Wet dirt and decaying moss are smells I associate with peace. Time spent exploring the forest outside my family farm was the best time I remember from my happy youth. If I die here in these woods, it won’t be without a fight, but it will be fine with me.
You hear people talk about a good death. I always assumed they meant dying without pain or a death absent terror or fear. Now I think it might be the trade—your one life for something much greater.
Sitting in my car at the edge of the parking lot, a set of headlights approached. A large SUV circled the lot then left after a brief rest outside the main path. I locked up my car and walked to the parking lot to investigate.
My senses became heightened the moment I put on my dark blue witch clothes. The dirt and the decaying leaves, the wet pine needles, and the freshly paved blacktop couldn’t mask the faint smell of clove in Henry’s cologne. I hoped it was him, and I also hopped it wasn’t.
When I reached the path, I found Henry leaning against a thick redwood almost completely covered in shadow.
“Do you know how hard it is to get an Uber to leave you in an empty parking lot at the far end of a nature preserve?” His usually smoky voice sounded clear and excited.
“What are you doing out here?” Enough time hadn’t gone by. My emotions were raw from our last conversation. My body began to quiver with pent up agitation.
“We made a deal, remember. Your either crazy or I will be soon.”
“I figured all our deals were off.”
“Come closer so I can grab you and shake the shit out of you.” Henry held his hand out to me. I slid my palm across his. Eventually, I was close enough to kiss him, so I did. Removing my arms from around Henry’s neck, I realized he wasn’t wearing his glasses.
“I didn’t expect to see you again. Let alone tonight,” I explained, wiping my eyes yet again.
“You saved me from a bullet and then from bleeding to death. I owe you a walk into the woods in the middle of the night. This is kind of like the first scenes in a horror movie when everybody is screaming, no, no, don’t go into the woods.”
“Unfortunately, I don’t think this will be anything like a movie.”
“Did these fairytales say anything about naked pagan orgies in the woods at night?”
“No, that happens on night two of the full moon.” I wrapped my arm around his and felt the heat from his skin. I wanted to feel his touch all over me. The pang of desire rushed from my jaw to my stomach, freezing me in place for a moment.
“Of course. I must’ve misplaced my camp itinerary.” Henry squeezed my arm hard under his. I made sure I didn’t flinch.
“You would be up for a midnight woodland orgy, though?” I asked, thinking of the blending ceremony I would need to subject him to if I were ever to marry him into my clan.
“Possibly? Why do you ask?”
“Just good things to know.” Henry moved slightly behind me, his hand light on my shoulder. I walked on the flattened areas of dirt, smoothing the path in front of him. As we found our way deeper into the woods far off, headlights approached the turn-off and filled the parking lot.
“Thank you for meeting me here. All this must sound ridiculous to you. It sounds completely ridiculous to me.”
“An uncommonly beautiful woman asks me out to the woods in the middle of the night to kill demons. I’m not gonna say no.”
“And he was led to his death by the tip of his dick,” I laughed and grabbed at Henry’s fingers.
“They didn’t mention anything about circumcision in your book. Male or female sounds completely awful to me.”
I laughed nervously. “I’m sure if anything is cut away, it will be my heart.”
“Jesus Al, I’m joking. It’s all going to be fine. Hey, I hear a large group of people ahead.”
“Yeah, it’s the witches on the left. Kate should be around here somewhere. We need to get you one of her medallions and remove any non-organic material from your person.”
“You’re serious about this shit?”
“Yes. We are entering a realm accessed through the deeply wooded forest. To kill demons. I’ve never been to the White, and if I don’t enter soon. I will die.”
Several groups of people lined the left side of a clearing next to a dense group of very tall trees. The cluster looked like any other packed grouping of trees. Still, somehow these conifers were brighter colored and lightly shrouded in a shimmery cloud of golden pollen. The pinecones and needles were cleared away, leaving defined spaces for people to set up shop.
Triage was the easiest to spot. Reg and Leo fluttered around three tables draped with white cloths. A box of medical supplies sat at the end of each table. Ice chests lay waiting under each of the beds. I assumed the containers were holding blood but knowing Leo, they might be holding extra beers.
Emma waved me over to her group of ten or more vampires. All of them were dressed in black or dark gray workout gear. Several serious-looking people sat polishing knives and tending to a large collection of glass jars with ornate runes carved on their wooden lids.
“Okay, you and I are walking over to my friend Emma, she’s very nice, but we don’t follow her into the forest alone, got it?”
“Jesus Christ, Al, what are we doing here?”
The witches we walked by were dressed for battle in forest fatigue pants and black long-sleeved tops. The only thing about them that caught any light was their metal jewelry. Something I learned from Kate, the metal gives them certain powers and strengths.
Emma shuttered over to me at superhuman speed. “That’s a new trick,” I gasped, taking note of her wild and bright eyes.
“Pfft, not like I can do that on the street. What—have—we—here?” She sniffed the air deeply. “A human? And so handsome. You are a blessed little bitch.” Emma looked inquisitively at Henry’s eyes before looking away and smiling at me.
“Thank you, this is Henry, my human shield. I claim him. He’s mine.” There was a collective gasp and then a long silence accentuated by one lone owl far in the distance. “I’m looking for Kate so I can get him a medallion and ask about his clothes.”
“She’s here. I saw her hanging on Leo by med.” Emma reported the news as if she thought it would shock me.
“They would be cute together,” I mentioned casually.
“Hmm, you should be rooting for me. I’m much more suited to your kind.”
“There’s always room for one more,” I told her, smiling. Henry’s hand tightened on my shoulder.
“A three-way with a witch, Ugg, no thank you. But you three and me.” Emma flashed around Henry, stirring up a whirlwind of dust. “That is a party you will not soon forget, my Boy.” Henry put a finger in the air, a half-hearted wave to Emma. I took this as a cue to lead him away.
We walked by the werewolf camp. My parents were busy behind foil-covered trays of meat and ice chests full of beers. Several people stared at us. Some people smiled. Some did not. The evening politics escaped me, but I could tell there was a controversy brewing I was not fully aware of.
“I spotted my parents and the beer table. Let’s go say high to my parents and get something to wash down the dust.”
“Jesus, there are a lot of people out here, Al.”
“Roughly seventy now, and we are still a half-hour before showtime.” I sat Henry at a table and put his hand on my leg. “I’m right here next to you getting us drinks.”
“Sure thing, because I could use some serious alcohol.”
“One beer will be fine, but no more.” Kate appeared from out of the pitch darkness holding a medallion for Henry. “Hey there, Henry.” She kissed him on the cheek. “I have a necklace to put around your neck. It will allow you to enter the White.”
“Live it up.” Henry allowed Kate to put the medallion around his neck and took a long swig off his beer.
I waived at my parents and motioned for them to join me. They followed me to Henry and introduced themselves. Henry put his beer on the ground and stood up to greet them.
“Henry Rhodes, this is my father, Max, and my mother, Stephanie.” My parents shook Henry’s hand and thanked him for joining the fight. It was very civilized for our midnight gathering in the trees.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you both. Alerie saved my life a few weeks ago. I’m so grateful to her. I’m sure mine is only the first of the many lives she will save in her career.”
“We are proud of our daughter for many reasons. Her medical skills are only one.” My mother nodded her head in agreement, but my father’s words were sincere. He knew what it meant to fight in the Yolk. I could see the fear settling on his brow and could feel my stomach tighten.
Leo caught my gaze a few times. He was busy with his parents, and I was busy with mine, but the tension was getting hard to ignore.
I stood still for a moment and felt the hum of the earth and heat from the small campfires burning at each station. More cars were entering the parking lot. I could feel the intent of the occupants and could almost hear the thoughts of one. When Leo put his hand on my back and quieted the noise.
“Hey, what are you doing, Girly?” Leo kissed the side of my neck. His face looked worried. I hugged him tightly and felt the disapproving glance from my mother.
“Henry joined us,” I said, nodding to the row of chairs behind me.
“I see that.”
“You should go say hello to him, grab a beer.” Leo slowly nodded his head and crinkled his mouth in protest. He smiled and walked away from me with his hands in his pockets—an old trick we used for not touching each other in view of our Clan.
We have been through so much together. I’m not sure Leo’s ready for me to have a serious relationship even though I’ve endured several of his over the years. So many things were at odds in my mind at the same time. I struggled to take a deep breath.
The sound of a snap filled my ears.
I looked around to find myself alone with only the sound of the night animals and the fires.
“Calm your mind Little Worm. Focus on your wolf. Focus on yourself. Let her run free. Leave all of these stifling distractions behind you.” Pax’s melodic voice filled my mind with peace.
I could see the reality he pulled me from laid bare before me. None of this political shit mattered. I took a deep breath and felt time resume.
The people with their many opinions of my actions, I could let them weaken me with their judgments, or I could ignore them all and have a better chance at survival.
The grouping of trees now contained a ray of white light. I grabbed Leo by the arm.
“Do you see the light? I think it’s time.”