“We need to get out of the dirt. This tree is trying to eat you. I put two dead wolves on old Grove trees. The dead wolves fought the witches trapped inside the bark and lived—now the Grove witches hate me.”
“Those men got a second chance to live,” said Leo in a somber tone. “Your arm? What can I do?” His hand rested on my shoulder. The tingle of his disembodied energy felt hollow but retained some of the physical weight I expected to feel from his touch.
I breathed in deeply and noticed the oppressive dirt space was getting smaller. “Grab my wrist and gently guide the arm back to the shoulder socket.”
“It’s not moving,” Leo said, resting his hands on his hips.
“My shoulder is too swollen.” I laid down on the ground and reached across to my opposite shoulder. Leo gently coaxed my arm into the proper position. The bone slid back into place with a gooey thud.
“Ugh, that’s awful. It feels better, though. Look for a weak spot toward the top of the room. You got in here somehow. We need to get back out.”
~ Dagen ~
Glass shattered in every direction as Alerie slammed inside the mirror. Her limp body hit the dirt floor on the other side of the image. My blood began to boil. I told her to wait. I told her to stop, but she didn’t listen. When it comes to Leo, she never fucking listens.
The plane needed fuel and inspection before racking up more hours in the air. Driving to the MacTernan land was my only option to enter the Grove. I sent a group text to my inner circle, hoping one of them might be closer to the land.
Bruce was only a few towns away stopped at a gas station fueling his bike. He agreed to go into the Grove, update Rafferty, and start the search for Alerie. As one of my oldest friends, it seemed fate was using him to lend me a hand.
Angels can’t enter the Grove, and neither can demons. I don’t know how Alerie was pulled inside with demon blood in her veins. Witches make the rules in the Grove for a reason—they paid for it with their lives. I called Malou, told her what happened and asked her to be ready for guests.
“Only an ancient witch could spell the mirror. Do you have any pieces of it left, or did it burst into flames already?”
“The mirror cracked, and the frame broke into large pieces.”
“Get a white cloth and wrap a piece of the glass and a piece of the frame inside. Bring it with you. Take the rest of the mirror outside and douse it with water. Do it now, Dagen.” I put the phone in my pocket and found a white pillowcase. Dumping a box out on the bed gave me a container to haul the broken pieces of mirror outside.
Before I reached the alley behind the house, pieces of the mirror began to smoke. I dropped the box on the ground and turned on the garden hose, drowning the newly forming flames. Within seconds, the mirror dissolved into a blue sludge disappearing into the hardpacked dirt.
“Okay, two pieces are on the way. The rest of the mirror is gone.”
“That was a sloppy attempt. We have an inexperienced witch reaching beyond her abilities.”
“Once you figure out who did this, I want them,” I could hear the promise of death in my request. I knew Malou would not offer up another witch for my amusement.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We need to get the girl out before any harm comes to the witch who cursed the object.”
“Fine, I’m on my way, but Bruce should arrive any minute. Send him in. Rafferty can start the search.”
The base of the tree above us defined the ceiling of my dirt confinement room. Moonlight penetrated the space through fist-size holes at the ceiling where old, gnarled roots met the dirt.
“Push me up to that ray of light. Maybe we can make the hole bigger.”
“Look back here in the dark. It opens to the outside. I can get my arm through.” The sounds of Leo struggling led me to the far corner of the space.
“Makes sense. If it’s the way out, it would be hidden.” We worked to break up the dirt wall by kicking and tossing the hunks out of the way. Finally, we managed a hole big enough for me to squeeze through.
“Okay, I’ll push you through, then you kick at the hole from the outside.” It sounded like a good idea, but I didn’t want to be separated from him.
“No, I’m staying with you. Let’s keep working from here.”
“Al, we can make more progress from both sides at once.”
“I’m afraid to leave you. Please don’t make me.” Leo grabbed me by the waistband of my jeans and pulled me to him. It felt like him, but his intensity and the lust I usually feel for him were missing.
“What were you thinking? Cutting yourself? That tree was eating your soul.” I slapped him on the arm and hugged him tightly.
“I wasn’t thinking. I just wanted it to be over with.”
It only took a few more minutes before he made it out into the night air and pulled me out with him. The tree was massive. Green boughs reached up into the dark sky. Its brown sugar hewed bark looked welcoming and harmless.
A trickling of water in the distance pulled my attention away. “Is there a river close by?”
“Yeah, a narrow stream. We camped out next to it with Gar and his group before I woke up here.”
“Is the Grove that primitive?”
“They were taking me to your father, but it’s not a short trip. There isn’t anything civilized out this far, only trees.”
“Let’s find the water. In my hallucination, I was running toward the water for safety. It feels like I should go there now.”
“That’s as good a plan as any. I don’t know how I got here.” I walked into a bright swath of moonlight. Leo smiled, scanning my face. His sobering gaze wandered the path of my scars. I suddenly felt ugly.
“Does it hurt? Will the skin heal?” Leo ran his thumb over my cheek, inspecting my scars like I was a car with cancer pocked quarter panels he could fix.
“Once the demon blood is gone from my veins. They put a spell on my skin so only I can see the damage. Everyone else sees the pretty lie. Sorry, the spell must have faded when I went through the mirror.”
“Never hide from me. You don’t need to be sorry. You know that, right?”
“Everything is fucked. My career, my life. You’re slipping away from me. And Henry, I can’t compete with wings and eternity. I’m not enough for anyone anymore.”
“You’re heartbroken, and I’m ashamed to take a little pleasure from it. Henry wasn’t the human I wanted for you. I always pictured a clueless rich guy too busy to notice us. Now that you need a real full blood, none of those plans matter.”
“I’m not a wolf. My mind is human and wants human things. I’m not enough for a real wolf.”
“Dagen, right? Your real wolf. You think you’re not enough for him?” Leo stood tall and shook his head, looking down at me. “Once you’re busy with your internship, you’ll feel more like yourself. I’m not going anywhere, Al. I’m just stepping aside.”
“I don’t want you to step aside. I need you. I won’t choose anyone over you.”
“What if I found someone and wanted to commit to only them?”
“Then I would be happy for you and support your choice—be your friend, be your wife’s friend.” Leo hugged me tightly and kissed my forehead.
“I won’t lie and say I could do the same for you, but I don’t want to apologize for who I am anymore. We both need more than one person in our lives. It’s who I am.”
It wasn’t something I thought much about before. Leo and I were always each other’s primary relationship regardless of who else we dated.
“It’s who I am too.” Forcing myself to be something I’m not for Dagen was making me crazy. “Let’s work on getting you to Rafferty. The plan is to reunite you in the White tomorrow, but they need to find you first.”
My fat motorcycle tires kicked up gravel as I pulled into the MacTernan estate. Over the last few hundred years, I’ve visited on horseback and carriages, a Runabout, my first Ford truck, and now my first real Harley. The entrance to the Grove never changed. The hedge maze was added to hide the glow from the forest edge, but it’s only a momentary detour to those who know where to look.
Malou met me at the spot with water and a pack of gear. Leathers were easy enough to buy inside, but I didn’t have time to shop. Rafferty’s home is a twenty-minute trip in wolf form with a full pack of gear on my back.
I took off my shirt. Malou tied her medallion around my neck and secured the pack straps around my arms and torso. My wolf is trim and short-bodied, unlike my chunky, tall human form.
Walking through the portal, my shoes disappeared. I expected the rubber soles and manmade materials to be rejected. I learned long ago to only buy clothes with natural components, but I made an exception, and I had to laugh. I would remember to stick to my rules next time.
The air was warm. The breeze smelled like an orchard in bloom. Everything was green and wet, and just as I remembered. The entrance held several metal boxes for gear situated on a pile of quartz and wooden benches for changing. I quickly stripped my clothes and shoved my extra belongings into the first dry box I found.
I ate the chicken breast sandwich Malou put in my pack, wiggling my toes and brushing the dirt off my leg hair. I rolled my jeans around a clean shirt and stuffed them in my pack along with my knife and five-inch firebox.
The last time I transformed in the Grove, I lost track of my human life. I stayed with Rafferty as a wolf for three years before coming back to the human world. Fear I might stay too long again nagged at the back of my mind.
Your life is good now, Bruce. You need to get back to it.
I thought of my wolf and the feel of my thick paws, the arch of my strong back, and the raw power in my legs. I popped the last bite of bread in my mouth and dusted off my hands. My chest filled in with thick black fur as I coaxed the wolf out of hiding. I tugged at my cock and carefully repositioned my ball sack, knowing it would be days before I saw my human junk again. It’s by far what I hate losing the most in wolf mode.
Falling to the ground, my pads dug into the soft dirt as my claws appeared. The rest of my body followed, leaving behind the single mission of finding Raff in my mind. I yelled out for my old friend using my loudest howl before taking off running at full speed toward his garden gate.