows as understanding passed between us. She laughed out loud, a sound that empowered me. It may have been a while, but we’d faced the worst kind of vampires, Vykens, and lived.
Hudson smirked, his body weight shifting back and forth as if he couldn’t wait to pounce on us “What’s so funny?”
“You have no idea who you just captured, do you?” May asked.
A vampire behind me hissed, “And you have no idea what we’re about to do to you.”
I whirled around to face him, anger surging within me. It had been a long time since I’d felt it, and it filled me with a familiar darkness that also brought power. My Vyken half.
“Listen to me, you Vyken mutated freaks,” I spat. “We didn’t come for a fight, but we are more than willing to give you one. Dealing with scum like you? It’s as easy as breathing and as thrilling as shopping the latest clearance racks at the mall.”
This got their attention, and their eyes darted around the room at each other in confusion.
May yawned. “Can we get this over with?”
“We need to get at least one of them to talk. These are the first supernaturals we’ve come across in weeks.” As soon as the words left my mouth, I realized that probably wasn’t true. I hadn’t been able to tell Hudson was a vampire. He’d looked perfectly human to me, and this worried me.
Before I could think on it more, one of the vampires from the alley lunged for me. My hands lit up with searing-hot Light and, as I stepped to the side, I pressed my palms into him to shove him away. He screamed as my Light burned through his clothing and probably straight to his bones. Because vampires weren’t as powerful Vykens, my ability hurt them far worse.
Fire appeared in May’s hands. “One down, seven to go.”
A few of the vampires stepped back. One of them growled at Hudson, “What did you bring here?”
“Death,” May and I answered at the same time.
I sprayed Light while she shot one fireball after another. Four of them dropped to the ground writhing in pain as their bodies sizzled and smoked. Two others bolted up the stairs.
“Did you bring a blade or anything?” I asked May as a stared down at the vamps rolling around the floor.
She shook her head. “You?”
May cursed. “We should be better prepared.”
“I didn’t plan on running into— “
A body slammed into me sending me flying to the other side of the room. I hit the ground hard, my head swimming with all kinds of lights and sounds. I glanced back in time to see May set Hudson ablaze. He screamed a horrific sound that was thankfully drowned out by the music above us. Flames licked at the ceiling.
“Careful, May,” I breathed as I rubbed at my aching head. “Don’t burn the building down.”
She kicked at Hudson’s chest making him fall to the concrete floor where his burning body would be less of a risk. “How are you doing, Llona?”
“I’m good.” I dragged myself to my feet and eyed the others on the floor. One of them was gone which meant he must’ve healed himself and escaped while we weren’t watching. But there were a few others still moaning in agony.
I moved slowly to the nearest one, rolling my shoulders back and grimacing at lingering pain. While May watched over Hudson, who had passed out from the pain of being burned alive, and the other vampires, I pressed my foot into the shoulder of a vamp who had nearly healed.
“Tell me where I can find a Red Tree Witch,” I ordered.
He spat at me.
Light shot from my hand into his gut. Only a little but enough to burn through his skin. Louder than his pain-filled cries, I yelled, “Red Tree Witch. Where can I find one?”
My palm lit up like I was going to blast him again, but before I could he shouted, “Wait! Okay, I’ll tell you. Just don’t hit me with that s**t again.”
I curled my fingers into my palm and waited for him to say more.
He sucked in a slow breath. “I don’t know anything about a Red Tree Witch, but there’s a coven of witches that meet Sunday and Wednesday nights at the library over on fifth.”
May and I locked eyes. She wrinkled her nose. “That’s super specific information. How would you know all that?”
When he hesitated, I opened my fingers revealing Light again.
“I used to date one,” he groaned.
May lifted an eyebrow. “Until you drank all her blood?”
His expression fell and sadness filled his dark eyes. “She broke up with me.”
He looked so pathetic that I withdrew my foot from his shoulder. He curled up into a ball and buried his face into the floor.
The remaining vampires had mostly healed but none of them made a move, not with May standing over Hudson’s smoking body, her hand held out and flames dancing across her palm.
“Well that’s the saddest thing I’ve ever seen,” she said. “Should we let them live or do you want to find something outside we can stab their hearts with or cut off their heads?”
I glanced back toward the stairs. “I did see an old chair near the dumpster. I can probably rip off its leg and— “
“Please let us live,” one of the vampires blurted.
May shrugged. “It’s up to you, Llona. I am pretty tired through.”
It had been a while since I’d killed anything. I used to hunger for the violence and the bloodshed, but I just didn’t seem to have the stomach for it anymore.
“We’ll let them live, but,” I lowered my eyes to the vampires, darting my gaze between each one of them, “if we hear you’ve harmed anyone else, and believe me, we’ll ask, we will hunt you down and make plaster of your ashes. Do you understand?”
They nodded their heads.
“Good.” I walked backwards toward the stairs, my palms lit up just in case. “Come on, May. We’ve got a witch coven to find.”