Home > Curse on the Land (Soulwood #2)(13)

Curse on the Land (Soulwood #2)(13)
Author: Faith Hunter

“You getting yourself ready or woolgathering, Nell, sugar?”

I let a breath escape and said, “Neither. I’m procrastinating.”

“You don’t have to do this,” T. Laine said from the backseat.

“What the witchy woman said,” Occam agreed.

Paka, in her cat form, hissed in displeasure and leaned her big head over the seat to me. She hissed again, showing her teeth.

“I know,” I said to her. “I have to do it,” I said to the others.

“Because of those thoughts about accident versus deliberate workings you sent to Ricky Bo?” Occam asked. I nodded and he said, “You gonna tell us what you told him?” The werecat slid his back against the door and swiveled in his seat so that his legs spread and one knee came over the console, close to me.

I pressed my lips together. There was nothing in the handbook that said I couldn’t tell them. Both of them had higher security clearances than I did. “We all know there’s a possibility of an MED here, simply because strange energies are running beneath the ground. Almost as bad as a planned and executed MED would be magical energies not in a working like they’re supposed to be, but free because of a magical accident or released by means or creatures we don’t know about and can’t combat.”

“An MED,” T. Laine said. “I admit that the possibility intrigues me. Always has. Spook School still taking wagers on the first unit to uncover a verifiable MED?” I nodded. “Yeah. Intriguing. Set a working on a timer, maybe tied to the moon’s phase or something, and walk away. Later the spell is triggered and spreads the purpose and intent and will of the caster all over. Like a bomb with a delay timer, so no one has to actually set it off. I’ve been playing with workings to break a curse that sophisticated, but my coven isn’t particularly powerful, so, no go so far.”

“Procrastinating,” I said, opening the car door and stepping out onto the verge of the road. The denim pants felt all wrong, too tight in some places and too loose in others. Other than the long-lasting nature of the cloth they were made from, I didn’t understand why the entire world was so enamored of them. I dragged on my pant legs, trying to stretch them into a more comfortable shape, and grabbed up the pinkish blanket and a pad and pen.

T. Laine carried the P 2.0 and a laptop for taking notes and entering data. Occam had two blades, a machete to cut a path through the brambles and a vamp-killer. I didn’t think we were likely to meet a vampire in broad daylight, but maybe the silver plating on the blade would be useful for cutting me free from the Attack of the Plant People, which was a real movie, to hear Occam and T. Laine talk. He led the way between two lots, a chain-link fence on one side and the chained pit bull on the other. The pit bull was a mean one, leaping at us, his growls and barks so loud they were a vibration through the air, abrading along my skin.

I kept back from Occam as he cut his way through the overgrown field behind the two houses, the blade rising and hacking down. I was probably better with a machete than he was, being that I used one every year to take down overgrown plantings, but Occam seemed the kind of man who needed to protect the women around him. There were plenty of women who would take him down a peg or two, and fast, on the sparring mat at Spook School, but I didn’t have the physical strength to defeat a wereleopard, unless I was sneaky and kicked him in the privates first. I had to admit that he looked good swinging the blade, his jeans shifting with the muscles underneath, his back muscles pulling on his shirt.

And my appreciation was, again, totally, totally, totally unsuitable for a widder-woman.

* * *

Had the brush remained so thick, the quarter mile of cutting our way through would have taken Occam over an hour, but the trees took over, at first saplings, and then, quickly, trees that were ten to twenty years old and would provide a tall canopy in summer. There had been a controlled fire back this way at some point, the trunks blackened and the brush thinned out. Rocks appeared and the ground became far more uneven, no longer the level ground of a once-planted field left to go fallow, but the uneven surface of the rocky earth, too stone-filled to plow. We crossed over a rill of water, and Paka stopped to lap at it. I ran my hand through a short drop, where the water ran over stones and fell several inches. “Springwater,” I said at the touch of cold. I dried my fingers. Paka chuffed at me, sniffed, and chuffed again, telling me she smelled something on the water. She leaped into the tree nearest and from there to another tree, following her nose.

Occam followed her with his eyes and motioned us forward, on the cat’s trail.

“Slight level-one psysitope reading above ambient normal,” T. Laine said as we tromped on. A moment later she said, “Level two is coming up. And now three.”

We made it to the site where the P 2.0’s readings said the paranormal psysitopes had originated, where the deer were contaminated. The P 2.0 was redlining on all four levels. Unlike at the pond, there was nothing here but an open space between trees where wild grasses were rucked up and swirled around, the way deer move grasses as they prepare for the night. There was no pond, no ramshackle building in the distance, no lean-to, no signs of a burned-out farmhouse. No shed. No dead animals. There were no signs of human habitation, and even traffic sounds were scarcely in the audible range.

T. Laine pulled her pocket-sized psy-meter and took a reading to compare by, saying simply, “Still redlining. We shouldn’t stay here long.”

Occam took my blanket and folded it flat on the ground, which was still damp from the night’s dew. I watched him, thinking about T. Laine’s comment and everything that had gone wrong. “Did I ask you to look for reasons why a herd of female deer and juveniles might have traveled four miles? Dogs? Coyotes? Coywolves?”

“You did,” he said. “I checked with nose and eyes both. No signs of predators, except a few unoccupied tree stands and a pond that away”—he pointed—“with a duck blind.”

Human predators. I looked up into the trees and spotted Paka, stretched out on a limb, her golden green eyes on me. Sitting on the folded blanket, I pulled off my boots and socks and set them to the side. I placed my uninjured hand, palm down, on a bare patch of ground, my bare feet flat on the grass, knees bent up under my chin. I closed my eyes. Let my worries go instead of holding on to them. It was so stupid to cradle worries the way I did. I let my fears go. Let myself go. I relaxed and slumped forward over my knees, breathing. And I reached down into the ground.

FIVE

I sank into the dark and instantly heard words, not like a woman’s voice, but ringing like bells, vibrations high and deep, humming through my bones. “Flows, flows, flows. Pools, pools, pools.” But this time instead of saying “Gone, gone, gone,” there were two new lines.

“Dead. All dead. All dead. Forever.

“Dead. All dead. All dead. Forever.”

The words no longer had the same cadence as the first two lines. The movement and shape of the shadow-and-light was different too. It had coalesced. Drawn together. It was close to the surface, dancing among roots. The motion I sensed matched the cadence of the words, the power and gloom pirouetting. The light-and-shadow dancer swirled in a figure eight, a form employed by experienced magic users, ones advanced and powerful enough to control the energies and alter their shapes. The shape signified the rhythms of energy, space, and time, something beyond three dimensions.

And then it—they?—saw me.

The silk that had caressed my wrist yesterday slapped around my foot, sliding up my ankle. In an instant it tightened, roughened, pulling me deep.

Once again the dancer had taken my consciousness. Darkness and pressure surrounded me. I lost contact with the ground. With my own body. I was . . . buried alive. I struggled, trying to move, trying to fight. But it was like being wrapped in heavy carpet, around and around. Pulled down and down and around and around.

Wake her. Free me, the dancer hummed at me.

A deeper, human thought slashed at me, Get out! Get out! You can’t have it!

It was the woman. She— Pain exploded inside me. Pinpoints of agony. On the surface, my heart stuttered as if a huge hand had squeezed it. The pressure of the deeps. No breath. I struggled. Fought. Desperate. Warmth fled. The part of me that was on the surface, my body, was dying for want of air and heartbeat. Ice froze the blood in my veins. Crystalline, cutting. I was dying. The woman’s thoughts said to me, What are you? What do you want?

Lost. Dead. Gone, the dancer thought at me. Flows, flows, flows. Pools, pools, pools. Dead. All de—

Shut up! the woman screamed. Shut—

Something slammed around me, a shattering breaking force, shards of lightning and blue power, cutting through the binding. The dancer screamed. The silk slithered free, shrinking, shrieking. The woman cursed.

I ripped myself out of the deeps. Grabbed hold of the blue brightness. Held on.

I was moving. Then stopped. Enfolded against something heated.

I groaned, the sound like sandpaper over rubber. My stomach rebelled. I pressed away from the warmth. Stopped. I retched, lost my breakfast. The movement began again. I managed to wipe my mouth with some part of me, succeeded in drawing a breath, but I couldn’t see. Couldn’t open my eyes.

The movement jerked, as if falling a long distance and landing hard. The world swirled and my gorge rose again. The movement stopped. My stomach settled. I tried to control my breathing. My lungs were working hard and fast, as if I had been drowning. Or smothered. Buried. Underground. In the fists of two things, two creatures that each wanted something of me.

Sense returned. I concentrated on slowing my breathing and my heart, which was racing at a tripping, thudding, painful pace. Slowly my body began to achieve a rhythm that felt more normal. A steady tempo that meant I wasn’t dead. Wasn’t dying.

After what felt like ages, I tried again to open my eyes. I poured all my strength into that single aim. Open my eyes. My lids fluttered open.

I was sitting on a rock the size of a small stool, at the rill we had passed on the way in, my feet in the icy water. An icy wet rag was on the back of my neck. Something heated was wrapped around me, something alive, breathing with a deep, shuddering vibration. A bottle of water appeared in the air before me, a hand holding it. My own hands rose and I wrapped my fingers around the bottle. Oh good. I still control my body. I blinked slowly, and my eyes felt gluey.

“Drink.” Occam.

I pulled the bottle to me. I drank. My brain came rushing back at me.

Occam was holding me. He was sitting at my back, my spine against this chest. His arms around me. His legs around me. Holding me upright. I stiffened, and he eased away, taking his warmth with him, and he circled me until he was kneeling in front of me, his heated hands on my shoulders, holding me upright. “Nell, sugar. You okay?”

I nodded. My neck moved like an iron rod had been implanted in my spine. Pain shot up my back, into my head, and exploded. Little lights and fireworks went off, bright in the threatening darkness. I was pretty sure if I moved again my skull would disintegrate.

   
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