A Grave Spell by Jenna Collett

Chapter 1

Demon-Hunting Simulation

Boss Level

Thornbridge Dormitory

Asteady drumbeat pounded through my headset. I glanced at my flashing red health indicator and dove for cover behind a dumpster. Clicking over to my inventory screen, I assessed my wounds and checked the contents of my pack. What I wouldn’t give for a healing elixir right about now. Instead, I’d traded a slew of experience coins for a swanky new leather jacket and an upgraded pair of matching boots.

At least the boots came with an ankle-strapped demon blade. Not that it would do me any good if I were dead.

My partner took cover about twenty feet away. She nodded, sending a wave of neon pink hair cascading into her face, and gave me a flurry of hand signals.

Shadows lengthened down the street. Adrenaline simmered inside my body as I crouched low, preparing to strike. A demon spotted my location and sprinted toward me, forcing me to roll out of its path. I reached for my ankle weapon.

“Flank right, flank right! Demon on your six!” Tanya’s high-pitched screech blasted into my ears, and I winced at the volume.

“Thanks, Tanya—I see it!” I mashed a series of buttons into the controller, sending my avatar into a sequence of aerial kicks, culminating in a forward slash with my blade.

The demon landed on its back, and before it recovered I planted one of my knee-high leather boots against its heaving chest and used my spellcaster rune to send him back to the underworld. Light speared from my hand. The demon disintegrated, leaving behind bare pavement.

A smug grin spread across my lips, and my fingers hovered over the controller buttons as I fought temptation.

“Don’t do it, Elle. Not again,” Tanya warned in a tone I was sure she’d matched with the shaking of her head.

Must resist a dance move . . .

“I can’t help it. It’s half the reason I play.” I pressed the button sequence that made my avatar shimmy then spin in a tight circle on her heels.

Yeah, these boots were totally worth the upgrade.

I doubled down on the dance moves—mostly to annoy Tanya—before taking stock of our location. Deserted urban landscape. Oil slicks streaked the pavement, and neon signs flickered weakly over shuttered businesses. No glowing orbs or health refills. Not an experience coin in sight.

It was quiet . . . Too quiet.

“Well, that’s one demon down. Only—”

The in-game music soared, and a horde of invading monsters flooded the screen. Tanya’s cursing erupted through my headset as she did her best to evade the onslaught.

There went my health indicator. It flashed red a second time and slowly drained as the horde cut us down side by side. The monsters were fast—brutal. No series of choreographed moves or cheat codes was enough to stop them.

Blood splattered the screen, congealing in the words “GAME OVER.” I groaned into the mic and dropped my head against the couch cushion. My glorious dance moves had been premature. Wrinkling my nose in defeat, I sank my hand into the bag of cheddar cheese puffs next to my hip.

“We were so close! I thought we had it that time.” I stuffed a handful of puffs into my mouth and absently wiped the cheese dust from my fingers. An orange smear appeared on my favorite “Will Slay for Coffee” sweatshirt. My scowl deepened as I tried to brush it away.

“This level is the worst, but we almost made it to the boss. We’re getting better. Wanna try again?” Tanya asked.

“Can’t,” I said around another mouthful of cheese puffs, which was as close as I was getting to dinner tonight. “My shift starts in an hour. I have to get to work.”

Tanya scoffed. “You are working. You showed the business end of your blade to that rage demon. Besides, you’re honing your fighting skills through hand-eye coordination. That counts.”

“I mean work that pays the bills, T. Tuition doesn’t pay for itself. Plus, I’ve racked up an enormous tab at the taco stand in the quad. They told me if I don’t square up I’m cut off. Allegedly, my expensive-ass meal plan doesn’t cover food trucks.”

A gasp sounded over the line. “You poor thing. The horrors of suffering through guacamole withdrawals. It’s an epidemic.”

“Very funny, but it’s a serious problem,” I grumbled under my breath.

“I bet it is. Anyways, hit me up this weekend—we’ll practice our training again. I may even let you do your dance moves without judgment.”

I sighed as I closed the top of the chip bag and tossed the controller onto the folding dinner tray I used as a coffee table. “I have to study this weekend. Midterms are coming up. Also, stop calling it that. The game is a simulation, not real training. It’s just something the council throws our way so they can check a box and appear as if they’re prepared for any eventuality. It’s kids’ stuff. Not to break your heart, but we’re the B team. Always have been, always will be. None of our pseudo training actually matters.”

Which was fine by me! Let’s keep those demon-hunting expectations low. I was a year away from earning my business degree and becoming the first witch in my family to graduate college. The plan was to turn my mother’s hometown apothecary and tarot shop around, make a profit, and get us out of our dilapidated rental with lead paint and a leaking roof.

Then there was the dream. Grow the business, expand into the city, and never have to worry about eviction or the electricity bill ever again. It was a lot for a witch from a poor family who’d grown up on the wrong side of town while her wealthier relatives had flourished in suburbia, but I’d studied hard and even gotten myself a partial scholarship to a good university.

“That’s right. I forgot I was talking to Elle Graves, the Magical Entrepreneur.”

I grinned at the nickname, taking an absurd amount of pleasure in it. “Exactly. You know as well as I do, not a single witch from the Graves side of the family has ever been called to serve the council, and with my cousin as the current chosen one it won’t happen this generation either.” I shrugged and wiggled my toes in the thick carpet beneath my feet. “Which means I’m free to live my life the way I choose.”

“Ah, yes. Let’s all give thanks to your cousin, the supreme Ivy Jennings. While you were buried in books, she was busy breaking council records. Didn’t she outrank her mother in supernatural ability before she was thirteen? No wonder they always pick candidates from the Jennings’ side of the family.”

Tanya continued, listing my cousin’s feats. “Ivy’s got magic for days, flips like an Olympic gymnast, and has the nerve to look as if she just walked out of a shampoo commercial. Seriously, who has hair like that?”

“No one has hair like that,” I deadpanned. “I’d bet my spells somewhere along the line she sold her soul.”

Tanya snorted into her headset. “Yeah, well, if you see him, feel free to send the devil my way.”

No kidding.

Speaking of hair, my frizzy blonde locks needed taming before my shift, and I still had to find my catering vest. “I have to go, T. I’ll text you later.”

I yanked the headset off before she could respond and crossed the postage stamp-sized dorm room in search of my uniform. Thankfully, I’d scored a single dorm in last year’s housing lottery, so all the clutter was mine. It also made practicing spells a breeze without a roommate as a witness.

Thornbridge University was home to only a few supernatural students. We were the school’s best-kept secret. Us and the coffee they served in the library café—the stuff was legendary. Who knew coffee could taste so good surrounded by mid-century authors? Apparently, the secret was cinnamon and maybe a little mold.

After locating my missing vest and pairing it with trim black pants, a white button-down shirt, and very sensible rubber-soled shoes, I wound my hair into a tight bun. A few strands down the sides perfected the look. I easily morphed from laid-back witch to waitress in a matter of minutes—which was about all the time I had left before I needed to be on my way.

My catering job was located a few miles outside of town at the Thornbridge Country Club. The stone and glass structure built on beautifully manicured grounds was a far cry from the ancient diner where I’d worked growing up in my rural hometown. Tonight’s event was an award celebration for one of the university’s professors, guaranteed to be a stuffy, prolonged experience. I didn’t envision any of the tenured instructors out on the dance floor doing a conga line, but at least I wouldn’t be sweeping up broken beer bottles and peanut shells from the floor, so . . . progress!

I drove through the town’s center. The streets were flooded with college kids out for a night of entertainment. Thornbridge was the quintessential college town with the polished veneer one would expect—the kind you see in glossy magazines, with an attractive downtown lined with quaint coffee shops and trendy bars. Tree-covered bike paths circled a tranquil park, and farther out, hiking trails weaved through dense forest for the more adventurous.

Hitting the gas, I picked up speed when the congested buildings faded into the secluded countryside. Without streetlamps, the car’s headlights were two beacons barely illuminating the sides of the road. I checked my mirror. Nothing but darkness behind me.

Even with the heater blasting and the radio churning out my favorite podcast, a chill wormed its way down my back. My mother called it a Graves Warning: a little play on our last name coupled with the always present thread of awareness that came with our family’s history. The Graves may not play an active role in keeping supernatural villains at bay, but we still knew they existed. In the same way women walked to their cars at night with a key protruding between their knuckles, we walked with spells ready, searching the shadows.

I searched the shadows now, shaking off the chill. I was being ridiculous, and I had been for weeks. It wasn’t normal for a superstitious warning to leave me so unsettled. Nothing in my life had changed. School was school. The lectures were long and tedious, the evenings a mix of homework and binge-watching foreign dramas, and the mornings fueled by caffeine. I was living a normal college existence, minus the spell casting, and yet . . . something felt off.

And no—it didn’t stem from my fear of being cut off from the taco stand. There was something in the air. An invisible ticking clock that had me constantly looking over my shoulder. When I’d tried to explain it to my mother over the phone, she immediately performed a tarot reading. Nothing ominous appeared, so she chalked it up to the stress of midterms, and a few days later I received a package of magic-infused candles to help clear my aura of negative energy. It was a sweet gesture, but there was a strict “no candle burning” policy in the dorms.

The chill had settled in my spine, and I gripped the steering wheel tighter, trying to let the narrator’s soothing voice shift my mood. It was bad enough my night would likely consist of schlepping coconut shrimp to the same four people before they emptied the tray, followed by dirty looks from the rest of the party who weren’t fast enough and would have to settle for the cheese and cracker display. No use adding a bout of supernatural foreboding to the mix.

I inhaled a deep chemical pine-scented breath, courtesy of the air freshener clipped to the vent.

Breathe in . . . You’re being paranoid.

Breathe out . . . Paranoia leads to a padded cell with mystical reinforcements.

Breathe in . . .

A glowing figure dashed into the road.

I slammed on the brakes, and the car jerked to a stop. A burst of adrenaline masked the sharp pain from the bruising force of the seat belt strapped across my chest. The radio blared in my ears as my gaze landed on the old man standing inches from my bumper. He was tall and wore a suit that appeared a couple of decades out of style. A bushy mustache covered his upper lip, and it took me a moment to realize he was speaking.

Except that was impossible! The man was translucent. An ethereal shimmer covered his entire form. And yet he spoke crisp and clear into the night air.

“Excuse me, young lady, but have you seen my dog?”

My brow creased, and my mouth formed an oval shape of silence brought on by his casual question in the face of a near accident. When my silence lengthened, the man tossed up his hands and finished crossing the road. He disappeared into the tree line.

“Wait! Sir—” I unhooked my seatbelt and scrambled from the car. This couldn’t be happening. Ghosts existed, without a doubt, but sightings were rare, and they weren’t usually out walking their dogs. The headlights had probably just made him seem ghostly. Which meant there was an excellent chance I’d almost turned a living, breathing man into roadkill. A man who’d probably noted my license plate and planned to report me for reckless driving.

The breath caught in my throat. His dog! Swallowing a lump of dread, I quickly scanned the trees before casting a ball of light inside my palm. Crouching on my ankles, I bent to check underneath the car. Gravel crunched beneath my feet as I moved the light from side to side.

Relief coursed through me, and I blew out a breath. There was nothing there. Using the ball of light, I searched both sides of the road. They were empty except for the tall grass and weeds leading into the dense trees.

“Sir? Do you need any help? I can call someone,” I shouted into the dark.

A bark answered. I spotted another flash of light inside the trees. It was much smaller and low to the ground. The pup probably had an illuminated device attached to its collar.

“I think I found your dog.” Lifting the light in my palm, I chased after it, hoping to reunite the pet with its owner. It was the least I could do after nearly running the man over. Hopefully, it would also smooth over any compulsion he had to report me.

Thick branches tugged my uniform as I moved through the trees. I followed a rustling sound and the faint glow until I ended up on a narrow dirt drive. Another bark sounded. The dog paused next to a weathered sign protruding out of the ground. The sign was covered in grime, and the letters were hard to read, but I squinted to make out the words.

Clarke Manor.

The icy chill that had been chasing me for weeks intensified. I peered down the lane, unable to see anything beyond overgrown weeds. Whatever lay at the end was likely abandoned or at the very least surrounded by “no trespassing” signs.

“Let’s go, Loki. Enough mischief for tonight.” The gruff voice filtered through the trees. I watched, wide-eyed, as the glowing man appeared and walked straight through a wooden fence.

Okay, so definitely a ghost. Technically my first, if you didn’t count an early obsession with a Ouija board when I was seven.

A moment later, the dog let out a final bark, and both figures vanished, leaving me standing alone in front of the sign. What a wild encounter! I couldn’t wait to tell Tanya. She’d be so jealous.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t time to do any ghost-hunting. I was already late for work. Making a mental note to research hauntings in the area, I turned to head back to my car.

I’d only made it a few steps when something about the sign caught my eye. A design had been carved into the wood. Reaching onto my toes, I brushed away the dirt and used the light in my palm to reveal the marking. The knot in my stomach tightened. It was a familiar symbol, mostly swirls, converging into a starburst center.

I’d seen it before, hundreds of times. Pulling up the sleeve of my shirt, I revealed a matching mark.

A Spellwork symbol.

The sign of a witch.