September 1st, 1880
Pain. Raw and burning. It races up my arms and along my back, scorching my skin all the way down to the bone. A scream gathers in my chest —
My head collides with the slanted ceiling, smacking me awake. The scream is still in my throat, threatening to break free and wake everyone in the house. I press my hand to my mouth, not daring to breathe until it’s gone.
As soon as it’s safe, I move my hand, pressing it up against the stinging spot on my forehead where I smacked the ceiling. There’s a small lump forming underneath my fingers; it won’t be much of a surprise if there’s a bruise by the time dawn breaks.
How much longer until dawn?
Darkness covers the rest of the attic, a silky blanket weaved around those who slumber. The air is cold, even underneath the woolen covers of my bed. There’s a presence in the air, an eerie silence that puts me on edge. Too quiet after the terror that woke me. I know without trying that I won’t be getting anymore sleep tonight.
Sighing, I swing my legs over the side of the bed, sliding my feet into a pair of soft slippers. The mattress creaks with each move I make, but I am the only creature stirring this late into the night.
The sudden noise makes me jump. Hands trembling, I turn towards the noise. A raven sits on the sill of the open window, illuminated by a small shred of moonlight. Its is head tilted, one beady red eye staring right at me.
“Just a bird,” I mutter, reaching for my robe hanging from the hook in the wall. “At least you’re not a pigeon.” The raven caws in response. If I didn’t know better, I would’ve guessed it to understand me. But seeings as I don’t have a familiar, this is just another ordinary bird.
Trying to calm my nerves, I reach for the candle sitting on the bureau, striking a match to give the room a little light. It isn’t much, but it is still better than the darkness that leaves me with too much room to remember what scared me awake.
A gust of wind floods the room, whisking away the flame I just created. A chill runs down my spine, and I turn towards the window. The raven has gone, leaving in its wake a single feather caught in the sudden breeze. The air now stinks of London, salty and wet, tinged with the stench of coal that burns in the factories. Even after having smelled the same smells for nearly eighteen years, it still makes me wrinkle my nose in disgust. I still have memories of clean air, smelling of spring flowers and the salty tang of the ocean. I can’t remember where these memories come from, just that I have them.
It’s better than remembering nothing, at the very least.
I shake my head, returning the candle to its place. It would be useless to light it again with the window open as it is. A thought pricks at the edges of my mind, whispering of spells that create a fire capable of withstanding a silly little breeze. Biting my lip, I shove such thoughts away. What is knowledge when I am powerless to act on it? Spells require magic to work, and I have none.
Perhaps I close the window a little too harshly. The pane trembles in its loose bindings. For half a moment, I expect it to shatter. Thankfully, it remains in one piece. I don’t want to explain to anyone why I am awake and slamming windows before dawn. Now isn’t the best time to be causing trouble, especially not so soon after . . .
There are no tears for Genesis Shadowstorm. There are never any tears for a young witch torn from her coven out of sheer stupidity. Perhaps not even if it was all an honest accident, from the laws laid down before us.
It’s better to move on, to forget the past rather than be dragged down because of it. Loss is a part of life, and mourning prevents progress. We cannot spend our lives wishing things were different.
Gen is dead. We — I am not supposed to care.
Why can’t I stop thinking about her?
We were never close before she got herself Hunted. A distant older sister at the most, considering that none of us here are related by blood. She was a confident witch, strong in her growing abilities. Why would she ever look twice at the only one among us with nothing making her a witch except for her name?
I have no logical reason to care that she’s gone, other than the shrinking size of my coven, and the growing threat of Hunters in the current era. Beyond that, there should be nothing. No emotional attachment to attract the attention of the Tribus. Nothing to make them think I’m not adjusting as well as everyone else.
And yet . . . even with the windows closed, blocking out all the sounds of London, I can still hear her screams.
My hand is shaking when I light the candle again, carrying it to over to the window where I sit. I lean my head against the cold glass, staring out at the tops of the buildings as they curve along the land, conforming to the path of the Thames. The candle rests in my lap, something for my fingers to hold onto. It’s better than wringing them together.
The moonlight is gone, covered by a collection of dark gray clouds. I release a heavy sigh, shifting my gaze away from the city. Always raining here. It’s a miracle that we haven’t all washed away.
It wasn’t raining two nights ago.
My fingers curl tighter around the cup carrying the candle, and I fight the urge to close my eyes. If I let them shut, I’ll see the fires as they crept around the corner of the alley. Now if only there was a way to make myself go deaf.
Thunder rolls, increasing the promise of a downpour. If I had any sense, I’d blow out the candle and try to get some sleep. Put all of this behind me and make myself forget.
Fear keeps me where I sit. Fear, and the painful spot on my forehead where I hit the ceiling. Sleep offers the threat of nightmares, and I can’t face that right now. I don’t want to remember what it felt like to be on fire.
Fire isn’t the only thing you have to be afraid of, Bella.
This time, I can’t help the scream as it tears from my throat. I fall from my perch, hitting the wooden floor with a loud thump. The candle flies from my hands, rolling along the floor a ways before landing on a discarded blouse.
“No no no,” I say, panicking as the blouse catches fire. I scramble to my feet, rushing for the wash basin on my vanity. Grabbing the rag from out of the water, I throw it at the burning blouse, smothering the flames before they grow to anything worse.
I back away from the mess, leaning up against the bureau, unable to keep my eyes open for another second. My heart is pounding so hard it hurts. Sweat beads along my brow, and I wipe it away with a shaking hand. Breathing evenly is harder right now than it has ever been.
That was not Genesis that spoke just now. It was not. Gen is dead, and the dead do not speak. At least, not if they were a witch. Witches can’t become ghosts.
I jolt upright when the door swings open with a loud creak. Normal, compared to the voices of dead things. A relief to see someone who’s alive and convince me that the last few minutes were all just a vivid hallucination.
“Bella, what’s wrong?” Lila is a welcome sight, even though she looks as frightened as I feel. Her dark brow is knitted together, full lips turned down in concern. Her bushy curls are messily pinned up, as though she left her room in a hurry. She stops a few feet in front of me, surveying the scene before kneeling down. Her hands reach for mine. “You screamed. And apparently started a fire?”
“It’s nothing to worry about,” I say, trying to act nonchalant. Such an act would be so much easier if my heart would resume a normal pace of beating. “I put it out.”
“But how did it start in the first place, Bella darling?” Lila presses, giving my hand a squeeze. “I don’t understand.”
“It was an accident,” I answer. It’s not exactlya lie. Besides, I’m not entirely certain that it was Gen’s voice I heard. After all, it’s been a traumatic few days. There’s no reason for me to cause a fuss over something that’s probably nothing.
Go on, keep telling yourself that.
I don’t realize I’ve started squeezing Lila’s hand until she shouts. “Bella, that hurts!”
“Sorry!” I say, letting go immediately. I push my hands through my long black locks, trying to hide the shaking in my fingers. “I don’t know why I did that.”
“Well, I do,” Lila answers, sounding upset. “You’re hiding something, Isabella.”
“What on earth could I possibly have to hide?” I counter. It’s a pathetic lie. It wouldn’t even convince any of the others, let alone my best friend.
Lila mutters in French — probably cursing me for my stubbornness, if I had to make a guess. “Something frightened you. I can see it in your eyes.”
My gaze flits to where the wet towel still covers the candle. Perhaps if I stare at it long enough, these forming tears will go away. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You can tell me the truth, Isabella,” Lila says, her voice softer now as she strokes my shoulder. “I am always here for you.”
I purse my lips, blinking back tears. I won’t cry when I face her. There isn’t any reason for me to cry. “I know. But this time, you will think I’ve gone mad.”
“Bella, what is going on with you?” Lila asks. “Hurry up and tell me before I go fetch the Tribus.” She tucks a clump of hair back behind my ear. “I told them I’d make certain you were alright. They won’t bother us unless I ask.”
It’s like passing notes in secret, not bequeathing all of our fears to the women who lead our coven. But it’s something Lila and I have always done. We look out for each other, keep the Tribus from knowing certain things. Not exactly lying, but it isn’t telling the truth. Of course, they would never hurt us. But there’s still no need to bother them unless it’s absolutely necessary.
“I heard her.” The words are barely audible. I clear my throat and try again. “I heard Genesis.”
“What do you mean, you heard Genesis?” Lila asks. Why wouldn’t she be confused? It’s not as though I’m making any sort of sense.
“I was sitting near the window,” I explain. “And it was like she was in my head.” I press a hand over the bruise on my forehead. “It was so clear. She could’ve been sitting right beside me.”
“I know you were there when they . . .” Lila trails off. “It makes perfect sense that you might be in shock — Bella, you’re trembling.”
Lila’s hands come to rest on my shoulders, golden brown eyes watching me with the concern of a sister. “Bella, is there anything more you need to tell me?”
The memory of the nightmare flickers behind my eyes, and in a few moments I’ve spilled the rest of my terror to her. There are tears running down my cheeks by the end. Lila does her best to comfort me, repeating the same things I have been trying to tell myself since I started that fire. I can’t understand why I’m so scared. All of it is in the past, and this voice is just a figment of my imagination. Gen is gone. There is nothing to be scared of.
You have no idea how wrong you are.
I bring a hand to my mouth, stifling the scream.
“Bella?” Lila is fighting to keep her voice down. “Bella, what’s wrong?”
I let my hand fall into my lap, struggling to find my voice. “I heard her again.”
“Just now?” I can see her wavering in her resolve not to tell the Tribus. What’s happening now is scaring her, and rightfully so. But somehow, as terrified as I am of everything that has happened in the past ten minutes, I know that I can’t let her tell the Tribus. I don’t want to know their cure for these kinds of hallucinations. This will go away without their help.
“It was different,” I say, quickly backtracking, changing the story from what I’ve told so far, something less mad, more likely to put Lila at ease. “I can hear how she died. All of it is still so fresh in my mind.”
That is one of my better stories. Lila accepts it easily , the fear fading back into simple concern. After all, they say the best lies are mixed with the truth.
She pulls me into her embrace. “It’s alright, Bella. Everything will be back to normal soon. You will forget.”
If it were anything else, I would believe her. But the whispers refuse to stop.
No you won’t.
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