SOPHIE FIRST CHAPTERS

PROLOGUE

 ​1998

 

Crash!

I startle at the sound of plate-glass shattering coming from the front reception of Innocent Ink.

I am alone in the backroom. I’ve been here – alone – for a couple of hours, letting the drama of the last few days wash over me, and getting accustomed to having been claimed by the Goddess, Tia. The rest of the Pack is holed up at Vagabonds drowning their sorrows, which is their way of coming to terms with Jace’s death.

What now?! I thought as I looked for my wand, Noble, then pulled it out of the holster on my belt, ready to fight.

I must be either an idiot or a hero – I can’t decide which – because, as soon as I have my wand in my hand, I creep through the open doorway and into the front studio, crouched over, taking cover behind the Perspex shop counter. I hesitate and then poke my head around the counter, silently praying the ruckus is just kids throwing rocks, not more monsters come to kidnap me.

It isn’t kids of course; not with my luck.

Instead, standing in a pool of broken glass, silhouetted by the pale-yellow glow of a streetlight, is the scariest, ugliest, human being – at least, I think that’s what he is – I’ve ever seen.

He is scanning the room, eyes wild, nostrils flaring in a way that makes me think I recognise him. I think I know who it is but . . . it can’t be.

Never in my deceptively long life (you can’t beat a good skin care routine) have I met a man with a melted face. Picture an oversized, half-crazed survivor from a nuclear catastrophe, his face all burned and scarred, and you’ll have an idea of what my uninvited guest looks like. He is wearing a dark robe, like a monk or a Mage, though his robe is brown, or maybe black, it’s hard to tell.

I’m not a big fan of Mages, not after what happened on Lyric’s yacht. So, it’s no surprise that, when the giant melted man spots me peaking around the counter, my misplaced courage collapses like a game of Jenga with one too many pieces removed. I freeze in terror. His eyes, on the other hand, light up with a strange glow of recognition – no, ownership – at the sight of me.

Tia!’ he growls, rushing towards me, looking desperate and exultant all at once. I remain crouched, frozen in place, as he leans down to grab both my arms, dragging me to my feet, then hauls me close as he tilts his head to take my mouth in a deep kiss. Yuck! That gets my attention, shocking me out of my stupor, and I begin to struggle in his arms. The melted monk seems oblivious to my reaction.

Tia! My heart. My soul. I have missed you like you would not believe. And now, here you are, standing right in front of me,’ he pauses, looking pained. ‘I don’t know whether to hug you or throttle you!’ He says it like it’s a compliment; his voice filled with a yearning heat that sends goose bumps across my skin, and not in a good way.

He’s obviously mad – and did I mention scary? – but he clearly knows my new friend, Tia. Could my initial sense of recognition be hers?

 ‘Come! There isn’t much time. I need to get you somewhere safe, before I take out Raven,’ he says, looking toward the doorway.

‘Take out?’

‘Yes, take out, as in take out the trash,’ he says, lips twisting into a mockery of a smile. He pulls a knife from a sheath on his belt. ‘I’m gonna gut him,’ he decides, his crooked, nasty smile widening at the thought. ‘I’m going to skin him alive and take his useless hide back home with us where we can use him as a rug.’

 

‘Let go of me, now!’

‘He fucking ruined everything. He took you from me, my Tia. He turned you against me. I know it was never your idea to take Ta’xet from me; to leave me so alone. And now the culprit must be punished.’

I struggle with the wand, but he grabs my wrist and pushes it against the wall.

‘Once my brother is finally gone, you and I can be together at last. As one, for eternity.’ Uh-oh, I am getting a bad feeling about this. Or should I say an even worse feeling.

Then at last my brain catches up. Did he say ‘brother’? I tilt my head to one side, looking carefully into the face of the monster. Could it be? Is it even possible?

Beneath the scars I suddenly recognise him. I can see who it is. It’s Sam – or Flak as we now called him – though he is way older than the man I know, and who is more than likely, right at this moment, still knocking back brews a few-hundred yards down the street at Vagabonds.

‘Flak?’ I croak out, my voice sounding hesitant and frightened, even to my own ears.

Ta’xet,’ he corrects me, even though he just told me I’d taken Ta’xet from him. And in that instant the whole sad sorry mess comes clear to me.

You see, a few hours earlier, we had dragged Raven’s dying brother Flak, back from the yacht, and propped him up on his beloved motorcycle – to sit astride it for perhaps the last time. Then, just as we thought we’d lost him for good, he and I had both been struck by an almighty force, like electricity, but more. And when the pain stopped, we picked ourselves up from the dirt and found we’d been claimed by twin God and Goddess, Tia and Ta’xet. The claiming had saved Flak’s life, but even then I knew it was going to complicate mine.

The two immortals, Tia and Ta’xet, are soulmates, destined to be together forever for eternity – which is a pain in my goddess damned derriere, since I’ve already found my soulmate and he’s Raven, Flak’s brother.

But it is only now, as I stand in front of this Flak who appears to have travelled back in time from goddess knew when in the future, arms held firmly in his grasp, that I realise just how complicated this shit was going to get.

I hadn’t quite pieced it all together, and then a furious urge rises within me, and I realise I might never get that chance. The wave of anger builds inside me, bringing with it an urge to maim. To kill.

I know it can’t be Tia’s doing. She’s positively purring beneath Flak’s hands as he smooths them over my shoulders now, cooing and murmuring her name as he does.

Then it’s my dormant passenger, Morrigan, who has me seeing red, and it’s her shoving the scarred giant in the chest, sending him flying backwards, before I raise my wand and thunder out the words of a spell I’ve never heard before. Words that shower us both in green sparks and let loose shards of white lightning out of the end of my wand.

Shit! What the hell? I didn’t mean for this to happen! I think, as he raises his hands, palms facing out, in a vain attempt to ward off the spell. But he has no chance, he is only human now, however monstrous he may look, because I had taken Ta’xet from him. I don’t know how or when it happened, but without his Guide he is no match for Morrigan’s ire.

I watch in horror as his knees give way. He slumps to the ground, and begins an agonising dance, writhing on the floor in front of me. His screams fill the small room, plumes of smoke rise from his marred skin, turning his exposed flesh first red, then yellow. Huge puss-filled boils rise on the skin’s surface, then burst in great plumes like the great geysers at Yellowstone.

However horrific the sight, it ends eventually. His limbs stiffen, his whole-body tensing, before he goes still. Deathly still.

***

I am rushing down Main Street, heading for Vagabonds before I even know it, but not before I hid the body, using the Viterae to deposit the monster’s remains in a safe place – the safest possible.

It is only now, as I crash breathlessly in through the door of the bar, that I recognize the irony of the last hour. I killed a man who claimed to be my good friend, Flak, a man determined to kill his own brother so that he could claim me as his soulmate; and now I am going to have to walk around, chat and make friendly with both brothers knowing damned well I have murdered one and will ruin the other one’s life.

I pause in my headlong dash through the door, eyes scanning the room until they settle on Raven, standing one hip hitched against the bar, filling shot glasses with an amber liquid – one glass for each Pack member – all of whom are obviously still determinedly drowning their sorrows at the loss of their brother, Jace.  I have interrupted the biker equivalent of a wake, but it can’t be helped. I must speak to Raven.

I charge across the room; grab hold of his right wrist with both hands, and drag him into the back hallway toward the back office. He doesn’t resist, just reels me in closer to his body then slings one long arm over my shoulders.

‘Happy to see you too, Red,’ he says with a slight grin. I huff out a laugh, though how I even have a laugh in me after what I just went through, I have no idea.

‘I have to talk to you. In private,’ I say, still gasping for breath from running all the way from Innocent Ink, then continue to tug him through the door to the clubroom.

I spin round to face him so he ends up with one hand on my shoulder, and I gaze up into his coal black eyes. I have no idea how to put what just happened into words, so I just stand there, mesmerised by his dark stare.

‘You had something so say?’ he asks, his grin widening. He thinks I’m being funny. I can see it in his face. Just tell him! I scream inside my head. But’s it’s so hard to find the words – or rather to find the right words.

‘I just killed your brother,’ I blurt out at last. Damn it! That wasn’t how I wanted to tell him. ‘He broke into Ink and after what we just went through, I acted on instinct to defend myself,’ I explain. Though I don’t mention it was Morrigan’s instinct I’d acted on. ‘To defend myself,’ I add, redundantly, confused at my own words.

The muddled look on his face tells me he still can’t decide if I’m messing around. Then he smiles indulgently, and hugs me close. Not for one moment does he believe I did it. Of course he didn’t.

'It's been a tough few days, babe,’ he says. ‘Maybe get some rest before you go on another killing-spree, yeah?'

That's all he has to say on the subject. Not that I blame him for being sceptical. First off, if you don’t know about Morrigan, it’s a bit of a stretch to believe that I could even kill Flak now that he's been claimed by Ta'xet. And secondly, he knows I’ve been hiding things from him after what Lyric and Devin did to me on the yacht. Why should he believe anything I say now that I won’t allow him to read my memories or hear my thoughts?

So, I’m left with two choices; keep blocking him to save him from experiencing first-hand what I went through on the yacht, or let him in so I can show him what happened when the scarred man burst into my life, swearing vengeance and claiming me as his soulmate.

While I consider my options, Raven continues to talk.

‘You’re overtired. All stirred up. You must be imagining things.’ All stirred up! That's what he says, like I’m an overwrought child, not a fully-fledged witch with Goddess powers.

I know I don’t have any right to be upset, but I am. We hardly even know each other, and he doesn’t know anything about Morrigan, or my sister or Bastian, or what Lyric and Devin did to me. He doesn’t know what happened to me there, so he is putting my tale down to hysterics.

I can feel a painful sense of injustice rising in my chest. But now isn’t the time to get angry with Raven.

And so my choice is made – I will continue to hide myself from Raven. Call me chicken if you will, but I can't face the idea that he’ll look at me differently after he knows. It might not be the best choice I ever make, but Goddess knows, right now I can't think of a better one.

 

***

Two Weeks Later

 

'Dear Raven,

If you are listening to this, I am gone. Something has happened which I don't for the life of me understand, but which has the potential to be devastating for the Pack, and for us. Right now, we have known each other for less than a month, but already I am willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to protect my Pack. To protect you.

I pray that you will understand why it had to be this way, and I ask only one thing for myself . . . please, I beg of you, take me home.'

As I consider my next words, I absently twirl Noble in the air, like a rock drummer twirls his sticks. He lets out a gagging sound, feigning motion sickness, which is a minor improvement on the dramatic sighing noises he'd been making for the past thirty minutes.

Sigh!  Okay, that didn’t last long. Now, we are back to sighing.

To be fair to Noble, the process of writing this letter is getting boring for us both, seeing as I have dictated this letter three times already and abandoned them all as too complicated, too maudlin, or too goddess-damned farfetched. Though you'd have thought Noble might cut me some slack. He had, after all, been right there with me when the horribly disfigured mad man had burst into the studio two hours earlier. That's how he knows every detail of my plan-of-last-resort, and let's just say, he isn't exactly a fan.

'Oh the drama of it all,' Noble grumbles, huffing out another sigh. 'Why does every plan you have involve either running away or dying? Isn't there another way?'

'We've been through this a hundred times,' I snap, beginning to lose my temper. 'If there's another way, I'll find it, and if there isn't . . . Well, surely you at least accept that I need to keep the Goddess safe.'

'But which Goddess, my twice blessed friend?' Noble asks, slyly.

Twice blessed? Ha! that's a joke. Tia might, at a push, be considered a blessing –homicidal tendencies notwithstanding – but Morrigan? No, not so much.

I swallow down the emotional frog that is making its home at the back my throat, and tell him the truth, the only choice I have, 'Morrigan,’ I say. ‘I'll fight for them both to my last breath, but I must save Morrigan.'

More than finished with that particular discussion, I raise my wand to continue dictating.

'When I'm dead - oops, sorry that may have been a bit blunt, but let's be real here, there's actually no way for me to avoid using the 'D' word, so I'm just going to say it, then move swiftly on. Anyway, after I’m gone, I need you to bring my body back to your studio. It doesn't even matter what shape I'm in, just bring me back and use this wand – his name is Noble and he's very trustworthy and loyal – to open the Viterae.

'Once you're inside, all you have to do is step into the stream like we did last time; the wand will do the rest.'

Noble, who'd puffed up with pride when I'd called him trustworthy, is back to shooting holes in my plan. 'Not that it's my place to criticize your oh so wonderful strategy, but how will I know to take you home?' he asks. 'Is there a secret code or something?'

I frown at my old friend, is he trying to annoy me, on this most trying of days? 'Let me get this right,' I growl. 'You're telling me, that when Raven is standing in the Viterae with my dead body draped dramatically over his arms, you won't know to take me home?'

Noble gives an irritated harrumph, before answering. 'Well, now you've explained it properly, that does sound sensible. Please continue – I'm all ears.'

Goddess knows where the wand is getting its snark today, but to my mind, now is not the time to be dragging out and polishing his truckload of resentments. I have a recording to finish.

'The wand will take you to my family crypt. Once there, lay me on top of the casket in the far left-hand corner of the room, and cross my arms over my chest. That's all, just cross my arms and place my wand on top of my hands. Then leave me there.'

'In what version of reality, may I ask, do you see Raven, your oh so hunky macho biker, going along with this, ahem, cunning plan? We may not have known him long, but we both know he'll move heaven and earth to get you back. In fact, come to think of it, he's already done that once.'

'What would you have me do? You saw the monster, scarred beyond recognition, ranting about killing Raven and how we were destined to be together. And what's more, we both know who it was.’

Anyway, the letter is finished. I turn Noble over in my hands, then raising him once more in front of my face, I give it to him straight. 'Whatever happens, when the time comes, we must both be ready to act.’