Authors: Kate Rudolph
Luke was only mildly disappointed at the end of their interlude, and though he was frustrated, ardor still sang in his blood. Hell, he considered it progress. Mel was admitting that they were going to sleep together. Though he still had to work with her on the rest of it. She seemed to think they could have a little fun and be done with it.
But Luke wasn't going to settle for just one night. That would never be enough. Not with her.
They found their clothes after a few minutes and dressed in silence. Mel was about to head back to the house when Luke stopped her by grabbing her hand and gently pulling her towards him. "Wait," he said. "There's something I wanted to talk about."
Mel didn't resist his touch, instead leaning into him and resting a hand on his chest. She looked up with a small smile. "I'm not doing it against a tree either."
He hadn't been thinking of that, not until she suggested it. And the image flashed in his mind, her legs hooked around his hips as he thrust into her. God, this was getting out of hand. But Luke looked around and reached a hand out to test one of the oaks near them. "I don't know, seems pretty sturdy. Maybe we can tie a sweater around your waist to protect your delicate ass."
She pushed back against him, taking a step back. But she laughed. "It's your delicate ass that will be on the line if you keep talking like that."
"There is something, though. Nothing to do with tree sex." He leaned against said tree and studied her. She looked at home in this forest, comfortable. But then, she rarely looked out of place. Probably one of her many skills.
"What is it?" She asked.
"Do you or Krista know what a well is?" He still had no clue. He'd meant to bring it back up once he returned from the meet, but it had fallen to the wayside with Krista's plan to help Cassie. By the end, the witch had looked so tired that he told her to rest before even remembering that he was supposed to ask her. "It's something one of the witches wanted." He could have kept that information to himself, but he didn't want to keep those kind of secrets from Mel.
God help him, he trusted her.
But Mel's face had paled and her hands betrayed the tiniest shake. She was shaking her head slowly from side to side and stumbled back half a step. "You have a
in your territory?" She hugged herself, probably to stop the shaking. "You need to get your pack and run. Far away, otherwise say goodbye to living. It's bad news."
What could be that bad? "What is a Well?" He asked again, emphasizing the word. The way she said it made it sound like it should be capitalized. It was meant to push her, especially given her reaction, but for his pack's sake, he needed to know.
"I can't do this right now." She turned away and fled back to the house. Luke didn't follow. He needed to get his thoughts together. He thought that he'd gotten to know Mel pretty well in the past few weeks. And she didn't freak, not like that.
Back in Mexico she'd barely batted a lash when his father's killer had blithely walked into the room at Marco's estate. She had broken into his house on more than one occasion, and even as his prisoner she had been remarkably calm. But one mention of a Well and she was ready to run away? Ready to surrender? He was almost terrified to find out what it could do.
He took off back to the house a few minutes later, trying to catch up to Mel to offer her comfort.
By the time he got back, she had ensconced herself away with Krista in their room. He almost knocked, but stopped himself at the last minute. If she was freaking out, he wouldn't help. He had things he needed to be doing.
He found Maya in the kitchen, putting away dishes from the dishwasher. She stopped when she saw him. "What's up?" she asked.
"Call the inner circle together. We need to meet." He had been keeping the details scarce, determined to keep Cassie safe. They were long past safety now. "And I need to talk to Peklo."
Maya pursed her lips. "You're not about to do anything stupid, are you?"
Luke had planned to meet with James Peklo more than a week ago to discuss a business venture the vampire leader wanted to head up. Vampires and shapeshifters did not get along in general, and it had been nearly a century since a peaceful delegation had ventured into Luke's territory. Between Mel's robbery and Cassie's kidnapping and hex, he'd postponed the meet and put the man off. Angering him would not be a wise move.
"Just call the meeting."
Maya nodded and left him alone. Luke went upstairs to the War Room and closed the door behind him. It wouldn't stop anyone from hearing every word said inside, but it did indicate that he wanted privacy. His lions would respect that.
He dialed Peklo's number and waited for it to ring.
Many of the older members of the supernatural community were reluctant to do business over any technology that had been invented after 1600. The vampire was slightly more flexible, being willing to handle some business over the phone. But he refused to hash out the details and do the deals any way but in person.
The phone rang several times, but Luke didn't hang up. After the fifth ring, he was rewarded.
"You've reached the offices of Jim Peak, how may I direct your call?" the voice was cheery and feminine, the receptionist at his main company.
"It's Torres. I need to talk to Mr. Peak," Peklo had been alive for centuries, he couldn't continue to use his real name. It would arouse suspicion. The receptionist told Luke to wait and put him on hold.
After another three minutes, Peklo picked up, his voice completely devoid of a foreign accent. He sounded like he had grown up in Colorado. Some feat for a man rumored to be more than 400 years old. "Good afternoon, Mr. Torres. I'm glad you could finally get in touch. Are you ready to reschedule our meeting?"
"That is still on hold. I called wondering if you would do me the courtesy of answering a few questions." Luke didn't believe that Peklo was connected with the vampires who had kidnapped Cassie, but he couldn't just ask him. However, if he ignored the possibility, he was being negligent.
"I have a few minutes. I do hope everything is alright." To the man's credit, he sounded concerned. Luke didn't buy it for a moment, but the acting was impressive.
"Have any of your associates attempted to encroach on your territory recently? I may have some information that would benefit you, if that is the case." Luke would have loved to talk without euphemism, but there were always ears in the wires. Perhaps the old ones
on to something with their archaic methods.
"If you think I'm going to reveal internal matters to someone like you, I think we can terminate our relationship right now." Peklo was too experienced to confirm Luke's suspicions with an incautious answer.
"I'd hate to think that you had authorized the violation of our boundary agreements by letting your own agents wander freely." It wasn't a threat. Luke wasn't in a position to launch an offensive campaign against the vampire.
"Slavic fellow?" Peklo asked. "I've had a few out-of-towners pass through. They're not mine."
"Then you don't care what happens to him?" Peklo was probably lying, something about his casual tone sounded off to Luke.
"In the interest of openness, you may want to watch your back," he didn't answer the question, but the shift piqued Luke's curiosity.
"I got wind of a thief passing through. Came into town about a week ago by plane. I haven't bothered to tail her, and who knows what she's after. Keep an eye on your valuables." He was talking about Mel, he had to be.
Luke didn't respond, instead hanging up the phone and leaning back in his chair. Was that a taunt or an actual warning? Did Peklo know that he and Mel were... something complicated? Or was he bragging about being involved in the theft?
Maya knocked on the door and walked in before he could answer. "I've called the meeting. They'll be here in an hour."
Luke nodded. It was time to ask for help.
"It's Ava. It's fucking Ava and there's another fucking Well." Mel paced back and forth in their little room, her arms wrapped loosely around her midsection.
Krista just looked at her from where she sat on the bed. Her injury took a lot of energy to heal, and Mel knew Krista wasn't going to waste any on theatrics. "I can't think of anyone else who would want one. Too volatile."
"I've seen the craters," Mel snapped. A part of her felt eight years old all over again and she didn't know how to stop it. Any good feeling she'd had with Luke earlier had evaporated. In its place there was only fear. "I thought I could take her if we got our shot. But not when she's going to be so amped up."
"The Scarlet Emerald has to be a focus," said Krista.
Mel agreed, though she didn't have the magical chops to sense it herself. A focus let a magic user tap into the energy of a Well. But there was always a long list of rules that went along with magical artifacts. "I stole it, so if she has it, does she own it?" It could mean the difference between life and death for Luke's pack. Hell for the entire state of Colorado. Ava could use a focus she didn't magically “own” to drain a Well of its magic, but she would only get a tenth of the available power.
Krista shook her head. "No, it should still belong to Luke."
"Thank God for small favors." That alone made Mel's entire career of thievery worth it.
Krista ignored Mel's relief and continued speaking, "But even if that's the case, does it matter? We know exactly what she can do with a Well she doesn't own. She must want this one for a reason. They're too dangerous to use blithely."
That was the truth. Half of Siberia had once exploded when a witch tapped a Well. And in that case, she had owned the focus. As far as anyone knew, that woman hadn't done anything wrong, but the power had rejected her and exploded outward. Three covens were wiped off the planet in seconds.
Now that Mel had a few minutes to think, she knew what she had to do. "I need to tell Luke about Ava. He's going in blind and this is going to get bad. Fast." She paced the room, sticking her hands in her pockets before pulling them back out and crossing her arms in front of her. Despite the statement, she still felt out to sea, adrift.
"And what are you going to do when he decides to give Ava ownership of the stone in return for Cassie's life? Because you know she'll promise him that."
"He wouldn't do that." The denial sprang from Mel's lips before she even consciously thought about it.
"He won't save his sister?" Krista rolled her eyes.
"No, he'd do anything to save her." But Mel didn't think Krista was right about how. "But he's too smart to believe Ava, even without knowing about her. She's already hexed Cassie, and she's encroaching on his territory. He'd be a fool to take her at her word."
"He trusted you and me. And we've already done him wrong." Krista made her point, and shifted in her blankets. "I think we need to consider getting out of here before Ava finds us."
That had been Mel's first response, but now she wasn't so sure. "At the very least, we need to tell him what a Well can do."
Krista wasn't convinced. But she was prevented from saying more from the sound of the front door slamming closed and a pathetic roar echoing from a human mouth. "What the hell is that?"
They left their quarters and discovered four lions in the foyer, embracing each other and sharing greetings. Mel recognized Sinclair, but the rest were strangers.
"The inner circle," Maya said from behind them. "Brynne," she pointed out a woman, "Jonas," this one was a tall black man, "and Killian," the last was a tall man with blond hair. Mel didn't jump, but she wasn't happy that the lioness had snuck up on her. "Luke has called them to discuss matters." She paused before reluctantly adding, "You both may join them, so long as you stay quiet."
Maya led them up to the War Room where the rest of the inner circle had congregated. Though a few shot curious glances at Mel and Krista, no one made an effort the introduce themselves. Mel found a corner and leaned against the wall, waiting for Luke to arrive.
A few minutes later he did. His face was grim but he shot her a nod and a small smile before greeting the meeting's attendants. It took several minutes before everyone settled down enough to get started.
The lions took their seats in the mishmash of chairs that had been set up, Mel and Krista were left standing behind all of them. No one questioned their presence; no one acknowledged them at all.
Luke brought everyone to attention with a loud clap of his hands. "We have a problem," he said.
No one moved, no one breathed. Mel studied the other members of the pack while Luke spoke. One tightened his lips when Luke stated that his sister had been hexed. Another blinked her eyes once, slowly, when she learned that witches were somehow involved in this whole mess.
Luke laid most of it out, leaving out Inicio Nunca and the exact nature of his relationship with Mel. He went over it all quickly. For all of the danger they were in, it should have taken more than ten minutes to explain.
Once he finished with the history, he concluded with, "You may be aware that Mel was the woman who stole the Scarlet Emerald." He nodded back at Mel, but none of the other lions turned to see her. "She has my full pardon."
The declaration wasn’t a surprise, but Mel fought the urge to close her eyes and take a deep breath and relief. It would hurt her mysterious thief image.
Krista glanced between the two of them for a long moment before rolling her eyes and sighing. Strangely, she shot a glance over to Maya before slowly raising her hand and catching Luke's attention. "May I speak?" She asked.
"We think you're being targeted by a witch named Ava. The Well she's after will allow her nearly godlike power while she controls it. I don't know why she wants it, but she has killed for them before." Krista didn't include their history with Ava, nor did she explain the horrible lengths that the woman had gone to in the past, but the other lions in the room took her at her word.
"Where is her territory?" asked Sinclair. His lips were barely visible under his thick beard.
"She operates out of the East Coast," said Mel. "But she doesn't have an official territory.
"She's been around for ages, but no one knows exactly how long. Unofficially, she controls at least fourteen covens in six countries, but most of the other witches leave her alone. Those that don't, suffer dearly," Krista added.
"This is her MO. She finds someone's enemies or rivals and makes a deal. It's symbiotic. The rival softens the territory, making it easy for her to step in and get what she wants. The rival takes over after she leaves and then she has allies. Most people never realize that the slaughter was anything more than a simple territorial dispute." As Mel spoke she could almost smell the blood that had seeped into the ground that night so many years ago. She sucked in her breaths slowly and past tense lips to try and keep her cool.
Jonas rubbed a hand over the dark stubble on his chin. "If we didn't know about this Well, and how does she? Why can't she just find one that isn’t in our territory?"
"Wells are incredibly rare," said Krista. Mel could hear the frustration in her voice at needing to explain something so simple. Krista wasn't used to working with shapeshifters other than Mel; everyone in her world knew everything there was to know about magic. "Only three have been discovered in the last 100 years. And as to how, she has people study lore. There are spells to discover such things. She's the foremost expert on finding them and she wouldn't risk coming into your territory unless she was damn sure that there was a Well here."
Brynne looked at each of the lions in the room. Her hair fell in dark ringlets past her shoulders, and she wore a pair of thick rimmed eyeglasses. "I'm just floating this idea, so no one take my head off." Her voice held a hint of something middle-eastern, though it was nearly impossible to discern. "What if we just give her the Well? We can just tell her that she can take the power and leave as soon as she's done. I realize that it’s not an ideal solution, but it would avoid bloodshed."
Luke held up a hand and shook his head. "This is my home. Our home. I'm not letting someone steal what is ours." Mel decided that it wouldn’t be prudent to mention that she had already stolen what was his.
"She wouldn't go for it even if you tried." Mel had to point it out. These lions had no idea how dangerous Ava truly was. "If she thought you would give it to her, she would've negotiated.
negotiated instead of doing what she has done. You know, kidnapping Cassie, hexing her, and threatening her life. At the very least she's teamed up with some vampires, presumably the people she plans to let take over the territory once she's through with you. She will not play fair."
Sinclair looked between Krista and Mel twice before speaking, his voice incredulous. "How do either of you know all of this? You are both, what, twenty-five?"
"I vouch for them," said Luke, his tone brooking no resistance.
His inner circle clearly did not like that explanation. They shifted in their chairs and huffed their displeasure.
"No, Luke," said Mel. "They aren't going to trust us if they don't know why we know Ava." And even though she knew it had to be done, it took Mel a moment to collect herself before offering the explanation. "Here's the Cliffs Notes version. When I was a child, Ava murdered my family because there was a Well our territory."
She had been too far away to hear the screams when it happened, her life only saved because she had been playing in the forest before dinner. "After that I was adopted into Ava's coven."
Krista squeezed Mel's forearm to offer comfort, and spoke the next bit to give her a moment to recover. "My mom got us out of the coven when we were 12. It was long enough for both of us to learn exactly the kind of woman that Ava is. And Mel and I have both vowed to take her down."
"I only took the job steal from your pack because the payout would've given us a shot at Ava." It wasn't an apology, but she didn't see a reason not to offer the explanation.
"Is there a way to save my sister without giving them what they want?" asked Luke. He clutched the back of the chair that he stood behind and Mel thought he was only doing it to keep himself from crossing the room to offer her comfort. She didn't know whether she would accept it or not. She was on the razor's edge between screaming and crying, and only the need to remain composed in front of these dangerous people was keeping her steady.
Krista let go of Mel's arm and looked at Luke. "If Cassie kills the person who set the hex, that might lift it. But she is weak right now, and we still don't know which of Ava's people placed the spell."
"No offense, alpha," said Maya, "but I don't think your sister can kill witch as powerful as Ava."
"She wouldn't have set the hex," said Krista. "Hexes are risky and they are a near constant drain on power. Anyone around her could have done it, though."
"Can you figure out who did it?" Asked Luke.
Krista nodded, "I can try."
"So what do we do about the Well?"
"You can destroy it," said Mel, "Once you find it. Krista and I have the spell do it, and she has the power."
Luke nodded. He looked at Krista. "Figure out how to save my sister," he said before turning his attention to Mel. "Let's kill this witch."
It burned within Luke that he couldn't console Mel after hearing her story. But it was neither the time nor the place for comfort, and she would have resented his offer if he had been stupid enough to make it.
"So how do we find the Well?" he asked Krista. There was a certain irony in the fact that the two women who had let the Scarlet Emerald fall into Ava's hands were also the only two who might see his pack safely through this mess.
Krista furrowed her brow, probably trying to come up with a way to explain how to find something inherently magical to a man who would never cast a spell. "The Well itself isn't physical. There are natural protections that ensure it remains invisible to the naked eye."
Of course there were. Luke couldn't stop his sigh, but he didn't interrupt the witch.
"But the Well will have had an effect on the land," she continued. "The plant life surrounding it will be larger than normal, trees with huge bases, mushrooms like something out of Alice in Wonderland, stuff like that. And there won't be any animals near it. Not even bugs. Logically, it must be deep into your territory if Ava and her people haven't found it. If it were on the edge she would have harnessed its power already and we would all be dead."