Chapter 1 1
The world burned gray.
Ranka knelt among the conifers, a scrap of bloodied cloth pinched between her black-nailed fingers. She’d picked up the scent of something dying at sunrise. Broken twigs oozed sap around her, the pine needle carpet churned raw where someone had sprinted through, not bothering to hide their trail. The earthy tang of witch blood filled her world, tinged with echoes of pain, of death edging near. But was it the blood of an enemy coven—or the blood of her own?
Whoever it was didn’t have long. Still, it didn’t hurt to investigate. Even corpses held answers.
Ranka latched on to the scent of decay and slipped through the trees, looking for clues of the ones they’d lost.
Five witches, vanished in under a month. The number was a punch to the chest. Word had come up from the southern covens—of witches disappearing one by one, leaving no notes, no bloody trails or footprints in the half-melted snow. It was as if the sky had opened up and swallowed them whole.
This is all my fault.
Ranka flinched. Surely, she was just being paranoid. She had no way of knowing if the disappearances had anything to do with her. At least—not yet.
The wind shifted; the reek was stronger now. Ranka shoved her guilt away, focusing instead on that scent, the world of clues unfolding around her, the hungry pulse under her skin and whatever lay dying ahead.
Guilt would get her nowhere. As the only blood-witch left in the north, she was far more valuable here, in her home, than as some political prisoner in the south. And once she found answers, her coven would have no choice but to believe that, too. She hoped.
Ranka drew her axe and broke into a run.
The land unfurled around her, sprawling into a wild tangle of boreal forest unsullied by human hands, brilliant even when rendered in blacks, whites, and soft grays. She could have run for days like this, her blood-magic a hum beneath her skin, her only concern the target ahead. This was what she’d been born for—the solitude of the hunt, tracking in the shadows of mountains with nothing but a weapon and the drumbeat of her heart for company.
Out here, she was no one. Out here, she was free.
Younger witches always thought they wanted adventure. They dreamed of bloody battles, secret missions, and noble sacrifices. They were never prepared for what came after—injuries that ached more every year, nightmares that never ended, and the guilt, festering like a wound, fed by memories of friends killed in an act of mercy because the healers always arrived too late or never at all.
Ranka gulped in clean air, tearing over a bend, sunlight warming her back even as her cheeks grew numb. Wind whipped at her face, snatching her straw-colored hair from its braids. The world could shove its glory. Here, in the north, far from the border and the whims of cruel princes, her coven could build a life away from bloodshed. They could rest.
And maybe, someday, they could even be happy.
Ranka stepped through the trees and froze.
A fangwolf lay on its side.
Incisors curled from its lips, longer than the span of her hand, their points dripping poison that Ranka knew was the soft hue of a robin’s egg. Memories flashed behind her eyes: witches lowered into the earth, skin broken by puncture wounds ringed blue. Her hand twitched to her weapon—but no. This beast could barely move. Gashes carved its flanks, revealing glimpses of bone. Bite marks mangled its neck. She frowned. Cougars didn’t come down from the mountains once the north shifted into summer, and even the greenest witchlings knew to stay far away from a predator as deadly as a fangwolf. What, then, had attacked this beast so viciously?
Not my target. I should move on.
Instead, beneath her skin, her blood-magic began to hum.
Even after five years under its grip, Ranka was startled every time the power rose. Her vision was the first to go—colors melting away, rendering the world in burning gray. Power rushed in like adrenaline tenfold, filing her nails into claws, swelling her muscles. Her hearing sharpened, suddenly capable of picking up the soft scuttle of mice beneath the snow, the nervous snort of a whitetail deer picking its way through the pines. She could break bone with her bare hands and run for miles without growing winded.
It made her an excellent hunter; it made her a better killer.
But with it came a hunger satiated only by taking a life. With it came the death sentence that was blood-magic.
All witches were stronger than humans, but blood-witches were the rare extreme. Regular witchery could be detected in toddlers, but blood-magic didn’t erupt until puberty. It was always born of bloodshed, demanding more death each year. Once a blood-witch rose, the clock began its countdown. At seventeen, Ranka had ten, maybe fifteen, years before her magic killed her—if her coven didn’t put her out of her misery first.
After her power had surfaced, Ranka had begged to be free of it. Instead, her leader had knelt and taken Ranka’s tearstained face in her hands.
Blood-magic is not a curse—it is a gift. You carry death in your veins, Ranka. You carry the power of a god.
But what good was the power of a god if it made her the very monster humans sought to burn?
The fangwolf panted, jerking Ranka back to reality.
For two weeks she’d patrolled, passing up easy kills, keeping her power starved and primed to hunt, searching for missing witches, for any clue as to who or what had taken them. For two weeks she’d starved.
It’d be a waste, to give up such an easy life.
She’d done her due diligence, hadn’t she? Two weeks in the cold, following the trails of ghosts, her dreams filled with blood and her world drained of color, wandering as far as her coven permitted and farther still. The fangwolf wouldn’t make it regardless; it could either die now, ended mercifully by her hand—or slowly, suffering over the course of days.
That witch probably passed through weeks ago.
The wolf lurched. The warm, coppery tang of blood flooded the air.
The faces of the missing vanished, replaced by the thrum of the wolf’s weakening heartbeat, the scent of infection in its blood. The birds fell silent. The stench of decay thickened, burning the back of Ranka’s throat.
And finally, her blood-magic rose—and took control.
Ranka forgot why she’d come here. She forgot the coven she fought for, the sister she’d lost long ago, the faces of the missing and the ones left behind. She forgot her own name. Somehow her weapon appeared in her hand. Somehow she ended up kneeling over the wolf. It panted, eyes rolling. One of its fangs was cracked down the middle, the hairline fracture stretching to the gums.
Ranka killed it with a single stroke.
Its life flared through her in flashes of blue-edged white, in the taste of the wind and the memory of cubs waiting back in the den, their milky fangs soft and harmless. It swelled, filling her veins, and then disappeared, swallowed by a power that always wanted more.
Ranka gasped and doubled over. Minutes crept by as she crouched on her hands and knees, heart pounding, skin dripping sweat as the itch under her skin vanished and her senses dulled, rendering her more girl than predator once more.
Slowly the colors returned. The wolf’s body steamed in front of her. Its fur was chalky brown, and the blood splattering the snow was the most beautiful red she’d ever seen. A sob choked out of her. How had she forgotten the vibrancy of the forest’s green, the way it filled her mouth with the taste of sunlight, the blue of a northern summer sky, so bright it nearly burned? She pried the wolf’s jaws open, marveling at salmon gums, ivory fangs, a yellow-spotted tongue. If colors were wine, she’d have gathered their hues in her palms and drunk until she burst.
But instead she’d take her prize.
Ranka hummed as she worked, sawing through bone. Fangwolf incisors were worth their weight in gold to the humans who dared trek this far north for trade—but they’d make a better gift to Yeva, who could trade them for some precious human good. A scarf, a dress, maybe one of those glitzy necklaces crows always tried to steal.
Ranka’s eyes flicked to her wrist, to the faded scrap of leather and sun-bleached beads that circled it; Yeva wore its twin. She’d woven it for Ranka five years ago.
Forget her, Yeva had pleaded. For all of us.
Ranka had certainly tried.
The birds remained silent. The death-drunk feeling swirled through Ranka, rendering her warm and off-balance as she pocketed the fangs. Ranka wiped her hands clean and paused, regarding the wolf with a clear head for the first time.
The wounds were all wrong; the slashes along its flanks were long, jagged lines—but the bite marks on its neck were oval and messy. As though they’d come from blunt teeth.
Ranka breathed in—and gagged.
The scent of rot was overpowering. Had it gotten worse? Unless her nose was lying to her, the rotten scent wasn’t coming from the wolf—it was coming from the trees. It was coming from behind her.
And behind her, something moaned.
Slowly, Ranka turned.
A person swayed at the clearing’s edge.
A familiar, earthy scent curled in the air. A witch. Her fingernails were coal black, ending in fine, sharp points. Ranka would have wagered her life that this witch’s eyes were a solid, milky white.
“You’re a blood-witch,” Ranka breathed. “I… I thought I was the only one left. Where have you been? I have so many questions; I thought I was alone—I thought—”
Ranka looked closer and froze.
The witch’s nails dimmed and returned to blunt edges—and then darkened again, the edges morphing to fine points once more. The witch’s power was… flickering. That wasn’t right. Blood-magic didn’t flicker. It rose and faded only once a life had been taken. But this witch seemed caught in a cycle, her power sputtering in and out like a candle that wouldn’t stay lit.
The witch shuffled forward, and the light hit her in full.
Purple, pus-scabbed sores covered her body. Her pale skin had the pallor of someone three days dead. Her clothes were of the southern human style, reduced to bloodied tatters. Blood crusted her face, and blue-ringed puncture marks marred her arms.
Ranka went cold. Only a handful of blood-witches were born every generation. She should have rushed to the witch’s help, overjoyed to meet someone like her at long last. Someone who understood.
Instead, she remained rooted in place.
Instead, something inside her whispered: Run.
“Are you all right?”
The witch panted. A beetle crawled from her left nostril and skittered down the hollow of her throat.
“Do you need a healer—”
A horrible gurgle crawled out of the witch’s throat—and she lunged.
Ranka scrambled away. Her heel snagged on a root and down she went, tumbling backward to land awkwardly on her wrist. Pain lanced up her arm. The witch ran straight through a briar patch. Nothing registered in her eyes but hunger. Ranka scrambled for her blood-magic, but it hovered out of reach, satiated by her recent kill.
The witch leapt on top of her, slammed a hand to Ranka’s throat, and pinned her to the earth.
Ranka clawed at her fingers. “Wait. I can help you.”
The witch licked her lips, her rotting teeth flashing. Her all-white eyes rolled.
Ranka’s vision swam. After everything she’d fought for, here she was again—weaponless, terrified, alone.
At least if she was going to die, it was here in the north where she belonged. Not in some distant human kingdom.
Please, let it be painless, let it be quick, it’s more than I deserve, but please, give me this.
The witch raised her other hand—and her eyes cleared.
A gasp left her. The witch snatched her fingers away from Ranka’s throat, face contorting, and keened. She jerked away from Ranka and collapsed to her hands and knees, retching violently, tears dripping from her cheeks, her entire body rocking with convulsions. Finally, the witch raised her head. When her eyes met Ranka’s, they were a clear forest green.
“From the poison,” she croaked, “comes the cure.”
And then she collapsed.
Once, when Ranka was a witchling, she’d held a piece of glass above an ant and angled a beam of light onto it. The sun had fried it instantly. The ant had twitched in a horrible dance before it finally curled up and went still. That was what that witch’s body did on the ground, body convulsing, fingers spasming, blood leaking from her nose as she writhed. It was a mercy when she stopped moving. The witch died with her eyes open—one eye a blank, blood-witch white, the other shining green.
Ranka remained where she was for a long time. Tentatively, the birds began to sing again. Still she didn’t move, her eyes frozen on the witch.
I ought to bury her.
It was what she would have asked of any other witch—to bury her deep, far enough a fangwolf wouldn’t dig her back up, where her flesh could melt into the earth and the roots of pines might tangle through her bones.
But Ranka couldn’t stomach touching her. She rose to leave—and paused.
Something gleamed in the witch’s fist.
The witch’s fingernails were ragged, the nail beds packed with dirt and rotting bits of flesh. Ranka used her axe to nudge the fingers apart. A small, golden object slipped free, twinkling in the sun. It was a pin, no bigger than a coin, framed in a spiral of human writing.
Why was she in a human city? Her clothes were the southern human style, but the wooden beads in her ears marked her as a Kerth witch. Could she be one of the missing? Why not just return home? Why flee farther north, into Skra lands?
The witch’s empty eyes stared up at the sky. Any answers had died with her.
Ranka watched the witch for a long time before she reached forward to close her eyes. She hesitated, then picked up the pin. A fist wreathed in flame gleamed from its face. The symbol meant nothing to her. Hopefully, it never would.
Ranka tucked the pin in her pocket and began the long trek home.