Authors: Eric Asher
Tags: #vampires, #demon, #civil war, #fairy, #fairies, #necromancer, #vesik
A quarter mile down the narrow path, Bubbles waited.
She sniffed at the trees and then backed away. I knew how she felt.
I kept my eyes on Bubbles and walked forward at a slightly faster
pace than I thought sane.
Twice I had to reach out and balance myself on a
tree. I didn’t feel any cuts or burns or surprising pulls on my
aura. Maybe the forest wasn’t so bad. Maybe it was just the wheat.
The branch came out of nowhere.
I flailed my arms like a windmill, like I was stuck
in some ridiculous black and white cartoon world. Panic could make
you do stupid and useless things. The thought of landing in that
rolling sea of fire cut through the thunder of my heartbeat. I
grabbed onto the branch, realizing that was at least a safer gamble
than cliff diving into an inferno.
The branch thickened and jerked into the air, pulling
me toward the forest. I didn’t know why. I didn’t know what might
be waiting between those black trunks and crimson leaves, but I
didn’t hold on long enough to find out.
I released the tree and the momentum slammed me into
one of the outside trunks. I scrambled up into a run, Bubbles
barking at me like some furry, flaming personal trainer. Another
branch moved, and it threatened to sweep me off the cliff. A quick
hop brought me past it before the next tried to flatten me with a
downward strike. I guessed the damn trees weren’t picky about
getting their blood from a pancake on the ground.
The focus came into my hand. I summoned a blazing
golden soulsword and swung it in one awkward movement. The voices
crashed through my head for the first time since I’d entered the
Burning Lands. A million souls that, until then, I had forgotten
were even there. Had they been quiet? Or had I grown accustomed to
them? I didn’t know, but the sound grew into an overwhelming
cacophony until I let the soulsword fade.
Only silence remained, and the nearby huff of a cu
I took the few last steps to meet up with Bubbles as
something rumbled and crashed behind me. I turned to watch bloodied
branches collapse along a third of the trail, sheared off at a
forty-five degree angle that had taken the tops of the trees with
It didn’t make any sense. The soulsword wasn’t long
enough to strike like that, but the gash in the tree line was a
good twenty-five feet deep, and may have gone further if not for
clearing the canopy. I looked down at the hilt that ended in two
quatrefoils and frowned before tucking it back into my belt.
In the distance, a rocky mountain vista waited, full
of jagged stones and shadows that could hide anything. A few souls
ran through the fields, dodging the occasional troll. The giants
kept to themselves, which made me question what had motivated them
Ahead, a cluster of golden light waited near a dark
opening in a cliffside. I squinted, trying to make out more detail,
but I could see little more than the humanoid shape of the
My arm burned, and I glanced down to find it
bleeding. It wasn’t the cuts that burned so badly—they were
suspiciously numb—it was the gentle curve of the pack mark on my
forearm. It glowed golden, brightening and dimming with my
Bubbles bumped me with her hip. I looked up just as
the branch hit me square in the forehead.
There are headaches, and then there are “a sentient
tree smashed my head with a log” headaches. I hoped to never have
the latter again.
I knew I was in the Burning Lands when I opened my
eyes, so at least my mental faculties hadn’t been shaken up too
bad. People shouted nearby, and it made my head feel like a ripe
melon, ready to split at a moment’s notice.
“Quiet,” I muttered into the sandy dirt, but the word
came out slurred and mangled. It was only then I realized I was
lying on my side in the shadow of the mountains I’d seen earlier.
Golden lights waited nearby. Maybe that hit
brain a bit. I touched my forehead.
By the time I had enough self-awareness to roll over,
a growling werewolf waited above me, thin and golden and filled
with a startling promise of violence.
“Look what decided to join us,” the wolf snarled. He
punched me, and my head rebounded off the ground, sending my vision
into a blur of stars and darkness. I yelped at the pain and almost
I tried to say something over the ringing in my ears,
but squinting at the godawful lights was all I could do.
“Jimmy!” someone shouted.
My vision cleared enough to see Vicky leap forward
and kick the werewolf so hard that the stone cliff cracked behind
him. “Back off, wolf. You are nothing here.”
“Vicky?” I asked. “Bubbles, we found Vicky!” I winced
at the sound of my own voice.
A golden arm reached down and picked me up. “How was
the journey? You don’t sound good.”
I recognized the voice as the world tilted and nausea
struck again. I blinked and squinted and focused on Carter’s golden
eyes. Maggie stood behind him, a completely inappropriate grin on
“What has you so happy?” I half slurred, half
“You can take a punch,” she said.
I gave her a snort of a laugh and stretched my back,
regretting the movement immediately.
“How did I get here?” I asked, looking back at the
“Bubbles dragged you most of the way here,” Carter
said. “Maggie carried you the rest.”
I closed my eyes and raised my eyebrows, testing my
headache. “Thank you.” I found Bubbles staring up at me when I
cracked my eyelids open again. “Thanks, pooch.” Her tongue snapped
out and ran down her muzzle.
“Welcome to the Ghost Pack,” Carter said with a
sweeping gesture around the small group.
Some of them looked unimpressed, but Carter and
Maggie were the only ones I really knew. Jimmy had died shortly
after I’d met him. I hadn’t realized he still hated me so
My gaze froze when it came to a bulky wolf with an
odd splotchy covering. My bell had definitely been rung. It took a
moment to realize it wasn’t a wolf at all, but a ghost panda.
“Happy?” My legs wobbled a bit and I decided to sit down before my
balance failed me.
The panda snorted and settled onto a grassy patch of
dirt. Bubbles trotted over and flopped down beside the bear.
An even stranger creature shuffled up from the
shadows. It looked familiar somehow, but it wasn’t until its horns
caught the unmoving sunlight that I realized why. It flexed a pair
of leathery wings, and then took a knee in front of Carter.
It could have been Mike the Demon’s little
brother—not in his human form, but in the brain-searing incarnation
I’d seen only a handful of times.
“What news?” Carter asked.
“The Smith has been sighted outside of the fifth
fortress. I have delivered your message.”
“Thank you, Vala.”
“Free my brother, Great Wolf, and I will serve your
allies for all time.”
“It will be done,” Carter said.
“Then I swear upon the noble Ronwe, the words I have
spoken are truth.” The demon stood and bowed to Carter before
walking into the shadows of the mountain.
I stared after the creature. Ronwe was a name I knew.
Could there be more than one? Or could this be the demon that owed
I looked at Carter, and he almost flinched.
“Are you well?”
“I’ve been better,” I said, frowning at the slurred
speech. “I probably have about fifty concussions after the morning
“Vicky can tend to that,” Maggie said, patting my
“What do you mean?” I asked, honestly wondering what
they expected Vicky to do. Something tugged on my shirt and I
turned to find Vicky standing beside me. “Hey, kiddo.”
“Give me your head.”
“What?” I asked, raising my eyebrows. She looked
normal here. The black streaks on her face were gone. I wasn’t sure
if that was good or not.
“Sit down so I can reach your head.” I glanced at
Carter, and when he didn’t protest, I sat down on a somewhat flat
She laid a hand on my cheek. It felt warm, and then
cold, and then intensely hot.
“What are you doing?”
“You’re bleeding,” she said. “In your head.”
“I’m fine. It’s just a headache.”
Vicky closed her eyes, and yellow light exploded from
her hands. I felt a brief, sharp pain, like an icepick cutting
through my eye, but by the time I could react, it was gone. And my
headache was gone. And so was the odd fuzz around everything.
“The hell?” I said.
“Fairies aren’t the only creatures able to heal,”
Carter said. “I was as surprised as you.”
I stood up and stretched. “She’s not a creature.”
“What?” Carter asked. “No, that’s not what I meant.”
He frowned and turned to the three wolves I didn’t know. “Go to the
fourth fortress. If Vala has betrayed us, they’ll come through the
gateway. Summon Vicky if the need arises.”
“Thy will is done,” said the tallest of the three
wolves. He was skinny for a wolf, though I was sure he’d be bulky
if he shifted. He placed a hand over his heart and bowed. If I had
to guess, he was a very old ghost.
Carter watched them go. “I trust Vala in most things.
He’s proved useful in the past, but we’re not taking any more risks
than we have to today.”
I still didn’t like what Carter had said, calling
Vicky a creature.
“It’s okay,” Vicky said, patting my wrist. “I know
what I am. What are we doing now?”
Carter looked to the south. “We make for the fifth
“Okay,” I said. “Let me get this right. There’s a
fortress between each circle? And each circle is like its own
“I thought Mike had already told you these things,”
Carter said, gravel crunching beneath his boot on the rocky path
we’d taken into the mountains. Here, he was as corporeal as I
“No, not really. I haven’t talked to Mike since
Something stirred in the mountain cliffs. I looked
up, trying to see what crashed and slid along the dark stone above
us. Carter and Maggie marched on, their indifference to the sounds
reassuring on some level. Happy and Vicky trailed behind us with
Bubbles. The cu sith kept staring at Jimmy. He looked
uncomfortable, and I kind of liked that.
“Where are we, exactly?” I asked.
“A few miles from the fifth fortress,” Maggie said,
“in the nameless mountains.”
The scuffling sounded above us again. I studied the
ridge of the nearest cliff, and then the next, but saw nothing.
“What?” Carter asked.
“Don’t you hear it? Something’s following us from
“Something will always be following you in the
Burning Lands,” Carter said. “It’s the nature of this place.”
His confidence and lack of concern didn’t do a damn
thing to reassure me after that statement. He’d spent more time in
the Burning Lands than I had, by any measure, but this didn’t feel
right. Every step we took, the walls felt closer on either side of
I glanced behind us. It wasn’t my imagination. We all
walked single file. More sounds whispered down the stones. The air
wavered and then stabilized again, not fifteen feet above my
“Did you see that?” I said.
“Damian’s right,” Maggie said, squinting at the
burning sky. “Something is following us.”
Carter’s gaze roved across the path. “Not much room
to move here. I hope you’re wrong, but make ready.”
We continued on for another fifteen minutes, until I
could see a widening in the path up ahead. Far in the distance
stood a great stone wall, its center essentially a castle, but its
scale beyond comprehension. The wall rose into the air like a
skyscraper. Turrets and parapets shot out in random places, stacked
onto rectangular sections of mismatched stone, giving the entire
structure a weird presence.
“Carter,” a voice hissed on the wind.
The werewolf froze and studied the landscape before
More shuffling echoed around us, and whatever had
made the noise before had been joined by several more.
“You were banished from this place,” the airy voice
whispered. “To come here is to break the truce.”
“We only need the Smith,” Carter said. “We were told
he was at the fifth fortress.”
Silence was the only response.
“Let us pass, Servant of Berith. Let us take our
friend from your lands.”
“You expect me to bow?” the voice said. “To give in
to your demands because you come with the favor of Hephaestus?”
“No,” Carter said. “Stand to the side. There is no
need for conflict this day.”
“He abandoned us to our fate before the second
civilization rose across the Burning Sea.” The voice cracked into a
savage shout. “He is no idol of Berith! Kill them!”
The pepperbox was already in my hand. I tried to
turn, to make sure Vicky was okay, but I only cracked my elbow on
the stone cliff.
A nightmare threw itself over the edge of the cliff
Silver fangs flashed crimson in the light of the sun.
It had horns like Vala had, but these were not curved. They were
long and sleek and gleamed like the tip of a sword.
to impale me with those things.
The demon lowered its head
before the thought was complete.
My finger moved from the first trigger to the second.
All six barrels of the pepperbox fired at once. The horns shattered
like brittle iron, and the demon screamed as it crashed into me.
The impact took the breath from my lungs. A sharp rock cut into my
back as I bounced off the narrow canyon’s wall.
The demon wasted no time. It struck out at me before
we’d regained our feet. I barely dodged the blow. It wasn’t as fast
as a vampire, but it was faster than