I stared into the hills as my mount clomped below me, his massive hooves digging into snow and ice. Above us a fighter jet streaked across the sky, leaving a trail that glowed bright against the fiery sunset. I gathered up the reins, tightening my knees against Homer’s sides, pressing my walking-stick against the huge horse.
A sonic boom exploded across the peaks, shaking through snow-laden trees. Ice and snow pitched down in heavy sheets and lumps. A dog yelped. The Friesian set his hooves, dropped his head and kicked. “Stones and Blood,” I hissed as I rammed into the saddle horn. The boom echoed like rifle-shot. Homer’s back arched. If he bucked, I was a gonner.
I concentrated on the bloodstone handle of my walking-stick and pulled the horse to me, reins firm as I whispered soothing, seeming nonsense words no one would interpret as a chant. The bloodstone pulsed as it projected a sense of calm into him, a use of stored power that didn’t affect my own drained resources. The sonic boom came back from the nearby mountains, a ricochet of manmade thunder.
The mule in front of us hee-hawed and kicked out, white rimming his eyes, lips wide and teeth showing as the boom reverberated through the farther peaks. Down the length of the mule train, other animals reacted as the fear spread, some bucking in a frenzy, throwing packs into drifts, squealing as lead-ropes tangled, trumpeting fear.
Homer relaxed his back, side-stepped and danced like a young colt before planting his hooves again. He blew out a rib-wracking sigh and shook himself, ears twitching as he settled. Deftly, I repositioned the supplies and packs he’d dislodged, rubbing a bruised thigh that had taken a wallop from a twenty-pound pack of stone.
Hoop Marks and his assistant guides swung down from their own mounts and steadied the more fractious stock. All along the short train, the startled horses and mules calmed as riders worked to control them. Homer looked on, ears twitching.
Behind me, a big Clydsdale calmed, shuddering with a ripple of muscle and thick winter coat, his rider following the wave of motion with practiced ease. Audric was a salvage-miner, and he knew his horses. I nodded to my old friend, and he tipped his hat to me before repositioning his stock on Clyde’s back.
A final echo rumbled from the mountains. Almost as one, we turned to the peaks above us, listening fearfully for the tale-tell roar of avalanche.
Sonic booms were rare in the Appalachians these days, and I wondered what had caused the military over-flight. I slid the walking-stick into its leather loop. It was useful for balance while taking a stroll in snow, but its real purpose was as a weapon. Its concealed blade was deadly, as was its talisman hilt, hiding in plain sight. However, the bloodstone handle/hilt was now almost drained of power, and when we stopped for the night, I’d have to find a safe,secluded place to draw power for it and for the amulets I carried or my neomage attributes would begin to display themselves.
I’m a neomage, a witchy-woman. Though contrary rumors persist, claiming mages still roam the world free, I’m the only one of my kind not a prisoner, the only one who is unregulated, unlicensed, in the entire world of humans. The only one uncontrolled.
All the others of my race are restricted to Enclaves, protected in enforced captivity. Enclaves are gilded cages, prisons of privilege and power, but cages nonetheless. Neomages are allowed out only with seraph permission, and then we have to wear a sigel of office and bracelets with satellite GPS locator chips in them. We’re followed by the humans, watched, and sent back fast when our services are no longer needed or when our visas expire. As if we’re contagious. Or dangerous.
On the trail around us, shadows lengthened and darkened. Mule handlers looked around, jittery. I sent out a quick mind-skim. There were no supernats present, no demons, no mages, no seraphs, no others. Well, except for me. But I couldn’t exactly tell them that. I chuckled under my breath as Homer snorted and slapped me with his tail. That would be dandy. Survive for a decade in the human world only to be exposed by something so simple as a sonic boom and a case of trail-exhaustion. I’d be tortured, slowly, over a period of days, tarred and feathered, chopped into pieces, and dumped in the snow to rot.
If the seraphim located me first, I’d be sent back to Enclave and I’d still die. I’m allergic to others of my kind—really allergic—fatally so. The Enclave death would be a little slower, a little less bloody than the human version. Humans kill with steel, a public beheading but only after I was disemboweled, eviscerated, and flayed alive. And all that after I entertained the guards for a few days. As ways to go, the execution of an unlicensed witchy-woman rates up there with the top ten gruesome methods of capital punishment. With my energies nearly gone, a conjure to calm the horses could give me away.
“Light’s goin’” Hoop called out. “We’ll stop here for the night. Everyone takes care of his own mount before anything else. Then circle and gather deadwood. Last, we cook. Anyone who don’t work, don’t eat.”
Behind me, a man grumbled beneath his breath about the unfairness of paying good money for a spot on the mule train and then having to work. I grinned at him and he shrugged when he realized he’d been heard. “Can’t blame a man for griping. Besides, I haven’t ridden a horse since I was a kid. I have blisters on my blisters.”
I eased my right leg over Homer’s back and slid the long distance to the ground. My knees protested, aching after the day in the saddle. “I have a few blisters this trip myself. Good boy,” I said to the big horse, and dropped the reins, running a hand along his side. He stomped his satisfaction and I felt his deep sense of comfort at the end of the day’s travel.
We could have stopped sooner but Hoop had hoped to make the campsite where the trail rejoined the old Blue Ridge Parkway. Now we were forced to camp in a ring of trees instead of the easily fortified site ahead. If the denizens of Darkness came out to hunt, we’d be sitting ducks.
Unstrapping the heavy pack containing my most valuable finds from the Salvage and Mineral Swap-Meet in Boone, I dropped it to the earth and covered it with the saddle. My luggage and pack went to the side. I removed all the tools needed to groom the horse, clean his feet, and added the bag of oats and grain. A pale dusk closed in around us before I got the horse brushed down and draped in a blanket, a pile of food and a half bale of hay at his feet.
The professional guides were faster, and had taken care of their own mounts and the pack animals, and dug a firepit in the time it took the paying customers to get our mounts groomed. The equines were edgy, picking up anxiety from their humans, making the job slower for us amateurs. Hoop’s dogs trotted back and forth among us, tails tight to their bodies, ruffs raised, sniffing for danger. As we worked, both clients and handlers glanced fearful into the night. Demon and their spawn often hid in the dark, watching humans like predators watched tasty herd animals. So far as my weakened senses could detect, there was nothing out there. But there was a lot I couldn’t say and keep my head.
“Gather wood!” I didn't notice who called the command, but we all moved into the forest, me using my walking-stick for balance. There was no talking. The sense of trepidation was palpable, though the night was friendly, the moon rising, no snow or ice in the forecast. Above, early stars twinkled, cold and bright at this altitude. I moved away from the others, deep into the tall trees: oak, hickory, fir, cedar. At a distance, I found a huge boulder rounded up from the snow.
Checking to see that I was alone, I lay flat on the boulder, my cheek against frozen granite, the walking-stick between my torso and the rock. And I called up power. Not a raging roar of mage-might, but a slow, steady trickle. Without words, without a chant that might give me away, I channeled energy into the bloodstone handle between my breasts, into the amulets hidden beneath my clothes, and pulled a measure into my own flesh, needing the succor. It took long minutes, and I sighed with relief as my body soaked up strength.
Satisfied, refreshed as if I had taken a nap, I stood, stretched, bent, and picked up deadwood, traipsing through the trees and boulders for firewood—wood that was a lot more abundant this far away from the trail than close to camp. My night vision is better than most humans, and though I’m small for an adult and the only female on the train, I gathered an armload in record time. Working far off the beaten path has its rewards.
I smelled it when the wind changed. Old blood. A lot of old blood. I dropped the firewood, drew the blade from the walking-stick sheath and opened my mage-sight to survey the surrounding territory. Though I was drained, I opened my mage-sight and surveyed the surrounding territory. The world of snow and ice glimmered with a sour-lemon glow, as if it was ailing, sickly.
Mage-sight is more than human sight in that it sees energy as well as matter. The retinas of human eyes pick up little energy, seeing light only after it’s absorbed or reflected. But mages see the world of matter with an overlay of energy, picked up by the extra lenses that surround our retinas. We see power and life, the leftover workings of creation. When we use the sight, the energies are sometimes real, sometimes representational, experience teaching us to identify and translate the visions, sort of like picking out images from a three-D pattern.
I’m a stone-mage, a worker of rocks and gems, and the left-over energy of creation; hence, only stone looks powerful and healthy to me when using mage-sight. Rain, ice, sleet, or snow, all of which is water that has passed through air, always looks unhealthy, as does moonlight, sunlight, the movement of the wind, or currents of surface water, anything except stone. This high in the mountains, snow lay thick and crusted everywhere, weak, pale, a part of nature that leached power from me—except for a dull gray area to the east, beyond the stone where I had recharged my energies.
Moving with the speed of my race, sword in one hand, walking-stick sheath, a weapon in itself, in the other, I sped towered the site.
I tripped over a boot. It was sticking from the snow, boot laces crusted with blood and ice. Human blood had been spilled here, a lot of it and the ground was saturated with blood. The earth reeked of fear and pain and horror, and to my mage-sight, it glowed with the blackened energy of death. I caught a whiff of Darkness.
Adrenaline coursed through my veins, and I stepped into the cat stance, blade and walking-stick held low as I circled the site. Bones poked up from the ice, and I identified a femur, the fragile bones of a hand, tendons still holding fingers together. A jawbone thrust toward the sky. Placing my feet carefully, I eased in. Teeth marks, long and deep, scored an arm bone. Predator teeth, unlike any beast known to nature. Supernat teeth. The teeth of Darkness.
Devil-spawn travel in packs, drink blood, and eat human flesh. While it’s still alive. A really bad way to go. And spawn would know what I was in an instant if they were downwind of me. As a mage, I’d be worth more to a spawn than a fresh meal. I’d be prime breeding material for their masters.
I’d rather be eaten.
A skull stared at me from an outcropping of rock. A tree close by had been raked with talons, or with desperate human fingers trying to get away, trying to climb. As my sight adjusted to the falling light, a rock shelf protruding from the earth took on a glow displaying pick marks. A strip mine. Now that I knew what to look for, I saw a pick, the blackened metal pitted by ichor, a lantern, bags of supplies hanging from trees, other gear stacked near the rock with their ore. One tent pole still stood. On it was what I assumed to be a hat, until my eyes adjusted and it resolved into a second skull. Old death. Weeks, perhaps months, old.
A faint stench of sulfur reached me. Dropping the sight, I skimmed until I found the source. A tiny hole in the earth near the rock they had been working. I understood what had happened. The miners had been working a claim on the surface—because no one in their right mind went underground, not anymore—and they had accidentally broken through to a cavern or an old, abandoned underground mine. Darkness had scented them. Supper….
I moved to the hole in the earth. It was leaking only a hint of sulfur and brimstone, and the soil around was smooth, trackless. Spawn hadn’t used this entrance in a long time. I glanced up at the sky. Still bright enough that the nocturnal devil-spawn were sleeping. If I could cover the entrance, they wouldn’t smell us. Probably. Maybe.
Sheathing the blade, I went to the cases the miners had piled against the rocks, and pulled a likely one off the top. It hit the ground with a whump, but was light enough for me to drag it over the snow, leaving a trail through the carnage. The bag fit over the entrance, and the faint stench of Darkness was instantly choked off. My life had abeen too peaceful. I’d gotten lazy. I should have smelled it the moment I entered the woods. Now it was gone.
Satisfied I had done all I could, I tramped to my pile of deadwood and back to camp, glad of the nearness of so many humans, horses, and dogs that trotted about. I dumped the wood beside the fire pit at the center of the small clearing. Hoop Marks and his second-in-command, Hoop Jr., tossed in broken limbs and lit the fire with a miniscule can of kerosene and a pack of matches. Flames roared and danced, sending shadows capering into the surrounding forest. The presence of fire sent a welcome feeling of safety through the group, though only earthly predators would fear the flame. No supernat of Darkness would care about a little fire if it was hungry. Fire made them feel right at home.
I caught Hoop’s eye and gestured to the edge of the woods. The taciturn man followed when I walked away, and listened with growing concern to my tale of the miners. I thought he might curse when I told him of the teeth marks on the bones, but he stopped himself in time. Cursing was a sure way of inviting Darkness to you, attracting seraphic punishment, or drawing the ire of the church. Death-by-dinner, seraphic vengeance, or priestly branding—none were worth it. Instead, he ground out, “I’ll radio it in. You don’t tell nobody, you hear? I got something that’ll keep us safe.” And without asking me why I had wandered so far from camp, alone, he walked away.
Smoke and supper cooking wafted through camp as I rolled out my sleeping bag and pumped up the air mattress. Even with the smell of old death still in my nostrils, my mouth watered. I wanted nothing more than to curl up, eat and sleep, but I needed to move through the horses and mules first. Trying to be inconspicuous, touching each one as surreptitiously as possible, I let the walking-stick’s amulet-handle brush each animal with calm.
It was a risk, if anyone recognized a mage-conjure, but there was no way I was letting the stock bolt and stampede away if startled in the night. I had no desire to walk miles through several feet of hard-packed snow to reach the nearest train tracks, then wait days in the cold, without a bath or adequate supplies, for a train that might get stranded in a blizzard and not come until snowmelt in spring. No way. Living in perpetual winter was bad enough, and though the ubiquitous they said it was only a mini-ice-age, it was still pretty dang cold.
So I walked along the picket line and murmured soothing words, touching the stock one by one. I loved horses. I hated that they were the only dependable method of transport through the mountains ten months out of the year, but I loved the beasts themselves. They didn’t care that I was an unlicensed neomage hiding among the humans. With them I could be myself, if only for a moment or two. I lay my cheek against the shoulder of a particularly worried mare. She exhaled as serenity seeped into her, and turned liquid brown eyes to me in appreciation, blowing warm horse breath in my face. “You’re welcome,” I whispered.
Just before I got to the end of the string, Hoop sang out. “Charmed circle. Charmed circle for the night.”
I looked up in surprise, my movements frozen as the night air. Hoop Jr. was walking bent over, a fifty pound bag of salt in his arms, his steps moving clockwise. Though human, he was making a conjure circle. Instinctively, I cast out with a mind-skim, though I knew I was the only mage here. But now I scented a charmed something. From a leather case, Hoop Sr. pulled out a branch that glowed softly to my mage-sight. Hoop’s “something to keep us safe.” The tag on the tip of the branch proclaimed it a legally purchased charm, unlike my unlicensed amulets. It would be empowered by the salt in the ring, offering us protection. I hurried down the line of horses, trusting my movements were hidden by the night, and made it to the circle before it was closed.
Stepping through the opening in the salt, I nodded again as I passed Audric. The big black man shouldered his packs and carried them toward the firepit. He didn’t talk much, but he and Thorn’s Gems had done a lot of business since he discovered and claimed a previously untouched city-site for salvage. Because he had a tendre for one of my business partners, he brought his findings to us first, and stayed with us while in town. The arrangement worked out well, and when his claim petered out, we all hoped he’d put down roots and stay, maybe buy in as the fourth partner.
“All’s coming in, get in,” Hoop Marks sang out. “All’s staying out’ll be shot if trouble hits and you try to cross the salt ring.” There was a cold finality to his tone. “Devil-spawn been spotted round here. I take no chances with my life or yours less you choose to act stupid and get yourself shot.”
“Devil-spawn? Here?” The speaker was the man who griped about the workload.
“Yeah. Drained a woman and three kids at a cabin up near Linville.” He didn’t mention the carnage within shooting distance of us. Smart man.
I spared a quick glance for my horse, who was already snoozing. A faint pop sizzled along my nerve endings as the circle closed and the energy of the spell from the mage-branch snapped in place. I wasn’t an earth mage, but I appreciated the conjure’s simple elegance. A strong shield/protection/invisibility incantation had been stored in the cells of the branch. The stock were in danger from passing predators, but the rest of us were effectively invisible to anyone, human or supernat.
Night enveloped us in its black mantle as we gathered for a supper of venison stew. Someone passed around a flask of moonshine. No one said anything against it. Most took a swallow or two against the cold. I drank water and ate only stewed vegetables. Meat disagrees with me. Liquor on a mule-train at night just seems stupid.
Tired to the bone, I rolled into my heated, down-filled airbag and looked up at the cold, clear sky. The moon was nearly full, its rays shining on seven inches of fresh snow. It was a good night for a moon-mage, water-mage, even a weather-mage, but not a night to induce a feeling of vitality or wellbeing in a bone-tired stone-mage. The entire world glowed with moon power, brilliant and beautiful, but draining to my own strength. I rolled in my bedding and stopped, caught by a tint of color in the velvet black sky. A thick ring of bloody red circled the pure white orb, far out in the night. A bloodring. “Glory and Infamy!” I swore under my breath, a painful sound, close to a sob.
The last time there was a bloodring on the moon, my twin sister died. Rose had a lisenced mage, living in Atlanta, supposedly safe, yet, she had vanished, leaving a wide, frozen pool of blood and signs of a struggle, within minutes after Lolo, the priestess of Enclave, phoned us both with warnings. The prophecy hadn’t helped then and it wouldn’t help now. Portents never helped. They offered only a single moment to catch a breath before I was trounced by whatever they foretold
If Lolo had called with a warning tonight, it was on my answering machine. Even for me, the distance to Enclave was too great to hear the mind-voice of the priestess.
I shivered, looking up from my sleeping bag. A feasting site, now a bloodring. It was a hazy, frothing circle, swirling like the breath of the Dragon in the Revelation, holy words taught to every mage from the womb up. “And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon…. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman…. And there was war in heaven: Michael and his seraphim fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought, and his seraphim.” The tale of the Last War.
Shivering, I gripped the amulets tied around my waist and my walking stick, the blade loosed in the sheath. Much later, exhausted, I slept.
Lucas checked his watch as he slipped out of the office and moved into the alley, ice crunching beneath his boots, breath a half-seen fog in the night. He was still on schedule, though pushing the boundaries. Cold froze his ears and nose, numbed his fingers and feet, congealed his blood, seeped into his bones, even through the layers of clothes, down-filled vest, and hood. He slipped, barely catching himself before hitting the icy ground. He cursed beneath his breath as he steadied himself on the alley wall. Seraph stones, it was cold.
But he was almost done. The last of the amethyst would soon be in Thorn’s hands, just as the Lady Amethyst had demanded. In another hour he would be free of his burden. He’d be out of danger. He felt for the ring on his finger, turning it so the sharp edge was against his flesh. He hitched the heavy backpack higher, its nylon straps cutting into his palm and across his shoulder.
The dark above was absolute, moon and stars hidden by the tall buildings at his sides. Ahead, there was only the distant security light at the intersection of the alley, where it joined the larger delivery lane and emptied into the street. Into safety.
A rustle startled him. A flash of movement. A dog burst from the burned-out hulk of an old Volkswagen and bolted back the way he had come. A second followed. Two small pups huddled in the warm nest they deserted, yellow coats barely visible. Lucas blew out a gust of irritation and worthless fear and hoped the larger mutts made it back to the makeshift den before the weather took them all down. It was so cold the puppies wouldn’t survive long. Even the smells of dog, urine, old beer, and garbage were frozen.
He moved into the deeper dark, toward the distant light, but slowed. The alley narrowed, the walls at his sides invisible in the night, his billowing breath vanished. He glanced up, his eyes drawn to the relative brightness of the sky. A chill that had nothing to do with the temperature chased down his spine. The rooftops were bare, the gutters and eaves festooned with icicles, moon and clouds beyond. One of the puppies mewled behind him.
Lucas stepped through the dark, his pace increasing as panic coiled itself around him. He was nearly running by the time he reached the pool of light marking the allies’ junction. Slowing, he passed two scooters and a tangle of bicycles leaning against a wall, all secured with steel chains, tires frozen in the ice. He stepped into the light and the safety it offered.
Above, there was a crackle, a sharp snap of metal. His head lifted, but his eyes were drawn ahead to a stack of boxes and firewood. To the man standing there. Sweet Mother of God…not a man. A shadow. “No!” Lucas tried to whirl, skidding on icy pavement before he could complete the move. Two others ran toward him, human movements, human slow.
The first man collided with him, followed instantly by the other, their bodies twin blows. His boots gave on the slippery surface. He went to one knee, breath a pained grunt.
A fist pounded across the back of his neck. A leg reared back. Screaming, he covered his head with an arm. A rain of blows and kicks landed. The backpack was jerked away, opening and spilling.
As he fell, he tightened a fist around the ring, its sharp edge slicing into his flesh. He groaned out the words she had given him to use, but only in extremis. The sound of the syllables was lost beneath the rain of blows. “Zadkiel, hear me. Holy Amethyst—” A boot took him in the jaw, knocking back his head. He saw the wings unfurl on the roof above him. Darkness closed in. Teeth sank deep in his throat. Cold took him. The final words of the chant went unspoken.