Jo ran blindly through the forest, the blackness of night pressing against her eyelids as heavy as felt. Her heart thundered in her chest and her breath tore in her throat—heavy and hot—and still she could hear the thing right behind her. The shadow creature that had been hunting her these past nights had finally decided to take her.
Only Jo had no intention of being taken.
It must be a demon of some kind, Jo thought as she crashed through the underbrush and ducked under a low hanging limb. She could feel its darkness—its hunger to consume.
And her magic was useless against it.
She’d felt it behind her for weeks—ever since she’d been forced to leave Avalon, the only home she’d known for years. It kept getting closer and closer and that night she’d decided to take a stand.
Using the implements she’d managed to take with her before the Elders escorted her to the gates and put her out for good, Jo had cast a circle around herself—a circle of warding and protection. She was a Third Level Wiccan and she knew what she was doing—she’d been confident that the circle would protect her.
But the shadow creature had walked right through it, as though it wasn’t even there.
How? she wondered wildly as she ran, trying to keep from falling. How could it get past my magic? She practiced strictly white magic, and lived by the Wiccan rule of three that stated any energy a witch put out into the world would return to her three-fold. A creature of evil shouldn’t have been able to break past the magical boundaries she’d set, but the shadow thing was most definitely evil. Jo could feel it in her bones.
Maybe the Elders were right. Maybe my magic is turning dark, she thought. But that couldn’t be—she’d followed the path her mentor, Miranda, had set out for her so carefully all these years, always avoiding the temptation to seek greater power through dark channels. She’d even stopped herself from seeking retribution from those that had wronged her—though she had been very greatly wronged before she found her way to Avalon.
And now she was trying to find her way away from Avalon—and away from the shadow creature chasing her.
Please, Goddess, she thought, sending a prayer heavenward. Please, help me get away! Help me find safety somewhere—anywhere!
As if in answer to her prayers, the clouds parted and she saw a break in the trees up ahead. The moon overhead was new and thin but it shone as brightly as it could to help light her way.
There! Jo gulped in a breath and somehow pushed herself faster, running full tilt until she thought her heart would burst with the effort. The shadow creature was right behind her, she could feel it reaching for her—one clawed hand scrabbling at the ragged back of her dress. Its cold fingers sent ice down her spine and she knew if it caught her, it wouldn’t just eat her body—her soul was what this thing was hungry for.
She reached the edge of the forest and saw a smooth expanse of lawn with a big Victorian house in the middle of it. There was a ramshackle old shed behind the house.
Jo’s heart quickened—she was mostly a Hearth witch, so her powers strengthened inside a home where people dwelled.
The shadow creature’s fingers tightened on the back of her dress, causing the skin of her back to ripple helplessly into goosebumps.
Goddess! She prayed again. Help me!
Suddenly the thin sliver of the new moon seemed to glow even more brightly. A beam of its light stabbed between the pines and maples that made up the borders of the forest and found the creature that was trying to consume her.
Jo heard a low hissing sound and then the strangling pressure at her throat was abruptly gone as the thing loosed its hold on the back of her dress.
She staggered out of the forest and ran, sobbing with exhaustion and fear, into the shelter of the shed. She threw a glance over her shoulder before she went in, fearful that the shadow thing was following her—she didn’t want to be trapped in the shed, cornered with nowhere to go.
But mercifully, the thing stayed just within the borders of the forest. Jo could see it sliding back and forth like a dark wind in the trees, hissing and muttering angrily to itself.
She felt a rush of pure relief so intense it nearly made her faint. The creature couldn’t get to her. Safe—she was safe in here.
But for how long?
Reese Cooper heard the soft sound of sobbing long before he got to the entrance of the ramshackle shed in his backyard. It was a low, broken sound that tugged at his heart and froze him in his tracks.
Damn . . . He clutched the brown paper bag filled with the bacon cheeseburger and fries he’d ordered from the Cougar’s Den, his friend Liam Keller’s bar, and shifted uncertainly from foot to foot. He’d wanted to eat the food there with his friends. Keller and his new mate, Samantha, and her sister Sadie and her mate Mathis had all been eating lunch. But then Fiona ShadowTree, the town’s resident pharmacist-slash-wise woman, had informed him that he had to take the food to go because there was someone crying in his back garden shed.
How she had that information, Reese had no idea and he didn’t ask. Fiona wasn’t someone you ignored, though, so he got the food packed up and left. But despite the wise woman’s words, he still hadn’t really expected to find a damsel in distress sitting between his lawnmower and the bag of potash he kept to fertilize the hydrangeas. And yet, the sounds coming from the broken-down garden shed were unmistakable.
Not that he was sure it was a damsel—he still hadn’t looked into the shed, after all. But the soft sobbing sounded feminine. Reese, who had grown up in a house full of sisters, knew the sounds of an upset female better than the average single guy would.
Inside himself, he felt the Fox, his other half, lifting its pointed nose to sniff with interest. Who was this intruder and what did she want with him? People always said, “sly as a fox,” but Reese thought that was a misrepresentation of his kind, who were extremely rare even in Shifter country.
True, Foxes could be sly and cunning when it came to protecting themselves and the mates they claimed, but his own beast was more curious than crafty. The soft feminine sounds of distress tugged at his Fox as much as they did on Reese.
Hang on, he told it. We’ll check it out but we don’t want to scare her—whoever she is.
Taking quiet, cautious steps, he approached the front of the shed where the warped wooden door, which was hanging halfway off its hinges, was only partially shut.