Ring of Fire
I woke to the muffled sound of sirens. Carolina’s warm naked body pressed against mine. “What’s that?” She mumbled.
“Crap. It must be my phone.” I answered as my brain processed the sound. I slid off the bed and fished my phone out of the thigh pocket of my pants.
“It’s Saw.” I tapped the answer button and held the phone to my ear. “Hey.”
“For Heaven’s sake, son. It’s about time you answered your damn phone. I was starting to worry you might actually be dead.” Saw shouted.
“What?” I asked, confused.
Saw paused. “You’re with a woman, aintcha?”
I looked over at Carolina, wondering how Saw figured it out. “Uh, yeah.”
“Thank God. Just so you know, your damn house blew up.”
I almost dropped the phone. “What do you mean, my house blew up?”
“I’m watching it on the freaking news here in Vegas, Son. They said a dozen drugged-up homicidal nut-jobs chased you off the mountain last night. That true?”
“Something like that.” I answered.
“Well, one of the four that escaped the barricade popped on over and blew up your house a couple hours ago.”
“Holy…” I really had no words for how I was feeling. Worried, relieved, freaked out, and completely calm all at the same time. I turned to Carolina. “Sara blew up my house.”
“Sara?” Saw’s voice ripped into the phone. “What the hell does Sargent Boob-job have to do with it?”
Carolina was lying on the bed watching me with her gorgeous lips formed into an amused half-smile. “I can hear him.” she mouthed.
“She’s crazier than we thought.” I answered Saw. “Remember how I told her I had a date with the tattoo chick, Carolina? Well, it ended up turning into a real date. Sara found out and went full-psycho and paid some guys to kill me.”
“Hell, I knew that woman had issues, but I didn’t see that coming.” Saw grumbled.
“Yeah, join the club.”
Saw grumbled for a moment. “Do the rest of the cops know she’s a psycho witch?”
“I’m pretty sure they’re clueless about it, although quite a few were getting pretty fed up with her by the time I left last night. Did they catch the guy who blew up my house?”
“Bomb went off early.” Saw explained. “He was halfway out the window and got caught by the explosion. They’re working on IDing the corpse.”
“So he’s in no condition to tell who put him up to it. Damn.”
“Hold up.” Saw said. “They’re talking about you…” I could hear the muffled noise of his TV. “The TV folks are debating whether you’re dead or not. Apparently one of your neighbors thinks she saw you come home at around two in the morning.”
“It wasn’t me.” I answered. “Carolina picked me up at the station and we went straight to her place.”
“So you’re already sleeping with the hot tattoo artist? I seen her pictures and I just gotta say I’m proud of ya.”
“Uh… thanks, Saw.” I answered awkwardly.
“So you’re sure it’s Sara trying to kill you?”
“I’m pretty sure that’s what she meant when she said ‘you’re dead, James’. Also, my lawyer provided some good corroborating evidence.”
“Didn’t know you had a lawyer.” Saw mused.
“I didn’t, but Carolina had a friend. Turns out, this isn’t the first time Sara’s gone on a killing spree.”
“Why ain’t the woman in prison?” Saw asked, aghast.
“‘Cause she’s sneaky. Think about it; she sent some guy to blow up my house, then he conveniently died so he couldn’t pin it on her. She got her fellow cops to kill most of the rest. I’m betting the three who haven’t been found yet are probably dead somewhere too.” I answered.
Saw was quiet for a minute. “You gotta go to ground. Disappear for a while. You need the ambulance?”
“I might.” I answered.
“It’s yours. Anything I can do for you. You know that.” Saw’s voice was steel, the way it got when he was holding back his emotions.
“I know, Saw. You’re a good man.”
“I’ll cover for you with Cap. He knows that woman has been harassing you. I’ll spread the word she’s gunning for you.”
“Take care, Son. Lemme know if you need something. And turn your damn phone off. She’s probably triangulating you on it.”
Saw clicked off and I stared at my phone for a second before powering it off and pulling out the battery.
Carolina slid down to the floor and wrapped her arms around my chest. “He’s right, she probably does know where we are. Blowing up your house was just to send a message.”
“Nice woman.” I mutered. “So what’s the plan?”
Carolina sighed. “We’re probably safe here for a little longer. Once she starts actively working to penetrate the barrier, we won’t have a lot of time. Ulfvaldr’s out patrolling the borders and he hasn’t spotted any overt attempts to get in, but there are a couple guys standing in the road by the front gate.”
“I’m guessing that means we’re not leaving the way we came, unless we can use magic to sneak past them.”
“As we discussed last night, teleportation is out. In addition, the Ice Queen — Sara — has an uncanny ability to detect the use of magic. Any we use will just announce our plans to her.” Carolina answered stoically. “It would be best to avoid a fight if we can.”
“Right, no magic. I don’t recall seeing any other roads, so I’m guessing that means we’re on foot?” I asked.
“Yup.” Carolina nodded.
“If we can’t use magic without giving ourselves away, I’m guessing Saw’s ambulance is our best bet.”
“He has his own ambulance?” Carolina questioned.
“Well, it used to be an ambulance. The fire department sold their old ambulance a few years ago. Saw bought it using a false ID he keeps up in New Mexico. I’ve been helping him convert it into an urban assault vehicle.”
“A what?” Carolina looked confused.
“Urban Assault Vehicle. You know, in case of a zombie apocalypse or something.”
“Why does Saw have a false ID?”
“Well, it started when he was a teenager so he could go to bars. When his first marriage started going sour, he started putting the stuff he really cared about — his guns, mostly — under his fake ID too. He figured if things got bad enough that he ever had to use the UAV, it might be useful if it couldn’t be traced to him. Right now, I’m feeling pretty bad about teasing him about that.”
“In our world, a healthy dose of paranoia will keep you alive. I’ve let my guard down lately, and now we’re paying the price.” Carolina mused.
“The ambulance is in a garage in Salem. It’ll take us a few hours to walk there. If we head north instead of taking the road north-west, we should hit one of the neighborhoods in the foothills pretty quickly. We shouldn’t draw too much attention just walking the streets.”
Carolina smiled and planted her lips on mine. Her kiss was sweet and short, but filled with passion and desire. “You’re amazing.” She said after pulling her lips away. She gathered her clothes from the floor and stood up to get dressed.
I followed suit, gathering up my own clothes. As I did so, I realized that what I had with me was basically all I had left. My shot-up Jeep was locked in the police compound and everything else I owned had probably been destroyed when my house blew up. As I watched Carolina dress, I decided I didn’t mind. She was like the white rabbit, leading me to a world that seemed so much more real than the world I was leaving behind.
We grabbed some fruit and granola from Carolina’s kitchen before pulling on our boots and heading out the door. “Ulfvaldr says there’s nothing new to report.” Carolina said, taking my hand as we started walking through the trees.
“Why can you hear him and I can’t?”
Carolina smiled and squeezed my hand. “It’s hard to remember how much you don’t know yet. Somehow, the more time I spend with you, the more it feels like I’ve known you forever. Ulfvaldr’s mate, Skaldulf, is my familiar. They can communicate telepathically.”
“Ok, so why can’t I hear Skaldulf?” I asked.
“Skaldulf and I share the most intimate, powerful bond a witch and familiar can share. Our souls are literally bound together, merged. She’s a part of me, and I’m a part of her.”
“That sounds a bit… awkward.” I said thoughtfully.
“It’s not. It’s beautiful, wonderful. Imagine having a friend or lover with whom you can share every part of yourself, someone who accepts you unconditionally, who understands you entirely. We are one.”
I shrugged. “I’m not sure how that would feel. I’ve never felt anything like that.”
Carolina was silent for a moment. “Could you see ever being that close with me?”
I could tell the question was serious, and I took the time to consider it seriously myself. “Of all the people I’ve ever known, you’re definitely the one I think it has the best chance of happening. You don’t make me feel like I have to pretend to be someone I’m not. To the extent I know you, I feel like you’re more of a kindred spirit than anyone I’ve met.”
Carolina smiled and we walked on in silence. It was a pleasant little while, more like a romantic walk in the woods than running for our lives.
It didn’t last nearly as long as I’d have liked. One minute everything was normal, and then suddenly it felt like the world had been punched in the gut. My entire body pulsed with pain. Carolina clearly felt it too.
Ulfvaldr appeared by my side. “She has begun her attack.”
Carolina turned and looked left, towards where the road was. I looked too. I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. It looked like cold blue flames were leaping into the sky.
“Didn’t you say magic wasn’t like that?” I asked, surprised.
Carolina shrugged. “It usually isn’t, and mundanes can’t see it. She’s stronger than she used to be. The barrier won’t last more than a few more minutes.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“It’s time to run. We need to be at the barrier before it collapses.”
Every time I risked a glance, the blue flames had spread, higher and wider. As the wall of icy fire spread, I could feel the wrongness of it. The entire universe seemed to hate what Sara was doing to it. The birds came first, squawking and frightened, rushing away from the source of the disturbance. Squirrels leapt from tree to tree, and deer sprinted past, dodging between the trunks. A cougar dashed past, not even sparing us a glance as it fled.
We’d split from the main canyon and were working our way up a gully towards the ridgeline north of the road. I didn’t have to turn my head anymore to see the strange blue flames dancing in the sky, they were in front of us, but Carolina and Ulfvaldr didn’t change course.
I was panting when we reached the ridge. There was a road and some houses only a few hundred meters away, but the wall of translucent blue flame blocked our path. Carolina stopped a few feet from the wall. It didn’t radiate heat or cold, but I could sense an immense rush of magical energy coming from it.
When I turned around, I realized we were completely enclosed in a ring of blue fire.
“Now what?” I asked.
“She’s putting an immense strain on the barrier. When our barrier collapses, there will be a few seconds of chaos when we can pass through undetected.” Ulfvaldr said. “After that, she’ll be able to sense us anywhere within the ring.”
Carolina grabbed my hand and looked deep in my eyes. She smiled. It was the same simple affectionate smile I’d grown accustomed to, but filled with concern and grim determination. She was a warrior, strong and unflinching, but there was no callousness to her.
The flames flickered, and in that instant, I felt Carolina pull. There was no resistance, no sensation at all, as we crossed the line.
“Did we make it?” I asked as we stood hand in hand looking at the wall of blue flames from the outside.
“We’ll find out really quick if we didn’t.” Carolina whispered.
I could sense the tension in her body as she turned, poised and ready to fight. Ulfvaldr was close beside me, and I realized I could sense a trickle of magical energy flowing from him into me.
Ulfvaldr looked at me. “Yes.” he said softly. “Our bond has begun to form.”
Nothing happened for over a minute. Finally, Carolina relaxed. “It looks like we’re ok.”
I took a deep breath and looked around. “Let’s get out of here.”
Carolina smiled. “Sounds like a plan.”