Hester and Raven find the voodoo priest’s settlement.
Raven left the house right after breakfast. On a Sunday. Our day to enjoy each other. Once he was gone, the house felt empty. I thought about Birch and understood why she took in Lir. I used to love solitude. Not anymore. Not when it stretched for an indefinite time before I’d see Raven again.
I did what I usually do to distract myself. I got out the ingredients to bake and cook. I baked so long that by the time I crawled into bed at the end of the day, I fell into an exhausted sleep. And that’s how I spent the entire rest of my week. I’d teach, come home and start cooking, grab something small for supper, then make candy until I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore. By the time I went to bed late Friday night, I was in a horrible mood. Even the sky over Muddy River looked dark and threatening, reflecting my feelings.
I usually made an effort to contain my magic, but at the moment, I didn’t care. Tomorrow morning, I was driving to find my demon whether he wanted me to or not. School was out for the holidays, and I didn’t have to return until Raven came with me.
Claws woke first. I heard his restless pacing. He missed Raven as much as I did. “Easy, cat. We’ll see him soon.” I was packing a few things for the trip when Boaz called.
“Any news?” he asked.
“Nothing. School’s out. I’m going after him.”
I heard his chuckle. “In the Lamborghini? On snowy roads? I’ll come pick you up. The waiting’s getting to me, too. Lust asks about Cein every day. She’d come with us if I’d let her.”
“She’s probably powerful enough, but who knows how ugly this is going to get? She doesn’t need to see a magic war at fifteen.”
“Agreed. I’m on my way. Call Raven and tell him we’re coming. And tell him the town will be glad to see you leave. They’re tired of gray, grumbling clouds.”
My demon’s mood wasn’t any better than mine. He growled when he answered the phone. “Nothing. We’ve got nothing. We’ve driven all over this part of Indiana and Kentucky, and we have nothing to show for it.”
“Maybe our luck will change. Boaz and I are leaving now. The witches used all the magic they could. Let’s hope it’s enough.”
“How’s Lir?” he asked before I disconnected.
“Birch is nursing him back to health. He’s getting stronger every day. I stopped at her house to check on him two nights ago. He’s impatient to get out of bed, but he seems to be enjoying himself, teasing and pestering Birch.”
I could hear the smile in Raven’s voice. “And Birch? Is she doing better without her parents?”
“Lir’s a good distraction. They’re both getting better together.” Boaz’s pickup pulled into our drive. “Gotta go. Boaz is here. See you soon.”
Before I hopped into his pickup, while Claws curled on the backseat, I chanted a quick spell.
“What’s that for?” he asked as he started toward River Road.
“It blocks my magic so the priest can’t feel it.”
Boaz gave me a sideways glance. “You’re just full of tricks. Did you get a hold of Raven? Where are he and the others staying?”
“At Oren’s house. I’ve been there and protected it.”
“Good, I don’t want to find out how well vampires do with voodoo magic.”
“Didn’t I give you protective pouches to wear?” He wasn’t wearing one now.
“You gave them to everyone in Muddy River, but once in a while, I work with an accountant who’s a warlock. He’s not very strong, and he travels a lot. Just like Lir, I thought he could use a bit of protection.”
I rolled my eyes. “I never said that each person in Muddy River was only allowed to have one set of pouches. All anyone has to do is ask me for more, and I’d give them to them.”
He grinned. “I’m a financial advisor. We have to have every term spelled out for us. You didn’t make that clear.”
Obviously. It was becoming abundantly clear people must think I rationed my magic, but I had plenty to spare. I handed him a leather cord with pouches and pointed to the box with more that I’d brought. “Those pouches will protect you from voodoo. I wear mine all the time.”
He stopped the truck to slide his over his head and then we set off again.
It took us two hours to reach Oren’s house. It felt like we were crawling, he drove so slow, but I glanced at the speedometer, and he was going seventy. Boaz didn’t stomp his foot on the gas pedal and fly down county roads like Raven did. When we parked next to Oren’s log cabin, my demon came out to greet us.
“Good. You made decent time. Mind if we travel the backroads some more to look for the priest’s hiding place?”
Oren came to welcome us, too. “For Hecate’s sake, at least let them get out of the pickup and stretch their legs. They probably haven’t had anything to eat yet.”
Raven sighed, frustrated. “Sorry, I should have thought of that. I’m just tired of coming up empty. Maybe we’ll have more luck with you here.” He gave me a look. He was hoping I could feel the three witches’ magic.
I got out of the pickup and came to stand beside him, pressing a hand to his arm. His body vibrated with energy, he was so wound up. “Give us half an hour. Then we’ll leave with you.”
Oren led us into his home. “I’m no cook, but I have sandwiches if you’re hungry.”
We were. We all shared an early lunch, but I could tell that Brown and Meda were as exasperated as Raven. They must have covered a lot of ground with zero success.
Raven forced himself to be patient until we finished eating and got to relax a few minutes, then he said, “Ready now?”
Oren shook his head but didn’t argue. Claws and I rode in the SUV with Raven, Brown, and Meda. Cein, Flint, and Boaz followed in Oren’s vehicle. We went up and down one country road after another until the sun sank lower in the sky. It was almost dusk when I held up my hand and said, “Stop!”
Raven slammed on the brakes. I jolted forward before my seatbelt stopped me. Oren had to pull alongside us so that he didn’t run into our SUV. People started to complain but Raven ignored them. “What do you feel?”
I got out and waved my hands in the air. At the end of a weedy field, a huge bubble became visible in front of us. I smiled. “Magic. A protective shield.”
Meda and I strode toward it, the others following close behind.
It was almost dark. It was hard to see. “Should we come back early tomorrow?” Oren asked.
I shook my head. “Hear that?”
Everyone grew silent and concentrated. Then we caught the noise of people dragging their feet in a slow march. A lot of them.
“The undead. They’re heading toward a town,” Brown said.
We ran to catch up with them, then go past them. We planted ourselves between them and wherever they were headed. And when they came into sight, two witches were with them.
I sniffed. “A foul stench—dark magic.” A slew of spirits swarmed close to them. When the spirits saw us, they turned and fled.
“They’re afraid of you,” Boaz said.
I shook my head. “They’re returning to the priest to warn him we’re here.”
The witches stopped, studying us. Then one stepped across from Meda and one across from me. Meda grinned. “We’ll take care of them if you guys slaughter the undead.”
“There are kids with them,” Boaz said.
“Just bodies,” I reminded him. “Their spirits have gone on, and the priest has no right to use their flesh. If you behead them, you free them from him.”
Fangs sprang past his lips and his nails grew into long, sharp talons. Brown and Oren stepped out of their clothes and shifted—Brown into a werewolf, Oren into a huge mountain lion. Cein’s body elongated and feathers popped out of his skin. He opened his beak in a screech of anger and leapt into the air. Flames flicked around every inch of Raven.
The witch across from me raised her palms, and I threw up an invisible shield. Her magic bounced away harmlessly. “Are you ready?” I asked the others.
“Just keep the witches out of our way,” Raven growled.
We all started forward. The priest’s witches were stronger than I’d expected, and we volleyed back and forth, first one spell or chant then another, until I stomped my foot, knocking them off balance, and Meda and I finished them. We’d kept them battling us while Raven and the others plowed through the undead. When we finished, I studied the battleground. Bodies and heads lay separated all across the field. So did burnt corpses.
Boaz returned to his human form, scanning the field and beyond. “Let’s find the priest before we dispose of the bodies properly.”
My thoughts, too. I wanted to find the witches and free them before the priest could harm them.
We returned to the protective bubble I’d found and Meda and I gingerly put out our hands to measure its strength. “We’re in luck,” I said. “The witches were too weak to call on a proper one.”
Meda and I raised our palms in unison and blasted it. The entire field of energy fell. We marched forward, anxious to find the priest and battle the rest of his undead. But when we reached the compound, no one challenged us. Were the undead asleep? Would we find them in the barracks?
Raven scowled at the house on stilts in the center of the marsh. “How do we reach it?”
A tentacle lifted out of the water, and I pulled him back. “Things are living in there.” I threw a protective shield around myself and lowered a hand into the water. Sharp teeth tried to bite through my shield. I waited until they stopped then pulled my protection back a few inches to shoot energy out my fingers. I started small, and fish like piranha immediately floated to the top of the water. So did some odd-looking beast with a dozen tentacles. Once the area around my palm was safe, I motioned to Raven. He lowered his hand and let flames blaze in all directions. The water boiled and bubbled until it was filled with dead creatures.
Once that was done, I used my magic to move earth until a dirt bridge crossed from our side of the marsh to the house on stilts.
Raven’s lips curved in a cruel smile. “I finally get to meet the priest.” He hurried across to the ladder leading to the priest’s house. I blasted the door, and Raven rushed inside. No one was there.
We moved to the barracks next, walking in one, then another. All empty. Finally, we went to the barn and descended the steps into the basement. All three witches lay on the floor in their cages. I waved my hand to unlock them.
Flint rushed into the one holding Laurel. He picked her up gently and cradled her in his arms. She groaned, and hope filled his eyes. He looked at me. “Can you help her?”
Meda and I each went to her side and laid our hands on her. We poured healing magic into her, and slowly, she blinked and tried to sit. Flint leaned her back against his chest, supporting her.
Laurel pointed. “We’re all weak, near dead. Buthay didn’t need us anymore. He’s recruited enough dark witches to help him animate the dead.”
Meda and I went to the other two witches and pushed enough energy into them to keep them alive. They needed a good meal. Their magic was spent. Boaz and Cein helped Drago’s powerful witch lean against the bars of her cage. Raven and Brown helped the third witch.
I frowned, confused. “Why would witches who practice the dark arts join with Buthay?” An apt name for an evil priest.
Laurel explained. “Witch magic can’t raise the dead. With their blood, he can. The witches liked his power.”
“But isn’t he afraid that once he raises an army, the witches will kill him and take it over?”
The powerful witch smiled a cold smile. “If Buthay dies, so do the bodies he controls.”
Raven ran a hand through his dark hair, still confused. “We know he’s building an army, but what for? What’s his ultimate goal?”
“To create his own voodoo kingdom,” the third witch said. “He’ll destroy any good voodoo communities who won’t join him.”
Like the one in Drago’s territory in Kentucky. Our friends.
“And the witches?” I asked.
“They hope to form an army of their own, all dark witches, working alongside voodoo. When Buthay captures people to create more undead, he promised them the peoples’ blood to spill on their own altars.”
I shivered. More adversaries who lusted after power. And they struck me as more ambitious than Murlyn had ever been.