SEVEN YEARS AGO Lancashire, England
The first thing you learned on the job as a Hollower was to never trust your eyes.
Nash, of course, had a different way of saying it: All sorcery is half illusion.
The other half, unfortunately, was blood-soaked terror.
In that moment, though, I wasn’t scared. I was as angry as a spitting cat.
They’d left me behind. Again.
I braced my hands on either side of the garden shed’s doorframe, drawing as close as I could to the enchanted passageway without entering. Hollowers called these dark tunnels Veins because they carried you from one location to another in an instant. In this case, to the vault of a long-dead sorceress, containing her most prized possessions.
I checked the time on the cracked screen of Nash’s ancient cell phone. It had been forty-eight minutes since I watched them disappear into the Vein. I hadn’t been able to run fast enough to catch up, and if they’d heard my shouts, they’d ignored me.
The phone screen blinked to black as the battery finally croaked.
“Hello?” I called, fiddling with the key they’d left in the lock—one of the sorceress’s finger bones, dipped into a bit of her blood. “I’m not going back to camp, so you may as well just tell me when it’s safe to come in! Do you hear me?”
Only the passage answered, breathing out whorls of snow. Great. The Sorceress Edda had chosen to put her collection of relics somewhere even colder than England in the winter.
The fact that Cabell and Nash weren’t answering had my insides squirming. But Nash had never been deterred by the promise of danger, and he was about to discover I wouldn’t be deterred by anyone, least of all my rotten bastard of a guardian.
“Cabell?” I said, louder this time. The cold gripped my words, leaving white streaks in the air. A shiver rippled through me. “Is everything all right? I’m coming in whether you want me to or not!”
Of course Nash had taken Cabell with him. Cabell was useful
to him. But if I wasn’t there, there was no one to make sure my brother didn’t end up hurt, or worse.
The sun was shy, hiding behind silver clouds. Behind me, an abandoned stone cottage kept watch over the nearby fields. The air was quiet, which always stirred up my nerves. I held my breath, straining my ears to listen. No humming traffic, no drone of passing airplanes, not even a chirp from a bird. It was like everyone else knew better than to come to this cursed place, and Nash was the only idiot too stupid and greedy to risk it.
But a moment later, a fresh wave of snow carried Cabell’s voice to me.
“Tamsin?” He sounded excited, at least. “Watch your head as you come in!”
I plunged into the Vein’s disorienting darkness. Outside was nothing compared to the barbed cold that wrapped around me now, knifing at my skin until I couldn’t draw breath.
In two steps, the round doorway at the other end of the Vein carved itself out of the black air. In three, it became a vivid wall of ghostly light. Blue, almost like—
I glanced down at the broken chunks of ice scattered around the doorway, at the swirling curse sigils carved into them. I turned, searching for Cabell, but a hand caught me, stopping me in my tracks.
“I told you to stay at the camp.” With his head lamp on, Nash’s face was in shadow, but I could feel the anger radiating from him like the warmth from his skin. “We’ll have words about this, Tamsin.”
“What are you going to do, ground me?” I asked, riding high on my victory.
“Perhaps I will, you wee fool,” he said. “Never do anything without knowing the cost.”
The light from his head lamp danced over me, then swung upward. My gaze followed.
Icicles jutted down from the ceiling. Hundreds of them, all capped with razor-sharp steel, poised to fall at any moment. The walls, the ground, the ceiling—all of it was solid ice.
Even in the darkness, Cabell was easy to spot in his tattered yellow windbreaker. Relief poured through me as I made my way to his side, crouching to help him pick up unused crystals. He’d used the stones to absorb the magic of the curses surrounding the doorways. Once the curses were nullified, Nash had taken his axe to their sigils.
All Hollowers could perform a version of what Cabell was doing, but they could only clear curses with tools they’d bought off sorceresses.
Cabell was special, even among the Hollowers with special magic. He was the first Expeller in centuries—someone who could redirect the magic of a curse away from one source and into another, deflecting spells from our path.
The only curse Cabell couldn’t seem to break was his own.
“What curse was this, Tamsin?” Nash asked, pointing the steel toe of his boot toward a sigil-marked chunk of ice. At my look, he added, “You said you wanted to learn.”
Sigils were symbols used by the sorceresses to shape magic and bind it to a location or object. Nash had come up with stupid names for all the curse marks.
“Wraith Shadow,” I said, rolling my eyes. “A spirit would have followed us through the vault, tormenting us and tearing at our skin.”
“And this one?” Nash pressed, nudging a chunk of carved stone my way.
“White Eyes,” I said. “So, whoever crossed the threshold would be blinded and left to wander the vault until they froze to death.”
“They probably would have been impaled before they froze,” Cabell said cheerfully, pointing to a different sigil. His pale skin was pink from the cold or excitement, and he didn’t seem to notice the flakes of ice in his black hair.
“Fair point, well made,” Nash said, and my brother beamed.
The walls exhaled cold air around us. An otherworldly song rippled through the ice, cracking and twanging like an old tree playing puppet to the wind. There was only one way forward—the narrow pathway to our right.
I shivered, rubbing my arms. “Can we just find your stupid dagger and go?”
Cabell reached into his bag, retrieving fresh crystals for the curses that lined the hallway. I kept my eyes on him, tracking his every move, but Nash’s gloved hand caught my shoulder when I tried to follow.
Nash tutted. “Aren’t you forgetting something?” he asked knowingly.
I blew a strand of blond hair off my face, annoyed. “I don’t need it.”
“And I don’t need attitude from a sprite of a girl, yet here we are,” Nash said, rummaging through my bag for a bundle of purple silk. He unwrapped it, holding the Hand of Glory out to me.
I didn’t have the One Vision—something Cabell and Nash reminded me of every infernal chance they got. Unlike them, I had no magic of my own. A Hand of Glory could unlock any door, even one protected by a skeleton knob, but its most important purpose, at least to me, was to illuminate magic hidden to the human eye.
I hated it. I hated being different—a problem that Nash had to solve.
“Whew, he’s getting a bit crusty, isn’t he?” Nash asked, lighting the dark wick of each finger in turn.
“It’s your turn to give him the bath,” I said. The last thing I wanted to do was spend another evening massaging a fresh coat of human lard into the severed left hand of a prolific eighteenth-century murderer who’d been hanged for his crime of annihilating four families.
“Wake up, Ignatius,” I ordered. Nash had attached him to an iron candlestick base, but that didn’t make holding him any nicer.
I turned the Hand of Glory so the palm faced me. The bright blue eye nestled into its waxy skin blinked open—then narrowed in disappointment.
“Yup,” I told it. “I’m still alive.”
The eye rolled.
“The feeling’s mutual, you impertinent piece of pickled flesh,” I muttered, adjusting the stiff, curled fingers until they cracked back into place.
“Good afternoon, handsome,” Nash crooned. “You know, Tamsy, a little sugar makes everything nice.”
I glowered at him.
“You wanted to come,” he said. “Think about the cost next time, eh?”
The smell of burning hair filled my nostrils. I switched Ignatius into my left hand, and my view of the world flickered as his light spread along the surface of the ice, bathing it in an unearthly glow. I sucked in a sharp breath.
The curse sigils were everywhere—on the ground, on the walls, on the ceiling—all swirling in and out of one another.
Cabell knelt at the entrance to the path. Sweat beaded on his forehead as he worked to redirect the curses into the crystals he slowly set out in front of him.
“Cab needs a break,” I told Nash.
“He can handle it,” Nash said.
Cabell nodded, setting his shoulders back. “I’m fine. I can keep going.”
A drip of burning lard scalded my thumb. I hissed at Ignatius, meeting his narrow, spiteful gaze with one of my own.
“No,” I told him firmly. I wasn’t going to set him down beside Cabell like I knew he wanted. First, because I didn’t have to obey the commands of a severed hand—actually, I didn’t need another reason beyond that.
Just to torment the impertinent hand, I held Ignatius out toward the wall at my right, pushing the exposed eye closer and closer to its frozen surface. I wasn’t a good enough person to feel guilty about the quiver that moved through his stiff joints.
The heat of his flames cut through the heavy coat of frost on the wall, and as each drip of water snaked down it, it revealed a dark shape on the other side.
A gasp tore out of me. The heel of my sneaker caught the ice as I stumbled back, and before I could even register what was happening, I was falling.
Nash shot forward with a startled grunt, catching my arm in an iron grip. The chill of the nearby wall kissed my scalp.
My heart was still hammering, my lungs throbbing to catch their next breath, as Nash eased me upright. Cabell rushed to my side, grabbing my shoulders, checking to make sure I wasn’t hurt. I knew the moment he saw what I’d glimpsed through the ice. His already white face turned bloodless. His fingers tightened with terror.
There was a man in the ice, made monstrous by death. The pressure of the ice looked to have broken his jaw, which gaped open unnaturally wide in one last silent scream. A shock of white hair framed his ice-burned cheeks. His spine was bent at tortured angles.
“Ah, Woodrow. I was wondering what he’d gotten up to,” Nash said, taking a step forward to study the body. “Poor bastard.”
Cabell gripped my wrist, turning Ignatius’s light back toward the tunnel ahead. Dark shadows stained the gleaming ice like bruises. A grim gallery of bodies.
I lost count at thirteen.
My brother was trembling, shaking hard enough that his teeth chattered. His dark eyes met my blue ones. “There are . . . there are so many of them . . .”
I wrapped my arms around him. “It’s okay . . . it’s okay . . .”
But fear had him in its grip; it had ignited his curse. Dark bristles broke out along his neck and spine, and the bones of his face were shifting with sickening cracks, taking on the shape of a terrifying hound.
“Cabell,” came Nash’s voice, calm and low. “Where was King Arthur’s dagger forged?”
“It . . .” Cabell’s voice sounded strange rasping through elongating teeth. “It was . . .”
“Where, Cabell?” Nash pressed.
“What are you—?” I began, only for Nash to quiet me with a look. The ice moaned around us. I tightened my grip on Cabell, feeling his spine curl.
“It was forged . . .” Cabell’s eyes narrowed with focus as they landed on Nash. “In . . . Avalon.”
“That’s right. Along with Excalibur.” Nash knelt in front of us, and Cabell’s body went still. The hair that had burst through his skin receded, leaving rashlike marks. “Do you remember the other name Avalonians use for their isle?”
Cabell’s face started to shift back, and he grimaced in pain. But his eyes never left Nash’s face.
“Ynys . . . Ynys Afallach.”
“Got it on the first try, of course,” Nash said, rising. He put a hand on each of our shoulders. “You’ve cleared the bulk of the curses already, my boy. You can wait here with Tamsin until I return.”
“No,” Cabell said, swiping at his eyes with his sleeves. “I want to come.”
And I wasn’t going to let him go without me.
Nash nodded and started down the hallway, passing the lantern back to Cabell and aiming his head lamp down the stretch of bodies. “This reminds me of a tale . . .”
?” I muttered. Couldn’t he see that Cabell was still rattled? He was only pretending to be brave, but pretending had always been enough for Nash.
“In ages past, in a kingdom lost to time, a king named Arthur ruled man and Fair Folk alike,” Nash began, carefully making his way around the crystals. He used the tip of his axe to scratch out the curse sigils as he passed by them. “But it is not him I speak of now—rather, the fair isle of Avalon.
A place where apples grow that can heal all ailments, and priestesses tend to those who live among its divine groves. For a time, Arthur’s own half sister Morgana belonged to their order. She served as a wise and fair counsel to him, despite how many of those Victorian-era shills chose to remember her.”
He’d told us this tale before. A hundred times, around a hundred different smoky campfires. As if Arthur and his knights were accompanying us on all our jobs . . . but it was a good kind of familiar.
I focused on the sound of Nash’s warm, rumbly voice, not the horrible faces around us. The blood frozen in halos around them.
“The priestesses honor the goddess who created the very land Arthur came to rule—some say she made it from her own heart.”
“That’s stupid,” I whispered, my voice trembling only a little. Cabell reached back, taking my hand tight in his own.
Nash snorted. “Maybe to you, girl, but to them, their stories are as real as you or me. The isle was once part of our world, where Glastonbury Tor now proudly stands, but many centuries ago, when new religions rose and man grew to fear and hate magic, it was splintered away, becoming one of the Otherlands. There, priestesses, druids, and Fair Folk escaped the dangers of the mortal world, and lived in peace . . .”
“Until the sorceresses rebelled,” Cabell said, risking a look around. His voice was growing stronger.
“Until the sorceresses rebelled,” Nash agreed. “The sorceresses we know today are the descendants of those who were banished from Avalon, after taking to darker magic . . .”
I focused on the feel of Cabell’s hand, his fingers squeezing tight as we passed by the last body and moved through a stone archway. Beyond it, the ice-slick path wound its way down. We stopped again when Cabell felt—before he even saw—a curse sigil buried underfoot.
“Why are you so desperate to find this stupid dagger, anyway?” I asked, hugging my arms to my chest to try to keep warm.
Nash had spent the last year searching, blowing off paying work and easier finds. I’d
found us the lead for this vault . . . not that Nash would ever acknowledge the research I did.
“You don’t think finding a legendary relic is reason enough?” he asked, swiping at his red-tipped nose. “When you desire something, you must fight for it tooth and claw, or not at all.”
“It’s clear,” Cabell said, standing again. “We can keep going.”
Nash moved ahead of us. “Remember, my wee imps, that Sorceress Edda was renowned for her love of trickery. All will not be what it first seems.”
It only took a few steps to understand what he meant.
It began with a kerosene lantern, casually left beside one of the bodies in the ice, as if the hunter had merely set it down, leaned forward against the freezing surface, and been swallowed whole.
We passed it without a second look.
Next was the ladder, the one that offered safety for the long climb down to a lower level.
We used our ropes.
Then, just as the temperature plunged deeper into a killing freeze, a pristine white fur coat. So soft and warm and just the kind that an absent-minded sorceress might have left behind, tossing it over an equally tempting crate of food jars. Take me,
they whispered. Use me.
And pay the price in blood.
Ignatius’s light revealed the truth. The razors and rusted nails lining the interior of the coat. The spiders waiting in the jars. All but one rung missing from the ladder. Even the lantern was filled with the Smothering Mother, a vapor that tightened your lungs until breathing became impossible, made from the blood of a mother who’d killed her children. Anyone who opened the glass to light the wick would be dead in an instant.
We passed it all, Cabell redirecting the dark magic of the curses laid between each trap. Finally, after what seemed like hours, we reached the inner chamber of the vault.
The round chamber shone with the same pale, icy light. At its center was an altar, and there, sitting on a velvet pillow, was a dagger with a bone-white hilt.
And Nash, who never struggled for a word, was silent. Not happy, like I would have thought. Not bouncing on his toes with glee as Cabell broke the last of the curses protecting it.
“What’s the matter with you?” I demanded. “Don’t tell me it’s not the right dagger.”
“No, it is,” Nash said, his voice taking on a strange tone. Cabell stepped back from the altar, allowing Nash to come forward.
“Well,” he breathed out, his hand hovering above the hilt for an instant before closing around it.
“What now?” Cabell asked, peering down at it.
A better question was probably who he was going to sell it to. Maybe, for once, we could afford a decent place to live and food to eat.
“Now,” Nash said quietly, holding the blade up into the gleaming light. “We go to Tintagel and recover the true prize.”
We traveled to Cornwall by train, arriving just as a fierce storm blew in over the cliffs and ensnared the dark ruins of Tintagel Castle in its wild, thundering depths. After we battled to set up our tent in the lashing rain and wind, I crashed into sleep. The bodies in the ice were waiting for me in dreams, only now they weren’t Hollowers, but King Arthur and his knights.
Nash stood in front of them, his back to me as he watched the surface of the ice rippling like water. I opened my mouth to speak, but no sound came out. Not even a scream as he stepped forward through the ice, as if to join them.
I jolted awake with a gasp, twisting and thrashing to free myself from my sleeping bag. The first bit of sunlight gave the red fabric of our tent a faint glow.
Enough for me to see that I was alone. They’re gone.
Static filled my ears, turning my body to pins and needles. My fingers were too numb to grip the zipper on the tent’s flap. They’re gone.
I couldn’t breathe. I knew it. I knew it. I knew it. I knew it.
They’d left me behind again.
With a frustrated scream, I broke the zipper and ripped the flap away, tumbling out into the cold mud.
The rain came down in torrents, battering my hair and bare feet as I swung my gaze around. A thick mist churned around me, blanketing the hills. Trapping me there, alone.
“Cabell?” I yelled. “Cabell, where are you?”
I ran into the mist, the rocks and heather and thistle biting at my toes. I didn’t feel any of it. There was only the scream building in my chest, burning and burning.
“Cabell!” I screamed. “Nash!”
My foot caught on something and I fell, rolling against the ground until I hit another stone and the air blasted out of me. I couldn’t draw in another breath. Everything hurt.
And the scream broke open, and became something else.
“Cabell,” I sobbed. The tears were hot, even as the rain lashed against my face. What good will you be to us?
“Please,” I begged, curling up. The sea roared back as it battered the rocky shore. “Please . . . I can be good . . . please . . .” Don’t leave me here.
“Tam . . . sin . . . ?”
At first, I thought I had imagined it.
“Tamsin?” His voice was small, almost swallowed by the storm.
I pushed up, fighting against the sucking grass and mud, searching for him.
For a moment, the mists parted at the top of the hill, and there he was, as pale as a ghost, his black hair plastered to his skull. His near-black eyes unfocused.
I slipped and struggled up the hill, clawing at the grass and stones until I reached him. I wrapped my arms around him. “Are you okay? Cab, are you okay? What happened? Where did you go?”
“He’s gone.” Cabell’s voice was as thin as a thread. His skin felt like a block of ice, and I could see a tinge of blue to his lips. “I woke up and he was gone. He left his things . . . I looked for him, but he’s . . .” Gone.
But Cabell was here. I hugged him tighter, feeling him cling back. Feeling his tears become rain on my shoulder. I had never hated Nash more for being everything I always thought he was.
A coward. A thief. A liar.
“H-he’ll be back, won’t he?” Cabell whispered. “Maybe he just f-f-forgot to say where he was g-going?”
I didn’t want to ever lie to Cabell, so I didn’t say anything.
“W-we should go b-back and wait—”
We would be waiting forever. I felt the truth of it down to my bones. Nash had finally unloaded his hangers-on. He was never coming back. The only mercy was that he hadn’t taken Cabell with him.
“We’re okay,” I whispered. “We’re okay. We’re all we need. We’re okay . . .”
Nash said that some spells had to be spoken three times to take hold, but I wasn’t stupid enough to believe that, either. I wasn’t one of the girls from the gilded pages of storybooks. I had no magic.
I only had Cabell.
The dark bristles were spreading across his skin again, and I felt the bones of his spine shifting, threatening to realign. I held him tighter. Fear swirled in the pit of my stomach. Nash had always been the one to pull Cabell back to himself, even when he fully shifted.
Now Cabell only had me.
I swallowed, shielding him from the driving rain and wind. And then I started to speak: “In ages past, in a kingdom lost to time, a king named Arthur ruled man and Fair Folk alike . . .”
Two of Swords
No matter what they say, or how much they lie to themselves, people don’t want the truth.
They want the story already living inside them, buried deep as marrow in the bone. The hope written across their faces in a subtle language few know how to read.
Luckily for me, I did.
The trick, of course, was to make them feel like I hadn’t seen anything at all. That I couldn’t guess who was heartsick for a lost love or desperate for a windfall of money, or who wanted to break free from an illness they’d never escape. It all came down to a simple desire, as predictable as it was achingly human: to hear their wish spoken by someone outside themselves—as if that somehow had the power to make it all come true. Magic.
But wishes were nothing more than wasted breath fading into the air, and magic always took more than it gave.
No one wanted to hear the truth, and that was fine by me. The lies paid better; the bald-faced realities, as my boss Myrtle—the Mystic Maven of Mystic Maven Tarot—once pointed out, only got me raging internet reviews.
I rubbed my arms beneath the crochet shawl, eyes darting to the digital timer to my right: 0:30 . . . 0:29 . . . 0:28 . . .
“I’m sensing . . . yes, I’m sensing you have another question,” I said, pressing two fingers against my forehead. “One that’s your real reason for coming here.”
The glowing essential oil diffuser gurgled contentedly behind me. Its steady stream of patchouli and rosemary was powerless against the smell of deep-fried calamari drifting up through the old floorboards and the rancid stench of the dumpsters out back. The cramped, dark room circled in tighter around me as I breathed through my mouth.
Mystic Maven had occupied its room above Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace for decades, bearing witness to the succession of tacky seafood restaurants that cycled in and out of the building’s ground level. Including, most recently, the particularly malodorous Lobster Larry’s.
“I mean . . . ,” my client began, looking around at the peeling strips of floral wallpaper, the small statues of Buddha and Isis, then back down to the spread of cards I’d placed on the table between us. “Well . . .”
“Anything?” I tried again. “How you’ll do on your finals? Future career? Hurricane season? If your apartment is haunted?”
My phone came to the end of the playlist of harmonic rain and wind chimes. I reached down to restart it. In the silence that followed, the dusty battery-powered candles flickered on the shelves around us. The darkness gathered between them hid just how dingy the room was. Come on,
I thought, half desperate.
It had been six long hours of listening to chanting-monk tracks and mindlessly rearranging crystals on the nearby shelves between what few customers had come in. Cabell had to have the key by now, and after finishing up with this reading, I’d be able to leave for my real gig.
Franklin opened his mouth, only to be cut off by the digital wail of my timer.
Before I could react, the door swung open and a girl barreled inside.
“Finally!” she said, parting the cheap beaded curtain with a dramatic sweep of her hands. “My turn!”
Franklin turned to gawk at her, his expression shifting as he assessed her with clear interest—the way she all but vibrated with excited energy made it difficult to look anywhere else. Her dark brown skin was dusted with a faint shimmer, likely from whatever cream she used, which smelled like honey and vanilla. Her braids were twisted back into two high buns on her head, and she’d painted her lips a deep purple.
After giving Franklin a quick once-over in return, she quirked her lips in my direction. In her hand was her ever-present portable CD player and foam-covered earphones, relics of simpler technological yesteryears. As someone incapable of throwing anything away, I was begrudgingly charmed by them.
But the charm quickly faded as she turned her belt around and tucked both into what appeared to be a pink fanny pack. One with fluorescent cats and the words i’m meow-gical emblazoned across it in glow-in-the-dark green.
“Neve.” I tried not to sigh. “I didn’t realize we had an appointment today.”
Her smile was blinding as she read the painted message on the door. “Walk-ins Welcome!
“I was going to ask when we’re getting back together—” Franklin protested.
“We have to save something for the next time, don’t we?” I said sweetly.
He grabbed his backpack with an uncertain look. “You . . . you’re not going to tell anyone I came, are you?”
I gestured to the sign over my right shoulder, all readings are confidential, then to the one directly below it, we are not liable for any decisions you make based on these readings, which had been added three minor lawsuits too late.
“See you next time,” I said with a little wave that I hoped didn’t look half as threatening as it felt.
Neve swept into his seat, propping her elbows on the table. She rested her chin on her palm with an expectant look.
“So,” she said. “How’s it going, girl? Any interesting jobs lately? Any nefaaaarious curses you’ve untangled?”
I shot a horrified look at the door, but Franklin was already out of earshot.
“What question would you like answered by the cards today?” I asked pointedly.
I’d accidentally left my work gloves—made from a distinctly reptilian hide called dragonscale—hanging out of my bag two weeks ago, and Neve had recognized them and made the unfortunate connection about my real job. Her knowledge of Hollowers and magic meant she was likely one of the Cunningfolk, a catchall term for people with a magic gift. Although I’d never seen her around the usual haunts.
She reached into the pocket of her shaggy black fur coat and pressed a rumpled twenty-dollar bill onto the table between us. Enough for fifteen minutes.
I could do fifteen more minutes.
“Your life is so exciting,” Neve said with a happy sigh, as if imagining herself in my place. “I was just reading about the Sorceress Hilde the other day—did she really sharpen her teeth like a cat’s? That seems painful. How do you eat without constantly biting the inside of your mouth?”
I tried not to bristle as I leaned back against my chair and set the timer. Fifteen minutes. Just fifteen.
“Your question?” I pressed, wrapping Myrtle’s crochet shawl tighter around my shoulders.
In truth, being a Hollower was 98 percent boring research, 2 percent deadly misadventures trying to open sorceresses’ vaults and tombs. Reducing it to light, glorified gossip prickled every nerve in my being.
Neve tugged at her black shirt, distorting the image of the pink rib cage that covered it. Her jeans were ripped in places, the tears revealing the shock of purple tights beneath. “Not very talkative, are you, Tamsin Lark? Okay, fine. I have the same question I always have: Am I going to find what I’m looking for?”
I glared at the cards as I shuffled, focusing on the feeling of them fluttering between my fingers, and not the intensity of her stare. For all the bounce in her step and the cheeriness of her words, her eyes were dark pools, always threatening to draw you in deeper with their ribbons of gold. They reminded me of my brother’s tiger’s-eye crystals, and made me wonder if they were connected to her magic gift—not that I’d ever cared enough to ask.
After seven shuffles, I started to draw the first card, only for her hand to catch mine.
“Can I pick today?” she asked.
“I mean . . . if you want to,” I said, fanning them out facedown on the table. “Choose three.”
She took her time in selecting them, humming a soft song I didn’t recognize. “What do you think people would do if they found out about sorceresses?”
“What they always do when they suspect witches,” I said dryly.
“Here’s the thing.” Neve hovered her fingers over each card in turn. “I think they would try to use
their power for their own ends. Sorceresses have spells that predict the future more accurately than tarot, right? And find things . . .” And curses that kill things,
I thought to myself, glancing at the timer. The part of me stirred that suspected all these visits might be a ruse to size me up for a potential recovery job. Most of the work Cabell and I did as Hollowers was for-hire; we went into vaults looking for lost or stolen family heirlooms and the like.
Neve laid two rows of three cards out on the table, then sat back with a satisfied nod.
“I only need one row,” I protested, then stopped. It didn’t matter. Anything to kill these last ten minutes. I gathered the remaining cards into a neat pile. “Go ahead and flip them.”
Neve turned over the bottom row. Wheel of Fortune reversed, Five of Wands, Three of Swords.
Her face scrunched up in annoyance.
“I read the three positions as situation, action, and the outcome,” I explained, though I suspected she knew all this. “Here, the Wheel of Fortune reversed is saying that you’ve been drawn into a situation that is beyond your control, and that you’ll have to work harder to see your search through. Five of Wands advises you to wait out the situation and not jump into things if you don’t have to. And the outcome, with Three of Swords, is usually a disappointment so I’m going with, you won’t find whatever it is you’re looking for, through no fault of your own.”
I turned over the pile of cards in my hand. “Bottom of the deck—the root of the situation—is Page of Wands reversed.”
I almost laughed. It was the card that always came up in her readings, signaling impatience and naïveté. If I actually believed in this tripe, it’d be pretty clear the universe was trying to send her a message.
“Well, that’s just the cards’ opinion,” Neve said. “Doesn’t mean it’s true. And besides, life wouldn’t be half as fun if we couldn’t prove people wrong.”
“Sure,” I agreed. The question was on the tip of my tongue. What exactly are you looking for?
“Now let’s do you,” Neve said, turning over the second row of cards. “And see the answer to whatever’s been on your
“No,” I protested, “really, that’s—”
She was already laying cards out: the Fool, the Tower, and the Seven of Swords.
“Oooh,” she said, all drama as she took my hands in hers. “An unforeseen event will liberate you to explore a new path, but you must watch out for a person who seeks to betray you! What question has been on your
“No question,” I said, extracting myself from her grip. “Except what I’m having for dinner.”
Neve laughed, pushing her chair back. I looked down at the timer.
“You still have another five minutes,” I told her.
“That’s all right, I got what I needed.” She freed her CD player from her atrocious fanny pack, hooking the earphones around her neck. “Hey, what are you doing tomorrow night?”
Money was money. Resigned, I reached for the leather-bound book beside me. “I’ll put you down for an appointment. What time?”
“No, I mean to hang out.” Seeing my blank look, Neve added, “To hang out,
a phrase commonly used to suggest that people grab a meal together, or see a movie, or literally do anything that involves enjoyment.”
I froze. Maybe I’d read this situation completely wrong. My words were as awkward as they were stilted when I finally managed to get them out. “Oh . . . I’m sorry . . . I’m not into girls.”
Neve’s laugh was like chiming bells. “Tragic for you, but you’re not my type. I meant as friends.”
My hands curled under the velvet tablecloth. “I’m not allowed to be friends with clients.”
Her smile faded for a moment, and I knew she’d recognized the lie for what it was. “Okay, no problem.”
She lifted her old foam headphones over her ears as she turned to go. They did nothing to stop the reverberating bass and distorted whine of melancholic guitars from leaking out. A woman’s cosmic wailing flooded into the room, backed by a shuddering drumbeat that made me feel anxious just hearing it.
“What in thundering hell are you listening to?” I asked before I could stop myself.
“Cocteau Twins,” Neve said, pushing up her headphones. Her eyes glittered with excitement.
“Have you heard of them? They’re amazing
—every song is like a dream.”
“They can’t be that amazing if I’ve never heard of them,” I said. “You should turn it down before you lose your hearing.”
She ignored me.
“Their songs are like different worlds.” Neve wound the headphone cord around the bulky device.
“I know it seems silly, but when I listen to them, it pushes everything else away. Nothing else matters. You don’t have to feel anything but the music. Sorry, you probably don’t care.”
I didn’t, but guilt welled in me all the same. Neve made her way to the door just as Cabell opened it. He blinked at the sight of her before she brushed past.
“Bye!” Neve called, hurrying down the stairs. “Until we meet again, Oracle!”
“Another satisfied customer?” My brother lingered in the doorway, brows raised as he ran a hand through his shoulder-length black hair.
“But of course,” I said, throwing Myrtle’s shawl down. After scraping my tangled hair back into a ponytail, I gathered up the cards, neatening them into a pile. I reached for the small velvet bag I used to store them, only to stop when I saw what was at the top of the deck.
I had never liked the Moon card. It wasn’t anything I could explain, and that only made me hate it more. Every time I looked at it, it was like trying to tow a sinking memory back to the front of my mind, which had never forgotten anything before.
I drew the card closer, studying the image. It was impossible to tell if the moon’s luminous face was sleeping or merely contemplating the long path below. In the distance, misty blue hills waited, guarded by two stone towers, silent sentinels to whatever truth lay beyond the horizon.
A wolf and a dog, brothers in fear, one wild, the other tame, howled up at the glowing orb in the sky. Near their feet, a crayfish crawled from the edge of a pool.
My gaze drifted to the dark hound again, my stomach tightening.
“How did it go today?” Cabell asked, drawing my attention back to him.
After taking my cut of the day’s earnings and locking the rest in the safe, I held up two hundred-dollar bills.
“Hey, hey. Look who’s buying dinner tonight,” he said. “I await the fabled Lobster Larry’s Unlimited Seafood Tower.”
My brother was all lanky height and had little meat on his bones, but he looked perfectly comfortable in what I’d come to think of as the tried-and-true uniform of Hollowers: loose brown slacks and a belt laden with the tools of the trade, including a hand axe, crystals, and vials of fast-acting poison and antivenom.
All of which were needed if you wanted to empty the sorceress’s vault of the treasures she’d hoarded over the centuries and keep both life and limb.
“Why not just eat garbage from the dumpster out back instead?” I said. “You’ll get the same dining experience.”
“I take that to mean you want to stop by the library and try to drop in on some potential clients before we order pizza for the tenth night in a row,” he said.
“What happened with the key for the Sorceress Gaia’s job?” I asked, reaching for my bag. “Was there a match in the library’s collection, or did you have to go to the Bonecutter after all?”
To open a sealed Vein, one of the magic pathways the sorceresses created for themselves, we needed bone and blood from the one who created it, or her kin. The Bonecutter sourced and procured them.
“Had to ask the Bonecutter,” he said, passing it to me to examine. This key looked like two finger bones welded with a seam of gold. “We’re all set to open the tomb this weekend.”
“God’s teeth,” I muttered. “What did the key cost us?”
“Just the usual,” he said, shrugging a shoulder. “A favor.”
“We can’t keep handing out favors,” I said tightly, making quick work of switching off the music and the battery-powered candles.
“Why not?” He leaned a hip against the doorframe.
The small movement—that careless tone of voice—brought me up short. He’d never reminded me more of Nash, the crook of a man who had reluctantly raised us and drawn us into his profession, only to abandon us to it.
Cabell cast a quick look around my Mystic Maven setup. “You’ll have to ditch this bullshit gig if you want to be able to pay the Bonecutter with actual coin next time.”
Somehow we’d arrived at my least-favorite conversation yet again. “This ‘bullshit gig’ buys us groceries and pays for the roof over our heads. You
could ask for more shifts at the tattoo parlor.”
“You know that’s not what I mean.” Cabell let out another irritating hum. “If we just went after a legendary relic—”
“If we just found a unicorn,” I interrupted. “If we just uncovered a lost trove of pirates’ treasure. If we just caught a falling star and put it in our pockets . . .”
“All right,” Cabell said, his smile falling. “Enough. You’ve made your point.”
We weren’t like the other Hollowers and Nash, who chased mist and dreams. Sure, selling a legendary object on the black market could make you thousands, if not millions, but the cost was years of searching for an ever-dwindling number of relics. The magic users of other parts of the world had secured their treasures, leaving only Europe’s up for grabs. And, besides, we’d never had the right resources for a big get.
“Real money comes from real jobs,” I reminded him. And whether I liked it or not, Mystic Maven was a real job, one with flexible hours and fair wages graciously paid under the table. We needed it to supplement the for-hire work we took from the guild library’s job board, especially as the number of those postings thinned and clients cheaped out on the finder’s fees.
Mystic Maven may have been a tourist trap built on incense and fish-stick-scented woo-woo nonsense, but it had given us the one thing we’d never had before. Stability.
Nash had never enrolled us in school. He had never forged identity paperwork for either of us, the two orphans he’d collected from different sides of the world like two more of his stupid trinkets. What we had was this world of Hollowers and sorceresses, unknown and unseen by nearly everyone else. We’d been raised at the knee of jealousy, fed by the hand of envy, and sheltered under the roof of greed.
The truth was, Nash hadn’t just forced both of us into this world—he had trapped us in it.
I liked the life we had carved out for ourselves, and the small measure of stability we’d scrounged now that we were older and could fend for ourselves.
Unfortunately, Cabell wanted what Nash had: the potential, the glory, the high of a find.
His lips compressed as he scratched at his wrist. “Nash always said—”
“Do not,” I warned, “quote Nash at me.”
Cabell flinched, and for once, I didn’t care.
“Why do you always do that?” he asked. “Shut down any mention of him—”
“Because he doesn’t deserve the breath it takes to say his name,” I said.
Draping my leather satchel over my shoulder, I forced a tight smile onto my face. “Come on, we’ll check the library’s job board and then stop by the Sorceress Madrigal’s to give her the brooch.”
Cabell shuddered at the mention of the sorceress’s name. I patted his shoulder. In all fairness, she’d fixated on him at the consultation with an intensity that had alarmed both of us, even before she decided to lick a drop of sweat from his cheek.
I locked up and followed Cabell down the creaking staircase and out into the boisterous night. Tourists milled around us, merry and pink-cheeked from the crisp early-autumn air.
I narrowly avoided colliding with several of them as they craned their heads to gawk at the Quincy Market building. The sight of them leaning in for photos in front of restaurants, eating apple cider donuts, pushing strollers with sleepy kids up the cobblestones toward their hotels.
It was a vision of a life I’d never known, and never would.
Copyright © 2023 by Alexandra Bracken. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.