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