❅ Chapter 2 ❅

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The streets were a living, pulsing sea of bodies when I emerged from the Strip, and I had to try to hide the smug smile on my lips due to the clinking coins weighing down my pants pocket. The sun was high in the sky, and despite the hustle and bustle of everyday life here in the village there was still an undeniable chill that swept through the streets, coaxing goosebumps to dance on one's' flesh.

Autumn was taking a grip on the village, and it wouldn't be long before its colder, more sinister sister sunk its icy claws into our homes. Winter.

Winter was a solemn time in the village. People were either mourning the loved ones they lost to the bitter cold or waiting and watching as another withered away from the season's deadly diseases. That, and winter always meant the Order was on high alert.

Ever since I was a little girl, the first snowfall always meant more patrols and guns. More death. More witches. They were everywhere. Normally I couldn't even make it into the Strip because they were scattered around the entrance, guns held high.

I hated them when I was younger because when the witches emerged from the Core like crawling bugs, it always meant kids in my orphanage would be dying. Some child would go to bed with an empty stomach and wouldn't wake up again.

I was only five when I had the misfortune of asking Maggie why the High Witches hated winter so much and why they sent their troops to scour the village for unseen threats.

Pain exploded in my cheek, and soon the coppery taste of blood tickled my taste buds.

"You foolish girl! Do you wish for them to hear you?" Maggie sneered, her breath reeking of cigarettes and mold. Her old eyes darted back and forth like a cornered, paranoid animal.

I cringed back, fighting the urge to cup my cheek. "No, ma'am."

"Then keep your damn mouth shut!"

"Yes ma'am."

I never really spoke to Maggie after that. As I got older, she did too. As I grew taller, she got smaller. As I filled out into the woman I was supposed to be, she shriveled into half of the person she once was; her skin as wrinkled and pruned as a dried raisin. I was honestly amazed she was still clinging to life.

I learned a few years later why the witches always freaked when snow started clinging to the ground. I had just turned twelve and one of the girls at the orphanage, Susie, had fallen dangerously ill. Considering none of the others in that god forsaken place took any responsibility for anyone but themselves, it was my job to scour and hunt for herbs that could be used as medicine for the dying girl. Maggie only showed a mild interest in any of us when we fell ill or it was certain we were going to die, so she's the one that sent me out to begin with, with three copper coins in my pocket.

"Take these," she said. "Bring back three peppermint leaves and a few drops of honey. I reckon that should do that trick."

But why spend these precious coins when I could steal what I needed, and then some? Susie would surely get better if I stole more than three peppermint leaves and a few drops of honey. Plus, if I stole the herbs then I could spend the money on food for the kids. And me.

My stomach growled, as if seconding my idea, and I smiled.

"Wipe that smile off your face!" Maggie barked. "Did you hear me? Scat!"

I nodded once, sharply, and headed towards the door and ducked out of the shack.

Winter was in full swing, blanketing the landscape in beautiful ivorys and blues, which meant the black uniforms of the witches would be easy to spot. Icy snow flurried from the sky, creating low visibility for anyone. I crept down the alley leading into the main street, my boots crunching the freshly fallen powder beneath me. I ground my teeth.

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