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Updated: Aug 15, 2021

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Pandora's Box

A fire roars in the hearth behind a grate, as if this room—or someone inside it—has been waiting for us.

I know this place.…

The space is round and warm, made of hardwood floors and stone walls. Candles, both stout and tall, burn in every nook, harboring flames of all different hues. It looks like we’ve entered a Shakespearean cottage, sprinkled with the witchy quirks of the Enchanted Comet.

This is the room Peter-Paul opened the door to in the last moments before my resurrection.

I look down at my hand. The rune is brighter than it was before, a subtle, shimmering light snaking through the lines.

“What is this place?” Soren asks, performing a quick survey of the room. Books, rugs, scrolls unfurled on the desk. An assortment of well-cared-for and strange plants. It looks like a study, and judging by the dust situation, no one has been here recently.

Soren goes to the door and sets his ear against it, listening, then shakes his head at me. Reaching for the handle, he gingerly pulls at it only to find it’s locked.

We’re trapped inside.

“I’ve been here,” I answer. “Or, almost. I saw through a door into this room when I died. Do you think it’s some sort of test of the afterlife?” I freeze. “Do you think we’re dead right now?” I look around for the portal, but it seems to have disappeared.

“No,” Soren says, shaking his head slowly. “I think our magic brought us here for some reason.”

Our magic. A thrill shoots through me.

He circles the room, the wood floors creaking under his feet as I pour over an assortment of bottles I find on one of the shelves. Whose study was this? Were they an alchemist? A healer? I frown at the rather large supply of firehazel.

There are pictures sitting on the mantle that span generations. Pairs of faces stare up at me from behind glass, frames propped poignantly to display a chronology I don’t understand. When I get to the end, I frown, disbelieving my eyes. In the last picture, I swear it’s my mother, standing next to a man who looks almost exactly like Soren.

Whipping my head toward him, I will the words to come.

“Mika, over here.” Soren motions me, voice urgent.

I join him, peeking around his shoulder. Spread across the desk is a scroll marked with practice sketches of a rune. My breath falters as I hold my palm out for comparison. It’s the same.

We’ve found the very place where the rune that marked me in death was conceptualized.

Oh, we’re definitely dead.

I look up at Soren and swallow. “What does it mean?” I ask quietly, my mind flashing through a thousand justifications.

It grinds to a shrieking halt when I see what’s sitting further back on the desk—the jewelry box. The one Sab and I used in our attempt to summon my mother. The same one that I know is in my room at this very moment.

I can feel Soren’s careful eyes on me as I delicately reach out to touch it. Before my fingers even brush against its polished wooden frame, it bursts open, flickering, and I realize it’s an illusion that my presence has triggered.

“I know that song,” Soren frowns as the nursery rhyme begins to trill. “Why do I know that song?”

“It was the lullaby my mother sang to me,” I answer, looking up at him. “The one I hear sometimes in my dreams.”

The fires dull to embers behind the grate. Soren and I take a step back as the room falls to darkness.

And then, she appears.

Pandora Carrow.

I grasp desperately for Soren, because the last time I saw my mother, there was fire in her eyes. He yanks me back into the corner of the room, throwing his body in front of me. When the woman before us finally speaks, shivers hurtle up my spine.

“My dearest Michlynn.” She says my name like it’s a kiss, and my heart lurches. “Please don’t be afraid.”

Soren hesitates, his body slackening uncertainly. When her eyes don’t follow us to the corner, I realize it’s not real. She’s not actually here.

It’s just a message.

A strange sound escapes me, like the cry of a wounded animal. I gasp for air as I take in the full glory of my mother’s youth, pristinely conserved by the enchantment that’s tethered her image to the jewelry box.

She looks so real and so ordinary, and it’s a million times worse than the deranged face on the “WANTED” poster that is branded into my brain.

“If you’ve found this message, like I hope you one day will, then one of two things has happened. Either you have found Soren Cain”—I look up to find a wildness in Soren’s eyes—“or, someone has exercised great power against you. If anyone meant to harm you to the grave, the gatekeeper will have led you here.”

Setting my hand on Soren’s arm, I nudge him aside and creep forward. My limbs sing with adrenaline as I move to examine her, blinking back the flashes I have of my mother’s last, defiant roar.

“Mika,” he cautions, moving just behind me. I feel him near and look over to see the concern etched on his brow.

“This place,” she says, gesturing around her, bound by the borders of her ethereal light, “is yours. It has been passed down through generations. A haven. A refuge when you need it. You will learn to master and grow it, as those before you have.”

I hadn’t realized how much my memory of her face had been transformed by time. This vision of my mother is entirely lucid, her wide blue eyes kind. She’s not the nightmare I’ve feared. She’s just Mom.

Righter memories crawl back into my mind, tucking themselves into my heart, and a great shame overwhelms me. How could I have let the world teach me who my mother had been, when I was the one who knew her?

How could I have let them paint her only as a monster, as if she had never been a person?

“I’m sure you are wondering why,” she says softly, and I wipe an escaped tear from my cheek. “Why I’m not there to tell you these things myself. The reason is simple, Mika. I have seen the world break, and all that’s in it. Not our world, but another. One quite like ours. I am trying to stop it, but if what I’ve witnessed has anything to say about the fate of men, it is that we’re full of frail intentions, and often powerless to change.”

My mother is so lifelike, it’s devastating. I can see the pores in her skin, smell the fragrance of her hair. Baked apples and cinnamon. Memories come flooding back, unsuppressed.

Who was she, when she left this message? How old had I been? If I reach up to touch her now, will she feel like candlelight?

I turn to Soren, finding his watchful eyes trained on me. He evaluates my expression with a question in his eye, and my brow dips. I don’t know, I think. I don’t know if I’m okay.

Giving a little nod, he moves infinitesimally closer.

“The witches in my lineage—in yours—are prone to forming something called soul-ties,” my mother says, staring out into the room. I move past the margins of her gaze, positioning myself in the place where she’s fixed her unseeing eyes. I want to believe, even if just for a second, that she can see me. “These ties are consuming, powerful, often obsessive. They wed the magic of two witches together in profound ways, but they are also terribly volatile when resisted, when the magic of the two never joins.

“I have been soul-tied to the High Chancellor. Despite our longtime friendship, Luca Cain has always resisted the bond. Such magic would ask everything of us, and I understand his refusal. But because we have never performed the rites necessary to legitimize the soul-tie, the bond between us is fracturing. The longer our magic goes unbonded, the more the soul-tie forces a power struggle between us.”

Soren stiffens at the mention of his father, his breath ragged as he listens. For some reason, I lean into his body, and he sets a sturdy hand on my shoulder. We may have escaped the shock of a terrorist appearing before us, but the emotional bomb is heavy, and I have a feeling it’s yet to fully detonate.

“I’ve seen what this fight does to a person,” my mother’s voice drops somberly. “I’ve witnessed a version of myself be driven mad by the thing her power desired most. I’ve watched her destroy all that she held dear, simply because she could not have it. I know that what was in her, is also in me.

“I’m scared, Mika. Not only of what I’m capable of, but of passing this burden to you. I’ve learned that unrequited soul-ties are often inherited, and—”

Her voice breaks, the confidence of her message fracturing with her slip of fear. She soon recovers, straightening her back, returning to the poise expected of a once respectable leader.

“One day, you may meet Soren Cain and find yourself in a similar position. I want you to be better prepared than I was. To be free, and full, and unafraid.”

My attention shifts to Soren, our eyes hesitant. Soul-ties? Is that what this strange thing is that ignites between us? I’m unsure of my mother’s words, and now Soren seems unsure of me.

“Whatever magic you possess—little or much—will call to his, and his to yours,” the mirage continues.

I stare down at my hand, then over to Soren’s. Something hard grows in my stomach. A fear, knotting itself up there.

“To protect you, I bound most of your conjuring magic. Should you and Soren inherit this soul-tie, you will have a fighting chance if one of you doesn’t choose it.”

Her finger begins to sketch in the air, faster than any Runer I’ve ever seen. The symbol catches in the light, suspended mid-air. She turns it so it flattens, shrinks, and then holds out her palm as if offering me a flower blossom.

I can’t help but reach for it, and the rune already imprinted on my palm lights up like it’s being re-written.

“I’ve given Soren the rune that will unlock your binding. But Mika... you are also the key to steadying him. Soren’s soul will have troubles in our world, and performing the rites to legitimize the soul-tie is the only way for him to be truly safe.”

He exhales beside me sharply, and I turn hesitantly to inspect him, sifting through the flickering emotions he permits to cross his face. Brow furrowed, his face crumples into a grimace on the edge of breaking. I know Soren feels my eyes on him, but he refuses to meet them. No words of mine could be enough.

Swallowing, I turn back to my mother, her face carved with caution.

“I don’t know when it will happen, or how. Maybe we will have many years together, Mika.” She smiles. “Maybe we will have the chance to be a family. Maybe Luca will change his mind. But ultimately, this is his choice, and now I must give you yours: to remain who you know yourself to be, or to mature into something far greater, at far higher risk.

“I leave you with one last thing,” my mother offers. “A name. Pippa Loxley. She will be able to answer any questions you may have. Find her. I love you, Michlynn. Always.”

The mirage sputters on the last word, leaving it hanging in the space hauntingly. Her image dims to a mere glimmer and soon, it’s just a handful of dust motes sparkling in the air.

The room warms, returning to normal with unsettling transition, as if it hasn’t just changed everything.

“We have to get out of here,” I breathe, voice staggering against its will to burst. Soren takes my hand, and I don’t know how we do it, but the portal illuminates between us and he takes me home.

When we get back to his room, he asks if I’m okay. I don’t know what the truth is, because being a ghost is one thing. Seeing one is another.

All this time, I’ve wanted answers. Now that I have them, I’m not so sure I’m better off for it. Am I relieved to learn that my mother seemed to know her fate all along? That my father’s fears for my future are legitimate? Am I glad to discover I have more conjuring magic than I believed, or that there’s a reason I feel myself ignite when I’m around Soren Cain?

Looking at him now, his hair wild, a whiplash of emotion spread across his face—concern, fear, wrath, bewilderment… No. No, I am not relieved. I’m not happy to have these answers.

This is possibly worse than anything I could’ve imagined.

I stare at him. “Take off your shirt,” I command.

“What?” His brows cave in in confusion. Instead of giving him a moment to understand, I reach for him, ripping open the buttons of his vest.

He must be shell-shocked, because I get pretty far into this task before he seems to realize it’s happening and sets his hands gently on my arms to stop me.

“Consent, Mika,” he says, frowning down at me.

I roll my eyes, which seems to deconstruct any seductress intentions he thinks I might have. “I know where it is, the rune she gave you,” I clarify, and he shrugs off his vest, my fingers hurriedly working on the next set of buttons.

This certainly isn’t how I’d imagined this would happen, rabidly pulling the clothes off of a guy because of my questionably intentioned mother. In the back of my mind—okay, at the front of it—I realize how totally sexy this had the potential to be.

Unfortunately, I have other emotional priorities right now. For example, grappling with the fact that my mom bound my powers, and used this guy as the key.


I tug the sleeve of his left arm down, ignoring the very amused look that he’s giving me from my periphery. There it is: the big blank spot on the round curve of his shoulder that no rune can touch.

“Here,” I say, pointing at it. It hits me then that he’s half-naked thanks to me, and I need to take my hands off his very sculpted body before I get myself into different kinds of trouble.

“You’ve never thought about why nothing would stick here?” I ask, cocking my head at him.

His jaw tenses in response. Ah.

“So you have thought about why.” I glower. “Did you know? About this soul-tie thing?”

Soren’s brow creases. “No. I’ve seen the rune, though. I was never able to get it to stay visible for longer than a few seconds at a time. But I was able to draw it and—”

“Let me guess, it looks like mi—"

“Would you let me finish?” He cuts in, exasperated.

I huff. “Fine. What were you going to say?”

“That was basically it. It looks like yours. That’s why I’ve done some research, that’s how I figured it was some sort of binding spell.”

“And you never thought to tell me, not even once, that we had an eerily similar-looking mysterious rune that neither of us had an explanation for? Care to explain that part?”

He shrugs. “I told you what I knew. I didn’t think the rest was important.”

“What?!” I stare at him, sussing him out for lies. Unfortunately, it’s not like Soren has ever been all that forthcoming with anything that’s not specifically and forcibly relevant.

“You’re going to have to work on that,” I growl, “this whole omission thing you have going on. It’s not flattering. It’s not helpful to the people around you. It’s unthoughtful and sometimes cruel.”

Softening, I lean back against his chair and rest my head in my hands. “I know you are just trying to protect yourself. But you don’t have to have everything figured out all the time. You can ask for help.”

“True as that may be now, it has not been in my past.”

I think about how he’s grown up without parents, without an acknowledgment of who and what he is. How his relationship with his uncle is tainted with lies that could be dangerous if the truth ever came out, and I understand how Soren might feel differently about the whole sharing-is-caring sentiment.

“So what do we do now?” I ask, looking up at him.

There’s something so honest about Soren Cain right now, in this specific moment. It’s more than the fact that I can see his six-pack—though, there is that. It’s the entire image of him disheveled, lit by the embers of a dying fire, eyes tired and full of admission. The coldness has thawed from his face due to pure exhaustion, and half of his shirt is hanging off like he can’t decide whether to put it back on or take it off.

And this right here is the picture of Soren I need to brand into my brain—a guy who can’t decide between the right thing to do and the wrong thing, and so he remains forever trapped between the two, masking the dissonance of his desires with the distance that reads as coldness to others.

Soren motions for my hand and I offer it. “Hold it against my shoulder and let’s see what it does.”

I shift, leaning up over him from my spot on the floor, and place my hand hesitantly against his skin. Swallowing, I draw my hand slowly away and watch as the invisible markings appear underneath his flesh. It’s like a light has been buried inside each of us, and it’s shining out through the scar on my hand, through the symbol on his shoulder. Where my rune dips in, his dips out—just like a lock and key. There’s no denying that some sort of magic is swirling around in these symbols, primed for its release.

“This type of rune is complex enough that it will need to be cut to come into power.”

“Like, cut into your skin?”

“Yes, Mika. Like the rest of my runes. I imagine she imprinted it underneath my skin, like a sketch for me to follow when—if—you were ever ready.”

Clenching my jaw, I remove my hand. The light from our respective runes immediately fades.

“I’m sorry, Mika. I should have told you about having the rune. I don’t know why I didn’t.”

“Habit,” I say, not feeling half as spiteful as I want. “You heard. We are ‘often powerless to change.’”

“I heard,” he nods. “‘All we have is our choices.’ I should have chosen better. From the very beginning, I should have done right by you.” He sighs, shrugging his shirt back up over his shoulder. “What do you want, Mika?”

He looks at me in that intense way he does, and I feel like he’s asking such an open-ended question. There are so many conflicting things I want at the same time that they cancel themselves out inside of me.

I want to pass my exams.

I want to remain inconsequential.

I want Soren’s spell to work, and his soul to steady.

I want history to rewrite my mother.

And I definitely don’t want Soren to put his shirt back on.

“I don’t know what I want,” I say quietly, and it manages to be both a lie and the truth. It’s the exact language that Soren understands.

He leans in and sets his large hand on my shoulder, squeezing. “You don’t have to know anything right now. It’s been a long night. I’m going to sleep. Would you like to stay on the couch?”

My gaze shifts to said couch, unseeingly. I don’t want to be here, but I don’t want to be anywhere else. I don’t want to be in my own skin. Is this what it feels like to be Soren? I stare down at my hands as if my magic will speak up and lend an answer.

Finally, I shake my head. “I’ll go back.”

Soren reaches for my hand, guiding me to the door, and I’m so off my game that I let him. “Walk you?”

“I’m okay, thanks.”

All I can think as I trudge back to my room is how fitting it is that Pandora Carrow put her message inside the illusion of a jewelry box, because it sure feels like she just let all of Hell loose on my life.

Every time I reread this chapter, my soul feels a little OOF. What were you expecting the conversation would be like if Mika ever got answers from her mom? Was this it?

xx Jessa


Copyright © 2019 Jessa Lucas

All rights reserved. This work or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

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