She went by the name “enchantress.” It made her sound somewhat harmless. She wasn’t. Few saw through her wicked smile and cold eyes. Her song beckoned all who heard into her woods, and her kiss was that which ended them.
The enchantress was many things: a singer, a dancer, a creator of life from death. But merciful was not one of them.
The book sat heavy in her arms, as if she carried the weight of a mountain instead of a few pages. She flipped through until she found the next name written there, in ink blood red. This man was to be her next victim.
The dress was white, fluttering about her ankles in the winter breeze. It gave her the appearance of an angel when she knew she was really a demon, turned into one by the man she’d failed to pay years ago. But it was the perfect disguise, and she wore it well.
His house was in the village a mile away. If the enchantress listened closely, she could hear whispers amongst the branches. Soft flakes drifted around her, but she knew he wouldn’t live long enough to watch her woods fill up with snow. Her boots left prints in the thin layer of white as she approached the village, warm and peaceful.
What a shame she would have to kill another one of its inhabitants.
It was easy enough to lure the man from his home. A twirl of her hands through the air, watching red sparks trail behind, accompanied by a hum of song, and she heard a door open nearby. The man came to the edge of the woods.
She beckoned him forward, turned on her heel, waited for him to follow. They always did.
He came crunching through the snow after her. It would be simple, like all the other criminals her master had decided the world was better without. Name 352 out of 1,000. She was on her way to freedom.
“Aren’t you cold?” He asked her, words slurred as the result of the enchantress’ song.
She grabbed a bunch of her skirt, rubbed the fabric soft as petals between her fingers. “I don’t feel it.”
“What’s your name?”
My, he was a chatty one. She glanced over her shoulder with another one of her crooked smiles, the ones she wore as armor to guard her heart from added pain. “I am the enchantress.”
The man mistakenly thought the curl of her lips to be kind, for his grin was bright in return. “But what do I call you?”
She waited a second, looking into his glazed eyes. Then, “Nala.”
“Nala,” he echoed. “That’s a pretty name. I’m Miles.”
This, of course, she already knew. Miles was name 352. Miles would soon be no more than one of the many trees that lined these woods.
“Where are you taking me?” He asked.
He furrowed his brow. “That’s . . . ominous.”
“Don’t you trust me?” Nala said with a tilt of her head.
“To be honest?” Miles shrugged. “No.”
Nala almost laughed. “Smart man.”
Miles followed behind her anyway, because no matter what he truly thought, the pull of Nala’s tantalizing voice and whimsical movements would always be stronger.
“For all I know, you could be taking me to a haunted house or something,” Miles said as the trees grew thicker.
“Not all haunted places are houses.” They didn’t speak until they reached their destination.
“Who are you?” Miles inquired once he and Nala had arrived.
“Haven’t I already answered that?”
“Not really.” Miles rubbed at his arms, breath appearing in front of him. “It’s freezing out here. Can’t we go inside?”
Nala ignored him. The whispers crescendoing when she approached, she hushed them with a snap of her fingers, more red sparks exploding from the movement. Quiet fell once more. Turning and holding out a hand to him, she smiled. “Dance with me.”
“What?” Miles said, eyes narrowing, but he still took her hand. His skin was warm, motions sleepy.
She put her other hand on his shoulder, gripping tight to keep him under her control. They were close. She could hear his heavy breathing.
“Dance with me,” she whispered again.
And he did. There was no music, no particular waltz in mind, rather a melody and dance all their own, a creation of hers that was beautiful and terrible all at once. Their lips grew ever closer, each beat of his heart one more toward the final.
“The woods are lovely,” he murmured finally. He hadn’t blinked in ages, gaze fixed upon her.
Nala nodded. “Dark and deep.”
“Who’s keeping you here?”
Nala stumbled. “Wh-what?”
“You’re not here because you want to be,” Miles said, his eyes clearer in focus as the enchantment she’d put on him faded. “I can tell. Are you in danger?”
“I—no.” She closed her eyes and shook her head. “I’m fine. Come here.” She thrust out her hand again, but this time Miles didn’t take it.
“Yes you are. Who are you really? Why did you bring me here?”
Nala dropped her gaze, twisting her hands together. For once, she could feel the winter chill. Goosebumps rose on her skin. “I owe a debt to a man called Cyrus. I am to settle it with him by killing every name that appears on this list.” She pulled the book from its spot in the hollowed out trunk of a tree and tossed it to Miles.
Miles opened the book, ran his finger down the page. He gaped at her. “You said—enchantress . . .”
She nodded. “I used to be only a dancer. Now I’m forced to use my passion as a way to strengthen the magic. He made me this way.”
When he continued to stare at her, but did not run, Nala’s stomach flipped over. Would she risk her own life to save a stranger, such as he?
“You can fight him. You have magic more than he’d ever—”
“Miles,” she interrupted him. It was the first time she’d ever spoken a victim’s name aloud. She had to keep her feelings in check, and a name would attach her. Lure them from their homes, dance, seal the deal with a kiss. That was how it was, how it would always be. She couldn’t afford to get hurt. “He has magic, too.”
Nala hadn’t been paying attention to the whispers of the trees, but now she heard them screaming into the night. Miles must have heard them, too, because he jumped and looked around.
“Are they—” He started.
“The previous 351,” Nala confirmed. She rested her hand against a nearby trunk, eyes burning. His name had been Ronan. He was name 217. “Once they’ve been kissed, they die and are reborn as trees. These woods are a graveyard.”
Yet he still didn’t run. Nala had never met a man who broke free of her enchantment and looked upon her as if she were human. She found herself naively wishing for something she could never have. They could run away . . . she could be free . . .
Her own trance she’d put herself under was shattered by a gush of air that blew her skirts up to her knees. She held them down, glancing over her shoulder to see who was coming. But the sinking in her stomach told her long before he appeared out of the darkness.
“No,” she whispered, knees trembling. “Not you. Anyone but you.”
Cyrus was a menacing man, a demon who didn’t bother with disguises as Nala did. He barely cast her a glance before looking toward Miles, who stared with wide eyes, frozen in place.
“Why aren’t you dead?” Cyrus said in a smooth tone.
“Nala.” Cyrus’ voice echoed amongst the trees. “You have promises to keep.”
A sob caught in Nala’s throat, all breath gone as Cyrus turned his attention back to her. She’d made the mistake of looking into his eyes. She’d never been able to resist his magic.
“I have promises to keep,” Nala repeated in a trance-like murmur, movements rigid as she tried her best to keep herself from approaching Miles, but her efforts were in vain.
“And miles to go before you sleep.” Cyrus waved his hand, and Nala gasped, lurching forward.
It lasted a matter of seconds, but it felt like years to Nala. Her freezing hands grabbed Miles’ warm ones, squeezing tight enough to make him cry out. Then their lips collided, only for a moment, but a moment too long. Miles’ eyes fluttered shut, crumpled to the ground. Nala fell to her knees.
Nala held Miles’ hand as roots sprouted from the dirt, twisting like a wicked ivy around his lifeless body. She closed her eyes, a tear dripping onto his face, her hushed voice a haunting song as she echoed, “And miles to go before I sleep.”