Part 1


The arrow hit the bullseye with a satisfying thunk. Cecilia Reznik knew it was a perfect shot the second she released the bowstring, but seeing it filled her with delight.

The crowd of hunters let out a chorus of resigned groans.

Cecilia took a bow and ducked into the shade of a Yew tree where her best friend, Rainer McKay, stood waiting.

“Don’t gloat, Cece,” Rainer chided.

She didn’t want to stick it to the cocky hunters in her father’s army as much as show her father that she could play his game better than anyone. It didn’t matter how rough the competition or how intense the early summer heat. Cecilia was going to win.

“Why shouldn’t I gloat? I’m an unparalleled archer,” she said.

Rainer rolled his eyes and swiped her bow from her hands. “You’re forgetting that close combat is next and you’ll be at a disadvantage.”

Cecilia sighed, wiping sweat from her brow with the back of her hand. “As I always am. Another day, another rumble. I can take my hits. I already won the obstacle course and the archery event. I only need to place in close combat.”

She looked over the crowd to where her father, Leo Reznik, sat in the royal observation booth.

“The Huntmaster doesn’t look pleased,” Rainer said, following her gaze.

“I offered him the alternative of not making me dance in front of half the kingdom, but he chose to be stubborn,” Cecilia said.

Rainer smirked. “Yes, he’s the stubborn one.”

Cecilia glowered at him. “I’m not some prize to be handed out to his most talented hunter. Especially when I’m his most talented hunter.”

Cecilia turned to the royal booth, giving her father a salute before dipping into an exaggerated curtsey to acknowledge King Hector Terrapin and Prince Marcos. Her father nodded toward a tree behind the fighting rings. A request to parley.

“Think he’s ready to surrender?” Rainer asked. he couldn’t actually read her mind, but he could read her emotions and knew her well enough to anticipate what she’d do.

“Doubtful, but I should at least see what he’s offering.”

Rainer rubbed a hand over the back of his neck.

“Relax, Rain. I’m certain he knows this was my idea.”

He frowned. “But it’s my job to talk you out of your bad ideas.”

“He’s been doing it longer. If there’s anyone who understands your plight, it’s my father. I’ll meet you at the fighting ring in five,” Cecilia said, walking toward her father without waiting for a reply.

Magic had always felt natural in her. As if some force inside her was calling to the natural rhythm of the world and that rhyme called back. Learning to control it was another story altogether, but learning to summon each element had proven less complicated and more reliable than court politics.

She ignored the scrutinizing looks of a group of hunters as she wove through the crowd and ducked under the tree where her father was waiting.

“Withdraw from the Solstice Contest and I’ll let you have the summer beach house for a week on your own when you get back from your first Gauntlet run,” her father said.

Cecilia crossed her arms. It was a tempting offer. A week of freedom on the coast, far from the prying eyes of the court, sounded amazing. Especially after her grueling Gauntlet regimen. In a week, she and Rainer would finally visit the first in a series of seventy-seven caves. Each cave contained memories of ancient spells and magic—a page in a grimoire written in the language of memories.

No one in all of Olney had ever completed the Gauntlet. They either retired from the exhausting challenge or died in pursuit. Rainer and Cecilia could be the first duo to reach the final cave and release the power of the Lost God to the witches of Olney.

“I don’t enjoy being the center of attention,” Cecilia said.

Cecilia’s father shook his head, gesturing to the archery range. “You just showed up the entire field and then took a bow like an actress.”

“I don’t enjoy being the center of attention for dancing,” Cecilia amended.

Her father crossed his arms. “I’ve told you before not to worry about what the ladies of the court think. They’ll always find reasons not to like you. It baffles me how you can have such thick skin in a fighting ring, but be so sensitive to the opinions of women you don’t even like. Your Aunt Clara—”

“Has done everything she can to help me become a proper lady of the court. I know,” Cecilia huffed. 

“You’re a lovely dancer. What is the problem?”

Cecilia waved her hand at a group of hunters warming up for close combat. “How will anyone take me seriously in a fighting ring when you treat me like I’m a prize to be won?”

“Two weeks at the seaside cottage,” he said.

Cecilia shook her head.

“A month. That’s my final offer.”

“I’m not negotiating. I’m winning this contest.” She frowned at her father. “Are you embarrassed that I’m publicly working against you?”

The corner of his lips twitched. “No, my Little Storm. I’m proud of your conviction, though I’d prefer you to choose a different cause.” He shook his head, waving her toward the fighting ring. “Very well. May the best hunter win.”


If there was a more maddening woman in the kingdom, Rainer had not met her. 

Cecilia was his best friend, but she was also the reason for his near-daily anxiety attacks, the source of his woeful lack of sleep, and the biggest pain in his ass. And right now she was wrapping her knuckles like it was no big deal to step into the fighting ring with a hunter twice her size.

“You have such a handsome face. Why you insist on looking like such a grump baffles me. You should smile more. Your lady friends will love it,” she teased, gesturing to the crowd of women in colorful dresses in the stands. The very stands where she would have been sitting if she had even the slightest inclination to act like a proper lady.

Rainer scowled harder.

“Oh, what’s this?” She said, a teasing grin on her face as she swiped the space between his brows with her thumb. “I found a worry, but I’ll fix it in a hurry.”

Rainer couldn’t fight off the smile. The rhyme was ridiculous, but she’d been saying it since they were children, and always made him smile. A gust of wind blew a curl loose from Cecilia’s braid. He reflexively tucked it behind her ear, and she placed her hand over his heart.

“I can handle this, Rain. Honestly, it’s like you have no confidence in your training.”

He blew out a breath, shaking his head. “Just because I trained you doesn’t mean I like it when you take unnecessary risks.”

Their magical bond meant that when Cecilia hurt, he hurt, and vice versa. Not that she couldn’t take it. She soldiered on no matter how badly she was hurting, but his guardian instinct sent relentless agitation through his body when someone hurt his charge. That was how the guardian-memory witch bond was meant to work. But it was a tremendous exercise in restraint to stand on the edge of the ring while she fought.  

Rainer looked around for a friendly face and found plenty of understanding in the eyes of his guardian counterparts, but the only real knowing look came from Cal Bennington. Though Cal and his charge, Sylvie, weren’t soul-bonded like Rainer and Cecilia, they were extremely close, and he knew Rainer long enough to understand his pain.

Rainer cleared his throat, meeting Cecilia’s bright blue eyes. “You can still—”

“I’m not backing out,” she snapped. “I’m going to win the honor of not dancing the first dance with the solstice hunter champion, humiliating myself in front of the entire court, by winning this stupid thing and canceling the first dance.”

Rainer knew the determined set of Cecilia’s shoulders—felt her confidence in his own chest at war with his anxiety. She needed to focus on her opponent, not trying to soothe Rainer, but she could not help herself. He’d let too much of his fear slip through their connection.

Lucky for him, Cecilia placed high enough in the first two events that she only had to fight in the final round. She only needed to win one fight. Unfortunately, that fight would be with the hunter who beat everyone else.

“Go through it again,” he said.

The obsessive repetition of information was as much for his benefit as it was for hers, and she knew it.  She paused for a beat—argument poised on her lips—then, surrendered.

“Ralph Farew is slow. He has a really powerful right hook that will connect eventually, so I need to make sure it’s not with my face. He gets flustered when he’s crowded and will lose power on his hits. Stay close to him and choose my moment. He broke his left wrist twice last year and has bruised ribs from earlier this week. And he favors turning to the right—so I’ll turn him left.”

Rainer blew out a breath. She added that last bit that was not in his scouting report to make him feel better, but he worried she was overconfident. Cecilia was fast, and she knew how to compensate for her diminutive size, but every time she bested a hunter in her father’s army, they grew more feral and desperate to humble her. He could see it in their eyes even now.

Cecilia could heal her body with magic, but Rainer was more concerned about her spirit. Hunters could be brutal, especially after being slighted by a woman, and she was already so frustrated that she had to manage so many egos.

She turned to step into the ring, but Rainer caught her arm. 

Cecilia cast a dirty look at him over her shoulder. “What?”

“Your braid is coming loose.”

She turned away and waited as he shifted hairpins to tuck in the ends of her braid so it wouldn’t be grabbed. He ignored the snickering of the hunters nearby. 

Placing a hand at the center of her back, he leaned in close to her ear. “Kick his ass, Cece.”

She nodded and stepped into the ring, and the rest was in her hands. A bell rang and Ralph circled her. Rainer clasped his hands behind his back, his gaze darting to where the huntmaster sat. Leo Reznik’s face was inscrutable, even as Cecilia ducked a brutal fist. Rainer could only dream of being so self-contained.

Instead, he felt every punch like he was in the ring, too. Forcing himself to look at the fight dispassionately, he studied Ralph for any additional weaknesses. The hunter took Cecilia down to the ground. Rainer’s heart leapt into his throat, but Cecilia recovered quickly, kicking Ralph in the knee. 

The hunter staggered away from her, wincing, and Rainer blew out a breath. Cecilia was smart. She was trying to limit his mobility, to slow him down further, and increase her advantage. Ralph must have had a hundred pounds on Cecilia, but she was meticulously depleting his advantage. 

Ralph swiped at her and she turned at the last second, taking the punch on the side of the cheek, instead of in the eye. But the strike cost him more. She brought a knee into his gut. He folded forward, and she drove her elbow into the back of his head. His battered knee gave out, and he sprawled into the dirt.

Cecilia looked to the booth where her father was watching. 

He arched a brow but didn’t call the fight.

Ralph pushed up to his knees, spitting blood. Before he could get up, Cecilia hit him in the temple and he slumped into the dirt unconscious.

She turned to face her father’s box, her hands on her hips. The huntmaster stood slowly, walking down into the ring as a hush fell over the bleachers full of hunters.

“We have our winner of the Solstice Hunt Games. My daughter, Cecilia Reznik,” he said, holding up her arm. “However, because she cannot dance with herself, the honor will go to the runner-up, Ralph Farew.”

Cecilia’s outrage shot through her bond with Rainer bond, sparkling like kindling in his chest. 

Cecilia glared at her father and left the ring in a huff. Rainer followed, knowing this fight of hers was far from over.

© Sheila Masterson 2023 All Rights Reserved