“Leander!” She can’t escape my grasp.

Claim her, mark her, take her. The primal fae roars inside me, demanding I take what is rightfully mine.

“You’re scaring her, Leander.” Gareth’s voice is gentle. “Old friend, please.”

“She’s mine.” The words are guttural. I can’t let her go even though she’s trying to push me away.

“I know.” Gareth steps closer. “But you’re suffering from magic withdrawal and blood loss. You aren’t thinking straight. You need to release her.”

I look into her eyes, and it’s like a kick in the gut. Fear. Her sweet scent of arousal has changed to one of terror. And I’m the one who is scaring her.

Even though my instincts rage, I release her and set her on her feet. She backs away to Gareth, who is wise enough not to touch her.

“He needs help.” Gareth hurries over to me and examines my wounds.

“I’m fine.” I feel the urge to shove him away, to barrel right past him and to the one who can ease the ache inside me.

“Leander.” He takes a deep breath. “Look at her. She’s not used to any of this. It’s all terrifying to her. And you’re not helping right now.”

“She’s my mate,” I argue, but my fangs retract, and my mind begins to clear. I hadn’t hurt her, had I? Guilt burrows under my skin as I look at her, her teeth chattering as she hugs herself. What have I done?

“I’m going to do my best to heal some of these.” He points to the cuts along my back and arm.

“Oh, Ancestors, no,” I groan. Gareth is great with a destruction spell, if a bit wild, but his healing can go either way. I once saw him try to repair Grayhail’s broken leg. When Gareth was done, Gray had two broken legs.

“I have to try. You aren’t healing.”

“No.” I lean away from him.

“Hold tight.” A blast of green shoots around me, the magic teasing along the edge of my depleted stores. My wounds burn, and I fear he’s ripped them open even more. Another blast of green, and more stinging pain have me gritting my teeth.

“Not so bad.” Gareth sits back and inspects me. “Still need some time for them to heal all the way, but at least the bleeding’s stopped.”

The fog lifts all the way, my senses snapping back into place. “Taylor.” I look up at her, anguish in my heart. “I’m so sorry, little one.”

She nibbles her bottom lip and shakes her head a little.

“I’m sorry I scared you.”

“You have fangs.” Her voice trembles.

Gareth gasps, and I can only stare at her.

“You speak fae?” Gareth barks.

“I do now. The witch—she wanted to talk to me, and she couldn’t do it in changeling, so she—”

“Gave her that knowledge for free,” the witch grumbles. “Thought I’d eat her before she could put the language to use, though.”

I rise to my knees, and Gareth helps me to my feet. The poison is fading, my body growing stronger with each breath.

“Fangs,” Taylor says again, and stares at my mouth. That look sends tendrils of heat licking along my skin. She has no idea what a delicious lure she is.

“And you … you changed.” Her brows knit together. “Like you were—”

“Feral.” I move toward her, and the relief I feel when she doesn’t back away is a salve on my wounds more powerful than magic. “When a fae has lived for several ages, the feral part of us grows stronger.”

“Feral?” She asks. “Like a cat?”

“A cat? More like a primal creature that relies on instinct and basic needs.”

“So, a cat.” She nods.

“The only cats I know of are the shifting panthers of the Twisted Pines, and I suppose they are somewhat feral, but are more known for cheating at cards than anything else.” I stand in front of her and press a hand to her cheek where a scratch veers toward her ear. “I’m so sorry you saw me like that, little one. Are you hurt?”

I hold my breath, fearing she will say I hurt her in some way.

“No. The witch just talked to me, really. I mean, she pulled me out of my bed and had me walk through the woods. But, considering all that’s happened in the past few days, chatting with her was probably the least dangerous thing I’ve done.” She glances behind her at the witch who’s still encased in my ice up to her waist. “But don’t get me wrong. She’s creepy as all hell.”

“I could’ve eaten you, girl.” The witch sniffs. “Could’ve feasted on your bones and fresh meat. I didn’t, yet you call me names.”

I step between Taylor and the witch. “Threaten my mate again, black one, and I will finish you.”

“Not a threat. Just saying what I could have done, but didn’t do.” She spits on the ground, and the spot sizzles. “Not creepy. Magnanimous!”

“You promised me a boon for your life. Are you prepared to give it?” I move closer to her, my strength returning and relief that Taylor is unharmed buoying me.

“Compelled.” She spits again. “Compelled by the king beyond the mountain. But I drew blood.” She grins, her sharp black teeth like a wild animal’s. “I drew royal blood. An Obsidian witch does not break. I will not break, and I did what I was compelled to do. I no longer feel it. But I do feel the tether of our agreement.” She grumbles and tries to pull one leg free to no avail. “Cold.”

I point at the frost around her. “I’ll free you only after you’ve granted the boon.”

“I promised the boon for your mate. Not you.” She taps the side of her nose. “But I can grant you one as well, if you’d like to bargain for one.”

“I don’t bargain.” No fae will volunteer to make promises, and if one does, it never bodes well.

“I could tell you such things, winter king.” Her tone turns dreamy. “About yourself, your mate, the king beyond the mountain. Valuable information. Priceless.”

“Then tell me.”

She tsks. “Not for free. Nothing is free.”

“I don’t bargain.”

“Pfft.” She sweeps her white hair from her black shoulder. “Perhaps not today, winter king. But you will. By the end, you will beg me for a bargain.” Her pointy teeth clack against each other again. “Maybe I’ll give you one, maybe I won’t.”

My hand itches toward my blade, but I don’t draw it. “Get on with the boon.”

“It’s for your mate only. Not you. You must go.”

“I’m not leaving her alone with you, witch.”

“Selene. Selene is its name.” She wrenches one leg from the ice, but the other remains stuck.

“I’m not leaving, and I’m beginning to rethink this boon.”

“You can’t kill me now. We both know it.” She bares her teeth. “No more winter in you. Not enough.”

I regret sparing her. “Maybe I can’t shatter you, but I can make you hurt. And I’ve recently come up with a theory.” My voice drops to lethal levels. “The only known way to kill you is to shatter you with cold. But perhaps we’re missing something. Maybe I simply need to experiment. Shove a sword down your throat, take a diamond axe to your head, roast you over a fire until the obsidian gets hot enough to melt. There must be some way to—”

“I gave my word and you dare threaten me? Dare question my oath simply because I am Obsidian?” A phantom wind stirs the witch’s white hair, and she narrows her black eyes. The tension rises around us like floodwaters, and I raise my sword.

“Selene.” Taylor hurriedly steps to my side. “I apologize for calling you creepy.”

The witch’s white eyebrows twitch, and I get a glimpse of what she could have been had she not fallen into the twisted evil of the Spires. Witches like her were once fae, but they followed the call of the dark and wound up changed by the mysterious forces that inhabit the Wasted Lands.

“Apologize to me?” Selene peers at Taylor as if she’s confusing and entrancing all at once. “No one has ever apologized to Selene.” She taps her chin. “Begged? Yes. Demanded? Yes. Cursed? Certainly.” She cackles. “But apologized? No.” She points one long finger at Taylor. “You are a special one, and not only because you were foretold.”

I want to ask her what she means, but I can’t. Making another deal with a loathsome creature like her would end badly.

“Well, I mean it.” Taylor shrugs, innocence in every move she makes. “I don’t know what’s happened to you or anything about you really. And you were forced to come after us. So, I can’t blame you for it.”

“Yes, yes. All true. Wise one, you are.” The witch nods furiously.

“Little one.” I lean down and kiss the crown of Taylor’s head. “You are new to this world, and your heart is purer than anything I’ve ever beheld. But an Obsidian witch is nothing to pity. Selene has likely shed more innocent blood than you can even imagine.”

She meets my eye, her blue ones sparkling even under the night sky. “You’re right. I don’t belong here.”

I wince and want to tell her she belongs here with me, always, but she continues, “And Selene has said some things that make me—” She swallows hard. “Uncomfortable, to say the least. But I don’t know what she’s been through or why she’s like this. So, I’m going to reserve judgment.”

“You don’t understand. Your heart is too pure for—”

“You don’t know me, Leander.” She straightens her back. “You don’t know anything about me. However pure you think I am, I can assure you that’s not the case.”

Her sharp tone cuts me to the quick. “I know you.” I take her hand and place it over my heart. “I know you as the other half of my soul. And one day, I hope to know every minute detail about you. When we’re settled in the winter realm, I’ll happily spend all my time learning you.” I hold my tongue before I say I hope all of that time is spent in bed.

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