Book 2 in the Ravenwood Coven Series
NYT Bestselling Author Carrie Ann Ryan continues her magical paranormal series where a town keeps its secrets, but an aging curse might just be their downfall.
The Christopher curse is one of legend—so old that every new generation knows they will be touched by it. With every spell muttered, every magical pull needed to save her town, Laurel Christopher knows she’s one step closer to burning to ash and leaving those she loves behind. She’ll fight with all she has to protect her people—and the man she loves—but she might not have enough strength remaining to save herself.
Jaxton Dark lost his best friend to the necromancer attacking Ravenwood but refuses to lose his mate to a curse that could take them both. He’s well aware of the loss calling them, but before he can stand up for those he loves, a betrayal cuts him to the core.
Sacrifice was always an inevitability when it comes to the curse that threatens their fate. Yet it’s only when the darkness makes a subtle and surprising move that star-crossed lovers, Laurel and Jaxton, will truly find out the meaning of who they could be and what they must give up to survive.
The gravestone was more of a placard, really, one that shone under the fading sun and didn’t mark a grave but more a remembrance.
Trace wasn’t buried under my feet. His body wasn’t here. His ashes had been spread to the wind. One of my best friends, the man I had thought would be my everything—or at least I had deluded myself into thinking would be my everything—was long gone. The only thing that remained was this placard his parents and the pack had wanted to use to remember him by and the memories that currently cascaded through my brain.
Trace was dead. Faith, a necromancer and dark witch, had killed him.
I still couldn’t quite believe that I wouldn’t hear his laughter again—that big belly laugh that warmed me from the inside out. He always made me smile, even if he made me growl more often than not. Since he was the bear shifter, he had constantly rolled his eyes and proceeded to show me exactly how I was supposed to growl instead of the weak little baby growl that escaped my human-witch lips.
I had loved Trace. Maybe not how others thought I should, not in the ways that would be forever and mean bonds and mates, but I had loved him.
He had been my friend first and foremost, and I’d thought maybe the fates would decide that we would be together, at least partially. Because I knew Trace wasn’t my forever. He’d had the potential, but he hadn’t truly been mine. And he wouldn’t have been even if the world had allowed him to live. If Faith and the revenants hadn’t taken him from me. From his family. His pack.
He had been my growly bear, my best friend, the one I could lean on when I thought the world might crash around me. He was the person I ran to when things got too complicated. When I had to hide from my family, my past, my curse, and…my hawk.
I frowned, wondering why I was so melancholic. No, that wasn’t it. I knew. Because there was nothing good happening anymore.
“I miss you, Trace. I’d say it should have been me, but maybe it will be soon.” I winced as I moved, the motion tugging on the new burn marks on my flesh. “It might be me soon if this curse has anything to say about it.”
I rested on my knees in front of the placard, alone except for the forest’s non-magical inhabitants. The bears of the Ravenwood den gave me time to speak to Trace. Some had assumed he would be my mate. Others just knew that we had been friends and wanted to give me peace.
I hated that I hadn’t been strong or fast enough to save him.
As the curse currently working through my system reminded me repeatedly, I wasn’t fast enough for many things. Because Trace had died, and I was following him.
Every time I used my magic to protect this town, myself, and my friends, the fire within me burned.
Every time I used my fire magic, the element that was closest to my soul, it killed me a little. I was one day closer to death, one step closer to the eternal torment that awaited me because of the curse on my family.
One that hadn’t only affected me but also my sibling. Though my affliction was far different than my older brother, Ash’s.
I was a fire witch, one of the Ravenwood coven. And I was broken.
Every time I used my fire, the flames licked up my body, scorching me from the inside out. I knew that one day, I would do one too many spells, and I would be gone. I would lose everything. And perhaps I deserved it.
I didn’t know exactly what I had done, but I didn’t have the strength that Rowen, my best friend and leader, had. I wasn’t Sage, the new member, the water witch. The innocent who had come to our town so recently.
I loved them both; they were my sisters in everything but blood, but they would have to find a way to defeat the darkness without me. Perhaps Rowen would finally allow Ash to join the coven in truth, and he’d be the third to anchor the circle.
I knew I wasn’t going to live much longer. The burns on my side and across my soul were evidence of that.
I needed to get back to town to work in the bookshop but I didn’t want to leave Trace behind.
Only, he wasn’t here. I had to remember that. He was gone. This plaque was only a place for those left behind to mourn and grieve. He wasn’t here.
I stood, ignoring the painful stretch and tearing of my skin as I did. I straightened my shirt, making sure to cover the scars and burns. Nobody needed to realize the pain I was in or see how close I was to my end.
The only person I thought truly did was Jaxton—though I wasn’t sure it was safe for him to know anymore.
Still, Jaxton always knew.
And that was why I pushed him away. Why I had clung to Trace when both of us knew we weren’t each other’s forever.
“You doing okay?” Ariel asked, and I turned, knowing the woman was there since my magic had alerted me to her presence, but I did my best not to flinch or show any signs of weakness. Ariel was the second in command, the beta of the Ravenwood bear pack. Rome, Sage’s mate and a badass bear shifter, was the alpha. Ariel had been newly titled as beta.
Once Trace died, and Alden, the final triplet of the three bears also passed, Ariel stepped in.
I held back a growl, trying not to think about Alden. The traitor. The one who had wanted power so much, he’d gone to a necromancer for it. He had caused Trace’s death. And the demise of so many others. I would never forgive him.
“From the look on your face, you’re either thinking about Alden or Faith. Or this Oriel,” Ariel said as she tilted her head, staring at me.
I held back a sigh. “A little bit of all of those. But mostly Alden.”
Ariel’s eyes glowed for a moment before she let out a breath, her bear at the surface. “I can’t help but wonder if he would have changed if I had taken him out earlier. Forced him down the hierarchy in the pack. Maybe it would have been enough.”
I shook my head, ignoring the tug on my skin as I moved towards the other woman. “No. You might have always been stronger than him and deserved to be third after Trace and Rome, but defeating Alden would have only pushed him closer to the edge sooner. Who knows what he might’ve done if given the chance?”
“I know you’re right, but I still hate what he did to our pack. To Trace.”
I nodded, pressing my lips together. “Same here. But we can’t take it back. There’s no going back.”
“If only there were time witches.”
I snorted. “I don’t think that’s how magic works. But who knows? Maybe you could ask Aspen.”
Ariel beamed. “The leader of the fae does have some magnificent powers. Who knows? Maybe he can turn back time. He’s seen many years of it, after all.”
Aspen was the enigmatic fae leader in our tiny little town. There were fae, witches, humans, shifters, and other magical creatures living within the town’s wards.
And everybody had secrets.
Ravenwood was special. It always had been.
I nodded in thanks and said goodbye to Ariel as I moved towards the town center, needing space. Ariel seemed to understand that. She must’ve been on patrol, protecting the lands around the den. I was grateful for it. The bears and other shifters guarded Ravenwood, just like the witches used their magic to clean up any messes, hide the existence of the paranormal from the rest of the world, and keep the wards surrounding the town limits stable and steady. We needed the magical boundaries to preserve the secrecy and to keep Oriel—and whoever else was in that darkness—out.
Only, we didn’t seem to be strong enough, and I only had myself to blame. Sage was new, and she was only just now coming into her power after a curse had kept her away from us for so long. Now, she was mated to the bear alpha and learning her abilities to help Rowen keep the town safe.
I was the liability.
I nodded at Frank, an older jaguar who had come to Ravenwood years ago and hadn’t left. He had once been faster than any other shifter within the town limits, but now he was a little older with arthritis in his hips. Still, he was so fast it was awe-inspiring to watch him move sometimes.
He tilted the brim of his hat towards me and then went into the small bakery that Sage owned and operated.
I smelled the yeast and bread in the air and groaned, my stomach growling. Sage was a fantastic baker and had brought beautiful things to our town. Before, we only had a little Italian place. It had some bread, but nothing like what Sage made and infused with her magic.
It was incredible. She was a great asset to the town.
I was just trying to be and do the same. I looked up at the bookstore sign and felt a slight twinge in my heart as I did. Sage’s aunt, Penelope, had owned this bookshop. She had created it and had put her soul into it.
When the revenants and Faith killed her, it had left a gaping hole in the town and my soul. I had loved Penelope like my own family and had worked at the bookshop for as long as I could remember.
Yes, I still worked with my brother’s business to help with real estate and other finances around the country and the globe, but now my primary source of work was the bookstore itself.
After Penelope’s will had been read and the bookshop was split between Sage and me, I had cried. I had let others see my weakness and tears. I’d always thought of Penelope as family, and to know that she’d felt the same had staggered me. Sage had been the one to tell me that I should run it. She’d even tried to sign her half over to me, but I hadn’t let her.
“She was your family. I should be the one letting you have it,” I had said.
Sage had merely shaken her head. “No, if you won’t let me give you my half, then we’ll both keep it. I’ll run the bakery, you run the bookstore, and we can bring Penelope’s memory and magic to this world.”
I had only nodded, touched beyond measure. Now, I did my best not to ruin the place that had brought me so much joy for so long.
The town was like any small town in Pennsylvania. Mom and Pop places lined Main Street, each with its own unique hand-carved wooden sign and colonial building that had likely been a home at one time. There were also minor roads with newer businesses that catered to more magical things than the books and pastries we offered on Main Street, where most of the businesses were located. Rowen’s witchy antique shop was in a league of its own right on Main Street.
I loved the bookshop that brought me so much peace and joy, but I hated that part of me felt as if I would always miss Penelope. Because she wasn’t here, and I was left to make sure her legacy didn’t die.
My powers called to me, and I ignored them, knowing I couldn’t even tempt fate with a minor spell. The bookshop needed me to be whole. A fire witch who couldn’t control her powers without killing herself, surrounded by shifters, didn’t always mix. I took a deep breath, but before I could step into the shop, I frowned and tilted my head as I listened.
There was a cry in the air, a hawk’s screech, and I looked up to see Jaxton, the wing leader of the Ravenwood wing, and the man I couldn’t let myself think about. He flew overhead, and I gripped the hilt of the sword behind me before moving forward and past the bookstore. I used a small spell to hide the sword from view, but because I couldn’t use my powers and couldn’t use spells that might kill me, I’d had to learn how to use the weapon.
And while within the town limits of Ravenwood, everyone knew of magic and the darkness and the powers that be, passersby weren’t allowed to know. We used spells to conceal that, and Jaxton and Rome—as our fixers and cleaners—hid our existence from those who weren’t part of the town.
Only it was a losing battle, and we all knew it.
However, I couldn’t think about any of that. I had to remember the reason Jaxton had called us.
Sage and Rome ran out of the back of the building, the big bear ready to shift, his claws ripping through his fingertips, and his grizzly hump rising. I didn’t know if he’d shift fully while still clothed, but he held power within him to partially shift—something not all shifters could do.
By his side, Sage’s power filled her eyes and her entire being. She was turning into a powerful witch, and I wasn’t jealous in the least. We needed her, especially when I was holding us back.
“I heard Jaxton call out to us as we set up the bakery. Do you know what’s going on?” Sage asked.
I shook my head, pulling out my sword. I might not be able to set it aflame with a spell as easily as I had when I first lost my ability to use the magic I needed, but I could still fight with the blade better than anyone who lived within the town’s wards. “I don’t know, but that call means to come. So, here we are.”
I ran toward the lake and pond areas behind Main Street, noticing out of the corner of my eye that Ash was coming, as well. My brother, the one who had left the town limits long ago and was only newly back, gave me a tight nod and moved. I felt his magic within him, but I didn’t think he’d use it. Especially not when we could harm others. Ash used more than I did since his didn’t hurt him—at least as far as I knew—but he mostly did spells rather than use the earth element he was connected to. His earth didn’t crush him as my fire burned me.
Rowen followed us, her power immense, the air around her swirling. She didn’t speak to us, didn’t look our way. Though, I didn’t even have to look behind me to know she was there.
She was power.
Despite the fact that her life force was currently being drained to within its last inch to protect the town.
Something was coming, and we needed to fight.
A scream rent the air near the lake behind Main Street, and I ran faster, only to see Nelle, our resident goth mermaid, pulling herself out of the water and pointing behind her. “Revenants. I think there’s five.” She screamed again as one pulled itself out of the water and scraped its nails down her finned flank. She shoved at him, but mermaids weren’t as strong on land. They could walk on two legs, and they could move like a human, but they were their most powerful while in the water.
“Did you know revenants could swim?” Sage asked, and I shook my head, sword at the ready.
“Not in the slightest.” I moved forward as the revenants came closer and slashed down at the closest one coming at Nelle.
“Damn it,” she said as she shoved a dagger that had been strapped to her arm into the revenant’s skull. I pulled at the mermaid, gripping her arm as I got her out of the pond. She shook herself off, shifting into her human form. Her black scales turned into leather pants, and her chain and leather top remained the same since she didn’t swim topless. She gave me a tight nod, her kohl-ringed eyes bright with magic. “I think he’s the only one down there. The rest are up here.”
I growled, reminding myself of Trace again. “Are you okay?”
She held her side and then showed me her bloody hand. “I’ll be fine.”
“Okay. Then, duck.” She did as I said without question. I liked Nelle. I had known her since she was a baby, surprising all of us with her true form.
I slashed out with my sword, decapitating a revenant and wondering where the hell the necromancer was that controlled these undead bodies.
Nelle’s eyes widened, and she tugged at me. I turned, frowning at her for trying to distract me. Suddenly, there was a shout and the sound of a hawk. I ducked, doing my best to cover Nelle’s body as a fire stream soared overhead. My magic called out to me, singing its song of torment as it yearned to join with the magic and fight the only way it knew how.
Only I couldn’t.
Not if I wanted to live.
“That wasn’t me!” I called out, making sure everybody knew that I wasn’t the one using the fire magic.
“There’s another fire witch?” Nelle asked, and I tugged on her, trying to get us away from the flames.
And then Jaxton, hawk shifter, the man I couldn’t allow to be my mate, a man who happened to be Nelle’s half-brother, flew towards us, clawing out the eyes of a revenant who had been crawling our way. One I hadn’t seen. I screamed as the second revenant’s claws dug into my side, and I was afraid that Jaxton was too late.
Magic burned within me. It wanted out, but I needed to save Nelle. I needed to stop whatever was happening.
However, once again, it seemed that I might be too late.
Flames licked my side, and I watched the world burn.