Authors: Annie Bellet
“Which door?” Harper said. She sniffed the air. “I can’t smell him. Just dampness.”
The air was humid and clammy. I assumed the door with the vents in it was to the mechanical room, so that left two others. Levi pulled open one and revealed a janitorial closet. Not that way. The other door opened to a set of iron stairs that led even further down. We listened at the top of those steps but heard nothing from below over the noise from the old furnace.
“I think that might lead to the steam tunnels. I vote that way.” Harper started down the steps.
“Unless he’s hiding in the mechanical room waiting for us to go away. Maybe we should split up,” Levi said.
“Because splitting the party always leads to win, right?” I said. “Oh, wait, no, it usually leads to death.”
“This isn’t a game,” Levi hissed at me. “My brother could be down there. That guy knows something. He could be the evil behind all this.”
“That guy?” Harper said. “But he’s so chubby and… nerdy.”
“Oh right, so evil can’t look like a dopey professor? Do you even read comic books?”
“You trying to accuse me of being a fake nerd girl? Seriously?”
“Hey, you two, stop it.” I stepped between them. They were both irritated, their shoulders thrown back, heads forward, posturing like they wanted a fight. Sure, Harper and Levi arguing wasn’t unusual but they didn’t generally do it in a way that looked like they were about to shift and tear each other apart.
Levi’s lips peeled back and his eyes went from dark brown to golden as he gathered his power. He was about to shift.
That’s when I sensed the trap. Magic, the same shadowy magic that was binding Rose, coiled around the room like a snake waiting to strike. Waiting for the two shifters to reach into that other world where their animal selves waited and shift. I had no idea what the trap would do to them. I doubted it would freeze them like Rose, it would take a lot more power than I felt in this room to do something that complicated, but I’d put money on at least knocking them out. It was a pretty hefty spell gathering here.
“STOP,” I yelled at Levi as Harper growled behind me and Levi tensed to spring.
The trap sprung as he went from man to wolverine in less then a heartbeat. I threw as much power as I could yank up from within myself into another silver circle around all three of us and threw myself into Levi’s furry body.
Shadowy power swirled around my circle and then dissipated with a discordant chime that rang inside my head as I held onto the image of a silver protecting circle even as I tried to hold back a wolverine almost as big as I was. Levi’s claws ripped into my back and then he was a man again, holding me instead of me holding him.
“Shit. Jade. Shit. I’m so sorry.” Levi shook in my arms as he pulled away and then reached out again, his hands bloody.
“It’s okay. It was a trap,” I managed to say.
“Jade. Your back,” Harper said. She knelt behind me and reached for the shreds of my shirt.
“It’s not so bad,” I said, though it felt pretty unfun. The pain was not the white-hot stabs of the bullet wound the night before but a more twisting ache. I’d already used too much magic warding off and diffusing the trap. What was a little more? I called on more power and it came even easier than the day before, my sorceress skills apparently not as rusty as I’d thought. I sealed myself off from the pain, pushing power at the wounds and imagining I was a cleric casting a cure moderate wounds spell.
“Shit,” Harper said. “How did you do that?”
“You aren’t a hedge witch,” Levi said softly, staring at me with a mix of awe and fear on his face.
“No. I’ll explain later,” I said. I wouldn’t. I had to leave Wylde, like, yesterday. It wasn’t safe here anymore.
But first I’d go down into those steam tunnels with them and see if we could find Ezee. If there were more traps, well, what was a little extra magic. Samir wouldn’t be here in the next hour.
“Come on. Let’s go see what’s down those steps,” I said, getting to my feet.
Levi unzipped his hoodie and handed it to me. I pulled it on over my ruined shirt and felt like crying. My friends were good people. I was going to miss them like crazy. But I’d rather miss them than get them killed.
“Gamers in steam tunnels. This always ends well,” I said, trying to smile.
Neither of them smiled back.
The steps led down into a tight corridor. The clamminess increased, and as we moved carefully forward, the air took on the faint scent of decay.
The corridor branched. Levi sniffed and motioned to the right. Even I could tell the smell of dead things was stronger that way. We didn’t speak. My head started pounding and it was difficult to breathe as the stench escalated.
The tunnel terminated in a round room that had probably held more mechanical devices for moving warm air around the place fifty or a hundred years ago. Now it just held a room out of a B-movie horror flick.
A huge pentagram was drawn on the floor in what looked like brownish paint but was probably dried blood. On a metal shelf to one side was an assortment of dried herbs, a couple ritual daggers straight out of a Kit Rae catalog complete with gem skulls and extraneous spiked bits, and a few books about magic. The books were bunk, new-age and totally harmless. Yet somehow this guy and his flunkies had managed to raise a lot of power. On the other side of the pentagram was a desk with a few papers strewn across it and beyond that another door.
“Oh god,” Harper moaned. She’d walked over to the desk and stood with her arms wrapped protectively around herself.
I moved to where I could see past her and the desk and found the source of the dead animal smell.
Two wolves were crouched there, both frozen like Rose, snarls on their faces. They were far too large to be real wolves, I realized. They had been shifters. One was rotted away, bones clearly sticking out in yellowed contrast to the grey fur. Its eyes were gone, only dark gunky sockets remained.
The other wolf was in slightly better shape. Its body was emaciated, looking like a creature out of a Humane Society commercial but even worse. Patches of its fur had come off and I could count its ribs and just about every other bone in its body. Its dark brown eyes were still there, staring up at us.
“I think Ezee was here,” Levi whispered, coming up beside Harper and I. “I can faintly smell him.”
“They are dead, right? Not like mom,” Harper said. I wasn’t sure she was talking to me, but I put my hand gently on her shoulder anyway.
“That smell certainly says so,” I said. I looked down at the desk. “Hey, is that a map?” Maybe we’d finally caught a break here.
“Yeah. That’s a map of the Frank near the Wylde river region here.” Levi bent over the map, tracing the lines. “Guess he got out in too much of a hurry to take it. Wonder what this writing is.”
I studied the writing. “Sanskrit?” I guessed. “It’s notes about the full moon hitting zenith and some kind of conjunction with Jupiter. Those lines there that look random? Those are ley lines, I think. He’s mapped out a node of power there. That can’t be good.”
“How many languages do you speak?” Levi was staring at me again.
“All of them.”
“No, seriously,” he said.
See? Even when I tell the truth, no one believes me. What’s the point?
“Is mom going to end up like that?” Harper said. Her eyes were locked on the wolves.
“No, Harper, geez. Don’t even think like that. We’ve uncovered a huge lead for Alek, right?” I gave her shoulder a little shake.
“The full moon is tonight,” Levi said.
“We have to find Alek,” I said. “Come on, that guy is long gone and I don’t want us lost down here. We know where he will be. Bring the map and stuff.”
“Are you sure they are dead?” Harper said, refusing to be pulled away as Levi gathered up the papers on the desk.
Oh for fuck’s sake. I swallowed the words and walked around the desk, breathing only through my mouth as my eyes watered under the assault of the bodies’ acrid smell. I bent and put my hand on the head of the wolf that was less rotted out and summoned up my magic again.
The same twisting dark bonds that had locked Rose up were present in the wolf. Same pattern, same flow towards an intricate knot I could sense but not unravel.
Same faint heartbeat beneath it.
I stumbled back too quickly and ended up on my ass against the wall. I knew what Bernie Barnes was up to. I knew where all his power was coming from. The emaciated bodies filled in the final puzzle piece.
It shouldn’t have been possible, but somehow he had found a way to paralyze shifters and then cannibalize their innate power for his own spells.
“He’s not dead, is he? He’s like mom. That’s what mom is gonna be. No, no,” Harper cried out and started to come around the desk.
“Get her out of here, Levi,” I said, shoving myself to my feet. “I’ll meet you guys at the car. Go!”
Levi’s eyes met mine and he nodded gravely, understanding what I meant to do. He grabbed Harper’s arm and yanked her toward the door we’d come in. “Come on, kid. We need to get out of here.”
Tears streaming down her face, she looked at me and then nodded bleakly.
I waited until they were through the door and out of sight before I walked over to the shelf and picked up one of the daggers. I wanted to cuss Alek and his stupid fucking visions right out, but it wasn’t him who had done this. His vision was about to come true, in a way, but it was my choice. I’m good at lying and at running, but I try not to lie to myself too much. It’s a bad habit.
I stood over the wolf, my hand shaking as I held the dagger. I knew I should drive it into the wolf’s heart. Which would make me a killer.
Warmth spread through me as a furry head butted into my side, rocking me on my feet. Wolf, my guardian, materialized beside me and nudged my arm again. I looked at her through blurred vision. The tears I’d been trying to shed in the last two days were here finally, stinging as they ran down my cheeks.
“Okay,” I whispered, “Message received.”
I knelt and drove the dagger into the wolf’s chest.
We didn’t have to track Alek down. He was waiting for us outside the game shop when we arrived after a silent and tense car ride.
“We know who it is.”
“He has Ezee.”
“He has my brother.”
All three of us spoke on top of each other and Alek held up a hand.
“One at a time, and maybe not out here?” He looked at me and frowned. “I smell blood.”
“I’m fine,” I said. I pulled out my keys, bumping my bruised hip as I did so. Another painful reminder that I wasn’t fine. Nothing was. Again I felt irrational anger at Alek for coming into my world and wrecking everything. Two days ago everything had been normal. Now, my life was ruined. Again.
Inside the shop, Levi and I quickly explained what had happened at the school. I pushed the miniatures to the side and Levi laid out the map we’d found. Harper sat heavily in my chair behind the desk and booted up my computer.
“Think he actually works there? We can find out who he really is on the faculty page, I think,” she said. Her face was too calm, her eyes puffy but clear. She had the hollow look of someone who had suffered too much pain too quickly and burned down to an empty core of rage.
I knew that feeling. I knew that look. Intimately. I was halfway there myself. The other half? Sheer terror.
“I’m going upstairs to get a new shirt,” I said.
Alek followed me. I wasn’t really surprised.
“If we are going to talk,” I said, “Then you better do that silence ward thingy you did last night.” Fuck. Only last night I’d been bleeding in my bathtub. Two nights ago I’d been plotting how to sucker my players into their latest adventure and rolling up stats on a Liche Lord.
Silvery magic slipped over the walls of my bedroom. I pulled out a batman tee-shirt and pulled off the bloody hoodie and my torn up shirt. I kept my back to Alek and he waited until I was clothed again before speaking.
“This Bernie Barnes, he’s a sorcerer like you?” he asked.
So, he had figured out what I was. Guess that wasn’t really a surprise.
“No. He’s using rituals, which I guess makes him a warlock. The magic isn’t inside him, he’s stealing it. I think that’s what the ley line map and his notes are about.” I sat heavily on my bed and looked down at my hands. There was dried blood under my nails. Awesome. Tears threatened again. Twenty plus years without crying and now I was about to do it twice in a day. More awesome.
“Stealing power from shifters,” Alek prompted. “Like a sorcerer.”
“Stop saying that. You’re wrong. We can’t steal power, not like that.” I glared at him. “I have power because I was born with it. It’s like this well inside me. A witch or warlock or whatever you call a human magic user has only the ability to use power, not the actual power itself inside them. They have to do special rituals or tap power sources like ley lines, bodies of water, or plots of land, Gods, that kind of thing, to actually work magic. Shifters are different. You guys are one trick ponies. Well, you might not be.” I stopped for a steadying breath and waved my hand at my shimmering walls. “But most shifters just have that one connection to their animal. You guys
magic, instead of using it. And it isn’t a magic that is accessible to anyone else. If I ate your heart, nothing would happen but a bad stomach ache.”