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The Witch Collector (Witch Walker #1)
Author:Charissa Weaks

Something in the tone of her voice penetrates. I don’t want to leave her here to burn, but I can’t carry her, and she won’t let me heal her. If I drag her out, someone will surely kill her.

She shakes her head. “Do you not remember what I told you? There is no victory without sacrifice. I’m ready. Now go.”

“I will come back for you,” I tell her. “I swear.”

And I will, as soon as I’m sure Mother is safe.

Determined to be fast, I storm out of Mena’s cottage and battle my way toward the green. With every clash of blades and every slash of my scythe, I’m reminded that my life might end any minute. Though I owe as much to every single person in Silver Hollow, death cannot come for me yet. I cannot allow it.

Like the weapon in my hands, I become hammered and honed, my movements severe as I slay with blow after blow. The fires—are they dying? And is that thunder? Rain could snuff the remaining blazes and give us a chance.

The sight of my mother snags my gaze. She stands in the middle of the stone circle, still singing her magick. I move to go to her, but every muscle in my body seizes when an Eastlander appears in the corner of my vision, stalking through the smoke on the western side of the green. His long strides are calculated and sure.

I glance at the dagger clasped in his grip and connect his line of intent.

Fury courses through my veins.

Gathering my skirts, I run, calling on the power of the moon still flowing within me, and climb a feasting table in two leaps. The third leap takes me off the other side, and with a downward swing of my scythe, I land a blow that sends the Eastlander’s head rolling into the embers of the roasting pit.

Mother hasn’t moved, her gaze still cast to the sky, and relief hits me like a crashing wave.

I saved her.

In the next heartbeat, a spear juts through her stomach from behind.

Time stops.

I can’t move.

Can’t breathe.

Her eyes meet mine, and she clutches the spear. An expression of confusion twists her beautiful features.

“No,” is all she says as blood pours from her wound, staining the white gown we stitched together last summer. I read the single word on her lips, just before those lovely eyes of hers, with such bright light, go dark.

Disbelief tears through me, hot and raw. When Mother slumps to the ground, the scent of her coming death carries across the space between us, and a flood of deepest sorrow fills me. My mother’s death smells like her. Cloves and fallen leaves and smoky coldness, tangled with the memory of sun and warm breezes.

The killer presses his booted foot to her back and pushes her off his weapon as though she means nothing.

Then he sets his sights on me.

I did this. Me. I could’ve saved her. Gotten her out. Gotten everyone out. All those little children. Finn. Helena. Betha. Saira. The twins. Tuck. Emmitt. Mr. Foley. Mena.

I want to tear my hair out, pound my fists against the earth, beat the pain from my heart. Oh gods, why did I not look at the waters? Why didn’t I keep my eyes on the Witch Collector all day?

The Eastlander stalks toward me, spear in hand and a crow perched on his shoulder. With a flick of his wrist, the bird flies away. Blood splatter decorates his leathers. The blood of my people, of my mother, and if he has his way, of me.

I blink, clearing away the tears from my eyes and the shock from my mind. There’s something unsettlingly different about this warrior. Wisps of crimson shadow writhe around him like they’re trying to get away, growing redder and redder as he nears. His short hair lies swept back, neatly in place, making it noticeable when his face and eyes redden too. Even his hands hold orbs of blood-colored shadows, like malevolence leaks from his every pore. The whole of him becomes such a sinister thing to behold that I’m certain he is evil incarnate.

I retreat and falter over my skirts, my scythe dragging the ground. The cottage fires catch hold again, so fast and devouring, and the storm cloud disintegrates. I no longer thrum with the moon’s power or hope or even infernal rage. Instead, I’m numb with guilt and grief.

In that sliver of time, I don’t care if I live. All around me lie the dead and dying. Warriors raid the orchard and vineyards. I hear the pounding of their horses’ hooves, the fading screams of those hiding in the grove, see the billowing smoke of fires to the east, even while my village—my home—burns to nothing.

The Witch Collector rides on the fringes of the green, fighting like a devil. He is but one man, though, and he’s wounded, right arm dangling as he struggles to hold off a giant Eastlander with a dagger.

Did this happen to the other villages? Is that why the Witch Collector was late? Did all the valley’s people endure this brutality? In my gut, I know they did.

I drop to my knees, swallowed by the magnitude of loss and devastation. And death. In the swiftness of an arrow’s flight, this valley was erased.

The mysterious Eastlander approaches. I want to tell him that killing me will haunt him, that he will see my face in his nightmares, but a disturbing glimmer sparkles in his eyes and he smiles, rolling the spear in his hand.

“What’s your name?” He tilts his head, studying me with a curious stare.

Something clenches inside me, some instinct that screams at me to get up and fight. But it’s too late. He’s so close, close enough that I spit at him.

He laughs. “Fiery little thing, aren’t you? Pardon the play on words. I couldn’t resist.”

What a despicable creature. He isn’t the kind of man who will be haunted by any of the lives he’s taken.

“Pity to kill such a fighter,” he adds. “But, much as I’d like to see you in chains, you’d only be a distraction.”

A shiver chases across my skin as he takes his aim and rears his arm back. I inhale a deep breath and glance beyond him, needing one last moment with my mother. Her face is a blank mask, her eyes empty of life, but…

Her face and neck and hands are covered in witch’s marks, glowing with soft light, like nothing I’ve ever seen, especially on my mother. I must be imagining things…

But…no. The marks are there, and her dead stare is fixed on me. And her mouth… It’s moving. Her effort is weak and waning, but she’s chanting magick.

If even a faint whisper of life remains, I can bring her back to the light.

Just as the Eastlander thrusts his spear toward my heart, I summon enough strength to swing my scythe one last time and blunt the death-end of his weapon. The dulled tip strikes my breastbone like a siege engine pounding a castle door, knocking me across the green.

The wind leaves my lungs until I manage a stinging gasp of smoky air that forces me to double over and cough around the shocking pain.

Through the amber and gray haze filling the night, I see the Witch Collector. He stands between my attacker and me, back turned, his sword sheathed. His right arm hangs limply at his side, but he holds a dagger in his left hand.