When the car stopped for gas, I was startled awake. The words Step one, say your desires with intent; step two, find yourself a witch, floated near my ear.
Leo and Reg were standing outside the car, pumping gas and stretching. I didn’t see anyone else in earshot.
My knuckles were turning a deep shade of purple, and I assumed my face looked just as bad. I fell asleep against the back-passenger door. My body felt like a crumpled wad of discarded tin foil. Leo climbed in the car next to me and held my face up to the dome light.
“My God, what have they done to your beautiful face?”
“I’m dying, and it doesn’t feel like I’m getting any better.” Leo inspected my skin with increasing worry.
I put my hand on his cheek and recalled when I slipped off the porch into a group of old rose bushes. He held my hands while one of the women at the compound pulled the thorns out with tweezers and dabbed the punctures with antiseptic. I think it was the last time I saw this amount of worry in his eyes.
Reg handed me a chocolate protein drink from the gas station cold case and asked me to eat something. Leo unwrapped two cookies from my bag, put several bacon pieces between them, and handed it to me like a sandwich. Malou’s pouch of herbs flopped out on the seat. I took this as a sign and put four of them in my mouth.
“Thank you both for taking me home.” Leo kissed my forehead and hugged me to his chest.
“Al, I know your finals are this week, but I don’t see how they can make you take them like this.” Reg looked at us in the rearview mirror. “The moon will be in a perfect position to enter the White the night before the Clan gathering and for one day after. You only need to hold out until then.”
“If this White place even helps. It won’t be soon enough. A classmate was in a car wreck last year around finals. She was in a wheelchair for the test. There aren’t many options if I don’t want to take those classes over again.”
“You have a few days still. We’ll figure something out.” Leo sat back in his seat, released my seatbelt, and pulled my body toward him. “Sleep a bit. We should be home in less than two hours.” I wrapped my arms around Leo’s neck and settled myself between his legs and under his chin. He was one more person I needed to find a way to live for.
When I woke again, I was in my own bed. I could hear Leo and a woman talking downstairs. I grabbed a sweater, splashed my face with water, and went down to investigate.
“Al, this is Kate, she’s a …” Leo stopped and scratched at his day-old beard.
“Emma sent me, “Kate replied, holding out her hand. I noticed two duffle bags on the floor by my couch. I took her hand and shook it lightly.
Leo looked at me strangely. “Emma is your stalker. Emma’s a vampire.”
“No, shit.” Leo turned toward Kate. “So, you’re a vampire too?”
“I’m an elemental witch, Sweetie,” Kate explained to Leo before sitting on the couch and patting the space next to her. “Emma said you need a portal and a link, and I should drop in on you today. But you don’t look so good, Alerie.”
I slid onto the couch and told Kate about how I met our mutual friend Emma, I told her about the shooting, how I bit Henry and the witch who dunked me in a tub of crystals and cream by the end, Kate was taking notes.
Kate’s serious resting face accentuated the light wrinkles on the olive-toned skin around her eyes. She was thin and shorter than me, with the shade of dark brown hair I always admired. I couldn’t help but wonder how old she was, but I wasn’t going to risk upsetting her by asking. Find a witch rolled in my mind.
“Okay, this is all very doable, but I need to contact my coven. I’m going to need some direction. Food is important. Steaks, fish, eggs, the protein is what’s helping you recover. Malou is a natural healer. I’m not. What I do manipulates what can’t normally be seen. Your human body is quite literally dying while your wolf is healing you with new material. You need to provide good, new material, or this process goes south fast.”
Leo opened the fridge and pulled out one of my chocolate ice cream pints, a cherry yogurt, and a cheddar cheese stick. “Eat this crap while I go get some steaks and some real food.” Leo grabbed his phone from the counter and headed out the door.
Kate looked at me and smiled. “You have him trained nicely.”
“He’s afraid. I hate seeing pain on his face. Leo is not usually this focused,” I explained.
“I can see how much he loves you.” Kate looked wistfully at the doorway.
“Oh, it’s not like that. We grew up together. Besides, you must know how wolves are we don’t...”
“Mate for life, live in packs. Yes, everyone has seen the Animal Channel specials. The worst thing he can think of happening is your death.” Kate was right. Losing Leo would be insufferable for me to endure.
“What’s the plan here, and what do you do for a living that you can drop it all.” I motioned to her duffel bag set. “and come here on a moment’s notice?”
“Emma’s group will follow you to the site. Pax is, you know, the only collector. I’m not sure if he is joining. And I will have my Coven. Malou will most likely have her coven. Then there’s the Clan folk. Sounds to me like you gathered quite a production crew for your first trip inside.”
“First trip? Try the only trip.” A pain shot down my spine so forcefully I rose up off the couch and stood there stunned.
My bones felt like they were on fire. I was afraid to move. The slow, methodical eradication of my human DNA flooded my entire body with pain.
“Okay, I’m going to teach you something. You can stop your heartbeat just for a second and make your pain stop or reset if necessary.” Kate looked very serious as she recited her odd-sounding words. Finally, she jabbed her thumb into the skin over my heart. “Now, when the pain happens again, tap here twice.” Kate patted the skin above my heart. I did as she asked, and to my surprise, I felt nothing for several seconds. When I tapped a second time, I could feel my heart pound hard.
“Wow, what a weird feeling,” Kate nodded in agreement. “I was told I needed a witch,” I motioned to Kate. “A warrior, Leo, and my armor. Before I can enter the white. I just need the armor now.”
“Emma said you already found and assembled everyone. You found your armor.” I knew she was talking about Henry. How could I explain this ridiculous plan to such an intelligent, rational person? It almost sounded possible until I added Henry to the scenario.
“The man I bit, Henry. He’s blind. I can’t take him into a dangerous situation on purpose. What, do I tell him to stand there and try not to die.” Kate looked at me and wrinkled her eyebrows in disbelief.
“Your bodies will stay in the White. Only your ethereal body moves into the Yolk. His essence isn’t blind, Alerie, just as your essence isn’t dying. Who knows what he will be like inside the Yolk?” Kate popped up off the couch and started rummaging through the cupboards for pans and spices.
I could hear her talking to me about the throuple she was involved in and how adding one more guy to the group was great at first but eventually soured the mix they cultivated for over a year.
The timing of all this was great for her, she didn’t have a lease, and she wanted her freedom to choose new lovers. She worked full-time at Wholefoods but not for much longer since most of what we do will be on the weekends. Above her melodic chatter, I could hear a passage repeating in my mind.
Into the golden light, you step with none but your fate. The bodies of your guard lay upon a bounty of goodwill. Await the march of the dark soldier into the arms of the dawn. From destruction shall spring peaceful respite.
The sins of the devout prick deeply at the eyes of God. Their atonements made all the more painful to witness. Bathed in the golden light of the Grove, they too shall witness peace eternal.
I couldn’t remember the story this passage was from. There must have been a gilded gold illustration, but I couldn’t remember it either. The cadence was familiar, but most of the story was missing from my memories.
I sent a text to my grandmother. “How are you? Do you still have our bedtime storybook?”
She replied, “Doing well, heard about your adventures, book on its way to you by courier. See you Saturday night.” It was comforting to know she was on her way home. I would be grateful to hug her one last time.
Henry sent several texts between Sunday night and Monday afternoon. Released from the hospital, he wanted to see me as soon as he got back into town. I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to see him, but I didn’t want to involve him in my drama. Besides, he should stay at the hospital for at least three days and then been sent to long-term care for weeks.
My situation was getting worse. Every time I slept, I woke covered in an oily excretion that smelled like animal musk with the consistency of coconut oil. I suspected it was the custom herbs Malou sent home with me, so I stopped taking them and relied on meat and ice water.