"Ash, this is wrong," I murmured in his ear, sitting beside him in the van.

"You can't falter now."

"I'm not—I'm just saying that Anya's mom is gonna be there."

I was checking Ash's gear for probably the hundredth time. He looked fantastic in the close cut black leather long coat, but the material was less for show and more for the fact that leather—having once been alive—could hold a spell. I might have been average with offensive spells, but my great-grandfather had literally written the book on defensive charms. I'd enchanted the fuck out of Ash's coat.

Ash was the only one wearing an impressive long coat; the rest of us got close fitting leather jackets and such. Enough to cover us, but not enough to leave an individual impression. Aside from Helena of course, who couldn't be convinced to wear pants, and was wearing an impractical leather dress and boots. We probably didn't look half bad, but it was pretty damn hot beneath it. For once, no one was wearing gloves—the Inquisitors were going to use their magic tonight.

"Mrs. Clark will be given a chance, just like the rest of the Council," Ash reminded me. "A chance my family wasn't given…"

"I know…" I grimaced. "I just want there to be another way."

"They lost that opportunity when they declined our peace talks and branded us warlocks."

I nodded dully; that had been an awful week. I'd been elevated to one of the top five on the Most Wanted list, albeit the fifth spot, and officially branded a warlock. I'd never cast a single evil spell in my life, but apparently that didn't matter to the Council. Helena hadn't been concerned about making the list, but had complained that her picture on the news was from a bad angle. Ash had spent the week locked in his study.

"Are you afraid?" Ash asked quietly, the arm around my waist tightening to pull me closer. I couldn't help but grin; if the van wasn't full of people, we'd be making out like teenagers.

"Terrified," I admitted, leaning my head against his shoulder. "Promise me you'll be careful."

"This won't be my first time."

"I'll be safe with Helena and Kennedy," I scoffed. "You're the one who wants to run about playing hero."

"Some say I'm the villain," Ash smirked, inclining his head to kiss me on the lips.

"You do have the eyepatch," I snickered, reaching up to stroke his cheek.

"Hey lovebirds, focus!" Helena rolled her eyes from the seat across from us. "Misha, if I die because you're too busy staring at Abhartach's ass to properly watch my back, I'm gonna haunt the both of you!"

"I'll watch everyone's asses," I snorted. "Especially Ash's."

"Charming," Ash rolled his eye as well, but there was a hint of a smirk still on his face. "I expect you to protect him, Miss Bathory."

"And I expect you to give a good enough speech that this doesn't turn into a blood bath," she replied, and I could tell she disliked the plan as much as I did.

Ash didn't respond. We'd arrived just in time for the first team of inquisitors to have disabled the guard. Each winter, members of the International Council of Practitioners held a gathering for the Solstice, the biggest event of the year, and we were crashing it. Ash was going to deliver one final chance for the peace talks in person. I didn't want to think about what would happen if they refused.

We stepped out of the van—Helena hopping out in excitement, the pleats of her short dress billowing—and checked our gear one final time. I had a bag filled with herb paste, bandages, markers, and other healing supplies. Halworth had unearthed a freaking wand, and the end of it was sparking already. Undead warlock Sybil Cunningham, who had been confined to the basement for the last half year, was let out of the trunk of a car, waiting for Ash's instructions. I fiddled with the Morgana ring; unless someone tossed black magic at me, I doubted it would be much use. I mostly wore it because Ash had given it to me.

"Stay behind Miss Bathory and James," Ash advised once again, taking my hands in his. "Promise me. If you're injured and can't heal, more people will die—not to mention I would lose my concentration entirely."

"I know," I grimaced. "I'll stay back. I promise."

"Good boy," he snickered, leaning up to kiss me again.

At that, I grabbed him roughly by the hips and dipped him backwards into a passionate kiss. I could hear Helena griping about it, but I wanted to make Ash blush one more time before we faced death. It worked. I grinned afterwards, pleased with myself while he straightened his clothes and hair again in a fluster.

"Stay safe; I love you," I smiled, winking at him.

"I really will have to punish you," Ash mused, his cheeks still flushed.

Then we were moving into the manor as a group, Ash in the lead with his handpicked guard and flanked by Sybil Cunningham. I stayed in the rear as promised; I had my own team of healers, including Helena and Kennedy to protect us. Stupidly, it reminded me of playing Capture the Flag in middle school.

There were people on the ground—most of them still alive and merely unconscious—but occasionally we would pass someone who was indeed dead. I couldn't forget the face of one man, the badge of a Knight pinned to the front of his suit, slumped against the wall. His magic had been drained by an inquisitor, and his life force had gone with it. Ash had told me that such things happened if the inquisitor didn't stop draining a person in time, but it was another thing to see it in person. He looked like a shriveled mummy.

We had only limited time before reinforcements arrived; the Council hadn't been expecting an attack. The rebellion had been mostly nonviolent—from our side. Images of the demolished Abhartach Estate featured on the news flashed through my mind. Eveleen dead along with Ash's parents. Cathal, who'd died during questioning. I felt like I'd throw up.

Everyone was quiet as we filed into the garden; we'd caught them unprepared, and they knew their odds weren't great. We wore armor, they wore suits and party dresses. To my horror, I caught sight of Anya and her family off to the side; Councilor Myranda Clark was sprawled out on a table, her husband pressing a napkin to her bleeding forehead while Anya clung to her hand. Councilor Clark would have fought back during the initial attack, no matter the odds. Thankfully she was still alive.

Kennedy was watching as well, and when I glanced over at him, he nodded to my bag. We quietly skirted the area to get to Anya's family, and no one stopped us. Ash had commandeered a podium that should have been used by a Council Elder to mark the Solstice. With his hair grown out, he looked like a younger version of his dead father; a ghost come to haunt them.

"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen," Ash started, the hint of a smirk playing about his mouth as he addressed them. "The New Year is almost upon us, and we thought there was no better time than the Winter Solstice to remind everyone of the importance of peace, friendship, and trust…"

"Misha, what have you done," Anya whispered urgently, her eyes reddened and furious as she stood between me and her family.

"I just want to help," I said weakly, hating the way she looked at me. "Look, I've brought supplies to stop the bleeding. Can I look at her?"

Anya finally nodded and let me pass. Mr. Clark glared at me like I was a traitor, but Anya murmured that it was okay, and he contented himself to watching me like a hawk while I checked on his wife. Councilor Clark was unconscious, but a few runes and a potion was enough to reduce any swelling to her brain and stop the bleeding. She wasn't going to be getting up any time soon, but at least she wouldn't die.

"Ash just wants them to talk with us," I murmured, taking Anya's hand and squeezing it tightly. I hadn't seen her in months. I wanted to hug her and tell her that every horrible thing in the news wasn't true. What had really happened. I'd missed her so damn much.

"And this is how you do it?!" she hissed, but she didn't drop my hand. "My mother had a speech planned; she was campaigning for the peace talks!"

"They branded us warlocks on the news," I argued, "They killed Ash's family."

"I know," she grimaced. "Everything's gone wrong, Misha."

"So I'm going to give each and every one of you a choice; you can release us from our bonds as inquisitors, admit your wrongdoings, and work with us on a path to right the injustices done to our families—return the Inquisition to a position of honor and a symbol of justice, rather than a punishment for the innocent descendants of warlocks—or you can die an early death, just like the fate you condemned us to when you cursed us to become your pet executioners."

Ash finished his speech, his eye blazing as he stared down the crowd; terrifying and noble at the same time. I shivered; he wasn't the same man I held at night. Ashleigh Abhartach was the Inquisition as he stood and threatened the Council.

"Innocent people don't do this," a man came forward, Councilor Ulridge and spat at Ash's feet. "You murdered your way into this gathering tonight! People are dead, don't talk to me of peace!"

"You backed us into a corner," Ash said, his voice hard and colder than ice. "We will not continue to lie down and die quietly. Make your choice, Councilor. Think of your family as you do so, and thank your gods that I am more merciful than you have been to us."

Ash stiffened suddenly and shot a glance over his shoulder on his bad side; before Ash could give a warning, Ulridge's hands blurred into action. He barely had time to make a warding sign before he was thrown off his feet. Knights were pouring in through the doors; I heard Sybil give an inhuman shriek before tearing into those closest to her.

"Run!" I told Anya, signaling to Kennedy and Helena to follow me. The plan was fucked; I needed to get to Ash. I could see blood in his hair, but Ash was on his feet again and flinging spells back at Ulridge. One struck the Councilor in the shoulder, and he screamed as the afflicted flesh exploded as though dynamite was embedded under his skin. Chunks of bone and muscle rained down, and Ulridge was spurting blood like a geyser.

Halworth died in front of me as his neck broke from the force of being flung aside by a Knight. Helena snarled in fury and grasped the man's wrist with her ungloved hands. The scars twisted like snakes, and then the Knight was screaming too as his magic and then his very life was sucked from him. Helena channeled her stolen energy back into a spell that sent a Knight attacking Keller hurtling into the air. I thought I heard him land on the roof with a sickening splat.

Ash shouted something to Sybil, and then the two waded through the panicked crowd, hunting down Councilors. His plan ruined, he was going to kill every last one of them. I could see it in his eye; Ash had snapped. He flung aside an unfriendly spell with a wave of his hand and then grabbed a Councilwoman by the face, his scars twisting. She fell dead at his feet.

I saw Helena fending off two Knights; Kennedy was nowhere in sight. My hands shaking, I motioned to the pool in the center of the garden and mouthed the spell; shards of ice broke from the frozen surface and shot towards Helena's attackers. One caught a Knight full in the face just as he was turning around, shearing off the top of his skull. My very first murder.

I threw up; I doubted I'd ever be able to forget the sight of what I'd done. Helena gave me a manic grin and then threw herself on her remaining attacker. I could hear him screaming as she drained him.

There was an ear piercing shriek from the far side of the garden. Once my head stopped throbbing, I turned in time to see Anya standing over the crumpled forms of Sybil Cunningham and a dead Councilor. Her face was pale as Ash turned slowly to face her, his remaining eye wide with fury. It was my worst nightmares come true.

I had to get to them; Ash had lost it, and the look he was giving Anya promised death. She'd somehow destroyed his army's tank, and Ash wasn't in the right state of mind to forgive her. I had to protect Anya from him, and Ash from everything else.

"You're siding with them!?" Ash raged, hurling a table out of his way with an angry flick of his wrist. "Twenty-two years of planning wasted in one night! Those people you're protecting wanted any children we would have had together to bear this curse—they practically gave you up as a sacrifice!"

"What you're doing is still murder, Ash!" she countered; I could see her backing away as I fought my way through the Knights. I no longer cared how much damage I did, that I was directing my spells towards actual human beings. I wouldn't get to her in time…

"I would have spared your mother," he hissed, blocking the array of furniture she sent at him. He missed a knife and it sliced a thin line across his cheek on his blind side. Ash didn't seem to notice as he rounded on her; didn't notice that none of her spells were offensive.

"And I would have fought for your cause," Anya shook her head, the tightly coiled springs of her dark hair bouncing as she did so, "but not like this! Enough people have died—"

"My family!" Ash snarled, "Do you think they'd give us up so easily!? Their pet executioners!? You've condemned me to hell!"

Something dark and flickering was gathering in his right hand; Anya shielded herself both with her own energy and a nearby table, but I knew it wouldn't be enough. I remembered Ulridge's flesh exploding like a bomb. Imagined it happening to Anya. I couldn't let him hurt her. There was only one thing to do. I shoved my opponent aside and dove between them.

At the same time, Kennedy darted out and pulled Anya to safety, using his own body as a shield to protect her. I had just enough time to give Kennedy a stupefied look and hear Ash's horrified scream of protest. I guess I wasn't the only one who'd at one point harbored a secret crush on Anastasia Clark. It made sense why Kennedy had always been so close to Ash; he'd wanted to be near Anya. Pity I wasn't going to be around to gossip about it.

Ash's spell shattered the table and slammed into my chest; a coldness washed over me that burned from the inside out. I gasped in agony and clutched at my heart. The Morgana ring shattered into shards of ruby and twisted metal.

I don't recall falling, but then I was on the ground and Anya was frantic as she cradled my head. I couldn't breathe; there wasn't enough air in my lungs, and everything hurt. My eyes went hazy just as I saw the silver-gold glow of Ash's hair in my peripheral vision…

Surprise! It turns out that having a one-eyed kid with a hefty case of PTSD lead your wizard army wasn't the best idea. Who would have guessed?

:P As always, reviews and feedback make me happy.