The voodoo priest is testing what works and doesn’t to battle Raven and Hester. Lir, the young Druid, helps them win another skirmish:
Tuesday morning was cold, but there was no breeze. Raven left to drive to town, and I turned on my ovens. Soon, the kitchen was warm and toasty, and as I stirred the dough to make gingerbread men, the aromas of cloves and molasses filled the room. Thursday was Yule Eve, so I decided to try to make as many things ahead for the get-together as possible. Big meals were easier for me than party food. A big ham, turkey, and prime rib weren’t as time consuming as lots of nibbles.
Once I finished with the cookies, I started on lots and lots of meatballs, then turned my attention to cocktail franks. I always offered fancier fare, too, and mounds of shrimp cocktail, but the meatballs and franks disappeared every year. I was cleaning the kitchen at the end of the day when Birch’s car pulled into the drive. She and Lir were riding with us to the Druid village tonight.
I’d left a plate of cookies on the table to snack on and had coffee or hot chocolate to offer them, but Lir asked for ale. Druids. I poured coffee for myself and hot chocolate for Birch, and then we gathered around the table.
“I have good news.” Birch’s voice rose with excitement. “I’ve met with other girls in town, and your four students who’ll graduate this year want to join my coven. So do two more young witches, so we’ll have seven to start with, counting me.”
“Wonderful!” The more trained witches, the safer Muddy River would be.
Lir reached for a cookie. “How many students are in your school?”
“Twenty-six right now, from first grade to graduation, but I only train young witches. Muddy River has a public school for other supernaturals.”
Lir’s green eyes gleamed. “And they learn all of the important spells before they leave?”
I nodded. “Once a witch learns a spell, it’s hers forever, but most of our witches don’t practice most of them after they graduate. And they don’t learn more. That’s why I’m so happy Birch is going to start a new coven.”
“Do most of the witches who grow up in Muddy River stay here? Do any of them move to find mates or have new beginnings?”
I smiled. “A few do, but most of them stay.” Aengus had told me once that Lir was endlessly curious, and I could see that now. Curious and quick. No wonder Aengus was so fond of him.
Bird cries interrupted us, and we all turned to glance out the kitchen windows. A huge flock of crows, sparrows, geese, and others was flying east over my house. I stared. Birds didn’t mingle like this. What did it mean?
“A sign,” Lir said, frowning.
“About the priest?” I didn’t use bird flight as a sign, but I knew Druids did.
Lir stood and walked to the French doors leading to the back patio to see them better. “The priest must be making a new settlement somewhere west of here. They don’t want to be close to him.”
Neither did I, but we’d have to face him to stop him.
Raven’s Lamborghini pulled into the driveway. He parked in our two-car garage, and Lir watched him walk to the house. Raven immediately went to the table to reach for a cookie. It’s a good thing my fire demon’s metabolism burned lots of calories.
“Coffee, hot chocolate, or beer?” I asked.
“Hot chocolate. With marshmallows?”
I smiled. “More sweets. I should have known.”
Lir joined him at the table and bit into another cookie. He groaned with satisfaction, then sniffed the air, still redolent with the aromas of the day. “I love your kitchen. It always smells good. You’re a wonderful cook.”
Birch pushed away her empty cup and frowned at him. For some reason, his comment had irritated her. “I take it I’m not? You haven’t starved in my care.”
He blinked, clearly surprised by her reaction. “And I thank you. You’ve kept me well-fed while I healed.”
“What does that mean?” Her shoulders stiffened. “That my cooking fills your belly but doesn’t impress you?”
Lir raised his eyebrows. “I didn’t say that.”
“Well?” She locked gazes with him.
“Well what?” Smile lines creased the edges of his eyes. He was beginning to enjoy their exchange.
“Do you like my cooking or not?”
“I like it.”
Birch pressed her lips together, dissatisfied. She turned to me. “You’d teach me how to cook like you do, wouldn’t you?”
She caught me off guard. “If you want me to. You’ve never been interested before.” Sometimes my coven and I got together to cook for casual get-togethers. Birch had never joined us.
With a scowl, she snapped, “I never realized my cooking was inadequate before.”
Lir spread his hands in an innocent gesture, but his eyes sparkled with humor. “It’s adequate.”
Birch let out a frustrated huff. “You just wait and see. I’m a quick learner. Pretty soon, you won’t be able to resist my cooking.”
Lir grinned. “You’re already irresistible. You don’t have to impress me as a kitchen goddess.”
It was Birch’s turn to blink in surprise. “I didn’t think you found me interesting.”
“But I do.”
Birch gave a satisfied smile, and Raven shook his head at me. Young love. He glanced at the clock. “When are we supposed to be at Aengus’s?”
I looked, too. I’d lost track of the time. “We’d better get going.”
Raven grabbed another cookie as he stood. Birch and I carried the dirty mugs and plates to the sink before we went for our coats. Claws ran to my SUV and snuggled between Lir and Birch in the backseat.
“If he’s crowding you, he can sit in the very back,” I told them.
Lir reached to scratch behind my familiar’s ears and smiled at his rumbling purrs. “He’s fine. I wish Druids had familiars.”
“Coonie wouldn’t mind if you brought in a new pet,” Birch told him. Her familiar was an orange Maine Coon cat.
“Would you mind?” Lir asked.
“Not if that would make you happy.”
Lir reached for her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. “Thank you, but I’d better talk to Aengus before I plan too far ahead.”
Birch bit her bottom lip but didn’t reply. She’d thrown him an opening, and he hadn’t taken it. I could sense her disappointment.
They sagged back in their seats. We drove on in awkward silence, the SUV filling with turbulent pheromones, until Raven stomped on the brake. A dozen undead led by two witches and three voodoo women stepped onto the road, blocking our way.
“Is everyone wearing their pouches?” I asked.
Lir and Birch both patted theirs, hidden under their sweaters. I glanced at Claws. For good measure, I’d even attached two pouches to a collar around his neck. He usually fussed when I tried to put a collar on him, but this time, he’d purred and licked my hand. He knew I was trying to protect him.
We all exited the vehicle, and the women smiled. I didn’t. They’d better enjoy themselves while they could, because I was sick and tired of the priest’s flunkies. A dark cloud of spirits zoomed toward us. This time, I wasn’t about to let them turn around and run home to tattle on us. I moved my hands in a circular motion and a tornado of wind sped toward them, sucking them in. I aimed it, skyward, in the opposite direction. By the time the spirits escaped, they’d be so dizzy and disoriented, it would take them days to find their way home.
The voodoo women frowned, irritated, and began to chant. The dead grasses at the sides of the road grew thick and strong to wrap themselves around our ankles. Earth magic. I had plenty of that. With a few words, the plants retreated and shivered. They’d gotten lucky. If Raven had used his magic, they’d be scorched.
A dark witch grew impatient. She reeked so strongly of blood and sacrifices, I had to wrinkle my nose. She raised her palms at Lir but before she could blast him, he said a quick chant of his own. Lightning zapped from the sky, pulsing through her body so strongly, her friends had to jump away from her as she spasmed to death.
The second witch looked surprised. Not many supernaturals knew or worked with Druids. She wouldn’t understand their magic. She called on a whirlwind of energy to encompass us, but Birch was an air witch, too. Her whirlwind collided with the witch’s, and they exploded, knocking a row of undead off their feet.
The voodoo women reached into a pocket, took out handfuls of sparkling dust, and blew them at us. I could have blown them away, but let them drift toward us instead. Why waste magic when our pouches would protect us? The dust kept going, floating past us before falling to the ground. The women took a step back, frowning in confusion. They’d obviously counted on their sleeping potions to disable us.
Flustered, they sent the undead toward us. I shook my head. Slow learners. Raven raised his arms and fire leapt toward the first row of them, turning them to ashes. The women stepped closer together, trying to combine their energy, but I was out of patience. I glanced at Raven.
“Let’s end this. Stay behind us, Claws. This will only take a minute.”
We all raised our hands at the same time. Raven shot fire. Birch and I blasted energy, and Lir sent streaks of lightning. Soon, only mounds of ashes littered the ground. I grimaced and turned back to our SUV.
As I strapped on my seatbelt—after all, Raven was driving—I couldn’t contain my anger. “The only thing this priest is good at is hiding. He’s a coward. He terrorizes mortals who don’t have any magic to defend themselves.”
Raven raised a dark eyebrow. “He just attacked us.”
“No, he sent people to do his dirty work.”
“And if you hadn’t looked into voodoo magic, we’d have all hit the ground from that sleep powder. He’s testing what works on us or doesn’t. Don’t sell him short. Let’s hope he doesn’t find something that affects us.”
I made a face. He had a point, but the dust would have never reached us. Both Birch and I could call on air magic to blow it away. So could Lir. I frowned at Raven. “Could you have avoided the sleeping powder?”
“It’s according to whether fire pulverized it or not.”
I never wanted to find out. “Don’t ever remove your pouches.”
He touched a hand to his. “No worries. I don’t want to wake up in a cage.”
That made me wonder about something else. “Does silver affect you?” The bars on the jail cells in Muddy River were made of silver to hold vampires and shifters.
“Not a bit, and silver melts.” He grinned. How he knew this, I didn’t ask.
We parked in front of Aengus and Afric’s a few minutes later. The Druid temple sat in the center of the settlement, every house arranged in squares to face it. Stones, arranged to correspond to the solstices, sat in the large square, and an ancient oak tree shaded the building. The temple itself was made of thick oak logs and the peaked roof was shingled with cedar shakes. A healing well sat near the front doors. When Aengus came to greet us, he looked us up and down. “We saw dark clouds and lightning in the distance. Looked like Lir’s work. Everything okay?”
Lir got out of the vehicle to hug his friend. “A couple of witches and voodoo priestesses slowed us down on the way here. Nothing to worry about.”
Aengus’s laugh boomed as he led us inside. “Are a few more undead properly taken care of now?”
“A dozen of them.” Lir reached for Birch’s hand to lead her through the worship center with its altar to Aengus’s apartment in the back, but she pulled away from him. He grimaced but let it go. Afric looked up when he gave a quick knock and stepped through the door into their sitting room.
“Welcome!” She flew to hug him, narrowing her eyes to study him. “You look much better.”
Aengus threw an arm around Lir’s shoulders and led him to a dark, heavy cabinet with carvings covering both doors. Throwing it open, he revealed rows of liquor bottles inside. “Chouchen?” he asked.
Lir nodded, but the rest of us passed. Trying to be inconspicuous, I glanced through the open doorway to the kitchen. Afric caught me and chuckled. “I thought we’d have Aengus’s favorite stew for supper, Cornish beef ‘n beer, and skip the entrail reading. I did that earlier, and the only thing I learned was that the priest is amassing more followers a few hours west of Muddy River.”
Lir nodded. That’s what he’d told me when he saw the birds fly over my house. I heaved a sigh of relief. Afric had already read the entrails. Thank Hecate. I didn’t want to eat whatever animal they chose to study. Hypocritical, I knew, but I’d rather buy anonymous meat that I’d never met at Faiza’s grocery.
Afric motioned us into her kitchen.
“We’ll be there in a minute,” Aengus said, pouring chouchen for him and Lir. I followed Afric and couldn’t hide my surprise. I’d never been farther than the large sitting room with its heavy, dark furnishings, but the kitchen was light and airy with modern appliances. Afric looked at me, her brows raised in question.
“Sorry, but the sitting room feels like something I visited before my family came to the New World, so I was expecting you to cook over a fireplace and prep at a big wooden work table.”
She laughed. “If Aengus had his way, that’s what we’d have. But I do the cooking in this house, and I wanted a food processor, a blender, and a stove with gas burners. And some bright colors.”
The chinked logs were painted white, and ceramic roosters adorned counter tops and the top of the side-by-side refrigerator. “This is a happy space,” I said.
She nodded and went to pour us some wine. When Raven and the others joined us, she handed them cold bottles of beer. Then she motioned to a stack of bowls on the countertop. “Serve yourselves.”
The stew smelled heavenly, rich and full-bodied. We’d used magic energy when we fought the priest’s minions, and we were hungrier than usual. We filled our bowls. Round loaves of bread and slabs of butter were on the table. Birch waited to see where Lir sat, then chose to sit next to me. He gave her a long look, then looked away. When Afric joined us, we dug in.
Aengus studied Lir, who was sitting across from him. “Could you stay in the settlement tonight to help get ready for the mistletoe ceremony on Thursday?”
“Of course. I’m your apprentice. It’s our sacred ceremony.” Except for Aengus’s new tradition of picking mistletoe at Yule, the only other time to gather it was at night on the sixth day of the moon.
Aengus glanced down the table at Birch before saying, “You can return to Muddy River on Thursday night to continue healing.”
Lir stopped eating to frown at him. “I’m much better. Really. I battled today with no problem.”
Aengus shook his head. “But surely you’ve made plans for Yule at Muddy River?”
“Hester’s invited me to her house for Yule Eve and Yule dinner, but we’re so close, I can drive back and forth if you need me.”
Aengus ripped off another chunk of bread before answering. “It will be good for you to learn how other supernaturals celebrate. There’s no reason you can’t enjoy yourself on Thursday night and Friday. You might as well stay the weekend, too. Afric and I are relaxing then.”
With a nod, Lir returned to his stew, but Birch’s expression turned stony.
We stayed to visit for another hour and a half. Aengus, Afric, Raven, and I laughed and talked, but Lir and Birch were unusually quiet. When it was time to take our leave, Lir stayed behind while Birch rode home with us. The minute she reached our house, she started for her car. “Sorry, but a headache’s been plaguing me. I’m going to go home and try to sleep it off.”
With a nod, I watched her go. Lir had disappointed her tonight, and she’d shut herself off.
Raven sensed my mood and wrapped an arm around my waist. “There’s no reason for me to go to the office tomorrow. Brown, Oren, and I decided we need to work at our computers to see if any mortals are disappearing west of here.”
“Mm-hmm.” I only half-listened. The moon was waning, only a sliver in the sky. The dark of the moon is a good time for new beginnings. It would be a perfect time for Lir and Birch to start a new life together in Muddy River. But had I misjudged them? Did Lir simply enjoy baiting Birch while he grew stronger?
Raven put his thumb under my chin and tipped my face to his. “It will happen. They’re right for each other. But for now, before all the festivities get started, I wouldn’t mind enjoying our own love and harmony upstairs.”
I stared, and a slow smile tilted my lips. There were many things in life I couldn’t control, but I could always enjoy my mate. We started up the steps to our bedroom together.