Excerpt|Seed Among the Thorns|Chapter 1-3

PROLOGUE

The Contract of Bondage

Pearson-Copeland

Josephine,

You were always the reckless child. The one who refused to obey rules and understand the importance of our duty and yet I never dreamed that you would turn your back on your family and side with the very demons that we were trying to protect the world from. You will never be able to fathom the pain that I have endured at the hands of Adam Copeland. I shudder as I write this letter to think of all the innocent blood on my hands. You are not the only one who can do dark magic, sister. I have been planning this for a long while. I can no longer live with the death caused by my own hand so I have devised a new plan. You want so badly to spend an eternity with your love, so be it. I hope you enjoy being his slave and for his resentment of you to grow stronger with each passing day. The following are the terms of my spell which cannot be undone. The Pearsons are now PROTECTORS of the demonic secret in the Copeland clan.

Rules of the Bond:

  1. A Pearson will be bound to a Copeland once the Pearson turns 14 years of age.
  2. The Pearson magic will be used to protect the Copelands from themselves and also the world from the Copelands.
  3. Pearsons and Copelands cannot procreate.
  4. The bond will limit the demonic power of the Copelands.

This is a punishment, my dear sister, for your betrayal to your family. We will fulfill our duty, no matter what. You will spend anytime you have left without the one thing you always wanted. You will never have his child. You will never escape from him. You will never be happy. With this bond, hopefully this curse will end with us, so that no one else will have to know this pain.

Rest easy, sister. I know I will.

Your loving sister,

Beth

“Remember your covenant promises, for the land is full of darkness and violence!”

Psalms 74:20 (NLT)

1

EMBER

Present Day: June 2

I have never murdered anyone before, but today seems like a pretty good day to start, I guess. No one will miss her, least of all me.

What is there to miss, anyway?

The way she looks at me like I’m the most disgusting thing to ever crawl out of her body? The way she’s so eager to sell me like a cheap whore to be the Protector of Damien Copeland? Should I miss how she’s never once told me she loved me… And even if she did, I’d never believe her. Or maybe I should miss the brutal hours of magical witch training as she prepares me to be the good little sheep whose shepherd is a demon.

No, this is it. I’m done.

I drop down to my knees. The splintering wood pricks the skin of my bare kneecaps, but I ignore it. My hands grip the front of my dark purple shorts as I steady try to slow down my breathing.

Suck in, blow out. Suck in, blow out.

Remembering to breathe is not always such a natural response, especially not when young teenage girls decide to kill their mothers. Oh, and two men too. Can’t forget the Copelands.

Slowly, I shake my head. I never wanted it to come to this, but what choice do I have now? Cornelius didn’t come for me and tonight’s the night of the Ceremony. After today, there is no escape. I’d be trapped forever, bending to the will of a monster.

My head snaps up in attention when I hear a slow, careful footstep knock against the floorboards over my head. Small bits of dust and dirt fall over me like snowflakes as Mama walks across the floor upstairs. A tiny smile begins to tug at the corners of my mouth.

Only Mama can turn something like walking into a performance art. My eyes follow the sound of her steps and I can imagine her form perfectly. The way she folds her hands in front of her, the tiny little switch of her hips, her rhythmic, elegant strides, the way her Sapphire eyes can wound you more than any spell can…

“Pearson witches are to hold themselves to a more royal standard,” I whisper to myself. I cock my head to the right in an effort to continue following the path of Mama’s walk. A small burst of air spurts from my mouth as a try to hold back a laugh. “And I’m such a disgrace to my entire family, right Mama?”

She’s always so quick to remind me of my mutt status and how my dad wasn’t good enough. I’m always tempted to point out that despite his inadequacy she still had sex with him, but I always decide against it.

Mama’s footsteps begin to fade away and once again I’m left in the silence and the storm of my own head. I shut my eyes, tight, and breathe in deeply. The constant rhythm of my blood pounding in my throat is strangely comforting.

Even though it’s quiet, a low hum begins to fill the room. My entire body snaps backward as I look behind me, searching. Something, or someone, a presence is sitting in the room with me. Something I cannot see. But as I look around my tiny basement room everything looks normal.

There’s my dusty, lumpy mattress raised just inches from floor on several stacks of books. They once belonged to my dad, Cornelius, but Mama didn’t like his ideas much. In fear that I’d read the books and catch dad’s “dangerous” ideas, she spelled them shut and used them to hold up my bed.

My blankets are in a jumbled mess, hanging off the side of the mattress and onto the floor. A medium sized chest holds my clothes and sits at the foot of my bed. On the other wall is a tall lamp that looks like a lamppost from one of those old pictures. A spiraling staircase leading up is the only thing grand about my room.

I shift my weight from my knees to my butt and cross my legs in front of me, still looking around.

All of a sudden, a voice fills my ear.

“There’s another way…” It says.

I clamp my hands to my ears.

“No, Ember, no,” I say. “Clear your mind. It’s time for a clean slate. No repercussions. Easy, right?”

An exasperated cry fills the basement as my head comes crashing down on my legs. Since when is murdering a parent easy?

A slow moan escapes my mouth, growing louder with every twist of that sick, gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Mama’s dusty, old spell book and my newly crafted wand sitting on the floor beside me.

Sometimes I just want to break this stupid thing and run, but then I wake up. I’d be a complete idiot to break it. A dead idiot at that. I want to get out but in no way did I want to die. It’s pretty sad, actually. I barely know who I am anymore without magic, and running? I’ve had enough of that for one lifetime. Mama had spent my entire life hiding me in here and running from her family. Mama’s a Protector too, though she’s never admitted it to me, I know she hadn’t always wanted to be.

No, there will only be one final run.

I stretch out my hand over my wand. Without hesitation, the wand flies upward and into my open hand.

“I’m sorry, dad, but this is the only way out.”

I flip the spellbook over to the dog-eared page, tracing the words of the spell with my finger, mouthing it with my lips, careful not to speak aloud. Everything has to happen at the right time. Just when Mama thinks she’s about to sign my life away, I’ll end hers.

Another tiny jolt. Steady. Dark ink spots on a page make it seem so easy, but magic is much more than chanting words. Even after two years of rigorous training for the Ceremony I haven’t even come close to using this level of magic. My odds can’t be too bad. Mama keeps going on and on about how ‘remarkable’ my power is, and I know she’s not saying it to boost my self-esteem, so it must be true.

I look over to the clock on the wall opposite me. 11:30 already. I stand up, picking up the spell book and wand as I go. Whatever happens tonight, at least I’ll finally be out of this basement. I take a moment to look around my room again. The smell of dirt, sewage, and mold has almost fused to my nose. Half of the time I’m not sure if it’s me that smells or if it’s just the basement. Not that it matters. I’m the only one down here to wallow in my den of stench.

The floor creaks and aches under my weight as I walk over to the chest at the foot of my bed. I unlatch the lock, shoving my shoulder into the lid to help push it up. I stare at the dress lying on top. All things considered, it’s a pretty dress. Bright red with splashes of oranges and burnt yellows, short sleeves, and made of some kind of silk I think. The colors are my favorite part and remind me so much of my name, Ember.

I pick up the dress and throw it over my other arm, looking at the clock again. 11:37. I have to hurry. I rush over to the staircase and slip on my shoes, my footsteps echoing as I bound up the stairs, taking them two at a time.

I juggle all the stuff in my hands and jimmy the door open with my elbow. I gasp when I bump into Mama.

“Mama! I thought you’d be with Herman…getting Damien ready for the Ceremony.”

“I’m meeting them soon,” she says. “I just wanted to make sure you were ready; we can’t waste time.”

“I know, Mama,” I say quickly. I shift my weight, balancing the spellbook on my hip.

“You don’t seem excited, dear.”

My teeth clench instantly and I swallow hard. I look up at Mama in a cold, dead glare. Damn those eyes! Always so fierce and daggering, tingeing constantly from blue to green. Our hair is the only feature that Mama and I share. Dark black and full. Her’s flowing more elegantly, mine a matted mess of kink and curl. Her skin is a pale almost milky white, while mine is closer to copper. I have Cornelius…dad, to thank for both, and I do thank him. It makes me different from Mama, and being less like Mama will forever be a good thing.

“Was Jesus excited when he went to the cross,” I spat.

The little bit of color she has, drains from Mama’s face. Her hand shoots up instantly to hit me but I don’t flinch. Mama hesitates, her hand shaking and hovering there in the air.

“What did I tell you about speaking that name?”

“Dad believed in him…” I say in a small voice.

“Cornelius was a fool. I told you that book is dangerous…”

“I haven’t been reading the book! You burned it, remember?”

“For good reason too! Your duty, your destiny is to be a Protector Ember, a queen of the most powerful witch coven. The Pearsons and the Copelands…”

“I know, Mama,” I interrupt. “Family history and all that, I get it.” I swallow the lump in my throat, looking down at the floor as I speak. “But what about me? Huh? Your daughter, remember. What about what I want?”

“What you want doesn’t matter,” says Mama. “Cornelius was never coming for you. You will participate in the Ceremony and you will accept your fate, just as I have.”

I bite my bottom lip to keep from crying in front of Mama.

“Go follow my instructions. The Copelands and I will meet you at the Ceremonial Site.”

Mama brushes past me and walks out of the door, closing it briskly behind her.

I suck in a short breath and watch Mama as she passes the window and disappears into the trees down the path toward the wood and Copeland house. Readjusting the mess of stuff in my arms I follow Mama’s path out of the door.

The night air is so calm out here that it startles me and I freeze. It’s creepily calm. The sky is painted beautifully like a portrait with billions of stars and a bright full moon almost directly overhead. Our view is magically induced of course. While we live right next to the city, Mama doesn’t want us to be apart of it. The gentle hum of the cars in the city is barely heard even though our house is only about two miles from it. The trees aren’t even moving. No gentle breeze. No crickets or those super loud cicadas. Nothing! And yet the stillness is still so loud. I can feel a dull buzzing begin to fill my ears.

This isn’t a good sign.

It’s as if the entire Earth is holding her breath for tonight’s event when I would be sold into some sort of present day slavery.

I walk down the porch stairs and into the woods and pause when I reach the border where our house is cloaked. I had never been past it. What is it going to feel like when I step over?

I take one giant step over the invisible line. A tiny wave of energy, sort of like stepping into rushing water or through a waterfall, washes over my leg and then my whole body. The feeling vanishes the second I am past our barrier.

The path into the wood eventually leads to the Copeland house, and just outside of the Copeland house—or should I call it my house now—is a clearing. Mama had set up most of the materials for the Ceremony. All I have to do is deliver the spell book.

In the center of the round of forest trees, Mama put a small round table, only big enough to kneel around. I look over the table and see the Pearson dagger lying on the graven wooden image of our family crest. I drop to my knees, setting my dress and the spell book on the ground next to me. It’s not very big. Only about the size of a banana. Its handle is made of animal skins and in the glowing moonlight the various stains of my family history is visible.

The blade is curved into a point and ivory white like the tusk of an elephant. Mama had told me that the dagger was formed over 300 years ago and that every spell that it had ever been used in is locked away in its blade, including the one that bound the Pearson family to the Copeland family.

My eyes dart from side to side as my hand hovers in the air over the dagger. I had only seen the dagger a few times before and each time it gave me nightmares.

This time, I want to touch it. To hold it in my hand and feel all the power that is locked away inside. I pick up the dagger.

A pulse radiates from the blade into my hand making me jump back. Unrecognizable images flash past my eyes and a high pitch scream starts to resonate. With some difficulty, I wrench the dagger from my hand and fling it down on the table. I grope behind me for the spell book, placing it on the table after taking out the sheet of Mama’s instructions. 

: Pearson-Copeland Ceremony of Bondage: Ember’s Instructions 

  1. Hot Spring—use the following spell to bathe yourself in the hot spring. It will create a special serum that is necessary for the Ceremony. Submerge yourself completely…

I fold the sheet of paper and shove it in my pocket. I think I get the gist of it. Bubble bath. Got it. I take off at a run toward the hot spring. I’ve wasted too much time already.

When I reach the hot spring I hang my dress on a wooden stake. I hold the tip of my wand close to the surface of the water.

E sombe shei teah neic,” I whisper.

A blue stream of liquid flows from my wand and into the spring. A scent mixed with the smell of sewage and expired milk and eggs rises through the air burning my throat and making me cough.

I slip off my clothes and slowly get into the hot spring. The temperature of the water is fantastic, but the foulness of the odor makes the hairs inside my nose feel like they are on fire. It’s even worse than the sewage smell from my room. I wince in pain as the serum pricks my skin.

Taking in a deep breath, I go under the water in order to submerge myself like Mama said. I wipe the water from my nose and eyes as I resurface.  I suck in deeply, filling my lungs with air once again. The smell of the serum has changed so I assume that means the “cleansing” has taken effect.

“I didn’t think you’d actually adhere to my instructions,” says a voice.

I open my eyes, blinking ferociously trying to see past the water. Mama is standing at the base of the hot spring, but she’s not alone. Herman Copeland is standing in front of her with a young boy, who I assume to be Damien, standing at his side, wide eyed and dopey looking.

“Aren’t you ready yet?” says Herman.

I should have screamed, covered myself, and told them to go away! I’m naked! But modesty isn’t really my thing.

“Pleasure to see you again too, Herman,” I say.

I force a smile then turn my attention to the young boy who is still staring at me, but at the same time trying not to stare. He really looks like an idiot. Being bound to him for eternity? No thank you, ancient Pearson’s.

“I guess this is Damien?”

Damien jerks a little when I say his name. He nods. I nod back. Damien flings his head back swinging his carefree, wispy black locks out of his eyes.

He doesn’t look much like his dad, Herman. Damien is much taller. Well not much taller, but to be only sixteen standing next to a grown man, he’s much taller. Herman’s hair is also a dirty sandy blond while Damien’s is dark brown almost black. His eyebrows are thick and heavy adding weight and sadness to his face.

“Uhh, Dad, maybe we should go wait somewhere else and give her some privacy,” says Damien.

His hands are shoved in his pockets as he rocks back and forth on his heels. I look at him curiously, slightly taken by surprise of his embarrassment and pseudo-consideration. Before Herman can answer him, Mama speaks.

“Ember darling, we really are on a bit of a schedule. It’s almost midnight.”

My heart jolts and my head snaps to face her as she cooed darling at me. What charade is she trying to pull? That she’s a decent person? Who is she trying to act for? I cut a hatred filled glare at Mama.

“Of course Mama,” I say. I try to sound as sweet as I can, but everything inside of me wants to lash out.

I start to lift myself out of the hot spring. Damien backs away courteously, but Herman stays rooted in his spot. His gaze makes me feel uncomfortable, but it’s like I’m in a haze, on a murderous high, that I don’t care about his dirty minded looks because I’m ready to end his life.

“Dad, seriously,” says Damien.

I can hear in his voice how uncomfortable he is as I stand in front of them both, stark naked and dripping wet.

“I’m…sorry Ember.” he starts. I raise up a hand to hush him.

“No need Damien. I’m just a prop, right Herman?” I take a towel from Mama and began drying off as I speak. “My body, my life, my freedom has no inherent meaning so therefore, your couth is simply wasted on me.”

Mama hisses a low snarling Ember at me, but I continue. I slip on my underwear and grab my ceremonial dress off of the post and pull it over my head. I lean into Herman.

“Less than human, right?”

Herman locks his gaze onto mine and brings his face just inches from mine. I can see every line, every year of his miserable life written on that God awful face. His skin is covered in tiny scars and small craters. From what, I’m not sure.

“Correct,” he says. “You’re worthless and you should be on your knees, your face buried in the dirt, thanking my son for giving you the only hint of value you will ever have.”

My face becomes rigid. Herman’s face lingers there, smiling ever so slightly. I swallow the lump in my throat, the lump that contained all my hatred for this man and his family. Just breathe, Ember. Mama’s hands grab me from behind and pull my hair out of the way of the zipper.

“Well I guess we should get started then,” I say.

I snatch up my wand from the ground and head for the ceremonial site. Herman follows behind me, flanked by Damien and Mama. I try my best to control my breathing, but sprouting fangs and chomping on their necks until their heads pop off seems like an easier task.

My face is numb and my fist is clenched so tightly around my wand that I start to feel warm beads of blood stain my palms as my fingernails cut into it.

It’s like a wind that comes from inside of me. My anger and magic swirling like a tornado from the bottom of my feet to my head. It resonates and bubbles inside of me as the blood rushes to my extremities. I welcome the heat. The passion. The adrenaline.

It’s as if seeing Herman’s face triggered all my rage. He’s just as responsible as Mama is for my confinement. And the reason my dad isn’t with me…

I have to be ready.

It’s the only way. No turning back. Don’t think, just act.

I hear a rush of footsteps behind me and steal a look out of the corner of my eye. I see Damien.

What about him?

He’s never done anything to me…

Cut it out Ember! He wants to take your freedom away so you can be his puppet, his property. They deserve to die. All of them. What right did they have to live freely while I was being sold as a slave?

Arriving at the ceremonial site breaks me out of my thoughts. I stop abruptly. My breathing is still shallow and it hurts to find the right breathing rhythm. Mama wastes no time orchestrating out positions. She rushes past me quickly, a pace so unlike her usual ethereal stride.

“Herman, you sit here, Damien, you there. And Ember…”

Focus. You know the spell. You’ve been through it a million times.

“Ember,” says Mama more firmly. I turn to look at her. “You’re here, across from Damien.”

I struggle to make my legs obey me and kneel down on the pillow. I clutch the smooth marble table for support. It’s starting. Act now!

“Place your wand on the table Ember, next to your cup.”

I look up slowly at Mama and nod. My mouth is getting dry as it steadily gets harder to breathe. I lift my hand slowly. My wand is still clenched in my fist, the base stained with my blood.

Don’t let her take your wand! Act! You’re running out of time!

My own voice inside my head is so loud, I want it to stop. I want to kill them, so why am I just sitting here? I release my wand with some difficulty and withdraw my hand quickly to my lap so that they won’t see the blood. The Ceremony is beginning.

“Ember, Damien scoot close to the table and hold out your right hands,” says Mama.

I look up at Damien for the first time since we had gotten to the ceremonial site. The look on his face makes my stomach do flips. He’s smiling. He is literally bouncing up and down as he places his hand on the table. He’s excited about this…

“Ember…”

Mama’s voice brings me out of my trance once again. Hesitantly, I place my bloody hand in hers. She eyes my hand curiously and then looks back at me, picking up the Pearson dagger.

“I see you got a head start.”

I avoid her gaze, staring down at the table. The spell is right there on the edge of my lips. I know the words to say, but what if I’d gotten it wrong? In a few minutes the ceremony will be complete and I’ll be trapped forever, but it’s like I had suddenly forgotten how to speak or move or even breathe normally. My body chemistry is shifting, almost as if my body is fading, changing, and moving robotically to Mama’s directions.

“By the ancient powers that bind,” she starts. “Sambella du croquest.” Mama holds up the Pearson dagger. “The magic that exists in this dagger has existed for over three hundred years and will continue to exist forever. As the dagger pierces your skin that ancient magic will flood your body.” Mama pauses dramatically, looking at both of us in turn. “There will be pain. For everything in nature has a balance that you two are now part of.”

Damien’s eyes never leave Mama’s face as she speaks. I listen to her words as if I’m trying to pick up something extra, something hidden between the lines that can get me out. There has to be a loophole.

Ay cadda besh ot heh me-tuss gallom nei set.”

Mama speaks in the ancient language again as she brings the blade to Damien’s skin. The look in his eyes is wild and full of fear. His eyes shut tight and he lets out a painful cry as the blade runs through his skin and the magic invades his body. His other hand grips the table, teeth grit, as he tries not to cry out again.

Tears begin to form in his eyes, but he blinks them away. I try to prepare myself for the pain that is waiting for me. Mama moves Damien’s hand over to the mortar. She balls his hand into a fist and the blood drips down and collects in the mortar below. Mama, then turns to me and does the same. I brace myself for the flood. The blade pierces my skin. I could have closed my eyes, but I want to watch the blood emerge from my hand.

A sharp breath escape from behind my clenched teeth. I want to close my eyes when the images of past spells and sacrifices begin to play out in front of me in hyper speed. A loud pulse resonates in my ear and the wailing scream returns. My body begins to vibrate from the force of the magic transferred from the blade to me and I struggle to keep myself steady.

A hot prickling sensation starts in my hand and then travels slowly up my arm, into my chest and spreading outward. After what felt like hours, Mama balls my hand up just as she did Damien and drains my blood into the mortar.

I let out a small whimper the moment the initial pain dissipates, the visions leave and I can focus again. Mama adds both her and Herman’s blood into the bowl as well. She scoops up some dirt from the Earth adding it to the bowl. Mama opens both bottles and poured a drop of each into the mortar. She uses the pestle to grind up all the contents and then divides it between Damien and me in the two mugs.

“Your bond is a sacred and traditional one. The ancient magic will bind you together, the Pearson blood and power will protect you Damien, and Ember you give your life for the sake of balance.”

I swallow hard at her last statement.

“Pick up your cups.” We obey. Mama ties the scarf around both of our hands, then looks up at the moon. “The moon is at its apex and the Earth is appeased and approves of the bond. Place your cups close to your lips and repeat after me…”

This is it. It’s happening! In a matter of seconds, the Ceremony will be done and my life will be over. I have to do it now. I try to imagine the page of the spell book in my head and start to whisper the spell. “Veet eram…”  Mama’s head snaps over instantly in my direction.

“Ember, silence!”

Mey shomb teai quis…” The candlelight extinguishes at my spell and a low hum and vibration begins to reverberate from the Earth.

“Ember!”

From the pit of my stomach the magic begins to rise inside of me as the words give the magic its purpose. It’s working. I open my mouth to continue the spell, but a strong burst of wind whips me in the face. My head jerks backward. I try to gasp for breath, but nothing comes out. What feels like a hand grips at the inside of my throat and I choke. My body jolts forward and my eyes bulge. I try again to speak or even breathe. There’s nothing but my panicked gasps for air.

Mama’s hand closes around mine and steadies the cup in my hand. Images of Mama and the Copelands are starting to black out of my vision, but the magic is still there. I can’t give it up. I have to finish. Mama’s voice comes out in hot spurts on my ear.

“Ember, you have to release the spell!” I shake my head vigorously.

“I should have known she would ruin everything,” I heard Herman say. “Faith, fix it!”

“What’s she doing? What’s happening?” Damien yells, but I barely hear him over the wind that is still swirling around me, choking and deafening me.

“It was a valiant effort, my dear, but it’s too late,” she whispers.

A small whimper escapes my throat. Blackness. Shadows. More blackness. No! I can’t give it up. I can’t be a slave. I won’t.

“You can’t stop this,” says Mama. “If you don’t release the spell, you’ll kill yourself. Is that what you want?”

“Faith!”

“I can’t force her, Herman,” says Mama.

I struggle to focus long enough to push away the magic I stirred up. When I finally release the spell the air returns to my lungs all at once. I thrust forward, gasping for breath. The wind has left just as quickly as it had come.

“Now can we continue?”

Tears begin to gather in the back of my throat. I suck in a short breath as I try to hold back a sob. I failed…

“Repeat after me. By the ancient powers that bind…” My sweaty hands grip the table with difficulty as I try to sit up. I keep my head down so that Herman and Damien won’t see.

“By the ancient powers that bind,” says Damien and I in unison. Him with more vigor, me with more defeat.

“Ember Pearson is the sole Protector of Damien Copeland… It is to Damien alone, Ember’s servitude stands. To Damien is Ember’s life devoted to offer protection, loyalty, and guidance through the complete and eternal servitude through the course of our lives. And to Damien, does Ember obey—every—command…”

It is then that the tears begin to fall. My vision is clouded and my voice wavers.

“And by the ancient laws that bind…does Damien Copeland and Ember Pearson pledge loyalty.” We finish repeating Mama’s words. “Now drink the entire contents of the cup.”

Again, I obey. I tip back my head and drink the liquid that contains our blood. Something changes inside my body. The liquid is thick and coats my throat in a way that is just as suffocating as the mysterious wind had been.

My body flies backward involuntarily. Air is thrust out of my lungs when my back hits the ground. My stomach burns like alcohol inside an open wound. I wrap my arms around my stomach. A wet spot seeps through my dress and I struggle to lift my arm to see what it is. Blood is pouring from a cut on my wrist. I open my eyes. Damien is laying across from me in a similar position also holding his wrist, teeth clenched trying to hold back his cry.

As quickly as the pain came, it starts to disappear. My whole body is shaking. I release the tension in my neck and collapse it down onto the soft wet grass. I notice my breathing has slowed to a soft pant now. My right hand is still clutching my wrist.

I look down to see tiny streams of blood oozing through the cracks in my fingers. I wipe the blood on the grass to try and see what has been cut into my arm. Encircling my wrist is a line of chains with the letters “D” and “E” hanging from it. I look up and catch Damien’s eye and I can almost feel my heart stopping.

And then, the wind blows. Gently… The Earth finally releases the breath she had been holding the entire time.

The sick betrothal is done.

My dreams, my desires, my life is no longer mine…it’s his.

  

“Our ancestors sinned and are no more, and we bear their punishment.”

Lamentations 5:7 (NIV)

2

Damien

The muscles in my body twitch, giving me the green light that I’m in control once again. Thank god that this is finally over and done with. I wipe my throbbing, bloody arm on my pants, then bring my hand slowly to my face. The fresh scar on my wrist shines white around the carefully etched lines of blood. I rub my fingers over the outline of our initials.

This really just happened.

I almost forget that I’m lying on the ground. I turn my head over and look at Ember again. We both have the same identical expression of fear and unbelief. The only difference is that she looks so miserable while I’m so…psyched. At least I think I am. The look on Ember’s face makes me think that I should feel differently. I try to not look like a wuss in front of Ember so I ignore the searing pain that is still lingering in my hand where Faith had cut me and the scar that appeared out of nowhere.

I don’t want Ember to see me struggle. I grip the side of the table and use it to hoist myself up into a sitting position. My eyes follow dad as he jumps up to his feet.

“She almost destroyed everything we’ve worked for,” says dad.

Ember’s mom, Faith, just looks at him calmly and waves her wand to clear the table. I watch in awe as the items magically disappear.

Almost seems like the key word in that sentence, Herman. She knows her place now and our work can continue.”

“I thought you were training her!”

“She is trained. Ember’s level of magic is unmatched. I’ve taught her everything I know and more and as she grows as a Protector her magic will increase. What more do you want?”

“Respect for the Copeland clan!”

“Fat chance, you bastard,” says Ember from the ground. I look over at her again. Her jet black hair is frizzy and matted looking from the water and her rolling around on the ground. Her face is set in a hard stone line and her deep brown eyes are narrowed.

I hear a low growl resonating from behind me. When I look back at dad, the look on his face is even scary to me, but Ember isn’t even phased.

“Stop it,” says Faith. “We’re on the same side now, so I’d appreciate it if you two wouldn’t argue every five minutes!”

The look on dad’s face softens a little bit when he looks at me. He walks over and holds out his hand. Hesitantly, I take it and he pulls me to my feet. He doesn’t let go but instead clamps his other hand at the back of my elbow, holding me there.

“It’s so good to have you back, son,” says dad, in a soft voice. I look at him curiously. I didn’t think that dad had spent anytime missing me. After what happened to Ma, it was his idea to send me away in the first place.

“Thanks,” I say.

“This is only the beginning. You’re now a part of the Copeland secret and I need you to trust me completely.”

Trust him completely? Fat chance, but instead I just nod.

“Well, why don’t we give our kids some time to get acquainted? I suggest you spend some time learning about each other and exploring your bond,” says Faith. “The Copeland-Pearson bond is a complex one.”

“When are you going to tell us what happens next?” I ask. Faith smiles.

“All in time, Damien. Trust, remember?” Faith turns her attention to Ember. “Play nice, my sweet.”

Faith saunters over to dad and places her hand on his arm, steering him away from the clearing, down the path and toward our house. I watch them go, unable to think of anything else to say.

I take in a deep breath and place my hands in my pockets. I didn’t come back for games. Dad promised me that this bond would save Ma and me, though putting complete trust in my dad still doesn’t seem like a good idea. I turn around and look at Ember. She still has this stern, awful look on her face.

“Do you have to look so miserable?” Embers head snaps up. The line of her jaw tightens as she holds my stare.

“Sorry if my face inconveniences you,” she says.

I can’t help but laugh, causing Ember’s tension to grow. I see the blood rush to her face giving her tan skin a beautiful looking glow.

“Trust me, your face is fine, but your attitude is a little less than pleasant,” I say.

I look down at the table and notice Ember’s wand. I reach down to pick it up but Ember lunges at me. I get to the wand first and lurch backward, stumbling over my feet, trying to keep my balance.

“Easy! What’s your problem?”

“Give it back,” she says quickly, scrambling to her feet. There’s a panic in her voice.

“Relax, I’m not going to break it, I just want to look at it.”

I twirl the wand around in my fingers. It’s long and thin with almost no weight to it at all. I don’t see what all the fuss is about. It’s not even good craftsmanship. I can almost get splinters just looking at the thing.

“So this is what I’ve been waiting for to break my family’s curse?” When Ember doesn’t answer me, I look at her. “So how are you going to do it?”

“Do what?”

“Break the curse.”

“What curse?”

The curse!”

“I have no idea what you’re even talking about! Just give me my wand back. Please,” she adds as an afterthought.

What is she playing at? Is she trying to make me angry or is she really just an idiot? Ember shakes her hand at me, gesturing at her wand. She can have it back when I’m done.

“So now I’m curious,” I say. “If you know nothing about the curse what did Faith tell you about our bond?”

“Not a lot,” says Ember. “She said that a lot of the information was classified until after the ceremony. She said that I wouldn’t understand otherwise. All that I know is that on every Pearson’s fourteenth birthday they are bound to a Copeland to become a Protector of some ancient secret.”

I let out a small sound of acknowledgement. She’s just as lost as I am.

“So if I hold this the right way,” I say, flinging the wand like a sword, “and speak that junk Faith was saying, will I be able to do magic?”

“Of course not,” says Ember. “The magic comes from the witch. The wand is just used to concentrate our magic.”

“So you can do magic without it?” Ember groans and folds her arms in a huff like a little girl.

“Yes, can I have it back now?”

“If you can do magic without it, why do you want it back so badly? Hell, why do you even need it?”

“Because it’s safer.” I wave her wand at her, motioning her to go on. “Magic is dangerous and powerful. A witch is born with a certain level of power, or how much magic they’re physically able to push through their body.”

“But I thought it came out of this thing?”

“It does,” she says quickly. “But it’s just a tool. If too much magic goes through a witch’s body it can kill them,” she pauses. I follow her eyes as she looks down at the table, then back at me. “Case and point, we’re both still alive…”

I chuckle.

“The wand makes it so that the magic comes through the wood, a piece of the Earth where the magic first came from.”

“Interesting,” I say. I flop down on the pillow, still holding Ember’s wand. I start at the top of her head and bring my eyes all the way down. She hadn’t been this nervous when she was standing in front of us naked, but now she looked like a frightened rat trapped in a corner.

“What are you staring at?” A smile slowly spreads across my face and I put my head down trying to hide my face.

“Nothing,” I say. “So, you’re not even doing any magic right now, so why do you want the wand so badly.”

“Everything is a sacrifice,” she says. “Our lifelines our linked to our wands. If we want a safer way to use our magic, we have to give away a part of ourselves.”

“So I literally hold your life in my hands?”

Ember sighs.

“Unfortunately in more ways than one,” she says.

I hear the grass ruffle swiftly and look up to see Ember almost barreling down on me. I push my legs on the ground and roll over backward.

“Stop!” I say, holding up my hand. I didn’t expect her to stop but Ember’s body snaps to an abrupt halt, shocking her as well as me. I stand staring at her with my mouth hanging open.

“What’s happening? I can’t move!”

“Freaky,” I whisper. I get up on my feet, dusting the dirt and leaves off of my shirt. I walk around Ember in circles. She doesn’t move an inch. Only her eyes move as she tries to follow my path around her.

“What did you do?

I stop in front of her.

“Directly, I didn’t do anything.”

I look down at the empty table again.

“The bond?”

I nod.

“I didn’t think it’d work like this, but it’s pretty cool, right?” I say, smiling at her. “But that might be enough fun for now, we do have work to get to, so you’re free to move now.”

The rigidness in Embers body leaves and she regains control. The line of her jaw is set tight and her eyes look almost as if she’s going to cry. But just knowing her for these, oh, ten minutes, I know better than that. I hand back her wand.

“What the hell was that?”

“Like you said, it’s the bond. It wasn’t that long ago, you know.”

“Ugh! You are such a bastard! I’m not doing anything for you. And whatever curse you’re talking about, I hope it kills you, just like I should have.”

Ember pushes past me and starts to walk toward the wood. I grab her arm and pull her back. Ember points her wand directly in my face and mutters a spell. I flinch, waiting for the blow, but nothing comes.

“What?” says Ember.

“Looks like you can’t use your magic against me,” I say, tightening my grip on her arm. “That’s good to know.”

“Let go of me!”

“Ember, I know that you’re upset, but we’ve got to make the best of this.”

“Make the best of it? I’m the one who’s a prisoner, not you!”

“Neither of us had a choice in this, okay? We don’t even really know what this is.”

Ember yanks her arm from my grip.

“Neither of us? You could let me go! Release me! If you have the power to control me, you should have the power to set me free.”

“I don’t,” I say sadly. “I wish I did, but I don’t.”

“How do you know? You just said that we don’t even know what this is, so how do you know you can’t set me free?”

“Honestly,” I say. “I don’t know that, but even if I did I wouldn’t set you free.”

“Of course not,” says Ember. She starts to storm off again but I run in front of her and block her path.

“Just listen! I wouldn’t set you free because I need you right now, Ember.”

“Why? To do your bidding?”

“To save my mother,” I say. I pause for a moment, an itch in my throat, making it dry. “And me.”

“And what if I can’t?”

“That’s not an option,” I say. Ember relaxes a bit.

“What is the curse?”

“I’ll show you,” I say.

“How?”

“Follow me.”

Ember’s body snaps to my direction again making her involuntarily collide into me. I place my hands on her shoulders to steady her. Her face turns red again and she adverts her eyes from mine.

I know Ember is miserable, but I still can’t help but feel juiced. Finally, I’m a part of the secret. It’s not a glamorous secret or anything. It’s a curse… but none of that matters anymore. I finally have my Protector, and she’s the key to releasing my family from the curse. Things will finally be normal. The sound of crushing leaves and no conversation is starting to get to me, so I slow my stride so that I’m in toe with her.

“Uhh, so we’ve never been properly introduced. I’m Damien Copeland.”

I hold out my hand to her.

“Would it be too much to ask for you not to touch me?”

“Ouch,” I say, laughing.

“I can’t believe I felt sorry for you,” says Ember. “I should have just kept the spell going.”

“Yeah, what was up with that?”

“I want my freedom,” she says. “But it’s too late for that now, so let’s drop it.”

“Hey.” I grab Ember by her elbow to stop her. “I’m sorry, okay? I’m sorry that you had to do this. I’m sorry that your spell to kill me didn’t work.” Surprisingly, Ember forces herself to hold back a smile. “But, it doesn’t change the fact that I needed this thing to work,” I say holding up my blood stained, still excruciatingly painful hand. “I need this to work.”

I extend my hand to her again.

“Like you said, it’s too late. We’re stuck together for a while, so I’d really appreciate it if it wasn’t complete misery. Now, I’m Damien Copeland.”

She eyes my hand for a while before she takes it.

“Ember Pearson, and as for the misery, sorry but I can’t make any promises.” I smile at her and shake her hand, before she yanks it out of my grip again.

“Fine,” I say. “I’ll take what I can get for now. Come on.”

We continue to walk through the woods and up to the house. My pace slows. I cock my head up to see the house in full scale. The house is tall and large, made of red brick. All of a sudden a haunting feeling comes over me. The attic window bars… It’s been seven years since I’ve been home but I still feel my hands growing hotter. The stinging pain from the gaping wound in my hand being over powered by the massive amounts of sweat pouring from my palms. I swallow hard, trying to coat my dry throat with some type of moisture.

“What’s wrong with you?”

I blink furiously, and look down at Ember. She looks from me to the house and back again.

“Nothing,” I choke out. She lets out a small breath.

“You’re afraid,” she says.

“I’m not afraid.”

“Could’ve fooled me.”

I clench my fists and look away from the attic window. It’ll be different now. The curse will be broken soon. Without saying anything more, I lead Ember up the porch stairs and into the house.

Walking quickly through the living room and the den we get to the kitchen. My body freezes when we get to the door to the attic.

“So, are we going up or what?”

“Come on, and close that door behind you.”

Ember and I creep up the stairs. The house creaks and aches under our weight as we go up the spiraling case.

When we reach the top of the staircase I come face to face with my past. My hand trembles as I reach into my pocket and pull out a small thin key. I unlock the door and push it open. The soft sound of her breathing comes from inside the pitch blackness.

“Would it be too much to ask for a little light?”

Ember takes out her wand and lights the tip of it with a spell. Seeing Embers face glow in the light of the wand makes me pause briefly just to stare at her. I hadn’t noticed before but her eyes are dark like a mix of dark browns and greens. Small dark circles are heavy under her eyes and her face looks worn. I look away quickly when Ember notices me staring.

“What?”

“Nothing,” I say. I push past Ember and walk into the room. Ember follows me, keeping her light shone over our heads to light our path. The floorboards are caked with a thick layer of dust and the smell of must, urine, and feces is almost thicker than the dust. It makes my stomach churn as we walk further into the room. In the center of the room is the bed. My breath escapes from my lungs all at once when I see her lying there.

I blow a breath out of my puffed cheeks. Ember walks around to the other side of the bed, examining Ma’s body with the light of her wand.

“What’s wrong with her?” I can’t take my eyes off of Ma’s convulsing and pulsating body. Her skin is nearly translucent and covered in spots of dark browns, greens, and blues. My chest rises and falls in heaves.

“Damien,” says Ember.

“Sorry,” I say. I force myself to look away from my mom and at Ember. “It’s just…been awhile since I’ve seen her.”

“Was she like this the last time you saw her?”

“No,” I say, shaking my head. “She was bad, but not like this. This—this is hard to look at.”

“So what’s the curse?”

“It’s an infection, magical I guess, that has been implanted into the Copeland bloodline over a century ago.”

Ember props her wand up in the drawer on the nightstand and kneels down beside the bed. Her hand hovers over my mom’s face.

“Don’t,” I say.  Ember flinches and withdraws her hand.

I walk over to the bed and pull the cover from from the foot of the bed all the way up to her neck. I can’t stand looking at her anymore.

“At the end of its course, this is what you look like. Writhing in pain, manic bouts of hallucinations and delirium, a thirst and a desire to kill… It’s the same curse that has been breeding inside of me since I was born.”

“How long has she been like this?”

“As long as I’ve been alive,” I say. “And it’s my fault.”

“How is it your fault?” I shrug my shoulders.

“I guess when she was pregnant with me, the curse spread to her.”

“Damien, I don’t know if I can help her, or you,” says Ember.

I rush around to the other side of the bed, clamping my hand down on Ember’s shoulder.

“No, Ember, no! I can’t accept that; you have to help. This has to work.”

Ember tries to push my hand away, but I don’t let up.

“I can literally feel the amount of magic coming off of her, a century of intense power that’s way more complicated than anything I’ve learned in Mama’s stupid spell book! I’m not strong enough, I didn’t even have enough strength to do the spell I tried earlier.”

“Or do you just not want to be?” I whisper. I release Ember’s shoulder roughly and walk away from her, pacing the floor. Ember jumps to her feet.

“Well excuse me if I don’t want to jump at the chance to un-hex some dangerous, ancient, impossible spell just to save you!”

“Have you always been this selfish?” Ember doesn’t answer me. Instead she just stares. “Seriously, I mean have you ever cared about anyone but yourself?” More silence. “You think I’m the bastard, but at least I’m trying to save someone other than myself.”

I sit down on the edge of Ma’s bed and look down at her. I brush a strand of hair out of her face. I rub my hand on my pants to get rid of the dirt and grease from mom’s hair. The bed creaks when Ember sits down next to me.

“Look,” she says. “Self-preservation is all I know. That wand has held my life for four years and now—you do.” I sigh and cover Ma back up with the blanket. I turn around to face Ember.

“Well then, I’m going to make you a promise. From now on, you won’t be the only one looking out for you.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that I can protect you,” I say. “And if you do this for me, without everyday being a fight, I’ll promise you that you’ll be free.”

“You can’t promise that,” says Ember.

“I just did.”

Ember shakes her head back and forth looking at me in disbelief.

“You’re a Pearson and I’m a Copeland. Technically, we were made for this. I know it’ll take time, but I have faith in you.”

“You know nothing about me, how can you put your faith in me?”

“I don’t really have another option,” I say, laughing.

“And Herman? What about him?”

“What about him?”

“He’s cursed too, right? Why don’t you ever mention him, or is he not good enough?”

I struggle to hide my nervous laugh. I look away from Ember and stare at the light still coming from the wand over by the table.

“Looks like someone isn’t as selfless as he seems,” says Ember.

“My dad and I…our relationship is complicated.”

“I get complicated, but what does he get out of our bond? And Mama. She’s a Pearson too. Why couldn’t she cure your families curse?”

“To be honest, I don’t think that’s what they want,” I answer.

“You think they have another motive?”

“I don’t know, Ember, but, I don’t care. She is what I want. My family.”

A spaced out, faraway look comes over Ember’s face.

“The spell that I tried to do was for my dad,” she says in a low voice. “Well, sort of. He promised me that he’d come back for me before tonight and when he didn’t I guess I sort of panicked…”

“Well you’re definitely pretty ballsy. Not many people can contemplate and successfully attempt semi-mass murder. Especially with one of their own parents being one of the victims,” I say.

“I tried to kill you and you’re making jokes?”

“Can’t say that I’m not happy that it didn’t work, but why dwell on it? Ember, you can’t live in what you wished would have happened. There’s only what is.”

“Thanks for the advice,” she says.

Ember walks back around to the other side of her bed to get her wand.

“Wait,” I say, following her. “We have to settle this.”

“Fine,” she says sternly. I watch her shift her weight back and forth between her feet. She locks her gaze onto mine. “I’ll help you.” A wide smile spreads across my face.

“What made you change your mind?” Ember shrugs her shoulders.

“I don’t know,” she says. “I guess it was just seeing you with your mom. And…I want to ask for something in return.”

“Name it.”

“A parent for a parent. I want to know what happened to my dad and I want my freedom once she’s safe.”

I fold my arms across my chest, shaking my head. Forever stubborn, this one.

“Em, what are you hoping to find?”

“Answers,” she snaps. “I think I deserve some.”

“Fine. You have a deal,” I say. “You won’t have to be alone anymore. I’ll find a way for you to be free again and we’ll find your dad.”

I hold out my hand to her again.

“But I won’t save Herman. Just you and your mom.” I laugh again.

“You still have a deal,” I say with a tiny bow of the head.

This time she takes it without hesitation and we seal our barter with a handshake.

“So, as the Holy Spirit says; “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the wilderness”

Hebrews 3:7-8 (NIV)

3

EMBER

Beat normally, you stupid heart! Pick a rhythm! I struggle to keep a firm grip on the railing as I leave the attic and walk down the stairs. My knees wobble as I walk, my hands slip, only fingering the smooth rail, having lost all traction.

Right, left, right, left. Take it slow. I try to focus on not tumbling less than gracefully down the stairs. The last thing I want is for Damien to come running and see me sprawled out at the bottom of the staircase.

Less than an hour ago I was on my way to finally becoming independent, and now I had made a deal with Damien that included his protection? The way things change so drastically is mind numbing. I had underestimated the power of the magic in the ceremony and it had almost killed me. Only now, I’m not the only one slowly dying. I still hate Damien. I have to hate him. I can’t forget my true desire, no matter how charming and slightly attractive he is.

I let out a breath having finally reached the last stair. I follow our previous path through the kitchen and out the front door to the outside world. The cool night air sets my face on fire and I feel a sudden wave of energy come flowing through my body. So I do the only thing that makes sense…

I run.

My body jerks to life and a syncopated rhythm of my feet pounding against the ground floods my ear. The sound of the wind whistling past and the trees whizzing in and out of my line of vision fill me with the desire to run faster.

So I pump harder. I can’t help but marvel at the way my brain sends out its commands to the rest of my body.

Turn right. Jump. Dodge. Faster…

And my body obeys.

Maybe this can be real. Maybe it’s not too late and I can actually break free. If I just keep running.

The silhouette of the city skyline comes into focus on the horizon. I don’t know why really, but I feel like, if I can make it to the city, I can run away from all of this.

All of a sudden, like an arrow that had just been released, I spring backward by an invisible force. It hooks itself onto the base of my stomach and lifts me into the air, yanking me backwards.

Flashes of trees, dark green and brown rush swiftly past me in a blur. A small scream escapes my throat as my back and head connect with the trunk of a large tree. The force of the impact pushes all the air out of my body.

Slowly, I become a slave to gravity and slide down the base of the trunk and land on the soft wet grass. The bark of the tree scrapes the back of my head as my dark black hair becomes entangled in its lines. I reach up to free the tangled mess from the tree. I think I manage to save most of it. The rest will just have to be birds nest supplies.

The air seems to be taking its sweet time to come back into my lungs. My chest rises and falls sporadically and a knotting cramp forms in my side. I really can’t leave. Tears try to overtake me, but I won’t let them. Tears and regret aren’t an option either.

“You said, you’d save me,” I whisper, only, there is no one around to hear. “I don’t think I can keep waiting.

It scares me a little to hear how my voice cracks. What is happening to me? When did I become such a big baby? Finally, the pain is beginning to leave and I start to breathe normally. I pull down my dress and bring my knees up toward my chest, resting my chin on them. Maybe I’m just a fool for thinking that my dad—Cornelius, will ever come back for me. Cornelius.

I let my tongue linger over the name. He just doesn’t feel like my dad anymore. Calling him Cornelius seems like the thing only appropriate. Unless I’m ready to stop thinking of him all together. Which, honestly, I’m nowhere near ready to do.

I hold up my wand. I shouldn’t do it. I should just let it go. Get up and go back to the house. Just accept your fate, Ember.

But I can’t. I take in a deep breath and say the spell.

The tip of my wand glows, and in a swirl of aqua blue light, it materializes and I am face to face with the very essence of da—Cornelius.

It’s a book. His book, or, I guess it’s mine since he gave it to me. The gentle weight on my legs is strangely comforting. I put down my wand and pick up the book, turning it over in my hands. I trace my fingers along the tarnished and blackened cover. I can’t even make out the title anymore, but it’s not like I’d forgotten the name…it’s the Bible.

My charming Mama had thrown it into the fire when I was eight and she caught me reading it. A book of lies, she called it. It was that day I gave up any hope of Cornelius coming back for me. I managed to get it out of the fire in time to save it, sort of. Since most of the pages were burned, Mama decided to let me keep it.

Carefully, so as not to stress the pages too much, I open the book to the first page. Cornelius had written a message for me, but all that I can make out now is the words Sweet Bird, that’s what he used to call me, and ‘there is freedom’. I scoff at the last part.

“There is freedom?” I say. “No wonder Mama called this a book of lies.”

I look up at the lights of the city again. It taunts me, but I can’t help but smile at its beauty. The lines and shapes of the tall buildings and highway bridges filled with the sounds of rushing car engines and horns. It’s almost mesmerizing. I sit there and I wonder about what normal people have to deal with. What binds them? If anything.

I feel the desire to crush the book and watch its doomed pages fall apart and onto the Earth that holds my life in her hands. But I can’t…  I can’t bring myself to disappoint Cornelius in another way.

A sudden wind blows, ruffling my hair and sticking sweaty, dirty locks to my face. A warm hum comes over my body and my skin pulsates.

I turn and look around me, curious about the sudden change in temperature. At first, I think it’s my magic flowing through me, but I quickly see that it’s not coming from me at all. Faintly, I hear a whisper hanging on the wind making me stand to my feet in a haste.

“Who’s there?” I yell. I whip my head around wildly in every direction, but there’s no one there. Only me, screaming at the air.  “Damien, is that you?”

Silence. My skin gets warmer and warmer. Panic rises. I rub my arms and face as if trying to dispel the weird warm feeling. My wand. I bend down, snatching it off the ground, aiming it at the darkness.

“Whoever or whatever is out there, you’d better leave! I can destroy you with one spell.”

“No one can destroy me,” says the Voice.

“Try me,” I say.

I hiss a spell and flick my wand. A flaming spiral of orange, red, and blue comes out of my wand and splits open the bark of the tree in front of me, leaving it burnt and charred.

“See that, you creep. That’ll be your face if you don’t come out!”

“It’s frustrating isn’t it? Being so close to the very thing you want and not being able to reach it?”

I let out an aggravated groan, flinging another spell out of my wand. I can’t see where it lands because my eyes are shut.

“Just show yourself, you coward!”

“I’m the coward? You’re the one trying to defend yourself with a twig. Not that you need defense. I’m not going to hurt you.”

I start to back down a bit. I’m still freaked out, but I can’t keep this up much longer.

“Prove it! Show me who, or what, you are.”

“Gladly. Just drop the twig. Show me you trust me.”

“Trust you? I don’t even know you! And it’s not a twig it’s a wand!”

“Drop it.”

“I’m already damned to a lifetime of taking orders so I will not bow down to you.”

My legs start to shake, new fear lodges itself into my throat in the form of an invisible lump. My chains keep getting heavier every minute, and yet they are invisible. I pull myself out of my thoughts and notice that the Voice has gotten quiet. My wand feels like a great weight in my hand. So much so that I start to feel a pain in my wrist, almost as if my body is also telling me to drop it.

“Okay!”

My grip releases my wand and I see it land on the ground with a soft thud. I wait and look around me. There are only trees, the illusive clearing, and grass around me. The wind continues to blow softly.

“There now,” came the Voice. I turn around quickly. Almost too quickly as I hear a small pop in my neck. I look up into the tree whose trunk I scorched.

The stranger is dressed all in white. His leg dangles down from the tree branch. He is barefoot and even though he’s sitting he appears to be tall.

“Who are you?”

He jumps down from the tree, not answering my question right away. He lands softly, almost catlike.

“A friend.” He runs his hands along the base of the trunk where my spell had hit it. I can’t help but notice how calloused his hands look. They don’t match the perfection of his face—it’s almost like they are the hands of someone else.

“I don’t have friends.”

I walk to the side so that I can see his face more clearly. His skin is a beautiful golden bronze as if he had been baked to perfection by the sun. I look down at my hand, admiring my skin in comparison. Who am I kidding? There is no comparison. He’s gorgeous.

“Everyone has friends,” he says. “Some just don’t know it.” He turns around to face me, a tiny smile dancing on the corners of his lips. I suck in. His face seems so perfectly constructed. So beautiful that it sort of catches me off guard. “It’s good to be able to speak to you again Ember.

“What do you mean again?”

“I mean before you started shutting me out. Before the day you forgot everything he taught you about me.”

“Everything that who taught me?”

“Your father.”

“Dad?” I say. I give myself a mental shake. “Cornelius,”

“You can still say the word dad, you know. He’ll always be your father.”

“He left me,” I snap.

“He tried to save you.”

“Well he didn’t! And how do you know all this stuff about me? Who are you?”

“I told you, I’m a friend. I knew you wouldn’t remember, but you will soon.”

He turns around again, tracing his fingers along the tree.

“A tree once whole and full of life suddenly destroyed. Mortals see it as an end as if the tree will never be whole again.” I watch him curiously as he speaks. It’s like he’s speaking to the tree and not to me. “But with the right water…” He places both hands on the tree, breathes in deeply through his nose and out through his mouth and on to the tree. “Flows everlasting life.”

He steps aside, facing me again, an all knowing smile on his face. I look at the tree and my jaw drops. The trunk of the tree shows no sign of me ever throwing a spell at it. No burn marks. No cracks. The tree looks even better than it did before. I rush over to the tree to touch it for myself. The bark is ruff like sandpaper on my skin and its strong again.

“You’re a witch too,” I say.

“There are no such things as witches,” he says quickly.

I look at him in surprise.

“Of course there are. I am a witch.”

“No, you’re just confused.”

“Confused? About what?”

“About who you are and whose you are. If you weren’t confused, you would know who I am and you wouldn’t have made a barter with a demon!”

He sits down on the grass at the base of the tree and rests his head against the trunk. I look down at him. There is so much sadness in his voice. I don’t understand this. I have never seen or spoken to him before and yet he knows all these things and he actually seems to care.

“What do you mean by demon? And how do you know about that?”

“Your family is more dangerous than you know. You need to be careful, and I know everything about you Ember.”

“I see that, but how?”

“I can’t tell you how relieved I am that you still hold on to that book,” he says, evading my questions again.

Cornelius’ Bible is still gripped in my hand.

“I was even more relieved when you opened it and I was finally able to speak to you again.”

Something jolts inside of me. As if something clicked in my brain, a switch had been flicked, and the gears are back in motion. And I know who is sitting in front of me.

The Bible…

My legs fall out from under me and my knees hit the ground hard, knocking my body forward. I grip the Earth under my hands, shoving dirt and grass under my fingernails. I sense him staring at me, waiting for me to figure it out.

“I thought…I had imagined you…” I say. A shiver slithers up my spine as I hear him laugh. Laugh at my pain.

“You give your imagination too much credit.”

“I remember.”

I think back to the time when I was little. It’s hard to do. I have spent so long blocking out every memory of Cornelius, but I have no choice now. I have to remember. Remember when I was happy and Cornelius was everything a little girl wants in a father. The very answer to the cries of my child heart.

“What do you remember?” he says.

“I remember that he loved me…once, but that he hated what I was…and he left me. He said that the Copelands were dangerous and they’d destroy me.”

“He fought for you.”

“No!” Looking into his eyes is difficult. I feel like they can see through me. “He gave up when things got tough and he left me!” I take in a deep breath and sit back on my heels. “And I know exactly who you are now. He called you the Comforter, the Guide, the Protector, but you’re nothing but a liar!”

“What lies have I told, Ember? I have always been there for you.”

“He said that you were going to protect me. Guide me!”

“And I have. But I can only help you as you ask for it. You’ve been shutting me out.”

“Well what was I supposed to do? I was six and my father left me with a book, a key, and no hope!”

“You’ve always had hope! And it’s in me!”

I shake my head back and forth, not wanting to hear him talk anymore.

“No, because if there was hope I wouldn’t be bound to the Copelands right now!”

“Do you know why you’re bound to a demon? Because you lack faith and trust in anything other than the demonic lies of your mother and her magic.”

“My magic is the only thing that has never turned its back on me.”

He shakes his head.

“If that were true your mother and the Copelands would be dead right now.”

My frustration grows and my magic responds to it. I can’t take his looks of pity and disappointment.

“You know what you’re doing is wrong but yet you still go along with it.” He pauses. “My sweet Ember, you know the Truth, why are you denying it?”

I jump up to my feet, scooping up my wand along the way. I point it threateningly at him even though I’m too afraid to even dare use it against him. He doesn’t even flinch. He just sits there staring up at me with those eyes. Those eyes! So full that I can almost see the universe swirling around in his irises.

“What choice do I have? I’m tired of living in darkness!”

“Then live in my light.”

I let out an exasperated breath and scrunch up my face.

“I tried. Okay? I tried! And look what happened!” I spread my arms and motion to the world around me. “I’m here! I’m still here! I’m trapped! All because I chose wrong and I was weak.”

“Ember…”

“No!” I clamp my hands to my ears in protest. “Just stop talking! Your Truth didn’t help me! My magic and the stupid Earth didn’t help me! No one helped me, because no one cares! It’s just me!”

“Your father didn’t believe that… and I’m sure you know in your heart that that’s not true.”

“Yeah, well, Cornelius isn’t here anymore, is he? If he wanted to protect me so bad, where is he? You know everything, right? So tell me where he is!” The cracks in my voice when I speak make me upset. Stop being weak! When he doesn’t speak, I continue. “I can’t keep waiting.”

“You deserve better than this, Ember! You are worth more than you know!”

“And I’ll get better than this, but I’ll do it on my own. I know I made a pact with Damien, but thanks to you I don’t even care if I ever see my dad—Cornelius again.”

“You don’t mean that,” he says.

“Don’t tell me what I mean! This whole conversation has just proven to me that I can’t trust anyone. Cornelius and Mama. You. Herman. And Damien.”

“You are the most important thing to me,” he says. “Do you not understand that?” I shake my head.

“No one is going to fight for my freedom like I will.”

He hangs his head. Slowly it rocks back and forth. The silence that follows is eerie. The wind has stopped blowing. Everything around us is still.

“I will never stop fighting for you,” he whispers. Something inside me flutters, but I ignore it.

“I never asked you to fight for me,” I say. I start to pick up Cornelius’ bible, but then I stop. That book is how his Voice found me again. Can I deal with his presence always being there? I toss the book onto the ground by his feet. “I’ll find a way out of this in time.” I turn to leave.

“Ember!” The sharpness of his tone makes me freeze, but I don’t turn around. “If you shut me out again there will be nothing but pain!  Please don’t…” I close my eyes, trying to will him away. I turn to steal one last look at him.

He’s gone.

~~~

Each step I take only hurts worse. Maybe running barefoot through the forest at night wasn’t the best idea. I’m not even sure how I manage to make it back to the house. My entire body is in pain. The cut on my palm still throbbing, the horrid scar that was etched on my wrist, my stinging thighs from all my running, and to top it all off, the cuts and blisters from running through the forest without shoes on.

I creep back into the house and decide to go look for Damien. I had to tell him that our deal is off. Hopefully, telling him won’t come back to bite me. Or maybe a better strategy would be to pretend. Pretend that I’m helping him while really I’m trying to find myself a way out. Ugh. I don’t know. My racing thoughts lead my feet to the attic where I had left Damien and his mom.

“You’ll be better soon, Ma,” says Damien.

I stop at the entrance to the door and listen.

“Ember’s a little rough around the edges, but I like her,” he says with a slight laugh. “I think you would too. She’ll help us, I know it.”

Losing my footing, I fall into the door causing it to swing backward and hit the wall with a loud bang. Damien moves quickly and rushes toward me.

“Jeez Ember, you scared the crap out of me!”

He lifts me up on my feet again.

“Sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop. I just…”

“It’s okay, Emby.” Damien looks me over a couple of times. “What happened to you?”

“Nothing,” I say, dusting myself off, “I just went for a walk, that’s all.”

“Come on, I was just about to say goodnight to my mom.”

We walk back into the room. I grab Damien’s arm and let out a small gasp. Damien looks over at me.

“What?”

“Damien, where is she?”

Damien turns around quickly. His arm tenses up when he looks at his mom’s empty bed.

“Ember, close the door. We can’t let her get out.”

I obey immediately, not because I want to of course, but nonetheless. My eyes dart back and forth trying to cut through the darkness around me.

I hurry back to Damien’s side. My hand is already on my wand, ready to fight if I need to. Damien had said his mom is dangerous and that makes me nervous.

“It’s too quiet in here,” I whisper.

Damien starts to walk around the room, the floor creaking eerily with every slow step.

“Ma,” he calls. “We’re not going to hurt you. Come out.”

I strain my ears to listen for a sound, any sound. All of a sudden, a burst of hot air hits my neck. I tense up and my hand clenches around my wand.

“Damien,” I whisper.

A growl fills my ear, but I can’t raise my wand in time. A pounding blow hits the back of my neck sending my head backward and my body forward. A loud crack follows, my face slamming into the hardwood floor. A warm flow of blood oozes down my face.

“Ember!”

I curl into a fetal position, cradling my nose in my hand. I try to scoot away from the chaos I can hear, groping the floor in the darkness. My hand lands on the soft frame of the bed. Damien and his mom thrash around, both grunting. I jump when I hear a loud crash. I still can’t see but I feel hands pulling me up to my feet.

“It’s me,” says Damien’s voice. “I’ve got you.”

Damien leads me to the window.

“Em,” he starts.

“I got it,” I say. “Meis tahic.”

The bars start to disintegrate and the window flies open. Damien climbs through the window and holds his hand out to me. I take his hand and hoist myself through the window, still holding onto Damien for support.

“Close it!”

Mei tuss,” I say. The window slams shut and locks. Thankfully, the ledge is larger than normal. Damien stands slightly behind me, keeping me hugged in closest to the house. The wall is cool on my cheek as his body presses me against the wall.

“You alright?”

“I’m fine,” I say.

Carefully, Damien lowers himself into a sitting position on the ledge and helps me down as well. I close my eyes, trying to catch my breath while I nurse my bleeding nose. Damien’s hands grab my face.

“Here, let me see your nose.”

I slap his hands away.

“I’m fine!”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he says. He turns my face to him. Who does this kid think he is, a doctor? Damien rips a piece of his shirt and starts to wipe my face. I want to resist, but I can’t. He gave me an order, so my body has no choice but to obey.

“Pinch your nose closed,” he says. “It’ll stop the blood.”

I sigh heavily, but pinch my nose like he says.

I start to hear loud booming coming from inside the attic. I look at Damien when I hear Mama’s voice. He puts his finger to his lips telling me to be quiet. I wonder if I’m programmed to obey non-verbal commands as well. The screaming from Damien’s mom stops and I hear Herman and Mama talking.

“This is getting too damn complicated,” says Herman.

“This is what you wanted, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” says Herman, “but now that the bond is official she isn’t necessary. We’re just wasting time now!”

“Relax Herman. The ceremony was only a couple of hours ago. Give the children a chance to get used to it…”

“I don’t have time for them to get used to it!” A silence follows. “Faith, you know what is at stake and we’re running out of time. The others will be here soon.”

“I understand,” says Mama.

“Then train that wild beast of a daughter you have!”

“And train your son,” retorts Mama. “How long are we going to put on a show to protect the fragile Damien Copeland?”

I jump when I hear a loud smacking sound.

“You’re getting too brave, Faith. Don’t forget your place.”

“Yes, Herman,” says Mama.

“We have to prepare. I won’t have you and I looking like idiots when they come. This is our last chance, Faith, you know that.”

“We’ll be fine, Herman,” says Mama. “We’re giving them what they want, they’ll forgive our past.”

“You must have forgotten what our family is like,” says Herman.

Damien and I exchange looks. I hear footsteps and their voices growing fainter.

“You can let go of your nose,” he says. “I’m sure the bleeding has stopped by now.”

I release the pressure from my nose and sniff. The bleeding has stopped. I wipe my nose and mouth with the back of my hand.

“Here,” says Damien. He starts to wipe my face again with his ripped shirt.

“Stop it!” Damien withdraws quickly. “I’m not a pet! Or your child!” I start to get up and head back in through the window but Damien stops me.

“Wait! I’m sorry, okay?”

I sigh and sit back down.

“What was all that about?” I ask.

“Why are you asking me?”

“I’ve been practically locked in a basement for almost eight years,” I say. “I think you would know more about whether or not there are other Pearsons and Copelands.”

“And I’ve been away for six,” he says. “so, I’m just as out of the loop as you.”

Damien looks away from me and off into the distance. What others could Mama and Herman be talking about? I thought that this was it. You know, just eternal servitude. I thought that I’d just have to serve Damien for the rest of my life, but then I find out that there’s a curse…and what is all this other stuff?

“But Herman definitely said our family,” I press. He’s still just staring. “And he said they were coming. Why? And what are they planning on giving them?”

“I don’t know, Ember,” he says quickly.

“Well aren’t you the least bit curious? This could be a part of their plan for us, their motive. We can find out what they’re up to so that we can stop it. I want my freedom and you want your mother and obviously that’s not what they’re planning! You have to ask Herman.”

“Easy,” says Damien, holding his hands up. “You’re getting ahead of yourself.”

“And you’re acting like you don’t care,” I yell.

“I do care, but it’s getting late and we’re going to get caught for eavesdropping on their conversation if we don’t leave right now.”

I sigh heavily.

“Don’t worry, we’ll figure it out, but right now let me walk you to your room,” he says grabbing my hand. Like I had electrocuted him, Damien pulls his hand away. “Sorry. I guess I’ve developed this habit of…touching you.”

“It’s okay,” I say. Damien smiles at me.

“And no offense, but you look gross. Like some kind of forest animal that survived a brutal attack.”

I laugh slightly and shake my head.

“Boy, your charm just keeps getting better and better, doesn’t it?”

Damien laughs and helps me to my feet. We ease along the edge of the ledge and down the side of the house.