Sixty-two (2/3)
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This illusion had to be meant to frighten Shaine; simple fire, even mage-fire, couldn't frighten another elvenmage. At least Shaine trusted them enough to not waste power on it, but the meren's hand was clenched hard around his—it was successfully scaring him, anyway.

The illusion-fire melted away, and Shaine relaxed.

“Do your stuff,” Lori said quietly.

Kevin felt Shaine reach for power, gave it readily, felt the intense concentration as the meren shaped it and began to sing. The same channel that allowed them to share power gave him and Lori access to other things, and to this Shaine had already consented while they were planning: mereni senses being infinitely better suited to a night battle than elven, he borrowed Shaine's, careful not to touch anything else, though he was aware of Lori doing the same.

Merenai certainly have some odd senses... I'm going to have to ask about some of this stuff later. No wonder darkness doesn't bother him, though.

The lake's surface shuddered, and drew itself together into a formless mass, defying natural laws entirely. Shaine asked more strength, and the water-construct's outline flowed and blurred, became four-footed, two reflected stars settling themselves as eyes, moonlight sparkling through it in odd ways as the internal currents shifted so it seemed to glow from within.

A large wolf, the size of Bane, leaped lightly off the lake onto the shore, yawned to bare teeth of sharp shell, and stalked towards Patrick.

This is a half-trained mereni-mage? Wow! Figure out how to deal with that!

A barrier of raw fire didn't stop the water-wolf; it bounded over it, landed on the far side a trifle smaller. A handful of fire flung at it, it simply danced sideways to avoid and closed in on Patrick again.

Kevin glanced sideways at Shaine, found him gazing fixedly at the water-wolf, every muscle visibly taut, the song never faltering. Concentration held the wolf together, then? Still impressive. He fed him more power, careful not to disturb him.

Patrick wove a ring of fire around the water-wolf, made it too high for the wolf to jump, and constricted it.

Shaine swore softly, and the wolf's form collapsed in on itself, leaving only water seeping into the ground in the centre of the ring.

“That took a lot of energy,” Kevin told him quietly.

“Not just for him.”

“What,” Patrick asked tightly, “are you?”

Shaine laughed mockingly. “You figure it out.”

“The children of water and wind are myths!”

“So are wolves that can kill demons.”

Patrick frowned thoughtfully. “There is that.” He shrugged. “Doesn't matter.”

Moonlight warped itself inside-out and into a gate; two people stepped through, and it closed.

“Hold it,” Moira said frostily. “Kevin's blood is ours.”

Karl bared his teeth in a lupine snarl, a distinctly eerie effect in the light of mageshields and moonlight. “And damned good it's going to taste.”

“Who the hell is that?” Shaine hissed.

“Uh, it's kind of a long story...” Kevin said. This doesn't make any sense! Why would Karl and Moira suddenly be out for my hide? I could see maybe Jess', since he beat Rebecca... I don't get it.

“But we're in deep shit.”

“That about covers it,” Lori agreed. “What is she thinking? She might miss Shaine but she has to have known I'm right here and so is he!”

“That assumes Moira thinks,” Kevin muttered. Okay. Um, any two sides could potentially gang up on the third here and afterwards fight it out between themselves. I don't like this!

Patrick surveyed the situation calmly. “You have a claim on him so strong you're willing to interrupt a duel?”

“We have one coven-mate dead and one badly injured, and it's Kevin's fault!”

“It's what?” Kevin heard his own voice hit a high note in sheer astonishment. “Who'd dead and how am I involved?” Oh gods, don't be dead, Becky, please...

“All right,” Patrick said. “For something so heinous, I'm willing to concede—make your attempt. I'll take whatever's left of him.”

“Don't expect there to be much,” Moira said. “Lori, you can leave if you want, and the other one. It's only Kevin we owe.”

“If I believed you wanted to challenge Kevin one-on-one,” Lori said, “that would be one thing. But I know what you've been doing, and that it isn't one-on-one, so not a chance. If you get to have help, so does Kev. I don't suppose we can talk about this? Who's dead? How? And why are you blaming Kevin?”

Kevin made use of the probably very brief opportunity offered, and took a closer look at the pair with mage-sight. What should have been a smooth interlacing of sparkling thin threads binding each member of Whitethorn to each of the others was a chaotic tangle of frayed and weakened strands—and several ragged ends whipping around like agitated living things in their own right, bleeding bright drops of energy. He hadn't even known that was possible. What could have severed them like that?

Sharing power, especially deliberately and repeatedly, created a bond that could never entirely break. Kevin's with Karl remained, and he used that and their mutual one to Rebecca to triangulate on the red wolf-bitch.

The threads linking her to Whitethorn showed no signs of violence, but they were fading. Either that was a failure to renew it for an extended period, several weeks at least, or there was deliberate will involved, dissociating herself from them. Or both. That was actually more of a relief than it should have been, although it opened up a series of new, if less urgent, questions.

The rest of Whitethorn, however... the strand between Karl and Moira remained strong. The threads to one of the other points in the circle were tattered and badly damaged, oozing small amounts of energy, and the threads connecting the last to them and to Rebecca were the ones that had been torn apart and were leaking noticeably.

He couldn't even imagine how much that had to hurt. To say nothing of the emotional level, and whatever trauma had caused it...

Wordlessly, he shared that with Lori, who had a less ready avenue to track the connections, and Shaine, who knew very little about coven-bonds and hadn't yet entirely worked out the sonic equivalent of seeing them.

*Oh gods,* Lori whispered. *I've never even heard of anything like that. That's not just someone dying.*

*If they're the ones playing with demons,* Shaine said, *then you have an answer already.*

“Avryl...” Moira's voice broke in a sob, then spiralled back into rage. “The demon that killed her explained it all, and it was right. All Avryl wanted was more books. Rebecca leaving us and Avryl dying and Duayne maybe dying, all of it, it's all Kevin's fault, and that damned black wolf of his!”

*Okay, grief, trauma, already unstable,* Kevin said. *Demon gives her a way to see Whitethorn as innocent victims instead of responsible for their own situation. Anyone think it's even worth wondering what kind of logic is behind this? Or that it's worth trying to argue it rationally?*

*No and no,* Lori said sadly. *But I have to try once more anyway.* “Moira,” she said gently. “You're hurting, on a lot of levels. Fighting isn't going to accomplish anything at all, except probably more pain. Please, can we...”

“Shut up,” Karl growled. “Enough talking. Too much talking. This ends. Kevin pays. No more messing with us, ever.”

Moira began to chant—and Kevin cringed, he'd heard those words or similar, all consonants, earlier. They couldn't fight a...

Demon, taking on the form of an ethereally lovely humanoid, slender and silvery-shining and feathery-winged, fairly tall and clad in more feathers.

Shaine jumped and cursed, as something small darted around their feet and paused between them. Kevin looked down, saw the white tip of a tail all but luminescent in the shadows, green eyes reflecting the light of his shields back at him.

“Al...” He bit it off. No point giving her name to the demon. “Get back to Sam! This is no place for a cat!”

Alfari gave him a haughty glance, then padded sedately forward to face the demon.

“Wait,” Lori murmured.

The beautiful thing whimpered, shrank back away from Alfari.

“Kill him,” Moira commanded, pointing directly at Kevin.

Unwillingly, the demon started to edge around Alfari.

One of the demon-wolves rumbled a warning, shifting position to track it.

The demon shifted nervously from one foot to the other. “Please, mistress, some other command...”

“Kill them!” Moira repeated.

Sam had insisted that demons were as variable in temperament and values as the residents of this plane, though bound by conditions that allowed them or forced them to act here. This demon, aside from being undoubtedly lesser, felt very different from the other three earlier.

Maybe it was just an innocent bystander hauled into this? Foolish as he might be, he hoped it wouldn't die here like this.

That it wouldn't? It had just been told to kill him! Its innocence was about to become irrelevant!

“Kill him!” Moira insisted, when the demon still hesitated. Miserably, it came forward, trying to watch Alfari and the demon-wolves all at once.

Alfari simply looked at it, and advanced towards it.

The demon retreated in front of her, and she backed it up against the warded wall. There she sat down, the very picture of composure, her tail curled neatly around her feet, staring at the unfortunate demon; the demon pressed against the wall, stayed quite still.

Way to go Alfari!

Moira spat a curse. “It's just a cat! Kill it and get on with it!”

“Can't, mistress...”

Must really have a word with Sam about these special familiars of hers, just as soon as I live through this.

Lori chuckled; he picked up no surprise at all from her. “Just a cat, huh?”

Maybe my coven ignored me? Now would be a good time for them to have... He reached for the bond with them... was answered by Sonja, the one telepath in the group other than him and Lori.

*Are you done with the macho hero junk now?* she asked.

*Yes! I'll apologize for stupidity later, right now I need lots of power before Moira and Karl turn us into spaghetti!*

*Nice going, get Whitethorn in on things. Catch.* Something shifted, he felt Cynthia's presence and that of the other two witches, Sonja and Sam and Flynn, Deanna the one non-human in the circle, and pure power flowed into him, along the contact with Sonja, along the coven-bond...

Now there's a power-base to work from! Everyone but the wolves and those fool healers! He touched Lori, alerting her, so she could tie herself into it, then together they wove Shaine into the meld; Kevin saw/felt the meren start in surprise.

Moira shrugged. “Hiding behind Samantha's cat isn't going to save you, Kevin.”

“People keep saying things like that to me lately. It seems awfully negative. Nobody ever tells me what will save me.”

“Nothing can.”

“Somehow I had a feeling that was what you meant.” Except that I already know what will save me: having the world's greatest friends.

*Flynn says you need a hand,* Sonja added. *Eva's wanted a viable reason to thump Karl for ages, she's on her way.*

A small pale wolf dashed out the gate so close on Sonja's words it was hard to tell which might have acted first.

An alpha who started a fight with a non-alpha outside her pack was considered a bully. Even if that non-alpha repeatedly made disparaging public comments about the alpha's witch, who suffered from extreme emotional highs and lows, though less so since joining his coven. Getting on her nerves over and over was no excuse, even if other wolves might sympathize somewhat.

An alpha stepping in to defend others against an aggressive wolf of any status was another matter altogether.

Karl spun towards Evaline and she met him with her teeth bared. He was larger than her, but Kevin hadn't the slightest doubt who was going to win.

Moira traced a symbol in the air; fire trailed after each gesture, lingering, leaving the entire thing clearly visible. Kevin didn't have long to look; she finished it, and the unfamiliar symbol flared up. From its heart, where the light was most intense, poured what seemed like countless small glowing winged shapes, all streaking directly at him and Shaine and Lori. Instinctively, he channelled extra power into the shields at the front, only to have the whole flock do ninety-degree turns without slowing at all, over them or to either side. Lori flung a ball of green and tawny fire at one, but the ball was absorbed harmlessly.

Kevin let go of Shaine and spun around, praying the connection was steady enough to hold now without physical contact, reinforcing the shields all around them. It was too confusing, facing different directions: he had to stop using Shaine's senses and concentrate entirely on his own.

One of the small flying things hovered just in front of him, wings buzzing hummingbird fast, the body they supported vaguely weasel-like.

“What the bloody hell is that?”

“I have no fucking idea, you do fire, not me,” Shaine said shortly. Everything blurred, to Kevin's sight, even heat-images distorting; it took him a second to realize it was because Shaine had created an extremely dense foggy barrier around the three of them that seemed to slow and weaken their small attackers. It would at least make the shields last longer, but it wouldn't solve the problem.

“I don't know,” Lori said tightly, “but nothing seems to be working on them.” She tried her lioness avatar, snapped at one, but it dove out of reach with improbable agility.

“I'd say it's a technique from the Maridas' book on elementals,” the Lucian mage said with interest.

“Brace yourselves,” Shaine murmured. “With this kind of volume, I don't have much fine control.” He took a deep breath, and began to sing.

Volume? Uh-oh...

He couldn't see it, but he knew the lake was on the opposite side from the walls, and he knew what Shaine was, which he doubted Moira did. He closed his eyes and concentrated on creating a kind of arced telekinetic barrier between them and the lake—Shaine wouldn't mind getting wet, but he'd personally prefer to avoid it just now, and couldn't imagine Lori would be thrilled with the idea. He heard the sudden disturbance, the shift in the pattern of the waves against the shore.

Lori grabbed more power from the link, poured it into the barrier, adding her will to his.

Moira can't see it any more than I can.

For just a heartbeat, the moonlight was blocked by a huge wave looming over them; then it crashed down. Even prepared, Kevin winced from the noise, the sheer uncontrollable force of it, and Shaine fell silent mid-note.

When Shaine says volume, he's not kidding!

At least the barrier held. Mostly. They'd been caught by no worse than spray. Judging by Moira's venomous swearing, she couldn't say the same.

The wave washed away both Shaine's mist wall and the flock of elementals, and did some serious damage to their primary shields. Kevin let go of the telekinetic one, fed the power back into the main ones, felt Lori doing the same—standing here with minimal shields right now was suicide.

“Sorry,” Shaine said; he sounded a bit out of breath. “Had to do overkill to be sure I got anything useful. It's going to be a minute before I can do anything else.”

“'Sokay. Lori, you've got defence for a minute?”


Well, let's hope Moira doesn't have any demon protections. He pulled power from the whole group as quickly as he dared, gathering it together. “Hey, Moira, catch!”

She looked up, raised her hands to defend against the rainbow serpent that abruptly coiled around her shields. Much the way Patrick had, she hurled a simple fireball at it, intending to disrupt it.

They'd based this one on Shaine's gifts, too, a refined version of Kevin's instinctive retaliation against Patrick in their first meeting; he'd never heard of getting through a mage's shields like this, but it had worked when they'd tested it—although with lower power levels.

The fireball touched the serpent, and in the instant that a channel remained between it and Moira, the serpent grounded itself through it, intense power abruptly flowing in when she was still oriented on power going out.

She didn't even have time to scream; she crumpled to the sodden ground, motionless. Alive, though given her body temperature it wasn't a given that it would continue. She was, at least, out of the picture for the foreseeable future.