John moved toward us, but Jed picked him up by the shoulders and tossed him into the trees like a rag doll.
Melinda Kerrigan shrieked and lunged for me. I cranked my fist back and swung for her face, just as Dick had instructed. My knuckles connected with her jaw. She yelped, flailing back toward the fire.
I heard a loud whooping at the edge of the clearing, and dark shapes emerged from the trees. Suddenly, the clearing was filled with vampires. Jane and Gabriel, Andrea and Dick, even Jamie. But there were others, more dark-clad Kerrigans, waiting to get their licks in on a McGavock. Jane was engaged in a hair-pulling contest with Melinda. Andrea and Gabriel were chasing the nameless Kerrigan men into the trees. Jamie and Cameron were slugging it out. Jed had shifted into what looked like a Minotaur and was charging a Kerrigan henchman alongside Dick. And from nowhere, a weight crashed against my ribs, throwing me to the ground.
“You little bitch!” my mother howled, her face white and skeletal, hovering over mine as she clawed at me. “You think you can use magic against me? I made you! You’re nothing without me. You’re nothing!”
I yanked my hand loose and swung at her chin. She shouted, covering her face with her hands. I swung again, letting the heel of my hand collide with her sternum. I took both hands and popped them against her ears. She howled, falling to her side. I shoved her off of me, jumping to my feet and kicking her in the ribs.
With my mother on her knees, wheezing, the woods seemed incredibly quiet. I turned to see that the Kerrigans were subdued, their hands secured behind their backs with zip ties that Andrea had pulled from her purse. Suddenly, Jed appeared at the edge of the clearing, tossing two more strange men into the firelit circle.
My mother used this moment of distraction to punch me in the face. I stumbled back and punched her in the stomach.
“Keep your guard up!” Dick yelled.
“Let her do it on her own,” Gabriel admonished. “She’s never going to learn if you’re hovering all the time.”
My mother and I grappled, wrestling back and forth, her hands wrapped around my wrists. My muscles were starting to burn from the extended use of magic and the effort of fighting her. She had to be getting tired. I shoved her against the large oak, Uncle Jack’s cabinet bumping against my shins. I felt sparks at her fingertips. She was actually trying to use magic against me. She barely had enough power to sting me. Even with her study of dark spells, she was weak. She was a weak woman, a weaker witch, and a shameful mother. I’d spent years being afraid of this woman, and she couldn’t even sting me.
Ouch. She had a hell of a right hook, though.
Rather than stumbling, I threw my momentum forward, knocking her to the ground. Gasping for air, wiping at the blood dripping from her mouth, she glared up at me. “You think I’m afraid of you? Little Miss Perfect? The Half-Assed Witch?”
“You should be. I’m done letting you walk all over me. I’m done with your games. I’m done with forgiving you and giving in to you because you’re the only mother I’ve got. Give me that cabinet, and get the hell out of my face.” I nodded toward Jane, giving her a mental picture of what was about to happen. I placed my hands on my mother’s shoulders and used every bit of the authority I had to say, “I bind you, Anna. I bind you in the name of your mother, in the name of our ancestors. I bind you from doing harm, from doing magic. You spent every day of your life abusing the magic in your blood. You will live the rest of your life without it.”
I felt it leave her body before I spoke the last syllable. The spark of my mother’s energy fizzled out like a doused candle. She was dead space, cold and empty—which wasn’t much of a change, really.
My mother stared at her hands as if she were suddenly missing a few fingertips. She flicked them as if trying to spark a lighter. Nothing.
“No,” she spat. “No!”
Jane gasped, but before she could move, my mother had grabbed the athame from the ground. She lurched to her feet, swinging the blade directly at my stomach. A force from my left knocked me out of the way like a wrecking ball, throwing me into the ground so hard that I left a trench in the dirt. I removed my face from the forest floor, looking up to see a giant armadillo creature standing over me, a black enamel handle sticking out of its chest.
“NO!” I howled.
She’d stabbed Jed in the heart. His life was over. I couldn’t even feel his pain. Jed was going to die, and it was my fault. We would never have the chance to figure out the weird relationship between the two of us. I would lose the only man who had ever loved the real me. I would lose Jed.
As Jed stumbled back, I pushed to my feet, roaring, and head-butted my mother in the face, soccer-hooligan-style. My forehead collided with the bridge of her nose with a sickening crunch. She shrieked, her head slamming back against the trunk. She dropped like a stone at my feet, unconscious. And if the throbbing pain in my face was any indication, her nose was broken in several places.
Despite my mother’s unconscious state, Andrea swooped in to zip-tie her hands together. Dick was helping Armadillo Jed sit up, attempting to draw the blade out.
“No, wait, if it’s lodged in his heart, we’ll want to leave it until he can get to surgery.” I dropped to my knees in front of Jed, feeling his pulse at his wrist, his fast but incredibly steady pulse. I pressed my ear to the leathery gray flesh of his chest; his breathing was quick but untroubled. I peeled the shirt away from his chest and frowned. There wasn’t nearly enough blood flowing for a chest wound. “What the?”
Jed’s armadillo features squinched up as he concentrated on his form. The gray body armor faded away, and he slowly transformed back into human. And fortunately, what appeared to be the chest of an armadillo creature was only the shoulder of a shirtless man. The wound would hurt like hell, but he would live.
“You idiot!” I yelled, smacking his good arm. “You wonderful, stupid idiot!”
“Ow!” he yelped, protecting his injured shoulder. “I’m a wounded man, here!”
He cried out again as, together, Dick and I drew the knife from his shoulder. I placed my hands over the wound and concentrated hard. I visualized the tissue knitting itself back together into healthy muscle and skin. I could feel the warmth of the healing energy emanating from my palm. Dick grinned widely as Jed’s shoulder repaired itself.
“Impressive,” John Kerrigan murmured, before a stern Melinda elbowed him.
“You don’t get the actual form, remember? Just the appearance of it,” I said. “You do not, in fact, have natural body armor.”
“I forgot about that part. I just thought of the biggest, toughest shield possible, and there I was.”
“Aw, you picked a form, and you got it!” I said, smiling. “I’m so proud.”
“Yeah, well, I had to contribute somehow,” he grumbled, flexing his arm.
“I’m sorry my family is nuts,” I whispered. “My aunts and uncles are actually really nice people.”
“They’re not so bad. Wait until you meet my family. At Thanksgiving, we kill everything we can find, put it into a pot, and call it ‘holiday gumbo.’ ” He grinned down at me and kissed my forehead.
A bored but sullen voice called, “Pardon me, as fascinating as I find your vulgar backwoods canoodling, I would like to be untied.”
We broke apart, turning to see an irritated John Kerrigan staring us down. In fact, all of the Kerrigans were both irritated and staring us down. I had several Kerrigans under my control. What the hell was I going to do with them? I could hold them hostage for enough money to put a new roof on the clinic and restock our dispensary until doomsday. I could bind them for another hundred years and continue the family tradition. Or . . .
I squeezed Jed’s hand and knelt down in front of John and his wife.
“I give up,” I told him.
John clearly expected something else, because he frowned at me as if he’d heard wrong and said, “Beg pardon?”
“Aren’t you tired of this?” I asked. “This started as a policy debate who knows how long ago, and it’s still biting us on the collective arse. I think we can all agree that the ‘do no harm’ debate is settled. It’s a bad thing to remove parts of people using the power of your mind. If nothing else, it leaves behind a big mess to explain to the authorities. Let’s just split the objects. Two for you, two for us. That way, there’s a balance.”
“Do you think that’s fair?” Melinda demanded. “We’ve lived without our birthright for centuries, and you want us to just forget what you McGavocks did to us?”
“No,” I told her. “You’ve lived without your magic for forty years. And I am very sorry that happened to you as a result of our families’ troubles. But it didn’t start with us. We can’t let the decisions of people who lived centuries ago continue to control us. In a hundred years, your son’s great-grandchildren would be the ones in charge of protecting the objects. Is this what you want for them? Years of worrying about magical war and protecting your family from mine? Or would you rather they live out their years exploring the gifts that your family is blessed with?”
Melinda cast a sidelong look at her son, her lip trembling. “She makes a point,” she murmured to her husband.
“Our ancestors agreed years ago to the binding,” I said. “Now we can agree to abandon it. It doesn’t work anymore. Forcing you to give up your magic was wrong. And I am sorry.”
John and Melinda whispered in hushed tones, their exchange growing heated, until John seemed to relent. Finally, Melinda gave him a curt nod, and they both turned to me.
“We would have to discuss this at length,” John said sternly.
A relieved smile broke out over my face. “Agreed.”
John eyed Jed carefully. “You seem fairly accepting of the fact that we lied to you.”
“Well, there’s no cure for what I am,” Jed said. “It’s not a disease or a curse. I can’t change it. That doesn’t mean you’re not an asshole.”
“I am sorry,” John told him, sounding very nearly sincere. “But in our defense, you did betray us and help our rivals locate the items first.”
“What are you going to do about your mother?” Melinda asked me. “A number of us have matters to discuss with her.”
I looked down at my mother. I had no idea what the Kerrigans had planned for her. I did know that whatever it was, she probably deserved it. Anna hurt, stole, or defiled almost everything she touched. She’d all but admitted to murdering some unfortunate because she needed a body to throw her “associates” off her scent. I was finished with her.
“I don’t know who that woman is,” I told them blithely. “She’s not bound to me or mine through magic or blood.”
Melinda’s eyes widened at my wording as she recognized its significance. I understood her surprise. Binding was one thing, but she’d probably never heard someone magically disown her own mother before, abjuring her from family and coven. From that moment on, Anna really would be dead to us, even if she showed up on our doorsteps. We wouldn’t see her or hear her or even smell her. It was one of the coldest, cruelest things a witch could do to her own kin. And I’d done it to my own mother.
In terms of negotiating tactics, it was a heck of a way to establish one’s position.
“That’s settled, then. We’ll take her home with us. You’ll not hear from her again. And I’d like the use of my hands, if you please,” John added, a little prim. “This is demoralizing.”
I nodded to Dick, who snapped the plastic tie on John’s hands.
“And Melinda’s?” John asked, rubbing his purpling wrists.
“No, just you,” I insisted. “I said I was open to negotiations, not that I was stupid.”