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Going Deep

I recently critiqued a manuscript for a friend, then started reading the latest novel of another friend.  It was ironic that they both dealt with life journeys, with taking hard knocks and overcoming them to become the best person you could become.

In my friend’s manuscript, she kept trying to grab happiness but circumstances kept stealing it away from her.  She wrote a good book, even though it was heart wrenching.  C.S. Boyack’s Serang dealt with the same things, but his made the journey more of a quest, an adventure.  Both books made me think.

I always considered myself lucky that I was born wanting and needing goals.  I’m by no means a perfectionist, but I knew I wanted top grades in school, and I wanted to teach elementary kids.  So many of my friends struggled with what they wanted to be “when they grew up,” with finding a sense of direction.  My goals might not have come easily, but I also got lucky that I had loving parents who believed in me.

My friend who wrote the manuscript wasn’t so lucky.  She married to escape her home, and then, after she was pregnant, discovered that her new loving husband already had a wife.  I truly hope her book finds a home someday.  In C.S. Boyack’s novel, Serang’s father died, and her mother couldn’t support her, so dragged her to the nearby temple for the monks to raise.  Serang felt cast-off, betrayed.

A romance writer I knew once said, “When you develop a character, always remember, none of us can escape our families.  They shape who we are.”  And I’ve always kept that in mind.  Both women in the stories had to rise above their circumstances to leave their pasts behind.  The monks helped Serang find her true self.  It took a lot more bumps and bruises before my friend’s protagonist finally rose above her past to find a new tomorrow.  But in her manuscript, the character kept asking, “What brings happiness?”

My daughter asked me that once when she was a teenager.  Not such an easy question to answer.  I tried with, “Finding a purpose in life.”  “But how do you do that?” she asked.  “Find what’s important to you, what brings you fulfillment.”  But that’s not really an answer either, is it, when you’re adrift?  I finally said, “I don’t honestly have a for sure answer.  But I know this.  You can’t say ‘I want to be happy’ and make it happen.  And you can’t count on other people to make you happy.  They can’t.  They can comfort you, love you, and be there for you, but they can’t give you happiness.  I’m a bit of a grump, and the more I tried to make myself happy, the less happy I became.  But when I looked  outside of myself, at other people, other things, I stopped worrying about it.  But everything in life is balance, and being a martyr or door mat doesn’t make you happy either.”  And somehow, eventually, she found her balance, and she found what made her happy.

In both books I read, the protagonists found happiness by achieving hard won goals.  But for each person, those goals are different, what’s meaningful is different.  We all have our own life lessons that we need to overcome, our own hardships.  I’m no philosopher, but I enjoy finding books that make me think while following someone else’s journey.  Serang had a wonderful humor that made the lessons entertaining and fun.  My friend’s manuscript pulled me in so deep, I didn’t want to give up on her protagonist, even though I was sure she was going to hit bottom.

I was on a writing panel recently where an author stated that cozy mysteries lately didn’t get much respect.  Let’s face it.  Comediennes hardly ever get nominated for Oscars.  But I enjoy fluffy books as much as I do serious ones.  They both have their own truths.  So for this week, whatever you’re writing or reading, I not only wish you happy writing, but I also wish you happy reading!

Tattoos and Portents–5

Raven and Hester finish their Christmas decorations, then visit the voodoo village in Kentucky.

Christmas table at Hester's

 

Chapter 5

All of the main rooms of the house were filled with Yule cheer by Saturday night. We even set the long dining room table with our best dishes and lots of greenery and candles. Working together, we’d managed to sneak in baking a few batches of cookies to freeze on Saturday afternoon. A good thing, because we were leaving Muddy River early on Sunday to drive to the voodoo village. There’d be no time for anything else.

Meda and Brown arrived at our house at eight in the morning, and we piled into my SUV for the trip. I sat in the backseat with Meda, and Claws sprawled between us. Brown rode shotgun to talk shop with Raven.

“Is your Lamborghini stored in the garage for the winter?” he asked.

“I can drive it in town,” Raven told him. “The witches keep the roads clean enough, but it’s not easy to handle on snow. The road that follows and crosses the river will only be cleared in a few places.”

We didn’t run out of things to talk about as we passed the snowy fields that led to Muddy River’s cemetery and after that, the Druid village. Then the fields stretched even longer, and the river bank wove closer and then farther away from the road. Towns dotted up occasionally but not often. We were still enjoying ourselves when Raven slowed to cross the Ohio River into Kentucky.

Before long, we found ourselves in Raven’s friend, Drago’s, territory. We didn’t stop to visit him, though. We continued on to the voodoo village. This time of year, the road that led to the hollow with its swamp in the center looked even more dramatic. The bare trees that lined the narrow lane arched overhead, their dark, twisty branches intertwining to form a web-like canopy. When we passed the last ones, we could see the houses in the distance.

Every house had gray shingles instead of clapboards and weathered, gray shingle roofs. And every door was black. The entire community blended with the gray skies overhead. The graveyard sat at the far side of the swamp with its brick church painted black and its bloodred trim and doors. I shivered at the thought of entering that building. The cemetery was even more intimidating with its altar clearly visible in the snow.

Raven and I had visited that altar with Jamila once when we took Marie’s body back to her aunt. The voodoo women had circled it as Raven laid Marie on top of it and the women threw flower petals over her. Then they’d chanted, and Marie’s spirit had lifted from her drained flesh and sped to the open grave they’d dug for her. She’d chosen to remain at the village, available whenever the women called for her. The memory still made goose bumps rise on my arms.

Raven drove straight to Jamila’s house, and we trudged up the snowy walk to her front door. Jamila opened it wide before we reached her house and ushered us inside. Claws hesitated before gluing himself to my side. Voodoo spooked him. A low growl rumbled in his throat at an altar that was the central focus of her living room, candles burning brightly on it. It was in stark contrast to the inside of the house, as bright as the outside was plain. The walls were canary yellow, and vivid masks decorated them. Her couch was cherry red, the easy chairs forest green.

“What brings you fine folk here on such a beautiful day?”

I wasn’t sure if she was being facetious or if she enjoyed the December gloom. As we sat, Claws curled at my feet, never taking his attention off Jamila. He stared at her, muscles tense, ready to spring. Raven motioned for me to explain our visit. I told her about the tattoos and dreams, the undead we’d seen in Festus’s vision.

After hearing my story, Jamila mumbled words under her breath and touched her fingers to the pouches she wore around her neck. I’d filled one pouch with witch herbs and spells for her, and she’d made pouches of voodoo magic for us. All of us wore both on our leather cords at all times. Then she said, “Good voodoo practitioners only work with spirits who want to dwell with us and communicate with us, like Marie.”

As she spoke, a whirl of energy circled the room, and Marie’s filmy spirit appeared before us. Claws swiped his paw, nails out, at her, and the mists swirled and reformed. She smiled, happy to see us. I, like Claws, still had trouble spending time with her since she was dead. Except she wasn’t. Her body was dead. Her essence was still very much alive. I had to keep reminding myself of that.

Jamila glanced at her as though hanging out with a spirit was an everyday occurrence. And maybe it was. “You got news for us, baby?” When Marie shook her head, Jamila chuckled. “She just came to say hi to good friends.”

Raven nodded toward her. “We’re happy to see you, too. It looks like the afterlife is agreeing with you.”

Marie’s spirit glowed for a moment and then returned to its usual wispy state.

Jamila pushed a strand of gray hair that had escaped from her turban back from her forehead and smoothed her long, flowing skirt, then grew serious. “You didn’t come here to catch up on our latest news. You came for answers. I wish I had more of them for you, but I can tell you this, only dark voodoo raises the dead.”

Raven leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “How do we fight the undead? I’ve never battled one before.”

“If you shoot or stab it, it makes no difference. You have to blast it to smithereens with your magic so that parts fly, burn it, or behead it. Then it turns true dead.”

I looked between Marie and Jamila. “Do either of you know who’s behind all of this?”

They both shook their heads. “An unknown spirit came to our village a few weeks ago, though, to spy on us,” Jamila said. “It couldn’t get past your wards, Hester, and once we spotted it, we drove it away.”

“What did it want?” I asked.

Jamila’s laugh sent shivers down my spine. “I’m sure its master would like to control us, but the wards you put around our village wouldn’t let the spy pass. It sped toward one of the women here on her way home, and your pouch held it at bay. Your wards have exploded and sparked for a few nights now, but they’ve held. There’s no way past them, is there?”

I shook my head. “Not unless the voodoo master’s magic is stronger than mine, and it doesn’t sound like it is.”

Jamila smiled. “I didn’t think so. And I’d guess you’re dealing with a priest, not a priestess. Men like to control women if they can.”

“Not in my experience.”

She laughed. “That’s only because they can’t.”

“True. Most witch magic passes to female children. Males only receive their mother’s full power if no daughter is born.” I glanced out the front window at the women, bundled in heavy coats, standing on their front porches, watching Jamila’s house since we were visiting it. “Can you and your women protect yourselves against the undead?”

She winked at me and reached under her long skirt. A long, curved knife was strapped to her thigh. “The undead are slow. One swipe of this, and a head will be gone. We’re all carrying them for now, but we’re not planning on leaving your wards until it’s safer.”

“Can the priest’s magic hurt you?”

“I don’t know. He must be strong, maybe stronger than I am.” She pulled out the pouches that dangled from her leather cord. “I hope you and yours are still wearing yours.”

I pulled mine to show her. So did Meda and Brown. She gave a nod, reassured.

“Like I said, I wish we could help you more,” she told us.

Raven stood, ready to take our leave. “Is there anything else we can do to help you?”

Jamila grinned, looking him up and down. “If I had my women line up, you could mate with them to make wonderful baby girls for us. With your magic making ours stronger, no voodoo priest would dare mess with us.”

Raven glowered, and I laughed. “I don’t rent him out,” I told her. “He’s all mine.”

“Don’t blame you a bit, but it never hurts to ask.” She licked her lips, and Raven’s frown deepened. He started to the door.

Claws hurried to the SUV, anxious to leave. Meda was chuckling as we walked along side him. “They might have had more luck if they’d offered that to Brown.”

Her mate grimaced in distaste. “Shifters mate for life. No fooling around. What about witches?”

Meda’s cornflower blue eyes twinkled. “Not all of us are known for fidelity, but our coven’s sworn to it.”

“Good.” He grunted. “’Cause I’m not sharing. Bloodshed would be involved.”

”Exactly why we decided to be faithful,” I said, sliding into the back of the SUV with Meda and Claws.

As we drove away, Raven said, “I’ve had to deal with a lot of trouble because husbands and wives stray. Look at Drago. His wife fooled around and meant to steal his power, so I had to destroy her.”

Meda sat forward, leaning between Raven and Brown in the front seat. “Someone cheated on Drago? What more did she want?” Like all demons, the man was absolutely delicious. Not as tempting as my Raven, but tempting enough.

“She wanted power, and lots of it,” Raven said.

I’d forgotten about that. Drago made no bones about being a one-woman man, but when that woman aged, he left her for another one. Marie had replaced the wife Raven destroyed. And when Marie died, he’d immediately replaced her with another young voodoo girl, Spyrit. But the wife who’d betrayed him had been a succubus. She’d never age. He’d have stayed with her until tragedy took one of them.

“It wouldn’t hurt to stop at my friend’s house and tell him what’s happening,” Raven said as we sped along a country road. My demon didn’t know how to drive slow. Snow and slush splashed behind us. “He’s close enough to the Ohio River and the town Festus visited that he might have problems, too.”

Drago’s house was only fifteen minutes out of our way, so there was no reason not to stop. Since he wasn’t expecting us, we had to pound on his door and wait before he answered it. Claws left us, running toward the trees in the distance. He’d been in the SUV long enough, he was restless. Drago’s shirt was still partially open, and Spyrit’s hair was mussed. No doubt what they’d been doing. Both of them grinned when they saw us.

“My long-lost friends,” Drago teased, opening the door wider to invite us inside. His sandy-colored hair hung loose instead of being pulled back in its usual ponytail. He still looked more artsy than dangerous, but I knew better. I’d battled alongside him. “What brings you here?”

We sat in his spacious living room. His sprawling ranch-style house had an open concept with plenty of room to entertain, which he rarely did. Spyrit sat on the overstuffed white couch beside him, beaming. She laid a hand on her stomach.

“I’m pregnant,” she announced. “Jamila’s so happy, she calls once a week to check on me.”

“Congratulations.” I was happy for her. I knew how much she’d wanted a baby.

“Did you come with baby gifts, or are you here on business?” Drago asked.

This time, Raven explained about Festus and the voodoo priest.

When he finished, Drago’s brows furrowed with worry. “A powerful witch from our community has gone missing. She went to her booth at our public market to close it up for the year and never returned.”

We’d closed our market at the end of October and wouldn’t reopen it until early April. It was too far of a drive to bring much business during bad weather.

Raven shook his head. “Then more witches than one’s gone missing. You might want to warn your residents that there’s a voodoo priest who commands an undead and he’s stealing witches.”

“Maybe more than one undead,” Brown added. “All we know is what we saw in the vision.”

Drago’s shape blurred for a minute, but he took a deep breath to calm himself and decided not to shift. “I can deal with any undead. If I shift to my dragon shape, I’ll burn however many come. But I’ll spread the word so that the shifters and witches who live here will know what to expect and how to defend themselves.”

“Remind them that if spirits swarm them, they can do no harm,” I said.

“I’ll remind them that you helped us ward our entire community. If they stay inside our borders, they’re safe.”

Meda nodded. “Precaution is the wisest action right now.”

Raven glanced out the large picture window at Drago’s front lawn. Shadows lengthened across it. “It’s getting late. Hester teaches tomorrow. We should go, but congratulations again. And be safe.”

“Thanks for the warning.” Drago walked us to the door, then closed it after us. He didn’t like long goodbyes.

Claws raced to join us as we loaded into the SUV.

On the drive home, Raven said, “I was hoping to learn more, but I think the trip was worth it.”

Brown nodded. “We know this isn’t an isolated incident. He’s taken at least two witches, maybe more.”

“But why?” Meda twirled a strand of her wavy, blond hair around her finger—a habit of hers when she was thinking.

“That’s the big question, isn’t it?” Raven asked. “What is the priest after?”

************************************************************************

Book Cover Reveal

I’m so excited!  I finally get to share the book cover for Jazzi Zanders #4, coming out March 17, 2020.  I know.  Forever away.  But Kensington sent me the cover a while ago, and I couldn’t share it until it went up on dru’s book musings.  I love it when Dru hosts me.  She’s so supportive of mystery writers.  But today’s the day!  And now I can share the cover on my own sites.  Hope you love it as much as I do.  Tammy Seidick’s designed all of my Kensington covers, and I think she’s done a wonderful job.

https://drusbookmusing.com/2019/11/24/cover-reveal-jazzi-zanders-4/?unapproved=87750&moderation-hash=0391adf73a2cda700826dcb6866f71ba#comment-87750

TheBodyInTheApartment_ COVER

P.S.  It took me forever to notice the cute little skull for the “o” on the welcome mat.  Love it!

Tattoos and Portents–4

Chapter 4

Hester and Raven's Christmas tree

A witch I’d never seen before—and I know almost everyone in Muddy River—met me at my school’s door the next morning. I could feel her magic, and it was fairly strong.

She looked nervous. “We just moved to Muddy River. I’m half witch, and my husband’s half warlock. Our daughter’s ten and has no magical training.” She motioned to a young girl sitting in their nearby car. “We live a little outside of town, near Aurel and Carlotta. He suggested sending Blythe to your school.”

Aurel was a vampire who’d helped us in several battles lately. Raven and I were fond of him and his newly changed wife. In fact, they were two of the people we’d invited to our house for Yule dinner, along with Derek and Prim and others. Aurel and Derek enjoyed sharing stories of being vampires. They both loved celebrating Yule with us.

“Derek and I talked, and we could never go out in the light until we came to Muddy River,” Aurel told me. “Your potion protects vampires from the sun. We spent decades living our lives in darkness. Celebrating the yule log’s warmth and light has special meaning for us, in fact, for every vampire in town.”

If Aurel recommended my school to his new neighbor, there was no way I’d turn her away. I smiled to reassure her. “Blythe will be a little behind everyone else, but we’ll help her catch up. First, though, I need to know what kind of witch she is—earth, air, water, or fire.”

The woman motioned for the girl to join us. She reluctantly got out of the car and came to us. Blythe was average height for her age with the pinched expression of a worrier, clearly self-conscious.

I waved my hand to unlock the school door and motioned them inside, trying another smile to put Blythe at ease. No luck. She glanced at Claws nervously.

“He’s my familiar,” I told her. “He loves my students.”

She stepped a little away from him.

I gave up on niceties and said, “Let’s find out what kind of magic you have. Throw energy at me.”

She blinked. “I don’t know how.”

“No problem. Just raise your palm and try to shoot me. Don’t worry. You won’t hurt me. I can block whatever you throw.”

She raised her arm, aimed her palm at me, and a weak flow of energy fizzled before it reached me. “That’s a start. You’ll get better at it. You’re a fire witch. There are a few others in my classes.”

The girl’s shoulders stooped as she sank into herself.

I tried another tack. I turned to her mother. “By the way, I’m Hester Wand, the high priestess of Muddy River’s coven. My mate is a fire demon, Raven Black, the town’s enforcer. Welcome to Muddy River.” I looked at Blythe to include her in the greeting, and she moved to stand slightly behind her mother.

“We’re happy to be here.” The woman placed a reassuring hand on Blythe’s shoulder. “Thank you. I’m Bronwen, a ceramic artist, and my husband’s Evander, a landscape painter. We hired a graphic artist from Muddy River—Tristan—to create a website for us and another Muddy River resident—Festus—to advertise it for us. That’s how we heard of Muddy River and decided to move here.”

“I’d wondered what brought you. Not many people know of us.” Any more conversation was cut short when the school door opened and students rushed inside. As Asch passed me, I motioned for her to join us. “Asch, we have a new student. She’s a ten-year-old like you.” It would be nice for Asch to have another student her age. I knew she’d felt a bit like the odd girl out with only younger and older students to mingle with. She was tall for her age, so looked older, but inside, she was still a fourth grader. “Blythe’s a little nervous meeting new people at a new school. I thought you could make her feel more at home.”

Asch’s grin widened as she reached for Blythe’s hand. “Come on. I’ll help you get started.”

Blythe hesitated, but Asch gave her a tug, partially dragging her to table.

I hadn’t had time to write the day’s lessons on the board, so said, “This would be a good time for each of you to study your grimoire’s before today’s lessons. I’ll be with you soon.”

Drawers opened, and my little witches reached for the books of spells. Asch motioned for Blythe to sit closer as she showed her the pages of her book.

I turned to Bronwen. “May I ask if there was a reason your family decided to move here now, after the school year started?”

Bronwen’s expression turned serious. “We’d have stayed south of here in Kentucky, but too many bodies started disappearing before they even made it to the grave. Actually, before they even made it to the morgue or funeral home most times. It worried us.”

“Where did you live in Kentucky?” I asked.

When she described the area, I realized it was close to the town where Festus had traveled. A frisson of excitement sizzled through me, but I didn’t have time to dwell on that now. I had a class to teach. I thanked Bronwen for coming and went to the board to write down lessons for each grade group in the room. Even as I wrote, though, I could hardly wait for the day to end. I wanted to share my news with Raven.

As always, when I wanted time to pass quickly, it didn’t. We had a good day, and the students were as excited about the new spells I was teaching as they were about the upcoming holidays, but my mind kept wandering to Bronwen’s news. When the day finally ended, Claws and I walked faster than usual to get home.

Raven looked up from his laptop when we burst into the kitchen. He’d already poured a glass of wine for each of us, and he pushed his work away to hear about my day. When I told him about the new family who’d moved here and why, he frowned. “You mean someone dug the bodies up?”

I shook my head. “That’s not how she made it sound. She said that the bodies disappeared before they made it to the funeral home. No embalming. They died and disappeared.”

Raven leaned back in his chair, rubbing his strong jaw. It had the hint of stubble, and he looked sexier than usual. Frowning, he said, “Brown and I have been working together on this missing girl, but he’s had to spend most of his time on a murder case in one of the mortal towns he’s in charge of. He’ll be happy we’ve made a tiny bit of progress on this.”

“Is he coming with us to the voodoo village on Sunday?”

Raven nodded. “Him and Meda both.”

That made me happy. Meda was in my coven, and I enjoyed spending time with her. We could gossip on the long drive.

Raven grinned at my expression. “She wouldn’t let Brown come without her, said that she’d sit in the backseat with you, and you two could catch up on the way there.” My fire demon had spent decades avoiding close contacts of any kind and was just beginning to appreciate the joys of having strong friendships. It amused him to watch me and my coven get together.

He told me about his day, mollifying residents who were complaining that there should be more holiday decorations in town, before we climbed to the attic to take my Yule decorations out of storage. The third floor of my home was spacious, and I used most of it as a workroom to study magic and perfect new spells and protective pouches. I’d made a study on the first floor for Raven, but he preferred to work at our old wooden kitchen table.

After we dragged all of the boxes downstairs, we started making supper together. Nothing fancy—pork chops and sautéed apples with a salad. Once we ate and cleaned up, we went back to decorating. When we finished, cauldrons, wands, moons, and stars hung from tree branches, and a witch dressed in a black pointed hat and long black dress sat on the fireplace mantle with her legs dangling over the edge, dressed in red and green striped stockings.

We stepped back to study what we’d done.

“I like it,” Raven said.

So did I. The kitchen could wait till tomorrow night. We grabbed our books and settled in the living room to relax. By the time we left to visit the voodoo village on Sunday, the house decorations would be done.

Was This Really a Good Idea?

You know how sometimes, you want more than you can handle?  More than you need?  And you fuss over it and think you can have it all…and you should know better?  Well, I might have done that.

I love writing Jazzi mysteries for Lyrical Press.  And I love writing Muddy River to put up myself, because I have fun writing them.  And that in itself should have pleased me.  Except then, I thought of a straight mystery idea, and I really wanted to write that, too.  So I am.

When I work on Jazzi, it’s the only thing I concentrate on.  I put all of my energy into one book.  But I just sent in my 5th manuscript, and I didn’t have that many revisions, so I finished them, too.  And now, I have a little play time before I need to start the next one.

So I decided to try my hand at something completely different–the straight mystery.  And it’s a challenge, but I like it.  The problem is, I’d already plotted the entire next Muddy River, and that story just kept pestering me.  It wanted written.  So did Old Friends, New Habits.  So I came up with an idea.  For right now, and maybe never again, I start my day by writing a chapter of Muddy River.  I’ve thought and thought about this book, so it’s just getting the words down.  And the story excites me as much as I thought it would.  When it’s lunch time, I put Muddy River away for the day.

HH and I always take our time over lunch, catching up with each other and yakking about anything and everything.  And that clears my mind so that by the time I get back to my computer, I’m ready to start work on a new chapter for the straight mystery.  I shared a chapter of it with you earlier.  I have it all plotted out, too.  (I can’t write without a plot.  For me, it’s like driving across country without a map.  Who knows what route I’d take and where I’d end up).

I’ve been doing this for two weeks now, and so far, I like it.  I don’t think I could do it for long periods of time, but I only plan on trying it between Jazzi books.  Both of the fun books will be shorter than Jazzi’s, so they’ll go faster.  I have no idea if I’ll get them both done at the same time, but I might.  I’m not even certain what I intend to do with Old Friends, New Habits.  But for now, I’ve been writing like a mad woman and enjoying myself quite a bit.  (Don’t look at the dust in my house, though).

I’m hoping that by January 1st, I’ll be ready to start pounding away on The Body in the Beauty Shop (another working title).  House cleaning and decorating for the holidays has to wait for the weekends to get done.  But in January, things slow down, the weather gets cold, and I hibernate.  The perfect time to hunker down to serious work.

Hope words are piling up for you, too, especially if you’re participating in NaNo.  And if you’re not hitting the keys at the moment, hope you’re doing something else fun.  For the rest of us, Happy Writing!

Tattoos and Portents–3

Witches in Muddy River love the Yule time spirit.  Hester and Raven decorate their home to celebrate and to invite her coven over for a Yule Eve get-together.  Unfortunately, as usual, they’re trying to help a kidnapped witch while they hang cauldron, wand, and pointed hat ornaments on their tree:

Chapter 3

It was dark outside, and that always made me feel like it was later in the day, but it was actually only a little after six. Soon, we’d reach the shortest day of the year, and then gradually light would return to our world. In the meantime, we’d don trees and eaves with strands of colored bulbs and light candles to chase away the gloom.

Raven and I headed to the kitchen to start supper. We enjoyed cooking together. He poured us each another glass of wine, then he started slicing onions and peppers while I sliced skinless, boneless chicken thighs to make a quick curry chicken.

Claws padded to the wooden work table to beg for a snack. He wasn’t as fond of hunting along the river banks when snow covered the ground. I tossed him a chicken thigh, and he happily chomped on it. Raven voted on serving the curry with Ramen noodles instead of rice, which made our prep even easier.

“Do you still want to work on putting up Yule decorations?” he asked, as he searched for a bag of frozen stir-fry vegetables in the fridge. This was one of the laziest meals in our repertoire. “We have everything decorated outside the house. You were thinking about starting on the inside tonight.”

“I’d like to put up all the greens and garlands tonight, if we can. Then we can add to them during the week. Once the house is decorated, we’ll starting making as much food ahead as possible for our Christmas Eve get together.”

I invited every witch in my coven, along with their families, to our house for a Yule celebration. That made for a houseful, including their husbands and children. I didn’t make traditional holiday food since they’d have that with their families on Christmas day. So would we. Since neither Raven nor I had families, we invited other friends without any to our house for ham, turkey, and prime rib. They brought side dishes and desserts.

For Yule Eve, we offered party food—shrimp and andouille gumbo dip, sausage Parmesan palmiers, and baked Brie spanakopita, among other things. And I made lots of cookies and candies.

Witches might not celebrate the traditional Christmas story, but white witches value Goodness, Kindness, and generosity of spirit as much as anyone else. And we esteem Nature, so placing a yule log in the fireplace and decorating an evergreen tree are traditions we can appreciate, as well as gift giving to show love and appreciation to one another.

Over supper, Raven and I shared our day’s events. Raven was working a missing person’s case at the moment. A young witch who lived in a nearby mortal town had disappeared. Luckily, Brown, a shifter and deputy sheriff who worked for mortal law enforcement was investigating it. Brown had moved to Muddy River when he mated Meda, one of the witches in my coven.

Raven explained, “The girl’s parents think she ran off with a cat shifter who lives two towns away from them. He disappeared at the same time. The two think they’re in love. His parents didn’t approve of him seeing a witch.”

I rolled my eyes. “His parents must be pure bloods?” There weren’t many of us left. Most supernaturals these days had intermarried, shifters and witches mating with each other or incubi or whatever other species happened to live nearby.

He nodded. “And proud of it. They’d picked out a nice shifter girl they approved of for him.”

I snorted. “Kids don’t put up with arranged marriages these days. At least, most don’t.” I stabbed my last piece of chicken and swiped it through the remaining curry sauce. “Do you think the missing witch could be the young girl in Festus’s dream?”

“It’s possible.” Raven frowned, frustrated. “We haven’t been able to find any kind of trail—no credit cards, food stops, nothing.”

“Did Brown report their car’s license for law officers to watch for?”

Raven nodded, growing more serious. “In the dream, there was an Undead. Witches don’t make those, right?”

I shook my head. “Voodoo rituals deal in spirits and dead bodies.”

“I remember the spirits at Marie’s voodoo village in Kentucky. I know you want to work on decorations this Saturday, but maybe Sunday, when you don’t have to teach, we could drive there and see what Marie’s aunt can tell us.”

“A solid plan. Jamila might be able to help us.” We’d gotten tired of calling the head priestess Marie’s aunt, so finally asked for her name. “I’ll be ready to get out of the house and do something different by then.”

We finished supper and cleaned up after ourselves, then Raven trudged to the trunk of my SUV to drag in the eight-foot pine tree he’d bought in a mortal town. We couldn’t bring ourselves to cut down a live tree, but mortals had no problem killing them to sell.

I filled the stand with a special brew that would keep the tree green and fresh. Then we strung small white lights all over it. Claws kept circling the tree to sniff it. He batted at the bottom string of lights. He might be an ocelot, but he reacted to Christmas decorations much like any cat.

We decided to add the ornaments tomorrow night—the stars and moons, cauldrons and witches’ hats in various colors. We’d need a ladder to place the golden pentagram at the top, much like a star—only for us, the five points represented earth, fire, water, air, and spirit. Then we put candles everywhere in the room. I waved my hand, and they all lit. Raven grinned, tugging me close to his side. “It’s beautiful.”

“Did you ever bother to decorate in your bachelor days?” I asked.

“Not once, but I always had more Christmas goodies than I could eat. I used to walk down streets to give them to the homeless.” When the man was single, women tried to lure him with casseroles and baked goods, besides throwing themselves at him. My demon is stinking hot. Why he chose me, I’ll never understand, but he was happy with his decision. And so was I.

We climbed the steps to our room in a cheerful mood. Moonlight beamed in, and we fell asleep bathed in its silver light.

 

Chapter 2

celtic tattoo(image from Pixabay)

Portents and Tattoos–2:

Festus took a swig of beer before saying, “You know I travel a few times a year for my job.”

I nodded, sipping my wine. “You write ads for small businesses and do online advertising for them, but once in a while, you have to meet with them to keep up to date.” The warlock was a whiz at clever campaigns and images.

“This time, I drove to a town east of here on the river, like we are,” he told us. “I met with the business owner and was ready to start home when I must have blacked out in my car. Thank Hecate I made it that far or I might have crumpled on the street. I don’t know how long I was out, but when I came to, I had the tattoo, and I’ve been having the same nightmare over and over again every night since it appeared.”

Raven scowled and looked my way. “Have you dealt with anything like this before, Hester?”

I shook my head. “Sounds more like Fae magic than ours.” I studied the dark ink, a Celt symbol. “May I touch your tattoo?” I asked Festus.

He rolled up his sleeve again, and I placed my hand on it. “I feel both Fae and witch magic.” Keeping my hand on the tattoo, I cast a spell, and suddenly, an image appeared in the air before us, a scene that played out as a movie.

We were seeing the images through someone else’s eyes. Whose, I couldn’t tell. But we were walking along a river bank, picking leaves and roots to brew for potions. We felt the sun on our backs, but the air was cool. Leaves were changing colors, and some had already fallen to the ground. Autumn. Late October maybe?

We could feel the seer’s thoughts and emotions. Whoever it was, was new to the area, surprised by how many varieties of plants grew there. She almost had her basket full when the sound of movements made her glance up. A swirl of spirits raced toward her and whirled around her like a gray tornado of dead souls. Wisps of faces flashed past her. I’d seen spirits like these before at the voodoo village across the river. I knew the spirits could do no harm, but this girl was frightened. She screamed, dropped her basket, and threw up her hands to defend herself. Then, she heard more movement behind her, but before she could turn, pain exploded in the back of her head and oblivion overtook her.

The scene ended for a moment of blank air, and then we felt her consciousness stir. The next images were fuzzy until her eyes focused better. A horrible headache made me press my hand to the back of my head. She teetered, unsteady, as she rose to look at her surroundings. Bars surrounded her. She was in a cage in what might be a basement. Gray, cement walls and a cement floor were lit by a lightbulb dangling in the center of the room.

She spoke a spell to unlock the cage door, but nothing happened. We felt her surprise and fear. She went to the door and shook it, chanting more spells. None of them worked. Trapped, terror raced through her. Then we heard footsteps coming down wooden stairs. Panic paralyzed her. She stared, holding her breath.

A tall, gaunt man shambled forward. He never blinked, his eyes glazed with no emotion behind them. His movements were jerky. He opened a small slot at the bottom of her door and slid a tray of food to her. Her stomach growled, and she realized she was starving. How long had she been unconscious?

She grabbed the bars with both hands and pleaded, “Please help me. Let me out of here.”

Unhearing, the man stood, turned, and walked back up the stairs.

The image dissolved, and Festus blinked, stirred, and gripped my hand. “That’s the dream. Every night. What does it mean?”

Wanda started crying. “Who was the girl in the cage? And what was that man?”

They all looked at me for an explanation.

“It’s not a dream. It’s a vision. I’m guessing the girl in the cage sent it to Festus using both of her magicks. She’s begging for help.”

“And the man?” Festus asked.

“An undead. Not the same as a zombie. I don’t know if they really exist. But I’ve seen corpses controlled by black magic. Not witch magic. Voodoo. The body’s spirit is gone. Free. But the shell it inhabited can be animated to walk and move.”

Festus rubbed his forehead. “When the dream ends, I wake up covered in sweat, smelling my own fear.”

“It’s her fear,” I said. “We could all feel it. The girl needs help.”

Raven ran a hand through his ebony hair, his tawny eyes pinched in distress. “Who is she? How do we find her?”

I bit my bottom lip, frustrated and upset. “I don’t know.”

Wanda wrung her hands, her voice pleading. “I feel sorry for the girl, but can you help my Festus? He’s afraid to go to sleep.”

I touched a finger to his forehead and chanted a spell. “I’ve let the tattoo know we’ve seen the vision. We understand it. We’ll try to help the girl, but we don’t know how.”

“What about the tattoo?” Wanda stared at it. “It’s still there.”

“It won’t leave until the girl’s free, but the dreams should stop now. As long as it’s untouched, Festus can sleep in peace.”

Tears spilled down Wanda’s cheeks. “Thank you.” She came around the table to hug me.

“Can you do anything for the girl?” Festus asked.

“I’ll send birds to fly over the town and the area around it. If they see anything suspicious, they’ll report back to me. But I don’t have much hope. We have too little to go on.”

Clinging to each other, Festus and Wanda left. Once their car was out of sight, Raven and I walked into my front yard and I called for my birds.

Ravens, crows, and sparrows circled me and I sent them to the town Festus had visited. I doubted if any of them would return. We had no idea where the girl was, what kind of building she was in, unsure if she was even in a basement. There was little chance of finding her.

Raven tilted my chin and gave me a gentle kiss. “I’ll call every enforcer I know in that area, ask them to see if any other Fae or witches have gone missing. It might take us a while, but we’ll do all we can to find your witch.”

I nodded, not very hopeful, and we headed back toward the house. Light spilled from its many windows, making it glow. The Yule tree’s bulbs twinkled on our deep front porch, reds, greens, and golds. The scent of the pine drifted on the breeze. Such a cheerful scene, but it couldn’t diminish the fear I felt. Why had the captor taken this girl? What did he mean to do with her? It was bad enough when witches used black magic, but when voodoo was involved, I was deeply afraid for this young girl.