Cold, dark, endless water. Nightmares of drowning crowd Merilee's sleep.
They must mean something. Witches always listen to their dreams.
When three men break into her home, Merilee needs a sudden transformation spell to escape.
Worse, after turning herself into a cat, she can't change back.
And now they threaten not just her, but her older sister.
Will nine lives be enough?
Borrowed Time—a new contemporary fantasy from Leah R Cutter—explores what it means to be family, sisters, as well transforming into a superb specimen of feline. Come enjoy the twists and turns of magic as well as the kind of skewed world that Leah R Cutter excels at bringing to life!
Leah Cutter's Borrowed Time is as new as new can be. I asked her if she had anything for the Storybundle and she said that she had this novel she'd been meaning to finish. She finished it with time to spare, and it has all the wonderful Cutter elements—strong protagonists, family, and oh, yeah! a cat. Kinda. You'll see. And because the book is so new, it's also exclusive to the bundle. Enjoy! – Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Merilee woke with a start from her nightmare of endless water and drowning, drawing a gasping breath.
Sweet air—not water—filled her lungs.
She sucked in great gulps, trying to calm her racing heart. She clutched her warm, flannel sheets around her, trying to stop her shivering. She was almost thirty—far too old for nightmares anymore. Beyond her ragged breathing, the night surrounding her was quiet, not even cars sounding in the streets of her sleepy neighborhood.
Merilee tried to focus her thoughts away from her overwhelming fear and to consider her situation. While she wasn't a Seer, she was still a witch. Admittedly, she didn't have a lot of magical power, and what she did have came grudgingly.
However, having the same nightmare—drowning in deep, cold water—for the last three nights in a row had to mean something.
Merilee didn't live by the ocean, she lived in land-locked Minnesota. And not beside any of the Great Lakes or even in the Twin Cities, no, she was down south, here in Rochester. There were some artificial lakes nearby, as well as the Zumbro River. However, she never went boating or fishing. There wasn't any reason for her to get close to the water, and now, with these dreams, she had no intention of going anywhere near them.
Plus, the water in her nightmares had always seemed vast. Much bigger than a lake. Endless miles deep.
Maybe she should call her cousin Natalie, who was a Seer, and who could not only tell you that you'd break your toe in the next year but how you'd have your eggs the following Tuesday. However, Natalie refused to ever tell anyone their future over the phone. Plus, she lived in Seattle, which was near the water.
Merilee shook her head, then sighed. No, she was going to have to talk with her big sister Angelina, who would probably look on Merilee's nightmares as yet another personal failing.
But Angelina was one of the most powerful witches Merilee knew—strong enough to generate thunderstorms when she got really mad.
Not that Merilee resented her sister's easy access to magic. Much.
Merilee shivered again, sitting up in her bed, reassuring herself that all was well. A sliver of light from the streetlight in the alley outside slid through the gap in the curtains to her left. Past the foot of her bed stood an ancient wooden bureau. On top of it was her metal jewelry stand full of dangling earrings and necklaces, a beautiful porcelain bowl holding her bracelets, and a cute fetish-toad carved out of sandstone that had been a souvenir from her visit to New Mexico.
To the left of her bureau was her closet door, firmly shut. It wasn't that she believed monsters could come through it—Angelina had made sure that Merilee's house was too well guarded for some stray portal to manifest inside. Still, it always made her feel better to sleep with the closet door shut.
To the right of the bureau was the door leading to the rest of the second floor of Merilee's house, which stayed open. She only ever closed that door when she had visitors staying with her. It didn't even have a lock on it. On the adjoining wall stood the door to her bathroom, also firmly shut.
Merilee shook her head. Everything looked and felt fine. She didn't smell smoke, just the remains of the trout she'd fried in lemon and butter for dinner.
Then she glanced at the glowing red numbers of her alarm clock, sitting on the white end table to the right of her bed.
An inauspicious time to wake up from a nightmare.
A loud thunk came from downstairs.
What the hell was that?
Merilee slid from her bed as silently as she could. She tiptoed to the door of her bedroom, then paused in the threshold and listened.
"Would you watch it?" came whispered words.
"Sorry, boss," came a second voice.
A third voice piped up. "Sorry."
Shit. Three men downstairs. (Merilee didn't question that they were men—it was just something she sensed.)
What did they want? Were they here to rob her? Or worse? She wasn't wearing any clothes. She'd locked her front door, hadn't she? She'd never bothered setting up too many physical barriers for her home. She'd always concentrated on the magical ones, as her sister had instructed her to, carefully following along the written out instructions for how to "arm" her house.
It wasn't as though Merilee anticipated any magical attacks. She didn't have that much power. No one would ever think of her as a threat.
Unlike her older sister.
"Come on," Merilee heard the boss whisper. "Let's get her."
Shit. They were coming for her.
Why? She knew it wasn't for anything she'd done. It must be because of Angelina. What the hell had Angelina done now? Who had she pissed off?
Merilee glanced quickly around the room. She couldn't set up a portal and transport herself somewhere else. That would take a lot of power, time, as well as ingredients that she didn't have at hand. She couldn't fly out of the window—even the strongest of witches didn't have that capability, no matter what the myths and popular TV shows said. She didn't have the strength to hide herself in a shadow. Any bright light would dispel that illusion immediately.
Hell, she couldn't even hide in her bathroom. She'd never put a lock on that door either.
This was her house. She was supposed to be safe here.
But she had to hide. Or, escape. Something. And quickly.
She heard steps on the spiral staircase.
Automatically, she closed her bedroom door, not because it would stop anyone, but to at least to slow the men down.
Merilee's brain froze. What could she do?
She looked wildly around her bedroom.
Transform! Yes! The one spell that usually didn't fail her!
Merilee stepped away from the door, going to the foot of her bed. A transformation spell took power, but not much time. Plus, it needed only a single ingredient: something from the creature she intended to become.
She didn't have any feathers in her bedroom, so she couldn't turn into a bird. No wolf's teeth or bear claws, either.
What she did have was a plush, stuffed cat that always sat on the chest at the foot of her bed. It had soft gray fur, green eyes, with the tip of a pink tongue just sticking out of its white snout. It had been a present from one of her numerous cousins, a joke gift with a teasing note about the toy being the easiest familiar she'd ever find.
Despite the stinging realization that Merilee wasn't strong enough to draw a familiar to her, she still kept the cat.
It would have to do.
Merilee wrapped both her hands around the soft plush toy and urgently whispered the spell. The cat shrank, making her lose her grip for a moment. She stuttered, then continued.
Had she just messed up the spell?
A dark cloud sprang up around her. She blinked, but couldn't see anything. She didn't remember that ever happening before. She continued the spell anyway. She folded in on herself, compressing herself downward, inward.
The men gathered outside her door as Merilee found herself reaching down, her hands, no, paws, now touching the braided rug at the foot of her bed.
Lights came on, blinding her.
She yowled angrily at them.
"What the hell?"
The men had rushed into the room, finding only an empty bed and a very pissed-off cat.
They didn't appear to notice the empty plush animal that had once been a stuffed toy also crumpled on the floor.
Merilee crouched down, growling low in her throat. She glanced over her shoulder.
Huh. Long white hair? She flexed a paw. And six toes. Weird. The plush toy had been covered in gray fur. She'd assumed that she'd just take on its form.
"Where she'd go?" fumed the one who Merilee assumed was the boss.
Thing One replied, "Probably just flew away."
"Damn it!" the boss said. "I told you we needed to be silent when we broke in here."
"Think she's gone to warn her sister?" Thing Two asked.
"Probably," the boss replied. "Come on. Let's see if there's anything worth taking."
"What about the cat?" Thing One asked. "Probably her familiar. Look at those green eyes."
Merilee found herself bristling, the fur all along the back of her shoulders rising as the three men stared at her. In her human form she'd had plain brown eyes, along with olive-toned skin.
"We ain't equipped to take her," boss replied. "Probably scratch your face off if you grabbed at her."
Merilee hissed at them, just because she could. Then she scampered past them, running so fast down the spiral staircase that she felt slightly dizzy when she reached the bottom. She had to hide, at least until they were gone.
"That answers that," she heard the boss say behind her. "That cat's a familiar. No doubt about it."
Everything looked so big down here! The comfy chair at the foot of the stairs loomed over her. The end table, covered with her latest jigsaw puzzle, was twice her height. She could still smell the remains of the wood fire she'd had in the fireplace at the end of the room, though it had been more than a month ago. Along with a jumble of other scents that she didn't have time to sort out just now.
Where could she hide? Not under the big purple sofa that rested against the front windows. Though it was huge, the legs were too squat, and it sat too low. Behind it, however…
Merilee dashed around the back of the sofa.
Dust bunnies assailed her. She really was going to have to find a stronger cleaning spell. She stepped past the biggest of them, then delicately sat, her tail wrapping itself automatically around her front paws. She'd placed herself about the center of the couch, too far in for anyone to grab her from a side.
She licked her chest.
But it felt so soothing, so she found herself doing it again.
It actually wasn't that bad. Besides, how else was she supposed to clean herself?
Eventually, the men tromped down the stairs and out the door. They opened and closed it several times. What were they doing? Were they letting others in? Or were they carting her stuff away? What were they taking? Probably all her magical ingredients. Some of those were actually quite expensive.
Merilee bristled, but remained quiet. The smell of the cool night outside tickled her nose.
Finally, silence reigned through the house.
Merilee sagged with relief. Oh thank the Goddess, they were gone.
She still made herself wait for what felt like an endless amount of time but was probably less than five minutes before she snuck around the edge of the couch.
Damn it! They'd fooled her! Thing One crouched just past the corner of the couch with a large widespread bag in his hands, ready to grab her.
Idiots had left the door open, though.
Merilee streaked past the man. He wasn't quick enough to even touch her fur.
She fled out into the night.
Dew-soaked grass wet her paws. She was so glad it was May and not December! So many scents struck her senses, fresh dirt, hard concrete, spilled beer down the gutter, bright flash of brakes on a passing car, bruising gravel.
In a flash she hid again, under the rose bushes of Mrs. Murphy, across the street.
She heard the men curse at each other. She found herself laughing, a weird bobbing of her head expressing the emotion.
Huh. She hadn't realized cats laughed.
Merilee waited until the men had left, then raced back across the street and into her own backyard.
She wasn't sure how she'd be able to get back into her house. Maybe the men had left the front door unlocked. She couldn't reach the doorhandle in her current form, but that didn't matter.
Merilee found she couldn't say the words to the transformation spell out loud. She did vocalize, though, sounding like a cat in heat. She tried to stay quiet, but couldn't really keep her voice down.
Hopefully she wouldn't wake any of her neighbors.
However, when she finished the spell, nothing changed. She remained a white cat, crouched down in her backyard, the concrete patio blocks cold under her four paws as well as her butt.
She tried again, this time, not caring how loud she was. She felt the urge to move, to pace, but she made herself sit still.
Not even a glimmer of magic passed by her.
Did she have to be able to say the words out loud? Human-type words? But how could she? She had a cat mouth. She couldn't articulate such syllables. Maybe she needed a vocalization spell? She would need ingredients for that!
As well as opposable thumbs.
One last time, Merilee tried to reverse the transformation spell, this time, pacing counterclockwise in a tight circle.
It felt much better to move while doing magic. Was that why she'd always had such a tough time with magic, as her mother and sister always stood stock still when they cast a spell? She'd have to remember that, and try walking, or at the very least, swaying when she did magic.
Wind rustled her fur as she paced and yowled, sending chills down her spine and shooting her tail straight out behind her.
At least she caught a whiff of magic this time, smelling like lavender butter cake.
But she didn't change in the least, no transformation overtook her.
She sat down again, finding herself automatically grooming her long fur.
She sighed, a short, expressive cat-sigh.
She'd planned on contacting Angelina first thing in the morning anyway. She had to warn her sister about the robbers.
May as well just show up on her doorstep.
Hopefully her big sister wouldn't laugh too hard when she saw her.