Wren glanced at where Adam sat in the corner of the room. He was human for now. Renee had been very clear about what would happen if he shifted without permission. Not that it mattered. With a single spell, Renee could teleport Adam back into the vicinity of the talisman. He wasn’t going anywhere, and it was clear he knew it.
The talisman was more powerful than she’d initially realized. It had apparently jumped up Adam’s own magical ability. Whatever gift he’d had initially had been replaced as he’d adapted to the shape-changing. Renee had dangled the talisman between her fingers as she’d discussed its power. Then, almost casually, she’d held it over a flame.
Adam’s scream had been so intense he’d damaged his throat. For nearly two days, he’d been all but unable to speak even after she’d healed him. He was bound to the glimmering stone. Unless it was kept by a witch, it’s magic would begin to decay. Within a few days, it would be rendered inert. And Adam would die. Adam himself couldn’t touch the thing without blacking out, and the tiniest trickle of magic through it was enough that he could not disobey a direct order against the one holding it. He was trapped.
Renee had made such talismans before. Adam was the first to have not been rendered a drooling wreck by the process. Wren was certain it was his own gift, the magic that had allowed him to adapt to animal forms, that made the difference more than her own assistance during the process.
She looked down at the talisman in her hand, then back up at Adam. He stared up at her, his face devoid of expression. “Focus, girl.” Renee’s voice came from behind her.
Her will concentrated behind the talisman. She closed her eyes, and felt Adam’s presence. Despite his empty expression, she could feel the emotions beneath the surface. Anger and despair were waring with each other. Hatred for Renee and… She swallowed when she realized that while she could sense his love for her, there was hatred now as well. And fear. Adam was scared of her. You don’t have to be afraid.
A moment of confusion in his mind, and then a response. I wish I could believe that.
“Shift him.” Renee ordered.
In her mind, she formed the picture of a dog. No, not a dog. She shifted the picture to that of a wolf. Then she exerted her will. Connected to Adam’s mind, she could feel pain course through him, though it was slightly disconnected. The sensation of it was a heady rush that sent a shiver through her. When she opened her eyes again, a gray wolf sat where he’d been a moment before. “Done.”
“Good girl.” Renee smiled. “Now turn him back.”
Outside the van, he could hear Wren and the hag. They were laughing. He laid down, resting his head on his paws. For this outing, they’d chosen to leave him in the form of a dog. In its way, it was almost comforting. When they took him anywhere in human form, one or the other was constantly in his head, occasionally exerting control over his body. When he was an animal, they left him be.
They were in a rest area, off the highway. Entertaining each other by making people’s cars appear to have vanished, only to put them back when the person turned away. The hag had caused an accident earlier, making a truck vanish from view so another car pulled into its path. It had been a miracle no one had been killed.
It was getting dark before they got back into the van. “… can focus the spell, take some of the weight of concentration off you and thus allow your will to be more powerful.”
“Don’t they absorb some of the energy though?” Wren got into the passenger seat.
“A bit, but if they are well-constructed not enough to matter.” The hag started the vehicle. “The best retain what they absorb, gaining a power of their own that can be used to enhance. Some of the oldest ones can let you do things beyond even your wildest dreams, girl.”
Wren sat down on the mattress next to Adam. She’d done well, so he was currently in human form. She ran her fingers through his hair. He didn’t respond. “That knife she used, when she…” The talisman was an item of considerable power. Now that she knew more, it was clear the strange knife Renee had used during the ritual had some impact on its creation. “I think it’s why she’s so much stronger than me.”
He moved then, turning to face her. “She used it to…” He swallowed. “To cut me, to get my blood.”
“If I’m to free us from her…” She exhaled. “I need it.” She sighed. “But I don’t think it’s as easy as just going down to the basement and picking it up.”
Adam was silent for a time. “You think you have to kill her to get it.”
“Something she said earlier about transferring power and…” Wren slowly nodded. “Yes.” She shrugged. Renee had barely trusted her with the talisman. There was no way she’d trust Wren with the athame. “I’d have to actually kill her with it.”
“She wants an apprentice. If I can get her to trust me, to…” Wren caught his hand. “I don’t…” She looked away. “You were right. She killed them. She just slaughtered them all and…”
His fingers tightened around hers. “If I help you…” He looked up, meeting her eyes. “Will you let me go?”
“Oh, Adam.” She leaned in, and kissed him gently. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry for…” She kissed him again, and felt him return the kiss. “I’m sorry for everything.”
Adam sat silently on the porch, watching. They’d left him human today. He dreaded what that might mean. The hag was showing Wren how to move items with her mind. Lately Wren had been even more eager to please the hag, often gazing at her with wide, worshipful eyes. He hoped it was because Wren was trying to fully win the creature over, make the hag drop her guard. Hope was becoming more and more difficult.
Making it home seemed like an alien concept. How could he even begin to explain the past year to his family? Tell them he was a shape-changing freak of nature? That their eldest child had been murdered by a swamp dwelling witch? And Wren…
The hag was laughing now, looking at Wren, who looked proud. From her pocket, the hag withdrew a blacksmith’s puzzle. She tossed it into the air, and it hovered between them. “Solve it without touching it, girl…” The hag’s smile showed teeth. “And I’ll let you take a strap to him.”
His stomach lurched when he saw Wren smile.
She’d taken her time, welting Adam from head to toe and ensuring his ass was good and red before lowering the strap. He’d screamed and thrashed against his bonds. With Renee watching, she didn’t dare try reassuring him.
Once Renee was dealt with, she and Adam could move on. With their power, they could go anywhere. Do anything. Wren stroked a hand down Adam’s side when she put the strap down.
“He’s all yours for the evening, girl.” Renee smiled before going back into the house.
Wren let Adam lean on her shoulder as she helped him back to the room. He all but collapsed onto the mattress. Gently, she ran her fingers through his hair. “You did good, Adam.” She kissed him. “You did good.”
“Shhh…” She caught his wrist, then turned him, shifting so she was straddling his waist. Her hands roamed his chest as she smiled down at him. “You did good.” His cries of pain had made Renee smile. The fact that he’d endured that, for her, from her, made her feel warm and tingly.
He let out a soft groan as she moved lower, and she sent a small tendril of magic into him. Adam gasped as his body responded. “Wren.”
A smile came to her face as she mounted him, and she leaned forward, pinning his arms to the bed before leaning down to kiss him. “You did good.”
“A cabal?” Wren raised an eyebrow at Renee.
“An occasionally useful bunch of idiots.” Renee shrugged. “I might tolerate them more, save for the fact they all think they should be the ones ruling the world.” She continued adding powders to a pot.
Wren looked around the cabin. For all Renee’s power, she lived alone, in a swamp. The woman had revealed hints that she was actually quite wealthy, and that this cabal paid her well for occasional work. Work that at the moment seemed to be crafting a dozens of… “Silver bullets?”
“One century they breed werewolves, the next they are trying to exterminate them again.” Renee shrugged. “A simple rule, girl. Do not call up what you cannot put down.”
“Show me.” She sat down. From what Renee had said, the cabal had wealth and power. And they needed magic. Someone like her. There was no need for her to remain in a tiny cabin, out in the middle of nowhere. Maybe she’d finally get to visit France. Adam would like it there. They’d get a penthouse in some fancy hotel. A witch and her familiar, with the world at their feet.
“For starters, girl, you’re going to need the blood of one that has the gift.” Renee pushed a vial toward her. “Go collect from your pet.”
Adam winced as Wren took blood from him, but didn’t object. Wren soothed the wound she’d made before kissing him. Then she leaned forward. “Come to the basement. I’ll signal you.”
His eyes met hers, and he nodded.
The athame was in Renee’s hand. Wren continued working, asking questions about the process. The enchantment was difficult, but by the time Renee had finished the third batch, Wren was confident enough in her ability to duplicate the process. Magic had to be focused, though, with no distractions. Which meant Adam’s talisman was sitting on the worktable.
When Renee looked away, Wren slipped it into her pocket. She saw Adam catch the motion, and the tiniest smile flashed across his face. Wren continued assisting, waiting for just the right moment.
She was starting to worry the chance wouldn’t come. And then Renee laid the athame down to check on the cooling first batch. Now.
Adam moved. His form shifted in mid leap. What started for Renee was a man. What landed on her was a wolf. Before Renee could react and focus her magic, Adam’s jaws had clamped onto the woman’s arm. Wren heard the bone snap.
Wren grabbed the athame just as Renee flung Adam off her. He landed with a yelp, but got back to his feet, snarling. “Boy, I am going to —” Renee turned to the workbench, and caught sight of Wren holding the athame. “Don’t be a fool, girl.”
The wolf lunged, sinking teeth into the back of Renee’s leg. Wren moved in as Renee tried to focus her power.
Magic seemed to burst free as Wren drove the blade into Renee’s throat.
He limped back, trying to focus enough to regain human form. The taste of blood in his mouth made him nauseous, even if it had belonged to the hag. With a final twitch, the monster stopped moving.
Wren stood over her, the athame still in her hand. “I did it, Adam.” She smiled. “She’s gone.”
It took him three tries before he shifted. Then he stood, clutching his arm to his chest. It was sprained at least, possibly broken. “We…” Adam trailed off as he saw Wren take the talisman out of her pocket. “Wren…”
She put it around her neck before turning to him. “Come, Adam.” She held out her hand. “Let’s go.” She smiled. “There is a cabal we need to find.”