Authors: Kate Rudolph
There was a crash behind him and Luke nearly jumped out of his skin, but when he jerked around to see what it was, it looked like a trash can had fallen over.
What was wrong with him? Luke didn't react like this, not ever. His existence as leader of his pack depended on him being level-headed, ready to meet out violence only when necessary. A jumpy alpha did not survive for long.
It was a sobering thought, but it helped to bring him under control. Something was wrong. Something wasn't natural about what he was feeling. And now that he knew it, he could try to control it.
He made it to EC's and though his heart kept pounding and the sweat didn't stop, he was okay. Not great, still on edge, but strong enough to examine his emotions and keep them in check.
Brynne and Jonas were waiting for him along with a few other pack members.
"Are we under attack?" Luke asked. His words came out even. No one commented on his appearance. He could see that the rest of them weren't fairing much better. Jonas's claws had sprung when Luke slammed the door open and the other man had yet to retract them.
Brynne seemed the most in control, though half of her hair had fallen out of her ponytail and she was shifting from foot to foot rather than standing still. "Three vampires were spotted. No one's dead yet. I've got all of the pack adults in town rounding people up and getting them into their homes."
Luke nodded. "Sinclair's checking out the explosion. Where's Maya?" And Mel, he added silently. But he knew not to ask about her, not while they were in crisis mode.
"She went out with Mel and hasn't reported back," said Jonas. "They were due back at the house not too long ago."
But Luke didn't need to worry about that for long. About thirty seconds after Jonas spoke, the door to the restaurant slammed open once more and Mel and Maya ran in. The lions in the restaurant all tensed, but Mel paid them no mind and launched herself across the room, rocking Luke back with the force of her hug.
Luke clamped his arms around her and took a second, breathing in her scent, letting it calm him. For a moment, the panic that had been eating at his heels abated and all he cared about was Mel.
"We came as soon as we heard the explosion," she said, easing herself down.
Luke loosened his grip, but didn't let her go. He couldn't quite make himself. "Good thinking." He turned his gaze to Maya and nodded his greeting. Her lips were pursed and she wasn't pleased with Luke's possessive grip on Mel, but Luke didn't care about that. Not right now.
He noticed an ugly purple bruise blossoming on Maya's cheek and a glance at Mel's hands showed they'd been torn up. They'd clearly fought, but Luke said nothing. They'd run here together, so whatever their issue was, they'd put it aside for the moment.
"They've got us all here, so why aren't we being attacked?" asked Brynne.
Luke didn't know. "Maybe they're waiting until nightfall." The overcast sky would give them some power, but they wouldn't be at full strength until after sunset.
"Or they're just waiting for the spell they've got hanging over town to drive everyone crazy." Mel spoke like her words made sense, but everyone turned to her with a question in their eyes.
"What spell?" asked Luke. He'd had enough of this magic shit.
"You don't feel jumpy?" She raised an eyebrow. "I'm about ready to burst out of my skin. Magic is damn near coating the town."
It made more sense than a spontaneously occurring panic disorder. "We need Krista," he said. He thought that Mel's other associate, Bob, might also be of use, but that man hadn't revealed the extent of his powers or what kind of creature he was. Maybe he was a witch like Krista, but Luke doubted it.
"I'll go get her," Mel volunteered.
"No you won't," Maya insisted.
Mel stepped away from him, stepping towards Maya and invading her space. "Do you have a problem with that?"
"You can't be trusted."
Mel flashed her teeth and her hands were fists at her side. She jerked infinitesimally, looking ready to throw down all over again, and Luke jumped between them. He'd been too optimistic about their fighting.
Before he could speak, the door to the restaurant opened again and Krista stepped inside. She held up a hand, "Before you get pissed, Alpha, I didn't have a choice."
Cassie walked in behind her, and Bob walked close beside her, a hand steady on her elbow.
He should have been mad, but he was raw and the only thing he could feel about his sister was that he was glad she was safe.
"I know where they're going," said Cassie. "They found the Well."
The beast inside of Luke roared.
It was chaos in the restaurant. Mel had no idea how Cassie knew where the Well was. She'd been confined to her bed for days and Krista had put a magical block on her. She should have been safe from any additional magical influences from Ava's coven.
But Cassie looked about ready to collapse. Luke rushed her to a chair and sat beside her, gently swiping back a loose lock of her hair. He left Mel standing by herself, but she didn't mind. Seeing him care for his sister like this warmed something deep inside of Mel. It made her ache to be loved like that.
Cassie took a moment to speak, she needed to catch her breath. "I've been having nightmares," she confessed. "I've been seeing the witches."
Luke's head snapped toward Krista. "I thought you said that you blocked the connection between them."
Krista crossed her arms and bristled. "I thought I had."
"I didn't realize I was actually seeing them at first," Cassie continued, dragging the attention back to herself. "I thought they were memories of when they had me or something. But when I saw the blonde woman wearing this really ugly red necklace, I knew that it was stuff that's going on right now."
No one objected to calling the Scarlet Emerald ugly, and Mel had to suppress a smile. It was a fucking garish piece.
"Where are they?" Luke asked.
"I'm not sure exactly." The disappointment was palpable once Cassie spoke. "I'm having psychic visions," she snapped, "It's not freaking GPS."
"It's okay, Cassie," Maya reassured.
"They're by a burned out cabin. I think they're south of the river and in the forest. I could hear a truck drive by before I woke up, so they can't be that far from the road."
"South of the river?" asked Maya.
"That's not in our territory," said Brynne.
Of course it wasn't. Mel wanted to bang her forehead against a wall. They'd been so focused on the incursions into Luke's territory that it hadn't occurred to anyone that the witches could be working outside of it. The evidence they’d gathered had meant to lead them to think the territory was being invaded. Ava had played them. "So who's territory is it?" asked Mel.
Luke shook his head. "No one's. Pack territory only stretches to the river. Beyond it is unclaimed, though no one will touch it with us so close."
The intricacies of territorial law were lost on Mel. She much preferred living where she liked without a thought for the politics. "Then let's roll the fuck out and put the hurt on Ava and her minions."
"We need a plan," Maya objected.
"She's right," said Krista. "Unless you want to be cursed into oblivion."
Mel had a plan. Kill as many of those fuckers as possible. How hard could it be?
"So what do you suggest?" asked Luke. "As I assume you'd be the best equipped to fight witches."
Krista took a seat at the bar. "My idea is damn near suicidal."
Mel perked up. Dangerous was good. They'd never beat Ava by playing it safe. But she glanced over at Luke and saw that his face was a mask of concern. Maybe suicidal wasn't what she wanted. Not if it meant that the morning in the shower was the last time that they would be together.
Mel stepped next to Luke and grabbed his hand. She didn't want to be alone. Luke gave her a squeeze as they listened to Krista lay it out.
"The margin for error is zero," Krista warned. "But it's our best shot to hit Ava when she tries to draw power from the Well."
"You mean let her take power from some magic freaking nuclear bomb?" Brynne scoffed. "How do we know that you're not working with her again?"
Luke held up his free hand to silence Brynne. No one dignified her accusation with an answer.
Krista continued. "There will be at least thirteen witches and they're all going to be focused on Ava. Frankly, I doubt she brought many more than that. The vampires are her firepower, her cannon fodder. They're going to keep hitting town, trying to keep us here."
"It's her MO," said Mel. "Why waste her people when there are others to spare?"
"She can't pull the full power of the Well unless Luke gives her ownership of the Scarlet Emerald. But she'll have more than enough power to destroy this county before we even realize we're dead. The ritual to pull in the power takes seven minutes from start to finish. We need to break through the circle and incapacitate or kill as many members of the coven before it's finished."
"How many?" asked Maya. "And how?" The concern in her eyes was for more than just the battle. She was looking at Krista the way Luke looked at Mel. It seemed that both she and Krista might have something more to live for after this was all over.
"It takes a minimum of seven witches to survive pulling magic from a Well," said Bob. Even Mel hadn't known that.
"Do you know when they're going to do it?" Luke asked. The tension in the room was thick. All of these lions hated being forced to react and Mel agreed. She wanted to punch someone, claw something, just fight and win. Standing around while their enemy got more powerful was the last thing she wanted.
"They'll act at dusk." Krista didn't sound sure, but she didn't try to couch her statement.
"How do you know?" Maya asked gently. She surreptitiously glanced around the room as if waiting for anyone to doubt Krista.
"It's magic 101. The four best times to do any major spell are midnight, noon, dawn, and dusk. We've passed noon and by midnight we would have had enough time to regroup." Krista glanced down at her watch. "We've got three and a half hours until full-dark. If I were Ava, I'd act as soon as possible."
"Alright," Luke sunk a world of authority into his voice. "Jonas, I want every fighter that we've got. Split them into two groups. A quarter to guard the town, three quarters into battle. Brynne, get everyone who isn't a fighter and station them in town. They're to be the second line if our fighters fail. They get the humans out if the town falls. We gather in one hour."
Brynne and Jonas jumped up, their duties assigned. The half a dozen other lions scattered about the restaurant went with them, leaving Luke, Maya, Mel, Bob, Krista, and Cassie alone.
Krista and Bob both sat down besides Cassie. Bob looked up at Mel, Luke, and Maya expectantly. The three shapeshifters sat down.
"How the hell is Cassie out of bed?" Mel asked. “And how is Krista healed?”
"Have you healed her?" Luke asked at the same time.
Cassie's gaze dropped to the table and her shoulder sunk. Both Krista and Bob shook their heads.
"We've a temporary solution at the moment," said Bob. "I've bound my life-force to Cassie."
"And that means what?" asked Maya.
"That we're desperate."
Krista nodded, “Bob’s actions allowed me to dedicate some of my magic to a healing spell for myself.”
"I asked them to do it," Cassie said, suddenly. "I agreed."
"Why?" Even without knowing the details, Mel could tell this was a bad idea. If it had any hope of curing her, they would have tried it days ago. This wasn't a solution, it was a Band-Aid on a broken bone.
"Because the witch who cursed her is going to be with Ava." Krista said it like it mattered.
"So I can kill him and we'll be done with it?" Luke's questions was more of a statement.
Krista and Bob shared a glance and Mel felt a cold shiver snake down her spine. She tried to ignore it, she trusted them to do right by Cassie. "Not exactly," said Bob.
Krista continued for him. "We think the Cassie can break the hex if she kills the witch who hexed her. That witch will be wearing a charm made of something of Cassie's, probably her hair. If she does as we've instructed her, commits the deed exactly right, she should be freed."
Cassie was pale, and Krista spoke with a tone of voice Mel had heard many times when they spoke to Krista's mother as children. She was hiding something big. But Mel kept her mouth shut. If they were keeping something secret they had a damn good reason.
"Absol--" Luke held up a fist, but Mel reached over and put her hand on top of it, cutting him off.
"We can't fight Ava and kill this witch." She looked over to Krista and stared her in the eye long enough to let her friend know that she suspected she was being kept in the dark. After the moment passed, Mel spoke. "Is there any other way?"
"No," said Krista. "This is it."
Luke relented. "What do you need me to do?"
"Once we find the witch, don't let anyone but Cassie near him." Said Bob. "We think it's a woman, and we doubt that she'll be one of Ava's thirteen. The charm binding Cassie to her is most likely a lock of hair braided around her wrist. If we can isolate her and let Cassie do her thing, this just might work."
Luke turned to Maya. "Help them," he said. "Anything they need is theirs." And that was it.
They sat in silence for a moment, but when Luke stood up, Mel followed, leaving the other four behind. She and Luke didn't go far, just to a small patio behind the restaurant. Luke pulled her close, letting her lay her head on his shoulder and breathe in the reassuring scent of him.
Mel wanted to stay there forever, breathing him in, being held by him. If she ever needed to describe the feeling of home, it would be here, in his arms. She hadn't known that he was what she wanted, she hadn't known that this feeling was what she was looking for. But now that she had it, she'd fight heaven and hell to keep it close.
Was it love? She didn't know. But it was strong, and real, and the damned most important thing that she'd ever felt.
After a wordless minute they broke apart. It was time to go to war.
Despite the gravity of the situation, Luke was calm. Everything was riding on the next few hours – his sister's life, his future with Mel, and the fate of his pack – but he only felt the stilling sense of calm.
Nearly everyone who could fight was gathered in the dining room of EC's. Maya had given the non-fighters their orders. The lions who would be staying behind were already outside, patrolling the streets and picking off the few vampires that dared to attack.
It was dead silent. No one spoke, no one fidgeted in their seat. They all simply waited for Luke to say the word.
"Things have gone crazy over the past few weeks," he said. A few of his lions leaned forward, coming to attention. "And tonight is the consequence. There is a coven of witches out there who thinks that they have the right to come in and take this territory from us. Are we going to let that happen?"
As one voice, the lions replied, "No!"
"You are the warriors of this pack," Luke's voice grew louder and his heartbeat sped up, adrenaline pumping through him. "It is you who will protect our weak, our innocent. And you will protect all of those people in this town who do not know that they need protection. If any one of you has doubts in this moment, let them go. We are mighty, and we are right. We cannot lose."
The pack cheered, surging to their feet, ready for the battle ahead.
"We know where they are, and our witch says that the magic they're preforming means they cannot dedicate a lot of protective magic to defend themselves against us. Their sentries will not have wards, and we will show no mercy."
His words took a moment to sink in; these lions had never fought witches before. But he didn't see fear in the eyes of his pack members. He saw excitement.
"YOU KNOW YOUR PART!" Luke brought it home, yelling now. "SO ON TO BATTLE!"
The shapeshifters along with Krista and Bob poured out of the restaurant, splitting off in half a dozen directions. With Cassie's help, they knew where the witches were. And coming at them in every direction would be the only way to distract them.
Forty shapeshifters ran after the coven. Luke knew the name, knew the family, and knew the history of every single one of them. Whoever he lost tonight would pierce his heart.
But he could not focus on that now.
He ran with Maya, Krista, and Bob. Mel had gone off with Brynne. Those two had taken no others with them, their first goal to find Sinclair and confirm that the bridge was passable. It was the fastest way to the witches and the fastest way to the expressway. If the bridge was out, they'd still be able to face the coven, but they would need to relay the information back to town to ensure that they could get out through the back roads. Jonas and Killian would lead their own teams of lions behind Mel and Brynne.