In the Company of Witches

       part  #2 of  Arcane Shot Series  by  Joey W. Hill / Fantasy / Romance & Love
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In the Company of Witches
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SOMETHING WAS COMING. DAMN IT ALL TO HELL AND back.

Every time she planned an evening for herself, the Underworld had to vomit out some kind of trouble. A hundred million places it could go, but no, it oozed right to the doorstep of her bordello.

“All I wanted was a cup of tea, People magazine and a movie. ” Raina cast an irritated eye toward the heavens. “What? You don’t get enough Me time, so I can’t have any, either?”

Yeah, pissing off the Goddess right before trouble arrived was a winning plan. The wind picked up, bringing a wealth of messages with it. Nothing clear except one thing—danger.

Stepping to the edge of the porch, Raina saw heat lightning flash, heard the distant rumble of thunder. A gust blew across her velvet skirt, rippling it against her legs.

“Whaaatsuuup?”

At the deep man’s voice, she flicked a glance toward Cathair. The raven was perched on the porch swing. His weight was settled low, so with the flex of his claws and the help of the rising wind, the swing maintained a steady rhythm.

“Not sure yet. Be still for now. ”

His usual response to that command was an impudent composition of the most obnoxious sounds in his repertoire. Discordant screeches, hoarse coughing sounds, and a peppering of vulgar words strung together in a creative way. But, sensing what she was sensing, her familiar stayed silent, his head cocked, bright eyes sharp.

Moving down the wooden steps, she listened to the resonances coming through the weathered planking. Not clear enough. She descended to the stone walkway and stepped onto the grass alongside it, a cold cushion for her toes. Instantly, a shiver went up into her soul. Power. Lots of it.

Whatever was coming, it was coming fast, through the forest.

The winding drive to the Queen Anne–style house was about a mile long, all of it through thick wood and marsh. Ancient oaks draped with Spanish moss lined the road like gray-bearded, gnarled wizards, the great ancients of times past. The energy running through those trees now was electric, crackling static, radios gone haywire.

Might be good to get a head start on this one. She shrugged her shoulders, cracked her neck. Let her hair loose, so it blew down her back. Dropping to a squat, she slapped one palm flat on the earth, drawing energy. The other she thrust to the sky, pulling light from the moon and the airstream scudding the clouds across the dark firmament. When her gaze went to the center fountain, its waters rippled as if her hand had swept across it, a disruption of its flow. Nerve endings tingled along her spine, her palms heating from the elemental charge.

As she straightened, her eyes narrowed. The driveway appeared to be moving. Snakes, coming out of the foliage. About a dozen of them, copperheads, black snakes, a rattler. A blink later, two alligators followed. In the coastal South, a reptile pedestrian crossing wasn’t unusual. Those coming up the driveway to indulge in the dark delights her bordello had to offer would slow their vehicles until the animal passed. But seeing a mass exodus of snakes, in the company of alligators, was not the norm. Whatever was coming was not headed in her direction for the pleasures the house had to offer—it was coming for the sanctuary it provided.

Walking down the lawn, she passed the Sweet Dreams welcome sign, positioned before the center fountain. Glittering water poured over the smooth, sculpted lines of a naked man and woman embracing in erotic bliss. Over the sound of that, she heard the rushing beat of Cathair’s wings as the raven took flight. Glancing up, she saw him pass across the yellow crescent moon, then do a loop. She braced herself out of habit as he landed on her shoulder, but he folded his wings with minimal mussing of her hair, underscoring the seriousness of the situation.

“Be ready to move,” she said, low. “I wouldn’t want to ruffle your feathers. ”

He hunkered down like a soldier settling into a foxhole. She almost smiled, but then she was hit full blast.

Panic, desperation. Air…She struggled to work through the images tumbling through her mind. Blood, death. Pain. She was in the head of something running for its life. A male, gasping for air as he ran through the swamp. Trying to escape.

She focused, parsing his emotional responses from her own, steadied. He was coming from the southwest side of her property. However, he wasn’t her main concern. She extended her senses, pushing past him. What was following him? That was the true threat. She didn’t identify it right away, but she caught a magical whiff of something strong, deadly…male. Something that had every intention of catching up to the fugitive and using lethal means to get what he wanted from him.

Automatically, she reinforced the wards on her house. Inside, those she protected stirred, feeling the danger, so she sent them a compulsion to stay where they were. It was Sunday evening, the only day of the week they slept at night. The Bible was a good practical handbook, all said and done. Sex demons stayed on a better keel when they observed a day of rest.

Plus, they’d only be in the way. Ironically, succubi and incubi were deadly in a sexual encounter, but less than useless in a fight. A macabre twist on the whole lover not a fighter adage.

Another blast of fear hit her like an ocean wave. The prey was running, scrambling, using every ounce of self-preservation to get to her. His testicles were shrunk up into his body. If what was behind him caught up, death would be the least of his worries.

Unfortunately, what pursued him was closing the gap, and suddenly it was a direct ping on her radar. A crimson dot moving calm, steady…cold.

Oh, shit. A Dark Guardian.

Fuck. Her lips drew back in a snarl. She loved her quiet Sundays, the fact she had very few roles to play. She’d sit on the tower balcony, listen to her music and feed Cathair bits of biscotti. She’d already picked out her movie for the night. Titanic, because she’d seen it a hundred times and loved it even more each time. Now Leonardo and Kate’s beautiful scene at the prow of a doomed ship was going to have to wait because a damn Dark Guardian was making an unplanned visit.

That just pissed her off.

Sifting the power she’d drawn from the elements, she spun it up fast and sharp, like revving a street racer before the light change. Since it was going to be a shitty night, she might as well come out fighting. The fugitive was one of her brethren, an incubus. Though she was only half sex demon, she was all witch. The Guardian wasn’t going to get him, even if she had to use her dead body to stop him.

There. The frightened male broke out of the forest. He was swift, as their kind could be, flashing over the ground. However, as fast as he was, she already knew he wasn’t going to make it.

“Duck,” she shouted, raising her hands. “Do it now!”

Fortunately, he wasn’t too panicked to listen. He dropped. Her power crackled past his head like a horizontal lightning blast. Twenty yards behind him, just inside the forest line, that volley hit a force field. She had herself braced for impact, but it still felt like she’d slammed her fists against a brick wall, shock and pain reverberating through every joint and bone from fingertips to collarbone. Cathair let out a shriek and took off.

The backwash of her power glittered along the full scope of the Guardian’s protective shield, about fifty feet wide and at least that high. Holy Goddess.

Never mind. She might not have hurt him, but she’d slowed him down. And her clever incubus hadn’t needed further instruction. As soon as she’d loosed her power, he’d been moving toward her like a veteran marine, his pelvis glued to the earth and his strong arms and legs pumping like a crab’s. The whites of his eyes were prominent as a cue ball, lips drawn back in a rictus of fear, his body soaked in sweat.

She shot another barrage over his head, buying him more time, but this time the Guardian answered. The incubus cringed to a halt as red flame arced through the sky and speared the ground at her feet, billowing out searing heat. Seeing it coming, she slammed down a protection on herself and the sex demon, just in time. Only that kept her from being flung back up on the porch. Even so, the charge rang through her legs, making her sway, but she locked her knees, held fast.

“Get over here,” she snarled at the incubus as she suppressed the fire with an air-sucking counterspell. Lifting his head from beneath his hands, he shot forward in that same low-level crawl.

“Damn it. ” Some of the flame had squeezed through a crack in the protection and the fluttering hem of her dress had caught fire. She doused it, scowling at the scorched edge. She’d have to shorten it, and she liked that hem, nearly two hundred inches around, so it flowed just right when she moved. Asshole Guardian.

The incubus collapsed behind her. He was wheezing like a hunting dog who’d gotten too carried away with a scent and overtaxed his lungs. Or gotten lost from his clod-headed owner and nearly starved in the swamp. She’d nursed a few of those stressed beasts when they stumbled into her driveway. Found them nice homes and didn’t lose a bit of sleep over the whereabouts of the owner. There was plenty of need and reason to kill in the world if you had the itch for blood and the balls to do it. Blasphemy to be doing it for sport.

Keeping the canine theme in mind, she glanced at the incubus. “Stay,” she ordered. “I can’t protect you if you move away from me. Nod if you understand. ”

She asked for the confirmation, because his almond-shaped eyes were half-wild. He wasn’t like the incubi and succubi who lived in her establishment. Nor even one of those who’d learned to live unnoticed on the fringes of human society. Though he had the shape of a man, everything else about him told her he lived as a dangerous scavenger, an opportunistic feeder who’d never known or learned better. She was all too familiar with the story. What hunted him probably held the usual philosophy toward her kind. Exterminate them.

The old, bitter rage turned over inside her, but she pushed it back. She’d need her wits about her, because it was about to become that kind of fight. The Guardian had fired only the one volley, and that told her he’d been checking to see if she’d turn tail and scamper back into the house. Yeah, that’d be a cold day in hell.

She waited, because she certainly wasn’t going to him. The small fires scattered across the lawn were starting to ebb, though she concentrated more bursts of oxygen deprivation magic on them to finish the job. If he’d damaged her landscaping, particularly the delicate clematis vine on the nearby trellises, she was going to have his ass for dinner.
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