TABLE OF CONTENTS!
Warmth washed over her skin — pleasant, like the sun’s caress, chasing away the cold. For a moment, she experienced weightlessness. It was hard to place what she felt, but she couldn’t help but think it felt like coming home.
Frustration bubbled up from the pit of her stomach when she realized that her eyes felt hot and stung. She frantically brushed away her tears before they had a chance to fall, silently damning herself for her sentimentality. It was stupid. She was stupid.
Even lower than where her worry sat in her stomach, she felt relief. For the first time since leaving Vegas, she felt safe.
What the hell sort of magic is this?
Eli took a tentative step forward, testing the earth beneath her feet. She didn’t know what she was looking for, but every part of her subconscious demanded that she proceed cautiously. It was a sensation at agonizing odds with the rightness Elizaveta felt in the marrow of her bones. When the earth beneath her didn’t bottom out, she allowed her strides to grow more purposeful.
It wasn’t long before she reached a fork. Dirt paths carved their way through the forest’s dense underbrush, where a wooden sign stood, made from mismatched wood and shapes, pointed in different directions. DUSK HOLLOW, NETHERBROOKE, THE HERETIC’S WOODS, WITCH FALLS. The longer she stared, the more places seemed to appear. It was enough to make her eyes go cross.
She decided that she would follow the sign for Dusk Hollow.
On a primal level, she understood that she was walking into the unknown. By all rights, she should have been petrified. And yet, she couldn’t bring herself to feel anything but comfort. Warmth. She even tried to dampen her mood by thinking about Landyn and the many ways he had hurt her over the years. And still, nothing changed her mood.
With mounting agitation—or rather, muted annoyance—she plodded her way through the woodlands. The paths were clearly labeled, carving straight lines through the forests. It didn’t take very long before she stepped through the trees and found herself standing on the outskirts of what appeared to be a town.
The bubble around her popped. The strange pleasantness washed off her, sliding from her frame like an ichor she was too keen to shed. She shivered, twisting in place to rid herself of its lingering residue.
Once she was satisfied that nothing was sticking to her skin or clinging to her back, she blinked owlishly at her surroundings. Somehow, she had managed to find her way back to Sanctuary Hills. But how? She took a few steps into the town and almost immediately realized that this was someplace different. The old buildings boasted signs that read APOTECHARY and ALCHEMIST. Some promised fortune-telling and divination: palmistry, tarot, crystal-ball readings.
A strange sense of wonder overtook her. Her pace quickened. The world snapped into sharp focus around her in a kaleidoscope of scents, sounds, and sights. Standing in front of an antique bookstore stood a woman with black eyes and gray gills around the crown of her head. Further down the road, she saw a Werewolf sprinting across the street with a bag clutched in its jaw.
It was truly remarkable how closely it resembled its sister town. But there was no uneasy quiet here. She didn’t feel like she was being watched.
It became all too clear why Omnus hadn’t been able to infiltrate Sanctuary Hills.
They were looking in the wrong place!
Her face lit up with wonder as she walked, drinking in the sights. Despite being overrun by the supernatural, this place didn’t seem much different from any other New England town. They had everything one could think of here—a laundromat, a general goods store, a craft supply, restaurants, and cafés. However, this stretch seemed better suited for Witches, as almost every other store had “mystics” or “enchantments” in the name.
The sky was growing dark overhead. The streetlights flickered on. Instead of the harsh fluorescent buzzing, the lights greeted her with softly crackling purple flames. It cast the streets in an eerie glow that felt almost nostalgic. Almost as if they had been a part of a life, she had spent many years mourning.
Her head was spinning. She was overwhelmed. But strangely, in only the best way.
Eli found a park bench and settled there, smoking her cigarette as the world passed her.
A buxom brunette with glittering fangs and a lingerie corset sauntered past her. Her wardrobe said “costume,” but her scent said “vampire.” The woman caught her looking and gifted her a cheeky wink. For the first time in as long as Eli could remember, she flushed and shifted her attention back to her cigarette. The vampire tittered in amusement and carried on her way, drawing her attention with the sensual sway of her hips.
Past her shapely posterior, she caught sight of what looked to be a bar. Its stone exterior was coated in thick ivy patches and climbing flowers. Its sign was made of a dark, well-maintained wood: THE HOWL.
Her lips twisted in amusement as she pushed herself to her feet. Her mind raced with the possibilities. The carved full moon that hung over the front door made her think that the impossible was about to become a reality. She had found an actual Werewolf bar.
Delighted, she pushed the door open and was immediately greeted by a raucous crowd. A gaggle of leather-clad Werewolves lingered in the corner, holding a lively game of darts. A few were clad in flannel, playing pool only a few feet away.
There was a hodgepodge of tables strewn across the space. Everything was mismatched and had clearly seen better days. Most of the chairs looked like they wobbled, and every surface looked like a chunk had been taken out of it or clawed to pieces. By all appearances, it was like any other gross dive bar. She was pleased to note that the acrid, acidic stench of gone-off liquor and vomit was nowhere to be found. Instead, she smelled something citrusy and sweet. Vanilla and blood-orange?
She did everything in her power to hide her wide-eyed expression. She had been around the block enough times to know it was dangerous to be an outsider. Something told her that the bar’s patrons would sniff her out quickly. That is if they hadn’t already.
A dark-haired man stood behind the bar. He spoke with the same nasally inflection of every native-Maine-born. His voice was thunderous, making it impossible to hear anything but him, even over the chatter of those sitting at the bar.
“What can I get for ya?” He asked, sharply turning his attention to Eli.
She froze momentarily at the sudden attention paid to her. “Uh,” she cleared her throat. “I’m looking for whatever is good.”
The bartender’s lips twisted in amusement. “Ah. Been a while since we’ve had someone from away!”
Her confusion must have shown on her face.
“Someone not born here,” he explained. Eli tried not to grimace at how he said “he-ah.”
“Ah,” she smiled. “Yeah. Just got into town. Hopin’ to stay for a while. What’s the house specialty?”
He chuckled, looking around like he was searching for something. “Ain’t got nothin’ of note but the company, darlin’.” He stooped over, producing a glass from beneath the bar. “But, judgin’ by your accent, you’re from far away. So allow me to be the first to make you a ‘fat ass in a glass.”
Eli’s lips twisted in amusement. “I’ll never turn down a fat ass.’”
“You and me both,” he laughed. With almost breakneck speed, her drink was done and pushed into her hands. “On the house,” he winked. “First one’s always free!”
She took the first sip and let out an appraising sound.
“Allen’s coffee brandy and milk,” he explained, swiping his rag over the bar to clean up imaginary rings. “How ya enjoyin’ it?”
“It’s good,” she nodded. “I’m usually a whiskey girl.”
“Careful now,” he warned in a low growl. “That’s how you get proposed to here at The Howl.”
She chuckled, shaking her head. “Sorry, but I’m off the market.”
“So am I,” he said, pointing to an obsidian ring around his meaty finger. “I thought I was hiring a chef, but I hired my wife instead.”
Eli’s lips twisted into an amused smile. “Two for the price of one?”
The bartender let out a bark of laughter. “It’s more like the price of four now.”
“Congrats on the pups,” she smiled past her glass.
“Oh, no pups yet. There’s one cooking in the oven. She just insisted on an increased salary. She says she’s never off the clock between both kitchens and the bedroom.”
It was Eli’s turn to laugh. “Smart lady.”
“That she is.” He held out his hand for her to take. “M’name’s Eddy.”
“Nice to meet you. I’m Eli.”
Eddy pulled a contemplative look. “Is Eli short for anything?”
“Eliza.” The lie rolled easily off her tongue.
He grimaced sympathetically. “I see why you shortened it.”
They shared a laugh.
“So, is there anything that I should know about? Being new to town?”
The bartender’s eyes rolled dramatically. “How much time you got?”
“Well,” Eli looked down at her watch. “Got nowhere to be until closing time in Sanctuary Hills.”
“Well then.” Eddy grinned. “Let’s get you another drink, shall we?”
Eddy poured her round after round, slipping away only when another patron required his attention. She learned a great deal. Mainly, the Covens maintained control over far more of the town than they should have. Eddy told her about the different Packs and Vampiric circles. Dusk Hollow was a democracy, from what she gathered, though the Witches seemed to think they were above it all. Werewolves and Shifters were primarily responsible for physical protection, while the Witches and Demons maintained the town’s magical reserves. He offered a few cautionary warnings and suggested where it might be best for her to find a place to live. “You’re not gonna have any luck in Sanctuary Hills,” he warned. “And I wouldn’t want to stay there if I was you.”
“Why is that?” She asked, tracing the sweat of her glass.
“Because our kind isn’t welcome there.”
She chuckled. “That would require them knowing about our kind.”
Eddy watched her steadily for a long moment. “They do know.”
She frowned, her spine growing rigid. “The humans know about us?”
“Well…” Eddy frowned, his posture growing stiff for the first time since they had started talking. “Not the humans, necessarily. Just some of them. We can’t have a community like this without hunters.”
Eli grew still. “Hunters?”
“Aye.” He traced the inside of his cheek with his tongue. “Be careful while you’re there. If you can, try to keep as much of your business here. Which isn’t that hard. We have pretty much everything you could ask for.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” she said, offering a watery smile. It wasn’t her she was concerned about.
It was Yui.
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