Chapter One

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Every fall, I returned to these woods. An idyllic patch of wilderness in the middle of nowhere which Tray had become so infatuated with that he threw his old life—and everything we'd built together—away.

"So much for the health benefits of good old fashioned country living, huh?" I toasted the picturesque forest with a sarcastic flourish of my hip flask. "Happy deathaversary, big bro. Hope your afterlife tastes a heck of a lot sweeter than this shit."

After taking a long ceremonial swig, I wiped my mouth on my sleeve and grimaced. The foul stuff sure hadn't become any more palatable since the first time Tray and I had stolen a bottle of cinnamon whiskey from our crazy old coot of an uncle then gotten wasted behind his potions shed.

We'd only been found out when my brother had gotten too drunk and lost control of his power, burning the saggy thing to the ground. Our crotchety uncle had made us build him a new one, of course, from scratch. Strangely enough, Tray had seemed to enjoy our punishment way too much.

I couldn't give him too much grief about it, though.

My brother's deadly powers had just come online and he'd been taking it worse than most. Oh, we all grew up with certain traits—like the ability to see and talk to ghosts—and our irises took on a purple gleam when our magic rose to the surface. However, the battle punch behind our magic and any specific talents didn't arrive until we reached the end of our teens and were ready to take on the 'mantle of adulthood' as our elders called it.

But Tray never wanted to be a grim—at least, he never wanted to join the family business.

He believed we should use our powers to serve the community, not profiteer from death and all its unfortunate permutations. He would have much preferred to spend his life with his hands in the dirt and his feet planted firmly on the ground. My brother never really suited the shadowy in-between of our family's legacy, although he was one heck of a scrappy fighter.

Ever stuck playing catch up and feeling salty about it, my powers had come online a year afterwards—at sixteen. Young for a grim, but not impossibly so. My brother and I immediately insisted that we work together as a unit, despite the fact that traditionally a fledgling grim would be teamed up with an older steadying hand.

Given our spirit capture and kill rates were so high, no one put up much of a fuss.

Everybody knew Tray and I were a unit. You messed with one and the other would sneak up and deck your ass. We'd earned a formidable reputation in the playground, as well as in the family's well-equipped training gym. So, once our powers came online and we were confirmed as warriors, we became a one-two punch best not separated.

After that first night, this libation had become our poison of choice. Every deathaversary—as we jokingly called it—Tray and I drank a bottle of the devil's brew and commiserated about whatever sucked the most about our lives at the time.

Now I used the foul stuff to protest my brother's untimely demise.

Keeping my eyes fixed on the crimson horizon, I tipped the remains over the log cabin's porch railing. In the dusky sunlight, the amber liquid glowed like harvest straw. It rained down onto the rich earth below where it was immediately sucked up by the exposed foundations.

While I didn't know for sure who was keeping the yard and gutters clear of the encroaching scrub, I had my suspicions and the intended kindness didn't do much to improve my mood. I would have preferred it if the big lug kept his snout out of my business.

Quite frankly, if a forest fire swept through and razed this place to the ground, it would've been a relief. At least then I could have sold the land and moved on.

That first year, I'd thought about setting fire to it myself—even doused the ground with cheap kerosene—but I couldn't bring myself to light the match. Couldn't make myself destroy the one thing Tray had built for himself, untouched by the darker aspects of his former world.

Besides, despite what it said on the official documents, I knew this oasis wasn't mine to destroy.

However much it hurt that he had left me behind, I had to accept that my brother had chosen this life. Worse still, I couldn't even begrudge the bastard. Because he'd found it. Tray had actually found that elusive peace he'd always craved. A blissful state of raw happiness which I knew he never would have achieved in the maelstrom waiting for him back home in the city.

The world we'd been born into was ruled by shadows, political intrigue, and an endless game of magical roulette. War was always imminent and the destruction of society was ever on the horizon. As I spent more and more time out here, though, I couldn't help but begin to believe in Tray's dream. Maybe the choice was simpler than we had been led to believe.

Could happiness have always been waiting for us to reach out and take it?

Whatever the answer, over time I'd come to realize that I didn't hate my brother for getting out. I hated myself for not following in his footsteps when I had the chance. Now I was trapped, with one foot stuck in my old life and the other caught in this beautiful trap.

How much longer I would survive straddling the divide between the two worlds was anyone's guess, but I knew there was only one certainty we could all count on. The sands of time waited for no one.

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