"And what of my confusion, my lack of focus?"
"Your Bride can calm your mind as well as anything I can concoct for you."
"What should I do? Bring Saroya with me as I fight to reclaim my ring?" She won't rise anyway, his mind whispered.
No, tonight she would. She must. Would it be enough to soothe his mind?
In any case, he would still seek a potion. "I can't expose her to the Lore. My enemies would annihilate her."
"Then return to her proximity as much as possible. Talk to her. Touch her."
"It's inconvenient. Just brew something for me."
"There's a remedy, but I'll need five ash vines to make it. The vines aren't usually found on this plane. I'll have to roll to locate some."
She pulled that wad of black cloth from her belt, unfolding it onto the counter, loosing dozens of small bones of various shapes. She scooped them up and rolled them like dice, then studied their placement, focusing her foresight. "There's a pack of wolverine shifters in the forests of Moldova. They use the vines to heal their mortal slaves after vigorous sex."
"How do I find the pack's den?"
She hesitantly rolled her bones again. "It's somewhere within a day's travel of Riora's temple."
Riora the goddess of impossibility. "I know the location." There'd be roughly six hours left before dawn in Moldova. He would trace outward from the temple, mile by mile, while checking back for Saroya's rising every hour. "I go directly. I want the potion base ready for my return."
"There will be dozens of males," Hag said. "Can't you use a blood debt for an extra sword or two? Only a madman would storm a shifter den alone."
He raised a brow. And your point is?
Ellie was staring at it, her hands and cheek pressed against the invisible boundary.
She was so close she could smell the salt air, could hear the waves, but she could touch nothing.
The boundary extended only to Hag's covered porch, as Lothaire had obviously known. Ellie's forehead still throbbed.
The scene before her was so different from her beloved mountains, the view here open and startlingly endless-
Her shoulders tensed when Lothaire traced beside her. She dropped her hands, furious with herself that he'd caught her staring longingly at the ocean. "You let me get this close but won't let me touch the sand, the water?"
"It's just like with the jewels." His words dripped with amusement. "You'll be happy simply to have seen this."
She quietly said, "I hate you more than hell."
"I know. Comfort yourself with the knowledge that you'll only have to deal with me for mere days more. With Hag's new potion, I could dream of the ring tonight. Why, you could be dead tomorrow!"
"I plan to come back and haunt you."
"Then you'd have to get in line. For now, I'll return here in a few hours or never."
"I know what I'm hoping for."
After he disappeared with a muttered oath, Ellie turned over idea after idea for escape. But she just didn't know enough about this world to navigate her current situation.
She remained at that boundary until daylight vanished over the ocean in a riot of purples and oranges. Sights like this could make a girl want to not already be dead.
With a heavy heart, she went inside, taking a stool at Hag's counter.
The fey was working on some potion, looking frazzled. Perspiration beaded above her top lip, loose curls dangling over her flushed face. Even the tips of her pointed ears were pinkened. And still Hag was gorgeous with her soulful brown eyes and dainty features.
Two out of two of the immortals Ellie had met were supernaturally beautiful. Which begged the question-how had this one earned her name?
Hag collected what appeared to be hardened blue eggs, then began to grind them with a pestle and mortar. When her apron gaped, Ellie froze. The fey had a cell phone clipped to her belt.
She decided to win Hag over, perhaps talking her into one phone call. With that thought in mind, Ellie returned to the chest-o-meals and ordered, "Two Coca-Colas on ice."
Two glasses of iced Coke appeared. For someone who loved food as much as Ellie, this chest was like the holy ark.
Ellie carried the drinks back to the counter, setting one in front of the oracle. "You don't look like a hag to me."
"And I'd so hoped not to disappoint you."
"So what's your real name?"
Ellie's gaze fell on an old book lying near the pestle. "Is that a spell book?" She picked it up, running her fingers over the cover. "Never felt such soft leather."
"Made from a human devoted to skin care."
Ellie dropped it with a shudder. "Can you really see into the future?"
"Can I open a window?"
"Your ears are pointy."
"And your eyes work."
"I could do that grinding for you," Ellie offered. "Why don't you put me to work?"
"I believe Lothaire's orders were to sit down, shut up, and touch nothing. I suggest you obey them, Elizabeth."
Her condescending attitude rankled. "I'm not a child."
"To us, you might as well be."
"What if I knocked you out and stole your phone?"
The fey rolled her eyes. "Try it, mortal."
Planning to. "Count yourself warned, Hag."
"Even if you could somehow wrangle it from me, I have it code-locked."
Dang it, back to sympathy. In a more conciliatory tone, she said, "You can call me Ellie, if you want to."
"I don't want to." Hag ran the back of a blue-stained hand over a glossy brown curl. "Look. If this is the part where you try to befriend me in order to get me to help you, save your breath. I serve Lothaire's interests only."
"And Saroya's? You don't care that a psycho killer's about to be loosed into the world?"
"If that is Lothaire's wish, then it's mine as well."
"You fear him that much?"
"I owe Lothaire my life. Regardless, you'd be crazy not to fear the Enemy of Old."
"Are you two involved?"
"Of course not. He has a Bride he remains faithful to."
"But Saroya and Lothaire aren't intimate." At least, I don't think they are. . . .
"I'm not discussing this with you-"
Lothaire appeared in the room, making Ellie jump in her seat. Since she'd seen him last, he'd donned a long trench coat, tailor-fitted over his wide shoulders. He was out of breath, with streaks of dirt along one cheek and mud splashed up his legs. "Has Saroya attempted to rise?"
"She's not in right now," Ellie said tartly. "Can I take a message?"
"You vowed to me that you'd allow her to rise!"
"Saroya's not even trying." Where's the fire, vampire? He'd been away from the goddess for years. Now he just had to see her?
"What did you say?"
Lothaire launched his fist into the wall, then disappeared.
Hag sighed over the hole, then got back to work.
"Is he always so . . . intense?" Even when Ellie and Lothaire had shared a somewhat normal conversation last night, he'd been thrumming with something.
"You are stupid to taunt him. If he loses control, you will die-badly."
Note to self: find out her definition of badly. "What would it take to get you to help me? All I need is one call."
"Nothing you have. Now, shut up."
Two minutes later: "You got a bathroom?"
"Thinking to escape?"
"Thinking to pee, actually."
Hag waved her toward a side hallway. "Do not open the windows or shutters anywhere in this house."
"Fine." In the bathroom, Ellie closed the door behind her, pacing. "What am I going to do?" she murmured. "What to do . . . what to do . . . ?"
"Come with me," a whispering voice answered.
A voice. From the freaking mirror!
Ellie flattened herself against the door. "Wh-who are you?" Open mind!
"The cavalry, here to save you." A woman's hand appeared directly beside Ellie's stunned reflection-it looked as if it came from inside the mirror.
Cavalry? Her heart leapt. But then she remembered what Lothaire's enemies would do to her. Harems, whoring, and horns.
Ellie whirled around and flung open the door, racing back into the kitchen. "Hag!" she cried. "There's-there's something in the mirror, something that wants me to go with it."
Hag dropped the leaves she'd been sorting. "Mirror?" She collected a machete from a hook on the wall. "Mariketa the Awaited. She must have searched every mirror in the world for your reflection."
"She is the leader of the House of Witches, a notorious band of mercenaries." Weapon in hand, Hag started for the bathroom.
This isn't gonna end well for Mariketa. Ellie cautiously followed Hag. "Witch mercenaries? You have got to be kidding me!"
"They've deciphered our boundary encryption. Or at least part of it." At the door, Hag said, "Go inside and tell her that you want to go with her."
"Uh, all right." Ellie entered, then faced the mirror. "Hey, are you there, cavalry?"
The voice answered, "Don't have all day, Bride of Lothaire. Got nickel beer and disco bowling tonight." Mariketa sounded so human, so normal, that Ellie had misgivings. Especially when Hag crept to the side of the mirror and raised the machete.
Mariketa continued, "I can't breach the plane of the glass, 'cause of the old-skool boundary spell. But you can reach into the mirror and grab my hand. Hup-two, and I'll do the rest."
Hag waved her on, so Ellie said, "Yeah, okay, here I come."
The fey eased her hand inside the mirror, as though dipping it into a pool of water.
Mariketa said, "Gotcha."
Hag replied, "No, I've got you."
Her machete struck through the glass. A shriek erupted. "Ahhh! You BITCH!"
In a spray of blood, the fey leapt back; Ellie gaped. Hag was holding the witch's severed hand.
As some kind of beast roared from within the mirror, energy began building in the air, making the fine hair on Ellie's arms stand up.
Using the blood, Hag frantically drew weird symbols onto the glass, finishing just as a flash of what looked like lightning torpedoed toward them.
"Hold . . . hold steady," Hag muttered. The bolt ricocheted off the plane of glass and back into that darkness. Another scream sounded-"You'll pay for this, fey!"-then silence.
The glass was solid once more, the symbols seeming to seep into the mirror before disappearing.
Hag sagged back against the wall. "They knew enough of our key to find you. Dark gods, that was close."
"You saved me, thank you."
Her face paled. "It was too close. I should have changed the encryption an hour ago. You weren't invisible to enemies. Lothaire will kill me for this."
"No harm, no foul? I don't have a scratch on me."
"You do not know Lothaire." Hag's expression was stricken.
"What if I didn't tell him?"
"And what would you want in return?"
Ellie's gaze dipped to her phone. "You know what I want."
"I vowed to the Lore never to betray Lothaire. Even if I wanted to let you call, it's impossible to break an oath to the Lore."
"Then what can you give me?"
Hag's eyes darted. "I don't know . . . I can't think."
"Better hurry. He could return soon. Hey, maybe you could answer twenty questions for me."
In a rapid patter, Hag said, "I'd have to reserve the right not to answer certain questions if said answers might adversely affect Lothaire's interests. A clever person could glean much solely from the questions I refused."
Like how I just gleaned that it was even possible for Lothaire's interests to be adversely affected? And that you think I'm clever? "Then promise me information about this world, about immortals in general."
"Help me clean up, and I'll make it worth your while."
"Um, yeah, I'm gonna need you to vow that to the Lore."
Hag squinted at Ellie. "I have a very portentous feeling about you. But I want to live. So, I vow to the Lore to give you information about our world."
"All right. Tell me what you want me to do. . . ."
Hag gave her a powder to pour over the sink and along the machete to make the blood disappear while she disintegrated the witch's hand in another vat.
When everything was set to rights, Hag said, "It doesn't matter how clean we've made it-you're going to give us away. He'll see right through you."
Ellie returned to her stool. "Look, it's just like when the Law comes around asking about a still or a lab. Even if I'm caught with a jar of shine in my hand, I'll deny it. I turn into a brick wall. I'm not the weak link here-"
"I smell witch blood," Lothaire intoned from behind them.
The fey whirled around a little quickly, but Ellie was an expert at this. "Yeah, I cannot believe you freaks ship shit like that through the USPS." She drummed her nails on the counter. "I plan to report you when I escape."
"Uh-huh." Lothaire narrowed his eyes at Hag. "What potion called for witch's blood?"
"I strengthened the boundary spell against them specifically after you told me of the bounty. The House will stop at nothing to capture Elizabeth."
He scrutinized Hag's face, clearly suspicious. "Such foresight."
"I am an oracle."
"How goes your search, Lothaire?" Hag asked.
"I get closer." He turned that penetrating gaze to Ellie. "Saroya?"
"Not a peep."
"If I find out you have held her back . . ."
"Dang it, I'm not!"
Lothaire evinced the most terrifying look that Ellie had ever seen on a man. It gave her chills, made her want to dive for cover. Then he disappeared.