Setting

I just finished reading Iron Lake by William Kent Krueger.  He’s a celebrated writer, but that’s not why I bought his book.  I bought it because I met him at Magna cum Murder and he impressed me.  When I listened to him on panels, he gave serious, thoughtful ideas and answers, but he didn’t seem to take himself too seriously.  And he writes mysteries.  I like mysteries.

Iron Lake isn’t the usual type of book I read.  The hero, Cork O’Connor, is flawed with plenty of baggage.  He was the town’s sheriff until he panicked and shot a man not once, which was necessary, but six times because he couldn’t quit pulling the trigger.  His career would have survived that, because he was good at what he did.  But he was a Democrat in a Republican area, and the crooked Republican judge wanted him out, so did the crooked Republican editor of the local newspaper.  Politics can get ugly.  For Cork, it meant he went from being a sheriff to flipping burgers.  On top of that, a year later, his wife asked him to move out of the house he’d grown up in.  Okay, enough said.  The man had had a few rough years with no fairy godmother coming to his rescue.  I usually avoid books like that.  I’m glad I read this one.

Indian lore adds a strong flavor to the story.  Cork is part Irish, part Anishinaabe Indian, and Aurora, Minnesota is home to enough Anishinaabe to let them open their own casino.  The story takes place in December, and the reader never forgets that Minnesota is REALLY cold in winter.  As a matter of fact, the frozen ground and the frozen lake become almost a character in the book.  So does the Windigo–an Indian legend that calls to its chosen victim when the winds howl and the weather goes crazy.

The Indian mystiques and freezing weather wrap the entire story in their embrace to set an eerie undertone.  So does the understated writing.  Sparse, but telling dialogue.  Things left unsaid.  Blatant lies that flow like honey.  The antagonists and villains are exceptionally well done.  But every part of the story is flavored by the snow and ice and cold.  It fits the grim deaths and greed, the cold-hearted characters who drive the plot.

If cozies are usually set in small towns to add warmth and familiarity, suspense does well with hostile environments–big cities, dark alleys, brooding skies.  Or secluded small towns like Aurora, where the winds whip across the frozen lake and Windigos stalk you in the snowy thickets.

There were times that I wondered why Cork made some of the choices he did, but he was always trying to do the right thing.  And I admired him for that.  All in all, I not only enjoyed Iron Lake, but Krueger’s skillful writing often caught my attention and made me think of how I could make my own writing better.  It’s a good book to study for style.  And it’s a great book to read for setting.

Happy Writing!

 

 

Tattoos and Portents–7

Raven and Hester visit the young shifter’s parents, and they don’t get a friendly greeting.

 

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Chapter 7

I was teaching at my reading circle the next day when Meda walked into the room. I stared at her in surprise.

She smiled at me and my students. “Raven called. He asked me to take your place in the classroom today, so that you can drive with him and Brown to the small town where the first witch disappeared.”

The students looked nervous and started to squirm. I raised an eyebrow at them, and they stilled. I didn’t believe in hiding things from young minds, so said, “Do you remember how often I’ve warned you that young witches need to be careful? A young witch disappeared from a nearby town. Raven and I are trying to find her.”

Blythe reached for Asch’s hand and both girls stared at me with frightened eyes. I wouldn’t tell them more. All they needed was the main fact, not the details. I wanted them to have a healthy fear of the world outside of Muddy River, but fear could be debilitating, too.

“Remember,” I went on, “when you’re in Muddy River, our wards protect you. No enemies can pass them. You’re safe here.”

The girls’ shoulders relaxed. I motioned to Meda to introduce her. “This is my friend and a member of my coven. Meda, these are my students. Their lessons are written on the board, and I’m sure they’ll enjoy meeting a powerful witch from our community.”

She gave a naughty grin. My friend was a beauty with wavy, golden hair and sky-blue eyes. The students openly gazed at her and then relaxed at her mischievous expression. She was winning them over. “I was trained by Hester, too. If you graduate and keep training with our coven, you’ll grow strong. I’m going to enjoy meeting our town’s next generation of witches.”

Still, our class had never had a disruption like this before. They weren’t used to it. Neither was I. Part of the price of mating with our town’s enforcer. As I walked to the hooks where our coats were hung, I grimaced. “Thanks for coming, Meda. I appreciate it.”

Her grin widened. “I never get to mingle with our friends’ children. They don’t come to coven meetings until they graduate. You might never ask me back. I was one of your unruly students, remember?”

I laughed. “Just as long as you’re not an unruly instructor.”

She made no promises, and I tugged on my heavy coat, then Claws and I crossed the field to our house. Brown was already there, and both men started toward my SUV the minute I reached the driveway.

Claws and I sat in the back seat while Raven and Brown talked shop in front. Once we were on the road, Brown turned to me, excited. “I found the young shifter who ran away with the witch. He’s home. He and the girl did run off together, since his dad didn’t approve of him marrying a witch instead of a fellow shifter. They were attacked near a small town on the Ohio River by a mob of Undead. They battled them, but every time he slashed one of them or she blasted them, it didn’t matter. They wouldn’t die. I thought you’d want to hear what he says.”

I frowned. “The young witch must not be very powerful if her blasts didn’t kill them.”

“No training,” Raven answered. “You don’t realize how much of a difference your school makes in Muddy River. Most towns don’t have special classes for witches.”

Being aware made a difference, too. I was glad Raven and I had warned Muddy River about animated corpses and how to defeat them. We wouldn’t have known how to, either, if we hadn’t talked to Jamila. Of course, Raven would have torched them, and I was fairly certain if I blasted them, they’d be bits and pieces. The young witch’s magic must not be that strong.

“Maybe the voodoo priest can’t gauge how strong a witch is,” I said.

Raven shook his head, disagreeing. “I’ve thought about that. I think the young witch was his first captive, and he purposely picked someone he felt sure he could handle. He used her blood to make himself more powerful so that he could capture someone even stronger.”

Brown turned to stare at him. “What do you think he’s trying to achieve?”

“With the first witch, we only saw one undead. There might have been more, but he didn’t use them to catch her or carry her. When Brown talked to the shifter, he said that an army of undead attacked him and his witch girlfriend.”

“Did he give a number?”

Brown gave a wry grin. “Eight or ten, not exactly an army, but too many for them to fight.”

Raven’s grip on the steering wheel tightened. He wasn’t happy with whatever he’d decided about this case. “When we saw Boaz’s dream, eight undead carried the witch from Drago’s settlement and a cage into the basement. That’s three witches.”

“Do you think he’s keeping more of them? Could he have a second place with more cages?” I cringed in the back seat, and Claws raised his head to study me. I stroked his fur to let him know everything was okay. I’d decided there had to be three witches, too, but I hadn’t considered he might have more of them. “You think he’s using blood sacrifices to help him create more undead, don’t you?”

Raven nodded.

A gloomy thought. What did he plan to do with them? Since we didn’t have to cross into Kentucky, we didn’t have to drive out of our way to find a bridge. We were nearly at the young shifter’s town, an hour from Muddy River. He lived with his parents in a small community, and as we entered it, I cracked my car window to sniff the air. Every resident here was a shifter of some kind.

“These people are serious about being pure bloods,” I said. Belladonna’s father, Blood Sharpe, had been like that. A full-blooded vampire who lived in Muddy River, he’d despised mixed breeds. Never mind that he married a half witch, half mortal, who was as big of a snob as he was. He’d wanted to drive any supernaturals with lesser magicks out of town and considered Festus and Wanda beneath him. When Raven torched him, no one in Muddy River missed him.

Brown, part shifter, shook his head. “These people must be short-sighted. Two shifters can’t reproduce unless a powerful witch brews a potion so the wife can keep from changing every full moon and carry her baby to term.”

“Maybe that’s why some supernaturals resent witches. Most of us rely on one or more of their potions. Some people begrudge it when they have to depend on someone else.” We’d reached the young shifter’s address and Raven parked at the curb.

I huffed. “Wolves! Some of them are happy to bite the hand that feeds them.”

“At least we’re not like vampires,” Brown teased. “They’d rather bite your neck than your hand.”

I laughed. Humor was welcome at the moment, and he had a point. Point. Pointy teeth. I wouldn’t go there.

We climbed out of the car, Claws staying by my side, and I studied the house—a solid square of brick that looked more like a fortress than a home. Every house in town was tall and solid. “Looks like everyone here is ready to defend himself. They’d be safer if they had a mix of magic instead of only relying on muscle and fangs.”

Raven started up the walk, and a voice called from the cracked door, “Stop right there. Identify yourselves.”

“I called earlier. I’m Raven Black, the enforcer for Muddy River. This is Deputy Sheriff Brown who patrols our area, and that’s my wife, Hester Wand, the head priestess of Muddy River’s coven.”

The door opened wider and a man with broad shoulders and a heavy build stepped onto the front stoop. Not one house had a porch. Porches invited neighbors to stop and linger. The man looked us up and down. “We didn’t ask you to come to help us find my son. We went out ourselves and found him, searched until we found his scent. The undead had left him, bloodied and near gone. They didn’t think he’d make it. Didn’t realize he was a shifter and would heal, even though it would have taken a long time. We brought him home and nursed him back to health.”

“You could have called us, either of us,” Brown said. “And we’re glad your son’s all right, but we’d like to ask him about the girl who was with him.”

“She’s nothing to us. Find her on your own.”

Flames sizzled over Raven’s skin. My fire demon was irritated. “We came to talk to your son.”

“You’ve wasted your time. Go away.”

Raven took a stance that clearly said that he wasn’t going anywhere. “We’re going to talk to him one way or another.”

The man narrowed his eyes, raised his face and sniffed the air. His lips turned down. “Are you three strong enough to fight each and every one of us here?”

Raven shot fire at the lamp post at the end of their driveway. In seconds, it was ashes. When the man growled, I stomped my foot, and his entire house shook. Fur sprang out on Brown’s face and arms. Raven gave the father a level stare. “Want to find out?”

Shoulders stiff, body rigid, the man opened the door wider and angrily invited us inside. He walked to the staircase that led to the second floor and yelled, “Boy! Come down here.”

A young man who looked to be in his early twenties bounded down the stairs. His open expression and partially curved lips set me at ease. How a kid could look so friendly and sweet with a father like his baffled me. But then his mother came from the back of the house, and she had the easy charm of her son. Obviously, the kid took after his mother.

The father didn’t motion us to sit, busy scowling at Claws by my side. The mother smiled, though, and said, “Make yourselves comfortable. Would you like coffee or tea?”

We declined and sat on one side of the room while the mother, father, and son sat across from us.

Raven calmed his voice. “We came to hear what happened to your son and the young witch with him.”

The boy winced. “They took Gaia. We’d stopped to talk, to make plans, and she wanted to stretch her legs. She wandered toward the river, and a horde of undead rushed her. I ran to help her fight them off, but no matter what we did, they wouldn’t die. Once two of them had her, the rest turned on me. We fought until one hit me from behind and knocked me out. They left me for dead, and when I came to, Gaia was gone.”

Brown pinched his lips together. “Undead aren’t fast. The priest has to have a compound close to that area.”

“But if he’s illusioned it, we can’t see it. It’s still too much territory for us to drive close enough for Hester to feel his magic,” Raven said.

The boy swallowed hard. “What do they want with her? What will they do to her?”

“They’ve caged three witches, and a voodoo priest is bleeding them for their power,” Raven told him.

The mother looked upset, but the father crossed his arms, unmoved. “She’s a witch. Her own people should rescue her.”

Mother and son gave him dirty looks, but he didn’t mind. His expression set into even deeper grooves.

“You’ll care when an army of undead attack your community,” Brown snapped.

“Won’t happen.” The man couldn’t be moved. “What would they want with shifters?”

Raven ignored him, turning his attention to the son. “Where were you when you battled them?”

“Near the Ohio River, close to the central part of the state.”

Almost to the bridge we crossed so many times. On both sides of it, there were miles and miles of isolated houses, small farms, and towns. It was a perfect place to hide or disappear.

***

Meda called Brown on the drive home. He listened to her, then said, “Meda’s inviting you to our house for supper when we get home. She wants to hear what happened today.”

Raven and I both nodded a yes. I, for one, would be happy not to cook when we got back. Besides, I was anxious to hear how my students did without me there.

We didn’t talk much on the return journey, and at the speed Raven drove, we were pulling into Meda and Brown’s driveway sooner than expected. Christmas lights twinkled from their front porch, and their yule tree blazed with tiny white bulbs in their big front window. As we’d passed through town, I’d enjoyed all of the multi-color lights and garlands that decorated every street lamp.

Claws sped to the front door. He was particularly fond of Meda’s familiar—a Siamese cat. Meda opened the door wide to invite us all in. I could smell the pine scent of the fresh wreathe as I passed it. Inside, though, the aroma of a chuck roast beckoned us into the kitchen.

“I thought a pot roast would be safer than most meals,” Meda explained. “Timing’s more flexible. If you got back later than I expected, it wouldn’t matter.”

“I love roasts.” Raven tossed his coat on the back of his chair and took a seat.

Meda placed the Dutch oven with the meat, carrots, and potatoes on a trivet in the center of the table. “Supper’s family style tonight,” she told us.

Brown stood to scoop food on plates, and Meda brought bottles of wine and beer. Soon, we were eating, drinking, and talking.

“What did you learn?” she asked.

We let Brown explain. When he finished, she took a deep breath. “So the priest’s using witch’s blood to make his own magic stronger.”

I nodded.

“And you think three witches have been taken?”

“At least,” Raven said.

Hopefully, that was all. I frowned, thinking. We had another piece of the puzzle we hadn’t explored yet. “Another place we should visit is the town Bronwen and her husband lived in before they moved here. Bodies kept disappearing there, remember?”

Raven and Brown locked gazes. Raven turned to me, interested. “It was in Kentucky near the river, wasn’t it?”

I nodded.

“We should drive there tomorrow,” he said.

“Tomorrow? I already missed one day of teaching today.” I didn’t have control issues, but I did feel better when I kept an eye on my students. I knew them better than anyone else and could gauge when someone was getting behind or struggling with a subject. If Odifa was teaching with me in December, I’d feel better leaving the classes in her capable hands. But she was busy teaching young Fae children all month.

Meda squirmed. “If you’re traveling tomorrow, I’d like to go with you. But if you need me . . . “

Her voice trailed off, and I shook my head. “You know, I’ve been thinking for a while that Muddy River should have a second coven for the younger witches who’ve graduated from my school. I know some of them feel intimidated coming to our meetings. We’re all so much older and stronger than they are.”

Meda’s blue eyes went wide, but she nodded agreement. “Your students are so bright, they should keep training like we do. But they’ll need a priestess. Every coven needs a leader.”

I’d already thought about that. “I was thinking of asking Birch,” I told her. Birch had graduated with Belladonna’s class, a true young witch. The rest of us looked eternally in our late twenties because of the youth potions we drank, but Birch was only twenty-one. She wouldn’t even need a potion for several more years.

Raven frowned. “She’s the witch who helps run her parents’ boutique in town, isn’t she?”

I nodded. “She’s smart, talented, and no push-over. She could train with our coven so she stays ahead of the true young witches in her own. If she wants the job.”

Brown looked confused. “Are you saying you want to stay home tomorrow to ask her about it and train her?”

“No, I want to ask her to take over my school room tomorrow so she can meet the new young witches and see their potential. Then she might understand why I’d like to start a new coven.”

Raven beamed at her. “A good idea. Want to call her now?”

I rose from the table and wandered away from them to make the call. I could concentrate better that way. Birch sympathized with my need to visit the town with Raven and agreed to help me out. It had been easier to convince her than I’d expected. I returned with a happy smile plastered on my face.

Brown grinned. “You’re really into this new coven thing, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I should have thought of it a long time ago. We’ve had a gap between graduation and more training for a while now.”

“And she must have said yes?” Meda asked.

“We can leave town as soon as I introduce her to my students and help her settle in.”

Pleased, Raven stood. “Thanks for the supper, Meda, but we’d better get home now and gear up for tomorrow.”

Meda and Brown waved us off, and I was happy when we reached our own house. The yellow Victorian, as always, cheered me as walked to the kitchen door and stepped inside. When we finally stayed home a while, I wanted to return to cookie baking. But for now, I was satisfied to pour myself and Raven glasses of wine and cuddle on the couch in the living room. Claws sprawled at our feet, and I could feel the tensions of the day unravel. We could worry about voodoo and the undead tomorrow. Morning would come soon enough.

Muddy River Christmas

We’ve barely tipped our toes into December, but before life gets too busy, I thought I’d share a Muddy River Christmas short story to put you in the mood.  Even when life gets dicey, magic can happen:

Christmas tree up close

 

A MUDDY RIVER CHRISTMAS BY JUDI LYNN

Snow covered the ground in a white blanket. As I looked out my kitchen window, I watched my familiar, Claws—an ocelot—make his way to the river bank at the back of our property. The cat didn’t like snow, but he liked staying in our old Victorian house day in and day out even less.

I heard Raven’s Lamborghini pull in the driveway and make its way to the garage. A short time later, I listened to my fire demon stomp his feet on the door mat near the back door, and a minute later, he made his way into the kitchen. His black hair was messed by a sharp breeze. The cold air had colored his cheeks and his amber eyes gleamed. He looked more scrumptious than usual.

Sniffing the air, he put the bags he’d carted inside on our wooden work table. “The kitchen smells good. The ham and roasts make my mouth water.”

I nodded. Eight pies sat on the countertop, ready for our guests tonight. I invite my entire coven and their families to our house to celebrate Yule every year. Witches have no qualms with Christmas. We just celebrate it for different reasons than most. December twenty first is Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. Which means, from now on, each day grows a bit longer. So we eat and toast the birth of the Sun God, the Turning of the Wheel—our calendar. We put a Yule log in our fireplace and even decorate an evergreen tree. Of course, the stars on our trees stand for pentagrams, not the star of Bethlehem. And most of us exchange presents to rejoice in the flow of positive energy into our world, friendship, love, and peace on earth.

I already had a sweet potato casserole in the oven, roasted green beans with hazelnuts and feta, plain and oyster dressings, and a Waldorf salad. A few of my coven—not all of them were cooks—were bringing dishes to share, too. At the last minute, Raven had decided that wine and beer weren’t festive enough and had run into town to buy champagne.

Raven beat whipping cream while I glazed the ham. And then cars started pulling into the driveway. Sugi and Noira, who own the coffeeshop in town, arrived first. They’d offered to bring something, but they bake all the time for their shop. I’d told them to take a break and just bring themselves. Meda and Brown strolled in next with a large pan of scalloped potatoes. Chloe and Archer came with the famous mac ‘n cheese he serves at his carryout barbecue restaurant. The people and food just kept coming.

We were all raising our glasses in a toast when a burst of energy exploded near the archway to the living room and a man with a gun aimed at something popped before us. We stared at him, and he stared at us. I sniffed. A mortal. Then he turned the gun our way.

How in Hecate had he gotten here? My coven and I had protected Muddy River with wards. No enemies or mortals could pass them. But he had, hadn’t he? Someone had transported him to us. I raised my hand and chanted a shield.

“Stay back, or I’ll shoot,” he warned. He looked to be in his late twenties—a thin young man with wavy brown hair. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and a tweed jacket.

Raven scowled, and fire danced around him in a flaming halo. “I wouldn’t pull that trigger if I were you. If it hits Hecate’s shield, it could ricochet.”

The man’s eyes practically bulged from his face. Then he glanced at Archer whose fur was beginning to sprout. Chloe’s bear shifter didn’t like to be threatened. The shooter’s hand trembled, and he had to grip the gun with both hands to steady it. “Don’t take one step toward me, or I swear, I’ll take out as many of you as I can before you get to me.”

“We don’t want you here.” I frowned. “Who sent you?”

“Sent me? A minute ago, I was standing in front of a house where an old woman lives. She’s a witch, I know it. Owls come and go from her house. Green smoke drifts out of her chimney. Since I moved next to her, nothing’s gone right. She’s hexed me is what she’s done. I looked it up online. The only way to break a hex is to kill the person who sent it, but I couldn’t do it.” His shoulders slumped. “Who knows what will happen to me next? Maybe she’ll turn me into a toad.”

I stared at him. “Do you live in Pennsylvania?”

He jerked, caught off guard. “How did you know?”

Raven frowned at me, raising a dark eyebrow in question, and I explained. “My dear friend, Carlotta, lives there. She prefers everything old-fashioned, won’t buy a cellphone, so sends owl messages instead.”

“But Carlotta. . . “ Raven’s frown deepened, confused.

“Aurel’s wife is named that, too.” He was a vampire friend of ours. “But my Carlotta is ancient. We meet every once in a while at solstice festivals.”

“Solstice?” The man scanned us nervously. “Are you all witches?”

Raven grimaced. “No, but none of us are mortal.”

He stared, unsure what to make of that.

“What’s happened to you since you moved next to my friend?” Carlotta was a white witch, like me and my coven. “She wouldn’t curse anybody.”

His gun hand dropped to his side. “What hasn’t happened? My girlfriend dumped me. My publisher dumped me. And I found out I have cancer. Twice now, I’ve caught my neighbor stirring brews in her backyard and sending the smoke to my place. How do you fight a witch?” He winced at that and grimaced. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to insult you. But. . . “

I shook my head, smiling at him. “If Carlotta made brews for you, she was trying to help you.”

Rubbing his forehead, he sounded frustrated. “I like her. She was always nice to me. At least, I thought she was. Until. . . “

I interrupted. “She must like you, too, but it sounds like she couldn’t cure your cancer, so she sent you here.”

He raised a hand to pinch the bridge of his nose before settling his glasses back in place. “Is that what happened to me? I was in front of her house, then everything blurred, and then I was here. She sent me to you?”

I hesitated a minute. “She knows lots of different supernaturals live here, not just witches.”

“Why does that matter?” Raven narrowed his eyes, studying the man.

“Witches might not have a cure for cancer, but if a vampire or a shifter bit him, their immortality would wipe the disease out of his system.”

“Bite me?” He stared. “No, that doesn’t sound like a good idea.” He backed toward the door. “Then what would I be?”

“One of us.” Raven gave him a level stare. “And we’re not so bad. You probably couldn’t see your family again, though.”

“Never again?”

“They’ll age,” Raven said. “You won’t. They’ll wonder.”

The man ran a hand through his hair, upset. “This was a bad idea. Can you send me back?”

“If that’s what you want. What’s your name anyway?” I asked.

“Jason. And I appreciate what Carlotta was trying to do. At least, I think I do, but I love my family. I don’t think I could choose to never see them.”

Archer spoke up. He was back in his mortal form—big and brawny like the grizzly he shifted into. “How far has the cancer progressed? How long will you see them anyway? And do you have good insurance? What will it cost for them to watch you die?”

Jason winced. “I’ve already decided not to fight it, to only take meds for the pain.”

Meda’s husband, Brown—a deputy sheriff who worked with supernaturals and mortals—gave him a sympathetic look. “Raven and I could fake your death, something fast, so that your family would think you died in a car accident and your body burned to ashes. In some ways, that would be kinder to them.”

Jason’s eyes went wide, clearly shocked. “You do that?”

“We’ve done it before.” Brown glanced toward Raven, who nodded.

The poor man looked so overwhelmed, I took mercy on him. “We’re not trying to pressure you into anything. Carlotta must think you’re worth saving, or she wouldn’t have sent you here. But we won’t harm you, and neither will she. She can even concoct brews to take away your pain. They’re better than meds. This isn’t an easy decision, though, so take your time.”

“I don’t have much time.” His shoulders drooped.

I sighed. “You have to decide. Until you do, we can send you back to Carlotta. And for Hecate’s sake, lock that gun away.”

He looked embarrassed. Then he looked at our Yule meal. “Can I stay to eat with you?”

No mortals were allowed in Muddy River, but this was Yule time, after all. We could make an exception. Raven went to get another chair and I put another setting on the table. Then we all raised our glasses again, and this time, we did toast.

Jason filled his plate and listened to us talk. He smiled now and then but didn’t join in. I got the impression he was a quiet, thoughtful man. No wonder Carlotta liked him.

Finally, when we were finishing dessert, Meda looked at him and asked, “If you have a publisher, you must be an author. What do you write anyway?”

He blushed, the red creeping all the way to his hairline. He pushed his glasses further up his nose, mumbling, “Mysteries solved by witches.”

She burst out laughing. “And you make us the good guys?”

He nodded.

“No wonder Carlotta likes you.” She raised her glass to clink it against his.

“Do you have a big family?” I asked him.

“No, only my sister, mom, and grandmother. They live close to each other in California.”

“How often do you see them?” I’d been close to my family before they all died in the Salem witch trials. Sometimes, I still missed them.

He looked down, embarrassed. “Probably only once or twice a year, not as often as I should.” His gaze slid away from us and he grew distant. We left him to his thoughts. When everything was winding down, he finally spoke. “All three of those women are strong. They can weather anything. And I’m too young. I don’t want to die. If I decided to be a shifter, could I be one that turns into an owl?”

Brown grinned at him. “So that you can visit Carlotta? You can do that, can’t you, Hester? If I bite him and you rush magic into him at the same time?”

I nodded. “I’ll get him a potion that helps him shift easily, too.” We’d lost too many young Weres during their first shift, so I’d bespelled a brew to remedy that.

Jason took a deep breath and let it out with a gust. “Then let’s do this. Then I can fly to spend New Year’s Eve with Carlotta, can’t I? If she lets me in her house, I can shift where no one will see me. Maybe she’ll let me stay with her a while until I get used to the new me.”

I smiled but didn’t comment. If he moved in with Carlotta, he’d probably never leave. She was like that. Brown looked around the table. “I’ll wait to bite you until after everyone leaves. It’s going to hurt. A lot. But Hester can remove the pain once it’s done.”

It wasn’t until everyone said our goodbyes that we led Jason to the attic where I stored my books of spells. I looked up the correct one, and when Brown and Jason were ready, I wrapped Jason in my magic. Brown hadn’t exaggerated. The attack wasn’t pleasant, but I immediately eased the pain when it was finished. Half an hour later, Jason’s body transformed into an owl.

I went to the window at the back of the room and opened it. “Fly to Carlotta’s, tell her the news, and when you’re ready, drive your car back to Muddy River. Brown and Raven will do the rest. You might want to wait until after the holidays, so your family can enjoy them.”

With a nod, he stretched his wings and flew into the darkening sky.   Brown and Meda watched him before saying their goodbyes. Then Raven helped me clean the kitchen, and we settled in front of the yule log in the living room. Its last embers would die at midnight.

Raven shook his head, stretching his arm across the back of the sofa to rest it on my shoulders. “This was a Yule to remember.”

I had to agree. “A perfect night for rebirth. Jason’s life will just get longer and better, like the days.”

Tired of company and celebrating, Claws stretched across our feet, purring loudly. The hand on the mantel clock ticked one-minute past midnight, and the log went out. Time for bed. Tomorrow, the day would be filled with a little more light.

Tattoos and Portents–6

Raven and Hester stop at Aengus’s Druid settlement on their way back to Muddy River.

Druid's Stonehedge

Chapter 6

Raven decided to make a quick stop at the Druid settlement on the way home. “We should warn them, too,” he said.

Like the voodoo village, every house in Aengus’s settlement was gray, and the houses were arranged in a pattern—all of them the exact distance apart and facing toward the town square where the worship hall, healing well, and twelve giant stones stood. Each house was built the same, a Shaker style, no frills, no ornamentation, the only difference between them, the sacred tree in each back yard. Raven drove straight to the worship hall where Aengus, the head priest, and his wife Afric lived.

Claws opened his eyes when the SUV stopped, saw where we were, and closed them again. He’d been here with me before and knew we were safe. No need to stay by my side. When we knocked on the door, Aengus threw it open and beamed at us. “Welcome, friends! Come in. Come in. Lir’s here, too. We’re enjoying a glass of chouchen together. Join us.”

I’d had chouchen before, and it’s only safe in moderation. Made from fermented honey and fruit, it was more potent than anything I’d ever drunk. It took a lot to get a supernatural tipsy, but chouchen could do it.

We followed Aengus, a big bear of a man with a deep belly laugh, into his apartment behind the worship hall, and Lir and Afric raised their glasses to us in a toast. Afric was tall and whipcord lean with a sharp mind. She was the settlement’s lawyer while her husband was its judge. Lir traveled to sell and supply the settlement’s herbs and wares throughout the entire area. Young with flowing copper hair, his green eyes usually held a twinkle.

While Afric poured all four of us a drink, Lir asked, “What brings you here? We don’t see you often.”

Raven explained about Festus, the tattoo, and the vision.

Aengus’s dark brows pulled together in a frown. “And you say the tattoo held the vision the witch sent?”

I nodded. “She must be part Fae, too.”

“I’d love to see this tattoo.” His own forearms were covered with dark ink, and I’d seen his tattoos stretch to wrap around an enemy to hold him in place or squeeze him like a boa constrictor. He glanced at Lir, then at me. “Would you mind if we drove to Muddy River to meet this Festus?”

I smiled at both men. “You’re always welcome. You know that.”

Brown took a sip of his drink and coughed. Our deputy sheriff shifter had never experienced chouchen before.

“Be careful of that,” Raven warned. “It’s strong.”

“Now you tell us.” Meda held a hand to her throat. “I thought it would be like mead.”

Aengus’s laugh filled the room. “Druids are made of sterner stuff. When we make alcohol, we do it right.”

“I hope you have a potion for hangovers,” Brown grumbled.

“We don’t need one. We grew up on the stuff.” Aengus set down his glass and grew serious again. “You mentioned an undead. What is it and how do you deal with it?”

I explained about voodoo magic and shared what Jamila had told us.

“If a blast of magic can blow it to pieces, I’m guessing a strike of lightning would work, too?” he asked.

“If it’s a big bolt.”

He shrugged. “Then we can battle one.” Like witches and voodoo, Druid magic relied on Nature. We all used it in different ways.

When we finished our chouchen, we stood to leave. “It’s later than we planned,” Raven said. “We need to get home.”

“Should I call you before we come for a visit?” Aengus stood to walk us to the door.

I nodded. “Then I can let Festus know that you’d like to see him.”

“We’ll be soon,” he said.

It was dark when we reached Muddy River, but in December, that didn’t mean much. I looked at my watch. It was only seven thirty. I leaned forward in my seat to get Raven’s attention. “I’m hungry. Can we stop at Derek’s bar for supper?”

“A good idea.” Raven turned onto Main Street and five minutes later, he parked in Derek’s lot. When we opened our doors to get out of the SUV, Claws jumped out and ran to meet his other familiars, who were waiting nearby while their owners were inside. My familiar had seen enough people for one day and was ready for something different.

When we walked in the bar, conversation stopped while everyone stared at us. They’d heard about Festus and his vison and wanted to know more. Derek nodded for two customers to move over to make room for us.

“We all want to hear what’s going on,” he told us.

Speedy, his cook, dashed from the kitchen. “First, let them order something to eat and drink. I’ve heard they were gone all day. Let them catch their breaths.”

All four of us ordered burgers. They were the best ones in town. Meda and I ordered wine, and the guys wanted beer. Once Speedy disappeared through the swinging doors to fix our food, people started asking questions.

Raven, our town’s enforcer, answered each one patiently. While we were talking, Festus and Wanda walked in for a late drink and snack—their usual habit. More questions were tossed at us.

Speedy had brought our burgers and fries when Boaz and Melodia walked inside and claimed a table. This time, we all stared. Our local vampire and siren rarely came to town, and when they did, they usually ate at Ruby’s diner down the street. Boaz had dark circles under his eyes. A bad sign. He was such a powerful vampire, he usually was in peak condition.

“What will it be?” Derek called from behind the bar.

“A whiskey sour for me,” Melodia said.

“Something strong enough to knock me out and help me sleep,” said Boaz. “Without dreams.”

I frowned at him. He was a financial advisor who usually worked from home. “Did you have to travel out of Muddy River recently?”

He blinked. “Only across the river, maybe a half hour from our house.” Melodia had to be near water, so their home sat close to the Ohio River banks.

“Past our town’s wards?” I persisted.

He nodded.

Festus stared at Boaz’s long sleeves. “Do you have a new tattoo on your left arm, one you don’t remember getting?”

Boaz’s jaw dropped. “How do you know?”

Festus raised his shirt sleeve to reveal his. When Boaz pushed up his sweater sleeve, both tattoos began to writhe and reach for each other. People squirmed to get out of their way. They pushed their chairs back to watch.

Intrigued, I stood and walked closer to see them better. When the tattoos touched, both men winced.

“Make it stop!” Boaz cried.

I laid my hands on each tattoo, and a current moved through my body, as if I was a conductor, joining the two. And just like before, the dreams played out like a movie in the air.

We stared at the same cage bars that we’d seen before, only this time, our witch must be pacing, because our view moved back and forth. We could feel her panic, hear her thoughts. She worried eventually someone would come to kill her to steal her power.

Footsteps shuffled on the stairs, and four undead clambered down the steps, balancing a stretcher between them. Four more brought a second cage and placed it across the cement room, then placed a new witch inside it. While she was still unconscious, a tall thin man with mocha skin and hair like a Brillo pad came to bend over her, sliced her wrist, and caught the blood from the cut in a drip pan. When he’d collected enough, he rubbed a foul-smelling salve on the cut to heal it. When he turned to leave, he glanced in the cage at her. And she knew. They’d drain her regularly to steal her blood and power, too. She wouldn’t let them. She’d fight it.

But as the men climbed the steps, and their footsteps faded away, so did the dream. It sputtered to a stop, and I placed my hand on Boaz’s forehead to recite my chant.

“You’ll only dream when a witch touches your tattoo. Now you can sleep.”

Tears slid down Melodia’s cheeks. “Those poor girls.”

When she grew emotional, she usually sang, and her song could lure men to their deaths. It wasn’t intentional. She didn’t want to harm any of her Muddy River friends. It was her instinct as a siren. I knew that, so I’d made a potion for everyone in Muddy River to make them immune to her melodies.

A dirge started low in her throat, but then she turned to Boaz, and when he blinked and smiled at her, she was so happy, a song tumbled from her lips. We all smiled with her. We could. We were safe. I’d made the potion extra strong to protect us from the couple’s daughter, Lust. Half siren and half vampire, the girl was powerful with long fangs. Her true danger, though, was that she could glamour and drain victims with her vampire energy or sing and enchant them like her mother.

For someone so young—she was fifteen and coming into her magicks—that much power put her in danger. There were always those who’d gladly steal it from her, like the voodoo priest we’d just watched.

I turned to Raven. “The second witch they put in the cage had black hair with a white widow’s peak and a heart-shaped face. That coloring’s distinctive enough, you should call Drago to see if it matches the description of the witch from his community who went missing.”

He nodded and reached for his cell phone.

By the time people asked more questions and we answered them, he put his phone away and nodded. “It’s her. Drago’s furious. He’s going to help us search for both witches.”

I still didn’t hold out much hope of finding them. If my birds couldn’t locate the voodoo priest, he was well-hidden. He might even have cast an illusion spell like we had for Muddy River. I clenched my hands into fists. I felt helpless, and that frustrated me.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Okay, today’s post is going to be pretty cheesy, but Thanksgiving brings that out in me.  I’m indulging myself.  My mother used to write out, by hand, her favorite poems and keep them in a notebook.  When she died, I got that old book with yellowed, frayed pages and faded ink.  She had a lot of favorites, but for this holiday, I reread “Grandma’s Patchwork Quilt.”  I couldn’t find it online, and she didn’t list its author, or I’d give whoever wrote it credit.  And just a warning.  My mom was a fan of rhyming and sentiment.  Not my usual thing, but sentiment’s all right on Thanksgiving when lots of memories, some good, some not so good, well up that form the tapestry of the cloth of our family and life.  And I’m grateful for all of them.

I

Did Grandma ever tell you about the patchwork quilt,

That lies across the sofa in her room?

It is made from scraps of dresses

That she wore when she was young

And some of them were woven on a loom.

II

Sometimes when it is raining, and I can’t

play out of doors,

She lets me spread it out upon the floor,

And as I choose the pieces I like to hear about,

She tells me of the dresses that she wore.

III

Oh, it isn’t just the dresses that she tells about,

Its the things that happened when she had them on;

And almost every little piece in that dear old patchwork quilt,

Holds the memory of a sorrow or a song.

IV

Oh, things were very wonderful when

Grandmama was young.

You ought to hear her tell about it all–

The ladies all were beautiful,

The children all were good,

And the men were all so gallant and so tall.

V

She called the quilt her memory beds,

And every little piece is a flower blooming in its scented fold.

There are red ones for the roses,

And blue for don’t-forgets,

And yellow ones for sunflowers of gold.

There’s one she calls “sweet lavendar”

That smells like baby clothes,

And one of purple, like the sunset skies;

Oh, I never ask about these or the gray ones like the rain,

For when I do dear Grandma always cries.

VI

My grandma told me once that life is just

like a patchwork quilt,

Of births, and deaths, and marriages, and things,

And that sometimes when you’re looking for a lovely piece of old,

You only find a knot of faded string.

But she says the red is redder when it’s by a

piece of brown,

And gray is not as gray by sunny gold.

Oh, I hope I’ll have a lovely patchwork quilt

like Grandmama’s

To show to little children when I am old.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Going Deep

I recently critiqued a manuscript for a friend, then started reading the latest novel of another friend.  It was ironic that they both dealt with life journeys, with taking hard knocks and overcoming them to become the best person you could become.

In my friend’s manuscript, she kept trying to grab happiness but circumstances kept stealing it away from her.  She wrote a good book, even though it was heart wrenching.  C.S. Boyack’s Serang dealt with the same things, but his made the journey more of a quest, an adventure.  Both books made me think.

I always considered myself lucky that I was born wanting and needing goals.  I’m by no means a perfectionist, but I knew I wanted top grades in school, and I wanted to teach elementary kids.  So many of my friends struggled with what they wanted to be “when they grew up,” with finding a sense of direction.  My goals might not have come easily, but I also got lucky that I had loving parents who believed in me.

My friend who wrote the manuscript wasn’t so lucky.  She married to escape her home, and then, after she was pregnant, discovered that her new loving husband already had a wife.  I truly hope her book finds a home someday.  In C.S. Boyack’s novel, Serang’s father died, and her mother couldn’t support her, so dragged her to the nearby temple for the monks to raise.  Serang felt cast-off, betrayed.

A romance writer I knew once said, “When you develop a character, always remember, none of us can escape our families.  They shape who we are.”  And I’ve always kept that in mind.  Both women in the stories had to rise above their circumstances to leave their pasts behind.  The monks helped Serang find her true self.  It took a lot more bumps and bruises before my friend’s protagonist finally rose above her past to find a new tomorrow.  But in her manuscript, the character kept asking, “What brings happiness?”

My daughter asked me that once when she was a teenager.  Not such an easy question to answer.  I tried with, “Finding a purpose in life.”  “But how do you do that?” she asked.  “Find what’s important to you, what brings you fulfillment.”  But that’s not really an answer either, is it, when you’re adrift?  I finally said, “I don’t honestly have a for sure answer.  But I know this.  You can’t say ‘I want to be happy’ and make it happen.  And you can’t count on other people to make you happy.  They can’t.  They can comfort you, love you, and be there for you, but they can’t give you happiness.  I’m a bit of a grump, and the more I tried to make myself happy, the less happy I became.  But when I looked  outside of myself, at other people, other things, I stopped worrying about it.  But everything in life is balance, and being a martyr or door mat doesn’t make you happy either.”  And somehow, eventually, she found her balance, and she found what made her happy.

In both books I read, the protagonists found happiness by achieving hard won goals.  But for each person, those goals are different, what’s meaningful is different.  We all have our own life lessons that we need to overcome, our own hardships.  I’m no philosopher, but I enjoy finding books that make me think while following someone else’s journey.  Serang had a wonderful humor that made the lessons entertaining and fun.  My friend’s manuscript pulled me in so deep, I didn’t want to give up on her protagonist, even though I was sure she was going to hit bottom.

I was on a writing panel recently where an author stated that cozy mysteries lately didn’t get much respect.  Let’s face it.  Comediennes hardly ever get nominated for Oscars.  But I enjoy fluffy books as much as I do serious ones.  They both have their own truths.  So for this week, whatever you’re writing or reading, I not only wish you happy writing, but I also wish you happy reading!

Tattoos and Portents–5

Raven and Hester finish their Christmas decorations, then visit the voodoo village in Kentucky.

Christmas table at Hester's

 

Chapter 5

All of the main rooms of the house were filled with Yule cheer by Saturday night. We even set the long dining room table with our best dishes and lots of greenery and candles. Working together, we’d managed to sneak in baking a few batches of cookies to freeze on Saturday afternoon. A good thing, because we were leaving Muddy River early on Sunday to drive to the voodoo village. There’d be no time for anything else.

Meda and Brown arrived at our house at eight in the morning, and we piled into my SUV for the trip. I sat in the backseat with Meda, and Claws sprawled between us. Brown rode shotgun to talk shop with Raven.

“Is your Lamborghini stored in the garage for the winter?” he asked.

“I can drive it in town,” Raven told him. “The witches keep the roads clean enough, but it’s not easy to handle on snow. The road that follows and crosses the river will only be cleared in a few places.”

We didn’t run out of things to talk about as we passed the snowy fields that led to Muddy River’s cemetery and after that, the Druid village. Then the fields stretched even longer, and the river bank wove closer and then farther away from the road. Towns dotted up occasionally but not often. We were still enjoying ourselves when Raven slowed to cross the Ohio River into Kentucky.

Before long, we found ourselves in Raven’s friend, Drago’s, territory. We didn’t stop to visit him, though. We continued on to the voodoo village. This time of year, the road that led to the hollow with its swamp in the center looked even more dramatic. The bare trees that lined the narrow lane arched overhead, their dark, twisty branches intertwining to form a web-like canopy. When we passed the last ones, we could see the houses in the distance.

Every house had gray shingles instead of clapboards and weathered, gray shingle roofs. And every door was black. The entire community blended with the gray skies overhead. The graveyard sat at the far side of the swamp with its brick church painted black and its bloodred trim and doors. I shivered at the thought of entering that building. The cemetery was even more intimidating with its altar clearly visible in the snow.

Raven and I had visited that altar with Jamila once when we took Marie’s body back to her aunt. The voodoo women had circled it as Raven laid Marie on top of it and the women threw flower petals over her. Then they’d chanted, and Marie’s spirit had lifted from her drained flesh and sped to the open grave they’d dug for her. She’d chosen to remain at the village, available whenever the women called for her. The memory still made goose bumps rise on my arms.

Raven drove straight to Jamila’s house, and we trudged up the snowy walk to her front door. Jamila opened it wide before we reached her house and ushered us inside. Claws hesitated before gluing himself to my side. Voodoo spooked him. A low growl rumbled in his throat at an altar that was the central focus of her living room, candles burning brightly on it. It was in stark contrast to the inside of the house, as bright as the outside was plain. The walls were canary yellow, and vivid masks decorated them. Her couch was cherry red, the easy chairs forest green.

“What brings you fine folk here on such a beautiful day?”

I wasn’t sure if she was being facetious or if she enjoyed the December gloom. As we sat, Claws curled at my feet, never taking his attention off Jamila. He stared at her, muscles tense, ready to spring. Raven motioned for me to explain our visit. I told her about the tattoos and dreams, the undead we’d seen in Festus’s vision.

After hearing my story, Jamila mumbled words under her breath and touched her fingers to the pouches she wore around her neck. I’d filled one pouch with witch herbs and spells for her, and she’d made pouches of voodoo magic for us. All of us wore both on our leather cords at all times. Then she said, “Good voodoo practitioners only work with spirits who want to dwell with us and communicate with us, like Marie.”

As she spoke, a whirl of energy circled the room, and Marie’s filmy spirit appeared before us. Claws swiped his paw, nails out, at her, and the mists swirled and reformed. She smiled, happy to see us. I, like Claws, still had trouble spending time with her since she was dead. Except she wasn’t. Her body was dead. Her essence was still very much alive. I had to keep reminding myself of that.

Jamila glanced at her as though hanging out with a spirit was an everyday occurrence. And maybe it was. “You got news for us, baby?” When Marie shook her head, Jamila chuckled. “She just came to say hi to good friends.”

Raven nodded toward her. “We’re happy to see you, too. It looks like the afterlife is agreeing with you.”

Marie’s spirit glowed for a moment and then returned to its usual wispy state.

Jamila pushed a strand of gray hair that had escaped from her turban back from her forehead and smoothed her long, flowing skirt, then grew serious. “You didn’t come here to catch up on our latest news. You came for answers. I wish I had more of them for you, but I can tell you this, only dark voodoo raises the dead.”

Raven leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “How do we fight the undead? I’ve never battled one before.”

“If you shoot or stab it, it makes no difference. You have to blast it to smithereens with your magic so that parts fly, burn it, or behead it. Then it turns true dead.”

I looked between Marie and Jamila. “Do either of you know who’s behind all of this?”

They both shook their heads. “An unknown spirit came to our village a few weeks ago, though, to spy on us,” Jamila said. “It couldn’t get past your wards, Hester, and once we spotted it, we drove it away.”

“What did it want?” I asked.

Jamila’s laugh sent shivers down my spine. “I’m sure its master would like to control us, but the wards you put around our village wouldn’t let the spy pass. It sped toward one of the women here on her way home, and your pouch held it at bay. Your wards have exploded and sparked for a few nights now, but they’ve held. There’s no way past them, is there?”

I shook my head. “Not unless the voodoo master’s magic is stronger than mine, and it doesn’t sound like it is.”

Jamila smiled. “I didn’t think so. And I’d guess you’re dealing with a priest, not a priestess. Men like to control women if they can.”

“Not in my experience.”

She laughed. “That’s only because they can’t.”

“True. Most witch magic passes to female children. Males only receive their mother’s full power if no daughter is born.” I glanced out the front window at the women, bundled in heavy coats, standing on their front porches, watching Jamila’s house since we were visiting it. “Can you and your women protect yourselves against the undead?”

She winked at me and reached under her long skirt. A long, curved knife was strapped to her thigh. “The undead are slow. One swipe of this, and a head will be gone. We’re all carrying them for now, but we’re not planning on leaving your wards until it’s safer.”

“Can the priest’s magic hurt you?”

“I don’t know. He must be strong, maybe stronger than I am.” She pulled out the pouches that dangled from her leather cord. “I hope you and yours are still wearing yours.”

I pulled mine to show her. So did Meda and Brown. She gave a nod, reassured.

“Like I said, I wish we could help you more,” she told us.

Raven stood, ready to take our leave. “Is there anything else we can do to help you?”

Jamila grinned, looking him up and down. “If I had my women line up, you could mate with them to make wonderful baby girls for us. With your magic making ours stronger, no voodoo priest would dare mess with us.”

Raven glowered, and I laughed. “I don’t rent him out,” I told her. “He’s all mine.”

“Don’t blame you a bit, but it never hurts to ask.” She licked her lips, and Raven’s frown deepened. He started to the door.

Claws hurried to the SUV, anxious to leave. Meda was chuckling as we walked along side him. “They might have had more luck if they’d offered that to Brown.”

Her mate grimaced in distaste. “Shifters mate for life. No fooling around. What about witches?”

Meda’s cornflower blue eyes twinkled. “Not all of us are known for fidelity, but our coven’s sworn to it.”

“Good.” He grunted. “’Cause I’m not sharing. Bloodshed would be involved.”

”Exactly why we decided to be faithful,” I said, sliding into the back of the SUV with Meda and Claws.

As we drove away, Raven said, “I’ve had to deal with a lot of trouble because husbands and wives stray. Look at Drago. His wife fooled around and meant to steal his power, so I had to destroy her.”

Meda sat forward, leaning between Raven and Brown in the front seat. “Someone cheated on Drago? What more did she want?” Like all demons, the man was absolutely delicious. Not as tempting as my Raven, but tempting enough.

“She wanted power, and lots of it,” Raven said.

I’d forgotten about that. Drago made no bones about being a one-woman man, but when that woman aged, he left her for another one. Marie had replaced the wife Raven destroyed. And when Marie died, he’d immediately replaced her with another young voodoo girl, Spyrit. But the wife who’d betrayed him had been a succubus. She’d never age. He’d have stayed with her until tragedy took one of them.

“It wouldn’t hurt to stop at my friend’s house and tell him what’s happening,” Raven said as we sped along a country road. My demon didn’t know how to drive slow. Snow and slush splashed behind us. “He’s close enough to the Ohio River and the town Festus visited that he might have problems, too.”

Drago’s house was only fifteen minutes out of our way, so there was no reason not to stop. Since he wasn’t expecting us, we had to pound on his door and wait before he answered it. Claws left us, running toward the trees in the distance. He’d been in the SUV long enough, he was restless. Drago’s shirt was still partially open, and Spyrit’s hair was mussed. No doubt what they’d been doing. Both of them grinned when they saw us.

“My long-lost friends,” Drago teased, opening the door wider to invite us inside. His sandy-colored hair hung loose instead of being pulled back in its usual ponytail. He still looked more artsy than dangerous, but I knew better. I’d battled alongside him. “What brings you here?”

We sat in his spacious living room. His sprawling ranch-style house had an open concept with plenty of room to entertain, which he rarely did. Spyrit sat on the overstuffed white couch beside him, beaming. She laid a hand on her stomach.

“I’m pregnant,” she announced. “Jamila’s so happy, she calls once a week to check on me.”

“Congratulations.” I was happy for her. I knew how much she’d wanted a baby.

“Did you come with baby gifts, or are you here on business?” Drago asked.

This time, Raven explained about Festus and the voodoo priest.

When he finished, Drago’s brows furrowed with worry. “A powerful witch from our community has gone missing. She went to her booth at our public market to close it up for the year and never returned.”

We’d closed our market at the end of October and wouldn’t reopen it until early April. It was too far of a drive to bring much business during bad weather.

Raven shook his head. “Then more witches than one’s gone missing. You might want to warn your residents that there’s a voodoo priest who commands an undead and he’s stealing witches.”

“Maybe more than one undead,” Brown added. “All we know is what we saw in the vision.”

Drago’s shape blurred for a minute, but he took a deep breath to calm himself and decided not to shift. “I can deal with any undead. If I shift to my dragon shape, I’ll burn however many come. But I’ll spread the word so that the shifters and witches who live here will know what to expect and how to defend themselves.”

“Remind them that if spirits swarm them, they can do no harm,” I said.

“I’ll remind them that you helped us ward our entire community. If they stay inside our borders, they’re safe.”

Meda nodded. “Precaution is the wisest action right now.”

Raven glanced out the large picture window at Drago’s front lawn. Shadows lengthened across it. “It’s getting late. Hester teaches tomorrow. We should go, but congratulations again. And be safe.”

“Thanks for the warning.” Drago walked us to the door, then closed it after us. He didn’t like long goodbyes.

Claws raced to join us as we loaded into the SUV.

On the drive home, Raven said, “I was hoping to learn more, but I think the trip was worth it.”

Brown nodded. “We know this isn’t an isolated incident. He’s taken at least two witches, maybe more.”

“But why?” Meda twirled a strand of her wavy, blond hair around her finger—a habit of hers when she was thinking.

“That’s the big question, isn’t it?” Raven asked. “What is the priest after?”

************************************************************************