This time, I packed our cooler with all kinds of supplies for supper and breakfast, even adding one of the cherry cobblers I’d made a while ago and frozen. If we were going to die, we’d have one heck of a last meal.
Lunch was a bit sketchier. I knew we’d be in a hurry to leave. The refrigerator was nearly empty, we’d been gone so long. I’d had to rely on my freezer. I thawed a pork tenderloin and cut it into big chunks, quickly sautéed them, then added sliced onions and a bag of thawed broccoli florets. At the end, I splashed on a few dashes of soy sauce and served the stir-fry over rice. Raven loved it. I knew he would. He liked variety, craving more than just meat, starch, and veggie meals. I was happy that Nyte and Cazzandra loved it, too.
Then we got ready to leave. Claws reluctantly jumped into the back of the SUV, tired of our many travels. I felt sorry for the drivers who were trying to keep up with Raven and Nyte as we raced away. Not every supernatural had a need for speed, me included. But I had to admit, we reached the ferry to cross the Mississippi much faster than if I’d have driven.
When we drove our cars onboard it and neared the far shore, a big black dog watched us from the river bank and ran off before we reached it.
Claws hissed, watching it. Cazzandra pointed as the dog raced away. “My father’s familiar,” she said. “I hate that dog. It tried to track me when I ran from my dad. It would have caught me, too, if I hadn’t laced my trail with a magic that worked like cayenne.”
I chuckled, impressed. Cayenne would mess up the dog’s nose enough that it couldn’t follow any scent. But I was glad the dog saw us. “It’s a good thing we were spotted. We want Murlyn to know we’re here. I don’t want him to know where we’re going, though. I’ll do an obfuscation spell for our drive to the orphanage. We don’t need to see him until after we rescue the children, but I can’t break his wards any more than he can break mine. We need to anger him enough that he wants to battle us.”
Raven glanced overhead. Like me, he expected to see Murlyn’s birds. “You’re hoping he’ll drop his wards so we can come to him—an invitation, so he can battle us on his own turf.”
He wrapped an arm around my waist to give me a quick hug. “Always thinking, one of the things I like about you.”
I cast my spell, and we set off for Cazzandra’s hotel. At the speed we were going, it didn’t take long to reach it. While the new people found rooms and settled in, I got busy in the kitchen. Raven’s all-time favorite meal was barbecued ribs, baked potatoes, and Greek salad, but ribs needed more time to make than I had, so I’d settled for his second favorite—ribeye steaks, seasoned potato wedges, and cole slaw. I’d brought a thick steak for each person and a whole bag of potatoes. To save time, I bought two bags of cole slaw and only needed to mix the dressing. When I unloaded the ingredients from the cooler, Raven grinned.
“Is this our send-off meal?” he asked.
“Could be. I didn’t want to take any chances.”
He laughed and went to light the grill. My demon might make light of my worries, but when I caught him at unguarded moments, he looked worried, too. Claws wandered out to the patio with Raven while I arranged all of the steaks on a platter and seasoned them. Then I cut two trays of potatoes to season and put in a hot oven. I was working on the slaw when Raven returned and tried to steal some of the streusel topping off the cobbler. I raised my wooden spoon to rap his knuckles, but then shrugged. If we survived, then I’d enforce the rules.
Nyte got in the Last Meal mood, too, and scrounged a blender out of one of Cazzandra’s cupboards. Cazzandra dug through her liquor cabinet and brought out the ingredients for margaritas.
She sighed. “I’m so nervous, I hope I can eat. I never meant to see my father again. I never even dreamed that I might fight him.”
Nyte gave a tight smile. “Let’s hope for the best. We’re as prepared as we can get.”
Not really. I’d rather have an army of allies with us, but we couldn’t afford to drain all of the power from any supernatural community. My thoughts turned to Drago, Raven’s fellow demon enforcer and friend, but Murlyn might target our home towns if he won.
Cazzandra pursed her lips, deep in thought, then threw up her hands in surrender. “I’ve run long enough. If I die fighting Dad, I die in battle, not on one of his altars. It’s my choice.”
When the rest of our friends wandered into the kitchen, Nyte looked at Baryl. “I’ve lived a long time, but I’ve never fought alongside a banshee before. What exactly do you do?”
I braced myself. He’d had to ask. Clearly, a demonstration was in order.
Raven reached inside his jeans pocket and pulled out a baggie full of soft ear plugs. “Even if Baryl’s behind a shield, no one can escape her magic. Her wail brings whoever hears it to their knees.”
Nyte’s expression was skeptical. “Really.”
At a nod from Raven, Baryl let her melancholy song burst from her lips. She kept its volume low, but it still sent shivers through me, and my knees gave out. A simple shield wouldn’t protect me from it. We all collapsed to the floor at the same time, then she smiled and stopped.
If we were battling, I’d have to call for a strong wind to blow her voice away from me, but her gift would definitely give her a temporary advantage. It would give us an opportunity to attack while enemies were momentarily stunned.
Nyte shook off the sadness and despair that came with her song and pushed himself to his feet. “Damn.”
Raven nodded. “You’ll want to remember your earplugs.”
Cazzandra hugged herself. “I never want to hear that again. It drained all hope from me, and I was just beginning to feel better.”
“You should feel better, girl,” Archer said. “She’s on our side.” Fur had begun to spring from his face and arms when he went into defense mode as a bear shifter. He took a deep breath, and his human form returned. Still, he was a big, burly man, reminiscent of the grizzly he became when he changed.
Brown and Gray had sprouted fur, too, going wolf, but quickly changed back. Syn looked shaken, and Gray laced his arm through hers.
“I’ve never heard Baryl before,” Syn told us. “I wasn’t sure what her gift was.”
Baryl grinned. “Luckily, supernaturals live long lives, so I rarely need to mourn our dead.”
Curious, I studied her. “You didn’t keen when Balladonna’s entire coven died. I thought you would.”
She shrugged. “That father of hers turned my grief to anger in a few minutes. He and the other parents who joined him made so much trouble, I didn’t think keening was needed.”
I had to agree with her. Even after warning them off, Raven had had to destroy Blood and Jorah Sharpe and the parents who’d united with them. And none of that clique deserved to be mourned. Muddy River was well rid of them.
My attention returned to our supper. The potatoes were nearly done, so I motioned for Raven and Derek to throw the steaks on the grill. After supper, I had a few things I wanted to get done. I’d brought my grandmother’s spell book with me to study. I hadn’t gotten to it the night before. And I’d packed enough potion in Nyte’s trunk to ward the inside and outside of Cazzandra’s hotel and every vehicle we were driving, including the van Festus was going to rent. Meda and Brown would be with him, but I wanted to keep Festus and the thirteen children as safe as possible.
While the men grilled, the rest of us set the table and served drinks. By the time Raven and Derek carried in platters piled high with steaks, we were ready to eat. Nyte’s margaritas disappeared and he had to make another batch of them. I made coffee to go with the cherry cobbler, and we all lingered at the long wooden table.
Gray, Wes, and Archer volunteered to do clean-up while the rest of us placed stones around the boundary of the hotel property. Claws stayed close to my heels. He didn’t relax his guard until the witches among us chanted a ward. The barrier that rose thrummed with power, and we moved on to ward the outside and inside of the hotel. No enemies could enter here.
Finally satisfied, people wandered to different places to relax, some returning to their rooms, others sitting on the front porch or finding a shady tree outside. I claimed a patio table with an umbrella, angled to block the sun, and opened my grandmother’s spell book. Prim and Derek sat a few tables away. I was turning pages when ravens flew over the house and wheeled in circles above us, their sharp black eyes studying us. The umbrella didn’t hide me from them.
I glanced over at Prim and Derek and did a double take. Derek’s cheeks were sunken and his hands wrinkled. Prim looked like a five-year=old child. What did I look like? Then I glanced at the hotel. It had shrunk in size, resembling a cute, little cottage with a rose garden. One of Prim’s illusions.
The ravens cawed and moved on, still searching.
Nyte and Cazzandra walked out and stared at us, confused. I shook my head at Prim. “You’re amazing. How long will the illusion last?”
“Until I remove it.” She waved her hand, and it was gone.
“What happened?” Nyte sat at Derek and Prim’s table, leaving me to my search.
“Murlyn sent ravens to look for us,” Prim told him. “He must have discovered that his new coven is gone, and Winifred is missing.”
“And so it begins.” Raven took a seat across from me.
Cazzandra swallowed nervously. “Do you think Murlyn went to the horse farm? Are Edik and Lance safe?”
“We warded their property, too,” I told her. “Murlyn can’t pass the farm’s boundaries.”
She took a deep breath, her shoulders relaxing.
Derek watched her. “You know, when I first met you, I didn’t trust you. I smelled the dead bodies buried at the end of the parking lot. And I could smell lies when you talked.”
She grimaced. “I felt guilty about the last man I’d killed. He’d come to stay at the hotel on his way to visit my father. And when he realized that my smell matched my father’s, he couldn’t wait to tell Dad where I lived. He was in such a hurry, he wasn’t even going to spend the night. I panicked and blasted him. He hadn’t challenged or attacked me, but I killed him anyway.”
“And that’s what bothered you?” Derek stared.
“That was just as much self-defense as the others,” Nyte said. “The man had to know your father would come to kill you.”
She scrubbed at her face, looking miserable. “I never killed anyone who wasn’t trying to harm me. I could have pleaded with the man, explained that he was signing my death warrant.”
“He knew that. He was trying to earn points with your dad.” Derek shook his head. “You did the right thing. Even if you’d tried to run, your father was too close. He would have found you.” “
“I didn’t think you’d understand,” she said in a small voice.
“We do. And I’m glad you told us. It only makes us like you more.” Prim place a hand on top of hers.
Cazzandra smiled as if a great weight had been lifted off her, and Derek leaned back in his chair, more at ease with her.
They settled into small talk, and I finished looking through Grandma’s book. She’d never fought a Gorgon so had no spells for them. I’d guessed that but was disappointed. Thinking of her made me sad. All of my grandmothers, including my great and great-great, had been a big part of my life when we lived in Europe, then Salem. Everyone in my family but me had renounced their powers when they moved to the New World, wanting nothing more to do with their craft, and all of them had died because of it. Mortals still accused them of witchcraft, and they had no way to defend themselves.
I felt the old, familiar anger rise in me. If I’d have been home when the mortals came for them, for every member of my family, they’d still be alive. The mortals wouldn’t be, but they’d have brought their deaths on themselves.
Raven noticed my sudden silence and reached to squeeze my hand. I shook off my mood. I tried not to dwell on the past. We enjoyed the outdoors until the sun began to sink, then we headed inside. I’d brought sleep draughts with me, sure I wouldn’t be able to sleep without one. The others decided to try some, too. A good thing. We all woke, fresh and energized, in the morning.