Gravel crunched under my truck’s tires as we rolled up Ray’s long driveway in the dying light of the next day. Eryn was half asleep in the passenger seat, her head lolling against the window. It had been a long day.
There had been a lot of questions in the Forth Police Department. A lot. And no surprise, really. They had a missing kid, bleached human bones, a weird pile of ash and greasy rags, three very traumatized teenagers, gunshots, and two people from out of town who weren’t terribly forthcoming as to what they were doing there with the kids or what they’d been shooting at. Any cop worth his or her salt would be inclined to throw everybody in jail until they had answers.
Fortunately, we were saved a lot of time and heartburn by a curious side-effect of the hag’s spell. While the kids had appeared comatose, they were in fact completely aware of their surroundings the entire time. Hags are cruel creatures.
The end result was three kids with a wild but extremely consistent story insisting to the cops that we weren’t the bad guys, but were in fact heroes who had saved them from the monster that had eaten their friend. In the end, the investigating detective had signed off on a report that said the kids had been grabbed by a serial killer, we’d heard something and investigated, and driven the killer off with rifle and shotgun fire. I bit back my indignation at the idea that I wouldn’t have hit a normal human serial killer with a rifle inside a house and let it go.
Most people don’t want to know that the Otherworld exists. They’ll come up with all sorts of rationalizations to avoid the reality of the things lurking just out of sight that would freeze your breath and suck the marrow from your bones. The detective, whom I am sure would be perfectly brave facing a regular human criminal, simply couldn’t—and in fact didn’t want to—wrap her mind around the idea of a hag summoned from its lair by a mystical name, able to sing people into a paralyzed fugue and then eating them, vulnerable to cold iron and prayer.
Ray’s ranch house loomed out of the growing shadows. It was a solid, single-story log building, with golden firelight starting to peer through the windows. Ray preferred fire and candlelight to electric lights, a choice that I found I rather liked. Magnus, Ray’s enormous dog, was sitting up on the porch as I pulled the truck up and parked it, waiting and watching.
Eryn woke up and looked around as I killed the engine. “Wow,” she said sleepily, “we’re here already?” She stretched and opened the door, walking over to the porch. Magnus padded over, his tail wagging, for his petting, which Eryn dutifully gave him. I scratched him behind the ears as I stepped up on the porch, as always feeling a little strange about it. I’d seen enough of Magnus to suspect that there was something odd about him. He was something more than a mastiff/mountain dog mix, I was sure. I just didn’t know what, and Ray wasn’t the most talkative at the best of times.
Ray was standing in the doorway, as mountainously huge as always, his beard almost long enough to tuck into his belt. He was showing a little more gray in it than he had been when I’d first met him, back when Dan Weatherby had brought his wet-behind-the-ears new protégé to get some guidance. I’d covered some mileage since then, but Ray had stayed where he was, as immovable as the stone cliffs up the mountain behind the ranch.
“Gettin’ late,” Ray commented, squinting at the sky, which was going from blue to black. “Still got dinner warm, though.”
Eryn and I were semi-permanent residents of one of Ray’s many guest rooms. Ever since he’d retired as an active Witch Hunter, Ray’s ranch had been a way-station for members of the Order of the Silver Cross. Since Eryn and I had gotten married, Ray had insisted that we move in, arguing that we couldn’t just live in the back of my truck indefinitely. The beginnings of a cabin were taking shape across the meadow, where Ray and I were building a more permanent home for the two of us. I owned the acre; Ray would have just given it to us, but I’d insisted on paying for it. He had flat-out refused to take more than a hundred bucks, so I had an acre of land, bordering on the timber, for a hundred dollars. Since nobody in the Order is exactly rich—in fact, we tend to be pretty poor—we were building the cabin the old-fashioned way, largely with axes and local timber. It wouldn’t be fancy, but it would be home.
Granted, there was a certain homeyness to Ray’s place; there always had been. The solid, wood walls, stone floor, big fireplace, and solid, hand-made furniture tended to make me never want to leave. The fact that Ray had enough books crammed on the shelves lining a good deal of the living room to take five years to read through didn’t help the inertia I started to experience every time I sat down there. It was a quiet, warm, peaceful place. Mostly. I hadn’t forgotten that there were some oddities around the ranch, the fae girl prowling the woods a half mile away not the least of them.
Eryn followed me inside, after giving Ray a hug, and set her pack down next to mine. We never traveled especially heavy; neither of us actually had all that much stuff in the first place. The kitchen and living room were filled with the smell of fresh bread, potatoes, and grilled venison. Ray tended to cook in the fireplace more than on the stove; and it looked like that night was no exception; our plates were sitting on the hearth, close enough to the fire to keep them warm.
Ray joined us at the table, though he just sipped on a bottle of beer while we ate. Both of us discovered we were starving, and tucked in heartily. Ray just sat back and watched silently, sipping his beer.
Usually, Ray would ask about the job. I eyed him as I ate. He had something to discuss, but Ray was always extremely conscientious about not broaching business at the dinner table. Whatever it was, it must have been bothering him, because he wasn’t even talking about the weather.
I knew that even if I asked, he still wouldn’t say anything while we were eating, so I finished quickly—not a hard task, as hungry as I was—and then sat back, folded my arms, and looked across the table at him. “All right, Ray, spill it,” I said. “You look like you’ve been worrying at a sore tooth.”
He pursed his lips behind his beard, then fished in the pocket of his overalls and came out with an envelope. He passed it to me without a word. Frowning, I took it and turned it over in my hands.
There wasn’t a return address. Instead, the envelope just bore the name “Blake Turner.”
I’d first gotten to know Blake Turner as Gunnery Sergeant Turner. He’d been my platoon sergeant many years ago in Iraq, when half our platoon had been wiped out by an ifrit in a horrifying night of blood and fire near the Syrian border. It had been both of our introduction to the Otherworld, though neither of us knew it at the time.
Like me, after getting out of the Marine Corps, Blake had joined the Order. His introduction had been a bit more amicable than mine; he’d found the Order, whereas the Order had found me, in the wake of a series of gruesome murders of paranormal investigators that I’d been friends with.
Blake’s name on the envelope also explained some of Ray’s reticence. “When did this come?” I asked, as I tore the envelope open. There was a single page inside.
“Yesterday,” he replied. He wasn’t any more forthcoming than that.
I unfolded the letter as Eryn scooted her chair around to get a look at it. It was short and to the point. More interestingly, it was hand-written, in a hasty scrawl that looked like he’d been in a hell of a hurry when he’d written it.
I need your help, brother. Come to Coldwell as fast as you can. Things are going bad. If I’m not here, find Chrystal Meek. She should know how to find me. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to wait for you. Come quick!
I flipped the page over to see if there was anything more, but it was blank. “Really, Blake?” I muttered. “That’s it?”
“What’s he gotten himself into this time?” Ray rumbled from the other side of the table.
“I don’t know,” I admitted, still staring at the letter. “This is singularly uninformative.”
Ray just grunted and took another sip of his beer, as if he was completely unsurprised. “Isn’t that the way things ‘ought’ to be done?” he asked sarcastically. “Jump to now, ask questions later?”
I shook my head. “This isn’t like Blake. He should have included more information.”
“When I met him, he seemed all too confident that his Marine experience was going to directly translate into this line of work,” Ray said sourly. “Didn’t want to hear otherwise. He probably figures that since you served together, he can fill you in when you get there.”
I handed the letter across to him. “It’s not that simple,” I said. “I know Blake’s handwriting. That looks…panicky.” That had me shook up more than anything else. Blake was never panicky.
Ray took the letter and studied it. His features clouded further. “Coldwell?” He looked up at us, something close to worry in his eyes. “That ain’t good.”
Eryn looked back and forth between us. “I’ve never heard of it,” she said.
“I haven’t either,” I admitted. “What’s the story?”
He sat back in his chair. As solidly built as it was, it creaked under his weight. “Nobody really knows for sure,” he said. “There hasn’t been anything that anyone of the Order has been able to put their finger on. If there have been rituals or anything like what happened in Silverton, say, or Bergenworth, they haven’t ever been recorded. There’s just something off about the place. I was there a number of years back, and while I was just passing through, that town made my hackles go up.”
His eyes got distant as he remembered. “I was after a Redcap.” Eryn and I grimaced. We’d had a run-in of our own with one of those a few months before. They were turning into a real plague, no one could tell why. They’re tough, ferocious creatures. I’d seen a cop empty his patrol rifle into one once. He didn’t even scratch it. A construction foreman in Portland, however, on a last run-through of his site for the day, got jumped by one and beat it to death with a two-foot section of re-bar. They like iron about as much as hags do. “It was well ahead of me, and I needed to stop for gas. That was when I first started getting a bad feeling, right there at the truck stop at the edge of town.
“It didn’t hit me at first. I just started filling up the tank, not really taking any notice of the locals aside from the first glance around, but after a while I started to notice that they were watching me. All of them. And they weren’t friendly looks I was getting, either. They were sort of ‘what are you doing here?’ looks.
“Then I bent down and my crucifix fell out of my shirt. That was when things got really uncomfortable. It was like a ripple went through the crowd…though it wasn’t really a crowd at that point. It started to turn into one, though. I didn’t hear any words said, but people started to come out of the truck stop, all staring at me. A few of the closest ones started to get closer.”
“What did you do?” Eryn asked.
“I got in my truck and got out of there,” Ray said. “Whatever problem that town has, it wasn’t my problem at the time; that Redcap was. I did keep a pretty close eye on my rear-view mirror on the way out of town, though. They didn’t follow me, but there were an awful lot of people standing in the street, watching me drive away. It was just weird. Kinda scared me, to be honest.”
“Have you been back there since?” I asked. Maybe, if he had, he might have some more insights we could use. I still like to have as much information about a situation as possible before I walk into it. Granted, in this line of work, that isn’t always practical; the Otherworld and the occult rarely advertises its true nature. But every bit of information helps.
But he just shook his head. “Never did have reason to go back,” he said. “Sure, I thought about it, as it was pretty strange, and I figured there had to be something going on for the locals to act that way, but that Redcap was a mean one, and afterward there was enough going on that Coldwell just kind of slipped further and further down the priorities list. Other Hunters who have passed through have gotten the same strange feeling about the place, but like I said, it’s never been anything anybody’s really been able to figure out. And there haven’t been any major happenings around the place, at least not enough to draw the Order’s attention in any significant way.”
I frowned. “An impromptu mob starting to form at the sight of a crucifix strikes me as something that should probably have drawn some significant attention,” I said.
Ray shrugged. “It was an active summer. A couple of Redcaps were killing people, a skinwalker was prowling farther north than anyone had ever heard of, and there were actual packs of goatheads coming out after dark in cities across three states. We were swamped. There have never been that many of us. We were scrambling to stop the monsters that were actually killing people. Nobody died mysteriously in Coldwell, so it got put on the back burner.”
He looked back and forth between us. “But mark my words, kids; there’s something wrong about that town. I don’t know what it is, but if Blake’s finally stumbled on it, things could get really, really ugly. Take a lot of ammo, don’t trust anybody, and watch your backs.”
I glanced at Eryn. She was frowning, too, watching Ray with concern written on her features. This wasn’t like Ray. Sure, he’d never been impressed with Blake’s prudence, but something about the letter and the mention of Coldwell had him seriously rattled. I don’t think I’d ever seen the old man rattled before.
After a moment, Ray excused himself, picking up the plates and heading into the kitchen. I watched him, then, when he was out of sight, I reached across the table, picked up the beer bottle, and sniffed it. “Smells normal,” I murmured. Eryn shot me an exasperated look, and I shrugged. Something wasn’t right. I got up and followed Ray.
He wasn’t in the kitchen, but the door to the back was slightly ajar, so I stepped out. Ray was standing on the back porch, looking toward the woods and the bluffs beyond. His big hands were resting on the porch railing. He didn’t look at me as I stepped up next to him.
“Is there something more you didn’t tell us about Coldwell, Ray?” I asked quietly, after a moment of silence. He glanced over at me, but didn’t speak. “Something’s bugging you, I can tell. So can Eryn. You’ve never gotten so stirred up about any place we were heading to, especially when you’ve gone to such lengths to say that nobody knows what might be going on; that it’s been so low-key that none of us have even gone there except to pass through. What’s the deal?
Ray looked down at his hands. I’d never seen the man so hesitant, so…scared. “I don’t know,” he replied after a moment. “Something’s wrong, and I don’t know what it is. Last three nights, I’ve had nightmares to make your hair stand on end.” He looked up at me. “Both of you featured rather prominently, and not in good ways, either.”
I didn’t know what to say, at first. Ray had become a mentor to me since before Dan had died. He was a bottomless well of knowledge, wisdom, and faith. Or he seemed that way. Now he seemed like a tired old man, frightened of losing those close to him. “If you’re that worried about us, why don’t you come along?” I asked. “You’re pretty handy with that Gibbs-Summit of yours.” Ray was the one who had introduced me to the .45-70 as a monster killer. His preferred tool was an Enfield carbine chambered in the big cartridge.
He looked away again. “I can’t,” he said. “I’ve got to stay here. Somebody’s got to mind the store. What if somebody else needs help around here, and I’m not around?”
It was a strange reply. On the surface, it sounded like an excuse, but I’d known Ray for a lot of years. He was no coward. I’d seen him fight; I’d seen him order around a fae woman like she was his daughter. There wasn’t a craven bone in that man’s body.
Which led me to a suspicion that I’d had for a long time. I’d never been able to quite put all the pieces together, but I’d long suspected that there was a very specific reason why Ray stayed on the ranch, that had nothing whatsoever to do with its role as a Hunter way station. I had no idea what it was, but somehow I doubted that it was an actual retirement.
I turned to face him fully. “There’s more to this place than just a ranch and a way-station, isn’t there, Ray?” I asked quietly. “’Cause I know you’re not staying because you’re scared. There’s some reason you can’t leave here, isn’t there?” I paused for a moment. “Is it something Eryn and I need to be concerned about, building a house here?”
“Maybe I just don’t leave because I’m old, and Hunting is for young bucks like you,” he suggested.
“Bull,” I replied. “You ain’t that old. Tom’s got at least a decade on you, and nobody wants to cross him.”
He chuckled. “That’s just because Tom’s mean,” he replied, “meaner than a junkyard dog.”
“And he’s got Old Man Strength,” I added. Tom was a bear of a man, a head shorter than Ray but almost as broad, and very little of it was fat. “Don’t change the subject.”
Ray gusted a large sigh, stirring the hairs around his mouth. “All right,” he said, even as Magnus padded over to us, each step making the planks of the porch creak. The big dog stood there and looked at us intensely, his golden eyes fixed on first one and then another of us. “You’re right, there is another reason. And no, it’s not anything you should be too worried about. But it’s not something I can tell you, not yet. Maybe someday.”
I glanced down at Magnus, who just regarded me solemnly. I didn’t think it was a coincidence that the big dog had come over just then. Like I’ve said, I suspected there was something truly extraordinary about Magnus, I just didn’t know what it was.
“All right, then, keep your secrets,” I said. “If you can’t come with us, you can’t come with us. We’ll be careful. I’m sure the dreams were just dreams.”
He stared into the darker shadows under the trees. “I sure hope so,” he said.
I lay in bed for a long time after Eryn’s breathing had evened out, staring at the ceiling and thinking. I hadn’t seen Blake since we’d both gotten out of the Marine Corps, though we’d kept in touch. There are so few of us in the Order that you can go years without seeing each other.
He didn’t stampede easily, much like Ray, but he’d had something of a chip on his shoulder for a while. He hadn’t taken the Marine Corps’ disbelief about what had happened to our platoon out in the desert very well. His integrity and his courage had been questioned, and even though no one in our old chain of command knew or cared what we were doing now, he was going to prove to himself that he still had it, come hell or high water.
Ray was right, it wasn’t a good attitude for a Hunter, but Blake had done well enough. He’d come close to losing his skin a few times, but had always scraped through, by most accounts usually by sheer guts.
Yet now he was in trouble, trouble he apparently didn’t have time to describe, in a place that gave Ray the screaming willies. And Ray was troubled by some kind of dread that he couldn’t explain or describe. It may sound cliché, but I had a bad feeling about this, and it was keeping sleep from coming.
I think I drifted off around one in the morning. If I’d known what we were about to stumble into, I doubt I’d have slept a wink.