My shout, ten seconds after I blearily checked my phone, reverberated off low wooden beams that I was shocked had never beaned my boyfriend. Stumbling on the slick floors in my wool socks, I slid for the closet and grabbed the first shirt I found. It wasn’t until I already had my arms through the sleeves that I smelled the musk of man and a hint of wet fur. Even a month later, most of my clothing was scattered between four cardboard boxes I swore I’d unpack once the semester was over.
I began to reach for the top one, hoping to hit summer tees and not sweaters, when my phone’s alarm went off again. Damn it, there wasn’t time. While half-hopping into my sweatpants, I dashed down Cal’s… No, he wanted me to think of it as my hallway, too. The bathroom door was partially open. At my blur, my werewolf boyfriend called out, “Babe!”
“Yes?” I skidded in my tracks and turned to find him in nothing but a nearly see-through pair of gray boxers.
Even with his blond hair smooshed on one side and his eyes drooping after our long night cramming—of both the academic and carnal variety—he was perfect. Cal smiled with his total sunshine grin and my legs began to wobble. He slipped a hand around my waist and pulled me into the bathroom.
“Morning,” he whispered before kissing me. “I still love doing that.”
I’d had no choice but to take the leap to live-in girlfriend thanks to evil witch hunters, and it’d taken some adjusting. I can’t say I’d have been so quick to move in with Cal minus the pitchfork-wielding agents, but he’d been trying his best to make it all work.
Cal picked up the blue toothbrush from the cup, leaving my purple one alone. “Are you ready for the last one?”
“No,” I admitted without pause.
He squirted out a huge glob of toothpaste, then stared at me. “You’ve got this. Or should we”—Cal cocked an eyebrow and full-on smirked—“cram again?”
A laugh escaped my lips even as goosebumps rippled up my legs and arms. It sure as hell was a cramming session with him, even using lube, but I didn’t have time. “I can’t.” I groaned. “I’m already late. Do you know where I left my purse?”
“Maybe downstairs?” He went to town on his incisors with the toothbrush before stopping and turning to me. “How are you late? We’ve got at least a half hour until exam time.”
“Only a half hour?” I repeated, the sarcasm thick. Talking to Cal wasn’t getting me to class any faster. “I hate boys.”
As I dashed down the stairs, Cal called out, “I have proof you love certain parts of us.”
Upon reaching the landing, I was greeted by the sound of pans striking a stove. That could be just one thing. I took a quick look around the living room. The TV was running through a mess of old sitcoms, but no one was watching. No sign of my purse or book. I remembered needing it when the pizza arrived, but wasn’t certain where it went after the demon and werewolf ambushed me.
If the latter didn’t know, maybe the former would. Dashing down the narrow hallway, I had to cling to the walls to avoid tripping. The last lightbulb had burned out and no one had bothered to replace it. I pushed open the kitchen door with my foot and it swung in on a baking disaster.
Standing in the middle of an egg-and-flour apocalypse was my own personal incubus. Ink’s go-to outfit was splattered in white powder and dough while he held a far-too-small bowl in the crook of his arm and stabbed it with a knife. I must have made a sound as he looked up from his concoction and smiled.
Unlike Cal’s sweet sunshine, Ink’s smile was panty-melting nefarious even when he was covered in flour prints. My mouth dried and I tried to think. Why was I here? I was doing something important, something that didn’t involve him swiping the pans off the counter and taking me now.
“I’m late,” my mouth supplied to my frozen brain.
“I assume that is not in reference to your moon cycle,” Ink said, straight-faced, before smirking. “Unless you’re far more devious than I imagined.”
“That isn’t. I can’t even…” I slapped him on the arm with barely any force, not that it mattered. I’d seen him take knives to the chest without reacting. “I wouldn’t.”
“It was but a jest. Your virtue is pure.”
“Ha!” It was hard to think myself virtuous when three men shared my bed, often two or more at a time. “Have you seen my purse?”
“I believe I last viewed it in the galley when I’d bent over your back and pressed your hands to the wood while the wolf—”
“Yes!” I interrupted, my cheeks hitting ten thousand degrees at the reminder of where Ink and Cal had been. “I remember that part. Thanks.”
I had turned to find my purse when Ink hefted up a tray. “My bond, before you attend your academic gauntlet…”
I stared at whatever he’d been cooking with dread rising in my stomach. “What is it?” They looked like generic toaster pastries with a smear of chocolate on top, but it couldn’t be that simple.
“A sandwich of my own concoction to aid in breaking your fast.”
That was what I was terrified of. Still, I picked one up. Ink had been helpful as of late. I couldn’t even hazard a guess as to why he suddenly wanted to do the occasional bout of cooking and laundry, even if what he made was usually inedible. And I was never getting that dress back after it floated down the river. But turning him down felt mean. As I raised his sandwich, I realized it was two toaster pastries stuck together. What was in the middle was anyone’s guess. Could be more chocolate, mustard or even a thickened soy sauce.
With the tips of my teeth, I nibbled down on the edge, hoping to escape the answer when brown goo clogged my throat. “Peanut butter?” I coughed out. It oozed and dripped off the sides, like he’d heated it between the two pastries.
Ink only smiled wider. “Yes. I am quite ingenious.”
“Yep,” I agreed.
“Do have a delightful day.” He pulled me closer while I stared at the PB and T sandwich. Once the peanut butter cooled, it wasn’t too bad, the strawberry in the pastry combining well. I was about to take another test bite, when Ink whispered, “Upon your return, I shall…”
He plunged his teeth against my neck, just to the edge of breaking skin. The pressure rushed through me, filling me with pleasure. Ink pressed the tip of his long nose to the middle of his bite mark. “That is for your inner thigh, and this…” He darted his tongue around the wound, the slick heat causing the same in my panties. “You can decide where you wish it.”
I groaned as my entire body lit up with anticipation and my hand clenched, shattering the breakfast sandwich. We both stared when the soggy pastry halves hit the floor. “Sorry,” I muttered, struggling to get my breathing under control.
“No matter.” Ink popped open the oven and, without gloves, pulled out a bright red tray. “I made three sheets’ worth.”
“That’s…good?” I inched out of the kitchen, leaving Ink to it while hoping Cal wasn’t counting on the mega-box of toaster pastries to fuel his wolf metabolism. An impertinent brring chirped from my phone and I glared at it.
“Yes, I know. I’m working on it!” I shouted at my inanimate object while walking into what should have been the dining room. A man dressed for a punk concert in the nineties hovered next to where every book in the house had been scattered across the long dining table. As quite a few were nursing textbooks, the old wood was bowing in the middle.
“Daniel? Have you seen my purse?”
“Hm?” Slowly, the book lowered, revealing my ghost from his cheekbones up. Not that I was complaining—they were fantastic. His deep umber eyes flared blue a moment and he snapped the book shut.
I reared back in shock. “You can do that now?” Last I remembered, the best he could do was push a page and maybe the cover.
Daniel dropped the book where it landed on knowledge mountain and picked up another. “Yes, I found I could move the book much in the way I sit.”
“I assume you mean using muscle memory and not that you close it with your butt.”
The air froze at the serious glare buffeting from Daniel’s face. I swallowed haphazardly, the peanut butter still lodged at the hollow of my throat. Did I say something wrong? He’d been waffling between a debilitating state of sadness followed by manic bursts of certainty. I couldn’t handle pushing him back to the dark side again.
Slowly, Daniel scratched his chin and cocked his head, causing the single blue stripe of hair to fall to the side. “Is that something you’d like to see?” he asked with dead certainty.
“Ah…” I was about to laugh it off, when I remembered my werewolf boyfriend who was into leashes and the demon that’d do literally anything. What I found hot seemed to shift by the day. “I’ll get back to you on that. In the meantime, I need my purse.”
“Under the table,” he said, gesturing to exactly where Ink had said it was. As I bent over to pick it up, Daniel immersed himself in yet another book. I reached inside to find my spell book safe and sound. Running my finger down the spine calmed me. Ever since I had learned that a witch losing her book caused her to go mad, I’d taken to sleeping with it under my pillow. Only the dual exhausting talents of Cal and Ink could distract me from my mortal dread.
“Did you read all of those?” I asked, pointing to his stack. There had to be a good three thousand pages there.
“Oh no,” he said with a laugh. “I read the whole table. Which reminds me, I have a list of new books I’ll require.” Daniel gestured to an old tablet Cal let him use. He couldn’t pick it up, but with his ghostly powers he could use the apps and leave lots of lists.
“I’ll have to look later,” I said, trying to work around the book peaks to escape.
“I also discovered another three potential protection spells for the house.”
“And how many of them will banish a demon?” I asked.
He frowned. Their whole ghost and incubus bromance had lasted a few days after my rescue, then it was right back to openly hating each other. “To my knowledge, none. If you’d take a look?”
“I really have to run. Last day of exams.”
“That was today? Hm, I thought they’d already occurred. Or were going to…” The unsleeping ghost stared back at the dining room window as if it could act like a calendar.
“Nope. Happening in an hour. I’ve got to bolt.”
“Why are you not going with your wolf?”
I heard him but didn’t want to answer. ‘Because’ was a cheap response, but also the best I could give. If it were the usual lecture day, of course I’d go with Cal, even if he’d wait until the last second to leave. But the only way I could keep the letters on the page from dancing the dyslexia steps was if I had a half hour to myself to calm down. Sitting next to Cal this close to a full moon would make my brain more stupid.
As I approached the front door, I called out, “Bye,” to the house and opened it. A very small man in a bowtie stood outside holding an envelope. I gasped in surprise and he opened his mouth.
Before he could speak, a demon’s claw latched around his shoulders and hefted him off the ground. I reached over to stop Ink from damaging him, but a naked arm wrapped around my stomach and pulled me deeper into the house. “What’s going on?” Cal shouted behind my ear, his words garbled from the toothbrush still in his mouth.
“They seem to have sent a spy gnome. What do they have on you? Kidnapped your gnome wife? Threatened your fox? Out with it?”
“Layla?” Daniel rushed to my side. My three guys were now standing guard against a two-foot-tall man armed with a letter. “Gnomes are often indebted to powerful magic users.”
Ink groaned and glared back over his shoulder. “Shall you read to us from the Compendium of Wikis next? We all know what gnomes are. And this one has come bearing a piece of parchment. A written threat, perhaps?”
“It’s a note, you demented fucktoy,” the gnome snarled, his little legs kicking in the air.
“A likely… Ah, it is a note addressed to Layla. Wolf?” Rather than pass it to me, he handed it to Cal who stepped even further back while taking me along.
He breathed in the scent of the envelope. “I don’t smell the sewers, but there’s obvious magic.”
“No shit,” the gnome responded. “It’s from…”
“Allow me.” Daniel was the next one to excise the letter, somehow pulling it not only from Cal’s fingers, but flipping open the flap and lifting the paper free. We all watched him carefully unfold the paper.
Ink pulled the gnome closer. “If it is coated in a ghost purging powder, I will buy you a keg.”
Daniel didn’t respond to that, his focus on the letter.
“Well,” Cal snapped. “What’s it say?”
“It’s a letter for Layla.”
All three jerked to attention at once, as if certain it had to be a sign the witch hunters were on my trail. Daniel glanced down to the bottom and sighed, “From a Valerie. Were any of the hunters known as Valerie?”
“Val… That’s the witch that saved me.” I was about to rip the letter from his ethereal fingers to read myself, when Ink grabbed it first.
Where is the gnome? I stared around in a panic to find the small man scurrying down the stoop as fast as possible.
“‘To Lady Layla, so on and so forth. I have engaged in much research…’ Humans do like to prattle…oh. Oh, great.” Ink’s interpretation of the letter smashed to a halt and he raised his head to stare at the sky.
“What?” I tried to look closer, but Cal had ahold of my waist and he wasn’t about to let me get near it just in case.
With a sigh that rattled the windows, Ink said, “It is a potion to bring back the dead.”
“Really?” I gasped, tears springing to my eyes as I turned to Daniel. His mouth hung open as if he too couldn’t believe it. We’d been hunting for a month, him for all hours, day and night, and had found nothing. If it was true that I could bring him back, he could touch, feel, live…
“What does it need? What do I have to do?” My excitement hit a peak, then crashed hard as Ink stared at me not in exhaustion but a distressing concern. I gulped and asked, “Don’t tell me it’ll cost me an arm and a leg?”
“Not quite so macabre, lest you happen to be hiding a horn I am somehow unaware of?”
A horn? I wrenched the letter away from Ink who stared in surprise that I’d dare. Damn thing was addressed to me after all. I skipped past the preamble from the witch who’d saved me from the hunters to the helpful bullet points.
Blood of a demon
Piece between realms
Skin of a unicorn
Feather of an angel
Bone of the dead
Boil in a cauldron or available kettle for thirty minutes, then recite the intended’s name while pouring the potion out.
That was it. Laid out like a recipe, it felt easy, doable. I glanced to Daniel and hope shone in his eyes. Reaching over, I placed my hand above his. He took control, holding mine as we both grinned like two idiots who won a chocolate factory. Soon, he’d be able to hold me for real.
“We can do this,” I whispered to him, trying to seal the promise I made.
“Ah, yes.” Ink peered over my shoulder at the list he’d already read. “Only requires the blood and brains of two celestials and a piece of the void to seal it together. A light shopping list. Perhaps your interconnected webs have an all demon and angel body part store?”
They never said it would be easy. “You’re a demon…” I began to my incubus.
“Even ignoring the technicality, I am not a demon. My blood is not special enough for this spell.”
“I pray I don’t expire twice from the lack of surprise,” Daniel cut in.
Ink’s lips cut apart into a toothy grin aimed at the ghost. “Would be much easier to simply acquire a bowl of salt and a torch.”
I was about to cut in, when my phone gave its final warning. All of this demons and angels mess would have to wait. My other life needed me. “We’ll figure all of this out later. I’ve got to get to the test.” I started to fold the letter up, but Daniel held his hands out for it.
For a moment, I hesitated. Not only was it addressed to me, it was also a private letter between witches. But it was his life, literally, in my hands. I handed him the paper, which he managed to keep floating a millimeter above his palms while he stared at it.
Checking my purse once more to make certain my book hadn’t fallen out, I tugged open the front door. “And, if you wouldn’t mind, can you dial back the ‘big scary bodyguard’ routine? Not everyone in the world is trying to kill me.”
“Are you certain of that, my bond?” the one who’d assaulted the gnome asked without pause.
I glared at Ink, then caught a quick blown kiss from Cal. Daniel broke from the letter to give me one last smile before I slipped out of the house. I couldn’t blame them for being so overprotective, but it’d been a month since I had escaped the hunters. At some point, I had to return to normal life.
“Wait!” Cal dashed to my side. It was sweet that he didn’t want to say goodbye, but I really had to… He reached up and tugged my bonnet off my hair. “Didn’t think you wanted to leave the house with this on.”
A jab of embarrassment jolted through me. I had forgotten I even had it on. That he’d cared enough to tell me and it didn’t faze him warmed my heart. I pulled him close for a quick peck and whispered, “Thank you.”
“When will you return?” It was Daniel who spoke, still transfixed by the letter.
“Once this test is done, we can get to work on figuring out that potion.”
“Ah, Dana’s party,” Cal interrupted.
I winced at forgetting my friend’s ‘we’re free’ bash. I’d been so busy lately, the only time I spent with her or Fariah was during deathly quiet studying. “After that,” I promised Daniel. “Then we’ll bring you back to life.”
He smiled so sweetly that I ached to kiss him. It was Ink who sighed dramatically and turned. “I shall fetch the lightning rods and pitchforks then.”
I really had to go. With one arm around my purse, I stepped out of the door to the walkway lined with untrimmed bushes and tried to force my brain to think about gram-negative bacteria. What would it feel like to hold him? To touch warm skin instead of cool air? To pull off his jean jacket and lift the old band shirt to touch his body below? To feel his lips on mine?
I was electrified, certain I could take on the world. Pass my finals, bring back the dead, stop whatever evil Mr. White is, end the witch hunters once and for all. I was unstoppable.
The bushes rustled and an arm bigger than a fencepost shot out. It wrapped around my throat and pulled me back, tightening so fast I couldn’t even scream.