In a hidden cavern beneath the Windenburg coven’s ritual clearing there was a majestic meeting room. Used throughout the centuries as a place for discussion of the highest coven matters, disciplinary hearings or even as sanctuary against the worst of world, tonight, after the ritual, it had been where Wyatt had finally signed his name in the coven’s grimoire. A sign that he was, finally, one of them.
Broof had felt an immense swell of pride watching his best bud signing himself over, as they all had, to servitude for Mother Earth. But it was tinged with apprehension. The U-turn on Wyatt’s casting age had been so swift that to Broof, it was almost suspicious. He hoped it wasn’t a decision the coven would later come to regret.
Wyatt had once again been cornered by the flirtatious force of Wartilda but, high on life, he had chosen to throw caution to the wind and flirt back. Thankfully for Broof, after his embarrassing encounter earlier, Toadella had given up on her much more subtle advances and was nowhere to be seen.
Being the sad drip that he was had some minor perks.
Although, what he wouldn’t give to have Wyatt’s animal magnetism. That casual way he could pull pretty much anyone he wanted. Broof had to remind himself that Wyatt’s casual nature was as much a downfall as a benefit – at the first sign of any real commitment, Wyatt would run a mile. And Wartilda knew this. Everyone knew this.
Why did women always seem to fall for guys who would let them down? Broof realised he was inadvertently staring at Claudia so shifted his gaze before she noticed, landing instead on the High Priestess. Another perfect example of his theory; a powerful, beautiful, devoted woman who had chosen an uncommitted man.
Why were nice guys always side-lined? Was stability that much of a turn off?
Broof didn’t have time to further lament this situation; Moon had entered the room and was alone for the first time that night. He was keen to ask her more about the vampire-hunting heyday of the Windenburg Witches and if she knew anything about the Village of the Free, but popular as she was, there was rarely a chance to find her by herself.
“Moon, do you have a minute?” he asked politely.
Moon, who was lighting a candle, lowered her hand. “I should hope so,” she laughed, then added quietly. “I think I know what this is about.”
Moon nodded. “You’re not very subtle, Broof.”
Broof immediately began to panic. He wasn’t? Had he inadvertently said something? His hand shot to his neck, to the barely-there puncture holes Lilith had branded him with. She must have noticed them. He cleared his throat, trying to remain calm and play dumb. “Whatever do you mean?”
Moon smiled. “Claudia? She didn’t get my vote for senior witch, that’s for sure.”
“Oh, right yes.”
“Well?” Moon asked.
“Well?” Broof repeated, confused.
“You wanted a minute?”
“Oh, um, yes. I was hoping…” he trailed off as he saw Claudia glance round. Perhaps this wasn’t the best place to talk to Moon – it would arouse too much suspicion. Thinking quickly, he changed track. “I was hoping I might ask you for post-meet drink?”
“I see,” Moon said after a moment’s hesitation. “No.”
“Broof,” Moon said softly. “Don’t stoop to her level.”
“I won’t deny that you’re a very handsome young man and if I were still perhaps a sprightly, naïve girl of a hundred I wouldn’t mind playing along,” Moon drifted slightly into a reverie before returning to the room. “I want you know that I am here for you. But in the interest of all that’s good and proper, we should keep our relationship platonic.”
“Oh, no. N-no. You misunderstand,” Broof stammered. “I… I was purely hoping to ask you some questions. About the history of the coven. I’ve been reading through old grimoires but some information appears to be missing.”
“Missing,” Moon repeated. Was that sadness in her voice? “Oh, how embarrassing!”
Broof was distantly aware of the sound of a phone ringing as he cringed so hard he thought he might pass out. “I’m sorry if you thought that I… it’s not that you’re not a very attractive woman, Moon, but like you say, the age gap is… not that you’re old, but—”
Before Broof could dig himself a huge hole, the ringing phone stopped and the High Priestess’s calm voice silenced the room. “Jessica? Is everything alright? Find any mushroom people?”
“Slow down, slow down. You found who? And he’s where? You’re having a bloody joke… what the—?! Drained? And he’s hanging by his what?”
“Are you insane?! Get yourself out of that forest, Jessica! Get to Joe’s Bar. I’m on my way.”
The High Priestess remained seated, staring at her blank phone screen, the room deathly silent.
“Bathsheba?” Sage asked in a whisper, addressing the High Priestess by her first name as only senior witches were permitted to do. “Good gracious; whatever was that about?”
The High Priestess didn’t answer. “Sage, come with me. The rest of you, including you Claudia, straight home.”
Faith’s feet hurt.
She and Seth and been walking for ages; they hadn’t even stopped to hunt yet. Now, they were in some fancy neighbourhood Faith had only been in once before, when she and Melinda had turned up to what had been a fake party.
A surprise was all he’d offered her about the evening’s events, leaving Faith’s mind to run wild in the quiet of the night. Maybe he was taking her to genuine party. Or to meet someone; another vampire perhaps? She wondered how he’d introduce her, if he would. Her head motored on with theories but she tried not to get her hopes up. After all, they were probably just passing through this neighbourhood on the way to spot more seals.
Faith stopped Seth halfway up a hill that seemed to go on forever and shifted her sore feet in her knackered old boots. “Are we there yet?”
“Evidently not,” he replied bluntly and carried on walking.
Faith reached out, stopping him again. “Where are we going?”
“Up the hill.”
Faith huffed; these vague answers were so annoying. “Are you pissed with me?”
“I’m getting there,” he replied.
“Is that why you’re not talking to me? Ugh, what have I done now?”
His calmness evaporated in a beat, replaced with that overly-serious face. He was definitely pissed with her.
“I’m often ‘not talking’, Faith,” he insisted. “Perhaps you’re only noticing because, for once, you haven’t been talking. Other than to bombard me with mundane questions.”
Oh. Right. Questions. She bit her lip. “Sorry. But this walk is so long. Can’t we just mist to wherever we’re going?”
“No. It’ll be worth it; not much further.”
“But I’m bored,” she whined. “At least talk to me. All this silence; it makes me think.”
“Does it?” The corner of his mouth flickered. “There is a first time for everything.”
He was acting disinterested, but she felt it – the first tell-tale signs that he was trying to read her. “Do you want to know—?”
“If you ask me one more damn question,” he interjected, silencing her with the lingering threat.
“Your loss.” She shrugged and walked on slowly in silence, pretending to find her fingernails fascinating. He looked at her for a while out of the corner of his eye. She could feel him lurking at the fringes of her mind long before he sighed.
“All right, I’ll bite; tell me what’s on your mind, Faith.”
“OK, so I’m imagining that you’re taking me to a party—”
“Let me finish,” she huffed. “OK, so we’re at this party, and you’re introducing me to your friends – shush! Use your imagination!” she snapped as he opened his mouth to no doubt tell her that he had none. “Now, finish this sentence. Ahem.” She continued in a smashing impersonation of Seth’s characteristic growl, “’Good evening to you, inferior acquaintances. Please excuse my general smell and the bloodstains on my hundred-year-old shirt. This is Faith and she’s my—‘”
“I think the bloodstains are the only thing holding this old thing together,” he smiled, plucking at his crusty clothing. “And I would stop at ‘Faith’. It’s always more interesting when others draw their own conclusions. As you are, now.”
Faith huffed; immediately bubbling to anger. “Right. So, like usual you’d just take the piss out of me, you fucking tool.”
He tilted his head looking genuinely confused. “It’s jest, Faith.”
“So what would you introduce me as?”
“Right at this moment? A pain the arse.”
“Not girlfriend? Not anything remotely affectionate?” He licked his teeth as she asked him yet more questions. Oops. She made a mental note to try and filter herself better before he tied her to a tree and left her for the sun.
“No and no. It’s not personal, Faith. I’m a private man.”
“You’re ashamed of me, more like.”
He ran his hand down his face in frustration. “Are you seriously starting an argument over how I’d introduce you to my fictional friends at a fictional party? Can you not have confidence in my attraction to you unless I am explicitly reassuring you every minute? Faith, we cohabitate. For the devil’s sake, we spent the whole day fornicating.”
“’Fornicating’,” she mimicked. “God, you sound so fucking old when you say that.”
“I am old—”
“And we wouldn’t have had to take all day if you’d just, y’know, get me off a few times and then finish, for once.”
After staring at her a while with that weird expression, Seth began to walk on, along the path.
Balls. This was going totally tits up. Faith jogged after him, wincing at the blisters she was getting. “Look, I’m sorry, I’m not complaining about the sex,” she insisted. “I’m just confused.”
“That makes two of us.”
“Because, it’s just that, well, anyone can live with someone. And friends can fuck. Hell, even strangers can fuck. Sex doesn’t mean anything.”
“You know what I mean!”
“Faith; either my last drink was especially dense or you’re talking in riddles tonight because I don’t have damn clue.”
She pouted. This wasn’t working. “Seth? Can I ask a question?”
“You just bloody did; you’ve been asking them constantly!” he hissed. “Fine. One.”
“Are we exclusive?”
He rubbed his temples, almost dislodging his hat. “Exclusive? As in solely committed?” He scoffed. “This is rich. Remind me; who allowed the pink-haired prat to podger her over a privy?”
“It was over a basin but, this is exactly what I mean; we need to define our relationship. Set parameters. You can hardly blame me for indulging in a fantasy fuck when I’m not even sure if we’re a real couple.”
He snorted. “So what you’re saying is that, by not blatantly defining us as a couple, I am permitting you to pursue any Tom, Dick or Harry?”
“Only dick. And no, I know we’re a couple but, like, define ‘couple’.”
“Couple, noun; two people who are married or in a romantic or sexual relationship, or two people who are together for a particular purpose.”
“See? Totally ambiguous.”
“Most would define ‘couple’ as a committed duo, Faith.”
“Sure, back in ye olde days when you only met twenty people in your whole lifetime and had to marry and have kids before a triceratops got you—“
“There is so much wrong with that sentence. Sometimes I’m painfully reminded how young and inexperienced you are, Fledgling.”
“Stop talking to me like I’m five. I have experience – you’re the one whose been single for a century.”
“Yes; you’re reminding me why.”
“There are loads of variables nowadays,” Faith went on, ignoring his laughter. “Like, whether we’re exclusive or not, how serious we are, where this relationship is heading. I guess kids aren’t an option now, unless we turn one, maybe. But, I mean, you haven’t even said you love me and I’ve said it twice; do you love me? I have literally no idea. For all I know, we are just friends with benefits.”
His laughing had stopped and he was doing his goldfish impression. It took her a moment to realise why.
“Oh shit,” she hissed. “That wasn’t an actual question. Don’t answer that; I didn’t mean to ask that.”
“If you don’t want a bloody answer then don’t ask a bloody question!” He snarled. His fingers tensed as if holding an invisible ball, but when he spoke it was strained and oddly high-pitched, as he desperately fought to stop the words from leaving his mouth.
“I have, no… it has been… gah!” he gasped, smacked himself across the face, for composure, and tried again. “I… that is to say… I-I-I— ugh!”
“What’s happening? Are you OK?”
“No, I am not OK! Holy damn!” He paused, biting his tongue and mumbling in a rapid, garbled manner.
“You don’t have to answer—”
“Yes I bloody do!” he roared. “It appears that… for reasons only the devil himself can fathom… gah!” he choked; clamping his hands over his mouth and eyeing her with utter contempt. “You… I… bollocks!” he twitched, looking around as if he might run off as Faith watched on in shock.
“Fucking hell,” she whispered. “You do, don’t you? You love me?”
“Would you stop with the goddamn bloody bastard questions!” he shouted.
“You do!” she teased, poking him playfully. “You love me!”
He sighed, utterly defeated. “You complete and utter wanton whore.”
“Is that a ‘yes’?”
Faith squealed, she giggled, she hopped up and down until her feet reminded her not to. And then she simply had to kiss him – that was the law, right? To seal the deal?
“I love you too,” she grinned, reaching for him, but he gently held her back.
This wasn’t how she’d imagined this whole situation, and, she suddenly realised, it likely wasn’t how he imagined it. Oh, shit. What if the surprise tonight was that he wanted to confess his feelings to her in some beautiful way and she’d just ruined it?
It was odd, feeling like she’d completely fucked up and yet also feeling on top of the world. And it was disconcerting, his lack of reaction.
“We should mark this occasion,” she suggested brightly.
He nodded, but it was like he wasn’t even listening. Staring through her. Mute.
Damn it. This was freaking her out. She needed to bring him back from whatever analytical hole he was falling into or she’d never get her surprise. “You do realise that, according to modern relationship rules, we’ve got to give each other cutesy pet names now.”
That worked. “We most certainly do not.”
“We so totally do!” she insisted, channelling her inner April, which was actually pretty easy, fluttery as she was with butterflies. “I’m gonna call you… Snugglybuns.”
“Don’t push it, Faith,” he growled. “I still haven’t ruled out confiscating your tongue.”
“I love it when you get all growly and violent like that. You’re like a cute little murder bear,” she teased. “Oh! MurderBear! I like that! That’s your new pet name; my squishy wishy wittle MurderBear. D’aww! What’s mine?”
“Fledgling,” he muttered, continuing up the hill.
“Boo! That’s no fun,” she said, following him. “You’ll need to add a cutesy element now that you love me.”
He laughed. “I’ll think about it.”
“So, why are we in this posh neighbourhood, MurderBear?” Faith asked, as the hill finally ended and the path opened on to a quiet street. “Are we robbing someone?”
“No,” he paused. “Well, unless… no. We’re not,” he clarified, gesturing ahead. “We’re here.”
Faith looked up at the house. It was fancy. Big windows, manicured lawn, a huge fountain and she could smell the chlorine in the outdoor pool from here. “Is this my surprise? Are we upgrading from the apartment?”
He smiled and gestured to the mailbox. “Not quite and no, we’re not.”
Confused, Faith wandered over to check the tiny nameplate above the letterbox. “Villareal,” she read aloud and shrugged. “I don’t understand.”
“Doesn’t ring any bells?”
“No— wait. Wait a second, Villareal?” she repeated in a whisper as the penny dropped. “As in Max Villareal? Is this Max’s house?”
“I hope so,” Seth replied, patting his pocket. “Otherwise that would be an unfortunate error, wouldn’t it?”
The butterfly flurry departed, leaving Faith with nothing but her brutal reality. “Are you going to murder his parents?”
“That would be interesting,” he replied as if considering it. “But, no. Not his parents.”
“Holy fuck, Seth!” Faith hissed, her knees buckling beneath her. “We can’t kill Max! He’s just a kid!”
“A kid who torments your sister,” Seth reminded her with an eerie cool as he approached the gate. “And you did request something gruesome for Joy, did you not? To ‘one-up’ Max Villareal?”
“I didn’t mean this,” Faith whispered in a panic. “He’s a little shit, yeah, but he doesn’t deserve to die!”
“Ah, but you’ve made your request and I have to live up to my new name now,” Seth smirked. “MurderBear!” He strolled boldly through the gardens and up to the back door, with Faith trailing him like a shadow.
“Seth, please,” she begged. “Don’t do this.”
“Do what? Kill the boy?” he laughed. “Come now, I’m not Lilith.”
Seth rolled his eyes. “I am going to get Joy one hell of a gift, as requested. And then, I have a further little something in mind for you.” He raised an eyebrow and, despite everything, Faith felt that flutter return.
“You’re not going to kill him?” she asked, watching him shimmer to his dark form.
“No,” Seth laughed. He reached within his jacket but to Faith’s surprise it wasn’t a knife he produced, or even a tool to open the door. He placed the heavy, metallic object into her shaking hands.
“Seth? What the fuck?”
“I have assumed that you know how to work one of these, Fledgling.”
“Yeah, I do, but—”
“Marvellous.” He smiled. “When I say, and not a moment sooner, you’ll shoot the boy. Got that?”
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