On the Run
Carolina and I wandered hand-in-hand through the high-end neighborhood, working our way mostly northward. After the first few minutes of constantly looking over our shoulders, expecting to be attacked at any moment, we managed to relax a bit.
“One of my good friends died yesterday.” Carolina broke the silence. “She was an incredible witch. From what we’ve pieced together, about the same time Sara’s thugs found your Jeep up on the mountain, another group began a magical assault on the Well of Souls.”
“You mean that place in Jerusalem?” I asked, confused.
Carolina smiled. “The Well of Souls in Jerusalem is just one of many such places around the world. Some witches believe it was the source of Jesus’ powers. It’s been a source of contention in the area for thousands of years. Many wells, such as the one here in Utah, have been kept hidden. Tempest protected the well for over two centuries.”
“Ok, that brings up another question. You’re more than seventy years old, and you’re telling me your friend lived over two hundred years…”
“I’m just shy of a hundred myself.” Carolina laughed. “Raquel’s a hundred and nineteen. Victor won’t say how old he is, but we know he was around during the American Civil War.”
“Is there some magic spell that you use to stay young?” I asked.
Carolina shook her head. “Magical energy restores and rejuvenates us as it flows through us. The more skilled you become at using magic, the more it feeds and replenishes your physical body.”
“Wow.” I didn’t know what else to say.
“It’s almost like we’re meant to use magic.” Carolina continued. “As if it’s a part of ourselves we’ve just forgotten.”
I nodded thoughtfully. “I get what you’re saying. Ever since the tattoo parlor, I’ve had a sort of deja-vu feeling, as if I already knew all the things you’ve taught me.”
“I believe our souls remember that we’re part of something greater. That helps explain why nature spirits exist too, if they’re the souls of powerful witches who have passed on.”
“So your friend is out there somewhere?” I asked.
“Tempest? Yes. She’s definitely still around. She spent her dying moments helping me and her daughter summon a guardian to help protect the Well. Her body may be gone, but her soul is still close, still watching over us.”
“So how long does the average witch live?” I was curious.
Carolina shrugged. “That’s difficult to answer. Witches tend to be secretive about their lives. Western civilization hasn’t been too kind to us; even today, there’s plenty of reason to keep ourselves and our abilities out of the public eye. There’s also enough conflict between different magical philosophies and groups that we tend not to live as long as we could.”
“I’ve already figured that part out.” I said sardonically.
Carolina laughed. As we worked our way down through the neighborhood, the size and spacing of the houses around us decreased. A group of three women wearing coordinated workout clothes power-walked past us with suspicious glares.
“It’s hard not to use magic when you’re so accustomed to it.” Carolina muttered. “I usually encourage people like that to forget I’m around.”
“That’s something you’re definitely going to have to teach me.” I suggested.
“I don’t know what you have to complain about.” Carolina grinned. “You’re not a woman with ink-covered brown skin.”
“I can’t argue with that. My mom warned me about women like you.” I laughed. “That might have something to do with why I like you so much.”
Carolina laughed and bumped my shoulder. “She was right to warn you. I’m all kinds of trouble.”
“I’ve figured that out. Not that I’m complaining.” I grinned. “That brings up another question, though. I never told Sara that I knew you, and she seemed surprised when Raquel was in the interview room at the station. Are we certain the attack on the Well of Souls was linked to Sara’s attack on me?”
Carolina frowned. “The Ice Queen’s schemes are usually intricate and layered. We can’t honestly say we’re doing anything but making educated guesses at what she’s up to. She probably knew you’ve been talking to Victor and Saul, though, so she probably assumed we’d be trying to recruit you.”
“Which it turns out you were.” I pointed out.
“Well, yeah.” Carolina laughed. “Even if you weren’t a perfect match for Ulfvaldr, we’d have wanted someone like you on our team. You’re a good person and you’ll be a powerful witch.”
“So why the whole cloak-and-dagger routine getting me to come get a tattoo? Why didn’t Victor just come out and tell me I was a witch?” I asked.
Carolina blushed. “Well…” She paused for a moment. “I think that was more about them trying to get me on board with you joining with Ulfvaldr. You’re not the first candidate they’ve brought hoping to get Ulfvaldr a new familiar. I’ve been a bit hostile in the past.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because of the link I have with Skaldulf. As your link with Ulfvaldr grows, you’ll understand how much that bond affects you. I couldn’t stand the idea of Ulfvaldr being bound to someone I couldn’t love – and neither could Ulfvaldr.”
“And if I hadn’t passed?”
Carolina shrugged. “There were other spirits willing to join with you.”
I felt Ulfvaldr’s presence and looked over. I realized that after that first moment after crossing the barrier, I hadn’t seen him around. Now he was back, I could feel our subtle bond again.
“After destroying the barrier, the Ice Queen left.” Ulfvaldr reported. “I have not been able to determine where she went. Thirty puppets have entered and are destructively searching the main building. They have not yet discovered your cabin.”
Carolina nodded thoughtfully. “Does it seem to you like she’s using more puppets than normal?”
“Do you think she has allied with a puppet-master?” Ulfvaldr queried.
“What’s a puppet-master?” I asked.
“You remember that I told you how the men chasing you yesterday were manipulated to get them to willingly submit their will to another?” Ulfvaldr reminded me.
“Some witches are particularly skilled in magical manipulation.” Ulfvaldr explained. “They can have hundreds of willing minions who will do whatever they ask. Sara is not above keeping a handful of puppets around in a disposable capacity, but we have never seen her use as many as we have seen these past couple of days.”
“So you think she’s got one of these puppet-master witches working for her?” I asked.
Carolina stopped walking and looked around warily. “If she’s allied with a puppet-master, she’s up to something even bigger than we’ve been thinking.”
“I don’t like the sound of that.” I sighed.
“It’s insanely inconvenient not being able to use magic.” Carolina grumbled. “Ulfvaldr, can you contact Meghan and ask her if she’s seen any unusual activity among the local puppet-masters?”
“I will ask.” Ulfvaldr said as he faded from sight. I could feel his presence fade from my consciousness as well.
“So if we can’t do any magic without setting of Sara’s magic detector, how does he come and go?”
“He’s not using magic, he is magic.” Carolina answered. “Until he’s fully bound with you, he can come and go without interacting with the physical world, which makes him virtually impossible to detect. Of course, he’s very limited with how much he can interact with the physical world as well. It’s sort of a trade-off.”
“So him being visible and talking doesn’t set off any alarms?”
“Magical energy is always present, and it’s always interacting with physical matter to a small degree.” Carolina explained.
“So he just blends in with the background radiation.” I translated her explanation into something I understood. “So we need to come up with stealth magic. If we could hide our deliberate magic among the natural flow of energy, we could do it without being detected.”
“That’s harder than it sounds.” Carolina retorted. “Magical energy flows in a chaotic manner, but when we do magic, the energy follows in the patterns we create. It’s those rigid, unnatural patterns that sensitives notice. There’s a difference to it.”
“You mean like the way Sara’s spell felt?” I asked.
“You felt something?” Carolina asked, surprised.
“Yeah. There was an intense feeling of wrongness about whatever it was she was doing.”
Carolina looked thoughtful for a minute. “Sara was using an immense amount of magical energy to penetrate that shield. She probably burned up a dozen or more puppets to penetrate it that quickly.”
“What do you mean, ‘burned up puppets?’” I asked.
“Exactly what it sounds like.” Carolina said sadly. “She consumed their life force, sucked them dry. They’re dead.”
“A dozen people.” I said, disgusted. “So her body count just for the past two days is up around twenty.”
“Closer to fifty.” Carolina answered. “She threw a bunch at us at the Well of Souls as well.”
“I’m growing increasingly disgusted with this woman.” I grumbled. “So how do we know she doesn’t have a dozen or more wandering around the area set to kill us on sight?”
Carolina squeezed my hand with hers. “There’s every chance she does. If you feel any of that wrongness you felt before, no matter how weak or insignificant it seems, let me know immediately.”
I nodded thoughtfully. I had a whole bunch of thoughts spinning around in my head right now, about Sara, about Carolina, about how magic worked and how to hide it. I was fairly certain I could figure out a way to do develop magic stealth in much the same way radar stealth or camouflage worked. I needed to know a lot more about how to do magic, though. I was still in way over my head, and I could understand why Raquel said they typically used a more gradual process to introduce people to magic.
We’d worked our way into a more typical suburban neighborhood with cookie-cutter homes and tiny lots, much more like where I lived, or where I had lived before Sara had my house blown up. Most of the homes were empty, the parents off working and the kids at school.
I pulled to a stop as we approached a corner.
“What?” Carolina asked.
“There’s a cop car a block and a half down.” I said, deliberately avoiding looking toward it. “I’m not feeling anything, but I’m not sure we want to risk anyone Sara’s been around.”
“That’s probably smart.” Carolina answered. “Let’s take an alternate route.”
“Too late.” I grumbled as the police car started driving in our direction. “We’ve been spotted. Please say you’ve got magical reinforcements on standby.”
“Of course.” Carolina said tersely.
The squad car rolled to a stop beside us. “Hey Jim,” I said, recognizing the driver. You can’t work emergency services without getting to know the local cops.
“What the hell, Hammer? You know half this town thinks you’re dead?”
I nodded. “You know there’s who-knows-how-many psychos out there trying to kill me?”
“Yeah. What’s that about?” Jim asked.
“You want the truth?” I asked.
“I have a very good reason to believe Sara’s setting them on me.”
Jim paused for a second, processing what I’d said. “What did you do to piss her off that bad?”
I indicated towards Carolina, who smiled and waved. “This is my new girlfriend, Carolina. Sara kind of flipped when she found out I was dating someone not-her.”
Jim rolled his eyes. “I hate to say it, but for some reason that doesn’t surprise me as much as it should. That woman went full-on psycho stalker on you. It’s all too believable that she’s recruited a bunch of meth-heads to murder you.”
I laughed half-heartedly. “Yeah.”
“You know, I’ve always felt there was something a bit off about her arrest reports. I wonder if she’s been recruiting these guys for a while.”
“Wouldn’t that be interesting.” I grumbled.
“I oughta look into that. The Captain might just enjoy a report about it. She’s never been in his good graces.” Jim mused.
“Don’t get yourself on her hit list.” I warned.
“Nah, I’ll keep it nice and quiet.” Jim nodded. “Anything else I can do for you?”
“Don’t tell anyone you saw me.” I answered. “I need a little time to get out of town before Sara finds out I’m still alive. A ride to Salem wouldn’t hurt either, if that’s not too out of your way.”
Jim laughed. “Hop in. Let’s try to keep you alive a little longer.”
Carolina and I climbed into the back of Jim’s squad car with a bit of trepidation. I couldn’t sense that wrongness Carolina had warned me to watch for, and a ride meant a whole lot less time walking where Sara’s puppets might find us.
Jim talked for the whole ride, mostly talking about things he didn’t like about Sara. She wasn’t his sergeant, but he had enough interaction with her to know about a whole string of irregularities in her arrest history. It really did sound like she’d been building an army using her police authority to get leverage.
He dropped us off just off the main road, about a block from the garage where Saw’s ambulance was. We were well outside the perimeter we expected Sara’s dragnet to cover. We thanked him profusely and warned him again not to cross Sara.
“Well, that saved us about an hour of walking.” I said happily as we started walking. “And it sounds like Sara’s been building an army for a while. Maybe she hasn’t joined up with a puppet-master.”
Carolina sighed. “It’s possible. We’ll be able to find out more once we’re at the compound in Colorado.”
“So what’s to stop Sara from doing the same thing there that she did to your house here?” I asked.
“Powerful, ancient magic.” Carolina replied. “The spells on the land here were mostly designed to keep unwanted people out. The Colorado compound was built as a fortress to withstand magical attacks. You’ll be able to feel the difference when we arrive.”
I nodded, not really understanding, but accepting her explanation.
“Why do your friends all call you Hammer?” Carolina asked.
I shrugged. “It’s shorter than using my whole last name. Saw started using it on the radio and it spread from there.”
“I like it. Do you mind if I call you Hammer?”
“Nope.” Actually, something about how Carolina said it made me really like hearing her use that nickname. Maybe it was just that she was saying it. The more I got to know her personality, the more attractive I found her.
We found Saw’s garage and I punched in the code to open the man-door. Once we were inside, I pulled it shut and turned on the lights.
Carolina stood and gawked at the ambulance for a minute, taking in the urban camouflage paint, heavy-duty crash bumpers, oversize off-road tires, and security lighting. It obviously used to be an ambulance, but it was more of a monster now.
“I like it.” She finally said with a grin on her face.
I walked around the outside of the ambulance, opening compartments to make sure everything was where it should be. “It’s pretty nice. Good enough to live out of for a few days, if necessary. We need to move fast, though, in case Sara finds out Jim helped us.”
“I agree.” Carolina said. “Anything I can do to help?”
I shrugged. “You know how to start a diesel?”
“Warm up the glow plugs before you start the engine.”
“Start her up. I’m gonna see what we’ve got in the box.”
I opened the door and climbed into the back while Carolina walked around and climbed in the driver’s seat. The ambulance rumbled to life as I opened cabinets and took inventory on what we had. There was a stack of MREs, but nothing else food-like, and nothing to cook with. The ammo boxes were full, and we had a full complement of rifles and handguns. The water tank was full and the batteries were charged.
I climbed out of the box, unplugged the shore line, opened the garage door, and waved Carolina to pull out. She put the ambulance in gear and rolled clear of the garage door. After turning out the garage lights and closing the doors, I climbed into the passenger seat of the ambulance.
“Let’s ride.” I said with a grin.
Carolina let off the brake and pulled the ambulance towards the street.
“Keep your senses peeled.” Carolina advised. “Try to open yourself up to the flow and any differences within it. You should be able to detect the structures of deliberate magic. Just don’t try to alter anything. Sara will notice that.”
“Will do.” I said. It was fascinating how quickly I was picking up magic. It was like Carolina had said, it felt more like remembering something I’d done before, or flexing a seldom-used muscle, than learning something new. I couldn’t wait to actually do magic. Maybe I’d get to try once we got to Colorado.