The medwitch’s immaculately clean white clinic was small, not like the larger practices Bryce had visited in the past. And rather than the standard blue neon sign that jutted over nearly every other block in this city, the broom-and-bell insignia had been rendered in loving care on a gilded wooden sign hanging outside. About the only old-school-looking thing about the place.
The door down the hallway behind the counter opened, and the medwitch appeared, her curly dark hair pulled back into a bun that showed off her elegant brown face. “You must be Bryce,” the woman said, her full smile instantly setting Bryce at ease. She glanced to Hunt, giving him a shallow nod of recognition. But she made no mention of their encounter in the night garden before she said to Bryce, “Your partner can come back with you if you would like. The treatment room can accommodate his wings.”
Hunt looked at Bryce, and she saw the question in his expression: Do you want me with you?
Bryce smiled at the witch. “My partner would love to come.”
The white treatment room, despite the clinic’s small size, contained all the latest technology. A bank of computers sat against one wall, the long mechanical arm of a surgical light was set against the other. The third wall held a shelf of various tonics and potions and powders in sleek glass vials, and a chrome cabinet on the fourth wall likely possessed the actual surgical instruments.
A far cry from the wood-paneled shops Hunt had visited in Pangera, where witches still made their own potions in iron cauldrons that had been passed down through the generations.
The witch idly patted the white leather examination table in the center of the room. Hidden panels gleamed in its plastic sides, extensions for Vanir of all shapes and sizes.
Hunt claimed the lone wooden chair by the cabinet as Bryce hopped onto the table, her face slightly pale.
“You said on the phone that you received this wound from a kristallos demon, and it was never healed—the venom is still in you.”
“Yes,” Bryce said quietly. Hunt hated every bit of pain that laced that word.
“And you give me permission to use the venom I extract in my experiments as I search for a synth antidote?”
Bryce glanced at him, and he nodded his encouragement. “An antidote to synth seems pretty damn important to have,” she said, “so yes, you have my permission.”
“Good. Thank you.” The medwitch rifled through a chart, presumably the one Bryce had filled out on the woman’s website, along with the medical records that were tied to her file as a civitas. “I see that the trauma to your leg occurred nearly two years ago?”
Bryce fiddled with the hem of her shirt. “Yes. It, um—it closed up, but still hurts. When I run or walk too much, it burns, right along my bone.” Hunt refrained from grunting his annoyance.
The witch’s brow creased, and she looked up from the file to glance at Bryce’s leg. “How long has the pain been present?”
“Since the start,” Bryce said, not looking at him.
The medwitch glanced at Hunt. “Were you there for this attack as well?”
Bryce opened her mouth to answer, but Hunt said, “Yes.” Bryce whipped her head around to look at him. He kept his eyes on the witch. “I arrived three minutes after it occurred. Her leg was ripped open across the thigh, courtesy of the kristallos’s teeth.” The words tumbled out, the confession spilling from his lips. “I used one of the legion’s medical staplers to seal the wound as best I could.” Hunt went on, unsure why his heart was thundering, “The medical note about the injury is from me. She didn’t receive any treatment after that. It’s why the scar …” He swallowed against the guilt working its way up his throat. “It’s why it looks the way it does.” He met Bryce’s eyes, letting her see the apology there. “It’s my fault.”
Bryce stared at him. Not a trace of damnation on her face—just raw understanding.
The witch glanced between them, as if debating whether to give them a moment. But she asked Bryce, “So you did not see a medwitch after that night?”
Bryce still held Hunt’s gaze as she said to the woman, “No.” “Why?”
Her eyes still didn’t leave his as she rasped, “Because I wanted to hurt. I wanted it to remind me every day.” Those were tears in her eyes. Tears forming, and he didn’t know why.
The witch kindly ignored her tears. “Very well. The whys and hows aren’t as important as what remains in the wound.” She frowned. “I can treat you today, and if you stick around afterward, you’re welcome to watch me test your sample. The venom, in order to be an effective antidote, needs to be stabilized so it can interact with the synth and reverse its effects. My healing magic can do that, but I need to be present in order to hold that stability. I’m trying to find a way for the magic to permanently hold the stabilization so it can be sent out into the world and widely used.”
“Sounds like some tricky stuff,” Bryce said, looking away from Hunt at last. He felt the absence of her stare as if a warm flame had been extinguished.
The witch lifted her hands, white light shining at her fingertips then fading away, as if giving a quick check of her magic’s readiness. “I was raised by tutors versed in our oldest forms of magic. They taught me an array of specialized knowledge.”
Bryce let out a breath through her nose. “All right. Let’s get on with it, then.”
But the witch’s face grew grave. “Bryce, I have to open the wound. I can numb you so you don’t feel that part, but the venom, if it’s as deep as I suspect … I cannot use mithridate leeches to extract it.” She gestured to Hunt. “With his wound the other night, the poison had not yet taken root. With an injury like yours, deep and old … The venom is a kind of organism. It feeds off you. It won’t want to go easily, especially after so long meshing itself to your body. I shall have to use my own magic to pull it from your body. And the venom might very well try to convince you to get me to stop. Through pain.”
“It’s going to hurt her?” Hunt asked.
The witch winced. “Badly enough that the local anesthesia cannot help. If you like, I can get a surgical center booked and put you under, but it could take a day or two—”
“We do it today. Right now,” Bryce said, her eyes meeting Hunt’s again. He could only offer her a solid nod in return.
“All right,” the witch said, striding gracefully to the sink to wash her hands. “Let’s get started.”
The damage was as bad as she’d feared. Worse.
The witch was able to scan Bryce’s leg, first with a machine, then with her power, the two combining to form an image on the screen against the far wall.
“You see the dark band along your femur?” The witch pointed to a jagged line like forked lightning through Bryce’s thigh. “That’s the venom. Every time you run or walk too long, it creeps into the surrounding area and hurts you.” She pointed to a white area above it. “That’s all scar tissue. I need to cut through it first, but that should be fast. The extraction is what might take a while.”
Bryce tried to hide her trembling as she nodded. She’d already signed half a dozen waivers.
Hunt sat in the chair, watching.
“Right,” the witch said, washing her hands again. “Change into a gown, and we can begin.” She reached for the metal cabinet near Hunt, and Bryce removed her shorts. Her shirt.
Hunt looked away, and the witch helped Bryce step into a light cotton shift, tying it at the back for her.
“Your tattoo is lovely,” the medwitch said. “I don’t recognize the alphabet, though—what does it say?”
Bryce could still feel every needle prick that had made the scrolling lines of text on her back. “Through love, all is possible. Basically: my best friend and I will never be parted.”
A hum of approval as the medwitch looked between Bryce and Hunt. “You two have such a powerful bond.” Bryce didn’t bother to correct her assumption that the tattoo was about Hunt. The tattoo that Danika had drunkenly insisted they get one night, claiming that putting the vow of eternal friendship in another language would make it less cheesy.
Hunt turned back to them, and the witch asked him, “Does the halo hurt you?”
“Only when it went on.” “What witch inked it?”
“Some imperial hag,” Hunt said through his teeth. “One of the Old Ones.”
The witch’s face tightened. “It is a darker aspect of our work—that we bind individuals through the halo. It should be halted entirely.”
He threw her a half smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “Want to take it off for me?”
The witch went wholly still, and Bryce’s breath caught in her throat. “What would you do if I did?” the witch asked softly, her dark eyes glimmering with interest—and ancient power. “Would you punish those who have held you captive?”
Bryce opened her mouth to warn them that this was a dangerous conversation, but Hunt thankfully said, “I’m not here to talk about my tattoo.”
It lay in his eyes, though—his answer. The confirmation. Yes, he’d kill the people who’d done this. The witch inclined her head slightly, as if she saw that answer.
She turned back to Bryce and patted the examination table. “Very well. Lie on your back, Miss Quinlan.”
Bryce began shaking as she obeyed. As the witch strapped down her upper body, then her legs, and adjusted the arm of the surgical light. A cart rattled as the witch hauled over a tray of various gleaming silver instruments, cotton pads, and an empty glass vial.
“I’m going to numb you first,” the witch said, and then a needle was in her gloved hands.
Bryce shook harder.
“Deep breaths,” the witch said, tapping the air bubbles from the needle.
A chair scraped, and then a warm, calloused hand wrapped around Bryce’s.
Hunt’s eyes locked on hers. “Deep breath, Bryce.”
She sucked one in. The needle sank into her thigh, its prick drawing tears. She squeezed Hunt’s hand hard enough to feel bones grinding. He didn’t so much as flinch.
The pain swiftly faded, numbness tingling over her leg. Deep inside
“Do you feel this?” the witch asked. “Feel what?”
“Good,” the witch declared. “I’m starting now. I can put up a little
curtain if you—”
“No,” Bryce gritted out. “Just do it.” No delays. No waiting.
She saw the witch lift the scalpel, and then a slight, firm pressure pushed against her leg. Bryce shook again, blasting a breath through her clenched teeth.
“Steady now,” the witch said. “I’m cutting through the scar tissue.”
Hunt’s dark eyes held hers, and she forced herself to think of him instead of her leg. He had been there that night. In the alley.
The memory surfaced, the fog of pain and terror and grief clearing slightly. Strong, warm hands gripping her. Just as he held her hand now. A voice speaking to her. Then utter stillness, as if his voice had been a bell. And then those strong, warm hands on her thigh, holding her as she sobbed and screamed.
I’ve got you, he’d said over and over. I’ve got you.
“I believe I can remove most of this scar tissue,” the witch observed. “But …” She swore softly. “Luna above, look at this.”
Bryce refused to look, but Hunt’s eyes slid to the screen behind her, where her bloody wound was on display. A muscle ticked in his jaw. It said enough about what was inside the wound.
“I don’t understand how you’re walking,” the witch murmured. “You said you weren’t taking painkillers to manage it?”
“Only during flare-ups,” Bryce whispered.
“Bryce …” The witch hesitated. “I’m going to need you to hold very still. And to breathe as deeply as you can.”
“Okay.” Her voice sounded small.
Hunt’s hand clasped hers. Bryce took a steadying breath—
Someone poured acid into her leg, and her skin was sizzling, bones melting away—
In and out, out and in, her breath sliced through her teeth. Oh gods, oh gods—
Hunt interlaced their fingers, squeezing.
It burned and burned and burned and burned—
“When I got to the alley that night,” he said above the rush of her frantic breathing, “you were bleeding everywhere. Yet you tried to protect him first. You wouldn’t let us get near until we showed you our badges and proved we were from the legion.”
She whimpered, her breathing unable to outrun the razor-sharp digging, digging, digging—
Hunt’s fingers stroked over her brow. “I thought to myself, There’s someone I want guarding my back. There’s a friend I’d like to have. I think I gave you such a hard time when we met up again because … because some part of me knew that, and was afraid of what it’d mean.”
She couldn’t stop the tears sliding down her face.
His eyes didn’t waver from hers. “I was there in the interrogation room, too.” His fingers drifted through her hair, gentle and calming. “I was there for all of it.”
The pain struck deep, and she couldn’t help the scream that worked its way out of her.
Hunt leaned forward, putting his cool brow against hers. “I’ve known who you were this whole time. I never forgot you.”
“I’m beginning extraction and stabilization of the venom,” the witch said. “It will worsen, but it’s almost over.”
Bryce couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t think beyond Hunt and his words and the pain in her leg, the scar across her very soul.
Hunt whispered, “You’ve got this. You’ve got this, Bryce.”
She didn’t. And the Hel that erupted in her leg had her arching against the restraints, her vocal cords straining as her screaming filled the room.
Hunt’s grip never wavered.
“It’s almost out,” the witch hissed, grunting with effort. “Hang on, Bryce.”
She did. To Hunt, to his hand, to that softness in his eyes, she held on. With all she had.
“I’ve got you,” he murmured. “Sweetheart, I’ve got you.”
He’d never said it like that before—that word. It had always been mocking, teasing. She’d always found it just this side of annoying.
Not this time. Not when he held her hand and her gaze and everything she was. Riding out the pain with her.
“Breathe,” he ordered her. “You can do it. We can get through this.” Get through it—together. Get through this mess of a life together.
Through this mess of a world. Bryce sobbed, not entirely from pain this time.
And Hunt, as if he sensed it, too, leaned forward again. Brushed his mouth against hers.
Just a hint of a kiss—a feather-soft glancing of his lips over hers.
A star bloomed inside her at that kiss. A long-slumbering light began to fill her chest, her veins.
“Burning Solas,” the witch whispered, and the pain ceased.
Like a switch had been flipped, the pain was gone. It was startling enough that Bryce turned away from Hunt and peered at her body, the blood on it, the gaping wound. She might have fainted at the sight of a
good six inches of her leg lying open were it not for the thing that the witch held between a set of pincers, as if it were indeed a worm.
“If my magic wasn’t stabilizing the venom like this, it’d be liquid,” the witch said, carefully moving the venom—a clear, wriggling worm with black flecks—toward a glass jar. It writhed, like a living thing.
The witch deposited it in the jar and shut the lid, magic humming. The poison instantly dissolved into a puddle within, but still vibrated. As if looking for a way out.
Hunt’s eyes were still on Bryce’s face. As they’d been the entire time. Had never left.
“Let me clean you out and stitch you up, and then we’ll test the antidote,” the witch said.
Bryce barely heard the woman as she nodded. Barely heard anything beyond Hunt’s lingering words. I’ve got you.
Her fingers curled around his. She let her eyes tell him everything her ravaged throat couldn’t. I’ve got you, too.
Thirty minutes later, Bryce was sitting up, Hunt’s arm and wing around her, both of them watching as the witch’s glowing, pale magic wrapped around the puddle of venom in the vial and warped it into a thin thread.
“You’ll forgive me if my method of antidote testing fails to qualify as a proper medical experiment,” she declared as she walked over to where an ordinary white pill sat in a clear plastic box. Lifting the lid, she dropped the thread of venom in. It fluttered like a ribbon, hovering above the pill before the witch shut the lid again. “What is being used on the street is a much more potent version of this,” she said, “but I want to see if this amount of my healing magic, holding the venom in place and merging with it, will do the trick against the synth.”
The witch carefully let the thread of the magic-infused venom alight on the tablet. It vanished within a blink, sucked into the pill. But the witch’s face remained bunched in concentration. As if focused on whatever was happening within the pill.
Bryce asked, “So your magic is currently stabilizing the venom in that tablet? Making it stop the synth?”
“Essentially,” the witch said distantly, still focused on the pill. “It takes most of my concentration to keep it stable long enough to halt the synth. Which is why I’d like to find a way to remove myself from the equation—so it can be used by anyone, even without me.”
Bryce fell silent after that, letting the witch work in peace. Nothing happened. The pill merely sat there.
One minute passed. Two. And just as it was nearing three minutes—
The pill turned gray. And then dissolved into nothing but minuscule particles that then faded away, too. Until there was nothing left.
Hunt said into the silence, “It worked?”
The witch blinked at the now-empty box. “It would appear so.” She turned to Bryce, sweat gleaming on her brow. “I’d like to continue testing this, and try to find some way for the antidote to work without my magic stabilizing the venom. I can send over a vial for you when I’m finished, though, if you’d like. Some people want to keep such reminders of their struggles.”
Bryce nodded blankly. And realized she had absolutely no idea what to do next.