The Wild West never looked quite like this: a sovereign nation comprised of Red Territories and White Territories, where Indian chiefs sit in the national Assembly and the militia patrols the Mississippi to keep out demons. Seth Putnam must deal with Freeborn, the descendants of people who fled the formation of the Dominion of Salem, people who still think Talent is witchcraft and anything born east of the river is a demon straight from Hell. And that includes his new partner, Marshal Will Harding.

Just what have Seth and Marley landed in this time?

 

 


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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?" he whispered.

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!" Seth shouted.

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 him tonight."

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."

"What kind?"

"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 worked."

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 Darkblood’s gone."

"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 these things."

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."

"But--"

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.

 

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