Fifty-eight
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This, Gisela thought despondently, had to be what Damocles felt like with a sword hanging over his head by a single hair. How had he gotten into that predicament anyway? Maybe Nick would know; she'd ask him when he got here.

Caitryn, lying furform on the floor beside the bed, shifted position and sighed heavily; she'd been hovering close to Gisela lately, the healer wasn't sure why, but she'd accepted the offer of company, or perhaps the request for it, and her parents didn't mind Caitryn being around.

Coven Winter would be there soon. Liam said he needed to talk to her about something important. He'd sounded too emotionless; he'd been covering something, she was sure of it. That didn't help her gloom. The two of them had done all that could be done to heal the demon-wolves, and the healing circle that had been built into the wall along with the wards helped speed the process... but it wasn't enough, she was sure of that. The injuries put them at too much of a disadvantage. Despite that, no one had the slightest doubt that as soon as the next demon appeared—and it was only a matter of time—the trio would abandon the safety of the walls to tackle it. Aindry was still limping and Gisela doubted her bite was at anything close to full strength; it took little exertion to make Jaisan's breath shorten in pain and his left foreleg still couldn't take his full weight. Jess was in the best condition, but the demon-damage Rebecca had re-opened on his lower back hampered him still, and his injured arm remained weak. They might beat a minor demon or two, together, but the odds of further injuries were much too high for anyone's peace of mind.

Worse, Sam reported, from sources unknown, that the three powerful demons that had been responsible for Unity were actively moving to take advantage of the situation and finish this personally. Despite Aindry's clinical evaluation that they had a fair chance this time, whether or not they all survived it, Gisela wasn't the only one who expected to have to mourn all three.

All the more with Aindry's fierce vow still lingering in her mind: Even if I have to die, I'll damned well take them down with me for what they've done.

The way the three of them clung together, and Sam with them, looked to her like desperation: trying to steal every moment they could before they could be torn apart again, this time more permanently.

And she was a healer, and she had to watch all her friends hurting and afraid, and she couldn't do anything!

Finally, she heard the van pull in; the door was atypically locked, so she got up to open it, waited for whoever was downstairs to send them up.

Evaline was furform, too; it was a frequent lupine reaction to stress, and for the last... gods, it was only the space from early Tuesday to mid Thursday, it felt like so much longer... since Sam had found Jaisan and Aindry and those silver daggers that gave her such a strange feeling, they'd rarely seen any of the five “true” wolves human-form. The pale wolf greeted Caitryn, was greeted submissively and despondently, and curled up with her head resting on Caitryn's chestnut flank.

Liam and Nick had their hands linked, tightly, and for once she wasn't at all certain that it was healer steadying witch.

“I had an idea how we might be able to help the demon-wolves,” Nick said quietly, after only the briefest of greetings. “Only the solution is as bad as the problem, and I devoutly wish I'd never thought of it.”

“Nick,” Liam said reprovingly. “Stop.” He looked at Gisela. “Do you remember Clarissa Albertine?”

Gisela thought. “Giovanna's maternal grandmother. Didn't she come up with the general ideas that Giovanna proved later?”

“Yes. She also did the highly improbable. The situation is irrelevant, but she brought together nine people, mostly highly-gifted, including a full coven and a few solitaries, and with her as the focus they completely healed one of her children who would otherwise have died.” She saw his hand clench hard in Nick's. “She destroyed her gifts doing it, but she did it.”

No wonder Nick was so upset at thinking of it.

“You're thinking we could do it,” she said, as calmly as she could, but she heard her voice tremble. “All of us together, with you and I as the focus, could heal them the rest of the way.”

Liam nodded, his expression impassive. “We've got very little chance of coming out of it in one piece, given the amount of power we're talking. The wolves aren't going to be much use in a circle like that, so we're talking twelve to heal three—we're also talking extremely concentrated power in that dozen.”

“But right now,” she concluded for him, “it looks like we've got a choice between a near-certainty of one or more dead demon-wolves, and a near-certainty of two burned-out healers who'd still be alive.” Might wish they were dead, but that was another matter.

Silently, Liam nodded again.

“They won't let us if they know. The wolves, I mean.”

“Then we don't tell them what the price is likely to be. We can think up some kind of reasonable excuse until it's over.”

“Nobody else will buy it. What if someone decides to stop us? Dia, especially?” She tried not to think of a silver ring and a promise of truth always.

“If we aren't trying to keep Liam from doing this, who will interfere?” Sonja asked quietly. She was past fighting tears, Gisela thought, resigned to hurting and being unable to do anything about it.

Evaline whined plaintive agreement, and Caitryn licked her face sympathetically.

“At the house?” Gisela said. “The shields will help. Now, before I have time to really think about this. Sundark will all be there, they should be done circle by now. We just need Dandelion, and they shouldn't be hard to find.” Trivial matters like school and jobs had been impossible to concentrate on for the last few days, and would be until this was resolved; Sam's shop hadn't been open since Saturday, the retired librarian had returned temporarily, and Gisela wondered how the Brewery was doing. None of them were having any luck keeping their minds on anything else.

Nick reached for the phone on her desk, dialled a number, waited, hung up, tried a second.

“Hiya,” he said to whoever answered. “We've got a plan to give the demon-wolves an extra edge. We'll stop and pick you up on our way to the house, okay?” A brief pause, then, “We're leaving now.”

Gisela called a brief farewell to her parents on the way out.

Coven Dandelion was waiting outside Naomi and Lori's apartment—Bryan was, unsurprisingly, furform. It was a bit crowded, three wolves and Gwyn, three humans, two dryads, and an elf, but they fit.

Gwyn. “Wait,” Gisela said suddenly. “Don't go to the house yet, Sonja. Stop and get Malta and Alfari.”

“For what?” Lori asked.

The healers explained, while Sonja backed out of the driveway and turned towards their own house.

“I don't like this,” Naomi said unhappily, stroking Gwyn.

“Who does?” Nick asked harshly.

Malta and Alfari greeted each other and Gwyn, and each in turn found a lap to settle down in—Malta in Nick's, Alfari in Lori's. Gisela had her doubts about whether Sam's special friends were actually real animals; there were times—like now—they certainly didn't act it.

“Nick?”

“Mmhmm?”

“What was the story with the sword of Damocles?”

“I'm not sure, I don't think I've ever seen the whole thing.”

“Bryan says,” Lori relayed, “that he was a philosopher invited to have dinner with the king. He found the sword over his chair when he got there, and recognized it as a symbol of the insecurity of the powerful.”

“Oh.” Like the insecurities of demons...

They hedged a lot while explaining all over again, to everyone else involved. More than one person recognized the danger, Gisela saw expressions turn troubled... but no one challenged.

Trusting them to know what they were doing, and acknowledging it as their choice to make. Even Deanna, treating her not as a little sister but as an adult. That might have felt good, without so much else to think about.

The Kore-Tremaynes were uneasy, especially Jess after the number of times she'd told him about the limits of healing—but then, Aindry and Jaisan usually looked like they wanted to run and hide in a corner. Nick was the one who thought fast enough to spin a reasonable-sounding explanation.

Aindry held up both hands. “Please. I have no idea what half of that means, but I see no reason not to believe you.”

They shoved furniture out of the way in the living room to create enough open space for a large circle, one that would have ten plus three cats and a dog forming the outer ring, five the inner. The other wolves could only settle themselves outside, unable to offer anything beyond moral support this time; Gisela figured they'd have preferred to be in a single pile, for whatever mutual comfort that might offer, but instead, playing along with the pretense that this was nothing to worry about, they spaced themselves around, protective and alert.

This might not burn out their gifts completely, there was a chance they might get through this with just heavy backlash...

Didn't matter. They were healers. They had to do this, at any cost.

She took a deep breath, and looked at Liam. He nodded and said, “Let's do it, gang.”

Lori took the lead, until the circle had been established, shallowly at first; even that much additional power abruptly flowing into her and through her took a moment to get used to. It was something like when they'd been searching for Jess, but not quite, since the intent and therefore the process differed. The mage paused, perhaps to let the solitaries adapt, then started one of the trance-paths to take them deeper.

It made her head feel strange, but she thought it would be a pleasant sensation if one were familiar with it. Especially in a close intimate group like a coven.

The amount of power waiting for her to use it was dizzying, pulsing through her like the blood in her veins, but it was the blood of the circle as a whole, all of them joined into a single being for the moment. Somewhat to her surprise, a part of it was dark and wild, barely restrained by the rest; she'd forgotten that the demon-wolves would be fully in the link as well. Parts were tense... to her inner senses, it was like sunlight through dark water, the water trapped and stagnant. That was Shaine, still suffering from the psychic damage of re-awakened gifts and a fight, though he was recovering rapidly. Gently, she reached to him, willed the waters to run freely again, willed the channels that carried them to be as they should. She was aware of Liam mirroring her, adding his own will to hers.

There, Shaine was healed, and that made the power of the circle flow brighter, cleaner. Tensions remained, but they weren't the kind she could fix, and gradually they were being washed away, lost in the whole.

She had the power of the circle behind her, three mages and three witches and four others; she had Liam's mind touching hers, not exactly joined, but matching her—or was she matching him? She couldn't tell. Didn't matter; it was time to seriously get to work.

Liam was holding her hand and Aindry's, she his and Jesse's, Jaisan beyond; they started with Jaisan, for no better reason than that. Together, they reached to him, deep inside, channelling the energy to the right place. His body knew how it should be; the power wanted to make him that way again; she and Liam were only catalysts and transformers, hardly needing to think, vastly unlike normal healing that took such concentration.

There, Jaisan was done. The power surged, struggling to get loose like a live thing; she and Liam leashed it, directed it towards Aindry. She was beginning to feel raw inside, she'd never had to deal with so much power before, the nearest was when she and Kevin had pulled Jess back when his heart stopped, and even that had left her sore for days.

But past the increasing discomfort, there lay such a fierce exhilaration, lost in the interplay of shadow and brightness, in music that resonated with her very soul and called to her to come farther within, in the sensual caress of the lover she had yet to choose/of sunlight and wind/the warmth of her parents cuddling her.

Something jolted; she drew herself out of the sensations enough to become aware that the torn and displaced connective tissues of Aindry's wrenched hip was going to take some amount of attention to repair properly. Delicately, she worked at the damage, Liam in perfect counterpoint. The power smoothed away the last of it; briefly unfocused, it attempted again to escape. In Gisela's mind, it was alive, a phoenix, a wolf, a dolphin, a great cat, everything wild that should always live free. She wavered, Liam faltered...

Someone else reached down the faint link inside her, through the bit of brilliant passionate fire that she treasured next to the dark wild bit that was Jess, seized the power and caged it; almost, she cried out in protest, but the abrupt lessening of the pressure gave her space to recognize Kevin, understand what he'd done, and she blessed him silently for it.

Only Jess left. She asked wordlessly for the power back, and carefully Kevin released it to her. Liam helped her catch it, and they directed it at Jess.

Gaia, but that was starting to really hurt... Nerves were coming alive with every sensation at once, heat/cold/pressure/pain. She made herself keep breathing, keep her attention on Jess.

They had not even a heartbeat after Jess was healed before the power lunged for freedom. The healers grabbed for it desperately, but healers simply didn't have the capacity, and they were both hurting; it slipped by them and away...

Kevin caught it, held it alone briefly, until Lori jumped in, then Shaine, and together the mages contained it.

Which was great... but Gisela abruptly understood what had made Clarissa burn out. It wasn't the channelling, she was sure she and Liam had only backlash shock to contend with at the moment.

What burned her out was getting out of the gestalt she and her circle had built.

Something nudged its way into her lap, and her hand found soft fur. That was Alfari... from Liam she picked up the echoes of a smaller shape, Malta was with him. She felt the entire circle shiver, as the same comprehension reached them, one by one: they still had a chance to get their healers out of this intact.

How could they possibly?

Instructions, from Samantha, telling Kevin to catch Gisela, Nick and Sonja Liam, Deanna to start grounding, and everyone else to not move.

Alfari's thunderous purring gave her something to anchor herself; she knew Kevin wasn't trying to hurt her, but the bright heat of his mind coiling around hers, like a cat around her kittens, was a pain she had miserably little doubt was only the beginning.

Gradually, the pressure faded.

“Take it down,” she heard Lori say. “Carefully.”

Something shattered, made her flinch, but she was only her again, hugging Alfari.

“Got it,” Lori said.

Gisela's shoulders were grabbed roughly; she blinked dazedly at Jess—and he was furious, something she couldn't recall ever seeing.

“You fucking knew that would happen! What the hell were you thinking?”

“Yell later, Jess,” Kevin said. “We have to get some food into these two before they go into shock.”

Deanna hugged her gently, and Gisela leaned against her, shivering violently. Alfari hardly moved.

She gagged on the glass of too-sweet fruit punch Bane handed her, but obediently swallowed it; she'd told others often enough what to do.

Just as obediently, she chewed and swallowed whatever she was given, but the taste didn't register; she only hoped fuzzily that it had a lot of carbohydrates, she'd need them.

“My room, Kev,” Deanna said.

Warm arms around her, scooping her up like a child; Alfari slipped off, and the pain spiked.

“'Fari...”

“Here.” That was Sam, settling Alfari back into her arms. “Let her stay with her, and Malta with Liam. They can help.”

“Considering that I'd swear Hob and Gwyn were helping me ground, I'm not surprised,” Deanna said.

Motion, careful hands helping her lie down with Alfari curled against her.

“Just you wait until you wake up,” Jess growled at her softly, and kissed her lightly. “Get some sleep, crazy healer.”

She smiled without opening her eyes. “It worked...”

Her last thought, before the world blurred out, was, hey, it isn't Jess in awful shape this time...

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