And get a free snippet of the opening pages of Part 2 - The Shadow Reigns, below. (warning, contains series spoilers from the beginning)
For hundreds of years witches have been persecuted; forced to keep their heads down and conform to laws that we never agreed to. To be a witch is to live a hunted life; to suffer the stupidity and ignorance of those around you, even though you could outclass them with the simplest spell.
I was born to free the witches from oppression. I am the Shadow Witch. I have freed my kin from the so-called justice of the witch-hunters and their Malleus Maleficarum Council. In one night, the world was thrown into chaos, and for once it was the witch-hunters that were forced back.
We followed our victory with a second. We pitched the world into darkness, and removed the advantage technology gave our enemies. The new world has already begun, and in this spiralling darkness, those with magic will finally be able to rise above all others.
Then why do I feel guilt? Why do I feel doubt?
Ever since the witches told me of my destiny, when I was thirteen and powerless, I have never felt any doubt in my path. When my powers were awakened seven years later – the witches conducting sacrifices on Hallowe’en to break the ancient spell holding them back – I was even more sure of what lay ahead.
But it is shallow of me to even pretend I do not know the reason that I finally question everything. Him. For years I hated the very name Astley, knowing that they were the witch-hunters that killed Sara Murray, the last Shadow Witch; and all its consequences. I would not be the same if she lived; I would not have to take up this brutal destiny.
I had not planned to fall in love with the current bearer of the name: George “Hunter” Astley. I ignored the attraction at first; whenever he was around I told myself it was the excitement of playing him for a fool that thrilled me so, not his presence itself. But after months of secretly savouring each glance, each touch, I wanted more. I knew from the beginning that our relationship was doomed; I could not stay with him and soon we would be on the opposite sides of a war. Is it wrong I tried to find a way to keep him with me? If not for my sake, then for our child’s?
Not that it mattered. In the end he chose his side, and I chose mine.
I knew that I was expected to kill him when we met again, and I was prepared to do so. I came so close and failed. As my knife got past his guard and cut deep into him, I felt a shock of pain stab through me. It was all I could do to evade his witch-hunters and return home, where I collapsed at my mother’s feet.
I have been recovering slowly for a month now. I cannot explain it, there is no physical wound; I can only guess that what was inflicted on him rebounded to me. None of the witches can explain why, but some theorise that the child links us – we can only guess what powers he or she shall inherit. In which case, if this is true; I shall withdraw as much as possible until it is born, and hope the spell breaks.
Little Hanting was a picturesque village in the English countryside. Quaint bungalows and farmhouses fanned out from the church hall, with its perfectly manicured green in front of it. Not that the grass could be seen; fresh snow had again fallen the previous night, coating everything with a perfect whiteness. All it needed was children with mittens having a snowball fight, and the scene would be idyllic.
But Little Hanting silently suffered. The inhabitants had all been evacuated when the village had been the setting for a decisive battle. Now all the homes lay eerily quiet, save for the ones that had been temporarily taken over by soldiers. They sheltered from the cold and waited – waited for answers and for their next move. They would huddle around the fireplaces, casting glances in the direction of the local manor house.
Hunter drifted in a haze of painkillers and nightmares. He saw the flash of the knife a hundred times, Sophie’s hazel eyes, and the pain that tore through them both.
The scene would change, and it was Hunter’s first day at University, and Brian was coming to tell him that his father was dead. Charlotte should be here to comfort him. Where was Charlotte?
When Hunter was awake… lucid was hardly applicable. He lay in his bed, staring at the high ceiling, with all its familiar cracks. Or he would turn his head to observe the dark drapes that someone opened and closed with the passing of day and night. Huh, probably the same someone that fed the fire in his bedroom to stop it being too cold.
Not that Hunter cared, the cold was numbing, and combined with the morphine, opium – whatever drug they managed to dredge up, it was a good haze. It stopped him having to think as much. Or at least, it kept his thoughts strangely disconnected from himself.
So this was what it was like to wallow. Hunter had never been much of a wallower: not when the witches had killed his father; Brian; Charlotte… Hunter was a witch-hunter, as they all had been. It was accepted as fact that you would lose friends and family, that you yourself would be a target. To be a part of the Malleus Maleficarum Council, to protect the people from the violence of witches was to invite that violence onto oneself.
But the pain of the past was nothing compared to what he was putting off feeling now. It wasn’t as if Sophie had died – although Hunter wished she had. No, it had been worse. The woman he loved had turned out to be the Shadow Witch. It sickened him to think of the nights spent together, the caresses, the half-asleep conversations. And the days when he had never doubted his trust in her as a colleague and a friend. How could she have acted so innocently and seemed so honest when she had just killed his old mentor and closest friend?
Before, grief had only driven him harder to fight back against witches. Now Hunter felt confusion over his life’s work in eradicating witches. He had fallen in love with one, and now she carried his child; and Hunter had recently discovered his own magic-like abilities.
Hunter had thought Sophie mad, and looking for a loophole when she had sworn that he was different from his fellow witch-hunters.
It was something that Hunter, and every MMC worldwide took for granted that, in a family of witch-hunters, each generation would become more adept. By the 3rd gen they could perceive spells being cast, and were immune to some magic; as well as being stronger and faster. As an unheard of 7th gen, Hunter Astley had been revered by the MMC. How little everyone (including himself) knew that he would evolve into a magic-wielder.
Which left him with the question: should he use his new talents in this war; or should he copy the fabled Benandanti and kill himself for being a witch?
He had no answers, and the thoughts just swirled incessantly in his head while he tried to numb them.
The only thing that broke the cycle of monotonous thought was mealtimes. Usually someone left a coffee on his bedside table in a morning, although chances were that it would still be sitting there, stone-cold, by midday. And then someone would bring him some lunch.
This irritating someone came in the form of Hunter’s best friend, James Bennett. He was a pretty average guy – average height, average brown hair and eyes. He was a little more intelligent than most. But this 1st gen witch-hunter was the truest and bravest person that Hunter knew. Oh, and James also had an invaluable knack for putting up with Hunter on a daily basis. Hunter couldn’t remember a time when James hadn’t been there for him.
Which included bringing him meals while Hunter was injured, it seemed. Hunter was never very hungry, and would have left the unappetising food if James hadn’t stayed. Not that James was watching and making sure his friend actually ate something. No, it just so happened that mealtimes coincided with James having found something interesting in the Astley library, and brought up one old book or another to get Hunter’s opinion.
Twice a day. Every day.
Today was a little different. James sat with the typical book on his lap, and the non-typical red pointy hat on his head.
Hunter shot him a few looks, but today James was staying quiet. Hunter dutifully finished his soup and the last of the bread, pointedly putting the bowl aside to state it was empty.
“Why?” Hunter asked simply.
“Why what?” James returned innocently, looking up from his book.
Hunter sighed. “The hat?”
“Oh, that. I thought it’d annoy your mum.” James replied with a shrug. “And it’s my birthday. One of the soldiers found this and thought it wa’ funny.”
That made Hunter sit up and pay attention. “What? It’s the end of January already? Oh shit, I’m sorry James, I forgot. It’s just… it’s been a blur, I lost track.”
James shrugged again, but Hunter noticed the mischievous glint in his eye. “Hey, it’s fine. We’ve all been preoccupied with somethin’ a bit bigger than my birthday. Besides, I distinctly remember you saying that if you forgot my birthday, I could have that bottle of ’82 Chateau Gruard Larose that’s in your cellar.”
“Oh, I said that, did I?” Hunter tried to keep a straight face.
“Yep, absolutely.” James replied sincerely, pushing the reading glasses back up his nose.
“Ok, so I get the hat. What’s with the glasses?”
James looked a little surprised at the question. “Dunno, I just find it easier reading with them. Maybe the witches did some damage when they beat the crap out of me. Or maybe I should just admit I’m getting old.”
Hunter snorted. “Twenty-five is not old. Oh, sorry, twenty-six now. Happy Birthday.”
“I thought they made me look more intelligent.” James continued.
“Well you couldn’t look any less so.” Hunter returned quickly.
James looked ready to throw his book at him, but seemed to think better of it. Instead, he got to his feet.
“Well, you seem back on form, Hunter. So perhaps you’ll think about getting your arse out of bed. We’ve a war to plan. And we could do with your help in keeping Mrs Astley in check.”
Hunter groaned, more at the mention of his mother than impending war.
“And you might want to shave.” James added, eyeing the scruffy attempt of a beard his face was sporting. “Or not. I could be the handsome one, as well as the smart one.”
With a chuckle, James turned and finally left.