A scream shattered the
night, high and thin, ending on a note that clawed at Will’s
nerves. Someone was in pain, screaming his life out. He spun
around to stare upstream, and his feet started to run before his
brain caught up.
"Harding, no! Ah, damn i--"
Ice slid over Will’s skin. Suddenly the night seemed full
of knives. Too late, he realized he had jumped through the ward.
Uncertainly he looked over his shoulder in time to see Seth leap
out of nothing, silhouetted in a flare of light that died as
quick as it came. That queer gun was in his hand. His head
turned to the left; an instant later light flared from the
Leveler, a captured rainbow of colors wriggling and twisting
together like demented worms. It split the night apart in a
livid streak that somehow changed shape as it moved, turning
from a hollow circle to a thin dart as long as Will’s arm. It
flashed away and disappeared. On its heels something howled,
deep, hoarse, angry.
Will’s hair started to creep. "What in Creation?"
Putnam charged past him and disappeared into the dark. Will
took a step to follow.
"Stay there!" The Hunter’s voice came back to him
out of the night.
Will hesitated, then set his jaw and went on. He would not
take orders in his own jurisdiction.
The night loomed black as a demon’s heart, the moon hidden
behind a cloud. Will prowled up the creek, hunting movement in
the gloom. The howl came again, a sobbing wail spiraling up to a
pitch that hurt his ears. Not even a sick wolf sounded like
that. Putnam fired again, the light marking his position. Will
swore and ran, because the Hunter was up on the bank with no
cover and anything could come at him there.
"Comin’ in!" he shouted, leaping up to where
Putnam had been, only to find him gone again. Will flattened
himself to the ground, unwilling to die of stupidity. He lay
still, straining to hear over the rustle of the grass and his
own heart thundering in his ears. A snarling fight broke out
ahead. It sounded like a pack of dogs had cornered a sackful of
cats, alternately shrill and guttural, punctuated now and again
by a chopped-off howl. Will crawled closer.
Without warning the noise stopped. "Marley!"
Will stood up and ran. The dashai was dead, sounded like,
which left the other thing loose and the Hunter alone. Not to
mention a fool of a Marshal running around in the dark with no
idea what he was hunting.
Movement in the corner of his eye turned into a pale blur
moving fast toward him. Will brought his gun up--and hesitated,
remembering a ghost-pale horse. Then breath that smelled like
the garbage pit back of Frenchy’s blasted into his face.
Yellow eyes glowed an arm’s length away, unnatural as ice in a
fire. Will snapped a shot and flung himself backwards, hit the
ground and rolled frantically away.
Hands jerked him clear. Putnam materialized above him as the
thing howled fit to spook an Old Churcher. The Hunter fired a
third time, standing between Will and the charging demon like he
thought he had some special immunity to death. Crackling heat
washed over Will on the tide of color; he flinched back, trying
to burrow into the dirt.
Silence descended abruptly on the night. Something black
moved in the dark a few yards ahead; Will almost shot it,
remembered Marley, and held his fire, his hand aching with
tension. After a minute or so he got to his knees, and then his
feet, stood there with his heart hammering fit to bust,
straining his eyes to see what was coming.
A dark, silent shape moved past him; another suddenly turned
solid at his shoulder. "Go, go!" Seth’s voice said
breathlessly. "Get back inside the ward. Hurry!"
Will turned and ran with the Hunter beside him. He came to
where the ward should be and started to slow down, flinching
from contact; Seth caught his elbow and dragged him on through
into a sudden flare of light from the fire. The breath left Will’s
lungs as though he’d been flung face-first into an icy creek.
He tore himself free and spun toward Putnam.
"What was that thing?"
"A lure," Seth said tightly. "Listen."
Will held his breath, straining to hear over the maddening
rustle of the leaves overhead. He stole a glance at the Hunter.
The firelight caught his face clearly, showing his eyes closed,
his head cocked. A minute ticked by, and then Seth relaxed,
looking like grim death.
"Manti coward," he said bitterly. "He’s lost
his pet. Now he’s hiding."
"Where?" Will thought anxiously of Sundown lying
helpless out there.
"Somewhere east of here. But there’s no looking for
Fuming, Will had to admit he was right. "He. You sure it
was a Darkblood?"
"Oh, yes." Seth’s face got grimmer, if anything.
"It was a dashai I shot."
"I don’t know, and I have no intention of finding out
before morning." Seth sat down suddenly beside the fire as
though his knees had given out.
Will gave him a sharp look. The Hunter looked like a wraith
himself, so wrung out that Will was forced to remember the hard
afternoon and worse evening. Slowly he sank onto his heels
across the fire from Putnam, trying to hang onto reason in the
face of everything unnatural.
"You said it was a lure."
"Yes. One to draw us out beyond the wards. And it
Will felt himself flushing. Thunder and damnation, how had he
been such a fool?
"If nothin’ can see through them wards, how did he
know we were here?"
Seth drew a long, weary-sounding breath. "I used Talent
earlier to dig Adam’s grave. It would have been like a beacon.
He knew the general area. He had to draw us out somehow."
"Real fine," Will muttered. What else was out there
waiting to take potshots at them?
Movement in the dark startled him, but it was only Marley in
his horse shape ghosting back up to the ward. Blood streaked his
pale hide in a long smear down neck and shoulder. Seth went to
pass him in; Marley shoved his muzzle into the Hunter’s chest
as Seth’s hand lifted to finger the blood. Two old companions
checking each other for wounds. The thought flashed out of
nowhere, so stupid that Will shook his head, but he couldn’t
shake the impression.
"Guess him comin’ back in one piece means the
"Perhaps. He may be hiding, or he may have gone in
search of easier game." Seth sounded like he didn’t care
either way. "Or he may follow us home and try to ambush us
on the way."
"Well, ain’t you the fountain of wisdom. Think you can
pin it down just a little? You’re supposed to be the expert on
Seth turned, his hand still on Marley’s neck. "What do
you want from me? Manti are best at hiding in plain sight. I
have no doubt we’ve disturbed its plans. Whether it comes
after us in the morning depends upon whether it values killing
me over achieving its goal."
"It, or he? Which?"
Seth shrugged. "Both. The man is inhabited by a manti,
or he is manti-bred. That blood runs strong sometimes--strong
enough to rule the man whatever his own desires."
Something in his voice caught Will’s ear. He gave him a
sharp look but shadows hid the Hunter’s face. Marley nosed him
and then wandered off. Slowly Seth settled and poked up the
fire. Will looked out over the creek, but the night was quiet
now, the trap sprung and failed.
"You kept that thing off me," he said, ashamed that
he’d had to be rescued.
"You came after me. You didn’t have to."
Belatedly it occurred to Will that he could have maybe rid
himself of both the Hunter and his unnatural horse tonight. He
scowled at the fire. Why in thunder hadn’t he? The world would
be a better place with two less demons in it.
He shrugged. "Never was good at doin’ nothin’."
"Sometimes that is the only wise course. A manti will
use anything--anything--to achieve its ends. It
understands neither honor nor compassion, but it knows how to
use both to its advantage. Remember it, Will. Trust nothing you
see, nothing you hear. Nothing you feel."
Seth staggered to his feet. "No. No questions tonight.
Get some sleep. I need to think."
Will stared after him. His eyes felt like the inside of a
sandstorm but sleep was the last thing on his mind. It ain’t
natural, sleepin’ with a Darkblood wanderin’ around loose.
Two, if you counted Putnam, and even if you didn’t, Putnam was
out on his feet. Ah, hell, Will thought, and sat up. He
stopped at sight of the Hunter leaning against Marley at the
edge of the firelight, feeding a cold biscuit to Shonka.
Unreasonably irritated that the Hunter had made friends with
his faithless horse, Will laid back down and stubbornly closed
his eyes. Let the fool stand there until he keeled right over.
In which case there won’t be nothin’ between you and
that Darkblood. The traitor thought strolled through his
mind, refusing to leave though Will tried hard to shove it away.
Putnam had undoubtedly saved his life tonight. And that didn’t
fit any truth he knew.
"Damn mess," he snarled to the fire, and then sleep
reached out and dragged him under.