Black Sheep


Jesse opened his eyes, and squeezed them closed again, tightly, against the bright sunlight. Blindly, he fumbled around in the inner pockets of his black leather jacket, found his sunglasses—the darkest pair of Nike sports shades rip-offs he'd been able to find and steal—and put them on. This time when he opened his eyes, the sunlight was only uncomfortable, not excruciating.

That only raised a whole new set of questions, though. Why was he under a tree?

Carefully, pausing a couple of times as the world spun under him in nauseating swoops, he sat up and looked around, squinting despite the sunglasses.

Trees, enormous ones, heavy on the evergreens, pine and cedar and whatever those other ones were called. Rocks, also enormous, smooth and almost flat, sloping up from the far side of the road at a gentle angle to a rusty wire fence and then more trees.

A road? Well, it was paved, and had a faded yellow line down the centre. No sidewalk or anything, and no signs or buildings as far as he could see from here—which wasn't much more than a hundred yards or so in either direction, because of the curves and the trees. There was no traffic that he could see or hear, either.

He sighed and buried his face in his hands. Must've had another blackout. God knew how far north he'd gone this time. Right out of the city entirely, from the looks of things, which was going to make getting home just heaps of fun. He remembered the party, the twenty or so other people who had made Michelle's small apartment feel even more cramped, remembered a lot of booze going around and that he'd had his fair share of it. More hazily, he remembered that as usual, as the air got rather smoky, it had made his too-sensitive sinuses burn far too intensely to ignore, and had finally triggered a violent sneezing fit. There was something there about feeling crowded, restless, trapped, an intense need to get away... Nothing else.

Great, I'm having blackouts at seventeen. Wonder if it's brain damage from getting smacked around too often. I mean okay, I drink sometimes, but not that much. Don't you have to, like, drink heavily for years before you get blackouts, or something?

Well, time to see how bad the situation was. He crossed his legs, and dug around in the pockets of his jacket to see what he had. Wallet with ID. The key to Shaine's apartment, nearest thing to home he had, sharing its ring with a miniature flashlight. Three twenty-dollar bills, which he didn't remember, along with a handful of change. Of the condoms Shaine insisted he always carry and always use, he only had one instead of three, which might explain where the money had come from, especially if he'd been hitch-hiking. And that was about it.

He swore softly to himself. It had been months since he'd tried to get through a day completely on his own, no pills to help him focus on something other than the despair and emptiness, no pills to help him sleep without the nightmares. He really had no desire to try again now, cold-turkey and off familiar ground. Possibly right off the bloody map. He was going to have to figure out where he was and get home as fast as he could.

He stowed everything back in his pockets and carefully levered himself to his feet, bracing himself against the tree with one hand. Once he was sure he'd stay vertical, he made his way carefully across the thick summer-green grass towards the edge of the road. A paved road meant there had to be people somewhere, in one direction or the other, right? He just had to guess at which direction.

At the very edge of the road, he stopped, closed his eyes, and concentrated. He was only half-conscious of his nostrils dilating, searching for any traces of human scent or the scents that came with human activity; he strained instead to listen for some kind of noise other than the incessant cheerful singing of birds.

He couldn't hear anything, but when he tested the idea of going to his left against the idea of going to his right, going left felt better. With nothing better to base a decision on, he went to his left.

Since there was no traffic, he walked right on the pavement. At least he was wearing his old well-worn comfortable black running shoes, and he'd astonished a number of friends and acquaintances before with how far he could walk—he just had to find that steady, ground-eating pace that took next to no energy. It was easier when he had music to concentrate on, but that wasn't necessary. He tucked his hands in the pockets of his jacket, and just walked, letting his mind toy with the possibilities of where on earth he might be until that got too scary, and he turned to imagining Shaine tearing strips off him verbally when he got home. At least once he was there for Shaine to yell at, he'd know things were back to normal.

The hum of an engine brought his wandering attention back to his immediate surroundings. He shielded his eyes with one hand, looked ahead and saw nothing, and turned to look behind.

Well, it wasn't anything large, but he could see something coming towards him, still quite some way off. Jesse shrugged to himself and went back to walking, rather than lose time, but he kept listening, and checked behind him periodically. Light-coloured car, no, mini-van, he decided. When it was close enough, he took a chance and stuck out a thumb.

The driver slowed down, and stopped just past him. The mini-van looked fairly new and in very good condition, nothing marring the antique-gold paint job. Preferring not to look too desperate, Jesse made for the passenger side quickly enough to look polite but without running.

The van's driver, and only occupant, was a woman in her mid-twenties or so with more vividly red hair than he'd ever seen as a natural colour—but given the lack of make-up and the simple off-white peasant blouse he could see, it just might actually be a natural colour.

She gave him a friendly smile. “Hi. This is an odd place to be out for a walk.”

Jesse spread his hands. “I was with a friend. At least, I thought he was a friend. We got in an argument about something stupid, he got mad and made me get out. If I'd realized his temper could be that bad…” He shrugged, let it go at that. Offering too many details would be more of a giveaway than acting reluctant to get into it. “Anyway, he left me kinda stranded.”

“Hop in. I'll get you at least as far as what passes for civilization.”

“That would be great.” He opened the passenger door, and the redhead leaned over to pick up a small cooler from the floor on that side.

“Here, just put that in the back out of the way. Help yourself to something to drink out of it if you'd like.”

“You must be my guardian angel.” He moved the cooler to the back seat, but couldn't resist, and chose one of the bottles of juice—grape came to hand first. “I'm Jesse,” he said, as he hopped up into the front seat and closed the door.

“It's a pleasure to meet you, Jesse. I'm Rebecca.”

“You live out here?”

“Oh, not too terribly far away. I'm on my way to meet a couple of friends for a camping trip.”

“Cool.” He fished around for something to keep her talking—most people were happy to meet a good listener, and Jesse was very good at listening. “I've never been camping, but it sounds like fun. Is there a campground or something?”

“No, just a place that we know of that no one really does anything with. It's a nice place to just set up a tent for the weekend and have a private party with a couple of good friends.”

He discovered, over the next ten minutes or so, that the friends in question were her two closest female friends and that she had the very sensible but unexciting job of being one of three employees of a small bank in an equally small town of a couple of thousand people. He was beginning to strongly suspect that he was much farther north this time than he'd been after his previous blackouts.

Why he always woke up to find out he'd gone north during those blank spots, he had no idea. South towards Toronto or someplace like that might have made some kind of sense, but north was just crazy. There was nothing up here.

He couldn't call the place they reached a village. It was just a little combined gas station and convenience store. Across the road was a house, as run-down as the store, the yard full of junk.

“I'm not sure if this counts as civilization,” Rebecca said, as they both got out of the van, “but it's the closest there is nearby, and at least there's a phone.”

“Thanks. I really appreciate the ride.”

“No problem. I enjoyed it.”

Jesse ventured cautiously into the convenience store.

To his intense relief, they had road maps for sale. He picked one up, chose a chocolate bar he hoped wasn't as old as some of the goods he could see in the store, and went to the counter to pay for them.

“Got your card?” asked the woman behind the counter, boredly. She looked about sixty, and that burgundy hair with the pale roots was definitely a home dye job. Somehow it fit with the frayed jeans and plaid cotton shirt.

Jesse gave her a confused look. “Sorry?”

“Your status card. If you want to skip the taxes, you need to have it.”

Status… oh. It wasn't the first time someone had taken one look at him and assumed he was Native—he'd been told it wasn't just the skin tone or the black hair, either, that something in the lines of his face suggested it too. Maybe he was. Who knew? Well, presumably there was a record somewhere of who his parents had been and what had happened to them, but he had no intention of dealing with the government any more than he absolutely had to, ever.

“Don't have one,” he said. “Don't worry about it.”

She shrugged and rang in the map and the chocolate bar. She shorted him on the change, but it wasn't by a lot and he didn't bother pointing it out.

“Can you show me on here where we are?” he asked her, tucking the chocolate bar into his jacket pocket for the moment.

She shrugged again and helped him unfold the map onto the counter. She scanned it intently for a long moment, toying with a red magic marker, then stabbed at the map, leaving a red dot that bled outwards into the paper. “'Bout here. There's the highway. We're not on there, but we're about twenty miles north from this one here.”

Jesse followed the so-called highway south with a finger. A long way south. And finally found the city.

“That's a bit over a hundred miles,” the woman said, watching him, and nodded to herself. “Yeah, about that.”

“I don't suppose anyone from around here goes that way very often.”

“Not on the weekend. During the week, y'get the odd one off the reservation goin' that way. That's about, oh, thirty miles north-east of here.” Helpfully, she showed him on the map. “We go down now and again for supplies, but we're not goin' again for a couple of weeks.”

Jesse groaned to himself. This was definitely not a good situation, no matter which way he turned it around in his head. That was a long way to hitch-hike on a road that didn't seem to get used much.

Behind him, he heard the door squeak open, and Rebecca came inside, followed by a man who was probably the husband of the woman Jesse had been talking to. They certainly looked like a matched set, although the man was largely bald rather than badly dyed.

“Oh dear. What's wrong, Jesse?”

Jesse sighed. “Getting home is going to be a bigger problem than I thought.”

Rebecca looked at the old couple. “How much for the gas?” She looked thoughtful while she paid, and when she finished she turned towards Jesse again. “You could come with me,” she suggested. “My friends won't mind, and the tent's big enough for one more. Maybe between us we can figure out a way for you to get home.”

Jesse hesitated.

Rebecca smiled. “Do you have any better offers than partying alone with three women overnight, having a decent meal, and maybe some help getting back where you came from tomorrow?”

Well, when she put it like that… “I think,” Jesse said, “that's an offer I can't refuse. Thanks.”

“Not a problem. C'mon, Moira and Avryl are going to wonder where I am.”

* * *

“Stupid moving shade,” Kevin muttered, looking up from his book to discover that he was no longer lying in the full summer sunlight; the tree that shaded Deanna was now casting its shadow across him as well.

He picked up his book and the lightweight green blanket he was lying on, and moved three feet or so to one side. With a sigh of contentment, he stretched out again in the direct sun, feeling it soaking in through skin so pale it was all but translucent, the warmth reaching right down to his bones and giving him strength, power, life.

“Happier now?” Deanna asked in amusement, the notebook she'd been writing in so intently still braced against one raised knee. No blanket for her; she no more liked having something between her and the earth below her than Kevin liked having anything shading him from the sun. She was far more comfortable leaning against the old red maple that, for her sake, brought them back to this clearing to camp, over and over.

She reminded Kevin more than a little of the maple itself, her skin soft brown, her long heavy mane of hair dark auburn, her whole body what he thought a perfect mix between muscle and softness. The comfortable pants and loose short-sleeved top he'd made for her, woven out of sunlight, were even various shades of brown, adding to the impression. It wasn't so hard to see where the idea that dryads were bound to a single tree for life had come from.

“Until the sun moves again, yep.” He opened his book back up, and crossed his arms in front of him, the book pinned in place. It was only mid-afternoon, and it was August; he should have time to absorb a lot more sun before it got too low to be helpful.

“Solar-powered elvenmage,” she teased.

“Hard to argue with the truth.”

He could feel laughter against his mind, and glanced off to his right, where a huge wolf with long dense chocolate-brown fur lounged in the shade of a smaller maple nearby.

*Too bad you aren't a bit more literally solar-powered,* he heard in Bane's thoughts, the laughter threaded through the words. *It would certainly help with the grocery bills.*

All they needed for this to be perfect was for their two absent coven-mates to be here. But Flynn was with his mother, who was under strict healer orders to minimize movement until her ankle had finished knitting back together; that would take far less time under healer care than it would without it, but it still needed to be looked after. Cynthia was wrapped up in something she and two other witches, close friends, were doing together, and had promised to come join them when she finished. Kevin let his eyes close, though he wasn't sleepy. He could never feel sleepy while the sun was on him, especially so strongly. But he could relax, let himself really feel it, as if he could just let go and melt completely into the heat and the brightness.

Unfortunately, it could only last for so long. The sun dropped ever-lower, and finally the trees blocked out the direct light.

Deanna stretched and got up. “Mm, that's better. Maybe it will start to cool off a bit now.”

“Yeah,” Kevin sighed. “It probably will. Well, time for food.”

Bane echoed Deanna's stretch, and shifted to human where he lay, tanned and brown-haired, his currently under-dressed state showing off all the muscle that came from spending so much time running the forest on four feet. “Imagine that. An elvenmage who wants to eat.”

“We did bring a ton of food,” Deanna said. “I don't eat all that much, and I bet at least half your meals while we're camping will be stuff you hunt. So I guess Kev gets to make sure we don't have to carry it all home.”

“It's a big responsibility,” Kevin said solemnly. “But I'll try to live up to it.”

They settled near the green nylon dome tent to each fill a plate from the wide range of foods that Kevin had prepared and packed. Nothing was going to go bad inside coolers that Kevin and Cynthia had worked on together—Kevin with his affinity for heat and light, Cynthia with hers for all four elements and all the natural world. Those coolers were every bit as good at preserving food as the fridge at home, which certainly opened up the options on what to bring.

Kevin held a hand over Bane's cold roast chicken and channelled a little of the sun's heat to it, warming it to the kind of temperature his werewolf coven-mate preferred. Bane gave him a quick smile of thanks, and bit into a strip of meat. Deanna preferred potato salad and fresh vegetables, which was typical for a dryad; vegetarianism came easily to them, though it wasn't a necessity. Kevin himself constructed a pair of sandwiches with a little of everything on them; a rapid metabolism forced elves to be aware of what they ate and keep meals balanced between what would digest quickly and what would keep them going for a while, and for a mage like him, it was all the more delicate a juggling act.

The prices of power didn't mean he couldn't use it for fun, though. As the sunlight faded, he wove an image in the air, a glowing butterfly with wings of emerald and amber, then another of ruby and amethyst, and more, creating them one at a time and keeping the earlier ones dancing lazily in the twilight as he crafted each new one. Finally, though, he had to stop, feeling his concentration beginning to stretch too thin; he let the ones already in action keep flitting around at random, brilliant in the dim light.

Deanna smiled, her pleasure warm and familiar against his inner senses. “That's beautiful, Kev,” she said softly.

“That's, what, nine?” Bane said. “That's a new record for you.”

Kevin nodded, still carefully keeping most of his attention on the illusory butterflies. “My control with little stuff is getting better all the time.”

“You're one hell of a mage already, phoenix. It would be scary to think how good you're going to be in a decade or three, if I didn't know you'll use it well.”

Kevin glanced at him and smiled, aware that Bane could see him perfectly well in the eerie illumination of the butterfly light though he couldn't say the same in return. “Thanks to my very forgiving and endlessly supportive coven.” He reinforced a sapphire and silver butterfly that was starting to fade, brought it back to full strength.

Deanna giggled. “With great power…” she began the quote.

She didn't get a chance to finish; Kevin sent the butterflies at her in a multi-hued cloud, all at once. Deanna laughed and ducked. “Attack of the killer butterflies!”

Kevin let go of the butterflies, and they melted into nothingness, leaving them in twilight that might just as well have been midnight to elven eyes. Being an elf, though, he could see his companions as thermal images, Deanna a bit cooler which was normal for a dryad. With the extra effort of invoking mage-sight, he could have seen them in yet another way, as well as the bright glittery cords of energy that bound a coven together, but it hardly seemed worth it right now. “Well, I guess I'm about done for the day. I never did get much reading done today, I'm going to just curl up in the tent with my book. You nocturnal types can do what you like.”

Bane chuckled. “I'm off for a run, then.”

“Summer evenings are wonderful,” Deanna said, “except for the mosquitoes. I suppose I could get someone to rub repellent in all over for me, but there's not much point if I'm going to be all by myself. I'll just come inside.”

“Don't wait up,” Bane said, and shifted back to furform—Kevin saw the heat-image flare briefly and then settle into an altered outline. He nuzzled both coven-mates affectionately before trotting off, probably to see if any of his pack or other potential hunting companions were out and about yet.

Kevin created enough light, in the form of a hovering glowing golden sphere, that he could see to help Deanna clean up, although there really wasn't much that needed cleaning up. No wildlife would brave both Kevin's wards and Bane's scent. Then they retired to the tent. Since it was intended for six, and had held their coven of five more than once, there was plenty of room for the two of them to get comfortable; Kevin sent the sphere to melt into the supporting ribs, causing them to glow with gold-tinted light. He'd done it so often that it didn't take much power to set up or sustain anymore.

There wasn't really any need to talk. They'd known each other practically all their lives, had been together through wonderful times and real-life nightmares. It was enough just to relax and enjoy the company and the peace.

* * *

Rebecca drove a bit farther along the highway, and then turned left onto a dirt road that must be just a nightmare in the winter. It wound its way through the trees and up and down slopes and once over a small bridge with a wide stream underneath.

Finally, she pulled over in a spot where there was a grassy area right next to the road.

“Moira and Avryl have the tent and all,” Rebecca said, pulling back the side door of the van. “All we need to bring is my sleeping bag and the cooler.”

Jesse hefted the cooler, which wasn't really all that heavy, and he was stronger than people tended to assume when they saw him, no more than medium height and less than medium build. “No problem.”

Rebecca slung the sleeping bag on one shoulder, locked the van, and led him into the forest.

He would have expected her lightweight, loose pants to be more of a problem in this than his jeans were, but somehow she moved through the brushy stuff without difficulty, while trees and bushes tried to trip, slap, and otherwise abuse him. Rebecca was sympathetic and did her best to help.

They stepped out into a small clearing in the middle of the trees. He could see a blue and white dome-shaped tent set up at the far side; closer, on a spread blanket, were two more women around Rebecca's age. One was very slender and probably very tall, with shoulder-length brassy-blonde hair and very white skin and the kind of high pronounced cheekbones that a modelling-wannabe would cheerfully commit murder for, looking quite out of place in a soft-looking long dress of multiple swirled shades of blue. The other was much more softly curved, with longer tawny-brown hair neatly confined in a long braid, rounder features, her eyes with a faintly Asian slant, and she was wearing khaki shorts and a well-worn white T-shirt with a faded picture of flowers on it.

“This is Jesse,” Rebecca said. “He's having some bad luck right now. Jesse, the blonde is Moira, and the brunette is Avryl. Have a seat, make yourself comfy.”

Jesse shrugged to himself and joined the women on the blanket.

As it turned out, it was past time for lunch but they'd been waiting for Rebecca, and Moira had a cooler that held an astonishing amount of food. There was also lots of orange juice and vodka, with Moira usually making the drinks, and no one asked his age. Avryl had a small compact stereo and apparently there was at least one radio station that could be picked up around here.

Compared to the parties he was used to, this was pretty tame… but the vodka was better than nothing at all, and the company was friendly and easy on the eyes. To say nothing of being his best chance not only of a place to sleep that wasn't under a tree and more to eat than a chocolate bar, but also of finding a way to get back to the city. At least with nothing but vodka, he was unlikely to have another blackout that would leave him up in the Northwest Territories or something.

By the time the sun began to edge down below the trees, Jesse was definitely feeling a lot more relaxed. Moira had started a small campfire in an area she and Avryl cleared of grass and then ringed with stones; Jesse didn't see how she started it, only that it didn't seem to take her nearly as long or be nearly as difficult as he'd thought campfires usually were.

Avryl, giggling, told them about something she'd heard about, that if everyone joined hands and concentrated on gazing into the fire, then they'd all see the answer to their greatest question. By that point, Jesse didn't much care whether it made sense, and would have gone along with weirder things to keep from disrupting the mood. He found himself across from Rebecca, with Moira and Avryl on either side.

Something about this felt wrong, though, as he joined hands with Moira and Avryl. There was something about it that felt vaguely familiar, and for some reason that created enough nervousness to reach through the haziness. Why was he so foggy, anyway? He hadn't had that much to drink all that quickly…

Before he could figure it out, Avryl began to speak in a kind of sing-song rhythm. “Just look at the fire, slow your breathing down, in, now out, in, and out… look at the fire, don't look away, let everything else just go away, relax and be open to whatever's going to happen, don't fight it… just breathe, in, out, and look at the fire...”

Automatically, Jesse obeyed, ignoring the sense that something was just not right about this situation. The flames seemed to twist into odd shapes that he could almost recognize, but they were always gone as soon as he focused, and he could never quite get a clear look.

With no warning at all, pain slashed across him, pain that was beyond anything he'd ever imagined. Avryl and Moira both tightened their grasp on him, kept him from pulling away, as every nerve in his body came screaming awake, and yet it ran deeper still, on some level that he couldn't even really identify, let alone name.

On the heels of the pain came the pleasure, the most incredible high he'd ever felt. Yet the agony was still there, twined around and into the high, a brutal reminder of mortality even while the ecstasy tried to convince him otherwise. Trapped between the two, all thought stopped, and the universe became an eternity of waiting for an end, yearning for it and fearing it at the same time.

Abruptly, Avryl and Moira let go, and the high vanished, leaving only the pain that made him want to scream except that too many muscles were locked tight, made him curl in on himself moaning.

“I wouldn't worry about getting home,” Rebecca said. “That's the least of your problems right now. But then, I hardly think it's going to make the world a lesser place, to no longer have someone like you in it, now is it?”

He heard them move, heard them simply walk away. Somehow, the blanket that had been under him wasn't there anymore, he couldn't hear the fire anymore, it was just him and the grass and the trees around him, and the overwhelming pain.

He heard something bark nearby, and hoped vaguely that it was someone's dog, not a wolf or something looking for an easy meal.

“Oh gods,” someone whispered; cool light fingers brushed his cheek. “Oh, Rebecca, what have you done this time?”

The pain went away, but it took the rest of the world with it.

* * *

Kevin woke sharply, heart pounding, with images in his mind of glass breaking overhead. It took him a moment to sort out that it wasn't his own dream; his coven-mate Flynn was still asleep, and dreaming, and was reaching towards him in fear. He felt Flynn jolt into consciousness, with no lessening of the sense of dread.

*Kev! Shield Bane! Heavy!*

Confused, but willing to trust the seer, Kevin scanned the area for Bane, got the mental echoes of creeping up carefully on a trio of sleeping male mallards, tension and anticipation. That was enough for him to pour sunlight energy into a bubble around Bane, one that would keep any kind of outside magic from reaching him.

The ducks sensed it and exploded into a flurry of escaping feathers and alarm quacks; so did Bane, who threw a wordless, irritated question at him.

Before Kevin could explain, pure raw energy slammed into the shields with dizzying force. Bane yelped, more in surprise than fear—not much frightened Bane—and crouched where he was, instinct telling him to get back to his coven-mates to defend them against whatever was attacking, reason telling him that if he moved it would be harder for Kevin to protect him.

Kevin threw more of the power he'd absorbed from the sunlight into the shields to reinforce them. Without Flynn's warning, his normal shields and the ones built into the tent would all have shattered like an egg under a hammer, but this one held, deflecting the attack away and scattering it harmlessly. Just in case, he poured more power into the shields woven into the framework of the tent. A second blow against Bane, the third targeted the tent…

“What on earth…” Deanna began sleepily, aware of the fluctuations in ambient energy levels even if she couldn't track them directly, and then her tone hardened. “Rebecca?”

Carefully, Kevin searched outwards, holding the shields steady; this was a lot harder than multiple butterflies, and could be a lot more devastating if he dropped any of the balls he was juggling. Anger surged—that was Rebecca, all right. Why couldn't she just leave them alone? Why did she have to wreck their peaceful camping trip? He pulled up whatever power he had left, shaped a window in the shields around him and Deanna just for an instant as soon as the fourth blow had been rebounded, and furiously flung everything he had back in the direction from which the attack had come, targeting it on Moira's very visible energy signature and Rebecca's unmistakable presence.

He didn't think it actually reached them; something else absorbed it before that. But the blows stopped, and right now, that was good enough.

He reached to Flynn, hoping the seer would have a better idea what was going on.

*In the forest,* Flynn said. *Get moving before he dies! I'll find one of the healers so you can use me as an anchor. Find him!*

Kevin winced. Running around a forest in what was, to him, utter darkness punctuated by heat images really wasn't going to be a lot of fun. Well, Deanna would help. *Dia, Bane, not sure if you caught that,* he said, mentally instead of out loud, so he could send it to both. As the only telepath in the coven, he tended to find himself the centre of communication. *Flynn says there's someone who's going to die if we don't find him.*

*Stay there until I get back to you,* Bane commanded. *I don't want you wandering around a night-time forest without me if Rebecca's in the area.*

*Hurry, then.*

*Already on my way.*

Kevin called just enough light along the ribs of the tent that he could see to find his shorts and running shoes; Deanna had already rolled to her feet, not needing the light so much, and was ready to go. By the time Bane ran out of the trees, they were out of the tent and Kevin had an approximate fix on which direction. If it weren't that he would have to create a gate to get Flynn and one of their healer friends there as quickly as possible, he'd have let dryad and werewolf go alone. Arguably, he could let them go, then gate himself to them, then gate the healer in, but two gates without even much moonlight would leave him too exhausted to walk. And creating light while in the trees would only cause disorienting moving shadows and interfere with Bane and Deanna.

So, instead, he gave his coven-mates what information he could about the direction of the lingering traces of power, and trusted them to keep him from walking into a tree. He wasn't expecting it to be all that far; there'd be too much power loss over long range.

It certainly felt like an awfully long way to go.

*Here!* Bane barked sharply, mentally and aloud both.

“Clearing, about eight feet ahead,” Deanna murmured.

They finally stepped out of the trees, and with intense relief Kevin called a floating sphere of light to hover in the air and give them all a reasonable view of their surroundings.

The clearing was small, and mostly empty. There were lingering traces of illusion, still strong enough that Kevin could see what it had been. Why had Moira created the illusion of a campsite? The only things real were the remains of a fire, which still shimmered with mage power—created by, extinguished by, and he thought manipulated by an elvenmage—and an impression under the one person still present that suggested a blanket woven by a mage out of light and then left to dissolve when no longer useful.

Deanna crouched beside the black-clad figure that lay on the grass, curled into a tight fetal ball, breath coming in rapid ragged sobs of pain.

“Oh gods,” she whispered, reaching out to run her fingers down his cheek. “Oh, Rebecca, what have you done this time?” She looked up at Kevin, and he didn't need to read her mind to know what she wanted him to do. No one should have to experience that much pain. Gently, Kevin wrapped his mind around the stranger's and thought sleep at him. His breathing slowed and evened out somewhat as he lost consciousness.

*Ready, Flynn?*

*Yes,* came the prompt reply.

Reaching to Flynn, using him as an anchor to spin a doorway of light and energy linking here and there, was one of the most tiring things he'd done yet tonight. Pixie-slight Gisela, her long honey-brown hair dripping wet and a pale summer dress clinging to her damply, darted through on bare feet. Flynn, his ever-present cards in one hand, followed her, and the gate imploded, leaving them in twilight. Not that Kevin really needed to see the redheaded seer, whose mother's Scottish blood showed in every line of his body.

Gisela dropped instantly to her knees next to the stranger, laying a hand on his cheek—about the only skin accessible with his arms and hands clenched tight against his chest. Her eyes closed as she concentrated on what healer senses could tell her about what was going on in his body right now.

Kevin studied him as best he could while waiting. Young, slender, probably no taller than Flynn. Black hair that didn't look like it had been cut or even washed lately, pulled back in a rough tail with strands escaping to frame his face. Dark skin, maybe Native, with one silver crescent stud bright through his ear. Features slightly delicate, very sensual... attractive, even streaked with drying tears and dirt, but not strong enough to be handsome, Kevin mused.

“I don't know everything that's happening, there's too much all at once,” Gisela said worriedly. “He's been ripped wide open psychically, and I think it overloaded his whole nervous system. He's already in shock, and even before this, he had an awful lot of stuff going on. Flynn's right, he's going to die unless I can do something...”

“Do what you can,” Flynn said softly, toying with his cards without actually pulling any out to look at. He wouldn't have gone to Gisela if she had no hope of saving the stranger, Kevin thought; he would never do that to her. So he must see a reasonable chance.

Gisela nodded, and tucked her hair back behind her ears. For a moment, by magelight, she looked less like the seventeen-year-old mostly-trained dryad healer she was, and more like she'd be in another couple of decades when both she and her gifts reached full maturity. She moved so she was sitting on the ground with her legs crossed, the stranger's head on her lap, and closed her eyes again.

Bane prowled, agitated but lacking a target, circling around them in wide loops—practically daring anything to attack again. Kevin, Deanna, and Flynn settled themselves near Gisela, not close enough to interfere, and Kevin let the light fade away, in case he needed that power for something more urgent. In the mostly-dark, his heat-vision came back into play, and unless the stranger was a dryad, his body temperature was definitely cooler than normal.

Gisela cried out, wordlessly; it sounded like denial.

Without a thought, Kevin scrambled closer to her, laid one hand on her shoulder to feed her whatever power he still had from his day in the sun, grabbed the stranger's hand in his other one and reached inside, tracking the mind/spirit/self that was preparing to leave. Jesse, that was the stranger's name. Rebecca should never have done this to Jesse, should never have used him like this, and Kevin knew far too much about Rebecca's charm and ruthlessness. That was something Kevin and Jesse had in common, even if there was never anything else, and it was something he could use to connect to that fading sense of self and call Jesse back, keeping him there while Gisela threw everything she had into healing the damage at least as far as non-lethal levels. He didn't have enough left to do this, and he knew it, but there was no time for anything else, and he was not going to let Rebecca kill someone who should never have been involved in their problems.

“Got it,” Gisela whispered finally. “He won't die now. He's not going to feel so great when he wakes up, which isn't going to be for a while, but he'll survive it.” She sounded exhausted. Kevin could relate; he felt cold and vaguely dizzy.

“All right,” Deanna said briskly. That was Deanna all over, Kevin thought: worried about her little sister and her best friend, her response was to go all practical. “Moving our camping gear here is probably pointless, there's no reason to think this spot was chosen for things like access to water. There's no way we're going to get a worn-out healer, a worn-out mage, and one unconscious body all back to the usual spot under their own power. I suggest we go get emergency supplies for overnight and stay here until sunrise. If Kev isn't recovered enough to gate yet, Bane can go get Bryan to anchor for Lori and she can gate here and get us all back to our own camp.”

“I agree,” Flynn said. “I don't get any sense of this being a particularly good spot to camp, and I think it's going to be a few days before going back to the house is a good idea. And I think it's probably going to be Lori doing any gates for a day or two. I'll give you a hand. Bane? Nothing's going to happen in the next little while. Come help us? You can run something back here for these two to eat before they go into shock, while Dia and I pack up some blankets and things.”

Kevin let himself more or less collapse where he was, wishing for moonrise, which would at least give him back a little; Gisela curled herself beside him, kitten-like, and he slid an arm over her.

“Gotta tell you something,” she said quietly.

“Hm? What?”

“He's a latent wolf. Well, he used to be latent. Now it all depends on how completely he heals from this.”

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