SIMON crouched at the edge of the shadow-darkened woods, and stared into a clearing where a lone house stood. The knee of his jeans soaked up lingering raindrops from a late-afternoon thunderstorm. The dampness annoyed him, and he quietly repositioned himself so he could wipe away the irritating mud and leaves. He wondered for a moment if jeans had been the best option to wear, then gave himself a mental eye roll. It wasn’t as if he had a section of his closet specifically for scared-shitless situations.
He forced his attention back to the house and looked for any signs of life. Tucked in the mountains of East Tennessee, its rustic yet charming aged-wood exterior and shutter-trimmed windows welcomed visitors and suggested a home where a family lived and loved.
A dogwood petal drifted from a nearby tree and landed on Simon’s cheek. He blew it off and watched it fall to the ground like a pale-pink snowflake. The cheery blossoms completed the illusion. Their light, sweet scent lingered in the spring breeze as they floated through the air and covered the grass with little dots of color.
This wasn’t anyone’s happy home, no matter how many dogwoods bloomed merrily in the yard. His magic told him that, called him here over and over, even though he’d been trying for the past two days to ignore it. The dark magic being performed at this place exceeded his skill level; Simon had never felt anything this evil before.
As an apprentice, Simon shouldn’t be handling a situation of this magnitude, but he couldn’t keep pretending the screams for help didn’t exist. His mage master had warned him time and again to stay away from other magical creatures, to avoid the ones who would take advantage of his power and his very nature.
However, these weren’t powerful creatures out to get him. Simon trusted that the very magic that gave him life wouldn’t lead him into danger. It must have brought him here because he could help. The voices calling to his mind were children, young ones, and Simon could feel their fear like he could feel his own breath.
The situation was more dangerous because these were not human children. Magical creatures violently protected their young, much like everyone else, but they had additional resources at their disposal. If caught here, it would be a rip-apart-first-and-ask-questions-later scenario. The last thing he wanted was to come face-to-face with a pissed-off werewolf defending its young.
Simon had tried to stay out of it, but two days had passed and their pack still had not come for them. He had stayed in his house since Friday afternoon, when he’d first heard the calls for help. It went against his nature to ignore anyone who needed him, especially when the very core of his magic told him it was the right thing to do. But helping them went against his training and mage law. Simon didn’t think their desperate pleas would penetrate the firmer shields of any better-trained mages, and if they did, Simon was pretty sure the other mages wouldn’t bother responding.
They were just children, though, and it was tearing him in two. By Sunday evening, Simon realized he was the only one who would help them. He had to do whatever it took to get those children back to their families where they belonged. Even if it broke all the rules.
Dusk finally fell, and the shadows lengthened to fully darken the clearing. Simon couldn’t stand the torment any longer. Five kids calling out to his magic for help was more than he could bear. Now, with the cover of night as added protection, he felt more confident. Simon opened himself to the flow of his magic, and his fortitude increased with the added strength. He might not be as strong as some of the other mages, but the rush of his power opening for him made him believe he had the abilities he needed to get through this unfamiliar situation.
With a deep breath, he lowered his shields and reached out toward the house. He sensed adults there, three of them. Two human and one Other. Simon paused at the essence of the third, trying to recognize it without pushing so hard that he gave himself away.
He couldn’t identify the murky, clouded mind, so he gently steered his powers away and searched for the signatures of the children. There, in a lower level. All five of them, so scared and growing weak. Something was draining them of their power, slowly and painfully.
One of the humans stepped outside and began walking the perimeter of the house. Dressed in jeans and a camouflage jacket, he carried a hunting rifle. Simon watched him scan the area with military precision and feared he’d be found out before he even got started. He shrank back further into the shadows and used his magic to cloak himself in darkness. The Cimmerian Cloaking spell was one of the first abilities he’d mastered during his training, and it remained one of his strongest talents. Only another mage could see through the spell, and some mages, like the master training him, could hide from others of their kind as well.
Simon used his mind to call the man. He turned and stared at the spot where Simon crouched before he began to move toward him. Simon smiled at the memory of a game he had played as a child and pushed a thought into the man’s mind.
Here. Face the tree. Slowly count to a hundred thousand. The man complied and began the count as Simon stepped out of his hiding place. Simon let out a relieved breath that the compulsion had worked, and took the gun carefully from the man’s hands. He hid it under the low branches of a nearby tree and then crept closer to the house. Looking over his shoulder, he made sure the counting man remained focused on his task, which gave Simon some reassurance he would be safe. He just hoped the spell would hold once he entered the house.
Through the kitchen window, Simon could see the other human standing at the stove, and he heard the man grumbling to himself. “I don’t know why I have to handle the damn cooking. Why feed the little shits if he’s just gonna drain them dry?” As Simon delved into the man’s subconscious, his thoughts became as loud as his mouth. I wish he would hurry his ass up and finish it so we can get out of here. I don’t want trouble with any fucking pack of wolves.
Yeah, Simon thought, I wouldn’t either. He sent a gentle nudge to the man’s mind: You must cook all this food for the wolves. They will eat you if you don’t cook for them! Simon covered his mouth to muffle a laugh when a look of horror came over the man’s face and he began racing around the kitchen, pulling food from the cabinets.
Who’s the little shit now? Simon thought.
Finally, there was just the Other left to distract. Humans were easy, susceptible to his suggestions. An Other would probably not be so easy to control, and worse, Simon had no experience to guide him. But the children’s fear reinforced his courage, and before he could change his mind, Simon opened the back door and entered the house. The man in the kitchen didn’t even look up from his task, and Simon slipped quietly past him.
The Other was down with the young ones, and their distress was growing. The closer Simon got to them, the more their terror grew, from the aching mental thread that had drawn him here to a mind-clenching psychic rope that threatened to strangle his connection to his magic. He fought back his anxiety and followed the cord to the basement door. He opened it, and the smell of their horror made him want to retch into the musty opening leading down the steps into darkness.
Simon placed a hand over his rolling stomach and tried to breathe through his mouth. It’s now or never, he thought as his nausea eased slightly. He reinforced his cloaking spell, even though he didn’t want to use precious energy. Higher-level mages had deeper wells of magic, but it took Simon time to recharge when he used this much power. Nevertheless, he needed to give himself a little extra time to evaluate what he was up against.
He started down the wooden steps, taking each step slowly to keep the boards from creaking beneath his feet. A single lightbulb lit the basement, but it provided enough light for Simon to see. Shelves of canned goods lined one wall, and piles of dusty boxes took up more of the dank space. From the amount of cobwebs decorating everything, the place hadn’t been touched in years.
The children huddled together in a corner, where a magical barrier trapped them in place. The sight of their small bodies shivering in the cold infuriated him. Simon didn’t know enough about children to guess their ages with any accuracy, but he was pretty sure none of them were over the age of ten. One of them, a boy slightly taller than the others, looked toward the stairs and right at Simon.
He took a protective step in front of the younger ones, and his dark hair fell over his forehead. He tossed it to the side in aggravation and glared at Simon. When he realized Simon wasn’t one of their captors, his blue eyes lit up with hope. A sensitive one, Simon realized, when the boy saw through his cloaking spell. Good. That would make this easier. Simon smiled to reassure him and sent a gentle push into the boy’s mind. I’m here to help. Be ready.
The boy nodded once and looked away. Simon focused on the Other. Now that he could see it, Simon could gauge its magic. It looked like a regular man, someone you might pass on the street and not give a second glance. A bit skinny, with disheveled light-brown hair, the demon would have been unrecognizable if Simon couldn’t see the lines of dark magic being dragged from the children and into its body.
Its soul-based magic flowed differently than a mage’s, and Simon recognized it as demonic. His apprenticeship had prepared him for the possibility of a demon that looked human, but seeing firsthand a humanlike figure exude such complete dark magic truly terrified Simon. He had absolutely no idea what to do.
With its eyes closed and its head tilted back, the demon revealed the heinous smile on its face as it fed on the magical energies of the children. It drained them of their particular brand of magic as well as their life force, and reveled in every damn minute of it. The demon chuckled, and the kids cried out in pain as dark, jagged lines of magic began flowing from them at a faster rate. The agony of the slow death the demon wrenched from their small bodies suddenly became horrifyingly real.
A savage fury overtook him. Simon concentrated on the spell, its harsh red lines showing just how deadly the damage was to the kids. With a telepathic push fed by his rage, Simon distracted the demon from the spell bleeding the children’s energy, and had the creature focus on a conjured enemy by the far wall. He created a monster as repulsive-looking as this one made him feel, but made sure it was only visible to the demon and himself.
Its bulbous eyes oozed, and its scaly yellow arms reached out for the demon. The demon went wild, letting out a piercing screech that echoed off the dirty walls. It fought and punched at the image only he and Simon could see. The distraction succeeded enough for Simon to move to the enclosure where the children drew together in despair and misery. Their hands covered their ears, and with horrified eyes, they watched the screaming demon. Simon felt guilty for adding to their terror, but he needed the demon occupied so he could work on the holding spell.
Simon began trying to dismantle the strange orange lines of the barrier and felt an immediate drain on his own energy. The magic holding them captive was strong, apparently a talent of the demon’s. With a frustrated grunt, Simon focused his power and attempted to unravel it one section at a time. A small opening appeared, and the sensitive boy rushed to it. He began herding the others through until they were all free. Simon let the barrier drop back into place.
To conserve his remaining power, Simon released the cloaking spell he was using on himself. The children jolted in surprise when he appeared. The boy shushed them and looked to Simon for guidance. Simon laid a finger across his lips to remind them to stay quiet and pointed back the way he’d come.
The children made for the stairs, their small bodies making little noise against the rough floor. Simon kept his eyes on the demon and watched it continue to fight its invisible foe. He backed toward the stairs behind them. He’d made it about halfway when the demon broke free from Simon’s compulsion and turned to him.
Simon gathered his strength and sent another mental push, stronger this time. The demon laughed it off and raised its arms, throwing a burst of dark energy that hit Simon in the chest and tossed him back against the stairs. Before Simon could get to his feet, the demon rushed him. It grabbed him by the jacket and flung him away from the stairs. Simon landed against the floor and gasped as his breath was knocked out of him. The demon clambered up the stairs and reached toward where the kids huddled. Simon realized it was conjuring another holding spell; he could see the same orange magical lines forming.
He scrambled to his feet and leapt on the demon’s back. It lost its balance and stumbled against the wall. Simon grabbed the rail with one hand and used the other to shove the demon back down the stairs. It hit the floor hard but rolled back to its feet. Simon quickly focused his power and held out his hand to direct his magic. Outside of the cloaking spell, there was only one other at which he excelled: the Torpor Trance. He gathered every ounce of force he could muster and commanded the demon to sleep. The demon stopped moving, its own spell pausing, half-formed. Simon watched in stunned disbelief as it collapsed to the ground.
The children waited for direction at the top of the stairs. A warm trickle dripped down his face as he wearily climbed up to join them. His nose was bleeding, so he pinched his nostrils to stem the flow. His raised arm intensified the ache in his chest where the demon’s spell had hit him. Simon tried to access his magic, but only a near-empty reserve remained of his energy. This was getting worse by the moment. He looked to the boy, who returned his gaze with a concerned expression. “I’m fine. Come on. We’ve got to move fast.”
Simon paused to lift the smallest of the children in his arms. Her blonde curls hung damply against her cheeks, and she shivered in his hold. Her T-shirt and shorts didn’t provide enough protection during the long hours sitting on the floor. He opened his jacket so he could bring her close against his warmth, then wrapped the sides around her. She sniffled and nuzzled into Simon’s neck. “I want my mommy,” she whimpered.
“I know you do, sweetie. I’ll take you home, okay?”
She nodded and relaxed against him as Simon led them out of the house, past the man in the kitchen, who was still furiously cooking. The cabinet doors stood open and food spilled out onto the counters. The children eyed him suspiciously, and one of the younger boys grabbed Simon’s free hand and clenched it tightly.
The group hurried for the woods. The other human still counted where Simon had left him. “Five hundred thirty-seven. Five hundred thirty-eight.”
Simon kept moving, ushering the children forward. He glanced back frequently to check on the kids and make sure they weren’t being followed. He tripped over a branch and stumbled, but the eldest boy grabbed his arm and steadied him. The children were nearly silent in the woods around him, their shifter magic giving them an advantage in this setting.
He adjusted the little one he held, and she snuggled close to his body heat as her trembling eased. The little boy still holding Simon’s hand let out a frustrated huff. “I want to talk to Alpha.”
The eldest nodded. “I do too. I thought we could call him when we got away from them.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll be at the car soon, and you can call him once we get away from here.” Simon tried to sound reassuring and hoped it helped.
It seemed to work, as the kids all looked at him and nodded. The eldest seemed to realize Simon was struggling in the dark, and crossed over to take his arm. The others crowded close and held each other’s hands. Simon felt a gentle push against his magic, and it suddenly seemed easier to maneuver in the forest. Puzzled, Simon opened his mind and sensed the body magic in them reaching out to help him. He adapted, his movements smoother and much quieter than before. The kids smiled and seemed much more relaxed.
Simon didn’t know how they were doing it, but in a few moments, they were through the woods and to the road where Simon had parked his car. Back on familiar ground, Simon hurried to his little hybrid. He pulled the keys out of his pocket and clicked the key fob to unlock it. The children clambered into the car before Simon even got his door open. The older boy climbed into the front, and the other three scrambled into the back. The brown-haired girl in the back held out her hands for the little one in Simon’s arms, and Simon lowered her inside as well. He slipped off his jacket and covered her with it, then got into the driver’s seat and started the car.
Simon floored the gas, and the car jerked forward. His eyes flitted back and forth between the road ahead and the rearview mirror. He’d never used compulsions like that before, especially not on an Other, so he couldn’t be sure how long the magic would hold. Simon drove on automatic pilot, his course set for town. He pressed one shaking hand to his still-bleeding nose, ignoring his injuries in his eagerness to be as far away from the demon as he could get. Every set of headlights on the nearly deserted road had him fearing the worst.
He didn’t know if the demon would break free of his spell as easily as it did the first one, and Simon wanted to get the kids back to their pack before it could catch them again. Calculating his reserves, he tried to come up with some sort of plan in case their abductors caught up to them. He had little energy left to work with and could only hope to get them home without any further trouble.
Before he knew it, they were back in town, and Simon had no idea where to take the children. He pulled into the parking lot of a small shopping center and laid his head on the steering wheel. Taking a deep breath, Simon focused on gathering his energy and putting his shields back in place. It took much longer than it should have, but after a few moments, he felt steady again and lifted his head.
The children were all watching him closely, their eyes guarded and still suspicious. He turned to the older boy and asked, “Where to?”
The boy didn’t answer for a long moment, simply staring at Simon with an expression of curiosity that gave Simon pause. His dark hair had slipped further down his forehead and into his eyes. Simon brushed it back. The boy grinned and shook his head, forcing the hair back down into his face. It was obviously a familiar gesture. Simon could picture his mother doing the same thing.
The moment seemed to settle whatever question the boy had. He grabbed Simon’s hand where it rested on the steering wheel and pressed it to his forehead, then to his mouth and licked it.
Simon felt a burst of magical energy that his empty stores quickly absorbed. He started to pull away, but the boy squeezed his hand, keeping it in his own. He raised his eyes to meet Simon’s and bit his lip. He looked puzzled for a moment, as if he were trying to remember something, before he spoke. “I am Garon, son of Gray. I declare you friend of the High Moon Pack.”
The other children gasped, and their eyes widened in wonder. They all reached for Simon and gently petted him. The youngest, still wrapped in Simon’s jacket, climbed over them all to press a little kiss to Simon’s cheek. As they all touched him, their magic began to mingle with his. The ache in Simon’s chest eased, and the trickle of blood from his nose slowed to a stop.
Garon smiled a little-boy smile, and a small dimple appeared in his cheek. It seemed to contrast with how calmly he’d handled the situation so far. He released Simon’s hand and turned his attention to the road in front of them. “Go toward the old mill. I’ll tell you where to turn when we get closer.” The other children settled back into their seats, satisfied with Garon’s decision, their wariness of Simon completely gone.
Simon rubbed his hand where Garon had licked him and detected a tingle of the powerful body magic inherent to all weres. He would figure it out later, but first, he had to get these children back to their pack.