Reg watched Corvin walk away from her down the path out of the backyard. Almost as soon as he was gone, the back door of the big house banged and Sarah was striding toward Reg with great purpose. Reg was momentarily thrown back to her childhood when an older woman coming toward her like that almost certainly presaged a slap across the head and punishment for whatever real or perceived infraction the current foster mom thought she had committed.
And the red aura around her landlady was not a comfort.
Sarah stopped in front of Reg, a crease between her eyebrows, her mouth turning down in a stern frown. Her gray hair was in disarray, as if she had been running her fingers through it.
“What was he doing here?”
Reg sighed and let out her breath. She gathered her red box-braids in a bunch and released them behind her back. “Just came over for a visit, I guess.”
“He came over for a visit. And you let him in!”
Reg shook her head. “I didn’t let him in.”
“The only way he could get by the wards that protect this yard and the guest cottage is if you let him in, one way or the other. What did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything. I was just sitting here. I didn’t invite him in; I didn’t even call him on the phone. He just showed up here on his own.”
“That isn’t possible.”
Reg raised her brows at Sarah. “I didn’t do anything to let him in.”
“Did you have something of his here that he could come back to retrieve? Or you gave him a key?”
“I know better than that now,” Reg pointed out. She hadn’t known all of the rules in the beginning when she had first arrived in Black Sands. But she knew all of the sneaky ways Corvin, a handsome warlock with evil purpose in his heart, could get past the wards that Sarah had set. He had managed to finagle his way around them a few times, and Reg had helped set the new wards, using her newly discovered gifts under Sarah’s direction.
Sarah stared at her, expecting more information about how Corvin had managed to worm his way in again, sure that it had to be something that Reg had done wrong. Reg just shook her head helplessly.
The creases on Sarah’s face deepened. Her normally pleasant, grandmotherly demeanor was gone. This new development was definitely of concern to her.
“But if Corvin got past the wards without any action on your part…”
Reg nodded. “You said before that it could happen. That you could not protect the yard from someone whose powers were greater than yours.”
Sarah sank onto the bench beside Reg. Her face went slack and Reg grabbed for her, afraid that she would faint and fall right off the bench.
Sarah held on to Reg’s arm, steadying herself, then let go. “It’s all right, dear. I’m fine.” Even so, she put her hand over her heart, breathing heavily. “Is it possible?” She closed her eyes. “Of course it is. Corvin has been growing in strength. He has all of the powers that he has been able to absorb from others and from the artifacts he has acquired. And he has apparently grown enough…”
That he was stronger than Sarah.
Reg had relied upon Sarah’s wards as she had gotten used to living in Black Sands, with all of the possible dangers that lurked there. Black Sands was home to a large population of witches, psychics, and other magical races, and not all of them were good. Sarah said that there was no black magic or white magic, just the intentions of the individuals who wielded the powers. And not all of the individuals who wielded powers in Black Sands had good intentions.
Reg had learned this the way she learned most things. From personal experience. She had always been told that she should listen to the advice of others, to learn from their experiences and trust that they knew better than she did. But she had not been able to trust. She always had to try things for herself.
The breaching of Sarah’s wards meant that Reg was exposed to Corvin and his wiles and charms once more. She had to be able to withstand all of the pheromones and stolen magical powers that he could bring to bear against her. She had not always succeeded in the past and had been caught in dangerous circumstances more than once.
But she was stronger now too. She had grown into powers and gifts that she had known nothing about before moving into the guest cottage in Sarah’s backyard. She had learned that there was more to her success in conning unsuspecting clients out of their money doing psychic readings than just being able to cold read them. She wasn’t just observant; she had gifts that she had never understood or suspected.
“Corvin’s star is rising and mine is waning,” Sarah said in a soft, flat tone. As if she were talking in her sleep, unaware that Reg still sat beside her.
“No,” Reg told Sarah sternly. “It doesn’t have anything to do with you. It’s just because Corvin has been able to drink the powers of the Witch Doctor and Kareem.”
“It is only natural that sooner or later, my powers begin to weaken. Even though this body has lasted a long time…” She indicated her apparently middle-aged body. Reg would have put her in her sixties, but she knew that others had said Sarah was centuries old. Only magic had kept her looking so young.
Sarah rubbed her forehead, the third eye position between her brows. She looked suddenly tired and older than she had been since she’d been restored by her powerful emerald.
“You’re not old,” Reg insisted. “You’re not weakening.”
Sarah lifted her head and looked around the garden. “We will need to reset and strengthen the wards. You are young and strong and are growing into your powers. Together, we should be able to keep them strong. You have been able to resist Corvin before; that shows that you and he are nearly matched in strength.”
Reg nodded. Though she knew it wasn’t just her magical gifts that had allowed her to resist Corvin in the past. She had other weaponry in her arsenal. While Sarah knew about Reg’s siren heritage, she didn’t know that Reg had used the physical traits and instincts that came from that heritage to defeat Corvin the last time. She wasn’t sure Corvin would try to seduce her again. Knowing what she could do and how he was just as vulnerable to her wiles as she was to his, would he dare make another attempt?
Who was she kidding? Of course he would. The fact that he had sat on the bench with her and not made any attempt to charm her did not mean that he was finished trying. He was just taking some time to reevaluate his prey and her weaknesses.
Sarah was quite a powerful witch. Her wards had kept Corvin at bay for quite a while and, if Reg helped, then surely he wouldn’t be able to get past them again.
“You’ll need to be more vigilant now,” Sarah advised. “Strengthen the wards every day. I will do what I can to maintain them, but it will be up to you to see that Corvin can’t get past.” She shook her head, looking around at the peaceful garden, full of blooms and every imaginable shade of green, and the little burbling waterfall and pond in front of the bench they rested on. “He cannot have the run of this place. Not to access you and not to disturb any of the wildlife or the peace of the garden.”
“Okay.” Reg nodded. “If you’ll show me what to do, I’ll do my best.”
She didn’t point out that she wasn’t particularly reliable. Remembering to strengthen the wards every day? Reg found establishing new habits, especially good habits, difficult. She remembered to feed Starlight, her black and white tuxedo cat, every day because he wouldn’t let her forget, getting underfoot, yowling, biting her ankles, jumping up on the kitchen island. Whatever he had to do to get her to feed him.
If he had been a goldfish, it would be a different story.
Or a plant.
Sarah was constantly rolling her eyes and telling Reg she needed to take care of the plant that Fir had given her. Sarah watered it, turned it, and kept it close to the window so that it got enough light, but not so much that it would burn. She occasionally took it outside to the garden to be with the other plants, and for Forst, the garden gnome, to use his gifts to keep it healthy. Otherwise, Reg was sure that the plant would have shriveled up into a brown, crispy mass of leaves before she realized she had been neglecting it.
“You have to be diligent,” Sarah insisted, perhaps understanding Reg’s silence too well. “This could be a matter of life and death.”
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