Chapter 2

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Undoubtedly, in the vast annals of history, the castle had once been an imposing fortress, but Mother Nature and the slow march of time had reclaimed what was originally theirs. Once high parapets, soaring towers, and elegant archways were nothing more than dust and chunky debris, falling away to reveal the jagged bones of a stone corpse. 

But what truly grabbed the sisters' attention wasn't the castle itself but the behemoth of a tree growing through the center. Its canopy spread so wide it nearly stretched the entire circumference of the decimated structure, casting such an imposing shadow there was a black lake rippling in the tall grass.

"I found a castle!" Ria declared with a triumphant whoop.

"I guess you really did— hey, wait! Where are you going?!"

"I want to see if there's a king inside," she laughed, stretching out her hands and letting the soft chaffs of golden grass tickle her palms. At the other end of the clearing, a gust of wind rolled towards the two, teasing through their hair and making the waist-high stalks sigh and whisper. The sound made Malena nervous.

"There isn't a king in there, Ria," she called, jogging to catch up.

"You don't know that! You said there wasn't a castle and there was. So there might be a king too!"

"Ria please," Malena implored, glancing back at the way they'd come. Why was the treeline so far away? "We need to go back."

"What? Are you scared?" Ria's goading grin was wolfish, showing too many teeth.

"Of going into a ruin in the middle of the forest? Yes, I am."

"Go back then," she waved flippantly, upping her pace to a light jog.

"Ria!" Malena might as well have been shouting at the sky for all the good it was doing. Once again, the older twin found herself dogging the younger's heels, tugged along as an unwilling participant in Ria's mischief.

"I bet there's a fairy king inside. Maybe he'll give us a wish!" Ria bounced excitedly, gazing up at the swaying branches as they passed into the tree's lengthy shadow.

"Witches don't want any wishes from fairies," Malena mumbled to herself. Emerging from the grassy moat, the two picked a path of least resistance up a pile of shifting gravel towards a hole in an outer wall.

"We could wish for London to stop burning so we can go home. Maybe the people have stopped hunting us. Or we could wish you better."

Malena stalled, staring at the back of her sister's head. Not for the first time, she fought down the creeping sense of dread that never seemed to leave her in peace.

How many times had she cried herself to sleep wishing that exact thing since they left London, running terrified through the smoky streets as her family dodged squads of Hunstmen? How many times had she cursed her lineage and the Community she'd been born into--the same Community being hunted to extinction by once friendly neighbors? In her heart of hearts, Malena wished for the same thing, but she knew better. They were Witches. They were unwelcome. And they would die unless they found a safe place to hide.

"There's always a price for wishes," she said solemnly instead.

Stuck in an uneasy silence, the siblings passed under the first of many archways and pulled up short, standing in awe at the skeletal labyrinth opening up around them.

"Wow," they breathed in unison, overtaken by the sheer wonder.

Half the vaulted ceiling and supporting pillars lay in jagged fractures on the floor, streams of golden light filtering in through the branches above. The atmosphere was heavy despite the natural tranquility, making it feel as though they were desecrating a sacred place. Ria and Malena crept past crumbling stairways that lead nowhere, empty rooms and semi-dark halls choked with lichen and vines, footfalls muffled against a carpet of moss.

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