Once again, we parked near the big, red barn. I glanced back at Claws. “We need to find the two men who work here.”
When I opened the rear hatch door for him, he leapt out of the vehicle and sniffed the air, then turned his head and made a low, throaty sound for Ebony to join him. The black cat jumped to his side. Then the two waited for us to follow them.
Claws led us to one of the stables where both farmhands were working. Then, without a backward glance, the two cats raced off to explore. I smiled, watching them go—my ocelot and Winifred’s black familiar. Most of the witches in my coven had been claimed by cats, so Claws was used to them, enjoyed their company. They’d have a good time together.
As Raven advanced toward the men, he sniffed, too. They stopped working when they saw us and the horse trainer leaned an arm against a stall, studying us. The yard maintenance man leaned on a garden rake.
“Didn’t expect to see you again,” the trainer said. “How can we help you?”
“First, we’d like to introduce ourselves. I’m Raven, a fire demon enforcer for Muddy River. This is Nyte, a supernatural marshal for this entire area. My mate, Hester. Nyte’s mate, Cazzandra. You know Winifred. And our friends, Derek and Prim. They were supporting the new supernatural settlement where all of the parents were killed.”
The man blinked. “A whole settlement was wiped out? Why?”
Prim answered, her voice tight. “So that four women could steal all of their children.” She pointed to Winifred. “She was one of them. The coven that met here meant to sacrifice her at the full moon.”
The men stared.
“And you are?” Raven asked. “I can tell you each have a small amount of magic.”
The trainer nodded. “I’m Edik, part Fae. And this is Lance. He has a small bit of earth witch in him.”
Introductions out of the way, Raven’s voice turned business-like. “As you know, by our laws, since we destroyed the owner of this property for breaking supernatural rules, we’ve inherited the horse farm. But we’re hoping that both of you will stay on when Nyte and Cazzandra move here to start a new settlement for our kind.”
Lance’s shoulders relaxed. “Good news. We were worried you’d put it on the market. If mortals buy it, they might sell off the horses and develop it into a subdivision. That’s happening a lot in this area. We’d lose our homes and jobs.”
“No worries of that,’ Nyte told him, “but we would like to ask you some questions about the coven who practiced here.” He was about to say more when a black stallion bumped against its stall, leaning its head out to touch him with its nose.
Edik stared. “That stallion is usually stand-offish.”
Nyte smiled and turned to rub its forehead. “I love horses, and they usually like me.”
“But you’re part vampire.” Edik frowned. “Most horses are shy around vamps.”
Nyte smiled. “But I’m part Fae, too. That reassures them. And you’re part Fae, so he’s familiar with your scent.”
Raven returned to the reason we’d come. “What can you tell us about the former owner and his coven?”
“Not much, I’m afraid.” Lance scratched his head. “Once a month, when it was a full moon, we were given days off and weren’t allowed back on the property until two days after the moon started waning. And we were told never to enter the sacred woods where the coven met.”
That didn’t surprise me. The men couldn’t miss the stench of dark magic once they neared the clearing.
Edik shuffled his feet, looking uncomfortable. “What we did notice is that every time a young girl came here, she disappeared after the full moon. When we asked about it, we were told one of the couples who’d visited while we were gone had grown fond of her and adopted her.”
“But you didn’t believe them?” Derek asked. He wrapped a comforting around Prim and then did the same for Winifred. They both looked pale.
Lance wouldn’t meet his gaze. “No, but we didn’t ask too many questions, and we should have. We’re mighty ashamed of ourselves about that.”
Raven’s voice was dry. “You thought they’d kill you if you reported it to anyone.”
“We were cowards.” Edik grimaced. He looked at Winifred. “We’re sorry. We wanted to believe what they told us. If we’d said something to anyone, and they came to question someone in the coven but didn’t arrest them or eliminate them, we knew they’d come for us.”
Lance nodded. “We had no love or loyalty to them. We’re relieved they’re dead.” He glanced at Prim. “You can’t think much of us, and I don’t blame you.”
Prim took a deep breath. “I don’t know what I’d have done in your place.”
Edik shook his head. “You’d have tried to rescue the girls. That’s why you came now. We have no excuses and we know it. We just wanted to save our own skins. We wouldn’t have a chance against the coven. We even talked about slipping away, just disappearing in the night, but if they found us, we’d be goners.”
“That’s in the past. Now, you can make up for whatever you didn’t do,” Nyte said. “When the young supernaturals come to settle here, you can help them make a go of it.”
“How long did the coven own the property?” Raven asked.
“We worked here close to two decades,” Lance told them. “So at least that long.”
“And how often did they bring a girl here before full moons?”
Edik locked gazes with Lance. “We estimate there must have been about twenty, one a year. I can’t say for sure. We didn’t catch on right away.”
Raven reached for my hand, forcing me to focus on him. He wore his worried frown. “That’s not long in supernatural years, not even for a coven, is it? Some of the girls’ parents might still be alive if the four women didn’t kill them. Should we dig up the girls’ remains and try to identify them?”
Bless my demon. He was always concerned about the loved ones left behind when a victim died. And he was right. Some parent could easily still be grieving about a child gone missing, just like the couple we’d talked to whose daughter left their farm to work as a waitress. But most of those victims had died and been buried a long time. “Can we identify them?” I asked.
Nyte nodded. “I send evidence to a lab in Illinois. If we can find DNA, they can usually find a match.”
DNA shouldn’t be a problem. Black witches usually didn’t go to the bother of cremating bodies. They just buried them in shallow graves. Prim didn’t wait for anyone to answer. “We have to dig them up. Some parent or family could find closure.”
I sighed. I wasn’t fond of digging up bodies, but I agreed with Prim. The poor girls who’d died should at least be identified and Raven could dispose of their bodies properly. “If there’s any smell, I can call for a wind when we find the remains.” But then, if the bodies had been buried long enough, there might not be any flesh to worry about.
“We’ll help you,” Edik said, grabbing a shovel. Lanced grabbed one, too.
“Can you find the bodies?” Raven asked me.
“I should be able to. They’re witches. Their magic should call to me. But if I can’t, Claws can. Familiars are attuned to us.” As we tramped toward the clearing in the woods, I called for my familiar.
Raven turned to Derek, Prim, and Winifred. “Why don’t you take time to meet the horses and look over the farm? Winifred shouldn’t see this, and there’s nothing you can help us with.”
Derek quickly took each of their arms and started walking down the stalls. “All of these horses are beauties, don’t you think?”
I smiled at his retreating back. Our Muddy River’s vampire was determined to spare the young girl and Prim any ugliness he could.
The rest of us turned and started walking toward the woods. By the time we reached the meadow, my ocelot padded toward us