Ryne received the assignment just past full dark. She muttered a curse as she yanked on her ankle boots, but it lacked heat. The timing sucked, but what else was new?
She shrugged into a jean jacket. The denim wasn’t warm enough for March, but she couldn’t risk being impeded by a heavy coat. Not when she never knew what she’d be facing till she was up close and personal with it. After drawing a few deep breaths to center herself, she chanted the spell to open a transit.
The gateway shimmered, but it was more mirror than window; she couldn’t see what waited on the other side. She stepped through the portal, and with a wave of her fingers, closed it behind her.
Icy wind slapped at her and she jammed her hands in the pockets of her jacket as she studied her surroundings. Crap, a cemetery. That just figured. Why did the uninitiated always feel the need to conduct black magic rituals inside graveyards?
She sensed a presence immediately, but he was one of theirs and not who she hunted. Her focus shifted. The cemetery gates were closed, the wrought iron seeming vaguely threatening in the muted glow of the streetlights. Fog hung thickly in the air, blocking her view inside the fenced grounds, but she couldn’t tell if it was natural or magical. She hoped for natural.
Satisfied that there was nothing out here to concern her, she stepped from the darkness and toward the gate. Another figure separated itself from the shadows and met her.
Zane Conners was enough to get any woman’s heart pumping faster. As she watched the wind tease his shoulder-length tawny hair, she tried to recall why she’d never accepted an invitation to go out with him. "Hey, Zane."
"Ryne. About time you got your ass here. You know, just because you’re some damn troubleshooter doesn’t mean your time is more important than mine."
Now she remembered. The bitterness. Most of the time he was a nice guy, but every now and then hostility seeped out. No man, no matter how attractive, was worth this bullshit. "I got the call less than five minutes ago. Don’t bitch at me about tardiness, talk to the council."
"Sorry," Zane said gruffly. "It’s been more than two hours since I sent the request." The roar of a jumbo jet taking off drowned out the final word, but she read his lips. She snuggled deeper into her jacket as she waited for the plane to pass.
"Tell me what you know," she said when it became quieter.
For a moment, it looked as if he were going to continue with the I’m-sorry speech, but he nodded and said, "Kid went in there ten minutes before the gates closed. He had a book with him, looked like one of the old ones, but it was hard to tell. It’s been eerily still since then. He wasn’t strong, but if he’s calling up things that are, you might be in for a rough night."
"One of the perks of being a damn troubleshooter. Anything else?" she asked quickly, cutting off another apology.
"That’s all I have."
She nodded, and with a silent incantation, walked through the barred gate as easily as if it were open. Within a few steps, she was engulfed by fog, making the night darker. Ryne paused and cast a quick spell to aid her vision. Another gust of sharp wind clawed at her as she spoke the final words. Why the hell couldn’t he have picked the summer solstice for this?
Row after row of neat, white headstones lined the ground in military order and the precision allowed her to walk without worrying about falling over a grave marker. She skidded across a patch of ice and bit back a curse after she caught her balance. The spring thaw made traversing the grounds dangerous enough.
A few more steps and she cleared the fog. That meant it was magical. Not a good sign. She couldn’t hear the sound of planes from the airport any longer either, another indication it was conjured. It acted like a wall, cutting off the cemetery from the outside world. She kept moving, being more cautious now.
Only moments later, the first wisps of power reached her and she stopped to identify them. A shiver went through her that had nothing to do with the temperature. Yeah, the kid was messing with the dark forces. Some damned powerful ones, too.
She zeroed in on his location and reinforced her protection spells. This was going to be ugly—she knew it. With a quick entreaty for luck, she crept forward, carefully avoiding the places covered with crunchy ice. There wasn’t much cover, but then if this thing was as strong as she suspected, there was no incantation, no physical object, that would hide her presence for long. Dread rose, but she pushed it aside. This was her job, what she’d trained for years to do. She’d handle it.
The kid stood beneath one of the few lights in the cemetery. He looked to be about seventeen, and he used the marble wall that encircled the flagpole like an altar. She noticed the black pillar candles first. They weren’t lit, but it was evidence of dark magic. A book was open between the candles and the pages fluttered in the breeze. A glint caught her eye and she focused on the athame. Seeing a ritual blade in this situation was bad news. Ryne edged closer to hear what the boy was chanting.
It wasn’t English.
It wasn’t any language she’d heard spoken before.
Which meant only one thing—something was inside the kid. Whether or not the teenager was alive was anyone’s guess; she wouldn’t know until she forced whatever inhabited his body out into the open. Staying deep in the shadows of a nearby tree, she let her senses probe, trying to discover what she’d be facing.
She couldn’t read a thing.
That made it tough to come up with a plan of action.
Ryne ran through what she knew and made a guess. The boy was a dormant and had probably always had an interest in the arcane. When he’d found the book, he’d started fooling around with it—and he’d called forth something that wasn’t playing. Something strong enough to compel the kid to this cemetery.
Whatever it was, it must be confined to the grounds. For now. No doubt the teen had been summoned to change the situation and it was up to her to prevent it from getting loose.
The conjecture, however, didn’t give her any idea of how to handle the task. Lots of things that operated on the dark side would behave this way. The chanting stopped abruptly.
"I see our guest is here."
It was the boy’s mouth moving, but it was evil speaking. The voice made her feel as if she’d fallen into a pit with rotting corpses, but she shook off the revulsion and concentrated on the situation. The kid, or rather whatever was in the kid, stared directly at her. So much for the element of surprise.
She didn’t have time to brace herself before he attempted to force her to the altar. The push was strong, the energy fetid, and it gave her a feel for what she’d be facing. Whatever this was, it was old, experienced, and corrupt, but she didn’t think it realized what she was. Not yet.
Ryne shifted, balancing her weight evenly, and prepared herself for another prod. It came immediately and was much more potent, but it didn’t affect her. She smirked, trying to piss the thing off. The idea was to goad him to attack and hope he gave something away, since she still didn’t know what was inside the boy.
Although she’d expected a probe, she thought it would come head-on. He surprised her by using a more roundabout path. She blocked it at once, but it was too late. Stupid, stupid mistake.
"Gineal." The word came out more breath than substance, but she heard it and would bet he’d had a run-in with another enforcer.
A rock flew at her, hurled with such velocity that she barely managed to leap clear. It showed her, though, that he had tele-kinetic ability and that he was drawing on outside power. She couldn’t pinpoint the source, but she needed to cut it off.
She was at a distinct disadvantage. Because the thing was using the teen as a vessel, she was limited in how much force she could use. She didn’t want to hurt the kid if he were still alive, but it meant there wasn’t much she could do until the boy was freed. Sometimes it sucked to be the good guy.
Ryne blocked another missile—a large tree branch—and started searching for what he used to bolster his strength. To give herself time, she called on fire, encircling the boy’s body in a prison of flame. She added a containment spell, but doubted it would stay in place. It would take a full-fledged binding ritual to hold him and there wasn’t time for that.
The text. It emitted energy. That could be the outside source. Too bad she couldn’t destroy it, but it had its own protective shield. Ryne checked, saw that the wall of fire continued to keep him captive, and started toward the altar.
She gasped when she was picked up and pitched backward. The landing knocked the wind from her, but Ryne immediately scrambled up. He’d bypassed her spells. She had to get the book.
Her second approach was more cautious, but every bit as quick. There was no time to waste. The field she’d thrown was weakening and he’d be free in moments.
It ended up being more like an instant.
Ryne hit the asphalt, narrowly avoiding an arc of flame. She scraped her palms, but the burning was a minor irritation. What pissed her off was that he’d used her fire. Rolling to her feet, she sent out her own burst. Not enough to harm the kid’s body, but enough to demonstrate she wasn’t defenseless.
"You are weak, Gineal," the creature said.
She wasn’t going to exchange insults. It was nothing but an attempt to distract her. A creak of metal captured her attention and she saw one of the flagpoles sway. She diverted it, but it crashed down damn close. Crap. What the hell was she up against?
It took a lot of energy to maintain a possession. If she could reach that book, he’d have to leave the kid’s body, then she could fight instead of dancing around, dodging the assault.
He started walking toward her, his gait unsteady. Not used to having a body, are you? That narrowed her list of suspects, but demons were fought differently than ghosts.
She felt him mentally pick her up. Despite the quick spell she muttered, she was unable to break his grip. He threw her again and her back slammed into a tree.
The buffer she’d thrust between her body and the trunk kept her from being incapacitated, but she’d hit hard enough to hurt. It had been a hell of a long time since she’d faced anything this strong. She struggled to stand, wincing at the pain in her back.
And to think Zane was bitter because his powers hadn’t reached the necessary level to be a troubleshooter.
Some people had all the luck.
She’d just regained her balance when he lifted her. Instead of fighting it, she used his energy to steer toward the makeshift altar. For a moment, she wasn’t sure she’d be able to harness it, but then she changed course and landed lightly on her feet.
The entity roared and threw another rock. She held up a hand, directing it back at him. Then the barrage started. Ryne took a few hits, but she kept trying to reach the book. Once he had to use his own abilities, the fight would be easier.
When he noticed that his ammunition wasn’t slowing her down, he growled and charged. That was his error. He stumbled over his own shoes and fell. While he thrashed around, trying to stand, she made a dash for the tome.
Her fingers closed around the leather-bound volume and she glanced over her shoulder. He’d regained his feet. It was natural to call on fire, but she found her access blocked. She didn’t bother puzzling out why. Instead, she melted a patch of ice and ran the water under the teen’s feet before freezing it again. As the creature slipped, flailing his arms to maintain balance, she brought up the wind and knocked him to the pavement.
Ryne didn’t waste a second. Her heart pounding wildly, she quickly chanted the spell that would take the old text and put it into an alternate dimension. When the grimoire disappeared, she did another sweep and found out his power hadn’t decreased. Not one iota. Damn, it hadn’t been the book.
This time he tossed her with so much vehemence that she was unable to counter it. Her head missed the grave marker, but her shoulder hit it dead on. The impact knocked the stone askew and deadened her arm. Tears filled her eyes, but she blinked rapidly and took stock of her condition. She didn’t think anything was broken, but it hurt like hell. Cradling her injured limb close to her body, she stood as quickly as the pain allowed.
He wasn’t interested in her—not right now. The thing searched the area around the flagpole, unaware she’d sent the book to another realm, but it wouldn’t take him long to realize it wasn’t there. Before he came after her again, she had to find his outside power source. If she didn’t locate it, and neutralize it, she was going to die in this cemetery.
She might have to sacrifice the boy.
It went against everything she believed, but she couldn’t let the entity kill her without fighting back. She preferred to end the possession by blocking access to the well, but her other option was to attack. If the boy’s body was too damaged, the thing would abandon it, but this was her last resort.
She needed to find that damn pool he was drawing on. The tome had been the only visible thing that could be boosting the creature, so she let her senses scan for an unseen reservoir.
Something tried to make itself felt, but before she pinned it down, a yell echoed through the night. He’d accepted that the book was gone. With a gulp, she turned to deal with his wrath.
She tried to draw on fire again, but it remained obstructed. Delving deeper, she followed her connection to find out why. It only took a second to discover it was her opponent doing it. He was so strong, he was able to throw a dam between her and flame. Her stomach tightened and she had to run her palms over the front of her jeans to get rid of the clamminess. A quick check showed she’d lost water and air, too.
She used earth to upend the being as he raged toward her. He floundered on the ground again, giving her another opportunity to scan for his power source. Nothing. Not a damn thing.
If she were smart, she’d try a tactical retreat. But if she left, or if she failed, the monster would have time to finish the ritual to free himself. Surrounded by humans he could draw on for energy, he’d wreak untold havoc before anyone could stop him.
Wait a second. Maybe that was it.
Ryne grit her teeth as he raised her up. Earth was blocked now, too, so she focused on casting the spell to cushion her landing. The damn buffer didn’t help a whole hell of a lot, though, when she slammed into a stone building. The back of her head connected sharply and her vision went white. A whimper escaped as she landed in a heap. Had to get up. Had to.
"Give me the book!"
The entity’s demand barely penetrated the buzzing in her ears. She staggered to her feet, blinking to clear her mind. She had to remember something, ASAP.
Souls. That was it.
She should have guessed. Every soul, in body or not, had its own energy. Although she could barely see straight, she reached out and discovered she was right. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of souls were trapped in the cemetery. He’d prevented them from passing to the other side and sucked their power.
Her mind went blank as she tried to recall the proclamation to open a soul gate. Sweat born of pain trickled down her temple. Or maybe it was blood. Her vision swam and she shook her head to clear it. She curled her hands into fists as she watched him close the distance. Think, she exhorted, think!
Then the words came and she whispered them quickly, fiercely. It took a good deal of power to call forth the gate and the cemetery was large, so she’d need more than one. She placed the first on the far side of the graveyard, and though she felt energy drain out of her, she began the chant for a second. "And so it is," she closed with a squeak when he grabbed her.
She shoved at his shoulder with her uninjured arm, but although she was as tall as the teenager, he had the strength of an unworldly being and she took another flight. Frantically, she chanted. This time, she could only manage to throw a weak bulwark around herself. When she hit the wall around the flagpole stomach first, her defense gave and she felt ribs crack.
Her breath left her. Oh God, oh God, oh God, it hurts. She gasped, trying to bring in oxygen. Troubleshooters don’t cry, she told herself, blinking hard.
It was tempting to remain where she landed, but Ryne forced the pain aside, tried to anyway, and pushed herself upright. Troubleshooters didn’t give up or give in.
None of the spirits had used the gates, she realized when she ran a quick scan. None of them. As long as they remained in the graveyard, she didn’t have a chance. And if they didn’t leave soon, it would be too late. She’d used most of her personal energy and he’d blocked her access to the elements. Even her thought about forfeiting the boy had become a moot point—she didn’t have enough left in her to launch any kind of attack.
She almost sagged with relief when she felt the first soul slip through the portal.
"Give me the book!"
"No." She didn’t know what it contained, but she’d ensure he never touched it again.
"It matters not," he said almost conversationally. "I’ve the words memorized. You can do nothing to prevent my freedom."
She didn’t doubt that, but she didn’t believe him when he said the text didn’t matter; he wanted it too badly. Instead of commenting, she pressed, hoping he’d make another mistake. "If that’s true," she countered, wishing her voice sounded stronger, "then why haven’t you completed the ritual?"
He moved closer and she fought the urge to back away. Troubleshooters didn’t cower.
"Need a sacrifice. Female sacrifice." The smile chilled her. "You’re chosen, Gineal."
Now Ryne knew that the tome held the vilest of rites, the darkest of the dark. The Gineal had tried to secure all texts of this nature, whether written by their people or by others, but there had been so many, some were bound to have escaped the hunt.
His smile gave way to a puzzled expression and he cocked his head much like a dog would when it thought it heard something. She stretched her senses to discover what had his attention.
More souls trickled through the gates. She had to keep him diverted, had to allow time for the spirits to depart. Sweat ran down the column of her spine. She ignored it. Her most solid connection was closed, but she called energy from the universe and mentally pushed him back a step.
It worked. His focus centered on her once more.
She had nothing left inside her and the protection spells were long gone. Her body hit the tree full force. Only sheer determination fueled her now. Somehow her brain had become distanced from the pain and the numbness enabled her to continue to confront the creature. She just had to hang on long enough for the imprisoned souls to clear out.
He tossed her again and again, but she kept getting up. It wouldn’t be much longer. The souls were streaming through the gates now, leaving quickly. Her hair was damp with sweat and the dark tendrils hung in her face, but Ryne couldn’t lift her hand to push them aside. All she wanted was to lay down and sleep.
Soon, she told herself. The spirits needed a few more minutes, then she could rest.
Unfortunately, he figured out what was happening. Although she couldn’t see much through her swollen eyes, she heard his roar of outrage, but it was too late for him to stop it.
She was leaning against the side of the stone building when he picked her up again. This time something felt different and her brain sluggishly kicked in to work out what.
He wasn’t inside the kid any longer.
Too damn bad she couldn’t take advantage of it.
There was still power, a lot of it, but if she were at full strength she could have taken him down. Now, of course, she was virtually helpless. She didn’t know what she hit when he threw her this time, maybe another tree; it didn’t matter.
Cold ground pressed against her cheek. She tried to focus on that to remain alert, but it didn’t help. Ryne panted and thought about opening her eyes. It seemed like too much work. Then she heard chanting and knew she had to make the effort.
The kid lay prone on the asphalt, but she couldn’t tell if he was alive. She fought to turn her head far enough to see the entity. He stood at the improvised altar and there was a transparency to him that made her decide he was a wraith.
Her eyes slid shut again. The blades of frozen grass poked at her lips, at her face, but that was the only thing she could feel. The rest of her was numb. She fought the need to drift off; she had to check a few more things.
The trapped spirits had crossed, none remained. Taking a shallow breath, she closed the soul gates. It was a housekeeping detail, but she didn’t want to leave any loose ends.
A black void encroached, and she fought against it. She had things she needed to do tonight. There was no one else. Maybe she’d played this hand too close to the vest. Not even the council knew what she’d been working on for the last four years.
Ryne felt herself vacate her body. It was odd. Though she hadn’t been blessed with precognition, she’d always imagined that if she were to die in battle it would be when she faced Anise.
Anise. She couldn’t leave yet.
Excerpted from In the Midnight Hour by Patti O'Shea.
Copyright 2007 by Patti J. Olszowka.
Published in August 2007 by A Tom Doherty Associates Book.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.