SOPHIE FIRST CHAPTERS

PROLOGUE

 ​1998

 

Crash!

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

I am alone in the backroom. I’ve been here 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 – their way of coming to terms with Jace’s death.

What now? I think as I look for my wand, Noble, then pull 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.

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

Standing in a pool of broken glass, silhouetted by the pale-yellow glow of a streetlight, is the scariest, ugliest, human being I have 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… no… it can’t be.

Never in my long life (you can’t beat a good skincare routine), have I met a man with a melted face. Picture an oversized, half-crazed survivor from a nuclear catastrophe, his face 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 peeking 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.

‘Who in the fuck are –’

‘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 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.

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 care of the bird,’ he says, looking toward the doorway, and I immediately know who he means. My man. My Raven.

‘Take care of?’

‘Yes, 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!’

‘Who the fuck are you!”

‘He ruined everything, Sophie. 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. It was always the bird. That fucking bird!’

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’m getting a bad feeling about this.

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.

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, 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 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 were both struck by an almighty force, like electricity but more. And when the pain stopped, we picked ourselves up from the dirt and found a new tattoo seared on our chests. We’d been claimed by the twin god and goddess, Tia and Ta’xet, and while the claiming had saved Flak’s life, even then I knew it was going to complicate mine.

Tia and Ta’xet are soulmates, destined to be together 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 time-traveling Flak with my arms held firmly in his grasp, that I realise just how complicated this shit was going to get.

I haven’t even quite pieced it all together, when a furious urge rises within me, and I realise I might never get the chance to see how this plays out. The wave of anger builds, and with it comes a foreign 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, 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 tip 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 took 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, and 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, eventually it ends. His limbs stiffen, his whole-body tenses, and then 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, I deposited the monster’s remains in a safe place – the safest place possible: Puzzlewood.

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 to 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. I acted on instinct… I…’ I try to explain. ‘I defended myself,’ I add, 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. 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?

Third, Flak is in the next room, drunk off his ass and hugging Flute, face red and eyes filled with tears.

So, I’m left with two choices: keep blocking him to save him from 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! Like I’m an overwrought child and 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

 

It was moving day! For the last fortnight we’d been packing up our things, though since I only arrived with a single bag, my job had been a hell of a lot easier than Raven’s and especially Flak’s who, it turned out, was the hoarder of the family.

 

All that was left was to say goodbye to our home, and I can’t deny that was what it had become over the past months; a home where I was welcomed, where I fit in a way I never had in my village. Which was why I was sitting quietly on the bed in my room, a room I had barely slept in since Raven and I had become a couple, saying my goodbyes.

 

Not that we wouldn’t be back. With the help of my Viterae it could be our escape on weekends or holidays. We weren’t leaving for good. Still, with my history, I hated this moment of leaving. I just wanted to stay put for once in my whole damned life.

 

Not so long ago I was driven from my home by evil, and now, here I was, moving to the desert to join Malcolm’s fight against Lyric Westwood. It seemed that ever since I’d inherited Morrigan from my sister, my life had become a chaotic mess, which culminated in me murdering Raven’s time-travelling, psychotic brother. You couldn’t make that shit up.

Sitting perched on the end of my bed, gazing out over the surrounding woodland, I was thinking about the past…and the future.

 

Until I met Raven and my Pack I’d had one job: protect Morrigan, Goddess of the Magical Realm at all costs. That still had to be my priority, but now I had a new family, and I was going to do my best to protect them too.

 

And that’s where my plan came in. A plan, I prayed, that I would never have to put into action, but which would ultimately save the man I love and the goddess without whom the magical world would wither and die.

 

I picked up my wand from the bed beside me and began speaking into it like it was a microphone:

'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…'