Magic Gifts Page 16

"No worries. It's a forgivable mistake," Ghastek said. "However, it will cost us a day and the use of five vampires."

"Humor me."

"Oh I intend too. I've had a stressful day and breaking this farce open will prove a wonderful way to vent the pressure."

The vampire sauntered off.

"He doesn't like to be wrong." Tracy's vamp said. I caught a hint of humor in her voice.

I couldn't care less if he liked it. As long as his vampires stood between me and the draugr, it would buy me a couple of extra seconds to get away.

*** *** ***

The old road led deeper and deeper into the forest. The trees grew taller and thicker, their long limbs thrusting at each other, as if trying to push their neighbors out of the way. Mist swirled between the trunks, first an ethereal haze shimmering along the ground, then a thicker blue fog that hugged the road, laying in wait. It swallowed the sounds: the hoof beats of the horses, the creaking of the cart, the occasional sigh from the deer in the back, all seemed muted.

Ahead a stone arc rose above the path, grey slabs of rocks tinted with moss. I halted The Dude. The cart rocked to a stop.

"There is a path leading north just past the arc. We go on foot from here." I hopped off the cart. "I need one of you to carry the deer."

A purple bloodsucker crawled up on the cart. Sickle claws sliced at the rope securing the animal, and the vampire pulled the deer off and slung it over its shoulder.

"Which way will you be coming?" Curran asked.

"The glade is north east from here." I pointed to a tall oak to the left.

Curran pulled me close.

Ghastek's vampire rolled his eyes.

"Remember the plan?" Curran said in my ear.

"Get in, get the information, and run like hell out of there."

"See you in a few hours."

I brushed his lips with mine. "See you."

I grabbed my backpack and headed up the path.

The mist grew thicker. Moisture hung in the air, tinted with the odor of rotting vegetation and fresh soil. Somewhere in the distance a bird screamed. No movement troubled the still woods. No squirrels chattered in the canopy, no small game scurried away at our approach. Nothing except for vampires gliding alongside the path, their emaciated shapes flashing between the trees.

The path veered right and opened into a small glade. Tall pines framed it, the enormous dark trunks scratching at the sky. A carpet of dark pines needles sheathed the ground. Here and there rocks trust from the forest floor.

"Put the deer right there." I pointed to the center of the glade. The vampire unloaded the deer and hopped aside.

"I suppose we wait until the magic?" Ghastek inquired.

"You got it." I sat on a fallen pine.

The vampire's shoulders rose up and down. Ghastek must've sighed. "I suppose we might as well treat this seriously." The vampire raised his left forelimb. A long yellow claw pointed at a tall birch on the left. "OP there." A claw moved to the right to a pine on the other side of the glade. "OP there. Give me a perimeter assessment."

Two purple vampires scattered took a running start and scrambled up the tree. The third dashed into the bushes. Only Ghastek and Tracy remained. His vampire sat on my right, her vampire sat on my left. Peachy.

A minute passed. Another.

Ghastek's vamp lay down. "If half of the things they said about draugar were true, it would revolutionize necromantic science. According to legend, they're the spirits of warriors who rise from the grave to guard their buried possessions. They see the future, they control the elements, they shapeshift into animals. They turn into smoke and become giants."

"Not at the same time," I told him.


"You said they turn into smoke and become giants. Not at the same time. They're solid in giant form."

"You're still clinging to this fallacy?"

I leaned forward. "What would you have done if you had found a draugr in Norway, Ghastek?"

"I'd try to apprehend it, of course."

"Suppose you live in a small village in Norway and you know a draugr is nearby. You bring him live game once in a while and you hope to God he leaves you the hell alone. Now some geeky hotshot foreigner shows up on your doorstep and explains to you how his going to go annoy this terrible creature for the sake of 'necromantic science'. You try to explain to him that it's a not a good idea, but he treats you as if you're a childlike idiot."

"I never treat people like infantile idiots," Ghastek said.

I looked at him.

Tracy cleared her throat carefully.

"Go on," he said.

"Would you take this foreigner to this undead monster and risk pissing it off or would you steer him as far away from the draugr as possible and hope he'll go away eventually?"

"That's a sound theory, with one exception. I'm not that gullible."

Fine. "Bet me."

The vampire stared at me. "I'm sorry?"

"Bet me. If the draugr is a hoax, I'll owe you a favor."

"And if he's real?"

"Then you will bring me a quart of vampire blood."

"And why would you need vampire blood, Kate?"

Because I need it to experiment with making armor out of it, that's why. "I want to calibrate the lot of new scanners the Pack bought."

A hint of suspicion slid into Ghastek's voice. "And you need a quart of blood for that?"


The bloodsucker became utterly still as Ghastek mulled it over.

"If I win this silly game, you will tell me why Rowena came to see you after the Keepers affair."

Sucker. "Deal."

"Excellent." He put emphasis on the x and the word came out slightly sibilant.

"You need a fluffy white cat. That way you can stroke it when you say things like that."

Tracy's vamp made a small noise that might have been a clearing of a throat or a choked up laugh.

A purple vampire popped out of the bushes, dragging something behind it. The bloodsucker strained, tight muscle flexing across its back, and heaved what seemed like a large collapsed leather tent into the open.

"We found human bones," the vampire reported.

"In the ravine?" I asked.

"Yes, ma'am."

I knew about the spot. Immokalee had described it to me this morning trying to scare me into not going. A few dozen yards to the north the ground dropped sharply into a narrow fissure lined with human skeletons. Some still held their weapons. When a draugr sucked the flesh off your bones, he did it quick, like jerking a shirt off a body.

"We also found this." The vampire indicated the tent.

Ghastek's vampire raised the top edge, exposing a dark opening and vanished into it. The leather shifted, mirroring vampire's movement inside it. The bloodsucker emerged into the clear air. "The design is ill-conceived. It is clearly too large for one person, but it has no structure or method of remaining upright as a tent, and besides this side is completely open to the elements. Perhaps it's some sort of communal sleeping bag?"

"It's not a sleeping bag," I told him.

"Would you care to enlighten me?" Ghastek said.

"Look at it from above."

The purple vampire leapt onto the nearest tree and scurried up into the branches. A long moment passed and then it dropped on the ground next to me without a word.

"What is it?" Tracy asked.

The vampire's face was unreadable, like a blank wall. "It's a glove."

The wind stirred the tree branches. The world blinked, as the tech vanished, crushed under the onslaught of a magic wave. Cold froze the glade. The other vampire burst from the bushes and came to rest by Tracy.

In the distance something wailed in inhuman voice, its forlorn cry rising high above the tree tops.

*** *** ***

Gloom claimed the clearing. It came slowly, like molasses, from the dark spaces deep between the roots, washing over trees, leaching color from the greenery, drenching it in shadows, until the shrubs and foliage turned dark, almost grey. Behind the gloom, mist rose in thin wisps, tinted with an eerie bluish glow.

A crow cried overhead, its shrill caw impossibly distant.

"They are putting on quite a show," Ghastek said.

"Yep." I nodded. "Going all out. Viking special effects are out of this world."

I pulled a canvas bundle out of my backpack and untied the cord securing it. Four sharpened sticks lay inside, each three feet long. I picked up a rock and hammered the first of the sticks into the ground at the mouth of the path. That was the way I'd run when it came time to get the hell out of here.

I moved along the edge of the clearing, sinking the sticks in at regular intervals.

"What is the purpose of this?" Ghastek asked.


"Have I've given you a reason to doubt my competence, Kate?"

"No." I pulled a black box out of my backpack, took a black cloth out of it, and extracted out an old pipe out of it. The medicine woman had already packed it with tobacco.

"What is this?"

"A pipe." I struck a match, puffed to get the pipe going, and got a mouth full of smoke for my trouble. The pungent tobacco scraped the inside of my throat. I coughed and started to circle the clearing, blowing smoke as I went.

"What sort of magic is this?" one of the journeymen asked.

"Cherokee. Very old." If life was perfect, I'd have Immokalee herself do the ritual. It took years of training for the medicine woman to reach her power, but none of the Cherokees would go near the draugr. Unlike me, they had common sense. All the chants over the sticks and the pipe had been said already. All I had to do is follow the ritual and hope Immokalee's magic was potent enough to work when an incompetent like me activated it.

I'd finished the circle, put the pipe away, and sat back on the log.

A pair of tiny eyes ignited by the roots of an oak to the left. No iris was visible - the entire eye was an almond-shaped slit of pale yellow glow.

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