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TATTOOS AND PORTENTS–18

The voodoo priest is testing what works and doesn’t to battle Raven and Hester.  Lir, the young Druid, helps them win another skirmish:

Chapter 18

Druid's Stonehedge

 

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.

Mystery Musings

I finished Mae Clair’s last book in her Hode’s Hill series, EVENTIDE.  I loved the entire series.  In each book, she combined a mystery from the past with a mystery in the present, AND she wove paranormal elements in with mystery elements.  I’m a sucker for that combination.  In EVENTIDE, though, she upped the ante since it was the last book.  And as I was innocently reading along, enjoying the ghosts involved in the past mystery and wondering how they’d come into play in the present day story, all of a sudden, I was in the basement watching Madison’s love interest unfasten huge bolts from a cistern to see what was inside it.

You know those scenes in horror movies when you yell at the movie screen, “Don’t go in the basement!”???  That’s what I was doing with this book.  “Don’t open the cistern!”  But do the characters ever listen to you, the wise audience who’ve seen this before?  No!  So, they wrestled the lid off the cistern and a dark, evil spirit flew out of it and escaped.  And that’s when the tone of this book changed and got LOTS creepier than the first two books in the series, and… it worked.

Lots of mysteries build tension the longer the hero/heroine searches for the killer.  That’s always a good sign.  But in this book, the minute the THING escapes the cistern, the tension ratchets to a new level.  It never tips the scale into horror, but it comes VERY close.  And since I don’t read scary books that often, I learned a thing or two.

Number one:  The first kill had better be memorable.  And it was.  Poor Doug, he didn’t deserve what happened to him.

Number two:  Near misses build more fear than an actual dead victim.  First, because Mae Clair, being an evil author who knows her stuff, made us LIKE the poor overworked waitress at a favorite bar.  We’d watched her work her fanny off trying to please customers who wanted their drinks NOW and didn’t care that someone had called in sick and she was trying to cover two sets of tables.  We sympathized with her when she left the bar later than usual and had to walk to the parking garage alone to get her car.  And we DIDN’T WANT HER TO DIE.  So, when all of the lights went off in the garage and the horrible smell that made her gag hit her, we held our breaths and reached for our blankies.  I won’t say what happened–I don’t want to give anything away–but don’t carry a flashlight to save anyone in a parking garage.  It’s not pretty.

Number three:  Plain, old, ordinary humans can be as scary as any monster when they’re a little off kilter.  Yes, ghosts can be scary, but some ghosts can be good.  Yes, an evil dark presence is ALWAYS scary, and it’s a good thing someone knows how to kill it.  But yes, a person obsessed can make me reach for my blankie, too.  He SCARED me.

Number 4:  The final battle with the big, bad evil had better be memorable.  I’d learned this before after reading too many of Ilona Andrews’s urban fantasies.  But it held true here, too.  When Dante grabbed a flashlight and a butcher knife to step out into the dark to confront the dark evil with a stench from hell, this was a make it or break it moment, and if he didn’t win, he’d be dead.  I have to admit, only because I’ve read way too many urban fantasies, I wanted this moment to be bigger than it was, but it was plenty big for a mystery/thriller.  And I really wanted this particular monster to DIE.

Number 5:  A final twist is a pleasant surprise.  At the end of the book, after warring ghosts and the monster, Mae Clair pulled off a wonderful surprise.  And after everything dark that had happened in this book, I finished the final page and smiled.

All in all, I finished the book satisfied.  It had delivered on so many different levels.  And these are the kinds of books I like to think about and dissect, because I can learn from them.  I might not ever use what I learn in my own writing.  I can admire someone but never write like them.  But that said, they still make think about the CRAFT of writing, and that’s a good thing.

Macro vs. Micro Thinking

I’ve mentioned C.S. Boyack before on my blog, and we both ended up writing about HOW we write this week. Ironic, huh? It fascinates me to hear how other writers work, so thought you might enjoy this, too.

Story Empire

Hi Gang. Craig here, and you get me twice this week.

I was on vacation when I wrote this post. It will go live shortly after I return to my paycheck job. I’d just put in a decent day of writing (2000 words) when the topic came to me.

My way of writing a book isn’t for everyone, but I share here because it might work for some of you. I’ve detailed my storyboard way of outlining to death at Story Empire, but there really is more to it.

Storyboarding is the macro thought process. It involves the big turning points of my story, then breaks down into smaller accomplishments my heroes have to make to stick the landing.

I have index cards for each section, but those usually have one goal along the path. Everything else that happens I come up with while free writing. This is the micro…

View original post 659 more words

Mystery Musings

I’ve been trying to think of something new for my blog.  Some of my online friends have a different theme for their blogs for certain days, like Tarot Tuesday or Folklore Thursday.  I liked the idea but couldn’t think of anything until I threw ideas around with HH this morning.  He’s really good at goading me until I think of something.  A mixed blessing.  But this morning, it worked.  I’ve decided to try to write Mystery Musings for every Tuesday, which means I’ll probably be writing it on Monday night.  The title gives me a lot of leeway, since I can rattle on about books, TV shows, or movies, even newspaper headlines that interest me.

For today, I chose to write about Jenna Bennett’s Savannah Martin series.  I just finished reading the 18th book in the series.  And Savannah and Rafe have lost none of their charm for me.  I’ll be the first to admit that I never would have expected to enjoy this series so much.  Savannah is the type of heroine, if done in the usual manner, who would annoy me.  She’s an attractive blond Southern belle who married a rich businessman like every southern belle was taught to do and who tried to always look good, never gain weight, and always be a lady.  She eats more salads than most herbivores.  But her marriage went bust.  Her husband played around and dumped her for the other woman.  In comes Rafe, the bad boy of Sweetwater who got thrown in prison after a brutal bar fight and ended up working undercover and eventually going into law enforcement.  Did I mention he’s sexy hot?  And he wants Savannah.  Their chemistry worked in book one, and even after they get married and have a baby, it worked in book 18.  All the action is off-camera, but we know they sizzle.  Throw in a dead body, and it all works.  Maybe because Rafe is the voice of experience and reason, and Savannah is . . . Savannah.  She leaps before she thinks.  She shows lots more enthusiasm than finesse.

One of the big reasons I wanted to mention this series, though, is because Savannah Martin is a pretty blonde and so was Rafe’s mother, but his father was black.  I’ve wanted to write about a white heroine and a black love interest in a mystery for a while, but I was always afraid I’d get it wrong.  My daughter is a pretty blonde who lived with a wonderful chef for quite a few years, who happened to be black.  And that was just never an issue.  I talked to one of my good writer friends about how nervous it made me to put it in my book, and she shook her head.  “They’re just people,” she said.  “Just make them real.”  So that’s what I tried to do.  I decided not to make it an issue in my books either.  It just is.

I still have a way to go to finish NEW FRIENDS, OLD HABITS, and I’m not sure if I can find a publisher since I originally intended to self-publish it and plotted it shorter than usual.  A lot of publishers want 70,000 words for a mystery, and this one won’t stretch that far.  But whatever I do with it, I’m glad I wrote it.  And if you decide to take a chance and read a Savannah Martin mystery, I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

 

 

 

TATTOOS AND PORTENTS–17

Chapter 17

Brie   (Birch)

I slept in. There was no school this week. Raven still drove into town to work with Brown at his office, and both men were going to show the two guest witches the houses that remained empty. Since the two women would be with us a while, I’d asked their names. I didn’t want to keep calling them Drago’s witch and the third witch. The powerful witch was Astra and the younger witch, Lucia. Well, young in witch years. She was a century old.

Yule Eve was Thursday, and I’d already made most of the cookies I’d serve, so I was working on batches of cashew brittle when Aengus called. He and Afric were driving into Muddy River later in the day to check on Lir and make plans for when he was strong enough to return home. We’d met at Derek’s bar enough, so I invited them to have supper at our house.

“I’ll invite Lir and Birch, too,” I told him.

“Perfect.” We set up a time. When Aengus disconnected the call, I finished the brittle, then looked in the refrigerator. It was packed with food for Yule, but nothing for a quick supper tonight. I headed for my winter coat. “Claws! I’m driving into town. Want to come?”

My ocelot could stay home if he wanted to. No enemies could enter Muddy River, so he didn’t have to accompany me, but he enjoyed seeing other familiars as much as I enjoyed seeing my friends. He ran from the living room and jumped into my SUV. It was a short drive to Main Street, and I stopped at Birch’s boutique first. Claws saw two cats waiting patiently for their witches in front of Syn’s lingerie shop and went to join them. I gave him a quick wave.

“I won’t be long.”

Birch looked up when I entered the boutique and smiled. “What brings you here? Do you need a new outfit for Yule Eve?”

I grimaced. I probably did, but that would have to wait. I heard footsteps coming down from the storage area upstairs, and Lir came to greet us. He was carrying a stack of dresses draped over his arm. He laid them on the counter near Birch, then walked to a stool behind the counter and sat down.

Birch frowned at him. “You’re overdoing again.”

He grinned, and mischief sparkled in his green eyes. “I need to earn my keep.”

“That’s silly, and you know it.” But her tone was indulgent.

I smiled, listening to the two. They’d been good for each other. “I actually came to invite you for supper tonight.” I explained about Aengus and Afric coming. When I mentioned that Aengus wanted to talk about when and how to bring Lir home, Birch’s happy glow faded.

“He misses me.” Lir sounded smug.

“He’s awfully fond of you.” I’d noticed how many times the Druid priest had invited his young friend to his home when I stopped for visits.

Lir grew serious. “Our big festivities are coming up. It’s a sacred time for our settlement. He knows I’ll want to be there for them. I’m strong enough to travel now.”

“You tire quickly and easily,” Birch reminded him. “And I’m still making you drink Hester’s potion four times a day.”

His lips curled as she lectured him. “Yes, Mother.”

She shot him a look. Her eyes were green like his, but an unusual moss green. She wore her fine, white-blond hair in a loose bun. “You don’t take your illness seriously enough.”

He raised his palms in surrender. “If Hester is kind enough to give me more, I can take it with me and drink it at home.”

Birch heaved a sigh. “If you remember.”

Laughing, Lir placed a hand over his heart. “I pledge, I’ll set an alarm clock.”

Birch still wasn’t happy, so I decided to bypass the question. “Can you both make it for supper at my house?”

They nodded in unison, Lir eager to come, Birch looking resigned. My witch didn’t like the idea of not seeing the copper-haired Druid. I started to the door. “I’ll see you at six then.”

Claws was running to join me when Raven’s Lamborghini pulled to the curb. He rolled down his passenger window to ask, “What are you doing in town?”

“Aengus and Afric are driving here tonight, so I invited them to supper. I just asked Birch and Lir to come, too. Now I’m going to Faiza’s store to find something to cook for them.”

“Then I’m in luck. Brown and I got both witches settled, and there’s nothing else we have to do today. I can come with you.”

“Good, I’m tired of getting dirty looks from Faiza for coming without you. The girl needs her eye candy fix.”

“I should have worn a snugger shirt then.” Raven motioned for me to hop into his car and waited for Claws to settle on the backseat. Then he drove to the grocery store Faiza and her parents owned. Someday, and it couldn’t happen soon enough, the young Fae would find a mate. Until then, she fantasized about my demon. I considered buying her a drool bib once, but thought that might be too snarky.

When we walked through the door, she looked up and lit up like a Chinese lantern. “Welcome, enforcer.”

I grimaced. She didn’t even bother to greet me.

Raven smiled at her. “How’s it going, Fae girl?”

She swelled with happiness that he had a personal nickname for her. “I’m fine. Hester has enough potions and spells to protect you from the undead and voodoo, doesn’t she?”

I rolled my eyes. I obviously only existed to keep Raven safe.

He put a hand under my elbow to steer me deeper into the store. “She takes good care of me,” he told her. “I’m a lucky man.”

She darted me a look but didn’t comment as Raven took a shopping cart and we wandered to the back of the store. “Do you have something in mind for tonight?” he asked.

“Aengus has a fondness for salmon and queenies.”

“Queenies?”

“Scallops with bacon and onions, white wine and lemon.”

“Works for me. And the salmon?”

“You add it to the pan with scallops, add a little heavy cream, then shredded Cheddar to make a sauce.”

Raven raised his dark brows. “Our Druid has expensive tastes.”

I shook my head. “He’s pretty fond of Cornish pasties, too, but they’re more work.”

“Does he have a favorite dessert?”

“He’s getting whatever my demon chooses from Noira and Sugi’s shop.”

His tawny eyes gleamed. “Then he wants an apple pie.”

“He’s probably yearning for one. And ale. We have to have ale.”

Half an hour later, loaded with everything we needed, Raven drove me to my SUV, and I followed him home. Or at least, I tried to follow him. There’s no way I’d keep up with his speed on Banks Road. An hour later, our friends walked into our kitchen, and we all sat down to enjoy our meal.

When I placed the huge platter of scallops and queenies on the table, Aengus stood and crunched me in a hug. Crunched is the right word. The man was so big, I didn’t know if I’d survive his show of affection.

“You remembered,” he said.

“I remember how many you can eat, too. We have plenty of them.”

We made small talk while we ate. Somehow, we got on the subject of Druid and witches’ gardens. Birch listened to what Aengus’s settlement grew, wide-eyed and interested. “I’d like to add some of your plants to the garden in my backyard,” she said.

Lir chuckled. “You call that a garden? Most mortals grow more than you do.”

She stared at him. “What does that mean?”

“You have herbs and vegetables, but nothing to make spells and potions. You’re going to lead a new coven. You need to teach them what to dry and mix while they chant. I could help you plant what you need.”

“Is that so?” She lifted her chin. “I hate to tell you, but you’re not a witch.”

He nodded toward me. “Ask Hester. Druids and witches grow a lot of the same things, but don’t worry. You’ll learn what you need eventually.”

“Hester taught us all of those things in witches’ school.”

“But have you practiced them?”

She frowned. “I know them. I just haven’t done it yet.”

He shrugged. “You’ll learn.”

She stared at him. “Are you trying to aggravate me?”

“Why would I do that?” He tried to look innocent but failed.

Aengus watched them both closely, then caught my gaze. He smiled, amused. They were pretty entertaining.

“Okay, Mr. Know It All, you might know gardens, but have you ever run a business before?”

He smirked. “I help run the Druid export business at our settlement.”

“Then why were you asking so many questions in my store?”

“I don’t know the first thing about fashion.”

She looked him up and down. “I can tell.”

I bit my lip to keep from laughing, but her comment didn’t deter Lir at all.

“No girl has turned me down because she doesn’t like my jeans and T-shirts.” He was lanky and luscious and knew it.

Aengus cocked a brow at him. “No girl has turned you down, but not one of them has caught your interest either. Maybe you’re too picky.”

Lir wrinkled his nose in distaste. “I’ve known every single one of them too long.”

Aengus shrugged. “Maybe you’ll stay a bachelor then, but for now, Muddy River’s been so kind to you and to us that we should return the favor. Why don’t the four of you drive to our house for supper tomorrow night? I don’t think Birch knows much about us. Some Celtic practices are frowned on these days, but Afric’s especially good at reading entrails to find answers to difficult questions.”

Entrails. I didn’t know exactly what to say, but Raven nodded. Birch looked surprised and looked to me for guidance. I smiled. “We’d love to come. Our communities are close, not only in proximity but in practices. We’ll pick up Birch and Lir on our way.”

Birch worded her question carefully. “Should Hester bring extra healing potion so that Lir can take it at home four times a day like he does here?”

Aengus studied him and shook his head. “My young apprentice has a brilliant mind, but he’s careless about his own health. I’d feel better if you watched after him a while longer.”

I stared at my friend in surprise. Lir was healthy enough to return home, so why was Aengus having him stay? I glanced at Afric, expecting her to contradict her husband, but she looked pleased. I was missing something, and I glanced at Raven, confused.

My fire demon’s amber eyes gleamed with amusement. He understood whatever was going on. I’d ask him about it later.

After we finished the apple pie and coffee, Aengus and Afric rose to leave. Aengus wrapped me another hug. My friend was in an especially good mood tonight. Birch and Lir followed them out to their vehicles and when they drove away, I turned to Raven.

“Why did Aengus almost demand Lir stay in Muddy River longer?”

He ruffled my hair. “Your friend is even more devious than I thought. Lir obviously isn’t interested in any Druid girls in their settlement. If he wants to mate, he’d have to look elsewhere. And who’s closer to Aengus than we are?

I couldn’t hide my surprise. “He’s trying to set Lir up with Birch.”

Raven shrugged. “If they mated, Lir could live here and still drive to the Druid settlement every morning to work with Aengus on exports. Lots better than if he moved to Drago’s territory to find a mate.”

Smiling, I leaned into Raven. “I like it. They’re good with each other, don’t you think?”

Raven’s chuckle rumbled in my ear. “Birch will never get bored, that’s for sure.”

I pursed my lips, trying to decide if that was a good thing. And then I realized that since I’d mated with Raven, I hadn’t had one boring moment either. That had its pros and cons, but mostly, I wouldn’t change it for anything.

TATTOOS AND PORTENTS — 16

When Hester and Raven get back to Muddy River, they stop at Derek’s bar to regroup.

bartender

Chapter 16

Our vehicles got really crowded. Drago’s witch rode back to Muddy River with Raven and me, Brown and Meda. We dropped off Oren on our way. Laurel and Flint and the third witch we’d freed rode back with Boaz and Cein. The first thing we did when we reached home was stop at Derek’s bar.

“The three witches need food and fast,” I told Speedy when he stuck his head out of the kitchen to check on us.

“And you?” he asked.

“Burgers for everyone,” Raven said. That made everything simpler…and quicker.

Boaz had called Melodia on the way, and she and Lust walked into the bar a few minutes after we did. I’d called Birch, so she and Lir were there, too, seated with Aengus and Afric. Someone had let Festus know, because he and Wanda were sitting at their favorite table. Gray and Syn were with them to check on Brown and Meda. Gray might have taken off when Brown was young so that mortals wouldn’t suspect either of them were shifters, but he sure liked keeping track of his son now.

“Eat first, tell us what happened second,” Derek ordered. He’d looked at the witches, who were barely hanging in there, and knew they needed energy. When their food came, they practically attacked it. Speedy watched them and went to make more. By the time they finished their burgers and fries, he slid another plate in front of them. When we finally ate our last bites and Derek replenished our drinks, Aengus said, “Can you talk now?”

I nodded to Raven, and he told them, step by step, everything that had happened.

Afric gulped down the rest of her ale. “I wish I knew some way to control spirits. They ran to Buthay while you fought and gave him plenty of time to disappear before you reached his camp.”

That was the thing about voodoo spirits. They could travel fast. I looked at Festus, Boaz, Cein, and Lir. “Do you still have your tattoos?”

They rolled up their sleeves, and Festus stood up to cheer. “It’s gone!”

Laurel winced. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to harm you. I didn’t know any other way to call for help.”

Cein immediately said, “You had to do the only thing you could. We all understand that.”

Festus nodded agreement. “I didn’t mean anything, girl, but I can’t pretend I’ll miss it.”

She smiled, looking stronger already after having a meal.

“Where did you learn Celtic tattoos?” Lir asked, rubbing his arm where the tattoo had been. Faiza came into the bar and sat next to him. She leaned to see his bare skin and grinned. Birch glanced at her and frowned.

Interesting. Like the witches, Lir looked better but still weak.

Laurel studied him. “Are you the one Buthay cursed?”

“Yes, but Hester made a potion for me, and Birch is fussing over me every day. I’m starting to feel better.” His gaze went to Birch, and his green eyes glittered with amusement. He was teasing her, and she flushed. She liked it. Our young witch had better be careful. Lir was clever and playful. He loved to keep people off kilter.

Aengus gave Laurel a gentle smile. “Your tattoos aren’t used often these days. They’re from the old Celt ways. Was someone in your family a Celt?”

“My grandmother was full Fae and married a Celt. I’m half witch, half Fae.”

“That explains it then. It’s a pleasure meeting someone who still knows the old ways.”

Raven returned to the problem of the voodoo priest. “He escaped with three barracks full of Undead and four dark witches.”

“Maybe he’ll decide it’s too dangerous here,” Festus said, sounding hopeful. “Maybe he’ll run as far from us as he can.”

“It won’t be far enough,” Raven finished his beer. “I still want to stop him. Either that, or he’ll kill more mortals. We can’t let that happen.”

Meda yawned. She tried to cover it, but Brown saw her. “Tired?” he asked.

“It’s been a long ordeal.” My fellow witch hadn’t skirted any responsibility, but then, no one in my coven did. “I’m ready to sleep in our own bed.”

Raven nodded and turned to the three witches. “Flint’s staying in my old apartment in town. Laurel can stay with him, if she wants to. If you’d like to stay at our house, you’re welcome. You can call for someone to come to get you in the morning.”

“I don’t want to leave.” Drago’s witch squared her shoulders and straightened her spine. “Not until you find Buthay. I want to help you hunt him and kill him.”

Funny, everyone who met him felt that way.

“Me, too,” the third witch told us. She looked at Flint. “Do you have a couch we can sleep on? Anything’s better than the cots Buthay put in our cells.”

“We have a few more empty houses,” Meda said. “We can help you move into one tomorrow. I’m sure we can round up enough beds.”

Plans made, we went our separate ways. We were all tired. All I wanted to do was crawl under our covers and sleep. It was so late when we got back, Claws curled in front of the fireplace and purred, happy to be home. Raven stopped in the kitchen, though, and sniffed the air.

“I smell cookies.”

I laughed, glad my cookie frenzy hadn’t gone unnoticed. My fire demon’s priorities put sweets at the top of his list. Hopefully, I tied with them, but I wasn’t sure.

TATTOOS AND PORTENTS–15

Hester and Raven find the voodoo priest’s settlement.

canstockphoto0699509Chapter 15

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.