Seventeen

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Tied to each witch's wrist was a slim silver thread, the same color as Charlotte's magic—spirit magic. But unlike Charlotte who held dozens of threads at her command, even with her power nowhere near full capacity, the witch spirits had only one thread. None of them would ever have more than that. That one thread was the last remaining source of their magic they carried with them to the afterlife.

The threads tangled in and out amongst each other, wrapped around the ankle of their respective crow familiars. Without that anchor to the living world, Charlotte would never have considered the possibility of allowing them through the veil again. Once a spirit passed on, they stayed there. For good.

If she had granted a normal spirit access to the living world, it would become volatile. Elisabeta's threat to crush Charlotte with her coffin was a tame one compared to the other spirits Charlotte had encountered.

It was too painful for a spirit to exist among the living, unable to communicate, unable to join those who were alive. Often times, frustration grew to such immense proportions that it led to possession. And once a spirit had lodged in a warm, living body, it proved to be more than a little difficult to dislodge into the empty coldness of limbo again.

But as long as a witch was moored to her familiar, she could pass between the living world and the spirit realm. It wasn't easy—putting a strain on that one trembling thread around her wrist—but it was possible. She had the bonding warmth of life through her familiar as well as her magic and she needed nothing else.

Nivian stepped forward and cupped Charlotte's face in her hands. Her touch was feathery light, just a brush of air against Charlotte's skin.

"I've missed you," she said. Not an echo in Charlotte's mind but her true voice, smooth and crisp.

She looked unchanged from the way Charlotte remembered her. Time had not eaten away at her image, dissolved her of solidarity or prominence. Her long dark hair trailed down to her waist with a stalk of lavender tucked behind her ear. She still wore the same soft, pale blue linen dress she loved so much.

The only difference was the look in her eyes of profound, deep regret. That meant she had something in mind and she knew Charlotte wouldn't like it but she was trying to soften the blow already before anything had been said.

"What is it?" Charlotte said, her voice heavy with dread.

"There's someone you need to meet," Nivian replied. "Someone who gave us shelter when we fled The Endless One before the fire."

Nivian moved aside. One final figure emerged from the veil in long, black robes with a hood concealing her face. A white crow sat upon her shoulder. It was a massive bird, and old, judging by the gnarled claws and the crooked, cracked beak.

A swell of gritty heat blasted Charlotte in the face. She recognized that presence, the overwhelming strength of it, smelling of smoke and blood.

"You," she said. "You were at Laeves Keep."

The figure nodded. She extended a hand to reveal thousands of threads in thousands of colors, crisscrossing her fingers, her palm, her knuckles, disappearing up her sleeve. What kind of spirit could wield that much magic in death?

Before Charlotte could ask, The Endless One spoke.

"A reunion of witches," he said. "I'll enjoy putting an end to all of you."

He whistled, a short, high-pitched trill. Horses galloped from his cloud of darkness, with red, rolling eyes, and massive stomping hooves. They circled Charlotte, the crows, and the witch spirits. Charlotte's magic pulsed hot, ready to be released.

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