Dark CovenCheree Alsop
A Dark Coven Threatens not only the Town, but Everything Zev Knows about the Paranormal.
Slaying two vampires may have saved Brickwell, but it also tied the werewolves in with the town’s fate. When a dark magic coven threatens the safety of its citizens, Zev is asked to intervene.
˃˃˃ A Threat That Changes His Soul
But his wolf instincts warn that there is more to the threat than he can see. And when a girl Zev saved is drawn into the mix, he is forced to reconsider everything he knows about the paranormal world to which he belongs.
The Wolfborne Saga Book 3- Dark Coven By Cheree Alsop Copyright © 2019 by Cheree L. Alsop All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. ISBN Cover Design by Robert Emerson Editing by Sue Player www.ChereeAlsop.com To my family, Every adventure is better When shared with those you love. To my readers, Believe in the light of your soul. You shine to show others the way. Chapter One “There’s a coven up north we’ve been having trouble with. Is there a chance you wouldn’t mind helping out?” Never has there been a greater understatement. I should have said no. I didn’t know the first thing about witches other than what I had observed of the Steins and my research at the Lair that had turned out to be incredibly biased. But after all the Steins and the Willards had done for me, there really wasn’t a choice in the matter. So I found myself sitting in a very witch-like cottage on the edge of Township. From the outside, the place had appeared like little more than a house with overgrown trees and grass that hadn’t been cut in about a year. There was nothing to indicate what stepping past the threshold would reveal. The shudder of wards ran over my skin and set my teeth on edge when I followed Mrs. Stein, Jemmy, and Virgo inside. I blinked and the simple illusion of floral wallpaper, plastic-covered furniture, a coffee table, and dead roses on an end-table fell away. I found myself staring at dead animal carcasses hanging from the low ceiling of a wood and mud cottage. Scents of oregano, parsley, basil, and lavender filled the air along with the lingering odors of death, green grass, dew, and red clay. Moth balls, cinnamon, and mouse poison told me that even witches had vermin problems. Shelves filled with animal skulls, plaits of dried plants, eggs of every shape and size, and a variety of rocks surrounded two couches made of hide stretched over wooden frames. Three women rose as one from the couch closest to a fireplace that crackled with green-tinged flames. “Welcome, Madam Rosy,” the first witch said. She held out a hand that trembled as she reached for Mrs. Stein. Blue veins showed through the thin skin on the woman’s hands and face. Her long silver hair was caught back in a wooden hair comb, and white paled the woman’s eyes. She squinted blindly in Mrs. Stein’s direction. The other two women looked to be in the same aged state. One supported herself with a cane carved with ruby-eyed snakes and an eagle’s claw spread at the bottom. I swore the snakes moved when I looked directly at them. The other woman leaned heavily against her friend and struggled to rise to the point that Jemmy stepped forward and helped her to her feet where she stood with bowed-shoulders and a hunched back. “Oh, um, Madam Anna,” Mrs. Stein replied, her expression one of pure bafflement. “The years have gone quickly.” She clasped the woman’s hand in her own. As soon as their hands touched, Madam Anna let out a laugh far younger than she looked. She threw the woman with the cane a toothless grin. “Release them, Madam Henrietta,” the woman said. Madam Henrietta tapped her cane. A warm breeze flew from away from the woman and wrapped around the room. The swirl carried with it colors and strands that tangled in the breeze. Within three passes of the wind, the room and the women before us had transformed completely. Gone was the decrepit cottage from an age long past, gone were the animal carcasses, the skulls, the bookshelves, and the hide couches, and gone were the silver-haired, gnarled-boned facades of the women. In their place stood middle-aged ladies close to Mrs. Stein’s years. The one holding her hand had long black hair still caught up in the wooden comb. The woman with the cane held it in front of her, but the snakes and eagle’s claw were made of glass instead of wood. The room was overtaken by beige and white walls, a honey-colored wood paneled floor, and simple but elegant furnishings of white and maroon with light colored wooden accents. The fireplace that had crackled menacingly became a simple gas fixture with an intricate panel in front of it, and the shelves changed into bookcases, a small television stand, and end tables. The final woman who had been hunched and weak now stood taller than the others with a gleam of delight in her eyes. “Well, wasn’t that fun?” she proclaimed. Mrs. Stein shook her head. “I should have guessed, Madam Doxy. You always were a master at illusions.” “That wasn’t I,” she said with a laugh. “It was Madam Henrietta.” Madam Doxy winked at Mrs. Stein. “She’s been practicing.” “But you added the smells,” Madam Henrietta said with a slight pout. “I always forget something.” Madam Doxy patted her shoulder. “Illusion is all about attention to details. I’m sure the others wouldn’t have recognized the subtle difference, but the werewolf would have.” “Werewolf!” Madam Henrietta said with a gasp. “Where?” “Do you mean where-wolf?” Madam Doxy asked with a small laugh. Her laughter stopped abruptly when her eyes shifted to me and a sudden seriousness overcame her demeanor. “It’s the beast back there.” The other two witches looked at me. “You mean the handsome boy?” Henrietta asked. “Of course,” Madam Doxy replied. “Look at his eyes. Illusions can’t disguise the eyes.” When she met my gaze, I felt as though she saw every piece of me. A shudder ran down my spine and I looked away. “We can’t have a werewolf here,” Madam Anna said. “You know better than this, Madam Rosy.” Mrs. Stein nodded quickly. “I do know, and I meant no offense.” She glanced at me. “I just thought that he could help us with the, you know, problem.” Madam Anna shook her head. “We can’t trust a werewolf. He’ll have to be destroyed.” Madam Henrietta lifted her cane and said several words I had heard before but didn’t understand. The end of the cane glowed blue and I found myself stuck, completely, as though I had been trapped in ice. I remembered Virgo speaking the same words when the werewolves we rescued failed to use manners while eating the food Mrs. Willard had cooked them. I glanced sideways at him and found the warlock watching me with a look of horror on his face. “Mom, what’s going on?” Jemmy demanded. “Tell them to release him!” “I can’t, darling,” Mrs. Stein replied. Her voice was thick with emotion. I couldn’t turn my head to see what kind. My experience with humans was limited enough that I couldn’t decide by her tone if she was happy or distraught by my situation. Panic filled me at being entirely immobilized and a small squeak of fear escaped my throat. “That’s right, werewolf. You should be afraid,” Madam Anna said. “You’ve messed with the wrong coven.” She glanced to the left. “Madam Doxy, take care of him.” To my horror, the tall witch opened a drawer beside the couch and pulled out a gun. I could smell the silver of the bullets from where I stood. I struggled to move, but even the tips of my fingers refused to respond. Madam Doxy lifted the gun and pointed it at my chest. “No!” Virgo protested. “You can’t do this!” Madam Anna speared him with a look. “You can’t do this, Apprentice Virgo. Remember your place.” A motion of her hand forced Virgo into the overstuffed chair behind him. He struggled, but couldn’t get free. The witch turned her gaze to Jemmy. “Are you going to fight, Apprentice Jemmy?” Jemmy looked from the witch to me. I could read the fear in her eyes. I didn’t know whether it was for me or the witch. The thought that she was my last remaining supporter made a knot tighten in my throat. If she backed down, I would be done for; I was certain of it. Jemmy gave a small, brave nod. “I’ll fight for him,” she said in a small voice. The barest hint of pride showed in Madam Anna’s eyes before they darkened and she said, “I thought you would.” With another flick of her wrist, she sent Jemmy to the couch. Immobilized with a huff, she could only turn her eyes to me. A tear leaked free to trail slowly down her cheek. The sight pierced my heart. “Your children are obstinate, Madam Rosy,” Madam Anna said. I saw Mrs. Stein give a small nod out of the corner of my eye. “As we all are,” she replied. Madam Anna’s lips lifted into a brief smile that vanished as quickly as it appeared. She nodded at Madam Doxy. “Do it.” I couldn’t even flinch when two silver bullets left the gun and sunk into my chest with an impact that knocked me back several feet. Still immobilized, I could do nothing about the pain of the wounds, the feeling of suffocation, or the agony of the silver burning its way through my veins. A gasp escaped through my clenched teeth; I couldn’t draw in another breath. “Let him go, Madam Henrietta,” Madam Anna said. Strength left my legs the moment her hold released; I fell to the floor. Mrs. Stein took a step forward, but Madam Anna had only to shake her head for the witch I trusted to back away. I glared at the floor. The pain that flowed through my body was excruciating. The irony that I had killed several of my own kind in the same way wasn’t lost on me. I was destined to die as nothing more than a feral, violent beast. I was a cur, a zev, a monster to be feared. They don’t deserve to live. You are stronger, your lineage is more powerful. Humans are pathetic weaklings who owe you their gratitude. My hands curled into fists as the Master’s voice whispered through my head. I told myself that he was dead, slain in part by my own hands. Yet his words continued to leech within my thoughts. Don’t lay down and die like some pathetic mongrel. Fight and take them down with you. End the lives that ended you. Vengeance is all you have left. The pain heightened along with the voice. The urge to phase into wolf form pulsed beneath my skin. I could tear them apart. I could make them pay for their betrayal. Mrs. Stein had set me up. Had Virgo and Jemmy known about it? I could phase into a wolf and make them all regret ever having dragged me into the trap. Phase and make them pay. My body spasmed as the wolf pushed its way forward. The need for vengeance colored my vision red. My straining muscles pulled against the bullet holes and a pain more excruciating than anything I had ever experienced before rippled through me like a serrated blade that shredded everything it touched. A groan at the pain escaped me. “Get ready,” Madam Anna said in a low voice. “He’s going to change form.” The sound of my blood pattering to the honey-colored wooden floor centered me. I had seen far too much blood in my lifetime. I had been the reason for it spilling, leaking away the life of the person who depended on it. Seeing my own blood puddle toward my right hand and then envelop it in the thick warmth was too real. I closed my eyes. Perhaps this was for the best. No! the voice in my head screamed. Kill them! Make them pay! “I am the one who should pay,” I replied. The voice quieted along with the others in the room. After a moment, Madam Anna broke it. “What did you say?” I hadn’t realized I had spoken aloud. I shook my head, unable to find the strength to explain. Hesitant footsteps approached. Sneakers with kittens on the sides appeared in my vision. She crouched and I caught a glimpse of a poodle on the side of her skirt. I thought poodle skirts had vanished a long time ago. The thought that shoes with kittens and a skirt with a poodle wouldn’t get along made me laugh inside despite the grimness of the situation, or maybe because of it. My comment to Alia after she had seen the Lair and questioned how we could still joke rang true. Laughing was far better than crying, and with the pain of the silver spreading through my veins, I deserved a good cry. But I refused to let that happen. “Aren’t you going to phase and try to kill us all?” Madam Anna asked as casually as if she was asking whether I preferred hamburgers or hotdogs. I shook my head. A soft hand cupped my chin and lifted it so I could look at her. The witch’s green eyes showed her confusion. “Why not?” I let out a sigh that gurgled and replied weakly, “I’ve killed enough.” The witch’s dark eyebrows rose. She looked past me to whoever stood behind me. I couldn’t remember who was there. The effects of the silver and blood loss were taking their toll. My face slipped out of the witch’s hand and my arms gave out. “Mom, do something!” Virgo shouted. I could hear him struggling in the chair. “Mom, please,” Jemmy sobbed. “Madam Rosy, tea,” Madam Anna said. “But, Madam Anna,” Mrs. Stein began. “Tea,” the witch repeated in a firm tone. “Yes, Madam,” Mrs. Stein gave in. Her footsteps faded from the room. “Roll him over, Madam Henrietta,” Madam Anna directed in a businesslike tone. “And Doxy, we need the lavender crumble.” “Right away,” Madam Doxy said. Hands turned me over as gently as if I was a baby. “Madam Doxy, his shirt.” A snipping sound was followed by cool air against my sticky chest. I opened my eyes to see Madam Anna crouched over me. Her eyes were closed and she whispered in a language I didn’t recognize. Runes on her hands similar to Virgo’s glowed green. Suddenly, it felt like a force was pulling from the inside of my torso outward. I couldn’t stifle a shout at the pain. My back arched in the air. Two points of fire grew within my chest. I couldn’t breathe past the agony. Had I made a mistake? If they were going to torture me, maybe they did deserve to die. That last thought stayed with me as I wavered on the edge of consciousness. Two sucking sounds were followed by an immediate release of the pressure. My muscles relaxed and I was able to suck in a slight breath. I was lowered back down to a blanket someone had spread across the floor. I opened my eyes to see two mangled silver slugs suspended in the air above me. Madam Anna reached her hand out and they fell onto her palm. “The tea, Madam Rosy,” Madam Anna said. “Right here,” Mrs. Stein replied. “The lavender crumble,” Madam Anna said. Madam Doxy set something in her hand. The witch broke the substance in half and pressed it to each of the wounds. Terrified and unsure of what was going on, I gritted my teeth and refused to make a sound. Madam Anna took the tea kettle Mrs. Stein held out. She lifted the lid and dipped her pinky finger into it. “Perfect,” she proclaimed. She poured the contents of the kettle over my chest. I cringed, expecting my skin to burn with the heat, but it wasn’t hot. As she poured the liquid onto the substance she had packed into the bullet holes, a soothing sensation took over most of the pain. My nerves jangled. Being immobilized and shot, then worked on with care wreaked havoc on my body. I didn’t know what to think, and it terrified me. Tremors ran over my skin. The wolf, subdued at least by the removal of the bullets, still threatened to push free if I let down my guard. I couldn’t decide if I had made the right decision to keep my peace. Peace certainly hadn’t been given to me. The silence in the room pressed against me. I couldn’t bring myself to look at the faces of the Steins. Though Jemmy and Virgo had definitely been unprepared for what happened, the lingering reminder of Mrs. Stein backing away so Madam Doxy could shoot me refused to leave. The sting of betrayal filled my mouth with a bitter taste. My body grew weaker from the effects of the silver. My hands started to shake, so I closed them. I wanted to push the witch away, but I knew I would die if the rest of the silver wasn’t drawn from the wounds. I forced myself to ask the question that I feared the most. I gritted my teeth so they wouldn’t chatter and asked through them, “Are you healing me just to shoot me again?” Madam Anna paused in her ministrations. Something flickered in her eyes when they lifted to mine. Whatever she read there softened her expression further and she shook her head. “No, Zev. Not at all.” There was regret in her voice that surprised me. I shook my head. None of it made sense. I needed distance to think. I sat up away from her and pushed back with an arm across my chest to stifle the pain. She made no move to stop me. When my back rested against the border of the gas fireplace, the coolness of the painted wood helped to center my thoughts. “I don’t get it,” I admitted. “You attacked me and I didn’t do anything.” My breath shuddered in my chest when I continued with, “Why not just leave me to bleed out?” My gaze lingered on the bloody blanket where I had rested. Strips of cloth had been sewn into intricate star patterns. Blood marred the beautiful black, white, and red designs. The fact that it was my blood and more stained the floor beneath it made me entirely uneasy. “You said it,” Madam Anna replied softly. Her voice made me turn my head to look at her. “We’re sorry, Zev, but we had to know,” she continued. “Had to know what?” I couldn’t help the bite to my tone. The silver burned and it was still hard to breathe. Death hadn’t been so very far away, and my body ached with it. Madan Anna glanced behind her. I followed her gaze to Madam Doxy and Madam Henrietta. Both lowered their eyes to the floor when I met them. Jemmy had tears on her cheeks and she tried to leave the couch, but she was still held fast by the immobilization spell. When I looked at Virgo, his pale face was filled with anger and his eyes shone with unshed tears. He glared at Madam Anna as if his gaze could sear a hole through her. But the runes on his hands were dark. Whatever they had done to bind him had cut off his ability to cast spells. His hands were clenched so tight his knuckles showed white. “We had to know if you were dangerous,” Madam Anna continued. I forced the slightest bit of wry humor into my voice when I asked, “Couldn’t you have just asked me?” She shook her head. “I wish it was that simple. But we had to know if we could trust you. We had to know who was in control.” “Nobody controls me,” I said in a growl. But the truth was there. The Master’s voice had indeed whispered in my ear and scratched across my thoughts. His dark words, ingrained by years of training and torture, still lingered in my mind. Madam Henrietta spoke up, her tone flat as if she repeated something she had memorized, “A werewolf by nature has no mind of its own. It is a puppet, a servant of dark lords. Due to the circumstances of its revitalization, the werewolf owes its soul to the darkness.” I looked from Henrietta back to Madam Anna. “What is that?” I demanded. Pain pulsed through my chest. I put a hand to it and sat up straighter in an attempt to find a more comfortable position, but it was no use. “That’s a passage from the teachings of Madam Onie, one of the only Third Order witches that has ever lived,” Madam Anna replied. “That makes no sense,” Virgo said from the couch. He sat forward as if he had just been released from the witches’ hold. He rubbed his hands, anger still evident in his expression. “Revitalization in the ancient literature meant bringing back from the dead, reanimating or putting life back into something.” Madam Anna’s gaze flickered to Mrs. Stein. “You haven’t told him?” She shot me an apologetic look and said, “There hasn’t been time.” “Time for what?” I demanded. I felt as though everyone in the room knew something I didn’t, and after all I had been through, I wasn’t sure I could take more secrecy. I pushed against the wall to stand. Madam Anna reached out a hand to help, but I shrugged away and she backed off. I took shallow, steeling breaths against the pain. It was a moment before I could ask, “Tell me what?” Madam Anna motioned to Henrietta. The witch swallowed nervously before she said in the same tone of recitation, “Werewolves were officially recorded as hunted and burned alive to extinction in the fifteenth century. They were later brought back to life by the revenant, the undead who depend on draining the core entities of life from another for their survival.” My head spun. I didn’t know if it was from the silver, the loss of blood, or trying to decipher what they were telling me, but nothing made sense. I looked at Virgo. “What does that mean?” The pallor of his face and the way his forehead furrowed made him appear upset and confused at the same time. “Are you sure?” he asked Henrietta. The witch nodded. “It’s in the ancient texts.” Virgo let out a breath; his eyes shifted around the room as if he was searching for the right words. When he looked at me again, he appeared lost. “Your race was killed off entirely and the vampires brought you back with their dark arts.” I stared at him. “So, I shouldn’t exist?” “You wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the vampires,” he replied. He looked away from me and said, “You owe your soul to the darkness.” My heart clenched at his stark tone. The realization of what he meant struck hard. I pushed away from the wall and walked to the door. “Where are you going?” Jemmy asked, her voice tremulous. “I shouldn’t be here,” I said. “The witches are right. I shouldn’t be around you or the Willards. None of us should.” I opened the door with the intention of returning to the Willards’ house and telling the werewolves what I had found out. I would forbid them from staying in the Willards’ forest, or to be around humans at all. We were a scourge. We shouldn’t exist. We truly were dangerous monsters who would have been better left extinct. “Isley’s in trouble.” The name stopped me in my tracks. I put a hand to the doorframe and looked over my shoulder. “What about her?” Mrs. Stein’s gaze showed desperation when she replied, “She’s dying, Zev. That’s one of the reasons we’re here.” Chapter Two “She’s dying?” Jemmy repeated behind us in a voice filled with tears. She had been through more than enough in one day. Mrs. Stein nodded at her daughter. “Her body is no longer responding to the salve.” Her eyes met mine. “That’s why she keeps having nightmares. The pain and hallucinations are getting worse and will continue to do so until the poison stops her heart.” All of the anger at how I had been treated and what I had just learned about the origin of werewolves fled at the witch’s words. “That’s why she thought I carried her,” I said as the realization dawned on me. “She’s having hallucinations from the felgul bite.” “She was bitten by a felgul?” Madam Doxy said. The horror in her voice was reflected on the other witches’ faces. “Three of them attacked her, but Zev risked his life to save her.” Virgo said. He shot an accusing look at Madam Anna. “Maybe you should have asked about that before you shot him.” As much as I appreciated the warlock sticking up for me, Mrs. Stein’s words pounded through my head. “She’s dying? What can we do? There must be another salve or something that can draw the poison out.” I thought quickly. “Or if you need the blood from a felgul to make an antidote, I’ll gladly hunt one down. I’ll—” Madam Anna held up a hand. “Slow down. We need to take this one step at a time.” She gave a small smile that touched her eyes. “And I’ve seen felguls before. If you’re so willing to go off after one, then yes, Virgo is right. We should have started there.” She turned to Mrs. Stein. “Tell me what you’ve done so far.” Mrs. Stein put her arm around Jemmy’s shoulders. “We made the charcoal toxin paste you taught me for snake bites and demon scratches, and Jemmy and I applied new paste every hour through the night and day. We also performed incense censing, purifying wards, and air cleansing chants, and we ensured that the room in which she slept was warded from dark spirits and demons.” I hadn’t realized how very hard Mrs. Stein had fought to help Isley recover from the bite. The toll it had taken on both her and Jemmy was evident in their eyes as she spoke. Mrs. Stein squeezed her daughter’s shoulder. “While it’s been good training for my apprentice and we had progress through the first night in eliminating the streaks from the wound toward Isley’s heart, our effects have been met with less and less response.” “What are you seeing?” Madam Henrietta asked. “The streaks are back,” Mrs. Stein told her. “Isley’s nightmares are getting worse, and she’s started to mumble in her sleep.” “Oh no,” Madam Doxy said. “That’s bad.” Madam Anna speared her with a look. “It’s expected,” the head witch corrected. “You’ve done everything you should, Madam Rosy. But felgul bites come with an added risk because of the infection that enters the wound along with the poison. The bacteria inside a felgul’s mouth and claws can be devastating for some.” She shook her head. “I fear your Isley may have the odds stacked against her.” That sent a chill down my spine. “What can we do?” I asked. “I’ll do anything to save her life.” The fact that I was begging to the same witches who had shot me wasn’t lost on me. A small squeak of laughter escaped from Henrietta. “What can a werewolf offer?” I looked from one of them to the next, ending on Madam Anna. “Anything. Whatever you need. Let me know and I’ll do it. Just save Isley’s life!” I lowered my gaze and said, “Please.” “Me, too,” Virgo seconded. He crossed to my side. “We can help. Just tell us what to do.” Madam Anna’s expression softened at the warlock’s words. Her gaze shifted between the two of us. “You both care about her, don’t you?” Virgo nodded. “She’s Mrs. Willard’s daughter’s best friend. She’s never hurt anyone. She deserves help.” I studied the floor in silence for a moment. I couldn’t put into words why I wanted to help Isley so badly. She was sweet and innocent, it was true. There was an edge of spitfire to her if her bad side showed, which I was apparently great at drawing out, and yet, she was vulnerable and alone in a way I knew very personally. Perhaps, all things taken away, she was one I could save in a lifetime of being the destroyer. If I admitted the truth to myself, I felt like if she slipped through my fingers, there wasn’t any hope left for my soul at all. But who was I kidding? I was a werewolf. I had nothing of value to offer. I didn’t even own the clothes I wore or the shoes on my feet. My haircut was a gift of pity from Isley, and a begrudging one at that. I may have saved lives, but only because I put them in danger in the first place. The voice in the back of my mind whispered that if I hadn’t stopped him, the vampire who came to Brickwell with his felguls would have left a wake of death and devastation behind him. Also, if I hadn’t been the means to ending my Master, the werewolves we freed would have continued following his orders and bringing about the deaths of the humans they brought back to the Lair. “Anything?” Madam Doxy’s high voice broke through my thoughts. I nodded. “Anything, if you can save her.” Madam Anna let out a breath. “We’ll do what we can, but no promises.” She glanced at Mrs. Stein. “Bring her here. Time is of the essence.” “I’ll hurry,” Mrs. Stein replied. She hurried through the door with Jemmy and Virgo following close behind. I was about to join them when Madam Anna called out, “Zev, you need to stay.” Cold fingers tickled across the back of my neck when I turned. “Forever?” Henrietta laughed and Madam Doxy covered her mouth to hide her smile. Madam Anna shook her head, “No, son. We just need to finish getting the silver out of those bullet holes or else you’re going to be in worse trouble than Isley.” Relief swept through me that I hadn’t just signed my life over as some sort of slave to the witches in order to save Isley, but the fact remained that I had promised them something. There was no telling what they would order me to do to pay my debt. “Can I walk them to the car?” I asked. “You may if you can,” Madam Anna replied. I stepped outside. As soon as I reached the Steins at the end of the sidewalk, the illusion the house was cast under took effect. Instead of the grand mansion the interior revealed without Madam Doxy’s cloaking spell, the outside appeared to be a plain, little house built a few decades ago. It fit into the neighborhood, especially with its unkempt yard and sagging porch. “Zev, are you sure you should be coming with us?” Mrs. Stein asked when she noticed my approach. “I’m staying,” I replied. “I just needed to ask you a question.” Mrs. Stein looked at Jemmy and Virgo who had both paused in the act of climbing into the car. “Go ahead,” she told them. As soon as the doors were shut, she turned back to me. Her expression was grim as though she guessed what I needed to know. “Go ahead.” The rotund witch with the wild orange hair appeared more serious than I had ever seen her. A hint of sadness touched her gaze. I didn’t let it deter me from asking what I had to. “Did you know they would try to kill me?” My question lingered in the air between us. The hope I had harbored that I was mistaken fell away at Mrs. Stein’s silence. When she finally broke it, it was with a nod. “I knew. They had to.” “Because of what I am,” I replied. I felt betrayed in so many ways. I couldn’t help the bitterness in my voice when I asked, “Couldn’t you have warned me?” I wasn’t sure it would have helped, but in everything I had experienced at the Lair, being burned by branding irons with my hands chained above my head, captured by four werewolves and held down with my exposed neck over a ledge waiting to be broken, beaten to within an inch of my life and thrown into a cell away from the moonlight, I had never felt so helpless as a few minutes ago when I was held suspended and unable to move while a witch shot me with silver bullets. It didn’t matter that I had survived. I had seen the look on Mrs. Stein’s face. She thought I was as dead as I knew myself to be when the silver ran through my veins, and she hadn’t moved to do anything about it. She was one of the few humans I knew. Both Mrs. Stein and Mrs. Willard had treated me with almost the same motherly caring they showed their own children. I was under no presumptions that I was even close to them. I was a monster, to be sure. But I had never expected to be set up in such a harsh and life-threatening way. “If I warned you, it wouldn’t have been a true test,” Mrs. Stein said. I looked away from her. I couldn’t bring myself to meet her gaze, to see the source of my betrayal as the sweet face of the woman who had cooked strange lasagnas for me and fed the werewolves from the Lair out of her own resources. “Zev,” she said quietly. I resisted the urge to clench my hands into fists. My breath came in short, ragged spurts, compliments of the partially healed wounds. A few drops of blood trickled from one of the bullet holes. I put a hand to it to ease the ache. “You can feel betrayed by me,” Mrs. Stein said in a tone of defeat. “But I needed to know.” That brought my head up. “Why?” She gestured toward the car. I could make out Virgo in the front seat twisting to talk to his sister in the back. My heartbeat slowed. “You had to know for the safety of your children,” I replied softly. She nodded. Her gaze was pleading when she said, “I don’t expect you to understand the drive of a mother to protect her children. As you’ve seen, ours isn’t a normal human family. It is a family of witches raised with the knowledge of the darkness that is out there.” My stomach twisted at the whispered reminder that I was a part of that darkness. Oblivious to my thoughts, Mrs. Stein continued, “We’ve been through plenty of hard times. Virgo lost his girlfriend in an accident, Jemmy was plagued by ghouls all through her childhood, and,” her voice lowered, “Mr. Stein was killed in a war with a neighboring witch coven four years ago.” Tears glimmered in her eyes at the revelation, but she blinked them back. Sincerity showed in her gaze when she said, “So I’m asking you to understand that even though my methods might be questionable, I have my reasons.” I nodded numbly. The sage scent of sorrow wafted from her, verifying the truth of her story. I swallowed past the knot in my throat and said, “I understand.” She gave me a sweet smile and patted my cheek with the words, “Thank you, Zev. You’re better than you know. We’ll return with Isley as soon as we can.” My insides twisted as the car pulled away. The wolf surged toward the surface. With the weakening effects of the silver, if the moon had been overhead, the wolf would have won out. I would have run, regardless of the consequences to those I left behind. They had their own to protect. I could understand that more than anyone. I was the only one who would look out for me. If it wasn’t for the silver, I would have left and never looked back. At least, that’s what I told myself. As I entered the yard and it changed to finely manicured, endless lawns dotted with trees and even the occasional grazing deer, I made myself a vow. Just like at the Lair, nobody in this world would have my back but myself. I wouldn’t expect caring, compassion, or loyalty from anyone. I would trust no one and rely only on myself. Yes, the Master’s voice hissed in my mind. I gritted my teeth and reached for the doorknob. The door opened without me touching it. “Come on in, Zev,” Madam Anna called out. I entered with a ridiculous amount of nervousness. To be fair, the last time I had crossed the threshold I had been shot. There was something about my sanity to be questioned when I chose to do so again. I told myself it was because I needed to get rid of the rest of the silver that was quickly making it harder to breathe, move, or so much as blink without pain. The voice in the back of my mind noted that I might fare better surviving it on my own than with the help of the witches. The door slammed shut behind me. The tallest of the witches met me in the hallway. “Put this collar on,” Madam Doxy said. My blood ran cold. “What?” I stared at the black, spiked collar the type of which often popped up on internet advertisements for bulldogs and pit bulls. “Try it,” Madam Doxy coaxed. “It’ll look good with your handsome golden eyes and let the other witches know that you’ve sworn your loyalty and protection to us.” She held out the collar with an expectant expression. The reminder that I had just promised them anything in return for Isley’s life made me lift my hand. Had I really just traded one master for another? The witch set the collar on my palm and then burst out laughing. “What’s going on?” Madam Anna asked as she entered the corridor from the kitchen. She paused and gave me a curious look. “Why are you holding Bishop’s collar?” “Bishop’s collar?” I repeated. “He was our mutt,” the head witch explained. “The name might have been in poor choice, but we enjoyed the irony.” Her eyes shifted to Doxy’s and narrowed. “Were you teasing Zev?” Madam Doxy’s gaze lowered to the ground and she attempted to stifle her smile. “Maybe just a little,” she admitted. The relief that I was not actually to be their collar-wearing slave made me chuckle. Both witches stared at me. I shook my head with a grin, feeling better than I had since we left the Willards’. “That was a good one.” Madam Doxy gave an answering laugh and slapped me on the back. “I’m just glad you can take a joke considering I shot you and all!” I winced. “Is it still supposed to hurt?” “Are you kidding?” Madam Anna replied. “You’ve been shot. It’s supposed to hurt.” “Good,” I said wryly. “I thought something was really wrong.” Madam Doxy laughed so hard tears trailed down her cheeks. She dabbed at them with the edge of her pink sleeve. “I didn’t know werewolves were funny,” she said when she could talk. “Madam Anna, Madam Onie doesn’t mention that anywhere in her books. Perhaps we should add a note.” Henrietta entered the main hall carrying a cup that smelled of lavender and lemon. “A note on what?” she asked. “On the fact that werewolves are incredibly funny once you get past their doomed souls and vampire overlords,” Madam Doxy replied casually. Madam Anna must have read my incredulous expression because she motioned toward the living room where we had gathered before. “Come sit by the fireplace. The warmth will do you good.” I realized under her scrutiny that I was shivering. My body definitely didn’t like the silver. Feeling a little like an obedient puppy, I followed the witch into the room and sat in the overstuffed chair she indicated by the gas fireplace. It took only a flick of her finger for the fire to roar to life. I couldn’t deny that the heat felt wonderful against my bare chest. I wasn’t used to being cold. Apparently intense trauma and near-death experiences had a bit of an impact on the body. “Drink this,” Henrietta said. She set the tea in my hands. As a werewolf, I usually detested anything citrus, but when I opened my mouth to deny it, the look the witch shot me made me close it again. I brought the mug to my nose and inhaled. “It smells delicious,” I said in surprise. The orange scent was tempered by honey that still carried the memory of the clover fields where it had been harvested. Notes of wild lavender and wheat grass complimented the underlying healing aroma of green tea. Other scents I didn’t recognized teased my nostrils with whispers of warm skies, snowy heights, and meandering streams. “Try it,” Madam Henrietta coaxed. At my hesitancy, Madam Doxy chuckled. “Trust me. If we were going to kill you, we would have just let you bleed out.” Madam Anna shook her head at the other witch. “It’s probably a bit too soon to joke about that, Madam Doxy.” Madam Doxy replied, “Who’s joking?” I looked from one to the other. At my expression, they all burst out laughing. I realized I had allowed myself to become the butt of the joke and gave a small smile before lifting the tea to my lips. I drained the cup in two gulps. As soon as the warm liquid flowed down my throat, a soothing lethargy settled over my limbs. A warning bell sounded in the back of my mind. “Did you drug me?” I asked in a slurred voice. I slouched back in the chair. My arms and legs felt extremely heavy. The teacup slipped from my fingers. Madam Henrietta stopped it with a spell before it could hit the ground. “No,” Madam Anna reassured me. “There are just a few ingredients infused within to coax relaxation into your body.” She indicated my chest. “There is still silver in those wounds or else they would have healed. We’ll have to get a little more aggressive in our treatment, but werewolves are notoriously hard to work on.” “At least you’ve proven you won’t bite our heads off,” Madam Doxy pointed out from somewhere within the room that I couldn’t see from my slumped vantage point. “But werewolves have extremely sensitive fight or flight instincts. It wouldn’t do to have you phase or try to run away in the middle of the procedure.” I gave a nod of my head that took far more effort than it should have. “That makes sense,” I acknowledged, my thoughts bleary. “Madams, let’s help him to the floor,” Madam Anna said. When I was sprawled on another comfortable blanket, I turned my head to look into the flickering flames of the gas fireplace. “This might hurt a little bit. Just try to hold still,” Madam Henrietta said in a soothing voice. I kept my gaze on the fire and tried to ignore the digging sensation and the pressure on top of my chest. The dance of the flames became a mesmerizing lull. I squinted as they began to take actual forms. “Witches are loyal to their covens,” Madam Anna said. “No matter what we do, protecting our covens is the same as protecting our family. In Madam Rosy’s case, the choice was deadly.” “She told me her husband died,” I murmured. The hypnotic flames took the shape of many individuals battling. In the foreground, the images became a family of four, two adults and two children. Another shape made of darker flames surged toward them. One of the adults stepped forward with its arms up as though casting a spell. The darker flame surged forward and enveloped the other one. The smaller flames fell to their knees with their heads bowed as if sobbing. The entire scene vanished into the fire when Madam Anna spoke again. “It was a horrible battle,” she said in a haunted tone. “We lost many of our coven. Madam Henrietta was sent from my sister’s coven as a replacement to help fortify us against further attacks. But we know they are stronger than us.” “What will you do?” A burning sensation was beginning across the top of my chest. I clenched my fists in an effort to ignore it. “My instincts say not to arouse their wrath,” the witch continued, “But Madam Rosy has had dreams which show them getting stronger. She wants to act now. She says it’s our only chance.” “But it could kill us all,” Madam Doxy said from somewhere to my right. Madam Anna’s voice took on a worried tone. “Madam Doxy sees visions of the future. Going against the dark coven means the entire Stein family will be killed.” “What if I help?” I asked tightly, trying to ignore the pain. “Then only one person will die,” Madam Doxy said, her voice certain. I shook my head. “You’ve got to stop her. Don’t let them fight.” The thought of someone dying the way Madam Doxy predicted lingered in the air. If Jenny or Virgo were killed in the battle, I didn’t know what I would do. Mrs. Stein may have been harsh in her words earlier, but she was truthful and motherly. “They shouldn’t put their lives at risk.” I turned my head to face the witches. “None of you should.” Madam Anna gave me a sad smile. “We don’t have a choice. We are a coven. What one of us does, all of us do.” She lifted a decanter of clear liquid. “Now prepare yourself. This is going to hurt.” “What is it?” I asked. “A nullifier,” Madam Doxy explained from behind her. “We can’t get all of the silver out of your body, and it will kill you if we don’t take care of it.” She pointed to the liquid Madam Anna held out. “This will help your body react to the silver the way a vaccine teaches the body to fight back against a virus.” “We’re trying to help your body become immune,” Madam Henrietta said from Madam Anna’s other side. “To silver?” I replied. “I’m a werewolf; there’s no way.” “It’s your only chance,” Madam Doxy said. “We have to try.” Panic pressed against the dull edges of my thoughts. “What if it doesn’t work?” “You’ll die,” Madam Anna replied. Madam Doxy’s pink highlighted eyebrows pulled together in worry. “But if we don’t try, you’ll die anyway.” I couldn’t argue with that and the pain coursing through my body said I was losing the battle. I pushed up on my elbows. Madam Doxy supported me as Anna put the decanter to my lips. “Bottoms up,” Madam Henrietta said with an encouraging smile. I closed my eyes and drank the liquid down. The heavy scent of silver filled my nose. My taste buds were covered in a metallic coating that reminded me of when I had electrocuted myself to neutralize the explosive the Master had implanted near my heart. My nerve endings tingled as though electricity ran across my entire body. I wanted to scream, but my mouth wouldn’t open. My eyes were locked shut and my muscles strained so tight I felt them standing out on either side of my neck. “Are you sure using silver to fight silver is the best idea?” Madam Henrietta asked in a voice that was muffled to my ears. “It looks like it’s hurting him.” “It’s never been tested as far as I know,” Madam Doxy replied. “But Madam Onie mentioned in her book that it might work. It was a theory.” “Let’s hope she’s right,” Madam Anna said. “Only time will tell.” “Poor werewolf,” Madam Henrietta’s voice whispered against the rushing sound that was growing in my ears. “He really was nice.” The fact that nice might be the last thing said about me before I died filled me with mixed emotions. The scary werewolf who used to terrorize humans under the command of vampires and was dying the most painful death possible to werewolves, had somehow come away as nice. I would never understand humans, even witchy ones. “This will calm him,” Madam Anna said. A hand pressed against my chest between the bullet wounds. Pain flared through me followed by a strange, all-encompassing warmth. The confused voice in my head died away and I floated off into the welcoming embrace of darkness. Chapter Three The sound of murmuring voices broke through my dream. I wanted to hold onto it, but I couldn’t remember it beyond flashes of a smile over a cup of coffee, the smell of raw sugar and coffee beans in the air, and the cool surface of the table beneath my hand. I grasped at the thought, but it slipped from my mind like water through my fingers. The loss of something I couldn’t remember filled me when I opened my eyes. I was in a house lying on the floor in front of a fireplace. Thankfully, someone had turned off the fire that had dance along the logs because I was sweating so much the blanket beneath me was soaked. The room waited in darkness. The windows showed merely shadows beyond their panes. The only light came from the doorway where the voices that had awoken me murmured. I sat up slowly and put a hand to my pounding head. An ache made me glance down. I did so and felt my eyes widen at the sight of a handprint on my chest. It was white with the fingers spread as if the person who had put it there was trying to hold something back. I rubbed it, but the white wouldn’t go away. It wasn’t paint or marker. Instead, it looked as though it was a part of my skin. The bullet holes on either side of it looked better, their edges pink with healing. “Keep going,” a familiar voice said, stealing my focus. “If we give up now, we’ll lose her.” Other voices chanted louder in a language I didn’t know. I glanced around. The room in which I sat looked normal enough. Its decorations and fine furnishings were modern and of high quality. Yet a few items were off. Beside the lamp on the end table closest to me sat a little stuffed squirrel in a buttoned up suit and wearing a red scarf. On the opposite table, a skull that had been bedazzled with gems watched me with empty eye sockets. Only it didn’t look like the type I had seen at tourist shops. By the faint bone and earth smell that permeated my nostrils, the skull was real. Lavender hung drying near the fireplace along with strands of ivy and a corn husk. Beyond the couches, other odd items filled the bookshelves. Witches, the voice in the back of my mind whispered. My teeth clenched. The threat of danger surged through my body. I needed the phase to fight free and escape. The moonlight through the window closest to me was welcoming enough. I closed my eyes and thought of being a wolf. Nothing happened. I opened my eyes and looked at the window again to ensure that it was night. Even in daylight, I should have been able to phase. With the glow of moonlight so near, there shouldn’t have been a problem. I stretched out my hand toward the beam of light that created a rectangle on the pale golden wood of the floor. Warmth filled me when the light fell across my palm. I close my eyes again and concentrated on the feeling. The wolf would come. It needed to. I was in danger and that was how I knew best to fight. Bring on the wolf. Pain so searing and sharp I could barely breathe jolted through my chest. I doubled over at the feeling of my ribs shifting, battling pinpoints of dagger-like fire that spread through my bones and into my arms and legs. I pulled my hand away from the moonlight and collapsed on my side in a pathetic fetal position. It took a few minutes before my breathing returned to normal. In that time, the metallic tang of silver touched my nose. Images of the day’s events flooded into my mind. I had been shot. The silver drink the witches gave me had nearly killed me. Had it taken away my ability to phase? Panic at the thought of not being able to return to wolf form surged through my limbs and the pain returned. I sucked in a shaky breath and tried to will my body to relax. “We’re losing her!” “Hold her down!” I pushed up to my hands and knees. For a moment, I couldn’t remember who they were talking about. Then it struck me with the force of a charging bear. Isley. I pulled up to my feet using the end table. The bedazzled skull appeared to laugh at my weakness. I snarled at it and felt just a little better about my wolf side. “Hurry, Virgo! Cast a binding spell!” All thoughts of my own problems fled at the panic that filled the voices in the next room. I stumbled to the doorway and leaned against the frame. The sight in front of me stole the breath I had just found. The witches surrounded a table spread with rushes and lilac blooms. Runes had been written along the oval wood in marks that pulsed with light in time to the chanting. Madam Anna stood at the head of the table with Doxy and Henrietta on either side. At the opposite end, Mrs. Stein, Virgo, and Jemmy linked hands and repeated the words Madam Anna said. In the middle of the table, Isley floated a few inches above the wood. Her eyes were closed and her head drooped back lifelessly. The black streaks that ran from the bite on her arm had turned into thick black twisting vines that writhed toward her heart. As the witches chanted, the glowing aura around Isley grew brighter and brighter. “They’re losing her.” I noticed Mrs. Willard for the first time. She stood near the door, her face pale and her usual smile completely absent. Her short, curled brown hair was caught back in a red scarf. Looking down at her, I could see in the tightness of her face and the way her eyes glittered in the candle-lit room that she was about to cry. The impartial voice in the back of my mind noted wryly that I was getting better at reading expressions. “What’s going on?” I asked. Mrs. Willard kept her gaze on the table. “That witch over there,” she said, indicating Madam Anna, “Said Isley’s something called an elemental. Apparently, the evil flowing from the bite is too much for her and it’s killing her.” Isley’s back arched. My body shuddered with the recent memory of a similar pain. “It looks like they’re the ones killing her,” I said tightly. I knew better than to interfere with magic. Werewolves were anything but magical creatures. If my experience with nearly dying had taught me anything, it was to avoid magic as much as possible. A cry of pain escaped from Isley. Her eyes closed tightly as the glowing around her body brightened. “She’s leaving this plane,” Madam Doxy said, her high voice trembling. I thought quickly through what I knew about elementals. My studies at the Lair had been brief on the beings. I knew they were nature spirits who derived their power from their elements. From what I could see, Isley was a light elemental. The runes around the table were glowing so bright I could barely look past them. The candles in the room had changed from warmly flickering flames into blue-white raging torches. The solid outline of Isley’s form was vanishing, her skin, the purple nightgown she wore, and her long blonde hair were brightening into a glowing mist I could barely look at. The black marks on her arm writhed as if in pain. They looked like parasites battling to stay attached to their host. I realized that in order to survive, Isley wasn’t just an elemental of light, she was becoming the light itself! She would leave this life entirely and be light instead of a being with a human form. In essence, she was dying as much as I had been with the silver coursing through my body. In another moment, she would be gone entirely. Save her, the voice in my mind urged. Without thinking my actions through, I ran forward and broke through the circle the witches had created with runes made of salt and dirt around the perimeter where they stood. A tingling ran through my skin when I crossed the border. I tripped on something I couldn’t see and fell forward. “Zev, no!” Madam Anna shouted. But my momentum was too great to stop. I landed hard against the edge of the table and threw my hand out. My fingers closed around Isley’s arm where the black marks from the felgul bite writhed. Fire burned my palm from our touch, but I refused to let go. As if anxious to escape the light that flooded Isley’s body, the marks surged down my arm. The moment they left her, the light around Isley dimmed and her form returned to a solid state. The twining poison wrapped up my arm and around my neck. I fell to my knees as they tightened like a noose. “Zev, hold on,” Virgo shouted. “Anna, the chant!” The voices that had stopped at my appearance began again. I could feel the poison trembling as their words became louder. I forced my fingers beneath the noose and sucked in a breath. “Louder,” Madam Anna commanded. The poison began to break to pieces beneath my hands. It gave one last squeeze, then vanished with a hiss. I collapsed onto my back in relief and drew in a full breath. Virgo fell to his knees beside me. “Zev, are you alright?” I nodded and forced out past my bruised throat, “I think so. Is Isley?” Everyone looked at the table. From my place on the floor, I could hear the steady breath of someone caught in a deep sleep. The candles had returned to their normal friendly glow, and the light from the table appeared to come only from the faintly pulsing runes. A smile spread across Mrs. Stein’s face. “She is, thanks to you.” “What made you do that?” Virgo asked. I shook my head and put a hand above where my heartbeat thundered in my chest. “I don’t know. Instinct, I guess. How did that happen?” Madam Anna walked around the table to stand above me. She crossed her arms and look from Isley to me. The way she loomed and her sparking green gaze made her appear even more intimidating than before. The kittens on her sneakers failed to lighten the view. “Werewolves are creatures of darkness. Given the chance at a host that couldn’t destroy it with light, the poison from the felgul gladly leaped at the opportunity.” Her brow furrowed. “And your touched grounded Isley. As an elemental, the evil of the poison was destroying her soul. We had to imbue her with pure power, but we risked losing her to the light.” She shook her head. “It was a risk we had to take.” “Like the silver,” I said. The hint of a smile touched the witch’s lips and she nodded. “Just like the silver.” I let out a breath. “So she’s herself again.” “In a manner of speaking,” Madam Doxy said. “Look.” Virgo helped me to my feet. The warlock kept a hand on my shoulder when I stood as if he was afraid I would fall over again. I leaned against the table and stared at Isley. Her body had returned to normal, but a slight, pulsing light emanated from her. My ears locked onto the sound of her heartbeat. The light surged in time to the soft rhythm. It was hard for me to look at. “What does that mean?” I asked. “It means that we’ve unlocked her elemental powers,” Madam Anna replied. “She can learn to use them now.” A smile spread across her face. “She’ll be powerful enough to help us.” My instincts bade me to turn away from the girl, but my heart wouldn’t let me. I reached out a hand. “Zev, don’t,” Mrs. Stein whispered. I touched Isley’s arm. The light surged and heat ran up my fingers with such intensity that my skin felt as though it was burning. I sucked a breath in through my clenched teeth and jerked my hand back. Madam Henrietta put a hand on my arm. “You can’t touch her, dear. You’re a creature of darkness. Being around her too much could actually kill you.” My mouth fell open. “What?” Madam Doxy gave me a kind smile. “Remember what we told you about werewolves? And why we shot you?” “You shot Zev?” Mrs. Willard said. She had left her position near the door and joined us at the table. Her searching gaze found the bullet holes on my chest on either side of the white handprint. Her forehead creased. “Are you alright?” I nodded, then looked at Isley again and shook my head. “I don’t think so. I don’t understand what’s going on.” “This might be hard to hear,” Mrs. Stein said from my left. “But with Isley’s elemental powers unlocked, her affinity to light makes her the exact opposite of you. Your soul and hers cannot be around each other.” “You’re like magnets,” Madam Doxy said. “You repel each other in a potentially deadly way.” I took a step back. “So if I’m near, it could hurt her?” Madam Doxy gave Isley’s sleeping form a thoughtful look. “Maybe, but she’s more a danger to you than the other way around. Elementals are strong, and she’ll be even stronger without the bite slowing her down. It’d be best if you avoid each other after this.” The thought that being near her could potentially hurt Isley worried me more than the thought of her light powers burning me. My hand still throbbed from touching her. I closed it and opened it again as I took another step back. “Good idea,” Madam Doxy said. “Go back in the living room and rest. You’ve been through a lot.” Madam Anna nodded from behind her. “Get some rest. We owe you, Zev.” I shook my head. “You saved her life and mine. I’m just glad I happened to be in the right place when she needed me.” Virgo walked with me back to the living room. Though he didn’t make a point of it, he kept a hand up as if ready to catch me if I fell. I must have looked as bad as I felt. I sat on the closest couch with a thump. Virgo lowered more slowly next to me. He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. Half of his hair had escaped its usual ponytail. When he buried his face in his hands, it hid him from view. “I’ve never seen anything like that,” he admitted, his voice muffled. “Me, neither,” I replied. “I’ve read that witches are strong, but I didn’t realize how strong.” What I had learned of Isley turned over and over in my mind. I needed to learn more about elementals, but I didn’t know where to start. Virgo glanced at me with his chin still in his hands. “They expect me to be like that, you know.” The trepidation in his voice pushed past my thoughts of Isley. “Like what?” I asked. He made a vague gesture toward the dining room. “Strong like Madam Anna. A chanter, a spell maker.” He lifted his shoulders in a shrug and a hint of despair showed in his voice when he said, “Even though there’s enough witches, warlocks are rare. With my bloodlines, I’m supposed to be some sort of super powerful warlock able to do things like that and more.” I watched him closely. “And that bothers you?” “It worries me,” he admitted. “It really worries me.” “Why?” Everything I had learned in the Lair focused on making strengths stronger, hiding weaknesses, and learning how to harness power for both self-preservation and to makes oneself unbeatable. I couldn’t imagine having the type of power Virgo spoke of with such ease. Virgo shook his head and buried his face in his hands once more. “It’s too much power.” I stared at him. “I know I’ve almost died a few times today and that’s probably affected my thinking, but I don’t get it. Why don’t you want to be powerful?” Virgo sat up. He glanced at me and then his gaze shifted away as if he was embarrassed. He rubbed his eyes beneath his red-rimmed glasses and said, “I don’t expect you to understand, but what if that was me in there? What if I was supposed to do what Madam Anna did, and I messed up?” “You’d be human?” I replied as more of a question than a statement. The barest hint of a smile ghosted across Virgo’s lips and he glanced at me again. “Did you just make a joke?” An answer smile spread across my face. “I think so. Was it a good one?” He chuckled. “Yeah, it was. And I needed it.” He let out a pent-up breath. “I just don’t know if I’m ready.” I looked toward the doorway where the soft talking of the witches and Mrs. Willard drifted in. “Well, at least it doesn’t look like they’re ready for you yet.” Virgo nodded. “That’s a good thing.” He gave me a searching look. “Did they really make you drink silver?” I gave a shudder that wasn’t faked. “Yes. It was horrible.” His expression was sympathetic when he said, “Sort of like fighting fire with fire?” “Yeah,” I replied. “Except if you swallowed the fire and let it war out inside of you.” He grimaced. “You okay?” I nodded. I debated whether to ask him about my failed attempt at phasing, but the thought of admitting such a weakness was difficult. “What is it?” he asked. I cursed inwardly at the ability of humans to read expressions. I let out a breath and admitted, “I tried to phase when I woke up here.” “And?” he pressed. I shook my head. I was grateful the warlock got the point without making me say it aloud. He whistled through his teeth the way his mother often did and studied the wooden floor at his feet for a moment. “So maybe the silver’s keeping you from phasing,” he said. He glanced at me. “It could just be a matter of waiting for it to leave your system.” He sounded as unsure as I felt. “Yeah, maybe,” I said. I cleared my throat and forced a lighter tone when I suggested, “Should we get out of here?” Virgo looked toward the doorway. “You don’t want to stick around for Isley?” I opened my hand and looked at the burns on my palm. “You heard what they said. I don’t want to be dangerous to her.” He studied the blisters I revealed. “Looks more like she’s dangerous to you.” He hesitated, then suggested, “Why don’t you try the moonlight?” The way he paused before saying it echoed the fears I felt. The moonlight had always been the one constant in my life. Through the beatings and tortures of my youth, the nearly deadly hazing of the werewolves at the Lair, and the punishments of the Master, the moonlight had been the one thing I could count on. No matter what my aches and pains, I was always able to stand in its light and feel relief. Yet the moonlight had dropped me with such pain that I had thought I was dying. Instead of healing me, I had felt worse than I ever remembered feeling. Mrs. Stein’s betrayal combined with that of the moonlight to create such a heavy weight on my shoulders that I wasn’t sure I could take much more. But I was a werewolf. I couldn’t avoid the moonlight. It was a part of my soul. Something within the white caress that cast away the shadows completed me. It made the wolf side, my true side, surge to the surface. It healed me when nothing else could. It was the one go-to in my life. I had to trust it. I just had to. I reached my hand out toward a single beam that fell on the cushion of the couch between Virgo and me. My fingers shook slightly. At the sight, I closed my hand, took a steeling breath, then opened it again and set it in the small glowing patch. I expected pain. Instead, a tingling sensation ran across my skin. The ache of the burn eased and the vanished as the healing sensation I knew so well filled my hand with warmth. The breath I realized I was holding rushed out. Embarrassed at the sign of doubt, I shot Virgo a quick look and saw his shoulders bow as he relaxed. The realization that we had both been worried it wouldn’t work eased my tension somewhat. I didn’t know when the warlock had started to think of me as a person instead of a beast, but his relief at the easing of my pain touched me. When the tingling stopped, I lifted my hand and opened and closed it. “As good as new,” I noted. “That’s neat,” he said, staring at the healed flesh. “I wish I could do that.” “You could be a werewolf,” I suggested. Virgo tipped his head as if considering it. The action was wolf-like enough to make me smile. He finally shook his head. “Nope. I don’t like fleas.” I punched at him. He jumped off the couch and dodged my fist, then held out a hand. “Come on. Let’s get you home.” A strange pang went through my heart. He meant the Willards’ house, but the word rang hollow. I had never wanted a home, or never really needed one. But the though sent a sharp surge of longing through me I had never felt before. I shoved the feeling down and went to the front door. Virgo crossed to the doorway of the other room and spoke quietly to his mother and sister. A few moments later, Jemmy returned with him. Her relieved expression said she was as ready to leave as we were. Silence followed us and the enchantment over the house shifted from the beautiful mansion lawns to the grubby little walkway. I climbed onto the seat of the truck and stared out the window while Virgo drove us away. Chapter Four Virgo parked in the driveway and Alia and James hurried out of the house. “Is Isley going to be alright?” Alia asked. “We think so,” Jemmy said. She threw me a look. “It was touch and go, but she pulled through.” “Thank goodness,” Alia replied. She hugged Jemmy. “It’s good to see you.” “You, too.” Jemmy turned her smile to James. “And you.” Red touched James’ cheeks, but his grin left no doubt how he felt about her words. “Do you guys want to come in?” Virgo shook his head. “We’re just dropping off Zev. He’s had a rough night.” The look he sent me was stern. “Get some rest. You need it.” I gave him a salute. “Will do. Thanks for the ride.” “I need to swing by the store,” Virgo told James. “A book I’m waiting for was delivered while we were casting.” “Jemmy could stay,” James offered. He gave her a quick look. “That is, if you want to.” “I’d like that,” Jemmy said. She glanced at her brother and continued with, “If you think Mom wouldn’t mind.” Virgo nodded. “Stay. You deserve a break.” James hurried around the truck and opened Jemmy’s door for her. Jemmy accepted his assistance getting down with a blushing smile, then slipped her hand into his. When Virgo backed his truck up, the pair walked around us, lost in their own little world. Alia’s smile at the couple made her face glow in the moonlight. I swallowed past my suddenly tight throat. “Where’s Mitch?” I asked. She motioned toward the trees behind their house. “He said something about going running with the other werewolves.” The thought of phasing sent a whisper of pain through my body. I rolled my shoulders beneath the shirt Virgo had lent me. Virgo’s blue truck pulled out of the driveway. Its headlights bounced off the mailbox and then the trees across the street before he turned onto the main road. I regretted not going with him. Steeling myself, I turned back to the house. When I walked past Alia, she said in surprise, “You’re not going with the werewolves?” “No,” I said without looking at her. “I’m going to take Virgo’s advice and get some rest.” I had reached the porch and put a hand on the doorknob when she said, “Zev?” I closed my eyes to center myself, then opened them again and forbade my face from showing any emotions when I turned around. “Zev, what’s going on?” Alia asked. I tried for an innocent tone and said, “What do you mean?” My eyes flitted past her to where James and Jemmy stood talking in the moonlight halfway across the yard. From their position, they couldn’t hear our conversation. By the look of complete rapture on their faces, there wasn’t anything else they wanted to hear but each other. “You won’t even look at me,” Alia said. I made myself focus on her face. Her hazel eyes stared up into mine insistently. The hand on her hip and the way she flipped her long brown hair back behind her ear showed her agitation. The voice in the back of my mind noted that life was easier before I began to read human body language. Her stance said she wouldn’t let it go until I explained. The only problem was that I didn’t know how to explain because it didn’t make sense to me, either. I sucked in a steadying breath and went with, “Alia, you and Mitch have feelings for each other.” Her gaze lowered so that her eyes were hidden by her eyelashes. The slight rise of red to her cheeks was enough acknowledgement of my words that my stomach twisted. I shouldn’t have felt it, not really, not given the fact that we had only known each other for a week filled with enough danger, death, and pain to last a lifetime. The detached voice in my mind noted that maybe that was my problem. I wouldn’t have survived something like defeating my vampire Master, the other imposter vampire, and reasoning with the werewolves we had freed from the Lair by myself. I owed Alia. I owed her for patching me up when her brother Ian hit me with his car on my escape from the Lair, I owed her for talking me into staying when I wanted so badly just to run away and be a wild wolf, and I owed her and her family for giving me a place to stay that was safer than anywhere I had ever been. I had bled for them, I felt responsible for them, and in a strange way, I felt comfortable among them in a way I never thought I would with humans. Thanks to Alia, a part of my soul, the human part, had found itself. She accepted me for who I was without being disappointed in the violence of my past or the instinctual actions of my werewolf nature. She made me feel as if, for once, I fit in without having to look over my shoulder. All things considered, I couldn’t blame my heart for opening itself to her. The hardest part was closing it off again. I forced a small smile to my lips and said in a level voice, “I’m glad you found each other. Tell Mitch when he gets back to come find me if he has anything to report.” I opened the door and went inside. Relief that she didn’t follow me to the basement was nearly as welcoming as the sight of the air mattress on the floor. The one I had accidentally popped the other night when Aspen was kidnapped by werewolves lay folded in the corner. Guilt at the sight wasn’t enough to keep me from settling back into the comforting embrace of air-filled plastic covered in blankets that smelled of faint, floral detergent and the stale, cottony scent of sheets that had been stored in a closet for a long time. It was a wonderful smell. I closed my eyes and let my thoughts settle. Exhaustion powered its way along my limbs as if it had been waiting for just such a lowering of my guard to attack. I couldn’t remember the last time I had enjoyed a good night’s sleep. A lazy smile slid across my face at the thought that I had absolutely nothing to do at that moment except doze off. I started through the sleep exercises I had been taught at the Lair in my youth in order to fall asleep as quickly as possible. Letting out a calming breath, I concentrated on relaxing all of the muscles of my face, followed by my neck and my chest. My pecs and the muscles that embraced my ribs took the longest, but considering the fact that I had been shot, I couldn’t really blame them. As soon as I felt the tension ease, I let my concentration slip down my arms and then to my wrists and fingers. I returned my focus to my torso, down my legs and then to my toes, willing each muscle to relax until I felt as though I had sunk deep into the embrace of the mattress below me. A sigh of contentment escaped my lips as the welcoming shadow of slumber stole across my thoughts. There was no danger here. Nothing needed my immediate attention. There were no rounds to run for the Master, checking and protecting the perimeter of the Lair’s forest to ensure nothing sinister or pure crossed its boundaries. There were no werewolves to be fought for rankings, no kitchen brawl to be had in order to eat, and no irons waiting to brand me for whatever stubborn decision I had made that day. My scars were settled and getting older. Though the many burns that crisscrossed my back, chest, and sides ached from the silver brands that had been used to mark the Master’s displeasure, it was a familiar pain that set my mind to ease. Even the newest scars from the felgul’s claws and the two bullet wounds felt dull enough not to be a bother. Mine was a warrior’s body. Battle-hardened out of necessity, both my human form and wolf one carried the marks of thousands of fights. As ugly as the scars were, I had survived them. Not all at the Lair could say such a thing. The last, lingering thought before sleep stole completely across me was that it was really, really nice to sleep on blankets on a mattress instead of a hard pallet on the floor. Maybe that was what home felt like. A howl permeated the air. I groaned and pulled the pillow over my head. An answering howl called out. The humans in the rooms above probably didn’t even hear them. As it was, the sound came tinny and small through the two rectangular panes of glass in windows my shoulders would barely fit through. Yet the songs curled around my soul, urging me to join them in their run beneath the stars. I made out Mitch’s voice among the others. The werewolf had become a friend, something I never would have expected given our history together in the Lair. To hear him out there running with the brethren and sisters we had grown up with and freed from the Master’s hold made me sit up. I wanted to be a wolf. There was something so freeing about my wolf form that called to me. I longed for the animalistic thoughts that would chase away the worries of the future. I needed it more than I needed sleep. A small dot of moonlight rested near my pillow. It was so tempting to put my hand in it. It couldn’t hurt to just feel the moonlight. It had healed my palm after I touched Isley. Just letting it grace my skin couldn’t do any harm. I slipped my hand beneath the tiny beam and cupped it in my palm as if it was substantial enough to hold. Little motes of dust danced in the pale light like tiny ballerinas reveling in their moment of glory. Another howl trickled through the window. The want to join them surged beneath my veins and I gave into the thought of embracing my wolf side. Pain so striking and sharp it made me double over on the bed stole my breath. I pulled my legs in and held my torso, breathing shallowly in an effort to stay conscious. I shouldn’t have done it. It was stupid. But I was a werewolf. I needed my wolf form. The pain sharpened and I was barely able to muffle a cry at the severity of it. I turned my head into the pillow and let out a growl of frustration through my clenched teeth. “Alright,” I finally said. “Alright. I’m done.” The pain eased enough for me to draw in a full breath. I stayed curled in the same position, sweat now soaking the sheets that had been so clean. I was grateful I hadn’t popped the mattress, but almost wanted to just to let out some of the pent-up frustration I felt. I was a werewolf that couldn’t phase. I was broken. A shaky disparaging laugh escaped me. I was more messed up then I had words for. “Zev?” Adrenaline jolted through me at the voice and the pain lowered to a manageable threshold. I sat up and peered toward the stairs. My werewolf eyesight made out a small form standing about halfway down. “Aspie, are you alright?” She nodded and walked down the remaining steps. The eight-year-old carried a worn blanket in one hand and a tattered blue teddy bear in the other. Her bare feet made soft pattering sounds on the wooden stairs. Surprised to see her, I asked, “What time is it?” “Three forty-seven,” she said without hesitation. I knew better than to ask the little girl how she knew without looking. Being demon-touched does something to a human, and the girl’s knowing gaze combined with the shine of her old soul through her young green eyes was enough to remind me that I wasn’t dealing with a normal child. She crossed to the bed. “Do you want to sit down?” I asked uncertainly. She nodded, sat on the mattress, and then scooted over so that she leaned against me. Surprised by the unaccustomed closeness of any human, let alone a child, my arm lifted of its own accord and she snuggled against my side. Her acceptance of me had been a shock not only to myself, but Aspen’s family. She apparently didn’t talk to anyone outside of her siblings or mother to the point that she had been taken out of school and taught at home. So, when she chose the stranger who happened to also be a werewolf to befriend, I wasn’t the only one caught off-guard. “I had a nightmare,” the little girl said. Her blonde hair stood out in floating wisps that tickled my cheek. I held perfectly still and ignored the urge to sneeze in case that would scare her. I wasn’t sure what scared little girls. “What was it about?” I asked because it seemed like she was waiting for me to do so. She held up her bear. “You’d better hold Henry.” Torn between feeling touched by her offer and scared by what she would say, I accepted her proffered teddy bear. The soft, well-worn fur let out Aspen’s scent of cotton, baby’s breath flowers, and the faint death and pepper notes of the demon who had claimed her. Worried that Borig was waking up again, I asked, “Was the nightmare Borig’s or yours?” “Mine,” she replied. She paused and looked up at me. “Actually, it was yours.” A cold chill brushed across my skin. “Mine?” She nodded. Her large green eyes searched mine with such intensity that I could see myself reflected in them. “Zev, you can’t go with the Ankou.” Ice ran through my veins. “Aspie, where did you hear that word?” “From Borig,” she replied. “Borig said that if you go with the Ankou, everyone who is with you will die.” Her eyes were steady when she continued, “He said it will be your choice, but if you make the wrong one, it’ll all be on your head.” I sucked in a shaky breath. I couldn’t tell if Aspen knew what she was warning me of, so I tried to remain calm. “Is Borig talking to you right now?” She shook her head and her wispy blonde hair stood up with static around her face. “No. He’s sleeping. He said he plans to sleep for a hundred years, but that he liked you and wanted to warn you before you went rushing off somewhere foolish like the afterlife.” It took me a minute to process that. The lateness of the hour showed when Aspen rubbed her eyes. “I’m going back to sleep. I don’t think the nightmare will return,” she said, her voice slurred with tiredness. I nodded. “I think that’s a good idea.” I handed her the teddy bear and she accepted it without a word. She gave me another hug before she walked up the stairs. I still wasn’t used to the closeness humans shared. Hugs were prevalent everywhere, yet the tight embrace felt close enough to an attack that I had to remind myself every time that the person doing it wasn’t a threat. Aspen’s hugs were brief, sincere actions that made my breath catch in my throat. If the little girl wasn’t afraid of me after all Borig had said, perhaps there was hope. But she had mentioned the Ankou. I rubbed my eyes. Ankou was an ancient name for the Angel of Death. He was known by hundreds, if not thousands, of different titles. But the Ankou was known for more than just being a henchman; he protected and collected lost souls. Why a protector of graveyards and wandering spirits would be caught up in Mrs. Stein’s battle against the dark coven was beyond me. I was getting the feeling that I had agreed to something far past my abilities. The house phone in the kitchen rang. I wondered who could possibly be calling at the early hour. Nobody had a reason to call for me, so I was just about to lay back down when the door to the basement opened. “Zev, the phone’s for you,” James called down. Surprised, I pushed to my feet and hurried up the stairs. No one had ever called for me. I could have counted the number of times I had used a phone on one hand, and that included calling the Willards when Isley had been bitten. I reached the kitchen to find James leaning against the wall holding the corded phone. “Did it wake you up?” I asked him. He shook his head. “Researching,” he replied vaguely. “Don’t tell Mom. I’ve been up since yesterday evening.” His bloodshot eyes and glazed expression matched his words. Mrs. Willard didn’t approve of paranormal research and had banned him from it back before they realized their father’s obsession with the supernatural had been founded in truth. Even though I knew James continued his studies against her will, I wasn’t about to say anything. “You don’t have to worry about me,” I reassured him. I took the phone he held out. The Willards still used one of the old-fashioned variety with a twisted cord and everything. Mrs. Willard said it reminded her of simpler times. The kids said it was because she always lost the other phone and this way, she could still get in touch with them. I put the receiver up to my ear. “Hello?” “Zev, I need your help!” the caller said breathlessly. “Virgo? What happened?” Any exhaustion I felt vanished at the panic in his voice. “The book’s gone, Zev! Someone stole it!” “What book?” My mind raced. “Why are you calling me instead of the cops?” “Because it’s the book of…well…the book you came for the first day we met,” he replied. My breath caught. If the book by Parakin Prisma was gone, there was much more at stake than a simple book theft. No wonder he didn’t want to give details over the phone. “Can I pick you up?” he asked. “If we don’t track it down….” Parakin Prisma’s works contained spells, talismans, and all manner of information on the paranormal. If that book fell into the wrong hands, Virgo’s family and the werewolves could be in serious trouble. “I’ll meet you out front,” I told him. I hung up the phone at the same time that the whisper of a footstep met my ear. I spun with my hand raised, ready to take down any would-be assailant. “Whoa!” James said. He backed away with his hands up to show that he was unarmed. “My bad.” When I put my hands down, he grinned. “Sorry. I forget that sneaking around a trained werewolf soldier isn’t exactly a good idea.” I shook my head with embarrassment. “I shouldn’t be so jumpy.” He grabbed a gallon of milk from the refrigerator along with two white objects. He tossed me one before removing the cap from the milk jug. I caught the item without a second thought and studied the cylindrical tube. “What’s this?” He was busy drinking from the jug of milk. He lowered it just enough to say, “String cheese,” before he took another gulp. I smelled the plastic packaging. “This isn’t cheese.” He lowered the milk and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Give it a try.” He shoved the milk jug back into the refrigerator and closed it. “Milk and cheese are what every man needs.” I watched him pull the edges of the plastic packaging apart and remove the cheese. Doing the same, I found myself holding what may have once been cheese but looked completely foreign. “Pull the sides down,” James directed. “Like this.” He used his fingernail to separate a piece from the others and pulled it down in a string. He put it in his mouth and made a show of chewing it. “See.” I followed his directions until I had a small piece of the cheese, then put it in my mouth as well. A smile spread across my face at the taste. “It’s good, right?” James said. “I’m not sure if it’s pure cheese, but its pure goodness. It’s my favorite comfort food.” I took a bite of the cheese without separating it into strings. James stared at me. “You can’t eat it like that!” “Why not?” I asked, baffled. “It tastes the same.” “I, well, I don’t know,” he replied. “I’ve never thought of it before. But it’s barbaric!” I had seen enough barbaric things to chuckle at the idea of eating cheese in bites instead of strings as in the same category. “You’re ridiculous,” I told him and took another bite. “Stop!” he said. “You’re ruining the fun of it!” He proceeded to hold up his cheese, pull off another string with dramatic slowness, and put it with a theatrical flourish onto his tongue. “See. It’s fun. Don’t ruin the fun.” Still not sure what he was getting at, but realizing it was important to him, I pulled off another string and ate it. It still tasted the same, and the wolf side of me didn’t enjoy eating in smaller quantities when I could gulp it down in a single bite, but I decided to humor him. “Well?” he asked. “It’s…fun?” I said as more of a question than a statement. He grinned. “Yes. It is.” He peeled off another few strands, then glanced at me. “String cheese was one of my dad’s favorites. He used to share it with Lia and me when we were kids.” Understanding as to why eating it correctly was so important to him dawned on me. I nodded. “It’s really good. Thanks for sharing it with me.” “Anytime,” he replied. He motioned toward the refrigerator. “Have as many as you want. Mom always keeps it in stock.” “I will. Thanks.” My conversation with his little sister made me ask, “James, did your dad ever do any research on the Ankou?” James’ eyebrows lifted. “The Bringer of Death? I’m not sure. I can see if Mom kept any of his books.” Impressed that he knew the title, I nodded. “That would be great. This thing with the Steins is a little more intense than I was thinking. I’d feel better if I was a little more prepared.” James saluted me with his string cheese. “No problem. I’ll have some info for you later today if I’m lucky.” “Thanks,” I told him. Favors were so easily asked of humans. It still set me on edge considering that any favor given in the Lair had been done with strings attached, and those strings usually meant pain in some way. And they had nothing to do with cheese. As I sat on the porch and waited for Virgo’s blue truck, one such memory surfaced. “I’m giving you this on condition that you owe me,” the older werewolf said. He towered above me. I couldn’t have been more than eight years old at the time. My instincts whispered in the back of my mind that I shouldn’t trust him, but the werewolf had done nothing to wrong me so far, and the ham hock he held out smelled so good my stomach won over my mind. “I’ll remember,” I replied. The nod he gave before handing over the prized, meaty bone could have carried more weight to it than a simple offer of food should have, but I was too hungry to notice. I hid the bone under my shirt and practically ran back to my little sanctuary. It was nothing more than one of the many, many small caves in the Lair wall that had been furnished only with a pallet on the floor, but it was mine. The faint smell of the werewolf who had lived there before was a reminder that I was stronger than he had been. I had taken one bite of the raw meat before a voice spoke outside the door. “What do you have there?” I chewed quickly in the hopes of another bite before the werewolf appeared. One, two, and then three older werewolves ducked through the opening of my den. I backed up to the far wall, only feet away from them, and held the ham hock against my chest. “It’s mine. Fifty-four gave it to me,” I said. I barely recognized my own voice as the possessive snarl of the wolf inside of me answered as well. “Oh, Fifty-four gave it to him,” the first werewolf said to the others. “So does that mean it’s his?” “It means it’s mine,” a lanky werewolf replied, stepping forward. He held out a hand that was missing a finger. “Hand it over, lobo.” I did the one thing I knew I shouldn’t do. As the three older boys watched, I brought the meat to my mouth and took another bite. It was foolish. I knew it would be, but I had bargained for the meat and I deserved it. The immediate rush and tackle said otherwise. I quickly found myself flattened to the floor with the three older werewolves sitting on top of me. My face was smashed into the rough ground of the cave until a muffled yelp escaped me. The werewolves ignored my pain and instead passed the ham hock back and forth, taking bites and talking as if they were in the cafeteria. I tried to struggle, but they were much larger. My wolf side growled to be set free, but to phase into wolf form and attack an elder outside of the training rings was against the rules. The last thing I needed was to be thrown in solitary again because of my temper. As it was, it took every ounce of my self-control to sit and wait, listening while they ate my prize and discussed rounds and missions as if I was nothing but a cushion for them to sit upon. “Guess we should get back,” the oldest one finally said. They rose and I was able to draw a full breath into my lungs. I pushed up to all fours and watched them leave. “Thanks for the meal, mutt!” the lanky werewolf called out. “Yeah, it was very filling,” the first said. They wandered away laughing, their sounds of their bare feet on the tunnel floor loud as they scuffled amongst themselves. “What should we do with the bone?” the third werewolf’s voice called back. “I know just where it should go,” the first werewolf replied. Later that night, I stood ringside with the other werewolves my age. We watched older werewolves fighting in the ring. It was brutal. Nobody held back. The healing powers of our heritage meant that broken bones, bloody faces, torn muscles, and lacerations were all a part of the nightly showdown. I winced when a haymaker sent the smaller werewolf in the ring into a full turn before he landed on the ground. “Forty-nine is down by knock-out,” a werewolf with a deep voice called out. Other werewolves assigned to the duty dragged the fallen one out from beneath the ropes. “Fifty-four against the winner,” another werewolf said. Fifty-four walked over to the werewolf and whispered something in his ear. The werewolf’s eyes lit up with interest and he wrote something on the paper he held. “Amendment,” the werewolf called out. “We have a substitute by order of a favor.” A tingling sensation ran up my spine. To my horror, the big werewolf turned and pointed at me. “You’re turn, whelp,” Fifty-four said. “I’m calling in your favor.” Hands grabbed my arms and hauled me to the ring. They shoved me roughly inside where I fell to my knees. I pushed back to my feet and stared up at the towering werewolf who had defeated Forty-nine. Blood trickled from a cut that had opened his eyebrow, but he didn’t appear to feel it. The werewolf grinned down at me and banged his fists together. The blood on his knuckles definitely wasn’t his own. I turned in a desperate attempt to ask Fifty-four to revoke the favor, then froze at the sight beyond the ring. Fifty-four leaned against a pillar with several other werewolves I recognized. Laughing at a comment from one of them, he brought something to his mouth and chewed on it. My stomach tightened when I realized it was the ham hock. Fifty-four caught my eyes and lifted the bone. His gaze gleamed in the firelight. A footstep moved behind me and I ducked as I spun back in an attempt to avoid the blow, but it caught me behind the ear and dropped me faster than Forty-nine. I closed my eyes with the image of Fifty-four and the ham hock burned into my brain. I vowed to never owe anyone anything ever again. Chapter Five The sound of truck tires on asphalt made me open my eyes. I pushed to my feet and crossed the dark lawn to where Virgo slid to a stop in a rush of dust. “Where’s your shoes?” Virgo asked when I climbed onto the passenger seat. I glanced at my feet. “I forgot them.” He shook his head. “Werewolves.” His scent filled the air, but something was off. “Why do you smell like a skunk?” A hint of red touched Virgo’s cheeks when he said, “Because goblins don’t like the smell of stinkweed, and we don’t know what we’re up against.” “Nobody likes the smell of stinkweed!” I replied. “Why do you guess it’s goblins? They can’t read.” “Are you sure?” Virgo asked. I nodded. “Pretty sure.” He gave a sigh of relief and rolled down his window. Before I could ask what he was up to, he pulled a sandwich bag full of stinkweed out of his pocket and tossed it out to the darkness. “That’s better,” he said, sitting back. I shook my head. “Warlocks.” I held out what I had brought from the Willards. “You brought me string cheese in a time of crisis?” Virgo asked as he hurtled us back up the road toward his bookstore. “It’s comfort food,” I said, repeating what James had told me. Virgo shot me a surprised look. “I didn’t think werewolves went for comfort food. From my observation, they’re sort of an eat everything and ask questions later type.” That made me smile. “It’s a survival instinct. Wolves in the wild do it all the time.” I held up the string cheese. “But this is to be enjoyed.” He unwrapped it with a show of impressive dexterity as he maneuvered us around a tight corner and into town. He then lifted the cheese to take a big bite the way I had done. “Don’t ruin it,” I warned him. Virgo rolled his eyes. “Let me guess. You’re like my sister and have to eat every string until there’s nothing left.” “It’s the only way,” I said. “Trust me.” He shook his head but proceeded to peel a strand from the side of the cheese. “I don’t have time for this,” he muttered as he placed it on his tongue. “Is it better?” I asked curiously. He frowned, then nodded. “For some reason, yeah.” I sat back with a smile that refused to leave my face despite whatever situation we were rolling into. “Look,” Virgo whispered when he pulled to a stop in front of the Inking Post, the only bookstore in Brickwell. “See how they broke the little window by the door. That’s how they unlocked it.” He had hastily taped a piece of cardboard over the small broken window before leaving to get me. It looked like a missing tooth amid the rest of the glass. Virgo sighed and climbed out of the truck. “I’m just glad they didn’t smash the front window. The stained glass would cost a fortune to replace.” I had never had to worry about the cost of replacing something someone else had broken. Guilt at the window I had smashed through at the Willards’ on my first night still niggled in the back of my thoughts. The window pane that revealed the front of the warlock’s store was cleverly crafted in blue, red, gold, and green glass depicting an old man reading to two children in front of a fireplace. The fact that whoever had broken in hadn’t taken that as an easy entrance meant we were dealing with something more intelligent than a ghoul or goblin. Perhaps they had some heart or knew that in breaking Virgo’s prized stained glass, they would have an angry warlock on their trail. Virgo unlocked the front door. “Look. I didn’t even clean up. They picked up the glass and stacked it that way.” I studied the tiny pile on the ledge below the window. Someone had taken great care not to be a burden. Perhaps they hoped that by leaving as little damage as possible, he wouldn’t get the police involved. “Do you think cops could lift fingerprints from them?” “Maybe,” Virgo said. “But I was hoping you could get a scent from it and trail whoever it is.” I let out a breath. The witches may have saved my life, but the reminder that they had also been the ones to shoot me was quick to follow. Away from their house of magic, it was clearer to see how much they did to protect their coven regardless of the impact it had on others. I hoped Isley was alright. “Sorry,” Virgo replied quietly. “I forgot you can’t phase.” I shoved the emotions away. “Maybe we can find another clue. Where did you keep the book?” “Back here where it was the first day,” he replied, leading the way through the shelves. “Nobody’s ever messed with it. I figured it was safer hidden among the books than in some place by itself.” I stopped in front of the shelf titled ‘The Universe’ and studied the empty place at the end where Parakin Prisma’s book had been. I couldn’t argue with Virgo’s reasoning. The title ‘Craft’ was innocuous enough to prevent most from picking it up. Whoever had broken into his store had known exactly what he or she was getting. I crouched and studied the empty spot without touching it. The next book, a heavy tome entitled, ‘The Universe Adrift’, leaned into the space as though relieved not to stand straight any longer. A faint smell, barely a whiff, touched my nose. I recognized the scent of dry erase markers and formaldehyde. My mind raced to connect the two. I stood up. “Virgo, is there a school close—” My question was cut off when Virgo’s cellphone rang. He glanced at the name on the screen. “It’s my mom.” He put it to his ear. “Hey, Mom. I can’t talk right now. Someone—” He paused. “Wait, what?” I heard her say, “Isley’s gone. We need you and Zev to get here right away!” I hurried to the door without waiting for Virgo’s reply. My heart raced as I waited for the warlock to lock the store and meet me at the truck. A million questions ran through my mind. Was she kidnapped? Had the dark coven found them? Had she run away? Had the witches done something else to her? Was she hurt? The last question repeated over and over in my mind in time to the hum of the tires on the road. I kept hearing Madam Doxy’s warning that somebody would die if they confronted the dark coven. Everyone was in danger, and the witches were to blame. “Nobody came to the house?” I asked again before I could stop myself. “She didn’t say,” Virgo answered for the third time. He glanced at me as he raced up the asphalt. “Zev, we’ll find her.” I stared out the side window, my eyes searching the trees as if I could spot her out there in the dark. By the time Virgo pulled up to the witches’ house in the middle of the crammed neighborhood at the edge of Township, light was beginning to cross the horizon. Clouds were crowding the eastern sky thick enough to herald a coming storm. We slammed the doors and ran up the meager sidewalk. I barely gave the enchantments a second glance when they changed to the fine lawns and pillars of the mansion. Mrs. Stein pulled open the door before we reached it. “She’s not here,” Virgo’s mother said. “We’ve checked everywhere.” She led the way inside. “She either ran away or was taken.” “You don’t know?” I couldn’t hide the exasperation in my voice. “How is that possible?” Madam Anna met us in the same room where they had been chanting around the table. The rushes were still on the floor, but the runes that had been drawn on the table’s surface had been erased. “We put her in the guest room to sleep,” the witch explained. “She was so exhausted, and with her new powers, there’s no telling how her body is going to react.” “We gave her the tea,” Madam Doxy said, her face filled with worry. “She should have slept.” Madam Henrietta rose from the chair across the table. “But when I went to check on her, the window in her room was open and she was gone.” “Come on. We’ll show you,” Madam Doxy said, motioning for us to follow her. “Was it forced open from the outside?” Virgo asked as we walked up a finely carpeted hallway hung with pictures of men and women in elegant suits and dresses. The hair on the back of my neck rose as the feeling of being watched aroused my fight or flight instincts, but when I looked back at the paintings, their eyes averted from mine. A shudder rushed over my skin and I hurried to catch up to the others. “It wasn’t forced open,” Madam Anna said. “There’s a latch that can only be released from the inside. She must have done it herself.” She wrung her long-fingered hands in a motion that put her far out of the image of the