Witch Heart

CHAPTER ONE

Twenty-three years as the handmaiden: of a daaeman had prepared Claire for many things, but not this. Nothing could have prepared her for this.

She huddled back against a brick wall, the cold seeping through her thin dress, and watched the inky shadows grow on the building opposite her. Discarded paper disturbed by the wind rustled over the pavement and a sudden bloom of voices and laughter came from the mouth of the alley and gradually faded away.

Still the shadows grew.

Claire glanced at the street beyond the pocket of shadows in which she'd secreted herself, where pale yellow light from street lamps pooled on the sidewalk. She didn't think she could make it. She didn't think she could outrun them.

There were few people in the world—any of the worlds—who could outrun a determined daaeman, especially an Atrika.

The alien earth sighed and shuddered far beyond the concrete beneath her feet, reacting to her dulled and confused magick. This place, this Earth, was nothing like she remembered. The place she barely recalled was green, soft, and redolent with fragrant, growing things. This place was hard and chilly. Too loud. It hurt her eyes with sharp edges and bright lights.

Part of her had longed to return to this place, even while most of her had feared it. Claire knew now she'd been right to fear.

Pass me by. Please, pass by.

The odd dry tang of Rue's magick still flavored the back of her mouth. The hot rush of it had faded to something bitter. It tingled through her body, giving her the shakes from time to time as her body struggled to contain this thing that was so much bigger than her. She wasn't meant to hold this power. She wasn't made for it. It wasn't hers. The elium, the most powerful weapon of the Ytrayi. Or at least, that's what she suspected it was. Whatever it was, the Atrika wanted it and that could only mean her death.

The only question was whether it would come slow or fast.

She squeezed her eyes shut, remembering. It had only happened yesterday, but it seemed like years had passed. When the Atrika had breached the palace defenses, Rue had taken her to the portal room with the intention of destroying the interdimensional doorway that bridged Earth and Eudae with her help.

But when the Atrika had broken into the chamber, Rue had blasted her with a ball of magick so strong it had momentarily taken her sense of sight, smell, and hearing. As he'd meant it to, the blast had catapulted her backward, into the doorway. Rue had meant to destroy the portal after she'd fallen through, and undoubtedly he had, but not before two Atrika had lunged in after her.

On the Earth side of the portal, she'd taken one single moment to orient herself and then had lurched forward into a run for her life, knowing the Atrika would be fast behind her. Even though her stomach had been heaving with the aftermath of her fall through the doorway, even though her head had been ready to split like a too ripe melon, she'd run.

But not fast enough. Not far enough. And she certainly hadn't hidden well enough.

Last night she'd climbed a set of metal stairs and curled up on the top of a building to sleep with the sounds of a city she almost remembered, but not quite, below her. In the morning, forced to find food, she'd climbed down and had done her level best to avoid the two Atrika she'd known were hunting her.

In all her years on Eudae she'd never even seen an Atrika