T-minus three months and eleven days to the foretold doomsday
Near Chaco Canyon, New Mexico
Cara Liu figured it didn’t matter whether it was a Catholic mass or a bloodletting ritual; funerals just flat-out sucked. More, the grief of losing Aaronwho had been a good guy, always ready with a laugh, a beer, or an ass kicking, depending on the situationcame with an equal amount of fear, because the men and women gathered around the pyre knew damn well that it could’ve been any one of them.
Aaron might’ve been the first winikin to lose his life fighting alongside the Nightkeepers, but it was a sure bet he wouldn’t be the last. With the earth’s magic- wielding guardians decimated and the end-time approaching fast, their new leader, Mendez, hadn’t had a choice. Within a month of Cara’s persuading fifty rebellious winikin to return to the training compound that they and their parents had fled nearly three decades earlier, Dez had promoted” the traditional servants onto Nightkeeper-led fighting teams and put them through a crash course in killing demons and protecting their own asses, roughly in that order.
Sure, the winikin had voted in favor of fighting... but given that the alternative was an apocalypse that would turn mankind into an undead army, what other choice was there?
As the last of them passed by the pyre, thunder grumbled in the distance, warning that the darkening horizon meant business. It had been a dry desert summer, but it looked like the autumn rains were coming sooner than later.
That’s just freaking great,” Cara muttered to nobody in particular, using irritation to blunt the knowledge that Aaron wouldn’t be dead if it hadn’t been for her. She had tracked him to a small town in upstate New York, where he’d been teaching high school English and coaching basketball, and she’d persuaded him to come to New Mexico. The world needs you, she’d said. And now, nine months later, he was dead, killed down in central Mexico when it had turned out that the extermination team hadn’t taken care of all of the infected villagers, after all. There had been one left, and it had gotten Aaron before any of the others had a chance to react.
When Cara’s eyes prickled, she scrubbed at them on the pretext of shoving her black, skunk-striped hair out of her face. She stood apart from the others, halfway up a flight of stone steps that led from the packed earth of the ball court. Wearing slim black pants and a matching blazer punked out with chains and zippers, with her weapons belt conspicuously absent in deference to the ritual, she thoughthopedshe looked calm, controlled, and capable. Nobody else needed to know that her insides were churning with anger and grief, along with the unease that had been dogging her for days now, weeks.
Don’t think about it, she told herself. It’s nothing.
Only it didn’t feel like nothing.
If she had been a true Nightkeeper, she would’ve thought it was prescience, a foretelling of some dire threat. She was a winikin, though, which meant that the nerves were probably just nerves, brought on by the knowledge that the zero date was almost on top of them and her people weren’t the united force they needed to be. Far from it, in fact.
Don’t think about it, she repeated inwardly, and forced herself to look at the intricately tied funerary bundle that rested atop the pyre. But it was like trying not to think about a big white wolf, because the moment she thought it, boom, there the big furry bastard was, smack in the middle of her brain, along with all the other stuff she was trying to ignore. It wasn’t like she was playing ostrich, either. In fact, she was emulating the Nightkeeper warriors and their ability to prioritize their goals and put the needs of the many over those of the few, even if those few were teammates or even their families and loved ones.
Love...Now, there was a concept. As was family.
She glanced over at her father, Carlos, who was a stocky bull of an ex-rancher in his fifties. His hair was silver-shot and his face was showing its age now, where before he’d looked a good decade younger than his calendar years. As she gazed at him, his shoulders went suddenly very square beneath his dark suit jacket, letting her know he’d caught her look, though he didn’t respond, didn’t even meet her eyes. The fiercest of the traditionalists, he hadn’t forgiven her for leaving Skywatch in the first place, never mind everything that had happened since circumstances had forced her to return.
Jamming her hands in her jacket pockets, she rocked back on the worn heels of her black cowboy boots. Holdovers from her old life in Montana, they were as much a comfort to her as chocolate might be to another woman. They reminded her of green meadows, endless gallops, and family dinners, all long gone.
She sighed and glanced again at the horizon. The winds are changing,” she said, pitching her voice so it would carry to her second in command, who stood below her on the ball court.
Zane nodded without taking his eyes off the pyre. We should move this along if we want to beat the rain.” The ex-marine was at parade rest, though she wasn’t sure whether he was standing guard, awaiting orders, or a little bit of both.
He had been one of her first recruits, and although he had carried serious rank out in the human world, he had zero problem taking orders from an inexperienced, pint-size woman ten years his junior. Rather than joining the others in complaining about how she’d wound up as their leader, he had done his damnedest to squelch the discontent and help level things off among the rebels, traditionalists, and Nightkeepers. And thank the gods for that, because she didn’t know how she could have gained even a semblance of control without him.
Touching the high-tech bracelet she wore on her right wrist, over the place where she had once been marked with the glyphs that tagged her as a servant to the coyote bloodline, she murmured into the bracelet’s audio pickup, Rabbit? It’s time.”
The magi had paid their respects already, leaving the winikin to conduct their own ceremony, as was proper. Cara had decided to break with tradition, though, in having the Nightkeepers’ sole surviving fire starter light Aaron’s funerary bundleboth for the symbolism and because it would ensure a complete burn.
To her surprise there hadn’t been much of a protest, even from the trads. Then again, it wasn’t the first change she’d made, and it sure as heck wouldn’t be the last. Her predecessor, the royal winikin Jox, hadn’t chosen her to do more of the same; he’d picked her precisely because of who and what she was: a half-human, half-winikin who had been born after the massacre that wiped out their numbers and been raised by one of the most traditional of the trads, but who had no interest in serving the bloodline as Carlos did.
I want someone to shake things up, Jox had written in the sealed letter that named her the winikin’s new leader, and she had done plenty of that. But the countdown to the end date was down to its last three months and a few days now, which meant there wasn’t much shaking room left. At some point they were going to have to go with what they had.
Here he comes.” Zane tipped his head toward the open end of the ball court nearest to the mansion.
Rabbit approached at a ground-eating jog. Although at twenty-three he was the youngest of the magi by nearly a decade, he looked to be in his late twenties or early thirties, having been aged prematurely by the strange and powerful hybrid magic given to him by his mixed heritage. Pale eyed, sharp featured, and back to sporting a short mohawk, Rabbit could’ve stepped right out of central casting for Last of the Mohicans, even though his jeans, black tee, Goth-chained boots, and MAC-10 machine pistol were thoroughly modern.
Many of the winikinand not just the newcomerswere wary of Rabbit, who was a mind-bender and telekine in addition to being a fire starter. Cara, though, felt a certain nonconformists’ kinship. They were both half-bloods, both prone to making waves. He had the advantage, thoughhe had more magic than all the other Nightkeepers put together. She just had herself, and the illusion of control.
She came down the steps while he took his place at the foot of the pyre. And, as she hit the ground, she pretended not to see Zane’s outstretched hand. Guilt stung, though, along with a fleeting wish that things were different between them.
Zane was a good man, clean-cut and handsome in a blocky, bench-pressed sort of way, and it would’ve made practical and political sense for them to get together. But two days ago, when he’d surprised the hell out of her by showing up at the door of her suite with a bouquet of cactus blooms and feelings she hadn’t realized he’d been percolating, he’d put it exactly like that: Their pairing would be practical, politically advantageous, and stable. That wasn’t exactly the protestation of undying love she would’ve been hoping for... if she’d been hoping for one. Which she hadn’t been, because although destiny, or whatever you wanted to call it, might have forced her back to Skywatch, she’d be damned if she let herself fall into a relationship because it was practical or con-freaking-venient.