She started to turn to the car door, then with a shocked cry, doubled over.
"What is it? Nell?"
"Cramps. God, the baby!"
"Hold on. Just hold on. " He swept her into his arms, fighting against panic as he saw the pain on her face. "I'll get you to the doctor. It's going to be okay. "
"No, no, no. " Pressing her face into his shoulder, she struggled against both pain and terror. "Wait. Just wait. "
"Not for a second. " He yanked open the door, would have set her inside, but she clung like a burr.
"It's not real. It's not real. Mia said the baby would be safe. She was sure of it. This is not real. " She dug down, found the power beneath the fear. "It's an illusion, to keep us away. To keep us from making the circle. " She let out a long, shaky breath, and when she looked at Zack again, her skin glowed.
"It's a lie," she said. "We have to get to Mia. "
She went to her cliffs first, stood with her robe, white as the moon that had yet to rise, billowing. She could feel the dark pressing, its edge ice-cold, blade-sharp.
She watched, calm, as the fog rolled in over the sea and began, foot by foot, to spread over the island. However fiercely she'd guarded her thoughts, it understood one point. Tonight was the battle for all.
"So mote it be," she murmured, and turning away, walked into the long shadows and dying light of the forest.
The fog closed around her. Cold and full of whispers. It made her want to run. She could feel it, horrid little fingers tickling along her skin. A kind of tease.
She heard the long, low howl of a wolf, and the sound was almost a laugh. Panic leaked through her shield of will as the fog crept hideously beneath the skirt of her robe. On a sound of disgust, she slapped at it, driving it back from the path, though she knew she scattered some of her carefully hoarded energy in doing so.
Her pulse raging, she walked to the clearing. To the heart, to wait for her circle. It would not be so easy, she thought, and pulled her emotions back. She imagined them, bright and dark, coalescing into one narrow beam buried in her heart. Not so easy to harm what she loved, to use that love to destroy.
She would protect. And she would win.
Nell came first, running through the woods with Zack to throw her arms around Mia. "You're all right!"
"Yes. " Gently Mia drew Nell back. "What happened?"
"It tried to stop us. Mia, it's very close. "
"I know. " She took both of Nell's hands. Gripped tight. "You and yours won't be harmed. We need to start. The sun's nearly set. "
She released Nell, opened her arms, and the candles she had set around the clearing burst into light. "It wants the dark," she said, then turned as Ripley stepped into the clearing.
"The son of a bitch thought he could scare me away. " She laid down her bag of tools as Mac hauled in the first load of his equipment. "It's time we showed the bastard who he's dealing with. "
"I could use a hand with some of my stuff," Mac said.
"You don't have much time," Mia told him.
"Time enough. " Sam walked in, hefting one of Mac's monitors and his own carved box. Mia crossed to him, touched a fingertip to the corner of his mouth. "You're bleeding. "
"Sucker punched me. " He wiped at the blood with the back of his hand. "I owe him one. "
"Then let's fight. " Ripley reached into her bag and drew out her ritual sword. For the first time in days, Mia laughed and meant it. "You never change. This place is sacred. It is the heart. Circle within circle within circle protects all from cold and dark. Here where stood the sisters three I will meet my destiny. "
As she spoke, she walked the edges of the clearing, her bare feet inches from the bubbling fog.
"Once this circle has been cast, the bond we form will ever last. "
"That's not the opening for the banishing ritual," Sam said, but she ignored him and continued.
"The setting sun gives me its fire, and the moon will rise higher and higher. " She picked up a jar and spread a ring of sea salt around the husbands of her sisters. "One is three and three is one, through our blood the web was spun. What is dark and wears my mark will bear it for eternity. As I will, so mote it be. "
She lifted her arms and called the thunder. "Cast the next circle," she said, and looked at Sam. "I know what I'm doing. "
"So do I. "
Mac studied his gauges as the circle was cast. "As far as I can follow this, by casting this outer circle, around the clearing, by herself, she's focusing the negative force on her. Even when she's linked with the others, she's the target. "
"Sam called that one," Zack replied.
"That's right. She circled us with the sea salt as a second defense. Her plan is for us to stay inside the protective ring, whatever happens. "
"In a pig's eye," Zack stated.
"You got that right, too. Power's building. " He could feel it.
Around the circle, light shimmered, deep gold. With the tips of blades, each scribed their symbols in the ground. The first chant rose with the moon.
"Air and earth and fire and water, mother to son, and son to daughter. Through our blood we claim the right to call the power from the night. Under the light of the Moon of Mead, we ask to be given what we need. We seek the light, we seek the sight. "
Nell lifted her arms. "From Air I come, of Air I call. I bring the wind to rise and fall. To sweep away what seeks to harm, I bring to bear all magic, all charm. I am Air and she is me. As I will, so mote it be. "
And while the wind rose up to roar, Ripley lifted her arms. "From Earth I come, of Earth I entreat. Quake and quiver below my feet. The dark what's mine will swallow, and none his fall will follow. I am Earth and she is me. As I will, so mote it be. "
The earth trembled.
"From Water I come. " Sam spread his arms high. "Of Water I cry. Pour from the sea, flood from the sky. To wash clean this isle of light and protect it from the hound of night. I am Water, and he is me. As I will, so mote it be. "
As the rain lashed them, Mia threw back her head. "From Fire I come, of Fire I yearn. Spark and flame and cleanly burn. To purge this beast who hunts for blood, and from him shield what I have loved. I am Fire, and she is me. As I will, so mote it be. "
Lightning flamed across the sky, spewed up from the ground. It roared in the air and sparked like diamonds on the rain.
The storm broke like a fury, spinning a whirlwind out from the clearing and through the forest.
"My equipment can't measure it," Mac called out over the explosions of thunder. "I can't get a clear reading. "
Beside him, Zack drew his weapon. "You don't need one. It's howling. The wolf. And it's getting closer. "
Within the circle, the four linked hands. With the moon beaming like a beacon through the storm, Mia drew Nell's hand over to Sam's. And made them three.
"Twice the Three have stopped your breath. I alone am left to test. Tonight I stand and challenge you. Come from the dark and do what you will do. My fate within my own hands rests. Which one of us will meet our death? You have come to your last hour. Come and face this witch's power. "
She stepped through the fire of her own making, and out of the circle. The black wolf formed out of the fog and snarled at the edge of the clearing. Even as she moved forward, Sam lifted his ritual sword. A wild blue light speared from the tip as he spun out, using his body to shield hers.
"No. " A trickle of panic cut through her fierce control, and the light around the clearing wavered. "This isn't yours. "
I'll go to hell with him before he hurts you. Get back in the circle. "
She stared at him, and even as the wolf took the first testing step into the clearing, her panic receded. Her power built from the heart, and spread through her.
"I won't lose," she said quietly. "I can't. " With her destiny bright in her mind, she ran from the clearing with the wolf leaping after her.
It would end where she chose to end it. Of that she was certain. She flew through the woods, the heat of her body cutting through the icy fog that covered ground and path and stung the swirling air. What pursued her screamed with greed. She knew every twist of the path, every rise of the earth, and ran through the storm-wracked night, an arrow with the target already in sight. She broke out of the woods and raced unerringly for the cliffs rising slick and black from the stinking mist. Gathering, she hurled power behind her to gain the time she needed, and heard the cry of pain and outrage. And felt, beneath it, the sly pleasure.
She was beyond her circle. Separated and alone. And standing now on the cliffs where the one who was Fire had made her last choice. Behind her was the roaring sea, below her the unforgiving rocks. Trapped. She heard the whisper in her head. Stand, and be ripped to pieces. Step back, step off, and escape.
Breathless from the run and what was building inside her, she inched back. Wind snatched at the wet hem of her robe, and the slippery rocks beneath her trembled and shook. The island was coated with fog, smothered with its weight. But that she'd anticipated. She saw one clear circle at the edge of the village where the light beamed like a thousand candles. That she hadn't anticipated, nor the rush of energy that streamed from it, and into her like love. She wrapped it close, shielded it with her own power, and watched the wolf climb slowly up the cliffs. Stalk me, she thought. Yes, come closer. I've waited for this all my life. It bared its teeth and rose, like a man, on its hind legs. Fear me. For I am your death. I bring you pain.