Home > Circle of the Moon (Soulwood #4)(14)

Circle of the Moon (Soulwood #4)(14)
Author: Faith Hunter

Together we moved into the brush, every officer except T. Laine with service weapon drawn, tactical flashlight glaring, and wearing a vest. Over a shoulder, I carried a gobag with my pink blanket, tablet, and the psy-meter 2.0. T. Laine was armed with bright yellow number two pencils that R&D at PsyLED central in Virginia had imbued with a null force working to stop magic and magical attack. The null sticks were impossible for a human to activate, and painful for a witch to handle, making it nearly impossible for T. Laine, our moon witch, to carry a gun too, so she wore night-vision gear, both low-light and infrared oculars, and took a track beside me and a little ahead so my flash didn’t interfere with her headgear.

The null sticks were General brand pencils, with the word semi-hex on the side, surely a joke on the part of the witch who had spelled them. T. Laine carried one by the eraser and was ready to toss it at will.

As we moved through the tall grasses and brush, the only sounds were the trickle of water in the creek ahead and the swish of the summer grasses on our clothes. We’d have to do a thorough tick search when we got back to HQ. Maybe Lainie had a tick-search spell. That would be handy. Stupid thoughts to indulge in when there was something magical on the creek shore ahead.

“Halt,” T. Laine said softly into her mic. She turned to her right in small angled degrees. “Two o’clock from my location, twenty paces ahead. No live bodies in infrared, no DBs on low-light, but … something. The null sticks just flashed hot.”

“They shouldn’t flash hot unless there’s an active working,” I said. “Let me read the earth.” Which meant, let me put my fingers to the ground.

T. Laine tapped her mic and explained to the others, as she swished through the grass around me, “Ingram will be vulnerable, unable to seek cover in case of attack.”

“Copy,” several voices said.

Surprisingly, Lainie was setting a circle around the two of us, which I didn’t expect or understand. She tapped off her mic and added softly to me, “There’s mundane cover and there’s magical cover. I can handle the latter if not the former, hence the circle around both of us.”

I holstered my weapon and withdrew the pink blanket and the psy-meter from my gobag. I partially opened the blanket and sat on it, making a nest in the tall grass for my backside and legs, which I folded under me. I opened the psy-meter, which had gone to sleep, and pointed it at the direction Lainie indicated. Levels one and four redlined instantly. It wasn’t a person. It was a thing, and whatever it was, it was big. And its magic was still active.

Gingerly, I placed a left fingertip on the ground and pressed through the tightly interwoven roots to the soil. I jerked away so fast that I nearly rolled off the blanket. “It’s very active,” I whispered into the mic. “And there’s something dead there.” I pointed. “Something cold, been dead a few hours.”

“Human?”

“No. Too small. Maybe a pound or two?” I suggested.

“Cat?” T. Laine asked, thinking about Rick’s black-magic circle.

“No. Smaller. Maybe half that size. Maybe a kitten?”

“Okay. Pack up,” she said to me. I shoved my gear in my bag, strapped it around me, and took my weapon in a one-hand grip, my tactical flash in my free hand, held out to my side. If someone had us in their sights, I wanted any targeting mark to be out to my side, not midline on me. As I stood, Lainie dropped her circle and said, into the mic, “Let’s move in.”

The cops said, “Copy that,” in unison, and we all moved forward, spreading out.

Just ahead, the grass fell away, as if cut too close so that it had died in the summer heat. A small flat area appeared on the bank of the creek. In its center was a witch circle, about twelve feet in diameter, with spokes that ran out from the center. In the center of the circle were three dead white rats.

Laine tapped off her mic and murmured to me, “Not a black cat.”

“But an active witch circle,” I said, “close by two robberies likely perpetrated by a para.” And the circle was very similar to the last one we had found, which neither of us said aloud.

Lainie tapped her mic back on. “Maintain positions. I want to check something.” She tapped it again, going to PsyLED freqs. To Tandy she said, “Dyson, call LaFleur. Get his twenty and condition. Tell him what we found.” What she meant was, find out if he was human shaped. “Report back to me.”

“Roger that,” Tandy said. “I’ve been monitoring. If he doesn’t answer, I’ll get Occam there ASAP.”

We were currently assuming the same potential scenario, that Rick might have been called by this witch working too, and could show up in black leopard form. Rick hadn’t been a werecat for long and control over his beast was sometimes precarious. The grindys assigned to Knoxville were juveniles and didn’t always show up at the right time. None of us wanted to have to shoot our boss to keep him from biting a human. We would, of course, but it would bother us.

Moments later, Tandy said into the PsyLED-only frequency, “LaFleur responded. He is en route to your twenty. ETA twelve minutes. He recommends that you pull back. Suggests that you thank KPD for their assistance and send the officers on scene back to their units.” That meant Rick was human shaped. His order was not entirely unexpected. Humans near an active working might accidently set in motion a magical working that had been initiated but placed on hold and not yet fully launched, injuring themselves or others. In a slightly different tone Tandy said, “Alerting PsyLED agents on scene: Pea is with LaFleur.”

Lainie shot me a look through the dark, not one I could decipher. Pea hadn’t been around much in the last few weeks. The grindy hadn’t appeared at the other circle. Why did she show up—I looked around at the nearby humans. Right.

T. Laine slid her dark eyes to me and said into the shared para freq, “Copy that, Dyson. Officers, this is an active witch working. Repeat, an active magical working of unknown intent. We’ve been advised by Knoxville PsyLED HQ to evacuate humans from the premises.” To get them going, she shooed me back toward the cars and the cops began to follow, tactical flashes swinging slowly back and forth. “PsyLED appreciates your assistance,” she said, to get them moving faster, “but we need to evacuate this area.”

“Copy that, but I thought we were looking for a robbery suspect,” one of the cops said.

“We were. That is now officially on the back burner. Officer safety is paramount to PsyLED, and we’ve stumbled on what is a dangerous paranormal scene.”

Stumbled on? Or were led to? By a witch under glamour? Or something else?

“What about the homeless?” the cop pointed across the creek to the camping area.

“Most likely took off when you guys showed up. And running water will keep them safe,” T. Laine said.

• • •

   T. Laine and I were sitting in her official vehicle, the engine running and the AC pumped up high, when LaFleur coasted up. We all got out, the neon green grindylow sitting on Rick’s shoulder holding a cat treat in her front paws and nibbling on it, like a squirrel might. Rick wasn’t wearing a vest or headset, but his badge was clipped to his jeans and his shoulder rig was prominently displayed against his white T-shirt. Usually Rick was cool and collected at paranormal scenes. This time he looked fidgety, as if he was holding anxiety down by force of will.

“Update,” he said.

T. Laine brought him up to speed on the night’s events and finished by saying, “Did you feel anything? Any attraction to shift and come here? Do you feel anything now that you are here?”

“No,” Rick said, one hand smoothing the grindy’s tail along his shoulder and down one arm. “Nothing.” He tilted his head like a cat and sniffed. “I don’t smell anyone. Don’t sense moon-calling magic at all. Is it active right now?”

I opened the psy-meter 2.0 and reread the earth. “The levels are dropping, pretty close to midhigh,” I said. “And I agree. No witch other than Lainie or human in the immediate vicinity, including the large group of homeless camping on the other side of the creek.”

T. Laine pointed across the creek toward the Walmart. “I can make out a few tents. More upstream. A few campfires. No people on infrared.”

Rick grunted, unconvinced.

“Let me inspect the circle. Alone,” T. Laine said. “I want you two behind the engine blocks. There’s enough iron in them to frazzle any working that might get by me.”

Get by me meant any working that exploded and killed her. “You will not die,” I ordered.

“Roger that,” she said.

“Don’t get too close,” Rick said, giving permission even as he backed away. “Use a personal indicator light so we can follow you.”

“Okay. I’m going to cast a scan working and a seeing working. Wish me luck.” T. Laine moved back into the weeds, wearing the night-gear headset and a comms set, no weapon drawn, a tiny green light on her shoulder. She was holding a small moonstone amulet carved into a bear. We followed her progress as she moved slowly through the weeds. I started to follow.

His voice strained, his body taut, Rick said, “Get back here, Ingram. If she triggers it and explodes there’s no point in you getting hurt too.”

I wanted to say something like, Wow. Show some concern, why don’t you? But the female agents I worked with had told me that I tended to overreact to male authority even when it was appropriate, like a male boss giving a perfectly reasonable order. So I swallowed the insubordinate words before they left my mouth, scuttled behind the iron engine block, and crouched close to him. Our positions put two engines between the working and us.

“What did you get when you read the earth?” Rick asked.

“The magic was hot, like getting a shock from a live wire. The feeling of death was fresh and strong, but small.”

“No feeling of maggots?”

I frowned. I had forgotten the sensation of maggots I had picked up at the other circle. “No. What does that mean?”

Rick shook his head, barely visible as his silver locks caught the meager light. He didn’t reply. Silently we followed T. Laine’s slow, methodical progress in a straight line to the location of the magical working. She started walking widdershins to the circle, then stopped and backed away, and started back sunwise, which was unusual. It could mean a lot of different things, depending on what she was sensing in her magical scans.

A good fifteen minutes later, T. Laine moved back toward us. When she was close enough for us to hear without comms, she said, “Same markings and style of circle as the last one. Same runes. It’s the same magic signature, but the animals are three white rats, not a cat. Smaller animal mass and radius of the circle means a less powerful spell. And the rats were carried here, not summoned here.”

“Different pattern,” Rick said, thoughtful. To me, he said, “Tap on your comms and ask Tandy to compile a listing of all the pet stores in the area that sell white rats. Tomorrow someone will need to drop by and ask about recent sales and request surveillance footage.”

   
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