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