The Scarlet Court's Most Wanted (Witches of the Damned Book 1) S. McPherson
IF ONE MORE person roared “Freedom is near” Kaden was going to rip out their tongue. The air was humid; his skin clammy and his patience was worn thin. His clans endless cheering only enhanced the howls of his haunted thoughts.
‘Freedom is near,’ bellowed Kaden’s cousin, Darnel, as he gyrated on one of the clan girls and gulped from his cup of ale.
Kaden cursed beneath his breath and swigged from the bronze chalice in his hand.
His tribe were feral. All night they’d danced around the camp fire, charged through the flames and pounded on the drums. For them, freedom truly was near, but for Kaden, the little freedom he’d known was coming to an end.
Ninika, one of the clan girls, caught Kaden’s eye and beckoned him over, but he shook his head. He had no desire to dance. In a matter of weeks, he would be sacrificed. Slaughtered as an offering to the Witches of the Damned. It was an honour of course, or at least, that’s what they told him. And, if it made him feel any better—which it never did—only his soul would die. His body would live on, just inhabited by another.
Kaden bit back the churn of his gut, the sorrow in his heart, and took another long drink from his cup. Chosen One; that was his title and this was his fate; to die so another could live. Blessed with power from Beyond the stars, Kaden was the only one strong enough to withstand the ritual.
Raking his fingers through his almond-brown hair, Kaden glanced up at the night sky where six scarlet stars twinkled among the rest. Four of them were already grouped together, curving towards one another. The last two drifted on the outskirts, but soon, they would align and the Scarlet Ring would be complete.
Kaden exhaled, downed the rest of his drink, and got to his feet. He had no intention of waiting for that day to come. He had no intention of his half-lived life being the only life he lived. Since birth he’d remained inside the camp; a prison with trees instead of bars. The rest of his clan were free to come and go as they pleased; to explore the Scarlet Court and the wonders of existence. But Kaden was a treasure to be protected, isolated; a prisoner of fate. He wasn’t born to live a normal life. He wasn’t born to live at all.
But that was about to change.
Tucking his wings in tight, Kaden turned from the festivity and slunk towards the footpath; his gaze fixed on where he was going. His thoughts on what he was about to do.
He didn’t register the girl’s high-pitched squeak until she slammed into him. ‘How fare thee, Blessed?’ An unsteady girl with a breath that reeked of wine, fell into his arms. Ninika.
Cackling, she braced her hands on Kaden’s bare chest for balance. Her dark hair was swept across her brow, and drink stained her lips. ‘Your smile is lacking tonight and your frown runs deep.’
Kaden’s mood darkened. His clan always insisted on speaking in the dialect of the Damned Witches. A pattern of speech from an archaic time when the Witches had reigned over the Scarlet Court. Before they were finally bested and banished Beyond.
Peeling her fingers off of him, Kaden propped the stumbling witch against a tree. ‘You’re drunk, Ninika.’
The witch pouted. ‘And you’re not.’
Kaden quirked a brow. ‘Am I ever?’
Alcohol was a poison and the Chosen One had to remain pure. He was never given more than a single chalice; sometimes not even that.
Sighing, Ninika pulled him close and absently swayed to the music. Her roaming fingers brushed the edges of his folded wings and Kaden tensed, unused to a female’s touch. To any touch.
Her drunken gaze drifted to the starlit sky and her throat bobbed with unspoken sorrow. ‘Did you hear they strung up another Marked today? Left her naked and beaten, tied to a mast at the pier.’
Kaden jerked. He hadn’t heard, though he supposed it was nothing new. Markeds were often beaten or butchered in the Scarlet Realm. The Marks on their skin acted as a doorway between the unliving and the living. And the unMarked feared what might come out of it. And rightly so.
As they swayed, Kaden’s gaze fell on the thin Mark of silver and black coils, that framed Ninika’s brow, then drifted to the scar along her throat from where unMarked had tried to slit her open.
Rage and regret burned in his chest. Maybe he could have stopped it if he were allowed outside of the camp. If his clan had let him use his power to protect them, rather than hiding him away until the ritual. Until his soul was destroyed and another was made to live inside his skin.
But Kaden had learnt long ago to not obsess over if-onlys and what-ifs. Life had dealt him his hand, and now he could play it or change the game. And he didn’t have much time.
As if the stars had heard him, Ninika was pulled from Kaden’s grasp and swept up in Darnel’s embrace.
The muscular mage shot Kaden a wicked look. ‘Let me take her off your hands, cousin. I have more use for her than you.’ He grasped Ninika’s rear and yanked her close. She squealed as they spun into the fray and disappeared among the dancers.
Seizing the moment, Kaden slipped away and hastened up the footpath. The hilltops were steep but he climbed without hesitation. He welcomed the burn of his calves and the bloated air in his lungs.
The night was peppered with scents of lilacs and daisies. A gentle breeze ruffled his hair. Birds cawed somewhere in the distance. Kaden savoured it all and promised himself that this wasn’t the end. That he would live on to experience all that life had to offer. That he would die old and exhausted from all that he’d done.
As he crested the peak, a beige tent came into view. Its canvas billowed in the breeze and tendrils of pink power rippled around it. Kaden slowed and scanned the shadows for any guards that patrolled the area but none were close by. They were all down with the others celebrating the alignment of the Fourth scarlet star.
With a steadying breath, Kaden clasped his hands together, felt the ripple of magic in his veins, and intoned, ‘Conura sword.’
Dragging one hand over the other and up, he conjured a blade of bright teal light. Then, with a final glance behind him, he pushed into the tent.
There she was; a being of legend, a fallen Star. Some called her the Seventh Star because she was once up there with the others—a scarlet gatekeeper in the sky, in charge of trapping the Damned Witches in a cursed world beyond the stars. But now, she was this. Pure impossible power caged in human flesh, after she was flung from the heavens by the Witches of the Damned.
Hearing Kaden approach, she looked up. Her hair was black and streaked red. Her eyes and skin the colour of the earth. And though she was more than twice his age, no wrinkle marred her skin. Power emanated from her, but in the tent, it was bound through the use of enchantments and potions.
She was the reason the spirits of the Damned Witches somehow broke free of their cursed prison every decade and returned to the Realms. They were looking for her. The only sorceress strong enough to contain the Witch Ultima’s soul, and give her the power to rebirth her coven. Just as Kaden had been chosen—created—to host her mate.
The Seventh scowled under Kaden’s scrutiny and her lips pulled into a sneer. ‘What do you want, Chosen One?’ Her tone was as sharp as her glare.
Kaden stepped closer; the conjured blade shimmered in his grasp. ‘I’ve come to make a deal.’
She barked with laughter. ‘There is nothing you can offer me.’
Kaden lifted a brow then slashed through the iron at her wrists, as only his magic could. ‘Not even your freedom?’
The cuffs fell to the earth and the Seventh frowned. She eyed the manacles as if she expected them to leap up and clamp back around her wrists. Then at last, she lifted her gaze to his. ‘Why would you offer this?’
Kaden twirled the sword of power in his hands. ‘It turns out I don’t feel like dying before my time.’ The pulse of the blade faded but the teal gleam of his magic still added a greenish tint to his tanned skin. ‘That’s why I plan to sail to the Temple of the Marked and find the Crown of Quinera. According to legend, it will only reveal itself to you.’
The Crown of Quinera was one of the Three Relics required to slay the Witch Ultima. It had been left in the Scarlet Realm when the Stars first visited in human form and shared mere fragments of their power with every mage and witch they encountered. At the time, the magic had been a gift. Now it had become their curse. It branded them with the Marks on their skin and gave the Damned coven access to their bodies, minds and souls.
But the wearer of Quinera’s Crown could change that. For as long as they wore it, they would have the ability to kill the Ultima, using the final two relics; the Sword and the Shield of Avinair. Most believed that the wearer was destined to be the Seventh; that only diamond could pierce diamond, and only a Star could pierce a Star. But the legends didn’t know about Kaden; a boy born and built from the power of the Ultima herself.
The Seventh massaged her blistered wrists. ‘What makes you think you can find the Crown?’ She scoffed. ‘The power of the Seventh Star has saturated my bloodline for centuries. In that time, myself and my ancestors have searched the Temple high and low. Yet we never found it. The Crown never revealed itself.’ She tipped her head. ‘Do you know what that means, boy? It means the time is not right. That for now, we must let fate run its course.’
Kaden clenched his jaw. He’d hoped the promise of her freedom would sway her but she was as stubborn as he’d feared. For years, she’d claimed her connection to the Stars made her wiser than most; let her see things that others couldn’t. And for that reason, she’d never tried to get away.
‘This time is different.’
Below, his clan roared and fear spiked in Kaden’s chest. It wouldn’t be long before the guards returned to check on her.
‘This time you will have me.’ He fought to keep the desperation from his voice, but his entire plan, his entire survival, hinged on the Seventh’s support. ‘What if me being here now is fate?’