Hundreds of lights hovered over her head, greeting her eyes as lids fluttered and lifted. The pukwudgie cavorted and sang, their voices melding into one, then separated again, a cacophony from a single throat. Netáchgan stirred at her back and stood, bending to nuzzle her neck.
“C’mon, boy.” John grabbed Nix’s sleeve. “The quicker we get down there, the sooner we’re shed of this place.”
Nix needed no more prodding than that, but he got it anyway. An icy breath raised the hairs on the back of his neck, and he hazarded a glance behind. All manner of creatures—human and otherwise—followed them. Most were average people who appeared to be sleepwalking, while others were twisted and deformed. Several, eyes glazed, sclera so red it glowed, radiated a hatred like the sun gave light. None of those frightened him as much as the animals, only a few of which he could name. Crawling things, some with legs too many to count in a single glance, oozed at the crowd’s feet. Most were no larger than mice, but many were bigger than a house-cat, armed with curved black claws that glimmered in their lethality.
A gibbering creature gnawed deep in the back of his mind, scrabbling to gain purchase, threatening control. He realized with what remained of his sanity it was his amygdala swamping rational thought with a single command. Run!
There was little thought left in his young head as he pushed everyone aside and fled for the safety of the steps and the tunnel beyond.
A shattering crash from the outer room told her the skin-walkers broke through both the door and her warding, and the bluejay leapt from his perch in the treetop. Wmíisan sat up as best she could, ignoring the pain in her arm to lift both hands and weave her last spell. A parlor trick, and one every new apprentice learned early in their training. It was useless in a physical confrontation, though it might serve her well enough to give Síipuw and the others the one thing they needed… time.
Her arm no longer hurt, or the pain forgotten, and she finished weaving the spell by infusing it with the last reserves of her manitou. The air grew heavy, and the room darkened as she lowered her hands. As soon as she did, the pain returned, stronger than before, and she cried out before she could suppress the impulse, clutching her chest with her right hand.
The door to Síipuw’s room burst open, and the two slavering beasts—dire wolves on two legs—jostled for entry. Its frame cracked and splintered as the skin-walkers pushed through, and Wmíisan smiled, showing her teeth in full defiance of the beasts’ terrible power. Each had to duck its head to enter, and after two cautious steps were close enough she could smell the death covering them like a moldy cloak.
“The knife,” the first, and largest, growled around too-long teeth. It skinned black lips back in a parody of a grin. “And the girl.”
“Your eyes are big, evil one,” she slurred and gestured with her right hand. “See for yourself… neither are here.”
It took a slow step forward, muscles bulging, struggling to complete the simple motion. It growled, made another attempt, and stopped.
“What magic is this?” The skin-walker spit the words around glistening fangs.
“Your teeth are too big, I think.” Her grin grew, despite the pain in her chest. Her spell worked beyond her ability to weave it, thickening the air, trapping them like sap on a tree.
Alexander Nixon—Nix to everyone but his mother, God rest her soul—was sure he’d checked everything. But here he was, standing atop the platform of marble, and nowhere near his insertion point. He hadn’t a clue how far off he might be, but the symbols inlaid along the alabaster stone’s outer edge still glowed with residual power. If he hurried, he might use that to take him to his intended target zone. There wasn’t time to check his calculations, so he began the sequence and hoped for the best.
In eighteen years, he’d never gotten the best of anything, but there was always a first time. It just wasn’t today.
“Stop your casting, boy,” the gravel-filled voice croaked at his back.
Nix spun to confront the voice’s owner and stumbled back a step at the sight of the man accosting him—if it was a man. Hunched at the shoulders, his limbs twisted and deformed, the pitiful creature shambled toward him. He was dressed in rags, though in their youth they must have been similar to Nix’s usual attire. The right sleeve, ruined and filthy, was shredded up to the elbow, and the brown skin of his right hand shriveled and covered with white rivulets like molten wax. The malformed creature grinned at Nix, and the boy shrank even further. Most of the man’s teeth were missing, and those left were discolored and crooked. The eyes, though… they would haunt Nix for the rest of his life. The left was large and brown, though not looking directly at him, but the right was milky white, like the stone beneath Nix’s feet. A thin stream of drool dripped from one corner of the man’s mouth.
The ancient medicine woman reached out, snatched Síipuw’s ear in thin, strong fingers, and yanked hard.
“Ow!” Síipuw, thirteen summers old and already taller than Wmíisan, stumbled as her mentor pulled her away from the brewing fight. The woman’s legs were short and crippled, but Síipuw had to quicken her pace to keep up.
“Silence child!” Wmíisan’s voice was harsh and full of ice, leaving the watchers no doubt she would deal with the insolent apprentice for her actions. When she had dragged the girl away from the angry crowd of children, the old woman winked, and despite Síipuw’s fear, she chanced a pained grin.
Once inside the trees, Wmíisan whipped Síipuw forward and released her aching ear. Síipuw scowled and rubbed the offended flesh.
“Maybe next time you will listen,” Wmíisan spat. The woman’s words were full of anger, but her face had softened. “You should not let those jaybirds ruffle your feathers. Arrogant, you are, and quick to anger.” She shook a gnarled finger in the girl’s face. “I may not be there to rescue you next time.”
Síipuw continued rubbing her throbbing ear. If this was what Wmíisan considered a rescue, she’d be happy to do without next time. Besides, she had done nothing wrong. Not really, anyway. Pretty little Osowáno had ridiculed Síipuw the entire morning about her boy clothes. That wouldn’t have been so bad, but all their friends had joined her. Síipuw hadn’t meant to push the girl into the dung pile, but she wasn’t sorry about it either.