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