"Something about bad juju. Black magic."
Great. Just what they needed. "Somehow I should've expected this," Kalen told them. "Hang on, let me see if I can get a handle on anything supernatural."
Opening his magic, he let it flow outward, toward the house, seeking a like power. The backlash was instantaneous and knocked him backward violently. "Fuck!"
Aric caught him, saving him from smacking the pavement. "Whoa! Found it, huh?"
"Son of a bitch!" Straightening, he glanced at the redhead. "Nice catch."
"You're welcome. So, what's the deal?"
"Just like Ryon's spirits said-black magic. There's a thick net over the house, acting as a veil or protection ward of some kind."
"Can you get rid of it?" Nick asked.
"I think so." If not, they'd need a shovel to scrape him off the ground. But he refrained from mentioning that.
"Great. Just get us inside before somebody calls the cops," Aric muttered.
There was that. Blocking out thoughts of curious neighbors, Kalen closed his eyes and opened his magic. Let it flow, cautiously this time, toward the spiderweb of wards over the house. He probed the structure here and there, found points of weakness to exploit. He worked on those while expanding his gift, searching for the right type of spell.
It was a simple veil, constructed to deceive all who viewed the house so that they would see it as it had been long ago. And the signature belonged to a creature he was beginning to know well.
"Malik," he managed. "This is his work."
He heard a couple of curses at this news, but kept his focus on the ward. On breaking it down inch by inch until finally it collapsed and dissipated like dust. What remained, the true image of the home where he'd suffered as a boy, reflected what he'd expected to find.
The house was in a state of sad neglect, sitting in a weed-choked lot, the porch falling in. The windows resembled soulless eyes, broken and weeping. The once-cheery yellow paint was faded and peeling, making the house appear diseased. That wouldn't be too far from accurate.
Ryon started up the cracked, uneven sidewalk. "Christ, what a mess. Why would Malik bother to mask the actual condition of the house?"
"I can think of one good reason," Kalen said. "He didn't want anyone going inside."
"Be alert going in." Nick eyed the house warily. "We don't need any more of you laid up or worse."
They stepped onto the porch carefully, and the rotted boards groaned under their combined weight. It seemed to hold, though.
"Ladies first," Aric quipped, smirking at Kalen. At Kalen's glare, he immediately attempted to look contrite. "Sorry. Old habits."
Kalen laughed, surprising the redhead. The others smiled, too. If he was going to be a real part of this team, he'd have to learn to laugh at himself a little. Okay, a lot.
He tried the door and the knob turned easily. Every cell ready to spring into action, he swung the door open. All that met him was the scent of dust, cobwebs . . . and something he'd smelled dozens of times before, in cemeteries all over.
The wolves must've picked up on the scent, too, because Nick laid a hand on his shoulder. "You can wait outside if you want. Nobody will think less of you."
He knew what they were likely to find. But Kalen hadn't come this far to face his demons only to back down at the last second. "No, I'm fine. Let's do this."
At the commander's nod, they moved inside and began to search the house, sticking close. The interior must've been covered in an inch-thick layer of dust. Cobwebs littered the corners. Ryon moved into the kitchen and in a moment he called out.
"Hey, come look at this."
Kalen followed them inside and stared at the mess. The stench of old, burnt food assaulted their sensitive shifter noses. Two pots sat on the old stove, charred black with something that must've been cooking at one time. Ryon opened the oven and started coughing, slamming it closed again.
"There's a pan of something in there that I think used to be meat of some kind."
"Gross," Aric said, wrinkling his nose.
Nick waved a hand at the room. "So, dinner was cooking. And then what?"
"Nothing good," Kalen said. "Let's check their bedroom. Mom would often come home after work and change clothes after she started dinner. She always said it was nice to unwind after a long day."
He really, really hoped they didn't find anything. He'd rather his parents just be gone without a trace than to discover what he was afraid they would. But his prayers were not answered.
The reality was so much worse than he'd imagined.
Nick, in the lead, stepped through his parents' bedroom doorway first and immediately spun around, holding out both hands. "You don't need to go in there."
"Fuck if I don't! Move, Nick."
Peering around their boss, Ryon gaped and Aric shook his head. "Nah," Aric said. "You really don't want to go in."
"I'm a grown man," he said evenly. "It's not as if I didn't know something was terribly wrong the minute I discovered that the wards belonged to Malik. Let me in so I can put an end to this part of my life."
After several beats of agonized silence, they parted to allow him entrance. What he saw assured him there were some things that were never truly over-for the living, that is. Sometimes there was nothing but horror that would remain with a person for the rest of his life.
The dried-out, mummified husks of his parents lay in the room, as abandoned and forlorn as their once-unhappy home. His father lay on the floor to one side of the bed, his clothing long turned to rags. But that wasn't the most chilling detail.
He'd been decapitated. His head was sitting on the dresser at the foot of the bed, overlooking the corpse of his mother.
She had been bound to the bed, wrists over her head, and from what he could tell, had been naked when she died. Her face was turned toward the severed head on the dresser, her mouth frozen in a silent scream.
"Their spirits are still here," Ryon whispered. "They're telling me Malik did this. He bound Mrs. Black to the bed, then killed Mr. Black while he made her watch. And then he left her here to die slowly, alone with the horror of her husband's murder and her own impending death." Ryon's wide, empty gaze found Kalen. "Mr. Black has a message. He says he hates you. You're a bastard, and he hopes you rot in hell."
Ryon's eyes rolled back in his head and he hit the floor.
Kalen's stomach lurched. "God. I'm gonna be sick."
He bolted for the tiny bathroom and barely made it to his knees in front of the grungy toilet before he lost his breakfast. He heaved his guts until there was nothing left and he was sure his stomach lining must've turned inside out. A hand clasped his shoulder and he jumped.
"You all right, kid?" Nick gave a humorless laugh. "Dumb question. Come on, let's get out of here. I'll put a call in to Grant and have him send a team to make this mess go away."
"Grant? We don't need him, boss," Aric scoffed. He helped a shaken Ryon get up, then came to stand behind Nick at the threshold of the bathroom. "We can take care of this ourselves."
Nick thought about that for a moment, then asked Kalen, "Do you want anything from this place? What about the house?"
"My grandma's photo albums," Kalen answered hoarsely. "My mother got them when she died, and I'd like to have those. Then burn the fucking house down."
Aric nodded. "I can do that. With pleasure."
"Without damaging any other homes nearby?"
Nick gave Kalen a hand up and the guys rallied around him as they left the bedroom, blocking his view of the awful scene. Though it was too late for that, he appreciated the gesture.
The search for the albums was mercifully brief. His mother had kept them on a bookshelf in the living room, and his friends gathered an armload of several dusty books, taking them out to the SUV. Kalen trailed behind, turned and took one last long look at the place that held so many sad memories. So much horror.
Remembering his mother, a lump burned in his throat. Whatever her failings, she'd loved Kalen once. But her many mistakes, like marrying his father, had sealed her fate. She might have loved her son, but she hadn't fought for him. She'd been too beaten down, without hope.
And whatever secrets she kept had died with her.
Or had they?
Malik was unusually quiet at a time when Kalen would have thought he'd be gloating, taunting him with riddles and more secrets. Not to mention punishing Kalen for his betrayal, for going straight to Nick and the Pack about the planned attack on the citizens. The mating bond must truly be stronger, and he was grateful for the reprieve.
"Cloak us, magic man, 'cause this baby's gonna burn."
Aric threw out his hand and a column of fire shot to the dilapidated porch. The house went up like dry kindling, and Kalen barely managed to get another ward in place before the entire neighborhood witnessed a spectacle they wouldn't soon forget.
They watched as the hungry flames consumed the structure. Reduced it to ash. In minutes it was over, only a heap of smoldering rubble left to mark where his life had begun.
Aric steered Kalen toward the SUV. "Ryon, get us the fuck out of here."
"I'll drive," Nick said. "Ryon's still a little out of sorts."
As they climbed into the vehicle, Aric muttered, "Jeez, this town may look like Mayberry, but it's really Freakville, USA. Givin' me the goddamned creeps. Whole town's probably full of goblins or some shit."
Kalen's lips curved upward in spite of the seriousness of their grisly find. Aric was just so . . . Aric. One of a kind. They'd had their differences, but he was turning out to be a stand-up guy.
In less than half an hour, they'd returned the borrowed SUV to the spot where they'd found it and were jetting toward the compound in Wyoming.
Toward home, and better yet, the woman he loved.
* * *
Mac's cell phone buzzed on her hip and she grabbed it and read the text from Kalen.
Landing in five. XOXO.
XOXO back at u. How'd it go?
Bad. Tell u soon.
In my office. Come when u can.
"Crap." Bad could mean anything. She wished they could talk in each other's heads like the wolf Bondmates, but while she and Kalen were more sensitive to each other's emotions and the general direction of each other's thoughts, actual telepathic communication didn't seem to be in the cards for them. Anxiously, she paced her office until finally a knock sounded.
She hurried over and flung the door open, and her Sorcerer practically fell into her arms. "Oh, honey! Are you okay?" She tried to pull back to check him over, but he clung even tighter. Tucking her head under his chin, he kissed her hair, his lean body shuddering.
"They were dead," he choked.
Oh, no. "Your parents?"
"Dead, like for years. Maybe since I left home. Christ, they were mummified."
"Sweetie, I'm so sorry," she whispered, aching for him. "It must've been such a shock, finding them like that."
"My mom was bound to their b-bed, and my father's head was on the dresser. The killer made her watch and then left her there with him like that. Just left her to die."
She held him for a long time, tried to comfort him while he shook. She felt so helpless, uncertain what to say. "Who do you think did this?"
"Malik's signature was all over the wards he left on the house," he said with difficulty. "Ryon said he killed them."
"What about the scene? Did you guys leave it alone?"
"No. Nick wanted to call your dad and have him bring in a clean-up crew, but Aric offered to torch it instead. It's gone, all except for Grandma's photo albums. I brought those back."