The man walked briskly towards the place he was being drawn to. The place he’d left his family for. That thought caused pain to rise in his chest. He wanted nothing more than to be with his wife and daughter, but the pull to this place was too strong to ignore. He didn’t want it to be, but he couldn’t help it. 

He knew when he met the boundary. When he crossed it, he fell to his knees, pain shooting through his head. His eyes burned like they were on fire. His pulse sped up and sweat broke out all over his skin as power radiated from him. He did his best not to scream, but he wasn’t successful. As quickly as the pain had come, it left. He stayed crouched on the ground, trying to catch his breath. His eyes were still tingling, and his skin felt more sensitive than ever before. When he finally opened his eyes, he saw some residual glow that he couldn’t explain. He blinked a few times, and it disappeared. He didn’t trust himself to stand. Not yet. So he just looked around. Nothing looked different even though he knew he’d generated some kind of magical barrier. It felt different, though. The trees were humming with energy, and the ground seemed to beg him to keep going. 

Finally, he rose to his feet and started stumbling forward. His legs could barely hold his weight, but he kept going. He had to keep going. Before long, he was worried he’d never make it when the sight of the tree in front of him took his breath away. He’d never seen a tree so big, and he wasn’t sure that another one existed. It seemed to go on forever. How had he not seen it above the canopy before? He took a step closer and was suddenly knocked back by a wave of power. He slammed into the tree behind him, falling to the ground. Another wave knocked his head into the trunk, causing him to black out for a moment. He slumped to the forest floor, heart pounding, the sound of blood rushing in his ears. Finally, after a few long minutes, the power stagnated. It was still there, but it wasn’t knocking into him in steady beats of agonizing pain. 

Cautiously, he rose to his feet, his breathing heavy and uneven. For some reason, he had the strangest urge to touch the tree in front of him. He didn’t think that touching such a thing would be a good idea, but there wasn’t a cell in his body that seemed to care. Against his better judgement, he kept going until his shaking fingers brushed against the rough bark. 

He’d thought creating the barrier hurt, but it was nothing compared to this. Pain flowed through his entire body as the tree started to fall into the ground. He would have been amazed, but he was busy trying not to pass out. It picked up speed as it descended until the tree was completely gone. Silence fell over the forest, and he was left panting with the very distinct feeling that this wasn’t over. 

He was right. Out of the massive hole in the ground, wooden planks started to unfold and create a floor underneath him. Despite the pain, he managed to jump to his feet and look around, wonder sparking in his eyes. The floor that had formed was a perfect circle. Once it was complete, cabins started to build themselves, encircling the courtyard. The cabins were perfect spheres, something he’d never thought possible. Once they were perfectly formed, a circular wooden slab rose out of the ground in the very center of the courtyard, just where the tree had disappeared to. Around it, a perfectly smooth bench spun up from the ground, encircling the table. 

Finally, the forest fell quiet. 

Chapter ONE

Claire darted through the woods, branches snapping beneath her feet. She couldn’t believe how clear the air felt, and she couldn’t believe what she was seeing. She never imagined that trees would be so tall and so green, with bark that was almost black. Green wasn’t a color Claire saw very often. In her home city of Everton, everything was in shades of gray. As she ran, she came to a clearing, her heart skipping a beat when she saw what was before her. Right in front of her was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. It was a magnificent waterfall that spilled into a lagoon. The clean scent from the water was almost as overwhelming as the color. It was an ethereal blue that was almost hard to look at. Even so, Claire couldn’t bring herself to look away. In that moment, she wanted nothing more than to stay there forever. Somehow, she knew that lagoon was something special. It wasn’t just the way the water glittered in the sunlight, it was the way it felt. The energy around it was so enticing, like she was home. 

When Claire’s eyes snapped open, she was breathing heavily, and her heart was racing. It was as though she’d actually been there. What was that place? That certainly didn’t feel like a dream. It felt real. She shook her head and placed her hand over her heart, almost to make sure it was still there. It felt like it, sure, but would it ever feel normal again? Eventually, her heart slowed to its regular pace, and her lungs felt like they were processing oxygen again. She was inexplicably light-headed and during that day, she couldn’t really think straight. Her mind was on one thing.

She wondered if she’d ever have this dream again. 

She wasn’t disappointed when the dream continued every night, until it went on for years. Now, she groaned out her frustration every time she woke. She’d had this dream for so long now, but she didn’t know what it meant. It sounded crazy, but she knew it wasn’t just a dream. It felt more like a premonition, like something inside her was trying to break free. She just didn’t know what it was. Besides, at this point she was wondering if that notion was just wishful thinking. She got out of bed and readied herself for the day ahead. Not that her days were ever interesting. Still, she knew that today was different. Something was going to happen. At least, she hoped so anyway. 

She exited her bedroom through the sliding door and went down the plain hallway that led to the mess hall. Everything in the orphanage was boring and drab. The walls and floors were a slick white surface that was a stark reminder of how lonely she truly was. After her parents died, she’d been shipped to one of the many orphanages in Everton. Everton was a place of abundance — the richest city in the world, in fact — but you’d never know it by looking at the place. Sure, it was luxurious by global standards, but to the rest of Everton it was the picture of poverty. 

Finally, Claire made it to the spiral staircase that led to the second floor. When she got to the top of the stairs, she was half tempted to throw herself over the railing.  

“I’m so glad you’re awake!” Beth shouted with excitement. 

It’s not that there was anything wrong with Beth per se, but she was quite annoying. Her blue eyes were dull and her dirty blonde hair looked like it needed to be washed. Her wide smile displayed white teeth, with the front two sticking out a little too much. 

Instead of responding politely, Claire brushed passed her. Would it have been nicer to greet Beth in kind? Yes. However, Claire didn’t think she had it in her to do so. Consequently she chose to stay quiet. Unfortunately, Beth just scrambled along behind her like a lost puppy. Really, that was a perfect description of Beth. At fourteen, she was two years younger than Claire, and her parents had died only a year prior. A lot of the kids whose parents died when they were older became quite clingy. They just didn’t know how to deal with their newfound loneliness. Claire didn’t blame Beth, she just wished she’d find someone else to bother.

Claire did her best to ignore her as she ate, but Beth kept chattering away. Rubbing her temples, Claire finally met her eyes. 

“I’m sorry, I really am. But I can’t handle this right now. I’m just going through some stuff and…”

Beth’s pleasant expression turned dark in the next instant. Her chin jutted out defiantly as she crossed her arms over her chest. 

“I just wanted a friend,” she spat.

Claire just stared at her, one eyebrow arched. With a sputtered curse, Beth took her tray and retreated to another table. Thank Heavens. 

Just as Claire was starting to appreciate the silence, Mary, the madame of the orphanage, entered through the double doors. Her eyes locked onto Claire almost immediately, and a sigh left Claire’s lips. She held a very special distaste for this woman and her arrogance. 

“Claire, there’s a visitor for you,” she bellowed throughout the hall.

The teenager furrowed her brow in disbelief. Claire never had any visitors, and she didn’t know who would visit her in the first place. She didn’t know anyone on the outside. Not anymore. 

“Is this a joke?” she asked, incredulous.

Mary frowned, her long, pointed nose tilted upwards. “Follow me,” she demanded.

Claire rose from her seat, leaving her tray for someone else to take care of. She followed Mary to the front of the complex, somewhere she hadn’t been since her parents’ death. An incredibly tall man dressed in a long, navy over-coat with with a silver shirt underneath was standing by the doors, his shoulders thrown back. As she got closer, she realized he was at least a foot taller than her, and she wasn’t short by any means. She couldn’t believe her eyes. She hadn’t seen someone dressed like that in years. He radiated confidence and importance, and she felt drawn to him in the strangest way. It was almost as if she felt herself trusting him already. His features, while sharp and intimidating, made her feel safe. He was a little older, maybe in his early forties. He had deep frown lines that gave away his age, but his eyes were something else.

Claire was no stranger to interesting eyes. Her own were violet, and people always said how amazing they were. This man, though, had silver eyes that glowed. He stared at her intently, as if he were sizing her up. She felt like a wave of…something wash over her. It took her breath away, in the most literal sense. As abruptly as it began, the feeling dissipated. The glow of his eyes seemed to lessen, which caused Claire to wonder if she was seeing things.

“Claire, is it? My name is Vincent, and I was wondering if I could speak to you for a moment,” he said.

She paused, then blurted, “And why would I do that?”

His lips kicked up in a slight smile. “Do you want to live here forever?”

As a matter of fact, she didn’t want to live there forever. Who would? She let out a small grunt. “Touché.”

His smile widened as he turned towards a room off the main entrance, reserved for potential parents. She still wasn’t sure that following him was a good idea, but something about him just felt familiar. Should she trust her instincts? She figured she didn’t have anything to lose. If she stayed here another two or three years she’d end up on the street anyway. Might as well see what a stranger with oddly glowing eyes wanted. 

This room was one she’d never seen before. In all the time she’d been at the orphanage, no one had ever tried to adopt her. It was simple, white like everything else, with two chairs opposite a desk. Much to Claire’s surprise, Vincent turned a charming smile on Mary who now stood, transfixed by his gaze. 

“Would you mind giving us a moment?” he asked. 

Mary’s returning smile was plastic and out of place. It sent a shiver down Claire’s spine. “Of course,” she said pleasantly before flouncing out of the room. Yes, flouncing. 

Mary? Pleasant? Claire thought she’d never see the day. She eyed Vincent carefully, wondering if he would do something like that to her. She sure as shit hoped not. 

“Have you noticed anything odd lately? Had any weird dreams?” he asked, that charming smile never slipping from his face. 

Claire’s spine stiffened. Yes, she had been having weird dreams, though they weren’t exactly new. Was she going to tell an elite stranger that? Hell no. Elites weren’t people that orphans could trust. Especially not ones with the power to mesmerize irritable madames. Then again, maybe she could talk this guy into doing something about Beth. If he turned out to be friendly, of course.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Claire said, voicing lacking conviction. She was curious to see what the stranger would do. She did want to leave the orphanage, but she didn’t want to end up dead, either.

Vincent’s head tilted to the side. “If that is your final answer, I shall leave you.” 

With that, he strode towards the door. 

Claire should let him go. She really should, but something in her was telling her to stop him. “Wait,” she said, only a moment before he pressed the button that would slide the door open. 

That charming smile was back in place. “Odd dreams, yes?” he asked in an amicable way. 

Claire still wasn’t certain that this was her best idea, but she went with it anyway. “How do you know about that?” 

“It’s my job to know. What were your dreams about?”

Claire sighed, rubbing her sweaty palms over her plain, black pants. “It was…” she trailed off unsure how to describe it, and then the words started tumbling out of her. “It was this beautiful place, unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It had trees and this… this… lagoon. It was amazing.” She clamped her mouth shut, horrified that she’d admitted that to him. She hadn’t meant to say all of that, and she had no idea why she had. 

“Do you trust me?” Vincent asked.

She figured she might as well continue being honest. “Enough to think that you probably won’t immediately murder me?” she shrugged. “Yeah, I guess.” Completely sure he wouldn’t? Not really. But reasonably. 

“Then it’s time for us to leave. We can’t talk here.” 

Her mouth dropped open. Leave? She couldn’t just leave. Didn’t he have paperwork to fill out? 

“I can’t go anywhere with you,” she argued. The guy wouldn’t murder her here but in an ally? What would stop him? 

“But you can. It’s been taken care of. Do you have any belongings you’d like to retrieve?”

“N-no,” she stammered. Other than standard issue clothes, but even those weren’t really hers. They were traded out on laundry day. 

“Very well. Off we go.” Without another word, Vincent exited the room. Claire followed close behind him and watched as he took a pile of papers from the madame’s hand.  

“Well, where are we going?” Claire asked.

“First, we’re going to Redwater—”

Redwater?” she interrupted. “But that’s all the way across the country.”

“Afraid of stepping outside of your comfort zone? I expected better from you, Claire.”

“You shouldn’t expect anything from me. You don’t even know me.”

“Touché,” he said with a sly grin, echoing her words from before. Though he’d verbally conceded the point, she thought that he might know what to expect from her anyway. Somehow. 

Claire took one final look around the orphanage and decided that she’d miss nothing from here; it wasn’t a home for her. She had no loyalty to the place, no friends here, and certainly no family. Leaving, even if it was with this strange man named Vincent, caused her to be secretly overjoyed. She suspected he was taking her home. After he filled out the paperwork to relieve Madame Mary of her “parental” duties, she followed him outside.

Everton was the capital of the forest-ridden country of Easthaven, but you’d never know it from the industrial city that stood before her. The buildings around the orphanage were maybe four stories tall, completely stunted compared to the rest of the city. Most buildings rose to up to 400 stories and were made of steel, adorned with platinum decorations. There were maybe ten feet between each of the structures. The air was heavy with pollution, and at night, the city was a sea of lights. On every other block, statues of the current Minister stood to remind the people of their gracious leader. Claire had always found the obsession with the Minister a little cult-like.

Everton was a city of adoring, wealthy citizens. Crime was low, only existing around the orphanages and slums, and morale was always high. Lack of confidence in the Minister was minuscule, something that Claire found very odd given their democratic system of government, and he was widely admired by most of the citizens.

Vincent led her to the hover monorail station and purchased two tickets to Redwater. The monorails stood high off the ground, weaving through the city and beyond in intricate patterns. Claire felt sorry for the person who had to design this system but commended his genius. The monorail split at the edges of Everton to venture out to all of the major cities.

Redwater was rural compared to the grandiose scene of Everton. Claire had only heard rumors of the town, but it was the West-most city in the country, causing her to be confused as to why they would be going that far. 

“So, are you going to tell me why we’re going to Redwater?” Claire asked.

“Redwater isn’t our final destination, we’re going beyond it,” Vincent said mysteriously. 

“There’s literally just trees beyond Redwater. You’re taking me to the trees?” They couldn’t go into a neighboring country. Claire didn’t have the proper documentation.

His grin was wicked. “Clever girl.”

“That tells me nothing,” she said, a scoff escaping with the words. 

“Yes, but more accurately I’m taking you to the woods beyond there. You should know that.” It was Vincent’s turn to chuckle at his own words.

Claire furrowed her brow. “You mean the woods I’ve been seeing in my dreams?”

“‘Dream’ isn’t the right word for it. Visions, if you will.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me. I was adopted by a crazy person. Great. Perfect. Can we turn this thing around?” She asked rhetorically. 

“You’re not the only person experiencing these newfound…abilities.”

An odd sense of relief washed over her. The idea itself was insane. Abilities? What kind of bullshit was that? Sure, there were tall tales of people who had special abilities floating around Everton. Did Claire believe an ounce of those tales? Of course not. They were tales that parents told children to give them a fright before bed. 

“They’re not exactly new,” she grumbled. If he was going to be all-knowing, he should at least know that. 

“Stronger then.”

“So you’ve gone around Easthaven, just, snatching up orphans and telling them they have visions?”

“Not only visions. Just before you I found a boy who is a beast master. He doesn’t even know it yet. Be thankful I’m telling you what you can do. Though, most of the people you meet will be quite older than you. So, no, I’m not just snatching up orphans.”

“Well, I’m certainly glad you don’t discriminate.”

“Of course not, that would make things very boring.” Vincent gave her a warm smile, trying to reassure her that he wasn’t totally insane. He was trying to show her that she would never regret the decision she made this day. Not that she had one. The pull to this wood couldn’t be denied. 

“Oh gods…” she muttered under her breath.

“Don’t worry, I think you’ll quite like where we’re going.”

Claire stared out of the window of the monorail. The instant they crossed out of Everton, the landscape changed drastically. That green color she’d seen in her dreams spanned as far as she could see. She couldn’t help but press her hands against the window, her jaw dropping. Soon enough, they were immersed in a deep forest. 

The bark of the forest wasn’t nearly as dark as those in her dreams. This signaled to Claire that they were nowhere near their destination. Since she (mostly) trusted Vincent, she’d figured as much already. 

The scene in front of her was so calming that she fell asleep for the rest of the ride. Vincent didn’t mind this, he’d had enough of entertaining children for a lifetime.

Eventually, they arrived in Redwater. The station here was vastly different from the one they started with. There were no walls surrounding the station, and Claire felt like she could see the entirety of the town from that very spot. The station in Everton was probably the size of the entire city here. There was a simple, small teller’s booth, and an awning covering the landing platform.

“This is… different,” she mumbled.

“Not everywhere in the world is as conventionally beautiful as Everton,” Vincent replied coolly. 

Redwater was unlike anything Claire had ever seen. It was so much smaller than Everton and the sophisticated monorail didn’t look like it belonged. All around her were buildings with wooden frames filled with plaster. They had slightly curved roofs and pane glass windows. The streets were made of cobblestone, something Claire had never thought she’d see in person. 

“How long are we staying here?” She asked. 

Vincent cast her a glance over his shoulder. “Only the night.” 

Claire felt a tinge of disappointment. She didn’t want to leave yet. She wanted to explore. Then again, she really wanted to see that place from her dreams. 

Vincent took Claire to a small restaurant in the center of town. To her surprise, the food was actually good. She’d expected everything outside of Everton to be... well... less than, if you will. Instead, she found herself enjoying the clear air and the view of the clouds as the sun set. When the sun finally disappeared over the horizon, the breath left her lungs. The sky. She’d never seen the sky look like this. It was so magnificent. Instead of being a dull black with only a few stars, it lit up the town around her with more stars than she’d ever be able to count. She could actually see all of the cosmic phenomenon she’d only ever heard about. The constellations, clusters of stars, and brightly lit star dust, all of it was visible. Claire could have stared at it all night, but Vincent finally ushered her into the inn. 

“Does the sky always look like that?” She couldn’t help but ask, amazement clear in her tone. 

A smile spread over Vincent’s face. He hadn’t been sure how Claire would handle this, but now he was confident that she would be okay. “Out here it does.” 

With that, Claire knew she never wanted to go back to Everton. Everything out here was just better. There was nature, the people were nicer, and you couldn’t beat a sky like that. Even if Vincent was planning on ditching her, she knew she’d find a way to stay here. 

The next morning, Vincent led her through the town until they came to a bridge that arched over a slowly moving river. As they crossed it, Claire saw that it led into woods with bark dark as pitch. The leaves, however, were every shade of green imaginable. There were deeply colored vines that snaked over the tree trunks. The canopies were lighter, the color rich under the morning sun. 

As they entered the woods, Claire started recognizing the smells and sounds. The air smelled fresh and there was the rustle of animals all around her. The further they ventured, the more at home Claire began to feel. They were edging closer and closer to the land of her visions. Much to Claire’s surprise, they still weren’t there by midday. She finally decided to ask about it.

“How long until we get there?”

“Oh, only a few more hours. We should make it right at sundown.”

Sundown? Oh no. This place had better be as amazing as her dreams promised. As the sun was starting to set, Claire began to wonder if her legs would give out. Her muscles were beat, and her feet were sore. That, however, faded from her mind the moment she felt the boundary of the coven. The boundary wasn’t visible, but the energy was palpable, causing her to stumble. There was a wave of sorts that ran down her body and out through her toes, causing the ground to tremble. Without warning, her eyes started to sting, and her hands flew up to clutch them. 

“Son of a bitch,” she hissed, sweat coating her skin. 

Once the pain subsided, she glanced at Vincent, a question in her eyes. 

“That’s normal,” he said nonchalantly, and they kept walking. 

The trees seemed to thicken as they walked, until she couldn’t help but brush against them. She expected the bark to at least scratch her, the tunic she was wearing wasn’t thick, but it didn’t. 

Vincent suddenly stopped at the edge of a clearing. Claire couldn’t stop the tears from welling in her eyes at the scene. Home. That was the word that echoed through her head. 

The trees were exquisite in detail, and Claire couldn’t help but silently curse her visions for not doing this place justice. The trees felt as tall as the buildings in Everton, but instead of making her feel small, she felt endless power. The setting sun shone through the trees, giving an ethereal light to the scene in front of her.

There were fourteen round cabins arranged in a circle. They were all one story homes with plenty of space in between each. They were all connected by a wooden planked courtyard, completing the circle. As Claire moved closer, she saw in the center of this circle a single, also circular, great table with a solid bench around the entirety of it. Pathways made of wooden planks from the doors of each cabin led to this point. A massive energy came from this table, the importance of it radiated throughout the clearing. She could tell this was the source of some great power.

Claire moved closer to the table, and laid one hand down to feel the organic structure. She expected it to be rough like the exterior of the trees, but the smoothness surprised her. While the table appeared to be handcrafted, it was still too perfect. 

She started to glance around at the houses surrounding her. They were all perfectly matching on the exterior, with French, wooden doors with small windows. The other windows had curtains drawn over them, giving her no insight for what, or who, was living on the inside. She started walking around the table, looking at each individual house. She stopped in front of one, staring at it intently. The curtains were drawn just enough for her to see a piano in the front of the room. This one felt like home. She continued walking before stopping in front of another one. She couldn’t see inside of it, but a strange energy radiated from it. This one felt like forever. 

“Welcome to the Blackwoods Coven,” Vincent said.