I gasped and almost fell back out of the camper van when I saw the blood splattered across the tabletop.
I focused on the bloody pawprint in the middle, trying to figure out what was going on. “Mildred?”
“Close the door,” the Siamese hissed. “Close. Close.”
I pulled the door shut behind me. I couldn’t see her where she hid beneath the passenger seat.
“What happened? Are you hurt?”
The cat remained silent.
I crouched down to try to see her. “Mildred?”
“She took a swipe at me,” a deeper voice replied.
Startled, I jumped up, banging my head against the low ceiling. “Ow!” Grabbing my head, I whirled around, to find Sol, his hand wrapped in a wad of paper towels, sitting on the edge of the bed, his top hat beside him. “What are you doing here?” I practically shouted at him.
“I wanted to make sure that Welmont didn’t find the pot he’s looking for,” Sol replied calmly. “And then your cursed maddener attacked me.”
“I was protecting our home from an intruder,” Mildred meowed.
“But I swear, I didn’t do anything to retaliate,” Sol continued. “I don’t know how she got hurt.”
“Now that’s interesting,” Conroy murmured.
“What do you mean?” I asked the owl necklace.
“The backfire of her spell must mean she can’t hurt anyone without hurting herself, not just you,” my redia explained.
“How’d you get in here?” I asked the magician. “Did you do that rabbit hole thing with your hat again?”
He shook his head. “I ran.”
“I didn’t see you.”
“I didn’t say I ran in human form. I needed to get here before Welmont, but I couldn’t get in right away because first Marco was stumbling around outside. Then it took a bit to get past your lock and then Nightway showed up and I was trapped.”
“Speaking of Nightway,” Conroy urged. “You should move the camper. Now.”
Sol shook his head. “It’s going to be tough to outrun him, especially in this.”
Ignoring him, I grabbed the keys from the hook by the coffeemaker and contorted myself to get behind the steering wheel.
“Where are you going to go?” Sol asked.
“Cursed land,” I muttered, starting up Princess.
“Tess told her to park by the office,” Conroy explained.
As I started to drive, Sol got to his feet and stood behind me, bracing himself against the ceiling to maintain his balance. “That could buy us some time.”
“Not much,” Mildred growled from under the passenger. “You still have to catch the squirrel and we have to perform the ritual.”
“And what happens to Garrett if you do?” Sol asked as I concentrated on my driving.
“The curse will be broken. He’ll be returned to human form to live out his days with his beloved Tess,” Mildred hissed bitterly. “True love and all that nonsense.”
Suddenly I slammed on the brakes. I heard Sol crash to the floor and his groan of pain but didn’t look back. I stared straight ahead at the pulsing royal blue shimmer in the middle of the road.
Nightway stood there, blocking my path.
“The Culler,” Conroy wheezed worriedly.
“Don’t let him in,” Mildred meowed pitifully, her terror obvious.
Heart pounding, palms sweating, I gripped the steering wheel. “What do I do?”
Nightway held my gaze as he slowly began to advance on us. I shivered, sensing his evil intentions. He wanted to destroy.
My hand slipped to the gear shift. I don’t like driving Princess in reverse, but I had to get away from him.
“Run him down!” Conroy urged as Sol got back on his feet.
Nightway drew closer.
I didn’t know what to do. The indecision was paralyzing.
And then I heard her warm, wise voice.
“Forward,” my protector, Valentina instructed.
So I floored it. I stomped on that gas pedal harder than I’ve ever stepped on a cockroach.
Princess lurched forward.
I squeezed the steering wheel and kept my foot on the gas.
Nightway’s gaze widened in surprise. For a split second, appalled by the idea of mowing him down, I considered turning the wheel to avoid him, but again Valentina said, “Forward.”
You know that sickening thud that happens when a really big bug gets splattered on your windshield? This was worse.
Thankfully it was the bumper that took the brunt of the impact, not the windshield, but it was still the kind of sound that makes you want to puke a little…or a lot, considering I’d just run over a human being.
Trembling, I eased off the accelerator.
“Keep going,” Sol urged. “That won’t have killed him.”
“Get to the cursed land!” Conroy yelled. “Hurry! Hurry!”
Taking their advice, I sped up again, the camper van bouncing along the road. It wasn’t until we reached the Raven’s Nest office parking lot that Conroy let out an audible sigh of relief.
I threw the camper into park, scrambled out of my seat and ran around to see what damage was evident. The cursed land might provide some protection from magic, but a guy smooshed against the front of my vehicle would not help me escape Welmont or the law.
Despite the terrible noise I’d heard, there wasn’t even a dent in Princess. At least not any new ones, she had been pretty banged up to begin with. There was just a faint dusting of royal blue shimmer along the bumper.
Sol joined me to survey what should have been carnage. “You did well.”
“I ran over a man.” My stomach roiled at the thought, bile burning my throat. Turning away from him, I bent over.
“Breathe,” Conroy urged. “Just breathe.”
I was nauseous and dizzy and cold.
“Come back inside.” Sol rapped an arm around me and gently led me to the side door of the camper.
“I don’t understand what’s going on,” I complained as he settled me in the seat beside the table and crouched down in front of me.
“Can I get you something?” he offered. “A cup of tea? A cold compress for your forehead?”
“Answers,” I told him. “I could really use some answers.”
His worried gaze flicked from my face down to my pendant and then back up to me. “Do you have the pot?”
“Keith’s pot? No. Why would I? And what’s so important about a stupid pot?”
Sol stood up, moved over to the refrigerator and began rummaging through it. “It was probably his hod.”
My gaze slid over to Erich, his top hat who was lying on the floor, no doubt having fallen off the bed when Princess skidded to a stop.
“And what’s a hod?” I asked.
“A cradle. A receptacle. A container.” Sol pulled out an apple and a wedge of cheese from the fridge and began to look through cabinets and drawers.
“To be used like a cauldron?” I asked, thinking of my friend Maggie Lee and a little white dog named Zippy.
“Yes!” He spun around to face me, excitement gleaming in his eyes. “You do know something.”
“Not much,” I admitted. “I just saw one used once.”
“I was helping a friend with an exorcism,” I admitted, even though it sounded like a silly thing to admit out loud.
“You’re friends with a witch?” He put the cheese and apple on a plate and put it down on the table. He slid into the seat opposite me, holding a paring knife. “What’s her name?”
I shook my head. “Maggie’s not a witch. At least I don’t think so. She’s…she’s something else.”
He sliced the cheese and apple wordlessly, seeming to be deep in thought.
“Of course, Mildred was a witch,” I felt compelled to remind him. “I knew her. Know her.”
The cat, at hearing her name, crawled out from her hiding place. “I’m starving.”
“Tough,” Sol said. “This is for her, not you.” He pushed the plate across the table to me. “Eat.”
“I’m not hungry,” I told him.
“Doesn’t matter,” he replied. “You’re going to need your strength for what’s coming next.”