Gathering Intel

Timeline: May 1st, 2008 (the day before the Beltane rituals)

Rey came to a halt near the center of town, and leaned forward with her hands on her knees to catch her breath. She’d finished the first leg of her daily run and had been trying to go a bit faster, but she discovered she wasn’t up to it quite yet. Breathing hard, she squatted down to retie her shoe.

Small bells jingled nearby. Turning to see, she saw the door to the small grocery store closing behind Jesse. She was carrying a large brown paper grocery bag filled with various goods. As she stepped out onto the sidewalk, Jesse smiled and nodded to Rey. “Good morning, Rey.” Jesse always had that sense of sadness about her, even when she smiled. Despite the bright new morning, this is one thing that apparently didn’t change.

“Morning, Jesse. How are you this morning?” Rey asked, tugging down her cropped off shirt that had ridden up.

“Tired. I was up too late last night,” she said with a smile.

“Busy helping Ann-Marie with her party?”

Jesse blinked. “Oh! This isn’t for that. Just your basic groceries. Anyway, I’m not sure it’s a party exactly. Or what to expect.” She walked over to a bench and set the bag down. “Uff. This is heavy,” she said. Rey heard a rattle of cans and jars. She stretched, leaning back to loosen up back muscles.

“Why don’t you let me help you with that,” Rey said. “I’ve been working out.” She flexed her right arm in an exaggeration of a body builder’s pose while laughing. “But I was talking about what kept you up late last night, not what was in the bag. I didn’t think Ann-Marie was into spaghetti or fried chicken.” She grinned.

“She did invite me to her little celebration. Seemed to think I was Wiccan or something and that I’d enjoy it.” Rey shook her head and shrugged. “Not exactly my cup of tea.”

“Yeah,” Jesse let it hang as she thought. But then she came around to Rey’s original question. “Well, I’ve been… I guess upset lately. No big deal, just stuff in the past is all,” she quickly added. “But thanks for asking.” Her sad smile was a little brighter when she added that. It did cheer her that Rey seemed to care.

“Well, what are friends for?” Rey smiled, and gave Jesse’s hand a quick squeeze. “Remember, my offer still stands. If you ever need someone to talk to, I’m here. And speaking of needing things, do you want a backpack to help carry your groceries? I’ve got an extra. Not on me, of course,” she said with a grin, looking down at her clothes: you couldn’t hide much in her cropped off top, low-riding cut-off shorts and sturdy running shoes with work socks. On her belt was strapped a water bottle in a padded holder.

“Thanks, but I’ve got one. Just not smart enough to actually use it,” she smiled ruefully. Although the weather was warming, as indicated by Rey’s outfit, Jesse preferred a long-sleeve, one-piece dress today. It was black, as seemed to be her favorite color, but she wore purple ribbons in her hair as well as slender purple belt with a silver clasp.

“You know, I kind of envy your fashion sense. I don’t have much of one. To be perfectly honest, the phrase “your mom dresses you funny” would have applied to me until my 18th birthday.”

Jesse smiled. “Liberated at 18, hmm?”

“In a way,” Rey said. “My parents were murdered two weeks before I turned 18. The people who killed them almost got me too, but the police arrived in time and scared them off.”

Jesse’s eyes bugged at Rey. “Jesus!” slipped from her lips in a hoarse whisper. “I’m sorry Rey.”

“Thanks. I don’t remember anything of the attack, but the scars on my back are a daily reminder of it.” She sighed. “I know it’s a really horrible thing to say, I’m both happy and sad they’re gone. Happy, because they were truly evil people; and sad, because I can’t confront them about what they did to me.” She shrugged. “I’m trying to let go of all of that. Grey keeps telling me I need to focus on the lessons I learned out of the whole experience, and not obsess over the what-if’s.”

“I’m sorry, Rey,” Jesse repeated. She felt at a loss how to make it up to Rey and continued to feel guilty over bringing it up.

Rey frowned. “What’s wrong?”

“I didn’t mean to bring up painful memories. I know how that is,” Jesse said.

Rey shrugged. “It happens.” She didn’t have the heart to tell Jesse that the really painful memories didn’t come until later. “Sometimes, though, I think it’s better to have painful memories than no memories at all.”

“No memories?” Jesse wondered what Rey was hinting.

Rey blinked at Jesse in surprise. “I thought I’d told you before. I remember next to nothing from when I was a kid until I woke up in the hospital after the attack. Much of what I do remember, though, is the evil stuff my parents made me do, forcing me to use my gifts to hurt people for money. Remembering that helps me maintain my focus in trying to help people. You know, balance out the bad I’ve done with good.”

Jesse smiled wanly. “I’m glad you found something to ease the pain.”

“To be perfectly honest, it doesn’t. If it did, maybe I’d have a better grip on my temper.” Rey grimaced, and changed the subject. “Ann-Marie’s planning on staying here a long time, right?”

Jesse thought about that. “I believe so. Although, she’s mentioned she has moved from place to place quite a lot.”

“That probably means there’s going to be vampires running through here from time to time.” Rey hesitated, and wondered for a moment if Jesse could sense how nervous she was.

Jesse was in fact watching her. “I would doubt that,” she said.

“Why?”

“I’ve heard some things… I don’t think any other vampires are welcome in this town,” she said.

“Well, just because they’re not welcome doesn’t meant they won’t pass through. Or is there some kind of anti-vampire hit squad stationed on the town’s borders?” Rey’s laugh was rather weak. “Sorry. It’s just that I wanted to ask you… No forget it.”

Jesse stared at Rey and stood quite still. Her sharp mind quickly figured out what her friend wanted. “It’s a curse, Rey. And if they discover you can do it, you’re life… things won’t be the same.”

“And being a witch who can create real love potions, and whose Evil Eye actually works is any easier? Or being the mate of a werewolf?” Rey shook her head. “I already have big bullseye painted on me. I’m just trying to find ways to protect this town and the people I care about who live here. But I’m not going to push, or try to manipulate you into teaching me.”

“It’s not the same,” Jesse said. “You’re asking for something that would make you a direct threat to them. Any of them who would rather remain anonymous. That means you’ll be a target as soon as it’s discovered — that is if it is even possible to teach such a thing.”

“I can already sense vampires to a certain extent,” Rey said, “unless they’re really good at masquerading as human.”

“But you still have something on your mind. Something more that you want,” Jesse said.

“What do you mean?”

“If you already knew everything you needed and could do everything you wanted, you wouldn’t have wanted to ask me,” said Jesse. “You wouldn’t feel that you need some way to find them. So logically, knowing how you feel about them, what you want is to know how to spot them first. You know that I did spot Ann-Marie and knew what she was well before she had any idea. I suspect you’d like to learn that, too.”

As sharp as Jesse was, and as good as she was at picking up how people are feeling by both skill and mystic talent, she was unable to mask her own emotions. Rey couldn’t mistake the quietly depressed tone of her voice. And Rey had to wonder if there were a lot of other signs something was wrong through their entire conversation that she’d missed.

Jesse continued. “But it’s not a spell or some kind of voodoo witchery I picked up from my aunt. I’ve always been able to read auras, Rey. I don’t know why, but it just has always been there. And it’s led me only to trouble.”

“I’m sorry, Jesse.” Rey looked down at her hands, then back at her friend. “Is… is Ann-Marie asking you to teach her what you know too?”

Jesse bit her lower lip, then said, “Is there someplace more private we could talk?”

“Sure. Do you want to come over to my place?” Rey knew this was the first time she’d given Jesse the invitation. “It’s something of a walk from here, but I’m not expecting anyone to drop by.”

Jesse nodded. “Maybe I should drop this stuff off before we go, then.”

“Okay. Did they double bag it for you? If so, let’s split it between two bags, and I’ll take one.”

They split the burden and dropped off the sacks at the place Jesse was staying (for the moment — Jesse mentioned it was to be only temporary) and refrigerated the perishables. Then they proceeded south of town toward Rey’s cabin where they arrived after a bit of a walk.

“Well, this is it,” Rey said with a smile. She fished her keys out of her pocket and unlocked the door. “Come on in.” She opened the door and stepped inside.

Jesse looked around and smiled. “Wow, you’ve got all this to yourself? This is really nice.” She seemed genuinely impressed with the little rustic cabin.

“Thanks.” Rey’s smile almost split her face. “I love it. It was one of the first homes built here in Eldon Well. I got a really good deal on it, with the understanding that I’d restore it. And I’ve done just that, and what furniture didn’t come with the cabin, I made.”

“Well I think it’s very cool,” Jesse stated firmly. “You got a great deal!”

“Yup.” Rey headed for her “kitchen”. “Can I get you something to drink?” When she grabbed the fridge handle, she saw a note that hadn’t been there when she’d left for her run. Eat your lunch, it said, in Grey’s bold handwriting. She chuckled and left it there.

“Oh, I’m fine,” Jesse assured her. “But thank you.”

Rey got herself a big glass of water from the pitcher in the fridge. “Where would you like to sit? At the table, or on the couch?” she asked, gesturing at the couch with the wolf quilt hanging haphazardly over the back.

Jesse’s eyes got large and she smiled coyly. Then she went to the couch and sat down. “Here!” The darkness in her mood seemed to be lifting the longer she stayed in Rey’s cabin. She looked up at Rey with large eyes. “I love your quilt.”

“Thanks. It was a housewarming gift from Dr. Beckett, along with that huge wall of firewood you saw outside as we walked up.” Rey smiled, and remembered when Grey finally remembered to give it to her. “I need to get it cleaned, though. It’s covered with hair.” She picked a few tufts of grey and tan hair off it.

Rey paused for a moment, then looked at Jesse thoughtfully. “Can I ask you a personal question, Jesse?”

Jesse looked at blanket and shadow passed over her face, then was gone. “Yes, of course,” she told Rey.

“What’s wrong?” It wasn’t the question Rey had intended to ask, but it was the one she felt she needed to ask right now.

“You were starting to look so much happier, but when I told you who gave me the quilt and why, well, you got that unhappy look on your face again.”

Jesse looked abashed that her emotions were so obvious. “It’s nothing,” she said. “Stupid, selfish thoughts.”

“No reason to be embarrassed. You’re a friend, so I try to pay attention to these things.” Rey set her glass down on the coffee table. “Please tell me what’s wrong. I want to help.” She was earnest and honest in her desire to help Jesse. Something was eating away at her friend, and she just couldn’t stand by and not try to help.

Jesse debated on what she could and couldn’t say. Finally, she decided she could at least share her own feelings. “I’m scared, Rey,” she said. “And I’m lonely. I miss Renee horribly and now I wonder if I should never have run out on her like that. But at the same time, I couldn’t just stay there. But now I find that I’ve fallen right out of that frying pan and into the fire.”

Rey sat and thought for a moment. She knew she had to phrase her next words very carefully. “I can’t help you if you’re looking for a lover,” she said, her voice soft and compassionate, “but you’re not alone in this unless you want to be.”

Jesse stared at the floor. “Yeah, I know that you’ve got Grey. A girl can dream, though, right?” She gave a weak little laugh. “But I don’t know about the other. I really am alone because if I share anything I endanger not just my own life but those who listen to me.” A part of her wanted to flee right now before she’d said any more and risked her friend and herself any further. The feeling haunted her eyes.

“If Ann-Marie *does* hurt me, she’d better hope the pack finds her before Ramiel does.” Rey was about to tell her of the decision she’d made shortly after she’d met Jesse for the first time, but hesitated.

“That would be too late for anything but revenge,” Jesse pointed out. “I don’t think she’s afraid of the pack or Ramiel. Whether she should be or not is a whole other story, but I really don’t think she is. And that means there is nothing to restrain her from reacting however she sees fit. I think she has a lot more resources than most people know. I know she certainly doesn’t have any fear of someone finding her while she’s sleeping.”

Jesse held her head and fought for clarity on the matter. After a moment she looked up at Rey. “Don’t worry, though. I won’t let her hurt anybody,” she said faintly.”

“That had better include you, Jesse, because if she harms you in anyway way,” Rey replied just as softly. “She’ll find out exactly what I’m capable of.”

She shook her head. “No Rey,” she said softly. “I appreciate that, but no. I made my own choices and I don’t want anyone else getting hurt over them.”

“Okay,” Rey said with a nod. If something happened to Jesse, and it was Jesse’s true choice, that was one thing. If it wasn’t, well, the hedge witch wasn’t going to make any promises.

There was an uncomfortable silence for a long minute. But Jesse couldn’t seem to hold it back longer and she said, “She found out what I could do! I didn’t want to talk about it, but it was pretty clear I had not choice. If I didn’t open up to her and answer her questions… well she’d told me when we first met what would happen if I wasn’t her ‘friend’. Well, not exactly put that way — she said those things wouldn’t happen because I was her friend.

“The other night she made it pretty clear she wasn’t going to wait on me anymore. She wanted to know exactly what kinds of things Aunt Milli taught me. She made it clear to me that if I refused her, I could not longer be regarded as her friend. So I knew what that meant.” Jesse was clearly stressed now, so anxious and overwrought tears were spilling from her eyes in a stream. Rey could see that Ann-Marie had pressured her, but her reaction just now seemed more than that.

A hard lump grew in Rey’s stomach, and she fought to keep a calm expression on her face at the rising anger in her. She held out her hands, offering comfort if Jesse wanted to take it. “What do you want to do?”

Jesse leaned into Rey’s hands. “I don’t know. I have to work this out somehow. Now she knows what I’ve done and what I could do, I think she wants that power for herself. Once she learns it I think she wants me to become a vampire like her or become her servant and take her blood. She says there’s power in it but doesn’t deny that it’s addictive.

“I freaked. I just couldn’t deal with it. I get… I get so its hard to think straight sometimes. You know, when the pressure is one? I … don’t do well under pressure. But I think she gave me time. She isn’t going to let it go, though. I know her. She won’t. She knows I can take souls now and she wants that power, too.”

A chilling silence filled air as Jesse silently cried.

Into this bone-chilling void popped a incongruously chipper voice in her mind. That explains it, doesn’t it Miss? Hamilton stated. He hopped down from his obscure perch on a window sill and leapt into Jesse’s lap to distract her while he had a conversation with his witch. Why her ‘Aunt Milli’ is really a voodoo queen, isn’t she? My my!! Just think what we could learn from this girl!

Yes, we could, Rey replied. The voodoo traditions are so different from ours, so many new things to discover. But should we? Would asking her to teach us put her in more danger? We can’t afford to drive her away.

Hamilton considered. If she taught you voodoo and not Ann-Marie, I suspect there would be trouble. It could also simply be a matter of who owns the power, as well. For example, if the vampire had the power, she might wish to deny anyone else the power. That might require her to either make Jesse her ghoul — which would supplant and destroy what magic she has as a human, or make her a vampire Childe of her own. This would make Jesse more malleable to her will as well.

Of course, he continued, if Jesse refuses to teach Ann-Marie the power to capture souls and thereby create zombies of people, Ann-Marie may consider Jesse no longer a reliable assistant to her — and rightly so. For in denying Ann-Marie this, the girl would certainly be acting against her mistress’s wishes, wouldn’t she.

Oh my what a fine mess! he sent an amused chuckle to Rey. I suggest you get her to teach you everything can as soon as you can, for I suspect her days of freedom — and indeed life — are numbered.

The cat stopped, suddenly realizing that Jesse was staring at him oddly. Uh oh! I think we’re busted. He hopped down and dashed away, pretending to find an interesting dust bunny to play with.

Jesse wiped at her eyes and shook her head. “That was weird.” She gave a sniffly laugh. “Must be seeing things,” she muttered.

“What did you see?” Rey asked with a smile.

Jesse smiled. “Sometimes I look at auras of people and things I haven’t looked at before, just for practice. I thought I saw an aura around your cat that wasn’t an aura an animal would have at all.” She laughed weakly at herself, then said, “I’m really loosing it, aren’t I?”

“No, you’re not.” Rey smiled, a bit bemused. “What did his aura look like?”

“It sort of shimmered and shifted and disappeared. I’m sure my eyes were just blurry,” Jesse said.

Rey sat there and thought for a moment. “I’m going to tell you something that only the pack and a handful others know. You know I’m a witch, right?”

Jesse nodded.

“Hamilton is more than just an adorable, fuzzy and well mannered kitty. He’s my familiar.”

Jesse absorbed that thought, then asked. “As in the classic sense of a witch’s familiar? Someone who extends your powers?”

“No, more of a teacher and companion,” Rey said.

“Then maybe what I saw wasn’t an illusion,” Jesse concluded. “I’ve never seen anything like his aura before.”

“No, it wasn’t an illusion. I doubt many people have seen it, or understood what it means.” A thought occurred to Rey. “Can Ann-Marie control animals?” She flushed. “I’m sorry. You don’t have to answer that.”

“I haven’t seen her do it, but I’ve heard her talk about it to the others,” Jesse offered. “They tend to forget I’m there when they discuss stuff — which is just fine as far as I’m concerned.”

Rey nodded. “Jesse, I was wondering… Would you consider teaching me what you know? What you feel comfortable teaching me, that is. I’ll do the same for you, if you like.”

She thought about that. “Well, I need to warn you. To learn what I do means you’d really need to learn the whole tradition of Vodoun. It’s not a list of recipes for spells or anything like that. It’s communicated with the powerful gods and long-dead ancestors who empower those of us who venerate them and allow them into our bodies. It requires blood sacrifice for most rituals and Also, I only know what my Aunt Milli taught me and the books she gave me describe her tradition. She used primarily, Petro, aggressive magic. You’d call it black magic. Petro is type of magic used to turn living — and even dead — people into zombies.

“Are you sure you want to learn this stuff?” Jesse looked at Rey closely.

“Not the rituals, no,” Rey said. “I need to use blood to quicken my rituals, but I only ever use my own. Could you teach me theories behind it. The myths and legends, what you know about the dead and the undead, that kind of thing.”

She smiled. “Yes, I can do that. And what I don’t know, my aunt gave me some books on the subject.”

“Cool. I don’t have any books or anything like that to share with you, though. All I can do is tell you what I know, the way he taught me.”

“That sounds great to me!” she said, warming to the idea.

Rey’s smile lit up her face. “Excellent!” She glanced at her watch. “But not right now, I’m afraid. I’ve got to meet Ironclaw in about an hour and I don’t want to offend his nose before we even start.” She chuckled. “He’s teaching me to shoot so I can hunt in the fall. I’m trying to cut back my grocery bill, and hunting will help with that.”

“Cool,” Jesse said. Then, sensing it was time to leave, she stood up. “Well, I’ll head back then and let you get ready for your lessons.”

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