Six (1/3)
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Eight people made the living room a bit crowded, but the two covens present had shared the space cosily and cheerfully with a third coven and a couple of solitaries so many times that they hardly noticed. Bane sprawled in one of the chairs, his older brother Bryan sitting on the floor at his feet and leaning against the chair arm. Deanna and Cynthia shared the couch with blind witch Naomi, whose broad hips and large breasts combined with her long walnut-brown hair and fondness for full skirts made Bryan teasingly nickname her his peasant wench. The grey husky Gwyn who served as Naomi's eyes lay at her feet, to all appearances an ordinary contented dog—despite his mysterious origins as a gift from Bryan's absent roommate Samantha, whose origins were equally mysterious. Kevin lay on the floor, his oldest and favourite cousin Lori between him and Flynn, all three on such a mass of blankets woven earlier by the two mages from the fading sunlight that it would have made a comfortable mattress.

Even watching a movie was more fun this way, Kevin thought. The good-natured discussion did mean that sometimes it had to be paused for a bit, but the varying perspectives of his friends always fascinated Kevin—how people who were so close, and spent so much time together, could have such diverse viewpoints.

"Pause," Flynn said suddenly. Lori glanced at him, and the VCR paused itself. Kevin's first thought was that Flynn needed a bathroom break or a moment to stretch, or possibly a refill from the array of drinks and munchies spread on the coffee table, but the thought vanished instantly when he finally picked up how serious his seer coven-mate was.

"What's wrong?" Bryan asked, probably catching Flynn's mood by scent.

Flynn shook his head. "I don't know, but something is. I can't quite get a grip on it, but it's really nagging in the back of my mind."

"Then let's circle and see if we can give you enough of a boost to get a fix on it," Naomi said practically. "Someone shove the table out of the way."

The ring wasn't technically round, working within the space limitations, but it was good enough for all eight to be within hand-clasping range of those on either side. Deanna and Cynthia, working together with the ease of familiarity, cast a circle around them to contain any energy raised and protect them from outside energy; to Kevin's senses, it was clearly visible as a glowing rainbow line against the russet carpet, as easy to see as the webwork of strands that bound a coven together in or out of circle.

Hands linked all the way around, and Lori led them through a simple exercise they all knew well and used often, one to lower barriers and allow personal energy to flow into a common pool. Kevin tested it automatically, analysing and identifying the various sources: varied innate natures and learned skills, the true best strength of any mixed coven—or better still, more than one. The two wolves were part of it, wild and primal, but had little to add; this simply wasn't within their own abilities. Brilliant with fire and sunlight, his own gifts and Lori's were the most dramatic and, strictly speaking, the most powerful, though that came at a cost: they were restricted to that element only. Naomi and Cynthia's came from a soul-deep connection to all the elements, though Cynthia's strongest affinity was with air, and being inside, air's pale colours were much weaker than he'd seen them outside; Naomi's inclination was towards earth, especially with plants, and while its greenish-dark tones were more muted now than they were in warmer seasons, it nonetheless surged up into the circle with all the quiet vibrancy of spring growth. Deanna's own bond to the earth was very different, not so useful for summoning or manipulating power, but it ran deep as the roots of a tree and could ground and stabilize it at even very high levels. Flynn's contribution was a more subtle shimmer that danced into bright sparkles each time his inner sight gave him another bit of information—and currently, the sparkles were a cascade, surging and ebbing without ever entirely fading.

"Something's certainly trying to get through to you," Kevin observed. "What would you like to try first? Your cards?" It was a safe bet that Flynn had his cards somewhere on his person; they were rarely out of his reach.

Flynn nodded, brought them out of somewhere, shuffled them, and handed them to Bryan. "Pick one, then give them to Cynthi."

When they finished, there were eight cards chosen. Flynn took them, kept them in order, and started laying them face up in a matching circle before him on the carpet.

A wolf in silhouette, howling at the full moon. A skull. A simple pentagram of five lines in a circle, black on white. A grinning gargoyle, its hide a muddy brown-green, crouched with wings spread and claws extended. A tangle of thorny vines and bright roses. An androgynous elf standing in the midst of a rainbow halo of light, hands raised. A pair of crossed swords. A serpent coiled in an infinity symbol.

"Oh, hell," Flynn breathed. "We've got lack of hope, magic, a predator involved, protection from a threat, conflict... Generally, kids, someone is in deep trouble and needs help." He gazed at the layout for a moment, his eyes only half focused. "And y'know, I suspect that it's probably Jesse. We haven't seen him in a couple of months, and he hasn't even phoned in almost three weeks, but there's still enough of a connection there that it would make sense for me to pick up on serious danger—say, a predator. And that unfinished business card I keep getting whenever I try readings on him is in there, and the Wolf with it."

"Well, what do we do?" Bane asked impatiently. Kevin doubted Bane cared about Jesse's wellbeing specifically, but protective behaviour came naturally to the wolves, and he suspected Bane had classified Jess as Kevin's pet project. Besides, a predator stalking a wolf, even one unaware and possibly permanently unable to change, would feel too much like an intolerable insult to wolves in general.

"I think we need a bit more info on the current situation before we go charging off to the rescue." Flynn gathered his cards together, but kept them cradled loosely in his hands as he closed his eyes, sat up straighter, and slowed his breathing. Kevin watched the sparkles accelerate into a dazzling display of rainbow fireworks as Flynn's concentration deepened, swirling into the currents of power linking the circle and using that power to spread outside in a broad misty stream, towards the south.

The others waited patiently. Kevin and Lori were at a distinct disadvantage, with neither sunlight nor moonlight available, not even any reason earlier in the day to collect and store as much as possible. The witches, and especially Naomi, compensated for it, feeding power into the common pool, where the mages could monitor the currents and Deanna, simply by being Deanna, kept it steady and stable. The wolves stayed alert, ready for their chance to act when or if that came.

Flynn's violet-grey eyes opened, but they were fixed on something far away.

"Oh no... that's definitely a predator, and it's definitely stalking Jesse..."

"What can we do?" Kevin demanded.

"Working on it," Flynn said distantly. "Right now, put all the power you can behind wishing him luck."

* * *

Jesse scanned the street and the people moving about in the glow of the streetlights, sighed, and leaned back against the wall. By the clock on the church tower, it was past eight-thirty, Shaine was supposed to meet him here ages ago. He could be late for any of a number of reasons; Jess just hoped it wasn't trouble, and that he wouldn't be much longer.

"Hey, there." A low voice, but nonetheless a woman's. Jesse looked towards it—and froze. There was nothing visible to mark her, just a generally average tanned brown-haired woman of middle years in a plain black t-shirt and blue jeans. Even past the city's background of odours, the stranger was close enough for Jesse to pick up her scent, and something about it was just not right, though it was nothing he could put a name to. Every instinct screamed Danger! at him and his skin crawled at the thought of those hands touching him.

"Yeah?" he said curtly.

"Up for a good time?"

"Nah. Just hangin' around waiting for a friend."

"I could be a friend."

"A particular friend, thanks." He left the corner, and moved down half a block. That should take care of it.

He was followed.

"I don't like being turned down," the woman said, menace in the softness of her voice.

"That's your problem, not mine." He moved again. Not too uncommon, this problem; his appearance was a mixed blessing, and a definite curse in a situation like this. No one seemed to believe that five-foot-five and one-twenty-five pounds of good-looking teenager could be any danger. Fighting was best avoided, since it led to trouble. Usually it was men, but this wasn't the first time he'd had a problem with a pushy woman who wanted something.

The little voice in the back of his mind that was urging him to stand and fight, he dismissed as some sort of death-wish, and a particularly stupid one at that.

The stranger followed again.

"Would you get off my fucking case?" Jesse snapped. "Not interested." He evaded an overly familiar hand, decided to give up and clear out.

The woman kept an even distance of about twenty feet between them, down the street.

Okay, other methods. Jesse's first rule: never look like you were running, someone would usually assume you were guilty, just on principle. Second rule: to lose someone, find people.

He found a store, one of a half-dozen close together, ducked inside, and made his way to the back where he couldn't be seen from the door. Height became an advantage: he effectively disappeared behind a tall magazine rack. Just for the sake of looking like he had a reason to be there, he picked up a magazine at random to glance through. Nothing he saw really registered; nervously, he replaced it on the rack, and wandered towards the front of the store. On a hunch, he glanced back, and his guts tied themselves into tight knots. The same woman. Just reaching the magazine rack now.

Lucky. Jesse would've been right there waiting for her.

How in hell was he going to get out of this mess?

Fight her, whispered that little voice again, more urgently. It was no less moronic an idea now than it had been the last time he'd dismissed it.

He passed a driveway between two buildings, the taller of which he knew had apartments on the upper floors, and backtracked quickly, praying. A handy fire escape... yes! Agility was a bonus here; there was a large garbage bin close enough. All he had to do, tricky though it was in the poor light, was balance on the edge of the bin and reach over to grab the ladder. It came down with a groan, and he scrambled up and jerked it up after him. He was at the third story of five when his pursuer reached the bin. She looked up; Jesse looked down, frozen by sudden fear.

Watch her be an acrobat or something.

But she didn't even try to get up the fire escape; she turned and left in the direction of the street.

Jesse breathed a silent prayer of thanks to whoever was watching out for him, and finished the climb to the roof. With any luck there'd be another way down, yes, a fire escape on the opposite side. He climbed down into a different space, a cramped narrow parking lot, and looked around in case he'd been anticipated. All was quiet. He took a deep breath to calm himself, relieved.

Someone reached out of deeper shadows and grabbed his arm; another hand traced a line down his spine.

Jesse wrenched away and bolted. Being assumed guilty had just become secondary to being caught. Anyone so persistent had to have some way of making Jesse come with her, and he'd heard horror stories from more experienced acquaintances about some of those ways. After a few blocks he stopped to catch his breath, and glanced back. No sign.

Good. Should he circle back to where Shaine would be waiting for him, or go to ground somewhere for a while, just in case?

"Have you ever heard the expression, the thrill of the chase?"

Leaning casually against a pole, almost directly in his path, the same woman gave him a smile that showed too many very white teeth.

"How the fuck..." Jesse didn't bother to finish the thought; heart pounding, he spun and fled back the way he'd come. A glance over his shoulder without stopping, narrowly avoiding running into a man coming the other way, showed that woman following at a sedate pace.

She's a Bad Thing, insisted the little voice inside. Dangerous to you, dangerous to everyone. Stop running and fight!

Against someone who does impossible shit? Oh, just shut UP and stop distracting me!

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