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

“I won’t let you have her!” He maneuvers his blade in a swift, wide arc.

The Eastlander jerks back and dodges the attack. “Hello to you too.” He laughs, and this time it’s an awful sound—low and deep but shadowed by faint high-pitched shrieks, like demons live inside him. He tosses what remains of his spear aside. “And I don’t want her,” he says. “Not really. I want to kill her. Very different things.”

The Witch Collector moves closer, blade ready, but in a flurry of that black cloak, he’s facing me. The Eastlander holds him ensnared around the neck, the Witch Collector’s dagger in his hand.

The Eastlander grins like a sick bastard. “Now what? I get to kill you too, old friend? It’s been so very long.”

A perplexed look passes over the Witch Collector’s face. “We are not friends.” He grits out the words, jaw clenching.

“Right you are. Which means I don’t have to be nice. Let the fun begin.”

The Witch Collector stares at me with eyes so green they shine through the caliginous night. “Run!” he yells, and the warrior plunges the blade into his side. Once, twice, with a twist between the ribs.

Crying out, the Witch Collector slumps to the ground—just like my mother—and again, the Eastlander comes for me. This time there’s no sick, playful gleam in his eyes. Only wrath and determination.

I force myself to my feet and dart around him, barely missing the swinging edge of his stolen dagger. The Witch Collector is kneeling, resting the dying weight of his body on one hand. His gaze is still on me, bewildered as I charge him and rip his sword free from his baldric. The weapon is lighter and sleeker than I imagined, so I rage forward and drive the blade toward the Eastlander’s chest. I hope I gore his heart.

Wearing that evil smile, he explodes into a gust of crimson smoke.

I run right through him, or what was him.

Stumbling, I fall to my knees, the sword’s hilt bruising my palm when I land. A strange feeling comes over me. A release, like some unnatural pressure—one that feels like it’s been with me always—lets go. A surge of power rushes through me, heavy and consuming and altogether foreign.

My hands. They look like my mother’s. Covered in witch’s marks that I’ve never had before. I blink, gasping, sure that I’m dreaming. That I’ve dreamed all of this.

But also because, right there in the grass, right within my reach, lies the God Knife, like Finn left it here for me on purpose.

A presence at my back makes the hair at the nape of my neck rise.

“Miss me?” The Eastlander’s words flit across my ear.

I grab the God Knife and flip over, slashing, praying I catch any part of him on the end of this blade. Blood sprays from the gash opening across his face, from his left temple to his right jawline, right through his lips. He all but howls, the sound an unholy thing.

“My lord!” someone cries.

The man straddling me only holds up his hand to silence them. “Go!” he screams.

I don’t know what I expect of the God Knife’s damage. This killer already morphed into smoke before my eyes, but I half imagine he might rupture like the villagers he and his men killed with whatever evil magick on which they thrive.

Wait. My lord. He and his men. He’s a leader. But…gods. This is no normal Eastlander. Not a commander. Not even one of their sorcerers.

I’ve just destroyed the face of their prince. Maybe even killed him if the God Knife is as deadly as Father claimed.

It has to be.

The prince presses his hand to his bleeding cheek, holding his face together at the seam. Dark eyes lit with violence, he glances at the God Knife, the blade slick with his blood. Everything about him changes, the deep red of his entire being blackening.

He reaches for the knife, but my grip is relentless. He grabs my wrist and slams my hand to the ground, but I don’t budge, keeping a death grip on the hilt.

With one last wicked roar, he lowers his heinous face an inch from mine. Blood drips from his gaping lips onto my chin, into my mouth.

“We’ll meet again, Keeper,” he mutters. “And when we do, I’m going to drive that knife into your heart and inhale your pathetic little soul.”

He won’t if he’s dead.

I thrust the blade toward his heart, but again he transforms into curling tendrils of darkness and fades away.

I lie there, blinking at the sooty sky. Shock rolls through me wave after wave. The God Knife is so oddly warm, all but humming in my hand.

Was that the God Knife’s power just now? Erasing the Prince of the East from existence? Or was it just him vanishing? Will he die from the wound to his face? How can I know?

It hurts to sit up, but I make myself. There’s not an Eastlander in sight anymore. I slip the knife into my belt and struggle to my feet, stumbling past the Witch Collector to my mother’s side where I fall to my knees. Her lips no longer move, but those marks…

I have to help her.

Eyes burning from the looming smoke, I plead to the Ancient Ones—“Loria, Loria, anim alsh tu brethah, vanya tu limm volz, sumayah, anim omio dena wil rheisah”—casting the song of life into the night like so many prayers, calling upon the moon from which I descend, willing my magick to repair the damage done to her gentle soul, all to breathe life back into her witch’s blood.

I can feel the power inside me, feel it growing.

“Loria, Loria, anim alsh tu brethah, vanya tu limm volz, sumayah, anim omio dena wil rheisah.” I envision my beautiful mother living, laughing, dancing, and I try so hard to weave the glimmering strands of her precious life back together again. “Loria! Loria! Anim alsh tu brethah! Vanya tu limm volz! Sumayah! Anim omio dena wil rheisah!”

She never stirs.

I sit there, stunned and in anguish. There’s no sound but the crack and creak of burning wood and the hiss and whipping roar of fire spreading from stead to stead. I sweep a tear-filled glance across the village.

No one moves. Not anywhere. Not even in the fiery shadows. If Mena or anyone else remained in the cottages, they’ve been burned to nothing now.

With agony gripping my heart, I force myself to stand and run into the night. The smoke is so thick that I can’t see the moon, much less the stone wall on the outskirts of the village.

But I could find my way to Finn’s shop blindfolded.

It’s burning, like everything else. The temple. The tannery. The orchards and vineyards. There are so many dead, and the whole world is on fire.

Struggling to breathe, I cover my mouth with my sleeve and scour the area for any sign of life. Any sign of Finn or his family or even sweet Tuck.

I run toward Finn’s home, trying to whistle, praying he might hear my call, only to see three bodies lying near the door, burned and blackened.

I stumble back, tears streaming down my cheeks. Two of the bodies are so small.

Betha and the twins.

After a terrible groan, the house crashes in on itself. A family, a history, people I loved—gone.

But then I remember.