Authors: Kate Rudolph
Luke wasn't headed for the bridge. He and his contingent took to the woods, headed downhill. They moved slowly. Krista and Bob weren't shifters, they couldn't move as quickly as lions. Cassie, despite the bond with Bob, was still slow. So they moved at an even slower than human pace.
They made it to the river as the darkness started to stretch under the trees. Dusk approached.
"We need--" Maya cut herself off when Luke shot her a look. He knew they needed to move faster. But there was nothing to be done.
He looked up to the sky. It was still overcast, but not threateningly dark. Sunset made the shadows in the forest long before the sun hit the horizon. He also looked out for flares in the sky.
There were none.
It was Mel's sign that the bridge was impassable or booby trapped. She and Brynne must have reached the bridge by now. So whatever the witches had done to cause that explosion, it hadn't taken out the road.
An unfamiliar scent tickled at his nose and the air felt thick. Luke held up a hand, stopping his group. He pointed at Krista and mouthed, "Witch?"
She closed her eyes and loosened her shoulders. The air swirled around her, rustling her shirt. After a moment, she opened her eyes back up, they glowed golden for a moment before settling back to their normal color. She nodded.
They'd discussed this in their plan. The path they took was bound to be well guarded. It was the only forest trail that led directly to the burned out cabin that Cassie had seen in her dream. Luke and Maya were to subdue the witches they encountered while Krista and Bob would check to see if anyone of their enemies had hexed Cassie.
All of the witches would die tonight.
Luke let his claws grow long as he padded out in front of the group. Maya had stepped behind a tree to disrobe and shift. She'd walk as a lion until this was finished.
The witch wasn't far away, and Luke recognized him immediately. Tim, the man that had demanded the ownership of the Scarlet Emerald. Instead of coming at him from the ground, Luke bent low and sprung up, grasping a tree branch and wrenching himself up.
The branch shifted under his weight, rustling the leaves. Tim jumped, scrambling to his feet from where he'd been sitting and looking around wildly. Krista had told him that the witches would be feeding a lot of their power into the ceremony. Even the guards who weren’t part of the circle could offer up their power to Ava.
They wouldn't be using wards tonight to keep the lions out. It was a mistake of epic proportions. Witches didn't know how to set a perimeter without magic, they were blinder than humans and more vulnerable.
Luke held himself absolutely still until Tim relaxed. And once that witch was convinced that it was only the wind, Luke moved, vaulting himself across three trees and tackling Tim from above, his claws dug into the witch’s neck, drawing blood.
Tim tried to speak, but Luke squeezed harder, feeling something pop under his weight. The witch clawed at the ground, trying to find a weapon or to use his hands to summon magic. But Luke had him completely pinned, completely under his control. There was nothing for the witch to do but die.
Bob approached, as silent as a mouse. What kind of magic user could walk as quietly as a shapeshifter? If they survived the night, Luke would ask him.
The black man knelt beside them, he rolled up Tim's sleeves and examined his arms. Finding them free of any jewelry, Bob pulled down the man's collar. His throat was bare.
"It's not him," he said and faded back into the night to let Luke finish him.
But Luke wouldn't just leave it at that. "Who hexed my sister?" he demanded.
Tim sputtered, unable to speak over the weight on his throat.
Luke let up, giving him just enough air to speak. When Tim spoke his words were nonsense. Luke gave him even more room and leaned forward.
Tim spoke again, his words louder now, but still complete gibberish. He sounded similar to when Krista had performed her spells to help Cassie. He was doing magic.
Luke lunged forward to slit his throat, but a tree branch caught him off guard, swiping at him and sending him tumbling from on top of the witch.
Tim didn't waste time trying to fight. Instead, he took off, heading further south towards where they knew the witches were gathered.
Luke took off after him, easily closing the distance between himself and the injured man. Tim rolled as they went down, tossing dirt into Luke's face. With a word, it caught fire, singeing Luke and blinding him for a moment.
But Tim was injured and in unfamiliar territory. He didn't have a chance.
Luke kept coming at him, deflecting the magic as it was thrown. Tim was backing away, trying to keep his eyes on Luke, but it meant he moved slowly. Finally, he mis-stepped, tripping over a log and tumbling backwards.
In a second, Luke was on him, digging his fingers into the witch's throat and letting the blood run. He didn't even have a moment to struggle.
Luke stood up, leaving him there. They would worry about the bodies tomorrow; tonight they fought the witches.
The witches were not alone. After he and his group left Tim lying in the dirt, they made it another quarter of a mile before scenting anyone else. And then the sickly-sweet smell of a vampire assaulted Luke, nearly stopping him in his tracks.
Maya took this one, slinking ahead of them. It took her seconds to subdue the vamp, her growl the only sign he had that death was at his door.
The path grew narrow as they moved away from the river and they were forced to walk in single file. Luke didn't like it, the skin at the back of his neck prickled with awareness. They were moving too slowly, the witches were going to hear them coming and they'd all be as dead as the vampire that Maya killed.
But then the trail widened again and Luke could smell gasoline. They were closer to the road, but this wasn't coming from there. No, this was the smell of a vehicle.
They were close.
He felt two arms clamp around his shoulders and stiffened, ready to fight off his attacker. But it was only Cassie. She leaned in close, burying her head against his neck. "I love you, big bro," she said, before letting go and stepping back with Bob and Krista.
Luke turned around and smiled at her. He felt the same way and couldn't wait until she was better, until the futile sadness in her eyes faded.
The sounds of fighting drew them in. The other members of his pack had joined the fray and the witches and their vampire guards fought for their lives. Maya took off, bounding forward to join the fray. Luke looked at Krista and Bob, and he pointed to Krista, "You, come with me. We're bringing this damned witch."
Krista stepped forward and they were off.
The brunt of the shapeshifters were aiming for the group of witches gathered in the clearing in front of the burned out house. It was chaos. The shifters kept bouncing off an invisible wall, all the while fighting the vampires and witches who weren't within the protective boundary.
"I thought you said that they wouldn't have wards," said Luke.
Krista looked over at the witches. "They're using a lot of their power to keep that ward up. It will weaken once they begin the spell. Soon your lions will be able to overwhelm them." She flinched when one of his lions, he couldn't tell who from the distance, launched himself at the ward and bounced off, flying back ten feet. He was immediately set upon by two vampires.
This was different than fighting in the dense woods. The house here was a historical relic and during the summer tour groups would hike through the woods to have lunch in this spot. It was just far enough into the woods to let unexperienced hikers feel accomplished for making the two-mile trek.
The forest had been cleared around the house and the forestry service maintained it. They had a hundred feet of open space to fight in, the only cover a few fallen logs and a half dozen picnic tables.
Ava's witches were circled together beside the house and the air shimmered around them, protecting them with a ward. Vampires and the witches not involved in the ceremony were trying to fight off the angry lions who were hell bent on disrupting the ritual.
Already there were casualties, vampires and witches lay on the ground, some lifeless, others near death. While he could see that some of his shifters were injured, he didn't see that any had fallen. He only hoped that the luck held.
"Stay close to me," he told Krista.
There was no cover except for the burned out house and the witches quickly spotted them. Luke dived forward as a bolt of magic zeroed in on them, but Krista threw up a hand, shielding the two of them. The bolt dissolved as the air shimmered in front of her.
She offered him a hand, but Luke got up on his own. He still had his claws out and didn't want to hurt her.
More magic shot towards them, streaks of colored lightning. But it didn't seem to be coming from the main battle. A rain of hellfire momentarily blinded him, but they weren’t hit.
"Can you protect everyone with that?" he asked.
Krista shook her head. "It's basically an invisible concrete wall. I'll need to drop it if we're going to fight."
He couldn't see where the magic attack was coming from, but that answered his question. "They're in the house."
They sprinted, Krista's protection saving them from a wave of magic blasts that assaulted them as they ran. The ruin was only two walls, more hole than solid. Two witches were hunkered down, a man and a woman. Luke recognized neither of them.
But what he did see was a large metal bracelet on the woman's arm covered with blonde hair. Cassie's hair. This was the witch holding the hex.
He wanted to tear her to shreds, but he kept that instinct in check.
Krista dropped the magic protection and Luke launched himself at the man, swiping his claws across his throat and rolling away. The man was dead before he hit the floor.
The witch tried to scramble away, but she butted into the other wall and stumbled, giving Luke time to get to her. He put a knee on her stomach and gathered both of her hands in one hand, the claws of his other hand dug into her throat.
"Get them," Luke commanded, the sound guttural.
"I signaled them," Krista responded. She kept her eyes on him and the witch as if she didn't trust him to leave the woman alive.
Shock reverberated through the ruin, knocking a loose piece of wood to the ground.
"That's the ward," said Krista. "You need to go help them."
Luke was torn, he needed to see to Cassie, but there was nothing more that he could do to help her. "Keep her safe," Luke demanded.
Krista nodded. "You have my word."
Luke took off, running straight toward the battle and into hell.
Mel knew there was no turning back once she and Brynne crossed the bridge. But she didn't expect the moment to fly by so quickly. They were beyond the bridge, sure of its relative safety in a matter of minutes after leaving Eagle Creek. The rest of the lions weren't far behind, and they’d rally to Mel and Brynne shortly.
Then it was through the forest, taking out the witches and vampires as they passed. She was confident that the town was relatively safe for the moment. There were too many people in the woods for there to be a great force fighting in the town.
She didn't know the names of these lions, not all of them. She'd barely known this pack for a few weeks. But if she died tonight, she would be glad to do it at their side.
Not that she planned to die.
Battle raged around her. Mel lost track of time once they made it to the burned out house. There were only the witches and the vampires and the fight. She couldn't see the ward that protected Ava and her cronies, but she could almost feel it. It was like bugs rubbing their wings against her.
She threw herself at the ward with the rest of the lions, fighting off the magic and the vampires as they came. The only thing that could defeat this ward was physical strength. They would pound at it just like it was a brick wall. And like a brick wall it would fall.
Twelve witches surrounded a blonde woman. Mel only caught fleeting glimpses of her. The rage in her belly was confirmation enough. Ava was in the circle, summoning the magic to destroy Luke and his pack. If there had been a doubt in her mind, it was all washed away now.
Mel redoubled her efforts, scraping her hands bloody. Though the ward was nearly invisible, hardly more than a wisp of air, it burned to the touch, an unseen fire trying to protect the women and men behind it from the consequences of their actions. But fires could be quenched, smothered.
The snarl grew from the back of her throat, gaining power and becoming a fully bellowed roar. She didn't sound like one of the lions, but she didn't need to. All of the cats were together in this mission. Today they were one pack.
The ground gave way, first an inch and then two more. For a moment everything held still, and then she felt a blast in the gut, the air whooshing out as the ward fell in front of them with a shuddering silence.
Those witches outside of the ward realized before those within. She heard a shrill voice call, "Protect the coven!" But it was too late. She was already diving in, her claws springing out of her hands, ready to reap her vengeance.
She pushed a tall man out of her way. He wasn't the one she wanted.
No, this was between her and Ava.
But she couldn't get to her. The coven was bound together in a circle of twelve around Ava. They all fed their power to her, their voices raised in a chant. Mel had no idea how long they'd been performing the ritual. Their volume didn't change as the lions descended upon them.
First a short woman fell, tackled to the ground by a lioness in full animal form. She barely screamed before she bled out.
Mel swiped her claws against the back of another tall man. He fell in place, but still chanted. She leaned over him, but as her eyes met his bright blue ones, she saw the pain and fear within. He was terrified of what she would do to him.
He stopped chanting long enough to beg, "Please, don't kill me." Despite his height, his voice was high, as if he were still a young man. He was maybe twenty.
And in that moment Mel remembered that she had never killed anyone. She was a criminal, an unrepentant one at that, but violence was not her game.
The young man took advantage of her hesitation.
He flung his hand up toward her and a bolt of energy rushed her way. It would have hit her square in the face if a different large man hadn't tackled her out of the way in time.
She found herself under him, his hand accidentally resting on her throat.
Mel smiled up at him, glad that he'd found her, that he was safe for the moment. "I think we've been here before."
He flattened himself, nearly crushing her with his weight. A moment later Mel felt the heat of magic rush over them. Luke winced, but kissed her cheek after taking a deep breath. "No, this time's much better," he breathed.
They rolled apart, unable to steal more than a moment in the midst of battle.
The young man had crawled back to the circle. He was on all fours with the wounds on his back pouring out trails of blood. If the ritual didn't end soon, he'd die of blood loss anyway. But Mel wouldn't give him the chance.
Her moment with Luke was enough to remind her why she was here, why she needed to take these lives. It wasn't only to take vengeance for the family that had been stolen from her. It was to protect the man that she had chosen and the family that she would build with him.
He was her mate, damn it, and it was time for her to protect him.
She didn't give the young man with the fearful blue eyes a chance to defend himself, instead reaching around and digging her hands into his throat. Her approach was silence in the midst of the fight. He didn't know that she was behind her until he was dead.
At least two down. They needed four more.
But the witches had recovered. Those who'd been in the coven circled close to Ava. They stood within a large ring of stones and out of each of the stones rose a shimmering red fire. Mel tried to count them. There were at least seven witches inside, including Ava. The stones blocked her view, but she didn't think there were more.
Still, it was enough to finish the ritual.
She looked over at Luke, hoping that he had any idea of how to get through the ward. But he glanced at her at that same moment, his eyes just as hopeless.
Mel didn't know how to give up. This was too important to lose. She wasn't going to let Ava take everything away from her again. She reached down and scooped up a stick that had fallen from one of the trees. It was insubstantial, hardly more than a twig. If she used it to whack someone, the stick would splinter without leaving a bruise. But she had fists for hitting. She reared her arm back and tossed the stick towards the newly erected ward.
The wood hit up against and invisible wall and fell to the ground.
There was no using physical force to take down this ward. At best, they'd be too injured to fight by the time they got through. At worst, the entire pack would be dead long before Ava took in the power of the Well.
Mel watched the witches circle behind the flames, their images hazy. She couldn't hear their chanting. Even though the fighting had dwindled, most of the other witches and vampires either dead, injured, or fleeing, the forest was still too loud to pick up whatever sound the magic didn't block.
Luke made his way over to her, stepping over the fallen body of a nameless witch.
"Do we run?" he asked. He didn't sound defeated, but his shoulders sagged just a little.
"There's not enough time." They were well into the seven minutes it would take to complete the ritual. Even with shifter speed, they'd only clear a few miles. Ava would obliterate them before dawn with her newfound power. She turned to Luke and waited until he looked down at her. "I love you, you know," she confessed.
The corner of Luke's mouth pulled up in a grin, "Tell me that tomorrow."
"Okay." It wasn't the first promise that she'd made that she couldn't keep.
"Krista said they'd lower the ward," Luke turned his attention back to the circle as Maya sidled up beside them in her lioness form. "Any idea when that's going to happen?"
Mel shook her head, "We won't have a lot of time to act."
"It will be enough." There was something different about his voice. He wasn't just reassuring her, he was giving her the promise of an alpha.
Time crawled forward as they waited for the witches to drop the ward. Each second seemed to take five minutes and Mel could feel the urge to pace growing.
Krista ran over to them, her shirt covered in drying blood. "Why--"
"Is Cassie alright?" Luke didn't let her finish.
Krista didn't answer immediately, finally saying, "The hex is gone." She gestured at the coven, "But why are you all just standing here?"
Mel looked between the flaming ward and Krista. "The flames?"
Krista slammed her palm against her forehead and groaned. The action might have been funny if she hadn't left a giant streak of blood over her left eyebrow. "It's a freaking glamor. It'll be a little hot, but it shouldn't stop you."
Mel grabbed Krista by the shoulders, "You're sure? This is Ava."
Krista nodded. "They're channeling so much power into the spell that the glamor is barely stable. Until they finish the ritual, they don't have enough juice to throw anything at you."
Mel turned to Luke. "Now or never."
He was already running, gathering up his cats to flank the witches. Mel set off to run with them, but Krista put a hand on her shoulder.
"We go in from behind. While the cats are taking out her witches, you know that Ava will try to escape. She's not going to let some measly lion pack kill her." Krista's hand on her arm was tight, as if she thought that Mel would try to run towards the main fight.
But she knew that Krista was right. No way in hell would Ava let herself be taken, and if she got away today, she'd be back in greater force sometime soon. This time she'd murder all of Luke's people with extreme prejudice before even attempting to seize the Well.
So she and Krista took off, away from the main fighting and into the woods back towards the road, back towards the small parking lot that served the picnic area.
Mel helped Krista up into a tree and then climbed over to another branch. Staying in the trees kept them hidden, but it didn't allow for mobility. Still, this was the path Ava would take, it was the fastest way away from the cabin and she knew that she could not outrun lions in their own forest.
Minutes passed. Mel could hear the clash of fighting, the screams as witches died and lions were wounded. Finally, lightning struck, making the forest shine white for a second and blinding Mel.
"They stopped it," said Krista. "She's going to run."
Despite the vision impairment, Mel crouched on her branch, ready to tackle the witch.
"Be quick," Krista warned. "Most of her magic will have drained out of her during the ritual, but she'll gain enough back to do major damage quickly. I'll give you magic support if you need it. Now that the ritual isn't happening my spells should be on target."
Mel was glad that Krista was here. She'd never have known the nuances of magic without her guidance. No matter how much she could study of Ava's tactics - and from her personal experience - nothing beat having a witch by her side.
But Mel didn't have time to say that all, not yet. She could hear branches snapping and heavy breathing as someone ran through the woods, fleeing the fight. She was downwind, but Mel caught a glimpse of white-blonde hair.
Mel took a final deep breath and waited until just the right moment. Ava was nearly to Mel's tree when Mel jumped. She only glanced the witch, but it was enough to make her stumble to one knee. Mel pressed the advantage, not giving Ava a chance to take advantage of Mel's mistake.
It was a quick scuffle, but Ava wasn't a fighter. Not a physical one, anyway. If she had even a fraction of her power available to her at the moment, Mel would be a burnt outline on one of the nearby trees. But in this one moment, Mel had the advantage.
"You dumb animal," Ava spat. "If you think that this means anything besides your doom, you have less intelligence than a gnat."
She didn't recognize Mel. After all of these years, the nightmares, the plans to take her down, the relentless determination to be prepared for this very moment, and Mel's foe didn't have the decency to know who she was. It shouldn't have come as a surprise. Ava hadn't seen her since she was twelve years old, half-feral, her hair a knotted mess and her skin constantly bruised. She'd barely looked human.
There had been a speech she'd planned to give in this moment. She'd mentally planned it out in a fit of maudlin sentimentality when she was twenty-one. But even that was too much for this sad excuse for a human being.
And so, without ceremony, Mel swiped her claws against Ava's throat, severing the jugular and watching the blood spurt out.
She had no regrets.