No Way Back
Book 2 : Of Wolf and Man
part twoAugust, 2012
Blake rode into town in the early afternoon. The wide open sky did the town’s name justice. Some buildings were new and some were gone, but the scent of the trees and the crust of the Earth spinning past smelled just the same; deep and rich, full of secrets and stories. He passed through without stopping, aiming for just outside the city limit. The small road he was looking for was nearly grown over with trees. He turned right, off of the two-lane and onto the dirt. It wove its way through the woods and Blake followed the twists and curves until he saw something blocking his path, something large and white.
As the shape in the middle of the road took focus it turned into a moving, breathing thing. Blake slammed on the brakes and sent the bike into a slide, nearly laying her down right in front of the animal blocking his path. Cain’s deep bark was the best sound he’d ever heard. He set the Streetfighter down and pulled off his helmet with a wordless yell of greeting.
Cain’s tail swished back and forth at an astonishing rate, and he nearly wriggled out of his skin in an effort to keep himself contained. Blake threw his arms out and Cain exploded forward, launching himself at Blake like a fuzzy torpedo. Blake’s fingers sank deep into Cain’s fur and he buried his face into Cain’s shoulder, forcing deep breaths to keep his sheer relief from spilling out as tears.
“Thought I really screwed up that time,” Blake admitted to the wall of fur. “God, it’s good to see you.” Cain whined and twisted in Blake’s grip until he broke free, then planted his front feet in Blake’s chest and licked his cheek. Blake laughed and swatted him away.
Cain nosed Blake’s shoulder and growled softly, then padded around behind him. When he had come full circle, his piercing eyes were flat and hard. Blake’s laughter died in his lungs, and he scratched Cain solemnly behind the ears. “I know, buddy. I’m sorry.”
Cain sighed and Blake stood up, brushing the dirt off the knees of his jeans. “A minor setback, that’s all.” He regarded the dog coolly. “Don’t suppose you know where I could find a friendly face around here, do you?” Cain jumped to his feet, whirled around, and took off down the road without stopping to see if Blake was following.
Blake picked up the Ducati and gave it a brief inspection. A trail of fine scratches ran through the paint. “Sorry, Carly,” he groaned, and then he called after the vanishing flash of fur, “Hey, wait up!”
He followed Cain until the dog darted off of the road and into the forest. The ground was level at the edge of the woods, but not level enough to take the bike through. He sighed and disembarked, then tucked the bike into the treeline where it would not be easily seen from the road. He removed the saddlebags and slung one over each shoulder. Cain barked impatiently from the thick underbrush, and Blake followed.
They hiked through the woods for nearly an hour. Blake relaxed into the routine, finding it refreshing after so many months indoors, and Cain occasionally stopped to run circles around him as if to say he had been missed.
When they finally broke out into open space, Blake could hardly believe his eyes.
A small clearing lay ahead of them, the dead end of an abandoned road that reached back toward the outskirts of town. In the middle of the clearing, sitting there like it was waiting for him, was Blake’s car. Cain barked his encouragement, then disappeared back into the woods.
“Oh, no way
Blake walked up and ran his hands over the contours of the Pontiac until his fingers found and traced the feathers of the Firebird, unable to believe his good fortune.
He pressed his forehead to the glass of the t-top and closed his eyes, feeling the weariness in his bones and the constant aching itch beneath his skin. The rustling leaves behind him felt like the sound of the tree calling him home.
The sound of a shotgun being pumped and leveled at his shoulder blades was less mistakable. “Sorry to interrupt your touching reunion.”
Blake’s eyes snapped open, and his breath sent fog across the glass. “Gwen,” he started to say, but she cut him off with all the ferocity of a lioness protecting her kill.
“No talking. Keep your hands where I can see them.” He turned slowly. Gwen had a 12 gauge braced against her right shoulder, but she wasn’t looking down the iron sights. She seemed pale, washed away by the early morning sun.
Blake complied, carefully angling his palms outward toward the forest. He didn’t want to frighten her away, but she had already seen his power. Trying to hide it would only be insulting. Blake let some of the heat he carried flicker to the surface, white fire playing across his eyes.
Gwen’s lips trembled. Her hands, wrapped firmly around the trigger and the stock of the shotgun, did not. She was breathing deeply and she seemed trapped inside of her shock, unable or unwilling to break the spell of their eye contact with words.
Blake slowly lowered his hands, and he whispered her name again. “Gwen, please. Just hear me out.”
The spell shattered, and Gwen’s face settled into flint. “What happens next is gonna depend on how you decide to answer my one and only question. This has one of two outcomes. Either you end up with your brain all over that pretty white car of yours,” she waved the barrel menacingly, “Or I toss you the keys in my pocket, you get inside, and you drive away for good. Understand?”
Blake nodded carefully. “I understand.” He tried not to give ground to the smile trying to tug at the corners of his lips. “...Was that the question?”
Her eyes narrowed. "If this was a movie, this would be the part where I would pump this shotgun again, just to make sure you heard it right."
Blake shut his eyes, because if he kept looking at the way her nose wrinkled up when she got angry, he was gonna get himself shot for sure. “What am I?”
He felt Gwen pause. “What?”
He peeked through just one eye. She had lowered the shotgun a few inches, loosened up her grip. “Your question. It was going to be ‘what are you’, right?”
Blake relaxed, regarding her openly. “I’m no danger to you, Gwen. Or any of yours. I never was.” He bowed his head a little, not really wanting to watch her reaction. “That’s all I can tell you for now.”
Her boots shuffled through the leaves as she shifted her weight left, then right again. The barrel of the shotgun rose. “You aren’t human,” she said, and he was relieved to hear conflict in her voice. “And I let you …”
Blake looked up then, his relief turning to ashes at the stricken way she looked at him. She wasn’t angry or disgusted at all. She was frightened and alone, and he was just one name on a long list of people who had betrayed her.
“I’m sorry,” he said quickly, moving without thinking. “I’m sorry about your family - I’m so sorry I didn’t get there sooner, babe.” She took a step back, but when he reached to push the shotgun away, she dropped it into the grass and pressed her hands to his chest, offering minimal resistance as she searched his face for answers.
Her right hand slipped into the neckline of his t-shirt, and her fingers felt blindly for the scar that should have been where Samuel shot him. She tipped her chin toward his, eyes widening. He brushed her hair back and tucked it behind her ears with both hands, leaning down to hold her gaze, dead serious. “And I’m sorry I left you on the side of the road like that, and that you had to see me like that - Gwen, I’m sor-”
Then she was kissing him, and he was stumbling backward with her small frame in his arms, the whisper and pull of the Tree silenced by the rhythm of her breath pulling the air from his lungs, giving it back just as strong. She broke the kiss only to tug at his shirt, and he pulled it off and threw it, not caring where it landed. He soaked in the relief on Gwen’s face and the feel of her hands on his unmarked skin where the scars from his wounds should have been.
Her hands smoothed over his chest until they dropped and wrapped around his waist. She turned her head to listen to his heartbeat. “I thought you were dead,” she whispered, “I thought that everyone -”
“Shh, I know. It’s alright.”
“You got away,” she said, more of a question than a statement.
“Told you I’d see you.”
“What happened to you? How did you -” she shuddered, leaning her whole body closer, and he rested his chin on the top of her head. “I thought you were dead,” she said again, sounding for all the world like a bewildered child.
Blake chuckled. “How about this. If you agree not to spray my brain all over the ‘bird, and I agree not to drive away forever, can we compromise and settle for option three?”
Gwen shifted, and Blake felt her lips curve into a smile against his bare skin. “What’s option three?”
“I can’t tell you what I am. But how about you and me, we get in that car together, we take a ride, and I’ll show you.”
She tensed in his arms. He rubbed small circles into her back, waiting for the answer. Finally, she sighed. “That sounds … really dangerous. And stupid. And … kind of fantastic.” She trailed off, pulling back to inspect his shoulder one more time. “You’re really okay, aren’t you?” she asked. “It looks like it never happened. How did you -”
Blake silenced her with a kiss of his own, running his hands down her cheeks and into the collar of her jacket. He pushed it off of her shoulders, and she shrugged it onto the ground. “You know,” he said, snatching words in between breaths, “I got shot in the leg, too.”
Gwen grinned up at him, and her dark eyes glittered. “I should check on that,” she said, but she was only half-teasing. She put one hand on his belt buckle. He reached into the back pocket of her jeans and swiped his car keys, dangling them in front of her face with an answering grin of his own.
The rest was just going to have to wait.*
“You know what? You’re kind of creepily addicted to camping.”
Blake smiled into Gwen’s ear as he rested his chin on her shoulder, settling his arms more firmly around her while they stared into the flames he’d made. The forest near Lisbon stretched out for miles, and he could sense winged and furry creatures alike watching from the darkness, curious at the presence of a human after so many years. “Kind of goes with the territory,” he answered. “Relax. The fire is our friend.” She huffed a small laugh, then stretched languidly beneath his arms with a yawn, sinking deeper into the blanket that they shared.
“Hey, no sleeping yet. I’ve got a few questions of my own.”
Her eyes slipped closed, but her lips twitched up at the corners. “I might be bribed into answering them, if you ask nicely enough.”
“How’d you find my car?”
A small shrug. “Cain.”
“How’d you know I was coming for it?”
A tiny dismissive wave of her hand. “Cain.”
“Huh. How’d you end up in Blue Earth of all places?”
Her eyes opened again, hazy with sleep and memories. “After Samuel took you, I left. Cain found me walking on the side of the road, and I just … I just followed him. We kind of drifted for a while. I tried hunting on my own but the jobs these days - it’s like the whole world went insane.” She paused, and he could tell she was about to tell him something he wouldn’t like hearing. “A few months back, Samuel contacted me. He said he had a lead on something new, something big. He wanted my help. He told me Crowley was dead. He promised he wasn’t working with demons anymore. I don’t know, I was lonely. I met up with him.”
Gwen’s voice cracked and she fell silent, so he gave her a small squeeze and encouraged, “And then what happened?”
“You probably wouldn’t believe it,” she laughed, sounding nervous. “What am I talking about, of course you would.” When she spoke again, her hesitation was gone. “I got shot, I died - I woke up in a freezer. Try explaining that one to the coroner.” She turned slightly to see him better, and her eyes were open and unguarded in the firelight. She studied his face a moment, then observed, “You don’t seem very surprised.”
Blake kissed her slowly, taking his time to enjoy the warmth of her skin against his, the way her cheeks flushed from his attention. When they broke for air, she was staring at him with a shy, disbelieving smile. “I’ve heard stranger,” he informed her. “I’m just glad you’re back. What next?”
She settled back down against his chest. “I tried to find Samuel. Resurrections run in my family. I was hoping he would know something, but he was just gone. I still don’t know what brought me back, or why. There wasn’t anyone left I could trust. I knew there were other hunters here, and I didn’t have anywhere else to go, so...”
Blake mentally tried several phrases he could open with, but it didn’t seem like the right time for any of them. He settled for, “Resurrections run in my family, too.”
She laughed, waving it all away. “Anyway, welcome to Blue Earth county, Minnesota. Population roughly sixty-thousand back in oh-eight. Before … well. You know.”
“The Apocalypse,” Blake supplied darkly.
Gwen’s voice grew rough with anger. “Way I heard it, the pastor’s daughter was a monster.” She cut her eyes sideways to him, cheeks flushing. “I mean, she was some kind of demon. She turned the hunters against each other, got them to buy one-way tickets to Hell in the name of God.”
Blake kissed the top of her head. “Yikes. How’d they figure it out?”
“Dean killed her,” she sighed. Then her eyes narrowed. “He does that.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Dean Winchester?”
Well, he thought, taking in their surroundings, in for a penny. “The Winchesters might have something I need. An antique gun that can kill monsters. You ever see anything like that?”
She sat up a little. “You mean Colt’s gun?”
He fought to keep his voice even. “Have you seen it?”
She took on an amused expression. “No one has. The Colt is just a myth, Blake.”
He smiled at her. “You’re adorable, you know that?” She elbowed him in the ribs. He grunted, covering his grin with mock pain. When her laughter subsided, he asked, “Do you think you can get a hold of them?”
She frowned, uneasy. “Of Sam and Dean? I don’t know - we didn’t exactly part on the best of terms.”
There was something she wasn’t telling him, something important. Blake glanced at the inner circle of the tattoo on his arm, pressed against Gwen’s warm skin where he held her. It was thin and small, and shrinking every day. “Don’t worry,” he said, ignoring the roll of nerves in his gut. He pressed a kiss to her temple. “We’ve got time.”
“Hmm,” She raised her eyes to the canopy of trees overhead, seeking past them to the stars. “I can’t believe that all this time I’ve been living thirty miles from this place. Wasn’t it dangerous for you, bringing me here?”
“Yes,” he answered honestly, skating his lips over the crook of her neck, “but sometimes we do stupid things when we …” he blinked, suddenly unsure of himself. “I missed you,” he said instead, “and I just - I wanted someone to see it.”
Gwen’s pulse fluttered under his palm, and she took his left hand in hers. “It’s beautiful.” She reached her other hand up above their heads and ran her fingers through the fine needles of the tree, letting their prickly edges dance across her skin. Blake closed his eyes, felt her touch as an echoing whisper across his back, easing the deep muscle ache where the tamarack’s likeness used to be. He groaned in spite of himself and buried his head into her shoulder, breathing in the subtle scent of her shampoo. He could sense her smile when she broke the silence. “So, when you said that you’re connected …”
Blake’s fingers intertwined with hers reflexively. He moved his free hand lower and gripped her bare thigh, warm beneath the blanket, and pulled her even closer. She laughed softly, mischievous delight rolling across the scant inches between them. She took the fragile branch more firmly in her hand and pulled it slowly through her fingers, teasing each strand of bristles as she moved. White waves of pleasure radiated through him to the core, tilting the world on its axis. The campfire crackled and flared high in the pit.
“When I said … that we were … connected,” he gasped shallowly, grabbing her wrist and pulling her hand away from the tree, “I meant don’t touch it.” The fire danced with anticipation, and the flames reflected in Gwen’s wide eyes as she twisted to look into his.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. Her voice carried a thin thread of fear, and she started to pull away. The fire settled instantly. Blake followed her movement, turning her to catch her face in his hands.
“Gwen,” he said softly, “I am dangerous. What you’ve seen isn’t even a fraction of what I’m capable of. This tree, it’s the lock. It keeps me from losing control. But you …” he shook his head helplessly. “You help keep me human. I won’t let anything happen to you. I promise.”
Her face softened, and she titled her head to lay a kiss on the inside of his palm. “Alright.” Then she grinned at him, running her hand across his chest. “So, what happens when a stiff breeze comes along?”
He looked up into the branches of the tree and watched them rustle in the soft night wind. The stars above the canopy twinkled and shone, moving through the universe in an ageless dance. “Nothing,” he answered finally, pulling back from the cool embrace of the sky. He tried to think of the best way to explain. “All of nature has a balance, a cycle. Predator and prey, the turning of the seasons, even night and day. Right?” She nodded. “Left alone, that balance would never fail. It could sustain itself forever. The balance between the tree and I is the same. It’s only vulnerable to humans.”
She looked thoughtfully at the tree. “But then, if anyone ever found it here …”
He pulled her close and kissed her, silencing her thoughts. “Enough talking for one night,” he said firmly. Blake sensed the soft press of paws in the loose earth around them. He waved a hand at the campfire, reducing it to embers. “It’s getting late,” he said regretfully. “You can take my car, go back to town.”
He stood and collected their clothes, then passed hers to her before turning to scan the forest. Dark shapes were moving silently through the underbrush. He pulled on his jeans.
Gwen grabbed for the blanket. “What? But I -”
Blake stood between her and the forest edge. “Get dressed, Gwen.”
Behind him he could hear her moving to comply. Seconds later, she draped the blanket across his shoulders. “What’s out there?”
Before he could answer, Cain’s white face appeared in the treeline, and he slipped in between the shadows that peppered the clearing like a beam of moonlight, making no sound as he moved. He came to a stop at their feet turned his gaze on Gwen. She shivered, and Blake put his arm around her. “Don’t worry,” he said, keeping his voice calm, “he’s a friend. He would never hurt you.”
Gwen’s breath fogged the air as she breathed. “I knew he was no ordinary dog,” she said.
“We’re safe with him, I promise you.”
“He doesn’t want me here,” she answered.
“He’s not in charge,” Blake retorted, but there was something more in the dog’s stare tonight and he knew that she was right. “Come on. I’ll walk you back.” Blake took her hand and pulled her through the woods, letting the fire gather into his right palm and holding it in front to light her way. The light held off the shadows as they walked, blocking out spare glimpses of fur and the red glow of eyes watching them from the darkness.
They reached the car quickly, and Blake handed her the keys. “I’ll meet you in a couple of days. There are some things I need to do here first.”
She looked back the way they’d come, hesitating to leave. “Are you sure?”
“Trust me,” he said, leaning his forehead against hers. “I’m not gonna lose you again.”
She let him usher her into the driver’s seat. He closed her door and listened appreciatively to the rumble as she gunned the engine. He watched the car until the taillights disappeared into the mist.
After a long moment, he broke the silence. “Show yourselves,” he called to the bodies in the shadows. One by one they emerged from the cover of the forest, lupine shapes slinking low to the ground, their eyes gleaming red. They formed a half-circle around him, but they dared not come any closer. He took in the sight of the pack with a slight nod of acknowledgement. “I’m going now to greet the Ahblycan,” he said flatly, taking satisfaction in the way they bristled at the use of their Father’s formal name. “Don’t interrupt us.”
Myriad pairs of eyes tracked him as he turned back into the woods, but not a single wolf followed.
When Blake returned to the fire pit, the Shaman was waiting. Blake snarled as he re-lit the flames. “You couldn’t give me twenty-four hours?” The man’s glittering stare regarded him steadily, and Blake simmered under the scrutiny. “What
Abe pointed a crooked finger at the tree, and the deep shadowed lines on his ancient face seemed like writhing snakes in the firelight. All around the small clearing, the bushes rustled and red glints of eyes glowed ominously.
Blake tensed at the intrusion, curling his hands into fists. Without Gwen’s calming touch, the destructive power beneath his skin threatened to bubble to the surface, spurred on by his sudden, searing anger. “Who I bring here is my business, Ahblycan. Don’t think that the courtesy I extend to you extends to your children.”
The Shaman’s lips pressed together in a thin line, his anger matching Blake’s wave for wave through the cool night air. The teeth on his wolf’s head hood glistened in the moonlight.
“Our Father thinks that maybe you need assistance in keeping on track with the plans he has helped you to lay out,” came an unfamiliar voice from the shadows. Blake clenched his teeth and stared hard at the Shaman, daring him to continue to undermine his authority. A younger man stepped into the circle and stood behind his master, tilting his head as he listened to the Ahblycan’s unspoken words through a bond that only skinwalkers could share.
“Funny he should wonder,” Blake answered the intruder, “because plans have changed.”
The Abhblycan’s eyes narrowed, and he titled his head as if to imply he was willing to hear more.
“We’re running out of time here. I know that. We can’t risk leaving Minnesota again, but there’s one sure-fire way to bring together everything we need. We have to offer them a hunt. And not just any hunt,” Blake continued, locking eyes with the Shaman, “a hunt for an alpha. One the Winchesters have lost before. Something only the Colt can kill. If you do this, they will come, and the gun comes with them. I swear it.”
Abe said nothing, but the shadows around him darkened, rolling like thunderheads.
“You can’t be serious,” the younger wolf snarled, “using our father as bait? We will never allow it!”
Blake finally looked directly at the speaker. Infuriated green eyes stared back, and the younger man’s lip was curled into a snarl so fierce that Blake could almost see the wolf inside. “What’s your name,” Blake asked softly.
“Matthew,” he answered.
Blake nodded. “Well, Matty, I have faith that your father can handle himself. Don’t you?”
Matty bristled, but he dropped his gaze in begrudging concession. “Your plan offers us nothing but pain,” he argued, no longer willing to meet the Ahblycan’s dark eyes.
Blake shook his head. “My plan offers you vengeance. The father of the Campbell line will respond to the call as well. Your pack can avenge the deaths of every father he stole from us.”
From the forest, low bass growls filled the middle space with vibration. Matty’s eyes had gone hard. “How do you know this?”
Blake ignored him, turning back to Abe. “I came back so that we could finish this. I have no intention of backing down. Please. Call off your dogs.”
“There must be only one leader for every pack,” Matty said, hints of challenge threading through his voice. “The Ahblycan called for us. He does not answer to you. You have no say in our presence here!”
Blake snorted. He let the blue of his eyes vanish into pure white flames. The campfire jumped several feet high into a roaring blaze. Overhead, the stars flared, pulsing in answer.
“And I hold the fate of all packs in my right hand,” Blake said fiercely, taking satisfaction in the sight of the color draining from the upstart’s face. “Leave us.”
The younger man snarled, but Abe flicked a sideways glance to him as if to silence any protest. He backed away, melting into the form of a reddish-brown wolf as the shadows closed around him once more.
Blake watched carefully, fully aware of every pair of eyes that tracked him, feeling strangely vulnerable inside the circle. The Shaman dropped his hand to his crude belt and pulled a knife. With his other hand he produced the precious tinder box, carved from the branches of the tree itself. He flicked the knife sharply toward his own chest, motioning for Blake to move closer. Blake shook his head. “Not tonight,” he said firmly. “Not here.”
Abe struck with no warning. The blade of his knife plunged deep into Blake’s midsection, slotting in between his ribs. His strangled gasp of surprise came out as a wheeze. He struggled for air, pulling great, frantic gasps into his good lung. Abe ripped the knife free and shoved it back into its sheath at his side, watching impassively as Blake fell to his knees.
The stars above him shifted and spun, and Blake felt strong hands grip him by the shoulders on both sides, holding him up to keep him from falling. Abe’s blurry image reached one wrinkled hand into the tinder box and scooped out a generous handful of ash. Blake’s blood, wet and warm, flowed freely from his side. His fingers slipped in it where he tried to grab the wound, and the two wolves holding him grabbed his wrists and pinned them behind his back, twisting painfully. The Shaman raised his hand and clamped it down over Blake’s open mouth, raining the fistful of ash inside.
The need to breathe intensified. Blake was suffocating, drowning in the dryness of it. He tried to cough, but Abe’s hand was clamped firmly over his mouth. He heaved violently, body jerking against the skinwalker’s hands, but they did not loosen their grip. The ash began to form clumps in his throat, mixing with his saliva and blood into bitter sludge. He swallowed desperately, once, twice, three times; the ashes turned to smoldering charcoal in his throat, and his pierced lung burned hot deep inside his chest. The healing embers settled there, and the collapsed lung knit back together, pumping in vain in its quest to fill with air. The pain in his side receded, but the night sky began to turn white at the edges.
On what would have been Blake’s last breath, the Shaman took his hand away. Oxygen hit Blake’s lungs like an ice blast. The two brutes holding him threw him down, and he fell coughing into the soft dirt.
The Shaman’s children withdrew to the deep shadows of the trees. Blake curled onto his side and spit, clearing his throat before letting his head fall into the soft cushion of leaves. His blurred vision was sharpening rapidly. Soon he would feel like it never happened. Soon, he knew, he would feel nearly invincible.
Abe was watching him closely as he stabilized. When he was breathing steadily again, he gave a short grunt of approval and turned away, reaching the knife out to the branches of the tree. He began to prune the tree with an almost unsettling gentleness, a sharp contrast to the ferocity of moments before.
Blake rolled onto his back to wait, closing his eyes in acceptance. The Shaman’s firm reminder of exactly who he was and why he had come here had been violent and unwanted, but if he was honest with himself, not entirely unnecessary. More importantly, the message had been delivered, and it was over. The Ahblycan was not the type to say anything twice.
In his mind’s eye, Blake looked down at himself. His own blood was already drying into rust in the denim of his jeans, and the wound in his side was a thin white scar, rapidly fading. As soon as the healing was complete, the rush of power came. Blake rode the firestorm high into the stars. They swirled and flocked around him, moving in groups. He laughed, chasing them like a small child chases seagulls on the beach. There were colors all around him that defied human description, and each star had a song, a voice. They all sang to him, come home
A rustle at his side and the strong touch of a hand brought Blake back to himself. He opened his eyes to see Abe kneeling at his side. Beyond the canopy of the trees, a small meteor shower had begun. Blake grimaced. Oops
. He sat up.
Abe’s anger had dissolved and he was wearing an amused expression.
“Shut up,” Blake groaned. “It’s your fault, anyway.”
The Shaman held out the products of his careful pruning, several small clippings from the tree. They were all pieces that were old or dying, and Blake accepted them with both hands.
He took several deep and steadying breaths, letting the fire inside twist slowly down his arms and come to the surface in the palms of his hands. The dry leaves started to burn, withering to black in the tiny flame. When everything was reduced to ash, Blake deposited them carefully into the tinder box that Abe held out for him. They repeated the process until the ashes in the box were heaped to overflowing, and when they were done, Abe pulled several sharpened tattooing sticks from his pouch.
This time around the Shaman worked steadily and efficiently, not granting Blake any rest. The night sky faded into dawn, bright colors of morning blurred by the cloying high of the endless dance of power and pain. The sun was well on its way back down again when Blake finally let himself succumb to sleep, resting deeply in the knowledge that when he woke, the sustaining mark of of the Tamarack tree would finally be back where it belonged. *
Nearly four days later, Blake found his Firebird parked in the driveway of a small green house just across the street from the local parish church. He pulled the Ducati into the thin grass next to the car and he barely had time to shut the engine off before the front door swung open and Gwen emerged.
“Took you long enough,” she said flatly. “Gideon was starting to think you weren’t gonna show.”
“Well, thanks, I missed you too,” he shot back, and he was rewarded with a smile. “What’d you tell him?”
She closed the door behind her and threaded his arm through hers, turning them back around to face the road. “Some of the neighboring towns have had skinwalker problems over the summer. He’s calling in backup to help flush them out. I told him you were mine, so behave yourself.”
He grinned. “Yes ma’am.”
“Let me see,” she said, grabbing his chin and tilting his face toward the sky.
He rolled his eyes at her. “I’m all under cover, I promise,” he said, fluttering his eyelashes. “See? Just blue, no fire.” He sent up a special prayer of thanks to Carly for scoring him the contacts. Then he wondered if she heard it.
“Acceptable,” she said, and she pecked him on the cheek. “Let’s go meet him.”
Blake followed her across the intersection and to a nondescript side door. “Gideon’s office,” she explained, rapping twice. “Put this door in a while back. Best to have multiple exits.”
The door swung open. A man in a black shirt and a white pastor’s collar stood in the doorway. He was middle-aged, but well built, and he had the look of someone very capable about him. He greeted Gwen fondly, but with a touch of wistfulness in his eyes. Thinking about his own daughter, Blake assumed.
Then it was his turn. “I’m sorry, Gwen said your name was …” Gideon asked, and he shook Blake’s hand warmly and held it.
“Last name, huh? Everyone in my town has a first name, Mr. Blake.” It was a friendly smile, but Blake could tell that Gideon was angling for intel. Not only that, but Gwen was quickly approaching a mental Tetris level that would leave him struggling to explain himself for hours.
Blake shrugged and pumped Gideon’s hand again. “You’re more than welcome to give me one, then. My mom never got around to it,” and he smiled to dig the point in a little further.
Crestfallen, Gideon finally released his hand. “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Yeah, so, about this town of yours. Is it stockaded? I didn’t see anything on the way here.”
“We’re not based in town.” Gideon seemed flattered and explained readily. “It would be too frightening to the majority of a population, those who are not actively involved in the organization on a temporary or permanent basis.”
“I see,” Blake said, “So, it’s not really your town.”
“Pastor Gideon is the mayor, Blake,” Gwen ground out through clenched teeth and a tight smile.
“Oh, my bad. I can’t claim any titles,” Blake admitted, “never got around to those either.”
“Surely, you must have some experience fighting demons or supernatural entities of some kind,” Gideon suggested.
Blake looked down at Gwen, and she nodded her encouragement. He put his arm around her and shrugged one shoulder with humility, “Well, now that you mention it, I did clean out the King of Hell.”September, 2012
Twenty of them or so had gathered in the kitchen. They pulled their feet up and rested them on the long tables or continued raucous conversations over half-empty bottles of beer or cheap rot-gut, or — in a few cases for the ones on watch that night — cups of coffee.
Blake stood in front of the bank of windows waiting for their attention. Their nonchalance didn’t give him the warm and fuzziest feeling in the world. He crossed his arms and waited for Gideon to silence them.
A few more stragglers arrived and Gideon stood up, lifting both hands. “Welcome. We have some new faces among us tonight. It is prudent on your parts not to offer immediate trust to anyone. So many of our experiences in these last days have made that a precious commodity.”
The crowd began to quiet and shift up straighter in their seats. The larger men grumbled and leaned towards one another in quiet discussion.
Gideon continued, “But the man who will speak here tonight has been proven worthy by others whom I respect. He deserves to be heard. I’m not telling you to believe what he says, and I’m not telling you that we will be adopting his beliefs or employing his tactics for our missions. We still live by a democratic government and that foundation has not been lost. I ask you to listen to the words and decide for yourselves. We will act together. Blake, please proceed.”
Blake put on as much of a soldierly bearing as he could manage and walked front and center. “Thank you, Preacher.” He picked out the few faces in the crowd that he knew: Gwen, to his far left seated at a table of strangers, and two men who had been on watch the night before, Riley and Clay, were leaned on the table furthest away from him.
He straightened his shoulders. “This,” he said, and pointed behind him at a large circle drawn on the window pane, “is our perimeter.”
“Ain’t a circle,” said one.
“And you left out the watch posts and the local geography—,” began another.
Blake saw Gideon shift in his seat and he raised his voice over them authoritatively, “And this is the ground that you defend here and it’s the ground you defend on your missions with your friends. It’s the circle of your own defense and it’s the circle of your friends who have your back. It’s the most powerful geometry in the universe and if you don’t have those two things, watch towers and landscape aren’t going to mean jack-all.”
The men settled and Gideon was eyeing him with surprise. Gwen looked smug.
“Second best geometry,” Blake turned, “is this.” With a marker, he drew a six-pointed star inside the circle. That did not go over well, either. The sound of chair legs scraped across the floor in a few places behind him. He kept drawing anyway. “For every monster you hunt and kill, you hit one of these points. It makes no difference how many kinds of monster there are or how they have changed since the last time you saw one.”
Blake pointed at one corner of the star inside the circle, then directed the marker toward the back of the room. Time to draw on people.
“Riley, how do you kill a vampire?”
The largest of the men leaned back on the rear two legs of his chair and smiled like it was the easiest question in the world. It was. Blake knew it was Riley’s favorite thing to hunt. “You cut off its head.”
“With the sickest, sharpest blade that Riley Saunders can make you,” the man gloated.
“Are those generally made of metal?” Blake clarified. The room laughed.
“Alright,” Blake smiled and he turned and added a symbol to the edge of the star: EL. “Who’s next? Clay, what about a werewolf, a shapeshifter or a skinwalker?”
The man beside Riley leaned forward and squinted curiously at the drawing. “Silver bullets.”
“Okay,” Blake said, “Where does that go on here? Metal, right?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“You guess right. Same goes for lead, iron and — believe it or not — blood.” Blake completed a precise about-face and wrote down the names of every kind of monster that could be mortally wounded or killed with those weapons. It was a long list. When he was done, he turned to a row of hunters eager to answer another question. “How do you debilitate a demon, gentlemen?”
Hands and voices went up.
Blake turned as the room expanded with the volume of words on their lips and demonstrated the point of the star that represented water: IE.
“Anyone here ever faced a demigod? How about a revenant?” Amid the answers, Blake again updated the star with the assignment for wood: IO.
Immediately, he added the letters IN and pointed to it. “My private bottle of whiskey to the one who knows that one.”
Gideon waved a hand at the star, “The inferno.”
“Fire. You got it, preacher, but I didn’t think you imbibed on the fire water yourself,” Blake smiled.
“I might be persuaded to share with the men from time to time,” Gideon smiled slightly to whoops of encouragement.
“Guys,” Blake paused to look at each of them, “each of these is a natural element. It was here before us and it’s going to be here after us. You know that cliché your mothers all repeated when we were young tots, raising hell: that she brought you into this world and by God, she’s gonna take you out. No offense, Preacher.”
Gideon shut his eyes and waved forgivingly.
Two more elements were added to the construct. ON, VO. “Earth and Sky. Salt, pepper, goofer dust, your Aunt Bertha’s organic compost. It’s dirt. It’s gonna slow them down and then it’s gonna bury them.” A shout went up and one lone voice asked, “What about Sky, genius?”
Blake stared at the drawing, thinking. Then he faced the young man standing in the oversized shirt with the dirty face and turned his eyes down thoughtfully. When he lifted them again, he answered, “And God said, ‘Everyone who calls on my name will be saved.’ Romans, chapter ten, verse thirteen,” Blake strode toward the young man with an intensity that made a few of the men back away.
Appearing much younger up close, the younger man clamped his mouth down tight and held his ground when Blake invaded his space.
“What’s your name?”
“Good name. A warrior’s name. Jason, when the nuts hit the crisper, do you want these guys to back you up?”
Jason swallowed hard and nodded, “Yeah. ‘Course I do.”
“Then I’m sure that all you have to do ... is say so.” Blake held his gaze steady until he could see that the point had been processed. Then he socked him playfully in the shoulder and walked back to the windows. “The spoken word is a powerful thing. Use the force, young Skywalker.” A few of the men chuckled and Jason finally let down his guard and sank into his chair again.
“Gentlemen — and ladies — this is the weight of the world, on that window. The reflection of all the fights and victories and losses and knowledge we’ve earned is in that symbol.”
“It’s the Key of Solomon, isn’t it?” Gideon asked.
Blake twisted his mouth. “Honestly? Some of the Key was right on, but those guys were on some serious bong loads when they came up with most of it. That doesn’t really matter. What I am talking about is this.” Blake picked up the marker again and wrote numbers near each point. “Six units of six. We make SWAT teams.”
“Special Forces, sure, whatever name you want. But their focus — their area of dominance — is on the elements in that point. Divide and conquer. We’re always prepared for whatever comes our way. The amount of gear that any single person has to carry is cut by nearly eighty percent.”
“How do you figure it’s eighty for everybody?” A man with a smaller than average build crossed to the front. “How do you account for the fact that carrying around packs of holy water is gonna be thirty pounds heavier than a pile of old sticks?”
Blake appraised him quickly. “How big a boy are ya?”
The man’s stature grew minutely. “Almost five-ten. One hundred and fifty-five pounds.”
“Fair enough,” Blake responded and turned to Clay, “and you are?”
“Six-one, two-fifty,” Clay calculated.
She didn’t flinch. “Five-four and a buck fifteen, give or take.”
Blake faced the smaller man again and motioned, “There’s your answer.”
Gideon rose from his seat in the front and adjourned the meeting with the request that any further questions or concerns be raised to him personally. Then he thanked them all for their time.
Blake heard it all like it was far away, in a halo of human reason that was quickly escaping him again, and he could hear the sound of a dog shifting and pacing at the edge of the darkness outside. He dismissed himself and retreated to the woods. October, 2012
Gwen hesitated, looking a little like she had just swallowed a whole net full of butterflies. “Did I mention he shot me? Dead?”
Blake squeezed her shoulder. “Yeah, but you also mentioned he was probably possessed at the time. And you mentioned that he might be able to help figure out who brought you back. And there was that little thing about how we need them up here, since they’re the best hunters we know. And …” He drew out the word until she cracked, letting her lips twitch into a smile.
“Ugh, I hate you. Ok, here goes. Just … let me do the talking.” She dialed Sam’s phone first, but it was no longer in service. She frowned, scrolled through her contacts, and dialed Dean instead. Blake sat down on the edge of the love seat and nudged her foot with his boot. “Anything?”
“Shut up,” she said, putting her hand over the receiver. “It’s ringing.” She sat on the bed across from him, listening intently. Then her shoulders straightened and she snapped her fingers toward his face. “Hey, Dean. It’s Gwen.” Book 2, Part 3