Here's a free peek at a new book. Every Witch Way but Bitten is full of magic, a puzzling murder, and talking magical cats. Sounds purrfect to me!
We’re going on a ghoul hunt
I flexed my paw and winced. All this late-night walking was taxing on the toe beans, and we’d been doing nightly midnight rambles for two weeks, often for hours.
But I didn’t mention my discomfort to Zandra, my wonderful witch and bonded magic user. She had enough on her mind, without having to figure out how to fit in a paw massage for me.
Ever since her mother, Adrienne the ghoul, had broken into Vorana Stowell’s house and tried to bite her, we hadn’t stopped searching. And if that meant my toe beans were tender, then so be it.
“This looks promising.” Zandra crouched by the remains of a small, furred rodent. “This could have been one of her feeds.”
I dutifully sniffed the decaying corpse, being careful not to wrinkle my adorable booping snooter. “It’s possible. There aren’t any holes in the flesh to suggest a carnivore got this one.”
Zandra grimaced as she rubbed her eyes and yawned.
“Let’s call it a night,” I said. “You’re exhausted.”
She stood and placed her hands on her hips, her dark gaze flicking around the densely packed trees. “And I’ll remain exhausted until I find Adrienne and bring her home.”
Her tone suggested I shouldn’t push unless I wanted an argument. We’d had a few of those recently. “Then take a rest and eat something. You’ve got granola bars in your pocket.”
“I’m not hungry. Let’s keep moving.”
Ever since Zandra had learned I’d known about Adrienne’s ghoulish situation and kept it from her, things had been tense between us. Before that gray-fleshed issue arose, we’d been a strong team, but it felt like I was on shifting sand, and I didn’t know how to make things right between us.
“We could try the beach again.” I walked behind Zandra, the moonlight overhead just breaking through the tree branches of Crimson Cove wood. “There have been reports of a figure lurking around there at night.”
“We’ve tried the beach several times and found nothing, and there’s barely any cover for her to hide over there. The angels have had recent reports of a shadowy figure in the woods, so it makes more sense she’d be here. Better coverage, more food, and more places to hide. The beach is too exposed.”
“Your mother liked fish before she was a ghoul. Maybe her taste buds haven’t altered that much.” Most ghouls preferred their food on two legs and screaming, but they weren’t picky when hungry.
Zandra shrugged. “True. Even though she was always trying to go vegetarian, she had a weakness for scales.”
I understood that. It was my particular passion, too. Although the amount of fishy treats I’d received in the last two weeks had gone down, and I’d resisted the urge to do midnight raids on the treat jar, in case it annoyed my witch.
I needed to make things right between me and Zandra, and if that meant finding Adrienne, then I would. I’d walk through these woods for a hundred years to make things better.
“We should be careful about going much farther,” I said. “We’re heading into Cannibal Bill’s territory.”
Zandra huffed a breath out through her nose. “He’s an urban legend. Vorana was messing with us when she said there’s a real live cannibal in the woods.”
“She seemed serious to me. And his hut is right around here.” I lifted my booping snooter and sniffed. There was a faint tang of something half-dead in the air, and I didn’t think it was ghoul.
“Vorana made up that story to get me to take a night off. I know you’re all working against me.” Zandra marched off, her arms swinging as if she was in a speed walking contest and the finish line was within sight.
I trotted in front of her and pressed a paw against her leg to stop her from getting away. “No one is working against you. We all want the same thing.”
“Yet you hid important information from me. If I’d known Adrienne was back and changed, I could have helped her.”
“What would you have done? I couldn’t find her, and I can find anybody. She’s keeping a low profile for a reason. Maybe she doesn’t want you to find her.” When Adrienne had burst into Vorana’s home, the shame in her eyes had been clear. This ghoul still had some humanity, and seeing the stunned expression on her only daughter’s face had been humiliating. No wonder she’d gone to ground to lick her wounds.
Zandra sighed. “Juno, we’ve talked about this. We’re a team. Teams don’t keep secrets from each other. That was a huge secret, and I should have known about it. You were wrong to hide it from me.” She tugged on the ends of her dark hair, a sure sign she was stressed.
I risked hopping onto her shoulder and rubbed my face against hers. “I thought I was doing the right thing. I am sorry. I didn’t want you worried until I knew exactly what was going on.”
“I can handle worry. And I know you think I have a lot to learn, but I understand more than you realize. I was on my own for a long time before you showed up and started bossing me about.”
“I never boss, simply gently steer when you go off-course.” I slid her a glance out of the corner of my eye. Zandra thought she knew the ways of the world, but with her scattered upbringing and the use of an age-up spell, she’d missed important educational moments. It was one of the many reasons I was so protective of her.
She gently lifted me off her shoulder and placed me on the ground. “Let’s keep looking. We’ll stay out until midnight, and if we find nothing by then, we’ll go home.”
I wanted to keep debating with her, but we’d had this conversation many times over the last fourteen days. It made my toe beans tingle unpleasantly at the thought that I’d never make things right between us.
“Just watch out for Cannibal Bill’s traps,” I said. “I believed Vorana when she said he digs holes and sets them with spikes and hangs enchanted nets to catch the local wildlife.”
“Sure. Keep moving.”
We walked along the path in silence for ten minutes.
I slowed as I spotted large indentations on the ground. “This looks like more of those big cat tracks.” I sniffed around them.
“The scent is faded. Maybe a couple of days old.”
“Some people have big cat familiars,” Zandra said. “And there are plenty of wild animals living in the woods, too.”
Which was another reason I didn’t want Zandra out here in the dark. I took note of the print. I’d seen a few of these around since we’d been searching the woods, but I’d yet to meet who they belonged to. Whoever they were, they were large and possibly came with dangerous fangs I wanted nowhere near Zandra.
There was a rustle of branches up ahead. I froze to the spot, and my ears pricked.
“Did you see where that came from?” Zandra whispered, her gaze scanning the woods.
“Up ahead on our right.” I carefully sniffed for a clue as to our sneaky lurker. Whatever it was, it was something large, since the branches that moved were seven feet above our heads.
Zandra cast a small light ball and held it in her palm.
For a second, a huge black shadow was illuminated, but then it vanished. There was a thud, a muttered curse, and then pounding footsteps heading away from us.
Before I could warn Zandra to be careful, she was racing after the ominous shadow. Or rather, whatever had caused that shadow. That very big shadow.
“Zandra, that’s not Adrienne. It’s way too big.” Now the lurker was on the move, I caught a wet dog scent in the air. Possibly a werewolf?
Zandra didn’t respond or slow down, leaving me with no choice but to chase her. As I loped along, I noticed enormous footprints in the soil. They were humanlike but too big to be your average human print.
“Slow down! It could be a werewolf.” Although the footprints were the wrong shape, I was still panicked. Maybe it was a partially changed werewolf. Never a safe thing to be around. Werewolves always felt vulnerable when they were mid-change, and that vulnerability caused blood to spill.
“Werewolves don’t run from anything,” Zandra said over her shoulder. “And if this creature is living in the woods, it could have seen Adrienne.”
Whatever the creature was, it had headed off the main path, and we had no choice but to slow as the undergrowth grew thicker. The moon was no longer visible, and only Zandra’s light ball allowed us to see where we were going.
We came to a small clearing and paused. A faint path led off in two directions.
“You head around to the left. I’ll go right. I can’t hear movement, so it’s hiding somewhere near here,” Zandra said.
“Let’s leave the creature alone. We probably startled it. It won’t know anything about Adrienne. And it could be dangerous. I don’t want you getting hurt.”
She glared at me and then stalked away.
Reluctantly, I followed her order, keeping my booping snooter close to the ground. There was definitely the same wet dog scent around here.
There was a yelp and a grunt, followed by several curses from Zandra.
I charged across the clearing, my heart catching in my throat as I found her in a heap in the dirt, one hand on her head.
With a nimble bound, I landed on her lap and sniffed her face. “What happened? Did you fall?”
“Whatever we were tracking, it knows how to use tools. It used a tree branch to smack me in the head. It hid behind that tree.” She pointed ahead of her. “Swung at me like I was a baseball.”
Rage trickled from the tip of my tail through to my toe beans, and magic sparked around me. No one hurt my witch and got away with it.
Zandra tentatively touched the growing lump on her forehead. “I’m okay. There’s no need to go into obliteration mode.”
My magic didn’t agree, and it continued to sparkle over me in pale red waves. My job as Zandra’s familiar was to keep her safe, not let some monstrous shadow beast whack her in the head and leave her in the dirt.
Zandra hovered a hand over my head, her expression full of curiosity. “Your magic has felt so different lately. It’s like you’ve had a super charge. What have you been doing to make it feel so strong?”
I held in my rage to avoid my magic blasting out. This was another secret I kept from Zandra. “I’m the same as always. I’m just angry anyone dared hurt you. We should have stayed together.”
She sighed and lowered her hand, gently stretching her neck from side to side. “I have to find Adrienne. She’s here somewhere, and I must talk to her. I have to be certain she’s still in control.”
“All the evidence we’re finding suggests she is. Your mother was always extraordinary, and even now she’s a ghoul, she’ll be just as unique.” Most ghouls became mindless slaves with no ability to think for themselves, but my brief encounters with Adrienne after she’d been turned suggested she was different. She had some impulse control with her feeding urges, and she recognized people she had a bond with and did her best not to hurt them. It gave me hope there was something we could do for her when we finally found her.
Because if there wasn’t, Angel Force had the power to destroy her. No questions asked. And that would devastate Zandra.
Zandra picked up a leaf and twirled it between her fingers. “I’ve been thinking about getting in touch with some of the Crypt witches. Maybe asking for help. Tempest keeps saying she’s overdue a visit, and they’ve encountered just about every weird situation going.”
My witch’s relationship with her family was twisty. Her father had been under the influence of powerful magic when he’d met Adrienne, and Zandra resulted from their troubled union. There’d been plenty of sticky situations when the family reconnected, and I was certain there were more to come.
“They’d be happy to help you,” I said. “Why don’t you reach out to them? They could have advice about the ghoul situation.”
She lifted her shoulders. “I have no clue how to tell my dad his former girlfriend is now a ghoul. And… I don’t want to look like a failure. I left Willow Tree Falls and set up home here partly to show them I was capable. They were always so smothering.”
“They smothered because they cared. And they missed out on a lot of your childhood.”
“So did I,” she muttered.
I bit my tongue. She’d made the decision to use an age-up spell on herself, and she had good reasons for it, but we couldn’t turn back time - well, technically, I could - so there was no use dwelling.
“You do what you think best. And just so you know, you’re not a failure. That would be impossible, because you never give up trying. The only time a person truly fails is when they raise their hands and admit defeat. And I’ve never seen you do that with anything.”
She half-smiled. “Some call that stubborn or stupid.”
“Then they know squat. Reach out for help if you need it.”
Zandra raked her fingers through my fur, and I purred my appreciation. “We’ll figure all this out. And I know you thought you were doing the right thing by keeping information from me, but I wish you hadn’t. I feel like you don’t trust me.”
“I’m sorry about that, too. And I do trust you. I know we’re a team.”
“Then let’s act like one, shall we?”
I was leaning in for more pets when a branch snapped.
My fur puffed up, and I whirled around, my magic sparking. “The creature’s back.” I raced off, ignoring Zandra’s protests. I’d teach this monster a lesson. It hurt my witch, and that was unacceptable. I had a streak of benevolence in me when I chose to use it, but not when it came to anyone harming Zandra.
I lasered in on the shuffling sounds close by. The creature must have come back to see if Zandra was still alive. Perhaps it wanted to eat her.
I growled low in my chest at the thought of anyone damaging her.
As a high branch was pushed back and a shape revealed itself, I unfurled my ancient power, leaped into the air, latched onto a well-muscled arm, and shredded.
Who is watching Juno and Zandra? Will Juno defeat them? You can find out in Every Witch Way but Bitten, book 3 in the Magical Misfits Mysteries.
K.E. O’Connor is the author of so many books she can't remember them all. Noteworthy mentions include:
Along with other titles available if you cast the right spell.
She can imagine dragons, taste cookies when they aren’t even there, and hear the crack of a witch’s broom at a hundred paces.
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