Fifty-nine
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Sam reluctantly tore herself away from the pile of black fur—Jess and Jaisan—and black-and-garnet magesilk—Aindry—in the corner of the breezeway linking two parts of the house. That it had been transformed, over the past year, into a deliberately cosy hideout mattered less to her poor half-feral wolves right now than the fact that it was quiet and out of the way.

She had something to do, although it hurt to sacrifice even an instant when she might soon lose them all again. Flynn was certain the demon-mage who had already made attempts on Jesse's life was in the area, though none of them could get a more precise fix; Sam's own sources said that the demons that had killed Unity were in a panic, with the three Kore-Tremaynes reunited, and they'd arrange an opening to attack personally before long, probably via that same demon-mage. The tension in the house was almost unbearable, but the possible consequences of the end of that tension...

At least the Kore-Tremayne trio were whole and healthy now, thanks to the mad pair of healers who had risked everything to give them the best odds they could. Three demon-wolves at full strength could accomplish a lot, she was sure, but against the demons that had engineered the attack on Unity? She'd have been much happier if they were a few years older. Although the thought of any of them going through their respective nightmares for a few more years, the twins separated that much longer... well.

The healers were tucked into Deanna's bed with Alfari and Malta helping as much as they could; Hob was staying near to spell the other two at need so they were never, even for a moment, lacking a feline companion each. Nick was using everything he'd learned from his coven-mate to watch over them, and Evaline and Sonja and Caitryn were at hand to assist in any way that offered itself; Cynthia and Deanna had done a turn earlier, with the rest of Sundark available at need, and would again when Nick tired. That was all any of them could do for the two dryads, until they were recovered enough to go outside and let contact with the earth and trees speed their own healing along.

Shaine could be anywhere, including back in the lake. Not running away, she had to admit; he had a lot of catching up to do, getting reacquainted with his own abilities.

Sundark, she suspected, would all be in a single cluster somewhere, relying on each other to make the intolerable pressure less so.

As would Coven Dandelion.

“I'll be back soon,” Sam promised.

“We'll be here,” Aindry said, and shifted to furform, nuzzling herself into the knot with her brothers.

Sam wandered around the house, searching. Sundark were in the ground-floor sunroom, near Deanna's bedroom, that had become primarily Deanna's workroom; the door was open, so she simply established who was present and went on without disturbing them. Not so surprising if Deanna felt torn between her sister and cousin, and the comfort of her coven. The room that was rapidly returning to its original function as a household library was vacant, as were the dining room and living room, which were normally high-traffic areas. She found Coven Dandelion on the second floor, in the enclosed bright south-facing porch that the two elvenmages had filled with fiery-coloured magesilk. Lori and Naomi each had a brush, Lori brushing Bryan furform, Naomi Gwyn.

“Bryan?” Sam said quietly. “Can I maybe talk to you?”

Bryan raised his head, and shifted to human. Of all the wolves, he was the most prone to wearing colours that fit his mood; he was wearing darker silks than she'd ever seen, brown just shy of black. “Sure,” he said equably. “Gwyn won't mind two sets of hands spoiling him.”

Lori got to her feet, crossed the floor and hugged Sam. “Once all this is over, now that you aren't trying to hide tons of secrets that must have been miserable to keep, we're expecting you to start getting more involved instead of saying no all the time.”

Sam returned the hug, snuggling close against the much-taller elf. “You're supposed to be mad at me for keeping secrets.”

“Why? I don't think you wanted to, you had reason.” Lori pressed a kiss to her forehead. “You've been almost part of Dandelion for years. Consider yourself an honorary member. Until we can get you all the way into the coven.” The elvenmage released her, and sat down across from Naomi. The gesture made Sam blink a couple of tears from her eyes, but she didn't mind these ones.

“Thanks,” she said, hoping she could put into her voice at least a little of what it meant to her.

Naomi smiled. “Go talk. We'll be here.”

“Bane isn't going to mind if we borrow his room for a bit,” Bryan said, inclining his head towards his brother's room. That was probably easier than going downstairs, so Sam went along with it.

“If you're going to do something silly like apologize, don't,” Bryan said, perching on the edge of Bane's bed. “You heard Lori. Everyone understands you couldn't say anything.”

Sam sighed, and sank down on the desk chair, not quite sure how to put the tangle of emotions into words. “I feel like I've been lying to you, or letting us be friends under false pretences.”

Bryan shook his head. “I knew a long time ago that I might never know anything about your past for sure. You're special enough to me that I chose to accept that and be your friend in the present.”

“It really... really matters to me. I don't know how many times I would've just drowned in it all and slit my own wrists, except that you've been there. And I don't know how well I've ever let you know that, or said thanks...”

Bryan leaned forward to hug her. “Well enough that I knew. You're yourself. I've always felt extremely flattered that you tell me more than you tell anyone else, and trust me to keep it safe for you. That alone is enough that I could've figured out that you care.”

She let her head rest on his shoulder. “Thanks,” she said simply.

“Sam. Everyone's feeling pretty edgy and raw right now, too much has been torn wide open. Let's just all survive this and afterwards we'll see about getting on with our lives.” She drew back, wiped a stray tear out of her eye, and he smiled. “And Lori's quite right. You've been staying on the fringes too long, and you no longer have any excuse.”

She must've done something right, to get a friend like this one. “It'll be over soon. Sunday night, the moon's full, and the moon's on our side. I just hope it's over in the good sense, not the bad one. Gods, having to wonder every minute what's going to happen to them...”

“You've already done more than most of us.” He got to his feet, held down both hands to her. “So do whatever you reasonably can, which I'm guessing at this point is primarily information you have and no one else does, and otherwise, stay with them. It makes you and them all happier. Anything else can wait. Give them all the love you can, and maybe everyone will still be alive when this is over.”

* * *

Aindry waited until Sam came back, then pleaded restlessness and went prowling around the house. Such a huge house, much of it still unused and, for that matter, with repairs unfinished after long neglect.

She decided on a run in the yard, and found the nearest external door. Magesilks were such a joy, being able to change without the need to dress or undress; elves and dryads and even witches had been extremely scarce in their first life, being generally bound to the mixed villages they'd been hiding from.

Had they tried to integrate, put the effort into educating the other villages about the realities of demons instead of into further isolating themselves, could things have been different?

Not a question that had an answer. Right now, she was simply grateful for the comfortable clean magesilks in her own proper black and silver and garnet that Kevin had made just for her. She shifted to wolf on the porch, then trotted once in a full circle just inside the walls to warm up.

For the second circuit she pushed herself, flashed past the fountain again racing at full speed, letting the rush of adrenaline wash away her fears for a few minutes. A third lap, now truly into the smooth rhythm of four feet connecting with the solid ground, the counterpoint beat of her heart. She couldn't remember the last time she'd felt this good, well-rested and well-fed and entirely uninjured.

Finally, winded, she slowed to a walk, but kept moving in the same circle. By the west gate she paused, gazing out over the lake and the sunset. Another day past. How many more did they have to wait, hiding inside the safety of the walls, not daring to plan for a future that might not exist?

She picked up the pace to a trot, intending to come back around to the east gate and the breezeway.

As she passed the north gate, she saw a flash of red out in the forest. She stopped, heart thudding hard. Was it a demon lurking out there, ready to attack any of Jesse's friends who might venture beyond the safety of the walls?

Even though it might be a trap, she had to get close enough to find out, and to challenge it if necessary.

Warily, straining all senses, she ventured out the gate, directly towards the glimpse of red she'd seen, placing each foot carefully to make as little noise as possible. There, she'd reached the cover of the brush; she had to devote a little more attention to silence here, though.

After a few more feet, she stopped, catching a scent. Not a demon, a wolf bitch.

But what was she doing here?

Aindry advanced, more confident now. She doubted there was a wolf born who could beat her in a fight.

The red wolf noticed her, growled softly, ears flattening in defensive threat and tail dropping... then her ears came forward again, in sheer surprise. Expecting Jess, perhaps, and startled to smell a bitch instead?

Aindry came closer, still cautious, but the red bitch wasn't giving any aggression signals. They sniffed at each other, nose to nose, then both growing a little bolder. Aindry smelled blood faintly, noticed that the red bitch was careful not to put her full weight on her right foreleg; she'd been hurt recently.

Instinct wanted her to drive this intruder away, or to bolt back to the safety of the walls. What she chose was a somewhat more dignified retreat into the yard, turning around and simply walking back.

The red bitch didn't follow her. Aindry passed the gate, looked back, and saw the red bitch watching her in puzzlement.

Then the other spun around and loped off, favouring her foreleg but not greatly slowed by it.

Aindry made herself breathe more slowly. No threat after all, just one of Haven's other wolves, possibly coming to see if one of Evaline's pack wanted to come hunt. Not everything had to be a demon-sent danger.

The adrenaline rush certainly felt good, though.

She backtracked to the fountain for a drink, wishing whoever had installed it had thought to include a low basin for wolves; jumping up to put her forefeet on the rim was such a nuisance. The water was delicious, though. She shifted to human there, and made her way barefoot across the grass around the house to the front door facing the eastern gate and driveway. Back to her brothers and Sam.

* * *

Rebecca crouched in the shelter of the trees, not at all sure why she was here. What difference did it make to her what happened to Sundark and their friends?

Still, she found herself drawn back, curious about why the entire group appeared to have pulled back behind the walls of Starluck's house and had been seen in the village only in brief glimpses since Monday when she'd fought that black wolf-cub. Her shoulder still ached from that.

This was insane. She was truly free for the first time in years, had a dozen better things to do with her time than sit here watching a house.

She heard a door open, and a moment later a black wolf trotted by, then a second time much faster. Jesse, of course, he was the only black wolf at all likely to be here, and the others were all visibly larger.

The black wolf moved freely, though, weight coming down evenly on each stride, and Jesse should be limping still from the damage she'd inflicted. No healer, or even the two dryad healers Jesse hung around with so much, could heal it away completely.

Intent on the puzzle, she stopped paying attention to the view through the gate, and didn't notice the black wolf coming quietly closer until they were only a few feet apart.

Rebecca reacted automatically to the wolf that had defeated her so recently... then got the scent... and forgot anything but her surprise. That wasn't Jesse, that was a bitch! One with a similar scent, but certainly not Jesse, not one she knew at all!

Black wolf, demon wolf, she thought. They have to be kin, to smell so alike. The demons are very interested in Jesse.

Is there some truth in the legends?

The mere thought created a rush of glee. Oh, her erstwhile coven were going to get a surprise like nothing they'd ever dreamed, if they yielded to the demonic encouragement and kept harassing Jesse! So, for that matter, would the demons.

This black bitch, she judged as they examined each other warily, smelled decidedly wild, wilder than any wolf Rebecca had ever met, as much like an ordinary wolf as a werewolf. Right on the edge between reasoning and feral, and not one to be tangled with casually. Since she had no desire to fight, she stayed carefully neutral.

The black bitch left her without causing trouble of any sort, simply turned back to the yard, putting her back to Rebecca and leaving herself open to attack.

Rebecca wondered if it were an invitation to make the first aggressive move; she decided it didn't matter, that she'd seen enough and wanted to go back to Sylvia's house and think this over. There was something distinctly strange going on behind those walls, strange even for Haven, which was no mean thing to accomplish; she was better off staying far away from it and not involving herself any further.

Besides, she was supposed to go look at an apartment in an hour or so, one that sounded quite pleasant, one that would be her own private space where no one else could come. She could then reclaim her belongings from her former home, and proceed to get on with her life.

Although, she'd still love to learn someday who that black wolf-bitch was, and where she'd appeared from so suddenly...

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