Nika stared at the campfire. She started to rise, but sighed heavily and sagged back down onto the dusty fringed Arabian-patterened rug she sat upon.
“Pacing won’t bring him back any sooner,” she said to the empty air.
Creed had left just before dusk, and he wasn’t back yet, damn him. She raised her head again, skyward. The stars told her it was well past midnight. She might have consulted her father’s pocket watch, but Kes had made her promised to use the timepiece only when she could not otherwise divine the time “from nature’s signals,” as he’d said. Creed was strict, sometimes even a hard taskmaster. But she knew it was for her own good. At least that is what Creed kept telling her.
“How else, Button,” he’d said, “are you going to find your way in the pitch of night?” Nika chuckled. Always Button, but she didn’t mind, it was what her father had called her. It was Creed’s staunch opinion that “timepieces are a crutch.” He was probably right, as usual, the meanie. There was so much to learn, and Creed’s knowledge was so vast. Not just about the stars, but in most all things: bushcraft, weapons, the way of people and their motives, and much, much more. It made her head spin; there was such a wealth of knowledge in that fella’s head, all the things he was teaching her – about being a hunter. A survivor.
The desert air had grown still, dizzyingly still. And the sky was amazingly full of stars. As soon as the crimson gloaming had faded, first to deep blue, then to dark byzantium, Nika had set to the task of finding her bearings. The night sky was near black by the time she found the Big Dipper, the task made more difficult due the sky being so chock full of stars, so early in the waning dusk. The dipper led her to the North Star, and from there she picked out the constellations in the early spring sky. During hours of pacing, and worrying, she’d watched Scorpius crawl across the Southern sky until it had sidled down and was swallowed up by the menacing ridge; a mountain, and utter black void to the south and west.
Nika had at one point tried crawling into the tent to get some sleep, but that was futile. Kes had been incredibly evasive, like always, that whole afternoon. They had left the Towler/Sessions homestead after getting only a few hours of shut-eye, dozing in the oven-like hayloft of the barn. She slept, despite the terrible stench of smoke and the pallor of death that blanketed the farm. The family had been incredibly gracious and hospitable to she and Creed, considering the tragic and horrible loss of their loved ones and their home.
“Kes, how did you know?” she’d asked late in the afternoon, once they were back in the Ford and on their way here, wherever in tarnation this place was. “Why did you send me out to that farm? When were you ever there before? Was it from one of your dream quests? And how did you know what had happened there? It was so tragic, losing kin and home and everything. What with this terrible depression, do you think they will ever be able to get back on their feet? I wish there was something we could have done for them.”
Creed grimaced and shook his head. “Slow down, Button. I can’t answer you none when you are Tommy-Gunning questions like that.”
She snapped her mouth closed, gave a short exhale through her nostrils, folded her arms and waited.
A gorgeous red-brown mesa passed by outside the car’s window as they sped down a bumpy, rutted road. The sun’s fingers caressed the landscape, gracing the rugged ridges with a golden russet. Billowing red clouds of dust chased them as they rumbled along. It was a beautiful, if inhospitable looking, country. They’d left the scraggy, drought-plagued farmland hours ago, and now headed out into the badlands.
“Yesterday,” Creed said at long last, “during the brawl with our late friend, Kule, I had a vision.”
Nika opened her mouth, another question on her lips, but closed it again. Asking would prove fruitless.
Creed’s gaze was faraway, but he seemed to be steering the car without distraction.
“It was when he clocked me, with the table leg.”
She nodded, but he wasn’t looking.
“Lets just say I lost my senses for a moment. No… not lost… shifted. My senses took flight, nearly lit’rally. Although I was only out for a moment in the taproom during the set-to, my spirit went on a rather long, and involved, walkabout.”
After a pause, and when Nika hadn’t asked the question he apparently knew was near to bursting out of her, he went on, “It was much like when I go on a dreamquest, but without all the herbs and preparation. It don’t happen very often, but when it does, crikey but it’s powerful.”
She nodded again. Perhaps he’d seen her out of the corner of his eye, because he continued once she had.
“While I was gone, I witnessed… well, I saw what happened to Albert and Edna Towler. A man came to call on them. No, not a man. Maybe once a man, but now… that bloke is something else entirely. Something worse.”
A burning sensation began crawling deep inside Nika’s abdomen. A terrible dread filled her as Creed told her how he’d seen the stranger as he soared high above on the hot air thermals, his spirit sharing the body of a falcon. The Australian’s voice was low and edgy as he described how this terrible person had murdered the husband, Albert. Somehow he’d caused a round in the chamber of Albert’s firearm to explode in his face, killing him. Next the fiend trod past the dying man, entering the home. He’d battered the woman, perhaps worse than beat her. Creed didn’t say how he knew, but he knew. Nika doubted Creed’s falcon self had flown inside, grim witness to the heinous affair. After the villain was finished with his atrocities, he burnt up the house afterwards. Burnt it up through the sheer force of his vile will.
“Why would he do such a thing, the arson I mean? The raping and killing,” she opined, “were because he is a vile fiend, of course. But why set the home ablaze? Was it to cover up his crime? That makes no sense to me…”
A huge jackrabbit darted across the road, and Creed jerked the wheel and kicked at the brake. The car veered one way, then the other, and came to rest sideways in the road. Nika’s heart leapt, and she swallowed it back down as a dusty red billow obscured the world around them. When it had settled, she was relieved to see the jack, happy as can be, staring back at them from atop a big brown rock.
Creed gently clutched and shifted the Ford back into gear and continued down the road before he answered her.
“Have you heard of pyromania, the impulse control disorder?”
“Oh,” she said, “yes. I guess that makes sense, then.”
“Yes it does. Only this guy’s got it much worse, I reckon. The way he was, when I saw him in my vision, well he’s a short-header… he crackin’ a fruity.”
Creed nodded. “The most dangerous kind.”
Creed slowed the car, and brought it to a halt. He turned and gave her his full focus. He took a somber breath, then continued.
“It’s worse than just madness. This bloke’s got an infernal fire inside him. And I ain’t talking about passion.” Creed’s eyes were burning, dark blue and fierce. This was one of his serious expressions. His most serious, she thought. “He’s got the devil inside him, he does.”
The campfire cracked, sending a huge ball of pitch racing mere inches past Nika’s ear. She leapt up and stomped out the glowing cinder. She was trembling, not just from the jolt from the fire. It was thinking about this monster… this firestarter… that caused the worst of it. He was a bad, bad man. And Creed had insisted he needed to be stopped.
So here she was, pacing now, and waiting for Creed to come back.
They’d driven until nightfall, and although he said he’d never been in this country before, he’d knew where he needed to go. The Ford had struggled along the rutted, bumpy horse track they’d followed after leaving the highway. The shadows of sorry-looking Gambel oaks, Pinon and Ponderosa pines and grew long before Creed had braked for good, suddenly announcing, “This is the place.” He set up camp, erecting their two tan canvas tents while she gathered firewood and lit the fire. She was perfecting the knack of starting a fire without the use of Creed’s Zippo, another of his lessons. “Bushcraft,” he said, “might be a skill set to some, but if you are gonna survive in the bush, it’s gotta come to you like breathing. Like the beating of your heart.”
The gloom of that hulking ridge swiftly blanketed them, and Nika was glad for the warmth of the fire. Shortly thereafter, Creed took up his swag and hot-footed it northward, quickly disappearing into the pine-oak woods in the valley created by two of the ridges, of which he referred to as sky islands. They were more mountainous than most ridges, she guessed. Looking out southward at the vast desert below, she saw more of these ‘islands’ out in the distance. It was easy, she found, to imagine them as islands, poking out of a giant sea in a time long ago, in an era when this land had been covered by the glacial melting of an ancient ice age, the basin of a giant sea.
A low whistle drifted across the still desert air, bringing Nika back to the present.
A slow smile spread across her face. It was Creed – bird-calling a distinctive signal, one of many he taught her. To the untrained it was unrecognizable from an ordinary shrill chirp, but she new his whistles, even if she had’t yet mastered them herself. This call was to let her know he was approaching, and all was safe.
She grabbed up her electric torch and flicked it on, aiming it to the ground in Creed’s direction. She knew better than to blind him with it.
Kestrel Creed appeared, not in the white beam of her electric torch, but beside her, in the warm glow of the campfire to Nika’s right. That sneaker. She hadn’t heard the slightest footfall or rustle of underbrush.
“I’ll never be that quiet,” she admonished, directed primarily at herself.
“Not with that attitude you won’t,” he stated as he set his swag inside the opening of his tent. He stepped opposite the fire circle and squatted down, sitting cross-legged. His eyes were icy, and a hand worried at the stubble of his chin, never a good sign. Nika flashed a deliberate smile. He didn’t return it.
The whites of his eyes were anything but… they were a deep red, like he’d been weeping. She knew it was the herbs. Mootie no doubt, and probably more. He used the stuff for his… dreams.
Eyebrows raised inquisitively, Nika waited for him to start. He just sat there, across the fire, staring into its flames for what seemed like an hour. Nika found she was rocking on her knees, and consciously stopped herself – several times. He won’t say anything until he was ready, she reminded herself.
The flames grew low, the cinders glowed brightly, and still he didn’t speak. Only when the last of the flames sputtered out, and the camp was dark save for the small crimson glow of embers, dimmed and ash-covered, did his eyes lift to hers.
“We’re gonna stop him,” he told her, his voice low and steady, his jaw set. “And we only have six days to do it. Six days until all hell breaks loose!”
“How…?” she began, but stopped herself. She knew how he knew. It was the walkabout, and a vision quest. He’d gone out there somewhere, to a place where he knew he’d be safe, a ‘sacred’ place. He somehow got his spirit to leave his body and wander the dreamlands. What made this a ‘sacred place,’ and how he found it, god only knew. God and Kes, that is. But it was always out in the wilderness – bush, as he called it. And always far from places where modern people tread.
He’d go out and smoke his magic cigarettes, or so she imagined – and probably rubbed fairy dust on his eyelids for all she knew, borrowed from Shakespeare’s Puck, no less. This magic, for lack of a better word, was his, and his alone, unimaginable and hugely baffling to her. Nika had been ever-so relieved to know that the dreaming was not something he could teach her, she wasn’t chosen like he had been. Plus, she figured, it was an Aussie mystical matter, and not something she would ever rightly understand, nor wanted to. She didn’t need his brand of ‘uncanny ways’ to follow her family’s traditions anyways. Neither her father, grandfather, or any of her other ancestors had used such a talent. No, her kin had their own brand of magic.
“Six days?” she asked, and thought about it. “That would be… May first, then.”
He nodded, “Yes. Do you know the significance of the date?”
“May first. Halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice…”
He nodded, his expression was stony and grim, unchanged since his return from the walkabout. “What else?”
What else indeed. There was more, she knew. She simply needed to dredge it from the mire of her memory.
“Walpurgisnacht!” she blurted. “Grandfather used to tell me stories about it. It is the night when witches were reputed to go up on the Brocken and await the arrival of spring.”
“And…” he urged.
“The witches would go up to the Brocken Mountain and burn great bonfires. There was a huge celebration, I think. But I don’t know if I was told anything more. I wasn’t more than five or six. Wait, I remember him telling me… the witches, they would revel all the night through, and would commune with their gods. I think it is where our modern tradition of Easter Fires in Germany comes from.”
“Yes. That and more.” Nika felt a flush come to her cheeks. Was he proud of her? It was so hard to tell.
“This night, six days from now, is believed of old, to be a night where the veils between our world and others are thinnest.” Creed spat into the fire’s embers, which hissed. “Did you know that Walpurgisnacht is also the setting for two scenes from Foust’s Mephistopheles?” he asked. Without waiting for reply, he said, “It is the night where, upon the boulders in the Harz mountains, the witches meet in celebration with the devil. The celebration is a Bacchanalia of the evil and demonic powers.”
That unsettling tremor of terror tromped its way again through Nika’s insides. It felt as though it intensified with each of its callous steps.
“The Celts,” Nika added solemnly, “They have a festival on that day as well, don’t they?
Nika raked her memory for the details, but came up short. “I remember something about the old Irish. They had bonfires as well, didn’t they?”
“Right you are, Button.” Creed’s mouth softened, not that it could be confused with a smile. He was proud of her.
“Their fires were protective, mainly. The Celts, in the evening, would snuff out all fires in their villages. They’d then build the Beltane fires and ritually walk around them or between them, leading their families and livestock. After that, those ordinary fires – candles, hearths and all – that had been extinguished, they would be reignited, this time from the flames of the Beltane fires.”
“Beltane,” Creed added, “means ‘fires of Bel,’ Bel being their sun god. They believed their god blessed them with sacred fires kindled at the festival.”
“The druids,” Nika exclaimed. “I remember now. The ancient druids would make wicker men, umm… effigies, and make human sacrifices on Beltane. I think I read that Julius Cesar wrote about that.”
“Indeed, I’ve read as much myself. As you said, that was in ancient times. Perhaps back then, they thought that Bel needed to be satiated with the burning of living men before he would bestow his blessings.” He shrugged.
“That is just evil,” she replied, “and disgusting.”
“Still,” Creed said, “it is what those ancients believed. And such strong conviction, as we’ve seen a dozen times, can manifest itself in uncanny and wondrous ways. For good or for evil.”
She mulled over his words. “Of course,” she said at last. “Just like the Haitians and their Vodou last summer. Oh, and that Baptist faith healer. Yes, I understand, Kes. But… what does all that have to do with the guy who killed the Towlers?”
Creed didn’t answer right away. Instead his gaze went cold again, and cut back to what was left of the campfire. A small flame flickered to life in a popping puff of smoke just then, as if his glance were magic. Nika nearly jumped, but caught herself, hoping her mentor hadn’t noticed.
“Kes,”she started, but was silenced by the slightest flicker of his eyes, slicing back up to meet her gaze.
“We need to collect a posse,” he said, his tone significantly more gentle than his stare. “There’s a town nearby, by the name of Chloride. If we start out at sparrow-fart, we can reach it before tomorrow’s noon.”
“Cloride…” she started to ask how he knew about this place. Neither of them had ever been to this territory before. But she guessed the answer, so didn’t finish the question. He’d seen it on his dream quest, maybe his spirit had even traveled there. It was the same hoodoo he used to find their way out here, to find a ‘sacred place’ to do his dreaming. It was part of his talent, and his training.
“A posse? This guy is that bad?”
“He is, but…”
“That’s not like you, Kes,” she blurted. “You never call for help. Heck, you don’t ever need me when it comes to tracking a bounty. I’m only here because you promised father you’d train me.”
“Not quite true, Button. Sure, I am showing you the ropes, but… who’d make my coffee and build campfires?”
Nika’s jaw dropped and she bristled. She was about to give him a proper tongue-lashing, then realized the edges of Creed’s mouth had twitched upward, his eyes had softened. Even so, she glared and said “Meanie! I think you’ll be making your own coffee from now on, thank you very much.” If she’d had something to throw at him, she would’ve.
He snorted, unfazed as usual. “We don’t know this territory. We need to find this bloke before…” Nika watched as the gentleness was pressed from his face. “Before more bad things happen. I’ll need a tracker, and I’ll find one in Chloride. A native of these parts, and a man with and ancient ken of the land.”
“Yer indeed. An Apache. Out there,” he thumbed at the darkness to the north, “I saw him in my dream. In the vision, he was… a knife. He shouldn’t be hard to find.”
“A knife? I don’t follow…”
Creeed simply cleared his throat, then grabbed a hunk of wood and plopped it onto the embers.
“But you don’t like it do you? Needing other folk’s help?” The question was past her lips, and she immediately regretted it.
The muscles in Creed’s jaw danced. Again, all the answer he was going to give. No, he didn’t like it. But there was more to it than a simple disdain for want of help. Something deeper disturbed him. Probably something to do with ‘all hell breaking loose.’ She’d be patient, even if she was terrified. She knew him well enough to know he wouldn’t tell her until he was ready.
His eyes were fixed onto the lonely flame that had caught hold of the fire’s recent addition, but she suspected that wasn’t what he was looking at. He was far away again.
Creed surprised her then, when he said, “When I dream, like tonight… it gives me a glimpse of things. I see events yet to happen, folks I’ll meet, or need to meet. I saw us in a posse, so I know we’ll gather one. Whether I think we’ll need one or not is irrelevant. I saw it, and it will be so. We’ll need horses too, for we were riding in my dream.”
Creed’s face darkened, as though the fire guttered out. His hand found stubble, and he worked at his jaw.
“Button,” he whispered, his voice crackling as if in league with the campfire, “these visions come at a cost. And if I am not careful…” He was so faraway now. “I am concerned that I touched something tonight. Something terrible.”
Unease rifled through Nika’s insides at the mention of it. “What?” she asked, not wanting to know, but understanding that it was important nonetheless.
He slowly shook his head. “I wish I knew. But I think whatever it was, it had to do with this fellow and his penchant for death and destruction. And…”
Creed bit his lip, and, pulling his gaze from the fire with a will, peered at Nika. Her shivers redoubled.
“I’m fairly sure it saw me looking for it.”
“It? You mean who, don’t you? The murderer we are going to stop by Beltane.”
“No. I mean it. ‘It’ is terrible, and ‘it’ has a will. But ‘it’ is not from here, I fear. It lurks in a place beyond. A place where in six days the membrane between our world and its will be vulnerably thin.”
“The rest,” he said grimly, “is best kept close to the vest.”
Nika sighed. “Like always,” she chided gently.
Creed nodded. “Like always.”
His eyes twinkled then, for the first time since his return. His smile opened up, and he favored her with those tobacco yellow, slightly crooked teeth. He could be so very pleasant when he tried. And so handsome.
The hoot of an owl floated over the camp and broke the stillness, reassuring them they were not alone on this bleak, stark night.