If fucking up were a superpower, I’d be considered a god by now.
This fact was no truer than right that second as I picked my way over the cobblestones on Factor’s Walk, nearly turning my ankle in the process. Trying to right myself, I stumbled, knocking my shoulder into the brick façade, and nearly falling ass over tea kettle on the uneven stone.
It was as if the universe itself was waving a huge flashing neon sign that said I should turn around and never come back. Considering who I was and where I was, the universe was probably right, but I couldn’t listen to the wisdom then.
Not with a life on the line.
The arcane side of Savannah was not a good spot for someone like me. As the designated degenerate fuckup of the Bannister witch line, me stepping one toe into the hidden magical world was like slapping a bull’s-eye on my ass.
Rubbing the now-sore spot on my skin, I gave myself a little pep talk.
Get it together, Wren. Ellie needs you right now.
As far as pep talks went, it was lame, but there wasn’t much to be done about it now. Staring at my feet, I minced down the crooked lane, desperately trying not to fall again. Every tourist and their brother took a stroll down Factor’s Walk at least once, the signs reminding them to watch their step. But if you stared too long at the walls, at the rows of historic buildings, at The Walk itself, even human eyes would pick up on the oddities.
Those nearly three-hundred-year-old bricks that had historians creaming all over themselves? Yeah, well, they were made of arcaner bones from the vampire wars in 1723.
That lane that should be straight, but wasn’t? It followed a ley line—the former bloody battleground where so many lost their lives before the witches and wolves beat the vamps back.
Those little pockets of green in the middle of asphalt-laden streets? Those were portals just waiting to be used—put there by Fae and witches alike as a way to circumvent the bloody attacks that left so many of our kind turned or dead or worse.
Every part of the city I’d grown up in was practically built for arcaners—leaving me mostly stuck on the outside. But this particular section of town? Well, it had been off-limits to me since I was about ten.
No pity parties, Wren. You have shit to do.
Yanking up my big girl panties, I headed for the one place that might help me. Considering I’d already lowered myself to asking my mother—only to have her deny me—this was my last resort. Granted, what I was asking for broke about four arcane laws that I knew of—and probably a few I didn’t—but I was desperate.
Ellie Whitlock was my best friend in the whole world, and she needed me. I’d relied on Ellie my entire life. She’d been my only friend in school, my only lifeline to a stable upbringing, and my only confidant in twenty years. We’d been BFFs since Pre-K—my mother making me go to school on the human side of town after an unfortunate incident at an arcane school when I was three. My fucked-up magic—or lack thereof—didn’t affect Ellie or her family.
Hell, there were times I’d wished her family would have adopted me.
And now her mom was in the hospital and might not make it. The thought of losing Mrs. Whitlock made me want to scream. If Ellie had been my only friend, Alice had been my only mom. My parents hadn’t ever been what one would call attentive. Hell, most of the time, I was pretty sure having me had been an accident—the pair of them too busy with their own love affair to actually parent their only child.
You’d think my mother would want to keep the woman who’d raised me alive, right? Wrong.
We can’t interfere in human business, Wren. You know better than to ask me.
Rolling my eyes, I plodded ahead, my goal in sight. The Azalea Apothecary was the oldest witch shop in Savannah, but it was also the most rundown. The faded sign was a single storm away from falling off the building, the rusted bolts hanging on by a thread. But word on the street was that Carmichael Jones was who you went to if you needed something off the books.
From what I’d heard—which was limited since I didn’t exactly run in witch circles—Mr. Jones wasn’t exactly a crook, but he wasn’t exactly an upstanding gentleman, either. What he was for sure was a top-notch warlock who specialized in healings.
Whether or not he’d help me heal a human, though, was a whole other matter.
A shiver of unease raced down my spine as I clamped onto the rickety latch, and I had the strongest urge to not go in. Honestly, if I wasn’t absolutely positive any spell I tried to do would backfire miserably, I would have turned tail and run. My gaze darted up and down Factor’s Walk, the sensation of eyes on me nearly making me lose my nerve.
Ellie and Alice need you. Get it together.
Gritting my teeth, I snatched the door open and marched inside. Azalea Apothecary was no better on the inside than it was on the out. Dusty tables filled with odd trinkets and half-full jars gave way to bookcases stuffed with worn tomes and mounds of junk. Piles of random objects occupied the corners of the room hoarder-style, while bundles of dried herbs hung from every square inch of the ceiling. A grizzled gray man stood near the back of the crowded room near an ancient cash register, an unlit cigar hanging from the corner of his mouth.
“Get out,” he barked, crossing his beefy arms over his substantial belly. “Ain’t no way I’m gonna let a Bannister tromp all over my shop. Who knows what you’ll break?”
Not that half the shit in this hovel wasn’t broken already, but still, tears prickled at my eyes. Gritting my teeth against the sting, I managed to stand my ground. This wasn’t the first time I’d been kicked out of a witch shop, and given my history, it wouldn’t be the last.
“Please,” I begged, reaching inside my bag for the wad of cash. Ellie and I had planned on moving in together after college, but here we were two years post-graduation, with no apartment in sight. Unearthing the fistful of bills, I held them in front of me to ward off my ousting. “I can pay.”
His gaze snagged on the money in my hand, and he licked his chops. By the looks of this place, Mr. Jones hadn’t seen a paying customer in longer than I’d been alive. “What? You stub your toe or somethin’? I ain’t wasting my time on no silly girl with a hangnail.”
Don’t back talk the healer, Wren. Don’t do it.
“It’s not for me, you judgmental ass. It’s for my best friend’s mom. Do you really think I’d be tromping through here looking for you if it was something I could fix with a nail clipper and a manicurist? I’m liable to get tetanus in this heap.” Gnashing my teeth, I took a deep breath, doing my damnedest to not start screaming. “It’s systemic organ failure. Can you fix that?”
Carmichael narrowed his eyes. “Your friend’s mom. Not your mom?” A slow smile pulled across his lips, exposing yellowed teeth and a fair amount of tooth decay. “You have my interest. What class is your friend’s mother? She a witch like you or…”
This was the sticking point. If I couldn’t get him to agree, Alice had no hope. It wasn’t like I could bribe my way into my mother’s good graces or beg my father.
“Human,” I breathed, praying he wouldn’t make a fuss.
He simply blinked at me for a solid thirty seconds. “I’m sorry—what was that?”
Stomping through the piles of junk, I slapped the money on the counter before reaching into my bag for the second roll of bills. It was my entire savings. Everything I’d squirreled away to set myself up. It wasn’t just an apartment I was getting. It was a chance.
But it meant nothing if Alice wasn't breathing.
“She’s human,” I hissed. “Are you gonna help me or not?” The bank teller had audibly squawked when I’d pulled every dime from my account, her face purpling when I’d asked for it in cash.
Carmichael reached for the bills, but I slapped his hand before he could get within an inch. “Are you helping, or am I going to have to go down to the River Walk and deal with them?”
The “them” in question were the Fae, and I had no intention of dealing with that sort at all. Ever. Making deals with fairies was tantamount to jumping off a cliff with piranhas, sharks, and razor-sharp rocks at the bottom. Anyone who had ever made a fairy deal regretted it, and I wouldn’t be making the same mistake.
Luckily, my poker face was top-notch—otherwise Carmichael would have seen right through my bluff.
“What you’re asking for is illegal, you know.” He pretended to contemplate the legalities while pulling at his long, grizzled beard. “Healing humans ain’t rightly my business, but I do love a challenge.”
Raising a single eyebrow, I waited for him to continue. Hemming and hawing wasn’t a promise he’d do the spell, and until I got that, I wasn’t letting him anywhere near this money. I’d learned this the hard way at least twice—more if you counted how many times I’d begged my mom for things, only for her to tell me she hadn’t agreed to anything.
“Fine,” he barked, crossing his arms over his big belly. “At least your mama taught you that much, though, I’ll be asking for my payment upfront before I get started.”
“Shake on it,” I insisted, one hand still on the money and the other outstretched. “In exchange for ten thousand dollars, you will perform one healing spell on Alice Marchand Whitlock. Today.”
Carmichael coughed, sputtered, and nearly fell over. “Ten thousand dollars?” he croaked, turning a little red as he pinned his gaze on the pile of bills I was protecting. “Hell, girl, for that much I’ll do it right now.”
He stood straighter, hitching up his pants a little. Then he waved his hands in a complicated set of movements, which had me backing away from the counter, money be damned.
“No,” I shouted, waving my own hands in the universal sign to “Stop.” “You can’t do it while I’m he—”
The ground pitched, sending the piles of junk toppling to the floor. I quickly followed, landing on my ass as a nearby cauldron sparked to life. The contents of said cauldron bubbled over, hissing like acid as it dripped onto the dirty floor.
“What the hell is goin’ on? You did th—”
But Carmichael never got a chance to finish that damning sentence. All at once, the windows of his apothecary blew in as the caustic brew caught fire. Dodging glass and the heat of the flames, I scrambled to my feet, racing for the shop owner.
“You have to get out of here,” I yelled over the now-roaring fire. “Now.” It didn’t matter whose fault it was—and if anyone asked, I’d say it was his—this whole place was going up faster than a damned tinderbox.
Carmichael swiped his meaty arm across the counter, scooping up the money in one greasy, grizzled paw. Then the bastard took off, the heavy man moving far faster than I gave him credit for. He weaved around junk toward the back of the shop almost faster than I could track, leaving me behind. Almost as soon as he was out of sight, the path he’d taken was blocked by flames.
Maybe it was the smoke inhalation from the now-burning junk, herbs, and tinctures, but it took me a second to realize I should also be getting the hell out of there.
Coughing, I stumbled through the room, tripping over something or other. I fell, landing on my hands and knees, my palms cut to shit from the broken glass littering the floor. Then, I wasn’t on the ground anymore, I was hanging upside down over a man’s shoulder, the light of the early spring sunshine blinding me.
Unceremoniously, I was tossed off said shoulder, my ass taking the full brunt of the landing as I was dumped onto a patch of grass. Struggling for breath, I hacked and coughed up the caustic smoke, the fresh air slowly but surely filtering into my lungs.
Eyes tearing, nose running, I was so busy trying to breathe that I barely noticed the man who’d saved my life until he was already turning away. I wanted to say thank you to whomever kept me from frying like a red-haired shish kebab, but before I could get out a word, he was down The Walk, weaving through the stream of lookie-loos.
“There she is, Agent.” Carmichael’s booming Southern drawl echoed off the high brick walls.
Turning my head, I spied the beefy shop owner pulling a harried man through the gathering crowd. Where he’d fetched an Arcane Bureau of Investigation agent from, I hadn’t a clue, but it didn’t really matter.
Before now, I’d managed to stay off of the ABI’s radar, but as the agent barreled toward me, I knew those days were over.
Once again, I’d fucked up.
Only this time?
I might just be in deep shit.