No Way Back
Book 1: Play Crack The Sky
Blake ducked left into a narrow alleyway, moving swiftly to the next connecting street. Footsteps pounded on the asphalt behind him, echoed in beat with the staccato pulse of the rain; too close for comfort. His lungs started to burn in his chest and he struggled to pull in more air as he ran, ignoring the pain. He struggled for purchase on the slick brown cobblestones, and threw out his hand to the lamp post and caught it just in time to keep from going down.
The sudden stop in his forward momentum left him spent completely. He rested his hands on his knees and drew in great gulps of air, willed his locking muscles to move and got no response. Blood dripped onto the backs of his hands carried by the rain, and his vision swam.
He’d taken that hit too long ago – an hour? Two?
The torrential downpour drowned the footsteps of his pursuers and shrouded the street from his eyes, leaving him deaf and blind. And them too,
he thought gratefully. Small blessing.
Blessings, Blake knew, were always balanced with a curse, and the chilling rain that doused him to the bone was as good as a cage, shutting his system down from the outside in. He closed his eyes and focused on trying to catch his breath enough to move on to drier ground.
The roar of the rain almost drowned out the still, even voice of the man that was going to kill him, but the sound of the hammer being pulled back just behind his right ear came through just fine.
“Blake, stop running.”
Almost without thought, Blake pitched his right shoulder forward, following the natural force of gravity into a roll. His right hand dipped down and pulled the chrome .45 from its place on his hip, and he landed on his back with the barrel aimed straight into the younger Winchester’s face.
Sam didn’t flinch, but Blake hadn’t expected him to.
The hunter’s eyes were unreadable through the liquid sheets between them. Everything was flickering and dark around the edges, and the darkness licked at Sam, stealing the world around him away until he was all Blake could see, until he could almost see two of him.
The gun in his hand grew heavy, and his grip weakened. Sam stepped closer, and his aim displayed no indication of wavering. “I know what you are.”
The pain in Blake’s lungs began to spike, and he dropped the gun completely in favor of coughing harshly into his hands. When he pulled them away, they were coated in blood. The world began to spin, and the fire in his chest went out as the rain stole the rest of his warmth away.
Sam towered over him now, and his voice seemed as cold and far away as the rest of the world and just as meaningless. His words were lost in the roar, and Blake sighed in surrender to the icy grip of death, drifting away into oblivion before the hunter’s bullet could finish the job for him. December, 2005
Blake was singing to himself.
He hadn’t noticed at first. The mp3 player was turned low so that he could hear the forest around him. The snaps and cracks of dry, dead twigs and leaves as he tracked his prey had hushed the soft slide of his baritone into the range of his ears, but after so many hours being awake, watching and waiting, everything sounded tinny and mutilated now. “They call 'em rogues. They travel fast and alone. One hundred foot faces of God's good ocean gone wrong. What they call love is a risk 'cause you will always get hit out of nowhere by some wave and end up on your own.”
The sunlight reflected yellow into his eyes as the rays broke through the trees and ran themselves into the ground. There was no reason to be on high alert just now. They were all probably long gone.
Hunters preferred it quick and dirty, just like they always had. And why go looking for one lost sheep in an army when new ones were so much easier to find? Loyalty was running thin in wartime, and the ones left behind were the forgotten soldiers, strung out on vacant promises.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.
There was enough light left to find the clues he needed. He also knew that he would find his quarry before the darkness shrouded any remaining threats. As he trudged another viewable distance through the tangled brush, he smelled what he sought long before he saw it. “They say that the captain stays fast with the ship through still and storm. But this ain't the Dakota and the water's so cold. Won't have to fight for long.”
One large, unconscious whiff near the corpse was enough to make his nose sting and run. He crouched down and leaned his knuckles against the tops of his boots, careful to leave no more of his scent on the ground than was necessary. Bloody maggots already squirmed in the recesses of the shoulder cavity, raw and stringy tendons trailing out from where the skull should have been.
“Sorry, honey,” he told her, “I’m pretty sure this wasn’t what you meant when you offered to give ‘em head last night. Bastards should learn to clean up after themselves.”
He pulled on his gloves and cleared a small area around her, raking the stale brown refuse of the earth over and around her body like a makeshift shroud. “Where’s your father, huh? Where’s Luther?”
More bodies, more dead logs and two bottles of accelerant from his pocket later, flames leaped toward the darkened canopy, singeing the low hanging branches.
“I wonder what your way is really like for you sometimes, borrowing against other people’s lives,” Blake whispered to her. Then he pulled his coat close around him and leaned against a tree to watch over it. “I hope it’s worth it,” he added quietly.
Anger and heat roared deep into the throat of the ground, fire eating the contents until there was nothing left and it, too, began to die, until the darkness crept away towards the far west, and sunlight disguised itself in gray and muddied tones.
When only thin trails of smoke remained, he scratched at the morning shadow on his face and rose from his silent spot.
He walked to the pile and dug into the center, inspecting for bones. Charred fragments remained, metamorphosed into dark powder that floated out of his grasp and hung in the silent breath of the air.
Ash streaked his hands. He rubbed it across the tips of his fingers as he contemplated the texture. Discomfort ghosted over his face. Finally, he sighed and sank one hand into the weightless texture, and shook it into a small pile in the center of his palm.
“Here goes nothing, Blake,” he said to no one in particular and bent forward, using his tongue and lips to rake it into his mouth. He coughed several times and grabbed more, unsure when to stop. Suddenly he was not sure that he wanted to.
His guts clenched hard against it and sent his limbs into spasms. Half a dozen handfuls and the inside of his mouth felt like it was burning. His tongue started to seize up and his lungs reacted. It shouldn't be like this. This is what I was told to do. Maybe it was too much. Maybe...
The burn took over. Everything was on fire.
Blake screamed and blood hemorrhaged from behind his eyes.
When he came to, drops of water ran in springs around his nose and pooled in his eyes, fell into his open mouth. He jerked upright, limbs still stiff and cock-eyed. His left hand clung to his other arm that hung numb and limp at his side. The fractured light hurt his eyes. Enough
, he thought.
The rain slowly stopped.
Stumbling steps sent him back through the trees, out of the wilderness and back to the roadside. His car was still there, white paint smudged with rain spattered soil and a gray pallor that echoed the feeling in his stomach.
He lead-footed it back to the motel with the heater blasting and stripped as soon as he walked in the door: coat, shoes, shirt, pants, all falling in a row to his target in the shower. He grabbed the pipe and hung on, letting the hot water steam down his back and rinse the dirt away.
The blackening he felt inside didn’t subside. If anything, the water was making it worse. He lathered and washed with quick hands, the stinging sensations bringing tears where he didn’t want them.
He wiped at his face with one of the towels and dark, hard cottony knots formed in places when he drug it down across his chest and torso, mopping at the hair on his head and his arms. A mark under his arm caught his attention. He must have missed it. In a steam-induced haze, he wiped at it again, and it changed and shifted along his skin. He dropped the towel and flexed to get a better look. Dirt didn’t smudge into perfect geometric shapes.
“What the ever-living hell.”
He blinked hard and rubbed at it. The lines grew darker and formed more complete symbols, filling in with pigment that resembled the line of three moles on his other side. He stared and wiped his fingers over the skin somewhat reverently as the pattern took shape. One ring hung outside the rest and moved more than the others; it reacted to his touch and spun into a smaller version of itself until it hugged the outer corners and edges of the design -- it had to be design -- and then it stopped.
Inside a grid was an architect’s square, two right ends of a triangle that embraced a loop shaped like a figure eight. The circle wavered near the outer corners of the square and as the sound of his heartbeat grew in his ears, it tightened and the muscle contracted around it. Count down begun.
He squinted into the harsh light around the motel mirror. His hair had gone blond. His eyes were lighter. Like a freaking chameleon.
“Well, Happy Birthday to me,” he gasped. June, 2009 There was salt all over the floor, the windowsills, and his mother’s face. He wanted to tell her not to cry, but it seemed like a silly thing to say since he was crying, too. His mother had long red hair and bright pale skin that glowed when they sat in front of the fire place. The lights in the house flickered, and the foundation rumbled. His mother cradled his face in her hands and smoothed his hair, and she kissed him on the head. “Got your backpack?” “Yes, Momma.” “You remember how to make a fire?” “Yes, Momma.” “Momma’s proud of you, sweetheart.”
Blake woke up in the dark, huddled into a corner with his hands wrapped around his rifle and his arm pinned to his side by the sleeping form of a young woman with long blond hair. He tried to shake the memories his dream brought back to life, but his mother’s words echoed in the quiet of the makeshift bomb shelter. “What do we do when we see a demon?” “Run away.” “And what do we do when we see an angel?”
Blake shrugged away from the exhausted slip of a girl and eased her to the ground. The few hunters defending the town had their hands full. He could stay and fight. He wanted to help this girl, to keep her from losing her mother the way he had lost his, but it was useless.
These hunters were fighting shadows of evil, and Lucifer and his horsemen were not his fight. “How will I know who I can trust?” She had tweaked his nose and offered a watery smile. “That’s easy,” she said. “Whoever it is will be one of us.”
He climbed the basement stairs. In the kitchen an old, grizzled hunter was on the radio, phoning in for backup. Blake hoped it helped. He crossed the river underneath a shattered bridge on his way out of town, and he offered up a prayer for the humans he left behind. His backpack felt so heavy, and it was so late. He had school in the morning, friends, a life. “Momma, I don’t want to run away any more.” “I know, baby. Someday, when the time is right – you won’t have to.” September, 2010
Blake never needed an alarm clock. He was the poster boy for the circadian rhythm. He kept it simple. He liked to rise with the sun and fall asleep when the last embers of his campfire drifted into ash. It was the way of the world, push and pull, night and day -- life and death. Everything had an end, and that was the way of the world, too.
At least it was until someone went and changed the rules. Now, the birds were hushed and still in the forests. The trees conserved their energy, no longer reaching for the sky with their knobby limbs. Monsters were going missing. And Blake was tired.
He put it out of his mind, concentrating on mapping out his path instead. The pull of the ancient one came from a deep and darkened place, a tangle of thick underbrush and nearly invisible even in the day. He retraced the steps he had memorized during recon painstakingly. In the dark the creature he tracked would be twice as deadly, three times more alert, and four times hungrier. Blake would only have one chance to convince it that he came in peace.
He reached a low blind formed from a downed tree and dropped quietly to his knees behind it, slung the M40 down off of his shoulder and settled it into the decaying bark. The humidity of the day had turned to a wet chill at sunset, and he breathed carefully on the lens of the scope to chase away condensation. It was a good position, about a quarter mile out, slightly elevated to provide the ability to sight through the brush. The path to his target was illuminated only by intermittent green flashes of fireflies. To Blake they looked like endless streams of twinkling holiday lights, bright enough to highlight anything he wished to see. He racked a round smoothly into the chamber just in case things all went South.
Minutes turned to half-hours, and half-hours to hours. Mist crept up around his shoulders and filled the basin below, blanketing everything with clouds. Blake pulled his face away from the scope and rolled out the tension in his shoulders. He pulled in his lower lip and worried it with his teeth, contemplating. After a moment, he shouldered the rifle again, decision made. It would come to him, if he just gave it some incentive; he just hoped he wasn’t pressing his luck. Blake army-crawled back a few paces and rolled over onto his back, steering clear of any visibility, and he sat up.
Bright blue eyes stared into his, bottomless as space. The mist clung thickly to a pair of white ears and cascaded down the chest and shoulders of the biggest wolf Blake had ever seen. He froze, locked into a staring contest with the animal.
The white wolf sat on its haunches and sniffed the air. It flicked its eyes over Blake’s shoulder and then back again as if to ask what he was thinking.
Blake felt the ghost of a smile press to his lips and he reached out to brush the wolf with his fingertips. Hello, friend.
The wolf whined then, soft and sad, and thrust his nose into Blake’s hand. Blake stroked down the animal’s back and found his hand sinking into a thick coat of grey fur. Not a wolf, then, but a dog of some kind. Cain,
thought Blake, because he was both a protector and a warning. The dog wriggled closer to his chest and sighed contentedly. Alright. I’ll wait.
Blake resumed his post behind the dead log and Cain curled up against his side, the rise and fall of his chest a welcome companionship. He hardly had time to re-draw the sight line before he saw movement.
The deepest point of the basin flickered bright blue. The flash was small at first but quickly gained intensity until a sizable area of the forest glowed almost neon. The mist curled away from the blue light as it moved, and Blake could make out robes trailing behind the cowled figure that emanated the light.
Blake allowed himself to relish the short burst of excitement. The djinn was old, maybe even the oldest.
Cain growled low in his throat and his fur bristled. Blake frowned and scanned the area around the djinn, tightening his finger on the trigger.
The movement was slow and low to the ground, shrouded in shadows and well under the mist layer. Something - someone
- was steps away from the djinn, crawling belly to the ground. As Blake watched, the shadow coiled tightly and readied to pounce, and a glint of blue light off of the surface of a knife was the only warning it gave before it struck.
The basin exploded in a flurry of muffled sound and flashes of bright light. The shadow creature buried the knife to the hilt at an upward angle just below the djinn’s left shoulder blade, angling for the heart. Just as quickly it ripped the weapon free again, circling out of reach as the djinn turned to engage.
Now that the creature was at its full height, Blake could make out the outline of a man. He was tall and broad-shouldered, well balanced, and obviously well-trained. He flipped the knife around, setting for another charge against the djinn. Darkness seemed to cling to him the way that light clung to his opponent, and on their second clash, the man nearly disappeared.
The man fought like no one Blake had ever seen. Even when the djinn dodged a blow and grabbed the hunter, its glowing fists curling around his throat, he never slowed. He drove the blood-soaked dagger in his hand straight into the djinn’s heart whenever he had the chance, his eyes hooded and a twisted, pleased grin on his face.
Twice Blake nearly intervened, and twice Cain turned his hand. The fight flared with the energy of a comet and passed just as quickly. The djinn faltered. The hunter kicked it savagely, putting it on the ground.
Blake found himself standing to his feet. From the mist came a circle of other hunters, closing in on their beaten prey with weapons leveled, caution in their steps that had never shown in the man that now backed away from the centuries-old creature at his feet. One of the hunters was much smaller than the others, and had long dark hair. A woman
. Blake leaned forward and tried to get a better look. The most surprising thing about her was that she did not seem out of place.
While the rest of the team bound the djinn, an older man with a bald head stepped to the hunter’s side and eyed him critically. The older man pulled him into the light, and Blake’s eyes widened. The man was practically a kid; younger than Blake by at least a few years from the looks of it, but there was something different about him.
The bald man took the kid’s jaw in one hand and turned his head left and the right, inspecting his eyes. Then he handed him a large syringe with a worried look on his face. The tall hunter accepted with a shrug and jammed the needle deep into his thigh and depressed the plunger. He nodded his thanks to the older man, who seemed to take it as a sign that there were no permanent injuries.
Cain began to whine and dropped his belly to the ground, backing away from the log in a similar fashion to how Blake had done it before. Blake shushed him with one hand, angling for a better view of what the other hunters were doing with his contact.
A chill ran down Blake’s spine, the feeling of a flashlight falling across two kids under a set of high school bleachers, and he jerked his head back to the tall hunter. He was standing where Blake’s gaze had left him, but above now-crossed arms glinting eyes were staring through the mist, searching the log and the woods around it hungrily.
There was no way the hunter could see Blake from his position, but his throat tightened anyway. He let the mist curl around him and he sank back into the deep brush with Cain slinking slowly after his heels.
Blake found his steps gaining speed as he backtracked his path, Cain barely a wisp of air at his side. His thoughts raced with his steps, pieces of barely sketched out mysteries clicking into place.
Every hunter worth his salt knew the story. John Winchester’s boy, the one whose name caused whispers in the dark recesses of bars and eyes to narrow on suspicion of acquaintance; the kid that kick-started the Apocalypse a few beers too early, had beaten the devil. Rumor was his brother went down with him. To hear the old guys tell it, all that mattered was that it was over and the Winchesters had finally had the decency to stay dead, and took their cursed blood with them.
No human could have sensed Blake watching from that distance: But there was no rumor that accused Sam Winchester of being human.
When Blake reached his ride, Cain jumped in like he owned the place, and Blake didn’t argue. He hit the gas and headed East, rushing to meet the dawn.
Suddenly plans had changed. December, 2010
Blake curled his hands around the white coffee mug and allowed the heat to seep into his fingers. The day had been overcast and dreary, not a ray of sun in sight. It made him tired, and being tired made him sluggish and dull, and those were things he could not afford to be.
Not in this place.
The clock above the bar clicked over to signal that another hour had passed. The music had begun to slow. The patrons had started to shift around. Some gathered their belongings, and some asked for their checks.
The dark-haired woman in the corner that had been eyeing him since he walked in finally made her move.
Her voice curled through the smoke, passed through molecules of dust, bounced off of invisible radio waves, and threaded through seedy conversations just to reach his ears. He would have turned to answer her for that alone, but it was her bold words that really caught his attention.
“Don’t see many other hunters around here.”
Blake half-turned on the tall bar stool and waved her over, then signaled the bartender with two fingers.
“What’s your name?” She stepped right into his space, not shy at all, like she wanted to peer into his eyes and just learn all of his secrets.
“Blake,” he rasped, and his own voice sounded neglected in his ears. “What’s yours?”
She grinned nice and slow, and she trailed the tip of her finger over the inseam of his jeans.
“Stacy,” she said, just as slow as her grin.
He liked that about her, how she drew out every moment, how she wasn’t afraid of much, and that the things she was afraid of were all things that earned it. She wasn’t like the others. He offered her a small smile in return. “That’s not your real name.”
She bit her lip, toying with him a moment longer before she answered, “You either.”
He laughed. “Real enough for this life. You?”
She nodded. “Gwen.”
His eyes narrowed. “Really? Gwen Stacy?”
Her eyes lit up, and she threw back her head and laughed. “No one ever catches that!”
Blake grinned again, and this time it was genuine. “You kidding? I love Spider Man.”
The woman tending the bar stopped in front of them, coffee pot raised to top off his cup, but Blake shook his head and tipped the mug her way to show it was still full. She raised an eyebrow. “That good, huh?”
Blake chuckled. “Just enjoying the warmth,” he said. He turned a beguiling half smile up to the waitress, who seemed largely unaffected. “Would you bring something for my friend?”
“Whiskey, neat,” Gwen said, her eyes still searching Blake’s face. The woman shrugged, took her coffee pot and whisked away.
Gwen dropped her eyes to trace the inside of Blake’s right forearm, her gaze intense, just like everything else about her. She reached out and pressed two forefingers to the ink of his tattoo. An infinity loop twisting through the confines of an equilateral triangle, centered over a circle and bordered by four compass points.
“What’s this mean?” she asked.
Blake followed her eyes, noting the inner circle, now half the diameter it was the night he first received it. Two years down, two to go
. He pressed his lips together and moved his hand to cover Gwen’s. “Endless journey,” he said, and she nodded and moved closer to him. Blake pulled her hand away and threaded his fingers through hers.
Before the night ended, Gwen erased any thoughts he had of cold.
Four hours later, Blake rose with the morning sun and pressed a kiss to her shoulder while she slept. He rolled out of bed and scooped up her cell phone, then flipped it open to scan her contacts list. Samuel. Christian. Mark. Sam.
Blake took a steadying breath, then cycled farther down the menu to activate her GPS.
He replaced the phone on the nightstand and took in the sight of her one more time, peaceful and soft and skin not touched by blood or death. The next time he saw her, she would probably be all hard edges and on high alert, weapon raised and shoulders squared for battle.
“Sleep tight,” he whispered as he reached for the doorknob, “And be careful.”
Outside, sunlight had started to filter through the top of the treeline behind the motel, illuminating the steam from the fresh thermos of coffee resting on the glass of the T-top. It was his favorite part of the day, when things went to sleep, things woke up, and mist coated the surface of everything like a fine blanket. Everything glistened and was new again for just a while. He lifted the hood of the bird to check the radiator hose that he’d patched and topped off the coolant with a jug from the trunk.
Then he popped open the car door and tossed in his knapsack and gear. The two rifles from under his arm slotted into the built-in holsters low behind the seats.
He heard gravel kick up behind him and he swiveled to see her, hair still mussed and clothes hastily pulled on. The palms of her hands swiped at the thighs of her jeans. Then she stood there in the freezing cold and the dirt, her arms akimbo while she tried not to show how miffed she was that he was leaving. Going to miss that rear.
“You weren’t going to say goodbye, huh?”
He shrugged into his black ski vest and pulled his ball cap down a little further to hide the glint of the rising sun waking in his eyes. He smiled reassuringly. “Sure we were. I was just, you know, loading up.”
Her eyebrows drew together. “Who is ‘we’?”
His smile extended and he stuck a finger in her face, so that she flinched and drew away, swatting at it. When the grin didn’t waver, she looked behind her.
A dog stood ten paces away, viewing the two of them with curious blue eyes. Its coat was white. Dark grey swathed down its back and tail like a cloak, masking the ears and cheeks into a heart shape. It tilted its head at her and the tail swished gently, silently, one time from side to side. Gwen caught her breath. “She’s beautiful.”
“His name’s Cain,” Blake said with a slight twinge of humor in his voice. “He was my mom’s.”
“That’s an odd name for a dog - but I like it.” Gwen held out her hand but the dog bounded away, making a wide circle to avoid her and leaping through the open window into the passenger side seat. “He lives in your car?”
“Why not? I do,” he grinned openly.
“If he was your mom’s you should let him retire. How old is he, anyway?”
Blake shrugged and grabbed Gwen’s elbow to plant a quick peck on her lips. Soft and warm.
“I don’t know,” he teased, “He’s never said.”
Gwen blinked at Cain, who licked his lips and yawned at her. Blake pulled down his shades from the top of his cap and gave her one last smile. “Be good, babe. I’ll see you.”
He set camp one day’s ride into the next set of mountains. Blake parked the car at a KOA, grabbed his gear, and hiked with Cain through the woods until he found a place far from prying eyes. Cain eyed him warily as he set up his two-man tent. Blake shook his head and smoothed the big dog’s fur. “We gotta do this, pal. It’ll only take a few days. Then we’ll get back on the road, I promise.” Cain licked his nose in response.
When night fell, Blake dropped his backpack into the grass and lit the Coleman. The lantern swung gently from the branches of a tree. The mottled, leafy sky was full of stars. Cain’s tail swished peacefully against the tent flap.
Blake rolled his eyes. “One free ride in my car and what, you think you own the place? Earn your keep!” Cain whined indignantly and pulled himself to his feet, padding off into the woods without another sound. Blake smiled.
Blake stirred the fire until it was blazing. He pulled off his shirt and let the heat sink into his skin. He liked to watch the fire. Here in the woods, away from prying eyes, he could let it be a part of him.
Blake settled into his worn tan camping chair backwards, hanging his arms over the canvas, a hand-rolled cigarette in one hand and a small wooden tinder box in the other. He tapped the ashes into the box after every drag, wasting nothing.
There was a quiet rustle in the bushes behind him, and he drew a deep breath. “I was wondering if you were gonna show,” he said into the fire. The footsteps drew closer and a man stepped from the woods and into the circle of light. His white hair fell in a long braid down between his shoulder blades. He wore little. A wolf’s pelt spread across his shoulders and dark black stripes ran underneath his eyes. In his hand he carried a bundle of sticks sharpened to fine points. “How’s life, Abe? Met a girl yet? Take up knitting? I’m telling you - you’d be good.”
The ancient man grunted disapprovingly and held out his other hand for the box. Blake snuffed the cigarette out, carefully knocking the last of the ashes in with the rest, and handed it to him. “Mm,” the Shaman muttered as he smelled the carved wood, lips pressed tightly together. “Tamarack?”
Blake crossed his arms and settled his chin into them, staring at the flames. “Yeah. Old habits die hard.” Abe nodded, chose a stick, and set the rest in Blake’s empty hand. “You’re all work and no play, you know that? Just one more thing, hold on.” Blake stretched down his free hand for his backpack and felt around. After a few seconds he pulled out a thick winter scarf, faded and worn. He wrapped the scarf around his hips above the waistline of his jeans and knotted it firmly over his stomach. Then he resumed his position, with his bare back facing the cool, dark trees.
He blinked up at the Shaman.”Did you just roll your eyes at me? Don’t judge me, okay, I just don’t wanna ruin these jeans.” Abe sighed, and Blake chuckled at the long-suffering sound. “Alright, old friend. Get on with it. I trust you remember how this goes?”
The Shaman nodded firmly, repeating the word. “Tamarack.”
“Yeah,” Blake agreed tiredly. “The one and only.”
Abe settled the open box into his left hand and guided the sharpened stick to the surface of Blake’s skin with his right. His index finger pressed the point into the base of Blake’s neck until a full drop of blood appeared. Blake closed his eyes and felt the heat of the camp fire ripple across his face, let it soothe away the sting of the primitive scalpel as Abe dragged the point downward.
The minutes dragged on while the Shaman worked, and the steady waves of fresh pain melted into the dull burn of wounds now old, lulling Blake’s senses until he felt like he was somewhere else, watching. Abe took pinches of ash from the tinder box after every new incision and rubbed the fine black substance into Blake’s wounds with a firm hand, grinding the flakes in deep and massaging out residual muscle tension all at once. When a stick became too dull, Blake would supply another. Blake’s blood rolled lazily down his back in stripes, pooling into the scarf’s thick fabric and turning it stiff and brown.
Slowly, the shape of a tree began to form. It curled its bristled limbs into Blake’s muscles, moving with his sinew and flesh as though his body was the breeze that stirred its leaves in the spring. It rooted around his spine, deep into his soul, and became a part of him.
As the Shaman rubbed in the final bits of ash, Blake felt a surge of energy. He flexed his arms and waved his hand through the fire. It kissed him gently, but it did not burn.
Blake turned to regard the man beside him. Abe threw his last stake into the fire and cupped the now empty tinder box with both hands. He raised the box to Blake as an offering with a bow of respect and Blake stood to accept it with the same, trembling slightly from blood loss and fatigue.
Abe stepped closer so that Blake could steady himself by gripping his shoulders, then reached down and wiped his bloody hands on the long ends of Blake’s scarf, a mischievous twinkle in his eye as if to say that perhaps the fabric had been useful after all. Blake snorted a laugh. Abe untied the ruined scarf and threw it into the fire, then helped Blake into his tent, directing him to lay down on his stomach.
The sleeping bag and pillow felt like Heaven, and Blake sank into them gratefully, his eyes closing almost before he made contact. Dimly he could hear Abe’s deep voice, chanting a long-forgotten song, and feel the gentle dab of cool damp cloth pressing around his wounds, cleaning the stain of blood. He let exhaustion overtake him and drifted off beneath the spell.
His dreams were fast and brightly colored, frames of images moving too fast to catch their meanings. There was a woman traveling on a highway alone. He saw a man leveling a rifle and laughing on a corner near a small white church, heard the snap of teeth in the woods and turned to meet intense green eyes over an angry jaw, felt fire rising from a bowl full of tears and sorrow, and he recognized nothing.
Pain lanced through his back and he fell through the dreams, up and up until his eyes snapped open. He was in the tent, in the woods, and he was safe. The old man was gone.
The source of the sudden pain became all too obvious as Cain grabbed the soft blanket around Blake’s waist with his teeth and pulled it higher, covering the sensitive flesh none too gently.
“Ow,” Blake grumbled into his pillow. He cracked an eye open to glare at the dog, who was watching him with a look of amusement on his face. “And you know what else?” Blake added indignantly, “Just once I’d like to pick out my own tattoo.”
Cain didn’t respond. Blake beat his pillow into submission, tried to ignore the itching burn branching across his back, and went back to sleep. Book 1, Part 2