Raven and Hester, along with Brown and Meda, drive to meet a supernatural sheriff who works both sides of the Ohio River. They meet and battle their first undead throng.
This time, my students looked eager when I introduced another new witch to them. After all, they’d had me as their teacher year after year. Someone new would be exciting.
“Students, this is a fellow witch of mine, Birch. She graduated from this school three years ago. Birch, these are my students.” I motioned to the board, and Birch grinned.
“Ah, I remember. The day’s lessons. I remember exactly how this works. We’re going to be fine.”
The students looked at each other with smug smiles. That concerned me. Our usual, consistent pattern had been broken up, and they obviously were looking forward to it. Birch was young with silky white-blond hair and moss green eyes. They’d think they could get away with more. After all, they might be young witches, but they were still kids. I decided to make them think hard about misbehaving. I turned to Birch. “If you have any problems, let me know, and whoever caused them will wish they hadn’t.”
The students squirmed. I had many ways I could discipline someone, but I rarely needed to worry about it. Usually, if the classes got antsy or rowdy, a loud clap of thunder that shook the building helped calm them down.
Birch raised a warning brow at them. “No worries. I remember your thunder and can make my own.” An air witch, she whispered a chant and the building rumbled.
The students sat up straighter in their seats, and I smiled. “I haven’t pinned anyone to the wall with wind for years now, but that works, too.”
She laughed. “I’ve never tried that. Let’s hope someone misbehaves so I can test it out.”
They glanced at each other nervously, and I knew Birch wouldn’t have any problems. With a wink at her, I went to pull on my coat, and Claws and I trudged across the snowy field to home. Meda and I slid into the back seat with Claws while Raven and Brown settled in the front of the SUV.
As he pulled onto Banks Road, Raven said, “We might as well get comfortable. We have to cross the Ohio River this time, and it takes a while to get to the bridge.”
Even with Raven’s heavy foot on the gas pedal, it would take a couple of hours. I leaned forward in my seat to ask Brown, “How’s your murder investigation going in the mortal town?”
He grimaced. So did Meda. “Turned out the woman’s husband killed her and tossed her body in a nearby lake. He thought he’d weighed it down, but the rope was old and snapped. Waves washed her to the shore.”
Meda added, “They’d been married a few years and the wife’s glow had rubbed off. He’d met someone else and wanted to get rid of her.”
“Why not just divorce her?” I asked.
“He couldn’t afford to keep the house and his new big pickup,” Brown said.
I shook my head. “At least most supernaturals aren’t tempted by money. We’ve lived long enough, we’ve accumulated enough stuff to make do.”
Voice dry, Raven quipped, “No, we’re just temped by power. Same thing really. Look at Murlyn. How many wives did he drain to take their magic?”
He was right. Once in a while, I was hard on mortals. That tends to happen when they hang or burn your entire family like they had in Salem. Humans measured success by dollar signs. We looked at how much magic we had. And unscrupulous individuals were willing to cheat and steal to get what they wanted. Not much difference between us and them.
We made small talk for the rest of the trip, and I enjoyed listening to how happy Brown was that he’d settled in Muddy River with Meda. The shifter was besotted with his wife, and to make things even better, he could enjoy his dad since Gray had mated with Syn and settled in town, too.
“We’re just hanging stockings for our Christmas exchange with each other,” Meda said. “None of us really needs anything, so the presents are just for fun, but we’ve donated money to an orphanage we found in Indiana.”
That surprised me. “An orphanage? For supernaturals?” So many married shifters couldn’t have children, most supernatural babies were snatched up as soon as they were available.
Meda shook her head. “No, this one’s for mortals, but once we visited the gorgons’ orphanage to help Prim find the new settlement’s children who went missing, it made us think about any child who didn’t have a home, a family. Those kids broke our hearts, so we decided to help as many kids as we could, ours or mortals.”
I wasn’t sure what I thought about that. We couldn’t admit we helped mortals. We didn’t want them to know we even existed. The very same children Meda and Brown helped might grow up to hunt us, like the cult we’d fought not that long ago.
Raven glanced at me in the rearview mirror. “They’re just kids, Hester. If they grow up happy, they’re less of a threat.”
I grimaced. “Unhappy, angry people are more dangerous, I agree. “But mortals are like rabbits. They reproduce faster than we do.”
“That’s because they don’t live as long. If we had more babies each time a batch grew up, we’d spend hundreds of years raising them.”
I laughed. “You’re right. One brood every century or two is enough.”
With a grin, he raised his eyebrows and locked gazes in the rearview mirror. “Well?”
“We’ll pitch in,” I told Meda. “Kids are kids. You’ve found a worthy cause.”
“Good!” Meda’s entire family had survived Salem and the witch hunts. She started to tell us about the orphanage on the last leg of our trip, and Brown joined in. Soon, Raven was pulling into a long drive that led to a big log cabin deep in a wood. At my frown, he explained, “We’re meeting this area’s supernatural sheriff, Oren. He’s half shifter like Brown, and he works with mortal enforcement, like Brown too.”
He parked close to the sidewalk that led to Oren’s front door. When we reached his porch, the door opened and a lanky man with sandy-colored hair and tawny eyes the color of Raven’s motioned us inside. Claws stopped and hissed at him, hesitating.
Oren laughed. “Your familiar doesn’t like me. I’m a cat shifter. When I change, I’m a cougar. He’s not sure about that.”
I patted Claws’s head and continued into the cabin. My ocelot followed me. Oren motioned us to the living room with a massive fireplace. He had a tray with a coffee urn and mugs and cold meat sandwiches on a large ottoman in the center of a group of easy chairs.
Once we’d served ourselves, he leaned back in his chair and asked, “Where would you like to start? What would you like to know first?”
“We’ve learned that a voodoo priest has kidnapped at least three witches, and he’s using their blood to give him the power to raise undead. That’s as far as we’ve gotten,” Raven said.
Oren raised his eyebrows, surprised. “Brown told me you were worried about undead. Sounds like a bigger problem than I thought, though. The first I heard about corpses going missing was in the closest town I watch. A few disappeared, but it’s too small for many to go missing.”
“Did Bronwen and Evander live there?” I asked. She’d said they left the town they loved because of missing bodies.
He nodded. “I was sorry to see them go.”
“Is most of the town supernatural?” It seemed Bronwen had mentioned living with mortals, but I couldn’t remember.
“It’s a mix,” he said. “Mortals and supernaturals are neighbors, but the supernaturals keep their magic to themselves. The mortals don’t suspect.”
“And if they did?” I wondered if after they’d known each other for years if the mortals would overlook magic and not fear it.
“I think they suspect but never ask.” He reached for another sandwich. “I work with a mortal police department at a nearby larger city, and when odd things happen, a few of the cops come to talk to me. They know I’m different, but they don’t want to know how.”
I nodded, and Raven said, “We’re tracking the voodoo priest through dreams.” He stopped to explain, and Oren again looked surprised. “In the dreams, we saw eight undead carry a witch into a basement. By now, there are probably more of them.”
“Dreams, huh?” Oren shook his head, perplexed. “That’s a first. I’ve never dealt with those. But I can tell you this, in the city, quite a few homeless are coming up missing. One night, they’re living under a bridge, the next night, they’re gone. And I work north and south of the Ohio River. We’ve had enough bodies disappear on both sides.”
Brown looked grim. “It sounds as though when the priest runs out of corpses, he kills mortals to make enough undead.”
“Do you have a lot of homeless in the area?” Meda asked.
“Only in the cities. Not that many around here, but we have our share of wandering rogue supernaturals. Does the priest ever take them?”
Raven poured himself a second cup of coffee. “Not that we know of, but we don’t have many homeless, supernatural or mortals, around Muddy River.”
Oren snorted. “What shifter, vampire, or warlock would be stupid enough to mess with you and Muddy River’s witches? And let’s face it. Mortals can’t even see your town.”
True. We’d picked our area because it was remote. “Do you have any place we could visit where someone disappeared?” I asked.
Oren nodded. “An older man in his early seventies lived five miles from my place. He disappeared two weeks ago.”
“Was he healthy?” Brown asked.
“Sure looked like it. Never had trouble keeping up his place and stocking enough wood for the winter. His property’s marked off with yellow police tape, but I can take you there.”
“Great.” Raven finished his coffee and stood. We followed Oren to his official SUV, and he led the way to the old man’s house. Like his, we followed a long drive to a stone cottage surrounded by trees.
Oren searched for a key to let us inside, but I waved my hand and the door open. He grinned. “Handy trick. Wish shifters could do that.” Then he led us into the main room of the house with a pot belly stove in a corner of the living room and a wood burning stove in the kitchen. Neither were lit. It was colder in the house than it was outside.
Meda shivered, and Brown wrapped an arm around her to pull her close. Shifters were like demons. Their bodies emanated lots of heat. Then we all sniffed the air at the same time. Looking at each other, we shook our heads. Nothing. But I could feel a tingle of magic in the air.
“Something was here,” I said. “But it’s no magic I know, and it was never very strong.”
“If we walk the perimeter of the house, do you think you could pick up something?” Raven asked.
“It’s worth a try.” A strong enough breeze blew across an open field east of the house that Raven moved on the other side of me to block it. We spread out in a long line—me at one end and Oren on the other—when a flurry of spirits swarmed toward us. They whirled to reach Meda and me, then quickly veered toward Oren. He tensed, ready to shift, but I shook my head. “They can’t harm you. Don’t panic.”
Claws’s fur stood on end, and he swatted at them with his paw. Then he turned toward the tree line behind the house and growled. We looked in that direction. A dozen undead shambled from it. They were so slow, we had to wait for them to grow closer. They split into two groups, one coming toward me, the other for Meda.
“They’re after witch magic.” Flames danced like an aura around Raven.
I studied them. Five gray-haired men, two younger ones, three women dressed in out of date jeans and coats, and two men with hair so long and skin so gray, I couldn’t determine their ages. Must be the homeless who’d gone missing. “Are any of these your missing neighbor?” I asked Oren.
He scanned them and then jerked in surprise. “The fourth one from the right.”
I repeated the information Jamila had given us for how to kill them, and Oren nodded. Then, once they were near enough, Meda and I raised our palms and blasted energy. Body parts flew from the ones we’d hit, and Oren turned to us, eyes wide. Eight still shuffled toward us. Raven shot fire from his fingertips, and half of them turned to ashes. Four left. I took the one on the left, Meda the one on the right, and Raven the two in the middle. Every undead was . . . dead.
“You made that look easy,” Oren said. “I didn’t even have to shift.”
I shook my head. “They’re stronger than I thought. Meda and I have as much energy as witches get, but it took direct hits to kill them.”
“Can I defend myself against them?” he asked.
“They probably won’t bother you unless you try to defend someone,” I told him. “They aren’t interested in shifters.”
“Thank Hecate for small favors.” He’d taken off his leather gloves and pulled them back on again.
Brown smiled. “I like battles when all I do is watch.”
With a grunt, Raven started to the bodies. “Some of these were neighbors and friends. They deserve a decent finish. We can’t leave their bodies scattered all over the yard.”
Oren followed him and stopped to stare at a head that had rolled to a fence surrounding a vegetable garden. “That’s old Luther, who lived here. I’ll call the local authorities and let them know he’s dead. He has a son in California.” He stopped at another head and neck. “Glen lives two towns over, only fifty-six. He had his car jacked up and was working on it when the jack gave. He’s one of the corpses that disappeared.” He hadn’t been a pretty sight before we blasted him. He looked worse now. Oren went from body to body, making notes to report so that people would know their loved ones were dead and gone.
When he’d finished, Raven went to each body part and cremated it. “Did you notice what happened to the spirits when we started to fight?”
Brown pointed a finger in the direction of the river. “They took off that way to report back to whoever sent them. Tattletales.”
Raven’s dark brows drew together as he scanned the area. “Back toward the river. That might be where the priest lives.”
“No help there,” I said. “There are miles and miles of river with mostly trees and brush.”
Oren led us back inside the house and looked from one of us to another. “Did I imagine it, or when the spirits flew toward us, did they veer away from you four before they came at me?”
I pulled the two pouches on the leather cord from beneath my coat to show to him. “One pouch is for witch magic, the other made by the voodoo women in Drago’s territory. No voodoo magic can harm us. I keep spare potions and pouches in my SUV. Do you want one?”
He blinked at me. “You don’t know me. You’ve never met me until now. You’d offer me your magic to help protect me?”
I reached out to pat his arm. “You’re one of us. And you’ve helped us, so now you’re a friend.”
Oren scanned us again. “I like this. I have a feeling it can’t hurt to have you guys as friends.”
“If you need us, call,” Raven said. “We’ll come.”
We walked back to our vehicles, and I dug a leather cord with pouches out of a container I kept in back of the SUV. “We could pour potion around your house, too, and chant a ward so no enemies can pass it.”
“You’d do that?”
“It won’t take long.” We followed him to his log cabin, and with all of us working together, Meda and I protected his property and home in half an hour.
He waved us good bye, and soon, we’d crossed the bridge back into Indiana and were following the river road home. We didn’t talk much, each lost in our own thoughts. The voodoo priest wasn’t just stealing bodies now. He was killing people to create them. What for? What did he hope to do with an army of undead?