Raven and Hester drive to Derek’s supernatural bar to meet a new man who blacked out and woke with a tattoo that triggers the same dream every night over and over again. As always, Hester’s familiar, Claws, goes with them.
The next day, my students and I followed the same routine of the day before. We hurried through our morning lessons, then took pieces of thin rope to make witches’ knots in the afternoon.
“At one time, witches used these to ward off evil. The circle represents infinity and protection, like making a circle of salt protects you. The design’s a little like a Celtic cross with four points symbolizing the four elements.”
It took a while to tie the knots to make the design, and I let each student make three of the decorations for their trees, each in a different color. By the time we finished, Birch walked in the classroom door, and she helped with our spells and chants practice. I smiled at her. I hadn’t expected to see her so soon.
When the last parent picked up their child to leave for the day, we returned to the classroom and Birch could no longer hold in what she wanted to tell me. Her words burst out of her. “I talked to my parents. They love the idea of my staying here to lead a new coven. The supernatural community they’re moving to doesn’t have that many young people. They think I’ll be happier here. And we can always visit each other.”
“Thank you!” I was thrilled. The more I thought about it, the happier I was that young witches in Muddy River would keep training after they left my school. “Would you like to come to my house for supper tonight? Any questions you want to ask me? We can hash out a plan.”
She shook her head. “I’d love to, but I need to get home. My parents have been stalling about moving because they knew I didn’t want to. My dad’s brother lives in Arizona with a lot of older supernaturals. They’ll love it there, but they want to sign papers to leave me their shop, and I’m going to buy their house . . . our house. They’re in a hurry to leave before the roads get too bad in January. I’m going to miss them. I’ve never lived alone, so it will be nice to have something to distract me and help me interact with more people.”
She sounded happy but uncertain. It was hard to take such a big step. I hugged her. “I’ll be here for you. My coven will be, too. We all think of you as ours.”
Her eyes misted, and she blinked away tears. “Thank you, that means a lot to me.”
When she left, I swept my hand to tidy the room, then bundled up. Claws and I trekked across the snowy field to go home. Raven wasn’t back from the office yet, so I made a pot of coffee and when it was ready, held the mug in both hands to warm them. The chill had finally left me when Aengus called.
“Just wanted to let you know that Lir left our settlement today. He should be back by Friday. He hopes he’ll learn something on his trip.”
“It would be nice if he found someone else with a tattoo.” I was about to say more when I heard Raven’s car pull into the drive. “Raven just got home. I’ll share your news with him, too.”
“Has he heard anything?” Aengus asked.
“I’ll tell you in a minute.” I waited for Raven to come through the kitchen door before saying, “Aengus is wondering if you’ve learned anything new.”
My demon shrugged out of his leather jacket and hung it on the coat tree by the door. He was wearing a lightweight sweater today and looked especially good. When he nodded, I put my phone on speaker. Raven came closer and said, “At the office today, Brown and I called every supernatural who travels for his job and got lucky. We found a man two towns over who came home from his trip with a tattoo and nonstop dreams. He’s driving to Muddy River tonight to meet us at Derek’s bar. He’s desperate. He hopes Hester can help him.”
“Then I’m coming tonight, too,” Aengus said. “So is Afric. She’s tired of letting me have all the fun.”
I smiled. Druids were like witches. Females were treated as equals and often held high positions in their society. Afric might serve snacks and coffee when we visited their settlement, but she was a lawyer and could call on lightning as easily as her husband.
Raven chuckled. “We’re meeting at five thirty, a little earlier than usual. The bar shouldn’t be as busy then.”
“We’ll be there.”
Once Aengus disconnected, I turned to Raven. “Coffee or wine?”
He started to the refrigerator. “I don’t get as cold as you do. Wine for me. Are you ready for a glass?”
We sat across from each other at the kitchen table to talk about our day. I told him that Birch had agreed to lead a new coven. He said that he and Brown had called every supernatural on their list of travelers for the areas close to the Ohio River.
“If we have the time, we’re making lists for every area we enforce, but we’ll have to do it one county at a time. We were surprised how many supernaturals live scattered among mortals, and we didn’t realize how many of them traveled for business.”
“And out of all of your calls, you only found one who came home with a tattoo?”
He nodded. “That means there are two more tattoos out there somewhere that we didn’t find.”
“A good reason to make your lists.” I sipped my Riesling.
He grew thoughtful. “I’m looking forward to meeting Cein, the man who’s driving here tonight. He’s half Phoenix. I’ve never met one of those before.”
I frowned. I’d never met one either. “What makes him a Phoenix?”
“He said he bursts into flames once a month and is renewed. He shifts into a giant Phoenix—the bird—when he changes.”
“I didn’t even know a real Phoenix existed.” My first thoughts flew to Harry Potter and Dumbledore. I’d loved that series. In the books, when his bird fought, it was formidable. “
“Neither did I.” Raven smirked. “I thought they were a myth. I can’t wait to meet Cein. I called Festus and Boaz, and they’ll be at Derek’s tonight, too. Boaz said they have to bring Lust. They’ve left her alone twice now, and they don’t want to do it again. A neighbor promised to keep an eye on her, but Lust makes her nervous.”
I could understand that. If the girl didn’t want to listen to someone, she wouldn’t. “Is it all right with Derek if they bring a fifteen-year-old into his bar?”
“He made an exception for them this time.”
I looked at the clock and hurried upstairs to change. I wasn’t going to wear my black witchy clothes to town. Just like Aengus, I changed into jeans. I didn’t have any flannel shirts, so I pulled a black sweater over my head. When I came downstairs, Raven’s gaze smoldered as he looked me up and down. What can I say? He’s a demon. Their hormones never calm down. But then, I was beginning to think mine were going to stay in hyperdrive, too, since we’d met. I shook my head at him and reached for my coat. “Save those ideas for later.”
He shrugged into his leather jacket. “I don’t have to. They’re always there.”
It was a short drive to the bar, and as usual, Claws ditched us for his friends. Familiars enjoy hanging out with each other. I’d worried about how well an ocelot would get along with a gaggle of cats, but they made it work. A red Corvette neither of us recognized was parked close to the door, so when we walked in, we scanned the room for a new face.
Derek nodded at us. “That’s them, Raven and Hester. Hester helped the two men with tattoos from Muddy River. She’ll help you, too.”
The man stood and stretched out his hand to shake ours. “Hello, I’m Cein.”
He was almost as tall as Raven with a lean, hard build. His mahogany colored hair waved back from his high forehead, but what really intrigued me were his eyes—pale golden. Not the amber of Raven’s, but as golden as a full moon when it first rose. I could feel his power when our fingers touched.
Raven must have felt it, too. He narrowed his eyes, studying him. “You’re more than just a Phoenix.”
Cein nodded. “I’m half warlock, too.”
What a combination! The man had magic, and he could shift into a fearsome bird. He lifted a brow to study us in return. “I’d guess each of you is still more powerful than I am. I hope I never find out.”
Raven smiled. “You won’t unless you become an enemy. I don’t see any reason why that would happen.”
Cein took a stool and waited for us to join him. “You never know. Two towns ago, three vampires turned against me. One of their mates fancied me. Even though I didn’t fancy her, they came together to attack me, and not one of the other supernaturals in the entire town came to my defense.”
“But you’re here and alive,” I pointed out, “so I’m guessing you won that battle.”
His lips turned up at the corner. “I guess that’s obvious, but I moved to a more secluded spot after that. Living with supernaturals had as many pitfalls as living with mortals.”
“Not here,” Festus said, walking through the door with his wife, Wanda, and heading for their favorite table. “Here, we help each other.”
Cein frowned, his expression clearly stating he didn’t believe that. “You might think that now, but it can change.”
“Anything can change,” Raven told him. “A while back, we had a group of parents who turned against us, but we fought them together.”
“I’d rather rely on myself.”
Just then, the back door opened again, and Boaz and Melodia walked in with their daughter Lust. An unusual name, but it fit her. The girl was as alluring as her mother, a siren, and as sensuous as Syn, our favorite succubus. Lust saw Cein and stopped in her tracks. Cein glanced at her and looked away, unimpressed. She was only a girl, after all, only fifteen.
Boaz studied his tired face, the weary droop of his shoulders. “Are you the man with another tattoo?”
Cein studied him. “You got one, too?”
Boaz nodded, then motioned toward Festus. “Him, too.”
Before they could compare stories, Aengus and Afric strode in. Cein narrowed his eyes, studying them. Aengus took up a lot of space—a bear of a man. Afric was nearly as tall as her husband but whipcord thin with a long, thick braid of auburn hair hanging halfway down her back. He sniffed, then frowned. “I don’t know your scent.”
“Druids.” Aengus tilted his head, studying Cein just as openly. “And you?”
“Half Phoenix, half warlock.”
Aengus threw back his head and laughed. “No wonder I didn’t recognize your scent. We’re Celts, both from Britain. Never met the likes of you. Where’s your origin? Greece? Rome?”
Cein nodded. “My parents still live in Europe, but finding a fellow Phoenix is nearly impossible. When I wanted to find a mate, I moved to your country, thought I’d have better luck. I was wrong.”
Lust raised a black eyebrow at him. “We intermarry in Muddy River. Maybe you should look for some other supernatural. I’ll be available in three years.”
Cein stared at her. “What are you?”
“Half siren, half vampire.” And evidently in the grip of raging hormones. She looked like she’d gladly enchant Cein on the spot. As a matter of fact, I decided there and then to make a pouch to protect him, because Lust had a mind of her own. And it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if she tried.
Melodia scowled at her. “Daughter, we know your magicks. Don’t even think about it.”
Aengus’s laugh boomed again. “Beware, Phoenix. Sirens are alluring.”
Cein shook his head, dismissing Lust’s lush, ebony hair, green eyes, and full lips. “She’s a kid.”
Those full lips pressed into an angry line, but Boaz gave her a stern look. “We brought you to the bar to take care of business. If everyone’s here, let’s get to it.” The girl might be powerful but so were her parents.
Aengus, Festus, and Boaz began to roll up their shirt sleeves, so Cein did, too. Afric leaned forward to see them better. When the inky swirls reached for each other, she gave a small gasp. And as before, a scene materialized in the air over the bar. It began where the last one left off, with the undead carrying Drago’s powerful witch on a stretcher and placing her in a cage in what appeared to be a basement. As before, the voodoo priest came to drain her. Then he turned and started to our witch’s cage.
We could feel her fear pulse through her, her determination to fight him if she could. She took a stance and raised her palms, but he stopped in front of her cage and smiled at her. A winner’s smile, smug and gloating. Then he raised his own hand and opened his fingers. He bent his head to blow across his palm, and dust whirled toward her. She tried not to breathe it in but couldn’t hold her breath that long. It tingled in her nostrils, and she felt light-headed, dizzy. As she started to fall, strong arms caught her. When she woke, she didn’t know how long she’d been unconscious, but her wrists were bandaged. They’d drained her, and she felt weak. She looked across at the stronger witch, and she was standing at the bars of her cage, watching her. More, there was a third cage in the room now, too. That witch was watching her, also.
Footsteps shuffled down the stairs, and the undead brought all three of them big trays of food to restore their energy. Our witch looked at the heaping plate of chicken stew over rice and wanted to ignore it, wanted to force herself to not eat, but the priest had drained so much magic from her, she was starving. Feeling defeated, she sagged on her narrow cot and gave in to hunger.
How long could she endure this? How long would it be before the priest found enough stronger witches that he wouldn’t need her anymore? Thoughts and fears pinged against her skull, and then she pushed them away. Somewhere, far away, she felt a new magic, something stirring at the far corners of her psyche. She called to the other witches.
“Do you feel it?”
They both nodded.
“If we could reach whoever it is, maybe he could help us.”
The powerful witch frowned. “I don’t know that magic.
“I’m part Fae,” our witch told her. “I’m too weak to send him a message alone. Will you help me?”
Two more nods, then energy rushed to her and she shut her eyes and concentrated as hard as she could. She sent the unknown man a dream and embedded it as deep as she could before passing out.
The scene faded. Cein blinked, then rubbed his forehead. “The young witch sent the dream to me?”
I nodded and went to stand close to him. He pulled back, not sure what I meant to do. “If I touch your forehead, I can let the girl know we saw her message, and the dreams will stop.”
“Is the dream the only thing you’ll remove?” Our Phoenix didn’t trust easily.
“She stopped mine,” Boaz said. “I can sleep now.”
“Me, too,” Festus told him. “Before Hester helped me, I thought I’d go nuts, watching the same dream over and over again.”
He glared at me. “I don’t know you or any of these people.”
Lust smiled at him. “I won’t let anyone harm you.”
He grimaced, unimpressed.
“It’s either that, or I can’t remove the dream,” I said.
With a shrug, he leaned forward. “Then do it.”
I pressed a finger to his forehead and chanted my spell. When I removed my finger, he touched his forehead, too. “I feel different. The dream’s gone?”
Before he could say more, Afric’s hands knotted into fists. “Aengus, we have to stop this. That priest’s a fiend. I want him dead.”
“Stand in line,” Cein told her.
She leveled a gaze at him. “Are you willing to stay in Muddy River and help us find and fight this man? When we kill him, I want Raven to turn him to dust. No, dust is too good for him. I want him to be dirt that we grind under our heels.”
He looked surprised. “You’d welcome me to battle with you?”
“With us, yes, if you’re an ally. If not, we’ll destroy you.”
He smiled. “I like you people. You say what you think, don’t you?”
“There are too many powerful supernaturals living here to play power games,” Raven told him. “We all respect each other or there’d be constant squabbles.”
“And Raven’s our enforcer,” Festus added. “If we break the laws we made, he’d be happy to turn us into toast. Or ashes.”
I watched him. The man was so tired, I’m surprised he could drive here. “It’s not safe for you drive home,” I said. “Why don’t we eat supper here, then you can follow us to our house and spend the night? You’ll be rested if you want to leave in the morning.”
“If I want to leave? Did you expect me to stay?”
“If you want to help us find the priest, you’ll need our help,” Afric said. “We’re not going to do all the work for you.”
Raven frowned. “Wait a minute.” He turned to Cein. “When do you burst into flames each month?”
Cein actually grinned. He’d been so gruff and untrusting, I wasn’t sure he had any sense of humor. “I ignite on the last day of each month. I won’t burn your sheets and bed.”
Raven relaxed. “In that case, you’re welcome to be our guest.”
“Right now, all I’ll do is fall into a bed and sleep,” he warned.
“That’s what you need.” I looked at Derek. “I’d like another glass of wine and a burger.”
Everyone started placing orders, and Speedy raced around the small kitchen, trying to fill them all. When we finished eating, Raven tossed money on the bar. “Let’s call it a night.”
“Are you staying?” Afric asked as Cein stood.
“I haven’t decided.”
“We’re not calling you when we go after him,” she said.
“That’s fair.” There was no rushing him.
When we left and walked to Raven’s Lamborghini, Cein raised his eyebrows and gave a low whistle. Raven gestured toward his red Corvette. “You like cars, too, huh?”
“Low to the ground and fast,” Cein said.
Sweet Hecate, I’d stick to my SUV. It was more practical. Claws ran to jump in the car with us but stopped to sniff Cein first.
“My familiar,” I told him.
He reached down to stroke his head and rub behind his ears. Claws’s purrs rumbled, and my traitorous ocelot jumped in the front seat of the Corvette, obviously enamored of our new friend.
As I slid onto the Lamborghini’s passenger seat, I grumbled, “That cat is a little too independent. When I met you, he wouldn’t leave you alone. Now Cein.”
Raven laughed. “He sees you all the time. Besides, he knows you’re safe in Muddy River. You don’t need him. Your wards won’t let any enemies close to you.”
When we reached our tall yellow Victorian, Raven let me out at the front door, then drove to park in the garage. Cein parked on the other side of the drive so Raven could leave if he needed to. Then we all ended up in the kitchen. While Raven poured a last round of drinks, I ran up to the attic and returned with a potion for Cein and a leather cord with two pouches on it.
“Here. For you. The potion will immunize you to a siren’s songs, and the pouches will protect you from curses and voodoo magic.”
He didn’t question me this time but drank the potion and draped the cord over his head. He took a sip of his beer, clearly puzzling over something. “Could that little girl really mesmerize or enchant me?”
“You’re strong enough, you could probably fight her magic, but this way, you don’t have to.”
He shook his head. “Do all girls her age start thinking about boys?”
“Probably. A lot of supernaturals mate at eighteen. Their magicks surge at the same time as their hormones, and they’re ready.”
Raven glanced at my cell phone on the table and asked Cein, “Is there someone you should call to tell them you’re staying here?”
He shook his head. “I live alone. There’s no one who worries about me.”
Those words made me sad for him. I’d waited a long time to choose a mate, but I always had someone who’d care if I was in trouble—my parents, my coven, friends in Muddy River. Raven had been more standoffish, but even he had friends who were fellow enforcers. “You never get lonely?” I asked.
“Sometimes, but it’s safer this way.” He finished his beer and yawned. “I need sleep.”
I took him up to the guest bedroom and showed him where the clean sheets were. He thanked me, and I pulled the door shut behind me when I left. Claws settled in front of it, intent on watching over our guest. I glared at him on my way back downstairs.
Raven and I didn’t stay up much later. It had been a long day for us, too. And we both worked tomorrow. If Raven and Brown got lucky, maybe they’d find another supernatural with a tattoo.