“DEFENSE OF THE REALM”
During the four years since Piper’s departure from Quake, the restaurant had not changed much – aside from the menu and the food’s quality. Cole had never visited Quake before, but judging from Phoebe’s reaction to their appetizers, apparently the food was not what it used to be under Piper’s rule.
Cole reached for his glass of Cabernet Sauvignon wine and took a sip. “Perhaps we should have went to another restaurant.” He fell silent, expecting a reply from Phoebe. She said nothing. Cole added, “Or perhaps I should have prepared dinner at home. Marbus had pointed out that we’ve been going out to dinner on a regular basis, lately.” He chuckled slightly. “I think I may have come close to spending half of my paycheck, during the past two weeks.”
Phoebe responded with a dim smile and reached for a dinner roll.
Realizing that Phoebe might still be distracted by his quarrel with Leo, Cole decided to confront the matter than pretend everything was fine. “Okay Phoebe,” he muttered, “what’s wrong? Other than criticizing the food here, you’ve barely said a word.”
“Nothing’s wrong,” Phoebe quickly replied. “I’m fine.”
Cole sighed. “Right. And that’s why you’re looking as if your favorite pet had died. Or you’re about to flee for your life. I really can’t tell which.”
“Cole . . .”
“What . . . is . . . wrong, Phoebe?”
A silent moment passed before the dark-haired witch finally answered, “It’s about tonight. Your fight with Leo.”
Cole cast his eyes downward, now that his suspicions had been confirmed. “I see. Look Phoebe, I’m sorry that I had lost my temper, but I’m getting sick and tired of Leo treating me like an outsider every time I show up. I realize that I have a past that would make any sane person flee for his life; but who is he to judge, after the shit he had recently pulled?”
“I understand how you feel, Cole,” Phoebe said. “Really, I do. And you’re right. Leo can’t really look down his nose at you, anymore.” She sighed, and glanced up at Cole. “But you really need to keep your temper in check.”
One of Cole’s brows shot upward. “‘I’ need to keep hold of my temper?”
“Okay, maybe I can be a little temperamental also,” Phoebe conceeded. “But Cole . . . you have to consider your powers. What if . . . what if you completely lose your temper and decide to use your powers? Who would be able to stop you?”
Cole smiled derisively. “Well, Olivia for one. I’m sure that she still have some of that potion . . .”
A sigh left his mouth. “Look, I’ll try to control my temper, Phoebe. I swear. But Leo has to learn to do the same. And he needs to stop acting as if I’m plotting to murder all of you.”
“I know. But . . .”
Warily, Cole stared at his ex-wife. “But what?”
Again, Phoebe hesitated. “Have you ever thought about . . . you know, stripping away your powers?”
Shit! He should have known. From the moment he and Phoebe had started dating again, Cole suspected that sooner or later, she would bring up the matter of his powers. Phoebe obviously wanted him back, but only as a mortal.
“Cole?” Apprehension crept into Phoebe’s voice. “You’re not mad at me, are you?”
Not mad, Cole decided. Just disappointed. He could imagine the ‘I told you so’ expression on Olivia’s face. “No Phoebe. I’m not angry. It’s just . . . considering the last two times I had lost my powers – disaster followed.”
Her dark eyes now shinning brightly with hope, Phoebe leaned forward. “But those incidents were accidents!” she exclaimed. “You had lost your powers the first time, because that witch’s girlfriend had thrown a power-stripping potion on you.”
“Which you had left in your dresser drawer.”
Phoebe ignored the dig. “And you had lost them the second time,” she continued, “because Barbas had tricked you into asking Paige to strip them, so he could steal them. Cole, this time we can control the whole process. Make sure there are no unforeseen problems.”
Cole wanted to shout, “Hell no!” He had no desire to re-experience the trauma of adjusting to complete mortality, again. Or feel like half a person. But he did not want to clash with Phoebe. Not again. Not after the last fifteen months of estrangement between them. And he simply could not bear to see the fear in Phoebe’s eyes, whenever he lost his temper.
“All right,” he finally said with a sigh. “I’ll do it.”
A bright smile lit up Phoebe’s face.
Elder MacKenzie Grant sat inside his private chambers, as he examined reports from various whitelighters throughout the mortal realm. So far, no one had been able to track down Natalia Stopanova – who was last detected in one of the demonic dimensions.
An impatient grunt escaped his mouth. How could the Russian-born whitelighter have escaped from their detection so quickly? And so effectively? She had first been spotted in the Gimle dimension. Before the Council could retrieve her, she had moved on to the mortals’ realm – namely the San Francisco area. And that is where she had disappeared. Vanished from their radar, as the mortals would say.
MacKenzie contemplated on who or what could have shielded Stepanova from the Council’s detection. He eventually came to the conclusion that she was no longer on Earth, and that she must be hiding . . .
A bell signaled the arrival of a visitor to his chambers. “Yes?” MacKenzie cried out.
A voice replied, “Johann Bauer. I have the tea that you had requested from the kitchen.”
MacKenzie waved his hand, allowing the door to slide open. The newly initiated Elder entered the chamber, carrying a tray with an earthen teapot and cup. “Johann, you did not have to bring me tea. Someone from the kitchen should have sent a whitelighter. You’re an Elder, now.”
“Oh, I don’t mind, MacKenzie,” Johann replied in his soft, Austrian accent. “Besides, I had to send the whitelighter on an errand for me.”
Smiling, MacKenzie said to his colleague, “Well, you can place the tray on my desk. If you don’t mind.”
After Johann had done as he was asked, he stared at the senior Elder. “Is there anything else you need, El . . . MacKenzie?” The other Elder shook his head. Johann continued to stare. “Are you feeling well? You seem a bit exhausted. Perhaps you should drink your tea, now.”
“Oh, I’m fine, Johann.” MacKenzie sighed and picked up the teapot. “Just a little shaken by the latest events.”
Johann nodded. “I understand. I’m . . . a little overwhelmed, myself. Especially after I had joined the Council.” He paused. “I’m curious. Why did the Council select me to replace Elder Sylvester?”
MacKenzie stared at him, recalling the anonymous warning that the Council had received about Mathilda’s plans regarding Belthazor. The Council knew that Johann had been one of the former Elder’s protégées, and immediately guessed who had been the informant. MacKenzie opened his mouth to reveal all of this . . . but instead replied, “The Council simply believed that you would make an excellent Elder. Despite being a whitelighter for only five years.”
The Austrian blinked. “Oh. Well . . . enjoy your tea.”
Smiling at the junior whitelighter, MacKenzie poured tea into his cup. He then took a sip. Not bad. “I must commend Jodhi on her brewing.” He drank the rest of his tea.
“Oh, Jodhi did not make the tea. I did.” MacKenzie stared at Johann, who added, “I knew that it was time for your tea and prepared a pot.”
Curious, MacKenzie asked, “Why?”
A wide, sinister smile curved Johann’s lips, raising the hackles on the back of MacKenzie’s neck. “So I could add poison from a darklighter’s arrow into your tea.” His smile widened. “And watch you slowly die.”
Johann strode into Artemus’ spacious library and bowed before the demonic CEO. “Your Eminence. I have some news.”
The demon cast a wary eye at the darklighter. “I do believe you’re being a little premature in calling me ‘Eminence’, Herr Bauer. I’m not the Source, yet.”
“But once the Whitelighters Council is destroyed and you have assumed control of the . . .”
Artemus interrupted, “That particular incident will not make me the Source, Johann. Only the Grimoire can make me the Source. Or Belthazor’s powers. And I doubt that he will be in the mood to hand them over. However, the idea of the Elders Council’s destruction is rather appealing. It will also impress certain demonic circles and give me a little extra credibility . . . and power.” He paused. “You were saying something about news?”
Johann nodded. “Yes. Two other Elders have been dispatched. One of them was,” the Austrian whitelighter smiled, “Elder MacKenzie Grant.” Artemus frowned. “He was one of the senior Elders, who had served on the Council for nearly 500 years, and has been a whitelighter even longer.”
“Well, I’m sure that his colleagues will mourn him.” Aretemus picked up a file from his desk. “And who will replace this MacKenzie?”
Johann shook his head. “The bodies of both MacKenzie and young Kevin have not been discovered yet. And the Council has not been able to replace the last three Elders.”
“When the Elders finally decides to re-organize, you should suggest that Mathilda be accepted back on the Council.” Aretemus opened the file.
Frowning, Johann asked, “Why? She’s the only veteran whitelighter who is permanently out of the way.”
Aretemus glanced up and stared at the darklighter. Who squirmed under his master’s direct stare. “I do not want Mathilda out of the way. I want her dead. I want the Council destroyed. And since Mathilda is a veteran, she is the only one capable of re-organizing the Council.” Artemus leaned forward. “I want Mathilda back on that Council, when you, Belinda and the others finally attack. Mathilda may be an arrogant bitch, but she is also a wily one. She will make sure that she has company, once the attacks begin. That way, no one will connect the murders to her. But once she is back on the Council, her guard will drop. And that is when you will kill her. Understand?”
The intensity of Artemus’ eyes caused Johann to shiver. “Yes Artemus. I understand perfectly.”
Phoebe descended the manor’s staircase, her mouth stretched into a yawn. Expecting her family inside the kitchen for breakfast, she was surprised to find them gathered in the living room. Along with Chris. Everyone wore a tense expression – except for Chris, who looked grim. “What’s going on?” she demanded, as she settled in one of the chairs.
Piper rocked Wyatt in her arms. “Apparently Chris has some bad news.” She stared at the young whitelighter. “Which he has yet to tell us.”
Chris hesitated. “Two more Elders have been killed.” The Halliwells gasped with surprise. Leo looked as if his world was falling apart. “One back in the Whitelighter Realm and one here on Earth.”
“Oh my God!” Leo exclaimed. “Natalia! Why haven’t . . .? I mean, how was she able to kill an Elder in the Realm, when she was last reported on Earth?”
Shooting the older whitelighter a contemptuous look, Chris retorted, “First of all, Miss Stepanova is only a suspect. No one knows for certain that she’s behind this. And if she was, she probably used her followers to commit . . . uh, to kill the Elders.” Chris paused. “Just as Mathilda had used you to get rid of Belthazor.”
“Okay! Just a damn minute!” Piper began angrily. She seemed upset at Chris’ potshot at her husband. “Leo had made a mistake. There’s no need to rub it in his face.”
“Sorry,” Chris muttered. Yet, Phoebe noticed that his expression remained unrepentant.
Leo asked, “Who had been killed?”
“Elder MacKenzie Grant,” Chris replied. “Someone had added poison from a darklighter’s arrow to his tea.”
Paige added, “Just like that Elder who was killed in Paris.”
Leo seemed shocked by the identity of the victim. “My God! Elder MacKenzie? He, Sylvester and Mathilda were the premiere Elders on the Council. MacKenzie had been around for nearly 600 years. Who was the other Elder?”
Chris answered, “He was a younger Council member. From the ticket that was found in his pocket, he must have just left a movie theater in Sausalito, when someone with a darklighter’s weapon . . .”
“What was his name?”
Glaring at the other whitelighter, Chris mumbled a name. “Who?” Phoebe demanded.
“Kevin James,” Chris said in a louder voice.
The name produced gasps from the Charmed Ones. “No!” Phoebe cried. “He can’t be dead!”
Chris added, “The police had found his body in some alley, earlier this morning. The Council sent a whitelighter to claim his body.”
“Oh my God! Kevin!” Paige shook her head in disbelief. “He was just a boy! Only thirteen.”
“He was an Elder.”
Frowning, Leo said, “That means there are only two original members of the Council left. Two out of seven.”
“Two out of four,” Chris corrected. “The Council hasn’t replaced Elders Pivet, Davis and Kulle. They now have five members to replace.”
Leo’s blue eyes grew wide with shock. “There are only four members on the Council? With two of them, newcomers?”
Still grief-stricken over the news of Kevin’s death, Phoebe said, “We have to help. We have to find out who’s responsible for killing Kevin.”
“And the other Elders,” Leo added.
Piper said, “Then we should find this Natalia Stepanova. After all, she’s the number one suspect.”
“What about a warlock?” Phoebe asked. “Or a demon? Don’t forget about that warlock who had managed to enter the Whitelighters Realm.”
Chris shook his head. “Yeah, I heard about that. No whitelighters – other than the Elders – have been reported dead for quite a while. At least not during the last four months I’ve been here.”
An uneasy expression appeared on Piper’s face. “That would mean a whitelighter is responsible for the deaths,” she said.
Leo nodded. “Natalia Stepanova.”
“My bet is that your old buddy, Mathilda, is responsible,” Paige countered.
As Leo opened his mouth to retort, Phoebe added, “I agree. C’mon Leo! You have to admit that she has the best motive. The Elders had kicked her off the Council.”
“I have an idea,” Piper said. “Why don’t we check the area where Kevin’s body was found? Maybe we can find a clue. Or Pheebs could get a vi. . .?”
Phoebe interrupted, “Uh, don’t forget that Paige and I have jobs. Maybe we can do this on our lunch breaks.” She turned to Chris. “Where was Kevin found?”
“Near a movie theater in Sausalito,” the young whitelighter answered. “I’ll meet you here at the house and orb you to the spot.”
Piper snapped, “Just tell us where to go.” Chris remained silent. She heaved an impatient sigh. “All right. I guess we can all meet here around noon. Okay?”
Everyone else nodded in agreement.
END OF CHAPTER 8