The feeling in the yard was joyful—people clustered in groups talking and enjoying the warm, milder weather that would soon turn humid. The crushed slate rock covering the driveway was refreshed before the party, adding a tight, clean line between the pathways and the lawns.
My mother looked genuinely pleased as she surveyed the outdoor scene. I refilled a tub with drinks, seized a fresh bar towel from the stack, and headed out into the crowd.
Praise and expressions of pride flowed smoothly from my clansmen. No one from our little settlement had walked into the White for a quarter-century. These people raised me—if anyone deserved to take credit for my accomplishments, it was them.
The weight of worry flowed from their hands to the core of my chest as they patted my bare arms and shoulders. Whispers detailing their troubled thoughts floated in the air between us as they made contact with my skin—an unwelcome ability.
Leo stood across the sweeping lawn, tossing around a football with several pre-teen boys. Some of the older men, fathers I presumed, joined in the fun. Leo looked calm and content. I wanted to talk to him about our morning with Henry, but I couldn’t seem to get time with him alone.
It felt like I would never have a moment alone with Leo again.
I made my way across the field to him, handing out waters and sodas along the way. By the time I reached the group playing ball with Leo, my bucket of drinks was empty.
“Hey there, how’s it going?” I asked, catching his attention.
“Good, do you need help with something? I’m just playing around with the kids.”
“No, I’ve got this covered.” Tilting my empty drink tub dripped ice water down the front of my dress.
“I can see that.” Leo chuckled. “You still look upset. You feeling better from earlier?”
“My mother spiked my Hennessy with one of her funny potions. I feel kinda spaced out but better.”
“Good,” Leo replied, looking down at the grass. “I’m not much help to you anymore in that department.”
“Stop it. What would I do without you?” Leos’s face hardened. He looked to be formulating a reply when a ball was tossed at him. He caught it easily and pointed at the teen he planned to throw it back to.
“I don’t want to find out, Al.” His eyes were fixed on my face when the ball was returned to him. He caught it with an outstretched hand and smiled. His skill with the sport was never in question. He excelled at this activity, and I could see he needed an easy distraction.
The extra adrenaline changed Leo’s brooding face to mischief. He sprinted across the green lawn to attack the group of boys.
Excitement from the group was palpable as they darted and tossed the ball from player to player. As I turned to leave, four or more of the young men piled on Leo, forcing him to the ground in a roar of triumph.
This simple day was difficult for me to enjoy. My life felt like it belonged to someone else, someone behind the scenes draining away all my warmth and kindness. My usual ability to accept the simple pleasures of life felt impossible to find.
My trek back to the kitchen to refill my drink bin was stopped by two large black SUV’s parking at the driveway’s far edge. The doors opened, revealing several good-looking men dressed as if they walked off the pages of an Eddie Bauer catalog.
One of them was Dagen. A smile spread across my face as I took in the sight of him.
“Look at you, in your crisp white shirt,” I said, setting my empty tub on the fresh gravel and emptying my arms. “and those snakeskin are not shit-kicking boots. Stay on the rock pathways, or you’re going to need to toss them out.” Dagen smiled as he ambled toward me. He gave me a quick arms-length hug. Something changed in his demeanor since our last meeting—he felt cold.
I looked at him with a raised brow. “Don’t worry, I won’t puke on you. I’m feeling much better.”
“That’s good to hear” Dagen chuckled quietly, tilting his head so only I could see him, and winked at me. “I brought over some from my Clan members willing to fight with you on your next trip inside.”
I smiled and nodded appreciatively to the men standing behind Dagen.
“Thank you all. I’m not sure what to expect from the second round, but I was warned by a reliable source that a greater demon is focusing on killing me. I expect it will be…” I shifted my weight and yanked on the bodice of my sundress, straightening it flat. “You should take all the precautions you need, plan well.” Dagen’s face lost its smile. He looked at me like I just slapped him.
“It’s the truth, and I can’t withhold something that important from anyone willing to join me. It might be a short, bloody trip,” I explained.
“I’m going inside with you as your Armor then.” Dagen squeezed my shoulder, and I could see his cold mask fade away.
My mother walked up behind me with her empty drink tub and smiled at the new group of guests. “We have steaks and shrimp in the steamers at the main table. Hope you all are hungry.”
Something caught my mother’s eye, dampening her fake smile. Her empty tub dropped next to mine, and she walked to the back of the group.
“Rafferty? She whispered as if naming a ghost at midnight.
“Stephanie, you look well.” She stared at him blankly. “I returned as soon as I could.”
“You haven’t aged? Have you been in the Grove all these years?”
“Not all but more than I realized.” My mother walked the man closer to the house so they could talk alone. She pointed at me, put her hands on her hips. I imagined whatever she was saying wasn’t flattering.
Dagen turned me away from the group. “Your reliable source is Pax isn’t it?”
“Yes, he trained me and helped me in the Yolk. There’s no reason for him to lie to me.” Dagen’s eyes looked angry, but his posture never changed.
“Is that the Rafferty you mentioned?” Dagen nodded yes, never taking his eyes off mine.
“What did you promise your demon in return for his information?”
“My demon? I didn’t promise Pax anything. He showed up to see how I was doing.”
“Then why is Pax helping you? If his kind finds out he’s been feeding you information, they will turn on him.” Dagen’s eyes scanned my arms and neck.
I squeezed my eyes shut to stop my tears. “Pax can’t help me now. Things changed when I entered the Yolk. I can’t hear him anymore.”
“You’ve spilled demon blood. I’m sure that changes quite a few things for that bastard.”
“I’m lost now,” I whispered. “Pax always told me the truth. Never judged me. I could ask him anything, and he always helped me.”
“What do you need to know? Ask me,” Dagen demanded. “You don’t need to rely on a demon. We can get you through this next battle.” He motioned to all the men behind him.
“You certainly are old enough to know quite a bit of useless wolf shit,” I joked. Dagen smirked and shook his head. “Do you remember how things work in the Grove and the Yolk?”
“I do. I’ve been in dozens of battles and walked back out when they were over. That should tell you something about my qualifications.”
I inched myself closer to Dagen’s chest and looked up at him. “I’ve basically been living as a human. There are things I don’t even know to ask. I don’t want to die in the Yolk, and I don’t want to fight a pissed-off demon here in the human world. I don’t know what I’m doing.” It was the truth. I could barely get the words out with any volume. It made my eyes water to say them out loud. Dagen scanned my face looking last at my mouth.
“Lass, you can drop by anytime and ask anything you like of me.”
“Thank you. I’m headed back to Milton tonight.”
“I’ll be back in Boston tomorrow.” Dagen quickly grabbed his phone and texted me his address. He turned his head as if someone called his name.
The group left as quietly as they arrived. My mother looked spooked and stared at me blankly as she retrieved her empty drink tub.
“That was Rafferty MacTernan, your other father.”
“Why did he leave without speaking to me first?”
“I sent him away. I asked him to leave without making a scene, and in return, I promised to send you to meet with him privately.”
“What? Why?” I asked.
“I don’t want your father upset, and this is not the time or place for a first meeting. He was here to observe you. I don’t think he planned to introduce himself.”
“This is insane. That man looks way too young to be anyone’s father.”
“He was born on June 1st, 1673. He’s not young at all.” My mother stomped toward the house. I followed behind her with a thousand questions running through my mind.
The party was beginning to wind down.
Eventually, the party ended. I collected Henry and Leo, and we started the long drive back to Milton. They were both quiet at first. Leo took the first shift getting us headed in the right direction.
I sat up front playing copilot and reassuring Leo I was still his friend. Henry, refreshed from his nap, let his big brain run free. He chatted about a computer processor and some recent discovery of moons on a distant planet. Leo was entertained, and I thought I felt the frozen elephant in the car thaw between them.
Looking out the window as the early evening sun fell on our tiny town, I couldn’t find any joy in the beautiful trees and lush landscape that always sparkled for me. I was numb to the men in the car with me, both of whom I loved in different ways.
Maybe it was withdrawals from the lack of demon blood. Maybe it was the mystery fluid my mother poured in my high ball. Maybe it was the feeling people get when they know they are going to die and there isn’t a damn thing they can do about it.
I wasn’t particularly sad. I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t horny or playful. I didn’t want anything added to my life. I didn’t need anything removed. I felt nothing.
I remember being happy and how carefree my mind felt. Still, it felt like new happy memories would be impossible for me now. I could feel the wolf roll inside me. The world looked different to her, and the two images were not compatible.
We accomplished our goal. We lived through the one battle necessary to get my life back, but it didn’t feel like the end of anything.
Something nagged at me from deep inside my core. We were just beginning in the Yolk, and I was not prepared.