Chapter One

Fatigue settled into my bones as I hunched my head and shoulders against the frigid wind pressing into my chest, fighting for every step through the snow. We—me and the other survivors of the last round of Winterfest Games—had been hiking through the Colorado mountains since the crack of dawn, stopping only for quick breaks to drink water and shovel protein bars into our mouths.

The day before, we’d fought a grueling battle against the woman who’d orchestrated the deadly games we’d been forced to compete in. While we’d managed to prevail over her and her army of bloodthirsty vampire minions and escape, the effort had taken a toll. At any moment, I expected my legs to call it quits and secede from my body.

“I’m too old for this shit!”

My friend Cleo Dawes gave a tired laugh. “You make it sound like you’re one hundred and four instead of forty.”

I waved her comment off. “Spoken…like a true…twentysomething.” Gasping, I struggled to suck oxygen into my beleaguered lungs.

On my other side, Bobbi Burke staggered into the wind without a peep. The fact that she hadn’t replied with a quick quip told me just how tired she was.

My fists clenched as frustration swirled inside me, mirroring the icy wind and snow that had been pelting us for a short eternity. After setting up camp on the riverbank the previous night, we’d awoken to a fresh, powdery blanket covering the frozen ground.

We couldn’t rest on our laurels. If we hoped to survive, we had to get ourselves on neutral ground, find proper shelter, and gather food.

From behind me, Michelle’s soft sobs drifted to my ears, accompanied by her mother Sabrina’s singsong crooning. “Don’t cry, sweetie. We’re safe now. All we have to do is put one foot in front of the other today. And tonight, we’ll be sleeping in Cassidy’s nice, warm cabin.”

Michelle’s twin sister, Terry, was back there with their father Justin too. Several other contestants kept pace with them.

Poor kiddos. They had to be running on empty, but we couldn’t stop. If we all kept moving, we could make it to our destination by sundown.

The Artemis Chalet—the new sister property to the Green Huntress Lodge, where this latest horror show started—was at our backs. Serenity, the ringmaster of this shitshow, operated both properties. No doubt, she’d rallied her troops—and by troops, I meant vampires—by now. There was no way I was going to lead these people to either lodge under the circumstances.

The safest spot I could think of was Sylvie’s cabin back in Silvery Pines. It was less than a mile from the Green Huntress, but hopefully that was far enough to avoid detection. We’d have to be careful. Serenity would have her minions on high alert. She wanted the artifacts I’d recovered along the river. Two of the three pieces of a broken magical sword were safely tucked away in my backpack. She had the hilt, while I had the broken blade.

Getting us to retrieve those items had been the purpose of the last round of the Winterfest Games. She’d pitted teams against each other in the scavenger hunt from Hell.

I glanced at Bobbi again. She was bundled up from head to toe with strawberry-blond curls poking out from underneath her fuzzy hat. When we met in the bar at the Green Huntress Lodge, the two of us had hit it off right away.

My gaze moved to Cleo. Her watchful golden-brown eyes glowed, and every so often, she’d stop, listen, and sniff the air. I’d met her on my first day in town. She’d been friends with Sylvie, who’d let her crash at her cabin anytime she wanted.

She also happened to be a lynx shifter.

Our path led us to where the woods and river merged. My mind twisted the bare tree branches into grasping claws ready to snatch us away into the awaiting gloom. The forest cloaked us like a heavy blanket, making it hard to see what lurked in the shadows beyond. The wind howled in gusts like a ravenous beast and whistled through the pine needles.

Beneath our feet, the ground felt hard and treacherous. Every step on the icy path crunched louder than the last, as if we were walking across brittle bones. Fear nipped at my heels as I pressed on. The farther we journeyed, the more I sensed unseen eyes watching.

A twig snapped in the distance, and my heart leapt into my throat. I stopped dead and threw up my hand to signal for silence. Narrowing my eyes, I tried to pinpoint the source of the disturbance. Every cracked branch, every sloshy plop of snow falling from the trees, had me almost jumping out of my skin.

Overhead, the gathering clouds darkened. Sunlight disappeared, leaving our party in muted shadows. The group stayed close behind, their faces pale with fear and uncertainty. All of us stayed on high alert.

Cleo spotted gondola cables in the distance. A warning that we’d entered the danger zone.

At any point, Serenity could send her lackeys to attack.

Tension ran thick in the air as we trudged on. In my backpack, the artifacts buzzed like a livewire. The energy pulsing off the blades added to my already frayed nerves.

A few weeks ago, when I came to Silvery Pines, Colorado, to pack up Sylvie’s cabin, I’d had no idea what was in store. If someone had told me then that I, Cassidy Wright, possessed magical abilities, I would’ve laughed in their face. But after everything I’d discovered since arriving in the small mountain town, perhaps the fact that I did, indeed, possess special powers, was the least alarming.

Thinking back to my childhood, I’d always felt like an outsider, never quite fitting in with the rest of my genteel, Southern family.

Where they thrived in the sunshiny Florida weather, I found the heat oppressive. Although I didn’t get to experience much cold weather in Jacksonville, I craved it. Now, here, in the middle of a Colorado snowstorm, I was finally in my element.

Go figure.

Probably the biggest shocker of the last few weeks was learning that Aunt Sylvie—the woman I’d been kindred spirits with since I could walk and talk—was my biological mom. And, along with her cabin, she’d left me a magical journal.

Within the leather bound book’s pages, I’d read about some of the supernatural beings my birth mom had encountered. As bizarre as it had first sounded, vampires and other magical creatures were real. They kept their secret identities veiled by using a glamour and acting like regular people.

I shook my head.

What would my daughter Shay say if she knew her mom could summon and control snow and ice, temporarily freeze magical creatures, and enter other people’s dreams?

Thankfully, she was far away from here at the University of Georgia. Although I missed her terribly, I was glad college had saved her from the complete fustercluck that was my life these days.

Without warning, the sky erupted, pelting us with ice and snow. Gusty winds swept across the river. If these conditions continued, we’d find ourselves smack dab in the middle of a whiteout blizzard. I’d shake my fist at the sky if I wasn’t so terrified of tempting fate and slapping an even worse pile of horrors onto our plates. One lesson I’d learned so far in Colorado, though? Things could always get worse.

Shielding my eyes, I struggled to see more than a few inches in front of my face. As fear snaked around my heart and squeezed, I screamed for Cleo and Bobbi, praying I’d hear them reply.

I reached for the snow magic that ran in my blood, but the song was a faint whisper. Between the exhaustion and scant caloric intake, I was running on empty.

Justin’s voice boomed through the haze as he shouted for Sabrina and his girls. He must’ve gotten separated from Terry. On the back of another howling wind, Bobbi called out, “Cassidy, where are you?”

“Over here!” I hoped with everything inside me that Bobbi could hear me. “Stay where you are and keep talking. I’m coming to you.”

Closing my eyes, I tunneled into my core, reaching for the song of magic inside me with every ounce of strength I possessed. The only power I felt came from the buzzing vibrations of the sword fragments in my bag, their presence like an itch I couldn’t scratch.

“Where are you, Cassidy?” Bobbi’s faint cry echoed through the storm.

Keeping my hands extended as a shield, I took slow steps forward, pushing myself through the snow toward Bobbi’s voice. “Coming!”

The outline of Bobbi’s dark, blue-striped dry suit came into view.

Stumbling closer, I found her clutching the trunk of a sapling pine.

Another pair of arms wound around the thin tree too. As I advanced toward them, I strained my eyes to make out the second figure. “Bobbi?”

“And Michelle,” the frightened teenager answered.

I reached the tree and hugged its trunk, too, as snow and hail continued to pelt us. “Where’s your sister? And your parents?”

“I-I don’t know. I was with my mom, and then…” The young girl trembled, clinging to the pine for dear life.

“Michelle?” Sabrina’s distant cry floated on the wailing wind. “Terry? Justin?” With each name she called out, her voice grew more frantic.

“We’re over here!” I just hoped Terry and Justin were unharmed too. “Follow my voice.”

“Where are you? Michelle? Terry? Justin?” Sabrina’s screams grew fainter, snatched away by the howling wind.

The storm grew wilder with each passing moment. I tried again to summon my power, to calm the raging weather, squeezing my eyes shut and attempting to drown out the chaos around me.

Nothing.

Desperate for help, I managed to stagger to the edge of the river, fighting the wind and snow that pummeled my frozen cheeks.

Once there, I crouched and scrawled an ancient symbol in the snow from memory. “Please, I need your help. Please, come.”

A wizard’s face appeared beneath the rippling water. His long, white beard seemed to dance as hail barreled against the river’s surface.

“Help us,” I begged, anxiety leeching into my voice as Benedict’s face disappeared beneath the waves.

A wizard who’d been friends with my birth mom, Benedict was supposed to meet up with us at some point. Then, with his help, we could finish removing the tattoos binding the contestants to the games and free our group so they could return home to their families.

But before we could do that, he had to make a potion using the water inhabited by a magical creature called a puca. The water horse that dwelled in rivers and lakes had come to my aid more than once during the games. Pain stabbed my heart as I recalled how he’d met his untimely death last night, when Serenity plunged a blade through his neck.

I shoved the traumatic memory aside to focus on our current problems. I hoped the potion was ready because time was not on our side.

A few moments later, the water exploded like a geyser, and Benedict appeared in the spray. Water droplets froze in the air and rained down in a glimmering shower on the wise, little wizard while he landed on the shoreline.

“I haven’t finished with the puca’s water.” He gazed up at me, his white, bushy eyebrows arched. “Why are you summoning me back so soon?”

My heart raced, my chest heaving with emotion. “I lost them. Everyone…the storm. I-I can’t control it.”

The panic simmering beneath the surface of my skin threatened to spill over like lava.

As the storm raged around us, Benedict eyed me with a startled expression that twisted into determination. “Okay. Calm yourself.”

He reached for the pendant around his neck, rubbed the vial-like charm, and chanted something in a language I didn’t understand.

Though not enough to still the storm completely, the wind slowed.

Benedict knitted his brows before turning around to scan our surroundings. “Something isn’t right here.”

Another cry pierced through the howling of the wind.

I recognized the voice.

Michelle.

I squinted toward the tree where I’d left her and Bobbi. My insides pulsed with anxiety. All I could make out were thick flurries swirling within the icy whiteout.

“Bobbi? Michelle!” I shouted into the madness of nature’s fury.

“I’ve lost her.” Bobbi wailed. “She was just here…” Terror raised the volume of her voice.

Benedict stepped forward, reaching out to take my hand in his own.

As soon as I took hold of him, a strange sensation engulfed us. The wind beating at us died down, and an invisible barrier encircled us both, forming a shield to deflect the snow and wind.

Benedict tugged on my arm to lead me toward the tree where Michelle had been. “Let’s try to help your friend.”

When we arrived, Bobbi was still hugging the sapling’s trunk like her life depended on it. As soon as we came close enough, she latched onto my free arm, weakening the protective bubble surrounding us and allowing snow flurries to seep through its transparent walls.

Benedict’s bushy brow furrowed. “Something is definitely off. I don’t like this.”

I stepped back. “Hold onto Bobbi. The snow doesn’t bother me much.”

As Bobbi took Benedict’s hand, the invisible barrier repaired itself and encompassed them.

Another gust of icy wind sent me to my knees. “We must find Cleo and the others.”

Okay, weather, you’re a little much…even for me. A little help?

Benedict shook his head with certainty. “We need to seek shelter first. This snowstorm makes locating anyone impossible.”

Panic froze me in place. Everyone was at risk if we couldn’t find shelter from this storm. But there wasn’t anything I could do to help…at least not without risking our lives.

As if answering my silent plea, Cleo emerged from the blizzard in her lynx form. She was massive, twice as big as any of the big cats I’d seen on a nature program or at the zoo. Narrowed nearly to slits, her amber eyes glowed.

She pounced beside me and nudged my shoulder with her nose. I’d never been happier to see her in my life. If anyone could withstand a blizzard, Cleo in her big, fluffy cat form could.

The others, however, wouldn’t be as lucky if the whiteout got any worse, and from what I could tell, the weather wasn’t about to let up any time soon. Just how long could Benedict maintain the shield around him and Bobbi?

If his powers worked like mine, his energy had to be fading fast.

Cleo was our only hope of locating the others.

“Can you look for the rest of the group and guide them back to us?” Exhaustion sank into my bones. “My aunt’s cabin isn’t too far now. We’ll be safe once we all get there.”

Nodding, Cleo let out a chuff and bounded back into the blizzard.

I could barely keep my eyes open as we trudged on toward the cabin. The wind howled around us, stinging my cheeks, but at least for the moment, Benedict’s shield held strong.

The surrounding cold tried its best to pierce through my skin and sap me of any energy left inside. Every breath squeezed my lungs like a weight across my chest. I wanted nothing more than to curl up and fall asleep right there on the spot, but I forced my weak legs onward.

Time passed until, finally, the outline of an A-frame cabin came into view. Relief washed over me as I led Bobbi and Benedict to the turquoise door and stumbled inside.

We’d made it.

Then came the stab of fear that felled me.

What about Cleo and the other Winterfest escapees? They were out there somewhere in the unforgiving blizzard. Would they be okay? Would the rest of the group get back in time, or freeze to death?

My thoughts jumbled together as exhaustion took over. I desperately wanted to go search for them, but my body refused to move another inch. Part of me longed to gaze out of the window and search for signs of life outside, but in defeat, I slumped onto the couch, succumbing to fatigue.

 

Chapter Two

I woke to the creak of the cabin door opening. Despite the fatigue still weighing down my body, I managed to jolt upright on the overstuffed, maroon couch, my heart pounding like hoofbeats on a racetrack.

“Who’s there?” After I croaked the question, I immediately wanted to kick myself.

Way to go, Cassidy. Why not take it a step further and leave a note on the door saying, “Hey, bad guys, come on in. Coffee’s brewing!”

I heaved a relieved sigh when Cleo stepped through the door. Snowflakes matted her tawny, windswept hair. She shook the snow from her clothes, a mournful expression on her heart-shaped face.

My eyes fixated on the door, hoping to see others follow.

No one did.

Cleo sighed, arching her back and stretching like a cat. “I’m sorry.” She made a beeline to the fireplace and started rubbing her hands together. “Serenity’s minions were out in that blizzard. I picked up the eau d’vampire stench all around me, but I couldn’t find our people.”

My heart sank. After everything we’d been through…after coming so close to freedom.

Bobbi’s mossy-green eyes widened. She voiced the question stuck in my throat. “Do you think they’re—”

Cleo shook her head. “I didn’t smell blood. Hopefully, no one’s been harmed. I picked up on some of their scents and tried to follow, but I didn’t want to risk getting too close to the lodge in this weather. My best guess is Serenity brought them back to the Green Huntress.”

I prayed the others were still alive. But even if they were, how long would Serenity keep them that way?

Would she put them in another one of her sadistic games, or would she use them to draw me out and make me deliver the sword pieces she was after?

I knew Serenity too well to believe she wouldn’t use the humans in her web as bait. She was the type of person who would do anything to get what she wanted.

Anything.

And that included using innocent people—including killing them—to achieve her goals.

“We need to go after them.” I rose from the couch, but the weight of exhaustion pressed me back down. “We can’t just leave them out there.”

Cleo turned to me, her golden-brown eyes flickering with something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. “You’re in no shape to fight her, and even if you were, we don’t know what we’re up against. You have to take care of yourself before you can protect anyone else.”

She wasn’t wrong.

Benedict sighed. “Well, we know one thing. If she’s got her vampires out hunting, we won’t be able to stay here for too long.” Taking hold of his pendant in one hand, he stretched his other toward the wall and walked the perimeter. His fingers skimmed the air around the framed wildlife photography, vibrant tapestries of all four seasons, winter landscapes, and paintings of unicorns and Bigfoot. Sylvie’s cabin was basically a New Ager’s wet dream. Colorful candles, glittering crystals, books, and her snow globe collection warred for space alongside statues of fertility goddesses. Coasters, in the signs of the Zodiac, graced every surface you could set a beverage on.

An invisible hand squeezed my ribs. Even after everything that’d happened since arriving in Silvery Pines, it was hard to believe Sylvie was gone. I felt her presence all around me in the cabin, in every quirky, decorative touch.

Benedict whispered as he walked. I couldn’t make out the words, but an electric tingle grew along my skin. Rubbing my arms, I shivered. “What are you doing?”

He skirted the cabin walls, whispering an incantation while gesturing with his free hand to the walls, as if communicating with them.

I attempted to stand again, but my legs were like jelly, and my head buzzed with dizzy energy. Why was I so exhausted?

“Putting up a cloaking spell around the cabin.” Benedict rubbed the charm. “Won’t hold for long because I’m drained. But the shield might buy us some time to figure out our next move.”

The long, brown robe he always wore swished as he made a slow circle, distracting me for a moment. Was there inherent magic in dressing like an extra from an old Charlton Heston movie, or did he just enjoy a little Gandalf cosplay?

Not helping. Focus, Cassidy.

“We have to do something about these sword fragments.” I gave the backpack sitting against the wall the stink eye. “They’re what Serenity wants.”

Benedict wiped beads of sweat from his brow. “She can’t have them. Not at any cost.” His shoulders slumped, and the dark circles under his eyes made him appear as exhausted as I felt. The shield spell he’d cast in the forest had taken its toll, and this one was clearly depleting his energy too.

Cleo joined me on the couch, curling into a graceful ball that hinted at her feline heritage. “Well, we have to figure out what to do with those things.”

“If y’all expect my brain to do any heavy lifting, I’m gonna need caffeine. I’ll put on a kettle so we can make some tea.” Bobbi turned toward the kitchen, disappearing before any of us could answer.

After the arduous trek through the snow, a mug of steaming tea would be heaven. And I didn’t blame Bobbi for offering to make us a drink as an excuse to leave the tense conversation. I wished I’d thought of that before she did.

I glared at the backpack, knowing the sword fragments inside the basic canvas bag held an immense amount of magic. We needed to do everything possible to keep power like that from falling into the wrong hands, and Serenity’s were about as wrong as it could get.

“We could destroy them.” I ran a hand through my tangled hair. “If we can’t have them, neither can she.”

Benedict shook his head. “It’s not that simple. These fragments are ancient. They hold a tremendous amount of power. We can’t destroy them without knowing what we’re dealing with.”

Cleo leaned forward, her eyes narrowing. “Then what do we do? We can’t keep them here forever.”

The little wizard shot me a questioning look. “May I take another look at the fragments?”

I pointed to the backpack. “Careful. They’re…sharp.”

Cleo pressed a hand to her chest and gasped. “You’re telling me the big pointy weapon used for slicing and dicing people is sharp? No way.”

I elbowed her in the ribs, but Benedict simply nodded.

“I remember.”

He pulled one of the two pieces of the blade from the backpack and walked over to the light. The metal shimmered beneath the glow, filling me with a sudden urge to touch it. “It’s exquisite. Expertly crafted. Not a hint of rust or wear.” He ran his thumb along the flat edge of the blade. “This was a formidable weapon in its time.”

“You think someone actually fought with this sword?” I crossed my arms. “I mean, when it was whole and all?”

“Not sure. Items created with, or imbued with, magic don’t show the same dents and dings as normal stuff.” He twisted the blade in his hands. “No evidence of the maker’s mark, so I can’t be too sure which magical sword this is.”

I shivered. Just what kind of sword was this? “But you think it’s the one that severed the realms?”

Benedict hunched his shoulders and let out a long sigh. “Certainly feels that way. Wish we had gotten a closer look at the hilt. That would have given me more clues. Mythology is rife with magical swords.” His brow furrowed with worry. “This could be any of those, or it could be none of them. From the blade alone, I couldn’t guess. I’m sorry.”

Bobbi emerged with a tray of mugs and cookies, her cheeks pale and her eyes wide with fear as she tried to put on a brave face.

Strolling around the room, she offered tea and baked goods to each of us. “I found a package of these in the pantry. They’re oatmeal raisin.”

Manna from Heaven.

My stomach grumbled in reply. “Thanks, lady. You’re amazing.” I accepted a beverage and two cookies, groaning in pleasure when I bit into one. “This really hits the spot.”

“What can we do now?” Cleo’s hands trembled as she clutched her mug in both hands.

“We have to keep Serenity from getting the sword pieces, but I don’t know where the safest place to store them is.” My stomach churned with dread, knowing Serenity might attack us at any moment. Benedict might be shielding us from view with his cloaking spell, but that tactic was akin to slapping a bandage on a fatal stab wound. Might help as a stopgap, but without further attention, we were dead meat. “If we’re going to hide the sword fragments, their location has to be someplace safe.”

Benedict stumbled on his way to return the broken blade to the backpack. Then, with sweat glistening on his forehead, he staggered over to an armchair.

My stomach knotted with worry. “Are you okay?”

Bobbi offered him a mug, but he waved her away, grasping his pendant instead. “Give me a moment. This magic is taking a toll.”

The wizard didn’t look so good.

He collapsed into the cushions and closed his eyes. Sweat beaded and dripped down his face as he took shallow breaths. “I just need a magic-free moment to rest.”

Bobbi hovered over him like a mother hen. “Maybe he needs some cold water.”

I crossed to the kitchen, filled a glass, and hurried back into the living room.

A heavy knock sounded at the door.

The glass slipped from my hands and shattered on the floor. Hands shaking, I turned toward Benedict, whose eyes had sprung open at the noise. Had his cloaking spell failed? Could Serenity’s vampire death squad have found us so soon?

 

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