Land magic wrapped around her, archaic and untamed. Crossover passages to Other lands existed somewhere nearby. Maybe several of them. Maybe even a lot of them.
Soaking it in, walking steadily, Sophie fell into a trance until what looked like the head of a dark mop trundled onto the road several yards ahead.
It just so happened, her trajectory along the edge of the road brought her closer to the wandering object. At first she thought it might be a badger, but when she drew closer, she discovered that wasn’t the case.
Huh. It really did look like the head of a dark mop, sort of all poufy and puffy, and roughly the same size.
It meandered down the middle of the road at a slow enough pace that she caught up with it without really wanting to or trying.
She wanted to ignore it and pass on by. She didn’t want to pay attention. That ambulatory mophead was a what the fuck she didn’t need to jot onto her list.
Angling out her jaw, she paused to look, first down the road in one direction, then behind her. Still no vehicle in sight—but that didn’t mean it would stay that way. This was deep country, and there weren’t any streetlamps. The road would get very dark after sunset.
The mophead was dark too. It wouldn’t show up well in a vehicle’s headlights. Her imagination did the rest.
“Shoo,” she told it. “Get off the road.”
One end of the mop appeared to lift up and turn in her direction. It approached unhurriedly.
Crossing her arms, she waited. When it got close enough, the starch in her knees gave out. In spite of herself, she squatted.
A small, bizarre face like a miniature Ewok’s blinked up at her from a mane of dirty, tangled hair. It had huge, bulbous eyes, one decidedly off-kilter, and a small, black button nose.
It was a walleyed Ewok.
It was… Was it a dog? Maybe it was a Pekinese or a Shih Tzu mix. It had dreadlocks embedded in hair that fell down to the ground. The matting was so pronounced she ground her teeth.
She held out her hand to it. “Don’t bite me,” she warned. “Or I’ll walk away from you without a second glance.”
The Ewok ambled closer. It sniffed at her, then nosed her fingers, the gentle touch so fleeting it was over before she knew it.
Her squat turned into a kneeling position. Carefully she patted the creature. When it drew closer and put a paw on her knee, she gently deepened the inspection.
Opposite the round head, a curly tail was embedded in the tangled filth, and yes, four legs were buried in that mess. The shape of the body felt like a dog’s. When she sank her fingers into the hair, she could feel the small curve of protruding ribs.
Fingering the matted hair around that ridiculous little face, she found two delicate flaps of ears. Maybe it wore a collar with a name and address, but at the thought of finding its owner, anger shook through her.
The dog was too small to survive long on its own in this kind of deserted countryside. The protruding ribs and the dreadlocks in its hair spoke of long-term neglect, even abuse.
As she pulled the dreadlocks apart to look for a collar, she found a knot of silvery rope, tied too tightly around the dog’s neck and broken at one trailing end. When she touched the rope, magic seared her fingers.
Muttering a curse, she recoiled. There was real, magic-sensitive silver wound into the rope, and it was bound with some kind of broken incantation that still held enough cruel Power to raise reddened welts on the ends of her fingers.
If it did that to her skin, what was it doing to the dog’s neck?
Suddenly this what the fuck shot to the top of her long list. Her anger turned into a deep, fierce rage.
“Okay, little guy.” She kept her rage out of her quiet voice. “You haven’t bitten me yet. Hold still. I’m going to get this off you.”
The dog sat on the pavement, blinking up at her, almost as if it knew what she was saying.
Digging into her bag, she pulled out her pair of nail clippers and set to work. Although she knew she had to be hurting it, the dog never moved, nor did it appear to flinch.
Despite the broken incantation, the knot in the rope seemed to twist and slide away from her efforts like a live creature while cold pain seared her fingers. She spat out a null spell to negate the magic.
For a brief moment the Power in the broken silver rope dissipated. When she felt it begin to coalesce again, she worked faster, digging the pointed end of the nail file into the knot until she finally yanked it loose.
When she pulled the rope away, the dog rounded on her with a snarl. It moved so fast she didn’t have time to pull back. Sharp-looking white fangs flashed as it snatched the length of silver rope from her hands and flung it over its shoulder.
She had gotten too used to the dog’s docile cooperation. Sitting back on her heels, she stared, but the brief display of savagery was already over. The Ewok face turned up to her, its large, filmy eyes blinking mildly.
A few feet away, the length of silvery rope dissolved with an acidic hiss until all that was left on the pavement was a darkened smear that stank like rotten eggs and left a faint shadow of psychic malice. What would the rope have done if she’d still held it? Would it have burned through her fingers?
Sophie looked around at the peaceful-seeming countryside, then back down at the dog. Sighing, it put its chin on her knee.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” she muttered. “You did not just do that, did you?”
But it had, indeed, just done that.
She inspected her fingers. The reddened welts had turned into raised blisters in places. She wanted to check the dog’s neck to see if it was blistered too, but there was too much matted hair in the way. Also, it was wretchedly filthy.
She needed to cut the dreadlocks off and give the dog a bath with a mild soap, then check for blisters.
But first things first.
Pulling out her water bottle, she poured water into the palm of one cupped hand and offered it. There was no telling how long ago it’d had a chance to drink, let alone eat.
Sniffing at her hand, it opened an oddly hinged mouth, wide as a frog’s, and sucked at the water in her palm. Sucked, not lapped, making small, audible sounds as it swallowed. Tilting her head, she watched it drink.
When it finished the water, she poured more into her palm until it stopped drinking. Only then did she take a drink herself. Afterward, she capped the mostly empty bottle and stuck it back inside her bag.
“All right, kiddo,” she said to the dog. “I saw those toofers of yours. I know you could do real damage if you tried. Don’t you bite me.”
With that admonition, she picked it up gently. As she did, it climbed up her torso and stuck its face in her neck with a deep sigh.
Automatically her arms closed around the small body. She knelt there frozen, holding a strange, stinky dog in her arms. It probably had heartworm and fleas.
Oh, no. Oh, no.
This wasn’t going to happen. She had an agenda for the foreseeable future, and it didn’t include adopting a pet, let alone adopting a special-needs pet.
She was going to carry it to the village and hand it over to somebody else. Surely, there had to be a country vet somewhere that could give it medical care.
But there was the abuse, the neglect. The cruel magic rope that had dissolved into nothing. Her jaw clenched on another surge of rage. She didn’t know who would do such a thing to an animal, but whoever they were, they had to either live in the area or to have passed through recently.
Sophie, she said to herself, you’re not here five minutes, and you’ve already started a shit list. Some people don’t know how to take a vacation.
Aloud, she told the dog, “I just want you to know, this conversation isn’t over.”
As she climbed to her feet, she sensed Power. Not the kind of magic that radiated from the ancient land. Not the kind of Power she’d sensed in the length of rope.
This was a strong concentration of personal Power.
It traveled toward her with the speed of a bullet. At the same moment, she heard the deep mechanical growl of an approaching engine.
Instinct caused her to leap to her feet. Maybe that approaching Power was benevolent or at the very least indifferent.
Maybe it wasn’t.
She was in no shape for a possible confrontation with an unknown entity that held that kind of strength here, in an unknown land, especially without her Glock as backup. Striding off the pavement, she plunged into the thicket of brush bordering the road.
As branches of green foliage closed around her, she pulled the shadows around her like a cloak. Only then did she glance back at the way she had come.
The road curved gently with the land and was still visible where it followed the rise over the horizon. She could see her Mini, small in the distance, parked on the shoulder.
A figure on a motorcycle came over the rise. The sense of approaching Power grew stronger. Her muscles tightened as she watched it, straining for every detail.
The bike was a big one. Still too far away for her to say for sure, from the bulk and general shape, she guessed it was a Harley. The figure wore black jeans, boots, a black leather jacket, and a helmet with a faceless, featureless black front.
Tiny hairs at the back of her neck raised. It was clearly a masculine figure, with a large frame strong enough to control that massive bike, and the sulfurous Power it carried felt like a thunderclap.
It didn’t slow down or pause as it passed the Mini. Within moments it came to the area where she hid, still clutching the dog.
Then it slowed.
The deep roar of the motorcycle throttled down to a quiet growl as it slowly passed the spot where the magic rope had melted. As the figure on the bike came to where she had stepped off the road, that featureless black helmet turned left, then right. He looked as if he was searching for something.
The air felt compressed and sizzled with energy. If his Power had seemed like a thunderclap before, this close, the force of his presence bent the air around him.
Why had he slowed down? Was he looking for the dog?
Could he be Wyr? He couldn’t smell them, could he?
Sophie’s hands shook, and her heart plunged into a crazy race. She wasn’t ready to face combat again, not so soon and so unexpectedly.
Maybe he was not as he appeared. She whispered the null spell again, and for a brief moment the figure shimmered and changed.
She clocked details fast. The butt of a gun protruded from a holster aligned to the male’s long thigh. It could have been either a sawed-off shotgun, or maybe it was a semiautomatic. She didn’t know all the details of England’s license-to-carry laws, but this guy looked about as legal as a saber-toothed tiger.
And he had a sword strapped to his wide, powerful-looking back. The hilt lay positioned at one wide shoulder so he could reach behind his head and unsheathe it with a single hand.
A sword. The male she had seen in her vision had been carrying a bloodied sword. Was this the same guy? She couldn’t tell—he had virtually no identifying features visible—but the very thought made her break into a light sweat.
After a brief glimpse, his cloaking spell returned. Both gun and sword disappeared from sight.
What was he?
She couldn’t connect him to the man in her vision from the feel of his Power alone. Too much time had passed since she had made that first contact. She also didn’t find any similarity between his Power and the cruel enchantment that had laced the silvery rope, but she was on overload. All her internal systems flashed an emergency red, the primitive reaction blasting out of her hindbrain.
The motorcycle rider didn’t stop. Several yards on, his speed picked up again, and the dangerous, quiet purr turned into a mechanical roar once again. Within moments, he shot out of her sight.
She gave him a few minutes, to be sure he didn’t change his mind and turn around. Only then did she let go of the shadows she had pulled around her and stepped out of the brush.
An invisible fuselage of the rider’s presence hung in the air. Obeying an impulse, she gently set the dog on the ground and walked through that lingering trail of Power. For a fleeting moment, an intense, alien masculinity surrounded her, and she opened her senses wide to try to pull any information she could from it. Then it dissipated on a mild evening breeze.
Frustrated, she rubbed her tired face. As she looked over the ends of her fingers, the dog ambled up and vomited at her feet.
Together, they regarded the foamy puddle on the asphalt. When the dog looked up, she murmured, “I gave you too much water, too fast, didn’t I? Sorry, kiddo.”
She knelt, and he climbed back into her arms.
Within the space of a few moments, the dog was sound asleep. Stifling a groan, she hoisted her tired, aching body upright.
As she walked, she hugged him and whispered, “I’m going to make sure everything’s okay.”
And she only made promises she intended on keeping.
Although it did appear that her what the fuck list was growing at an exponential rate.