Authors: Eric Asher
Tags: #vampires, #demon, #civil war, #fairy, #fairies, #necromancer, #vesik
“Good. With Falias in turmoil and the military
everywhere, something’s going to give.”
“Not to mention the dark-touched,” I muttered. “Vicky
comes first, Foster. We may not have saved her from that goddamned
vampire, but I’m saving her from this.”
“And if you don’t, I will,” Foster said quietly.
I nodded before pulling Gaia’s hand out of my
backpack. I snapped my fingers and Bubbles bounded away from the
screeching deadbolt. “Let’s go, girl.” I wrapped one hand in her
ruff and the other I laced into Gaia’s fingers. The hand warmed,
and the world vanished.
“A cu sith,” Gaia said and, for perhaps the first
time, I heard joy in her voice.
My jaw almost unhinged at the sight of Bubbles. She
was a beacon of pure golden power in the void of the Abyss.
“This is, uh, Bubbles,” I said.
“Bubbles? An odd name for such an ancient creature.
You need not hold on to her here, Damian. She will not stray. The
bond between you is as plain as the sun.”
I let go of the cu sith’s ruff and she stiffened for
a moment before looking around. Bubbles rubbed up against Gaia’s
leg, her head near Gaia’s chest. I squinted at Bubbles.
“Did she just get bigger?”
“Yes, and she will again when you enter into the
Burning Lands. Do not fear her.”
“Why would I be afraid of Bubbles? She’s like my
Gaia began walking, and I followed. Bubbles trotted
along beside us. “She will not look the same as she does here.”
I cursed under my breath. “Is that why Cara sent her
“What is your mission?”
“To save Vicky.”
Gaia smiled. “No, young one. Look at a smaller piece
of what you must do. What will you do when you cross the Seal?”
“I have to find Mike.”
“And does Bubbles know the Fallen Smith?”
“Yes,” I said. Gaia’s knowledge surprised me. Perhaps
her long life and unusual history of acquaintances had given her
more knowledge than I could imagine.
“She will be a tracker of unparalleled skill inside
the Burning Lands. For her to locate a friend will be a simple
matter of sniffing the air.”
“And then what?” I asked.
“Then you hold on for dear life.”
Gaia stepped from the lit path and the Abyss turned
sideways. I almost retched at the sudden change in orientation. The
stars and lights curved by in a violent, jagged pattern before
coming to a jarring halt.
“I apologize, Damian. I should have warned you.”
“No problem,” I mumbled, leaning heavily on what
seemed a very solid Bubbles. “Where are we?” I held my head and
waited for the vertigo to pass.
“This is the Seal of Anubis, or what is left of
I took a deep breath and opened my eyes. What waited
for me there was immeasurable in its size, and made even more
surreal by the slight spin of my receding bout of vertigo. The Seal
was a mountainous gray stone, with no beginning and no end. A
pattern showed, carved deep across its face. Great lines of power
sparked and leapt between enormous fractures.
My eyes trailed high, across Celtic knots and whorls
and impossibly complex valleys and ribbons of stone. I froze. “It’s
“Yes,” Gaia said. “All of the great Seals are
“How do we get past it?”
“I would suggest riding the cu sith,” Gaia said, as
though it was the most obvious thing in the world.
“They are not bound by the magics that separate the
realms. Cu siths are not so unlike a dragon in that regard.”
I glanced at Bubbles. Her head was almost up to my
chest. I shrugged and stepped up beside her. Bubbles hunched down
like she knew exactly what I needed. I threw my right leg over the
cu sith and she stood up. I felt like I was six years old, playing
with the neighbor’s Mastiff.
“Mike said this would be unpleasant.”
“Mike intended to send you through the Seal on a
river of hellfire. This … well, this will still be unpleasant. Are
I nodded, trying not to ponder her words too
“I hope we meet again, Damian Valdis Vesik. It has
been a pleasure.”
Yellow light exploded all around me and Bubbles
barked, the sound like a cannon shot. By the time my vision
cleared, we were only a few feet from the Seal, on a direct
I didn’t have a chance to yell before we collided
with it. My world turned to fire and pain. Bubbles’s fur kept me
grounded, my fingers wrapped up so tightly in her ruff I had a
moment of fear that I was going to hurt her. When my skin started
melting away to reveal the muscle and bones beneath, I wasn’t so
worried about the condition of the cu sith’s fur anymore.
Inside the Seal, power filled me past the point of
bursting. I was no longer myself. I belonged to the Seal, was part
of it, set to burn and writhe and fuel that gateway until nothing
but a memory of myself existed. Some part of my brain, a part that
perhaps I ignored as best I could, struggled to find a way to
harness the infinite force within that broken stone.
I reached up and extended a tiny bit of my aura into
the hurricane of lightning and colors that stormed all around us.
It was my power, the stuff of gravemakers, souls, and the dead.
Something warm and wet slapped into my face and my aura snapped
back into place with the shock of the impact.
Bubbles looked back at me, her tongue draped across
her forehead, and I could have sworn she scowled at me.
I blinked, and the moment was gone. It was just me,
riding a cu sith through the vastness of space until we smashed
through the other side of the Seal.
For a time, I couldn’t tell if it was me screaming,
or if the overwhelming chaos was that of the voices inside my
skull. More than ever, it felt as though my head would break open
and my life would end at any second. I ground my teeth together and
focused on Vicky, focused on the mission, the only thing that
I glanced down at my arms when I finally managed to
sit up, when the pain receded enough to think again. I expected
burns and flayed skin and exposed bone, but it was only me, and my
previously singed arm hair. The ground was a deep, sandy red, but
that I only noticed in passing.
Bubbles chuffed beside me and nudged my back with her
nose. I felt shaky as I started checking things over. I still had
the backpack. The pepperbox was in its holster. I panicked for a
moment when I couldn’t find Gaia’s hand. Bubbles shifted her bulk
to survey the landscape, revealing the hand beneath her feet.
I sighed and stuffed the severed limb into my
backpack beside the Book that Bleeds, casually noting that Frank’s
beef jerky had made the journey too. I zipped the backpack up and
I couldn’t understand what I was looking at. Flickers
of lost spirits shot across my vision, sprinting through rolling
fields of what appeared to be wheat that shifted in a warm breeze.
Two of the monstrous trolls we’d fought at Gettysburg sat
peacefully among the hills, watching a strange trio of stubby
reptilian armor-plated creatures waddle by.
The crimson sky raged above us, casting the brown
vegetation into a bloody light. When the winds picked up, and the
wheat shook in earnest, the entire field seemed to catch fire. The
trolls stirred, both locking their gazes onto Bubbles and me, but
they did not rise.
I started walking to the northeast. At least, I
assumed it was the northeast if the sun followed the same path
here, but it was impossible to know in this place. I looked down at
Bubbles and froze mid-stride.
She sucked her tongue in and cocked her head to the
side. Here in the Burning Lands, the bristly green fur I’d grown so
accustomed to was red, flickering and fading as a great mane of
fire flashed out behind her only to recede to a mere stripe of
kindling flame running down her neck.
“What. The. Fuck.”
Bubbles blew out a heavy breath and slammed into me
with her hips. I reached a hand out on instinct alone and recoiled
as my fingers touched the fires. But they didn’t burn me. I looked
at my palm, and then slowly reached back to the flaming cu sith.
Her fur was soft and warm, nothing like the inferno it
She looked up at me. Her eyes had changed, now more
like those of the Ghost Pack than anything else, all sunburst golds
and reds. I took a deep breath and shook my head. “You’ll know when
you get there,” I muttered. “Thanks, Cara. But what does a flaming
Bubbles do for me?”
A mountain range loomed off to the east, and more
trolls waited to the west. “Straight ahead it is,” I said, leading
the cu sith forward. I walked in silence for a while, Bubbles
stomping on any small strange creature she didn’t recognize. I
didn’t blame her. I didn’t want to touch anything.
“What are we going to do, Bubbles? Where are we going
to find Mike? Or Vicky, for that matter. Happy said they’d be
Bubbles barked, slammed her hips up against me, and
“Dammit, Bubbles. Don’t run!”
She wasn’t really running. It was more of a fast
trot, but at her current size I was damn near sprinting to keep up.
The cu sith was kind enough to flatten a path through the wheat
field, but that still didn’t stop me from tripping and stumbling
and generally cursing a lot.
Our path took us closer to a troll than I liked when
we crested a small hill and rounded a large boulder on top of it. I
glanced down. It wasn’t a boulder. The troll’s dead face sent
shivers down my spine. Cracked flesh and empty eye sockets stared
into the burning sky. Its body was gone, either eaten or carried
away, or perhaps some other great beast had left the head here.
I looked back to our path, at the live troll as it
twisted and leaned forward. Its flesh looked like that of a
gravemaker—dark rotten bark coated its limbs. Its eyes were
different than what we’d seen on our own plane, full of fire and
smoke. A dim orange light pulsed inside the troll, flashing out
through breaks in its skin like a visible heartbeat. The creature
lost interest in us after a time, and turned back to whatever it
had buried in the wheat.
The cu sith stopped so fast that I slammed into her
furry butt before collapsing across her braided tail. She glanced
back and then flopped onto the ground.
I raised my arm to take a closer look at the series
of tiny cuts that had appeared. The wheat beneath my hand moved
when the blood dripped onto it. Tiny silver filaments rose from
miniature spikelets to absorb the small droplets. Each turned black
when it touched the blood.
“Oh, that’s creepy as hell.” I hopped up onto the cu
sith, and we rode into the north.
It was hard to tell how long I’d been riding on the
cu sith’s back, but by the time she stopped, I was ready to walk.
Muscles I didn’t know I had ached and my thighs screamed at me
before my feet even hit the ground.
“You need a saddle,” I said, scratching Bubbles
behind her ears.
A thick forest of what looked like deciduous trees
stood to the east. The canopy blended into the sky like an autumn
forest at sunset, the bark shadowed and black. Everything here
reminded me of the skin of a gravemaker, and it was utterly
A different mountain range towered in the west now,
casting jagged shadows in directions the sun should not have
allowed. I wondered how much of what I was seeing was real, and how
much was my brain trying to comprehend a different world.
Bubbles lowered her nose to the ground and began
sniffing her way to the edge of a nearby cliff. I followed her, and
nearly shouted at the sight that waited below us.
An ocean of fire stretched from one edge of the
horizon to the other. Rolling tides of flame gently lapped at a
black sand beachhead. It was a beautiful, impossible sight. The
winds brought a comfortable warmth with them, and I didn’t look
away until Bubbles barked and bounced on her hind legs. She took
off at a sprint toward the mountains. I grumbled and started
jogging behind her.
Wheat sprang up behind Bubbles, growing in clumps
with her every footfall, leaving a trail of paw-sized vegetation.
By the time I reached the odd formations, they had grown up to my
waist. The blasted things cut me where my skin was exposed and
started lapping at the blood. That only lasted about thirty seconds
before I got pissed and raised my arm.
Raw power—far more
concentrated than the ley lines I was accustomed to—lanced through
me and I gasped. A sideways cyclone of fire shot forward until I
strangled the flow and cut the incantation short, leaving black
smoke to curl through the air. “What in the hell?”
The wheat expanded, devouring every last bit of heat
and flame, chasing the wisps of smoke into the air. The stalks grew
together, twisting as they bound to one another until the thinnest
growth was as thick as a tree. The surface hardened into a
“Son of a bitch,” I snarled, glancing behind me at
the distant forest. “They’re like saplings.”
The forest had spread at least a mile to the south.
To the north, only a tiny walkway remained, separating the forest
from the fiery ocean below and creating a barrier between Bubbles
and me. I groaned and made my way toward the narrow path.
I stood at the precipice. I could either inch along
the chasm that would surely be the death of me if I fell, or I
could put a hand on the trees that liked to drink my blood. The
ridged back of some great beast lingered on the surface below
before diving back into the sea of flames.
I shivered and looked back to the forest. “Gloves.
Next time I’m packing gloves.”